We’re at Step 7 of the HostGator Home Business Guide, and today’s post is about the fine art of listening to your prospective customers. Listening is a tried-and-true technique for success. Business guru Richard Branson, who is a big fan of careful listening to customers, advises, “You can never have enough feedback.” Listening is important even before you launch your first product or start promoting your business, because customers will tell you what they want and how they want it.
What are you listening for?
The first thing to listen for is demand. Let’s say you’re a baker and you know that gluten-free products are popular and sell for more than traditional baked goods. Before you roll out (thank you!) a gluten-free product line, listen to gluten-free shoppers in your area. Do they want sandwich loaves a couple of times a week, or are they more interested in the occasional birthday cake? Is there enough demand to sustain your business locally?
Next, listen for what potential customers are willing to pay. If they’re not talking about it, you can ask. You may find that prospective buyers aren’t willing to pay a sustainable price for your offerings, or you may find that your planned prices are too low and you can raise them to grow your business without losing customers.
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Listen to your ideal customers
Listen to people who match your customer personas when you’re making business decisions. Your friends and relatives may be supportive but unless they’re in your target market, their input may not be helpful. I’ve seen small business owners underprice their services because they listened to their peers—often other cash-strapped new business owners—instead of their target market of high-income households or medium to large businesses. What might seem overpriced to your uncle might be a worthwhile expense to your ideal customer, although they’ll probably buy it at your lower rate, too. You just won’t earn as much profit for your efforts.
Where to listen to your customers
If you already know people in your target market, ask if you can pick their brains. In Step 6 we talked about finding the social networks where your customer personas spend time, and now it’s time to listen to their social media conversations. There are many social listening tech tools to help businesses automate and refine their social listening programs, but for most solopreneurs and brand-new businesses, the most cost- and time-effective social listening method is to do it yourself.
Are there blogs your ideal customers follow? You can follow them, too, and pay attention to the comments. Join in if you have questions or ideas to bounce off commenters, but avoid thread hijacking and self-promotion. Remember that social media is more than just Facebook and Twitter. Your target customers may be following makeup-tutorial channels on YouTube or joining computer-industry discussion groups on LinkedIn. They may review hotels on travel sites or bakeries on Yelp. In fact, reviews of businesses similar to yours, even if they’re not direct competitors, can help you see what customers want from a business like yours.
Give potential and existing customers many ways to talk directly with you, too. Make your phone number and email address easy to find on your website and social media channels, and if your business website includes a blog be sure to respond to comments regularly. Follow up with people, thank them for taking the time to share their opinions with you, and make the most of what they say.
How to really listen to your customers
To get the most value from listening to your customers, get familiar with active listening and start learning to spot and avoid confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is how psychologists describe the human tendency to place more value on information that supports our assumptions and give less credit to information that contradicts them. Confirmation bias can prevent you from really hearing your customers and can lead to bad decision-making in other areas of your business, too. All of us have this quirk, and even business titans like Warren Buffett have to work against it by consciously seeking out, and really listening to, viewpoints and opinions that don’t match theirs.
What does it look like when this bias plays out? Here’s an example.
A retreat organizer loves everything about his venue—the food, the décor, the setting—because it reminds him of where his family took vacations when he was a kid. When retreat clients give positive feedback, it confirms his feelings for the place. When guests bring up problems, he’s likely to dismiss their complaints as minor or baseless because he’s biased toward seeing the retreat location in a very positive light. Both types of customer feedback could help him improve his business, but he’s only really listening to the positives.
Knowing that confirmation bias exists can help you combat it and make better decisions. Another bias-buster is active listening. It’s used by everyone from couples’ counselors to customer service trainers, and you can use it, too. These are the steps:
- Listen to your customers without interrupting and without forming a response in your head while they’re talking (or while you’re reading their email).
- Respond by outlining what you heard them say in neutral terms or in ways that reflect the customers’ feelings. You don’t have to agree or disagree right now.
- Listen to any additional feedback from the customers and make sure you understand what they’re really saying. It’s a good idea to thank them for their input, too.
Active listening takes some reactivity and bias out of the conversation so you can use your customers’ input more effectively. It can also help you build customer loyalty.
When should you listen to your ideal customers?
Always. Remember, you can never have enough feedback.
What are we going to do with everything you learn from listening to your prospective customers? The next step is to develop or refine your MVP. That’s the minimum viable product that you’ll debut and then update over time, based on (you guessed it) listening to your customers. We’ll go into detail about your MVP in the next post for HostGator Home Business Guide.
Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelancer who enjoys writing about business development and marketing, e-commerce payments and fraud prevention, and travel.