Remember that pivotal day when you KNEW you would start your own business? I remember that day well.
I was downsized from a cool start-up company (along with 60 of my colleagues) and I decided to strike out on my own. No more "job" job.
I was going to be Kim.Inc, put out my own shingle, and start my own company.
Since installing the see-through bird feeder on the window directly in front of my desk, productivity has plummeted at The Houlahan Group.
As soon as I figured out the right seed to use (the little birds like the small stuff), I started getting the regulars to the feeder all day. (We'll talk more about distraction another time!)
There's Walter, the neat and tidy sparrow who carefully steps inside and takes just what he needs. He's quiet, a little selfish and stealth.
Why was my foot suddenly in excruciating pain while I was hitchhiking from Brindisi to Pescara on that sweltering June afternoon back in 1981?
I was stumped.
We were having a great day up 'til then. Spending more time in cars than on the side of the road. No pain at all.
When I removed my well-worn sandal and looked between my big toe and the next one (you know, the piggy that stayed home), something a little familiar was sticking out.
I didn't know how much I wanted to ride my bike through Times Square in NYC until I realized it might be impossible!
For our two-month stay in Manhattan I was going to rent a bike but when I saw the crazy rental prices at the hole-in-the-wall bike rental shop in Tribeca, I decided to buy one of those cool turquoise city bikes instead.
That bike was my favourite way to get around NYC.
I was a newbie at Banfield-Seguin Advertising & Design in Ottawa back in the late 80’s when I met Bill.
I had heard so many epic stories about Bill and his antics before I got to know him.
Working with him every day was a hoot. I have never met anyone with more spirit and sense of adventure. He could figure anything out. He had an idea for every prank - no matter how complicated - and a costume for every event. Bill was legendary.
My favourite Bill story took place in 1988.
A few weeks ago, on my quiet residential street, I saw Alexander’s cool, kinda vintage, burgundy car go by my window on the bed of a tow truck.
Was this out of the usual? Yep. My typical entertainment through that window consists of commuters (some wave to me, hi!), random deer jaywalking, joggers jogging and dog walkers. Normally, I don't pay much attention to the comings and goings while I’m working.
Then Alexander’s car went by.
Having a pet snake made us the most popular family in the neighbourhood - let me rephrase that - the most popular among the KIDS in the neighbourhood.
Our oldest son, Joey, not only loved all creatures but he could actually seek out, find (and capture) just about any living thing in the great outdoors.
It was like living with the Canadian version of the Croc Hunter!
found out I was pregnant (with Joey, my first born) on my very first day of work at Shoreline Graphics. It was March, 1990.
Despite the inconvenient timing and the thought of the dreaded conversation I needed to have with my brand new boss, I was pretty excited.
I had left a sample at the corner drug store (because that's what we did back then) and on my way home for lunch (it was walking distance from home, a great perk of the new job) I stopped by to get the test results.
Shoreline Graphics was a small, progressive design agency made up of four young, creative, go-getting guys when they hired me.
I was young, keen and had no idea what I was getting into. (I'm saving my stories about being the only girl in an all boy agency for another day.)
I think the small office was about 800 square feet total and I shared a small portion of that space with Jimm, one of the co-owners.
The sun had just come up when I noticed that a particularly impish bird landed on the ledge of our deck. The same ledge where I have all my beach finds on display.
We are living and working in Costa Rica right now and because I had a full suitcase when I arrived (I mean packed-to-the-hilt-stuffed suitcase) there is no room for any shells, cool rocks or beach glass for the trip home. Well, maybe some beach glass will fit.
So why even collect these treasures? To enjoy them while I'm here, of course. So there they all are, on the ledge, on display, being enjoyed.
I saw the Titanic movie. I know how it's supposed to feel when you wave good-bye to people heading out to sea on a big ship. It's fun. It's romantic. It's heartwarming. It's a special event.
That's why I thought it would be a great idea to see off a group of family members as they headed out to Bermuda on a ginormous cruise ship, from a port in New York City, not far from where I'm living at the moment.
It happened in a split second.
Do you ever have that thought, that sinking feeling, that you want to go back in time, just one or two seconds. If you could just get time to back up a smidge, so you could re-think a decision, or undo a really dumb move.
As I stood in total disbelief, with mounds (and mounds) of shattered glass everywhere, I'm pretty sure I said a bad word (the air was blue), then I actually put my head in my hand, and shook it a little.
It was a fixture on Beechwood Avenue until Saturday night. Yes, our beloved New Edinburgh Pub closed its doors for the last time. I happened to be in Ottawa on the weekend of the closure and it took me by surprise.
