If you’re looking for almost certain small business success, open a liquor store near a beach.
That’s one small business lesson.
But if you’re reading this, especially if you’re not looking to sell cheap vodka to college kids on spring break, you’re more likely hoping to find out what practical and actionable lessons could help you.
As part of the sales team for a tech company, I worked with over 200 small businesses across the Midwest and East Coast, from established bike shops to brand new clothing boutiques to the aforementioned beachfront liquor stores.
Especially from the viewpoint of a salesperson, there’s a misconception that sales is all fast-talking, clever pitches and hard closes a la Glengarry Glen Ross. In reality, the closers getting the coffee in 2017 do much more listening than talking.
With all that listening over the course of thousands of phone calls and demos, I began picking up on trends. I began to see patterns in the businesses that called to cancel service after closing within three months– and those that called to add more locations to their account as they expanded.
While geography, demographics, market demand, business plans and previous experience will dictate a great deal about the success (or failure) of a small business, there are undeniable do’s and don’ts that separate those closing their doors and those opening new stores.
Here are the lessons I learned from the best business owners– and their out-of-business competitors:
They build relationships, not transactions
This is a lesson I’d learned early in life watching small businesses I worked for “nickel and dime” their customers to death. The owners were so focused on margins on each sale that they neglected to consider the impact on the experience and lifetime value of a customer. There were no extras or freebies, every moment was monetized and short-term profit came way before customer satisfaction. Sales became transactional and impersonal.
As a certain fascist chef might say: “No soup for you.”
The best clients I worked with saw the value of a happy customer– and not just a margin. Bike shops would offer free clinics and flat repairs. Clothing boutiques employed a “personal stylist”. Employees knew customers’ names, their preferences and created an experience during their visit.
It’s a race to the bottom if you’re competing only on price, location or selection. Great service that leads to relationships will have your customers driving past your more convenient, better stocked and cheaper competitors– and telling their friends about you.
Another big benefit? You’ll better understand what your ideal customer profile is and this will help decide everything from pricing to marketing to in-store experiences and promotions.
You can’t effectively sell your service or product without really understanding who needs it.
They reward customer loyalty
Customer loyalty, especially as a result of fantastic relationships, is key. For one, some estimates show that acquiring a new customer is six to seven times more expensive than keeping your current customers happy.
Loyalty programs like Thirdshelf are a fantastic tool for rewarding your customers for their continued business and support– as a supplement to offering great customer experiences. The more they shop, the more it pays off– for both them and the business. In fact, 69% of consumers say they choose where to shop based on where they can earn points or perks– meaning if you’re not even offering a loyalty program, the cards are stacked against you.
For small businesses that are worried only about the short-term, they’ll see a rewards program as a loss, product going out the door without generating maximum revenue. The savvy clients I worked with knew that a well-considered loyalty program and its perks were a guaranteed way to keep customers coming back and buying more.
It’s not enough to just throw an offer at your customers. Pay attention to what they buy and what promotions draw sales. Yes, your loyalty perk is great for the customer, but make it work for you, too.
They get over sunk costs
If you’re not familiar with a sunk cost, Merriam-Webster defines it as “a cost already incurred that is not subject to variation or revision…”
To give you an example, the business cards you purchased where your last name has a typo? That’s a sunk cost. You’ve already paid for the cards. They can’t be fixed. And, unless you’re someone really special, your misspelled business cards don’t have any resale value. Go ahead and get new ones printed.
Unfortunately, I came across this mindset quite often with small business owners. They’d invest five-hundred dollars in a poorly built, buggy eCommerce website their high-school nephew built. Even if it didn’t function and was literally costing them money through lost sales, they couldn’t imagine scrapping the whole site and starting over– even if a new solution would solve all their issues.
The successful businesses I worked with made smart, well-researched decisions and certainly weren’t careless with their money. But if they saw a tool, platform or solution that would make a difference, they were willing to abandon their old ways. Their eyes weren’t focused on buyer’s remorse but on what would make their business profitable.
It’s never fun to realize you wasted money on a bad decision, but if there’s no possible way to benefit or recoup the investment, it’s best to move forward and find what does work. You won’t ever benefit from protecting yourself from the realization of a bad choice or wasted money– and you’re only compounding your mistake by not moving on quickly.
They use technology to their benefit
While selling a tech product I recognized quickly how resistant to technology many business owners are. They had tools one Google search away that would give them more data than they’d ever had, free platforms that would manage tasks they were paying people overtime to manage and incredible ways to market and advertise their business for a few bucks.
Coming at this as a Millenial I’m biased; I remember VHS tapes and “car phones”, but most of my life I’ve had access to the Internet. The point still stands, however. The technology that offers the most utility and function wins out.
It’s no different for small businesses. Software isn’t just for enterprise-level companies with huge IT teams and budgets. There’s a thriving marketplace for small-business technology that doesn’t require a PhD in Computer Science. Most offer awesome support and easy-to-use interfaces.
