Customers are the lifeblood of any business, so it’s vital you can keep generating leads and retain your customers. We spoke to two small business owners and asked them to share their experiences of growing their customer base.

1. Get to know your prospects and customers

There’s a lot of talk about personalisation and customer insight – that’s because it works.

Understanding your customers’ needs can help you gain better insights into your audience and develop services matched to your clients’ needs.

It can also help you stand out from competitors, something that Alice Boden understands. She’s managing director of Bodice of Holt, which offers a home delivery service for fruit and vegetables. “We know our customers really well and know their preferences so we can tell them when certain things are coming – when they’re in season and in stock. Our service is completely personalised to their needs.

“This is where we have an advantage over bigger suppliers. I have a good relationship with our customers and I know the business. Because I source the produce and pack the boxes, I know exactly what’s happening and can provide a fully personalised service.”

And it’s not just consumers who like this approach. It also works for business clients too.

Mike Cockburn, Director at Sogno, a positive psychology coaching company, says, “It’s important that we understand what our clients are trying to achieve: their mission, their goals. Then we look at how we can accelerate that and customise our services to meet their needs. It leads to a more balanced relationship.”

2. Divide your time: support existing clients and look for new work

In simple terms, there are two ways to get more business – win new business or get your existing customers to spend more. It’s important to not focus on one at the expense of the other, as both are important for growing your customer base.

Mike says, “We do have a lot of repeat business and feel we offer the most value with long-term clients. But you need to keep bringing in new business too. Old business can falter if budgets change or people move on, so it’s important to look for new opportunities. You need to start a relationship early, so that it’s mature enough to deliver new business when your other work is completed.”

3. Offer great customer service

To keep your customers coming back, it’s important you offer great customer service. Research shows 78% of people have walked away from a sale due to poor customer service¹.

But if you get it right, it has a positive impact on your customer base and bottom line. Loyal customers are worth up to ten times the amount they originally spend.

Take the time to evaluate your customer service, make sure you respond to customers quickly and keep an eye on social media so you can offer great service online too. Your customer base should grow as a result.

4. Make the most of your networks

Ask a business owner where their customers come from and most will tell you word of mouth.

Recommendations from others are valuable: “It’s the idea of social capital – the value of relationships,” says Mike. “If I know people that they know, then there’s an implied trust.”

Most of his clients come from networking, something he’s passionate about.

“I think people sometimes equate networking with sales and prospects can be sensitive to a sales approach. But if you recognise that only so many contacts will go on to be clients, then it reduces the pressure. The work we do is based on trust and openness so the way we make contact is a good opportunity to demonstrate that. I meet up with loads of people and if I can help, they remember that. That can open new doors.”

Alice agrees. “Networking is really useful. It’s not just about selling, it’s about what you can do for people.”

5. Look for partnerships with other businesses

Your ideal customer will already have relationships with other businesses and this offers a great opportunity.

By partnering with other firms which offer complementary services, you can not only reach a new audience but also potentially offer more to your customers.

It’s something that Bodice of Holt are looking into at the moment: “There’s a body development firm which offers personal training and nutrition advice. Part of their service is to help their customers to understand what they should be eating when they’re training, which includes fruit and vegetables. They are recommending us to their clients – and we’re look at delivering directly to the gym once a week.

“It’s about looking around and keeping your eyes peeled for opportunities. Be open to new ideas and speak to people to see if they’re interested.”

6. Make use of social media

Social media has revolutionised the way customers and businesses can share information and have conversations.

From online customer service to delivering insights into your audience, there are now excellent opportunities for businesses to reach out via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other networks. Which ones work for you will depend on your business, your audience and the way you like to communicate.

7. Think big

If you’re a small business, can you work with a big company? The simple answer is yes.

But many small companies find it intimidating to make contact. Mike has a range of big clients and says it’s worthwhile approaching large corporates.

“Our success with clients goes back to developing a network of long-term connections. But small businesses now have more opportunities to work with big clients. I think that’s changed since the credit crunch. Big corporates may have been suspicious of smaller businesses in the past but they now recognise that they offer value and have lower costs too. There is less prejudice now.”

8. Play to your strengths

It’s definitely worth testing a range of marketing approaches and seeing what works. But remember that every business is different, so you may find some approaches don’t work. Don’t be afraid to drop these.

9. Adapt as your business grows

It’s important to keep trying new ways of reaching your audience and not automatically reject things that might not have worked in the past.

As your company becomes established, you may find your customers come from different sources.

“We get new customers from a wider mixture of places as the business has grown,” says Alice.

“We’ve been going for about two years and at the start, it was through friends and family. Now we get people through word of mouth, advertising and from attending markets. We also get people through Google and the website.”

10. Measure what works for you

As you try out new approaches, be sure to monitor where your customers come from and which sources offer the most value.

You can then keep refining your approach or scale up activities that work to grow your customer base further.

1. American Express Survey, 2011

As a small business owner, you know that time is your most valuable and scarce asset. If you spend it the wrong way, you can never get it back.

A report from McKinsey surveyed 1,500 executives across the world about how they spend their time at work. The findings reveal only 9% of respondents were ‘very satisfied’ with their time allocation.

So how can you improve your time management?

1. Understand the monetary value of each working hour

If you know how much revenue each activity generates for your business, you’ll be less likely to spend your company’s money and resources on the wrong things.

If you’re struggling, keep a log in a spreadsheet of what you and your team do each day, how long tasks take and if they generate revenue (directly or indirectly).

This quantification will help you manage your time and your company’s resources more efficiently.

2. Create to-do lists

Many small business owners try to remember granular details about each project, leading to information overload. Instead, use a to-do list to get actions out of your head and take charge of your projects.

Sir Richard Branson is just one of many business people who credits his success to to-do lists. On the Virgin blog, he writes:

“I do indeed write to-do lists and prioritise items. I live my life by writing lists – there is one next to me right now. Without to-do lists, I would use my time far less effectively, and have a lot less fun.”

Besides pen and paper, here are five great (and affordable) resources for creating your to-do list:

Wunderlist: an affordable, cloud-based to-do list app that’s great for sole traders and small teams
Trello: a powerful productivity tool geared towards collaboration
Outlook’s to-do list: links directly to your email
Any.do: another powerful productivity tool geared towards collaboration

3. Focus on what’s important

Productive small business owners know their time is best spent working on important and or urgent tasks rather than those that add little business value. When reviewing your to-do lists, be ruthless and efficient about what gets your attention first.

You’ll accomplish more if you focus on one task from your list at a time. Of course, sometimes unforeseen events take priority, but your goal is to work through your to-do list methodically when possible.

4. Do it, delegate it, defer it

In his best-selling book Getting Things Done, business productivity author David Allen highlights the value of rapidly doing, delegating or deferring key tasks as appropriate.

By doing, you use your cognitive skills in a sensible way that delivers a return to your business. By delegating a task that’s inappropriate for you, you use your time and your team’s resources and skills more efficiently. By deferring, you put off what’s unimportant until a future date when you have the required time, energy and resources.

This simple three-step workflow will help you work on high-priority tasks more frequently and grow your business.

5. Take regular breaks

Overworking is as damaging to your health and business as not doing enough. Ensure you take proper breaks and get away from the office. Otherwise, you’ll feel stressed about working extra hours and likely become unproductive and frustrated about your progress.