Growing up in a small town of fewer than 100 people (yes, you read that right…fewer than 100!) was not always the easiest, but one thing I will always treasure is the values I learned growing up and working in a small, family-owned business. We worked hard and we played hard. We helped our neighbors. We knew our customers by name.
A lot of people will tell you that these things are not scalable as your business grows, especially if you take your business online. But you know what? Those lessons I learned during my high school years at the corner of Main Street and the cow pasture have stuck with me, and they shape how I choose to do business to this day. I attribute my greatest successes to the fact that I bring small town values to a world-wide scale.
People are People are People…and We Want Others to Care
I have friends and colleagues from around the world and guess what? People are people, no matter what color or gender or nationality or education level or worldview. There might be cultural differences, but the fact of the matter is that we all want others to care about us. When I worked at my neighborhood deli as a teen, I would pride myself in knowing the regulars. As I was preparing their order, I would ask them about their families, suggest items I knew they’d like from our shop, and call them by name.
There’s no reason you can’t do this online as well. As your business grows, get to know your “regulars” – they people who always retweet you or comment on your Facebook posts. Thank people by name. When someone has a complaint, address it personally instead of sending a form letter.
You hate it when you feel like a number. Others do as well. This is true whether you have one customer or one million customers.
The advantage is that when you get to know your customers on a more personal basis, especially those who are your biggest fans, selling to them is much easier. You can make personal recommendations based on what you know they’d like and you can ask for their feedback on new products. This isn’t just about getting cozy with customers to make them feel good. It actually helps your business.
Putting a Face to the Brand
No one wants to do business with a logo. On a small-town level, you as the owner might be regularly available or even working at your store. You probably have employees that are “faces” to your brand as well – those who are naturally customer favorites. When my dad has a doctor’s appointment, for example, he will go out of his way to see his favorite nurse, Brittany, even if it means walking to another wing changing his schedule so he can make an appointment when she’s working.
Online, the same is true. People want to interact with other people, especially employees they enjoy. Get your face out there as much as possible online and make real connections. Encourage your employees to do the same by interacting with people via social media. If you’re worried about how an employee will represent you online, that’s probably a good indication that he or she shouldn’t be working for you. Hire people who can be the faces of your brand, whether it’s in person or online. Give them training, create a social media policy, and then give them the freedom to get out there and talk to people.
Love Your “Competitors”
It’s important to love your “competitors” online…and I put that word in quotes because in actuality, you don’t have competitors as much as you have colleagues.
Let’s say you own a seafood restaurant, for example. There are probably several other places in town where people can get a meal, plus you’re competing with local grocery stores since many people will also eat at home. But does that mean you put up big signs that say “Eat Here! Joe’s Pizza Place Sucks!”? No way. You all have to live in the same town together. Joe’s Pizza Place might be a competitor, but it’s in both of your best interests if the relationship is friendly.
After all, you might both be serving food, but you offer different products for different tastes. There’s no reason you can’t agree to refer people to one another. Maybe Joe’s Pizza Place recommends your more upscale establishment for an upcoming wedding reception. Maybe you recommend their restaurant for the Little League team’s post-game dinner. Maybe you even partner to offer coupons to one another’s patrons.
Online, the same small town rules apply on a world-wide scale. Rather than hating on your competitors, think about how you can work together. At the very least, you can learn from one another. What cool Facebook promotions is that seafood place from three states over doing to bring in new customers? How are they using their blog to reach would-be diners? What can you learn from their failures? Know your colleagues and work together to build both of your businesses.
No matter what the scale of your business, I hope you never lose your small town values. Here’s what I hope you take away from this post:
- Don’t be afraid to talk to people online the same way you would in a face-to-face situation. Get to know your customers, especially your biggest and most devoted fans.
- Train your employees and then let them represent you online the same way they would at your brick-and-mortar store. Don’t be a logo online. Be real people.
- Get to know other business owners and learn from one another instead of ignoring your competitors or creating a bad relationship.
No matter how big your business grows, these things are possible. At NMX 2013, Dana White, who is president of UFC and now has millions of fans and followers was saying the same thing: this is all scalable if you really want it to be! Connecting with people individually takes more time the bigger you are, but bringing the small town values to a world-wide audience will set you apart and ultimately help your business grow.