Remember that band — the one that was so good but so under-the-radar it seemed like your little secret? The one you’d go to see play in nearly-empty venues but cherished because you felt among the few who could truly appreciate their artistry?
If you ever loved such a band, and if it ever rose from obscurity to the top of the charts, you may be familiar with a strange feeling of disappointment. Where you might once have cornered band members for a personal autograph, now you’re just one of many fans, all fighting for a tiny piece of their attention.
Customers sometimes watch small businesses they love evolve in much the same way. They might have felt they had an “in” of sorts because they had personally talked to the owner, or because the company followed up that first purchase with a hand-written note thanking them for their business.
Then, at a pace that almost seems unimaginable, that same business scales to a point where you can only get through by waiting on hold for an indefinite period, only to be greeted by an agent who clearly has no idea of who you are.
All that small business magic — the magic of creating an intimate relationship with a customer that leads to trust — can be instantly dispelled.
This tradeoff between a “small business feel” and substantial company growth is not as inevitable as it sounds. Sometimes even the largest or fastest-growing firms put the people and processes in place to ensure customer relationships continue to deepen.
Small businesses have an advantage in that the same core group might be selling or providing services to the same set of customers over and over again. As a company grows, there may be many additional hires. That means that even someone who tries to keep track of individual customers may struggle occasionally.
This is why even small companies should start by augmenting the personalized marketing, sales and service activities they do with a focus on collecting relevant data that can be centrally stored and managed. Tools like Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud and Service Cloud shouldn’t just be thought of as tools, but as the heart of maintaining a small business feel through an organization’s evolution.
After, these sources of data can be consistently maintained and accessed, regardless of employee count, turnover or other variables that would otherwise make it impossible to remember every customer’s needs and wants.
When these technologies become the standard base on which everyone in the company operates, customers will notice and appreciate it, because it reflects the same care and attention to detail they experienced when the company was still small.
Remember our analogy of the rock band? Imagine what it would feel like if, while watching them perform at an enormous concert venue, the lead singer gave you a shout-out for supporting them from the very beginning. This would not only bring the magic back, but would also likely make you hurry to stream whatever they release next.
Companies that become market leaders won’t stay that way for long unless they orient their sales and marketing activities in a similar fashion. They need to segment their customers and prospects, make use of the data available and aim to raise their awareness, drive demand or develop a pitch that treats them as an audience of one. This level of personalization is more possible than ever, thanks to the increased sophistication of tools like CRM and marketing automation.
Even if a big company is lean in terms of people or other resources, customers may still imagine it as being housed in a towering skyscraper, with a highly bureaucratic process that needs to be followed if you want to interact with them.
Small businesses often seem less intimidating because it’s easy to find the front door to their store, or a staff member to help them. Good customer service tools will ensure people get to connect with an agent right away, but there’s more to being approachable than that.
Think about how you can use multiple channels to be receptive to feedback of any kind. Consider automation like chatbots to improve the ability to connect with customers you had as a smaller business by being accessible 24/7. Explore the potential to create digital customer communities that foster a sense of belonging among customers and their peers.
The one thing all these pieces of advice have in common is the quality of attention that is often considered unique to small businesses. That “small business feel” is really about working in such a way that it’s clear you haven’t lost sight of the details and unique nature of each customer relationship — and that if anything gets lost, you’re willing to hear about it and work even harder to improve.
It may not seem like a very tangible metric, but at each stage of your company’s growth, ask yourself: How “big” do we seem to a customer, and what would that mean to them?
The way you answer that question will determine both what you need to keep doing, and what you may need to do a little differently.