Middle-market business owners can improve profitability and customer loyalty by routinely evaluating and enhancing the quality of the experiences their companies provide for two of their most important stakeholders: customers and employees.
Consider the success story of Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), which incorporated the right design and branding to turn coffee houses into institutions where people spend hours and pay a premium for what is perceived as the right experience that encourages folks to congregate. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) turned computers and other devices into status symbols by, among other things, using great design and strategically positioning its iconic logo on laptops to face onlookers rather than users. The Apple Store became the poster child of an innovative venue by implementing things like the genius bar for on-site consultations; a welcoming, open design; and an engaging atmosphere. Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is acclaimed for providing employees with uniquely generous benefits, including free meals and access to the latest technology, free massages on campus, permission to bring dogs to work, generous parental leave policies and spousal death benefits, among many other things.
Why are these companies going to these lengths? To a large extent, these trends are being driven by the desire to attract and retain loyal customers as well as quality talent. They are particularly interested in a new generation of workers, including millennials, who want the “total package”: innovative, forward-thinking business environments as well as stock options.
Recognizing this, middle-market businesses and even more traditionally conventional businesses, such as law firms and accounting firms, are beginning to take steps in this direction. As a middle-market business owner, how can you apply these learnings to help take your business to the next level? Here is some practical guidance based on my experience helping middle-market business owners navigate these questions.
While a variety of elements ultimately create your customer experience, addressing the following key factors is a good start: your office layout and design; your company atmosphere and activities; and your marketing and branding.
Before doing anything, it is important to engage your key stakeholders and ensure that you have established (a) consensus upfront that a modification of your business experience is necessary or beneficial and (b) an internal committee that will be able to weigh in on the process. Outside firms and consultants can be beneficial. Without this, you are likely to waste valuable time, money and other resources undertaking a process that may not lead to the right result, that may get road-blocked by internal resistance, and/or that may never get implemented due to lack of support for the financial and other investments that may be required.
The most important thing is to find the approach that will fit your company’s unique needs. Try evaluating what other companies in and outside your industry have done, and find bits and pieces that are a fit for you.
Identify a realistic budget. Not every company can afford to give employees the free meals, unlimited paid time off, and some of the other benefits that a growing number of technology companies are offering today. Work with qualified experts with proven experience helping similar companies in your industry to develop a plan for identifying and creating the right solution for you. It might not be necessary to move your office to a new location or to completely overhaul your culture or your brand; you might be able to get by with just making a few strategic adjustments. These adjustments could include creating special events and promotions to appeal to affinity groups. For example, lululemon (NASDAQ:LULU), which is credited for pioneering the “athleisure” clothing business, has achieved great success by providing free yoga classes at its stores and discounts for yoga instructors and company employees.
Your marketing programs also should be continuously evaluated for maximum impact. It is important to work with skilled marketers who can ensure your brand positioning and all aspects of your marketing — including your logo, business cards (if you still use them), messaging, and website — are consistent with the experience you wish to create. With folks relying on their technologies to evaluate companies and make business decisions, it is imperative for your brand across earned, owned and paid media channels to be consistent and effectively support the experience you seek to create. For example, it makes little sense for a company seeking to position itself as high-tech and appeal to consumers on mobile, to have an outdated website that is not optimized for mobile.
The key is to work with the right experts who can help guide you through this process and ensure you find the right solution for your needs — and to do so continuously to ensure you are keeping pace with the changing needs of your employees and customers.
James Cassel is co-founder and chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co., LLC, an investment-banking firm with headquarters in Miami that works with middle-market companies. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamesscassel.
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