Why customisation and personalisation are the ultimate weapons for SMEs

Tweaking and personalising a product or service is nothing new, it’s been done by businesses for years as a way of attracting new customers and holding onto existing ones.

Now, however, the rise of digital and ecommerce has the practice back under the microscope and has begun to separate the wheat from the chaff – singling out companies which are able to convince customers that they might know them even better than they know themselves.

Mark Robinson, market business developer at technology firm Canon, believes customers need to be targeted with “highly relevant offers” in order to cut through into the the small business space – where a record 581,173 were set up last year.

While choice is good for customers, Robinson believes you can have too much of a good thing. “Amazon and Apple, for example, have boosted sales significantly by suggesting books and music based on customer preferences and previous purchases,” he said.

However, if you’re not a global corporation like Amazon and Apple, then what can you do to improve your offering?

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“As a first step, small business owners should learn as much as possible about customers and their buying behaviour, recording any last detail in a central database – from customers’ profession and birthdays to their favourite colour,” Robinson said.

“Today’s customers have never been more demanding and will move to a different brand in a heartbeat if they feel they don’t get the service they expect. Coffee shop owners, for example, should know the preference of their regular customers and offer them their drink of choice when they enter the store, without a prompt.”

Knowledge, he added, can be a real differentiator for small businesses and help them to form closer and more profitable relationships with customers.

Evidence of this is flower delivery service Bloom & Wild. Taking advantage of the fact that very few customers have any kind of company or brand loyalty when it comes to buying flowers online, it learns about their likes, dislikes and day-to-day lives. From this, Bloom & Wild can make suggestions for bouquets and automatically send out flowers for the birthdays of friends or family.

The business has also built a convenient app so that customers can easily specify the flowers they are after and not have to worry if a last-minute gift is in order. With the cost of building an app decreasing by the day, smaller companies like Bloom & Wild are punching above their weight as well as highlighting the growing trend of personalisation.

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One small business that has been very particularly successful in getting close to its customers is Florrie+Bill. Set up in 2012, it specialises in high-quality restoration and re-upholstery of vintage and retro chairs. Co-founder Amy Cawson explained to Real Business that the majority of her customers are those that look for an investment piece, a unique chair that they will keep for many years to come.

Explaining how she is competing against bigger, more established businesses, Cawson said: “The larger high street brands are all reproducing similar mid-century style chairs, at a comparably lower price point.

“My business is completely different. I am restoring the original, beautifully handcrafted classics, ultimately saving them from landfill, and restoring them sympathetically and to a high standard. This is a process the customer is a part of from start to finish.”

When a customer deals with Florrie+Bill, they interact directly with Cawson – the “face behind the brand”. All her chairs can be customised with almost any fabric the client requires, not limited to a small selection from a swatch book in store. They can also supply their own material if required.

“If you are close to your customers, you get more of an understanding of their exact requirements. Personal email or phone contact is made throughout the process, and at any point should a delay or a problem arise, it can be discussed openly and rectified as soon as possible without bad feeling,” she added. “Not that this happens very often, but its always nice to know that this trust will develop over the course of a sale.”

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Like Florrie+Bill, cards and wrapping paper firm Dom and Geri is securing strong growth by taking a personalised-first approach. Offering a better alternative to the generic offerings on the high street, it has been in operation for three years and is expanding by around 55 per cent a year.

Its scalability has been managed by investing “heavily” in all the latest mobile and desktop applications and feedback is dealt with through customer reviews on Trustpilot.

“Many of our repeat customers return to the website to buy because they trust us to deliver quickly and provide better quality wrapping paper and cards than many of our competitors,” Dominic Copsey Sr, told us.

“By continually striving to offer a first class customer service, we have a loyal customer base that buy from us throughout the year for special occasions and seasonal events. New customers find us through our presence on Google and through affiliate channels such as eBay and Amazon.”

Copsey went on to say that Dom and Geri is able to understand customers better the more they buy from the company – gathering data and storing it for later transactions. Because it is family-owned, it can facilitate special orders and requests that many larger companies can’t.

“We have recently launched a new mobile site, one that now offers a fast mobile experience and streamlines the personalisation process. We can be far more reactive than large competitors and offer a very personal service – plus there is a good chance a customer will speak with either Dom or Geri most days, including weekends.”

The interactive nature of Dom and Geri, fuelled by utilising technology on its website, means customers can experience the fun of experimenting with different prints and designs – making the shopping process enjoyable and more likely to be repeated.

But what about losing this competitive advantage? As a business grows and starts to resemble the bigger enterprises it was doing a better job of personalisation and customisation than, how can these key customer acquisition tools be maintained?

Copsey doesn’t have any worries here as he sees the firm as being in a good position with what it offers. If it can’t continue to offer a high level of service it “wouldn’t want to be in business”.

On the flip side, Cawson does have some concerns. “As my business grows it is understandable my time will be taken up dealing with other projects and areas in the business. As employees join my company, my main aim is for those that have contact with clients carry though the personal service – using email, phone calls, showroom visits and also interesting with them via social media channels.”

This kind of contact, when paired with data accumulation, can be a powerful recipe for success. Canon’s Robinson said: “Small businesses can develop highly-targeted marketing materials, such as direct mails, flyers and posters, with which they can approach the right customer, with the right offer, at the right time.

“And the beauty is that small businesses don’t need to rely on costly suppliers or factor in lengthy production times. They can create professionally-looking marketing materials very easily themselves using affordable business inkjet printers, which produce vivid colour prints and photographs, as well as sharp and clear black-and-white text documents.”

To help businesses which want to produce a more personalised and tailored approach, we brought together some top tips from the businesses we spoke to.

(1) Look at your product offering and find out which products or components of that product can be customised. Try not to overcomplicate the selections for bespoke choices – consumers already have too much choice elsewhere. Remember, less is more

(2) For anyone thinking of providing a customised service, the key thing is to listen to what your customers want and by taking customer requests on board you can offer a service that does just that

(3) Look at companies such as notonthehighstreet.com as it’s is a perfect example of the personalisation model, one you can charge more for. People are always on the look out for a quick but personal gift.

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