The importance of innovation in small business
When we think of innovation in business we often think of significant changes to an industry or product that reshapes an entire market for years to come. The range of innovation we’ve seen in recent years is endless from the broad range of smartphone capabilities to the automobile industry standardizing safety features to pizza being delivered by self-driving cars. It doesn’t take much to build a list.
In the world of small business, it’s usually the franchises that have the upper hand when it comes to innovation. Franchisors have the flexibility and financial budgets to try new things. Quite often these innovative ideas come from franchisee suggestions based on real-life experiences in the field. Take the fast food industry for instance. From the drive-thru to ordering online, and mobile apps to kiosks, there have been plenty of changes that now offer even more convenience for the consumer and that will continue as technologies and expectations change.
Other innovations have had a much larger impact in their industries (or business in general), like what Uber and Lyft have done for public transportation or Netflix has done for the entertainment industry. Netflix has several innovations that have disrupted markets from transforming the movie rental experience to delivering content on demand, and by competing with traditional cable channels with its unique content such House of Cards, Stranger Things and several Marvel series.
Sometimes innovation seems to be a little more of a challenge for smaller businesses or at least so it may seem. Budgets, time, and resources can all play a role for companies when it comes to implementing innovative ideas into their businesses. The lack of all those things can be a big discouragement for those who wish they could do more or at the very minimum, better. Unfortunately for many business owners, the status quo is just fine. They’re experts in their simple routines and often see no need to change. While that seems to work on the surface, that’s how many businesses die a slow, quiet death, perhaps as would a Taxi driver or video store owner. Not that they could have changed the outcome of their fate even if they tried.
In most cases, the average small business owner doesn’t do anything to differentiate their business in the market. They don’t do enough or put much thought into offering their customers better or transform with trends, leaving competitors to shape their market. Even the basics like active social media marketing, connecting with customers online, and having reviews on Yelp are often neglected. Ask retailers who struggled to compete with online sales. Not just Amazon and eBay, but their own online sales have cannibalized the need for storefronts. Victoria’s Secret closed 70 stores in 2019 and other giant retailers like Sears and Toys-R-Us (USA) are now nothing more than ghosts.
Be better. Do more.
When you look at any business, there are two results companies usually try to achieve: Do better and do more. Of the two, start by ‘doing better’, and the ‘do more’ will follow. The do better is about YOU and the do more is about your CUSTOMER. You have to fix you first. The do better begins with improving your business service delivery model to optimize the complete experience for your customer and for your business. Improve or fix your service delivery model and you’ll better your customer experience. Once you perfect this or get it to as close to perfection as you can, you will put yourself in a position to do more. Here’s the best part: Even if you don’t want to do more you’ll still be doing what you do better. And that will make a difference.
Innovation is about improving the customer experience
First, let’s be clear. Being innovative simply means to do something different and better. You don’t have to have a million dollar budget to give your customers a uniquely better experience. You don’t have to change an entire industry to exceed your customer’s expectations to grow your business. In fact, your customer doesn’t even have to see your innovations to reap the benefits. Being innovative comes in all shapes and sizes and is subjective to the solution. When a car manufacturer uses robots to build cars, they can build them faster, cheaper, reduce error and keep production schedules on track. The consumer benefits from a better-built car. The customer doesn’t ever say, “Robots did a good job building my car.” or “GM has a great project management methodology.” The brand takes the credit. Customers don’t over-think the ‘why’. When a company uses a CRM or ERP as a platform to service their clients, the customer usually benefits from a more organized customer experience model. These aren’t tangible items you’re producing for your client base, but they are still innovations that have a significant impact on the customer experience. Innovation comes from aspiring to do and be better. Strive to do better.
Start with your service delivery model
I remember when I started driving, my father always told me, “Know where you’re going, know how to get there and you won’t have an accident”. That may be a little overstated, but the point is clear; have a plan. It all starts with you. Every company should know their service delivery model inside and out. Their plan to fulfill a service or order. From quote to order and from invoice to even handling returns. Start by innovating your workflow. What can you do better? Where are the pitfalls, and what parts of the process can sour the customer experience. If you improve the process for yourself, you’ll improve it for your customer.
This is the part where you look at yourself objectively. Think outside the box. Examine your processes each step of the way. Imagine where steps and experiences can be improved. Even go as far as to find out how your competitors deal with some of the same struggles. When evaluating competitors, look up, not sideways or down. You’re already there.
Here’s a quick tip; the more disjointed your workflow is the more room for improvement. If your proposals are being done in Word, your orders are coming in online and your invoicing is done in QuickBooks, there’s a problem. If you don’t see that or refuse to acknowledge it, then unfortunately, you’re part of the problem. If you’re using spreadsheets to keep track of anything it’s a good time to re-evaluate your service delivery model. Here’s another tip; if you don’t, you won’t last and even if you do, you won’t grow and you’ll always work harder than you have to in order to achieve the same mediocre results. As a business owner, you should be able to view into your business, in real-time, and know everything that is happening. If you cannot do that today, then that is the first sign of a deficiency that needs to be corrected.
