Whenever possible, capture customer data. How much? As much as possible. What kind of data? The most important is contact information, followed by personal data, preferences, and product and service usage data.

Contact Information
Obviously, contact information is the most important. Start with names, address, e-mail, and phone numbers. Clearly, you need this information to be able to reach the customer. That's why it has priority.

Personal Data
You also want personal data. You want their date of birth so that you can send them a birthday card. See if you can find out where they work, what organizations they belong to, where they went to school, and so on. If you're an HVAC contractor that's quoting a job and you discover where the prospect works, you want to be able to mention that you put in an HVAC system for old so-and-so who works there as well. It might make the difference between winning the job and losing it.

Preferences
You want your customers' preferences so that you can serve them the way they want to be served. Do they prefer to be called at work? Do they prefer to be contacted by e-mail? Do they want maintenance performed on a certain day of the week? Do they prefer to pay by cash, check, or credit card? Which credit card? Do they want to be billed automatically? Are there special considerations, such as a backyard dog that waits for an opportunity to scoot through the back gate when your employee opens it? Identify them. When they call you for service, or you call them to schedule regular service, reconfirm them. You'll stand out.

Of course, one of the preferences that's most important to identify is the customer's willingness to allow further contact from you. If they would like to hear about money saving offers, home improvement tips, and so on, you have permission to market to them. This is especially important for electronic contact.

Products and Services
Finally, you want to know what products and services your customers own and which customers would be interested in what you could provide. This can be incredibly lucrative. We started asking these questions in a national service company I ran. We found that 17% of the people we did business with were interested in learning more about replacing our highest ticket item with a new one that would save money on utilities. And here we were, thinking that they just wanted us to fix stuff!

Try to capture information on the products you sell or service. Get the age, manufacturer, and model numbers. Also, capture what they don't have. There's potential for additional sales in the future. While your competitors are chasing new customers, trying to grab a greater share of the market, you can make a killing with your existing customers by grabbing a greater share of the customer!

Collecting The Data
How do you get the data? Most customers will give it to you, willingly, if you'll only ask. You can ask the most essential questions over the phone. For others, it may be better to use a written form. Ask your customers to fill out a "customer preference form," "account profile," or whatever name you feel is friendliest. Explain that the reason you want the information is that you want to treat them uniquely, the way they prefer to be treated. Tell them you want to provide special service. People like special service. They'll help you accomplish it.

Will people give you this type of information? Sure. In the travel industry, this data is routinely captured. Your local travel agent has it. Your preferred rental car company has it. It's required when you sign up with a number of airline frequent flyer programs.

The more you know about your customers, the better positioned you are to serve them in an unforgettable fashion and the better positioned you are to grab a greater share of the customer.

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com), an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at www.ComancheMarketing.com. You can contact him directly at matt.michel@serviceroundtable.com. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at letters@contractingbusiness.com.