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Listen, Probe, Touch: When Entrepreneurs Sell to Customers as Individuals

Scott Corlett, CEO, NexGift

In 1998, I founded NexGift, a company whose underlying concept is so simple that if I hadn't launched the business, someone else surely would have. At NexGift, we enable mid-sized companies in the gift industry to establish a presence on the Internet for a fraction of what they would have to spend to develop and maintain their own Web sites.

For a modest monthly fee, retailers with annual revenue of $250,000 to $2 million are immediately put on a par with the giants. Such catalog titans as Lillian Vernon have long since discovered the necessity of what I call the rifle-shot approach to marketing and selling in today's business environment. Others might call it one-to-one marketing or mass customization. But what all of those terms mean is simply this: Consumer-based companies, entrepreneurial and otherwise, need to be taking the measure of their customers as individuals and giving those flesh-and-blood people precisely what they personally want.

Or else...

These days, that or else is a big issue: Companies that don't accept and master the implications of the power now being in the hands of the consumer won't be around very long. In industries ranging from gifts and toys to jewelry and furniture--indeed, those very fields that NexGift itself has targeted for its own expansion--the first companies to provide for an individual's needs and desires will own that customer.

Over the past year of serving our own gift-industry clients, I've learned that taking the measure of the customer-as-individual involves a three-pronged approach: listen-probe-touch. What follows is a discussion of each element:

  • Listen
    At NexGift, we link the retailers who are our clients not only to the Web itself but also to other players in their industry: manufacturers as well as trade and sales representatives. Aiming to create a virtual community, we must listen carefully. At the beginning, we conducted interviews with 20 retailers, searching for what, in a perfect world, they would want from an online service. Only then were we able to develop exactly the product they craved. Many answers surprised us. For example, even though we didn't think a chat room would be a valuable online tool for gift retailers, our clients specifically requested that feature.
  • Probe
    Through a method we call statistical process control, or SPC, we ask everyone--clients and employees--for feedback every week. We don't pose specific questions. That would skew the results. Rather we just ask them to tell us something. How they're feeling. Good? Bad? What they're thinking about. We've occasionally had responses like, "My dog died, and I feel terrible." But many times, we're alerted to desires that we hadn't even imagined. Recently, several clients told us they wanted their sites to include an additional button to customize for their own purpose: a link to their newsletter, for example, or to such promotional programs as artist signings.
  • Touch
    At NexGift, we make it a point to reach out and touch our customers a few times a month--through an e-mail message, a postcard, or a clip from a magazine we think could be helpful. In short, we strive continually to give our customers better service. That means using the personal touch, and conversely, avoiding at all costs the appearance of impersonal business formalities like form letters. These days, customers no longer have to buy a product "as is." It is up to the business to be flexible enough to provide what customers want.

As one-to-one marketing takes hold, it is fast becoming essential. It is what people will demand in the future. To assure your future as an entrepreneur, you must learn to listen, probe, and touch. These steps will enable you to gather information about your customers. That, in turn, will enable you to serve your customers as individuals.

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