Q: What attributes define the “ideal” customer?
It’s obviously someone who can afford your product and service, but it’s also someone who will derive value and benefit from your product and service. You don’t have to “sell” these customers; they come to you because they can see the benefits and understand how what you offer will improve their lives.
Q: Are there specific things these “ideal” customers look for in the small businesses they use?
For whatever reason, many businesspeople assume that they need to be a low-price provider. As a small business, you have the opportunity to be a whole-value provider. Price is still important, of course, but value typically trumps price. If there’s a relationship with the owner—trust and assurance that you can do the job for them—they may well be willing to pay a little more.
Q: What are some things you can do to help improve your visibility and attractiveness to new customers?
Social networking and online presence play a big role here. Gather testimonials from satisfied customers that you can use both in print and online. Also, ask customers to “like” you on Facebook, endorse you on LinkedIn, and post positive reviews on review sites such as Yelp. I’ve seen studies that show that, depending on the purchase, between 55% and 90% of consumers will research a product and/or company online, so legitimate reviews are important.
Q: Your best customers can also be your best advocates. What are some keys to enlisting their help in getting more customers just like them?
Asking a general question like “do you know of anyone who might need my product or service?” puts you in a position of weakness, and can make your customer feel uncomfortable. Instead, do a little research about your customer’s connections—who might they know. Then, tell them that while you’re not looking to add a lot of clients, you notice from their LinkedIn profile that they know Mr. or Ms. X. Ask if they know them well and if so, might they need the kind of product or service you offer? If the customer says yes, then ask if they’ll introduce you.
Q: Say a large-volume customer has a fault—late paying invoices, picky about your work, etc. Should you simply put up with the problem, try to change his/her behavior, or “fire” them and work on landing other, hopefully better customers?
It will always depend on the situation, but there are ways to address them. But “firing” customers is pretty extreme. You don’t want to burn a bridge. It may be better to ease out and offer to help the customer find someone who is a better fit. You don’t want to add to their problem; you want to be part of the solution. Often, when I’ve taken this approach, clients have apologized and owned up to their issues, then asked what can be done to make things right. This shifts the relationship and, often, preserves it.
Q: Not everyone is comfortable with the “sales” part of owning a small business. What are some ways to make it less of a necessary evil and perhaps even enjoyable?
Shift your mindset. Again, you’re trying to make the customer’s life better. So when a customer walks in, ask them about their needs or problems, and talk about ways to improve things. You’re not “selling” then; you’re just asking questions and sharing experiences on how you have helped others in similar situations. You go from salesperson to relevant storyteller.
Q: With so much business communication done online today, has the importance of telephone and face-to-face interaction decreased?
Sixty percent of communication is non-verbal, 20 percent is tone of voice; that means only 20 percent is actual content. So if you’re doing email only, you’re losing 80 percent of your communication. Now for job-related things, status updates, and so forth, that’s usually OK. But these days, a phone call is a good idea once a person becomes a client. Just make sure it’s relevant; think about how busy you are, and what you want don’t want to hear in a voice message.
Q: The benefits of working with SCORE mentors is well-known to new entrepreneurs. Can owners of existing small businesses benefit as well?
Absolutely. When you meet with a mentor who's been through the same or similar challenges in business, he or she will share a wealth of information, ideas, and connections. Their experience can help the owner of an existing business solve a problem or tackle new goals. You can learn a lot when you listen to what made others successful, and the mistakes they’ve made. Plus, a SCORE volunteer has most likely also worked with dozens or even hundreds of entrepreneurs and small business owners, and they can share lessons from those experiences as well.
Q: Are there other advantages to working with SCORE that may be less obvious to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Never be ashamed or afraid to ask about mistakes. Your mentor is there to share information. And your questions don’t have to be only business-related. You can ask about things like keeping your life in balance, or time management for your family. Your mentor may come back with ideas, or personal experience—both what they did, and wish they had done.
Q: Sales is one aspect that most every small business has in common. What one bit of advice applies to every business owner?
You’re an expert in what you want to say—your company, your products, your benefits, etc. But what’s more important is what your customers want to hear—their issues, their opportunities, and what they are hoping to solve. Where these two areas overlap is what makes you relevant, and it’s only then that the sale occurs.
Do your homework. Ask great questions. When you can marry what you want to say with what they want to hear, you’ll find that you’re not “selling” anything. You’re just getting lots of buyers.
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