I was sad to see the other day that cop.copine had closed* on Upper Street. It used to be one of my favourite French boutiques. Its rue Rambuteau store in Paris is definitely one of my ex’s orientation landmarks for the city. Poor boy.
But I felt partly responsible for that store closure. Because, although I loved the clothing, I never once bought anything. Not one thing. Back in the days when I lived in Paris, I was too poor to afford their clothes. Then by the time I could afford them, there were newer, more exciting brands on the market. I forgot all about their existence. I’m such a terrible customer. I’ll worship many beautiful things, but always from afar. I rarely purchase. I even get my books from the library…
All of which made me think about the inherent challenge in attracting and retaining customers. Although I believe that it’s an art rather than a science, with a hefty dose of luck involved, there are some fundamentals that you should focus on when building out your business from idea to reality.
1. who’s buying?
Who is your customer? No, really, I mean it: who is your customer? I’ll ask you again: WHO. IS. YOUR. CUSTOMER???
Don’t give me that “universal demographic”, “oh, it can appeal to everyone” b.s. The bottom line is that we, the consumer, have more choice than we know how to deal with. And I speak on behalf of all of us when I say we are totally overwhelmed.
So you’d better be specific about who you’re targeting. And get to know them. Intimately. What do they buy now? Where do they buy it? How do they transact? What’s their average spend and how often do they purchase? What are their likes, dislikes, habits and foibles? What are they saying about your competitors?
Sure, your product or service may have broad appeal, but in start-up nirvana biggest-bang-for-your-buck terms, your best bet is to target a niche demographic where you can pretty much guarantee take-up of your product.
If you’ve followed the Lean Startup Machine process, then you’ll already have drilled down to find your ideal customer. If not, then I suggest that you use some of the LSM techniques to engage with your target customers and check that your product or service turns them on.
In VC-world (and yes, I’m singing it in the style of the PC World jingle), when those capitalists look at a fledgling business to see if it’s worth investing in, one of the key things they’re looking for is evidence of customer stickiness.
How much repeat business do you generate? How loyal is your customer base? Do you get recommendations from existing customers? How engaged are your customers with your brand?
Their reasoning? It’s generally much harder to attract new customers than to keep those you’ve got. This particularly applies where you’ve been first to market for a product. If you have retained customers when rivals have surfaced, that demonstrates the strength of your brand/product and makes a good case for the long-term viability of your business.
So how do you keep your customers sweet? Think of it in relationship terms. You have to work to keep the spark alive. Don’t become complacent or neglectful: reward loyalty, do a little something special for those who have been with you for the longhaul. If you do something wrong, apologise and make it up to them. Above all, keep talking to them. Don’t be one of those couples in a restaurant who sit there in silence praying for the food to arrive, to give them something to do. Have a deep and meaningful conversation with them from time to time to make sure that their dreams, hopes and aspirations match yours.
3. don’t believe your own hype.
You may be hotter than Felix Baumgartner’s space pants, but you are only there because of your customers. By all means, be enamoured of your product or service – if you’ve created something amazing then you can rightly be proud of your achievement. But beware of being sucked in by your own marketing spiel. Try to stay a little bit humble. No-one likes a boaster.
Humility and integrity are difficult traits to find nowadays. Life seems to encourage bragging and brashness. I think this will shift as people grow tired of all the empty shouting. I believe that businesses that stay true to their values have more staying power. This is not to be confused with staying static in the market – over your business lifetime, you will doubtless have to be flexible, to change your product in line with the shifting needs of its audience – but what you stand for shouldn’t change.
So before you get swept away on the tide of marketing and sales, give some thought to what your business stands for. Think about those brands in your space that stand out for you and identify what it is that their brand captures. Before any big decision, ask yourself “is this really us? Is this what we do? Is this what we stand for?”
4. make your customers work for you
I feel as though social media has brought us right back around to the days where everyone lived in small villages and knew everyone else’s business. The means of sharing, gossiping, reviewing and influencing may have moved on from over the fence, but the effect is the same: the success of your business depends on what your customers do and say about you.
Those who see this as a modern facebook and twitter-driven phenomenon are missing the point. It has always been this way. The only difference now is the scale and speed at which opinion spreads.
If you’ve targeted the right customers, then they will be so excited about your product that they will spread the word for you. Harness that collective energy and you have the most effective sales team you could hope for. Apple may be the masters of the universe at this in modern terms, but Avon built its entire 120 year old business on the back of peer-to-peer sales.
So actively encourage your customers to talk about you. Offer discounts or value-adds for referrals. If they say nice things, thank them with rewards (or an old-fashioned “thank you” will do). If they are less than complimentary, find out why, apologise and use the feedback to do better next time. They are your people. Put them to work for you.
*I was wrong! It had only closed for a refurb and to change from a full range to a diffusion collection. Interesting pivot for their business. I still can’t afford any of their clothes though…