When I was 15 years old, I got my first car. It was a brown-and-white, four-door 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne. It had been my grandfather’s car, and it probably had never sped past 35 miles an hour. The 283 V8 under the hood purred like a kitten, and the three-on-the-three shifter was a little sloppy. But, on the right gravel road, second gear would smoke the tires into oblivion.

Pretty soon, I had to buy new recaps to replace the slicked-up tires on the back, and my dad gave me my first lesson in car ownership: Maintaining a car is cheaper than buying a new car. Check the tire tread, check the air in the tires, check the oil, don’t ride the clutch, etc. Proper care and good maintenance would make my car last almost forever. I guess the lesson stuck with me, because my 311,000-plus-mile Ford Explorer still runs like a champ. Its first owner was my partner, Tony, and he was meticulous in the maintenance of his ride. When I bought it from him, I continued his maintenance schedule, and now I can see the results of good maintenance every time I crank it to drive to work or home.

What has all this to do with the MI business? Everything.

Maintenance is far cheaper than buying new when it comes to our customers. One workshop I attended had calculated the cost of advertising to gain one new customer in MI retail. I don’t recall the exact number they gave, but it was in the hundreds of dollars. I was kind of shocked. Keep in mind that once you’ve spent a wad of cash to acquire a new customer, you now have to get that customer to buy enough product to recover what you spent getting him or her into the store before you can break even on that one customer. Ouch.

While getting new customers is always a great idea, even if we have to buy them by spending advertising dollars, I think an even better idea is to maintain the customers we have. They are already coming into the store or calling on the phone, so the hard part is done. So, how do we maintain an existing customer?

It’s actually a lot easier than you might think. Customers, most of the time, are easily maintained by a few simple acts on our part. Calling them by name is a good maintenance measure. Offering them a cup of coffee is another. You can imagine other ways, but they all add up to simple, plain-old friendliness and kindness. Treat each customer, regardless of station, skill level or perceived depth of pocket with the same degree of courtesy and friendliness. Yes, I know we all get customers who can make that a lot easier said than done, but in the long run, we need to do that. Every. Single. Time.

To be completely honest, on occasion, I may want to tell a singularly special customer to take a long walk off a short pier. Maybe he’s been beating me down on price, or telling me how great Amazon is, or telling me we’re not much of a store because we don’t stock the left-handed, solid-teak bouzouki he saw in his latest issue of Bouzouki Monthly. But, I can’t tell him that. I won’t tell him that. Even though it might leave me with a modicum of satisfaction to give him the great heave-ho, that’s the worst thing I could do for the store.

Why? Well, think about it. Let’s say ole Bubba wears you out for not stocking his favorite camo bass strings, the ones he’s never seen, but knows they exist, and they are the best, because his buddy told him about them. You’ve got a decision to make about Bubba. You can tell him to take a hike, because there’s no such thing as camo bass strings (at least not yet), and be happy His Royal Duh-ness has left. That’s one route you can take. While you may experience a momentary spark of exultation that you no longer have to listen to Bubba, you’re now faced with shelling out hundreds of dollars in advertising to replace him, and sacrificing the first bushel of cash the new guy spends with you to recover the cost of that advertising … oh, yeah. Giving “Ole B.” the heave-ho no longer sounds like such a great idea.

Let’s try this one. Put yourself in the customer’s place. Bubba sincerely wants to own a set of those bass strings. Instead of telling him they don’t exist, tell him you’re not familiar with that set. Does he know the brand name? Can he call his buddy and get some more info on them? You’d love to help him out, you just need a little more to work with. Now he knows you’re working to help him, and he has something to look forward to. Now Bubba’s happy, and he’ll go home, get on Facebook, and tell everyone how great you are down at the music store, instead of telling them how much of a jerk you are. And stupid, because you’ve never heard of camo bass strings.

Last week an older gent came into the store, and bought two sets of electric strings. This week he came back with the same two sets, both open, and tells us they are too heavy for him, can he swap them for a lighter gauge? Our immediate answer was, “Yes, sir. We’ll be glad to do that for you.” The opened sets became shop strings (which we will sell on restrings), he got the strings he really wanted and we came out smelling like roses. It cost us nothing to trade two new sets for two open sets. We just had to think, “If this was me, what would I want them to do for me?” And, that’s what he did. While we were talking, the gent saw a ’57 RI Strat we had hanging up, and liked it. He may come back later and buy it. One thing is for sure, though: If we’d told him we weren’t going to swap those strings for him, he definitely wouldn’t have come back.

Maintaining your customers is not only less expensive than buying new ones, it’s the easier thing to do. Take whatever time it takes, spend whatever money it requires, and make sure your customers always see you as the guy who makes thing right. If you decide to go the other route, please give them our address. We’ll be glad to see them.

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