In Part Two of our series extracted from her book Taking Care of Business, Deb Hill of Cloud Dancer Alpacas reminds us that without customers we have no business.
'A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.'
- Francis Bacon
It sounds ridiculous to say that before you can sell something you need to have a buyer, but too many breeders wait until they have an alpaca for sale before they start looking for customers. Don't wait. You can start locating and getting to know your customers well before you have anything to sell.
How do you find customers? Consider that the best customers are those who have already expressed an interest in alpacas, or at least in livestock. Does your national alpaca organization keep track of leads (which is what we call potential customers), and can you have access to those leads? If so, those will be some of your best contacts because you know they are already interested in the product you sell.
You can also generate your own leads. Everywhere you go in the alpaca world be on the lookout for names to add to your list. Collect business cards from fellow breeders, contact information from visitors to your farm and mailing addresses from the public that attends your alpaca shows and events. Pretty soon you will have quite a large number of names of people who enjoy alpacas.
To get the most out of your collection of leads, you will need to manage your list as a database. Begin with a file about each potential customer. Include the person's name and address, phone number, email address, profession, level of interest in alpacas (are they planning to buy soon or are they planning for a retirement some years away?), and how they heard about you. Update your list regularly to show every contact you make with each customer, what they tell you about their needs and desires, and notes to yourself about how you can best assist them in attaining their goals. Also include notes about any farm visits, what was purchased, which animals the customer was most interested in, and any special offers you discussed.
After you have some leads to work with, you can use them in a number of ways. Direct mail marketing is a very effective tool, and a very flexible one. For example, some farms use regular newsletters as a way to keep in touch with customers. Although the newsletter may include information about products or animals for sale, it also has an educational function that entices people to read it. Other farms send postcards or flyers advertising stud service or a particular animal for sale. Customer survey forms and notification of educational workshops and seminars offered at the farm are other examples of direct mail contacts with
Each contact you make helps build an image of your business in the mind of the customer, serves as a reminder of who you are, and lets them know about the products and services you offer. Each contact should reinforce your image, and should repeat key information: what sets your farm apart, why the customer wants to do business with you, or what guarantees you offer to buyers. In order to present a cohesive image and to make sure your direct mail pieces build upon each other, it is a good idea to map out a plan for an entire year's worth of mailings. Remember, too, that keeping in touch with your entire list of leads can get pretty expensive. Plan ahead for the cost of bulk mailings and/or stamps.
The information in your lead files is also critical in order for you to provide the best customer service. You will never be able to remember all the details about everyone who contacts you, and it is somewhat distressing for your visitors if they call you later and you don't seem to know them. But if you keep your lead files near the phone, you can quickly refresh your memory whenever someone calls or before they visit, and you will be better able to give them personalised service.
Wouldn't you love to have a buyer already lined up when your first alpaca is ready to sell? This is why keeping a good database of leads and using it effectively is so important. By contacting your leads regularly, they will get to know you and what you stand for. Some of them will have visited you, perhaps more than once, and you will have developed a relationship. Studies show that people like to buy from people they know and trust. This is especially true when the purchase carries a large price tag. When the buyer is ready, won't it be nice that they will turn to someone they have gotten to know and trust - you.
Doing Business Over the Phone
'One ringy-dingy. Two ringy-dingies.
Hello. Is this the party to whom I am speaking?'
- Actress Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the Telephone Operator
Do you cringe or even swear whenever the phone rings? Consider this: a ringing phone may wake the baby, startle the dog or interrupt your dinner, but a quiet phone means your customers are calling someone else. I suspect that was NOT the goal of all that marketing you are paying for! Is it possible that you have overlooked the essential instrument that connects you directly to your customers? Rotary or touch tone, cordless, cell or standard, phones are more personal than email, more prompt than snail mail, and more mis-used than almost any other business tool. Phone service may very well be crucial to your business success, so let's look at it through new eyes.
The phone line is your business lifeline. If your would-be customers cannot reach you, how will you ever develop them into "for real" customers? In fact, the primary goal of most of your marketing should be to make your phone ring. If you are successful and the phone is ringing off the hook, what then? Be careful, for the way you handle phone contacts determines whether that caller becomes your best customer or someone you'll never hear from again.
Your goals for most phone calls are:
Create a positive impression about your alpaca business.
Find out about the caller.
Set an appointment for the caller to visit.
These are not difficult goals to accomplish since most of your callers will have the same goals in mind. They are excited about alpacas. They want to learn more. They want to see a "real" alpaca farm. And they want to enjoy the experience, starting with this phone call. Remember they have picked you out of all the breeders they could have phoned. Your job is to make them glad they did.
Phone etiquette is no different for alpaca breeders than for any other type of business, and most is just common courtesy. Answer the phone cheerfully. Let the caller know who is speaking by using some variation of the standard "Hello. Big Time Alpaca Ranch, Don speaking". Have some idea of the things you would like callers to know about your ranch and short but useful answers to frequently asked questions. If you have children that answer the phone, teach them phone etiquette as well.
If you are often away from your phone, use an answering machine or voice mail. Keep the outgoing message business-like and be sure to return calls promptly. Be careful with call waiting - if you must find out who is on the other line explain to your first caller that you will just be gone a minute while you take the name and number of the second caller. Please don't leave your first caller on hold while you have a little chat - tell Aunt Edna you are in the middle of an important call and will call her back when it is finished. Finally, keep an eye on the length of time your phone lines are tied up. If you use the same line for Internet access or teenagers' phones, you may want to consider getting a second line for business. Customers that can't get through get cranky.
