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Quick now, what is the most important thing that your business, product, or idea needs to be successful? What is that one thing without which you absolutely cannot advance? Are you thinking technology, quality, serviceability, capital? Certainly all of these elements are important to the inventor or startup. But one of the most fundamental and largely ignored needs for entrepreneurial success is customer contact.
You have heard the grim statistics: two per cent of all inventions make it to commercialization. Eighty per cent of new businesses fail within the first five years. In my experience, the single best way to increase the odds of success is customer contact. Talk to your customers or potential customers. Just get up, get out, and start asking questions!
Many entrepreneurs and inventors will try to bring the marketing element into their project by learning about and studying the current business jargon. In order to avoid this effort, let's debunk a few of the latest marketing buzzwords. Real-time Marketing, One-to-One Marketing, Web Marketing, Dialogue Marketing, Permission Marketing, and so on ad infinitum.
While each one has merits in its own applications, I prefer to search for and find the common denominators. What do they all have in common? The simple answer — customer contact. All of them contain methods, processes, technologies, and gimmicks for getting closer to the customer.
But these are systems largely designed for large-scale marketing efforts, and the startup or early stage business does not have the time or resources to get involved with such stuff. The good news is that it just takes some common sense to bring the voice of the customer close to your idea or product. Get out of your lab, get out of your office, and get out of your head. Get in front of your customers. Get a Reality Check.
The marketing effort at the critical early stages of business or product launch can be as simple as a series of feedback type questions, consistently applied at every level. Ask, "Can you get their personal reality check on your product". Ask questions involving price, quality, and distribution, etc., depending on your contact.
A few questions aimed at the right people can provide a roadmap to success. At the very least, it can save valuable resources by preventing mistakes. No matter at what stage you are — idea, design, test, launch, or even early stages of doing business — get out and contact your customers, and find out what they think about your product!
Recently I attended a convention in Atlanta with a client that is in the field test stage of development. We took our Chief Engineer along with us. It was hard to justify the expense of three people, but we decided that the "face time" was necessary. The payoff was in spades. Our chief engineer joined us in our efforts at raising capital and doing our public relations. His presence with our potential customers gave us credibility in the marketplace, but what we received was much more.
He learned by talking with our customers that our bootstrap method was entirely possible. He listened to their demands and needs. He reality checked his own thinking by getting in front of a number of customers and key industry people, and by listening to their analysis of our project. He became a true believer that "We can get there from here", even without huge rounds of funding. We all returned with renewed enthusiasm and an outline for the next several months of work. It is my contention that we shaved several months off of the original timetable, and created a whole new group of strategic relationships.
The action plan is simple: First, put yourself in a position to see customers. Go to conventions, trade shows, forums, and other networking events. Call up your customers and start asking questions. Will they buy it? Will they sell it? How many could they sell? What changes would they make? What do they know about the competition?
One of the best places to get a reality check is the trade associations and trade magazines. Call them up. Ask them their opinion as to your product, market, and distribution channels. Ask them who would be a good person to talk to that is "in the field". These people will be happy to help. After all, they are in the business of staying on top of new developments in their industry.
Second, add the feedback to your business plan. Most investors want to see such feedback on the business plan. I call this section the "Who says so?" section. After you zero in on a few key buyers or distributors, ask them to give you a letter on company letterhead, with a forecast for potential sales. There are few better ways to strengthen your business proposition in the eyes of the investment community.
Third, and maybe most important, repeat this process again and again. Each time you incorporate customer feedback into your project or business, you increase your chances of success. Don't guess at the next step — ask the customer.
Resources that can help with this action plan are online newsletters such as "Network Ink". This newsletter, written by consultant Nancy Roebke, can serve as a consistent and strong reminder to get out and network with your constituency. It contains valuable techniques and tips for garnering the valuable feedback that is so important to your success. I strongly recommend it for any businessperson, but even more so for the development and early stages of business. You can sign up for the newsletter at firstname.lastname@example.org.