Want More Customers? Think Like a Startup.

Ask almost any business owner, and they’ll be quick to recall the simultaneously exciting and painful process of starting a business.

I still remember my experience quite clearly. On one hand, industry-revolutionising ideas were flowing, rulebooks were being rewritten, and the magical feeling of being in control of our own destiny pervaded the atmosphere. On the other hand, bills were mounting up, savings were disappearing, and we were working long hours for little money.

Everything was done on a shoestring budget, which forced us to innovate, to do things ourselves, and to explore better and more cost-effective ways of reaching out to our target market.

After that startup phase is over, when money isn’t so tight and the novelty of being in business wears off, the temptation is to become a little relaxed and complacent. This is natural; no one can exist in the heightened state of stress that starting a business causes. But at the same time, there’s no reason why the culture of innovation, critical analysis and client focus can’t be carried through into the future.

My belief is that continuing to think about your business like it’s a startup will result in your business attracting more new clients and also help to retain more of your existing ones.

Here are three points you can use to guide your thinking:

1. Devise creative and low-cost ways for your target customers to find you

Conventional wisdom dictates that for a business to increase its client base, it must advertise. This line of thinking is encouraged by magazines, Google AdWords, radio, TV and newspapers, who survive and thrive by pushing the premise that to attract customers, you must spend money. While this is part of the solution for many businesses, it should never be the only activities you undertake.

What do startups do to reach their target market at little cost? Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Proactively ask customers or people in your network to refer others to you;
  • Develop your network by attending industry events and trade shows;
  • Use LinkedIn to keep in contact with people in your network;
  • Post regularly in online forums relevant to your product or service;
  • Develop an email database and send regular newsletters with useful content;
  • List your business on Google Local;
  • Create a loyalty scheme;
  • Do something interesting (think charity, stunts, or events) and invite the media to cover it;
  • Do a joint promotion with a related business.

2. Give prospective customers a compelling reason to buy from you

As a business owner, you should never get comfortable with the product or service you are offering. You should be constantly analysing it in relation to your competitors’ offerings and the changing needs/wants of your target market, and refining your offer accordingly, just like a startup in the initial product/service development cycle.

One of my clients is a prime example of this; after entering an industry where innovation was slow and competitors were complacent, they gained considerable market share in a short space of time by releasing a range of products that did a better job than the incumbents at a lower price. But did they stop there, take a deep breath and sail off to the Caribbean? Hell no – to this day they constantly innovate, bringing out better and better products every year. They also negotiate ever-sharper prices with their suppliers to bring the cost of their product down even further, and they meticulously pull apart and research their competitors’ offerings to work out how to stay ahead. They’re now becoming one of the leaders in their industry and their competitors are chasing their tail trying to stem the flow of lost sales.

A business owner should always be answering and re-answering these questions:

  • Do my sales channels make it easy for customers to buy from me?
  • Why do my customers buy from me rather than my competitors? How do I exploit this knowledge to attract more clients?
  • What can I do to make my products or services even more attractive?
  • What are my competitors doing to improve their offering? How can I match or better that?

3. Give existing customers a compelling reason to keep buying from you

Once a startup business has customers on board, they will generally fight tooth and nail to keep them. They treat their customers like royalty, because customers pay the bills and for most startups that’s the hardest thing to do.

But as business grows and becomes more comfortable, the temptation is to treat clients less like royalty and more like commodities. What used to be an absolute client focus becomes just another day, and as a result engagement often suffers.

To avoid this happening in your business, consider the following:

  • Through the sales process am I showing my customers enough love?
  • If there is an issue with a customer’s experience with my product or service, do I act quickly to resolve it?
  • Is it easy for customers to contact me to give feedback?
  • Do I follow up sales with regular contacts to keep customers interested and my brand top of mind?

Thinking (and acting) like a startup takes effort – but if like many businesses you would like more customers, the effort will be well worth it.

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