A week ago, an old friend of mine who had moved to a new city two years ago came to visit. Interestingly, she brought with her a whole bag of delicate laundry (on an 800 mile trip!) which needed dry cleaning. Instead of going to one of her local cleaners in the new city, Alison decided to drop off her clothes at her “ex”-local store. When asked why she did so, she simply said, “the owner knows me well, and we have a good vibe.” Indeed, of all the friends and family she had in town to see, she also wanted to make the occasion to visit this local store, simply because of her relationship with the owner. And while at it, all of her friends and family (including myself) have positive brand images and are now aware of this local dry cleaner.
Another friend Daniel, a fund manager who lives in Manhattan, takes time at least twice a month to rent a Zipcar to drive out to the outskirts of New Jersey (a 45 to 60 min drive) to buy bread and pastries at a newly opened local bakery. He talks about how good the bread is but spends most of the time spreading the word because of his relationship with the owner. While Daniel was still in college, his friends had worked under the owner (then manager) of a restaurant in NYC, and were influenced by the man’s integrity, humility, and capability at the time. Not only does Daniel spend nearly $100 on baked goods, he takes them back to Manhattan and shares his story and bread with his co-workers and friends.
In both instances, we see a unique and important pattern for successful and sustainable local businesses: the power of lasting relationships, especially those with the owner. Because small business owners have to pretty much run the whole show, they also have an extremely important role of building positive relationships with customers, suppliers, and employees. Depending on how they conduct people management, small business owners can create negative or positive word-of-mouth. In a world where Google reviews, Yelp reviews, and other online forums and blog postings are vastly accessible, the owner’s relationship management has a direct and swift consequence.
Building a good relationship with the local community is no longer an optional, or superfluous decision for a small business owner. Competing with the big franchise corporations requires more than high quality goods and services (although this is undoubtedly important) - the differentiator of a local brand is often manifested through the owner’s capacity to build genuine connections with the stakeholders of the town. Just as Alison and Daniel continuously promote their favorite dry cleaner and bakery to countless others, maintaining a strong positive customer relationship is perhaps the strongest marketing campaign for local business owners.
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