Sunday, November 3, 2013

Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should: A Lesson for Artists on How To Stay on Target and In Brand


My parents deserve a lot of credit.  They went from scratching their heads over whose genes produced (my investment banker dad or my happy homemaker mom?) of-all-things-an-artist to happily paying my RISD tuition.  My mom particularly has become one of my biggest fans, chatting up her friends while passing out her personal stash of my business cards.

But here’s the synopsis of my most recent phone conversation with mom (don’t worry, I don’t have a transcript nor will I bore you with the blow by blow): my parents were recently visiting my brother and his family when my mom happened upon some Halloween decorations on display in the guest bathroom (see image).  She asked my sister-in-law where one can buy these little “Halloween people”.  Laughing, my sister-in-law told her I made them.
My mom phoned to tell me I just HAVE to start mass-producing little Halloween people.  She envisioned hordes of frenzied Halloween fans clamoring for these collectibles.  She offered to parade them into greeting card stores and gift shops where I’m sure the underpaid staff would be thrilled by her enthusiastic intrusion.  And she volunteered to man my booth at many a craft fair in her neck o’ the woods.  Her idea was to box them up (she mentioned we should order well-designed packages) in groups of five and sell them for $15 a set.
This is all fine and good.  And there was a part of me-albeit very small-that was tempted to take her up on the offer.  But then I remembered the process of making little Halloween people.  Hours were spent carefully covering each tiny body in paint.  Layer after layer was applied.  Yes, they were cute.  But their purpose was to serve as party favors.  I just needed to remind myself that this was their SOLE purpose.

If you are an artist I am going to bet that you are talented at doing many different things. It is wonderful that you can whip icing into shape on a birthday cake or arrange the flowers just so.  Visit any weekend art event or many an online shop and you will witness the Artist Who is Good at Making Many Different Things.  She usually has everything from beaded necklaces to decoupage vases in her booth or on Etsy.  But if you want to be a professional artist who is serious about your craft, I hate to break it to you: you have to choose ONE THING to focus on.
Why?

Like any business you benefit from creating a consistent message and mission.  Your brand needs to be as homogenous as possible across the board.  You define your brand through your product (the work you create), your marketing (the materials you use to display, package, & promote your product), the events you are involved in, how you handle yourself professionally and how you treat others.  The greater your consistency=the more memorable your brand.
I just mentioned the same goes for the events you are involved in-how you are getting your work in front of the public.  For creative entrepreneurs who are just getting started, I recommend they participate in anything and everything.  How else are they going to learn who is attracted to their product (their audience)? How else can they hone their business skills?  How else can they begin to formulate the visual aspects of their brand (display materials, packaging, collateral materials such as business cards and flyers)?  However, as an artist becomes more certain of the direction they want their brand to go they have to become intentional about the ways they present their work to the world.  Going back to my mom’s proposal of setting up a booth at local crafts fairs-I am not a craftsperson; I am a fine artist.  Having 1) my mom + 2) man booths at church bazaars and holiday festivals = compromises my brand.  My mission is to produce high-quality fine art.  If I indulge in this side product I am diluting the time and energy I need to focus on my mission.  I am diluting the consistency and quality of my product.  And I am diluting the message of my brand.  Sure, it sounds fun, but it serves no greater purpose. In order to succeed you have to focus on the greater purpose.

Now at this point some of you may be saying, “But I HAVE to knit sweaters for kittens and be a watercolorist!! How can I decide?” If you truly have enough time/money/energy to passionately pursue both, more power to you.  I would suggest either separating the two endeavors or blending them.  If you separate the two make sure they have separate brands (brand name/logo/color scheme/visuals, etc.) and are not exhibited together (choose which you plan to share at art events and make sure the two have separate online shops, for example).  If you decide to blend the two make sure the theme runs through every product.  For example, knit sweaters for kittens but also sell cat-themed water color paintings.
The objective is to keep your branding constant across the board.

How do I decide what is worthwhile for my brand and what isn’t?
Good question!  First of all, be prepared to make mistakes.  Every one of us no matter how many years we have under our belt will inevitably find ourselves at the absolutely wrong event for our brand.  Or we will start to follow a creative path that takes all our prior endeavors down the rabbit hole.  (I should mention, if you find you are no longer passionate about the type of work and branding you have been doing up until now; if you feel your work is truly setting off in an entirely new direction, it is time to rethink and rebuild your brand.  I know.  I’ve done it.)

