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“Community” is more than just a buzzword. It may have been usurped – along with “tribe” – by the social media and blogging crowd but it’s been around since the dawn of civilization. Human beings have been social and have survived through the power of community long before it occurred to anyone to take it online.
Yet here we are, acting as if we’ve just invented something groundbreaking with our limited-character updates and back-linked web pages. But community has always mattered and until the sentient machines take over the planet it always will. Because the fact is, you can’t survive without one – and your business can’t succeed without one, either.
“But I sell pink widgets!” You might say. Or, “I’m just an accountant! I don’t have a community. Just a pretty good client list.”
To you who doubt, I ask only this: Do you want to succeed?
Because if you do then you need a community, whether you want one, think you have one, or not.
Here are 3 communities that matter to every business and how you can woo, cultivate and grow them starting right now.
#1: Your Internal Community
While you’re out there busily joining tribes, commenting on blogs and Liking Facebook pages, has it occurred to you that there is a community of people who work with you every day? They’re your coworkers, your assistants, your colleagues and even the guy who makes your coffee in the morning.
Rare is the business person who is truly a “solopreneur” and exists without the support of at least one other person. In my business, my husband and I work together and we form a community of two. But there are designers, programmers, consultants and yes, even a guy who makes the coffee, and each of those people also belongs to our internal community.
How about you? Can you think of at least one other person who you work with, either every day or from time to time, who is part of your support group, your work crew, your business community?
I bet you can think of plenty!
These are your go-to folks when you need something done. They probably have skills that you yourself don’t have, which is why you work with them in the first place. You simply couldn’t function without the brainpower of the people around you.
But don’t confuse necessity with community! Just because you hired someone does not mean you’ve created a community. There’s more to it than that.
Bigger brands call it a “culture”. If you think about powerhouses like Apple and Google you can understand the type of culture and community we’re talking about. People who work for Apple do more than just “work for Apple”. They belong to Apple. They’re part of Apple. They identify with and participate in a community that revolves around Apple. People are personally invested in the company’s success, beyond the simple matter of a job or a paycheck. In a good business community, a failure for one is a failure for all.
That probably sounds creepier than it should. Community and identifying with a group are good things. They’re what drive us and motivate us.
Don’t think that just because you only have a handful of people working with you, or perhaps only one, that you have any less of a community. For your business to be successful, every single person who forms your internal community must feel a sense of belonging and responsibility for the outcomes in your business.
Remember the last time you went shopping and you wandered around a store looking for something you couldn’t find? And there wasn’t a salesperson in sight, and when you finally did track one down he was busy chatting with a coworker and you could barely get a question out? Or remember when you were completely ignored by a cashier at checkout who was busily recounting her last date to the next cashier, and sort of dropped your change on the counter and went back to talking?
That doesn’t happen because people don’t know how to use a cash register or find a scarf. It happens because they have no investment in their jobs. There’s no community.
Unless you want to be that business, you know, the one everyone complains about on Twitter? Then start building your internal community right now.
Have a clear set of values. Make sure that everyone who works with and for you knows what you stand for and how you conduct business. Make sure they share those values. If they’re just “in it for the paycheck” they’re probably not a good fit for your community.
Be passionate and make it contagious. If you don’t care about your business nobody else will, either.
Practice teamwork. Competition is ok for Wall Street but not for small businesses unless you’re hosting a summer volleyball game. Cooperation and shared goals should be the priority.
Show appreciation. People like to be recognized. If you give them a reason to identify positively with your company and values, then they will. Make sure everyone knows they’re an important part of the whole.
Take it out of the office. Part of building a sense of identity with a company is building relationships between people. So yes, go out and have a drink or host that summer volleyball game.
Give people responsibility. If that disinterested sales clerk was paid on commission I bet he’d think twice about ignoring you. I’m not suggesting that you adopt that pay model, but do hold people responsible for their behaviors and outcomes.
Educate. Internalizing values, becoming responsible and acting as part of a team aren’t inborn behaviors. You have to be the leader of your community and teach both by example and by direct education.
Value sharing. When people have their voices and ideas heard they become invested in outcomes. And don’t just pay lip-service to sharing. If you’ve hired the right people then their ideas and opinions should matter.
Create an environment where people matter. Community is not invented – it is built, one action at a time. If you put process and profits over people you’ll never build a community. People will grow into your community when they feel that their presence and contributions are valuable.
#2: Your Fan Community
Sometimes we call them “customers”. These days we probably call them fans and followers, too. These are the people who have bought our products, used our services – or may do so one day – and have one thing in common: they love us.
Not everyone you do business with is going to love your business. Some people are just customers. But to truly succeed, you need to move past the client list and dive into the world of raving fans. Nowadays with social media, you may even have fans who never do business with you. And that doesn’t matter one bit, because their appreciation and loyalty alone can be enough to generate business you otherwise never would have gotten.
These types of communities don’t happen by accident. They coalesce around great products, fantastic services or amazing people. I bet you can think of at least one business person who has achieved a type of celebrity status in your mind, even though you may never have actually done business with them. Seth Godin, anyone? Ok, maybe you coughed up a few bucks for one of his books. More than likely you’d just die in a puff of happy-smoke if you could somehow get to be the only person he ever follows on Twitter.
