Today, success doesn’t come just from getting new business, it’s from keeping the “old” business. 

AUBURN — The Hilton Garden Inn doesn’t have much trouble drawing guests for overnight stays and businesspeople to book meeting space. But the Hilton is still trying to make sure its customers feel valued. Very valued.
Gift baskets. Free lunches. Their company logo carved in ice for corporate functions at the hotel. Their favorite drinks available at check-in.
“We’re all about the warm and fuzzies,” said General Manager Scott McKenney.
Forging a relationship with customers is nothing new, but in a poor economy, experts say, it’s even more important to make sure loyal customers are happy since new customers may be impossible to find.
These days, such happy customers can mean the difference between a company staying in business and shutting the doors.
“It’s not just about customer satisfaction. For the leaders, it’s about what’s called ‘customer delight,'” said Omar Kahn, assistant professor for marketing at the University of Maine.
As the economy falters, more and more Maine businesses are trying to create that delight, to keep customers happy in hopes they’ll come back. For some, like the Hilton Garden Inn, that means free lunches and favorite drinks. For others, it means gift baskets and personalized cards.
Anything to say thank you. And please come again.

Customer loyalty
William Dollen runs Easy Pay NE, a Lewiston company that provides credit card processing for medical offices. He likes his clients to think of him as a friend.
“I wouldn’t be in business if they didn’t support me,” he said.
So to show his appreciation, he started sending Christmas cards. When, a couple of years ago, those cards no longer felt like enough, he began sending gift baskets.
Last year, he sent about 70 baskets — at $20 and $75 each — stuffed with everything from Maine specialty foods to mouse pads adorned with his company’s logo. Some went to particularly good customers or clients who’d provided a referral. Others were sent out as Christmas gifts. “To me, if they’re basically paying me $1,000 a year, I like to give them something a little bit more than ‘Hey, look, I really appreciate your business,”’ he said. “Because I wouldn’t be in business unless they were using me.”
Does it work?
“I haven’t lost anybody,” Dollen said.
In this economy, experts say, not losing customers is a reason to celebrate.
The trend toward relationship marketing — and greater customer appreciation — began in the 1990s. Rather than spending all their time, money and energy trying to pull in new customers, businesses started focusing on keeping the customers they already had.
Beyond the perfunctory “Thank you for shopping with us,” showing appreciation can cost a business from hundreds to millions of dollars, depending on the size of the company.

But, Kahn said, “There’s more and more realization among businesses that retaining existing customers is more profitable than trying to acquire new customers.”

The Hilton Garden Inn has long tried to delight its guests, to show it appreciates their business.
“It’s always been pretty much a constant part of our culture. It takes
much more work to create a new relationship than an old,” McKenney said.
In the last year or so, as the economy faltered, travel spending
fell and newer hotels opened in the area, those thank yous have become
even more important for the inn. Some gestures are simple, like making sure a coffee-loving guest always
has the java she wants. Others are more elaborate, like hand delivering
chef-prepared cheese and fruit platters to a corporate client’s office. And other gestures involve more than just hotel guests, like helping out the local animal shelter or chamber of commerce. “You also have to appreciate the community you’re in,” McKenney said. The hotel’s philosophy is simple: Follow up with people and show them you value their business. “Now we’re friends,” McKenney said.

Experts say that kind of philosophy works. Customers who feel valued are more likely to stick with their favorite business, even if that business ultimately has slightly higher prices or makes a small error in customer service. And valued customers of independent shops are less likely to defect to the big box store down the street. Kahn said the current economy is “prime time” for companies to spend more on customer loyalty. Others apparently agree. A slate of new businesses has popped up to help other businesses get that loyalty.

In business to make business
Tony Crawford of Lewiston started working with Send Out Cards, a personalized greeting card company, in 2008. Send Out Cards allows people to go online anytime, choose a greeting card, write a personal message and sign it using a signature on file. Cards are then stamped and mailed by Send Out Cards, typically within a day. As an independent distributor, Crawford sells the program to area businesspeople who want a cheap, easy way to say thank you but still want it to be personal. And memorable. “You want to be building relationships that last a lifetime, not a lunchtime,” he said.
His clients range from dentists to Web designers. Business has been good and growing, Crawford said, for both him and his clients. “If you’re not out there building a true relationship with people, they’re going to find it cheaper and faster on the Internet,” he said. “You’ve got to take care of your current client base. You have to.”
Business has also been good for Barbara Lauze, owner of The Basket Case, a gift basket design company in Lewiston. Lauze opened her business in 2007 and has been doing so well that she took over a second basket company.
Lauze’s baskets average about $35 to $45 and often feature Maine-made products and specialty foods. Lauze said she gets a lot of regular business from area companies. Dollen at Easy Pay NE is one of her clients. “You are really competing for customers in this environment, so any little thing that you can do is going put you ahead of the game,” Lauze said.

Tari Conley agrees. As owner of the Edgecomb-based Appreciation Works, Conley deals with Send Out Cards. When she started her company in 2006, she had planned to focus on employee recognition gifts. But within six months, she realized customer appreciation — thoughtful and personalized — held much more potential.
“It’s meaningful to people because there’s not enough of that going on,” she said. Conley now has about 130 Send Out Cards customers and works with 215 distributors, who tell people about the program and earn a commission. In 2008, Conley was the 8th largest producer of new business in the Send Out Cards company, she said. Although appreciation costs her clients money — about a dollar or so per basic thank you card — she believes it will save them in the long run. “When things swing up, they’re going to be in a great position,” she said.

Barbara Lauze creates gift baskets for her business, The Basket Case.

A gift basket from The Basket Case in Lewiston.

A gift basket from The Basket Case in Lewiston.

A gift basket from The Basket Case in Lewiston.

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