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5 Keys to Win Customers for Life

In conversation the game is, to say something new with old words. And you shall observe a man of the people picking his way along, step by step, using every time an old boulder, yet never setting his foot on an old place.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) U.S. poet, essayist and lecturer.

We meet with people from different walks of life daily. Some we regret to ever have conversation with, while others struck cord instantly and become friends. It’s a perpetual, and somewhat inevitable aspect of our daily life to have conversation either on-line as I do as a blogger with so many friends with whom I share my life and experiences or off-line while jogging, traveling, at work and at business.

While conversations have incredible power to transmute our thoughts into expressions in our life, it has even greater influence on the success of the business. I read — in Harvard Business Journal — that generating new business takes three times more effort compare to keeping business that already exists. Obviously, it is a self-proclaimed death for a business to ignore the customer base that already has done business in the past. On the other hand, it’s a blessing out of the blue sky for any service business that has honed the skill to keep customers saying,  “I will be back.”

If you happen to have an online business, join a trade association to market your business like the big guys do.

I am in hotel business. Naturally, my experiences stem from guests who feel exuberant when they come back and say,  “I am back.”

There are many factors involved in the influence process that creates a happy, friendly repeat customer base. Sometimes best of efforts go in the vein to create that influence. Nonetheless, friendly conversation has an immense role to play in building rapport with guests who ultimately connect with the caring, compassionate friend behind the desk more so than any amenities and luxuries of a hotel can ever impress their wildest imagination.

I am inspired to write this article after watching Jim Cannon — whom I consider a dear friend more so than an associate — has shown me that by engaging people in conversations that matter most to their lives is the single most asset one has to develop to succeed.

In early 2008, I was at the desk when I met with an eighty years old young lady. She said,  “I am back.”  I was awe stuck for a moment. I saw exuberance on the face of an eighty years old as if she was eighteen. She wanted to talk to Jim. She wanted to share her world of past week with him since she stayed at our hotel while going to Florida.

Art of  conversation is invaluable for the success of any service business. I’ve  found five keys to Jim’s finesse over the conversations with customers.

The great gift of conversation lies less in displaying it ourselves than in drawing it out of others. He who leaves your company pleased with himself and his own cleverness is perfectly well pleased with you.          – Jean de la Bruyère (1645-1696) French satiric moralist.

Key # 1 – Look them in the eye, smile

Conversations begin usually when we have not spoken a single word. Yes, it may sound silly but the fact is that when we come close to hundred feet distance with someone, our thoughts have already directed our actions in terms of our expressions before a word is exchanged between two human beings. I’ve seen Jim with warm, confident yet friendly smile as soon as someone approaches him close enough for the greeting. That’s a great start ; I believe that in public speaking, if you do not convey gist of your message in first sixty seconds, you lose the audience no matter how prolific you are. Similarly, business conversation has an initial threshold of first sixty seconds. A warm, confident greeting with smile is essential step in building friendly, lasting conversation with the customer.

Key # 2 – Don’t mutter, please

How many times have you been to a restaurant or a bank and found the person behind the desk feeble by judging the way he/she speaks with you ? When someone mutters with egg face than showing energy and grace with confident greeting, we get feeling of rejection. I am seeing Jim with clear, confident greeting next that sets the stage for lasting conversation. He speaks clearly with sparkling eyes and warm grin to immediately connect with the guests.

Key # 3 – Learn the names, Everything is in the name, damn it

When Shakespeare famously said,  “What’s in the name ?”, he obviously did not bother to consider twice over the art of conversation. Every thing is in the name, damn it. We are all hungry to satisfy our ego when it comes to what matters most to us. I feel ecstatic when I hear my somewhat unusual name gets remote resemblance with great French composer Chopin even though I have not a single gene of music in my body. My friend Jim has acquired the art of knowing guest’s name and making a must ritual while greeting with guest who ever had pleasure to be dealt with by Jim. No doubt that learning to use customer’s name with respect and courtesy works like a glue that builds a friendly conversation.

Key # 4 – Develop knowledge that matters to your customers

As you command the respect of your customer with confident smile and proper greeting with name, conversation begins. A conversation that requires the taste of likes and dislikes of the customer. I often hear Jim asking passing by guests,  “Where you folks are heading ?” . Once he knows their reaction, he centers his focus on what’s on guest’s mind. If they are heading to the myrtle beach –of course –they wanted to know more and talk more about the beach. If they are from New York with a Yankee cap, Jim knows enough about Yankees as well. People like to listen what interests their appetite and not that of others. A conversation fails when focus shifts, from “I love this talk” to “What’s in it for me pal ?”. Being versatile is a must virtue of great conversation. With general understanding of politics, religion, sports, entertainment and world events, I have been amazed at the articulateness and depth of conversation and friendship that ensue as Jim converse with the guests.

Key # 5 – They are paying you to listen, let them talk

Dale Carnegie has written at depth of importance of listening. Simply put, people like to talk. We all have innate desire to speak as speaker enjoys the pride of leadership while engaged in a conversation with others. Give them what they want. Let them speak without interruptions. They love to share what happened to their beloved dog last night. So be it. A prolific conversationalist, like my friend Jim, learns enough about their dog to speak what matters to the guest. No wonder, all of those who travel between mid-west and south-eastern states, loved to stop and stayed at our hotel just to speak with Mr. Cannon. A worthwhile journey, indeed.

