Lately, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into small businesses – how the entrepreneurs, artists and designers who launch them have worked their way through establishing their firm, building their brand and launching their products to the market.
The variety of small businesses is astounding, and what I’ve found is that while some find success is mirroring the style of larger, established businesses, others have found a place for themselves following a homespun aesthetic and strategy.
If launching a small business, or working to refine and grow the one you’ve already created is on your list of resolutions for 2013, here are some tips for how to balance small business personalization with big business polish.
Packaging: Mass-printed inserts may be convenient and cost-effective, but they may lack personality. How about using vintage photographs or postcards, stamped with your company’s logo and contact info? If you’re using pre-printed materials, why not include a brief note to the customer or client, thanking them for their business. I’ve found that a handwritten note speaks volumes about the businessperson and how much they value a relationship. Taking care with merchandising or packaging products for sale is also a wise move. Colour coordinated tissue or ribbon, customized stationary or cover pages for documents – even details like beautiful handwriting on envelopes can help build value for your firm. If you treat your products as precious, customers will too. Garance Doré had a lovely feature on The Office of Angela Scott in November that has stuck with me – the attention to detail and the presentation of the products is impressive. Garance’s photo series is a must-see.
Craftsmanship: One of the charms of artisanal products is that each is a little different. Soaps may come out of a mold…but no two will be exactly the same. Scarves may be knit by the same hands with the same needles and wool…but there will always be a stitch or two that set them apart from their siblings. I suggest embracing these quirks and using them to differentiate yourself from the mass-produced competition. Including a brief note on the labelling to share with customers that small differences may be found in each piece is appropriate, and often appreciated by clients – what better way to add value than to show them that their purchase is one of a kind?
Human Touch: “Greetings, Client #46578…” No one likes to be reduced to a number. I suggest treating your clients and customers not as entries in a spreadsheet but as real live people. Consider your market a community – rather than a customer base. Remembering details like birthdays, anniversaries and milestone events (and names…) can help build a relationship between them and your firm – and may help generate repeat business. One of the best examples of this I’ve experienced was actually with a not-so-small business – the local bank where I have my mortgage. I was floored to received a birthday card from them. A bank! Sending me a card! Written in actual pen! With my name! Needless to say, I do not hesitate to recommend their services to friends and colleagues.
Customer Service: Whether it’s a full-time job or a part-time passion project, it can be difficult to carve out the time to respond to all of the emails and voicemails that your business receives. But customer service should be an area of your business where you aim to deliver professional calibre results. Establish guidelines for response time (24hours for a voicemail, 48hours for an email) and stick to it. Set aside part of every day to get in contact with your customers and ensure their satisfaction.
Quality: The small differences in handmade products can add tremendous value…but that doesn’t mean sacrificing quality. There is a distinct difference between the unique nature of a product that has been lovingly crafted by hand…and one that was put together in haste without regard for finishing. If you’re producing in batches, make sure that you’ve implemented quality controls – sampling items from each lot perhaps. If each item is made individually, ensure that the process isn’t rushed and perhaps enlist a second set of eyes to help you spot any flaws that made their way into the final product. It’s better to re-do a production run than to send subpar product to your customers.
Finances: Granted, not all small business owners come from a business or accounting background. But there’s no excuse for not conducting your business professionally when it comes to finances. Taking a continuing education bookkeeping course can help you figure out the basics, or you could hire a professional to assist you in making sure your financial house is in order. Paying bills on time, both to vendors and the government will make your life easier down the road. And financial responsibility goes both ways – you need to be empowered to collect the outstanding invoices you’re owed. Hold firm to your payment terms, send timely reminders to your clients with balances owing and don’t apologize for it. You’ve put a lot of hard work into your business – giving it away isn’t an option.
Are you a small business owner? How do you find the balance between personalization and polish in your work?