Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Building a Community Around Your Business

For those of you who caught me dancing to the Spice Girls in the store the other day, please accept my apology.  Whether you believe it or not, two very indisputable facts exist in my life:
  1. I like to have fun.
  2. I'm not a very good dancer.
But I can't help and be a bit elated about the cool little community that has popped up around my little project I call Host & Toast.

This week I am celebrating an odds-defying milestone:  one year of a completely cash-draining, energy-sucking, headache-inducing little business that has made me pray harder, hustle more, and think faster than ever before.  And in this year, Host & Toast has in many ways transcended just a transactional business.  A relationship has developed in the store and among our customers.  In some ways the community was manufactured by me, and in some ways it grew organically.  I have reflected on what I did to catalyze the growth of the community around Host & Toast, and my hope is some of my experiences help other business owners develop closer relationships with their clients.

Opening Host & Toast just as the shop local movement is gaining popularity around the country was fortuitous.  I have been the beneficiary of those who value the idea of supporting local businesses, and it gives hope that in spite of a slow economy, being successful in a small business is attainable.  I am so thankful for my fantastic customers who choose to shop small and realize that small businesses help shape the culture of a community.

I refer to Host & Toast as a community rather than a wine store because the interaction between our employees and customers is so much more than a transaction.  It is a relationship that has developed over a love of one thing:  wine.  The store has served as a place to meet new friends, a place to practice for med school exams (you know who you are), a dating service, and a job placement service.  I've heard stories of customers meeting each other at community events and realizing why they seemed familiar to one another was because of time spent at Host & Toast.  Who can say that about a grocery store or a department store?  But it happens all the time at Host & Toast.

The first and most important factor in business success, or success in life or anything,  is learn to be a good listener.  We are all self-centered creatures, and we like to be heard.  In regard to sales, taking time to stop and listen exemplifies a good sales person.  Only when you have truly heard a person’s words can you create a quality buyer/seller relationship.  If you don't hear someone's needs, how do you know what to sell them? Listening helps a seller gain a buyer's trust.  Without trust, it's hard to achieve loyalty and repeated sales.  

As a business owner, asking for, being open to, and really listening to feedback from customers is so important.  Do not be afraid to hear criticism.  Be open to what others have to say because they might have a really good idea.  Some of the best elements of the store are ideas given to me by customers.  Host & Toast is better because I was not afraid to listen.

One task that shows effort to be a good listener is to learn people’s names.  And if you are really an overachiever, remember something about them.  Remember what I said earlier about we are all self-centered?  Stop worrying about yourself long enough to listen when someone says their name and make an effort to remember it.  The more you practice, the better you will get.  And the human across the counter from you will be so flattered that you took the time to learn their name that they might just buy something and continue to be loyal to you and your business.

Another key element in creating the community around Host & Toast is making people feel comfortable.  This starts with sales staff, but it goes much beyond that.  Friendly and knowledgeable employees are a no brainer.  The grocery store has those too.  But create a physical environment where people feel at ease to taste, talk, shop, and linger.  Engage customers in conversation and introduce them to other customers who have similar interests and make them feel welcome.  I do not view m job as selling wine.  Instead, I am a host, and my job is to welcome people into my store.  The sales will come later.

I was disappointed the other day when a customer mentioned she felt like she had gotten a dirty look from another customer because she brought her daughter with her to the store.  She assured me it wasn't an employee (relief.)   My kids are at the store with me all the time.  My 7 year old is allowed one sip of wine provided he tells me how it smells first.  Everyone is welcome at Host & Toast ~ men, women, children, even hipsters.  I am happy, however, that she felt comfortable enough to mention it to me.  If I had not created a comfortable environment, she might not have mentioned it and instead just not come back to the store.

Lastly, I am very fortunate that wine is my business.  It's easy to sell something that is intrinsically social.  Although I intentionally set out to create an attitude and environment in the store that spurred community development, the fact that it is a wine store helps the community flourish more easily.  I also benefit from being located in west Texas where being friendly and open is a part of our culture.  Creating a community is easy when the two main elements are friendly people and wine.

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