by Faisal Hoque, founder of the BTM Corp.
Always innovating and bringing the best customer experience possible, new businesses in Europe have unleashed the Web and social media as powerful business tools with far more finesse than the U.S.
China’s bright burgeoning English speaking middle class is bursting with small business owners who are going global with government backing. India’s technically talented middle class is replacing America’s skilled white collar workers.
Innovation is key to survive and thrive in a world of entrepreneurs who typically speak English well and understand technology better than their U.S. counterparts. Yet SMB owners constantly struggle to juggle management, sales, marketing, customer service, distribution and finance. Along that path to success, small business owners are swiftly approaching a cliff they can’t glimpse.
A growing number have stopped growing. They got left behind as their landscape transformed and their niche was replaced or reinvented. As the risk takers made a leap ahead, many small businesses lost their once loyal customer bases (sounds like an enterprise story, as well). Therefore, they needed to rethink the way they ran their business; including who they depended on for their revenue streams, how they reached them, and how they could ensure once reached, they could keep them coming back for more.
The solution was (and is) a 360-degree view that tethers everyone in your business to clear goals met daily at each point of customer contact; from incoming calls and emails to point-of-purchase and follow-up offers. At the core of this view is building and maintaining customer affinity.
Most businesses are born from curiosity, or even frustration, that fosters innovation. An entrepreneur is always seeking a better way to do something new, or improve upon something that’s essential but could become obsolete. It’s that kind of thinking that compelled a blacksmith in Illinois to create a smooth-sided steel plow to replace the wooden and iron ones that were getting stuck and dirty in the rich Midwestern sod.
John Deere’s 1836 innovation boosted migration into the American Great Plains in the 19th and early 20th century, transforming the region into America’s breadbasket and setting the foundation for what has become the world’s leading manufacturer of agricultural machinery.
Today’s farmers, can communicate across the plains with Beck Ag, a virtual company of employees and contractors working out of their homes. Its Facebook-like network allows American and Canadian farmers to share ideas on reducing production costs, increasing profits and improving marketing. Beck Ag also connects large agribusiness suppliers and vendors with farmers to alert them to the latest research, news and products, and to exchange opinions on those products.
The current economic downturn has led many SMBs to become cautious, retrench and even slash their staffs as risk aversion stifles incentive and banks deny credit. Such downturns can spark new opportunities, which can be seized anywhere in the world by competitors you don’t even know. As an owner, you can retrench and hit a wall, or walk through a new door hidden in plain sight.
New tech equals new opportunities
New developments constantly change the way customers think and act. Easier access comes in many forms, including Skype video conferencing, which has eliminated the need for costly, frequent air travel, for example. Changing habits have made it easy for a customer to shift loyalty and shop elsewhere.
Affinity as a brand requires leveraging customer experiences. Small business owners and entrepreneurs who switch to a 360-degree view will analyze the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats and evolve from their antiquated 20th Century business practices to a more agile 21st Century blueprint.
Shifting to an experience-based economy means customers’ memories of an event become the real product they buy from you. Starbucks doesn’t sell coffee they sell the experience of a European café where maybe you can chat with an attractive person in line every morning.
Customer affinity motivates them to return to your business. Your brand is the memory your customers take from the experience you offer. Conjuring positive emotional memories is vital for business owners in a commodity market.
Who are your real customers?
There are many key concerns for SMBs who want to stay competitive, including demographics. You must identify not only your existing customers, but the ones who abandoned you and figure out what compelled them to choose another business. Impact analysis is important, as you must be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Geography is no longer an impediment, as technology allows access to trump location. You cannot lose sight of your competitors. You must remain focused on customer loyalty and affinity at all times.
Analyze, measure, and adjust every customer touch point you have, from telephone messages to the website. Find ways to build the customer’s buying experience to make the relationship sticky -- in other words, keep them coming back to you. Amazon’s "suggestions to buy" are perceived as enhanced service -- not like untargeted junk mail you immediately toss. Virgin and Southwest may be at opposing ends of the airline industry, but both have developed branded affinity with customers. Apple’s fierce customer affinity draws crowds who camp out ahead of a new product hitting the shelves.
Affinity wins new customers.
Amanda Hocking, an New York Times bestselling author of young adult novels, was rejected by countless publishers, so at 26, she self-published her novels and promoted them using Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Within two years of diligent self-promotion from her Minnesota home, she’s earned $2 million. In January 2011, she sold $417,152 worth of e-books just from the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. Suddenly several traditional publishers took notice. St. Martin’s Press presented her with a $2 million advance and a four-book contract.
You can create a new blueprint for rebuilding your small business. A new examination of your business ecosystem requires more than a 360-degree view. It requires an end to short-term reactive thinking and tunnel vision. Use both sides of your brain, the right side to see nuance and to think creatively and the left side for logical and mathematical thinking. Small businesses must see an ecosystem that is simultaneously global and individual. We do business in a world of "massification", but we stay in business through a relationship of personalization.
Faisal Hoque is the founder and CEO of BTM Corporation. He is an internationally known entrepreneur, thought leader, and was named as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Technology. A former senior executive at GE and other multi-nationals, Hoque has written five management books, established a research think tank, the BTM Institute, and become a leading authority on CONVERGENCE, innovation, and sustainable growth. His latest book, The Power of Convergence, is now available.