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Balancing Act

Few words captivate the retail environment more than “growth.” At one level, all bridal salon owners would like to grow their enterprise, customer base and bottom line. But with that growth comes management issues that can be challenging – especially when you begin to notice your charming, intimate small business persona isn’t really so small anymore. Fortunately, with a little effort, you can maintain that small-business charm so many bridal customers are seeking even as your numbers begin to soar.

A Delicate Balancing Act
As Your Salon Grows
    In today’s competitive marketplace, specialty retailers must compete to survive. And while some might throw that small-business ideation to the wayside by changing their product lines, renaming their companies or merging with other entities, others attempt to balance their evolution and growth while maintaining the same small-business mindset.
    Washington D.C.-based small-business coach Jennifer Reitmeyer, who also owns professional wedding DJ firm MyDeejay, says it’s important for retailers to be mindful of the current consumer trend of supporting small, local businesses.
    “That certainly doesn’t mean you can’t embrace growth, just that you need to adapt,” Reitmeyer says. “Customers are embracing a small-business feel in the shops they patronize because they value things like social responsibility, as in boosting the local economy, and because they appreciate the personal services that small businesses can offer.”
    She continues, “This is especially important for wedding retailers to consider because wedding-related purchases are emotional as a rule. Your products or services will be part of a tremendously significant milestone event, and customers want to be treated with as much attention and care as possible.”
    Michelle Seiler-Tucker, author of “Sell Your Business For More Than It’s Worth” (Arabella Publishing, 2013) says that at the end of the day, a successful business is about having happy customers. But there’s a lot you must do along the way to keep those customers happy.
    “When you operate a small, specialty business, you offer a unique product or service that is inextricably linked to the small feel of your brand,” Seiler-Tucker says. “As you expand, you must keep that small-business feeling if you want to retain customers, as well as capture more.”

Your First Step:
Define Who You Are
    To maintain that small-business feel, you must clearly define your mission statement and core company values. And then never stray from them.
    “These are the reasons your customers use your business in the first place,” Seiler-Tucker says. “Lose sight of your values, and lose your customers with them.”
    Listening to customers is one of the best ways to keep a pulse on where your brand stands in the minds of your brides. If reviews aren’t as high as you’d like, then it’s time to figure out why. Bottom line: You may not be giving the customer what she wants.
    According to Reitmeyer, there are several telltale signs that you might be coming across to consumers as too “corporate.”
    For example, if more customers are coming to you from foot traffic, drive-bys or paid advertising as opposed to word-of-mouth, that’s a sign you’re making less of a personal connection.
    Another red flag is if brides can’t recall whom they worked with or spoke to the last time they interacted with your salon.
    “That’s a sign they’re thinking of your company more like a big box and not a small business,” Reitmeyer says.
    Additionally, if the language used by customers in online reviews mostly refers to the product you sell and/or your pricing versus the quality of the service or the “warm, fuzzy” feeling they receive from working with you that may be a sign the small-business feel is gone.
    So what can you do about it? Reitmeyer says maintaining a small-business mentality starts at the top. Your company’s mission statement, philosophy, values and any “rules” regarding customer service should all reflect a personal touch. Avoid overly sterile, corporate language and instead use language with which your customers can connect.
    “Use your website to tell your company’s story; share the journey of your business from a one- or two-person operation to the larger operation you are today, and what it means to you as a business owner,” Reitmeyer says.

Stick With Your Niche;
Don’t Dilute Your Brand
    As your business grows, it can be tempting to impulsively stock your store with new, exciting products unrelated to your core offerings.
    For customers, this can cause confusion. Every product or service you offer should fall in line with your company’s mission and values. If your niche is selling wedding dresses at affordable prices, don’t all of a sudden add couture products.
    “Moreover, if you are a specialty retailer, odds are you and your employees are very knowledgeable about the products you offer,” Seiler-Tucker says. “This is one major draw for consumers. If you begin offering new products, customers will feel you are less involved in the products you sell.”
    Jennifer Martin, owner of Zest Business Consulting, says that customers see a bridal store as their partner in making one of the most important days of their lives memorable. They want to feel like the staff at your boutique cares about them and is invested in their success.
    “They see the specialty retailer owner and their employees as ‘friends’ helping them make an essential decision in their lives,” Martin says. “They don’t want to feel like a number. And this is why having the store feel like a small business is essential.”
    Aviva Samuels, a destination wedding and event planner based in Florida, understands that reputation is everything today. So while growth is a natural part of any good company, Samuels feels you shouldn’t expand unless you can maintain a five-star rating amongst the majority of your current clients,
    “It’s all too easy for a company to lose its pristine reputation when taking on more than it has time and resources to handle,” Samuels says. “It can happen to the best of companies at any size but it’s the job of the leader to know when that growth is going to be detrimental to the long-term success of the company.”

