Author: WV SBDC Subject Matter Expert Josh Cook
The act of starting a new business, creating a product, or inventing a solution is an act of courage! After putting in hundreds or thousands of hours and dollars and sweat equity in a project, you’ve risked a lot but aren’t sure if a critical measure can be met: will it sell? Here are five tried and true tips for how to attract customers and keep them based on my experience starting businesses, running businesses, and advising businesses for the WV Small Business Development Center.
Research your customer needs
I studied anthropology in grad school, a field that somewhat surprisingly was a great preparation for starting companies. Why? Because the primary method for anthropologists to collect ‘data’ is to observe people, talk to people, spend time understanding what’s important to them, how they live their lives, and how they structure their motivations and thinking.
This is called ethnography. And this is what smart business founders learn when they are advised by lean-startup advocates, accelerator programs, and other founders: know your customer. Spend time talking with the people you imagine selling a product to. Collect opinions, thoughts, observations, and habits. Sometimes customer feedback on an idea or a prototype points to obvious alterations or pathways for your product development.
The people who help inform your creative process will often be happy and loyal early customers.
Create products that are essential
While you’re doing your customer research, you’re ultimately putting your finger on something called product-market fit. Is the product you’re creating a good fit for the (hopefully large) group of customers that might need it? Is it the product your customers are looking for or is there a mismatch that leaves your potential customers searching for alternatives?
Sometimes customers communicate during the research phase in a nuanced way that indicates where there is an opportunity to solve a problem you didn’t even consider solving. Being flexible during your product development stage and listening empathetically to customer needs will help you design the products that fit the market you will be selling in.
When your products are viewed as essential for solving a problem, you will attract customers.
Design a brand that communicates your capabilities
Branding is often misunderstood. A brand isn’t a logo. It isn’t a slogan. It isn’t a business card. Branding is a consistent series of intentional actions that exemplify your mission. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Showing this over and over again builds your brand. You become known for what you do and why.
The visual elements of your communications should reflect your mission. Are you aligning your logo, slogan, business cards, website, and social media to consistently communicate what’s important to your brand and customers? Are you showing the world what you’re all about?
Customers are savvy but also overloaded with options, so the better you broadcast your brand’s mission, the more likely they will recognize you, trust you, and buy from you again and again.
Link arms with partners
Your business and your customers don’t exist in a vacuum. No matter what you sell, your customers are fitting your offerings into a constellation of products and services they use to meet their needs.
Consider what other businesses are appealing to your same customers. Is there a way to partner with them for logistics or marketing purposes? Can you sell in the same location? Can you share an advertising campaign? Can you mention each other on social media?
Building off the reputations of established and aligned partners can help you reach new customers and build trust with them.
Finally, what might be the most obvious piece of advice for new businesses is to deliver your products or services effectively. Be known for reliability. Be known for getting it done. Be known for coming through.
When it’s impossible to deliver the results you promise, be known for making it right. Customer service is easier than it sometimes seems. Lean on that empathy you established with your customers. They have a problem and they want to use what you sell to solve it. If it’s impossible to deliver on that, then recognize that they still have a problem and help them solve it. Maybe a sincere apology is sufficient, or a refund is necessary. Look out for their needs.
When your customers trust your business to execute effectively, or make it right otherwise, they will see that you are worthy of their time, money, and loyalty.
About the author:
Josh Cook grew up in Wheeling, West Virginia. He graduated from The Linsly School in 2004 and largely due to The West Wing, went to Georgetown University in Washington, DC to study international affairs at the School of Foreign Service. After graduating, Josh worked on the presidential campaign of Barack Obama as a Community Organizing Fellow in Denver, Colorado, and then went to graduate school at the London School of Economics & Political Science where her studied cognitive anthropology.
After years working outside of The Mountain State, and wearing every hat a startup founder must wear, the hills of West Virginia called Josh home again. He worked as an economic development Research Fellow for West Virginia Forward at West Virginia University, helping advance projects in the state related to entrepreneurship, investment, and high tech sector development.
Now, Josh is developing a new venture called The Factory that aims to meet the needs of an emerging cohort of remote workers across the country seeking a new place to call home, grow businesses, and create social and economic value.
Learn about the WV SBDC CARES Business Recovery Project and how to access SMEs here.