I know restaurants come and go. But I was pretty sad and nostalgic about the loss of this well worn corner pub. It was the go-to place for many of our family gatherings - we celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and sometimes, nothing at all.
The booth by the window was the perfect perch to people watch and gab. And they'd happily pull a bunch of tables together to feed our big clan.
It was the last place we ate before our 17-year-old son left the nest and moved to Ottawa for the summer...one last meal before launching!
So you can imagine my excitement when I drove by the shuttered Pub the day after it closed and saw a large rack on the sidewalk out front, filled with a hodge-podge of items - everything from pizza pans to shot glasses. They were cleaning out! My son and I doubled back, parked, and grabbed a few goodies. Liam took the practical approach and grabbed glasses, a dish bin and a few odds and ends for his kitchen. I saw some water jugs and thought they would be perfect mementos of our favourite family restaurant.
I was sure my kids would see the sentimentality in these well-loved gems and be super thankful that I was able to score one for each of them. Ahhh...a little piece of history.
Nope. That's not what happened.
My daughter recoiled in horror when I handed her the worn plastic water jug. Ewwww...I don't want that! Even after I explained the sentimental value of these items, she laughed and ran empty handed, away from the car.
My oldest son took a couple of the smaller jugs, not because he felt even a drop of sentimentality but because he thought they would be handy in his kitchen.
Turns out, as usual, I assumed wrong.
That made me think about all the things I might be assuming wrong in my business.
Are you making assumptions about what your clients need, and what they want? Quite possibly.
Here are 3 Things You Should Never Assume About Your Clients...
1. Don't assume they communicate the same way you do.
Understanding how your clients like to talk to you sounds simple but it's so important. Some of my clients prefer email. Some text me. Others use the phone. A few used to prefer carrier pigeon, but I put my foot down. If you haven't figured out how your clients want to connect, you should ask them! (or text them...)
2. Don't assume they have the same priorities as you.
You can assume your clients have the same priorities as you—especially if you’re collaborating on the same project. But you'd be wrong. In fact, your clients often have more pressing work to get done before focusing on the things you're working on together. And chances are, they hired you take on the things they can't put at the top of their priority list. Get over it.
3. Don't assume you know how to best help them.
Lately, I've been simply trying to ask, how can I help? The more I assume what my clients need, the further I get from the truth. That's because I'm not asking, and not listening! Practice listening carefully. Ask questions and get the conversation going. It will help clarify the problems so you can come up with some real solutions. No need to guess. Who knew?
And don't overestimate the sentimentality of your kids. One person's priceless memories are another person's disgusting garbage. Does anyone want a plastic water jug? Two?
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It's been a very busy couple of weeks since I joined a welcome team for a Syrian refugee family that just arrived in Canada. The experience has been really great - for me, anyway - I'm not sure if our new Syrian friends have figured out these crazy, super friendly Canadians are only trying to help! (Can you be too welcoming? Not in Canada!)
The welcome team model is unique to Saint John and from what I hear, it's a model that more towns and cities should consider in their own effort to welcome new Canadians.
There are a lot of challenges to helping a family, who arrive with nothing, to settle into Canadian life (in the middle of winter). And as serious as that sounds, we've had a lot of laughs. Our new friends know as much English as we know Arabic, so communicating is interesting.
Our welcome team includes students, a PR expert, Moms, Dads, business owners, a retiree, musicians, and a scientist - a pretty shifty bunch, I know. Fortunately, it wasn't long before our new friends started to trust us. And with trust came more smiling and laughing. We use charades and a smartphone translation app to chat. We understand each other most of the time. We think.
I ventured down to my favourite beach with my new Syrian friends last weekend. It was sunny and pleasant, by Canadian standards - above freezing with only a slight wind chill. They really enjoyed the stroll and were consumed by their new hobby, the quest for beach glass.
As we were heading for the car, they asked me if we could "see birds". I stopped to look around for birds. No birds. So we pulled out the smartphone and started translating back and forth. The first message said, "Can we go see birds?" No problem, I thought. We saw ducks the weekend before at a local park. They must want to see those birds again. So we piled in the car and headed to the park.
When we pulled into the parking lot beside the duck pond, my Syrian friends couldn't control their laughter. The smartphone came back out, between giggles, and they typed another Arabic message for translation. "We want to go shopping for a bird." Oh, OK. I don't get it. Did they want to buy a bird to eat? I translated that to Arabic and got uproarious laughter. OK. I was stumped.
My next question, typed hastily into the phone, "Do you want to buy a bird for a pet"? Bingo. They wanted a bird in a cage. So we went to the pet store, on a mission. My assumptions had led me on a wild goose chase - so to speak - that afternoon.
