Monday, January 28, 2008

Design the Perfect Customer

Complete this sentence: “My perfect customer is (fill in the bank) and spends gobs of money with me.” The right time to begin imagining your perfect customer is before you have any. Right now, you may define your ideal customer as anyone who is willing to pay you, which means you haven’t established many standards. It’s possible that some customers will actually be more trouble than they’re worth, no matter how much they pay. If you spend a little time now imagining your best customers, you can better identify them when they come along. Better yet, you can avoid the ones who don’t meet enough of your criteria.

Because your shriveling bank account is ever on your mind in the early going, it’s natural to accept and hang on to customers even if the hassles they create seem to outweigh their benefits. You’ll say to yourself, “We can stomach them as long as they pay.” Just don’t stomach them too long if they distract you from getting better customers.

Put your business plan to work
Your company’s business plan is supposed to serve a greater purpose than to help you obtain funding. It is supposed to serve as your road map to success, which should involve finding a paying customer or two. Take a fresh approach to your plan and begin to flesh out the description of your target customers. How would you define your ideal client? Even if you’ve never sold anything before, somewhere in your life you have had customer-vendor relationships, even if it goes back to selling lemonade when you were ten years old. Picture in your mind the best customer you’ve ever had and try to remember what made him so great to work with:

- Did he pay his bills on time?
- Did he trust that you knew what you were doing?
- Did he have the confidence of his boss, or was he the boss?
- Did he acknowledge the times you went to extraordinary measures to meet his needs and demands?
- Did you hurry to pick up the phone when you knew he was on hold?
- Would you find him likeable even if he weren’t helping to pay your mortgage?

Maybe it’s easier to form a picture of the worst customer and then to avoid him:
- Did your worst customer think he could do your job better than you could? (Makes you wonder why he was spending good money for your help.)
- Did you sometimes get the sense that you were talking to a brick wall, as if the words that came out of your mouth were not making it past the customer’s glazed look?
- Did he often seem unhappy with your work, even though he could never adequately explain why?
- Did he end the relationship with the equivalent of the boyfriend-girlfriend breakup: “It’s not you. It’s me”?

With such questions in mind, you can begin to look for important signs from prospects, such as:
- Does she clearly express her expectations?
- Does she answer your questions with, “Uh, let me think about that” or “you figure it out?”
- Does she recall promises you’re pretty sure you never made?
- Does she give a realistic timeline for you to develop a proposal or presentation on your product/service?
- Does she listen when you speak?
- Does she “get it” when you talk about your product/service?
- If you are not dealing with the top dog, do you sense that your prospect has the ear and the confidence of her boss?

Most customers will fall someplace in between the ideal and the worst case. Don't be ultra-selective when you are trying to sign up a customer—any customer. However, it would help if avoid a bad one as your first customer since you will have your hands full as it is. You should try to identify prospects who will help you validate your decision to give up the finer things in life like premium cable just so you could start your own company. It’s easier to cut someone loose when they’re a prospect than when they are already your customer.

As you begin to develop your customer base, you can periodically return to your list of ideal-customer characteristics. If you’re lucky, you may have one of two customers that come close to your ideal early on. Possibly, the concept of the perfect customer that you develop will change a lot once you have a few clients under your belt.

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