Learning to think outside the big boxes

KINGSTON — Fred Parkinson is trying to help small business owners get an edge over big box corporations that may come to the North End.

Parkinson, a business consultant with the Service Corps of Retired Executives, hosted a July 15 seminar at the Kingston Cove Yacht Club with local business owners and gave pointers how they can compete, and in some ways, work with the large companies.

With the possibility of a Wal-Mart going into the Olhava property in Poulsbo, the Kingston Chamber of Commerce sponsored the seminar for small businesses owners.

Parkinson explained to the group of nearly 25 entrepreneurs and employees that small companies have great advantages over big corporations.

“Small businesses do have some attributes in America and you can use that to your advantage,” he said.

Customer service and how employees are treated were the primary points Parkinson emphasized to the group.

With customers, it’s a matter of listening to what their needs and problems are and how the business can help them, Parkinson said.

One example was fixing a customer problem without making a sale. The customer is more likely to come back to the store to shop later because of the complimentary service or advice they received earlier, Parkinson pointed out.

“It’s like advertising,” he said about providing such services. “You want to solve the problem without a lot of money and time.”

He also noted that through simple market research, business owners can learn about their customers’ needs and how they can be better served.

“Ask them,” Parkinson advised. “That’s all market research is.”

Other ways to find out more about clients’ needs are through interviews, surveys, focus groups and customer complaints.

Consumer gripes are the best things businesses could ever receive for learning what the customer wants, Parkinson said, noting the client can either complain or just walk away.

How employees are treated was the other major point that small businesses owners have over big businesses, Parkinson said, noting the small environment lends itself to such an advantage. Employees want to be treated with respect, challenged, educated on their jobs and kept “in the loop” of how the business is doing, he explained.

“(Employees) at big businesses aren’t kept in the loop,” Parkinson said.

While small business owners may not be able to pay big bucks like some corporations, they can offer other incentives, such as more training and education, flexible hours or the chance to work at home on occasion.

The small environment also lends itself to creativity, he said, adding that one way to do that is through brainstorming.

To emphasize his point, Parkinson gave the group 10 minutes to come up with 25 ideas — good and bad — of how to treat or reward employees.

While the results weren’t necessarily the point (the top two ideas were verbal praise and flexible hours), it was the ability to be creative and think outside the box to help improve the company.

In regards to the possibility of Sam Walton’s store hitting the hills of Olhava, Parkinson said small businesses will have some opportunities to work with the big-box store. This can include Wal-Mart referring customers to a local business for a particular item or local businesses acting as a supplier to large store, Parkinson suggested.

“It needs further exploring for how small businesses and Wal-Mart can work together,” he said. “The enemy concept doesn’t work together in my view.”

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