Sounds simple, and it is…but we are not finished quite yet. Remember goal number 2? You want some information about this caller that will help you provide the level of information they want, and will provide feedback on your marketing programme too. All you need to do is ask some quick questions at the beginning of the call. The first one I usually ask is "how did you hear about us?". I keep track of the answers on a form next to the phone, and from these statistics I learn which parts of my marketing programme are working best.
I also ask, "what have you already learned about alpacas and what do you want to know?". The responses to this question help me to gear my conversation to the right level for the caller. Finally, I ask, "are you planning to purchase alpacas soon?" From this I can determine how interested the caller is about getting involved in alpacas. If they are just beginning or I sense they are not really seriously interested, I will give them an over view. If they are ready to hear more, I will give them the in-depth version. In either case it is the caller that determines this, through their responses to my questions.
The final goal for this call, and perhaps the most important, is to set an appointment for the caller to come visit. For many callers this is the reason they phoned you. However some are not sure whether it is all right to visit or are too shy to say so. Your can help them out by asking something like "when would you like to come visit", or if that feels too presumptive, try "the alpacas love to have visitors - are you free this weekend?" Having the caller visit your farm is a very important step. Through spending time with you and with your alpacas they will find out first hand whether alpaca farming is right for them, and whether you have their perfect alpaca waiting in your barn.
Does all this sound like too much work? Once you get into the rhythm it will become second nature. And it will increase your business success in several ways: you will find out what your customers really want to know so you can better serve them; you will find out how well different parts of your marketing programme are working so you will know where to spend your marketing dollars; and you will increase the number of visitors to your farm and improve the probability of alpaca purchases. Oops - my phone's ringing. Gotta run - I'm about to make another alpaca friend!
Assessing Your Level of Customer Service
'You just listen to the customers, then act on what they tell you.'
- Charles Lazarus (Toys 'R' Us)
Ever wonder what your customers say about their experience with you? Would it make you nervous to be a fly on that wall? Believe me, if you forget to think about your customers, they will notice. Research has shown that almost 70 percent of the reasons why customers decide not to do business with you will have nothing to do with your products and everything to do with the quality of service you provide.
So what do our customers want, anyway? The specifics may vary from person to person, but overall it boils down to five important qualities:
Reliability - providing what was promised, dependably and accurately
Assurance - conveying trust and confidence through your knowledge
Tangibles - the quality of the stock and the appearance of the physical facilities and personnel
Empathy - the degree of caring and individual attention provided to customers
Responsiveness - the willingness to help customers and to be of service
Probably the best way to ensure that you are taking excellent care of your customers is to start thinking like one. Remember when you were visiting your first alpaca farms? What impression did different farms make on you, the customer? Think about the farms that really stood out from the others, good and bad. What did they do differently from the rest? Chances are that your answer will include some or all of the qualities listed above. Now review your own operation and see if there are any ways you can improve it from the customer's point of view.
For example, under the category of reliability, do you get back to customers in a timely fashion? If you agree to send them information, do you do it immediately? Do you return calls and emails? Are you on time for their appointment with you? Have you located and set out any necessary materials (sales lists, histograms, registration certificates, fibre samples, etc.) ahead of time? Customers want to feel that they can count on you. If they can't count on you before the sale, how will they feel about your after-sale support?
When you are working with your customer, are you and your staff knowledgeable about your alpacas, services, or products? If you must look everything up before you can answer the customers' questions, it might be time for a refresher course. Otherwise your customers may wind up wondering if they know more about alpacas than you do. A customer's trust is partly based on your level of expertise.
The first impression a visitor gets when they arrive at your farm is a critical part of how they feel about doing business with you. You don't need a million-dollar barn, but you do need to look at your facilities through the eyes of your customers. Is your farm sign visible so they know when they have arrived? Is there a place to park? Are the outbuildings clean and well maintained? Are the alpacas healthy? If you have a farm store, is it well stocked and are the products nicely displayed? Make regular tours of your farm and look for things that detract from the image you wish to convey.
A well-known sales adage says, "your customers don't care how much you know until they know how much you care". This is just a shorthand way of saying the customers like to feel appreciated and listened to. They want to know that you understand their needs and desires. In other words, they want to be treated like individuals. While you are reviewing the way you do business, ask yourself if you are taking the time to listen to the needs of each person that contacts you so you can provide personal service, or are you requiring your customers to adapt to your way of doing things?
Being responsive to your customers means being willing to go out of your way to find opportunities to help them. Discover what your customers' needs and expectations are, and which ones matter the most to them. Then seek ways that you can provide that extra level of customer care. If your customer wants a black alpaca and you don't have one, for example, see if you can find one at a nearby farm for them to look at. If your customer wants alpaca vests and you only carry sweaters, see if you can special order a vest or two. If your customers are in the research stage and want information about the alpaca lifestyle, why not invite them over to help you clean stalls, feed or shear animals. Responsiveness comes easily when you put the customer at the heart of everything you do.
All of these qualities ask us to expand a bit beyond our comfort zones in dealing with our clients. Is it too much work? Consider this: as our industry expands there will naturally be more competition for each alpaca customer. Providing excellent customer service will not only give you a competitive edge, if you are successful you will also end up with the best advertising programme a business can have: word of mouth referrals. More new customers plus more returning clients is the formula for business success. Providing excellent customer service IS the bottom line!
Cloud Dancer Alpacas