I drove for Retriever Towing in Portland, OR, for 11 years, and my time there is the source of many of my stories. Retriever is the top impound company in Portland, and I occasionally help them with marketing, and one thing we did recently was promote another sister company, a full-service automotive shop, to the businesses Retriever serves, by offering a discount to the businesses, their employees, their customers, and (in the case of residential properties) their residents. This type of cross-promotion helps all parties. The vehicle owner gets a discount, the automotive shop gets more customers, the impound company strengthens its relationship with its account base, and the accounts strengthen their relationship with their customers and residents.

After I left Retriever in 1997, I went to work for a competitor, Sergeants Towing, where I moved into management. I started as a driver and struck up a friendship with the Office Manager, who had been a small business owner herself and, like me, was new to the company. She had some ideas about how to improve the company, and she had a unique perspective, coming from a different industry. We were talking one afternoon as she washed her car, and it started out as one of those "I wish" conversations. You know, I wish we did things this way, I wish we did things that way. She was "only" the Office Manager, and at that point, I was "only" a driver. I was ready for change, so I simply suggested that we start working on a couple of projects together, without asking for approval from ownership or upper management. We would enlist help from others as needed, ask for money if we had to, write up procedures and present them to decision-makers as if the task had been assigned to us, and generally just take the bull by the horns, rather than complaining on the sidelines. One thing that managers often don't have enough of is time, and if you can complete something of value that helps them, they often will not care whose idea it was or how it came about.

One of the first things we worked on was an idea I had heard on an NPR program: developing a customer service network. If you look at your customer base, especially your customers that are businesses, they utilize the services of many different kinds of service providers. You might provide one or two or three of those services, and you certainly want to serve them in as many ways as possible. If you own a tow company, and automotive shop, and a body shop, you might want to secure as many fleet accounts as possible by selling all three services to them. You can offer incentives, such as discounts, for those accounts that take advantage of this, and you can be sort of a one-stop shopping center for them, which is certainly convenient and advantageous for them.

We took it a step further and went to other companies who served our accounts, or could serve them, and asked them to be part of our customer service network. All we asked them to do is to offer some sort of discount or incentive to our customers, in exchange for the privilege of promoting their business to our customers. Now, who would turn that down? It was free advertising for them. We simply included their information on our website, and we put together a list of providers for our account reps to give to our accounts. Because we were an impound company, our accounts were primarily business and property owners. We went first to our own providers and to the accounts themselves to find network partners, and within two weeks we had a group that included our card-lock fuel company, a sign company, a lot sweeping company, a security firm, a web developer, a carpet and linoleum installer, a janitorial company, a painter, a legal firm, our own automotive shop, a body shop, an accounting firm, a waste disposal firm, a landscaper, and a pest control company. When we had exhausted that avenue, we went to a professional association we belonged to and found another group of service providers with the same type of customers we had, and we doubled the size of the group. Can you see how banding together as a network helped all of us to strengthen our relationships with our customers, and to thereby secure that business even more strongly than we already had? We were an impound company--we couldn't go to our best account and haul away their garbage (well, their actual garbage, not abandoned vehicles); but we could find a waste disposal company who would give them a discount because they were our customer. It was win-win-win. We did not stipulate to the other service providers what kind of discount or incentive had to be offered, nor did we promote the terms or nature of the discount or incentive, unless they wanted us to. We kept it as simple as possible, and any service provider could opt out at any time. In fact, the only companies who turned down the opportunity to participate were companies who were so busy that they couldn't handle any more new business. They recognized that by just saying yes, they were going to start getting more phone calls and inquiries.

Our account reps loved it. It gave us an edge. Instead of walking into a competitor's account and trying to convince them that we would have better response times, make fewer mistakes, install custom signs, and do a better job of reducing negative backlash from impounded vehicle owners, we had something in black-and-white that had a tangible financial benefit for them. And we showed them how they could market the program to their own customers and residents. If you're shopping at a store, and you lock your keys in your car, and the store manager gets you a discount on lockout service, aren't you going to go back to that store and recommend it to others? That made it a win-win-win-win.

Of course, I wish the story had a better ending. The customer service network program is one of the things that got me promoted from driver to manager, and then I had to start babysitting adults, the Office Manager left to greener pastures, and eventually the program languished due to lack of attention. In retrospect, I should have found a way to keep it flourishing, because the return on investment was undeniably positive.

If I can help you with your business in any way, I will. Feel free to call me any time to talk about ways for you to promote your business, or ways to babysit adults. I'd be honored, really.

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper

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