4 strategies for growing your business by being helpful

I’m exploring a strategy I call Helpful Marketing based on emerging best practices I see in growing companies. I define it as:

Helpful Marketing is a strategy for winning customers by aggressively pursuing opportunities to prove you help them solve problems.

My initial posts on Helpful Marketing were conceptual – today I will start sharing practices you can implement.

Getting customers is harder every day

The reality is that

… finding customers,
…… getting their attention,
……… winning their trust,
………… getting them to buy,
…………… and keeping them

is getting harder and harder. There is so much noise and choice available – we all collectively tune it out. Just look at your email inbox and count the number of businesses with your “permission” to sell you. You ignore almost all of it.

The solution is to first win customer trust by being helpful before asking for something. The “something” you want from customers could be their respect, insight into their problems, money, time, or social capital.

4 Helpful Marketing strategies

After a year of helping entrepreneurs implement Helpful Marketing strategies I am starting to see patterns of success. Here is a summary, I’ll explore each one in more detail.

Build your reputation Get customer insight Close sales Create evangelists
Problem You don't have a reputation with customers or know enough of them. You don't understand customer problems or don't have solutions. You struggle to convert leads to sales because your solution is expensive, complex, or new. Your customers don't tell you why they leave, are unresponsive or won't tell others.
Goal Meet dozens of customers & earn trust by helping them. Get testimonials, earn build soft network. Create opportunities for conversations about customer problems and possible solutions Get a qualified lead to talk to you. Retain customers. Create evangelists to give you time or social capital.
Best practices Aggressively pursue opportunities to help through content, meetings, calls, etc. Learn about problems & build trust by helping – then test solutions in conversations. Leverage your experience & reputation and help qualified leads. Let them buy once trust is earned. Block out dedicated time or resources to help them solve problems.
How to fail Wait for people to ask you for help. Talk about solution ideas before earning trust by helping them. Try to "help" them by talking about your solution. E.g. Offer unsolicited demos. Rely only on customer service to earn trust.

Build your reputation by being helpful

In many ways starting a business today is easier than ever. The cost of building products continues to fall and we have direct access to worldwide customers through channels like email & social media. Unfortunately this increased capacity to create and deliver our solutions has created another problem: our customers are bombarded with content and products. With so much noise how can new entrepreneurs get noticed?

You could attend meetups, blog, and do random coffee meetings – but after a few months you probably won’t get anywhere. The solution is to target the people you want to help and then pursue opportunities to help them. Doing so will get you experience, social proof from testimonials, and kickstart your word-of-mouth reputation.

Example: Build your reputation to sell Lean Startup services & training

There is a growing demand for corporate Lean Startup training and consulting services. Suppose you want to start selling solutions but don’t have a lot of experience with Lean Startup or a great reputation.

Unfortunately writing generic Lean Startup 101 content won’t help you get noticed. 3 years ago I could write generic blog posts about interviewing customers, testing assumptions, etc. and hit #1 on Hacker News. Today the demand for Lean Startup is 10,000x what it was back then – but the world is so flooded with Lean Startup 101 content that I don’t even bother writing it because nobody will read it.

How can you get above the noise and get noticed? Here is what I suggest.

Start helping these people get started with Lean Startup. They’re not going to find you – you have to aggressively pursue opportunities to find them by speaking, teaching, meeting them in coffee shops, or helping them virtually over Skype or Hangout. Use your blog or meetups as a means of beginning the relationship and offer ways to help them. It doesn’t matter whether you know a lot about Lean Startup – you almost definitely know more than they do. Just make sure you’re focusing on helping them with a specific problem and not just “networking” – the latter is a waste of time.

Write case studies about how you’re helping them and your blog will slowly get more popular. Ask for testimonials after you help someone and post them publicly.

If you’re new to an industry you’ll start seeing results after helping about 10 people. After helping 30 people you will have a reputation and have enough soft contacts to sell solutions. The biggest challenge is getting these opportunities to help people – this boils down to hard work, hustle, and varies with your market.

