These days, launching a company is easy.
Getting your first 10 customers – even your first 100 customers – is easy.
But what do you do once you’ve cleared these entry-level hurdles, once you start struggling to scale up and gain a foothold in an industry that’s saturated or competitive?
Tren Griffin of the 25IQ blog explains how the new technology that’s made it possible to launch new businesses quickly has also increased the competition facing small business owners:
“The world has been fundamentally changed by digital networks and software. Businesses and customers which are connected by networked digital systems create amplified network effects which means the velocity of business and the level of competition and innovation are higher than they (have) ever been.”
That’s the situation we were in with our cold sales email tool, Mailshake.
We weren’t the first sales email tool on the market – actually, we were pretty late to the game. Convincing customers that they should trust our young, upstart company wasn’t easy. Over time, though, we’ve been able to build a five-figure base of paying customers – all because of the 11 principles and practices I’m going to cover here.
Some of my recommendations might sound cliche. They might sound obvious. But they all work – as long as you’re willing to put in the work yourself.
So let’s say you have an identical product as somebody else. What can you do to stand out?
#1. Invest in Customer Service
A lot of the time, when you’re an early-stage company, you and your other founders are doing all the customer service yourselves. So it’s not perfect, but that’s okay. As long as customers know you actually care, that’ll go a long way.
What does that look like in practice? Let’s say you get somebody at the wrong buying stage, and they ask for a refund. And maybe your rules don’t allow for a refund, but you give it to them anyway.
That little compromise could come back to you years from now, when they’re actually ready for your offering. Or maybe you leave a positive taste in their mouth so that they recommend you to others – even though they didn’t wind up using you.
Forbes contributor Larry Myler emphasizes how important good customer service is:
“Customers equate experience with brands. If they have even one bad experience that remains unresolved, they will write off the brand. And negative feedback spreads like wildfire through social media and word of mouth. You need to be on top of your game to improve the customer experience, sometimes by going far out of your way.”
Proper customer service and communication is especially important during bad times. You don’t have to be 100% transparent, but if you’re having bugs, outages or other service problems, you need to show that you care.
With one of my other companies, narrow.io, we had a huge outage in 2015 that affected 30% of our customers. It took us a month to figure out and solve the issue, but in that time, we were proactive in our communication. We let people know we messed up, we put a pause on their billing, and we gave them a few months free when they came back because the issues were our fault. We made it easy for them to cancel if they didn’t want to wait around.
The result was amazing. Not only did people not cancel, they rallied around us. Someone even offered to start a crowdfunding campaign in case we needed some extra funds to get the software fixed. We didn’t ultimately need to go that route, but we were touched by how much people loved what we were doing with the product. Their loyalty was a direct result of the upfront communications we started on day one.
Put It Into Practice:
- If you haven’t launched yet, create communication guidelines to shape your customer service approach from day one.
- If you have launched, take a hard look at how you do customer service. I regularly take customer support calls to stay current on the issues clients are facing and whether or not their needs are being addressed.
- Check your reviews. If you see anyone mentioning poor service, you need to do better. A typical business only hears from 4% of its dissatisfied customers.
- Have a plan for communicating through emergencies. Keep customers in the loop as much as possible. Creating standards in advance will keep them from falling through the cracks.
#2. Find Your Difference
At Mailshake, our defining feature is our simplicity. When we first launched, there were already 50+ competitors in the space, and most of them had been around for years.
So to figure out how we could differentiate ourselves, we read their reviews, and we signed up for their services to see how they’re different from us.
What we hit on was that – although our output is similar in terms of getting the job done – there was an opportunity to make the process of sending cold sales emails easier. So we focused on simplicity, and we build it into our UX, our processes, and the way our users make use of the software. For everything we do, we’ve asked ourselves whether it’s been made as simple as possible for the end user.
That doesn’t sound like much, but that’s one thing we focus on that nobody else does. It’s been the bread and butter of our organization since day one.
We did the same thing with my agency, Web Profits. There are millions of competitors out there, since there’s no barrier to entry for agencies. We had to figure out what makes us different, and what we eventually landed on is that our team structure is identical to one you’d build in-house – just cheaper.
We’ve set up Web Profits to be as close to an in-house team structure as possible. We did that because we know the pain points, and we know the friction points where most agencies don’t work. Most commonly, it’s that agencies don’t have the same depth of knowledge as an in-house channel expert or the ability to support you on multiple channels. So if you have an agency working with you on SEO, but you want to move to PPC, you’re probably going to have to go find another company to work with to cover all your channels.
At Web Profits, we have a director for every channel, and we’ve put together a team for that channel. So if you want to shift your resources from one to another because of what your analytics are telling you, we can do that. And it’s all because of our team structure.
Put It Into Practice:
- If you can’t sum up your key differentiating factor in one sentence, you’ve got your work cut out for you.
