Small business can be a tough business. It’s hard to win against bigger competitors. It’shard to win against competitors with deeper pockets and maybe economies of scale.It’s hard to separate yourself from other scrappy local competitors. It’s tough to stand out. But there are ways. You can make it happen. The goal is a closer, deeper, more caring relationship. Let me share a few ways you can begin to set your business apart:
ASK FOR FEEDBACK
A few months ago I was chatting with the owner of a local plumbing company that had done some work for us. We were talking about the varied challenges he faced. Since he deals with a lot of different home and business owners each month, I asked him how he measured satisfaction. He had a few ideas. I next asked him if those were the same things his customers would say. He admitted that he didn’t know. My suggestion was for him to actually (gasp!) ask. I asked him if any local plumbing company was doing that. Again, he didn’t know (but probably not). Think about it. When was the last time a local company asked for your input?
What a great way to begin to set yourself apart. The information itself is valuable. It will give you better insight into how your company is doing – and what aspects of the relationship are MOST important to customers. It gives you something on which to focus.
In addition, it enhances the customer relationship by demonstrating interest in the customer and their needs. It shows them that your company really wants to know them better – and provide a level of care well beyond your competition. It transforms the transaction into a deeper relationship.
A word of caution here. This is not a way to obtain info that you can then use to sell to the market better. It’s a way to listen – and show that you care.
BE PART OF THE COMMUNITY
A small company is (or should be) focused in focused, well-defined niche. You should strive to become well-known and with a positive feeling toward your brand in that niche. Be a part of that community – not just someone who sells stuff to it. For many small companies your community is a local geographic area. (Think about that plumber who’s service area is only going to reach a certain distance.) It’s extremely important for that local community to know and like that plumbing company. Be visible within your local community. Look for events to sponsor or host, find ways to serve area schools and nonprofits, offer support and educational events to the community. Always look for ways to show that you aren’t just selling to the community, you are part of and serve the community.
But not all “community” is geographically local. A small business can also focus on an industry sector and should strive to create a positive feeling in that niche which may not have geographic boundaries. Take as an example, a small business that sells cooking and kitchen goods online to professional chefs. It may be a small company, but it still may sell nationwide or internationally. Sure, it may have a presence in a geographic location(s) where the company is located (and it should have a great reputation in that local community). But the company should also be visible within the community of chefs. It could sponsor part of a national gathering of chefs or restaurant owners. Or host an event or reception there. Or be a speaker or discussion leader there. Be creative in how you can (within your budget) engage with and support your community. Which leads me to my next point…
BUILD A SOCIAL MEDIA COMMUNITY
A great way to extend your small business’s reach is to develop and/or be a participant in an active, targeted social media community. Begin with the basics. Set up and be active in social media accounts in relevant platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, etc. But DO NOT use it as a sales tool. Use out as a discussion board. Use it as a way to engage in conversation. Use it to share your knowledge and help others understand and solve problems. Use it learn about your customers and about their concerns.
The plumbing company could start a Facebook group for local homeowners. The cooking/kitchen supply business could develop a Q&A discussion board where chefs share ideas and tips or a platform that connects restaurant owners or investors with chefs. You could be educational and focus on teaching techniques and skills using cooking tools. Or you could provide a newsletter that shares leading-edge trends chefs should be aware of. There are so many ideas out there! Just make sure you focus on adding value and being helpful; not sales-y. Become a valuable resource and the rest will follow.
BE HUMAN AND PERSONAL
At the end of the day all customers are made up of actual people. You know…humans. The first thing you should do is to get to know and understand and engage with them. If you have a store, talk to them. Ask them questions. Face-to-face conversations are hugely beneficial. You get to know them as people. They get to know your company as people. You get to know so much more about them.
Don’t be afraid to show that your small business is also made up of actual humans. Hire friendly people. Allow those people to show their personal side. Actually answer the phone and speak to people. Build open, unscripted interactions into your business. Let your customers get to know your employees. Foster an atmosphere of partnership and respect. Speak to your customers (whether it’s through words, in writing, or in person) in a personal way.
And, by the way, this is true not just for business-to-consumer businesses but also for business-to-business companies as well. You might need to go about it a somewhat different way, but it’s certainly something that can and should be done. Salespeople, receptionists, customer service, executives, product designers; everyone can reach out and start discussions with individuals in your market. At the end of the day it’s just people talking to people.
A few years ago I had a client that wanted to do some market research on customer needs. They were thinking of sending a survey. But the truth was that they didn’t have thousands of customers; more like hundreds. So one thing I recommended was to identify a cross-section of their customer base (and even a few non-customers) and arrange face-to-face meetings. We learned more from those face-to-face discussions than any less-personal survey could ever provide. It was not down with the intent to sell. It was done with the intent to listen and learn. It fostered so much goodwill. Yes some new business did come out of those conversations just because we were face-to-face customers who brought up projects they might need help with. But that still was NOT the reason for the discussion. Was it an investment of time and money? Yes. But I firmly believe the value of human interaction and goodwill far outweighed the short-term cost.
HAVE A BRAND PERSONALITY
Along the lines I just touched on above, allow your business’s brand to have a personality. Make sure your branding, your marketing, your customer interactions all have a unique personality. They all should demonstrate the more-human side of who you are and what you do.
And don’t make the mistake of trying to appeal to everyone. It’s not possible – and it’s not smart. Find your niche of customers, understand them and their problems, and then design a brand that speaks to them clearly. But find a way to speak to them as a friend and with some “humanness”.
All businesses have to build trust with customers. Part of having a brand personality is to allow your company to be open and transparent. Design business procedures and interactions that are open, honest, and transparent. Be clear about every facet of the relationship – pricing, policies, etc. No negative surprises. Set clear expectations. Let customers see how you do things. Let your customers in.
Show customers that everything your company does is guided by doing what’s right forthem. Demonstrate that you are on their side; you are trying to help them solve theirproblems. Foster an atmosphere of openness that allows them to speak to your business as a friend and an ally. Develop that trust and you’ll be surprised how open customers are with their issues. They want someone to help them solve their challenges. They just want that someone to be someone they trust. And that can and should be you.
These are all things that are doable. These are ideas that your small, nimble company can accomplish that often a larger behemoth can’t. And often they are strategies that your competition (even the smaller companies) can’t or won’t do. These are ways to set your company apart from your competition. Your small business should take advantage of those things it can do best – be nimble, be targeted, be human, be part of the community.
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Making sure your business is competitive can be a hard thing. I know. I can help you design ways to stand apart from the crowd in a unique way. I’d love to chat with you and explore how I can help your business succeed. Feel free to reach out and get in touch. No pressure. Just an informal discussion to explore some ideas. You can reach me at (713) 907-8429 or BCohen@IDiscoverConsulting.com.
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