Back to the Future

I found this amazing insight on ethics and interpersonal relationships from the Talmud written more than 1,900 years ago.

A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than him in wisdom or in  years; he does not interrupt the words of his fellow; he does not rush to answer; he asks what is relevant to the subject matter and replies to the point; he speaks of first things first and of last things last; concerning that which he has not heard,  he says, “I have not heard,” and he acknowledges the truth.

When I first read this, I thought whoever wrote it must have been a salesman or a great business coach. This short paragraph summarized the most important components of building business relationships. For me, the phrase, “A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than him in wisdom or in years” is more about wisdom than age. Think about it. If you’re meeting with potential referrers or prospective customers, who have been working in their business for many years, they are going to know more about their business than you.

Many veteran business owners and managers are keepers of the oral history of their business and have valuable information about their industry or profession. Don’t dismiss these business veterans as dinosaurs. You and I have plenty to learn from these folks. They are wiser in many ways. And, in order to take advantage of their wisdom, you have to learn how to listen. Yes, listen, with a capital L. (Read more about listening in my blog Giving Advice vs. Listening)

The second part, “he does not interrupt the words of his fellow” is something that does not come easily to some people. I’ve always wanted to record a video of my family – my wife, my two adult children, and two of my wife’s adult children – sitting around the dinner table. Everyone is talking at the same time. Interruptions are frequent. The introverted children can’t seem to get a word in edgewise. To say the least, it’s chaotic and frustrating for me, even though I talk a lot and interrupt. It seems like everyone has the most important thing in the world to share.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re listening to a customer and at some point in the conversation, you can’t wait to say something in response to what they are saying. Chances are, at some time during the conversation, you’ll interrupt the other person. This conversation then devolves into two monologues – yours and theirs. And, to make things worse, in order to be heard, one of you might talk over the other.

The next phrase states, “He does not rush to answer”. Our brain is wired to have the ability to solve complex problems. We’ve become so good at problem-solving it comes naturally to us. Think about a time when a friend or relative came to you complaining about a work problem. Did you rush to try and the fix the problem?

When I first started my consulting business, I would be talking with a client about a marketing challenge, and I’d be saying to myself, “I’ve heard this problem a hundred times and I have plenty of fixes”. I was rushing to answer and solve the problem instead of building the relationship and probing deeper to find the root cause of the problem or hearing the client’s own insight to solve the problem.

The following phrase says, “He asks what is relevant to the subject matter and replies to the point”. When you are in the midst of a dialogue with a customer or referrer, you want to keep your comments brief and to the point. You ideally want to keep the customers focused on their needs as much as you can. Remember, it’s not about you! Sometimes, when I’m with a prospect, I lapse into, what my wife calls, “my strident mode”. I sound like I’m dogmatic in the way I come across. When I feel myself getting stirred up, I tell myself to return to the land of listening.

“He speaks of first things first and of last things last.” The goal of your initial conversation with prospects is to build a relationship. You don’t want to do what car salesmen do. When you walk into the car showroom, the salesman would hook you and start closing the sale by asking, “What color car are you looking for?” This tactic might work for selling cars. Is this any way to build a business relationship? I don’t think so.

And finally, the phrase “concerning that which he has not heard, he says, ‘I have not heard,’ and he acknowledges the truth”. Do you know how hard it is to answer a question by saying, “I don’t know” or “I’ve never heard of this”? I think I have all the answers. After all, I’m the “subject matter expert”. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Will it tarnish your credibility? Nope. Will it make you more authentic? Yes.

 

There’s lots more tips and tactics to build your business in Critical Connections-The Step-by-Step Guide to Transform Your Business Through Referral Marketing

 

Tale of Two Clothiers

It was the best of times for Beth. And, it was the best of times for Allie and Jenny. Two different retailer clothiers with two different approaches to marketing their business. Both in the start-up phase. Both on their way to becoming successful. Beth, Allie, and Jenny are in their late twenties. Beth is a mother of three and Allie and Jenny are in a long-term relationship. This is the story of their fledgling businesses.