You Must Always Maintain A
Focus On Customer Service
    “The bridal retail industry is all about customer service and relationships,” says Barry Maher, author of “Filling the Glass: The Skeptic’s Guide to Positive Thinking in Business” (www.barrymaher.com). “That’s what small businesses excel at. Or at least that’s certainly what they should excel at: personalized, individualized service where the customer is made to feel important and special. Big businesses talk a lot about that kind of service. They seldom deliver it.”
    Small businesspeople who don’t showcase exactly how caring their businesses can be are giving up their biggest advantage.
    “The minute the bride perceives that her wedding, the most important day in her life, is not as important to you as it is to her, you’ve lost that vital small-business feel,” Maher says.
    Nothing says “small business” quite like exemplary customer service. No doubt, if you started as a small business, you’ve probably developed close relationships with your brides. Never lose sight of them because they’re the reason your business exists.
    In fact, for many growing bridal retailers, one of the telltale signs that you are losing focus on the small-business feel you created is when you begin to forget the unique details of each bride’s wedding.  
    In order to avoid this, being organized is vital. Create some basic documents that become the top sheet in every binder/folder, so that you have an automatic reference point of the key notes about that customer. When you are meeting face to face, this is the key opportunity to give them your undivided attention. They will appreciate the attentiveness and guidance and be more understanding when you are busy with another client.
    “Take the time to make your customer understand that you are going to do whatever is necessary so she is not just satisfied, but thrilled with the result of doing business with you,” Maher says. “Treat your customers the same way the big boxes treat their customers and you’ve made yourself a commodity. And when dealing with a commodity, people buy strictly on price.”
    To further maintain that small-business mentality, Maher recommends developing three fundamental habits:

•    First, continually ask yourself, “How
    can I best provide value for my
    customers?”

•    Second, stay focused on your short,
    medium and long-term goals for
    the business and for yourself.

•    Third, continually ask yourself,
    “What’s the best use of my time
    right now to provide that value and
    to meet those goals?”

    “And the most important of these, by far, is the first,” Maher says. “When businesses grow that’s often the one that disappears.”
    Also be sure that your customer-service protocols emphasize the connection with your customers. Reitmeyer recommends that, whenever possible, match a customer with a specific consultant on your team who not only can assist them through every step of their ordering and purchasing process (expected), but who is also accountable for making that bride feel welcomed and appreciated (the added touch).
    And as you grow, establish a customer-service commitment or promise that your store makes to every customer or potential customer.
    “Write it down, use these guidelines to train all your staff, and then post it on your walls, your website, and in your dressing rooms so that no matter who you are, it is clear that your customer is appreciated,” Reitmeyer says.

Putting It All Together;
It’s In The Details
    Intimate, personalized attention is what small businesses are known for. Don’t lose sight of this goal. For example, acknowledging a client’s birthday or anniversary is a great way to stay in touch.
    “It reinforces the message that the client is cared about, even if they are one of many,” Samuels says.
      And be sure that everyone who represents your business, including your associates, reflects the kind of experience you want your customers to have.
    “I always tell my clients to hire good people first,” Reitmeyer says. “You can train them to do almost anything but you can’t easily train them to be kind, warm and thoughtful. Those qualities are invaluable in employees for a business of any size, but can easily get lost in the shuffle as your company and the size of your team grow.”
    And encourage your staff to maintain relationships with brides before and after the wedding. Send handwritten notes or even a gift card to a coffee shop in recognition of that customer’s anniversary. Maintaining long-term relationships can generate ongoing business twenty-fold, especially when brides continually tell family and friends about the special attention you bestow.
    “What most bridal shop owners will tell you is that word of mouth is one of the most valued ways that they have built their success,” Martin says. “Doing what you can to keep your relationship going will support your customers in feeling like they are family or friends, and will help them refer their friends back to you when they learn that someone needs what you have to offer.”
    Reitmeyer believes that consumers are going to continue to prioritize supporting specialized businesses with which they can personally identify and connect. Particularly with so many online businesses in operation today – and their websites offering lots of opportunity to demonstrate personality and talk about their brand identity and philosophy –  it’s more important than ever for brick-and-mortar retailers to embrace any opportunity to connect with their customers and wow them with personal service.
    “The most important thing for any business to remember is that without customers, all the owner has is a very expensive hobby,” Martin says. “If your staff and your customers are an extension of your family and are a part of your community, you have won the lottery.”

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