If you run or market a small business, you often need to establish credibility and trust with your prospects and clients. Right or wrong, the “big boys” get to reap the rewards of a national reputation, giving them a head start when it comes to perception of trustworthiness. As a small businesses, however, you can overcome that initial disadvantage and even gain an advantage over your larger counterparts as long as you are intentional and diligent.
Respect Your Client’s Time
According to Heather Rast, principal of Insights and Ingenuity and writing in Solo PR Pro, generational changes have made it necessary to clearly articulate what it means to respect a client’s time. “As our society in general loses some of the courtesy and respect previous generations showed one another, I think we are well served to raise our awareness of other people’s time, personal schedule, and needs.”
- Clearly state how long you anticipate needing your client’s attention for a phone call or a meeting. A simple statement such as, “I am planning to wrap up our time together by 4:00 today, so let’s get right down to business!” can set your client’s expectations and lessen their anxiety.
- Discuss email preferences early in your relationship. Let your client know that you preserve blocks of “creative” time to dive deeply into your client projects, and so you only answer email during certain times of the day. Set the expectation that you will return emails within 2 hours (or whatever time-frame seems appropriate to you) and then make sure you follow through. And always make sure you have answered all the questions in the email. It’s frustrating to clients and colleagues alike when you answer the first or last question in an email and ignore the others!
- Keep your calendar up-to-date so you don’t accidently double book yourself. Every time you reschedule a conference call or are late to a meeting, you lose a little bit of credibility.
Deadlines are an Opportunity
If you are looking for an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the more institutionalized big boys, look at your project deadlines and try to beat them. Of course that is not always possible, but if you can deliver a project ahead of schedule your client will have a positive experience.
- Re-negotiating deadlines is much harder than padding your timeline in the first place. Give yourself margin. Be very thoughtful about how much time you will actually need. Not good at this? Ask someone else to double-check your timeline.
- Create checkpoints along the way on large projects. When we build out websites, for instance, we have deadlines for approval on wireframes, page designs, reviews and content. Sometimes — if the client has a propensity to delay approvals — we build in micro-checkpoints. Similarly, we give ourselves checkpoints so that we can’t slip either. Eric Adams, writing on 1099.com http://www.1099.com/c/co/dw/ea/eadams008.html , used this process when writing a novel by breaking his work down into a certain number of pages per day. He says of freelance work, “Every big project, and even the small ones, can be similarly reduced to manageable elements. It takes discipline and you won’t always hit the mark, but each day you’ll feel like you’ve done a good day’s work — the right amount of work — even when there’s plenty left to be done.”
- Own up to missing a deadline. When you miss a deadline, be transparent with your client. As soon as you know that the deadline is slipping, give them a call. Many times a client will not worry about the particular deadline, or may offer some help or suggestions on how to move the project back on track. In any case, they will appreciate your transparency.
Offer Superior Service
You know that you are competing against larger businesses that may have more resources available than you do. To truly differentiate yourself and earn cient respect, you need to offer superior service. There are several ways to do this.
- Be extremely knowledgeable and share that knowledge freely. A recent Inc. magazine article http://www.inc.com/guides/2010/07/10-ways-to-support-your-best-customers.html agreed. “Aside from being flexible, the most important thing a small business can do to differentiate itself is “having deep expertise that can give us knowledge about a particular customer segment or a technology.” That’s according to Larry Wood, Intuit’s director of sourcing.
- Bring partners to the table. If you are not an expert in certain aspects of your business — perhaps you use outsource partners — consider bringing your colleague to a client meeting. We have often called in the experts in specific areas of expertise, bringing our PPC expert or a representative of our marketing automation software to our client meeting. The clients appreciate the added benefit of deep expertise.
- Be available. It is very rare to find service partners who are committed to building your business with you. Become that kind of partner for your clients. Think of ways to add value to their business. And make sure your client knows that you are available to help them through any sticky issues or creative brainstorms.
Say What You will Do, and Do What You Said
It almost goes without saying, but not quite. Do what you have promised. Do more than you have promised. Do it with excellence, and do it on time. No client will turn their backs on a company who can deliver what they have promised with excellence.