Just about anyone can build a Shopify or WordPress site to have an online presence– and if you’re not online, your customers aren’t finding you. A point of sale like LightSpeed can help you manage inventory, customer data, sales history and reporting for relatively little money. UpWork can help you hire freelancers from all over the world to rewrite your sales collateral or design a new logo. Marketing on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using tools like Buffer or HootSuite are unbelievably more cost-effective than print ads, flyers or billboards. Many businesses make the bulk of their income by selling through Amazon or eBay.
Technology has been democratized. It’s within reach for those who are willing to look for it and spend some time evaluating what they need and what solutions exist. My A-team clients embraced technology– from how they hired to how they sold to how they ordered product to how they reported their accounting.
And if this still sounds outside of your comfort zone, there are plenty of consultants and agencies out there who can help you with your technology, marketing and operations. Specialization and focusing on what you’re best at has its benefits.
They make it easy to buy
Perhaps loosely related to my last point about embracing technology, smart business owners make it easy to purchase from them.
It starts with being found in the first place. Again, good businesses are not relying on placing flyers under windshield wipers in local parking lots– and they aren’t just hoping someone walks into their business by chance. They’re marketing online, they’re growing an Instagram and Facebook following– and closely monitoring those channels for customer feedback. They have an active Yelp presence and watch Google for reviews. They have a well-built and thoughtfully designed website that shows what their products and services are, how to contact them and links to social media accounts, customer testimonials and more.
My recommendation: ditch the inflatable purple gorilla advertising your 10% off sale and use marketing tactics that really work.
Once you have your a potential customer’s attention, converting them from potential to paying is vital. If they’ve come this far, you don’t want to lose them now– especially if you’ve invested a few marketing dollars into their interest.
Should they find your site and want to order online, your purchase process should be straightforward and logical; don’t make them go through fifteen mandatory forms and only accept one obscure payment type. You should have a quick check out process and accept all major credit cards and PayPal.
Should they find you in real life or walk into your retail store, their buying experience must be similarly simple and easy. Your store layout should be logical. You should pair related products together. You should know exactly how many of each item you have in stock. You should know what services people want. If you schedule appointments, make it so people never have to call in with a tool like Booxi— because, most likely, they’ll avoid the phone.
When it comes time to buy, checkout should be easy. Accept credit cards– and accept the fact you’ll be paying a processor a fee to do so. You’re better off paying the fee than losing this customer’s first sale– and future second, third and fourth sales.
You should be capturing their information (name and email, at minimum) which makes it easier to see what they bought in the past, handle returns or exchanges and create a personal touch. Tied into an intelligent marketing plan, this is one of the most valuable points in the entire sales process.
Ideally, you’ll embrace an omnichannel solution where your inventory, customer data and shopping experiences are shared across online and in-person platforms. Customers can look up the shirt they bought online so they can buy the same shirt in a different color when they’re in the store. They’ll be able to see how many reward points they’ve earned by shopping online and in your store– all from their iPad at home. Your inventory will update across channels so you’re never selling products in-store or online that don’t exist.
This really amazing idea isn’t reserved for only mega-businesses; there are plenty of small business solutions that offer this for a few hundred bucks a month and can connect with a number of eCommerce and point of sale technologies.
Here’s the good news
If you watch the news or read the newspaper for even five minutes per year, you’ll see the doom and gloom around retailers and small businesses. Macy’s is shutting down nearly 70 stores in 2017 while Amazon buys out Whole Foods; the ground is shifting. The business landscape is changing, but that will be great news for nimble, intelligent small businesses who embrace their customers, use technology and remove barriers that kept customers from buying.
Unlike a business like Macy’s which would take six months, ten McKinsey experts, fourteen departments and forty-six meetings to make small changes, a small business can make major changes quickly and easily.
Small business is the speedboat to Macy’s Royal Caribbean cruise ship.
My recommendation? Examine your business from top to bottom.
Imagine you’re about to appear on Shark Tank and Mark Cuban will grill you on how much you pay for your products, what you’re doing to attract new business and what your unique selling points are– just before Robert Herjavec jumps in to ask how you gauge customer satisfaction.
How would you do in answering their challenges?
Look at your entire business. What’s working and what isn’t? What have you been putting off and know you need to finally tackle? What’s the best part of your website (and is there a best part of your website)? How do customers find you? What product or service do you make the most money on and how might you get more people to buy it? What do you hear from your customers– and do the one-star reviews on Yelp hold any truth to them?
There’s a great deal of low-hanging fruit and new customers to go after right now if haven’t explored new strategies and technologies for a couple years. But if you’re not entirely sure where that fruit is hanging, how to get those new customers or how to really consider your options, I can help.
If you’re part of a small business or startup and you’re ready to begin making those changes, I work with businesses just like yours. From social media strategy to identifying tech tools that fix problems and more, I always start with a discovery call to understand more about your business including its challenges, opportunities and goals.
Let’s put 20 minutes on our calendars and get these improvements started. You’ll be glad you did.
Featured Image: Alex Iby