Customer Relationship Marketing

A lot of CEO’s that I have met and helped over the years thought that they were in the product business. Selling products to customers.

What I got them to understand that helped them refocus was that you are in the customer business. Your business is about finding, satisfying, delighting and growing the value of a customer.

I’d like to share a personal story with you and then move on to some other examples on a larger scale.

For many years I struggled with the car buying experience. Hassling with salesmen over models, options, prices and payment terms, and often leaving the dealership with the uncomfortable feeling that I paid too much for the “great deal” I got. Finally I decided that I would take a new tact and wrote down my exact requirements on an index card.

I walked into a dealership and showed the card to the first salesman that approached me. If he had to study the card for too long, started asking me questions about it, or said that he needed to take it and show it to his manager, I would thank him and leave the dealership immediately. Then one day I walked into a dealership showed the card to the first salesman that approached me who took it, studied it carefully, and asked “what color and when do you want it”? 

I have been buying cars from this dealership ever since. Over the years I have gotten to know all the salesmen and service staff. If I have a problem with my car which I hardly ever do, one phone call gets me an immediate appointment and a loaner car waiting for me if the repair will take more than 30 to 45 minutes.

In addition, if I ever break down within 20 miles of the dealership they send a tow truck and a loaner driven by one of the salesmen so that I can go on my way, even though I have roadside assistance. If I am traveling the same policy holds true for my wife if anything happens to her car.

In combination with a lot of other unexpected delights like complementary mats, customized striping and premium option package upgrades, etc. I am so pleased with the service that I receive that even though I would rather drive another car brand I am not willing to have to reeducate another dealer as to how I like to be treated.

As a result of this customer relationship experience, I have referred friends and colleagues to the dealership. Any referral fees that are offered to me I give back to the salesmen to take their wives out to dinner.  

I have gotten my last seven cars from this dealership and they have sold at least another 15 to 20 from my referrals.

Let’s take another great example of perpetually delighting customers – Ralph Lauren and his Polo lines of clothing, fragrances and household products. This master of making the “old” look “new” has been dazzling us with new designs season in – season out, for longer than I can remember now. 

He takes a shirt and adds a lapel, worn look or some other accoutrement and voila it’s chic and we have to have it. He has developed such a great value proposition that even all the Polo outlet shops are mobbed almost every day, too.

By using great styling and clever marketing he has endeared customers to his brand. This concept of developing an emotional bond with your brand so that customers are willing to pay a premium price is the ultimate in customer relationship marketing.

This master of “memory marketing” is adept at reinventing and reinterpreting classic designs in a perpetual outpouring of fresh modern products that obviously his customers LOVE !

Just when you think he has exhausted all styles of sports clothing or fragrances he comes out with something new like with the Rugby line of shirts, polo’s, sweaters, denim jeans and khakis, jackets, suits, outerwear and accessories. Likewise with his Black Label line of fragrances and after shave lotions and balms.

Other well known examples of CRM are Starbucks and Build-A-Bear, two more firms that are perpetually developing new offerings and modifying existing ones to the delight of their customers.

Build-A-Bear has created an experience for children to create their own personal bear. In essence every product that they sell is one of a kind. In addition they have found a way to connect with kids before, during and after the sale.

As a matter of fact they have sold more than 50 million bears in 10 years. That’s a lot of kids and a lot of stuffed bears. Their special kind of “bear buzz” has created a level of customer relationships similar to icons like Apple and Harley-Davidson.

When a customer develops an emotional bond with a brand they typically tell their friends about it. Build-A-Bear kids have so much fun they tell their friends about it and they become customers. It doesn’t end there they also develop “cuddly connections” with kids and their parents thru direct mail, e mail and their web site.

Since they collect birthday’s of their customers they send “plan a party” reminders to parents 90 days before their child’s birthday. They also reach out to perpetuate the relationship with their web site that is full of fun interactive options like “Hug Time” phone calls from Bearemy, the mascot, to a “Build-A-Bearville” online play environment, to Honey-Card e cards that kids can send to their friends.

They also have developed a monthly newsletter that customers can receive by e mail. Maxine Clark, CEO has mastered the art of customer relationship marketing and as she says “kids look at the world differently than their parents and we talk to them every chance we get”. Their insights have made Build-A-Bear what it is today.

So the question for you is are you talking to your customers and working to delight them with their experience with your product or service?

Are you getting feedback from your customers, making it easy for them to tell others and keeping in contact with them like Build-A-Bear does?

Have you done a real customer relationship marketing audit at your company?

E-mail me  with questions or issues you have in your business so that we can begin a dialogue to achieve a higher level of CRM in your firm.


An entrepreneur himself, Bob has spent most of his career involved with starting, growing and selling businesses. Having held managerial positions with IBM, Pfizer and Exxon, he draws upon extensive organizational experience with large and small companies in advising CEOs of growing firms. He is available online to answer questions from Chief Executive readers, as well as offer workshops, tips, books to read and a monthly online column about common issues facing CEOs of growing firms. Bob has been featured in USA TODAY for his work with Inc 500 firms and is associated with NYU’s Stern Graduate School of business in their Center for Entrepreneurial Studies where he is a Venture Mentor, Marketing Strategist and Business Plan Reviewer.

He is the author of GUIDEBOOK TO PLANNING – A Common Sense Approach to Building Business Plans for Growing Firms, which has recently been reprinted. He is a past contributor to Chief Executive and one of his articles was featured in The Best of Chief Executive.  E Mail Bob at: [email protected] 


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events