So far we've looked at some fairly high level concepts in defining the company and the infrastructure you may need when setting up. It's now time to look at the single most important aspect in the life of your company: your customers. This article is the first in a 3 part foray into focusing on your customers - I've broken them down because this article would be far too long if I didn't.
This article will not guarantee success. It is not intended to replace all the hours that you are going to have to work in order to develop your client base, and it only deals with working with clients.
The dreaded M word
This may come as a surprise to you, but I actually have a lot of respect for marketing types. If you can get past the Dilbert cartoons and your preconceptions, you will find that marketing is actually based on well-tested and repeatable techniques. If you put your developer head to one side and start thinking as a company owner, you will find that you are about to enter a new and (hopefully) very profitable relationship with your customers; especially as your customers probably don't share the IT bias towards marketers.
First of all, let's think about what role marketing is going to take with your company. Hopefully, by now, you've been thinking about what type of products you are going to offer to clients. You've identified a couple of market segments where you have real experience and knowledge, and you want to focus on potential clients in that particular area. If you've done your research, then hopefully you've identified companies in your area that require the type of services you can offer them, and you're now ready to try to sell yourself to them. (By the way, if there's enough interest, then I will publish an article - or a blog post, on how to set about clarifying potential markets - do let me know.)
When you are starting out, you don't want to gain too many customers. It's vital that you don't over-commit yourself and take on more work than you can handle. Remember, it's better to have one satisfied client who leads onto another than to have ten upset clients. Upset clients will be a drain on your time, and can lead to a lot of sleepless nights. More importantly, as companies do network together, a bad reputation is almost impossible to recover from. Be honest and reliable in all your dealings with your clients. You want them to feel that you have committed yourself 110% to them, even if you haven't.
Now, while I say that marketing is important to you, I'm about to tell you something that would seem to contradict everything I've just said about marketing. Forget all the ways that you have experienced marketing from other companies. Don't think about taking about billboards, banner advertising, newspaper or magazine adverts. The simple reason that you want to forget about it is that you can't afford it. And forget about infomercials - it's not really suited for the type of customer that you will hope to attract (unless you've got a product to sell that is).
If you remember, from the first article, I stated that networking is vital - well, here's the point it comes into play. You need to approach your clients, and that's best done through networking. Find out where your potential clients go to network, who they hang out with, who they talk to, and what they want. This is the point where you actually need to talk to people. Talk to your local chamber of commerce and business clubs, and find out where the networking opportunities are. By the way, an increasingly popular networking method is the so-called Business Breakfast Club. A Business Breakfast Club is an early morning event where you network and swap referrals. The whole idea here is that you enlist the aid of others in telling companies about your company; specifically, if a member of the club is talking to a client and they find out that they need a service that your company provides, then they will pass on your details. The number one rule when networking is: "Take plenty of business cards".
Well, I've just mentioned your business cards - and you've got yourself some cracking spanky ones, what have you actually put on the card? Obviously, you've put your company name and address on, your fantastic new job title, and your flash company logo; but have you put your email address on? Yes? And what is the email address? At this stage, I'll recommend that you get yourself a proper company email address, and don't use it for anything other than company business. There are several reasons for this, but one of the most important ones is that you are going to get spammed like never before because you presumably have also created a website to go along with your cards, and spammers do like websites with contact details on. It's going to happen, so don't worry about it - just make sure that your friends and family have a different email address for you.
Now, a plea - please switch off any services that require email correspondents to prove they aren't spammers. Believe me when I say that potential customers don't like it. Also, use a spam filter that holds spam and doesn't delete it. There's nothing worse than deleting a potential customer's email just because your spam filter doesn't like it - after all, your potential client might actually be Mrs. Thelma Viagra; don't make assumptions. This does mean that you are going to have to actually look at the spam - fortunately, a lot of it is so obviously spam that you can delete it without a second look.
Your online voice - redux
In the first article, I talked about how your online voice is important. Now it's time to define what that actually means.
Well, the first thing to realise is that you are dealing with customers, so you need to make sure that the email cannot be considered offensive or unprofessional in any way. You are going to get emails that slag you, your company, and your products off. As a person, your first thought will be to fire off a scathing email that reduces the originator to tears and makes them want to apologise in person and clean your house for you from top to bottom. As a company owner, you can't afford to do this. If you want to drive them crazy, actually be nice to them. Thank them for their mail and promise to consider their criticisms. Alternatively, ignore them. If the abuse is personal, walk away.
Be cheerful and helpful in your emails. Focus on the issues at hand, and cover them briefly and professionally. I know this may seem like I'm telling you something that you already know, but it's worth covering again, your emails should be short, focused, and unambiguous. There's a knack to writing emails like this, and it's not easy, but it is important.
If you tell somebody you are going to do something, then email them to tell them what you said you were going to do. This gives the customer a chance to check what you have said, and gives you a bit of a cushion. If you've told a customer that you are going to do something and you do it, they have very little comeback if they decide it's not what they wanted after all. It's generally a good idea to give them a breathing space to consider before you actually proceed. A sentence along the lines of "... will commence on .... assuming that we have received no indication otherwise prior to this date."
Similarly, if you want something from a customer, let them know in an email. The "paper trail" is a very useful tool when negotiating scope and timescales.
If you do it right, emailing is a very powerful tool in running your business, but you must be wary of falling foul of laws regarding unsolicited emails. If in doubt, please consult a lawyer/solicitor. I'm no expert in these laws, so I'm not going to help here (plus, each country has its own laws). However, there are some commonsense things that you can do that are just good business.
First of all, if you are emailing customers, you must give them the option of opting out of emails. Remember, emailing isn't your only tool for talking to customers, so don't be too upset if they decide to opt out. It's all about letting the customer choose how you deal with them.
Secondly, provide real headers, descriptive subject lines, and your business details in the email.
A customer database is a useful tool, especially as you can use it to mail your customers with interesting (yes - make it interesting), relevant information. Letting your customers know about new services you are bringing online is a great way to get new business, especially as a satisfied customer is more likely to buy from you than from others. Make it hard for the competition - show your customers how your company meets their needs.
In a future article, I'd like to cover customer support, but I'd like to know if this is of interest to you. If it is, please leave comments to indicate this (or if it's not - that's fine as well).