If you run a small business, then you're well aware that one of the major advantages you have over your bigger competitors is the quality of the relationship that you can build with your customers.
If it is a business-to-business relationship, then investing some time in learning about the business of your customer and gaining an understanding of their business cycles can of course help you with your forward planning.
Listening and questioning - before you sell
Building a relationship starts by taking an interest in how your customer is wanting to use your product or service ..... So listening and asking questions is essential. Clarifying what they are ultimately wanting to accomplish with your product or service will help you to provide them with the best solution for their needs.
For example, Alan owns a small shoe store in my local area. When I went in a few weeks ago and asked him to show me a pair of size 10 running shoes, instead of just bringing out a few different shoes for me to try on, he first asked me some questions ....... Would I mostly be running on soft or firm ground?..... On even or uneven surfaces? ...... How often did I run? ....... These types of questions to better understand my needs meant that I ended up with the best solution for my needs. Plus, he threw in a free pair of sports socks after the sale was made (OK, it's only $2 against a $100 pair of running shoes, but I liked the gesture)
And then to top it all off, when we bumped into each other at a local school fete a few days ago, he asked me how the running was going and whether the shoes were working out........ Is it any wonder that when I'm after shoes, I will head to Alan's store.
Customers are all different
Of course, not all of your customers will necessarily want to develop a personal relationship with you. But some will ....... They are glad to have a chat with you on a Friday for example, about what they have planned for the weekend. They are happy to discuss the progress their kids are making at school .... However there are some customers that just want to get in and out as quickly as possible, with no small talk ........ So you've got to be able to read them and adapt, if the relationship is going to work.
Doing what you promise
Another foundation for any enduring relationship is trust.
And for trust to exist, you must be seen as reliable, which means keeping your promises. If you run a small printing business and you promise your customer that their job will be ready by 2.00 pm, then whether or not you deliver on time becomes a measure of trust. Yes, stuff can happen that is unexpected and can get in the way of being able to meet the deadline ....... the printer runs out of ink, or paper gets jammed in the printer creating delays. But that is why you should remember the old saying "Promise less and deliver more"
You would have been better off over-estimating how long the job would take, and allowing some contingency time for the unexpected to possibly happen. Delivering earlier than promised will not lose you trust - and yet delivering later than you promised will seriously damage it.
Relationships with your staff
The quality of the people you employ in your business will be directly proportionate to your subsequent ability to grow and develop your business. And I'm not just talking about the quality of their skills - but also their character.
Good staff are worth paying extra
If there's one thing I've learned after more than 20 years in business - it's this........ It's worth paying more to employ good people. You'll end up getting it back and more - through repeat business from customers impressed with your service.
But an additional benefit is that you are free of the stress and hassle of having to correct poor work and you don't have to solve as many problems. When you have good people working for you, they are happy to use their own initiative. And because you feel you have staff you can trust, you're much more willing to delegate rather than feel like you have to do all of the important jobs yourself
But recruiting good staff is not the end of the story - it's the beginning ...... You have to be able to keep them!
Retaining good staff
And that means showing them that you value their contributions. Everyone likes to feel appreciated - particularly when they have done good work, or done something over and above their normal duties. Often a thank you is enough - but sometimes some extra recognition is warranted ........ Maybe a double movie pass, or a dinner for two for your staff member and their partner at a local restaurant. Or a small bonus on top of their pay at the end of the week.
Building good collaborative working relationships with your employees takes effort.
Are you the sort of manager that you would be happy to work for? Do you usually display a positive and cheerful manner with your staff in the workplace - or is this just something you switch on when you're with customers? ........ Do you know what your staff get up to outside of work? Do you know what parts of their job they most enjoy - and the parts they find to be a chore? Do you know if they have some ideas on how things could be run better?
More than the money
There are surveys that show more employees resign from their jobs because of a poor relationship with their immediate manager, than those that leave because of dissatisfaction with their salary. That's not to say that salary isn't important to people - it certainly is.
But there are other things that can be just as important in motivating your employees - and you have to discover what they are. For some of your employees, it may be about recognition, for others it may be about the opportunity to learn new things. And for others it's about feeling they're helping and making a difference.
The more you uncover and can understand about the underlying interests and motivations of your staff, the more likely you will be able to build a positive and productive working relationship with them.
Relationships with your family
What's this got to do with the growth of your business, you might well ask?
When you're running a small business, it's all too easy to become consumed with the business. Long hours ..... and working on the weekends is not uncommon in the first few years of a start-up. If you're going to be running your own business for the long term, then it's important that you develop a sense of balance in your life.
Being able to spend quality time with family and friends. Having a space where you can unwind and be refreshed by enjoying things that are totally separate from your business is crucial for your well-being. And that also means not thinking about your business when you're at home.
Learn to switch off
If you're not able to switch off from your business, then the relationships you have with family and friends will suffer. You run the risk of becoming isolated over time, and disconnected from the people who care about you the most.
At the end of it all, in the sunset days of your life ....... do you think you will likely be reflecting upon ways you could have expanded your business further - or will you be thinking more about your loved ones and those special times that you shared together?
Copyright 2012. Brian Carroll is the founder of Performance Development, a corporate training company based in Melbourne that delivers management courses, leadership training and interview coaching