So far in 2012, small businesses are reportedly feeling better than they have in more than three years, says a Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index released in early February. It shows an increase in small business owners' perceptions about revenue, financing, hiring, credit access and cash flow in the final quarter of 2011.
Despite this optimism, there is one thing that hasn't changed in today's business environment: companies will continue to compete for the same share of a customer's wallet. Presented with more choices and information, customers today are more knowledgeable about price and exactly what they're getting for it.
As experts discuss this prime challenge facing small businesses, they come to a lot of the same conclusions on how to survive. One of them involves becoming "customer- centric."
I would bet that many landscape business owners hear the term customer-centric and think they have this one covered. "We focus on our customers," they say. "We put our customers first," they insist. "We believe the customer is always right," they argue.
"That's exactly where mass delusion begins for most companies," says Ranjay Gulati, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of "Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business."
What Gulati means is that even companies that regularly survey their customers are doing it only through the lens of their own services and experiences. Typical questions are: "How do you like service X? How can we improve service Y? How receptive would you be to new service Z?"
In doing this, "you may learn something ... but you will discover almost nothing significant about your customers," Gulati says.
Reverse the view
The solution, he advises, is to look from the outside in rather than the inside out. Be the customer and look at your business from a new perspective. "It's about understanding what problems customers face in their lives and then providing mutually advantageous solutions," says Gulati.
When Circuit City went out of business, for instance, many consumers felt their obvious failing was customer service.
In fact, in March 2007, the company laid off its highest paid hourly employees, including salespeople, and replaced them with cheaper labor. So when a customer wanted to purchase a television and had 20 choices in front of them they encountered staff that knew little about televisions and wasn't prepared to intelligently deal with customers or their many questions.
Nothing tightens up a wallet more than that.
In the meantime, their competitor Best Buy conducted research on its customers. They discovered 55 percent of them were women, and they hated shopping at their stores. These customers also cared less about price when compared to receiving service and installation assistance.
So, Best Buy focused on offering solutions to the problems vs. just selling products. They reorganized related products in their stores so they were easier to find. In some stores, they even added special play areas for children to use so moms could shop. And they acquired Geek Squad to provide installation services so high-tech products are setup and running smoothly.
The process was not easy. Implementation of a strategy to improve and elevate customer focus takes a lot of work, and I'm sure Best Buy is still working out the bugs to this program in many locations.
Another company attempting to bring more of a human element to their sales process is Domino's Pizza. They installed the Domino's Tracker on their website (http://express.dominos.com/pages/tracker.jsp), so when a customer places an order they can see where the pizza is in the process, from ordering to preparation to baking to quality checking to delivery. They hope this shows their customers that real people are working in a timely fashion in making their pizzas.
Both of these companies' focus on the customer has to be admired. Ultimately, the mantra "people buy from people" still holds true. It's about being human, or as is sometimes called, "corporate humanism," a growing trend in business. Instead of a faceless company, businesses are creating a more human experience through employee engagement and empowerment, marketing and social networking.
The result: when employees - living, breathing, thinking humans - become brand stewards, customers respond.
Nicole Wisniewski is a 15-year green industry veteran and award-winning journalism and marketing professional. She is currently a senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.'s marketing/corporate communications department. Visit her blog at www.mybiggreenpen.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.