In order to lessen the chances of wasting a lot of time/money/energy and weakening the impact of your brand, you have to KNOW your brand inside and out.  Start by writing a Mission Statement.  Ask yourself: Why do I create art? What do I want to do with my art? Who do I create art for?  You should also write a Personal Manifesto: What can I live with (what isn’t ideal, but livable)? What can I live without (what are you willing to sacrifice)? What can I not live with (what would be too compromising)? What can I not live without (what is absolutely vital)?

The Mission Statement and Personal Manifesto are the foundation for your brand.  They will help you mold your product, your marketing, even determine the superficial elements like color scheme and fonts.  They will help you select the type of events you participate in.  And they will help you model your business practices and the ways you interact with customers.  Many people hear the word “brand” and think of a logo, but no- brand is the heart of a business.  It is the core values and intention. How you share that heart (your product, your marketing, your events…) is up to you.

Learn to say “No.”

Everyone needs to learn to say no.  Not saying no pulls you in all sorts of pointless directions.  The better you understand your brand and your path the easier it will be to turn down Aunt Suzie’s request for a family portrait when you only paint landscapes. You can avoid the neighborhood craft fair when your work is aimed toward high-end art galleries.  I am constantly barraged with requests to create items I simply do not create.  And more often than not the time and energy it would take me to make the item is hardly worth the money I would make.

So…Mom, I love you and I appreciate the support.  But I don’t see little Halloween people in your future-or mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

When Does Life Begin?

 
Recently, a creative coaching client asked me what an appropriate answer would be for the question, “How long did it take you to make that?”  Actually this topic comes up quite often as most artists-if not all-have been asked at some point how long it takes to create their work.  I myself have been asked that question from time to time.  I think we artists can acknowledge the question is off-putting, especially because it is generally asked by some schmuck who has absolutely no intention of doing anything more than jabbing his or her finger at your work while using a slightly accusatory tone suggesting that if he or she had access to the same materials they could create something identical, if not superior, in less amount of time. 



I notice that no one asks accountants how long it takes them to file taxes, how long it takes a dentist to examine a patient's teeth, how long it takes a teacher to create a lesson plan.  In fact I wager the only other sort who get asked a question even remotely similar are those in manual labor while a customer is eyeballing the bill.

It is difficult for us artists to answer this question because of the many elements involved.  Materials effect the time spent.  So does the size of the piece.  But the ultimate factor is: When does the life of  art begin?  Should the artist factor in the number of hours he/she conceptualizes the artwork before setting foot in the studio?  How about the time spent researching and purchasing materials?  Do we calculate the time it took for us to learn and perfect our craft?  Unlike professionals who complete a task often in one sitting, the “office hours” of an artist-especially one who is set on making art their means of earning a living-is nebulous at best.  Anyone who knows me will tell you I am never not working.  My days are spent finding inspiration and materials for future work, freshening up the content of my online marketing, searching for new exhibition opportunities, drafting and scheduling newsletters, responding to phone calls and emails; the list goes on and on.  I consider all of this part of my artistic career, yet none of it happens inside the studio. 

I am not suggesting that the next time you get asked, “How long did it take you to make that?” you offer up a diatribe about how much blood, sweat and tears it takes to make a living as a creative entrepreneur.  In fact I usually do answer this inquiry with a patient, pleasant and VERY simplified time frame.  However, I do encourage you to take every moment into consideration when it comes to valuing yourself as an artist.  Give yourself a pat on the back for the amount of blood, sweat, tears AND love you pour into each and every piece.  Price your work accordingly.  I find artists tend to  readily dismiss the importance of what they do, even to themselves.  Keep in mind you have the capability to take raw materials you have carefully collected and blend them with soul, vision and passion into something that has never existed before. The issue isn't “How long did it take you to make that?” Instead it should be, “What did you have to experience, learn, love and dream in order to make this happen?”