- Study your competitors and test their products (if possible). What does yours offer that nobody else’s does?
- Bake your defining difference into everything from your UX and marketing, to your customer service.
- Check your reviews again. If your differentiating factor is resonating with your customers, it should show up there. If it isn’t gaining traction, you either need to choose a stronger differentiator or make it more obvious to customers.
#3. Focus on Retention
I don’t care if you’re an e-commerce company, a service provider, a SaaS tool or some other type of business; retention needs to be your #1 priority in 2018 and moving forward.
All of that competition I mentioned earlier means that there are more people than ever before focused on top-of-funnel customer acquisition. And because knowledge is so much more present, the acquisition piece has become much easier.
Now, if you want to grow, you need to learn how to retain those customers. Think about it. If you could retain 20% more of your customers, your lifetime value (LTV) goes up. The efficiency of your customer acquisition costs (CAC) goes up. You have better business metrics overall because you aren’t bleeding the customers you worked so hard to acquire in the first place.
Put It Into Practice:
- Measure your current churn and retention rates. You won’t know if you’ve improved retention if you don’t know where you’re starting from.
- Get as much insight as you can about why people are leaving your product. An exit survey can help, though if people aren’t willing to give any info, you may need to make some assumptions based on when they leave (after the trial, after several months, etc.).
- Look for cost-effective opportunities to improve retention. You can’t make everybody happy. Investing in onboarding is relatively easy and inexpensive. Adding features, on the other hand, is much more expensive (especially if they’re requested by only a handful of departing customers).
- Test re-engagement strategies for lapsed customers. It’s generally easier to resell to somebody who’s purchased from you once. Effective communications can make it possible to re-recruit those who didn’t immediately get the value of your product or service.
#4. Focus on Activation
If you want to retain customers, they have to see value in your product or service right away. That’s where activation comes in.
When somebody hires us at Web Profits, a number of things happen. To get them onboarded, we have to make sure their team is set up on Basecamp. We have to get logins to their analytics or CMS. We have to get certain pieces of information from them so that the project can move forward.
And honestly, something like getting logins sounds like such a tiny little thing, but if it takes us two weeks to get WordPress logins or access to analytics, that delays a whole slew of other things. It pushes our analysis back, which pushes back our ability to make recommendations and actually get to work. We’re frustrated, and the customer’s frustrated – not a great start to a new engagement.
Every industry has its own activation requirements. At Mailshake, it’s getting new users to the “aha moment” of setting up their first mailing. At an e-commerce company, customers might become fully activated once they make their first purchase and receive their first package.
Once you figure out how to create the kind of onboarding and activation experience people want to tell others about, you’ll have solved the challenge of retaining customers.
Put It Into Practice:
- Map out your current activation strategy by working backwards. When does your “aha moment” occur? And what has to happen immediately before that to reach that point? Continue working backwards until you get to the initial purchase.
- Look for gaps in your activation strategy or opportunities to improve it. Where does your team or your customer get stuck regularly? How can you make those transitions smoother?
- Compare your activation strategy to your retention data. Any insight you have about when people leave you can show you where you need to provide more support or guidance.
- Remember that activation doesn’t have to be all hand-holding. Onboarding tools or better process documentation can give customers the resources they need to move forward without being a burden on your staff.
#5. Know Your Competitors’ Strategies
This one blows my mind. A lot of times, people launch companies without knowing what their competitors are doing. Sometimes, people focus too much on their competitors, but more often than not, I see business owners not focusing on them at all.
That’s a huge problem, according to Susan Ward of The Balance:
“One fast way to hamstring your small business is to ignore your competition. While you’re busy ignoring them, they may be chomping away at your market share. If you don’t know what the competition is up to, you can’t make the intelligent decisions that will keep the customers you have or entice new ones.”
Especially if you’re going into a saturated space, you need to know what your competitors are doing, what’s working for them and where they’re wasting money. Even if you don’t wind up doing the same things they’re doing, knowing what they’re up to is information that’s too valuable to pass up.
So how do you do it? You go online. You look at their sites, and you read reviews of their products. You monitor their social channels. You sign up for their services or join their mailing lists (if doing so isn’t cost-prohibitive).
Let me give you an example of how monitoring my competitors saved me tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. With Mailshake, I was thinking about testing PPC ads as a customer acquisition channel. I was starting to plan my campaigns when I saw a competitor of ours post a case study to their social feed talking about how PPC hadn’t worked well for them. This was a well-funded competitor with probably $20 million in their war chest. If they couldn’t make it work, what odds did I have?
Your competitors can be a wealth of information, even if it isn’t strategic in nature. I’ve met a lot of my Mailshake competitors at conferences or when I’m traveling. I even sat next to the founder of Yesware at two separate conferences for about eight hours a day. We wound up talking, and it felt good to know that we were both facing similar challenges.
