Direct Marketing Article
We're Number TWO!" You'd Never Say It…But These
Eight Red Flags Warn Your Company Might Be Living It
By Joseph Callaway
Joseph Callaway spotlights eight behaviors that, unbeknownst to you, might
be keeping your company out of first place.
Picture this: You're relaxing on your couch and watching your favorite crime
drama after a long day at work. You've halfway tuned out during a commercial
break when something catches your attention. "Come see what we have to
offer. We're proud to be second in area sales and customer satisfaction
since 1992!" an announcer enthuses while a giant yellow "2" flashes on the
Sure, it sounds absurd. But according to Joseph Callaway, while most of us
pay lip service to our desire to be our customers' first choice, our actions
may say otherwise.
"Any time you don't make the client your top priority, you're tacitly
agreeing not to be their top priority," says Callaway. "You cannot truly be
number one until your clients are. Being number one really is a two-way
street, and it's not an easy street. You can't coast your way to number
one-and when you settle for doing so, you soon fall to number two or even
Callaway knows all about the high price of being number one. He and his wife
built their thriving business-Those Callaways-in a tough industry that's had
more than its share of challenges. To date, they've sold over a billion
dollars' worth of homes and have been the market leader in their area for
years. Their book describes their late-in-life entry into real estate, how
they had their "Clients First" revelation, how it changed their professional
and personal lives, and how readers can put it into practice for themselves.
"Living and working this way is rewarding, but it's also tough," he admits.
"Putting your customers' interests ahead of your own-every time-can seem
counterintuitive, risky, and even frightening. That's why so many businesses
fail to be as competitive as they'd like: Even if they don't realize it,
they've chosen to operate in a way that makes it impossible for them to come
in first from a customer's perspective.
"Especially in an uncertain economy, you can't settle for being number
two-or three, or four-because that puts you on the road to eventual
failure," he adds. "Sooner or later, your vulnerability will catch up with
you. The best job security is being the best."
Here, Callaway shares eight signs that your business is aiming lower than
you may have thought, as well as advice on how to finally start hitting the
1. Your number one business goal is to make money. Ummm…isn't that
the point of running a company? you might be asking. Well, it's a point,
says Callaway, but it's not the point. You see, a too-acute focus on
improving the bottom line takes your attention off of the people who are
going to enable you to raise it: your customers. Your clients can always
tell when they're not your first priority. (If you're skeptical, just
consider the backlash that often occurs when small businesses are bought out
and transformed by larger, more impersonal corporations.)
"The difference between paying attention to customer service so that your
clients will give you more business and doing so because serving the
customer is your first priority may feel slight, but it's significant,"
Callaway promises. "Yes, taking your focus away from the bottom line may
feel uncomfortable at first. But you'll soon find that when you focus on how
best to serve clients, tough decisions make themselves. If it serves the
client, you do it. If it doesn't, you don't. This neutralizes moral dilemmas
and really simplifies your life. And it almost always has a miracle effect
on your growth and success."
2. You let the little things slide. So…what's the problem? Rushing
through paperwork so you can get home early, failing to spellcheck an email
or two, and running late to a meeting probably won't matter that much six
months from now. It's the "big" things like growing your company, expanding
your client base, hiring more employees, and making a profit that are most
important, right? Not necessarily, says Callaway.
"So often in life, it's the small details that differentiate 'good' from
'great,'" he points out. "So be careful not to become so fixated on the
forest that you fail to see the trees. In other words, stop being so
distracted by the 'big grand ideas' and start getting the small details
right. Promises kept, deadlines met, little extra flourishes, and small acts
of kindness add up to happy clients.
"One thing Those Callaways does with clients in escrow is to call or email
them every day, even if nothing is happening," he adds. "This simple message
of 'nothing happening, wanted you to know' is a huge stress reliever and an
even bigger business builder."
3. You habitually let certain clients go to voicemail. It's happened to
everyone: When you see that name flash on your phone's caller ID, you slowly
pull your hand back from the receiver and let the ringing continue. You just
don't want to deal with the drama, or the whining, or the accusations, or
the belligerence just now. Yes, we all have "problem" clients. But to avoid
them or just go through the motions for them is a mistake. They will notice
and remember your behavior. (And be honest: Would you want to give your
business to someone who might write you off when the going got tough?)
"Clients First means all clients," Callaway insists. "In over fourteen
years, my wife and I have never gotten rid of a single client-even when we
secretly wished we could-and we believe this no-fire strategy has
contributed significantly to our ultimate success. Here's the payoff: When
you make the choice to stand by all of your frazzled, frustrated customers,
you will eventually reap financial and personal rewards.
"You may even become known in your company or industry as the guy or gal who
can handle the toughest customers," he adds. "And chances are, your clients
themselves will be grateful that you didn't give up on them and may even
send others your way."