If you do have a tendency to minimize the significance of your artistic endeavors, I have a homework assignment for you.  Attempting to calculate the time (all those classes, hours in the studio, treks to the art supplies store) you have invested since birth might blow a gasket or two, so let's keep it simple. For the next two weeks keep track of how much time you spend on your art career, and I mean EVERY task required to further you as an artist.  I think you will be impressed by your level of dedication.  I hope your findings will make you proud and help you to believe in your pursuits.  Believing in yourself improves your focus.  You become more realistic about your price range, and  your boosted confidence eases the stress of dealing with the general public.  I hope you will feel you don't have to justify to anyone what you do.  Your career path is just as valid as any other.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Focusing Series: Professional Development Workshops for Artisans, Craftspeople, Small Business Owners & Creative Entrepreneurs



Sponsored in part by Alternate Currents, Matt McKee Photography, a2n2.net and The Jamaica Plain Arts Council, The Focusing Series offers evening workshops, intensives, and two-day boot camps for creative entrepreneurs and small business owners.  If you want to take your business or career to the next level, or if you have always dreamed of transforming your creative endeavors into a business enterprise, this series is for you.

Classes are taught to a handful of students, which allows participants ample time to ask questions and share their thoughts.  We strive to personalize the learning experience so that each student will leave with a distinct plan for their future.

In addition to offering workshops, our team can support your career through their specific skills.  Matt McKee does fantastic photographing artwork and head shots. CPA Kathleen Robey helps artists with bookkeeping and taxes.  Scott Cipolla can assist with anything from logo design to marketing.  If you need administrative assistance or personalized guidance in taking your career forward, Anna Koon is a small business consultant and a creative coach.

The Focusing Series curriculum changes every year, with new classes being added to the schedule while others fall away.  New instructors come on board annually as well.  The workshops are taught as various locations around Jamaica Plain, HOWEVER we are happy to bring the workshops to you!
If your friends, coworkers, artist association or co-op wants to organize a workshop, coordinator Anna Koon is happy to help.  You can select the date/time/location. 

To find out more: 617-955-3472 or focusingseries@gmail.com.  You can also visit our Facebook page. To view the full schedule click here.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Eat, Drink & Work: A Review of 3 "New" Cafes to Get You Out of the Studio

Summer in Boston brings with it a welcome quiet as thousands of college students vacate the city and its surrounding neighborhoods.  If you have been hiding from the masses inside your home office or studio it is time to incorporate some remote workdays into your schedule.

Why is this important, you might ask?  People who operate their business out of a studio or home office tend to insulate themselves, often without intending to.  Staying out of the world too long dries up your inspiration and stales your interpersonal skills.  It is vital to combat this by scheduling days where you can work outside of your usual space.  Think of it as shaking things up a bit.  You are extricating yourself out of your routine-your comfort zone, and opening yourself up to new experiences and new people.

I am a big fan of “coffee shop workdays”, and have found good things come from these experiences.  I tend to be more productive away from at-home distractions.  I have met key people who have been added to my network.  And new opportunities have come about because of these café excursions. 

I am such a fan that some of my entrepreneurial friends and I started Women’s Workday Wednesdays a few years ago.  Once a month those of us who could make it would meet at a designated café, set up shop (a lap top, books, journals and writing utensils) and get cracking.  By bouncing ideas off of each other and enjoying the energy flowing around our table, we all came away satisfied with that day’s work.

Here are a few cafes I recently checked out as potential “coffee shop workday” spots.  All of these will soon be a lot quieter-at least until September.  So take advantage of the space and the stillness and get to work!

Though it has several locations, I visited the one right off of the Boston University campus.  This café offers ample electrical outlets (not always the case) and a full menu Mon-Fri for breakfast and lunch.  A limited, yet yummy menu is offered anytime.   I ordered a cookie, which was fresh baked goodness and quite delicious. There is substantial seating, though a portion of this is elevated “bar” seating.  The main issue was the coffee.  The espresso was over-extracted and bitter; the iced coffee rather flavorless. So yes, the space was designed with long-time sitters in mind and it is more than suitable for studying.  But the coffee and the barista skills are lacking.  Plan to be allowed to stay for quite a while without getting any glares, but order something other than coffee to drink.

 
4A Coffee
This one is worth a mention not for the space but for the coffee.  I had paid an hour at the parking meter before walking in and realizing the place has virtually no seating.  It has been designed for drop-in visits only, which is too bad because the expansive space could have easily been used in a more efficient way to allow patrons to have a seat.  There is a bench that runs along the front windows. You are welcome to perch there for a moment but it was obvious the staff-though friendly-had no interest in you sticking around.  I noticed because of the lack of seating potential customers would walk in and immediately walk back out, making this place a quick stop primarily for locals or passerby heading to or from Coolidge Corner. There is no Wi-Fi.

