How Do You Build a Customer Base? Follow These Steps.

It starts by asking questions. And ends by asking more questions.

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How Do You Build a Customer Base? Follow These Steps.
Image credit: Federico Gastaldi
Magazine Contributor
Founder of Pen Name Consulting
4 min read

This story appears in the December 2019 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Q: I just launched a company, but I’m struggling to connect with my first customers. Help! -- Lisa, Oklahoma City

Before I started my businesses, I was a journalist. And rule number one when writing is this: Know your audience

Many factors will determine how good a story is. Some variables are beyond your control, such as how forthcoming your subject will be, or what (maybe dumb) headline your editor will write. But the factor you can control is how much research you conduct, the questions you ask, and the follow-ups that help you find the information that really matters. 

Related: What Work Should You Outsource?

I used to joke that writing was a two-part job. First, you have to be a miner, doing the grunt work. If you want gold or diamonds, you’d better be willing to dig deep in your reporting. The second part -- writing -- gets all the glory, but it’s really just polishing. If you’ve already found a beautiful diamond, it’s hard to mess it up.

Growing an audience is no different. You want to tell your brand story, but before you start polishing your marketing campaigns, you need to go mining: Ask your audience so many questions that you know them inside and out.

Connecting with an audience is harder than ever because of all the noise on social media and other platforms. In order to thrive in today’s digital environment, you need to have a deep understanding of what “job” your potential customers will pay you to do. In order to get that, you must speak to people directly. Surveys and form questions are not enough; in-person conversations allow you to gather insights by reacting to people’s responses, hearing their tone of voice, and recognizing when there is more information hiding within a shallow answer. 

But most people skip this part of the marketing process because it’s time-consuming. Even if they do it, they’re not always productive. The majority of market-research interviews consist of asking customers why they bought your product or service. But this is a mistake. People will unknowingly tell you what they think you want to hear, oftentimes repeating your marketing back to you. Moreover, they won’t be able to articulate why they feel this way -- so they’ll simply invent a reason.

Related: How Much Should You Spend on Social Media Marketing?

To work around these human habits, there’s a technique called jobs to be done (JTBD), which requires you to interview potential customers in order to truly understand their needs and wants. Not everyone can do JTBD; it takes someone who is skilled in both the process of leading the interview and in drawing conclusions and providing direction for your business. Years ago, at my consulting company, I hired the best JTBD expert I knew, and I’ve never looked back. (You can also pay for courses and learn the method yourself.)

Instead of just considering the functions that people want from a product or service, JTBD digs into the multifaceted nature of decision-making. That’s what makes it more powerful than data -- it helps you understand consumers’ social and emotional drivers and paints a complete picture of what “job” people want from you. 

Related: How to Make Smart Hires on a Tight Budget

Once you understand your job -- and your core customers -- the path forward gets easier. You’re finally in a position to polish: create effective ads, engage with platforms where you’re most likely to find additional consumers, and present them with incentives and pricing that will appeal and convert. 

Growth is no longer about wondering if you know what you should do. It’s simply about how well you can execute on your plan. 

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