Ideally, your service delivery model should be connected from A-Z. Having customer information readily available for accounting, future sales and customer service is essential to offering your customers a better experience. Find a platform that can run your business and achieve these basic goals. There’s something out there for every budget, but remember the cheaper the product, the less effective the solution. Regardless of your budget, the software you select to run your business is an investment in your company, and assuming you need one, it will be your first step toward innovation because using a scalable platform can help future-proof your operations.
The fast eat the slow
When it comes to being innovative, even the smallest areas can have the biggest impact. If you live in the Southern United States and you’ve visited Whataburger, then you can appreciate that once you order your meal, unlike any other fast-food restaurant, you can sit down and they’ll bring it to you. A subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless, especially for fast-food. McDonald’s restaurants adopted the same service delivery model in early 2018. Is this the kind of innovation that has a major impact on your business? Maybe not, but no matter how subtle, it doesn’t go unnoticed. When the little experiences are compounded, only then is the total customer experience is transformed. In the case of McDonald’s, at the same time they added kiosks, mobile ordering, and Uber Eats to their service delivery model. Collectively the transformation is much greater than any single initiative alone. Additionally, it’s hard for any competitor to match all those initiatives at once.
Opening your mind to being innovative doesn’t mean you need to be first, which can have its own advantages, but more important, it’s about being proactive in an evolving market and at the very least being up-to-speed alongside your competitors. If you’re not leading, you’re following or even worse, staying still. Being proactive costs a lot less than being reactive. Not planning for change in your business will cost you time, money and lost opportunities just trying to keep up. And nobody wants to have to deal with expensive distractions at the least convenient time. Believing you can always improve is the path to perfection. Nobody’s perfect, but it doesn’t mean you can keep trying to be better.
Know your market
Knowing your market means a lot of things. If you’re going to be a leader you have to stay on top of everything happening in your market space. That means keeping up with new technologies, disruptive services, and potential threats, what your competitors are doing and what your customers are responding to.
Always be re-inventing yourself, even if it’s just in thought. It’s easier and more cost effective to refine your ideas while they’re just ideas. Get inspired. Get on your competitor’s email marketing lists and even get yourself on marketing lists of businesses that are in different industries that sell similar products. This will help your footing within your industry. It can help you improve your brand’s narrative and reveal areas for new technologies, markets and buying processes.
Survey your customers. Always. If surveying your customers is part of your service delivery model then it will improve your customer service from the very beginning. When employees know they will be surveyed they traditionally provide better service. Look at the average waiter or service manager in a garage. Differentiate yourself in your surveys and take the opportunity to ask questions like, “what could we have done better?” or “how has your experience differed from other industry service providers?” Asking more than just the traditional customer satisfaction questions can help you identify new opportunities for innovation.
You should also ask and encourage every customer to share their experience online. Have this as part of your service delivery model and you will always strive to be the best you can for your customer. In addition to boosting your social presence, it gives you the opportunity to interact with your customers and address any comments they post, whether positive or negative. Addressing issues online can turn a negative review into a more positive experience. Other buyers can usually read through the BS and often appreciate empathetic, customer oriented merchants.
It’s ok to shelve your ideas
Just because you have an amazing idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean the world is ready for it. You might not be ready for it either. While it might be a matter of priority, capability, technology, money, resources or all-of-the-above, it doesn’t mean you should discontinue the pursuit of a good, innovative idea.
In 1998 Safeway invested 30 million dollars for a 50% stake in Groceryworks.com. The idea introduced online grocery shopping to millions of Americans around the country. Today, consumers spend billions transacting through Amazon.com. Millions of people also shop for groceries online with Amazon Fresh and Wal-Mart. So it’s hard to imagine that Groceryworks.com was a failure that ended up nosediving in 2001, less than 4 years after they started. What happened? Simple. The idea was ahead of its time. At the time, e-commerce was an option and not the standard. The technology-savvy audience in today’s economy wasn’t the norm back in the turn of the century. And the technology wasn’t quite ready to help with the convenience of buying your groceries online either. More specific, smartphones didn’t exist. Mobile apps help accelerate e-commerce, creating the new standard for how people shop. Had Groceryworks.com started at the time of the iPhone, for example, they would have had greater market success today.
There are countless ways that you can turn your company into an industry leader by introducing sustainable, innovative ideas. Innovation can come from one big change or dozens of small ones but are essential to the lifeblood of your company. If you’re not creative, or you don’t know where to start, then stop, take a breath and focus. Listen to your customers, watch your competitors and look at companies in similar industries. You can find inspiring ideas anywhere, you just need to look, but more important, you need to keep looking and always be looking. The bottom line is you need to make something happen before something happens to you. If you don’t see the need to be innovative or settled for where you are, then the simple truth is your business is dying a slow death, you just don’t know it yet. And one day you’ll find yourself asking, “What could I have done differently?”
If you can’t do it better, someone else will.