Get insight into customer problems & solutions by being helpful

When I first started doing Customer Development I expected a systematic process that would start yielding insight after a month or two of hard work. Unfortunately this rarely happens. The obvious problems with solutions tested over a few weeks of Customer Development rarely yield anything – otherwise somebody would already be doing it.

An example in Asia is the “domestic help problem” – families have a hard time finding a good Yaya in the Philippines or Ayi in China. Entrepreneurs envision a platform to match domestic helpers with families. I’ve seen at least 5 teams work on it … and yet Americans still have a problem finding domestic help in Beijing. This problem is vastly more complex or somebody would be doing it.

The most innovation solutions are not sparks of inspiration, but born from understanding customer problems better than anyone else.

Problems are where value is created – hearing lots creates opportunities

Problem-solution value creation

Being helpful creates these opportunities to get insight. You’ll get a deeper understanding of customer problems by hearing a lot of them – and you’ll get an opportunity to test solutions through conversations.

Example: Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas

An example is Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas & best-selling book Running Lean. In 2009–10 he created the first draft of the Lean Canvas asked me to refer entrepreneurs to him from the DC Lean Startup meetup. Ash would spend 1-on–1 time with them over Skype helping them test their ideas with the canvas. This insight lead to Running Lean.

You need deep insight about customer problems to have a prayer at building something innovative – and if your solutions are not resonating you don’t have it. Make time to help customers solve problems and you’ll start creating these opportunities.

Close sales by being helpful

A great web page can convert 4% of leads into sales. A great phone call can convert 80% of leads into sales. If your solution is expensive, complex, or – for most of you reading this – new – and you’re not turning leads into customers, try helping them on the phone, Skype or Hangout.

The challenge is that customers are skeptical and don’t want to call you because they expect a sales pitch (unless they ask for a demo). But they will call you for help solving their problems – if you are an authority or have social proof that you are helpful.

Example: This blog post and my workshops

By reading this you’ve demonstrated an interest in learning how to build your business by being helpful. I’m teaching Helpful Marketing workshops on this topic, so let’s assume you’re a “qualified lead”. Unfortunately for me just reading this post isn’t enough to earn your trust. You’ve never heard of Helpful Marketing before and don’t know what to expect from a workshop.

So what can I do to convince you to pay for my workshop? I need to earn your trust and help you understand how being helpful will grow your business.

Option 1: If you’d like to learn more about my workshops, email me at kevindewalt@kevindewalt.com and I’ll schedule a call with you to tell you more.

Option 2: Are you struggling to find customers, come up with innovative solutions or get them to buy from you? Just grab a spot on my calendar – I’ll be happy to help you think through your options for 30 mins. over Skype.

Which would you do?

Of course you’re probably a bit hesitant about Option 2 – expecting a bait-and-switch sales pitch when we talk. But if you think about it … would you ever buy anything from me if I tried to trick you like this and wasted your time? Of course not. Many of your customers are smart enough to realize this too. This is why service providers offer free consultations.

Surprise them by NOT giving a pitch – just be helpful. Focus on them, their problems. Ask clarifying questions. Get them to tell you their options. You’ll be surprised when they start asking about your solutions – or volunteer useful information on why they can’t or won’t buy. Regardless, you’ll get huge value from the exchange.

The most effective way I see this working is with email auto-responders when someone opts-in for product information, newsletter or trial. It only works if your offer to help them is (1) genuine, (2) you’re seen as an authority, (3) you make it really, really easy for them to get help from you.

Create evangelists by being helpful

Do you …

  • lose customers who cancel without telling you why?
  • struggle to get any customers to respond to emails, surveys, or phone calls?
  • have few customers who create content or refer friends?

