Eight Behaviors That Can Keep Your Company From Being Number One

Picture this: You’re relaxing on your couch and watching your favorite crime drama after a long day at work. You’ve halfway tuned out during a commercial break when something catches your attention. “Come see what we have to offer. We’re proud to be second in area sales and customer satisfaction since 1992!” an announcer enthuses while a giant yellow “2” flashes on the screen.

Sure, it sounds absurd. But while most of us pay lip service to our desire to be our customers’ first choice, our actions may say otherwise.

“Any time you don’t make the client your top priority, you’re tacitly agreeing not to be their top priority,” says Joseph Callaway, who, along with his wife JoAnn is the author of the New York Times bestseller Clients First: The Two Word Miracle. “You cannot truly be number one until your clients are. Being number one really is a two-way street, and it’s not an easy street. You can’t coast your way to number one - and when you settle for doing so, you soon fall to number two or even lower.”

“Living and working this way is rewarding, but it’s also tough,” he admits. “Putting your customers’ interests ahead of your own - every time - can seem counterintuitive, risky and even frightening. That’s why so many businesses fail to be as competitive as they’d like. Even if they don’t realize it, they’ve chosen to operate in a way that makes it impossible for them to come in first from a customer’s perspective.

“Especially in an uncertain economy, you can’t settle for being number two - or three  or four - because that puts you on the road to eventual failure,” he adds. “Sooner or later, your vulnerability will catch up with you. The best job security is being the best.”

Here are eight signs that your business is aiming lower than you may have thought, as well as advice on how to finally start hitting the bull’s-eye.

1. Your number one business goal is to make money. Ummm…isn’t that the point of running a company? you might be asking. Well, it’s a point, says Callaway, but it’s not the point. You see, a too-acute focus on improving the bottom line takes your attention off of the people who are going to enable you to raise it - your customers. Your clients can always tell when they’re not your first priority. If you’re skeptical, just consider the backlash that often occurs when small businesses are bought out and transformed by larger, more impersonal corporations.

“The difference between paying attention to customer service so that your clients will give you more business and doing so because serving the customer is your first priority may feel slight but it’s significant,” Callaway says. “Yes, taking your focus away from the bottom line may feel uncomfortable at first, but you’ll soon find that when you focus on how best to serve clients, tough decisions make themselves. If it serves the client, you do it. If it doesn’t, you don’t. This neutralizes moral dilemmas and really simplifies your life. And it almost always has a miracle effect on your growth and success.”

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2. You let the little things slide. So, what’s the problem? Rushing through paperwork so you can get home early, failing to spellcheck an email or two, and running late to a meeting probably won’t matter that much six months from now. It’s the “big” things like growing your company, expanding your client base, hiring more employees and making a profit that are most important, right? Not necessarily, says Callaway.

“So often in life, it’s the small details that differentiate ‘good’ from ‘great,’” he points out. “So be careful not to become so fixated on the forest that you fail to see the trees. In other words, stop being so distracted by the ‘big grand ideas’ and start getting the small details right. Promises kept, deadlines met, little extra flourishes and small acts of kindness add up to happy clients.

3. You habitually let certain clients go to voicemail. It’s happened to everyone. When you see that name flash on your phone’s caller ID, you slowly pull your hand back from the receiver and let the ringing continue. You just don’t want to deal with the drama, or the whining, or the accusations, or the belligerence just now. Yes, we all have “problem” clients. But to avoid them or just go through the motions for them is a mistake. They will notice and remember your behavior. And be honest, would you want to give your business to someone who might write you off when the going got tough? When you make the choice to stand by all of your frazzled, frustrated customers, you will eventually reap financial and personal rewards.

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“You may even become known in your company or industry as the guy or gal who can handle the toughest customers,” he adds. “And chances are, your clients themselves will be grateful that you didn’t give up on them and may even send others your way.”

4. You find yourself telling white lies. It’s true that telling clients white lies, or exaggerating, misdirecting or omitting, might make life easier temporarily. It’s also true that we can often justify such behavior to ourselves. But these “little” lies are just as bad as the whoppers. There is always a chance that customers will see through you and call you on the carpet. And even if they don’t, a willingness to play fast and loose with the truth is indicative of a broader attitude that relegates clients to second or third priority. In return, that’s usually how they’ll rate you.

