Helping your existing businesses succeed can be a challenging task. Small business owners are a notoriously challenging bunch. They went into business for themselves for a reason, right? They also don't want to be told how to run their businesses, least of all by someone without small business experience. If you have not built a trusting relationship with your business owners, don't start by telling them to improve their window display or change their store hours (as tempting as that might be!). That said, there are ways to help your existing businesses without seemingly lecturing them. There is a subtle difference between telling them what to do and sharing valueble information with them that can help with critical decision making. Here ar a few strategies for offering help in a way that is consistent with your role as a district manager....
1. Know where they can find free or low-bono technical assistance. Many cities have organizations that offer these services, either through a local university, the City or State. In Pittsburgh, the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence offers business owners access to expert consulting and mentorship. In New York City, the City's Business Solutions Centers in each of the five boroughs are a one-stop shop for small business services. If you don't know much about these resources, take the time to set up a meeting with the Director of these programs to introduce yourself and see how you make help your businesses make better use of their services. Once you realize what resources are out there, share this information when you visit your businesses, as well as in your newsletter and on your website.
2. Conduct market data - and then share it! Small businesses often go on gut when deciding business strategy. The next time you commission a market analysis to define your district strategy, be sure to share this valuable market data with your businesses. But don't turn it into a data dump. Take the time to interpret the data with them. Better yet, invite the firm that collected the market data to present this information. Sometimes information is better recieved when delivered by a percieved outside expert. In Pittsburgh, LISC MetroEdge provided a local Community Development Corporation with market data that indicated significant neighborhood change that was under most local business owners' radar. The organization took the time to communicate their findings with local businesses. Most significantly, they found that younger professionals were moving into the traditionally older Italian enclave. A local business owner who had been serving the older market, siezed upon this information and began growing offerings that were more reflective of a younger crowd, which meant changing her offerings to include more kitchen and houseware goods as well as cooking classes for the younger set.
3. Offer opportunities to network with other businesses. Host breakfasts and invite speakers to present on issues that businesses have told you they care about. Be sure to also leave ample time for networking over coffee. When booking speakers, take care to ensure that the topics they cover directly reflect concerns or issues that business owners have raised with you, otherwise, these busy entrepreneurs will be no-shows.
4. Engage an expert and offer direct technical assistance to your priority niche businesses. One BID director in an upstate community where I work took a very strategic approach to technical assistance. After commissioning a market study from my firm that recommended strategic positioning as a restauraunt district, the BID identified a local restaurant consultant to conduct audits of participating businesses. The audits included an in-depth analysis of the restaurants strengths and weaknesses, from front-of-the-house to back-of-the-house management issues. The consultants efforts were part of a comprehensive effort to help improve service and quality at existing restaurants in an effort to strengthen the restaurant niche overall.
5. When all else fails, know when to walk away. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, a business owner remains uninterested in our help. In these cases, you have to know when to walk away. Remember, your time, and the resources of your organization, are valuable. When this happens, demonstrate your value by helping other business owners. If your efforts are successful elsewhere, you may find a business owner who had previously rejected your help is increasingly willing to listen. Walking away, however, does not mean abandoning the relationship. But be sure to continue to visit the business owner - the chilly reception you initailly recieve may just need time to thaw.