What 9000 Small Businesses Taught Me

As anyone over 25 knows, life moves swiftly.  It seems like only yesterday that I was fresh out of college and pondering what in the heck I would do with my life.  But it wasn’t yesterday; it was 21 years ago.  20 years ago I was Small Business lessonsblessed to fall into a sales career that quickly gave me the opportunity to manage a small business.

I had no idea what I was doing.  But I was smart. And I liked people. And it turned out that I was good at sales. I was also blessed that the owner of that business was pretty damned smart as well, and quickly taught me business principals learned IN REAL TIME that may have taken me years to learn in a classroom.

This was all fortuitous for me, because that business owner was my boyfriend, and when I decided to leave I had to leave the career as well.   I ended up as a wholesale sales rep. and my journey over the next 15 years would result in putting me in front of thousands of small business owners.  By my conservative calculations I have spoken, one on one, with approximately 9,300 small businesses over the past 15 years.  I don’t mean a trip to the ball park speaking, I mean I’ve had the opportunity to speak, face to face, about the workings of small business with thousands of owners and managers.

All of that knowledge has given me a nearly intuitive ability to know, quickly, what businesses are successful and which ones are struggling, and why.

Here are the most crucial kernels I’ve taken away from it all:

  1. Business Planning is not optional.  Yes, I’m talking to you Mr – I’ve been in business for 30 years.  You can only run your business if it’s not running you.
  2. Truly successful businesses have a marketing budget.  I’m not saying this because I’m a marketer; for much of my career I was selling wholesale.  You may be downright shocked at how many small businesses rely entirely on word of mouth.  The ones that last through the bad times spend money building their brand awareness.
  3. Family businesses are very vulnerable when the 2nd generation takes over.  There is often resentment about ‘how much my parents worked,’ and a total lack of understanding about how many hours it takes to run a business; if you’re generation #2, beware and be smart.  You need to think like a business person and not as the child of business people.
  4. Partnership agreements are a necessity. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve seen friends and even relatives destroy their relationships when a business splits up.  Plan for how you will part first and it may very well save your relationship in the end.
  5. Staccato marketing is worthless. You can’t expect stop and go marketing to work; having a successful month and deciding to ‘try’ something one time will give you zero results.
  6. People matter more than anything.  I have been in businesses where employees are part of the ‘family,’ and in others where the owner literally steals points off the salesperson’s commission.  Guess which ones have fewer headaches and therefore much less wasted profit due to poor quality control? Don’t give employees a reason to steal from you.
  7. The customer isn’t always right.  Big businesses like Nordstroms can afford to give away the lot when someone whines; those sort of gimmes aren’t in the budget for small business.  The way to manage a bad customer is to have strict quality controls and procedures to document them.  Small claims court is a reality for many small businesses; you can avoid it if your policies and procedures are crystal clear and followed.
  8. Everyone is in Sales. This is as true for BIG business as it is small, but if everyone isn’t perfectly clear that their paycheck is paid BY THE CUSTOMER, then we have a problem.
  9. You can’t stand still. The number of times I’ve seen once great businesses whither on the vine because they stopped adapting to a changing marketplace is mind boggling.  The ability to honestly assess your business’ place and path forward in your marketplace is essential. If you can’t do it, bring in outside help.
  10. Honesty wins. It has become obvious to me that dishonest business managers lie to themselves; they pretend things are better (or worse) than they are in many segments of their business.  When you do that, you can’t measure and adjust your strategy.

Of course there’s a lot more where that came from; the US is built on the backbone of small business.  I look forward to learning even more over the next 20 years.

Procrastination.

I bought an Electrolux vacuum a few years ago when I finally grew up and invested in some nice carpets, and the thing was worth every penny. I actually LOVE that vacuum. A couple of months ago the head on the vacuum broke when SOMEONE WHO ISN’T ME vacuumed up my daughter’s sock. It’s a canister, so all we need to do is take the head to a vacuum shop and get it fixed. I live in the country, which means NOTHING is simple, but Scranton is only 15 miles away and full of old school small businesses; of course there is a repair shop there. That vacuum has been sitting in my mudroom for 3 months. I’ve made approximately 65 trips to Scranton since then and I have yet to remember to take that part in for repair.

No, my house is not a filthy mess; I’ve been using my cheap Dirt Devil since then. Does it make me feel like an incompetent loser when I see the Electrolux sitting there? Absolutely. But I know it’s ok to be a loser about a broken vacuum cleaner. I didn’t always feel this way; for years I tried to be super woman and keep the perfect home, have a rock star career…. you know. But now I know what’s important, and having that vacuum fixed is way down on my list of priorities.