“Honesty can be tough in the moment, but a reputation for trustworthiness - or untrustworthiness - can stick with you for life,” says Callaway. “Live by a policy of never holding back or sugarcoating and you’ll gain customer loyalty that money can’t buy. Plus, when you have only the truth, you wave goodbye to moral dilemmas and sleepless nights. You don’t have to worry about getting the story straight or remembering what you have and haven’t shared. You know you’re doing the right thing.”

5. You spend more time trying to get off the phone than really hearing what the customer has to say. Chances are, you roll out the red carpet in order to get prospective clients on board. And you’re probably willing to bear with the whims, questions and requests of fairly new customers whose business isn’t yet cemented. But what about older, more established clients? Do you take the same amount of time and care with them, or do you assume they’ll stick with you out of habit and convenience?

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“If you wouldn’t hang up the phone at the first opportunity with a client you signed last week, don’t do it with one you signed 10 years ago,” says Callaway. “Companies that become number one don’t do so because they win customers over once but because they do it every day. A good experience last month usually won’t keep a customer coming back this month if he or she believes that your level of service has slipped.”

6. You don’t know your client’s daughter’s name or what he likes to do on the weekends. In your eyes, you’re being professional when every question in your meeting is about the client’s financial preferences, for example, and not his family, pastimes and interests. But in his eyes, you’re cold and impersonal. Remember, to truly serve you have to care. When you keep yourself at arm’s length you can’t give your clients 100 percent, and you give them an incentive to take their business elsewhere.

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“Do you see your clients as sources of income, or do you see them as actual human beings with likes, preferences, quirks and stories? People want to do business with individuals they like - and they like people who like them! Make a deeper connection with your clients by asking about their kids, their pets, their hobbies and their jobs or businesses. You’ll find that most of them are just like you, filled with worries, hopes and dreams. Once you get familiar with and invested in these things, you’ll work that much harder on each client’s behalf, and you’ll earn their loyalty in the process.”

7. You feel your main obligation to employees is writing their paycheck. While (of course) you don’t treat employees like dirt; you may feel that you don’t owe them any special favors, either. After all, you’re paying them - isn’t that enough? Well, no, says Callaway. The way your people treat customers reflects the way you treat them. Are you courteous? Kind? Enthusiastic? Do you listen when they talk to you and try to accommodate their needs? Or are you short, perfunctory and even (sometimes) rude?

“Your job is to serve others, period,” Callaway says. “You can’t do that by making distinctions between the people who work for you and the people to whom you provide a good or service. Realize that you set the tone for your company’s ‘personality,’ and that you’re creating a tribe of people who will beat the drum for your message. Try to see your employees through a client’s eyes and be honest: Would they win first or second place in a customer service competition? If you don’t like the answer, try adjusting your own attitude first.”

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8. You’re not above badmouthing the competition. Some leaders don’t hesitate to casually say things like, “Sure, Outlet X is cheap, but the quality of their merchandise leaves a lot to be desired,” or, “I’d think twice before I took my business to Firm Y - didn’t you hear they had to lay off half of their staff last year?” But Callaway suggests you look at what happens in the political arena. When you sling mud at your opponent, some of it is likely to get on you, too. Besides, wouldn’t you rather rise to the number one spot solely on your organization’s merit not because you took cheap(ish) shots?

“In fact, you can - and should - strive to win the approval, goodwill and admiration of your competitors,” Callaway says. “If possible, get to know their leaders and employees and help them when you can. You don’t have to give away trade secrets, but you can offer advice, for example, or refer a customer whose needs are better matched to what another business has to offer.

“Don’t do these things manipulatively but in the spirit of giving,” he clarifies. “Your efforts will come back to you with interest. Have faith that there is enough business to go around.”

Finally, advises Callaway, don’t put the cart (being number one) before the horse (serving your clients).

“A customer isn’t focused on where you stand in the big picture so much as on how well you treat and serve him or her individually,” he says. “And that’s the beauty of how this whole thing works. By keeping your commitment to clients first, you’ll win enough loyal supporters to put you squarely in the lead position after all.”

Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway are coauthors of the New York Times bestseller Clients First: The Two Word Miracle and founders of the real estate company Those Callaways. To learn more, visit www.clientsfirstbook.com.

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