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Recruiting early customers and how to get the most out of their feedback

By: Nic Haralambous

“Bootstrapping your idea” is a series of 6 articles by serial entrepreneur and LifeCheq client Nic Haralambous. Nic has to date started 8 separate businesses, including a social network, a campus newspaper, a retail fashion company and, at one point, a rock band. In this amusing and insightful series, written exclusively for LifeCheq, he shares the most important lessons he has taken away from both his successes and failures. A must-read for the aspirant entrepreneur, or anyone who wants to take their passion project to the next level.

Building a business involves more than simply creating a product. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the building of your product/app/technology is the very first teeny tiny step in a long line of much bigger and more difficult steps.

For the purpose of this article we’re going to focus on finding early customers who might consider buying the thing you’re selling. Once you’ve found them, it’s also pretty important that you listen to them and make sure that you understand which feedback is the best feedback to take on board.

I like to simplify my potential customers into three very basic types for early stage businesses:

  • The early adopter.
  • The evangelist.
  • The general consumer.

The Early Adopter

These customers are extremely important to the survival of your business. They are people who love to try new things, aren’t necessarily too price conscious but understand that they are very early into your business and are willing to play nice. If they get bad service or experience a problem or delay, they most likely won’t mind too much. The early adopter is often the most critical when things go wrong but can be extremely forgiving if you try to fix the issue and are transparent about the processes.

This customer will give you fantastic feedback, but we’ll get to that shortly.

The Evangelist

The evangelists will often emerge out of the three F’s – Friends, Family, Fools:

  • Friends – the people in your immediate circle and their friends.
  • Family – your family, your co-founder’s family and anyone they can tell about your product.
  • Fools – people who love to take risks on new products and don’t want to miss out on something.

Evangelist customers are so important to your product growing that many investors and advisors suggest you focus on finding these customers first and nurturing them until they become your best salespeople. Kevin Kelly is one of these people. He calls for entrepreneurs to seek out 1000 true fans and first wrote about this concept on his blog in 2008.

Here’s a great quote from the initial essay that Kelly wrote:

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.

I believe that not only are these your super fans but these are your evangelists. These people will talk about your product at every opportunity. They will insist that their partners come to the concert with them, they will buy your product as gifts for other people and try to grow your exposure and customer base for you and without any prompting. They believe in you, trust your product and want the world to know about it.

These 1000 true fans are absolutely the first goal you should be striving for.

In one of my early businesses called StudentWire – a news network for students – we tried to gain as many readers as we could to our website. This was a mistake because most students aren’t really interested in the news. If we had thought to gain 1000 true readers who came back every day and engaged with our community that network might have survived. Each university campus with a school of journalism has between 200 and 500 students studying media across all the different years and courses. If we had just focused on a handful of these campuses and gained only a couple of hundred readers on each campus we might have spiralled our readers out from the centre of our super fans or evangelists. If you have ever watched a movie about a university you know that students like to flex their brain muscles and debate a lot. Our super fans would have discussed the articles on StudentWire and spread the world.

We did not focus on 1000 quality readers who became our super fans. We tried to gain lots and lots of customers who showed a shallow interest in what we were doing. We failed because we didn’t find our 1000 true fans.

This is definitely a problem that early entrepreneurs face: grow your customer base quickly vs grow an authentic customer base of true fans who love you and want to scream it from the mountain tops.

I would take the true fans over the large customer base every time.

The General Customer

Every business needs customers. You can’t really test out the market on early adopters and evangelists because they are both different kinds of people. They are the kinds of people who like to try new things and love to love brands.

Businesses need general customers to survive and grow. These customers like what you are selling, are not overly excitable and don’t want to be the test-bunny for your business as you learn and grow. The general customer wants a good enough product at a good enough price with good enough customer service.

Once you have acquired your early adopters and evangelists it will become your job to acquire and retain the general customer and turn them into evangelists. That last part is key. You need to go above and beyond to make sure that through your incredible product and customer service you attempt to turn general customers who would usually just buy once, into returning customers who love your brand and talk about it at every turn.

At Nic Harry, my style company, our main unique selling proposition (USP) was our fantastic customer service. Statistically, it is easier to get more sales out of someone who has purchased from you at least once than it is to acquire an entirely new customer to buy from you the first time.

This indicates that you should do everything you can to retain the customers that you already have. Yes, of course you should acquire new customers too – this is the cycle of every business: acquire new customers and then work to retain them while acquiring new customers who you have to work to retain. Welcome to the world of entrepreneurship!

Listening to your customers

An important step in the action of acquiring new customers and retaining them is listening to them when they talk to you about your product.

At Nic Harry we had a time when our customers were constantly complaining about holes in their socks just above the heel. After a few weeks of receiving the same feedback, we decided that it wasn’t the customer who had a foot issue but the manufacturing of the sock that was the problem.

We changed the heel of our sock from a soft bamboo fiber to a stronger cotton fiber and that immediately resolved the problem. We heard our customers, investigated and then solved the problem. Once the problem was definitely solved we communicated this change on our website as an improved modification to the product and upsold existing customers to the new product.

Don’t let the crazy in

Customer feedback is a slippery slope. You can find yourself lost in weeks of product research, development and iteration because one customer that one time on that one email said that they got a rash from the product you sell.

You need to be able to distinguish between the crazy and the relevant. Sometimes they look very similar when they are complaining and absolutely irate, but you’ll start to learn.

Our basic customer service rules at Nic Harry make sure that we always put the customer at the centre of our business. If someone complains about a sock wearing too quickly, we apologise and send them a new pair and attach a discount to their package for a new sale.

Every complaint is a sale waiting to happen.

However, if that customer receives new pairs and complains again, then the chances are they are in the crazy group who are just trying to engage and complain because it’s what they like to do. We find that bored people complain a lot about very little. You’ll start to learn who your bored customers are.

It is for this reason that it’s important to set parameters for your customer support and customer feedback loops. Unless we are absolutely and unequivocally at fault repeatedly, then we won’t send you more than two free pairs of socks as replacements. I will call you, email you, whatsapp you and do everything I can to help you understand our position and the issue at hand, but I won’t continue to feed the crazy with product.

Sometimes customers are fantastic resources for feedback and it’s your job to put your ego aside and listen to the valuable input from a select few that do manage to break through the anger and noise to give you valuable insights into your business and product.

Do not become a customer-lead business. It’s impossible to please everyone all the time and if you are trying to listen to every customer and all of the feedback and then shift and change your product and roadmap, you are in serious trouble.

If the customer knew best about and for your business then they would have started your business, but they didn’t. At some point you have to acknowledge that it is your business and you are meant to be the expert.

Love your customers, listen to them, help them fit into your business but don’t let them overrun your business.

Tools to get started

Listening to your customers is essential but not simple. Here are some basic tools and tips to help you get the best feedback:

  • Conversio.com – if you are an ecommerce business then Conversio is your jam. The tool can automate star ratings, reviews and customer feedback. They send auto-generated emails after set periods of time and asks customers to engage with you and your product. Genius stuff.
  • Email – the absolute best way to get customer feedback is to ask for it. I often send out emails asking customers how their experience went and if we can do anything to improve.
  • Intercom.io – visitors to your website often want to talk to a human person. Intercom helps you do exactly that. They insert a little pop up in the bottom corner of your website so people can talk to you in real time. Invaluable insights.
  • Phone calls – we may think that phone calls are so last generation but a surprising number of customers seek out phone numbers and yes, actually make that call to talk to a real human.
  • Social Media – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are great places to follow conversations about your business, service and brand. Register and begin to engage in an authentic way. Remember, don’t be defensive. It’s better to listen and learn.
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