Your competitors aren’t your enemies. They’re people – just like you. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can begin leveraging these relationships for both competitive insight and support.
Put It Into Practice:
- Identify your competitors (if you haven’t already). Monitor your direct competitors first, but also identify those who serve the same customers you do – even if they aren’t direct competitors.
- Visit their websites to see how they’re positioning their products and where they’re marketing them. Make note of the features they focus on, as well as how they describe their benefits.
- Follow them on social media, and check their feeds regularly for insight that might inform your own marketing or advertising strategies.
- Pay for competitive research or competitor monitoring tools, if possible. Options exist for measuring everything from your competitors’ market share to their organic search rankings and more.
#6. Figure Out How to Make Your Customers Happy
This ties into the activation piece I mentioned above, but one of the best things you can do when you’re in a crowded marketplace is to just figure out what you need to do to make your customers happy.
Let me give you another example from my time at WhenIWork. Most of the customers for our shift-scheduling software are new business owners. From experience, we knew that it was going to take them at least 5-10 hours of work before they got to that “aha moment” of understanding the software’s potential. That’s a lot of investment when you’re a small business owner juggling a million other responsibilities.
So we had to prep them. We had to let them know it was going to be a lot of hard work, but that the results would be worth it. We also had to show we cared about their success, and that we were going to be there to support them through the process. So we invested in their education by sending them a book on how to manage employees, along with a hand-written thank-you card from the salesperson they dealt with.
Taking those actions proved to them that we care. Because it isn’t enough for you to know that you care. If you don’t prove it to your customers in the first 30, 60 or 90 days with some kind of action, they won’t know it.
Put It Into Practice:
- Poll your customers about their biggest pain points. If you don’t want to reach out directly, browse forums or social channels where your audience is active and see what questions are being asked.
- Identify the exact way your product or service alleviates one or more of these pain points, as well as the point in the process where it’s clear to your customers that the pain has been resolved. This should closely match the activation funnel you built out earlier.
- Brainstorm different process or activities you could add to your onboarding and activation workflows to get new customers to this point.
- Test different options and monitor the feedback from new clients. When you hit on the right combination, you’ll know.
#7. Focus on Relationships, Not Leads
Take a second here to evaluate your progress. If you haven’t mastered the six recommendations above, work on them until you have. But let’s say you’ve got all of the suggestions above down. Here’s how you start to grow further…
If you’ve done your marketing right, you’ve got content on your site – maybe you have a few lead magnets, like ebooks or white papers – and you’ve got email addresses. That’s a lead, but now you have to call them to find out if they’re interested. They don’t have much value for your business until you’ve qualified them and gotten them to take some action.
So rather than focusing on growing your list of leads, put more of your energy into growing relationships. Chatbots are a great way to do this. We get a lot of traffic on our Web Profits website, for example, and not all of these visitors will be interested in converting. So we use LeadChat and have it pop up only when people are on high-value pages like our pricing page or the page where we describe our services.
When we do this, we don’t just record the lead. We’re actually trying to get them to schedule a call. That kickstarts the relationship and circumvents the whole lead qualification funnel. It also starts that relationship by showing we care. We have that initial communication, and that increases the conversion rate. Simple as that.
Put It Into Practice:
- Test using a chatbot on your website, but set it to only appear on pages or posts on your site that suggest a visitor is moving out of the awareness stage of the sales decision-making process and into evaluating your company as an alternative (as in, your pricing page or contact page).
- Experiment with different chatbot scripts. You may get different engagement results if the chatbot opens with a friendly greeting vs. a leading question (or some other alternative).
- Test different chatbot “asks.” Again, you may see a stronger response to one type of ask than another (for example, a request to set up a call vs. a request to send more information).
- Watch for signs that indicate your audience isn’t receptive to chatbot engagement. If your bounce rate goes up, your average time on page goes down or you receive direct comments about it, a chatbot may not be right for you.
#8. Test Strategies Your Competition is Overlooking
When you know what your competitors are doing, you can see where the opportunities exist. Especially when you’re small and just starting out, you may be able to find channels or tactics that are too small to matter to your competitors, but that give you an in for reaching your audience.
Before Mailshake became Mailshake, it was ContentMarketer.io. We were late to the game, and we were under-budgeted. So one of the first things we did to reach people was to respond to questions on Quora. It didn’t drive tens of thousands of leads or visitors to us, but it did drive 10-15 trials that were helpful when we were trying to get our early-stage traction.
If we were comparing ourselves to our $20 million competitors, that’s a lead they wouldn’t bother with. But for us, Quora questions – along with being active on Facebook Groups, doing AMAs, sharing Facebook Live videos or getting interviewed by anyone that would have us – helped us to prove our value early on. They made people aware of the tool, let us show off our communication, and helped us to create relationships from day one – all from channels that would have been too small or unprofitable for our competition.
