Small businesses can't survive without customers. But that doesn't mean you should focus only on striking individual deals with prospects or clients. The key to building a brand, and establishing business for the long-term, is to invest in relationships.
"People do business with people," says Lynne Golodner, founder of the marketing agency Your People LLC.
"Without relationships, without caring about the individual, you could go to any company. To truly stand out a company has to have heart and soul behind its logo. Without that, it's no different than the competition," Golodner says.
Banking on Relationships
"Small businesses can take their relationships to the bank—literally," says Steve Gordon, a marketing consultant who specializes in small business. Gordon urges his clients to invest time in relationship building.
One of his clients, a roofing company, now sends personalized thank you cards to customers after the job is done. The cards have a photo of the house with its new roof on the cover.
"The photo on the front caused many customers to keep the card, put it on the mantel or fridge and it became a conversation piece when neighbors came over, driving a significant increase in referral business," he says.
Gordon has another customer, a financial planner, who regularly sends educational and informative content to prospects and clients.
"Social media is a relatively easy and cost-effective way to build relationships with customers and engage them in order to create customers for life," says Hannah Marr, content director with BizBrag, an online tool for social media management.
But Marr adds it isn't enough just to collect Facebook Likes and Twitter follows and use that audience as a landing net for sales pitches.
"It's okay to throw in a sales pitch every once in a while," Marr says. "Simply posting engaging, interesting content can help customers view your company as more than a money-making machine. It allows them to see the business in a more human way, and recognize there are actual people behind that social media account that are interested in what the customer has to say."
How to Better Connect
Here are Golodner's tips for small businesses that are looking for ways to make meaningful connections:
Communicate regularly with customers. Use social media, e-mails or mailings. "Find ways to start conversations with your customers and make those conversations two-way," Golodner says. "Ask for feedback. Invite them to be part of the process. And show lots of gratitude."
Create opportunities for face time with customers. Host an open house, a breakfast or lunch or any situation that connects you in real time.
Consider focus groups. A focus group can help you learn more about how the company is perceived and what customers need.
Always send thank you notes. Send handwritten notes and end-of-year gratitude gifts. Gifts can range from chocolate bars imprinted with the company logo to sports tickets to a restaurant gift card. "It is an investment in your business," Golodner says.
Be patient. "Treat building customer relationships the same as you would build a personal relationship," Golodner advises. "Don't badger someone every day or you will scare them away."
Lori Karpman, entrepreneur and business management consultant, says it's important to think of every client or prospect as a person you would like to have a relationship with. "See how your business changes from trying to 'convince and sell' to trying to 'assist and inform,'" Karpman says.
She adds that relationship-building is a key to growth. "It's how small businesses become large ones," Karpman says.
Carla Turchetti is a veteran print and broadcast journalist who likes to break a topic down and keep her copy tight. That's why this bio is so brief! Carla blogs via Contently.com.