What is a priority?

1. Making sure I spend some time talking and reading to my daughter everyday.
2. Keeping the commitments I make to my clients when it comes to meeting deadlines.
3. When deadlines can’t be met, communicating that clearly and immediately.
4. Staying on top of my marketing goals, consistently, which means daily.
5. Making time to recharge my batteries so that I have the energy and inspiration to do all of the above with gusto.

Sometimes procrastination is ok; if you come to my home or office you may find a dirty floor, but you will also find a happy, successful place of life and business.

Driving Without Gas

Of course I’m looking for a cute title that will peak your interest and get you to read my blog, but this one really hits on one of the unbelievably common mistakes so many small business owners make: NO MARKETING. I know it sounds unrealistic, but I would say that at least 50% of the small businesses I come across make either NO, or only sporadic, attempts at marketing their business.

Imagine What Could Happen if you DID have a plan?

What that means is that you Small Business Owner, put out your shingle and “open” sign, and then wait for customers. Of course you don’t think you’re waiting for customers – you’ve joined the local Chamber, maybe even another type of networking group, and some business IS coming in. Eventually, if you’re lucky and/or an extremely good net worker, some business begins to trickle in and word of mouth starts to get traction. You may even be making enough to pay the bills, but let me ask you something: “Is that why you started your business, to just pay the bills?”

You may answer: “I have more business than I can handle.” To that I say “phooey.” No one has more business than they can handle; what lots and lots of customers means is that you can raise prices and be selective about who you work with. It is a wonderful thing if you are booked for months – and yes, you may have to tell some customers that you won’t be able to make their timeline and they’ll have to go elsewhere. Believe me, that is nothing to be afraid of. What it means is that you become sought after – they know that if you’re THAT busy, your’re THAT good, and many more than you think will wait to work with you.

So, what does this all mean: get MARKETING. But not in a half hazard fashion! Develop a marketing plan, whether it’s print/tv/radio/online/social media – if you don’t know where to start, hire a profesional….and begin to put the pieces together so that you can become the type of small business owner I described.. not one just paying the bills.

Sell the Decision Maker

Usually my posts are marketing related, but all of the marketing in the world won’t work if the people or person in charge of Sales doesn’t close the deal. Marketing’s job is to peak interest; it’s the job of Sales to complete the transaction – to convert the prospect into a customer. In my company I usually wear both hats, and just like every other salesperson out there, I have to be vigilant and disciplined with my time.

Decision Maker

Are you meeting with the right people?

I’ve been working with a large client that I have a longstanding relationship with from the ground up; I started by working on a few small projects that led to medium sized jobs and I have a good report and reputation with the employees I’ve worked with. One of the mid level managers thinks I could do a lot for the company on a national level. As you would probably guess, I am not against this idea but haven’t yet had the opportunity to present my ideas to the DECISION MAKER, the VP of Marketing. He lives on the other side of the country and doesn’t come my way often, so the opportunity to meet in a more casual setting at one of the company locations has not arisen. The other day I got a call that he would be in New York at a conference and there would be the chance of meeting him if I could get down there next week; that mid level manager was sure he could get me the introduction. In my excitement at the prospect, I almost took the chance… until I woke up and realized one of the first lessons I used to teach my sales force: you’re wasting your time if you’re not selling to the DECISION MAKER.

An out of town trip on short notice is no small feat for me as I have packed schedule like everyone else. It means rearranging appointments with existing clients, finding day/night care arrangements for my daughter, ensuring that both of my companies are set up for a couple of days and my employees know what they’re doing while I’m away, in addition to time away from the daily avalanche of emails etc. that will need my attention. But of course it’s worth it, right? To meet the VP of Marketing for a large company? WRONG.

It would be worth all of the above IF I was having a meeting and the VP of Marketing understood that I was there to discuss his company using my services. To drop everything for the chance of saying hello, introducing myself and hoping to set up a meeting is a sorry waste of time.

This is the most difficult sort of discipline for the optimistic sales person, but it essential to avoid running around wasting time. The optimist in us thinks that we’ll be so impressive in that short meet & greet that the target will of course want more. But at some point optimism turns to foolishness. If your ideas are so significant, you should be able to LAND the meeting, the REAL MEETING, that will give you the time to sell your ideas to the person who can make the decision to buy. Discipline is the key to effectiveness; your time is limited, and you can waste mountains of it on chances. If that mid level manager is so sure of your services they’ll be able to get you the phone call and you can land the meeting yourself; the real meeting where you have a real chance of selling your ideas… the one it will be worth turning your office upside down for, because being as good as you are you’ll be able to close the deal, in the real meeting.