First, a little background about Beth. Beth and her husband, Adam, lived in a New York City suburb. When Adam was offered a job in the Washington, D.C. area, they jumped at the opportunity and moved. At that time, Beth was working as a personal shopper at a top New York City department store. Eight years earlier, Beth attended fashion design school. She had the experience and credentials needed to succeed in business.

“If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”

When Beth first moved to the Washington, DC area, she looked at the demographic profile of her community and found the population of young couples was growing at a rate above the national average. In her community, there were no clothing stores for women in their 20s and 30s to buy, as Beth put it, “spunky modest clothes”. She knew this group of women cared how they looked. She was referring to Jewish women who want to dress modestly yet stylish.

Beth thought there might be a market for spunky modest clothes for women. So, she instinctively did what any good marketer would do. She reached out and asked questions. Beth asked a number of young women what problems they have finding stylish modest clothing. She asked what kinds of clothing they would like based on their religious standards. The answers were all the same. There was no place to get this type of clothing. Then she asked a more specific question regarding what type of apparel they couldn’t find. The answers were again consistent. They wanted tops, skirts, and dresses. And, they wanted reasonable prices. Beth knew price would be a key factor in determining whether women would purchase her clothes. The women also said the clothes found in department stores and online were not modest enough.

Beth took a deep breath and announced to Adam, “If I don’t do it, somebody else will”. And that’s how Beth started.

Beth made the decision to open a “store” based on what she knew, what she heard, and what was missing in the market. Beth found a gap and was going to fill it. Her store would be in the basement of her house. She applied and got a wholesaler business license. She was officially in business. The first agenda of business for Beth was to attend a fashion trade show in NewYork City. She knew exactly what types of clothing her customers would buy. She carefully sifted through the clothing designer’s merchandise and found just what she was looking for.

“I don’t believe this can happen.”

That’s what Adam said when the first box of clothing arrived on their doorstep. Boy, was he wrong. She placed her order for one large box of clothes. Three weeks later, she purchased seven boxes.

Beth’s first customer saw Beth’s bare bones Facebook page. Beth does not remember how the customer found her on Facebook. The customer told Beth she never heard of Beth’s store but, “really liked her clothes”. When Beth checked her Facebook page, she found most of her friends were from the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area.

Beth knew enough about her customers’ shopping behavior that she had to:

  • Price her merchandise at least 40 percent below department stores
  • Accept American Express, in addition to the other major credit cards. Beth knew she would be paying higher processing fees and many stores do not accept American Express
  • Make it easy to shop by offering convenient hours as well as the ability to schedule a private appointment.

She quickly found out that taking American Express was satisfying a critical need for her customers: convenience. Beth made sure to tell her customers, “don’t leave home without it”. This was an important selling point.

Online Strategy – One Step at a Time

Beth was not in a rush to jump into the world of social media to promote her business. She had a basic business Facebook page. She wanted Facebook as her only online advertising vehicle.

Beth decided to hold off on creating a website. She did not want to spread herself too thin. After all, she wanted a lifestyle that would allow her to spend time with her family as well as run a business. To be on the safe side she purchased a domain name.

Keeping it Personal

In Beth’s community, word-of-mouth about anything was a powerful force in terms of influence. One satisfied customer told her friend, who told her friend, etc. What happened? Her primary source of referrals came via word-of-mouth. Beth did not purposely craft a word-of-mouth marketing strategy. Beth was unwittingly creating buzz for her store.

After being in business for six months, Beth was contacted by a group of women who sold jewelry, cosmetics, and other women’s items. They banded together to open a pop-up shop. The location, for this one-day event, which drew more than 100 women was held in one woman’s house. Beth considered this opportunity a success for her. As an added benefit, Beth was able to get the names and email addresses of all of the women who visited the shop.

Pop-up shops are temporary retail spaces. Open for one day or several weeks, they range from selling a single product to hosting a private event. On a bigger scale, think of those stores selling Halloween stuff, which pop up in early October and disappear a few days after Halloween. This particular group of retailers set-up a one night pop-up shop. The organizer of the event took responsibility to promote the event. Beth sold all of her clothes and took orders for more. This was a total marketing success.

