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Emily Steele of Love Local: “Understand who your best customers are and track them”

Understand who your best customers are and track them. Best customers can be defined in three ways… 1) those who spend the most with you, 2) those who spend most often with you, even if it’s a modest amount, 3) those who refer the most people do you. If we look at the 80/20 rule, […]

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Understand who your best customers are and track them. Best customers can be defined in three ways… 1) those who spend the most with you, 2) those who spend most often with you, even if it’s a modest amount, 3) those who refer the most people do you. If we look at the 80/20 rule, it’s likely a majority of your revenue is being driven by 20% of your customers. Know them, invest in them, ensure they stay committed to your company. Whether you use your own CRM or a good old fashioned spreadsheet, get clear on who these people are!


As part of my series about the “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Steele of Love Local.

Emily is a creative entrepreneur on a mission to help individuals + business owners create a bigger impact with their presence online and offline. She has spent the last 10 years finding innovative ways to make a difference. From launching a local bike ride that has given a community in Ghana access to clean water + education to creating POP UP YOGA DSM to introduce yoga to more people in the metro, Emily has an ability to take an idea and mobilize it by getting the community on board.

You can currently find Emily working with local community builders (hummingbirds) and with local business owners around the US to increase their visibility + impact at Love Local. When she isn’t diving into fun work projects, Emily can be found exploring the world with her husband Zach + baby Penelope or hopping around different local coffee + brewery establishments. Learn more at www.emilyasteele.com


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Hey there! Thank you so much for this opportunity. My name is Emily Steele and I am a midwest gal on a mission to help local business owners build irresistible and profitable brands. When I graduated from Drake University in 2012, I thought I was going to be a nonprofit director and be on the path for life, but after working with many local business owners in the community development space, I fell in love with the business community and how it impacts the cultural and experience in a city or town. I started a couple side hustles, one being a “pop up” yoga brand and the other a women’s networking community. After selling out events, generating a lot of media attention, and growing the networking community to 500 members without spending much, I started charging for consults to teach others how to build community and generate sales using digital marketing tools and social media. We now work with hundreds of individuals in our paid programs and 1:1 services at Love Local.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

When I first started my company, I pitched my services at a very, very nominal price. I was scared to charge what I knew the value was because I was worried people couldn’t afford it. Once I was at a comfortable place with clients, I remember going into a nonprofit to pitch my services, just “knowing” they would say no to my fee so I told them it was 4x the amount I typically charged, ready for them to say “pass.” They immediately said yes and have been one of my most loyal clients to date. The mistake I was making previously was assuming something I didn’t know for sure. Now I ask better questions on initial calls and truly understand how to price our services, programs, and courses.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I always loved guest speakers in college. I remember almost all of them. Brianne Sanchez was a guest in one of my journalism classes and she spoke about her work in the marketing department at the university. After she finished, she wrote her email on the chalkboard and told us she was available for coffee any time. I took her up on coffee and told her about some of my ideas and interests at the time, mostly in the nonprofit world. I’ll never forget the introductions she made via email to some other local professionals in Des Moines. Those introductions led to other introductions, which started opening doors for internships and new friendships. I look back at that moment and see how that was the first part of my professional web. My professors are certainly part of it, but Brianne understood who I was, what I wanted to do, and a sliver of my gifts and aligned me with the right people. I now take tremendous amounts of time to do the same. Being a matchmaker in business is a powerful tool. People remember those who take the time to make meaningful introductions.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

In 2011 I read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller, a book that reminded me that I am the author of my story. I can live the life my small town residents wish for me, get on a career path that would make my parents proud, and play by the rules I learned in the church I grew up in. Or I could carve a path with my interests, my passions, and my own curiosities. What I took away from the book is that I get to create my life. It was that book that gave me the confidence to turn down a full-time job offer and sign up to bike across America in 2012 to raise money for clean water projects in Kenya. That bike trip undoubtedly changed my life and what I believed possible. I never knew my body and my mental capacity was so strong. I now have a bicycle on my bicep as a visual representation of perseverance, persistence, and a reminder that it’s one pedal stroke at a time. You don’t make it to your goal overnight, it’s inch by inch. And you get to write your own story. Make it a good one.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I have personally built my own local brands. I know what it takes to make a dent quickly and what strategies are the long-game approach. We deeply believe in building relationships, which is now easier than ever using things like Instagram and email marketing automation. One of the clients in our 90-day program was only using Instagram when she started her brick + mortar; we helped her get her email list off the ground and start a Facebook Group for VIP customers, two additional channels of communication where people are ready to respond and take action. Many other agencies would have likely suggested a better website (she built hers on her own in Squarespace), SEO services, and a more robust Facebook Page with consistent content at a price that would have felt uncomfortable. We know that to hit the ground running, it would be far more advantageous to put the energy into community building and list building on social and email. And we recently heard from her that her sales are growing significantly every single month after her 90 days with our team.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Fellow marketing agency owners and freelancers: create boundaries, processes, and systems to ensure you have a service you can rinse and repeat without starting from scratch. Don’t try to do everything for your clients! Figure out your expertise and find a partner to do the rest. Many people don’t understand what marketing, advertising, and PR really is so it’s our job to educate our clients on how our specific skills can support them and why it’s valuable. Remember that there is more than enough work to go around so find your allies and people you can refer others to! They will likely do the same for you.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Profitable retailers understand every single inch of the buyer journey and they maximize it. Incredible retail brands are founded or led by thought leaders, individuals who use the business or their personal platforms to elevate their company and why it matters. Other retail brands have done a fantastic job of showing their customers that they have a purpose beyond a physical good. Like Allbirds for example. You know that buying a pair of shoes from them means you’re supporting a company that has thought through how to source and create a shoe with little impact on the planet and working conditions. Successful retailers like Beautycounter show us how you don’t have to stick to one channel to create success. They use sales reps through the direct sales model, have their own storefronts, have exclusive partnerships with Target, and put their products in stores like Sephora. They’ve also positioned themselves as a leading company that cares about their buyers’ health, letting them know they are actively protecting them from harmful ingredients, while also protecting the planet. In a local market, I’ve witnessed an indoor plant brand expanding to putting their products inside a coffee shop and a clothing boutique. There are absolutely ways to do this even as a small, local retailer as well.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

