25 May 2014

Zimbabwe: Beware of Becoming Irrelevant to Your Customers

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Whatever you do, be different -- that was the advice my mother gave me, and I can't think of better advice for an entrepreneur. If you're different, you will stand out. --Anita Roddick, The Body Shop

The first ever Startup Weekend in Zimbabwe has come and gone. A number of exciting technology applications were showcased at this internationally acclaimed event, with the winning group Kwese Music Team walking away with the first prize valued at US$78 000.

Their product is an application called K'tamba.

K'tamba is an app and device that uses everyday objects that are able to conduct electrical current, such as bananas and oranges, as musical instruments. These objects are attached to the device which is connected to a computer that hosts the application.

Through the app, a user can select an instrument whose sound is simulated when the objects are handled by direct human contact.

There were many other apps presented as this was primarily a technology exhibition. Some interesting ones include MoneyGame, an online sports betting platform.

Another exciting app, Combi Code, allows passegers to get information on a commuter omnibus such as its registration, safety record and rating from a QR code on the vehicle. It sounds a lot similar to Easy Taxi, the taxi mobile app that was founded in Brazil in 2012 by German technology startup incubator, Rocket Internet GmBH, and is making a lot of money for young Nigerian entrepreneur Bankole Cardoso as there is a big market for it in his country.

An app is nothing without a viable market

One of the judges at the event, leading industrialist and managing director of Nestle Zimbabwe, Kumbirai Katsande, made a very important point to the participants. He said although all the participants had very brilliant ideas and choosing a winner was difficult, it is the market which will decide the real winners.

The success of a business idea will only be proven by customers wanting and paying for the product or service, a process which can take years to get traction. Developing an app is not enough.

Entrepreneurs must work to build a viable market for it.

However, if customers don't buy a product, a true entrepreneur will not give up but will keep on trying, improving the product or creating new ones until he or she makes a breakthrough. Perseverance, innovation and adaptability are some of the basic characters of entrepreneurs.

Sometimes as business owners, we lose touch with our customers. A colleague of mine recently mentioned to me the problem he was having with a number of customers who were cancelling service contracts or simply failing to pay for services rendered.

The funny thing, he said, was that the same customers were promptly paying for certain services but not for his. We came to the conclusion that my colleague's services were becoming less of a priority to his customers compared to their other more pressing needs. If you find yourself in the same situation, it is important that you question if you are still relevant to your customers, considering the tough economic situation we all are in.

To build a sustainable business or keep your current business above water in these difficult times, you need to be relevant to customers. This is accomplished in two ways.

First, put yourself in customers' shoes. Do you really understand their problems, needs, worries and concerns? It is easy to focus on your product and service, extolling how good it is and how the customer will be better off using it, without thinking about the customer's views and feelings. Stop and think about the pressures customers are under. Empathise with them. Get into their shoes and consider what circumstances could be impacting how they feel. Are they failing to meet basic expenses on time? Do they have workers or landlords clamoring for their dues?

You need to get closer to your clients in order to be able to walk in their shoes. When you are able to walk in the other person's shoes, the empathy and understanding that naturally arises will make you seem engaging, trustworthy, and interested in their success. Without trust and rapport, you will draw away from clients and they may find that you are not such an important priority to their needs.

The second way to become or remain relevant to customers is to be a profit, rather than an expense, to them. Your customers have their own hopes and aspirations for growing their business and making profits. How they view you depends on their perception of you: either as an expense or as part of their growth and profits.

When there is a downturn as in the present, or they are under financial pressure for some reason, they will focus on cutting unnecessary expenses. They will not cut investments that are necessary for their growth and profit. If they see your product or service as a commodity, they can replace it with another cheaper commodity.

Understand your customers and your target market thoroughly so that they see your offering as essential to their business. Please email me your thoughts on how to avoid being irrelevant to customers.

Phillip Chichoni is a business development consultant who works with SMEs and entrepreneurs. You may contact him by email, chichonip@smebusinesslink.com. You can also visit http://smebusinesslink.com

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