Finding the first loyal customers

  • Columns
  • Monday, 07 Dec 2015

Creating individual personal connections with your customers is important. —

When you’re just starting out, focus on what customers care about most. Next, make sure to set realistic expectations and then exceed them, preferably in helpful and unexpected ways.

Q: I’ve established a residential design firm here in Canada, and while I’ve completed some very small jobs for clients, word-of-mouth advertising does not seem to be creating many potential clients. Lately the jobs are few and far between. Potential leads seem hesitant to pay for the services that my competitors and I provide, and often just choose the cheapest option (which limits the best possible outcome for them).

How do I reach out to and find those first “real” customers? I have advertised on social media and other platforms that I can afford. I don’t want to just keep waiting and hoping that I will succeed, but potential leads are drying up faster than I can find more. — Ben Schindel, Canada

Ben, congratulations on your success thus far at launching your business. The sector you have chosen sounds like a challenging one to break into, and this may be a good time for you to step back and plan out how to take your enterprise to the next level. The first thing to do is put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Often, when companies are racing to make a profit, clients’ needs are overlooked.

If you focus on what potential customers care about most, it will be much easier to find an edge: Perhaps working with you will actually take fewer hours of work on the customer’s part than if they bought an off-the-shelf design for a house, or you include landscaping, interior design or other services that your competitors do not. Back in the 1980s, when people were wondering whether our airline, Virgin Atlantic, would survive, critics often declared that people would never want to fly across the Atlantic on an airline called “Virgin.” Our response: Since we only had one Boeing 747, a small number of passengers would suit us fine!

And then we were able to provide those passengers with a level of attention that our competitors couldn’t be bothered to — limousine service to and from the airport and in-flight entertainment that made their journeys much more relaxing and enjoyable. Our small group of customers was quite loyal, and we soon found ourselves competing with the major airlines. The key is to set realistic expectations, then exceed them, preferably in unexpected and helpful ways.

Many companies that conduct customer surveys after a sale ask the question: “Did we meet your expectations?” If the response is “yes,” the company concludes that it has done a good job.

But this might not necessarily be true: A customer might have had a previous bad experience, and thus expected lousy service.

The fact that your potential clients are choosing the cheaper option may show that they are unaware of the benefits of hiring a design firm. Is this one of the hurdles you face? If that’s the case, it’s important that you show them why your solution is the best one.

Focusing on social media is wise in this situation — creating individual personal connections online can be just as valuable as advertising, or even more valuable, allowing you further opportunities to make your case.

But when you’re making a pitch, you can’t beat talking to people in person. Those potential leads you mentioned? If they haven’t returned your calls or gotten in touch, turn up at their offices, and don’t take no for an answer.

Once you are face-to-face with someone, they are likely to give you a couple of minutes to make your case. If it takes longer than that, your pitch probably isn’t ready. Just make sure you tailor it to your customer, and ensure that it relates to them personally. Go the extra mile for them.

It’s also important to get your name out there to attract prospective clients. We relied on smart promotions to get the Virgin name in the news: I leapt at every opportunity, from trying to break the record for flying a hot air balloon around the world in the shortest time to starring in an American Express commercial, where I used my credit card to fuel up my vehicle — our 747!

The ad put a smile on people’s faces, and helped put us on the map.

When we launched our new Virgin America route from San Francisco to Hawaii recently, I drew attention to it when I wandered through the airport terminal (along with some brilliant Hawaiian dancers and singers) and searched for passengers who may have been headed for some not-so-exotic destinations on business trips.

I surprised them by handing out free tickets to Honolulu. This created a lot of goodwill, and made the day — maybe even the year — for a few people. It was great to see one of the recipients share his experiences on his blog, recommending that his followers fly with us too.

Attracting customers is the biggest challenge that any new business will face, but once you’ve established a loyal base of users, your business will soar. — Distributed by The New York Times SyndicateQuestions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to Please include your name, country, e-mail address and the name of the website or publication where you read the column.

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