Soon after the pop-up event, Beth decided to expand her marketing efforts. She rented a booth at a local fund raising event. She was the only retailer selling stylish clothes. Once again, she was able to sell clothes and expand her reach into the local and surrounding communities.

Beth has taken the concept of providing excellent customer service to a new level. From a marketing perspective, she is building and maintaining relationships. She prides herself on her personal approach to her customers’ needs. She invites customers to her house to try on clothes. She makes every effort for her customers to feel special. Beth constantly exceeds her customers’ expectations. She goes to great lengths to sell eye-catching wrappings. She’s open late in order for her customers to shop after work. Customers can make appointments. Beth has a no-strings attached return policy. According to Beth, this liberal return policy is unheard of in her community.

During the holiday season, Beth sent boxes of chocolate with thank you notes to her top ten customers. This customer appreciation gesture goes a long way in building and maintaining relationships.

Beth decided to do something special for her customers and prospective customers. She set up a backyard event in the early evening at her house. At the event, Beth provided refreshments and soft drinks. She assigned Adam the job of starting and maintaining a fire pit. And, of course, she displayed her latest styles. She sold plenty of clothes that evening. Besides telling her customers, Beth only used her Facebook page to promote the event.

I advised Beth to keep a database of her customers and prospects. Building the database can be as simple as creating a spreadsheet and listing the customers’ name, street address, city, state, zip, email, items purchased, date of all contacts, and how customer found about Beth’s store. I suggested that as her business grows, she might find more categories for her database.

Let’s review Beth’s journey, so far. She:

  • Identified her primary target group
  • Recognized a need
  • Found a way to fill the need
  • Slowly rolled out her marketing program
  • Set up a reward program for her top-tier customers
  • Initially relied on word-of-mouth referrals
  • Focused only on Facebook for her online presence.

I asked Beth what her marketing plans were for the near future. She was straightforward and said:

  • Build a website
  • Open a brick-and-mortar store
  • Expand my reach to cover the entire country

When I asked her what her merchandising strategy would be, she unflinchingly said: I want to expand to a one-stop shop selling maternity clothes, shoes, tights, and accessories. I want my customer to walk out of my store with a complete outfit.

Beth took an old-school approach to promoting her clothing business. She did this in part because the demand for her clothes spread like wild fire via word- of-mouth.

 

The Other Clothier

Allie, my daughter, and her partner Jenny live in Brooklyn, NY. They both have day jobs. Jenny is a marketing manager for an online marketing research company and Allie works as a fashion photographer at a retail clothing chain.

A bit of history: They like to shop for clothes. On the weekends, they would comb department stores, boutiques, and specialty clothing shops looking for the right look. But when it came time to find the right style and the right size, their shopping experience would fizzled out. They would leave these stores empty handed and sometimes empty hearted.

“If you want something badly enough, you just have to do it yourself.”

One day, while eating brunch in their apartment, Allie blurted out, “We need to work on some kind of creative project”. Jenny was taken aback. “But we have good jobs!” Allie then reminded Jenny about how frustrated they got trying to find clothes they like. The clothes they found were too feminine, too masculine, too boring.

Putting on her marketing hat, Jenny said, “Why not, instead of selling menswear which fit into feminine style and visa versa, we offer styles which are slightly adapted to fit women. They came up with the idea of being a retailer of “contemporary fashion for women seeking clothing that blurs the line of modern masculine and feminine style”.

After talking to their friends, Allie and Jenny realized they weren’t the only ones who were looking for such clothes. Other clothiers were selling this type of clothing but Allie and Jenny wanted their personal touch to be reflected on the clothes they sold.

Crowd Control

In order to get their business up and running, they turned to the Internet and used crowdfunding to finance the initial stages of their business. Crowdfunding is a way to obtain small amounts of money from many people. There are hundreds of crowdfunding platforms. Two of the most popular are Indiegogo.com and Kickstarter.com.

