During my 20’s, I spent a lot of time hanging around a karate school in Boston. One guy I remember well was another student, named Matt.
A cheerful, bifocal-wearing, 40 year old college music teacher, Matt couldn’t have been more than 5′ 2″ tall. If someone invited you to pick out a student that you’d like to fight, you’d take one look at him and your decision would be made.
I can tell you first hand that it would have been a bad decision. Matt was a terrific fighter. The interesting thing was that rather than try and compensate for his small size, Matt used it to his advantage.
He would get right in close with whomever he was fighting, making it impossible to kick him, and nearly impossible to punch him anywhere except the top of his head. I remember always trying to back up, just so I could get far away enough to reach him, while he in the meantime pounded away at my stomach.
Matt was a good example of how a small person could succeed by doing things that a larger fighter couldn’t.
Twenty years later and now the owner of a small company, I try and use Matt’s strategy as a means of differentiating my own business from larger competitors. In particular, I look for things that “don’t scale,” because I know that large companies have trouble with this.
Once you’ve got thousands (or even hundreds) of customers, it becomes very difficult to offer services which can’t be efficiently automated. That’s why your bank can magically get your own checks back in your own statement month after month (scaleable = good), but if you call your local branch and ask them to drop a free calendar in the mail to you, you stand a pretty good chance of dying before it ever arrives (ad hoc requests = bad).
So, in the spirit of my buddy Matt, here are some recommendations for small business owners on how to stand out by deliberately taking on activities that the big guys can’t copy:
• Send handwritten notes. Thank people for helping you; tell people it was nice to have met them; congratulate people on something good that just happened in their personal or professional lives. Handwritten notes are the epitome of “unscaleable.”
I send one or two of these out a day. It doesn’t take a lot of time, it costs practically nothing, and it rarely goes unnoticed (when was the last time you got a handwritten note sent to your office?). I even use real stamps — people don’t use postage machines, companies do.
• Dump your web site email directly into your personal in-box. Next week we’re going to announce a study we just completed regarding corporate web site response time. There were a ton of interesting findings, but the headline was thatone thirdof the companies surveyed didn’t answer a simple email question that we sent in, and even among those that did, some took over a week to respond.
I can beat that easily. Since we typically get less than 30 emails a day into the Blue Penguin Development and E-Newsletters That Work web sites combined, there’s little impact on my productivity to mix them right in with everything else.
The result is that people who contact us get a quick and personal response, allowing us to again shine a light on how different it feels to do business with us than with a larger firm.
• Humanize your written client communications. Why not? You know them and they know you. Use that relationship to your advantage. Why pretend like you’re some big impersonal corporation by making your business documents feel like, well, business documents? I even have a blue, penguin stamp that I sometimes put on the outside of the envelopes so they know it’s from me! Again, easy for us; tough for the factories.
Here’s the bottom line: Like a huge sparring opponent, your larger competitors have many advantages over you: Reach, size, presence and an ability to intimidate. Don’t fight them on their own terms by trying to copy them.
Your biggest advantage is your ability to add a personal touch to everything you do. Your customers will notice it and the big guys won’t be able to do anything except back up and wonder what hit them.
(Do you agree? Or have you found that it pays to appear bigger than you really are? Click here to tell me!)