It takes a brave entrepreneur to ask a first customer, ‘OK, what could we have done better?’
But Bryan West did just that when he launched Fortress Learning in 2009.
His decision to actively seek market feedback and use it to build a world-class business has paid off.
Today the online training and assessment provider annually enrols about 2500 international and Australian students in its industry-recognised courses and while West declined to quote figures, the former high school teacher confirms turnover has grown to a seven-figure sum.
West credits the multiple ways Fortress harnesses, invites and responds to market feedback via:
· “Have Your Say”, an online tool, which asks clients to answer questions on their experiences of their online course, as they are completing it;
· Logging all student telephone communications, reading and discussing this log at weekly staff meetings;
· Insisting on feedback from every student who decides to terminate enrolment.
“It is certainly not sexy and it was nerve-wrecking, but from our very first student we started asking, ‘Are we hitting the mark?'” West explains.
“It is very easy to capture feedback from people when it is positive but not so much when it is negative – yet that is where you learn the most about how to improve your offering.”
West says if students are frustrated by any aspect of course content or delivery, ‘Have Your Say’ will usually capture this.
Almost four out of every five people enrolled give feedback even though it is voluntary, he says.
“It has proven a wonderful way to capture this insight and has driven our assessment practices to a level where now we have consistently high levels of student satisfaction.”
“An unexpected bonus has been it creates a structure within which students can vent, allowing us to rapidly respond to issues that otherwise would go unknown.
“The takeaway (message) from our experiences is create ways for your customers to talk to you in a meaningful way.
“I have no doubt this sort of thing contributes to 40 per cent of our enrolments coming via word-of-mouth.”
Justin Herald started his first business “accidently” in 1995 after a run-in with a neighbour.
“I had an attitude problem, according to this person, so I made up some shirts and sold them to some mates,” says the founder of Attitude Inc and its brand Attitude Clothing.
Seven years later the $50 start-up was worth $20 million. Herald sold it in 2003.
He has since launched Customer Culture to educate other entrepreneurs on how to use their customers to grow their businesses.
Herald also works as a public speaker, author and is about to launch a phone app called Serve Me Right, which he says is designed to “give the voice back to the customer”.
“A lot of big companies are shitting us off altogether but what consumers have is choice,” he says.
“This is where small business is coming to the fore, if it knows how to harness this power.”
Herald says small businesses can tap customer power to build profitable products and services by:
· Playing to your strengths – “A small business owner has no cash flow but has personality, big business does not.”
· Clients are quasi colleagues – “View your customers as sales people for your business because that’s what they are.”
· Free market research – You don’t have the big marketing budgets of the big boys so go one better; physically poll your clients.
· Ask happy clients to post online – “If you are a hair salon, for example, ask clients to post photos of the finished product on their Facebook pages and promote it.”
· Don’t fool yourself – “You don’t know everything, nor should you.”
“Don’t be closed off to asking your customers what they want and what you could be doing better.”
“I always developed new products for Attitude Clothing based on what my customers were telling me, which for us was always colours,” Herald says.
“I’d hear, ‘Oh I wish you made a red shirt’ … so we’d add red shirts.
“It was easy to respond to this sort of direct market feedback if you’re really listening.”
West wholeheartedly agrees.
Customer power has resulted in Fortress “sometimes tweaking around the edges”, sometimes ripping up curriculum.
It launched focused only on high school educators but has expanded to cover all industries, based on market feedback.
West thinks small businesses must be prepared to evolve in response to what customers want and need.
“If you are not prepared to listen you are better off not asking at all.
“People remember when you say you are going to make changes and then nothing ever happens.”
*Original Article: http://www.theage.com.au/small-business/managing/are-you-really-listening-to-customers-20140929-10nbn2.html