As I said, the place is worth noting for the coffee.  Coffee drinks are made with a tremendous amount of care which makes them delicious. Even the iced coffee was fantastic. The menu includes a small selection of baked goods.  I ordered a cake donut but found it a bit bland despite the icing, so save your calories for elsewhere.

There are plenty of sit down cafes in the immediate area, including three Starbucks all along Harvard Avenue.  But if you happen by 4A Coffee one day, they are worth the visit for a caffeinated pick-me-up.

 
Fuel
This one-location-but –wonderfully- branded gem in Brighton wins for best work space.  Ample, semi-private seating with plenty of electrical outlets allows for intimate conversation and study. The coffee is more than drinkable (though not terrific) and there is a substantial, affordable breakfast and lunch menu, which means that you can stay a while. The espresso was again over-extracted, though not as dismal as Blue State.  Nice, upbeat but unimposing music pulsed in the background to keep you energized. The noise level permitted concentration. And here’s a bonus: there is a small parking lot adjacent to the cafe!

I ordered a basil orange lime drink.  It hit the spot once I was coffee-d out.  It wasn’t sweet, but it was very refreshing and would make a great summer drink. While I had to pay for meter parking everywhere else the street parking here was free.  There were two clean, spacious bathrooms.  Overall a great space.   

 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Go For It: Taking the Risk to Follow Your Dream

At the entrance of the park near my house is a tree and every year in that tree a robin builds her nest.  There are no leafy branches to guarantee her safety through camouflage. She is blatantly apparent to everyone who uses that entrance and she is obvious to every potential predator.  Still she rallies on, selecting that spot time and time again.  I have no idea if she is successful; if the eggs hatch and her offspring survive at least long enough to hop out of the nest.  But I have to admit I admire her tenacity.  I think a lot of us have much to learn from that little bird.
 
 

Most of us go through life with a hidden dream tucked away out of fear of failure, never realized because of real or imagined barriers blocking our achievement. I remember when I was young my mother told me, “The things in life I was afraid to do are the things I have regretted the most.”  What is it you have dreamed of doing?  Did parents’ expectations douse your dream?  Do you doubt yourself?  Do you feel your obligations to provide financial stability get in the way?  Here are some thoughts and suggestions that I hope will inspire you to crawl into the innermost corner of your heart, pick up your dream, dust it off, and give it a try.

Don’t Think-Do:                                                                           Entrepreneurs have a key quality that others don’t: they just do it.  Overthinking can create anxiety that can lead to postponing the most important step of pursuing your dream-getting started. 

Getting started doesn’t have to mean all or nothing.  For most of us, that is unreasonable.  We have people who depend on us-elderly parents, spouses or partners, children.  We can’t just ditch the day job.
Ask yourself: If money was not an issue, what would I be doing with my life?  This question will shed light on your true calling.  Think about what you love to do, where you feel your true talent lies, what gives you a sense of fulfillment.  See if there is a way to translate this into a commercial endeavor.

Now ask yourself how you can reasonably begin to incorporate this dream into your current life.   

True entrepreneurs begin by answering the question “why” before contemplating the questions “how” and “what”.

 I was recently speaking with an artist who had just graduated.  One would think she would be ready to take that high-priced, hard-earned knowledge, her connections and her college-sponsored job listings and tackle her career. Instead she said she was planning to take summer classes so she could be “prepared”.

When are you ever going to be ready if you keep making excuses?  Life waits for no one and unfortunately we live in a culture that equates youth with fresh ideas and unlimited energy.  Please understand I am not suggesting you throw caution to the wind, especially if others are relying on you for care and comfort.  Living a genuine life can be a blend of doing what we have to do and doing what we love to do.

 
Focus on What You Have-Not On What You Don't Have:
Often people get caught up with waiting until they have the optimum supplies, time, network, money…you name it.  But being an entrepreneur means you view your limited resources as positive challenges rather than road blocks.  As Harvard Business School professor, Bill Sahlman says, Entrepreneurship is “the relentless pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources.”