I am all about Fair Play

If you read my posts you’ll already get the fact that I’m all about operating in a meritocracy, or as close to that environment as the world lets me create. I was attracted to sales because it didn’t matter where I grew up, who my parents were, or what connections I had. Talent & hard work made me relatively successful.

That’s why I work for myself now – the only politics are MINE, and I am all about fair play. You work hard, you do good work, you succeed in my world. Of course, I’m not always in control of the dynamics. There are jobs I don’t get because of cronysim, nepotism, or simply because the prospect liked the other guy more than me. And I’m alright with that – I do not rule the world, but I rule MY company’s world. And in my world I am fair to my employees and my customers. The good ones get better treatment.

I am also fair to myself. That means that there are times I actually say the word “no” to my customers. When they ask me to take on a job I know I can’t do because of timing issues & what’s already on my plate (taking on their job would be unfair to my other customers who are already in the cue), when my skill set doesn’t match the task at hand (taking on the job would be unfair to my client because I’d be faking it through parts of the project or learning on the job), or when I know the customer is going to be a royal pain in the rear, not get me the needed information, drag their feet, and make my company look bad.

This follows on the heels and is related to my last post – Knowing When to Fire Your Customer – but in this case I’m not advocating firing them – I’m advocating being fair to them, and to yourself. The customer is not always right, and when they’re blatantly wrong it’s ok to politely tell them so. There may be times when you want to let something they did slide for the sake of keeping the account, but by all means make sure you leverage that “favor” you’re doing them; make sure that they understand that you think they were wrong and you are doing them a favor. It’s ok that you decided to not hold a customer’s feet to the fire and win the battle and lose the war, just make sure that goes into your bag as ammunition for the next time when you must say no.

Be fair to your employees, be fair to your customers, and most importantly, be fair to your company and its reputation.

How to Win Friends & Influence People Online

It’s such a cliched and overused phrase I couldn’t resist paraphrasing it as the title for this blog post, although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I’m not the first.

I’m reading Trust Agents by Chris Brogan & Julien Smith, and before I get into this I will admit that I want to be Chris Brogan when I grow up; he is THE Social Media Blogger & Internet Marketing Expert and has so many projects in the works I am sure the man never sleeps. He’s all about sharing and giving and is generally the popular guy in the room – liked by the guys, trusted and liked by the girls. I started reading the book really to get inside his head and see how he got where he’s at, and to understand the written & unwritten rules of successful brand building through Social Media Marketing.

So I get to a section on being a “Good Citizen,” – sharing knowledge and information and not selling yourself. Being a “Good Citizen” is about promoting others far more than you promote your own products & services; operating in a spirit of collaboration, not trolling the internet for customers. A few pages into this chapter I realize: “They don’t know anything about selling that I don’t know already.” That doesn’t mean I’ve lost esteem for the authors, and that they don’t know a heck of a lot more about selling & marketing ONLINE than I do. It means that I realize that what they’ve done is translate the way a great Salesperson/Business Owner/Marketer operates in Real Life onto the web. Any great career salesperson worth their salt knows that in the real world you need to be your client’s trusted advisor and friend, and I mean genuinely, to develop meaningful relationships and long term sales.

And any good salesperson realizes that a client will immediately smell disengenuousness and false friendship… and NO ONE likes the hard sell – that only works in used car dealerships, occasionally. Constant Twitter/Facebook posts all about your products means eventually even your real-time friends will tune you out. Imagine you’re at a business card exchange and there’s one guy running around collecting & giving out as many cards as he can, stopping for a few minutes to sell you hard on his company. You may find him amusing, but you’ll probably never do business with him. Then there’s the lady who speaks to maybe 3 or 4 people in that hour and a half exchange, and you are one of them. She speaks so passionately and enthusiastically about her business and, more importantly, asks a lot of questions about YOURS and actually seems to listen. You’ll remember her, and you actually make a mental note to look her up on Facebook & Twitter when you get back; you might not ever need her services, but if someone who you know does, you’ll refer them to her in a second.

So the moral of the story is: don’t be someone different online than you would be in person… would you really run around a room of people shouting out the praises of your company and hard selling ? Probably not, and if you would there’s really no hope for you in sales, either real or online. In REAL life you’re probably a genuine, sincere person who believes in what you do. Hopefully you also are a networker & collaborator already, so BE THAT online too. It is amazing what doors open up, for sales, professional development, and even real friendship when you start putting other’s ideas first.

