It’s the heart of the holiday season. Thanksgiving has come and gone (as well as Black Friday), and there are only a few short weeks until the holidays.
A common phrase I’ve been hearing at work is, "Are you done with your Christmas shopping yet?" This year, I’ve decided to do 100 percent of my holiday shopping at places that I’m thankful for – small businesses.
Why? Because for every $100 spent at a small business, $68 stays in the local economy. As someone who lives in a small town, you can see the difference a thriving small business community makes. According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, more than 5.4 million businesses fall into the category of 0-19 employees. That translates into about 21.4 million people employed through small businesses.
I think it’s pretty clear supporting local and small businesses is important. But even without researched facts, I love to and would much rather shop small and/or local shops. I’ve had OK customer service and great deals at the big chain stores, but I’ve never built a relationship with them like I have with small shops -- and their owners.
What places are on my list to stop at this year?
For starters, Horse Emporium in Waukesha, Wis. Sue and her family have run the store since 1986. They are a great source for knowledgeable information and friendly advice about your horse and riding needs. Not to mention the girls – Amy and Alissa – were incredibly patient when fitting my daughter for riding boots, as well as a new saddle for a high-withered horse.
I’ll also stop at Lewis Station Winery in Lake Mills, Wis. Owners Michelle and Rob created a boutique winery and shop in the heart of this community. I believe if you can’t find appropriate hostess gifts at Lewis Station for all the holiday parties you’re attending this season, you might as well stay home.
I also made a special trip in October to Door County to pick up a few items from the local shops, including Maxwell’s House and a local cherry orchard (25 pounds of Door County cherries to be exact!).
But it’s not just the traditional store-front shops that fall into the small business category. There are also numerous service-type companies and one-person shops to consider year-round when looking for goods and services.
Small business owners are our friends and neighbors. They are vitally important to the economic growth and stability of our nation. Despite economic volatility, many of these local businesses continue to survive and provide jobs, services and products to our communities. This is a testament to the small business owners’ tenacity and creativity, and to the faithfulness of local consumers.
The next time you walk into a local establishment or contact a local service provider, take a moment to pause, look around, and see all that is being done, what is being provided, and the number of people busy at work. If you get a chance, find the owner and thank them for being willing to take the risk, stand against all odds, and provide jobs and revenue for your community.
What small business will you be shopping at this season? Give them a shout-out in the comments below.
Editor's note: Give yourself permission to practice gratitude! Each day during November, American Family Insurance will share ideas for showing appreciation for the people, things and events in our lives. We hope you use these 30 Days of Thanks as an opportunity to share your gratitude. Visit us on Facebook for inspiration and ideas as we celebrate 30 Days of Thanks.
Being a third-generation agent for American Family, I grew up living and breathing insurance. My father, Kenny Lionberger, was an American Family agent for 47 years. My grandfather, Waldo Lionberger, was an American Family agent before him.
Compared to them, I’m a rookie having been an agent for only two-and-a-half years. Even though I’m relatively new at this, I know a good thing when I see it. And one of the best things I see is American Family’s Loss Control/Safety Consulting program.
When I work with current and prospective customers, there are three things I stress:
- American Family's superior products
- Our excellent customer service, and
- Our safety consulting programs for small business owners.
Many of my customers own and operate wineries. As their businesses grow, they may be expanding their buildings or adding new equipment. When that happens, they often turn to me and American Family’s safety consultants for suggestions on making their buildings and employees safer. They aren’t required to follow the suggestions from our safety consultants, but they do because they know it will make their operations safer and less prone to losses and down time.
No one ever wants a loss or an injury, and this service can help prevent them. Advice from American Family’s safety consultants has gone a long way toward preventing losses and building strong relationships between me and my customers. They know I’m not just trying to sell them something. I'm working with them to be a partner in their businesses and find ways for them to be successful.
Editor's note: Contact your local American Family Insurance agent and ask about our Safety Consulting program.
Who do you know who might be interested in my product or service?
There’s no more tired a phrase than this in the business world for generating referrals. To my knowledge, it’s never worked effectively. If it ever did, it certainly doesn’t anymore.
When diagnosing the problems small business owners have in referral generation, it comes back to the same question, “How are you asking for referrals?” Invariably, the root cause is technique. The good news is the fix can be easy.
When you ask, “Who do you know?” you actually stack the deck against yourself. Pressure you feel as you ask the question is actually your sales instincts telling you you’re going about it the wrong way. Your instincts are correct, and here is what’s really going on below the surface:
- Asking such a broad question starts a carousel in the mind of your customer, with names and faces spinning around. Just like looking at a real carousel, it’s hard to focus on a single name or face long enough to decide if that person is a good prospect. Frustrated, your customer will simply answer, “I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head.”
- Asking “Who do you know?” is, in essence, a request for your customer to do your job for you. You’re asking him to pre-qualify your leads and have first-hand knowledge of the wants and needs of the person he refers. This can be overwhelming. You can actually lose customers this way.
- Consider the risk you’re asking your customer to take. Asking for a referral in this manner puts the customer in the position of endorsing you, a “salesperson”. No one likes getting sales calls; in fact, the last time I got one, I figured out who “referred” me and asked they never do it again. You may be asking your customer to put a valued friendship or business relationship on the line. No matter how good your product or service is, you aren’t worth that risk!
- Finally, beware any referral you do get with “Who do you know?” It’s likely they will be of low quality, such as people the customer doesn’t know personally, or worse; people he dislikes and wants to inconvenience. Save yourself the lost time and embarrassment.
What’s the right way to go about it? Interestingly enough, you already have the tools to do it. The same methods that made the sale can be used to get high-quality, low pressure referrals that your customer will gladly give – and they won’t even realize that they’re giving you a referral.
The secret? Walking the customer through the process so the referral becomes their idea – just like when you sold them on buying your product or service.
Here are the steps:
- Determine if your customer is satisfied with your product or service. “If an acquaintance of yours asked you about my product, would you recommend it to her?”
- Ask the customer about groups, clubs or organizations to which they belong in a low-pressure manner. “Do you belong to any organizations where you interact with other business owners like yourself?” He or she may answer with the name of a chamber of commerce or trade organization.
- Focus on the problem. “Does the subject of my product or service ever come up in conversation?” The answer will often include a first-hand account of such a conversation or discussion.
- Help the customer focus in a single individual. “The last time it did, with whom were you speaking?” The answer will be a specific person’s name or the names of several people that participated in the discussion.
- There it is; you have your referral. “Would you mind if I contacted her and mentioned her name had come up in our conversation?”
You may be saying “but that only gets you one referral!” My answer: I’d rather have one solid referral of this type than 10 “who do you know?” referrals.
Think about it. I have a prospect name, the referrer’s name, an organization that they have in common, and a specific conversation where my product or service was mentioned. And I didn’t pressure my customer or frustrate them in the process.
As a result, I can go back over and over again to ask for more referrals in the same manner. At the same time, I’m learning more about my customer and potentially uncovering new opportunities for my business through the affiliations that she has.
Editor’s note: Consider referring your small business peers to join our growing Business Accelerator community. By doing so now, you'll be eligible to win an Apple Store Gift Card for $450 (roughly the cost of an iPad®). For every referral, you'll receive an entry into our drawing. (See complete contest rules.) For more information about our no-cost Business Accelerator Program, visit our website.