How Can a Business Grow in Today’s Economy?

When I visit local businesses as a customer and ask, “How’s business?” The answer I hear a lot is, “It’s slow. But what are ya gonna do? How can a business grow in this economy?”It’s a fair question because these are indeed tough, scary times. The economy is unpredictable, seemingly unstable and mostly unfriendly when it comes to owning and operating a small or medium-sized business.Honestly though, I’m utterly shocked at just how unpredictable, seemingly unstable and mostly unfriendly MANY business owners are to their customers, clients and patients. It’s one of the few things in this world that leaves me completely speechless.During the past 12 months, I have driven over 15,000 miles on various cross-country road trips across the United States. I’ve spent weeks in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Vermont, Philadelphia, New York City, and everywhere in between. All along the way I’ve stopped at a bazillion different businesses.To my amazement, the thing 80% of those businesses had in common was that they proved to me just how little they cared about me as a customer. As far as they knew, I was a local resident who was a potential, life-long customer of theirs. It didn’t matter. They just didn’t care about me. The more the business appeared to rely upon location and foot traffic, the more they seemed to treat their customers with disdain and contempt.Think about it…you’ve had similar experiences in your own community…perhaps even today. Sadly, those kinds of businesses are the norm these days.In many cases, I left without purchasing anything…even though I’d gone with the intent (and money!) to buy.As a business growth strategist who has dedicated myself to helping to grow businesses, obviously I’m more hyper-vigilant and sensitive as a customer. Regardless, behavior and attitudes that are blatant and obvious to me still register with your customers…at least at an unconscious level.”To him that watches, everything is revealed.” (Italian proverb) Start watching more closely when you’re visiting another business as a customer. You’ll see what I’m talking about.But, if you’re really brave, you’ll look just as closely at your own business. Watch your staff as they interact with your customers (and each other). Notice any subtle “attitude” or general unhelpfulness. Notice any laziness in their lack of resourcefulness and lack of proactivity. Count how many times they say “no” or “sorry, we can’t/don’t do that” during a day and a week. Try to witness it all as your customers would. You’ll learn tons!Amusingly, these businesses all shared one other thing in common. When asked how their business was doing…almost all of them blamed the economy for how bad things were. I guess they also blame the economy for their hostility, rudeness and stinginess towards their customers. They can’t expect to grow their business when their attitude towards their customers drives those customers away.The lesson here is…until you are willing to do the very best with what little you have now (especially in the way you treat your customers), anything and everything else you do to grow your business is just going to accelerate the rate at which you drive your business into the ground.In a culture where people blame everyone and everything for their troubles (sometimes warranted, but very often NOT), those business owners who take responsibility for themselves and do the most and best with what they have stick out like a sore thumb. In a good way!So, how can a business grow in today’s economy?Here are a few things business owners can do immediately to turn things around (without spending one dime):1) Make it super easy to do business with you.Don’t miss the power and simplicity of this step.This week alone…while in NYC…I’ve had several encounters with business owners (as a customer) where I left determined NEVER to return. They just made it way too hard to do business with them!
What do I mean? Well, they only take credit cards if you order a certain amount; they only deliver up to the street directly adjacent to mine; they only give a fortune cookie when you order an entrée; they treat you like dirt when you try to redeem your Groupon purchase; they take 5 days to reply to your urgent email and then don’t even answer the specific and clear questions you asked; they charge your credit card and then take 13 days to ship your package (and never reply to your inquiries); etc.Do you see how ridiculously simple and easy every single one of these would be to fix? Yet this happens in every industry, all the time. Some of these infractions seem small and petty. But, all of them are meaningful to prospects and customers.Why turn down a customer who would likely order from you three times a week just because he’s one block outside of your arbitrary delivery zone…especially when you already charge a delivery fee?Why allow customers to think you are the cheapest restaurant in town for refusing to give a $.03 fortune cookie because you ordered an app instead of an entrée? Why put an offer on Groupon and then allow your staff to treat everyone who responds to it with contempt…ensuring they NEVER return…and ensuring that they tell everyone they know about their horrible experience? Why knowingly wait forever to reply to an urgent email and then fail to even answer the questions (or apologize!)?This kind of behavior occurs EVERY day in way too many businesses. It really is baffling. Get this area under control and you’re way ahead of the curve!2) Do the math before you try to save money in ways that drive away business.An Asian restaurant near my apartment has the very best cold sesame noodles on the planet. I walk by there 2-3 times every day. They have a credit card minimum of $10. The noodles are $5. I don’t like to carry cash and prefer to pay with credit. I currently stop by whenever I happen to have cash on me and get the $5 noodles to go. (I rarely make a special trip to the ATM for such a purchase.) They’ve seen me enough times that they start punching in my order as soon as I cross the threshold. I’ve explained that I would likely stop by 3-5 times per week (instead of 1 or 2) if they would let me use my credit card. They refuse because it’s “restaurant policy”. It’s insane.The problem is that they haven’t done the math. Now I hear many business owners protest, “But, you don’t understand! The banks get a cut of every purchase and that cuts into our margins!”
