Knowing your customers is the key to success

The importance of knowing your customers is critical for any business. Apollo Blinds' General Manager Patrick Harrison discusses why the company commissions regular research on its customer profile as part of its strategy for network growth

It's critically important for a business to know its customer base. I know this may sound blindingly obvious, but if you are thinking of starting your own franchise business one of the critical questions you should be asking yourself is who your customers will be. Can you describe them? Could you identify characteristics about them? Do you know their habits and preferences? Could you identify a celebrity that best exemplifies your target customer?

It's actually a harder process to generate the information which answers those questions than it first appears. Our franchisees do find that a wide cross-section of the public visit their showrooms and for us that's one of the key benefits of having a retail premises, because anyone can walk in off the street to get help and advice on buying window blinds.

But just because anyone can walk through the door doesn't mean that we should base a business model on being all things to all people. Not even the leading supermarkets can achieve this, although it sometimes feels they are as close as anyone is ever going to get to doing it.

But where they have set the benchmark is the clinical precision with which they know their customers and use this to their advantage to strengthen the loyalty of existing customers and maximise their spending.

We have followed their example and it is paying off, quite dramatically. When we launched our new branding 18 months ago we knew who we wanted to target. We had extensive socio-economic data about our target audience as well as supplementary information about their lifestyle and habits. We created a brand that would appeal to them and we are now seeing an increase in the number of what we call cash-rich time-poor customers.

We know these people are very capable of buying and fitting window blinds themselves but they much prefer to buy into a brand and the service which comes with it as much as the product they are purchasing.

For them, they are not just buying window blinds, they are getting expert advice on the right window blinds so they can maximise the mood and atmosphere of each room in their home. And once they have worked with one of our franchise consultants then it naturally follows that they prefer to have someone from Apollo Blinds come in and fit the blinds for them. And the best part is that they are prepared to pay a premium for this so our franchisees can achieve even higher profit margins.

Our franchisees are already reporting that they are getting more enquiries from households where before the old-look Apollo Blinds would not have got a look in. But, better than that, franchisees are also reporting that they have more confidence to show these customers the more exclusive higher-end ranges that we have available.

It's amazing what the power of a brand can achieve and this is why our network of high street showrooms is a pivotal part of this strategy. We know we're going against the grain of the 'man in a van' business model that currently prevails in our industry, but we know that's not the way our target customers want to buy window blinds.

As I said, they are brand conscious and they enjoy buying from a high street retailer. They like the experience of visiting one of our showrooms to get advice in the first instance because, after all, buying window blinds is not always a snap decision.

This initial contact also enables our customers to get ideas on their own terms and it gives them the choice of how they want to proceed. This is something that simply isn't possible with 'man in a van' style selling because the only way a customer can find out what products the salesperson has is to invite them into their home. And this is not always something people are comfortable with, especially when they are at the browsing stage and still trying to decide what they want.

A showroom on a high street also tackles the 'what if something goes wrong' factor which is always part of any consumer purchasing decision. There's nothing more reassuring than knowing you can go back to the shop and talk to someone if there is a problem. By knowing who our customers are, what they want and how they buy, we have shaped our offering to maximise the opportunities for our franchisees to build their own businesses within our network.

But just because we are increasing the size of our market share and franchisee network, because we are appealing to a more affluent target market, doesn't mean we can rest on our laurels.

Things can change and we want to make sure Apollo Blinds is ahead of the game because knowing who our customers are means we can continue to ensure our service and products meets their needs.