On a recent vacation to England visiting family and friends, my family and I spent a week at a rental in the Sussex village of Alfriston. In a rare moment of downtime among fields and fresh air, I had a chance to spend some time reflecting on the year past and consider how entrepreneurs can position their companies to help them grow in a fast-moving digital age.
One afternoon, while seated at the bar of a pub more than 600 years old, the George Inn, I had an amazing conversation with its landlord who had 35 years of hospitality experience.
It occurred to me that while entrepreneurs are constantly bombarded by paradigm shifts and new models (like the sharing economy and the freemium method of presenting products to consumers), they should ensure that their businesses still maintain some traditional standards that have stood the test of time. After all there's a reason why a pub like the one I sat in was still standing and doing very well.
After chatting with the owner of this ancient pub house about how he operated, I learned of three pillars to his business that impressed me and I intend to make sure I’m adopting them across mine:
1. Know competitors' strengths and weaknesses.
While only 700 people live in Alfriston, they’re lucky enough to have three pubs and an upscale restaurant to choose from. With that amount of competition in such a small catchment area, owners must understand their competition, respect what works for them and differentiate their products through experience and price.
Other pubs in the area sold pub grub: fish and chips, bangers and mash. The George's owner, a chap called Roland, felt he could pitch his establishment’s sustenance somewhere between regular pub food and a fancy restaurant. So the menu reflects this with rustic boards of meat or seafood to share and a smattering of dishes like trout with lentils and chorizo. He even offers 10 wines by the glass, not common at most restaurants, let alone a country pub.
Too often business owners fail to recognize in today's digital environment that they have to be aware not just of direct competitors but of anything or anyone who take consumers' eyeballs away from their stuff.
Knowing the competitive landscape will help you understand the context your consumer is operating in and give you an edge when planning your product offering so you can at least be different if not unique.
2. Get to know the customers.
With a small local clientele, the George's Roland didn't need long to become acquainted with his regulars and understand their likes and dislikes. But this winter he also took time to ask questions of newcomers like my wife and me, putting us at the heart of the experience he was trying to create. It all comes down to commonsense customer service.
Roland explained the different beers on tap and let us sample them before committing. He asked us where we were staying in the village and answered our inquiries about the history of the pub and its extensive menu with much enthusiasm, regaling us with anecdotes and helping us understand his vision for the place based on his past experiences in the United States and as a chef.
I have had some negative experiences with digital businesses recently where it’s obvious that the owners made themselves their #1 priority: They were too quick to judge my intentions and didn't ask sufficient questions before insinuating their product or service was not for me. The owner of the George was exactly the reverse: helpful and passionate and this was infectious.
If you want to instill trust in potential customers, communicate in a way that shows caring and empathy. Even if customers don’t buy or spend much, a positive experience with your company's brand might result in a recommendation to a friend who will.
3. Occasionally evolve your product offering.
The pub at the George always has safe favorite items on its menu of the food and liquid variety. But five times a year, other items change or new ones are introduced to add diversity. Some of the updates are seasonal and others are to keep pace with evolving trends and tastes like for Mediterranean flavors and Thai curry.
While there is something to be said for sticking to what you know and what’s already working for your business, learning to anticipate what your customers might want or need down the road broadens your opportunities. And the practice gives a compelling impression that your company is a dynamic operation and keeps the entrepreneurial cobwebs at bay for you and your co-workers.
My wife and I ended going three times to that pub during our weeklong stay in the village and have recommended it to friends and family who one day might pass through. I suspect that the pub's providing of great customer service, competitive differentiation and a solid but fluid product offering will allow it to do a roaring trade for another 600 years.
Can you honestly say the same about your business?