May 14, 2004
Understanding customers

Understanding and satisfying your customers are essential for commercial success.
Understanding one’s customers is so important that large corporations spend hundreds of millions annually on market research. Although such formal research is important, a small firm can usually avoid this expense. Typically, the owner or manager of a small enterprise knows the customers personally. From this foundation, the understanding of your customers can be built by a systematic effort. {{more}}
Knowledge of how customers buy pays off in several ways:
(1) Sellers can design their offerings to meet the exact needs of their buyers.
(2) Sellers can influence decision makers at crucial steps of the buying process.
(3) Sellers can lay the groundwork for repeat business.
Buying methods are best visualized as processes. Household purchases usually start when a consumer has a desire or a problem that a purchase might satisfy or solve. Industrial purchases usually start when a user or enterprise request approval for procurement.
People are diverse. Every consumer, every firm pursues a buying process of its own. Buying processes also depend on the significance of the product to the buyer and on other circumstances. Although buying processes are not uniform, some steps are common to most of them. The seller needs to know only these critical steps to affect the outcome of the buying decision.
Shrewd sellers look into the behavioural patterns of purchasers. They tailor their selling processes to suit each of their customers’ buying habits.
While a change in lifestyle or a demonstration may cause a consumer to recognize a need for a product, lack of knowledge and the fear of a wrong decision may counteract this desire. The process continues, however, if advertisements and expected benefits persuade the consumer to act despite budgetary constraints and uncertainty about future needs.
At this search and evaluation stage advice from current satisfied customers is especially influential. Make sure your customers are satisfied and favourably recommend your merchandise or service. On the contrary, poor shopping facilities or irritating personnel can sway the potential customer against making the purchase from you.
Sooner or later, further search does not seem worthwhile. If the positives still outweigh the negatives, the consumer picks a store and brand. The transaction itself is accomplished quickly, assuming the wanted item is available. The satisfied customer makes recommendations to others and gives you his or her repeated, regular business.
Businesspeople can create sales by predisposing potential buyers to their product or store. Manufacturers can offer exclusive benefits in their goods, such as friendly relations, efficient operations, and easy manuals. Enticing advertisements help persuade prospects to visit a retail outlet and ask about a particular brand. Creative salespeople overcome the customer’s objections and doubts and close the sale. Post-transaction service keeps the customer satisfied. Referrals usually follow.
Specific details are needed to track the purchase of something complex, for example the purchase of a car. On the other hand, less detail is needed if the purchase is laundry detergent, rice, sugar or flour to name but a few, with which the customer is less involved. In this case, when the customer runs out of these basic items, they would go out and make more purchases of their usual brand. If the usual brand is out of stock or another brand is on sale, a substitute may be bought quickly.
Some products are bought when an emergency need for them arises. For example, umbrellas are in demand when it rains, or the filling of a prescription is urgent when sickness strikes.
During the hurricane season, people stock up on batteries, tinned foods, water, flashlights and other emergency supplies.
Often, convenient availability determines when these goods and services are purchased. And even if customers do have ample time to select merchandise, sellers who stand ready to supply wanted or expected brands are apt to gain preference and profit when shoppers decide where to buy.
People want options. Although convenient availability is the main buying criterion for many common household products, smart entrepreneurs often stock wide selections that would cater to the diverse preferences of their customers. Making the right decision of which products to stock is important for all businesses.

• Submitted by the Small Enterprise Development Unit (SEDU), First Floor, Methodist Building, Granby Street, Kingstown, Tel 4512235-6