And that got me thinking about some of the assumptions we make when we communicate, especially with our customers.
Don't assume people really understand what you mean.
As small business owners, it's so important to communicate clearly to our customers all the time, with signage, in online posts, and in advertising. You are nurturing your client relationships with every email, every social media post. It's part of providing great customer service, which is more important than ever in this age of online communications. Bad news travels so fast. Especially on Facebook!
Want to communicate clearly? Here's how...
1. Listen well. (And take your customer feedback seriously) If you listen carefully, your customers will tell you what they need, how they are feeling about your products and services and how they are being treated by your staff. If you can't be face-to-face with your customers regularly, consider using surveys and polls to help gather important feedback. Because the more you understand your customers, the better you will be at talking to them.
2. Spell it out. Stay away from confusing acronyms when describing your products and services. Put your feet in the shoes of your customers. If you write that your ASM is at the FoH behind the EHD drinking an AHC, your audience may not realize your assistant store manager is out front at the enterprise help desk drinking an at home coffee. Don't CYC (confuse your customers)!
3. Write clearly. It's OK to make writing mistakes SOMETIMES - it happens. But don't make it a habit. You can avoid chronic mistakes by taking the time to re-read your writing. Get a second set of eyes on it, if you can.
4. Say thanks. Remember to thank your customers from time to time - in person and in your marketing messages. Have a contest or draw to show your appreciation. Be creative. It's always a good idea to say thanks. No need for your customers to assume you are thankful for their business. Tell them!
5. Be honest. Especially if you've made a mistake. Being open and authentic in your communications with your customers is the best policy. Always. It builds trust. You're in this for the long haul.
You have an advantage with your customer communications that I don't have with my Syrian friends - your customers probably speak the same language that you do! That's a really big first step in being understood!
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I started playing hockey at 40. I think it was a mid-life crisis. A few women in Sandy Hill (a neighbourhood in downtown Ottawa) who were tired of just watching their kids have fun playing hockey, decided to secure the outdoor rink once a week, for an hour, for a women's only scrimmage.
We equipped ourselves with soccer knee pads, our white figure skates and our husband's hockey sticks and helmets. It was fun - slightly pathetic - but fun. We've come a long way, baby.
Fast forward fourteen years. A woman over 40 playing hockey is no longer a novelty. There are well over 100 women in my small community (the Kennebecasis Valley) that play hockey now, on a few teams that have formed since my arrival in 2003. I'm on the Moms in Gear team. We were one of the first to form - we just celebrated our 10th Anniversary last year. I think the median age of our players is 52. Yes, we have players in their 60's and a few newbies closer to 40. These are, for the most part, women who have stepped into the game for the first time in their life. Some have actually had to learn how to skate! But we can all agree on one thing. It's soooooooooooooo fun!
Women's hockey is different than men's hockey. In pretty much every way it can be. I'm talking about OUR "older women's" hockey. Women stop skating mid-game when someone falls down. We help you get back up. Women often apologize to the goalie when they score against them, or at a minimum, we tap them on the helmet. (and say sorry) We giggle on the bench. We smile at our opponents at the faceoff. We congratulate the other team when they score. There is so much joy in the change room and on the ice. But there is one ritual that has puzzled me since my first day on the ice. The incredibly complicated process of dividing ourselves into two teams before starting a scrimmage. (oh, and actually starting the game on time)
This ritual occurs a few times a week. The banter in the change room is lively. Not many are looking at the clock. By the time most of the players are on the ice, skating around slowly, chatting about the kids or the weekend plans or having a quick stretch, someone usually attempts to herd the cats. First there is a count. Ok, we have fifteen. How many are still in the change room? Who can remember that? There are five in black jerseys, three in white, four in blue, three in red. Ok, let's go black & white vs. blue and red. Does that work? Wait, here come three more from the change room. Ok, two in black and one in pink. Someone is asked if they have a different colour jersey they could change into. We get rolling about ten minutes into our ice time. And it takes another ten minutes to figure out which team you're on. (was it black & red vs. blue & white?)
I think most hockey players just dump all their hockey sticks in the centre of the ice and have someone divide them into two teams. Go find your stick, and you find your team. Maybe they just remember who their team mates are, no matter the colour of their jersey. We've tried that, but it works best with hockey players who can actually recognize their own stick in a pile. (no, seriously)
Some people are ok with this process, some have very little patience for it.
Where do you draw the line?
In business, like in hockey, there are things you do that you simply don't sweat. And in other areas of your business, you stick to hard and fast rules. I believe you have to decide on the lines you will and will not cross in your business.
