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Ralph’s Grocery and Deli

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Last weekend at a lacrosse tournament with 60 teams, my husband returned from picking up drinks at a nearby market and said, “You’ve got to check this guy out. He’s cooking hot dogs and burgers right next to the road in case you don’t want to take the time to go inside. But inside, he’s got a deli, he’s selling pizza by the slice, and he’s got a big selection of cold drinks. He knows there’s a lacrosse tournament nearby with hundreds of families. You’ll love it.”

My husband knows I love smart business owners, and Ralph, the owner of the Homestead Grocery and Deli (check his site www.homesteadgroceryanddeli.com to see how else he meets his customer’s wish list), definitely fits the description. I did visit the store and when he asked “are you at the lacrosse tournament? How’s it going?” we got chatting. Ralph has worked with a business coach on two occasions (that alone makes him a pretty smart cookie!), will celebrate the store’s second anniversary this summer (yes – he bought a business during the recession and is thriving!), and recently passed another significant business ownership milestone. And he’s even looking at adding a location.

While there are many things Ralph is doing well, the one that stands out for me is being aware of his community and, when appropriate, responding to fulfill a need. Parents wanted lunches they could bring back to the tournament without missing any of their child’s lacrosse; he answered with hot meals at roadside. Hot, sweaty kids? No problem – he served them Italian ice. Smart business owners, the ones who grow during tough economic times, put themselves in their customer’s shoes and asks, “What do they need? How can I serve them?” Sometimes, if you listen carefully, customers tell you directly what they want and need. Listen for key phrases like “I wish…”; “I can never find..”; or “I love it when….” And then respond.

If you’re looking to grow, take a page out of Ralph’s playbook. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes.

  – Helen Dutton, Business Coach

Momentous Occasions

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Last night, my daughter was “promoted” from 8th grade. Honestly, this highly-attended event makes me a bit crazy; do we expect that our young teens might not move from middle school to high school? Speeches, certificates, music, and the traditional marching in…good grief. Is it an occasion momentous enough to warrant such a ceremony?

I discovered that the ceremony represents a transition more than it does the achievement of passing 8th grade. It’s acknowledging the completion of middle school and ceremoniously sending them off to high school. It’s as if the students were passed from adolescence to a time of more maturity and independence. In this achievement-oriented world, we too often forget to celebrate transitions or to acknowledge the in-between steps on the way to bigger accomplishments. It made me think of all the small businesses with their first dollar proudly mounted. That dollar acknowledges a step along their way of business ownership and financial independence, not the end result.

Just this morning, a business owner told me that they had almost made up the deficit they had been running against last year’s year to date revenue. They expect to reach and surpass last year’s revenue to-date any day; when they do, he plans to take the whole staff out to celebrate. He’s not waiting until year-end; he’s not waiting until they hit a significant number. He and the staff who make it happen day in and day out will celebrate a smaller milestone, the transition from operating under the recession cloud to a period of growth. Not so small after all, perhaps.

Acknowledge your smaller steps and the transitions you make along the way. Celebrate, just like those 8th graders did. They know there are more challenges ahead of them, but for now, they’re willing to reminisce and be joyful about what it took to get them this far.

  – Helen Dutton, Business Coach

Student Focus VS Teacher Focus

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School is winding down for my kids –my daughter finishes today and my son finishes tomorrow. As with most things coming to an end, it’s a convenient time to reflect on what worked, what could have been better. From my perspective, it’s obvious now that the student-focused teachers, and their students’ results, were head and shoulders above those that were teacher-focused. The teachers who asked “how does that affect me?” just didn’t deliver my children the educational experience we all hope for. Those teachers who asked “How will that affect the students?” get an A+.

Think about the last time you heard a business’s employee say “our system doesn’t let us do it that way”: what was your reaction? Chances are, you did not feel like an honored customer. Compare hotel registration desks between those whose staff are self-absorbed in their work (or drama of the moment) and those who look at you immediately to welcome you, regardless of what they were involved in. The former is business-focused, the latter customer-focused.

