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Monday, October 29, 2012

Small Businesses and Small School Districts

I met an old friend this weekend as I was shopping for some supplies to help my daughter prepare for the upcoming storm expected to strike the Northeast on Monday. He owns a small hardware store up in Washington County that features materials for farmers in that area. He has owned the store for many years. However, the future viability of his business is being threatened by the simultaneous challenge of contending with a weak economy and competing with a large national franchise store that recently located within a couple of miles of his shop and offers similar items for sale.

We talked about the issues we face - his small independent hardware store and my role as superintendent of a small public school district. Our competitors extend a broader array of products and services that are often more cost effective on a larger scale, which in turn means consumers can have greater choice at a reduced cost. That's a particular bonus during a weary economy. Neither of our operations are sustainable on cost alone.

That prompts us both to examine how we can differentiate our businesses from our competitors and add value to the customer. Ultimately, we have both invested in relationship management as the platform for survival. While the Big Box stores offer more choices at lower prices, the products and services are often pitched by inexperienced, part-time workers who are generalists in what they sell instead of specialists. Ever shop for a washing machine at a Big Box store and discover that the sales clerk is young enough that their only true experience with a washing machine is relying on mom to use it to wash their clothes? That doesn't necessarily instill confidence in what the clerk tells you about the washing machine when you are about to spend several hundred dollars on a purchase. Most times, they turn to a manual to explain the appliance.

In contrast, I noted that John knew the names of each customer who entered his store. These shoppers weren't buying something from a part-time employee who was fulfilling a job. Instead, they were buying something from John, a long-time acquaintance who they could count on for support through a relationship borne of trust, honesty, and reliability. He personally stands behind each transaction with his credibility as a guarantee. He takes time to engage customers in casual conversations that extend and enhance the relationship.

Another point of distinction that separates John from the Big Box store is his personal and sincere involvement in the community. He has served as a member of the Board of Education either with the local public school district or the regional BOCES, for over forty consecutive years. He cares about his neighbors and demonstrates his concern for the greater good of the community. He has been a long time sponsor of various not-for-profit youth groups. He is very aware of the needs and interests of the community and responds in a constructive manner whenever and wherever possible.

He's a determined man who has reduced his profit margin in the wake of the recession. He has ensured that his employees recognize the value of customer service relationships to fend off the presence of a giant competitor. Most of all, he is a man of integrity who is committed to doing what is right for others.

I suspect that he will continue to remain in business in the shadow of the Big Box store because of his personal qualities and because he has carved out a sustainable niche by nurturing relationships with each and every customer.

Our school district is not much different. We are too small to offer the breadth of curriculum and classes available at the much larger high schools in the area. But, we offer a depth of relationships between adults and learners that is extremely difficult for those larger schools to match. We believe that ultimately, relationships matter in education. The nature of interaction in a human service organization prioritizes care, compassion, and understanding as critical attributes and leverage points of differentiation between our small district and those much larger. Relationships are a prerequisite for creating success in learning.

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