Even in the best of times, the deck seems stacked against small companies. So what's a small business to do when times are tough? Already outdone by large companies on margins, volume, and pricing, small businesses are also the last to get a helping hand from banks and the government during a downturn.
There's one essential business competence that small companies have in much greater supply than big ones, though: empathy for their customers.
For an individual, empathy is the ability to step outside of yourself and see the world the way other people do. For a company, widespread empathy consists of everyone in the organization having a clear sense of the lives of the people they serve. Companies that cultivate widespread empathy see new opportunities more quickly, have the gut-level intuition to try something new, and maintain the courage to stick with ideas that don't take off right away. As we discuss in our book Wired to Care, empathy often leads to growth--regardless of the overall economic climate.
While it's difficult to build a pervasive sense of empathy into a large corporation, it's easy for a company of a few dozen folks to see the world through their customers' eyes. Small business owners are almost always closer to the people they serve than big-corporation CEOs are. Take the insurance agent who owns a home in the same community as her customers and whose kids attend the same schools as theirs. If she's paying attention, she'll anticipate demand for new services far more swiftly than a large company that conducts business almost entirely through automated Websites and call centers.
In a troubled economy, where companies of all kinds are looking for new ways to create value, cultivating a sense of empathy is a smart strategy for ensuring long-term viability. But don't just take our word for it: consider one small company that has been able to lead its market for nearly 400 years, by consciously developing strong connections to the people who use its products.
The Avedis Zildjian Company has fewer than 100 employees worldwide, yet it's legendary for making the world's finest cymbals (that's where you recognize that odd-looking name from!). Drummers from jazz great Buddy Rich to Ringo Starr to Radiohead's Phil Selway have all relied on the warm, rich sound of Zildjian cymbals in the studio and in concert. In fact, the company was founded in 1623 by an alchemist living outside Istanbul, who provided cymbals directly to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Mozart himself specified the use of Zildjians during his symphonies and operas.
So why hasn't a larger player entered the market, duplicated the quality of Zildjians, and then sold them at a lower price for larger profits? What sets Zildjian apart from many also-rans is its empathy. From management to marketing to manufacturing, everyone inside the company understands on a deep, intuitive level exactly what keeps drummers up at night. And as a result, everyone makes ten thousand better decisions to shape their company and its offerings to better serve drummers. This has helped the organization to thrive through numerous downturns. In fact, the company's American branch was founded in late 1929, weeks before the Black Thursday crash.
Like Zildjian, small companies have a built-in empathy advantage. Almost by definition, founders tend to be salespeople whose ability to connect with customers determines whether their fledgling enterprises ever go anywhere. But as companies grow from 50 to 500 to 5,000 people, they hire more and more managers who don't have front-line exposure. In order to maintain and extend the intuition that fuels a company's growth, small business owners can take three steps to make sure that an empathic connection to customers is driving growth, even in a down market.
Share the empathy you already have.
The brains of entrepreneurs tend to be filled with customer stories that shape how they view the world and how they come up with ideas for new products and services. The problem is that others in the company lack that same intuition. One of the best things small business owners can do to ensure long-term viability is to get those stories out of their heads and into the cultures of their companies. Tell them to employees. Post them on the walls. Get everybody making decisions that draw on the stories that have brought the company thus far. In time, this can turn personal intuition into a shared resource for employees on all levels.
Incentivize managers to spend time with customers.
Managers who don't work on the front lines can still think like the folks who do. Companies that scale empathy effectively make sure that all employees, regardless of their titles or functions, have a clear understanding of what's keeping their customers up at night. This can be as simple as rewarding people on their annual reviews based on how often they meet with real customers or as time-consuming as a mandate that all managers take rotations on front-line jobs. Such practices can go a long way toward ensuring that everybody develops a gut sense to build on what the founders already know.
Look to the friends who brought you here.
When companies are shedding jobs and shutting their doors, it's easy to focus inward and worry about your problems. But doing the exact opposite is critical to survival. Especially in a tough economy, it's imperative for small businesses to leverage the empathy they already have. Get outside and spend even more time with your most loyal customers, find out what they're going through, and then put yourself in their shoes to come up with products and services that can help them out right now. For example, now might be the time to be a bit more forgiving on payment plans to ensure loyalty over time. The Little Bay restaurant in London has even seen its revenue shoot up over the last few months by introducing a pay-what-you-want business model. The particular solution that works best will vary from company to company. What matters is showing your best customers that you're genuinely interested in their lives and well-being.
The small companies that don't just survive the current crisis but actually manage to thrive in the coming months will be those who form new connections to the people they serve and then leverage those connections to focus their business solely on what their customers genuinely value. People are wired to care, so why shouldn't companies be, too?
Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen work at the consulting firm Jump Associates and are the authors of Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy. They can be reached at Wired to Care.
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