How I found my first customers

Getting those elusive first customers is vital to getting your business off the ground - when you're a new business with no track record, how can you persuade people to give you their custom? We spoke to VSU mentor Nicola Williams - otherwise known as Nicky The Balloon Lady, Staffordshire and Cheshire's premier professional balloon decorator. She has been running a variety of businesses for ten years, and currently has two more in the pipeline. Here's how she got her first customers.

Starting up

My husband and I first started in business as owners of wedding cars 10 years ago, and we did this for four years. Within six months of opening the wedding car business, I opened a market stall and made additions to the business by offering wedding stationery and giftware. This then expanded into balloon decorating, which I still continue to do, but I now do this mobile and from home. I am also now currently setting up another two businesses - one in nutrition and wellness, and as a personal and business development adviser.

Where did your first customer come from?

Our first customer for the wedding car business came from the Yellow Pages, and our first customer to the market stall was someone just passing by. This was one of the best benefits of having a market stall - there was already a customer base there.

What did it feel like to make your first sale?

My first sale in both businesses was very exciting, but in different ways. For the wedding cars it was all about excitement for the bride and groom’s big day, helping with their planning and being part of their special day. For for the market stall, the excitement focussed on the special occasion the gift was for.

Marketing activities

For the wedding cars, a website, Yellow Pages listing and a write-up in the local paper worked really well for us. For the market stall we had a good write-up in the local paper, leaflets, and we did some marketing on Facebook - it had only just started to become popular. I also attended wedding fayres and promoted the businesses at lots of events. The market stall already had a customer base, so this was a great help and word of mouth soon spread.

How long did it take you to build up a regular customer base?

With the wedding cars we had to keep attending wedding fayres and advertising, as a wedding is a one-off service. We looked at how to expand and build up a regular customer base so trained as a balloon decorator which opened up a lot more network and  events and customer’s returning to purchase balloons and giftware for more occasions.

Where do you find most of your customers come from now?

Most of my customers now are my regular customers and come from word of mouth.

Any tips for businesses on how to build up a customer base from scratch?

Build up a portfolio, ask your customers in the beginning for a review  - if you're struggling, you could even offer a special deal to new customers in the beginning, in return for honest feedback - and make sure you give your customers a great shopping and customer service experience. Follow up your customers and keep a good customer account management system. In my experience, as long as you are offering a good product or service at the right price, and have great customer service, you will be fine running your own business.

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