The key to small business success: be the sharpest knife in the drawer

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sharpknifeA few years ago, I hosted a holiday dinner at my house and my Mom helped me cook.  After rifling through my kitchen drawers, she pulled out a half a dozen dull and inferior knives, all which would pulverize a tomato, instead of creating crisp and clean slices.

“Do you have a good knife?” my Mom asked.

“Um – not really,” I replied, realizing that my shoddy collection of 10 bucks-for-a-set-of-12-knives would never satisfy her culinary needs.

Thankfully, the next Christmas, she bought me a beautiful and razor-sharp cooking knife which made cutting through carrots feel like slicing through butter.  Soon I was using it for everything, and wondered how I ever lived without it.

As a small business owner, you should make your clients feel the same about working with you.

Because despite all the other things that you worry about when setting up your business, the most valuable and enduring asset you have is providing the absolute best service that solves not only the articulated needs of your customers, but also the unspoken ones.

My insurance agent, John Kennedy, is a great example of this.  He has a small agency affiliated with Allstate that handles home and auto insurance. They are a dime a dozen in Phoenix where I live, and I could easily shop around and find comparable or even lower rates.  But John does some exceptional things that make me fiercely committed to him and his company:

  • He shows genuine caring and enthusiasm for his customers.  When my husband and I go into his office, we feel like family.  He does not ask how we are as a polite formality before getting down to business, he listens attentively and is genuinely interested in hearing about our lives.
  • He knows his stuff.  I have never asked a question that he didn’t have a well-thought out answer for.  He has obviously been in the business for a long time (he is the second generation in his father’s business) and reads up on all the latest developments to make sure he can provide accurate information to his customers.
  • He provides valuable information to help us make decisions, not to try to sell us high-priced products. We never feel pressured to buy one product over another or to increase coverage beyond a level we are comfortable with.  He lays out the information in a matter-of-fact way, explaining the risks and trade-offs with each decision.
  • He follows up promptly.  We have had a couple of complicated situations which required him to contact other employees in Allstate to resolve a problem.  He always does what he says, and comes back with a complete and timely response to our questions.

John is definitely a sharp knife in a market full of bored and impersonal insurance agents.

So how can you make sure you are a sharp knife yourself?:

  1. Choose the right business.  As hard as you try, you cannot manufacture passion.  Choose a business that allows you to express your best skills, talents and interests.  This enthusiasm will permeate your brand and draw customers to you.  Too many people choose businesses to start only based on external market factors.  You want to make sure that you will enjoy your business as you are growing it, not just when you get to a certain level of financial success.
  2. Be fiercely dedicated to learning.  All fields of business are rapidly growing and changing.  Learn as much as you can about your profession so that you provide the absolute best service.  Take classes.  Read books.  Surf the internet.  Connect with other professionals in your field.  Don’t let yourself get tired and bored of always doing things the same way.  Your love of learning will keep you fresh and alive, and ensure that you solve new problems in new and effective ways.
  3. Always ask yourself “What would really help my customer?” In my years as a corporate consultant, I would say that at least 50% of the time, clients would bring me in with a predetermined idea of what solution I should provide to solve their problems.  But after a short conversation, it became clear that following their prescriptive path would not solve the problem, it would either do nothing or exacerbate it.  So I spent a lot of time up front defining a realistic path to success.  If they were insistent on following a path I didn’t agree with, I would graciously turn down the work and offer other resources.  It is never worth it to take a big check for a project that you know is doomed from the start.  (And since it will fail spectacularly, who will get blamed?  The errant executive?  Of course not!  The incompetent consultant!)
  4. Avoid clients that are not a match with your ideal profileMartha Beck humorously calls these folks “life-sucking squids,” due to their tendency to wrap their needy tentacles around you and drain your life force.  You will not be of good service to someone you don’t enjoy working with; it is better to pass them on to someone who can truly serve them.
  5. Check out your competition.  Regularly benchmark yourself and your company with others in your field.  Find out how you stack up, and learn from the things others are doing right and wrong.  You don’t have to aim to crush all your rivals, you just want to honestly assess your place in the pack of people serving similar clients.  Being around smart, effective competitors is great motivation for stepping up your game.

Any other suggestions for keeping yourself sharp?

11 Responses to “The key to small business success: be the sharpest knife in the drawer”

  1. janispettit says:

    Hey!I really enjoy by reading your blog,which provides valuable information to help people make decisions,we also suggest people,If they are really motivated to build a thriving small, solo or home based business and would like to know how to build a profitable business in one year, this is a great no cost resource.

  2. I started my business almost five years ago. I stepped completely out of my comfort zone and profession into a new world that I thought I should have wished I had known about when I was first starting my career. Now I know that it was the right move for my retirement years. As an educator I truly believe in lifelong learning. Taking my business to the Internet has been just that. However as stated above, I have that feeling that I’m just another dot in the great Internet Galaxy. Reading blogs such as yours provides me with insight and ideas to make my dot shine a bit brighter so that others will want to see what is causing it to sparkle. Thank you. Firecrackinmama

  3. Bonnie says:

    When starting a small business three years ago I used to think that I had to please every customer – no matter how unreasonable they were. Now I have learned that though it is true that the customer is always right, not everyone (especially the life sucking squid)is my customer.

  4. john kennedy says:

    I remember the very first day I started insurance. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was just another “sales schmo”. — ready to pounce like a vulture on the general public to sell sell sell!
    I asked myself…”How can I differentiate myself from this public image of sales people?” The answer is a basic philosophy I use in my everyday life with people…treat everyone as family! How would you advise your mom about insurance? What suggestions and comments would you reserve for your sister about “value”? How much time would you devote to a family member?
    This is true for clients, and I believe for ALL interpersonal relationships. If you put your heart into your business and life, it always shows!

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  8. Pam – you know what you’re talking about. I say this having been a small business owner since 2000.

    Interestingly, I also got an email from Ken McCarthy (BTW, is well worth checking out) today in which he presents some wise advice that nicely compliments what you wrote. In part, Ken says –

    “You always want to know the following:

    1. Is there are group of people already out there who are already spending money on what you want to sell?

    2. Can you reach them with targeted, cost effective marketing messages?

    3. Do they spend enough to make it
    worth your while to set up a business to serve them?

    4. Here’s the part many gurus
    leave out – what do you uniquely bring?”

    I really enjoy your blog – keep up the good work!


  9. It’s also a good idea to learn about things that you don’t think are relevant to your work, or that don’t initially interest you. Sometimes these things end up being valuable to your clients and it’s useful to be familiar with them or at least open to them. So I’d say to keep sharp, attend some seminars that you don’t think will do you any good. There’s value in learning, whatever it is.

  10. Ottayan says:

    Good metaphor.Passion and swiftness in execution is the key.

  11. Bridgette Boudreau says:

    My mom had the same experience at my house and bought me a set of knives — and a great sharpener to boot. I would say another way to be a ‘sharp knife’ would be to make your clients look like rock stars within their organizations. Help them score substantive quick wins in addition to longer-term goals. Everyone then has a sense of accomplishment which helps keep up momentum for making the longer-term changes. My mom also bought me a dust mop… got a metaphor for that? 😉