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Image Building: Becoming an All-Star Business

To scale your growth to your aspirations, create a plan for delivering bigger than you are.

1. Introduction: Projecting a Big Image

There’s a new icon in the global economy: the entrepreneur who runs such a large operation that no one realizes the company headquarters is the owner’s kitchen table, basement, or garage. And the small business that projects a big business image is catching on not only as an engaging idea, but as a reality that any enterprise can put in play. We live in an age when a small company’s scope of operations is no more limited than its capacity for scaling up as opportunities arise.

That’s good news in a challenging economy and competitive market where it’s essential for small businesses to meet big expectations. Whether you’re taking on a bigger project or building out your products and services, your company’s ability to deliver no longer needs to be defined by the capabilities you have in-house. By using all the tools at your disposal--from market research, technology, and social media to partnerships with vendors, suppliers, and other external resources--your business can optimize both its value to clients and its prospects for sustained growth.

2. Your Niche, Only Bigger

That doesn’t mean diluting your brand or trying to be all things to all clients. But experts advise that there are strategies for staying focused on your niche and, within that context, looking for ways to be of greater service to your client base.

“The smart thing to do is to market the link and sell the chain,” says Mike Schultz, president of RAIN Group and co-author, with John Doerr and Lee Frederikson, of Professional Services Marketing: How the Best Firms Build Premier Brands, Thriving Lead Generation Engines, and Cultures of Business Development Success, second edition (Wiley, 2013). “When people see you as an expert and as focused on companies and challenges like theirs, it’s easier to start conversations, and it’s easier to win business in that niche. But once they trust you, a whole set of other doors opens.”

The first step, then, is to clearly define and own your niche. As a small business owner, you have the advantage of knowing and communicating with your customers personally. You’re well positioned to know their goals for their own businesses and learn what you can do to support their ambitions. This creates a competitive edge in helping you to identify the areas in which an increased focus on customer service and support will yield the biggest returns for your business.

Former banker Lisa Kessler hit this performance benchmark with the launch of her Scottsdale, Arizona-based Bestitched Needlepoint retail shop and website. Operated by Kessler, her husband, and just three employees, the company grabbed and held onto its market share by offering not only needlework supplies, but also the expertise and sense of community that other retailers failed to deliver. A needlepoint enthusiast herself, Kessler launched the business in part as a response to her dissatisfaction with retail shops that seemed more interested in selling products than in cultivating relationships with customers and helping them to develop their craft. Her product lines don’t differ from those of her competitors. But by taking time to communicate with customers and ensure that they find and are satisfied with everything they need, the Bestitched team has gained a loyal following.

3. Add Value to Multiply Opportunities

Once you’ve established your company in its niche, look for opportunities to deliver added value to your key customers and create a strategy for delivering bigger than your team. You won’t be able to do it all on your own. Experts recommend that you determine which aspects of your plan are best handled in-house and which should be outsourced to partners, vendors, or subcontractors.

“I think every business should build a team of best-of-class providers that can provide pretty much everything that their customers might need,” says John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing. “You add a lot of value to the relationship if you can become known as the go-to person for anything I need. If you have that team, and you start to build those relationships, you very naturally have the ability to go after a different kind of work.”

In fact, Jantsch advises expanding your network to include even professionals who work in areas completely unrelated to your own business. He’s not suggesting that this will allow companies in unrelated industries to cobble together joint venture opportunities. But that extended circle of contacts does position you to offer support to your clients and establish a reputation as someone who’s always able to recommend a high-quality service provider. And that will reinforce in your clients’ minds the image of you as an informed, well-connected, and reliable source of referrals and information.

4. Build Your Team; Establish Your Game Plan

To maximize your potential to take on new challenges, create a blueprint for combining staff and outside resources. This will allow you to scale operations, services, and solutions up or down, economically and effectively, in accordance with individual customer requirements, opportunities for geographic expansion, or changes in the volume of market demand.

That kind of strategic thinking took Pete Fitak from selling his P&K Private Stock BBQ Sauce out of the trunk of his car in Hope, Michigan, to gaining distribution to a larger and growing customer base. As the product’s popularity has soared, Fitak finds himself spending more time doing demos at regional events. This increased attention to his core business has reduced the amount of time he can devote to logistics, shipping, and printing of marketing materials, areas of operations that he doesn’t have to handle himself.

“Focus on three things,” advises Andy Birol, owner of Birol Growth Consulting. “What you and your business are good at doing, what you and your business like to do, and what you and your business have been valued by your market for doing.” By outsourcing areas of the business that fall outside those parameters, companies can grow without forcing their owners to divert their attention from the things they do best--the strengths that helped them win and retain customers in the first place.