One positive thing that happened because of the global pandemic in our local community, Des Moines, was an explosion of content on social media elevating local brands. Local restaurants were promoting local breweries. Residents were sharing their local wish lists for holiday shopping. Local boutiques were sharing what other brick & mortars were doing down the street. Local everything was blasted everywhere. Retail companies can stay top of mind, while also introducing their products to new people by aligning with ambassadors and local influencers. According to Nielsen, ninety-two percent of consumers say they trust word of mouth or recommendations from friends and family above all other forms of advertising. It will be important to ensure your messengers are equipped to continue elevating your brand. Local retailers also need to consider buyer behavior and how to make the buying process even more convenient. Amazon Prime is the epitome of convenience; local retailers must ask how the entire brand journey is both meaningful and convenient for customers. Source: https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2012/consumer-trust-in-online-social-and-mobile-advertising-grows/

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Many retailers believe the products will speak for themselves. That an Instagram feed of pretty photos and a great promotion will seal the deal. In local communities, retailers will better position themselves when they incorporate themselves into the content and the brand. People do business with people, especially in local markets. The more humanized the brand is, the more people will feel compelled to support it. Retailers who also prioritize building community through their physical space with pop ups, collaborations, and other events have more opportunities to connect more deeply with guests in their shop.

Think of lululemon; even as a national brand, when they choose to open in a local community, the become integrated and aligned with different brands and people that support one another’s growth. The manager is typically highly involved and their ambassador program elevates the brand even more with local lululemon champions who have a wide reach. People who work there are posting selfies and tagging the products. There is a lot of pride in that brand which can be felt online and in real life. Founders and CEOs can emulate something similar no matter what size they are.

This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?

If Amazon wins in convenience, which it will continue to do, retailers need to win in customer service and overall brand experience. In local markets, this can be accomplished with in-person conversations, conversational DMs in Instagram, and simple things like sending snail mail to the top ten customers of the month. Potentially even more powerful in 2021 will be the connection the current and potential customers have with local retail owners. We continue to see scrappy retail owners who do their own social media generating incredible sales by showing up online as themselves in a way that connects locals to who they are, what they believe and simple, everyday connection points.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

Unfortunately, I think retail owners have a lot on their plate. Running a business can be all-consuming and its easy to become stressed and forget that every small detail in the customer experience matters. It’s even harder when work is outsourced to a teammate who doesn’t feel connected to the brand or vision of the company. If your company is selling things just to sell them, you will likely find others choosing to shop elsewhere or work elsewhere at places that feel more meaningful. When CEOs and founders can articulate a vision that people can get behind or have a product that is truly transformational, the team will likely feel more engaged, knowing that the hours they put in are for a purpose.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

In our work as a marketing agency, we look into as many gaps as possible our clients have with revenue opportunities, community integration, and customer satisfaction. One of our clients was inundated with requests to book appointments so we streamlined her appointment booking system to get her out of her inbox and focused more on delivering an incredible service. That freed up her time to create more events and marketing campaigns with our team that consistently generate five figures in revenue. Oftentimes, business owners think they need more, more, more with customers, but with a solid base of existing customers, we tend to focus on ways that connect those customers even more deeply with the brand through in-person experiences, online community, and great content.

Did that Wow! experience have any long term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

This particular client hosted an event pre-Covid and invited guests to bring in a friend. Those friends who visited loved their experience and then became customers. The event was a very nominal investment; the client bought a few bottles of champagne and light snacks. Every existing customer that came in could get a fantastic deal on the products and services offered that day only, so the space was full of people who wanted a great deal, an awesome experience, and a chance to spend time with a friend that they invited. If we look at the lifetime value of the customers at this specific company, even getting one new customer from this was worth the time and money. Not only did they get the new customer, but they were able to have more meaningful conversations with existing clients who are now even more loyal to the company.