Put It Into Practice:
- Start by compiling a list of all the different marketing strategies you could use to promote your company. Pay attention to the resources required to execute each one in terms of time, energy, money or training.
- Make a note next to every strategy your competitors are using (you may find it helpful to put this in a spreadsheet).
- Identify any gaps that exist. If there are any strategies you didn’t check off when reviewing your competitors’ activities, those could represent opportunities you can take advantage of.
#9. Get Influencers On Your Side
One of the things that helped early on with Quuu was that we were able to get guys like Dennis Hu and dozens of others in the industry using the product and talking about it. They loved it, they used it, and they wanted to share it.
We got them engaged early on by giving them free credits, connecting with them directly or even just noticing they signed up. Once they did that, we got them to immediately jump on a call or offered them concierge onboarding so that they’d see the benefits immediately. We got highly-networked individuals talking about the tool – and not because we bribed them or paid them off. They just liked the tool, and the fact that we connected with them as soon as they started using it led to referrals.
It’s funny – even today, with both our software companies and with Web Profits, our biggest sources of growth are referrals from people I’ve known for 10 years. Getting influencers on your side isn’t something that happens overnight, but once you’ve built those relationships, they can pay off for decades.
Put It Into Practice:
- Make sure you know who the influencers are in your space. If you’re new to your niche, you may need to do some digging to determine who your customers follow and look up to.
- Add monitoring your customer list for new influencers to your daily or weekly task list.
- Develop a plan for how you’ll reach out to influencers if you see them on your list. This might include a private email welcoming them, specialized training or additional help with onboarding.
- Get comfortable making a direct ask for referrals. If you’ve had a good experience engaging with an influencer and you can see they’re happy with your product, there’s nothing wrong with asking them to send others who might like your offering your way.
#10. Form Partnerships with Companies In Your Industry
Mailshake is a sales tool, though it’s in the marketing category as well. Currently, there are 8,000+ marketing technology companies on the market, as well as about 3,000 sales technology companies.
They aren’t all our direct competitors. Maybe a few hundred of them are, but for the most part, these are companies we don’t compete with, but who are targeting the same customers we are. And all of those companies represent opportunities for partnerships or co-marketing.
We start by looking at who we can work with to provide value (both to them and to their customers). For example, with Mailshake, we’re partnering with Steli Efti of close.io to launch a Cold Email Masterclass. They’re targeting the same customers we are, but we aren’t really competitors. There’s some overlap, but since we’re doing the same thing, why not try to figure out how to work together and help each other out?
Put It Into Practice:
- Identify companies that serve the same customers you do, but that aren’t your competitors. This requires a thorough understanding of who your customers are, what they get out of your product and how you’re different from your competitors.
- Reach out directly and offer a co-marketing arrangement or partnership that benefits both of your companies, as well as your customers.
- Get clear on what you can reasonably offer new partners. Will you offer a discount in exchange for a mention in their email newsletter? Do you have the resources to create high-value content pieces to support your customers? Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
- Measure the success of each partnership arrangement. Some will drive great results, while others won’t move the needle. Look carefully at the common factors your successful partnerships have so you can create more in the future.
#11. Try Offbeat Advertising
When I was in high school and college, my mom ran a daycare. How do you market that kind of business? We did Facebook, we monitored reviews and we paid for ads, but one thing my mom did that was totally unique was that she advertised in the Penny Saver.
She paid about $50 a week, but every issue she was in led to 4-5 qualified phone calls and 2-3 visits to the daycare. It was a small channel, and it wasn’t scalable, but it was still an opportunity for her business.
You can do the same, whether you advertise in your own local Penny Saver or you answer questions on Quora, lease a billboard or run podcast ads on shows your audience listens to. You can even lease high-ranking blog posts. If there’s somebody ranking high for a keyword you’re targeting, ask if you can lease the post temporarily and 301-redirect it back to your site. They’ll still be the owner and get the attribution, but you’ll get their qualified traffic for the time period you’ve agreed upon.
Put It Into Practice:
- Think about the different sources of information your audience is exposed to regularly. Chances are there are niche opportunities outside of the usual search results, social channels and forums.
- Determine what resources will be required to run a test of each possible offbeat channel. Cheaper is better when it comes to uncertain channels.
- Again, measure the results of each, recognizing that some channels may take longer to drive performance than others. A billboard, for example, may not spark the same immediate sales as leasing a high-traffic blog post for your site.
Succeeding in a Crowded Market in 2018
In a lot of ways, succeeding this year and going forward means going back to the fundamentals of business. Just because it’s easy to start a new business doesn’t mean it’s easy to produce results. The companies that’ll be successful now and in the future will be those that understand what it takes to not just attract customers, but to retain them by investing in relationships as well.
What other tips do you have to add on growing a company in a competitive or saturated market? Leave me a comment below with your thoughts: