A recent survey commissioned by e-mail marketing provider Campaigner found the top challenge facing small business owners today is customer acquisition and retention -- by a landslide.  The 2009 State of Small Business Online Marketing Survey questioned over 250 North American small business owners with 20 employees or less.  And customer acquisition/retention was the top business challenge of 50 percent of those surveyed.  Growing revenue was a distant second with 15 percent, followed by improving cash flow and maintaining profitability -- at 9 percent and 8 percent respectively.

The numbers in this survey seems to be on point with other studies I've seen over the past year.  While revenue growth, cash flow, and profitability are extremely important to any business, they are all driven by the most important asset businesses can have -- good customers. And many small businesses do not have enough of those good customers to fuel the other three top challenges they're faced with.

Small businesses are looking for ways to build better, stronger relationships with customers.   And many need to bring on new customers before they can even worry about retaining them. But with the rise of the social customer, this mean it's critical to connect with them in a way that builds trust. 

A recent EdelmanTrust survey found that trust is key to building and extending business relationships.  But the most trusted people customers and prospects turn to for product information are not company employees or management -- in fact, these are among the least likely people tend they'll turn to at first.  Instead, people tend to trust academic researchers, industry experts, and people like them.  They are also relying more and more on their social networks, industry bloggers, and opinion sites to determine what vendors to engage.  And these interactions with trusted entities are creating organic communities that can help companies create good customers, and business longevity.  Below are some ways for companies to communitize their efforts to engage socially-empowered customers.

Participate

Before we can really expect communities to form around our companies, we need to add value to the communities that have already formed around our customers and prospects.  This means finding out what social networks they hang out on, what subjects interest them, which bloggers they listen to, and anything else that will help us understand what makes them tick.  This calls for a lot of listening.  Listening is a form of participating that gets overlooked by many, but is the most important step in engagement.  Without listening and understanding what's important to your target, your attempts to add value to the communities important to them will not be as successful, which in turn will sabotage your trust-building efforts. 

Facilitate

Listening and participating in trusted communities can show customers and prospects that you are sincerely interested in them -- beyond the transaction.  Showing a genuine interest in what's important to these current or potential customers can help you facilitate activities that will help them find solutions to what's currently on their minds. You may be able to help connect them to trusted resources -- and it's okay if these resources are not necessarily directly related to your business.

A great example of this is BatchBlue, a small business that provides an online customer relationship management (CRM) solution aimed at the small business market.  They started facilitating a weekly Twitter chat called the SBBUZZ, which discusses topics of importance to startups and entrepreneurs.  They bring in experts in different areas to interact with the people who participate in these two-hour weekly sessions.  And they post the transcripts of these chats up on a blog for people who weren't able to attend to access the content.  They do not promote their product or service. Instead, they facilitate the opportunity for small businesses to share information, connect with experts, and to engage each other.  So what started at the beginning of the year with no followers on Twitter, now has over 13,000 followers -- with hundreds of active participants each week.  And this community of small businesses continues to sing the praises of BatchBlue for understanding their need for this type of interaction. It has helped the company become a trusted, valued company to small businesses looking for CRM services.

If customer acquisition and retention is important to you, than using online channels to build trust is key to the survival of your business.  Customers are looking for much more than a transaction from vendors today.  The customer experience has to touch them in ways that may not have mattered before, but are crucial in the Social Era we're now in.  It's too easy to switch vendors because your competitor is just a click away.  So take the time to thoroughly understand what is important to the customers.  And it's growing more apparent that interacting with each other, influential experts, and other trusted entities are an important component to the customer experience.

So improving the community experience should go a long way towards improving the customer experience, which should help with the biggest challenge facing small businesses.  Community can raise customers, and your business.

Brent Leary is a small-business technology analyst, adviser, and award-winning blogger. He is the co-author of Barack 2.0: Social Media Lessons for Small Business. His blog can be found at http://brentleary.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/brentleary.

Published on: Nov 1, 2009