One of my favorite surveys to share in presentations was conducted by Shop Smart magazine. In it, customers were asked to name their most "trusted advisers" when it came to making purchases. Not shockingly, "friends and family" was the highest-rated group — by far.

Even less shockingly, "salespeople" was the lowest-rated group — by far. After sharing that, I like to respectfully suggest to folks that we're much better positioned to have our advice trusted by customers when they tend to think of us more in the former group than the latter.

Like most households, we get loads of junk mail, unwanted e-mail, and phone calls each month from any number of companies.

And yet, in the one time of the year that the people who do business with us have a great opportunity to stand out, most drop the ball.

In fact, only two of the companies that we're customers of took advantage of that window of opportunity this year. That window is our birthdays. My wife and I have birthdays only five days apart.

Think for a moment about who sends you a card or e-mail or gives you a call on your birthday. Typically, it's only your closest friends and family.

Most of us get lots of cards for Christmas and the holidays. Folks you never see and barely remember send you photos. Businesses go overboard with their big, generic holiday wishes. And that's all nice.

But your birthday is the true test of who knows and likes you enough to make the effort of remembering and acknowledging your own personal day.

On the day of my wife's birthday, she got a phone call from a young lady who asked for her by name. When my wife identified herself, the young lady began a rousing rendition of the Happy Birthday song. My wife told me that she was pretty amused, and curious: Who was this person? It turns out it was a secretary from our insurance agent's office.

After finishing her song, the young lady again wished my wife a happy birthday and thanked her for being a customer. That was it. No sales pitch.

My wife immediately found me and shared what had just happened. She was pretty tickled and said, "Those guys are good." What was the last marketing piece or gesture that had you saying that?

That agent's office must know my wife is the chief purchasing officer of our house, because I didn't receive a birthday call five days later. But one of our local restaurants remembered me. I received a "Happy Birthday email" from our local Joe's Crab Shack, along with a coupon for an appetizer.

I laughed and told my wife, "Well, at least Joe appreciates me!" And you can bet that the gesture is at least worth an extra trip or two during the year.

Now, it is possible to blow even this layup of a relationship-strengthening opportunity. One business did note my birthday and still found a way to irk me. Two days after my birthday, I got a call from the car salesman who had sold me a vehicle eight months ago. (For the record, calling two days before a birthday makes a much better impression than two days after the birthday. I'm just saying.)

I was ready to give the guy his due for the nice gesture. But before I could say "Thanks," he went on, apparently reading from a script, "I just wanted to remind you that I'm still here and if you have any friends or family who are shopping for a car, I'd like to meet them." Ah, silly me. For a moment, I thought the call was about me. But he made sure to remind me that the call's real purpose was to benefit him.

Clueless car salesman aside, I tallied up the cards and well-wishes we each received for our birthdays. As usual it was our closest family and friends … and that insurance agent and restaurant. Again, what was the last marketing effort that differentiated you and your company as much?

I know there are cynics who think acknowledging customers' birthdays is hokey or maybe too arduous of a task. That's fine. It also guarantees that this once-a-year opportunity to truly stand out in a customer's mind will continue to exist.

Even if an organization thinks sending birthday messages to each of their customers isn't feasible, how about identifying the most profitable 20% of customers of the organization for the gesture?

Most folks are reminded once each year of the people who think enough of them to remember their special day. It's a short list that's worth getting on.

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