The second in a series of inside tips on how we’re keeping our own small business going during the pandemic.

Don’t shoot for creativity until you complete this important step.

By Jose Alfaro, CO.STARTERS COO

In my last post, I wrote about the practice of assessment—assessment of both yourself and your business. It’s crucial to figure out where you are personally and what your finances look like before you start reaching out to customers. Operating a small business myself, I had to do the exact same thing back in March when COVID hit.

But once you’ve stopped, gotten situated, and gathered essential information, it’s time to follow the 3 E’s of customer interaction: engage, enquire, and empathize.

Why interact with your customers at all? Customers animate your business. They dictate how much revenue you bring in, determine the size of your inventory, and can be a powerful marketing engine for your business. Customers are your single largest asset and your greatest need.

Your business doesn’t exist for you. It exists for them.

Once you’ve stopped, gotten situated, and gathered essential information, it’s time to follow the 3 E’s of customer interaction: engage, enquire, and empathize.

Engage.
It’s critical for you, the entrepreneur, to know as much about your customer as humanly possible. The more you know about who your customer is, what their problems are, and how they’re currently solving those problems, the more compelling your product or service will be. There’s a correlation between how much customer information you have and the success of your business!

Here’s the problem, though: your customer isn’t the same person they were in February. Your old business model, based on a very specific customer with a specific problem, isn’t going to work on a customer whose life has drastically changed. And since their life has changed, so has their problem.

At CO.STARTERS, we realized that our customer had shifted too. For ten years, we’ve been helping community organizers and leaders reach aspiring entrepreneurs who are starting new businesses, because that was the greatest need. But as the pandemic brought new business-starts to a halt, we turned our attention to a different problem: established business owners are struggling to keep their doors open. The organizations who use our tools to support new entrepreneurs suddenly needed new resources to help existing business.

Your old business model, based on a very specific customer with a specific problem, isn’t going to work on a customer whose life has drastically changed.

When it comes to engaging your customer, you have to go to them—you cannot expect your clients to come to you. Remember, you exist to make their life easier! You can’t expect them to fill out a survey or leave a comprehensive review. You need to get face time with them, either through phone calls, Zoom calls, or socially distanced in-person interaction.

For us at CO.STARTERS, this took the form of Straight Talk with Starters and Coffee with CO.STARTERS, our two virtual recurring meetups for entrepreneurs and member communities, respectively. We invited our customers into a space just where they could share, not for us to sell them anything or tell them what to do. Just to give them a place to voice their complaints and find others with similar concerns.

Enquire.
You don’t want your customers to write up a business plan for you. That’s your job, not theirs. What you do want, on the other hand, is for them to tell you about themselves. About their life. About their problems. About their kids, their shopping preferences, what they eat, how they exercise, when they sleep, how they…get the picture? The details matter.

To accomplish this, you need to ask them questions—loads of open ended questions that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no.” Get them talking about what they wish were easier about their lives, the ways the pandemic has made their world harder to move through.

Wherever your customers are in life, you won’t find out through customer satisfaction surveys and Google reviews. You’ve got to ask them questions and get them talking.

Don’t ask them if they like your product or your business or your service. Don’t ask them to come up with ideas for you. Figure out from their answers where they’re stuck and what they need. Maybe they still need your services, and more than ever! Or maybe their lives have changed so much that their needs aren’t remotely related to your business.

Wherever your customers are in life, you won’t find out through customer satisfaction surveys and Google reviews. You’ve got to ask them questions and get them talking.

Empathize.
I’m a problem solver. A fixer. If you begin telling me about a problem you’re having, I’m usually already solving it before you begin telling me about it. It’s a useful mindset to have—sometimes.

Not when talking to customers.

There’s eventually a time for problem solving, but you need to know what problem is the right one to solve.

You need to understand the customer’s root problem. And if you tune out and start brainstorming before they finish talking, you may miss the real cause of their grief. Of course there’s eventually a time for problem solving, but you need to know what problem is the right one to solve.

Once we gathered our customers and listened to them talk about the issues and anxieties they were facing, we turned our efforts to action. We realized that business owners were really struggling with various aspects of marketing, so we scheduled time with guest marketing experts to speak to entrepreneurs and answer questions. Next month, we’re beginning a new series on design thinking and innovation.

We also launched a two-hour workshop, called Refocus, that helps business owners who feel stuck walk through a creative process to rethink their business model. To provide even deeper support, we launched a 10-week intensive program that guides entrepreneurs through the rebuilding process in real time.

All of these new offerings are different from what CO.STARTERS originally offered to our customers. But we would have never known they were needed had we not sat down for those first conversations with customers.

In the next article of this series, we’ll talk about what it actually takes to pivot your business, whether for the short-term or the long-term.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jose Alfaro is the Director of Growth at CO.STARTERS, where he works to build strong and sustainable business models to support CO.STARTERS work at scale. He is an experienced operations director who has successfully scaled organizations in the community development and hospitality industries. Jose loves the creative approach CO.STARTERS uses to help individuals and communities thrive through entrepreneurship. Jose’s first business was a catering company, but his dream is to build a sustainable food accelerator that supports minorities by expressing their culture through food.

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