The Best Business Relationships Are Personal.

Today and every day, make your people your first order of business.
Fledgling entrepreneurs frequently make an extremely dangerous, sometimes fatal mistake: they devote so much time to perfecting their products, services, and systems that they forget to cultivate strong relationships with the people who support them. Beginners often forget how devoted employees and loyal customers drive revenues and sustain growth far more than chrome-sparkly products and streamlined accounting systems ever could. Successful business owners dedicate the majority of their time to forging strong relationships, because they agree with what Home Depot founders Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank said: “When you take good care of the people, the numbers take care of themselves.”

A friendly smile and a warm welcome for everyone. 

• Care for customers. In the era of e-mail and social networks, you have no excuse for failing to stay in touch with your customers. Ask your IT guy or your online marketing agency to set the “analytics” on your web site for collecting information about every unique visitor and especially about repeat visitors. Then, calling them your “VIPs,” send them special promotional items and purchase incentives, making sure you meet and get to know them when they come into your business. Take the initiative to learn all about your regular customers, capitalizing on their birthdays and anniversaries to show your gratitude with special offers. The more you help your customers feel comfortable and confident with your exceptional attention to their needs, the more loyal they will become and the more they will serve as your “buzzmasters” in their neighborhoods.
• Respect and reward managers and associates. Yes, many major corporations have grown to market domination by bullying and belittling their employees all the way up the corporate ladder. Studies show, however, that those companies hemorrhage money on lost productivity, absenteeism, retraining and poor retention. As he fled one of the bastions of corporate exploitation, a Park Ridge, Illinois entrepreneur promised employees in his wobbly new business, “When you struggle, I will work with you. When you succeed, I will praise and reward you. I give you my word you never will hear me say anything negative.” He kept his promise, and the upbeat, optimistic attitude contributed to driving his small business to status as one of northern Illinois’ market dominators.
• Collaborate with vendors. If you regard each of your vendors as “the Willie Lowman” of his industry, you will forfeit great opportunities to know your territory and set-up “host buys” on your best-selling products. Naturally, your vendors want to sell lots of their products to your business or in your store. Find out what you can do for them that will inspire them to do for you: Do they have celebrity spokespeople willing to visit your place and draw a crowd? Do they have promotional tools or web-based advertising and Internet marketing techniques that will attract customers? Use their tools to drive your enterprise. Most of all, make sure you keep the coffee fresh and warm.
• Talk strategy and tactics with other small-business owners. Every community has some kind of “fraternal” organization that serves as home and host for all the movers and shakers in town. Even when they declare their dedication to charity and good works, these civic leaders understand “intelligence gathering” is the real purpose of their regular get-togethers. They share the latest news and data about market trends, employment opportunities, and everything else a small-business owner needs to know to prosper in the local economy. Frequently, the groups include not only small-business folks but also general managers from the big box and chain stores; your knowledge of the corporate retailers’ tactics will inspire strategies for out-maneuvering and out-selling them.
• Meet and greet your community. Everybody knows the old routine about “location, location, location,” but the real estate market does not always serve-up prime corner lots at fire-sale prices, and e-commerce flourishes in some imaginary location well beyond customers’ horizons. Wherever you do business, you can improve on your location by substituting the word “visibility” and imprinting your brand everywhere. Then, back-up your branding with your personal touch. When you unfurl your display ad on the little league field, make a personal appearance and spread the joy with coupons to the folks in the stands. Always and everywhere, help people identify you with your business and brand.

The “free-radical” relationship: Spend quality time with your cross-town rivals.

Bill Walker has managed a southern California Home Depot for twenty years, and he has driven it from worst to first on the sales charts. Among his several proven strategies, he especially values “Face-time with the competition.” On Tuesday evenings, as the local Lowe’s resets its displays and shelves for weekend promotions, Bill goes shopping in “the big blue home retailer,” innocently talking with sales associates about good buys and special promotions. Then, on Wednesday, as he sets his Home Depot for weekend sales, he positions products and services with his rivals in mind. “What? You think football and basketball coaches at USC and UCLA don’t know and scout one another? You don’t think they’re friends during the off-season?’
About the author: Tara Knight is a full-time writer for higher ed blogs and journals nationwide with a focus on online business education opportunities. Several schools offer online business education degrees including MBA’s, including Northeastern University and Brown University.