BY TATSUYA NAKAGAWA Over the years, I’ve worked with many companies on developing products and helping to market them. Through this process I’ve observed that the most successful companies are the ones that consistently engage with their customers. Attributing time and resources to understand your customer before you spend that first dollar will significantly increase your chances of success. As obvious as this may sound, it’s rarely the case that entrepreneurs do this kind of research. Even the biggest companies in the world get this wrong. Create a customer advisory board So how do you successfully get to know your customers without going over the top with your marketing budget? One way is to create a customer/advisory group. Through this group you will know which product features or services are not valued by customers and eliminate those; reducing costs as a result. You can also find ways to customize or improve your product or service offering and increase sales without going through an extensive market research. Finally, this group can help you refine your marketing message and communication channels so that you get more out of your marketing budget. And what type of people should be on your board? I suggest the following: Current Customers. Select a core group of excellent customers to give you regular feedback about your products. Learn about the customers’ lifestyle and the day-to-day challenges they face. For a B2B company, you’re heading in the right direction if you know enough to run their company. Potential Customers. Find out what they currently use and why they like it. Agents/Distributors. Depending on your business model. You may want to engage your agents or distributors on customer needs and insights. Professional investors. Strategy investors may understand industry trends that could be useful in uncovering customer needs. Strategic alliance partners. This could be anyone else who services the same market segment (i.e. suppliers). This could be industry consultants as well (technical and marketing). Learning something new each day Commit yourself to learning one new thing about your customer every day. In my personal experience, I’ve found that top companies often have at least 200+ key data points on their ideal customer. If you’re nowhere near that, don’t worry, it’s easy to catch up. With this kind of commitment to understanding your customers, you’ll be surprised at how it will increase your bottom line.