Kristy Knichel is a Pittsburgh native and CEO/President of her family-owned and operated company, Knichel Logistics. Kristy has always been a firm believer in creating a fun work environment for her employees while treating everyone like family.

Running a successful business has always been tough, no matter what industry you are in. From the day your business idea is conceived up to the point where you are actually operating and generating revenue (hopefully!), it's an endless battle to keep your business competitive. Even billion dollar companies like Apple have to worry constantly about staying on top of their game. The same is true for tiny mom-and-pop shops. It is even more demanding in highly competitive industries, where nearly all of your competitors are offering exactly the same services as you.

Allow me to introduce you to the logistics industry, where the level of competition is quite high due to the relatively low cost of entry. To give you some perspective, there are currently over 15,000 freight brokers in the U.S. alone. The industry has become flooded with newcomers that are not differentiated, which results in tactics such as rate slashing, creating alliances, or buying up smaller players who can provide value in some way. Some enterprises have enormous influence and buying power, while some smaller players manage to remain in the game by finding niches and focusing on areas where they excel.

My company, Knichel Logistics, falls into the latter category. We have been around for 13 years, which has given us enough time to grow while learning our limitations along with our strengths. While we've had our fair share of setbacks along the way, all of these experiences have enabled us to figure out what works, and what does not.

Chances are, you'll most likely make mistakes while experimenting with new growth strategies. I cannot forget the day that I had to lay off 18 of my 48 employees, nearly 40 percent of my entire staff, in order to keep Knichel Logistics afloat. We had lost money while trying to service accounts that were much larger than we had ever worked with before--a proposed growth strategy implemented by our former COO that deviated from our model of focusing on working with small to mid-sized customers. I was unable to hold back the tears while addressing my remaining employees during the aftermath of these layoffs.

You can be sure that this is something that will never be repeated. My employees are the lifeblood of my business. The blow to morale was crushing, as was the personal guilt I felt due to executing a risky operational strategy that I knew was not the right course of action from the beginning. Fortunately, we rebuilt, restructured and returned to our core business model under a new COO, who is a trusted veteran employee. Here's how we were able to do it:

Identifying the Right Market

So how exactly did we differentiate ourselves to rise above the pack? We began by rectifying the issue that led to our profit loss by clearly identifying our appropriate target market, which in this case meant going back to our roots. Knichel Logistics was founded on a very specific market within a niche segment--intermodal transportation of rice out of Northern California. By focusing on and continuing to grow within that niche, we built up the resources required in order to expand upon that particular business. This included bringing on additional sales staff and adding/scaling other services and divisions. We realized that being a niche provider is not a bad thing. We also realized that as a smaller company, we just didn't have the resources to be everything to everyone, and that was OK. If you make the choice of trying to please everyone, then you quickly become a "jack of all trades, master of none."

Understanding Customer Needs

Another avenue of success for us is keeping our company goals and initiatives aligned with those of our customers. As part of the service industry, we want to be more than just a service to our customers. Rather, we want to be an extension of our customer that provides solutions to their transportation problems. In order to create a true partnership, you have to maintain strong lines of communication during both the onboarding process, where you uncover pain points that the customer is experiencing, as well as while you are actively handling their business. This is a critical time to ensure that you fully understand all aspects of their business so that nothing is overlooked, and it also gives the customer a chance to start building a relationship with your staff.

Valuing Company Culture and Staff

Once you get the business, the next step is ensuring that you execute and create a company culture that is consistent with the value proposition you want to offer your customers. Our company culture came into existence naturally when Knichel Logistics was established because of the group dynamic amongst our initial employees. There has always been a closeness that has remained even as we have grown. Hire well and make sure to keep your valued employees challenged and happy. For the most part, I have been able to tell during the interview process whether or not someone will fit into our culture. The things that we look for are a great sense of humor, a willingness to learn and all-around likability. Being in the service industry and not having any tangible assets, the customer service experience is all that Knichel Logistics has to offer. Your team should be well-versed in the company, its culture, its services and its customers.

Not always being the lowest cost provider in terms of price isn't necessarily a deal breaker. There have been specific instances in which our superior service has taken business out of the hands of our much larger asset-based competitors . We show our customers how valuable it is to have a transportation provider that can make the process a seamless one, because we have an incredibly well-trained staff that knows the ins and outs of each customers' needs. Keep these points of differentiation in the back of your mind as you continue to grow your business, and you'll only continue to grow despite any potential setbacks you may encounter along the way.

Published on: May 13, 2016
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