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Discover what your customers really want

Understanding ones' customer needs are at the centre of every successful business. 

Secrets of low-cost marketing

Get to know your customers

Understanding a customer's needs is at the centre of every successful business. You will not be able to persuade customers to buy your products or services unless you can show them that it will benefit them. Knowing what customers need is the first step towards effective sales and marketing.

Things you can do today:

  • Decide what customer information will help your business maximise profits.
  • Consider how you will collect this information.

Short term actions

Gather customer information - There are several things companies should know about their existing and potential customers.

1. Who they are. If you sell to individuals, find out their gender, age and occupation. If you sell to other businesses, find out the size and type.

2. What they do. What are your individual customers' occupations and interests?

3. What are your business customers' aims and values?

4. Why they buy. This will help you match customer needs to the benefits your business can offer.

5. When they buy. Approach a customer at the time they usually buy and it's likely you'll make a sale. This can be crucial with companies/organisations who go out to tender for fixed-term contracts. Is no good wasting time trying to sell to a company or organisation goods or services, when it has just entered into a new three-year contract for the supply of those goods or services from one of your competitors. Better to find out their timescales for publicising their next relevant tender opportunity, where and how it is published and find out about any likely opportunities for lower value contracts.

6. How they buy. Do your customers buy online, face-to-face or through mail order? Do they have a preferred supplier list? If so, find out how your company can be added to that list.

7. How much money they have. Find out an individual customer's salary bracket or a business customer's budget. Prepare to be flexible and think about adjusting the pricing of your products or services to what they can afford. With packaged services, this is sometimes easier because your potential customer may not want all the services that you would normally supply in one of your standard bundles. Therefore think about adapting the content of these bundles to meet your customer's specific needs.

8. What makes them feel good about buying. This will help you improve the shopping experience or make it easier for customers to do business with you.

9. What they expect from you. This will ensure you deliver the service customers expect. What they think of you. Knowing what aspects of your service work well and where problems lie will help you improve your offer. Don't underestimate the importance of customer service if you wish to do repeat business and retain new and existing clients. Severe damage can be done in this day and age to a company's reputation and therefore market share through bad or even indifferent customer service. It only takes seconds to post a disparaging tweet about your company and a few hours for this to go viral.

10. What they think of your competitors. This will give you a better chance of staying ahead of your rivals.

Collect the information

How you collect customer information will depend on the size of your business, the type of customer you sell to and the sales channels you use. If you sell to individuals, you might collect information via:

  • Your online shop. Businesses with an online shop can ask customers to enter and maintain their details when they buy.
  • Surveys. These might be conducted online, over the telephone or face-to-face. Larger businesses may well outsource market research to a specialist agency, whereas smaller businesses might find simply a quick phone call to their customers sufficient for their purposes.
  • Focus groups. Holding a focus group will allow you to explore customer attitudes to your business as a whole or individual products or services in more detail. But unlike on some of the tasks broadcast on The Apprentice, do take note of what they say, otherwise not only will you have wasted your's and their time, you could end up flogging a dead horse.
  • Sales records. These will show you what, when and how customers buy and how much they tend to spend.

If you sell to other businesses, you might collect information via:

  • Company websites, reports or literature. These should provide plenty of information about a company's size, type, its global position, the markets it operates in, as well as its forward strategy and its actual customer base.
  • Your local business reference library. This may prove a useful resource when researching other businesses.
  • Your key contact. Your key contact will be able to tell you more about their company's culture, values and budget.
  • Your trade association. This will have information about your market sector and useful trade publications.
  • Business magazines and the business pages of newspapers. Keep an eye out for reports about companies you do business with and those you might like to deal with in the future.
  • Exhibitions and local networking events.
  • Accounts and invoices. These will show you what services you have provided, how much your clients have spent and how promptly they have paid.

Top tips for gathering customer information:

  • Choose your moment. Don't ask customers for personal information the instant they land on your website. Leave questions until customers have decided to make a purchase and they are likely to be more open. When conducting a telephone survey, make sure it's a convenient time for the customer or make arrangements to call again. If you do undertake surveys make sure you keep your lists up to date. There is nothing more annoying to a customer than to get a call from a company about completing a survey and then to receive another call from the same company a couple of weeks or even days later, especially when they have already advised they have no interest in participating.
  • Offer an incentive. A free gift, voucher or entry into a prize draw will encourage customers to complete a survey.
  • Keep surveys short. Many telephone surveys take up too much time because they are not focusing on a particular product/range of products or brands. Decide what customer information will really help your business and focus your questions accordingly. If a customer asks how long the survey is going to take be honest. Don't say 10 minutes if you know it will take 15 or 20 minutes. Besides which if it does take 15 or 20 minutes it's too long!
  • Phrase your questions carefully. Questions that encourage 'yes' or 'no' answers will not give you the insights you need into customers' buying habits and their perceptions of your business. Prepare open-ended questions using simple informal language.
  • Make questions interesting. If a customer is enjoying a survey, they're more likely to stick with it.
  • Keep research impartial. Avoid leading questions, smiling at the 'right' answer, or voicing agreement when a customer is telling you what you want to hear.
  • Be realistic. Analyse data as a whole, not just the results that are positive or confirm your personal opinions. Negative feedback will show you how your business can change and improve.
  • Comply with the Data Protection Act 1998. When collecting, storing or using personal information about potential and existing customers you must act according to the Data Protection Act 1998. The Information Commissioner's Office provides various guides for businesses on all aspects of the Act, which are essential reading.

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