It’s essential to identify members of your extended team before you need their services. You don’t want to scramble to find the best vendor or subcontractor available on short notice. To maintain your own brand’s reputation for excellence, you must establish an initial relationship before you need to work together. And building a best-in-class network takes time.

5. Be Your Customers’ Advocate

The same is true of positioning yourself to understand your clients’ businesses and acquire the knowledge and insights required to up your game in meeting--and even anticipating--their needs. Consider your company’s relationship with its clients or customers from their perspective. The question you need to ask yourself is not what additional products or services you can sell to them, but how doing additional business with you will benefit them. Any new products or services you pitch, Birol says, should “either help a customer achieve an opportunity or help a customer eliminate or avoid a pain.”

Hitting that target will require an investment of time. You should be reading news about your clients and their industries; keeping track of updates to their websites and blogs; and following their LinkedIn company pages, Facebook fan pages, and Twitter feeds. But that investment has tremendous upside potential, as it gives you information that can help you think about specific ways that your business can support theirs.

Once you’re immersed in your clients’ interests, challenges, and objectives, start laying some groundwork for a broader partnership by forwarding articles, ideas, or other information that can help them meet their own business goals. But don’t just go through the motions, Schultz cautions. It’s not enough to forward a link with a “thought you’d find this interesting” style one-liner. Take the time to explain how a certain section of the article relates to an initiative the company is launching. Offer insight into the relationship between the news or analysis you’re forwarding and a business deal the customer has in the works. Show clients that you value their time by directing their attention to the specific paragraph or sidebar they’ll find valuable.

This approach reinforces the extent to which clients perceive value in you and your company--not just the products or services you sell, but the insights you bring to the table. It supports your strategy for defining yourself as--and being recognized as--a trusted advisor whose input can make a difference to your customers’ businesses, Schultz says. “You have to advocate for ideas. You have to show people better ways. You have to help them set their agendas for where to drive the company. That’s what all great leaders are looking for: people who are not interested in the status quo but are interested in driving things forward.”

6. Converting Relationships and Sales

Remember to take full advantage of the close customer relationship you’ve developed because you’re a small company. As a hands-on business owner, you’ve earned a measure of personal confidence that your customers may not grant to bigger players in your market, and that can give you and your extended network an edge.

The personal touch has been a key driver in the immediate success of Pink Ribbons LLC, a Memphis, Tennessee-based business launched in 2011 by sisters Lynn Barcroft, an orthotist and prosthetist, and Susan Tanner, a practicing nurse. Their boutique, which caters to the post-surgical needs of breast cancer survivors, served 600 clients in its first year of operation, all without hiring additional staff. Their combined professional backgrounds assured their clients of service by a duo that had not only the technical knowledge necessary to meet their physical needs, but also the empathy and compassion necessary to support their emotional needs. That proved such a winning combination that their local business has already seen its clientele grow beyond Tennessee’s borders to Arkansas and Mississippi.

Small companies like Pink Ribbons can be particularly adept at forging the human connections that so often allow business-customer relationships to thrive. That’s equally true for small businesses serving consumers or corporate clients.

For companies developing business-to-business relationships, Jantsch points to an additional competitive advantage over larger players in the market: “That big shop down the street is in many ways tied to the talent they have. They’re tied to the experience they have. When you take this team approach, you’re able in some cases to go out and get superstars in every element.” And in any event, that approach allows you to show clients that you’re willing to go the extra mile to meet their expectations--to create customized solutions to their problems instead of going with whatever resources are available in-house.

Once you’re ready to make a pitch, draw on all those competitive strengths, and be sure to frame your proposals in terms of your insights about the company and its goals, not as a showcase for a specific solution you’re ready to sell. “You don’t show up and say, ‘I have all the answers,’” Schultz says. “Show up in the spirit of collaboration: ‘We have some ideas, but they’re unfinished. We want to work with you on them.’ That will be much stronger for actually winning more business. The client doesn’t see you as the vendor or the seller anymore. They see you as that team member.”

Finally, make sure you and your behind-the-scenes team can deliver. Know in advance all the skills, expertise, capabilities, products, and services at your disposal and what additional support you can get from your vendors should a project prove more challenging than originally anticipated. Your clients don’t care who helped you on the project. They just want to know they can count on you to get the job done every time. And once you’ve established that reputation, your company is ready for continual advance to new and bigger challenges that drive long-term profitability and growth.

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