Research shows that 90% of businesses do not know what their customers want. In a world burdened with financial difficulties, American stores need to shape up. According to a four-year study conducted by the market intelligence firm, BIGresearch, most customers will put value and service ahead of price. That’s right. Even though your store may be just a tad more expensive than the one next door, if yours provides quality assistance for consumers, they will choose you over the lower-priced competition.

“When researchers asked customers how far they’d be willing to drive for excellent service, 80 percent said they’d travel four or more miles, and nearly half said they would drive ten miles or more for the right combination of price, quality and customer service,” said Scott Gross, author of When Customers Talk.

In addition, Jaynie L. Smith, CEO of Smart Advantage, Inc. and author of Relevant Selling, added that “the business who becomes relevant by addressing what customers really value at any given time will be the first ones out of the recession.”

Here are five easy tips to help adjust your sales and marketing message to become more attractive to consumers.

1. Pay attention to “how” things are sold, not “what” is sold. In a world of rapid technological advancements, it is hard for the more traditional stores to compete. After all, why would a customer purchase what they need at your store when they can do so at their convenience, either online or at a closer location? That is where the “how” comes in. Every place will be selling the same “what,” but it is up to you to differentiate your business and products from all the others. Smith’s mantra is, “If you don’t value what you bring to the costumer, they won’t value it either.” Make sure to maintain your company’s reputation on matters such as consistency, customer service or quality.

2. Remember, existing customers’ values are not the same as prospective costumers’ values. There is a reason why regulars will choose your store over and over again above any competition. It’s because you have gained their trust and loyalty in turn for your excellent service and reliable products. However, prospective customers are not familiar with your business, and many managers forget that when it comes to their sales and marketing messages. New customers do not know what existing customers already know about your company—so change that! Differentiate your marketing messages for the two distinct clienteles and show new consumers what your persistent and loyal ones already know.

3. Make your business convenient for customers. According to Gross, 85% of customers will choose a different store after three low-quality service mistakes. Avoid these errors by creating an environment that is easy for consumers to understand your store and to shop. “Customers want merchandise that is well organized, attractively displayed and easy to find,” said Gross. “That’s how today’s customers define convenience.” In addition, make sure your staff is knowledgeable and available, and more importantly, friendly. If consumers look as if they are struggling, make sure your employees are amiable and willing to approach them to help.

4. Use what you learn. It is important to listen to customers’ complaints. Paying attention to your consumers’ wants and needs keeps you connected to your clientele. It lets them know that you are willing to change to appease them, and it keeps your business more relevant for shoppers. If customers want better or faster service, you better provide better or faster service. But keep in mind, it is important to not only pay attention to customer complaints, but also what they love about your store. Let consumers know you are the best, and if there is something you need to work on, let them know you are aware and fixing it.

5. Invest in disciplined customer research, that’s how. According to Smith, research data collection has gone down 30–35% in the past few years, making it more affordable for smaller companies. Client research is important to keep your business relevant and connected to your consumers needs, and even a small investment in research can produce colossal returns. There are still viable options to conduct the research even for smaller companies, such as hiring college students, free online surveys (Survey Monkey) or combining research expenses with an organization that needs the same information but isn’t a competitor.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, July 2012