“Where Everyone Knows Your Name”

During the mid ’90s I lived in Marin County, California; specifically Tiburon. Tiburon is small community of about 7,000 nestled around the Richardson and San Francisco Bays just north of San Francisco proper. It has a small town feel in an idyllic setting, yet has access to all the big city trimmings. The businesses I patronized were all locally owned, and mostly felt like family. While I rarely socialized with them outside of doing business, they all knew me, knew about me and knew my daughter Alex.

The florist down the street from our apartment became so used to my weekly “stock up the vases” trips that my phone number was on the bulletin board behind the cash register. “Call Clay as soon as the Parrot Tulips come in.” I must have been at the IGA grocery store every day. In fact I often just stopped in just to talk … even when I didn’t even need anything. If there was anything I wanted they didn’t carry, it took them only a couple of days – and then they did. I even brought in my knives to get sharpened by Tom the butcher. I could have done it myself. But if I did – I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to talk Minnesota Vikings football with Tom (another transplanted Minnesotan). In the days leading up to the draft I had the sharpest knives in Marin County.

And I remember the calendar I’d get from the Daily Grill detailing the special events they had coming for the month. They knew my favorite dish, wild boar. They’d even call (yes, on the phone) when they were getting a special shipment in … so I could make room on my schedule (which I always did).

They knew me. And because of it … I was a great customer.

Tiburon apartment view cropped

“Where Everyone Knows Your Name”

In the ’80s one of the top shows on television was the sitcom, “Cheers.” It made household names of Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Shelly Long and Kelsey Grammar. But maybe the biggest star of the show was it’s theme song, “Where Everyone Knows Your Name” by Gary Portnoy. Cheers wasn’t a bar, it was a 2nd home (or for some a 1st). And for a half an hour every week, it was a vicarious 2nd home for its audience. Everywhere I shopped in Tiburon was kind of like this. My community was really my home. And with working out of my home, the businesses I frequented were often at the center it.

Creating customer relationships like this are the holy grail of any merchant. But they can be for the customer as well. After all – “They know your name.” I’m a locavore through and through. And not just concerning food. I avoid national chains and even franchises like the plague. I took it to the next level in trip I made from my sister’s place in Nebraska to my home in Los Angeles I described in the previous post, Don’t fall for Starbuck. Even inanimate objects such  interstate highways weren’t immune from my disdain of national entities.

In all these cases, I was the one who extended my hand first in the relationship. I got to know them. And I made it known when I moved to town, or they opened shop, I was interested in doing business with them. All they had to do is not screw up too bad. And even then – there were always 2nd and 3rd chances to be given. As long as they cared about me and tried, they were always given the benefit of the doubt. After all, they were my friends. Needless to say this was before the days of Yelp and what it seems like the tenuous relationship between customer and merchant, one always on the verge of blowing up into a toxic internet feud (a feud no one wins).

That was twenty years ago though and pretty much all shopping options in Tiburon were locally owned. Even getting to a big box store in Marin County was a chore. Today this is not the case. Chains and big box stores are everywhere, and customers like me who shun them are few and far in between. The competitive landscape for locally owned businesses is much more treacherous. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.

But what can change however is the metaphorical vehicle they have to navigate this landscape. What they need are the tools to create these friendships with customers that will turn occasional visitors into rabid evangelists like I was. They need to turn their business into a place “Where Everyone Knows Your Name.” And with social media and the plethora of communication mediums at their disposal, this can be easier than twenty years ago … but also harder due to the noise that has to be cut through.

Managing to not fall prey to the hubris of 21st century advertising involves making your message relevant. During the mid 2000s at the end of my tenure as a recruiter, I became intricately involved in database one-to-one marketing. Back in 2005, this meant being able to customize a direct mail piece to the specifics of recipient. Whether it was variable text or even imagery, marketing messages could be made much more relevant. And as a result, they became much more effective, often increasing response rates a ten fold.

Of course, these days just mentioning direct mail conjures up visions of marketing Luddites. With everything and everyone being turned into an app, a cookie, a like, a share or a favorite; print is an afterthought. Regardless of the medium though, it’s still the same. They’re all forms of communication, and the communication has to be relevant (both in terms of content and timing) to be effective. And the most powerful form of relevance is a response to an event.

By events I don’t mean just holidays or your birthday. A recent visit your local bookstore, could be considered an event. Or even test driving a new car you didn’t buy. They are events, and they’re all opportunities for a merchant and you, the patron, to have a constructive communication after the fact … a communication that builds a relationship.

These communications show you, the customer, that the merchant recognizes you were there. It shows that you are an individual – not just another number in their standardized mailing list … or not just another ‘like.’ It’s a communication that builds a synaptic relationship, a memory. And these memories are the golden opportunities a business has to solidify a customer relationship. 

A local business could notify you when you hadn’t been around in while. And in trying to get you back, they could make you special offer. Or imagine if you were kept abreast when they received a good deal on something that you had a history of purchasing (like me and the wild boar). Or even better yet imagine your local ‘hangout’ considered you a VIP and had special events and discounts exclusively for you and your other fellow VIPs.

