Woman of the Year

Growing Your Business

Good as Gold

The best way to grow your business may be right under your nose: Connect with the customers you've already got.

If women entrepreneurs excel at building relationships, then why do we so often neglect our best customers? It can cost up to five times more to win a new customer than to keep an old one. Rather than chase prospects 24/7, it may be more profitable to adopt programs that increase the value of current customers by enticing them to buy more often.

Are you ready to up-sell your existing customer base? Here are five ways to increase sales from your best customers.

1. Build a database. Solid customer information is the foundation of every effective marketing program. It's vital to know who your best customers are and what, when and how often they buy. You can use this to refine your media selections and adjust your product or service offering, thereby saving money and increasing sales. Best of all, tracking customer information-and assembling it into a useful database-helps you identify your top customers and understand and fulfill their needs.

2. Offer multiple sales channels. Customers who shop through multiple channels-such as direct mail, in-store and online-spend more and shop more often. Consumers want convenience and in-depth information before making purchases, so if you don't already have a Web site, it's time to get online. It's particularly important for retailers to add e-commerce. In fact, according to The Dieringer Research Group Inc., for every $1 spent online, the Internet influences $1.50 in brick-and-mortar sales.

3. Contact customers often. Two of the most effective relationship-building tools in any entrepreneur's arsenal are direct mail and e-mail to in-house lists. With a comprehensive customer database and an effective Web site, you're ready to conduct an ongoing campaign targeting current customers. You can set up a tiered program and reach your best customers more frequently, thereby adding value where it will be most appreciated.

4. Get customer feedback. Do you know what your customers like about your company and its products or services? How about what they dislike? It's essential to formalize the way you "listen" to customers by initiating surveys, online or off, and inviting feedback through your Web site (perhaps via message boards) and e-newsletters. Customers appreciate this one-on-one connection, and you'll gain information and testimonials to guide your future marketing decisions.

1 in 11
adult women owns a business
SOURCE: Center for Women's Business Research

5. Create a reward program. Customer loyalty or reward programs can help your business increase sales, particularly if you're in a price-sensitive area or if you and your competitors offer parity products. In-kind rewards work best. If you sell music CDs, for example, you might reward your best customers with a free CD after 10 purchases. Begin by offering a reward at enrollment, then provide graduated rewards that entice customers to buy more and shop more often. -Kim T. Gordon

Joining Forces

Whether you need a mentor or want to be one, here's what you need to know to get started.

Long before Marianne Vermeer became an entrepreneur, a female boss mentored her, teaching her to trust her instincts. That mentor helped Vermeer gain the maturity and confidence that would be vital to starting her own business, Vermeer Consulting Group, in Richmond, Virginia, in 1996. It also led Vermeer, now 46, to start network support organization EntreNet for local entrepreneurs and to mentor other entrepreneurs, including her current protégée, Kae Zulager.

In a 2003 study for the National Women's Business Council (NWBC), formal mentoring programs were found to be a strong predictor of success. "If the protégée is a woman, I think it's even more valuable if the mentor is a woman, because women experience things through a different lens than men," says Julie Weeks, executive director for NWBC. "They bring different sets of circumstances to business leadership."

Women entrepreneurs generate nearly

in revenues to the U.S. economy.
SOURCE: Center for Women's Business Research

Zulager, 36, wanted to raise money for The Bill Police LLC, her wireless bill-auditing firm in Richmond, Virginia, but didn't have the connections to do it on her own. Through the Technology and Business Center at the College of William & Mary, which works with EntreNet, Zulager was paired with Vermeer, who looked over her business plan and plugged Zulager into her network to help finance the startup.

Beyond the financial rewards, Zulager found being mentored by another woman has advantages. "There's a conversation that occurs somehow at a different, unspoken level," she says. "There's an ability to be very candid and share some things that you wouldn't necessarily share with a male counterpart. It's a vital part of female-to-female relationships." The rewards aren't just for the protégées, either. Says Vermeer, who's been mentoring Zulager for close to two years, "It's gratifying to see someone take my advice and actually get someplace."

If you'd like to get involved in mentoring, the NWBC recommends looking for a program with structured interaction, including a well-planned orientation with a discussion of expectations, goals, time commitment and effective communication processes. The NWBC's Web site is a good starting point to find programs for women, including Athena PowerLink, The Committee of 200's Growing Entrepreneurs Mentoring Program, and the NAWBO Mentor Program. Peer-to-peer networking programs include the Commonwealth Forum for CEOs and the Commonwealth Institute's eMerging Women Entrepreneurs Program.

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This article was originally published in the June 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Woman of the Year.

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