We have a relatively new business in town that got a lot of buzz before it opened up. And while it’s gotten some pretty good reviews, it’s also gotten some pretty bad reviews, particularly in the area of customer service. Sadly, a lot of those online comments have been deleted, or answered with something that approaches a measure of disdain. In fact, some of the other businesses in town have said they have had rather unpleasant dealings with the owners and management of the new business. I haven’t been there, but based on the word of quite a few people whom I trust, I have to believe the business is doing something wrong.
One of the problems is that the business owners aren’t local. They aren’t from here, and apparently have come in to a very close knit, and cooperative, business community, and run a little rough shod. They haven’t done much to ingratiate themselves to the locals who have been here a long time, and they’ve alienated a lot of other business owners.
I remember as a child that when you moved into a new neighborhood you’d get a visit from the Welcome Wagon, bringing you free products and coupons from a variety of local businesses. The neighbors might come over and greet you, and perhaps even bring you a meal or some baked goods. As the recipient of these types of things, you would accept them graciously, after all, you were going to be spending the foreseeable future living alongside these people, and you wanted to get along with them. You wouldn’t turn them away.
A big part of being a business is being a good neighbor. Getting to know your neighbors and the neighborhood. As I work at Lancaster Central Market, helping out my friends at their stand, I see this in play. The stand holders all know each other, give each other business, and generally get along. Recently, two of the stand holders had deaths in their families, and sympathy cards were passed around for all of the other stand owners to sign. It was a great sign of being neighborly; of being a community.
Here are few ways you and your business can be good neighbors to those who live and work around you:
Know your immediate neighbors
Take some time to visit the businesses right around you, on your block, across the street, etc. Visit them, patronize them, tell your customers about them. Get to know their products or services. Quite often someone will stop by my friends’ market stand and ask if they carry a certain product. If they don’t carry that product, or are even just temporarily out of the product, it’s great to see them tell the customer where else they can get it, whether it’s at another market stand, or another business in the area. The only way you can do this is by knowing the other businesses and what products they sell. By getting to know your neighbors, you not only can become a good neighbor, but you can better help your customers.
Know your neighborhood organizations
Here in Lancaster we have a group called The Lancaster Alliance that is a merger of a few older local groups such as the Downtown Improvement District. Most every area has organizations and business groups that work for the betterment of your neighborhood. Government and civic organizations that can assist you and provide you with great information. You might even have an informal group just for your specific location. Plus there are various Chambers of Commerce that might be good for you to connect with. And there are groups that work with nonprofits and help to connect them with local businesses. Know the schools and colleges in your area, as well as the nonprofits that are working to make your community better. In fact, when it comes to nonprofits, I’m a big proponent of small businesses partnering with such groups to help them do their work.
Know your officials
Who is in charge in your neighborhood? Get to know the mayor, council members, police and fire officials. Know who to call when you need help. Know who is in charge of snow removal, trash removal, and street sweeping. Know who is in charge of parking in your community, and how to get in touch with them if you or your customers need them.
Create an online group
We have this here in Lancaster, and I think it works really well. It’s a Facebook group for local businesses. Only a small fraction of businesses are able to attend the monthly meetings held by a local organization, so this is a great way for them to communicate on a daily basis with one another. Not only can they promote what they are doing, but give alerts and ask questions. I’ve seen people post alerts in there about someone passing counterfeit money in the neighborhood, as well as discussions on how to best react to all the bad weather we’ve been having. Are you opening? Closing early? Need help shoveling out?
Local business owners can discuss anything and everything related to daily business, special events, and even partnerships. It works extremely well since most business owners don’t have the luxury of leaving their business to discuss things with others. This is a great way to have open lines of communication.
Have an open door policy
This is where I might run into a little bit of trouble. There is a sign that I see in a lot of businesses that irks me, even though I understand the intent. The sign usually reads something like this:
“Bathrooms are for the use of paying customers only.”
Seems reasonable, right? But I’ve been on the road and had to make a pit stop at a gas station in order to use the bathroom. And on more than one occasion, I’ve been told I couldn’t have the key unless I purchased some gas. I understand you don’t want to be the public bathroom for everyone in your area, but what message does this send? It’s a message of unwelcomeness (is that even a word?). It’s uninviting, and in fact, it is meant to be. But when I see that, it makes me not want to shop there.
If you’re in an area with parking meters, don’t refuse to give change to people who might not be shopping with you. While they might not be your customers, they are still potential customers. In fact, I’d say go the other way and make sure you keep extra change on hand and perhaps even put a sign in your window encouraging people to come in to get change for the meters.
Be a source of information
Let’s take that last one a step further. People will come in to your business and ask questions, often about something that has absolutely nothing to do with your business. Where should I park? Where can I find good Italian food? Is there a post office near here? Whatever it is they are asking, even if they aren’t paying customers, make yourself useful and helpful. Freely provide all sorts of information to customers and potential customers alike. And do it with a smile.
Protect your customers
As great as your business neighborhood might be, there is usually a dark side of some sort. It might be knowing about the road hazards, parking issues, or even just how your neighborhood changes personality after dark. This was brought home to me not long ago when a young girl was abducted by a sexual predator in her neighborhood. Thankfully, the story had a happy ending, but it prompted me to head on over to the Megan’s Law page for the state of Pennsylvania. You can punch in your address and get a list of any sex offenders who might be living in your neighborhood. I was a bit surprised at how many there were within just a few blocks of my house. It helps just to know they are there, where they live, and what they look like. As a business owner, you should do the same, especially if your business if frequented by families with children. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it, but you should be aware of any potential dangers.
Have you taken the time to get to know your neighborhood inside and out? Are there any other ways you can be a good neighbor?
Small Businesses: Know Your Neighborhood