Sharing Your Knowledge or Free Consulting?

Working for Free or Earning Trust?

There is a lot of talk in the online marketing world about “remarkable content” and the spirit of giving you must have to be successful in drawing in new customers. Share your knowledge with them and you can build a virtual relationship that will hopefully lead to a new client or business relationship. There is a lot of preaching about taking down the barriers and becoming the trusted source – the “go-to guy” and therefore the first one hired when a need for your services arise.

But how much is too much? At what point are you basically working for free – consulting as a specialist without getting paid? And this doesn’t just happen online with prospects, it happens in real life with both potential clients and existing customers; you’re hired for one project but a trickle of small requests from an important client builds into a time vaccuum that in the end is making you less productive on the revenue producing end of your business.

What to do? Establish a list of rules for what is and what isn’t “free.” It is one thing to advise your customer or help problem solve if the problem solving is a quick 2 paragraph email or five minute conversation. When it becomes a stream of emails, an hour long meeting, or work you must do on your own that requires more than a few minutes of your time, you need to quickly and politely STOP the freebie train. As soon as a client makes a request that you know is time consuming and really an ‘additional project,’ you must immediately and without hesitation say something like “I would be thrilled to help you with that – let me get a proposal together and email it to you.” Then do just that – figure out the time you predict this project will take and get a proper proposal together. If it is an opened ended project, the proposal should include an hourly rate.

Once you have your list of what you will and will not do, your Freebie Rules, stick to them. Most of the free consultation is your fault – it’s a behavior you have fallen into, and then trained your clients to expect. In the beginning it may seem awkward or difficult, but with discipline it will become second nature and your company will become a lot more profitable. Time is your most precious commodity, so make sure you’re not giving it away for nothing.

Small Business Ownership – Schizophrenic Nature Required?

This post came about because a reader commented that they didn’t see a connect between one of my posts and the others. Believe me, I certainly welcome feedback and frankly am glad that anyone wants to read my blog. Graciousness at being heard is most often my state of mind.

However, this critical post got me thinking and again I realized a philosophy I’ve been living for years – you NEED to have the ability to wear 17 different hats if you are going to run a small business. Anyone who comes from a corporate background, and I was there as well for many years, may have a more difficult time adjusting to and embracing the concept that one day you may be battling Quickbooks, of course everyday you are VP of Sales, and some days you might even have to schlep to Staples for copy paper. Especially in the beginning.

This “Multi-tasking Required” skill set becomes even more apparent when you go to hire your first employee and try to delegate part of what you do. It may seem like a frustrating and ineffective way to live, but for many small business owners it’s the only option. I’ve decided to embrace it as a far more interesting vocation than showing up, sitting at a desk, and doing the same thing day in and day out. If you don’t love it you’ll never be able to put in hours required to build a small business, so perhaps the corporate safety zone is where you should be.

Small Business Cliches that are True

You can't get blood from a turnip.

A cliche, as we all know, is a saying which has been overused to the point of the ridiculous, but most cliches exist because they are founded on truth – especially in business. Here are the ones that I consider part of my successful business philosophy:

1) Fake it Til You Make It: This does NOT mean pretend you are something that you are not. It does mean you must carry an air of success and confidence when you are selling your services, which means dressing and acting like a successful business person. You shouldn’t lie about what you are capable of providing, you should be very careful to not appear arrogant, but you should never talk about the issues your company is having, your financial fears, lay offs etc. In my work I come across so many small business owners, especially start ups, who mistake their warm relationship with clients and colleagues for friendships and share too much information.
2) Everybody Loves a Winner Piggybacking on Cliche’#1, people have enough worries of their own to even think about buying a product or service from a company that might not be around for long. This is especially true if your sales are primarily B2B – if your customer’s success depends upon their suppliers and you’re one of them, they’d better believe you will make them look good in front of their customers.
3) Ask for the Sale We’ve all heard the 80/20 rule until we’re blue in the face, but NOTHING is more important to your business success than asking for the sale. It never ceases to amaze me how many of my clients are afraid to go for it and close the deal.
4) Thinking Outside of the Box If you’ve ever been part of a large sales force and attended a company conference, you’ve heard this speech hundreds, if not thousands of times. You can come up with a new way of saying it – be a “Game Changer,” a “Trust Agent,” but it does matter that you are not just accepting the way business is done and always looking for a new or better way to provide your customers with what they need.

ALL of these cliches became over used because they are true to the core; that means you can afford to ignore them.