By Nimish Thakkar
New York could easily be one of the most competitive marketplaces for restaurants. From small operations to large franchises, the food industry is clamoring for a share of the pie in what appears to be a âwar for consumer appetites.â A large food franchise recently established its presence near our office. When the chain made a splash in the local media many business pundits were under the impression that a local Italian restaurant could soon be working on its exit strategy.
Their predictions were on the mark for a few months but were subsequently falsified. Since the past few months, lines at the local restaurant have been much longer than the franchise and their phone order pipeline appears to be expanding exponentially.
I have always been a netpreneur and the restaurant business is as alien to me as space exploration but when one keeps the knowledge radar tuned to the âsponge dimension,â surprising strategy lessons can be uncovered from the least expected sources. As an entrepreneur, I was naturally curious to understand how this real-life David overpowered a much larger and formidable Goliath.
My research provided some insights that are equally applicable to any business operation (online or offline):
Relationships are still the best marketing investment
When I visited the larger franchise, I was greeted by college students who were only too eager to ring the register as opposed to understanding my preferences or winning my long-term repeat business. At the restaurant, the scenario was just the opposite. The staff was keen on accommodating my needs and providing me with the best service and the most memorable experience possible.
On my second visit, the owner instantly recognized me and followed-up on a conversation from our previous meeting. What happened next surprised me even further. After the order, I gave him my credit card. Unfortunately, their credit card terminal was not working that evening. I offered to drive to the local ATM and pay cash but the owner graciously smiled and asked me not to bother. âYou can come and pay me tomorrow. It is raining outside,â he said. I thanked him and returned the following day.
I shared the story with friends on my social network and won him some word-of-mouth publicity. Almost every customer that walks into that restaurant has something positive to say. Passionate customer orientation has enabled this mom-and-pop operation to transform customers into âwalking PR machines,â a task that even the largest ad budget cannot replicate.
Lesson #1: Build a customer-centric business, focus on providing value, and go as far as you possibly can to build long-term relationships.
Showcase clear âdifferentiatorsâ
During my first MBA class, one of my favorite marketing professors taught me a great mantra: âTo be successful, be different.â I still implement his advice in all my personal and professional branding campaigns. It works.
Are you the best at delivering widgets within a 24-hour timeframe? Do your widgets offer something your competitors donât? Are you at the cutting-edge of technology in a way your competition does not touch? Donât keep this knowledge to yourself. Let your customers know how you stand out from the competition.
Reverting to the protagonist case study, the local restaurant had posters all over the place explaining how their food choices were different. They identified how their ingredients were healthier and sans any form of harmful chemical additives or preservatives. As a client, I would have never known this fact had it not been brought to my attention. Perhaps the franchise doesnât use these ingredients either but their marketing literature doesnât promote this information.
Lesson #2: Clients may not often be able to differentiate you from the competition. Instead of allowing them to draw negative conclusions, make the task easier by clearly demonstrating how your business is âdifferent.â
Focus on generating positive reviews
âAs millions of customers check online reviews before purchasing from any business, having a strong group of fervent customer advocates can go a long way toward building your business reputation and revenues,â says Vijay Kakkar, Small Business Owner and CEO of SaiTravel.com, a company that specializes in providing discounted travel fares.
The converse can be true as well. Dissatisfied clients can wreak havoc by writing vengeful reviews, posting bad experiences, and tarnishing your business image on social media.
Lesson #3: Turning your customers into âviral advocatesâ can do wonders for a small business.
Many local businesses host events, develop special contests, and leverage a myriad of viral marketing strategies to push their business success to the next level. A local non-profit organization hosts an annual charity event. In addition to the routine paraphernalia associated with these events, they have a sweepstakes contest where the first winner could claim an enviable portfolio of prizes. From blogs to social media, the prize descriptions invariably go viral.
Small businesses thrive on personal relationships and creativity. Transforming customers into passionate fans is the key to surviving in a hyper-competitive economic landscape.