The ROI of Customer Relationships
As a business owner, I get asked questions all the time about how successful my business is, meaning how busy are we and how much money are we making. I tend to answer with small talk, being careful not to boast about our successes and keeping our vulnerabilities to a minimum. Surprisingly, no one asks me the question I actually find to be most important.
“Do you have successful customer relationships?”
Instead of “How was your April?”, I’d rather hear, “What kind of clients did you host in April?”
Instead of “How many clients do you have?”, I’d rather hear “How many clients come back?”
Repeat customers are the hallmark of a healthy business, whether you’re coding the future or producing events. It’s easy to see why that works out financially — the customers keep coming back and you don’t have to market to them — but it’s hard to do operationally. I could tell you how investing in the relationship helps you qualify leads and convert more customers, but that feels too much like bullshit sales-speak to me. Not everyone has a repeat need, and you don’t know who might before they actually come out and say so. That highlights the simple, but elusive truth of building customer relationships: You have to invest in them before they will bear fruit.
Before founding SubCulture, I was a full-time music educator, entrusted with empowering middle and high school students through performance music. There are a surprising amount of parallels between teaching and building a business, and it’s especially helpful when thinking about how to engage with customers. Just like in business, there is no shortage of transactional thinking in education: take this test + score well = you’ve learned the material. Lots of high scores = good teacher. It’s appealing to think this way, but it’s deceptive. It’s an incomplete measure of the situation, a snapshot from only one angle that often obscures the purpose of education. Serving students well means caring about more than their scores. The same goes for your customers and your business.
One of the most gratifying things I experienced as a teacher was watching my students outperform their own expectations and seeing the accomplishment wash over their faces. It’s the kind of validation that surpasses concert applause or teaching accolades. If I had been concerned only with whether they could perform the assigned pieces, it would have been a much different job, something coldly intellectual. It would have been the equivalent of focusing solely on the sale, a purely transactional approach. I teach, you learn. I sell, you buy. But once the sale is done, what else is left?
As it turns out, a lot. While teaching, I cared about whether my students enjoyed learning — even when it was hard. I cared about how they defined their individual experiences. I cared about how they felt about music and whether it might play a role in the part of their lives yet to unfold. Most of all, I cared about how they felt about themselves.
As a business owner, I can’t help caring in the same way. I love seeing an artist unveil new work on our stage, connecting with their audience and creating their next album before our eyes. I love how it feels watching the first-time meeting planner become an offsite hero when the team is more energized than ever. I love seeing the high-stress doers on a client’s marketing team get the recognition they deserve when a brand event goes flawlessly. I love seeing the young founder give a demo day pitch and nail it after sounding nervous during sound check.
My perspective is that customers are people, and I treat them as such. I care about their success, and I’m gratified that I get to see the ideas we discussed in their first walk-through play out in their events. I love meeting clients who had a need, found us, and felt comfortable that their vision would be supported and amplified in our space. That feeling is the key to success for everyone involved, and from that vantage point, they are no longer clients; they are colleagues and partners. They are family. We build loyalty and trust working on their events, and we remain fans and enthusiasts in between.
Our best clients — whether entrepreneurs, artists, or audience members — have become ambassadors for SubCulture, coming back often as they grow and bringing their friends and partners with them. There are few better feelings than asking a new client how they found us and hearing that one of our customers recommended us. It’s a proud moment, one that never gets old. I imagine it’s how my students felt when they outperformed themselves, hearing their accomplishment in the music they made. As I’ve said before, SubCulture is our art form, and just like artists, we thrive on positive feedback. When our customers have an experience that resonates with them so much they want to share it with others, we get to hear our own accomplishment. That’s magic.
When I look ahead and think about where we’re going, I know that these customer ambassadors will be the reason we get there. I imagine a day not too long in the future when a founder who first pitched investors in our space comes back for an offsite with her 100-person team, seeking to inspire them the same way she first inspired investors on our stage. She’ll empower them the way we hopefully empowered her in the early days, and I’ll listen to her tell the story, look out over the room, and feel grateful.