What do your customers think is the best thing about your products or your company? Most small businesses probably have a ready answer to that question, whether it is how reliable, how useful, how convenient, or how trendy their offering is.
But it is awfully easy to miss the boat. Sure you care about your customers’ feedback, and often solicit their responses. And perhaps you pore over the input, especially now that there are more ways than ever to learn what your patrons think, with online surveys, mail-in response cards, Twitter postings, Web site rankings, e-mail, and good old telephone calls. But if you use all this feedback to simply gauge how well you are doing your job, you can miss the bigger picture, which is how your customers and potential customers perceive your value.
To see that bigger picture, consider unsolicited e-mail from consumers as a gold mine. In the old days, it took a lot for someone to phone or write a local business about a very good or very bad experience. But with the ease of e-mail, it’s a different story. Consequently it is a good idea to have your e-mail address included on all your company materials and prominent on your Web site.
The next step is to make sure you read your e-mail with an open mind. Those e-mail writers can tell you what your company represents to consumers. For instance, a bank office could serve as a source for financial advice or be a restful place to take a break while making a deposit during a hectic day. A hair salon could be a place to enjoy friendly banter as well as a pretty good haircut.
Sharpie, the felt-tip pen company, provides a great example of why keeping an open mind is so important. The company for years believed that people liked its markers better than other makers because so many celebrities liked to sign autographs with Sharpies. Even though most people used the markers to label boxes, the autograph connection linked the product to glitzy people such as international soccer star David Beckham.
But while Sharpie was running an ad campaign featuring Beckham back in 2008, die-hard Sharpie users were moving away from envying celebrities toward drawing designs on their clothes and shoes with Sharpies. The company, however, had no clue about this burgeoning self-expression movement. How did it find out? By reading e-mail from customers.
“More people, especially young people, started using our inexpensive permanent markers to make ordinary things more creative” by drawing custom designs on clothes, shoes, walls, sunglasses, bikes, and lunch bags, says Susan Wassel, Sharpie’s social-media and public-relations manager. “Unsolicited, more and more of those people were proudly mailing and e-mailing us pictures of their artwork.”
It took Sharpie executives a while to realize that the e-mail messages were not coming from some fringe group of arty types with time on their hands but from mainstream customers who had discovered a new value for the product. They essentially were teaching the company about a fresh way to stand apart from its competitors.
Once the light bulb went off, the sexy Beckham ads were gone. They were replaced with a marketing campaign designed for clever everyday folks, such as a high school couple in Massachusetts who used Sharpies to cover their white prom dress and tuxedo with colorful designs.
Another example of how your e-mail inbox could contain your next marketing push is the an independent coffeehouse in Northern California that thought it was in the business of selling high-end, fair-trade coffee to loyal and discerning java lovers. When the owners upgraded their menu, prices, and refill policy, a flood of e-mail revealed they were on the wrong track. The coffee shop found out it was loved for being a centrally located community meeting place where the coffee was also good. Initially the bosses turned a deaf ear, discounting the messages and stressing the improvements in the coffee selection. Months later the cafe was still struggling to get its reputation and chummy atmosphere back.
Learn from Sharpie and the coffee roasters. You might be a star for your customers, but on an entirely different stage than the one you think you are performing on. Your e-mail can tell you.