According to Forbes.com:

“Each (crowdfunding) campaign is set for a goal of an amount of money and a fixed number of days. Once the project is launched, each day will be counted down and the money raised tallied up for visitors to follow its success. Instead of traditional investors, crowdfunding campaigns are funded by the general public.”

Allie and Jenny’s goal was to raise $10,000 from their crowdfunding campaign to be used to start building their online store. The campaign yielded $12,500. Perks, offered to those who contributed money, ranged from receiving a limited edition tee shirt for a contribution of $30 to a personalized styling session with Allie and Jenny for a contribution of $400.

Online and On Target

How were Allie and Jenny able to raise that amount of money in 34 days? You guessed it, by using social media: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Buzzfeed, and their existing barebones website. I was surprised to hear Jenny say they didn’t have the time and energy to put into using lots of social media platform.

Allie and Jenny’s Tumblr page features photos that range from their line of clothes to personal photos of Allie and Jenny. After one year in business, their Facebook page amassed more than 3,500 Likes. They Tweeted more than 2,600 times. On Instagram, they posted more than 900 times and have 6,400 followers. They pinned more than 520 times on Pinterest. After an article appeared on a Buzzfeed post that was linked to Allie and Jenny’s Instagram platform, their Instagram followers doubled in just a few days.

I asked Allie and Jenny why they did not use SnapChat. Allie said they like to control the quality of the pictures that appear in public and they cannot do it on SnapChat. Jenny firmly stated teenagers primarily use SnapChat. Teens are not their market.

In terms of generating buzz and capturing email addresses, Pinterest was the least effective platform for them. Allie said Pinterest was a good way for most retailers selling clothing, accessories, and those selling household goods to get business. However, they claimed their market is not active on Pinterest, but is active on Instagram and Tumblr.

Allie and Jenny, as sophisticated marketers, understood that online and social media platforms were not the only way to sell clothes. To introduce their online store to their potential customers, they used social media to promote a runway fashion show in a bar in New York City. They attracted customers and got the media attention they were hoping for. During the first year, they were interviewed by six fashion style blogs and five online fashion news e-zines (online magazines).

Up Close and Personal

The runway fashion show was a big hit. In addition, they rented a table at a one-day local street fair and sold enough clothes to cover the cost of the table rental fee. They were not pleased with the idea of selling at a street fair. They realized most of the shoppers were looking for bargains. Their line of clothes was far from bargain priced.

Allie and Jenny were invited to sell their clothes at a night market – an informal bazaar or street market held at night, usually featuring music and boutique vendors. The cost to rent a table to display their merchandise was $175 a night. They decided to display most of their clothing, but only sold accessories. Allie and Jenny knew that since there was no place to try on the clothes, they’d be better off just selling accessories.

They posted the event on Facebook and sent emails to their list of customers and prospects. More than 400 people attended the event. They made a small profit and more important met face-to-face with their target market.

Allie and Jenny are proud of their website. The feedback from friends and customers has been consistent: it’s bright; it shows off clothing in a clear way. The use of models helped potential customers see what the clothes look like on a person; and, the photography was creative.

Allie and Jenny have two long-term goals for their business. The first goal is to open a brick and mortar store in New York City. The second goal is to design their own line of clothes and sell them wholesale to retail stores. Good luck, Allie and Jenny!

Lessons Learned from Beth, Allie, and Jenny:

  • Beth, Allie and Jenny had a clear vision of what they wanted before they started doing business.
  • They started small and slowly increased their product line.
  • They had a clear understanding of the purchasing habits of their respective markets and made the buying process as easy as possible. Remember, a key selling point Beth used was to make sure her customers knew she accepted American Express.
  • They are continually looking for and purchasing new styles, which fit their respective markets.
  • They knew that in order to keep their eye on the market, they had to communicate regularly with their strategic relationships. Allie and Jenny via social media and Beth via word-of-mouth and personal connections.


As of this writing, it’s still the best of times for the two clothiers.