This summer, employees and patrons of Market Basket, a New England supermarket chain, banded together to thwart the ousting of beloved CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. In doing so, Market Basket turned every corporate cliché on its head. While money might be able to buy out business partners, it can’t buy out love. The campaign to bring back Demoulas proved that, as social capital, love’s buying power can beat corporate shares.
Community investment can inspire the kind of customer loyalty that turns small and medium-sized businesses into unofficial local institutions. It can even carry an entrepreneur through a business crisis—as it did for Demoulas.
How can you turn your business into a local institution? These six steps are a good start.
Join local and community business associations, and attend community events such as fairs, festivals and town hall meetings to meet influencers in your area. While most people you meet will have their own needs and agendas in mind, make it yours to discover everyone’s else's needs, build rapport and nurture new connections beyond the meet and greet.
Now that you’ve established a relationship with a number of community leaders, you can start putting those connections to work. Begin by committing to a few small collaborations—favors really—such as information sharing or making an introduction that you can easily accomplish and that can help kick off a reciprocal relationship. Position yourself as a reliable resource.
Once you've proven yourself to be a doer, you’ll find more and bigger opportunities for service, especially from the people you connect with and help the most. And while your time is fairly limited, there’s always something you can do, no matter how small. Can’t plan the event? Offer to find someone else who can or share the opportunity on social media. Can't make a large donation? Donate what you can, including your time. Eventually, you’ll see an opportunity that inspires you, one that employs your unique experience and talents and helps you make a real difference.
If that doesn't happen, maybe it’s time to create an event, program or charity yourself and cash in on your growing stash of IOUs to get help in realizing a community service vision of your own.
Business owners routinely contribute to their local churches, schools and other worthy causes and never make PR stunts of it. Nor should they. However, it’s important to find ways to promote your efforts beyond the “Thanks to Our Sponsors” line in a community event flyer.
Effective bragging is purposeful and infectious, driving wider community involvement. Have a community message board in your storefront, recruit loyal customers to your causes or use your customer newsletter to promote community events as well as your own services. Such actions don’t put people off—they bring people in. And the more you connect with your prospects and customers outside of business transactions, the stronger that business/community relationship becomes.
Even if you’ve opted for quiet leadership or support until now, your mounting credentials have a way of causing others to expect you to play progressively larger roles. Rising to the challenge separates strong community leaders from run-of-the-mill good neighbors. Just be realistic about what you can reasonably manage, and remember: If you’re doing it all by yourself, then you’re not leading anyone.
Being an institution means establishing a reputation and living up to it for the long haul. Using these steps to build and secure your position in the community is crucial. You may even discover your reputation begins to speak for itself. So while your role in the community may grow and change over time, your clear commitment to that community cannot.
For a local business to be successful in any meaningful way, that business must be definitively local. The customer loyalty that a proven commitment inspires will not only reach the bottom line but inspire the surrounding community as well.
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Manpreet Singh is the founder and president of talklocal, a local startup that helps consumers find high quality local professionals in minutes. He's also a member of Young Entrepreneur Council, an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.
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