In the last few weeks, there has been a lot more talk in my inner circles about support for Black Businesses. “Why don’t people support Black Businesses?” For me, it is a nerve-grating, rhetorical question. Why doesn’t anyone support any business?
My Agency serves businesses all over the city of Chicago and two other states. Our clients vary in backgrounds: Hispanic, Jewish, Gay, Black, and White. I can assure you, the same troubles that plague some Black businesses are the same ones that plague businesses in other ethnic neighborhoods.
In the first place, it is a misunderstanding. There are plenty of thriving, professional Black businesses that are frequented by people from all walks of life. But here’s the kicker, they are GOOD businesses. Not good Black Businesses. And secondly, businesses are not charities. They are not to be supported. I don’t know who started that idea, but it’s raising expectations in the wrong direction and it has to stop. Either you are providing solid value in exchange for the right price, or you are not. If you do, you will likely stay afloat. If you don’t, you will likely go out of business.
This advice is not just for Black business owners, but for anyone and everyone who is struggling to get or maintain customers. I’m constantly rooting for my Main Street owners so this is as difficult for me to write as it is for some of you to read. And I could certainly do without publicly putting extra pressure on myself. I’ve made a number of these mistakes. Positive practice is a daily challenge for me. But, we’re not going to get anywhere spreading misinformation and coddling each other. My aim with this article is to clarify the common small problems that can easily be fixed to make big changes.
I couldn’t find your business in the first place.
I Googled your business but you didn’t have a website. When I finally found your Facebook page there was little information on it. And when I could make out the product or service you offered through the grainy photos on your page, I couldn’t figure out who to contact.
How to fix it.
Websites are standard, but they’re not required. There are plenty of good businesses that run purely on Facebook and Email. Especially if you’re just starting out. Take just 15-20 minutes to build out your Company Facebook page. Instagram can work too if you also have a landing page or website. However, I would not recommend using it on its own.
For beginners, GoDaddy Sitebuilder, Weebly, or Wix are good options. If you’ve been in business a year or more, Squarespace or Shopify are better. After that, if you need to build systems for your business, you must graduate to a properly built hard-coded or WordPress site. I’ve seen very complex businesses try to run off Wix or Squarespace and its always a hot mess. If you need help deciding, we can give you direction. And it’s free.
Your attitude is bad.
I walk into your business and I’m more excited about you being in the neighborhood than you are. You greet me with a low mumble, if at all. You are tired, or angry or both. Even though I’ve visited here a few times, you pretend as if this is the first time you are seeing me. You tell me how the city or some arm of government is screwing you. And sure enough, they probably are, but I don’t want to hear about it. I came to buy a cupcake or some shea butter or a dress. I’d rather not walk out more depressed than I came in.
How to fix it.
For as difficult as it might be, ask friends, family, or customers if they feel welcome in your space. If you don’t get a hell yes from most people, they’re likely lying to you to be nice and you need to make some adjustments. If you don’t like your business, quit. It’s okay. I had three businesses before I started this one. There is no shame in saying, you know, I thought things would be different. I’m going to get a job, downsize to an online model, or start something completely different. I’ve done all these.
On the flip side, if you’re still loving your business but you’re not a naturally warm personality, that’s okay too. Hire a greeter. Someone local who likes what you’re doing and is willing to interface with your customers or clients while you take care of the stuff you’d prefer to be working on.
Your customer service is horrible.
I walk in to explain that I have a small issue with an item I purchased. I don’t want to return, just exchange for a larger size. You scowl at me and tell me you won’t have another shipment with that size until next week, at which point my exchange date would have expired. So there’s nothing else you can do, but you own the business…? You also make it known that it is my fault for not getting the right size in the first place. Not cool.
How to fix it.
Here’s the thing: Business ownership can be stressful. Constantly taking crap from customers, employees, and the ‘system’ so to speak, can make you crazy and defensive. My best advice? Drop your ego. Trust me, it is so much easier to go with the flow. I’ve cried at city hall. I’ve asked clients to extend deadlines for family emergencies. I’ve taken thousand dollar hits for web errors. All because I’m human. Being a business owner does not mean you have to appear to have your shit together at all times. Burn the mask and let it go. Ask questions and work with people. Get to know everyone you deal with on a personal level. Extend love and vulnerability to those around you. You do not have to know everything or be right all the time. Take the pressure off yourself to put your customer service and your business in a more profitable place.
Your follow through is some-timey.
I sent an email last week and haven’t heard back from you. When I finally did get a return email, information was missing or you didn’t directly answer my question. You’re busy. I totally get it. In some ways, this is still my biggest challenge. There are many balls that you have to keep in the air. So following up with a client or customer can be difficult, but it’s crucial to your survival. I also see a lot of owners not follow through on things like permits, paperwork with the state, taxes and it is causing businesses to fail.
How to fix it.
