Better Business by Robb Hicken: Networking, preparation will help you maximize your firm's customer base

Chief storyteller for the Better Business Bureau serving the Snake River RegionAugust 20, 2013 

Robb Hicken

If you ask Debra Wagner the difference between a spotted snow leopard melon and a Christmas melon, you'll get more than an earful.

"Here," the Meridian farmer says as she drives a toothpick into the meaty white flesh of a melon. "We cut one up this morning. Taste the difference between the two."

With a mouthful of juicy melon, I was once again shown how passion and honesty in business go hand in hand.

"There's a certain crunch in the leopard melon that not everyone likes," she says, and smiles.

Wagner Produce, a family operation in Meridian, features home-grown produce using little or no chemicals. The Chinden Boulevard roadside stand is abuzz with activity.

Most small business owners face the challenge of getting people to understand what's distinctive about their product or service. People may recognize your name, the nature of your business, or both, but until they stop and buy your product or your service, they rarely make the connection. Educating yourself, developing a marketing plan and networking are all part of making your business grow.

Wagner Produce has been around since 1982. The original concept was to sell excess off the farm and make a living at it. When it first opened, there were no developments or golf courses nearby, and there were fewer cars on Chinden Boulevard. Even the farming seemed to be slower.

"This spring we lost all of our tomatoes," Wagber says. "We planted every starter we had, but the cold killed them all."

Within a week, they'd found a farm that had 4,050 extra tomato plants. Wagner bought them, and began replanting.

"It would have been a disaster had we not had a good network to fall back on," she says. "We're now having a good harvest."

Not everyone can stick a toothpick in their product and offer a sample, so I've put together some tips you can use to cultivate new customers.

1. A marketing plan.

A good place to start to prepare your business for growth is to create a marketing plan. Doing so will help you to understand your target market, distinguish yourself from competitors and maintain a budget.

A good plan can help in times of misfortune and fortune. Government experts can offer guidance for free or reduced fees. You can also hire a professional to do this for you; locate a trustworthy marketing consultant within the BBB Accredited Business Directory.

2. Networking.

One great way to grow your business is to join a business or industry group. Doing this will also allow you to network and meet others in your field of expertise.

3. Education and training.

There are many educational and training opportunities available to small business owners and their employees. The following resources are nationwide:

Æ The Small Business Administration offers counseling, training and business development to help grow your business.

Æ Small Business Development Centers provide guidance and assistance to small business owners.

Æ SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, is a resource partner of the SBA assisting with business counseling and training, as well as entrepreneur education.

Æ Women's Business Centers assist women who want to start and grow small businesses.

rhicken@boise.bbb.org, 947-2115

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