4 Tips for Growing a Sustainable Business Want your business to last? This successful entrepreneur can tell you what you need to go from just satisfying your customers to making them your true partners.
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In the old days, before online rating places like Yelp, TripAdvisor, OpenTable and even RateMyProfessors and HealthGrades, the worst that would happen if a company or service provider dished out poor goods or lousy service is that they'd get a bad reputation. Maybe they'd even have to fold.
Consumers have more choices today than ever, and they vote with their dollars. One truly furious customer who deploys an aggressive social media lambasting campaign can do serious damage.
Michael Glauser is the executive director of Jeffrey D. Clark Center for Entrepreneurship in the John M. Huntsman School of Business in Salt Lake City, Utah, an entrepreneur, business consultant and the author of Main Street Entrepreneur: Build Your Dream Company Doing What You Love Where You Live. Glauser recently rode his bike around the U.S. interviewing entrepreneurs, and his perspective on entrepreneurship resonated with me in a recent conversation.
"Right now, we're in what I call the "customer economy,'" Glauser says. "There are more products and services in the market than ever before, and there are more variations of brands within each of those product lines. The customers are kind of keen. They can buy whatever they want, wherever they want, and they can get it for a great price. They can get it customized, and they get it personalized. This new customer economy is all about building communities of people that love you, love your products, love your service and have chosen you as their provider."
So growing a sustainable business comes down to whether or not you can satisfy customers -- even wow them -- when they interact with you. Attracting customers the first time is the easy part. Winning them over as your loyal customers so they don't think of going anywhere else is the sustainability factor.
For example, I've had a Capital One® credit card for 15 years. I originally got it because they don't charge foreign transaction fees, and I travel outside the U.S. often enough to make that a valuable feature. One of the main reasons I stay with them, though, has nothing to do with my travel schedule. When I call for help, the people who answer the phone are in the U.S. and speak excellent English. I find this is expedient, to not have to ask, "What?" and "Could you please say that again?" while I'm trying to solve a simple customer service transaction. (This isn't a comment against those individuals for whom English isn't their native language! I speak passable Italian but not well enough that I should be employed in a customer service role in Italy.)
Oddly, my long relationship with Capital One means I smile with a sense of ownership when I see those "What's in your wallet?" commercials. How weird is that? I give them money, yet I feel like I have some role in their success. I just wrote two complimentary paragraphs about them, and they don't even actually know I exist as a person. But I've come to like and trust them, all based on a few positive telephone interactions I've had with the customer service person in the time I've been their customer.
The moral of the story? It doesn't take a whole lot more effort to make customers not just satisfied, but happy.
As a business owner, you have the opportunity to go not the whole extra mile, but just the extra few inches it takes to go from "typical" to "terrific."
Michael Glauser's 4 Levels of Customer Service
On his bike tour, Glauser saw that the levels of customer service determine who gets the most customers (and thus the biggest profits).
Level One. You just tolerate your customers. You and your staff do the minimum, providing the basics as inexpensively as possible and with the least hassle for you.
Level Two. You meet their expectations. They expect certain things when they patronize your business. If you deliver the goods, they'll say, "Yes, I'm satisfied." The problem is, according to Glauser, they're not "loyal."
Level Three. You exceed their expectations. You've figured out what they're really looking for when they come to you. You've strategized and determined what more you can give, so when your customers complete a transaction with you, as they walk away, they say, "Wow! That's a phenomenal company. No one else treats me like that."
Level Four. You treat customers as partners. You actually engage them in your business. You find a core group of connected, happy customers. Then you go to them and say, "I'd like to meet your needs at the highest level. Will you work with me to help design this product or this service? I'll make sure it meets your needs exactly. I'll give you significant discounts over time if you work with me on some beta tests of this product."
You actually kind of co-op them into the development of your products or services. Then the minute that product hits the marketplace, you already have people who've said, "I'm going to buy that!" Maybe people have even bought it before you get it to market. That way, you don't really launch anything until you know people really want it. (This reduces your risk!)
This is one of the things that sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo have done well. According to Glauser, "They've allowed you to float out a product idea, a concept into the market, to see if you can get it funded by people who commit to buy it before you even develop it. That's a new kind of model. You build these communities of people that really have a need [and] they work with you to develop the need. They agree that you're the right provider of that need, and then you have an immediate sale. That way, you create lower-cost prototypes right away and get them to the marketplace quickly."
The Business Power of Purpose
When you decided to open your business, you probably had a purpose -- probably a personal one. Studies have shown that entrepreneurs are usually motivated by freedom and creativity. The idea of being your own boss, making your own money and setting your own hours is appealing to many of us, but that may not be how it's turning out.
Mitch Russo is the author of The Invisible Organization: How Ingenious CEOs Are Creating Thriving Virtual Companies. His book explains how to double or even triple any business quickly without increasing overhead -- and in most cases, decreasing it. Mitch is also behind Business Breakthroughs International, a company once owned by Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes. He joked with me, "It was great when I started working for myself! I suddenly was able to work only part time ... 12 hours a day."
If you can relate to that because you're working way more hours for less money and more stress than you ever thought you would, here's the good news: By increasing the number of qualified prospects who flow toward you, and treating them well, you'll increase your revenue, which makes running and growing your business easier.