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Finding Your First Customer

  • Define the types of businesses or industries you want to serve, and how your new business can help them. This should be an integral part of your business plan.
  • Go where your prospective customers are. Many trade and professional groups are open to vendors such as yourself. This creates opportunities for spreading your name through advertising and face-to-face networking.
  • Position yourself as an expert by writing brief articles on issues that affect your prospective customers. Offer them free of charge to newspapers and trade publications. Be sure to follow their editorial guidelines and focus on providing helpful information, not making a sales pitch.
  • Offer your services to local community and charitable groups. You get free visibility in return for your pro bono work, and your fellow volunteers may prove to be potential customers.
  • Network with other businesses in your industry or specialty. They may need help with backlogs and overflow business, or with specialized services they're unable to offer.

Getting to Know Your Customers

  • Determine what you need to know. For example, what do they like or dislike about your product or service? How do they feel about the way your company handles complaints? Are they repeat customers? Why or why not?
  • Use one or more survey methods to measure customer satisfaction, such as direct mail, telephone calls, or focus groups (groups of 6-10 people who share their ideas about your product or service).
  • Hire an outside market research firm to develop questions and interpret findings, unless you have an experienced person in-house.
  • Have employees keep ongoing written records of customer compliments and complaints. Review these at staff meetings.
  • Once you know what your customers want, make the adjustments and improvements necessary to keep them coming back.

Pleasing Customers

  • Teach employees to answer the phone with smiles on their faces. Phone experts say that customers will hear the smile in the employees' voices.
  • Hire people who love people.
  • Require that employees speak clearly and slowly enough to be understood-especially on the phone. Nothing turns off customers more quickly than impatient, sullen, or indifferent employees.
  • Make sure employees have a thorough understanding of your products and services so they can answer customer questions.
  • Give employees leeway to meet customer needs. Does a vegetarian in your restaurant want a meatless meal? Be sure waiters know they can make substitutions.

Building Customer Relationships

  • Make sure your employees know that courtesy and friendliness are not enough. What customers really want is effective, efficient help.
  • Introduce your clients to your customer service representatives. Meeting a customer face-to-face instead of just on the phone can motivate employees.
  • Thank customers for their referrals. One real estate agent sends a fruit basket to clients who refer other home buyers or sellers to him.
  • Encourage employees to go the extra mile. One dry-cleaning employee couldn't find a customer's garment because it was missing the usual identification and price information. To make up for the inconvenience, she let the customer have the order free.
  • Don't lose the human touch. If most of your business is done via technology, you have to try even harder to make customers feel valued.

Building Your Referral Business

  • Referrals always begin with providing your current customers with prompt, reliable, quality service. They'll be happy to spread the word on your behalf-often without you having to ask.
  • Ask your current customers if they know of any colleagues who are looking for the kind of service you provide. Follow up with a call or letter to those businesses. Make sure you get your customer's permission to cite them as a referral source.
  • If a customer compliments you on your work, ask them to put it in writing for use as a testimonial in your marketing materials. Again, make sure you have their permission to use their name for that purpose.
  • Always acknowledge a customer's referral with a thank-you note or phone call. If you send a card, consider including a coupon to popular restaurant or discount on a future purchase.
  • Many retail and service businesses lend themselves well to formal referral incentive programs with cash, gifts, or discounts. Make sure these "rewards" fit in your budget, and that you have clear rules and guidelines (e.g., only one referral reward per customer during a defined period).

Enhancing Sales

  • Educate your customers. Entrepreneurs whose businesses are ahead of the curve need to help customers understand the value of their products or services.
  • Put prospect identification on the front burner. Keep developing sales leads and cultivating the people or organizations most likely to become your customers.
  • Make an offer the customer can't refuse. One professional association offered $250 off on next year's annual conference if members signed up and paid now. Only $50 was not returnable if the member could not actually attend.
  • Don't give up. Persistence pays off-as long as it's friendly and helpful and not overbearing.
  • Show customers that you are an asset to them. Prove that you can improve their businesses or enhance their lives.

Superior Customer Service

  • Educate your customers about your products and services. If you own a hobby shop, you can keep customers coming back by helping them develop knowledge of their own hobbies.
  • Make sure items are delivered in good condition. Call the customer after delivery and if a piece is not right, offer to fix it or replace it.
  • Offer your customers personal attention, even if they don't buy anything. Engage them in pleasant conversation and find out why they're not buying. Make use of what you learn.
  • Go out of your way to meet customer needs. One interior designer got draperies made for a client in a hurry so they would be ready for an at-home wedding.
  • Show appreciation. Make sure employees always thank customers for their business. Consider sending occasional handwritten thank-you notes.

Ways to Sell Your Products or Services

  • Try direct mail. Buying or renting a good mailing list helps you reach the people most interested in your product.
  • Partner with another business and sell each other's products or services. If you're a caterer, for example, join forces with a wedding planner.
  • Use your Web site as a marketing tool. Sell items directly on the site or use the site to educate customers about your product or service.
  • Test coupons-in the Yellow Pages , in your local newspaper, or on your web site. Or, participate in a cooperative direct mail program like those offered by Val-Pak, Carol Wright, and other advertisers.
  • Offer a seminar and use it to sell-such as a cooking class if you make food products, or a meeting on long-term care insurance if you are a financial planner.

Make Customers Come to You

  • Determine who your customers are, and what their wants or needs are. Know how your product or service satisfies their wants or needs.
  • Instill and practice the concept of continuous quality improvement and quality customer service as a way of life in your business.
  • Make sure you select the proper medium to carry out your message, and choose the proper location within that medium.
  • Direct your message to where your prospects are listening, viewing or reading.
  • Create a forum or place of business that is unique is some way. Make customers feel different while they are doing business with you.
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