These are hard economic times and as a business owner, if you want to survive you need to not only ride it out, you need to do better than your competitors. In other words, you need to thrive and to do that you need to stand out in the crowd, especially in three areas: Your products, your marketing and your customer service. Assuming that you have made all the cuts and can, renegotiated all the contracts you can and in general tightened things up financially as best you can, product, marketing and customer service, the places where you contact your customers the most, are practically the only areas of your business left where you can make a real difference.
Step-up your marketing and advertising efforts. Most businesses cut back on these when times get tough, but that is precisely the wrong thing to do. By increasing your efforts, you take advantage of the fact that many others are making the mistake of pulling back. The air clears and you are there, standing out as one of the few businesses actively pursuing customers. That counts for a lot. This is also the time to increase your public relations efforts. Show that you are an active part of the community and a good commercial neighbor. That goes for your brick-and-mortar operation as well as your presence on the Internet. Get involved with social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Present yourself as an expert in your field and blog about it. The more you communicate with your target audience, the better your results will be. Being active and involved will augment your paid advertising and marketing very nicely and is very important to your company’s survival.
The first thing is to make an assessment of your product and service mix. What is selling? What is not? If it isn’t selling, why is it on your shelves? Take a good, hard look at your inventory and make sure there is a solid reason for everything to actually be there. You need to concentrate on what your customers want to buy.
The second thing is product quality. Don’t stock up on cheap items for the sake of saving a few dollars. Quality counts. The days of disposable products (that should have been durable) ended when disposable income began to dry up, so stock your business with the best things you can at the best price you can.
That brings us to the third item on the product list, price. You cannot win a price war without suffering a deal of loss yourself, and if you are going up against one of the big boxes, you won’t win it at all. As a small business, you don’t have the resources. What you have is a break-even point, and if you are above that, you make money, below it you lose money. You have to price your goods and services low enough, at least on occasion, to appeal to bargain-hunters, but high enough for you to be able to make payroll and keep the lights on. This means you will have to rely on something else to make the customers happy. You will have to rely on customer service.
A great experience at your firm begins and ends with great customer service. You can have the lowest prices in town, but if your service is terrible, your business will suffer. People remember how they are treated far more than what the price is.
When someone comes to you, they have a need that they want filled, a problem they need to solve. Are you going to try and sell them something, or are you going to offer a solution to their problem? If you want to stand out, follow the second course of action. People hate to be sold, but they love having their problems solved and, more to the point, they are happy to pay for it.
Solving your customers’ problems is the end result of a process of getting to know the customer, spending time to learn just what they need and building up a level of trust that will permit you to offer a solution. Your staff needs to engage your customers, they need to look them in the eye, smile and ask how they can be of assistance. They need to listen and ask intelligent questions so they can offer the right product or products for the customer’s need.
The process does not end when the cash changes hands. You should get the name and contact information of your clientele so you can follow-up on their purchases, keep them aware of what is happening at your business and even send them a birthday card.
By doing these things, you will develop a real relationship with your customers and that will pay you back in repeat business and referrals.
Pay attention to these areas of your business in bad times and they will keep you going, do it in the good times, and you will thrive.