I understand completely. What they fail to consider is that if I spend $5 on each of 4 separate visits…and the bank charges 5% per transaction…95% of $20 is more in their pocket than getting 100% of the $5 or $10 I’ve been spending due to their restrictions. In other words, in order to save a little on their margins, they keep customers like me from buying more often. They make it harder to do business with them.Worse, they send me away to do business with their competitors. If given a choice between an independent coffee shop which has a $10 minimum (where I’d have to get cash every morning) and a chain (like Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts) who gleefully accepts my credit card for even a single donut…guess which one I (and most of their customers) will choose every time?I detest jumping through hoops to give them MY money. Other customers do too!Now, they can continue to make excuses about how their business is different because they’re not a chain. Blah, blah, blah. Or, they can ask their customers what they want and then sit down and do the math. In most cases, doing the math will prove that both the business owner AND their customers will benefit. More transactions (no matter how small) that come in because of ease of doing business with them…adds up over time.Side note: I know this is one area where business owners think they’re so savvy and smart. They think it’s a clever way to force customers to buy more than they would have in order to meet the cc minimum. “If I can get them to spend $11 instead of $4, then I’ve made an extra $7!!” And there may be a few fools who fall for this regularly. But, for the most part, these kinds of policies hurt a business. Customers see it as equivalent to the utter pettiness involved in being forced to buy a pack of gum or a newspaper at the 7-Eleven just to get change for $1 for the parking meter. It’s not a smart move. Everything matters.If they’re convinced that they can’t survive without a $10 minimum…they should empower their staff to be accommodating to someone like me who OBVIOUSLY likes something they have to offer. Until they do…I assure you that their customers are walking a very fine line between loyalty to them…and eventual patronage and loyalty to their competitors. The very second I find another restaurant with yummy cold sesame noodles (and they don’t even have to be as good), who will accept credit card without a fuss, the restaurant I frequent now will NEVER see me again. Think about it.You can apply this principle to a hundred different areas in your business immediately. We all have to watch our margins. Just don’t cut them in ways that drive your business away. Do the math!3) Ask customers what you can do to get them to come in more often, give them a better experience, etc.It costs you nothing to ask and it makes customers feel good to be asked. The feedback you’ll get could transform your business.But, be warned…it will do tremendous harm to your business to ask…but then fail to listen to and act upon the feedback.If 5 out of 10 of your customers mention that they wish you had lunch specials or flavored coffee…and you don’t create some lunch specials or offer flavored coffee…go ahead and pick out a tombstone for your business because it’s just a matter of time. If you aren’t listening in obvious areas, I assure you that you’re guilty of not listening in many other areas as well. But, you can be sure that your customers are listening!Time to Act!Ok, now you know some answers to “how can a business grow?” And these strategies won’t cost you a single dime. If you’re honest about your business…you know that the steps above amount to doing the minimum of your job as a business owner. Do that and I promise you’ll be way, way, way ahead of 80% of the businesses in your market.Just like we’ve all experienced unbelievably horrible customer service from other business owners, we’ve also experienced wonderful customer service. Customers don’t forget great experiences. They return and give you more business.You have a choice each and every time a customer enters your establishment. Will they leave having had a great experience with you and your staff…or will they walk away (with their money still in their wallet) determined to never return…or even worse, regretting they gave you their money? That power is something that economic changes can NEVER take away from you.I hope you take this to heart because if you become one of the few businesses in your area who demonstrates how much you care for your customers, then you’re bound to get noticed!You’re now ready for some “next level” marketing strategies (which are also inexpensive and often free to implement). In a future article, I’ll go into more detail. Until then, visit my website (see bio section) for more articles and free training.Now go and grow your business by doing the most with what you already have!!!

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