From Profession to Business: 3 things I learned about customers

By | April 30, 2009

I’ve had quite a checkered history of entrepreneurialism, and it wasn’t till I came to Taiwan that I discovered that part of my soul. Although it was in my previous professional field, ESL teaching, it made no difference. I found myself contracting out as a tutor, advising students, editing, and a whole bunch more that came with the territory.

First Steps

Eventually, I started teaching in my home in a small home classroom I set up in my first house. Of course, the class fell apart because at the end of the renewal period, most of the clients couldn’t understand what I was doing or why.

Shortly after, we moved house to a new location, and the home classroom became quite an event with students on almost a daily basis. It was a difficult time: I had three jobs, and moved between each of them, so I was unable to promote the home school properly. Eventually, my ‘full-time’ jobs overtook the time I could devote to my home school. I still taught private students occasionally, though.

In Business

It was during the early part of that time that I also became involved in a teaching company called Savant, that provided ESL instruction to corporate clients in Taiwan. A friend, Tyler Rainsbury, set up (and eventually closed) the corporation and we had quite a few successful clients; but competition was stiff, and we couldn’t find our way forward, even though we had great teachers and good materials. Clients often focused on the bottom line issues and overlooked the other important educational goals.

Then in 2000, we started our first business with actual classrooms before moving to our present location. And business grew quickly over those eight years, outpacing the performance of all my previous businesses in scale, reputation and stability.

We recruited students in Elementary Schools in our area, and quickly became one of the best known schools in the area providing after-school ESL classes to students 6 to 16 years of age. With quality materials, instruction and care, our students have prospered and gone on to some of the best schools, colleges and universities in Taiwan.

A common thread: the customer needs development

There is a common thread running through all of these businesses, and their respective success/failures. We’ve struggled to cultivate our customers in each of the businesses we’ve run; it doesn’t matter whether the business is corporate, personal, adult or child-related.

In the first home school I ran, it was difficult to put out flyers, make contacts, get phone numbers, and do sales because my language skills were insufficient; the market was quite limited; and customers didn’t understand what they were buying or why.

In the second business, customers primarily cared about the bottom line costs; the impact on their business; their cost structure; and regularly played other ESL type consultances off against each other to keep costs down. We failed, despite our best efforts, to differentiate our service from the larger competitors around us.

In the current business, our biggest problem is the scale of our market. We are perhaps described as a big fish in a small pond. There are a number of competitors here, too. But none of them is a direct competitor for our business. Each of them chips away at a corner of our own market: the younger end is chased by the kindergartens, the older by the cramschools, the in-between by the all-in-one schools (who tutor Chinese, English, and math).

To successfully cultivate your customers, you need a clear plan to carry out: and this represents my best thinking on the subject.

1. Collate, collect and analyse your information

There is no way that you can understand your clients and your potential market without knowing about your clients. So you need to keep records of your clients’ personal information and contact information.

Build mailing lists, email lists, contact lists, and make the information available to your staff so that you can reach out when you need to. Whenever you need to promote something, this information will come in very handy, and save you a lot of time when you need to distribute flyers or disseminate news about your new product or service.

2. Promote, promote, promote

You need to promote your business as best you can in as many ways as you have time to do. While word of mouth is the best way to succeed as it pre-qualifies your customers, you cannot rely on it alone.

Set up your promotion campaign in whatever way you like; when you have a successful promotional campaign, rinse and repeat. When it fails, examine the reasons and move on. You still succeeded to get your name out in front of people, and they will call or drop in. There is no real failure in promotion, even if you didn’t get any sales at all. You still got a chance to talk to people.

We use flyers, posters, websites, email lists, facebook and much more to get information across; but there are still lots of other ways to advertise.

3. Educate your customers

It’s one thing that I consistently remind my colleagues: we need to educate our customers, no matter what they believe. Our ideas and practices are different from the typical ESL suppliers in the local market, and parents often forget that all schools are NOT the same, no matter what they think.

We benefit from this because we can ‘steal’ students from schools that use traditional methods of learning, by pointing out to parents that their little kids can barely say ‘hello’ even after 3 years of English class. Our method works: they can hear and see it for themselves.

But sometimes, parents think they can take their kid and put them back into a traditional classroom after a few years in our school, and they don’t realize that the time they spent teaching their child to speak and use English will be largely lost after just 6-9 months in a traditional classroom.

Educate your customers on the basis of what your product or service hopes to achieve, show and explain how it benefits them directly and why it’s worth what they pay. If necessary, do a direct comparison with the competition.

Those are three of the lessons I’ve learned from teaching and running my own business in Taiwan for the past four years. I’m sure there’s much more I could add. But I want to open the floor to hear your opinions, so do let me know what you think!