I’ve always had a keen interest in helping small, diverse and disadvantaged businesses. I’ve found that when given the opportunity to compete in a fair and transparent environment, these companies are very successful at winning new business when going “head-to-head” with larger organizations. And it makes sense that they would. Their very makeup allows them to be much more entrepreneurial and responsive to customer needs.
A few years back, I worked with a small business (around 200 people) and helped them put in place many strategies and methods that transformed the business. Now I want to share these tools with other small business owners. In my new book, Engaged: Creating a Great Organization through Extraordinary Employee and User Engagement, I outline how within six months the company culture and employee engagement dramatically improved and many great new ideas were put in place. These efforts not only provided greater customer satisfaction but also significantly reduced cost. The whole company reverberated with renewed enthusiasm.
Here are some of the actions that small businesses can take to create an engaged organization where people are able to make a difference.
Become a servant leader: If you are a manager in a small business you can help your subordinates be more effective by viewing yourself as at the bottom of the pyramid rather than at the top. Instead of trying to control your employees, you should view your role as empowering and supporting their success. Instead of viewing yourself as having “power over,” view yourself as giving people “power to do.” Your employees will be grateful and will go the extra mile.
Avoid the pitfalls of internally-focused metrics and quotas: Departments in many large companies create internally focused metrics and quotas that they evaluate employees on. Too often, these pull the employees away from doing what they know is right for the customers. They can also lead to silos and losing sight of the big picture because employees become so focused on only meeting the requirements of their own department. Small businesses can avoid this by understanding that humans are intrinsically motivated to make a difference, to serve the customer. If metrics must be used they should be applied with caution and be focused on external factors such as on customer delight or customer intent to recommend your company to others.
Work backwards from where you want to be: Instead of trying to make improvements on what you have in place today, get a group together and take a few hours. Pretend that your services, systems, products, facilities, organization, etc. was destroyed last night and you are free to design what you ideally like to replace it with today. This can serve as your north star and can open up new ideas. Perhaps more importantly, when the group comes up with ideas together, this tends to create much stronger buy in, resulting in successful implementation of the desired improvements.
Focus on creating a great culture: Many small businesses accidentally develop a dysfunctional culture simply because they don’t know to focus on creating the culture they want. One powerful approach to creating a desirable culture – used by Zappos.com when it was a fledgling small business – is to define the principles you want your company to be guided by. For example: we help each other be successful; we regularly appreciate people’s contributions; we are forever improving; we support a healthy community; we embrace learning; we seek out customer problems that we might solve. This reduces unhealthy conflict and organizational paralysis.
Don’t try to be the hero: In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin observed how little he achieved when he presented an idea as his own. Instead, he found he was much more successful when he presented an idea as coming from a group. So, instead of competing with your colleagues for the glory, come up with and then implement ideas together, and you are more likely to see cooperation rather than resistance.
Make it easy for customers to submit “wishes”: Starbucks began in 1971 as a single coffee shop. As of November 2016 it was in 23,768 locations worldwide. To take advantage of customer ideas, in 2008 they implemented an online customer idea submission website named My Starbucks Idea. This “crowdsourcing” site enables customers to submit their own ideas and see and evaluate those of others, allowing Starbucks to assess support for an idea. As a small businesses, you could implement something similar in order to continually enhance your service to your customers.
Stay connected with your customers’ problems: In small businesses a higher percentage of employees have direct contact with a customer. As your company grows, avoid the pitfall of more employees losing connections with your customers. You can emphasize and put in place practices wherein employees observe and interact with customers in person to learn more about problems and unmet needs the company might address.