7 timely tips for growing your business regardless of the economic environment
By John R. Graham
The times have certainly changed. It was not so long ago when you could open your doors and there would be a steady stream of customers ready to buy whatever you decided to offer them. If they liked your company, they were loyal. Some called them "customers for life."
That day, as we all know, is long gone. Today, customers buy selectively. Whether they are business buyers or consumers, they behave the same when it comes to making purchases of products or services:
- They see themselves in charge of the sale.
- They view themselves as "free agents," not beholden to anyone.
- Their definition of "good service" is highly individualized.
- They leave rather than complain.
- They don't give all their business to anyone.
What's your competitive advantage?
Because it takes much more savvy to stay in business today than it did even a few years ago, companies need a competitive advantage. Every customer counts. Lost customers mean lost business — dollars that are going to someone else.
The big job is to keep pulling more customers closer and closer so they want to do more business with you, while still satisfying your existing customers. Here are seven essential tools for growing a business today:
- Remember that customers don't know about everything you sell. The worst assumption you can make is believing that everyone knows everything you sell. They don't –– and that includes your best customers. How many times do people say, "George, I've been coming here for 15 years and I didn't know you carried that." This is a wake-up call, because it means those customers are going elsewhere to buy what you sell.
The goal is to get customers to look to you for more and more of their purchases. This can happen only if they know what you sell. A few suggestions:
- Check your company's sales records, identify customer purchasing patterns and begin to educate customers on the products or services they aren't buying.
- Use email newsletters so you can reach specific customers with specific information.
- Develop an informational campaign, using newsletters, PR and advertising.
- Make your place of business interesting for the customer. An automobile reporter had just driven several new Pontiacs and then wrote, "Pontiac still builds excitement." That motto (it's called a positioning statement in marketing) has served the company well for decades. When customers visit a Pontiac dealer, they expect to see "exciting" products.
Here's the lesson: All customers expect excitement today. They run from dull. What does the Rainforest Café sell? Clearly, they make it an exciting experience, particularly for families. What can you do to add some zest to your store? How about serving popcorn on Saturdays? Bob Curry at Curry Ace Hardware in Quincy, Mass., has been doing it for years. By noon the floors are covered with popcorn––and the cash registers are full! Bob discovered that customers come for what he sells, but also to have fun.
What about demonstrations and classes? Home Depot offers free classes on everything from laying tile to building a deck. Or have a weekly drawing for free give-aways to create interest and fun for your customers. And don't forget about the power of free samples.
While these are retailing suggestions, the concepts apply to non-retail businesses as well, including service companies. What pulls customers into a retail environment has the same effect with business-to-business customers, too. If you create a positive experience for them, customers will look forward to doing business with you.
Publish a newsletter. Good newsletters take time and effort — and they cost money. But they are worth the investment because they can touch customers and prospects. Here are some ideas for things you can cover in a newsletter:
- Provide helpful information for your readers. If you want your newsletter to be read, focus on your customers' interests. What are their problems? What do they want help with? A newsletter should be aimed at the reader.
- Share your know-how, knowledge and experience. There are plenty of other places where customers can buy your stuff, so demonstrate why you bring added value.
- Answer your customers' questions. Have a Q&A column, or an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page. How can you be sure you're answering questions of concern to customers? Easy. Just ask customer service people what customers are asking them. They'll tell you the questions that come up day after day. If you answer the right questions, customers will know you're listening.
- Highlight an employee. Along with the employee's photo, tell a little about the person. There's something interesting about everyone.
- Focus on "problem-solution" stories. Readers relate to "case histories," particularly those that indicate how you solved a problem for a customer. This is one of the most effective ways for communicating what you do and how you do it.
Make sure your newsletter doesn't look and read like an advertisement. If it's self-serving, your customers will not value it, and they'll toss it without even seeing what's on the inside.
- Build your customer and prospect database. The only customer name many companies know is "Accounts Payable" or "Attn: Sally." Drill down into the organization and find the names and titles of those who should know about you and what you do. Make all of them part of your customer and prospect database. Someone in your company should be given the task of being responsible for the database. It's the lifeblood of the business. Without it, you cannot communicate your message.
Your customer file should also contain email addresses. However, there's one caution: While email is essential today, it should not become a substitute for more personal communication. There's always the need to take your best customers out to lunch, or at least pick up the phone and say hello.
If your business is true to form, about 80 percent of your sales come from 20 percent of your customers. Make sure this top 20 percent feels special in doing business with you. Invite them to a special event every once in a while, or send them an annual "thank you" discount card for certain items. In other words, give them special attention. You can think of what is most appropriate for your customers. The main point is simply to do it.
- Send press releases. Customers like to read about people they do business with, and you don't need to be a reporter to write a basic press release. Just remember to answer these questions: who, when, where, why and how? It's that simple.
What is news? New employees, employee promotions, a new product line, changes in your store, special events, or your attendance at seminars, conventions or meetings. Something doesn't need to be "big" to be newsworthy. Try doing it a few times and you'll get the feel for what you should be sending to the newspapers and radio stations.
- Use the magic word every chance you get. No, I'm not talking about free. I mean the other magic word: "sure." When the customer asks, "Could you get me delivery by next Friday?" here's a chance to say "sure." Or when someone says, "Do you think you could help me with how to fix my (fill in the blank)?" there's only one answer: "Sure."
Of course, you don't want to commit to things that are unreasonable, but when customers make reasonable requests that you can accommodate without a whole lot of effort, "sure" is a wonderfully friendly and reassuring word. It's a feel-good word that customers like to hear.
Get to work now!
These are seven suggestions you can put to work right now to grow your business, regardless of the economic climate. Most require a greater commitment of time and energy than they do money. They all demand effort and the one quality that is often missing in business: persistence.
John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a public relations, advertising, design and marketing communications services firm, and the author of several books, including 203 Ways To Be Supremely Successful in the New World of Selling and Magnet Marketing.