Your business may be small, but your brand can be big. And your footprint can be, too.
In today’s business environment, small businesses are uniquely positioned to leave a big mark. There’s reason to be very optimistic.
Why? Because the current business environment favors us, and the way we do things.
There’s no one better to talk about this phenomenon than Becky McCray, co-author with Barry J. Moltz of Small Town Rules: How Big Brands and Small Businesses Can Prosper in a Connected Economy (affiliate link).
Her book outlines all the ways small businesses are uniquely positioned to succeed in the current environment. Now — perhaps more than any other time — small businesses have an advantage over large organizations.
Becky agreed to be interviewed here. It’s a great conversation!
Power to the customer
PAMELA: One big takeaway I got from reading Small Town Rules is that our customers are more empowered than ever. They can easily speak to one another directly through social media channels. This may make big businesses nervous because they can’t control their marketing message the way they used to.
Why should small business embrace this change, and how can they use it to their advantage?
BECKY: Embrace this change because it’s good business and good practice. It forces you to be at your best as often as you can with every customer. You know that word will get around.
In my hometown, a friend of mine used to manage an auto parts store. As we stood in my store discussing our mutual retail management challenges, he looked me square in the eye, and said, “Customer service is all you got.” He’s right. In this small-town like environment, customer service is your only sustainable competitive advantage.
As a person with a small business, your natural inclination is to connect with people as people. The natural inclination of people in big business is that they have “room to hide,” as a friend said to me recently. That’s not a good way to connect person to person. As long as big businesses continue to broadcast from the balcony, you have a big advantage in meeting people and picking up customers in the crowd down below.
Opinions count more than ever
PAMELA: Buyers rely heavily on community opinions when making purchasing decisions now. Whether it’s a review on a shopping site, a comment on social media, or a testimonial from a trusted source, social proof is more important than ever. This isn’t a change at all if you do business in a small town.
How do the most successful small town businesses use social proof, and how can we apply this concept to our own businesses?
BECKY: You’re absolutely right that this isn’t a change at all for small town businesses. All of my customers can talk to all the rest of my customers down at the coffee shop or at any community event. The most successful small town business people probably never think about social proof. They think about meeting the needs of their customers, or going above and beyond to exceed their needs.
There are some good examples out there. My local independent grocery store ran an ad showing all the local eateries that buy their produce there, rather than at the big Walmart Super Center. It was social proof for both the grocery store and the eateries, showing they cared about choosing their produce. You can use this idea in your own business by featuring your most picky customers and why they chose to work with you.
If I have one piece of small-town advice for “using” social proof, it’s this: be worth talking about. Do the things that are memorable, go the extra mile to improve the experience, and involve others in your story. If you’re not worth talking about, then they won’t talk about you.
Plan for zero
PAMELA: I love the “Plan for Zero” concept. You say that marketing doesn’t automatically lead to sales, and we have to plan for zero or very low income times. This is one of those painful truths that those of us who teach marketing don’t like to dwell on.
But you offer an alternative, and it’s one that small businesses are uniquely positioned to implement. Would you talk about that?
BECKY: Once you accept that there will be times when you have zero income, you can plan ahead to survive. It’s tough to have that long-term perspective, but it’s necessary. No matter what your business is, it’s possible for you to have an off week, month or even a full year.
I think the easiest answer is to remember the seasons and cycles. You know that in farming there are seasons, a time to plant, time to grow, time to harvest, and time to rip it all out and start over. When you remember that, you can take a long-term perspective. You can better question the assumptions about your business.
This is much easier to do in a small business than a large one. Big businesses may have more resources or a larger cash cushion, but they can’t change an institutional mindset that says, “sales will always go up!”
So ask yourself right now. What would you do if you had that year of zero income? When you start finding the answers, you’re building a stronger future for your business and for yourself.
Doing business in a small town makes us creative. We don’t have the deep pockets of larger businesses. We have to face tough challenges, and often without much money. So we get creative and we get frugal. We’ll find a way to solve a problem without throwing cash at it. To some extent, all small businesses are like this. We spend our brainpower before we start spending dollars.
Find your story
PAMELA: The section of Small Town Rules where you talk about reducing startup costs by using free and inexpensive software had me shouting “yes!” at my iPad. I believe businesses should work on their branding from the very beginning, so they can harness the power of time to help cement that brand in their prospects’ minds.
But the branding doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can do most of it yourself!
Would you talk a bit more about this concept of a “brand to get started,” and how it can evolve over time?
BECKY: I look at this backwards, I think. Instead of looking ahead to some distant future and building your brand around that, I look to what brought you to this moment. That is the most compelling brand you can have.
Even on day one of your business, you have a founding story. There is a reason you’re here. Why did you choose this business? Why this town? What makes you excited about how this will help people? That’s your most authentic, real starting brand. It’s not about building some slick, corporate branding platform. It’s about sharing the story of why you are here with other people. And any “branding” you do should help tell that story.
Be proud to be small
PAMELA: Small Town Rules is full of examples of what small businesses can teach large companies, and you share a very optimistic outlook for the future.
Would you tell us your favorite examples of how small business are uniquely qualified to succeed in today’s economic environment?
BECKY: I’m glad you see the optimism! Since we start out chapter 1 with how the financial crisis has made our economy more like a small town, it’s not a very cheerful beginning! But we are optimistic. Small town businesses are tough. We already talked about planning for zero. It may sound pessimistic, but it’s actually optimistic to say that your future is worth planning for.
One story that illustrates how small businesses are in the right place and the right time to succeed in this changed economy is United Linen in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Scott Townsend is their marketing smart guy. He uses online and offline tools to better communicate with his customers.
For example, when they change a delivery schedule, they print it on the back of invoices, they write about it on their site, and Scott does great videos of him drawing the changes on a calendar. It’s a great way of connecting with the customers.
When enough customers asked about how to reload the paper towels in the automatic paper towel dispensers, they made a video demonstration. Perfectly practical. Except the big company that makes the dispensers asked them to take down the video, because it didn’t match their branding. Of course, the big company still to this day has not made a video demonstrating what customers need to know. And United Linen goes on experimenting with online tools, combining them with offline communication, and doing everything they can to live up to their tagline of “We Bring It.”
So the big company is still worrying about branding, but the small company is busy succeeding.
PAMELA: Thank you, Becky McCray, for sharing your insights!
Let’s keep talking
What do you think? Do we have reasons to be optimistic about the future of small business? What are you doing to make the most of the current business environment? Head on down to the comments and let’s talk. 🙂