More than a year ago, I adopted a five-month-old puppy named Bella. She is a puggle – part pug, part beagle – who spent her early months in a puppy mill. I was working as an accountant at the time, and never thought that this shy little dog would pave the way for my future career as an entrepreneur in the pet industry.
Several months later, I started my business, Canada Pooch Ltd., and we are off to a great start. Canadian pet owners are excited about our products, and are seeing the value in our brand. Our products are now sold in hundreds of stores across Canada, and we are growing at a quick clip.
I did not invent the dog jacket – there is plenty of competition. So why would someone choose Canada Pooch's products over others? It comes down to our customer focus when designing, manufacturing, and marketing our jackets.
Be your customer
Raising Bella through puppyhood brought about changes to my life. I got more exercise, made new dog-owner friends and, most importantly, was exposed to the joys of pet-product consumption.
I remember that first fateful trip to Petsmart. Unfortunately, my boyfriend did not accompany me so I was free to engage in uninhibited spending. Things started out fine as we roamed the aisles for necessities, but derailed when I put Bella in charge of selecting her own toys and bones. We overspent, but had a blast, so I didn't care.
My behaviour at Petsmart demonstrated why I know my customers so well: I am my customer. I am part of a demographic of dog owners who view their dogs as important members of the family, and are concerned about their pet's health, comfort, and happiness.
I designed Canada Pooch jackets to meet my own personal needs and wants as a dog owner and, in doing so, believe I created jackets that would appeal to a broad audience of dog-loving individuals just like me.
Meet your customer
Since I adopted my dog, I have gone to a local park at 5:30 p.m. almost every day to socialize with Bella's friends and their owners. This little afternoon break was always a great way to get outside and meet new people, but it also turned out to be the best possible source of market research and product testing.
When I was writing my business plan, I spent endless hours reviewing industry reports and pet product statistics, but that information never told me what product attributes would appeal to pet owners.
Luckily, I had a ready-made 20-person focus group at the park to help me hammer out what functionality, styling, and packaging would appeal to them.
Since I learned early on that direct customer communication was the best product research, I continued that approach as I developed new product lines.
Not only did the event help us to finalize our upcoming spring styles, but it led to great online buzz, loads of new Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and the opportunity to meet our customers in person to get their feedback on our winter line.
This type of customer-focused research has not only proven invaluable to product development, but it has also built a great deal of brand awareness for our company.
Listen to your customer
I have learned that people have pretty strong opinions when it comes to their dogs, and they enjoy sharing those opinions via e-mail and social media.
The result is fantastic – a slew of unsolicited product ideas and recommendations. We are talking about a large volume of customers telling you what they want, when they want it, and where they want to buy it – and this information is free and requires no effort to obtain.
Receiving e-mails from customers is always the highlight of my day. The e-mails are always enthusiastic and often include humorous and thoughtful ideas for new products, product improvements, new selling outlets, and other useful information.
I always find that it is worth taking the time to really listen to advice and suggestions from customers. They often think of ideas I never considered.
In fact, a significant amount of our current product development is based on customer recommendations. I am a big advocate of maintaining close ties with customers. It is great for your product and brand, and makes running a business far more fun.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Jacqueline Prehogan is the founder and president of Canada Pooch Ltd., a Toronto-based pet apparel design company.