Take stock of your inventory: What talents and abilities do you have? Who do you know who could offer support (guidance, financial-customers and/or investors), talent (marketing, mentoring, etc.)?  What tools do you have (computer, studio, phone, art supplies, etc.)? 

You will probably find you have more than you need to get started.

Bit by Bit:
Getting started isn’t about all or nothing.  A responsible degree of risk assessment must take place.  What amount of time/money/energy can you reasonably invest in this endeavor? 

For example, let’s say you have always dreamed of becoming an actor, but at this point in your life you are 46 years old and have three kids, all of whom are fast approaching college age.  It would probably be disastrous to come home and announce you are heading off to Hollywood.  But if you sit down and access what you do have (money to take acting lessons, time to join local film and acting groups for the sake of networking, energy to spend before and after work to pursue this dream) you may be able to fulfill your dream.  Perhaps you have connections who can introduce you to screenwriters and directors.  Perhaps you can start auditioning for local theater productions.  Perhaps you can find work as a film extra. 

It should be mentioned at this point that we all have seasons in life.  This may be a time when authentic obligations are barring you from following your dream full steam ahead.  All the more reason to do things in piecemeal so you can find balance knowing your circumstances will change in the future (children will move out, you will retire, etc.).

Another element of starting in smaller increments; it helps you determine what is working and what isn’t without too much loss of time/money/energy.  If you are considering quitting your day job to become a full-time artist, signing up for some weekend art events-for example-will allow you to directly access how the public responds to you and your work without you losing too much time/money/energy in the process.

Anyone considering entrepreneurship should seek ways to do research so they can evaluate how consumers receive their goods or services. You can use these initial experiences to generate a business plan.

Your Endeavor's Greatest Asset: Self-Awareness:
No matter what your dream-opening your own business, becoming a professional singer, writing a novel-the greatest ingredient you can have is a sizable dose of self-awareness.  What are your strengths?  What are your weaknesses?  What could get in the way of you reaching success (both real and imagined issues)?

 Self-Awareness will help you keep a healthy pulse on how much time/money/energy you should invest in your dream.  It will help you recognize what is working in your pursuits and what isn’t.  It will keep you honest about what needs improvement and what roles others should be invited to play (business partners, company managers, help with marketing/accounting/customer service, etc.). 

Admitting You Need Help is The First Step:
So you’ve dusted off your dream, taken inventory of what you have, and gotten a good grip on your personal plus and minuses, but you are still uncertain about how to start.  Need help?

Howdy, Partner:  Often you will find people who yearn to set off on their own but just haven’t found that BIG IDEA yet.  Are you one of those people?  Guess what?  You are NOT an entrepreneur.  Being an entrepreneur isn’t about easy money or becoming your own boss.  It’s about pursuing your passion.  But take heart.  Just because you aren’t an entrepreneur doesn’t mean you can’t jump on the train.  Consider joining someone in their endeavor as an investor, consultant, partner-or all three.

Meet the Mentor: Have you articulated what you want to do?  Find people who have successfully accomplished what you dream of doing.  Email them.  Phone them.  Have coffee with them.  Ask them if they are willing to provide guidance and feedback to help you pave your path forward.

Artists and small business managers contact me all the time, asking for advice.  I find this flattering and am happy to oblige.  Don’t be afraid.  Reach out and ask someone to be your mentor.  The worst they can say is no.

Educate Me: Not to toot my own horn, but as a consultant I have helped small businesses grow and as a creative coach I have helped individuals take a dream and make it a reality.  And there are many like me out there.  Hire a coach or consultant.  I also teach professional development workshops that offer helpful tools for proceeding with your aspirations in the best way possible for finding success.  For example, my two-day boot camp offers a one-stop-shopping experience for business owners and individuals to take their endeavors to a whole new professional level. 

Learn how to best invest your time/money/energy through continuing education or consultations.  For a nominal cost of all three you can avoid a lot of pitfalls and heartache and start off on the right foot.  Along with the Focusing Series, which I developed, there are other groups in the Boston area offering professional development classes. All you have to do is find them. These opportunities are also a great way to network.

Be Willing To Fail:
Maybe the robin I mentioned in the beginning will send her offspring flying at the end of this spring.  Maybe she won’t.  But the most important thing is that she tried.  Don’t let fear hold you back.  Take stock of your passions and talents, your inventory, and start making your dream happen NOW.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Do What You Are Meant to Do!

