One of the reasons my partner and I started an online business was to be able to work non-traditional hours so we could spend more daytime hours with our kids. While we certainly chat on the phone and email with customers and suppliers during the day, we do spend significant work time outside the traditional 9-5 office hours. We fill and pack orders, update inventory and the site, write various communications and marketing materials, research new products and companies, work on the accounts and determine short and long term strategies for the business.
In general, this works well for us, but a string of events that we have participated in this spring has reminded me of the necessity of face-to-face time with our customers. All of the events attracted a different type of customer, yet they all reinforced that we need to spend time with real live customers in person, and not just online.
At the Earth Day event in Maple Ridge, put on by the local Recycling Center, we were blown away by the enthusiasm of the people who popped by our table. Young and old stopped by to visit with us and chat about their efforts in going green. It was a gorgeous sunny day and we probably met over a few hundred people who were committed to the environment. Customers raved over the stainless steel products we had with us that day – popsicle molds, airtight containers, ice cube trays, baby cutlery, plates, bowls and particularly the straws we had that day, which we couldn’t keep up on the table fast enough. It was a very anti-plastic crowd! Surprisingly, toys also did really well that day; people were really pleased to find sustainably made toys. By the end of the day, my partner & I both felt incredibly energized about the new customers we met, and the fact that the products we carry really resonated with them.
A week later, we participated in the Port Community Fair – a fun event, but with a completely different audience. It was not a particularly “green” crowd; it was a lot of people looking for deals, a lot of people just meandering in the recreation center, and a lot of people who had already bought from us, but who we had never met in person. It’s always wonderful to meet people in person. We recognize virtually all of their names, and it’s nice to associate a face with that multi-dot lunch bag, tea culture and swim diaper. We met a woman who has been ordering from us since we started! For this more mainstream crowd, litterless lunch products were huge that day – reusable bags, cutlery, the always-popular snack taxis and water bottles.
The following week was the very busy Bellies to Babies celebration, which is just a sea of giant pregnant bellies everywhere. Excited, nervous and very tired expectant moms waddled their way through the aisles, talking with us about everything from baby lotions to cloth diapers to baby wearing. Their excitement was palpable. Additionally, it was interesting to confirm that for many (like us) it is the prospect of becoming a parent that suddenly opens the mind to the global and personal implications of making more environmentally choices.
Anyone who has participated in trade shows and events knows the amount of work and preparation involved before, during and after an event. Likely, they also know the high of having a successful show, meeting prospective and existing customers and getting validation of your products and business ideas.
For us, it is great to come out from our web world and meet customers in person. These events let us talk with people face to face. We can chat with them about what they like and what they don’t like; we can gauge body language, see what products they touch physically, watch their faces when we mention a price, and above all, engage in real dialogue about what they are interested in and what they are not.
I do love the flexibility of working at night, and in small bursts around other activities, but I also periodically have to remind myself that I must come out during the day and meet our customers face to face for the business to grow and to recharge myself! Our wonderful customers are a great reminder that there is clearly a need for some more mainstream, convenient, sustainable products and customers are thrilled to have a one stop shop to buy them.