Imagine you left your cell phone and wallet in the cab that’s taking you to a fancy New York dinner. As you enter the restaurant, you realize what you’re missing. That sinking feeling in your stomach means your fun night out has turned into a huge disaster.

We’ve all had that horrible realization when we lose something valuable, and it’s what some people might call “the WORST” – even worse than missing Real Housewives or realizing your underwear is on backwards.

But what if the restaurant – which had nothing to do with your lost items – offered to find them for you? What if the manager hunted down the cab driver, and sent an employee up to the Bronx to retrieve your wallet and phone?

That’s exactly what happened at a restaurant owned by restaurateur and customer service guru Danny Meyer. In his magnum opus on hospitality, “Setting the Table,” he explains that “Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel.”

Incredible hospitality like this can turn a potential disaster into a total win. Even if you found a long, scary hair in your soup afterwards, you’d still probably count that night as one of your most memorable dining experiences, ever. And you’d tell everyone you know about the above-and-beyond service you received.

The restaurant now has a loyal patron for life.

With the right information, and the right hospitable mindset, you can make your customer feel fantastic – about your product, about their experience, about you. By creating that feeling, you’re building a connection that ensures your customer will be loyal to you for a very long time.

The point is: With the right opportunities, you can do amazing things.

Meyer’s customer database is filled with tidbits about every visitor to his many restaurants. Waitstaff will know whether you’re a first time diner, someone who needs lots of attention, or if you’re a total slob and they should stock the table with extra napkins.

It’s this kind of “attention to data” that makes Danny Meyer the master of customer service, and makes his visitors so incredibly loyal.

And with 56% of U.S. adults saying they’d be swayed to switch brands based on better customer service, you can’t afford not to pay attention to service.

One thing: you should know that “data” is more than numbers and statistics. It’s knowing if your customer just lost her cell phone in a cab, or understanding what problems he’s having with his business. The right data is a key that unlocks hidden secrets, opens up opportunities and builds your relationship with your customers.

So, where should you start looking for data about your customers? Some faraway Internet database at the end of a secret tunnel? Not at all. In fact, many of the ways you already interact with your customers are perfect for grabbing information. Here are seven places to get you started.

(Remember, data is power. So go out and get it!)

1. Purchase process

You’ll collect basic data as part of the purchase process: name, email address, etc. But don’t be afraid to ask for a bit more: how they found your product, their age range, or their physical address. (Just don’t overwhelm them with too many questions, which may dissuade them from buying.)

2. Surveys

If you want more information, just ask for it!

Short surveys are perfect for getting your customers to reveal who they are and what they want. What’s their favorite and least favorite part of the course? Would they recommend it to a friend? What’s the biggest challenge they’re facing right now?

Make your survey fun and engaging. Give yours a fun name, like “Survey Says…” or “The Feedbackulator,” and your customers will be more likely to participate. You’ll find a thorough explanation of setting up an effective Wufoo survey on Patrick McKenzie’s awesome blog.

3. Customer service hotline

Ask followup questions when your customers call or use your live chat support. Once you’ve identified who they are and resolved their issue, ask them how they’re finding their course so far. Are they enjoying it? Are they having any other difficulties you can help with?

Some customers may reveal more in a voice-to-voice or online chat conversation than they will in a survey. And since most consumers (73%) have the highest satisfaction with live chat support, that’s the perfect place to make a positive connection.

4. Emails

Find out what your customers do and don’t like by testing your emails. A/B test your email subject lines to see which has a better open rate, and use it to adapt your subject line copy in the future.

Look at what customers are clicking on within your emails, too. What links do they find most appealing? Which ones do they ignore?

5. Social media

Your social media fans and followers may or may not be paying customers, but it doesn’t hurt to know more about them. You can find some information through your Facebook interface, but Twitter is a bit more complicated. Use a tool like Salesforce or DemographicsPro.

Also, keep an eye on what your fanbase is saying.

Like so many denizens of the Internet, your customers might find it easy to be negative on social media. Since it’s a public forum, it’s vital that you’re there and aware, responding to any issues they might have.

6. Referral codes

Give your existing customers a way to share your product with their friends by providing them a unique referral code. Then, keep tabs on who purchases through a referral. You may be able to extrapolate some information about those buyers based on who has referred them.

