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Why Sending Loyal Customers Away Is Great For Business

03/17/2014 12:19 EDT | Updated 05/17/2014 05:59 EDT

When I was in my final year of high school, some of the more shall we say "sensitive" types accessorized their graduation bios with a floral quote that went:

"If you love something, set it free.

If it comes back, it's yours.

If it doesn't, it never was."

(My friends and I, being slightly more cynical, paraphrased this into "If you REALLY love something, kill it. If it comes back, it's yours. If it doesn't, get a good lawyer."...but I digress.)

Now that I am older, wiser and obviously way more mature, I think back to that sucky quote and am slightly pained to admit that perhaps the girls (because frankly, no guy in my high school would be strong enough to withstand the onslaught that would come with that quote atop their bio) were right.

Not just right, but when it comes to business in the competitive twenty-tens, strategically prescient.

Case in point is Nota Bene, a wonderful restaurant I frequent often when in Toronto. Never had anything less than an exquisite experience there, not just because of the food, but also because of a waiter (whose face I know but name I forget) who always seems to serve me.

His recommendations of specials, wines and desserts are always spot on, so I was wide-eyed and all ears when he hit me with the following:

"You looking for a place to eat tomorrow night?"

As the case was, I happened to be staying over, so I said yes...but knew where he was going. Upon entering that eve, I ran into Nota Bene's owner Yannick Bigourdan, who told me he opening a sister resto called Carbon Bar. "Here comes the big sales pitch," I sighed to myself.

Well, it came...but not for Carbon Bar.

To my surprise, the waiter picked up on an off-handed comment about Japanese food I had made to the colleague I was having dinner with, and suggested a tiny, out-of-the-way spot about 20 minutes away that serves "the best Japanese food in the city, perhaps in the country."

At that point, the high esteem I held for the restaurant shot up even higher. You gotta have a lot of confidence in your offering if you can recommend a competitor to a loyal client.

It may appear counter-intuitive at first -- just like setting free something you hold dear -- but this type of "Customer-first/Business-second" behaviour is refreshing and genuine. It's also gutsy, and more often than not pays off exponentially for those self-assured enough to use it.

Short term, yes, your dollar goes elsewhere.

But long term, and more importantly, your loyalty stays. A good deed, and the positive word of mouth that goes with it, is ultimately more valuable than any one sale. This is what happens when one puts the entire focus on the purchaser, and not the purchase itself.

We all have stories of both sides of the coin, I suspect. Stories of going into a store and being curtly told "Sorry, we don't have what you're looking for," and on the flip side, stories of people in the same situation who will send you to places that do...perhaps even call for you, or tell you who to ask for, or suggest an alternative that costs less.

Epic tales of such "do whatever it takes to make the customer happy" have made the Nordstrom chain legendary in the insanely competitive retail space. And by suggesting a new, special place that I would probably love instead of being a robotic shill for his employer, the Nota Bene waiter has solidified my relationship with his restaurant. I can't wait to go back.

So this week's lesson hearkens back to the days of high school, and those italicized pearls of wisdom below select grad photos:

The best way to lock down a customer

is to give him or her the key.