No matter whether you are an IT consultant or CEO of a fortune company, art of conversation plays key role in the success of your career or your business. Do you agree?

(Photo courtesy: Mckibbon Hotel Management)

The best efforts of a fine person is felt after we have left their presence.  —– Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) U.S. poet, essayist and lecturer.

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Comments (24)

Hi Shilpan….

1st, it’s good to know my imagined pronunciation of you name was mostly correct. Rhymes with Chopin, yes?

I’ve always tried to make it a habit to learn what form of someones name they prefer, and then to use it.

It is remarkable how many “Jim”s I’ve met who, when asked, prefer “James.” Kathys who prefer Kate. et al.

Sometimes, I’d be the only one who knew the name the preferred, let alone used it.

if I could add to your list:

Don’t interrupt your conversation with anyone to answer the phone. This is stunningly rude and stunningly common.

One technique I used in my meetings:
I always had my phone on and I would set it on the desk while we were talking. If it rang, and it almost always did, without comment, a break in eye contact or conversation I would reach over and casually shut it off. It was my way of saying “no one at this moment is more important than you”

Jim, that’s excellent gesture to make customer or client feel that nothing is more important than your conversation with them now.

Oh, and I meant to include this link which I think you might like:


Very good points. I’m getting ready to start working in a service business next week. I think it’s very important to learn peoples names and use them in a greeting. I always tend to visit the business more that I feel make an effort to get to know me and offer personalized service.

Katie, I agree with you that great service businesses thrive on their incredible customer service. To win a customer in a fiercely competitive business, it’s paramount to go extra mile in terms of customer service to win customers for life.

I’m with Katie. I like shopping at places where they get to know me. If they don’t know my name, but ask about my children or husband or something we talked about last time, that’s also a great thing that makes me want to return!

Oops…that was me (Michelle!) not Jeff!!

Michelle, You both are doing fantastic job of growing your site. I was wondering why Jefferson would write word “my husband”? :)

I agree with all of your points, but doing these things won’t necessarily get you a customer for life. One simple slip up on some random day could cost you that customer, I have had this happen on many occasions. Only when you can do the things that you described at every possible moment that you will retain these customers indefinitely.

These are tremendous points Shilpan and it’s amazing how many LARGE (and small) companies fail miserably in these regards.

I will admit that I’m in an industry where knowing names is important and I have a tough time remembering some people if I’ve only met them one time.

Heck, I deal with so many people that it’s hard for me to remember (a year later) a client of mine even after I’ve had 2 or 3 meetings with them.

It’s something I’ve been working on because I know it’s extremely important.

Jason, I agree with you. You always feel good when someone calls you by name. :)

I agree that setting up a new business is far tougher than maintaining an old one and key to an old business is its already existing consumers.

Many times businesses fail when they try to focus on new markets, fail in it and lose there existing customers as well.

Thanks for sharing such valuable points on keeping the customers

Karunesh, you are right on the money. It’s much easier to keep current, repeat customer base happy than to earn new business.

In business, the main objective is obviously is continuous customer satisfaction. A big part of creating powerful customer service is to show each and every person that they are important, and that you care about them. Needless to say, Jim follows this philosophy, and continues to apply it to his business.

You’ve hit upon some important keys for implementing long-term relationships with customers through the power of conversation. Great post, Shilpan!

In service business, you are not selling anything tangible. That makes engaging conversation one of the major forces to keep happy, repeat customers.

I’m glad you mentioned Dale Carnegie. His ‘Win Friends And Influence People’ is a classic and a must-read for any customer-facing employee.

MC, I love reading books written by Dale Carnegie. There is no one better to learn from when it comes to human behavior.

Your quote “Art of conversation is invaluable for the success of any service business.” – You could write a book on this premise alone.

These tips are invaluable! I think the common worker forgets that when they are on the job it is their duty to make the customers and guests feel welcomed and like friends. Those of us that remember to do this have such an advantage over most others. I was very fortunate to have been a server in a restaurant at a young age and learned that your very livelihood (your tips) depends on the experience you deliver to others. This is a lesson I still carry today!

It’s great that you worked in the service sector early on. While I was pursuing my Masters in Mechanical Engineering in NJ, I worked for a local Italian Pizza shop. I’ve learned my most valuable customer service lessons from this small pizza shop. I don’t think you can learn that even from an Ivy League school. That’s why I love school of hard knocks. :)


Another great article. This is huge for all business managers, owners and execs. In fact, one could argue that customer retention is the most critical skil they can master. You can nearly always get at least a few customers, it’s making them lifetime customers and clients that will build your business.

I tell my consulting clients this:
There are only three ways you can increase your business.
1) Sell to new customers
2) Sell more often to your existing cstomers
3) Sell more each interaction with your existing customers

As you note, option one is by far the most expensive. In addition, you have many more opportunities to pursue options to and three, at a much lower cost. By keeping your existing customers, every time you sell to them, you are effectively increasing your per customer acquisition ROI.

Steve – thank you. I’ve seen some savvy businessmen who spend great deal of money to get more customers, but never pay attention to their attrition rate. Customer retention is a major factor for any successful service business. Amazon has over 90% repeat customers. That’s the testimonial of a great service oriented business.

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