Customer engagement: NZ small business heroes’ top tips
At a glance
Here’s a snapshot of the advice from our interviewees:
- During a crisis, show your customers how much you care.
- Foster local customer connections and enjoy the bottom-line benefits of repeat business, referrals and staff retention.
- Building connections can be simple – if you treat your customers like VIPs, they will reward you.
“If someone needs help, I help them,” says Quoc Tran, winner of the 2020 Prospa Local Business Hero awards, who runs the Four Square supermarket in Waikanae Beach with his wife Thuy Vu. “So, when lockdown happened, we delivered to the elderly for free.”
Both Tran and Vijay Patel – a fellow Four Square owner who was also nominated by his community for the 2020 Prospa Local Business Hero awards – know that treating customers like VIPs builds deep connections that pay off when the business faces challenges.
At their Te Ngae, Rotorua store, Patel and his wife Margaret faced an armed hold-up in early 2020.
“A couple of offenders with balaclavas jumped the counter, took cigarettes and emptied the tills,” Patel recounts, with emotion understandably showing through his words. “They knocked my wife onto the floor and a staff member into a corner, and I had a knife on my arm.”
Once the community heard about this shocking incident, helping roles were reversed. “We had food and flowers delivered, and everyone kept popping in to ask if we were alright or if we needed anything.”
Image: Vijay and Margaret Patel, owners of Four Square Te Ngae, Rotorua
Community never more important
The rest of 2020, of course, wasn’t business as usual either.
Research has shown that 90% of customers’ trust in business is influenced by responses during a crisis – the pandemic gave our heroes the opportunity to show their customers how much they care. Both Tran and Patel instantly went into helping mode.
Prospa New Zealand General Manager, Adrienne Church, says: “The past year made it pretty clear just how much we all depend on our grocers, pharmacists, retailers and cafes, and how much magic they can bring to our communities.”
Patel completely agrees. “We managed to trade through the COVID times and local communities started to use local stores more.”
These business heroes are definitely among the 53% of small business owners who reported in a 2021 NZ small business study, prepared for Prospa by YouGov, that they feel more connected to their local communities than they did prior to COVID.
The research found that younger small business owners are more likely than their older counterparts to say that they feel more connected to their communities and customers now than they did before COVID-19 – 76% of millennials, 59% of Gen Xers and 34% of Baby Boomers.
For the remaining almost-half of business owners, here’s how to help build those connections:
Can you put a value on connection?
“You need to maintain your bottom line, but serving the community is much more than that,” Patel says.
Community service also comes naturally to John Swindlehurst, another 2020 Prospa Local Business Hero award finalist and owner of A & J Services, which provides pest control as well as window, carpet and chimney cleaning.
At the time of the awards the business was based in Wanaka, but Swindlehurst has now relocated his award-winning services to Christchurch. The Wanaka customer who nominated Swindlehurst no doubt misses him – she had him listed in her phone as ‘John Everything’.
Swindlehurst prioritises helping community groups and, though it’s an unintentional outcome, his community connections in Wanaka did result in new customers.
“The Lions Club recommended us as we demonstrated that we care,” he explains.
Swindlehurst has also seen low staff turnover, which he explains as a result of high customer satisfaction – if customer satisfaction is high, he says, workers feel good about their jobs and will be loyal to the business.
Strong local customer connections help Tran and Vu’s business in slower months as well.
“In the summer, we have customers from elsewhere on holidays but, in the winter, it is my loyal local customers who get us through.”
Image: Quoc Tran and Thuy Vu, owners of Four Square Waikanae Beach
Even more importantly, connecting with customers has helped Tran feel at home in New Zealand.
“The customer who nominated me for the award knows that when I arrived in New Zealand as a refugee from Vietnam, I didn’t know any English and worked hard to buy this Four Square,” says Tran.
“I know all the locals well. I walk with my son, and customers will pop their windows down as they drive past and say, ‘Hello Quoc!’.”
Simple yet effective advice to build customer loyalty
Tran’s top tip for customer connection is a simple and portable tactic that he carries through his long days of work.
“You need to smile,” he says. “It’s not always an easy thing to do but, no matter how hard you’re working, your customers don’t want to see your grumpy face.”
Swindlehurst’s is all about mindset – starting with how he thinks about his customers.
“I call them Very Important People – in my mind and when I’m speaking with them,” he says. “Customer connection is a mindset and, once you have that, other things follow naturally.”
Image: John Swindlehurst, owner of A & J Services Christchurch
These three business owners were all humbled by their nominations in the 2020 Prospa Local Business Hero awards.
“It was incredible to see so many New Zealanders supporting local businesses in last year’s awards,” says Prospa’s Church.
“As we head into what we all hope is a better 2021, there’s no better way to say thank you to one of your local businesses that goes above and beyond than to nominate it in this year’s Prospa Local Business Hero awards.”
If you’re thankful for a small business and think it deserves recognition, give it a shout out today as part of the 2021 Prospa Local Business Hero awards – nominations close 14 March 2021.
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