How Badly Do You Want Repeat Customers? Let’s Talk Tuna!

By Nina Kaufman, Esq.

What makes for a great tuna fish sandwich?

No doubt, tuna fish is in the eye (or the palate) of the beholder . . . but if I’m the one doing the beholding; I’ll tell you what I like. Not too dry; not too gloppy. Finely chopped – almost pureed. A little celery, but not too much so that I’m eating a garden salad with my fish. Quality tuna, that doesn’t smell like the surf at low tide. Add two slices of fresh seeded rye bread, and I’m your gal. If I can find a place that makes it that way and makes it consistently . . . for the right price, I will be a return customer.

“Well, thanks for ordering lunch, Nina, but how does this help me with my graphic design (or coaching or event planning or marketing strategy, etc.) business? What I do is more complicated than tuna fish.”

Well, yes and no. Making tuna fish sandwiches may not be an enormously intellectual exercise, but there are aspects to the delivery of the “tuna fish product” that can become just as complicated as your delivery of consulting services. For example, providing tuna fish sandwiches to customers involves securing the fish (or the pre-made fish), having it delivered to you, coordinating delivery of other ingredients, creating the proper workspace so that the sandwiches can be made efficiently, deciding on the packaging (wax paper? Or clear plastic?), hiring the staff to make and distribute the sandwiches to customers, and collecting the money for the finished (sandwich) product. If there is a breakdown at any one of these points, a customer could easily become dissatisfied and not return.

So what makes someone return as a customer? What are the different (and often, unexpressed) expectations that I may want you to meet – whether you’re providing my weekday lunch or, let’s say, a website?

1. I want (and expect) to know exactly what I’m getting. This is one of the toughest areas for small businesses to put into action. When I walk into the deli and see the little sign stuck into the sandwich marked “Tuna Salad on Rye Bread, $5.25,” I know what to expect. When I go to the checkout counter to pay, they don’t pull the sandwich out of my hands and replace it with ham on wheat toast. The best way to ensure that you know what your client expects is . . . you guessed it: put it in writing. Clarity is key. Anything less than “crystal,” and clients will feel either that they didn’t get their money’s worth or that you pulled a bait-and-switch. “But clients constantly change their minds!!” you cry. So? Build mind-changing into your work and pricing structure. For example, your agreement can include: “The first 2 mind changes are on me. Anything more than 2 mind-changes gets charged $1000 per change.” Leaving aside those clients who are never satisfied (for ways to avoid those, see our article, “Profiles of the Top 5 Problem Clients”, one way to ensure happy clients who don’t change their minds is to develop a system for getting to the heart of the matter. A questionnaire that asks for details about what they want done and why could give you vital information to include in a proposal.

2. I want to know when you will provide (whatever it is) to me. For sandwiches, it’s easy. It’s provided at the time I walk out of the shop with it. But if I want it delivered, and the delivery takes 1 hour longer than expected, you can bet I won’t be satisfied. Similarly, you should know how long it will take you to provide whatever product or service you offer. If you need to build “wiggle room” into the deadlines (perhaps because your work depends on receiving materials from the client), then by all means, do so. If I know in advance that sandwich delivery will take 1 hour longer during the peak lunch hours of 12-2pm, at least I’m prepared and can control when I place the order.

3. I want to know how much you will charge me (or, if a range, a close estimate). Customers don’t like surprises, especially when it comes to spending their money. And people naturally have selective memories. If the sign on the sandwich says $5.25, I don’t expect to be charged $6.25. Even where there are honest mistakes (the clerk hits the wrong key), I’m left with a slightly queasy feeling, as I now have to be extra-vigilant when dealing with the shop. In the website example, set your prices clearly. If you need to deviate from them, make sure you’re able to explain why. Ideally, you should be able to build price deviations into your arrangements. But this is also an area where it helps to have this in writing. There needs to be a clear correlation, spelled out in advance, between changes in the scope of work and changes in the price.

4. I want to know what my options are if I don’t like what you’ve done. With tuna fish, I may not have many options if I simply don’t like the taste. But if the sandwich is spoiled, or I find something in the tuna fish that should n-o-t be there, I can take it back to the store and get a replacement or my money back. Particularly with something creative and intangible, it helps to set out the parameters of “what would make you satisfied” well in advance, so that you can address what procedures you will follow if the client isn’t satisfied.

5. I want to know I can count on you. Can I count on you to deliver the same level of service each and every time – whatever that level may be? If I try your tuna fish once, it’s a fluke; twice, it’s lucky; three times or more, it’s a charm. But you have to meet my expectations each and every time. That’s no mean feat. Particularly, for more expensive service-related items, while you may not be providing the same end product, there are stages to what you provide where consistency is key. Do you return calls promptly? Do you provide your deliverables in a way that shows you understood the assignment? Do you ask the right questions to get to the heart of the matter? Do you find ways to provide extra value? If so, although I may not need you for major website development for a few years (if you’ve done your job right), I will want to keep working with you for smaller, regular updates, and will find ways to refer new business to you.


Hard to do, but easy to understand: customers want to minimize their risks. Giving you their business is a potentially risky proposition, as they may be disappointed (and have to justify their decision to use your company versus others). Still, if you put the right systems in place (and, ideally, in writing), you’re on your way to delivering reliable customer service that people will appreciate and bring repeated business and referrals, over and over. And that’s not just a fish story!

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