 The options for post-event communications and ‘making you feel special’ are endless. It just needs to be in the mind set of the merchant. They have to want to take their relationship with you to one that’s not the ‘same as usual’ … but rather one aimed at turning you into an evangelist. Imagine the following examples being part of the rapport you and your local business engaged in. And these are just a few of the plethora limited only by your imagination:

  • “WOW, you must have been hungry” (Follow-up after large purchase): Big spenders like to be loved. Customers who spend over a certain amount of money in one sitting are sent out a thank you note with an offer to buy more.
  • “Haven’t seen you in a while” (Customer re-activation): It’s hard enough to get you as a customer, so the last thing they want to do is let you fade away.  Imagine being  automatically contacted by merchant a customer who hasn’t patronized you lately (within a pre-determined time frame) with a re-activating “come back in” offer.
  • “We got a great deal” (Bulk buy pass along): The key to business success is finding good deals and turning them over quickly.  Enable your company to jump on these deals by using “We got a great deal” to notify customers who can take advantage of your good fortune with  “pass along” savings.
  • “Join  us  on our VIP night” (VIP Club program): Imagine being VIP at your favorite watering hole.  “Join us on our VIP night” lets you create exactly that for your customers. You can create a special VIP night or event exclusive only to your top patrons.
  • “We want your suggestion” (Virtual suggestion box): Being in the middle of the trees often prevents you from seeing the entire forest – a forest only your customers may be able to see. “We want your Suggestions” provides your business with an online virtual suggestion box for your customers. Making them feel part of your business – will only strengthen your bond.

Now let’s take the relationship one step further. Imagine if the focus wasn’t just to get you to ‘buy more stuff,’ but to enlist your assistance in the building of your community. What if they asked you to help … to rise above just being a customer, and become a community collaborator.

Whether companies believe it or not, their customers are interested in a lot more than just their products and whatever sales they’re blasting over the airwaves. The more a company can transcend this attitude, the stronger the relationship they will be able to build with their customer base. The more points of substantive connection that are made … the stronger the relationship.

A merchant’s goal should be to expand the breadth of commonalities it shares with its customers … reaching past the doors of its store to the community it co-inhabits.

In previous posts I’ve elaborated on the Middle Ring phenomenon as the basis for building community through neighborhood connections. At the physical center of the Middle Ring is the Front Porch. A Front Porch is the metaphorical, or sometimes literal, meeting place where neighbors gather and discuss the issues of their community. Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee house you get your morning the expresso from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone hangs out to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens on the the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is.

Why can’t your community’s local businesses be your Front Porch? Why can’t your small business be where community volunteer and wellbeing efforts are planned and executed? Why can’t it be the nexus of how your community becomes better.

Just imagine efforts like these that could grow from local business turned Front Porch in your neighborhood:

  • “Pretty Picture on the Wall” Imagine if your community’s unknown artists suddenly had a had a venue for their work. And what if it was a venue, say a local restaurant, could generate income for them.  This initiative could connect a community’s artists, whether they be a talented youngster or a homeless person living on the streets – with a merchant that has wall space to fill. These ad hoc galleries give exposure, generates artist revenue and provide the merchant a source of local art to show off in their establishment.
  • “I’m not Alone Anymore” Being cut off from society is a killer for the elderly and shut-ins, literally. The less fortunate often have no family or friends around to make sure their basic needs are taken care of. They don’t have anyone to make sure they eat properly or take them to the doctor or get their medications. And that’s not even saying anything about mental support. Their likely future involves depression … or even premature death at home or worse yet, in an “old folks home.” Imagine if your community’s local businesses could step in by organizing their employees and customers to be the connectivity to the community that these people once had by not only helping with their physical needs but also providing emotional support. Even if just means a weekly visit for a cup of coffee … these people will not be forgotten for long.
  • “Help Me … I’m Dirty” Do ever you walk past that vacant lot and wonder what could be … what could be if someone did something. If someone just cleaned it up, that would be a start. But then, who knows what we could make it. And maybe if this vacant lot became something – something beautiful, then maybe it would catch on. Just like a team is only as strong as its weakest link, your community’s physical viability is only as strong as it’s most dilapidated property or park. And the momentum works in both ways, letting it go … revitalizing it. And what if instead of battling city hall to act, your community’s local businesses stepped in a provided the conduit for these actions through its employees and customers.
  • “Making the Transition” We feel that once high school is over, our children will be ready to tackle their futures on their own. If we don’t send them out into a world with unprecedented unemployment, then it’s off to college to accumulate tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Very seldom is high school set up to provide needed transitional advice. Imagine if it was your community’s local businesses who provided this ‘hand up’ by enlisted its itself or even its customers on-the-job training experiences or apprenticeships along with career guidance. These experiences will give recent graduates or even current high school students the opportunity to see the “ins and outs” of a profession before they jump in with both feet. And who knows, it may even get the your community’s ‘best and brightest’ to stay in town, rather than pack up and venture to point far away … too far to be of any future benefit for your city.

These examples of a “Where Everyone Knows Your Name” philosophy of doing business isn’t ‘friending’ a brand on Facebook. It’s not ‘checking in’ on Foursquare. It’s creating a genuine human relationship between a customer and a merchant, relationships that go much deeper than just “buying stuff.” This is synergy where you are helping each other – and building your community together. This is taking ’cause marketing’ to a different level. The traditional customer/merchant exchange of ‘money for goods’ is not only transcended … it’s been relegated to a by-product, an assumed afterthought.

What if your life was filled with these type of relationships, relationships that complimented those of your Middle Ring neighbors. Imagine if your life was an ecosystem where every interaction you have could enhance your life and not just take up time. Wouldn’t you want to live like this … where the line between customers and providers is blurred – where your goals are all the same. Isn’t it time to consider yourself a community collaborator – creating a world that works everyone.

You would be creating a community wherever you went, “They would know your name.”

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If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

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