If so, you haven’t created enough evangelist customers. You’re asking for time or social capital and they are reluctant to give it to you. And why should they? They’re fulfilling their end of the bargain by paying us, reading our content or using our free products. When I meet entrepreneurs with these problems I ask them what they’re doing to help customers and earn trust – usually they’re not doing anything.

Don’t build a better X – build a better user of X.
—Kathy Sierra

Our users and customers need to view us as authorities on helping them solve their problems – and not just people building things. Your features … product support … FAQ … user manuals … all help them use your product more effectively. Help them be more effective themselves and you’ll win their trust.

Example: Buffer doesn’t make a Twitter tool – it makes your a better marketer

Buffer is a great example of this. Social media marketing is not exactly a domain that inspires our love and excitement. But Joel Gascoigne and the staff at Buffer has been helping entrepreneurs for years build more successful products and market them with their helpful content. This type of customer evangelism has to be earned.

So why don’t more companies do this?

Some companies don’t see the value and assume that customer support will handle it. Or they have a great product and assume that advantage will continue. These companies are starting to get killed because it is now so easy for customers to switch to competitors.

But many don’t help customers because they underestimate how much they know. You have a ton of valuable knowledge about how your customers work. Your customers spend their days reading email or sitting in boring meetings – knowing how their peers are working and solving problems is incredible valuable. You know vastly more than you realize and can use this knowledge to create evangelists.

Helping your existing customers is not hard – you just need to do it.

Be helpful or lose to those who are

We are entering a new era. Our customers are overwhelmed with email. Engagement on social media is falling. Global competitors will copy your solutions and sell them for less.

At the moment, being a Lean Startup still conveys some advantages, but that is changing very fast. Now just about any city in the world has an inexpensive program where the smartest, most aggressive people can learn how to uncover demand. You are having a hard time finding customers to interview because a dozen other startups – and increasingly big companies – are going to the same market with the same questions.

Being helpful is no panacea – it won’t make up for bad products, a lack of commitment or vision. It also is not easy because people need to be convinced you can help them. But it is increasingly becoming the only way you can get and keep a business advantage – my advice is to start doing it before your competitors do.


Photo credit: Big Omaha/Malone & Company


  1. Brian Kearns May 29, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    Kevin – Awesome Post. I’m implementing something very similar in what I call “soft testimonials” in order to build up my reputation and earn some trust along the way. Anyway, great job on putting this together. ~ Brian

  2. Red Cup (@redcupagency) May 30, 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    Being helpful using your system has been really effective for me. It takes the ‘pressure’ off the interaction and everybody comes away feeling better and more informed. Thanks for the case studies – they help we visualize where you’re going with all this. Great chart! More like that. 🙂 I’m running an autoresponder curriculum using Emma and have gained (and retained) more than 100 new subscribers in the past week.

    • kevindewalt May 30, 2014 at 6:43 pm #

      Excellent Lee, thanks so much for the comment. Even better than the chart … I’m going to start doing case studies of the people on SoHelpful. Personally I find these more valuable.

  3. Michael June 29, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

    Hi Kevin, thanks for your article.

    I don’t understand this part:

    “pursue opportunities to find them by speaking, teaching, meeting them in coffee shops, or helping them virtually over Skype or Hangout. Use your blog or meetups as a means of beginning the relationship and offer ways to help them.”

    What kind of help do you think about?

    • kevindewalt June 29, 2014 at 6:53 pm #


      I’m not sure I understand your question, but generally:

      1. Identify the group of people most important for growing your business (usually customers)
      2. Figure out what their major problems are.
      3. Offer to help them solve them.

      So it depends on your situation. If you post some details here I’ll try to be more specific.

      You can also see some case studies of people doing it at … http://blog.sohelpful.me/category/case-studies/

      mini versions of the case studies at http://try.sohelpful.me/##case-studies

  4. @davidnarsavidze July 31, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    Hi! Thanks a lot, superb article. I have noticed that just by talking to people on twitter I got much better results (that was just beginning). Give and you will get. Thanks for the article!

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