Lack of follow-through is a symptom of overwhelm. This may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but walk with me here:
Refer back to or write your vision. This should more closely reflect the daydream you have about your business. Your wildest dreams.
Refer to or write your mission. What will you do over the next year to get you closer to vision?
Write three goals. The things you must accomplish in the next 3-6 months to accomplish your mission.
DO NOTHING ELSE. Cut everything else out. The random business meetings, workshops, and get-togethers. The blabbity-blab time wasters. This will create an enormous amount of space and time for you to focus on accomplishing your goals AND keep your customers first.
Also, ‘I don’t know’ is an answer. Don’t stall a customer because you’re not sure how to give them an answer. Let them know you’re not quite sure about their inquiry and circle back with them when you have a proper answer.
Your Interior isn’t competing.
I’m looking for a spot to kill time. I walk into your cafe. The windows are dirty. The walls are blank. Seating is sparse or uncomfortable. None of the decor makes sense if you have any at all. There’s no love and no ‘vibe’.
People aren’t paying for the thing you sell; the clothes, the coffee or the food. I can assure you, the actual purchase plays a very small part in their decision to buy from you. Whatever goods you sell can be purchased around the corner or online somewhere and delivered more conveniently. Any avid coffee drinker will tell you that Starbucks does not have the best coffee. Target doesn’t sell the cheapest goods. People buy from these places because of the way it makes them feel to shop there. It’s an experience. That’s what they’re paying for.
How to fix it.
Yes, this can be an issue of capital, but it can also be an issue of Windex, paint, and a little creativity. This is about love for what you do and the people you serve.
One of my favorite coffee shops on the southside is Sip and Savor, which makes excellent use of vibrant paint colors and art from local artists. My other fave spot in Wicker Park, Filter, used found and thrift furniture to turn their shoestring budget into a hip space to chill.
If you need help or ideas, student labor at design colleges is HEAVILY underutilized. Remember, you must get a certified contractor for major construction or moving walls. But, as long as you’re just rehabbing furniture and painting, you will be okay. Note that you do need to pay your student designer. But you’ll pay pennies compared to what a professional Commercial Interior Designer or Architect would cost you. These kids are experts at design on a dime. There are plenty of students who would love to make a few hundred bucks and have the professional experience for their portfolios. Either way, investing in your interior is a lot cheaper than having to close your business.
Think about how you feel as a customer. Find a competitor you know is doing well and see what they’re doing. Notice how they serve their customers and how the customers are responding to them. Spend some time noticing how you feel in their space. Look at what they are doing with their lighting, the music or the design. What are they doing that you can recreate on your budget? Also, don’t be afraid to raise your prices nominally (1%) to provide better amenities like quality shopping bags, better brand design, or credit card checkout.
There are many more pain points for neighborhood businesses. These are the major sticking ones that I’ve both experienced as a customer or committed as an entrepreneur. Listen to your clients and your employees. Constantly look for feedback. It can be hard to hear at first, but that’s the hard part. Fixing these issues can be quite easy and even fun.
A couple days ago shots Mr. Trump fired shots at Chicago from his Twitter feed. The man has a particular gift for getting people whipped up into a frenzy. He knows all the weak points. All the buttons to push. But this one made me particularly livid because it was a high profile, visible manifestation of what I’ve been telling people all along. We’re all complicit in Chicago’s “violence problem”.
I place that in quotes not because it isn’t a problem. But because the problem itself has become its own entity. A contained virus. A tool by which people leverage and measure their relevance or goodness in the world. Rappers use it to establish street cred. Politicians use it gain votes. Hipsters use it to sharpen their startup skills. Media to sell papers. Celebrities to signal to the world they ‘care’ about something even if they haven’t really worked in or been back to the Southside in years.
We’re all feeding a monster. And though I do my best, I’m no exception. Chicago doesn’t have a violence problem. We have a skills gap problem. An education problem. A segregated resources problem. A parenting/village/community problem. All of these things are exacerbated by our inability to keep our mouths shut about what we don’t want so that we can focus on what we do want. Simply put, we have the gift of gab for the wrong shit.
I’m not going to get into the statics about how per capita, it’s not that bad. Or how it’s isolated to certain communities because the fact of the matter is, any murder is unnecessary and preventable. If we stop making crime the soapbox upon which we stand, there’ll be less attention and therefore less energy for the people committing these crimes that can be diverted to deploying impactful positive change.
There are a thousand and one people down here who are working solutions. I mean really making an impact. Some of them seasoned and wise. Many of them young and hopeful. Working 70 hour weeks for $30k and they need your support. Every time you get on Facebook to complain or blame or point fingers, you’re throwing salt in their wounds; throwing them and the residents they serve into a kind of hopeless submission. You’re saying what they’re doing doesn’t matter. But it’s not because they’re not doing anything you’re just not paying attention.
The law of attraction is real. Whatever you focus on will grow. It’s best we focus on the things already happening that are making the city great. Here are some ways to change the narrative: