Know the SCORE
Q: What is the one thing that I can do right now to help my struggling small business? – Chris
A: An old friend of mine had a hard time getting work after graduating from architecture school, and he quickly realized that he had to start his own business. It was not his first choice mind you; he really wanted to go to work for another architect, learn the ropes, and maybe start his own firm down the road.
But then, like now, was a time of economic uncertainty and he had little choice. So, armed with little more than a graduate degree, a lot of gumption, and a little money, he became an unwilling entrepreneur. But smartly, he knew what he didn't know, namely business, and he set about fixing that.
The first thing he did was set up a meeting with a SCORE counselor. SCORE, if you don't know, is a great organization – sort of a Peace Corps of entrepreneurs who freely give of their time and expertise to those who seek their help. The SCORE counselor gave my pal some words of wisdom that worked for him for years and I too have now adopted this business motto:
"Ask them what they want then give them what they want."
Deceptively simple, astute and accurate, these words are great advice for anyone in business a long time or a short time. Do you know what your customers want? You might think you do, but thinking and knowing can be the difference between success and failure. Polaroid invented instant pictures but never caught the digital camera wave. Thinking that customers would be content to continue to shake a picture for two minutes when pictures became truly instant sunk Polaroid.
So go ahead, ask you customers what they want! There are all sorts of ways, from the simple to the complex, to accomplish this:
1. Ask them: Those customers whom you know well are great for the one-on-one chat. What do they like about your business? What don't they like? What feedback do they have for you? How could you improve?
2. Have them fill out a questionnaire: Either at your store or via email, offer your customers a questionnaire. Drill down. Do they like low prices, great selection, both, neither? By giving them an incentive for filling out and returning the questionnaire (a freebie, a discount, something) you will increase your response rate.
3. Hire a telemarketing company: I bet most of us have by now experienced the follow-up phone call by a marketing firm asking about our last experience at the bank, department store, etc. It would not be expensive to hire a firm (or your teen daughter's friends) to call a selected group of your customers and get their feedback on your business.
Even better: Expand your list and get the feedback of people who are no longer your customers. Why did they leave? Is there anything you could have done to keep them around? You get the idea. This would, I bet, be even more valuable information.
Whatever route you take, this gathering of information project should yield you some very useful and tangible results. But remember – it is only the first step of a two-step dance. Step two is implementing what you have learned. Finding out what they want is all well and good, but the great businesses take this sort of market research and craft products, plans, prices and projects designed to give the people what they want.
So, if the question is – what can you do right now to make a difference – then I suggest that the answer is as simple as listening to your customers, finding out what it is you do and offer that they consider to be exceptional, and then doubling down on that.
Today's tip: When analyzing what works, don't fail to crunch your numbers. Do you have an exceptionally popular web page? That's a hint about something you are doing right. What about a popular product or location? Your books should be a great source for market and customer feedback.
© 2010 Steven D. Strauss, www.MrAllBiz.com