Beat the slump with customer service

A foodie entrepreneur with a profitable, million-dollar company says staying closely connected to her customers is her recipe for success.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Earlier this month I shared the success story of House of Jerky, a business wholesaler and online retailer that's succeeding in this tough economy. I recently ran across another foodie entrepreneur, Paige Ohliger, who is thriving despite the downturn.

Her winning secret? Extreme customer service.

Ohliger is one of four founders of Time for Dinner, launched in 2004 in St. Louis, Mo. Her niche is the meal-assembly business - those stores you visit to prep ingredients for complete, pre-made dinners for the month ahead. While nationally franchised competitors closed up shop all around her, Ohliger kept her business profitable and recorded sales just shy of $1 million in 2007.

That revenue didn't just come pouring in: Ohliger's success with Time for Dinner stems from deliberate strategies and decisions that helped the independent business rise above national brands like Meal Makers, Let's Dish, Super Suppers and Dream Dinners.

Time for Dinner, like its competitors, has customers come in and assemble complete meals to take home and freeze. Each month, it offers choices of 14 different meals, all in raw form; customers leave with ready-to-cook meals and recipes for finishing them off.

"Customers save time they'd otherwise spend shopping, chopping and mopping," Ohliger says.

So what's her secret recipe to maintaining sales while rivals struggle?

  • Get in tune with the community.

Ohliger encourages people to hold parties at her store with a do-gooder angle. Neighbors can come in and prepare meals as a group. If 10 people come together and each order a full set of meals (12 meals per person, each serving 4-6 people), Ohliger kicks in a free eleventh set. Groups often earmark that for a sick friend, or one who has just had a baby.

  • Show customers you care.

Ohliger's deliberately high ratio of staff-to-customers helps keep the kitchen sparkling and ensures that customers can quickly get any needed assistance.

  • Use customer feedback to gain new customers

Ohliger gets in sync with customers by being sensitive to the tough economy. Everyone wants their dollar to go farther, and she's not shy about broadcasting the fact that people who use her service can save money. Feedback from current customers suggests they're saving $100-$150 monthly by using the service; Ohliger plays up that statistic in her marketing.

Time for Dinner lives the maxim "if it's good for the customer, it's good for the business." That tight connection with clients gives Ohliger's business the leg up it needs to survive these challenging times.

Rich Sloan is co-founder of StartupNation, a leading online business advice and networking website for entrepreneurs. He also hosts the nationally syndicated talk show, StartupNation Radio, airing on over 70 stations across the country. He is co-author of the acclaimed how-to book, StartupNation: America's Leading Entrepreneurial Experts Reveal the Secrets to Building a Blockbuster Business (Doubleday, 2006). To top of page

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