Bob Paff: Reinventing Maryland’s Small Business Owners

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By Bob Paff

There was a time when it was enough for Maryland’s small businesses to make a great product or earn a sterling reputation. Doctors, lawyers, and the corner baker all simply had to hang out their shingles or share the aroma of fresh baked pastries to have more business then they could handle. Families would pass down the generational secret recipes or hand over the keys to the business to the oldest child. That way of life that has sustained us for generations, though, has all but disappeared from the state’s economic landscape.

Growth was inflated by the real estate boom that now seems a distant memory. With that crash and the inability of many to repair their own personal debt crisis, the situation became compounded by the problems in Washington and on Wall Street. Banks themselves were struggling to survive and tightened the reigns on lending money to small businesses here and across the country. Many saw their lines of credit reduced and rates increased. Consumers were forced to cut back.

With so many issues coming at us, which ones do we tackle first? How does Maryland’s small business community reinvent itself now that it must pound the pavements seeking new customers and new opportunities, shifting the paradigm that allowed it to prosper not so many years before?

For many, the notion that "everyone is in sales" is truly a foreign concept. Yet, the longer the small business owner takes to make this shift, the longer it will take for their prosperity to turn around.

Speaking to local business owners about relationship building, connecting, and networking often draws blank stares. Where and how do we start? Does the business owner become the number one sales person? Do we hire a sales team? Who manages that team when we have never needed sales people and we ourselves have such little sales training?

The bottom line is that Maryland’s small business community must band together to make a difference. Small businesses owners need to take advantage of the new ways to do business, from social media to establishing personal connections and asking for help,

To do that, take a look at the way you have always done business and determine what is and isn’t working. Is your product still as viable as it was when you started your business? Who are your customers and are you still able to meet their demands for convenience and value? Are they still loyal to you? What does your business need to do to survive and prosper?

With honest answers to those questions in hand, begin to develop your marketing strategy. Play to your strengths and delegate your weaknesses. Focus on your core competencies and work to make those better. Identify who your best sources of business are and what makes them so dependable.

Also, humble yourself and the business by asking for help. If your business has been supported by loyal customers for years, those same customers will have a stake in you success. Open yourself up to inviting -- and accepting – suggestions and criticism.

Connecting with others who can bring us business is key to success in this economy. Without those connections, the status quo is the end result. Identify those who can and will help you. Put yourself out there in a public forum. Volunteer to speak at your local chamber of commerce. Donate your goods or services so the consumer can get a first hand look at what you do. The legendary Mrs. Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies gave her products away to anyone who wanted to try them until the world came knocking on her door.

The notion that the "customer is always right" must again become first and foremost. What does the business owner do to show the customer that they want and need their business and will work hard every day to earn it? Maryland’s consumer wants value and to know that their business is truly appreciated. With so many choices for consumers, the business owner must provide compelling reasons to stay.

The one ingredient it is impossible to teach anyone is your level of passion for what you do. Is it possible that you are in business because it's all you know? If you do not really love what you do, your customers will know. Be honest with yourself and those around you. Perhaps your best role as the business owner is behind the scenes and not working with customers. Introspection is key. Surround yourself with the best people you can assemble, empower them to do their job, and support that effort.

Ironically, this model goes back generations when everyone knew those with whom they were doing business. As the world and economy become more complicated and less personal, the business owner who realizes people are begging for old fashioned customer service are the ones who will survive and prosper. The decision lies with each and every business owner, not in Annapolis or Washington. The answer, in short, lies within.

Baltimore-bred entrepreneur and communications expert Bob Paff, founder of the “Communicating to Win” platform, is a national speaker, former host of the popular CBS Radio show, Communicating to Win, and co-host of Fox News Baltimore's Morning Show segment, The Competitive Edge. Paff is a featured speaker at the Small Business Survival Summit, being held September 7-9 in Baltimore. He will discuss the connection between building strong, lifelong relationships and business success, as well as the way to tap into those everyday opportunities in order to take your business from just surviving to thriving.
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