Customers do more than just pay us for services rendered or products sold. They contribute to our research and planning, help us with our marketing, perform quality control checks, and everything in between. But it's up to us to make it easy for them to fulfill these roles.
As with any role, it's important to identify and find the best people for the job from the outset. If you make sure your customers are involved in all aspects of your business early on, you'll see long-lasting benefits as you scale.
Finding your early customers
When you try to speak to everyone, you speak to nobody. This is why finding a target audience and niching down is so important. That's how you'll attract what Geoffrey Moore defines as early adopters, people who are early to recognize the value of an idea and are willing to put up with imperfection because they can see the potential.
Vivian Kaye knows all about the importance of early adopters—with their help, she grew her business, KinkyCurlyYaki, from $0 to $1 million with zero spend on ads. (She also runs Shopify Prep School, where she teaches other online store owners how to generate and convert organic traffic to grow their businesses.)
After having followed her for some time and hearing her describe her journey on The Ecommerce Marketing Show podcast, I reached out to her to get more details.
According to Vivian, she started KinkyCurlyYaki because she had a personal problem that she needed to solve. She needed hair extensions but wanted a texture that looked like her natural hair—not the silky long texture that most brands sold. While searching for her personal needs, she realized how difficult it was to find a supplier that manufactured weaves to fill this need. This search led her to niche natural hair and weave forums, where she consistently engaged with a community of women online who were experiencing the same problems and frustrations that she was.
So when Vivian found the weave she was looking for, the first place she went to share the news was those forums. And what she did next changed the trajectory of her career: she sent the hair to one of the women in the forums, just to get a second opinion on the quality of the weave.
This woman was so impressed with the hair that she posted the pictures in the forums and on various Facebook groups. She not only vouched for the quality of the hair, but she also validated a business idea for Vivian. "At that point, I didn't even have a store. I just wanted feedback on the quality of the hair," Vivian told me. But she got more than she'd bargained for.
When everyone else in the forums also wanted the hair, Vivian knew she was onto something.
Identifying the roles your early customers should play
Of course, just having early adopters isn't enough. You need to identify the roles they can play for you—and then help them succeed in those roles. Here are a few roles you might find your early customers playing and how you can make the most of them.
Customers as brand ambassadors
Customer reviews are crucial for growing your business, and you want to collect them early and often. In the early days of Vivian's business, reviews gave her the most powerful tool she could think of: social proof. And it didn't cost her anything.
Of course, not all your customers will wear the badge of self-appointed brand ambassador as enthusiastically as others. Most customers will never leave reviews (I know this firsthand from when I used to run a nail salon). Which is all the more reason to identify the people who will, and help amplify their opinions.
To start, you might automatically invite them to review your products. Then, when people do leave a positive review, respond to them. Ask them directly to share their experience with others.
You can also take it one step further by incentivizing people to leave a review, whether that's by featuring them on your website or social media, offering them discounts, or sending them first access to new products or valuable content (which they might then share in order to show off their early adoption).
Customers as quality control
When you first start out, it's unlikely that your product or service will be perfect. That's why it's so important to use your early customers' insights to find areas for improvement and prioritize those improvements to refine your product or service offering.
Vivian consistently spoke with customers to see how she could make things better for them. She told me that she uses both positive and negative feedback to help develop new products.
Those conversations are invaluable, and you can formalize the process more by sending out customer surveys. You can actually automate this process, so that, for example, all customers who purchase from you receive a survey, and all survey answers are logged in a spreadsheet or whatever other app you prefer. This is a great way to scale the feedback loop and be sure you're getting consistent feedback along the way.
If you want to take it a step further, you can do something even more in-depth:
Use "mystery" buyers. Ask some trusted customers to secretly scrutinize every aspect of the buying process at a time they determine. That might mean booking an appointment with a fake name, purchasing a product (which you'd reimburse them for) and testing it, contacting the business to see what customer support is like—anything goes. Then have them provide detailed feedback.
Do user experience testing. Test the functionality and user experience of your site or app by asking customers to perform a predetermined task while you record their screen. Analyze the results to identify what's working and fix what isn't.
Remember, these early customers have chosen you despite your business's shortcomings. They want to support you, so reaching out to them for feedback is never a bad idea.
Customers as participants in research and development
When developing a new product or service, your customers should be core participants of your R&D efforts. Before you launch a new product—or even a modification to an existing one—you'll want to consult your most loyal customers through focus groups or customer/user interviews. Here's why:
It confirms that it's a fit for your audience; if your current customers don't like it, it's unlikely your new ones will.
It gives you insight into how to develop the product or service to better fit your customers' needs.
It makes your customers feel like part of the company, making them more likely to become those brand ambassadors we talked about before.
Even if you're not ready with your newest idea yet, keep your ears and eyes open. By being part of a community of women who shared the same need, Vivian was able to get ideas for new products. "When you're in these communities," she told Privy founder Ben Jabbawy, "you hear the other problems that they have, that you wouldn't have even thought of." That's exactly how she came up with her idea for her new headband wigs.
Customers as employees
Vivian's second-ever customer became a full-time employee. And it makes sense—who better to serve your customers than another customer? Here's what Vivian told Ben.
Having customers work in your business is the best because they already love you, they love the brand, they see your vision and they understand what you're trying to do.
With trusted customers as employees, you'll feel confident stepping back from the day-to-day to focus more on strategy. Your customer-employees will be able to speak to customers on their level and will bring even more authenticity to your brand.
Customers as content creators
There are all sorts of stats showing that people are more likely to trust user-generated content than content directly from brands—and you know it from experience too. Reviews are a good example of this, but it goes beyond that: you want your customers showing off your product or service within their own content too.
When people see customers engaging with the brand, it shows that they really liked the product or service—it's a real show of vouching for a business, and will make people more likely to take a chance on you. And of course, it's great for brand awareness—as people share their content on social media and other platforms, it helps you expand your reach to the circles of the creators as well.
Of course, you'll want to engage with the content that your customers make—both to show appreciation and amplify the message—and give them full credit when reposting it. And don't forget to engage with the creator's audience by liking and responding to their comments on the original post as well. This gives your brand a more personal touch, which people love.
To make sure you don't miss any content created about your brand by other people, you can set up Brand Mentions by Zapier, which will automatically let you know whenever anyone mentions you on the web. Or you can set up your own workflow to only monitor the platforms that matter most to you.
Zapier lets you automatically send information from one app to another, helping you reduce manual tasks. Learn more about how Zapier works.
Gearing for growth
Building strong relationships with your early customers will have long-term benefits. Look beyond just securing the sale, and think about how you can leverage your customers to increase brand awareness, improve your product or service, and drive sales. And don't stop as you grow—customers play these important roles throughout your business's lifecycle, so keep nurturing that connection.
All images courtesy of KinkyCurlyYaki.