CEO’s Corner: Service is Personal

CEO’s Corner: Service is Personal

CEO’s Corner will be a regular feature featuring a Q&A with The Chamber’s President & CEO, Larry McElwain. Have a small business question for Larry? Let us know! To see the CEO’s Corner Welcome, click here

What were your favorite ways to build sales and market share in your personal service business?

We all know that we don’t always find the silver lining in things, or see the benefit in struggle, but hopefully we get to that point, while at the same time surviving and thriving.  Small business is so challenging in so many ways and it is hard to be prepared, other than being able to identify the challenges and be creative enough to eventually survive.  In my case, the business that I purchased in 1974 had only a 17% market share in our town, so there was much room to grow.  But in the meantime, over the next five years, I had to borrow more than $90,000 that I had not planned on. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Be very realistic about your business and the challenges ahead. Being a person who cannot face reality and have resilience for stress will not serve you well. You must be able to financially survive while you build your customer and client base.
  2. Study your market and more importantly the people, your customers or potential customers. It is also important to study your competition, to be realistic about what you are up against. There are lots of tools available today that I did not have or know about.  Will Katz and Brian Dennis in the KU Small Business Development Center, located in The Chamber offices, are so skilled and can help you get answers to questions, even if you aren’t sure what to ask.  They have access to special software that can guide you to information and data, which may help you understand your market and the challenges.  I highly recommend these two professionals.  Their service is sponsored by several agencies including our City, KU, the Small Business Administration, The Chamber, among others, so these valuable services are free when you need them and may save the day for you.  They currently see about 360 people each year to give advice and help solve challenges, small and large. Know when you need help.
  3. Even if your main source of capital is not a bank, get to know a trusted banker and help them learn your business with you. Having a bank and banker that becomes invested enough to want to learn what you are doing and the challenges that you face is so fundamental.  Down the line, you will undoubtedly need this relationship, so develop this quickly.
  4. G to know your market, know your capabilities in this market, and sell goods and/or services that customers will buy. Controlling your expenses to make sure that you are competitive and profitable will be able to sustain you in this environment.  If you are strictly selling a service, then you have an additional challenge in providing services that customers are pleased with and will recommend your business to others. You are building a base, one customer at a time.
  5. I like to approach building the customer base by focusing on one customer, or one group of customers at a time. There is no substitute for positive word of mouth.  Make sure you are competitively priced and that your services have obvious value to the client.

What did you try that didn’t work?

I cannot say that I tried anything that absolutely did not work.  It is difficult to quantify success or exactly where business came from.  I do know that over the span of over 40 years, I probably spent more on media and novelty advertising than I needed to.  I also know that we never received any business from someone because of an ink pen, a calendar, a rain gauge, a rain bonnet, or drink coaster that they received from us.  My predecessor was locked into spending money on that kind of thing and it took me awhile to assess the relative limited return of that expense money.  I was just 24 years old when I was doing this, so I lacked innate wisdom.  I had to learn by trial and error. Customers and clients will come to you because of referral or recommendation and they will continue to come as you serve them effectively.

In the era my career begun, print and media advertising focused on facilities, parking, air conditioning, etc.  Fortunately, an earlier teacher of mine always stressed “to advertise only that which your competition could not advertise.”  So obviously, we had to think deeper than physical facilities and parking and focus more on personnel, professional services, and our commitment to serve.  This changed the message to something that people could compare with what they heard and saw about us.  Everyone has a facility, but the service that you provide inside that building, with the people that provide this service, is so key.

What are your best business building tips for a town Lawrence’s size?

Lawrence is a large, small town.  One of the things that I love most about our town and area is that we get to know each other.  This allows you to not only know people, which are our customers and clients, we can know them before the business relationship is consummated. I identified early that Lawrence is a welcoming town for newcomers and first generation Lawrencians. The key is to get out there and meet people.  Find ways to meet, greet, and get to know the people.  That way, they’ll think to call you when they need your services.

This may sound self-serving, but a Chamber membership and the opportunities it offers to meet people and to build relationships is very important.  I recommend joining the Envoys and begin attending our many events and ribbon cuttings.  There are about 1,400 individuals involved in The Chamber of Lawrence.  What a start for you!

Lawrence is also rich in non-profits and if you have a core value to make a difference in someone else’s life, you can find one or more of the non-profits that will give you an opportunity that will put you with and in front of other people to make a difference.  As you serve, you will begin to build your base.

What makes Lawrence a unique place when it comes to running a personal service business?

After 40 years in Lawrence, I can say with certainty that it is an open, accepting, community and will allow you a good environment to build your business or practice.  Lawrence is open to accepting startups and young entrepreneurs.  The business community is well developed, but has a small enough population that choosing someone to provide a service for you does not require the use of a Yellow Book or a Google search.  If you need this, someone can recommend or guide you to what you need.

Lawrence also has a healthy turnover of people, coming and going, each year.  This will give you unlimited opportunity to meet and get to know new customers/clients.  It allows you to adjust and revive your brand, if desired or needed.

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