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The 5 most important small business lessons I’ve learned

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to reflect on past lessons learned, and to make resolutions and set intentions for the future.

So for this first post of 2015, in the interests of sharing experiences and learning from each other’s mistakes, I share the 5 most important business lessons I’ve learned during my career. I hope it provides some help to you, however small.

Lesson 1 – People do business with people they like

In a former life, I worked as an analyst in a successful Sales team at an Investment Management firm. Apart from being super smart guys who knew their stuff, I learned the key reason for the teams’ sales success was that they always acted naturally during meetings with prospects. They never seemed to do the big song and dance “salesy” routine. No fake conversations about sports or golf and no pretences about being buddies with the prospect.

These guys taught me my first important business lesson – that people do business with people they like, not the guy that takes them out to expensive lunches and puts on the hard sell.

be-authentic-small-business-owner-peer-business-consultingThis is great news for small business owners because it means we can just be ourselves. Of course, we still need to show our prospects the benefits of buying our product or service, however it’s good to know that authenticity and trust play a very important part in closing that all important deal.

Lesson 2 – Surprise and delight your customers

In an earlier post about exceptional customer service, I talked about the old adage of under-promising and over-delivering. I’ve read some recent criticism of this mantra on the grounds that it causes customers to expect too much, but that’s not my experience. I come from the school of thought that not only should you deliver on your promises to customers, but you should aim to surprise and delight them as well.

This is consistent with the work of Professor Noriaki Kano, who developed a model in the 1980s about the three levels of value to the customer: basic value, expected value and unanticipated value. It’s not enough to deliver service that the customer sees as basic or expected. Customers need to feel they have received unexpected/unanticipated value to even start feeling any sense of loyalty towards you.

Bottom line: only by over-delivering – aka providing unanticipated value – can you really keep your clients happy and form long-lasting relationships with them.

Lesson 3 – Look after yourself because no-one else will

small-business-look-after-yourself-peer-business-consultingI learned this business lesson early in my career. People will very often want and expect more from you than you’re able or prepared to give. And when that happens, it’s up to you to define your own boundaries, make those boundaries clear and then stick to your guns. No one else will do this for you. People will take what they can and do what’s best for themselves, so you should too.

Defining your own boundaries may include setting realistic deadlines with clients that you can actually deliver to, even when the client wants it earlier than is possible. Or it may be about charging the fees you deserve and not undercutting yourself.  Or about ensuring you keep a good work life balance, and not burn the midnight oil because you were bullied into doing something you didn’t really have time for.

Operating without boundaries is akin to flying blind and lurching from one demand to another. Without them, you can basically kiss your happiness and peace of mind, and in the long run your sanity, goodbye.

Lesson 4 – Honesty is the best policy

In my experience, no one gains anything from you telling a lie, even a well-intentioned one. Whether it be about over-promising something or hiding something from a client or colleague. When in doubt, tell the truth. Maybe not always the whole truth – for example, a client doesn’t always need to know everything about your personal life that is preventing you from meeting a deadline – but the truth nonetheless.

Your clients and colleagues will appreciate it, you’ll put less pressure on yourself and you’ll feel better because you are being open, transparent and authentic (which brings us back to lesson 1).

Lesson 5 – Planning is everything

small-business-looking-forward-peer-business-consultingDwight Eisenhower said “Plans are nothing; planning is everything”. I love that quote and use it a lot in my discussions with clients and prospects. It directly answers the question that many small business owners ask: “Why do I need to write a business plan?” But more than that, it tells me that knowing how to create a plan is the single most useful skill in both life and business. Without the ability to plan, you can’t forecast, you can’t set goals, you can’t implement effectively, and you can’t make genuine committments.

And it’s my opinion that running a small business without a documented business and marketing plan is heading down a path to nowhere.

I’ve always been a natural planner but honed my skill when I studied Project Management and then later Business Analysis. However as a startup or small business owner, you don’t have to study a complex diploma or degree to learn the basics of good planning. There are many online small business resources teaching various planning techniques and providing good templates to aid the planning process.

So there they are. We’ve all learned valuable business lessons over our careers and those were mine. Do you have any others you’d like to add? Tell us about it in the comments below.

* Stock images sourced from Death to the Stock Photo.

Peer-Business-Consulting-Angeline-Zaghloul-5What did you think of this article? Post your comments and questions below. And if you found this useful, please share with your networks.

About the Author: Angeline Zaghloul is an expert in business strategy, client management and business processes, and is the Principal of Peer Business Consulting, a Sydney-based consultancy providing strategy and operations support to startups and small businesses.

* Portrait by Markus Jaaskelainen.

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