As the founder, president and CEO of TradeFirst.com, Fred Detwiler maintains an organized bartering system among his client businesses. His clients offer their services to the TradeFirst.com community, and accumulate points that they can use to purchase services from other members.
But the system wouldn’t work without building and maintaining customer relationships, both between TradeFirst.com and its clients, and between the clients themselves.
Smart Business spoke with Detwiler about how he maintains relationships at his $40 million company, and how you can do the same.
How have you addressed building and maintaining client relationships?
As a bank, which is what we sort of are, working with our clients to help them is one of our biggest challenges. If you’re a bookseller or a printer and somebody doesn’t pay you, barter is never more than two to five percent of somebody’s business. It’s the gravy part of it, but they still need to make sure they have cash flow. We have been able to assist companies to stay in business, because a lot of the overhead expenses can be converted into trade. That saves cash in their checkbooks.
We started in 1978. So right after we started, we had hyperinflation and oil embargoes. We’ve been through a fair number of cycles, and what has been interesting is the nature of business, people dealing with each other through our system, they use our services and sell products on a daily, weekly, monthly basis — but in the latest economic downturn, there are companies going out of business.
Somebody starts up, they’re going, somebody doesn’t pay them and suddenly they go out of business. So we tend to lose accounts, but we’ve also been able to continually grow and expand, so that has more than made up for it.
What would you tell other business leaders about staying close to customers?
How can you stay close to your customers if you don’t stay close to your customers? You know what I mean? You need to have a dedicated staff to do it, you need to review it, you need to make sure you’re getting to all customers.
We try to use technology to assist customer service people, so that no one is being left behind. What I tell my staff is if you’re a school teacher and have 40 people in your class, and you have your 10 people who are in the front and always raising their hands, it’s easy to focus on them and forget about everyone else. So you need to make sure you’re bringing out clients who may not have focused on what we’re doing. They may have joined because they thought it was a good idea, but they never put the understanding into how it works. They never educated their staff.
How do you educate your staff on customer service?
Our customer service brokers, the goal is to give those people the tools so they know that all clients are being serviced. We have members that start out with us, they get business, they spend it — life is good. Then we sort of have people who don’t get business and everyone forgets about them. They don’t get business because they may have given us the wrong information. They may be a print magazine but somehow put on their application that they’re an online publication. Because they didn’t fill out their application right, they weren’t marketed properly.
So how do you do it? If you don’t create opportunities for face time, to get out and visit with your clients, you have problems. In this digital society, everyone wants to do everything electronically. But I do know that people still like to do business with people. If you are not personally involved, you’re leaving money on the table and your long term relationships aren’t formed.
How to reach: TradeFirst.com, www.tradefirst.com or (248) 544-1350