What does it mean for your business to be customer-focused? Is it how your phone is answered? Perhaps it’s the visual environment, a customer’s wait time, the presentation of bad news on a long-term project. When an issue surfaces, it’s dealing with it without comment. Observe your business as if seeing for the first time. Does every touch honor your customer? I’ve never met a business owner who didn’t profess to be customer-focused; as with all things, though, it’s a matter of degrees.

I’ll never forget a classroom I visited once; upon entering, I couldn’t immediately tell who the teacher was, students were walking around, collaborating. The air was charged; something was different. It was a classroom built to insure students succeed. It was a student-focused classroom. I want your customers to realize “something is different” about your business. Forget about “The Business”; focus on your customers’ experience. Go for the A+.

 – Helen Dutton, Business Coach

Summer Ease

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I’m all about making business (and life) easier, and there’s no time better for ease than summer. New Hampshire is enjoying a perfect June day today, and it reminds me of just how important “ease” is. Although my day is full of “must-do’s” like a new client proposal to get out, client calls, and a final review of materials and content to be covered in an off-site client retreat tomorrow, I also have time to bring fruit pops to my daughter’s school. I even snuck out to fill an empty plant pot with annuals. That’s what I call an easy day.

The secret is systems and team. Those two key elements are really no secret at all – every business owner knows they need quality staff to who they can delegate and systems for all of their business processes. And business owners also know that they must spend quality time to clearly define their business, to understand who they serve and what those customers want and need, as well as the best, and easiest, avenues to reach them.

So while I was filling a plant pot with verbena and daisies, my team was putting the final touches on my newsletter, designing and building a new on-line template, cutting checks, and reviewing client documents to insure they meet our standards of excellence. Not a bad day’s work.

Summer is time for fun in the sun, family and friends, for activities that fulfill and rejuvenate us. In short: Ease. Building business excellence if you know the secret, so say it with me: systems and team, systems and team, systems and team….

Helen Dutton, Business Coach

Leaving The Nest

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My babies are about to leave the nest. No, not my kids (although my daughter is heading to high school in the Fall – yikes!); the 4 baby robins right outside my office window. The nest is looking mighty tight right now and the young robins jockey for position, sit on each other and dance around the edges. I know which one will fly first – the one who’s already jumping out onto the small branches.

It reminds me of the quotation from Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” In this case, though, the frustration and uncomfortable-ness of staying in the nest will soon be more than flying to a nearby branch.

I can relate to these young birds, and many of my clients from over the years could, too. It can be uncomfortable, and sometimes just plain scary, to try something new – calling a prospect, speaking in front of an audience (and then a bigger audience), or asking for help. Here’s the thing:

if you know without a doubt that you will take that step eventually, why not save yourself a whole bunch of worrying, uncomfortable-ness, and dancing around the edges and just do it now?

I can’t imagine that those robins got much sleep last night, if that’s what robins generally do; I’ve heard the same from clients when they’re worrying about taking a big step – all the what-ifs run through their head keeping them up at night. So why not save yourself those restless nights and take the plunge today?

Think like a robin: jump to a nearby branch (take a small step in the right direction, such as presenting by yourself in front of a camera) or take a short flight to the porch railing (speak to a group of 10 before you speak in front of 50). Get out of your nest – the world is waiting for your brilliance.

Helen Dutton, Business Coach

Helen Dutton, A Vision of Your Own, has provided business and personal coaching for small business owners since 2000, providing online and face to face coaching for entrepreneurs, small business owners, start-up businesses as well as established businesses across the country. Clients come from New Hampshire, her home state, but she has also acted as a mentor to business owners in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, the Denver area, and closer to home in the Boston area. Helen helps her clients develop their small business ideas, create marketing plans, improve operation efficiency, build customer service systems, build management and leadership skills, and develop confidence as a business owner. Helen provides business tips and resources through her blog and her newsletter, where you can also find business templates to help your business prosper.