A 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?:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!)
- Avoid clients that are not a match with your ideal profile. Martha 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.
- 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?