How Can a Business Grow in Today’s Economy?

When I visit local businesses as a customer and ask, “How’s business?” The answer I hear a lot is, “It’s slow. But what are ya gonna do? How can a business grow in this economy?”

It’s a fair question because these are indeed tough, scary times. The economy is unpredictable, seemingly unstable and mostly unfriendly when it comes to owning and operating a small or medium-sized business.

Honestly though, I’m utterly shocked at just how unpredictable, seemingly unstable and mostly unfriendly MANY business owners are to their customers, clients and patients. It’s one of the few things in this world that leaves me completely speechless.

During the past 12 months, I have driven over 15,000 miles on various cross-country road trips across the United States. I’ve spent weeks in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Vermont, Philadelphia, New York City, and everywhere in between. All along the way I’ve stopped at a bazillion different businesses.

To my amazement, the thing 80% of those businesses had in common was that they proved to me just how little they cared about me as a customer. As far as they knew, I was a local resident who was a potential, life-long customer of theirs. It didn’t matter. They just didn’t care about me. The more the business appeared to rely upon location and foot traffic, the more they seemed to treat their customers with disdain and contempt.

Think about it…you’ve had similar experiences in your own community…perhaps even today. Sadly, those kinds of businesses are the norm these days.

In many cases, I left without purchasing anything…even though I’d gone with the intent (and money!) to buy.

As a business growth strategist who has dedicated myself to helping to grow businesses, obviously I’m more hyper-vigilant and sensitive as a customer. Regardless, behavior and attitudes that are blatant and obvious to me still register with your customers…at least at an unconscious level.

“To him that watches, everything is revealed.” (Italian proverb) Start watching more closely when you’re visiting another business as a customer. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

But, if you’re really brave, you’ll look just as closely at your own business. Watch your staff as they interact with your customers (and each other). Notice any subtle “attitude” or general unhelpfulness. Notice any laziness in their lack of resourcefulness and lack of proactivity. Count how many times they say “no” or “sorry, we can’t/don’t do that” during a day and a week. Try to witness it all as your customers would. You’ll learn tons!

Amusingly, these businesses all shared one other thing in common. When asked how their business was doing…almost all of them blamed the economy for how bad things were. I guess they also blame the economy for their hostility, rudeness and stinginess towards their customers. They can’t expect to grow their business when their attitude towards their customers drives those customers away.

The lesson here is…until you are willing to do the very best with what little you have now (especially in the way you treat your customers), anything and everything else you do to grow your business is just going to accelerate the rate at which you drive your business into the ground.

In a culture where people blame everyone and everything for their troubles (sometimes warranted, but very often NOT), those business owners who take responsibility for themselves and do the most and best with what they have stick out like a sore thumb. In a good way!

So, how can a business grow in today’s economy?

Here are a few things business owners can do immediately to turn things around (without spending one dime):

1) Make it super easy to do business with you.

Don’t miss the power and simplicity of this step.

This week alone…while in NYC…I’ve had several encounters with business owners (as a customer) where I left determined NEVER to return. They just made it way too hard to do business with them!
What do I mean? Well, they only take credit cards if you order a certain amount; they only deliver up to the street directly adjacent to mine; they only give a fortune cookie when you order an entrée; they treat you like dirt when you try to redeem your Groupon purchase; they take 5 days to reply to your urgent email and then don’t even answer the specific and clear questions you asked; they charge your credit card and then take 13 days to ship your package (and never reply to your inquiries); etc.

Do you see how ridiculously simple and easy every single one of these would be to fix? Yet this happens in every industry, all the time. Some of these infractions seem small and petty. But, all of them are meaningful to prospects and customers.

Why turn down a customer who would likely order from you three times a week just because he’s one block outside of your arbitrary delivery zone…especially when you already charge a delivery fee?

Why allow customers to think you are the cheapest restaurant in town for refusing to give a $.03 fortune cookie because you ordered an app instead of an entrée? Why put an offer on Groupon and then allow your staff to treat everyone who responds to it with contempt…ensuring they NEVER return…and ensuring that they tell everyone they know about their horrible experience? Why knowingly wait forever to reply to an urgent email and then fail to even answer the questions (or apologize!)?

This kind of behavior occurs EVERY day in way too many businesses. It really is baffling. Get this area under control and you’re way ahead of the curve!

2) Do the math before you try to save money in ways that drive away business.

An Asian restaurant near my apartment has the very best cold sesame noodles on the planet. I walk by there 2-3 times every day. They have a credit card minimum of $10. The noodles are $5. I don’t like to carry cash and prefer to pay with credit. I currently stop by whenever I happen to have cash on me and get the $5 noodles to go. (I rarely make a special trip to the ATM for such a purchase.) They’ve seen me enough times that they start punching in my order as soon as I cross the threshold. I’ve explained that I would likely stop by 3-5 times per week (instead of 1 or 2) if they would let me use my credit card. They refuse because it’s “restaurant policy”. It’s insane.

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