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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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The changing customer: Where do you fit?

Jan Quintrall

At this time last year, my husband and I were enjoying day seven of our two-week Coast to Coast ramble across England. It was a record year for rain in that part of the world, and we hadn’t been dry for a week.

The paths we needed to find to get from village to village were under water. Everything took at least an hour longer than anticipated, and we were making up routes as we went along. I had no idea at that time what was happening in the financial markets in the U.S. We were in remote areas and quite focused on getting from point A to point B each day, our only guide a map that had little connection to the conditions we were facing.

That experience should have prepared me for the next 12 months.

Back then, in England, when we heard the news that Lehman Brothers had fallen, we could hardly believe it. It seemed impossible. We saw through British eyes, feeling disbelief that the one thing we all had thought could be counted on, the American banking system, was full of cracks. We were in shock, questioning everything.

A year later, our routes have altered just like those flooded paths. They will never be the same. We are all finding our way in areas that look different, in a world that may only slightly resemble the map. What a challenging adventure. Our customers are changing, also, and as businesspeople, we need to adapt to the new mindsets of the buyers.

People are still spending, just a whole lot more carefully.

•They are looking for affirmation that the product or service they select is the right one.

•The buying cycle is a bit longer, and fewer people spend on impulse.

•Trust continues to erode, which brings many potential customers back to basic values.

•Loyalty is easier than ever to lose.

And how do I know this? Just looking at the statistics for your local BBB as well as BBBs across Canada and the U.S. We often are a stop on that path to purchasing, and our numbers of inquiries are almost unbelievable.

The number of potential customers checking company reliability reports for a letter grade before they buy has risen 24 percent over last year, and 2008 itself was a record-breaking year.

But the big change we have seen is in the number of people looking for a list of companies in a particular industry who have earned BBB Accreditation. And they end up with that list in a couple of ways.

The Internet often is the first place people go when seeking a product or service — to Google, Yahoo, Bing or www.bbb.org. And that search method is bringing more and more people to the BBB. Which is a good thing. Those almost unbelievable numbers I alluded to earlier? From Sept. 1 though Sept. 14 we have delivered 4,807 assorted industry lists to potential buyers just from our area alone. We regularly exceed 20,000 such lists each month, and that is a 217 percent increase from a year ago.

But the industries are interesting. Some of the most requested industry lists this month include:

•Contractors, remodelers and home builders

•Used cars

•Plumbers, electricians, landscapers

•Banks

•Financial and retirement planning

•Insurance companies

•Debt and credit counseling

Some of the requests are for seasonal industries, but other business categories are showing up as just one more sign of that elusive consumer suspicion about certain industries.

In view of this new business climate, it would behoove us all to change with the changing customer, and be sure to do what you can to accommodate their new paths. When you get a new customer, start building the relationship with good communication, lots of contact and focused affirmation of why you are the provider of choice. Let them know at every turn what they gain by doing business with you. Let them know that you care, that you are listening and that you do hear them.

Like a coast-to-coast path, trust can be built or eroded every day.

Jan Quintrall is president and CEO of the local Better Business Bureau. She can be reached at jquintrall@spokane.bbb.org.
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