I believe people know what they are destined to do from a young age.  Paths in my life that I thought I had discovered in adulthood, I later recollected had been a part of my earlier years: my investment in fitness (I exercised daily in high school until I was laid up with Mono as a Senior), my volunteer work with internationals (I spent my childhood begging my parents to take in an exchange student which they were understandably reluctant to do, having four kids of their own.  My oldest friends are both women who came to the States to study abroad.), and my passion for business management and teaching.  Growing up I used to love to play office and of course, I always got to be the boss.  In my early teens, I had “school time” with my youngest brother-I would teach him something and then do an art project with him based on the lesson.

My parents are not artists though both are capable of creativity.  I am fortunate that they recognized and fostered my talent to the point of sending me to study at the Rhode Island School of Design.  Still, they didn't believe one could earn a living in the arts.  My father, a Harvard Business School graduate and an investment banker, instilled practical business sense and structure.  I found his lessons boring, but later on I grew to greatly appreciate them when I realized how few of my peers had an inkling of how to handle these aspects of their lives-finances, investing, career choices.

Over a decade ago I began doing freelance personal assisting and business consulting.  Initially I was applying the lessons taught by my dad, but as time went on wisdom came along with experience.  As I managed my own career as an artist alongside my work for others, I came to understand that many of the principles of business management could be applied to finding success as a creative entrepreneur.

In 2007, I was asked by the Jamaica Plain Arts Council-based on my work as a local business consultant and a professional artist-to speak about how to make an event like Open Studios a success.  I wasn't sure if I was going to have that much to say, but when I sat down and began to write my presentation I was surprised to find I would have to considerably cut back if I hoped to keep it to no more than 10 minutes.  That following year the Council asked if I could begin offering professional development classes for artists.  Artists enthusiastically participated.  Some would ask me if there was a way I could assist them beyond the classroom.  Hence, my work as a Creative Coach began.

 

Over the years I have helped a handful of local businesses and artisans find their full potential.  For me, besides my own journey as a professional artist, nothing is more satisfying than helping someone- whether they are a small business owner, craftsperson, artist or creative entrepreneur-pursue their dreams.  I believe satisfaction and a true sense of purpose is found in doing what you were meant to do, and I love providing the wisdom and the tools necessary for making that happen.

I offer my services in a classroom setting or in private (or semi-private) sessions.  Some people benefit from a group dynamic where they can gain focus and input from not only me, but from their fellow students.  Others find they can't absorb enough information in a group, or they may feel they need the lessons to be tailored to their specific needs.  In that case, Creative Coaching sessions are the best way to go.  In either case, I offer materials for further research and homework to help you get to the next level.  I make sure my workshops can be applicable to small business ownership and management, forging a career in the arts, and just handling the journey of life in general.

While I offer my services as a Creative Coach on an ongoing basis, I am only teaching my Two-Day Boot Camp two more times this year.  I specifically chose April because I feel it is the perfect month to prepare for the busyness of summer and fall, be it weekend art events or an influx of new customers to your business during the year's warmest seasons.

I hope you will join me during this two-day as I provide well-rounded lessons on all you need to know to get started or take your business/career to the next level.  I can't begin to tell you how rewarding it is to work with you, to come alongside you and witness your successes. 
 
Here is the full schedule of this year's (2013) Focusing Series.  In addition to hosting workshops in Jamaica Plain, I am happy to work with you to hold a workshop at the day/time/location of your choice for you and your friends, coworkers, artist co-op or art/business association.  To learn more, email focusingseries@gmail.com.

Registration for April's Two-Day Boot Camp ends at noon on Friday, April 19th.  Boot Camp will be Wednesday-Thursday, April 24 & 25, 10am to 2:30pm (both days).
 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Improve Your Business by Improving Your Business Relationships

I don't watch a lot of television but over the years I have watched four series that surprisingly have a lot in common despite their different topics.  Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares” and the short-lived “Hotel Hell” involve Gordon sweeping in to try to save businesses (on “Kitchen Nightmares”: locally-owned restaurants, and on “Hotel Hell”: inns and B&Bs) from financial ruin.  Cesar Millan’s “Dog Whisperer” has Cesar sweeping in to try to train dog owners on how to properly own dogs.  And “Nanny 911” has a team of nannies sweeping in to teach parents how to parent.

