Hey there, my small business owner friends! Let me ask you a question – how often have you wished that someone would just tell you what to do next for your business?
Maybe it’s something little, like should I get cybersecurity insurance? (probably)
Maybe it’s a bigger issue, like should I expand into a new facility or stick with the one I’ve got that feels too small?
Every day, small business owners are faced with a plethora of decisions to make. It’s easy to feel burnt out and overloaded on decision making. After all, you’re the one who has to weigh the options and consider the financial implications and the time commitments of each option before making each decision. It can be exhausting!
So who can you turn to in order to take some of that burden off your shoulders? The experts!
But here’s the tricky part. Who are the experts at making decisions for your business? Do you want to hire some fancy pants consultant at a high hourly rate for them to make judgement calls about how you run your business?
Or even worse, hire a fancy pants consulting firm who sends a college intern who has never worked for a business before, and let them tell you what to do?!?
Nope. Those are the wrong experts. There are four terrific (and pretty much free) sources of valuable information that can help you make important business decisions.
If you really want some expert advice on your next steps, you need to look inward, not outward.
Expert #1 = Your Employees
Who besides you has the most engagement with your customers? Yup, it’s your employees! And I’m not just talking about the sales or marketing people. Often the whole team of your small business is working with customers in some way or another. They probably have opinions about what works and what doesn’t. And which customers are great and which ones are PITAs. They might also have thoughts on ways to improve the delivery or design of your product or service.
The challenge is making the time to really listen to your people – and making sure they are comfortable sharing their opinions with you. While you may believe you are the friendliest guy or gal around, it’s certainly possible some of your employees are just a little intimidated by you, since you are, after all, their boss. Keep that in mind.
Sometimes the best way to capture their honest thoughts on the business and your customers is to just ask lots of open-ended questions, without a clear agenda. And consider doing this one to one, rather than one-to-many, where some people might not speak up.
Have remote employees? Their opinions are equally as important. As a matter of fact, a weekly catch-up call with remote employees can help them feel more connected to you and to your business, whether they have advice to share or not. And they will be more comfortable sharing their opinions if they already have a routine of ongoing conversations.
Expert #2 = Suppliers
Consider the fact that the companies that supply your business with products or services relevant to your industry also likely do the same for other businesses. They might have a perspective that you are missing in-house, since they service both you and your competitors.
Line up a phone call or a lunch out now and again with the business owner or someone higher up than the delivery person. They can learn from you just as you can learn from them, so the meeting can be mutually beneficial.
What can you learn from your suppliers or vendors? As with your employees, try to be an active listener, as you never know where the conversation might go or what they have to share. They might have insights into supply chain issues or new distribution options that don’t come up in the day-to-day conversation. These tidbits of information could be just enough to help you make a change that has an impact on your business.
The same could be true for other connections you have. Do you sell through a distribution model or with manufacturers reps? Take time to connect with them individually now and again. Listen to what they have to say about the future of your industry or the concerns they are hearing about from the end customers. These regular open-ended discussions could end up being a huge competitive advantage for your business, as not all business owners do the same.
Expert #3 = Customers
This source of information is certainly more obvious than the last one. But at the same time, how often do you set aside time for a one-to-one conversation with some of your key customers? Make it clear that this is merely an “information interview”. You are not selling anything; just looking for honest feedback.
You might even reach out to some businesses that you’d like to have as customers. Or businesses that you used to have as customers that left. Learn what their key issues are. How do they make their purchase decisions? You might be surprised at how open many business owners are when you are truly in information gathering mode, rather than sales mode.
This is not the time for a customer satisfaction survey or Net Promoter Score, this is meant to be a true conversation between you and the key decision maker for your customer.
Similar to your discussions with suppliers, your customer interviews should be very much open-ended to give them time to talk and you time to listen. Use open-ended questions like “Tell me about a time when…” or “What excites you (or frustrates you) about…”
Research shows that unhappy customers don’t typically complain, and good customer service is a great retention tool. So, take that one step further and make it a point to listen carefully to your customers on a regular basis.
Expert #4 = Your Peers
This fourth category might surprise you. How could other business owners know your specific issues and have advice on how to solve them? Surely you don’t want to be sharing all your worries with your competitors? But who else would really get you and your specific business?
I can tell you the answer to that – any other business owner who has a similar sized business. And I speak from experience. I have been facilitating Business Owner Roundtable groups since 2019. Each group I have worked with has no competing – or even referring businesses. This is not a networking group; it’s a problem-solving group.
And the problems that you are dealing with are the same ones that your peers are dealing with – supply chain issues, inflation, trouble hiring, making marketing decisions, delegating work, succession planning, and so forth. So why operate in a vacuum when you can surround yourself with others who have been through – or are going through – the same things?
You can learn from them, and you can contribute what you’ve learned as well. Consider looking for a Roundtable Group near you or find a virtual one. And if that’s too complicated, then at least seek out a couple other business owners to form a Mastermind or Accountability Group. Just committing to a weekly or bi-weekly meeting with a couple peers can help hold you accountable to making progress with your goals. And that accountability can be one of the most necessary steps in making business decisions.
So much change is underway, it can be a challenge to keep up with it all. How will automation, blockchain, climate change, demographic shifts and other external forces impact your business and your customers? Join me to keep an eye on these topics and more, to prepare your business for a successful future. Start by subscribing to my free biweekly blog posts by email so you don’t miss anything! Or subscribe to my free weekly Five for Friday videos for news on signals of change.