Small businesses, you deserve kudos.
You number 28 million in the United States alone, a figure which the Small Business Administration notes accounts for 54 percent of all sales, 55 percent of all jobs, and 66 percent of all net new jobs for the past nearly 45 years.
A recent Gallup poll says that 67 percent of Americans have more confidence in small businesses--in contrast to the 21 percent who elevated big business over its Main Street counterpart. That's a trend that's endured since 2007--and the military is the only other institution that's polling above its historical average.
How can you harness this collective goodwill to your benefit?
Play up the contrast between you and those other guys. It's a general truism, especially in America, that people love the underdog, David versus Goliath, a scrappy upstart full of heart opposing the soulless establishment. But you have to play to your strengths. Independent hardware store competing with the likes of your town's Home Depot or Lowes? Maybe your distinguishing factor is the high-quality, American-made specialty tools you make a point of carrying. Small paperie boutique? You can't compete with the cheap bulk greeting cards of a Hallmark--but you can highlight the precise, beautiful handmade details of the unique stock you carry plus their local origin.
Give each customer a truly personal experience. What keeps a person coming back time and again to the same business? It's not just the right product offered at the right price. It's loyalty and loyalty is often people-driven. As a small business, you may not be able to compete with the price reductions of a big company that buys in substantial volume. But you can stand out by really setting the tone with your customers from the very first time they walk into your place. It's a warm greeting and customer service that is attentive and friendly without being cloying, fake or intrusive. Over time, it's saying hello to each person by name and making the small talk that builds a real rapport. In a really successful model, it then becomes almost a friendship of sorts--the exchange of personal stories and details ("Hey, how did your mom's visit go?" "Did I tell you my daughter scored the winning goal last week?") even as you help them get what they need. It's setting aside items that you know your customer might want--and giving them a heads up or a pleasant surprise when they walk in. It may even be occasionally gifting them something small but thoughtful, based on their past purchases and interests--a low-cost way to delight a loyal consumer.
Make the local angle your marketing focus. Big businesses thrive on promotions. We see them all the time: BOGO, 50 percent off Product X, enter this drawing to win. Yawn. There's no creativity, no heart, no soul in these promotions because there simply doesn't need to be. The big guys get what they want from a good chunk of your consumer base. And that's ok--your financial goals are not the same as theirs. But there's no reason that you can't get your share through some clever tactics that play up your status as the good neighbor. If you're a coffee shop, showcase a local singer who has a decent social media following--or if you're looking to bring in more families, find a band that plays kid-friendly songs. Offer a small incentive to the first 15 customers (like a free tea or a cup of your signature coffee). Bookstore? Authors are always a decent draw. Or perhaps it's hosting a small, exclusively literary salon where authors hold court with a small number of your town's biggest influencers. On a street with several great independent businesses? Organize a walk-and-wine on a Friday night--where each business stays open for longer and offers appetizers and beverages. Get coverage from your local paper or evening news to help spread the word and highlight the economic benefits of supporting community businesses.
Be a first responder. Consumer review sites are an important part of the business landscape, whether it's a Fortune 500 business or a mom-and-pop shop. The difference is that a so-called Big Company can generally weather a few bad reviews pretty easily--whereas a small business needs hypervigilance when it comes to negative feedback. When just one review might turn potential customers from seeing what you offer for themselves, you better be all over addressing that criticism. It's not a hard thing to do--but it does take a certain amount of monitoring. Respond simply and straightforwardly to all but the most over-the-top, unhinged reviews. Apologize for not meeting expectations and then offer to call or email the customer personally to resolve the issue to her satisfaction. This shows everyone--from that particular person to the potential customers researching your business--that you actually invest and care about your customers' perspectives. Even if the outcome with that one person isn't what you want, you'll still score points. And you may actually turn that person around--at Reputation.com, we've seen angry reviewers go back and leave a much more measured and thoughtful update after having a good conversation with an owner or manager of a business.
Small businesses, how are you cementing your community customer base?