Five internet strategies for bringing clients into your business

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Can a brick-and-mortar retail business use the internet to grow its customer base, increase sales and improve repeat business? I believe that it can — and I’d like to show you how.

Have you ever wondered what the hardest part is of running a business? For most business owners, it’s finding clients. In a world deeply mired by a recession more and more people are turning to self-employment to put food on the table.

The problem is that most engineers, accountants, lawyers, artists, plumbers and electricians are not ever taught how to run a business. They’re taught exactly how to be the perfect employee, what Michael Gerber in his book The E-Myth Revisited calls a “Technician”. The Technician is someone who knows exactly how to do the job.

In all my years of study I was not once taught how to run a business. It wasn’t even an elective, and yet a large number of my classmates are now running their own business — or at least they are trying to. According to Mike Schüssler’s article on Moneyweb, the average self-employed person in South Africa takes home about R1950(US$ 244) per month.

Running your own business can be tough. Besides doing the actual work, you’re expected to manage a proper set of books, handle the marketing, customer care, after-sales-service, complaints and even make your own cup of tea. Besides all of that you’re expected to look after your health, play with the kids and maintain a relationship with your spouse.

Over the course of the last nine years I have spoken to many business owners and they all tell me that the largest time-thief is going out there looking for clients. They spend many hours on early morning “Network Breakfasts”, connecting on Twitter and Facebook, Golf-Days and Trade Days.

Go to any given trade show and you’ll find a number of feeble stands put together by desperate business owners who have just maxed out multiple credit cards in the hope of catching a few clients and recouping their costs.

When I ask a business owner who their ideal client is, they have one of two expressions. The first one is the most common — a blank stare. They’re not really sure who their ideal client is, but they all tell me the world needs their product. The second expression is one of star-eyes glazed over as they explain the perfect “big fish” or government contract that will forever take their business out of poverty and put it into the big leagues.

I suppose the wiser question then is, “Who currently buys from you?” The kind of person that currently buys from you is in all likelihood your ideal client base. And if they’re not the kind of people you want to do business with, then either your message is wrong or you’re living in a fantasy world.

Let’s just imagine, for today, that you’re getting the right kind of client, just not enough of them. I suspect this will be the story for the large number of the business owners out there. Is it possible, then, to use the internet to multiply your customer base and create more cash in the bank?

A few years back I knew someone who owned a car wash. Anthony’s biggest problem was that he had a handful of loyal customers, but that a large amount of time was spent with him in the office worrying about paying bills, while his staff stood around idly (or played soccer in the parking lot).

When I told Anthony that I thought he should be using the internet to market his business, he thought I was mad. Websites were expensive and who goes on Google to find a car wash anyway? He had a good point, but like many people, Anthony equated “internet” with “website”. I explained that a greater tool would be to utilise emails.

The first thing we did was set up a “booking form” that clients used when they dropped off their car. The form included a spot for their email address and a permission box to send them information.

Once a client had visited the car wash, Anthony would feed their information into an Autoresponder system that would fire-off a Welcome message that thanked them for using the car wash. It also included a 10% voucher which they could print off their next visit.

Four weeks later, the Autoresponder System would fire another email reminding the person that it had been a month since their car had been washed and encouraged them to phone reception and book the car in.

Using a bulk-email facility, Anthony was also able to send regular coupons to his clients, advertise specials on valets and encourage clients to pass coupons on to friends and family who would find it useful.

Anthony’s car wash grew at an incredible pace as a result of a simple strategy, at a cost of US$20 a month.

The system may seem quite antiquated today, in the world of Social Media, but you cannot under-estimate personal touch.

When last did you receive an email from your local grocery store or hair-salon thanking you for your patronage? Imagine a florist who records the date of your anniversary and then sends you a reminder two days before the next one to book a bouquet for your loved-one?

Here are five strategies which I believe will help you increase your business:

  1. Get permission to talk to your clients
    We all know the Consumer Protection Act restrains the way we are allowed to communicate with our clients, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing so. Whenever someone is in the shop, get them to fill in a card with their details on, and giving you permission to talk to them.

    If you don’t have the kind of business where people have to “book in”, then offer a competition or monthly prize to encourage people to give you their details.

  2. Use their details wisely
    A person’s email address and cellphone number are sacrosanct. Never sell the details or hand them out to a friend. Make sure the information is safely stored on a password protected system. You don’t want to be in a position where a zealous employee mails your clients about his latest foray into multi-level marketing.

    The first order of business is to thank them for stopping at your store.

  3. Give them a reason to come back soon
    With your welcome letter you could offer them a 10% discount on their next return, or a free gadget with their next purchase. Make sure that whatever you offer them carries value. Consider the discount voucher as part of your marketing strategy.

  4. Incentivise your clients
    A US$10 discount on a US$1 000 purchase is hardly an incentive, so if you are not in a position to offer a discount, then don’t offer one at all. Consider perhaps pairing up a group of products, for example “Every pizza gets a free beer on Tuesdays”.

    You could even do some random testing with a few regular clients. Phone them up and ask them what kind of coupon they’d like in the post.

  5. Share the coupons
    Want to get more clients? Word-of-mouth marketing is still the strongest and cheapest way to get more clients. The entire concept of Social Media is “word of mouth” — so you need to get your existing clients to talk about your business.

    The easiest way to do that is to email them a coupon which they are to forward to five of their friends. I even tried a strategy once which went along the lines of “This coupon is NOT FOR YOU — please send it to five of your friends who you think would like this product/service/discount”.

    Do you care if they send it to more than five people? Of course not! I have, however, found that when you limit people to three or five names, they actually do it! It feels like real money in the inbox and they don’t want to waste it.

These are such simple strategies that I think every business needs to put them into practise. Everyone likes to be acknowledged, so take the time to acknowledge your existing clients. Thank them for their business and encourage them to come back. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to implement such a strategy, but the rewards are out of this world.

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