Herein lies a philosophical and inwardly thoughtful post. Please bear with me and we may both end up someplace illuminated at the end. Then again, maybe not. *grins* I have had these thoughts marching through my head for a while now, and I’m trying very hard to pull them into a cohesive post. I will endeavor to minimize any rambling or jumping around.
As part of a small business in the frustratingly slow process of growth, my mind turns ever toward how to bring that growth about. Our underlying methodology revolves around not getting too big for our britches, but instead to build a solid customer base, with regular orders, and to expand ourselves accordingly and within our means. Too many business fail by jumping into the ocean without the luxury of a life preserver or swimming lessons — many a business loan has pushed an underperforming company permanently under the waves. Then again, too many businesses fail by not making the jump at all.
We have the luxury at this point, as a Cottage Bakery, of operating in a small existing environment. Our overhead is low and our equipment is adequate for our current level of production (no matter how much we drool over industrial mixers and ovens). This allows us to keep our prices reasonable, even if our food costs are higher than a much larger institution. We didn’t need a big loan to outfit a kitchen, lease a storefront, etc. If not for the passing of the Cottage Food Bill, we would not be able to accomplish this.
With enough customers and steady orders we can jump to the next level, more customers/orders, the level after that, etc. This gives us fluidity and the capacity to grow healthily without bankrupting ourselves. It’s slow growth, but it’s measurable and grants us greater visibility of the road ahead.
The potholes and speed-bumps that currently litter that road are labelled Greater Visibility, More Customers and Increased Orders. Advertising is difficult when you have no budget for it, and even the most vigilant social networking presence only goes so far. Ultimately what does the greatest good for a small business is a good reputation and happy customers with loud voices.
Satisfied customers are repeat customers — and that’s just as important as new ones. A satisfied customer may tell his friends about you, but an unhappy one will shout their dissatisfaction from the rooftops. A very satisfied customer wants to share their good fortune with their friends. Word of mouth is the most powerful and persistent advertising medium there is.
Word of mouth builds reputation, and reputation is hard currency in business, especially small business. Reputation is momentum, and the greater your momentum, the easier it is to accelerate. Conversely, when times are lean, the economy tanks or consumers tighten their belts, momentum keeps you going when you travel from feast to famine — the better your reputation, the further you can coast.
Large businesses are like glaciers: they don’t move fast but they’re hard to stop and their momentum takes a long time to wind out. A small business, however, will disappear in a blink without dedicated customers that stick around because they continue to go above and beyond to make them happy.
As a rule, we want to make everyone who crosses our path very satisfied… even beyond the need for them to be walking, talking billboards for us. Pride in a job well done and bringing joy to others are dying and dwindling attitudes these days, but we’ve made them our foundation — they’re strong building blocks, if a bit old fashioned. We love what we do, and we want others to come along for the ride.
As corny as it sounds (and yes, very old fashioned as well) we’re trying to build, bit by bit, a community — a family, even — who have a great interest in seeing us succeed. I come from New Orleans, where the ‘family bakery’ is not a lost concept, somewhere that multiple generations go to because they they do great work, or make that thing just the way you like it, or your kids went to school together, or your Maw Maw brought you there every Sunday for a treat and that memory makes you smile. Gemma comes from a similar culture, only an ocean away. Those are the kinds of places we loved and love still, that’s what we strive to be.
Unfortunately not everyone who is satisfied with their purchases will talk about it. One of the greatest sources of anxiety in our kitchen is not hearing back from customers that liked what they received — feedback is the best way of knowing how we are doing — either we nailed it, or we need to make improvements. Thinking about it, though, how often do we call back the dry cleaner after we pick up our suit to tell them what a great job they did? How frequently do we contact the dairy department at the grocery store to compliment the freshness of the milk we just bought? It’s difficult to bear in mind that no news likely means we performed as expected, no comment necessary. On the rare occasions we get feedback, it’s usually very complimentary and we beam as though we swallowed the sun.
So, the conundrum is this: how do you get more of those happy tongues wagging? How do you get your good name out there, more eyeballs on your menu, more calls on your phone and more orders in your inbox? How do you build a family who will help you grow?