You can develop a competitive advantage — and increase your sales — simply by making speed your No. 1 customer service priority. Here are a few examples of the way businesses I know have done it:

* A major bank based a marketing campaign on a promise that its customers would never have to wait in line for more than five minutes. If they did have to wait more than five minutes, the bank would give them free bank fees for a year. A lot of people who were banking elsewhere liked that idea, so they opened new accounts. The interesting thing here is that the bank had carefully measured how long their customers actually stood in line — and discovered that 95% of the time it was under five minutes. It just seemed like more than that to the people who were waiting.

* A hardware shop in Australia put up a big sign in its window that read: “We guarantee that one of our people will professionally greet and welcome you within 15 seconds. If they don’t, we will give you $20 worth of hardware of your choice free.” That lured many people into the store . . . even if they didn’t need anything. And once they were inside, many of them figured, “Well now that I’m here, is there something I can use?” Sales increased dramatically.

* Recently, I took out a subscription to “Espy,” a business magazine aimed at entrepreneurs (www.espymagazine.com). At the same time, I booked tickets for a seminar they were running and ordered some CDs they had for sale. Within a few minutes, I received an e-mail confirming my order and telling me that the CDs would be sent out immediately. Sure enough, they arrived in my letterbox the next day. I was pleased with the speedy service and told a few people about it. But then something else happened that turned me into loyal fan. A few weeks later, I attended the Espy seminar. Unfortunately, the speaker did a very poor job. I felt that I had not received good value for my money and sent an e-mail the next morning telling the publisher that I was unhappy. Within four minutes, he returned my e-mail, offering to refund my seminar money in full and give me free tickets to another seminar that was featuring a different speaker.

I was completely won over by this generous — and speedy — response. In the future, I will not hesitate to buy products and services that Espy Magazine sells or endorses. And I’ll bet most of their other customers feel the same way.

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