When I left my job, I thought I had learned all the skills I needed. I knew how to grow an Instagram page, run Facebook ads, and manage a webshop. I was wrong. I needed to learn how to run a business.
I quit my job to become a full-time entrepreneur. I had skills, a plan, and lots of potential clients. But while escaping the wrath of one boss, I realized I now worked for a dozen bosses. All of them had their own demands, approaches, and wishes. I’d entered a period of chasing invoices, having deadlines but getting no decent or timely input from the people paying me. And on the side, I had my own business to run, too. I had to file my tax reports, market myself, and do bookkeeping.
As I grew to manage both my business and those of my clients, I learned one lesson that applies to everything I ever did and probably will ever do. It’s the one particular “one size fits all” business solution, if you must pick one. I do it to help my clients’ businesses and my own.
It’s called listening to your clients.
The common problem all struggling businesses have.
I started selling my marketing and web design skills but soon found that business owners had deeper challenges. Most of my clients thought they needed to advertise on Facebook or Instagram to stay relevant. They thought they needed to invest time and money building a presence on the ‘gram because it was the next big thing. And soon they found themselves lost in all the possibilities available. They just didn’t know where to start or what to do.
By asking questions and listening I found that their pain never was the website or the content they asked for. It was the pain of needing more revenue, of not knowing what to do next. But most of all it was fear of missing out. They thought that they needed it all in order to stand out from the crowd. And the harsh part: all my clients were thinking and doing the same things, all in order to “stand out.”
Every client that approached me for help with Instagram didn’t really need Instagram to maintain their business. And to make things worse, none of their customers cared about Instagram or a fancy website. No one ever entered the shop because Instagram was on point. Don’t get me wrong, having your socials well-maintained can add to the total for sure. But don’t bet your whole existence on a single platform.
The one thing all my clients forgot to do was to actually listen to their customers.
The confused coffee shop
I worked for a coffee place with exactly this problem. They thought they wanted a website, a big Instagram following, and fancy content. They had already existed for six years and business was good. But they wanted more.
When I conducted my research, none of my findings pointed to social media as an answer. Instead, I noticed a lot of areas that could actually generate more revenue, not just add to the workload without having clear contributions. How? By listening and observing.
I did 3 simple things.
- I visited the shop several times to witness their processes as a customer.
- I watched other customers as they went around. I listened to them talk about events after staff left and observed their reactions.
- I read the five-star and one-star reviews online to find the topics customers mention when they react in their most emotional state.
That’s all there is when it comes to listening. You could also interview people, ask them straight up as I did with my clients. But it’s not really that hard to find areas you can improve on.
To grow their business, the truth was they didn’t need anything they originally hired me for. They just needed to listen more closely.
Customers mainly complained about the waiting time between their first and second orders. Getting the first coffee wasn’t the struggle, but getting the second one easily took them 45 minutes. I’m a big coffee lover but I never drank more than one cup, simply because it took them too long to take another order. I’d seen other customers wait, get more and more annoyed, look around for staff to recognize them, wave, and finally just get up and leave. All of the one-star reviews described the long waiting time as well, confirming my observations with written statements.
The second most-mentioned complaint was the inability to get an order to the table as a whole. Different products arrived at different times, resulting in people being forced to start lunch while their partners still enjoyed an empty cup of coffee.
My observation was a pretty simple one: by just showing up, they could increase their revenue. They needed to either hire more staff or eliminate tasks. I advised them to cut the under-performers from their insanely huge menu to free up time, then use that time to actually go out there and sell coffee.
The takeaway from this story is the difference between selling your skill at random or selling your skill to someone in need of it. Yes, I could have sold them a new website, but that was not what they needed. And in recognizing this, I was able to add even more value. I didn’t cost them money, I generated more revenue for the same effort just by identifying the areas that hurt them the most.
Running a business equals listening.
This is true for me, and it’s true for all my clients, and it’s true for you, too. Your best marketing and sales strategy is truly listening. The concept is leveraged in every successful business. Don’t limit it to listening with your ears. Think data, read reviews and try to find recurring topics in complaints and positive reviews. If you know what people like the most about you, you can do more of that. You can add complementary services and products to that particular area. If you know what they hate the most about your business you can change it. It gives you the exact topic you need to learn about next.
Listen to your sales numbers. What people buy the most from you is what they like the most. Delete your worst-performing products and upgrade the best-performing ones. Use the time you save by deleting unpopular stuff to add even more value to the popular and most appreciated things.
I made it my habit to sit down with my clients and ask what they liked most about working with me. Why did they choose me over the competition? But not only did I listen to them praising me. I asked them questions to find out where they were struggling.
The next time when you visit your favourite coffee place or store, try to look at it from a different perspective. Why are you really visiting them? What are they doing differently from the stores you could also visit but don’t? What are they constantly struggling at? What do other customers say? Put differently; where could you possibly add value? And what skills would you need to acquire to deliver that value to them?
The differentiation offers you solutions for other stores that struggle to do the exact same thing. Learn the skills that are needed to differentiate like this and you soon find yourself running a business built upon those skills.
If you find yourself struggling as a small business owner I highly recommend you read The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael E. Gerber