One of the best, and worst, aspects of running an online business is that you interact with your customers from behind a computer screen.
It's wonderful to be able to work from home, in your pajamas, while nursing a baby. It's amazing, really.
But it's also very different from being in a face-to-face business setting, especially when it comes to interacting with your customers. You don’t see people's faces when they first come across your product. You can’t watch them examining your listings, choosing or not choosing to buy something.
In all sorts of businesses, online or not, it can be hard to discern what customers think once they’ve purchased your product. It’s all a mystery, unless they decide to tell you.
Interacting with your customers can be fantastically rewarding. When you hear directly from someone who's spent their money on your product and is now using it you can figure out how to improve it or describe it better. If they love your product, you can celebrate that with them.
Interacting with customers can also be irritating, though, and even scary. Some customers are very demanding and some will inevitably be angry. If you have a great product, this is a small minority, but it will exist nonetheless.
Here are a few recent interactions that illustrate the ups and downs of hearing from your audience. First, the rewarding sort of interaction. I got the following email earlier this week:
Dear Abby 😉
Thanks so much for your blog!! I was sitting down to start a toy and decided to do a quick search for any techniques I might need since the internet happened since the last toy I made. Your work is so amazing and I know that I will be MUCH happier knowing your tips, specifically gussets! Thanks for all your excellent teaching! I look forward to spending more time on your site and bragging on you to my friends.
How nice to know that this person, whom I’ve never met, appreciates all my efforts to teach soft toy design. I'm very grateful to get many emails like this each week. Truly they are what motivate me to keep going. (*If you love a particular blog or product, email the person behind it and say so! Your words are very much appreciated!)
Next, the irritating kind. This was a blog comment two weeks ago on a post that is several years old:
I wanted the FREE Goldfish pattern. Your page says to follow the link at the bottom and there isn't one unless i missed it. Can you please send me a link.
Sometimes it feels like everyone on the internet is just searching for free stuff. Ugh. Answering this question means using my time to support a pattern that doesn't make me any money. It also means being extra nice to someone who has phrased their message in a rather demanding manner. But this is part of customer interaction. It's part of my job.
And then there's the frightening. For me, this blog is one of my products so I consider comments and questions here to be part of customer interaction. This comment was left on a post I wrote entitled, "The Real Truth About Blog Giveaways." It was a post that took an opposing viewpoint to what most people say on this topic, and this particular reader vehemently disagreed with me.
Lots of broad generalizations going on here :/ Sometimes bloggers do giveaways because they…. actually just want to give something away! I did one on my makeup blog to give away a few extra bottles of my favorite nail polish (that I had purchased, this wasn't a sponsored giveaway), just because I loved it so much and wanted to share it with others. I've participated in a few that other bloggers have done for the same reasons. Easy, simple, and a little bit of fun. You've done a great job making it seem like everyone has some evil corporate ulterior motive behind their giveaways.
And, I know this may blow your mind, but not every blogger checks their stats obsessively… Not every blogger out there is in it to promote their business-blog, make money, and earn comments and likes! Back to that 'sharing' thing… Some of us just want to share our stuff with the world.
It can be hard to read the words of someone who is really angry about what you've said or done. After taking several deep breaths, though, I thought that this comment was really valuable. Many readers probably agreed with her, but didn't take the time to say so.
Here’s the thing about all of those sorts of interatcions: they're all good. They're good because people are talking. Interactions mean that people are out there looking, reading, buying, and making things based on what I've created. And then they’re talking to me.
Interacting with your readers and customers is how you grow professionally.
The hardest thing to bear is silence. If you are indeed making things and putting them out in the world, what does silence mean? Do they hate it, but they’re just being nice? Are they afraid to say anything? Do they think your too busy to respond, or that you'll be angry or just not care?
Everyone I know who blogs or has a creative business wants to interact with their audience. But how do you get people to talk? What can you do to increase customer engagement?
1. Be generous.
First and foremost, put things out into the world on a regular basis. The more you make, the more there is for people to talk about. Finish that thing on your desk and post it tomorrow, okay?
Reciprocity is a genuine and natural human response. If someone emails you to ask for help, give of your time and expertise and really help them. Create a free tutorial and give it away on your blog. Offer to guest post on someone else’s blog. When you give, you create a subconscious feeling in the other person to return the favor. Be a giver.
2. Be approachable.
If we read your daily complaints about how busy you are, how many emails are piling up in your inbox, and how difficult your life is, we feel hesitant to add anything to your plate. The message you’re sending is, “Don’t talk to me. It’ll add to my burden.”
By the same token, don’t pretend that you’re on top of everything and your life and business are perfect. Sometimes being less polished is better. Write about a misstep. Admit to being wrong. Be a little vulnerable. It’s hard to approach someone we feel is perfect.
3. Be a good hostess.
When I was teaching 6th grade I used to really admire the English teacher in the classrooom next door to mine, an older, burly guy named Lou. I remarked to a friend, "I don't understand it. No matter what, the kids love Lou so much!"
She said to me, "Does he love them?"
That question really hit home for me. Yes, he loved them dearly. And that was why they love him.
You need to really love your customers and hang out with them. Are they on Instagram? Or Facebook? Get on there and chat with them. Enjoy their company. They are the lifeblood of your business.
This week I've been emailing back and forth with a woman who has some questions about whether she's allowed to sell items she's made from another author's craft book. I've been helping her get a solid answer. This morning I got this email this from her and I think it really speaks to that point:
Thanks so much for all your replies. I never expected to to hear back from a pro when I reached out and started asking questions.
Be the pro that responds.
4. Be responsive.
Write back promptly and with a positive, upbeat tone. When I was organizing the blog tour for Stuffed Animals I contacted a sewing blogger who makes lots of things for children, including softies. I showed her samples of pages from my book, sent a link to the trailer, and asked if I might send her a copy to look at. I didn’t hear back so I followed up a week later. Still nothing. I’ll never forget that.
Everyone deserves a response.
And when someone writes and is angry, which they will do, don’t pick a fight with them or try to teach them a moral lesson. Respond professionally and promptly and be nice. Taking someone’s concern seriously can diffuse a lot of tricky situations.
5. Be personal
It’s hard to reach out to someone you can’t see. We need a face to put with your name so post a picture of yourself on the front page of your blog. That way we’ll know who we’re talking to.
“My 3-year old is trying to convince me that green conversation hearts are a vegetable so she can eat them for breakfast.” That was my tweet on Valentine’s Day at 8:00 am. Nice try kid.
Tell us a little about yourself. You don’t have to reveal personal stuff, but show us some glimpses of your life, your family, what you’re cooking, what you’re buying. Treat us like you would a friend. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are great for this sort of quick, personal sharing.
Are there bloggers or creative business people you are afraid to engage with? What puts you off? And what makes you take the leap that first time you reach out and get in touch?