A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?

In 2021, we are having our clients focus on:

  1. The digital brand journey for the customer. Who is the ideal customer? How does that person find you? What are first impressions? Are you showcasing reviews and testimonials? Essentially, we are always looking at how to cultivate trust as quickly as possible so they can confidently make the next move (following them on Instagram, filling out a contact form, visiting the store, sharing a post on Instagram to their followers).
  2. The in-person experience. We love Maya Angelou’s quote “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” How do you make people feel? Yes, your design and smell and space should be memorable, but the connection with the owner and/or staff is far more important for lasting impressions.
  3. The follow-up framework. What’s the follow up post-purchase? Are they on an email list? Are you thanking them for their business in a DM? If they’re sharing a post about your product are you thanking them or just hitting the “share” button on Instagram Stories? How are you indoctrinating them into your brand after that first purchase? The goal is to rapidly build the know, like, trust journey, give someone an experience that makes them feel good, and follow-up in a meaningful way.
  4. There are many ways to do this from a tactical standpoint, but I want to reiterate that you don’t have to spend fortune to create ROI and business growth for your retail brand in 2021. There are ways to do this just with social media + email marketing, which are nominal investments of time and money.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Connect with your customers. People do business with people, especially in a local market. If you’re the owner, you will generate tremendous momentum in 2021 by actively engaging with your audience and creating moments to connect more deeply. This is most effective in Instagram Stories and finding ways to humanize your brand. When someone likes you as a human and aligns with your life, they are much more likely to want to support your business because it’s an extension of you. “I like her, I want to support her.” How do you create moments where you’re showing who you are, behind the scenes of your day, and other lighthearted things like the local coffee you buy next door every morning? It feels superficial, but I assure you the more your local community feels like they know you, the more they’ll want to show up for you.
  2. Understand who your best customers are and track them. Best customers can be defined in three ways… 1) those who spend the most with you, 2) those who spend most often with you, even if it’s a modest amount, 3) those who refer the most people do you. If we look at the 80/20 rule, it’s likely a majority of your revenue is being driven by 20% of your customers. Know them, invest in them, ensure they stay committed to your company. Whether you use your own CRM or a good old fashioned spreadsheet, get clear on who these people are!
  3. Have a rinse & repeat follow up process. When people buy from you, they’re feeling great! They are excited about the new item they get to wear, post to social media, or share with a friend. How can you reinforce that good decision they made? If it’s a first time buyer, you can add them to an email marketing list to indoctrinate them into your brand experience with a nurture sequence. If it’s someone who consistently buys, can you send a quick email or DM to them a week after and ask if they’re still loving their item?
  4. Create a social media moment. Maybe it’s a simple backdrop in your space or a monthly experience that people can’t help but selfie at. Perhaps it’s a monthly giveaway for in-person shoppers… “Post a photo of your favorite item, tag us, and you’ll be entered to win a $100 gift card! New winners picked every month.” The more moments that are captured and shared by others, the more trust and curiosity you’ll build in your physical community. Ask yourself, “how can I get people excited to post about this shopping experience on social media?”
  5. Build community around your brand. This can be through pop-up partnerships, interesting collaborations, putting % of sales towards a local cause, or even something as simple as creating and engaging in a Facebook Group. When people feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, the loyalty is likely to increase! For example, a retail store in my community is all about sustainability and the owner actively promotes a vegan lifestyle. Most of her loyal buyers and interested shoppers align with that type of lifestyle and supporting the brands she carries because they are more sustainable. They know their dollars are buying an item they’ll love, supporting a human they really like, and positively contributing to or not harming the the planet. Brands that are bigger than a product or a storefront will establish long-term loyalty.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m currently building an online marketplace called “the hummingbirds.” This marketplace matches local brands with local influencers, bloggers, and everyday people who are willing to experience a brand and share about it on social media. We are unleashing the influence everyday, local people have. We’re testing this in Des Moines, Iowa and have attracted hundreds of people and dozens of brands ready to amplify their offer by using the voices in their own community. You don’t have to be an official “influencer” to have influence. My 2000+ Instagram followers are primarily local Des Moines people who take action when I tell them about a cocktail I love or a new coffeeshop in town. We’re getting hyper local with influencer and word of mouth marketing in partnership with brands that understand the ripple effect one local person can have as they share their own recommendations with coworkers, Facebook friends, Instagram followers, neighbors, and others who trust their opinion. You can learn more about this at www.thehummingbirds.co.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I’m most likely to be chatting about all things local business over at @Emily.steele on Instagram. I’ve also got a podcast called Local to Legend to give local business owners the tools to accelerate their growth + impact. Learn more about everything I create for local business owners at www.emilyasteele.com

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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