Most sign shop owners I’ve met don’t have the financial resources to hire a market research firm- one whose job it is to keep tabs on our market-let alone objectively audit the effectiveness of their promotional efforts and offer suggestions on how to grow sales. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could? You’re in luck. I’ve pulled together a list of simple things you can do yourself to gain a greater awareness of the health of your industry. I call it do-it-yourself market research.
What is market research?
In Alan T. Shao’s book, Marketing Research: An Aid to Decision Making, he defines it as the systematic and objective planning, gathering, recording and analyzing of information to enhance decision making. That’s a mouthful, but I am sure Professor Shao carefully chose each facet of that definition. So, let’s break it down.
If you are committed to staying in touch with the changing needs of your customers, you need to have a systematic plan to gather vital information. Customers of signs and digital graphics flit about from one new product to another, and exhibit more buying quirks than Pantone has colors. And just try to predict what type of sign or graphics product newcomer will take the market by storm. It’s like trying to hit a moving target.
Any market research you conduct must have an objective, a target that is sized up, aimed at, then scored to see how well you did. Business owners could apply research techniques to answer questions like these:
- Could we increase the per-piece price of garden-variety yard signs that are below two dozen and not lose sales volume?
- Will our customers purchase ad-specialty items and promotional products from us, where we traditionally only sold wayfinding signs, vehicle wraps and POP displays?
- Which items or services should we discontinue because their demand has waned below the point of profitability?
In the beginning, there were customers
Planning to conduct market research starts with identifying who it is you want to survey in order to better understand their buying habits-in other words, the type of customers you want to attract. Here, it is necessary to make a few assumptions.
As the 80/20 rule loosely states, eighty percent of your sales come from twenty percent of your clientele. Presumably these are your most frequent, most loyal or biggest customers. You may have your own criteria for what makes a customer “best,” but not much is better than getting nice sized orders on a regular basis and having them tell others how delighted they are with you. Grab a pad of paper and begin generating a list of between ten and twenty of your best customers. Be sure to jot down the decision-maker’s name as well as the name of their organization.
Now look over your list carefully. Would it be true to say that if you could attract new customers who were just like the names on your list, your business would really take off? So, it is with these people that you must learn what makes them tick. What do they like or dislike about doing business with you? If they are truly your best customers, you are surely one of their best vendors, because you meet their personal and professional needs-such as always having affordable prices, ensuring superior quality, convenient operating hours or location, one-of-a-kind creativity, and/or guaranteed on-time delivery.
Since (as we’ve already determined) people buy from people they like, trust, and with whom it is convenient to do business, chances are you already know a ton of things about these folks. Would it be fair to say that you like and trust them and find selling to them pleasurable? Then it follows that, if you can attract and connect with prospects that look, sound and act like your best clients, they could easily be won over as new customers.
Profiling your best customers
Begin by developing a geo-demographic profile of your target customer base. Without overtly intruding on their privacy, begin to recall and record as much information about them as you can. Here are some ideas for describing the decision-makers:
- What is their age and gender?
- What’s their marital status? (Consider that each category-single, married, separated, divorced-buys things in different ways and for different reasons.)
- Where do they live? How far is it from your business?
- Do they own or rent their homes? What are the values of their homes?
- What type of car do they drive? Own or lease?
- What are their hobbies, leisure interests?
- What are their social leanings? Religion? Political affiliation? Do they express these beliefs openly?
- With what professional, social, or civic organizations are they affiliated?
- What is their approximate income level? Are they a spender or saver?
- What is their typical purchase behavior? Impulsive? Slow and deliberate?
This approach is similar to answering the 66 questions in Harvey Mackay’s book Swim with the Sharks without Being Eaten Alive.
Likewise, you should seek information that describes the “personality” of the organization for which they are buying:
- How old is the business?
- What kind of market does it serve?
- How many employees/members does it have?
- Try and predict what its “five-year financial picture” looks like. Stable? Growing? Mature? Struggling?
- What professional and special interests does it support?
- What is their typical purchase behavior?
You will be amazed the patterns that emerge from the profiles of your best customers. And don’t dismiss subtle similarities. It may not be coincidental that the majority of your best customers’ decision makers are married with two kids, are between the ages of 32 and 44, live on the northwest part of town and are active in a particular community cause.
Completing this exercise will make prospecting for new customers much easier. Besides soliciting word-of-mouth referrals and testimonial letters from your current customers, utilize the advertising medium to which they most frequently respond favorably. For the profile you have defined, direct mail and social media posts may be most effective. Or maybe it’s print ads and mobile signage. You might even decide broadcast or Internet advertising would work best. In any case, you’ll be investing your marketing dollars with a greater degree of confidence because you’ve done your homework about who your target market is and by which means they receive marketing messages.
Make asking questions a habit
The simplest form of market research involves consistently asking customers the same questions at the most appropriate times in the sales process. Those critical times are when you first make contact with the prospective customer, when the customer places an order, and when the first order is fulfilled. These are times you need to be on the precisely the same frequency as the buyer. They’re also be called “moments of truth.”
During the very first conversation you have with a potential customer, it is imperative that you or someone from your company ask them this question: How did you first hear of us? And you cannot ask it randomly or casually. In fact, make it as much a habit to write down their answer to this question as it is to write down their name and phone number. And add all of the information you obtain to your customer database, then periodically take time to analyze it.
If they say, “I was referred to you by a friend,” get the friend’s name. At very least, send that person a thank-you note. If they say, “I saw your ad,” find out what ad and when they saw it. You need details. How else can you draw conclusions about what marketing vehicle has the greatest return-on-investment?
The second moment of truth in the customer-supplier relationship is when an order is placed. You need to discover and understand what the customer’s motivation was when they placed that specific order at that particular time. I recommend conducting a single-question survey with all your customers during a four to six week period semi-annually. Here’s the question:
What was the primary reason you decided to buy from us today?
(please select only one) Was it:
___ our superior quality
___ our salesmanship (how you were treated before placing the order)
___ our promise of excellent after-the-purchase service, support, warranty, etc.
___ our guaranteed on-time delivery
___ our eye-catching, creative and/or one-of-a-kind designs
___ our convenient location and hours
___ our low price, or
___ a promotion we are offering
Your comments, please:
Try asking this question of a couple hundred customers. You will see a pattern emerge. And don’t be surprised if it is not what you thought was the one thing your company was best known for.
You may want to place this question on the bottom of your invoices or on a postage-paid post card enclosed with the order. How ever you ask it, carefully heed the information you gather. It should guide you in making decisions about areas for improvement in your business. Even if your assumptions are validated by the survey, consider investing more resources to further improve that single feature of your company that sets you apart from the competition.
The final moment of truth is when that first order is delivered. Make it a point to get feedback from first-time buyers and invite them to add their name and contact info to your database. Go one step further and ask them what is the best means to remain in touch-your monthly newsletter, text messages, phone calls, email, social media posts, snail mail brochures/catalogs, etc.-and how often do you want to be contacted (for example, “If we reach out to you no more than “x” times a year, would that be okay?”)
Emotional buying decision
Let’s be frank, selling is an emotional art form, and it can be very personal. Try this experiment: Make a list of your ten closest, most trusted, non-family friends. I’ll wager that at least four people on that list will be current or former clients, trusted advisors/vendors/confidants, or future prospects. If they aren’t, you should ask yourself whether you are really trying to become close to them professionally at all.
Taking the time to understand their needs and buying motivations will lead to larger orders, placed more frequently, willing to buy new items, and some great memories of good times between close friends. You see, if it’s good business, it is personal. Good luck.