1. Test the market early and often. Before you invest too much in a product or service, you need to find out if people actually want it. Seems obvious, but it’s amazing how often businesses skip this step. I was waiting at a traffic light the other day and I saw this yellow sign about a foot tall and two feet wide attached to the back of a street sign where I couldn’t miss it. It said in 3 inch high black letters “WE WASH HOUSES” and under that was an 800 number. I thought, now that’s a really efficient way to test whether there is demand for a service. Either people will call the 800 number or they won’t. For the price of printing up some signs and posting them, the business behind this venture will test the hypothesis that people want to hire someone to wash the outside of their houses.
2. Define an engagement funnel and refine it based on experience with customers. An engagement funnel is your hypothesis about the progression of interactions you will have with your customer culminating in a sale. The engagement funnel at the top (wide end) usually starts with your target customer/audience learning that your business exists, followed by some kind of first contact with the customer, and then through a series of interactions a complete process resulting in a sale. If you are a non-profit, perhaps the goal is a donation or an agreement to volunteer.
Ideally the customer gets something of value at each successive step. For example, suppose in our WE WASH HOUSES example, you learn from the initial test that many people are leery of hiring this kind of service through an 800 number without some kind of third party recommendation. Maybe then your engagement funnel includes the offer to send the caller an email with links to reviews by satisfied customers in the neighborhood. Maybe this is followed by a link to schedule the service. The business gets the email address of a “qualified” lead and the customer gets reassurance or at least enough information to make an informed decision.
3. Design your website to facilitate progress through the engagement funnel. The vast majority of small business websites are glorified business cards which do nothing to engage with the customer. Frankly, some of the big business websites aren’t much better. Your website should make engagement between you and your customers easier for both of you. It should make it easy for customers to get value from you at each engagement step.
What problem is the customer trying to solve? What phrase might they “google” in trying to solve that problem? Experiment with content on your website that speaks to that problem. If you are selling dehumidifiers for example, the customer’s definition of the problem might start with “I have a damp basement.” Taking the WE WASH HOUSES example, the customer may start with looking for ways to deal with “green moss on my vinyl siding.” Use your website to further test and refine your engagement funnel. Different types of customers will engage in different ways – repeat customers being the obvious example.
4. Stand behind your product or service. A great customer experience is almost always your best marketing tool. You can’t always get it right, of course. The good news is that even if you have occasional problems in your service delivery, people will happily tell their friends about how well you responded to a problem they had with your service. Sometimes your most loyal customers are those who had a complaint that you responded to with spectacular speed, generosity, and cheerfulness. It’s when things don’t go smoothly that your response creates your reputation. Companies like LL Bean that will replace almost anything that wears out have done the math and know that keeping customers satisfied and keeping them talking about that satisfaction is one of the most cost-effective marketing strategies yet invented.