Obviously all four shows are very different, but the message is exactly the same.  To be a successful business owner/dog owner/parent: you need to be open to instruction on how to create a positive, structured environment so that your customers/employees/pets/kids can thrive.  Watching these series it becomes quite apparent that the business owners/dog owners/parents who are obstinately stuck in the delusion that they know what they are doing while inflicting misery on their customers/employees/pets/kids end up in failure.
So let me sum this up to you, small business owner: Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you're right.  It's the business owner who knows there is always room for improvement that will set the right tone for success.

Here are a few guidelines to help you along.
 
Strive For Loyal Customers
A loyal customer base determines the health of your business.  Why? Because it costs you a lot less time/money/energy to keep a customer than it does to entice new customers.

Improving your customer service reduces customer turnover, decreases your overhead, increases your fan base, and provides opportunities for you to sell more and up-sell regardless of whether your company provides products, services or both.
Loyal customers express their enthusiastic commitment to your brand in ways that are a tremendous asset.  Never underestimate the power of word of mouth for your business: both positive and negative.  No matter how many marketing options there are, nothing beats the opinion of a trusted peer.

Loyal customers continue to increasingly purchase with you.  They refer your business to others.  They are invested in your business and want it to succeed.
 


So, How Do I Gain A Loyal Customer Base?
(image courtesy of the socialworkplace.com)

 The answer is simple: Happy (Loyal) Employees = Happy (Loyal) Customers

Just like my four reality television examples, it is up to you to create a positive, structured environment where both staff and customers know what to expect. It is up to you to infuse enthusiasm and pride into your business environment.  Let's talk about how to do this.

Who Has the Greatest Effect on the Success of Your Business?
Don't assume it is you.  More often than not, business owners or managers are not as involved in the day-to-day operations as they think they are and as they should be.  Who are your customers interacting with the most? Those are the team members who are going to have the greatest impact on the success or failure of your business.

Your customers are going to align their opinion of your business with the opinion of your front line employees.  If your front line employees are presenting a negative perspective to your customers then don't be surprised if customer retention is low. 
Happy Employees are employees who “drink the Kool-Aid”.  They believe in your brand and have an emotional investment.  They feel successful and fulfilled in their role (and so they are successful) in your business.  Because of their enthusiasm and devotion, they are credible in the eyes of the customer.  Happy employees want your business to flourish.  They work together as a team and are willing to weather setbacks such as our economic downturn because they are committed.

Don't underestimate the power of loyal, happy employees.  Their loyalty and happiness breeds loyal, happy customers. 
 
Your Staff
Your front line employees are your customers' principal point of contact.  You must ensure that the customer experience is all it should be-and more.  To ensure this, be sure you have:

-hired a team that reflects your brand's mission and has the skillset you value and need
-developed and communicated a succinct standard of operating procedures and rules

-trained your staff and made it clear these procedures and rules are to be followed or there will be consequences
-designed a concise program to monitor client retention, and develop an incentive system to reward team members for their good work

Never underestimate the power of clear communication and proper training.  Once you have established a team of trustworthy, well-trained staff, empower front line employees with the means to manage customer relationship issues right when they arise.  Because time lapse can be a major factor in customer dissatisfaction, employees should be allowed to tackle problems as they occur. 
Even if you are a small business with a limited budget, you can still create incentive programs for your staff members that will encourage them.  Remember a happy, loyal staff means happy, loyal customers.

One major sign of a failing business is an unhappy staff.  Employee turnover and disheartened, disgruntled employees indicate you are not doing what you should to value and compensate them fairly.
You want your team to feel appreciated, even if you can only afford to do so on primarily a psychological level.  Think of perks you can provide, ways you can offer them rewards for their hard work that won't break the bank.  In actuality most of us are invested in the work we do because we find it rewarding.  Financial rewards play second fiddle to a feeling of accomplishment.  If you have orchestrated an environment of clear expectations and communication, and make it clear how much you value both your team and your customers, you are going to have a successful business.

Are you Listening?                                                                                                                                              Happy employees and customers know their feedback is heard and their input is valued, so they feel encouraged to share ideas about how the business can improve while offering to do what they can to implement those ideas. 
Does your team feel safe communicating with you?  Do they feel you will hear their input and concerns?  Do your customers feel their feedback is valued?  Do both your team and your customers have a welcome investment in the well-being of your company?  If not, then it is high time to get off your high horse. 

