New And Improved Service

Product sampling and test-marketing can help you refine your business

Major manufacturers are constantly touting new and improved versions of existing products or claiming that product X beat product Y in a taste test. And they often give free samples or product demonstrations to entice customers to buy. On a lesser scale, small businesses can employ similar product sampling, test-marketing or demonstration tactics to create awareness of their products and services and attract new customers. These tactics also allow small businesses to get feedback on new or existing items.

One of the advantages that the small business has over a big one is the opportunity to be closer to its customers, says Dick Schaaf, author of Keeping The Edge: Giving Customers the Service They Demand (Dutton Plume, $13.95). “You don’t have to mass-mail product samples to 5,000 prospects. Smaller is better. If you have an industry niche or geographic niche, it may be a matter of picking a group of five people to sample your product. One beneficial — use of sampling is to test prototypes of products. Auto companies often use this approach when introducing the prototype of a new car–they solicit feedback from people coming into dealerships. “We find that it is very useful to gather feedback in cases where the customer has just experienced the product or service,” says John Goodman, president of Arlington, Virginia-based TARP Inc., which specializes in customer service, satisfaction and retention. Also, it’s better to test on a small scale so that if your product or service fails, it will be a small disaster, not a big one, and taking corrective measures will be easier.

The key is to find people who are representative of your customer base and not necessarily favorable or partial to your business, cautions Schaaf. For instance, “If a Lexus dealer has me sample his newest cars, I am not a good prospect, because I am never going to buy a $40,000 car. The dealer would be foolish to have me product testing or service testing for them, because I am not their clientele.”
Moreover, make it a mutually beneficial experience for customers and business owners. For example, the owners of a restaurant chain went through their Rolodex and invited clients to their grand opening. That way, they were able to solicit customer feedback on the wait staff, cooks, food and menu. In exchange, the guests received a free meal and some familiarity with the new restaurant.

Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of running out to hire the vendor that a company like Coca-Cola would use to do test-marketing or sampling. These firms may be accustomed to working with large aggregate numbers and crunching a lot of data, but they may not have expertise in analyzing small, selective types of sampling.

“There is a whole series of channels the small owner can use to solicit feedback on existing products or find out what other needs their customers have,” says Goodman. “They can use their frontline employees to get people to try new products or services. So, when a customer calls in to

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