As I travel throughout my local communities to introduce myself or check in on new businesses, I am often asked the same question: “What can the Chamber do for my business”?
First, I mention that the Chamber can provide opportunities for businesses to network, learn, and grow; and it can provide a voice to represent and advocate for all businesses. In response to that I usually get the same familiar look or standard response including many of the challenges they’ve experienced in the past with their Chamber membership.
At that point I ask, “How can you best use the Chamber?” Most people are perplexed by this question. Often, they answer, “Well… I pay my dues… I go to events… but I am not sure exactly what I get from it!”
This blog offers an illustration of just one of the ways a business can utilize the Chamber as a resource, which is often overlooked.
A few days ago, I stopped by a local business to introduce myself and to inquire about the most challenging aspects of the business. It was a little boutique that had a variety of women’s clothing. It was tucked way back in the plaza in a small, but busy, and rapidly-growing town.
I found that they, like many other businesses in the area, are struggling to get people in the door. This is especially true after the COVID restrictions, which have kept most shoppers in small communities at home – and ordering products online. The owner and I discussed the fact that her challenge is not much different than most other businesses at this time. I suggested to her that how she reacts to the current environment is what can make all the difference.
As I see it, a business can do one of two things when they are stalled: keep doing what they have been doing… especially if it has been successful in the past… and just hope the circumstances will change so it will start working again. We are surrounded by businesses trying that approach right now. Many small business owners will cling to the idea that they will try online advertising or print marketing as the primary means to get more foot-traffic. Both can be costly and only sometimes make a lasting difference.
There are more practical solutions, which can be much more budget-friendly. But it requires businesses to try the second option, which is to think outside the box and try a different approach. Much of the time, that approach only requires taking stock of the other businesses in the area.
The boutique owner asked me, “If you owned my business, what would you do?” Although not really familiar with women’s clothing, or how to sell them, I took a look around, and noticed that right outside her shop window, and just across the street, was a very large, successful home building business.
I pointed them out to her, then said, “I would walk over to that business with some business cards, and I would also take a couple of gift certificates.”
“Why gift certificates?” she asked.
I had, personally, been in that business several times before; they are very involved members of the Chamber. I told her that I knew for a fact that there were several women working in that building, so they would be potential customers.” I added, “More importantly, home builders and real estate agents typically buy gifts for their new homeowners! How nice would it be to offer them a deal where they can give a new homeowner in your community a gift certificate to shop in your store?!”
I could immediately see the light go on! I said, “What you just experienced is one of the benefits of networking and your Chamber membership helping you promote yourself! Before I walked in here today, things were going on as usual in your store. A stranger walked in and started a conversation about your business. In a little under an hour, you ended up with several new ideas to market your business and it did not cost you anything other than a little time and maybe a few gift certificates. That is what your Chamber can offer you! And it puts you in a position to offer them something in return over time.”
A Chamber membership is not a one-way deal. I think of it as a fraternity of sorts, where multiple businesses can help promote each other and themselves by working together. It is not just attending events or paying membership fees. A collaborative effort is one of the most effective ways to get the most benefit from Chamber membership. Like most things, you get out of it what you put into it.
Its easy for small business owners (including myself), to get caught up in going through the same motions and processes over and over. With the challenges that COVID restrictions have presented, it can be more difficult than ever before, to get our goods and services sold. We keep coming up with the same marketing ideas that have been successful for us in the past, with the hope that they will continue to be successful. In doing so, we tend to forget to look forward and we neglect to anticipate and plan for change.
To combat becoming stagnant, we must become more flexible and more creative, and we need to start thinking outside the box. The businesses who implement these practices are the ones who tend to weather the storms the most effectively. For example, during COVID, we have seen many restaurants go to a drive-thru-only model or have added curbside delivery service options, right along-side many grocery and retail establishments. Many of those businesses have become more successful and more profitable than they were before COVID. They thought outside the box, and it has made all the difference!
Your Chamber can be a resource of like businesses that can help you promote your own business. When we, as business owners, work collaboratively with each other, we’re not only cross-promoting, but we’re also exchanging ideas, which helps us become more open to trying things we wouldn’t have thought of while we were continuing to do the things that have worked in the past.
During times of struggle, the answers are out there, we may just have to look harder for them… and every once in a while, the answer might just walk into your store!