Those who worked in the corporate arena before launching a business may revel in the freedom of operating without layers of bureaucracy, fixed hours and processes that benefit efficiency but fail to delight customers. Unlearning irrelevant corporate rules may seem simple, but delineating those that are useful and those that may damage your business and its reputation isn’t necessarily easy or intuitive.
Here are some rules that owners quickly unlearn and replace with new rules:
Showing up earns a paycheck.
Showing up is essential to getting started in earning money. Showing up by itself means nothing and may cost you if you have to pay for office or production space, inventory, staff, etc.
A title elicits respect.
The title of owner, principal, or president means that you are accountable for every action that the business takes, rather than naturally engendering compliance from those surrounding you. Others -- including employees, customers, and vendors -- will look to you for decisions and may approach you with proposals, requests and demands for your consideration, response and reaction.
Meetings solve problems (or provide a facade for real problem-solving).
Actions solve problems. Until you build a knowledgeable staff or a team of trusted advisors, you may need to skip meetings and go directly to handling problems swiftly and independently. Not only are you responsible for making decisions about complex matters, you are also accountable for communicating and carrying out these decisions.
Business decision-makers act rationally and consumers make predictable decisions.
Craft marketing, sales and service messages to meet the analytical and emotional needs of your target customer. Rational thinking and predictability on the part of customers may play less of a role in successfully marketing and selling your products and services than business owners with strengths in finance, operations, manufacturing, etc. would have ever imagined.
Going beyond the basics, I spoke with a veteran business owner about rules that may make sense for larger companies but are less relevant for small businesses. Bob Young works as president of ComputerTree, which has been an Apple reseller since the 1980s and provides systems integration, training and professional services. Most of the company’s focus has been on commercial accounts, though the company does serve the consumer segment.
Here are insights from our conversation:
Established business processes dominate decision-making.
Learn: Instituting work processes boosts efficiency, but customer needs should drive decision-making. Bob tells me that “Our advantage as a small business is that it’s easy for us to break our own rules or process when it’s going to be a great benefit to the customer. Being able to make a fast decision and react to a customer's needs is one of our biggest weapons in providing service to the customer.”
Flexibility tends to increase the cost of doing business.
Demonstrating flexibility can lead to greater customer satisfaction and profitability. “We can be flexible for anyone really. It can mean offering in-home installation on Sunday afternoon, if that's what the customer really needs. There are more opportunities to be flexible with business because it normally means the client is willing to pay extra for it, and many times consumers aren't willing to pay more, they become flexible if it means saving some money.”
Large marketing budgets spent on mass messaging can reach target audiences effectively.
Niche publications and custom advertising can deliver strong ROI. A “small business can search out the smaller local publications and reach a different market on a local level. We can also target locally through Google AdWords and speak only to the local prospect, targeting our dollars to the local customer. Local media can be a better ROI. I feel it generally gets noticed more, you're not in the fray, customers tend to trust it a bit more,” especially for publications that combine features of local businesses and personalities with advertising.
Adapting to different types of customers is difficult and ill-advised.
Tweaks to business operations can be made quickly in response to market demand and changing conditions. “This past year we really made a focus on consumer as well [as business] with the iPad. We now have a full line of accessories for browsing in the store, upgraded demo area for consumers with all the equipment there to view, and classes every Wednesday evening for our users. This year we will maintain our consumer offerings, but will focus greatly on large business, as we see opportunities coming about for us that didn't used to be there.”
Customers will respond positively to well-designed marketing offers.
Interact directly with customers to learn what they want, understand how they respond to your messages, and ensure that their needs are met by your business. “Being small lets us get closer to our customer, directly finding out what they need, discovering what would really ‘wow’ them, what's missing, and what's not meeting their needs. These discoveries should shape our businesses. It allows us to truly add value and fill the unfulfilled niche.”
Julie Rains is a senior writer at Wise Bread, a leading personal finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money. Get daily money tips by following Wise Bread on Facebook or Twitter.