Over time, in my small business, I have adopted the lines I will not cross. Here are my top three:
First, after working for many years at advertising agencies and in industry, selling everything from cell phone chips to facial tissue, I decided that I would only do marketing for good and not evil. What does that mean? It's a dramatic way to say I won't work with clients that have a product or service that I don't believe in or that I don't like or use.
Secondly, and this may sound a little unusual, but I won't work long term with a client that I don't enjoy. If we aren't having fun, it's just not going to work out. Don't get me wrong, I'm very serious about our business goals, content and results but if you can't have fun in the process, well, life is too short!
And last but not least, I invoice once a month. If an invoice is unpaid, I stop working until it's paid. I've had people advise me to get paid in advance for the work I do but I've never found that to be necessary. My clients pay their invoices so I've barely ever had to even think about this.
Have you established some lines you will not cross in your business? (or on the hockey rink?) (tell me in the comments!)
Fortunately for me, I don't care what time our hockey scrimmages start, so I'm happy to go along with the curious process of splitting into teams. Others, however, may look for another group of people to play hockey with - you know - organized, efficient leagues with a good set of pinnies and a quick process. (yawn, so boring!)
And I'm happy to report that this season, we are now dividing up into 2 teams in the change room, in advance of hitting the ice - every second person is handed a black jersey. We arrive on the ice ready to play. No need to draw the line on these hockey scrimmages now!
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If you've ever taken in a show at the majestic Imperial Theatre in Saint John, New Brunswick, you won't be surprised to know that, according to the Globe & Mail, it's the "most beautifully restored theatre in Canada". (And they should know, right?)
It doesn't matter what type of show I see there, whether it's live music, comedy, a musical or a movie, I feel kinda special just sitting in that plush seat, looking up at the chandelier, waiting for the show to begin. It's a very special place and sometimes I think for a second, do I belong here? (Then I realize I bought a ticket and they actually let me in the door).
And everyone who has ever been to a show there knows there is an army of volunteers who work every door (and window, I'm sure) of every event, making sure you aren't bringing in anything that could harm those fancy seats - no Imperial Theatre contraband allowed.
At one time, it was so strict that I don't think you could even bring in water. Just sit still, watch the show and please eat & drink in the lobby, or at home!
But nothing could prepare me for the unbridled joy I felt last Halloween. The glorious "don't even think about eating in here" Imperial Theatre was showing Rocky Horror Picture Show and there was a list of "approved" props we were allowed to bring - and throw - during the movie. Really? How could this be? Were there defibrillators handy to help revive the diligent white coated volunteers when they witnessed the shenanigans of a no holds barred Rocky Horror audience?
It's one thing to throw rice, cards, and toast around your own house - you do that, right? But to have the pleasure of toilet papering the most beautifully restored theatre in Canada? Well, let's just say, we didn't leave the place the way we found it.
With our newspapers on our heads, rubber gloves on and noisemakers handy, we proceeded to lovingly litter to our hearts content. It was therapeutic and fun.
This got me thinking about the kind of experiences that small businesses can offer.
You need to offer memorable experiences. When someone shops at your store or orders a product or service from you online, is the experience memorable? I'm talking about "good" memorable. (maybe not "throwing rice all over the floor" memorable)
Be attentive and extra helpful! Is your staff trained to ask questions and make sure your customers have found everything they need? Going above and beyond makes a big difference in your customer's experience.
Show your appreciation. Do you regularly show your customers how much you love them? It could be as simple as having a special sale or an event where you give a special discount. You could offer a free service that you know they need. These are simple things you can do that will help increase loyalty.
Get to know your customers. I don't mean you need to yell out your customers' names as they come into your shop (like the treatment Norm gets on Cheers) but remembering a name of a regular customer is important. Remembering how they like their coffee or whether they prefer paper bags is an added bonus for their experience.
Create a happy place. Make the experience for your customers fun. It's never a bad idea to help cheer up someone's day. You have the opportunity to do that with every customer experience. It doesn't cost anything and adds so much value to the shopping experience. (if letting your patrons throw toilet paper around makes them happy, why not?)
It's the little things that keep them coming back.
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The Small Business Guide
Kim Houlahan is a marketing consultant who loves helping small business owners improve their marketing.
Small Business Guide ~ Archives
What's Your Best Productivity Hack?
To Share or Not to Share
Relatively Small Efforts for - wait for it - Great Results
The Truth about Working from Home
What's YOUR Superpower?
6 Things You Can Do Now
Perspective is (Almost) Everything
Are You Sensitive to Customer Needs?
Got a Process for That?
Don't Get Attached!
Aim DIRECTLY at your audience
Know When to Ask for Help
3 Things you Should Never Assume
Avoid the Wild Goose Chase
Where do you Draw the Line?
Give'em a Memorable Experience