Digital advertisers do this in a more complex and slightly creepier way with their look-alike and social graph modeling. They’re able to target new prospects whose behaviors or social connections are similar to those of people who have already purchased.

7. Blog comments

Ideally, your paid customers are already a lively part of your community, reading and engaging with your content.

Use specific calls to action in your articles or blog posts to find out more about your customers. Do they agree with your article? Why or why not? What do they think?

Using data for good (not evil)

Now, you should have a great big mountain of fun data. Names, addresses, numbers, opinions. What should you do with it? Sell it to the highest bidder? Of course not. Like the Force, data should only be used for good, not evil.

This information can make your customers’ lives happier, your connection with each other stronger and their likelihood of becoming repeat buyers higher.

Here are our favorite reasons why customer satisfaction matters to your bottom line:

  • According to McKinsey, “eCommerce spending for new customers is on average $24.50, compared to $52.50 for repeat customers.”
  • Buyers who have a superior customer service experience are less likely to return your product, says this study by Accenture.
  • According to Harris Interactive, 72% of “adults who had a memorable product purchase, use or service experience” took action to communicate about it positively to others.
  • “A customer is 4 times more likely to defect to a competitor if the problem is service-related than price- or product-related,” says Bain & Company.
  • Authors Emmett and Mark Murphy explain that “a 2% increase in customer retention has the same effect as decreasing costs by 10%.”

Convinced that keeping your customers happy is a financially smart move? Then you’re ready for these five ways to use data to do amazing things.

1. Pay attention to trends

Amazon is so confident with its data, they’ve patented “anticipatory shipping” that pre-emptively sends products based on customers’ purchase history. Talk about service!

You might not have an army of drones at your disposal – yet – but you can still look for and take advantage of trends.

A few examples:

  • Are a lot of customers signing up for your Digital Food Photography course from the same zip code? Research the area to find out why – is there a big foodie scene, a culinary school, or do you have one particularly awesome student who’s been evangelizing to all his friends? Explore targeting your online ads to that zip code to maximize the trend.
  • Are your customers clamoring for a chapter in your Wilderness Survival course that explains how to chop firewood without an axe? Start a new course that focuses solely on that subject, lumberjack hat not included.
  • Have you found an unexpected pocket of college students signing up for your public speaking course? Market yourself to college campuses, and start a course just for them.

2. Send something physical

If you have your customer’s mailing address, do something with it!

Mail a book, a handwritten letter, or a Kim Kardashian keychain – it (almost) doesn’t matter. When you send a physical item – to say thanks for buying, or just because – you’re being welcomed, metaphorically, into their home. It makes you more than some abstract online presence. You’re now a part of their very real material world.

Not to mention, they’ll think of you every time they see the item. So make sure it’s something cool and memorable.

3. Adapt and upsell smartly

Do people who buy your Knitting 101 course follow up their purchase with Advanced Knitting, or do they give up on knitting altogether and buy Crocheting 101 instead?

Update the Knitting 101 course material to promote Crocheting 101 for those who are finding knitting too difficult. Or, update Knitting 101 to include more “getting started” basics that will leave you with more satisfied students.

Either way, you’re looking out for what your customers want and need.

4. Create new products

Let’s say readers of your video game blog keep complaining about how hard it is to get past Level XVII in the hot new game, “Battle for Summit Evergreen.”

You could respond to their comments (and you should), or you could look at this as an opportunity to create a new product. Your new course, “Battle for Summit Evergreen: Level XVII Tutorial” will fly off the shelves.

5. Know who you’re talking to

Is the guy ranting and raving on your customer service hotline just another pathological customer? Maybe.

But what if you happened to know that his birthday is this coming week? Wishing him a happy birthday in that moment might transform your phone call from angry to appreciative.

Danny Meyer calls this “connecting the dots.” When you have just a little bit of data about your customer, you can draw connections that help make memorable moments.

With data in your hands, you can do amazing things.

Try not to feel overwhelmed by the many ways you can collect and use it. At the end of the day, it’s not about quantity, it truly is about quality – the quality of your human connection.

Employees at Danny’s restaurants may not go in search of every cell phone their patrons lose, but going after just one made a huge difference. Not only did it make the customer feel valued, but you can be sure she told her story of above-and-beyond service to all of her friends.

The moral of our story: Make just one person feel appreciated, and you might find yourself with a customer for life.

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