Ask an Expert: Give good customers something for 'nothing'

ByUSA Today
July 17, 2012, 3:44 PM

— -- Q: Steve, I would like to share a business idea that really works for me. I like to do something for nothing for my customers. What I mean by that is that I give them unexpected "bonuses" at no cost. In my case, I run an auto repair shop. We routinely wash the car or change the oil for our best clients - at no charge. I think that is a big reason I have been in business 25 years. —Bill

A: I love that idea. I am a big believer in it myself, and I see that we are not alone. Offering extra value is definitely a trend on the upswing.

Example: Recently, Five Guys Burgers and Fries has begun to open up stores here on the West Coast. My readers on the East Coast know the place well. It is an institution there. But not here, at least not yet.

So last week I went with a pal to the Five Guys that opened near me. We ordered fries, but my friend said, "if we are going to share, shouldn't we get a large?" "No," I replied. He was confused, until he saw what Five Guys did with their small fries. They put the order in a paper bag and then dumped in, on top, another pile of fries that must match the original amount. It's a ton of fries, especially for a "small."

It seems like you are getting all those extra fries for free.

You're not, of course. They budget for and plan on giving you all those fries for that price, but the show of putting in those "extra" fries makes an impression.

Why do they do it that way? Why does Bill, above, give a free, unexpected, car wash to his best customers? Why do I offer to do a free book signing when I give a speech? Because, as we know, people love getting stuff for free.

And more than that, customers love to be appreciated.

Indeed, don't you want to think that you are the customer that is special enough to warrant the free oil change, the free fries, the free tchotchke?

Sure, it may cost your business a little extra, but the benefits far outweigh any burdens:

• Value added creates goodwill. Customers will undoubtedly think better of your business if you give them something for nothing.

• It fosters loyalty. We all know we need to show appreciation for our customers, especially our best customers, but how do you do that? It is not always easy. Giving them an unexpected freebie is an easy and powerful way to say thank you and to cement relationships.

• It generates word of mouth. You can hear Bill's customers now: "My mechanic washed my car for free today, without my even asking." "Wow, what is the name of your mechanic?" And even better, in this Twitter age, the likelihood is that a happy customer won't just tell one person, they will tweet it to 1,000. That's marketing gold, my friend.

So, how do you incorporate this nifty idea into your business? Easy:

• If you offer a professional service, give people a 30-minute free consultation. Or don't charge for quick phone calls (attorneys - do you hear me? Ban the .2 charge!)

• If you sell a product, give folks something tangential for free. Take it out of your marketing budget, or inventory budget, or whatever, but do it.

The key is to incorporate the free car wash theory into your business plan. Customers love getting something for "nothing." They love to be appreciated. And they will reward you with continued patronage when they feel appreciated.

So appreciate them!

Today's tip: How much has the 9 to 5 workday changed? Consider these statistics from a global survey by Mozy:

• By 7 a.m., one in five employees worldwide has already checked his or her e-mail.

• With regard to tardiness, U.S. employers are the most relaxed, allowing staff to show up as much as 37 minutes late. British bosses are strictest.

• Only 13% of employers worldwide are fine with employees doing personal tasks at work, such as online banking, paying bills. Again, American bosses were the most relaxed (22% say it's OK) and British bosses were the most stringent (only 8% allow it.)

Ask an Expert appears Mondays. E-mail Steven D. Strauss at: index of his columns is here. Strauss is a lawyer, writer and speaker specializing in small business and entrepreneurship. The latest of his 17 books is The Small Business Bible, now in its third edition, and he does a weekly podcast, "Small Business Success Powered by Greatland." Website:; also on Facebook. Follow him: Twitter@stevestrauss.

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