You can learn what you need to know about customer loyalty from a man named Ernesto.

He’s not a best-selling author or an Ivy League professor.

He’s a waiter at a restaurant in Troy, Michigan.

Two years ago, I had lunch reservations with a client and vendor. We were celebrating a successful project we did together. When I made the reservation, the maitre d was careful to ask about my guests and the occasion for our lunch.

When we arrived, Ernesto greeted us by name and offered congratulations on our project. He described the specials that day as if he himself would prepare them in the kitchen. He asked each of us about our dietary needs and our tastes. His suggestions hit the spot and we enjoyed an extraordinary lunch.

As we left, Ernesto handed me his business card. Yes, the waiter had a business card!

“It’s been a pleasure to serve you today, Mr. Irwin,” he said. “I would be pleased to serve you again whenever you need a special dinner. Please call me and I will personally take care of everything.”

As if that wasn’t a big enough surprise, Ernesto sent me a handwritten thank-you note the next day!

Guess who gets a call from me whenever I host a business lunch or take my wife out for a special dinner.

Car buyers in Canada and the United States can choose from over 20,000 car dealerships. The dealerships that will win big in the social media age are the ones that are best at making customers feel special.

Here are three lessons in crafting an excellent customer experience, courtesy of Ernesto:

  1. Ask the customer about the customer. When customers visit Ernesto’s restaurant, he doesn’t just ask them if they are ready to order. He asks about them. Ernesto asked me about my guests, the occasion, my project, my business, my family, my diet, and my tastes.

Asking customers about themselves does two things:

First, it helps you personalize their experience (more on that in a moment).

Second, it shows them that you truly care about them and not just your sale. In a world where most people expect a car dealership to care only about selling them something, genuine interest means a lot.

Best of all, it costs nothing to ask questions.

  1. Make it personal, make it valuable. Ernesto congratulated us for our successful project. This personalized his customer service, but it also did something of great value for me: Ernesto made me look good in front of my client and vendor. That lunch likely had something to do with the big donation that vendor made to a cause that was important to me. That client signed the biggest contract in my company’s history just a few months later. Ernesto’s simple gesture created enormous value for me.

Your customers are not coming to you to buy a car; they’re coming to buy into a lifestyle. They are looking for something that will help them live better lives. The better you understand what is important to your customer beyond the car, the more you can personalize her or his experience.

For example, a single mom with three kids and a dog doesn’t just need a minivan. What she really wants is to get everything done on her to-do list and to look good while doing it. So what if you offer her a free wash at the dealership every week? Your crew is washing cars anyway and you will save her money and time.

She will not only be back for the free washes, she will be back to buy her next car. Her friends will as well.

  1. Surprise! Delighted customers tell everyone about your dealership. The best way to delight a customer is to surprise them.

Ernesto sent a handwritten thank-you card. He’s a waiter! I’m still talking about the gesture two years later.

The element of surprise doesn’t have to cost anything. For example, how surprising would it be for every person who buys a car at your dealership (and maybe a few who don’t) to get a personal call from the owner? Just a quick “thank-you” and an invitation for feedback. What would that customer say about your dealership to everyone he knows?

Customer experience is the new way to win in business. If you’re serious about customer loyalty, take out an index card and write down these three things:

  1. Ask the customer about the customer
  2. Make it personal, make it valuable
  3. Surprise!

Carry the index card in your pocket to remind you to practice these things every day.

You will enjoy the financial rewards that come from loyal customers, and, someday, your name might even appear next to Ernesto’s in an article like this one.

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