There were more than four million applications to start a business in the U.S. in 2020, showing that new small business growth has remained healthy during the Covid-19 pandemic. While there are a variety of reasons to start a business, many founders do so because they feel they have a better understanding of what their potential customers want than other organizations. As a former startup founder, I can empathize with their thinking.

The trouble is, when it comes to delivering the content, communications, and experiences consumers want, many entrepreneurs and small businesses are further off than they realize.

Part of my role at Constant Contact is to find new ways for small businesses and entrepreneurs to make better connections with their customers and scale their businesses efficiently using technology like artificial intelligence. What I've learned is that most brand communications are based on broad assumptions instead of actual consumer behavior. They become less relevant and timely as a result of sharing the wrong content with the wrong audience.

Overcoming this challenge is simple: Treat customers like human beings and find ways to give them what they need. The brands that act human, learn their customers' preferences, and consistently deliver value are the ones that separate from the pack.

Here are a few tips for injecting a human-first approach to your business.

Listen and Learn

The most important thing any business leader can do is listen to their customers and learn what they need. It takes hard work and a human touch to truly connect with your audience, and technology can never replicate that. When this step is neglected, messages won't provide any value to customers and will likely be missed or deleted.

We recently asked small business leaders if they were confident in knowing their customers' preferences, and 84 percent said yes. However, when we asked consumers what they wanted from brands, we found gaps across everything from email content to online shopping. Clearly, small businesses and entrepreneurs still have some work to do when it comes to learning what's most valuable to their customers.

It's the founder's role to understand not only why this gap exists, but to then take the necessary steps to close it. As this past year has shown, consumer behavior can drastically change depending on what's going on in the world around them. When was the last time you picked up the phone and talked to your customers? It's impossible to deliver helpful information if you don't know what they want -- so ask!

Adapt and Grow

Once you understand what your customers are looking for, A.I. and automation are the best tools to help scale that relevancy efficiently. Automating things like customer list management saves time, and A.I. can help build customer loyalty by predicting what type of content they are most likely to engage with.

Entrepreneurs and small business leaders have a strong desire to "do it themselves" though (I can relate), which can make implementing this technology a challenge. For example, our research shows that while more than half of small business leaders spend over three hours creating email campaigns, 53 percent don't see the business need for using A.I. and automation.

As these tools continue to become more accessible and user-friendly, I expect we'll see adoption steadily increase over the next few years.

Just Be You

A.I. and automation are helpful tools, but it's important to remember that customers want to hear from other people -- not machines. Don't get so caught up in using technology that you forget to add your own personal touches when it comes to messaging. We're human, and the messages we deliver to customers should reflect that.

Being human also means making mistakes. If you're in business long enough, at some point it's inevitable that something will go wrong. It happens, and that's OK. While a human-first approach is vital to building relationships with customers in your content, automation can help reduce some of the human error that may creep into your execution.

Finding the right balance between automation and manual input will make sure you're staying true to your customers without holding back your business.

Taking Action

Most of us feel like we know what our customers need. I can tell you from experience that there is always more to learn; our customers' needs are also constantly evolving. We need to adapt. There are always more data and insights that can help us get to know them better so we can more effectively serve them.

More often than not, what consumers want is to be treated like humans, and to do businesses with brands that act like humans as well. Talking to customers like you want to be spoken to is often the best way to start, and once that baseline is established, it's much easier to grow when you get a little help from technology.