When you're starting a business -- or even just thinking about starting a business -- one of the most important questions you must consider is: What are you going to do to stand out? How are you going to set your business apart? I think starting a business is easier today than it ever has been. That said, to carve out a niche for yourself, you will still need to plan ahead and work diligently.
After thirty years as an entrepreneur, these are the philosophies that have truly helped my businesses stand out.
1. Leading with your heart, not only with your head. What does that really mean? That you shouldn't only let what makes financial sense guide you. In a fantastic video I watched recently, entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk described how he once drove two hours of his way to deliver a case of wine on time. Although he succeeded, his customer didn't even acknowledge his effort! Sometimes, that will be the case.
Better yet, make sure you're sending the right message to all of your employees. Not every decision you will make is going to be financially sound, especially when it comes to customer service. That's okay. Truly caring about your customers should be your number one priority. And to do that, going above the call of duty is sometimes necessary.
The benefits of prioritizing customer service are priceless, because doing so will absolutely set your business apart. When your customers love you, they will champion you and help you grow. As the co-founder of a one-on-one coaching program, I have to make decisions like these fairly regularly. When one of my students was struggling recently, we chose to provide a service we normally don't, which ultimately cost us time and money. But, it was the right thing to do.
2. Playing the long game. Slow and steady wins the race! Many of my friends don't quite understand this concept. They're always looking to get a return on any investment as quickly as possible. They don't believe in investing their time and energy for a much later payoff. But building relationships takes time. Getting to know your customers and figuring out how you can help them best takes time. Playing the long game is really about being willing to learn.
If you stick around long enough, opportunity will come your way. I truly believe that. For example, my business partner Andrew Krauss and I co-founded inventRight nearly 16 years ago. Our mission has been the same ever since: To help independent inventors. For many years, business was steady. But recently, the market shifted. Now is the perfect time for our business to grow. We're in a good spot, and we feel great about. Most of our competitors exited the space long ago -- we're really the only ones left standing who are offering this particular service! These days, opportunities come our way. Some people would call that lucky. I call it playing the long game.
3. Not talking, so you can focus on listening. For many people, this is hard to do. When was the last time you asked your customers directly: How do they like your product? Are you doing a good job?
inventRight is a yearlong program. I like to call students about 60 days after they've signed up to ask how things are going because the insights I receive are always incredible. What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What could be better? You need to ask. We also ask students to tell us about their experience near the end of their year with us. But I think it's important to ask often and continuously.
4. Empowering your team. What motivates your team? What are they looking for? What goals do they have? As a leader, your responsibility is not only to your customers, but also your team. If you can customize their job to meet not only your goals but also their goals, that's incredibly powerful. Developing a better understanding of what makes them happy will benefit both of you. It will also enable you to identify where you're strong and where you're weak moving forward. Some of my team members' goals amaze and inspire me. As a result, we're putting new programs in place to help them grow as individuals. I want them to stick around. If you give people the opportunity to grow, there's no stopping them.
5. Engaging with a select few of your haters directly. There are always going to be customers and people who are dissatisfied with your product or service. Lately I've been reaching out to some personally by calling them up and asking pointblank: What can I do to improve the situation? To be sure, these calls can be awkward at first. But the only way to solve a problem is by adequately identifying it. Don't wait! Don't hope the situation resolves itself. Take action. Set your ego aside.
There's a balance to be struck, of course. You can't make everyone happy, and you shouldn't try to. Unfortunately, the Internet has enabled anyone to say just about anything without any real repercussions, which can be incredibly frustrating. I ignore most of my haters. When you choose not to respond to a hater, you avoid giving them any credit. If your customers are happy, they may even come to your defense. Always take the high road. If you can find some nugget in there to help you improve your product or service... that's ideal.
Originally published on Inc.com October 18th 2016.