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Special Events

Rental Essentials: Keeping Customers Calling

Tips on building customer loyalty RENTAL COMPANIES make most of their profits from repeat customers. But earning customer loyalty isn't easy in today's competitive market. Here, five rental company officers tell Special Events Magazine how they keep customers coming back.

LIVE AND LEARN Joe Valente, director of sales for Arlington, Va.-based DC Rental, says his company competes with 10 other area rental companies for business. "In our industry, if we totally screw up an event, we can count on losing that customer for good," he says.

Valente says he tries to learn from each mistake. "We log our complaints, then communicate them to the departments that were involved. We have weekly meetings and discuss how to avoid the same mistakes."

Flexibility is one way to satisfy repeat customers, who make up more than 80 percent of DC Rental's base, Valente says. "In the catering business, there are last-minute emergencies. Our customers have grown to depend on us in those situations."

DC's quality products earn customer loyalty as well as new business, Valente says. "When our loyal customers enjoy working with us and we can continuously deliver new, innovative items and deliveries on time, we most certainly get referrals from that."

THIS JUST IN Karl's Party Rental in Oak Creek, Wis., concentrates on follow-through, vice president John Schlueter says.

"Anybody can provide a chair, but getting the chair there on time, in good condition and the right style" is what sets a company apart, he says.

Karl's consultants give special attention to repeat customers, who make up 70 percent of the company's customer base. When the company gets a new product, repeat customers get a call. "Many of our clients are resellers of equipment," he says. The new product information "is going to make them look cutting-edge to their clients."

Schlueter says making clients aware of new products also benefits Karl's. "If people don't realize that new products are available, [the products] are going to sit on our shelves."

QUALITY CHECK For Denver-based Butler Rents, the motto is quality, not quantity. "What we've tried to do over the last three or four years is refocus on service and quality as opposed to doing as many jobs as we can," general manager Barry Reynolds says.

More than 70 percent of Butler's customers are repeat clients, which means that nearly 30 percent turn over. Reynolds says those turnover customers result from one-time events or from people who shop for the lowest price. "We do lose jobs to prices that we won't give in on," he says.

Since focusing on better service, Butler Rents is making more money doing fewer jobs, Reynolds says.

"We did a wedding in the spring, and we got two more weddings off that job."

To that end, Butler can focus more energy on the needs of more demanding customers. "When you can provide [what they want], they have a comfort level and are hesitant to try someone else," Reynolds says.

VIP TREATMENT Beltsville, Md.-based Wheaton Party Rentals gives loyal customers the VIP treatment, including flexibility in budgets and deadlines. "We give free samples for tastings and buy special equipment for them," general manager Eric Goldberg says.

He defines loyal customers as those who are "giving us as much of [their] business as we are capable of handling. We know you may be small now, but in the future you might increase your revenue and your rentals."

When it comes to problems with loyal customers, Wheaton will fix problems regardless, Goldberg says.

One longtime customer called the rental company two hours before a luncheon to complain about 20 round tableclothes that were stained. "One of our managers got some cloths together and delivered them by noon," Goldberg says.

The client promptly called Wheaton to thank the company - especially because another firm had provided the stained linen. "However, this was one of our very good, loyal customers, so we fixed it immediately without looking at the contract," Goldberg says.

He estimates that 90 percent of Wheaton's customers are repeat, which helps the company forecast revenue. "It helps us plan for our future just by knowing our revenue base is going to remain somewhat consistent," he says.

MANY HAPPY RETURNS The goal at Stamford Tent & Party Rental in Stamford, Conn., is to keep clients happy without keeping score of who's right and who's wrong, president Steve Frost says.

"If we have an unhappy customer we'll deal with it immediately even if we don't think it's justified," he says.

And a happy client equals return business and possible referrals. "You can't always be focused just on the bottom line," Frost says. Focusing instead on client needs builds "tremendous customer loyalty because they know you'll make good."

n If you do not know your client's expectations, find out what they are. Make sure clients receive what they expect.

n Make note of all the client's staff with whom you deal. Take special care of decision makers; make personal contact with all of them.

n Let clients know - often, but with discretion - that their operations are trouble-free because of the service you provide.

n Never allow competitors to finish work for you. Make sure the work is completed and tie up any loose ends.

n Think about all stakeholders in the event: Who will be affected by your company's decisions, and how will they be affected?

n If you lose an account, talk with the client and find out why. Be candid and honest in your questions and listen to the client with an open mind.

Source: Better Business Bureau, Spokane, Wash.

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