And just so you know: Listening means acting on staff input and customer feedback immediately, even if that means simply acknowledging that they have been heard.  You can let them know solutions to problems are being carefully considered.  And new business practices-if deemed necessary-should be implemented within a timely manner to demonstrate employees/customers are a valuable component of your business.
 
Have a Piece of Humble Pie
Having been in various writers groups over the years I notice there is always at least one person who gets their feathers ruffled anytime a group member attempts to give feedback on their writing. Just like the business owners/dog owners/parents of the reality shows I mentioned in the beginning, I always know these writers are never going to reach their desired success.  They insist on keeping their ears closed out of a misguided sense of pride and sentimentality.  If they would simply step back from their “baby”, hear what the fellow writers have to say, and recognize the positive motivation behind providing feedback, they could fully develop and flourish.

The same goes for business owners.  Yes, I know this business is your baby; that you have poured all your savings into it and sacrificed your personal life to make it happen.  But being too closely involved tints your perspective.  Allow others who don't have as much at stake to assess your business and be open to what they have to say.
No one has all the answers, all the solutions.  You will find floundering businesses tend to be led by owners/managers that are in one way or another denying their shortcomings (either through bullying staff and customers alike or by keeping their head in the sand or in the clouds or both).

These days through the internet businesses have instant access to what customers are saying about them (on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and the like).  Treat these reviews as opportunities for learning and making changes as needed.  Remember, someone devoted their personal time and energy to posting this, so respect their input.  You should also have a clearly marked way in which both staff members (monthly meetings, for example) and customers (an email address or an old fashioned suggestion box) can provide feedback.
 
Confidence versus Dictatorship
Remember a team needs a leader who can instill confidence while not storming about like a dictator.  That is not confidence; that is overcompensation for insecurity. And an insecure leader is just as ineffective as a totalitarian bully.  Hearing negative input about your business may rattle you a bit.  But keep in mind it isn't personal when it's professional. Using this feedback to make positive change starts with you and trickles down the chain of command-starting with the front line employees. 

Share the Power                                                                                                                                                  Let your staff know you need them and that your success is not possible without them. Your reaction to that statement may be, “Well, duh.” but when was the last time you accurately communicated this to your employees?  Don't assume they know.  Empower your team by sharing your mission with them and remind them that everything they do has a direct effect on the customer. 
It is amazing to me how often I will go into a business as a consultant and quickly learn (most often from the staff and not the owner) that no one knows what exactly they are supposed to be doing.  Sure, they may have a job title and a general idea of what that entails, but have you ever spelled out for them what their duties are?  More importantly, have you communicated what their role in the customer experience is?  Think of it as a crop share: you are giving this person an acre of your land.  Were you specific about how they should nurture the ground, what they should grow?  Did you provide them with the tools they needed to plant and grow successfully?  Did you review operating procedures, empowering them to immediately handle issues as they arise?  In other words, is this person confident in the tasks laid before him?  Is he secure in his role?  Does he feel invested in the acre he is in charge of? Does he know that his success affects the success of the entire enterprise?

Set Realistic Targets for Your Business
Time to do a bit of investigative research.

How is your business' performance in relation to your industry?
How does your business' performance compare to your competitors?

How are you doing due to or despite the culture (external circumstances such as economy and community)?
Once you have researched the answers to these questions you can then map-ideally with input from your team and your customers-a successful path for your business.  It is important to be realistic in your goals.  Setting insurmountable projections for your business creates a tone of disappointment, and disappointment breeds discontent.  You want to enhance that positive, structured environment with goals that encourage your team and engage your customers.

In Summary                                                                                                                                                              I know I've put a lot on your plate.  You may be realizing you have much to address about your attitude and the environment of your business in order to turn it around.  An apology is a good place to start. Call a staff meeting.  Tell your employees you are sorry for the way things have been going and that you want to change.  Invite feedback and input.  Work as a team to figure out how to implement these new ideas.  Then go to your customers.  Write them a letter telling them you want to provide the best service possible in your industry.  Ask them to tell you how you can improve.
Customers and Staff who feel you genuinely seek to please them, whose expectations are exceeded by your efforts, are more likely to commit to your brand.

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