All Relationships Are Local

Several years ago, the company I worked for was purchased by a telecom giant whose name I won’t mention, other than to say that it kind of rhymed with “Hey Tea & Tea.”

A few weeks after the announcement, we got word that the CEO of our new owner was coming to town to speak on a panel. Hoping to get a first hand look at him, a bunch of us drove into Boston to see the event.

What can I say, he was impressive. Good looking, well dressed and articulate, he spoke about the future of technology as persuasively as a seasoned politician. Not only that, but despite living a few thousand miles away, he peppered his talk with all kinds of local references — the Red Sox, The Big Dig, the cold weather, etc.

The fact is, he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. That is, until he made one critical mistake.

He pronounced “Worcester” (a city west of Boston) incorrectly. Instead of saying “Whuh-ster,” as we natives have ridiculously agreed upon, he said “War-chester.” A reasonable assumption, but totally wrong.

Needless to say, the spell was instantly broken, and the next speaker on the panel — the CEO of a much smaller, but local competitor — gleefully pronounced the word correctly when it came his turn to speak.

I mention this today, because I often find that small companies are much too eager to give away one of their greatest advantages relative to their national competitors: Their local presence. Afraid of appearing “too small,” they try and look like the big guys and in the process, ignore the fact that they live and work in the same communities as their clients and prospects.

The truth is, I don’t fault my big company CEO friend for making the mistake he made, in fact I give him credit for trying. His problem however — and the problem of any company that operates in many different locations — was in sounding real and relevant to the people on the ground (i.e. the customers). You can do all the research you want about a particular place, but from thousands of miles away you’ll miss the nuances — and missed nuances are what we locals notice immediately.

In terms of your E-Newsletter therefore (and as far as I’m concerned, your marketing in general), the implication is clear for any small company that does business in a geographically limited area: Learn how to pronounce “Worcester.”

No, ha, ha, I am kidding. The implication is to stress your localness and deliberately say and do things that your national competitors can’t. Can’t, because they’re either unaware of what’s happening on the ground, or because they are constrained by the need for “location neutral” materials, promotions and messages that work anywhere.

Some specific examples:

• . . . If you’re a small financial planner who only works in Wisconsin, mention your recent trip to the Wisconsin State Fair in your newsletter.

• . . . If you’re a husband and wife executive recruiting team based in New York City, put a picture on your web site of the two of you standing in front of the Statue of Liberty.

• . . . If you’re a home renovation company in Toronto, sprinkle your project portfolio with photos and mentions of local landmarks and neighbourhoods.

Bottom Line: There are many things to learn from big companies — operating a business from 30,000 feet isn’t one of them. This top down view of the world is a weakness, an organizational necessity for a group of people who are spread out all over the map. As a small business owner, it’s the last thing you want to copy.

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