So why isn’t it sufficient to have a nice, long customer list and forget all this stuff that sounds so hard to do like building a community?
Because customers price shop. Customers forget your phone number then call the next-nearest guy who does what you do. Customers get cranky and ditch you when you’ve had too many bad days in a row and they’re kind of sick of your attitude.
But a community rallies around you. Community knows when the baby has kept you up all night and forgives you for your fourth missed deadline. Community wouldn’t go with a competitor if it could be done at half the price in a quarter of the time because, pft, they’re way smarter than that anyway.
Do you know why companies like Comcast and Bank of America (to name two that arouse a fair amount of ire) are still in business? Hint: it’s not because there are any raving fans who totally have to be part of that whole thing. It’s because we kind of have to do business with them – or some other company an awful lot like them – if we want that type of service.
So we throw up our hands and sigh and have a “whatever” moment and maybe complain about it on Facebook. It’s not like we’re going to stop watching TV or writing checks.
But we will stop buying that pink widget and we will find ourselves another accountant. For small businesses, it’s community-or-die.
If you want not only to succeed but to survive, you need to start building that protective wall of community around your business, and it’s not so very different than building your internal community.
Know your values – and stand by them. It’s easy to espouse a lot of heartfelt blah blah blah about grand visions and values but the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Your customers must see your values reflected in everything you do from your emails to your conversations to your products and services.
Work together. This is especially important for service providers. The whole “go away and come back when you’re done” approach is so 2000. Customers want to be part of the decision-making process. Even retailers can take advantage of this togetherness by helping customers choose the exactly perfect shade of pink widget for themselves.
Be passionate and make it obvious. When was the last time you felt compelled to get behind someone “just doing their job”? Did you feel any particular affinity for that disinterested cashier? Maybe thought that next time you went to that store you just had to get checked out by her or die? Didn’t think so.
Show appreciation. And don’t wait for Thanksgiving. A “thank you” to loyal customers goes an unbelievably long way.
Get out from behind your desk. People identify with people, not logos. By now you should have the words “personal branding” tattooed on the insides of your eyelids.
Be responsible. The customer isn’t always right. But sometimes they are. Trust me, even when they’re not. When something goes wrong, take responsibility and make it right. If it doesn’t go wrong but your customer insists it did? Suck it up. Sometimes winning a fan is a matter of not being right all the time.
Educate. Make your customers feel like they’re in on the joke. Don’t push them away with jargon and rhetoric that only serves to make you feel smart and important.
Value sharing. It’s not always about you. Remember to ask about your client’s Great Aunt Bess with the bad toe. The best business people I know can tell you the names of all your kids, could recognize your dog in a lineup, and will recite the lines of every one of your favorite movies.
Make it about people. How great your company is, how awesome your products are – that takes a back seat to how important you make your customers feel. Remember this simple truth: people like you less for what you do than for how you make them feel about themselves. If you connect with people you can build the types of relationships that matter.
#3: Your Support Community
These are not people you do business with. These are not people you work with. Maybe some of these people don’t even know a whole lot about what you do.
But they are the people who will comment on your blog post. Or promote your webinar. Or tell you when you said something stupid on Twitter. If they’re local, they may even come to your rescue when you’re late for a meeting and have a flat tire.
This is more of a personal community but it’s crucial to the success of your business.
You don’t exist in a vacuum. There are people who support, encourage and help you every day. Maybe they didn’t buy your book but they told ten of their friends about it. Maybe they have no idea what you actually do for a living but they can still tell you when there’s a typo on your blog.
Sometimes they’re our blog tribes and sometimes they’re our mastermind groups. Sometimes they just know when not to ask if you’ve had a bad day.
These types of communities can take root on or offline. But wherever they exist, they contribute to our success.
If you want to know how to build a support community, read back through the ways you can begin to build your internal and fan communities and apply the same principles here – namely, find people who share your values, who you can connect with, who you appreciate and share with.
And then add two more things…
Be present. A support community doesn’t exist without you. With enough momentum a fan community might continue to roll along without your presence but a support community only exists when you’re physically part of it.
Be support. Quid pro quo – if you’re all receive and no give, people are probably going to get tired of that after a while. If you want support you have to give at least 150% support in return. The good news? The more you give to your community, the more you’ll get and the happier you’ll be.
Your Community: Don’t Leave Home Without It.
Communities provide help, support and encouragement. They help us generate business and grow our businesses. They’re an outlet when we want one and a resource when we need one. They don’t happen quickly or easily but when you’ve built one, it’s arguably your most valuable business asset.
Can businesses survive without a community? I’d argue that a small business cannot. Without community, you can subtract support, subtract loyalty, subtract recognition… and that leaves you with a whole lot of not much. If you want a “job” and you enjoy the idea of “cog in the machine” then go ahead and work for one of those big, faceless companies. Otherwise, start building, using and appreciating your community right now!
Tell me: do you have at least one business community that’s an integral part of your success? How are you building yours?
This post is part of the August 2012 Word Carnival — a monthly group blogging event specifically for small business owners. (It’s the most fun you’ll have all month!) Check out the rest of the fabulous carney work here.