4. You find yourself telling white lies. It's true that telling
clients white lies, or exaggerating, misdirecting, or omitting, might make
life easier temporarily. It's also true that we can often justify such
behavior to ourselves (She'll never know, and it'll save me hours of work,
for example). But Callaway says these "little" lies are just as bad as the
whoppers. There is always a chance that customers will see through you and
call you on the carpet. And even if they don't, a willingness to play fast
and loose with the truth is indicative of a broader attitude that relegates
clients to second or third priority. (In return, that's usually how they'll
"Honesty can be tough in the moment, but a reputation for trustworthiness
(or untrustworthiness!) can stick with you for life," says Callaway. "Live
by a policy of never holding back or sugarcoating and you'll gain customer
loyalty that money can't buy. Plus, when you have only the truth, you wave
goodbye to moral dilemmas and sleepless nights. You don't have to worry
about getting the story straight or remembering what you have and haven't
shared. You know you're doing the right thing."
5. You spend more time trying to get off the phone than really hearing
what the customer has to say. Chances are, you roll out the red carpet
in order to get prospective clients on board. And you're probably willing to
bear with the whims, questions, and requests of fairly new customers whose
business isn't yet cemented. But what about older, more established clients?
Do you take the same amount of time and care with them, or do you assume
they'll stick with you out of habit and convenience?
"If you wouldn't hang up the phone at the first opportunity with a client
you signed last week, don't do it with one you signed ten years ago,"
advises Callaway. "Companies that become number one don't do so because they
win customers over once, but because they do it every day. A good experience
last month usually won't keep a customer coming back this month if he or she
believes that your level of service has slipped."
6. You don't know your client's daughter's name or what he likes to do on
the weekends. In your eyes you're being professional when every question
in your meeting is about the client's financial preferences, for example,
and not his family, pastimes, and interests. But in his eyes, you're cold
and impersonal. Remember, to truly serve, you have to care. When you keep
yourself at arm's length, you can't give your clients 100 percent…and you
give them an incentive to take their business elsewhere.
"Do you see your clients as sources of income, or do you see them as actual
human beings with likes, preferences, quirks, and stories?" Callaway asks.
"People want to do business with individuals they like-and they like people
who like them! Make a deeper connection with your clients by asking about
their kids, their pets, their hobbies, and their jobs or businesses. You'll
find that most of them are just like you: filled with worries, hopes, and
dreams. Once you get familiar with and invested in these things, you'll work
that much harder on each client's behalf, and you'll earn their loyalty in
7. You feel your main obligation to employees is writing their paycheck.
While (of course) you don't treat employees like dirt, you may feel that you
don't owe them any special favors, either. After all, you're paying
them-isn't that enough? Well, no, says Callaway. The way your people treat
customers reflects the way you treat them. Are you courteous? Kind?
Enthusiastic? Do you listen when they talk to you and try to accommodate
their needs? Or are you short, perfunctory, and even (sometimes) rude?
"Your job is to serve others, period," Callaway says. "You can't do that by
making distinctions between the people who work for you and the people to
whom you provide a good or service. Realize that you set the tone for your
company's 'personality,' and that you're creating a tribe of people who will
beat the drum for your message. Try to see your employees through a client's
eyes and be honest: Would they win first or second place in a customer
service competition? If you don't like the answer, try adjusting your own
8. You're not above badmouthing the competition. Some leaders don't
hesitate to casually say things like, "Sure, Outlet X is cheap, but the
quality of their merchandise leaves a lot to be desired," or, "I'd think
twice before I took my business to Firm Y-didn't you hear they had to lay
off half of their staff last year?" But Callaway suggests you look at what
happens in the political arena: When you sling mud at your opponent, some of
it is likely to get on you, too. Besides, wouldn't you rather rise to the
number one spot solely on your organization's merit, not because you took
"In fact, you can-and should-strive to win the approval, goodwill, and
admiration of your competitors," shares Callaway. "If possible, get to know
their leaders and employees and help them when you can. You don't have to
give away trade secrets, but you can offer advice, for example, or refer a
customer whose needs are better matched to what another business has to
"Don't do these things manipulatively but in the spirit of giving," he
clarifies. "Your efforts will come back to you with interest. Have faith
that there is enough business to go around."
Finally, advises Callaway, don't put the cart (being number one) before the
horse (serving your clients).
"A customer isn't focused on where you stand in the big picture so much as
on how well you treat and serve him or her individually," he says. "And
that's the beauty of how this whole thing works: By keeping your commitment
to Clients First, you'll win enough loyal supporters to put you squarely in
the lead position after all."
About the Authors:
Joseph Callaway and JoAnn Callaway are coauthors of the New York Times
Clients First: The Two Word Miracle and founders of the real estate
company Those Callaways.