Food is personal. Small businesses are, too. Entrepreneurs share their passion and drive with their customers; I am continually inspired by the heart and effort that my clients commit to their ventures. It takes a lot of guts to put your ideas and products on the line for everyone to see and judge. Yes, we are constantly being judged.
I’m no stranger to this kind of exposure: three weeks after I submitted my manuscript of The Farmer’s Office, my publisher assigned an editor to me who would help me refine and polish the book. I had already solicited feedback from clients, friends and colleagues, and I knew it needed more work. Nonetheless, that lingering feeling of vulnerability – allowing someone to critique a project I poured my soul into – was still present.
In that moment, when the editor is critiquing my writing, it’s tempting to defend all of my hard work, and my pride. But instead, I promptly checked my ego at the door, locked it in a closet, and hid the key. That was hard! There’s a valuable lesson, though: closing the door on my ego can open a new one: to constructive inputs that have the power to re-shape my book for the better.
With few exceptions, a good product, priced appropriately, and targeted to the right customers will sell. When I see a client struggle to grow their business, I know one of those three things is amiss: quality, value (price) or market (customers). With good market research, you can determine the right price and the target customer. With good marketing**, you can get potential customers to sample your product. But to retain customers, you need to provide quality – good products and good service. And the subjective nature of “quality” makes it especially hard to receive feedback when your product could use improvement. I have yet to see an entrepreneur admit that quality was low.
My publisher ensures the book is properly priced and targeted to the right readers. But if the writing is poor, then no one will buy it. The same is true for farmers, chefs and food producers. If you are struggling to grow your business, then you need to solicit feedback: not just from your regular customers but also from customers who tried your product once and didn’t return.
Even though I’m my own boss, I receive feedback and critiques constantly: from clients, collaborators and partners. It’s not always easy. There are all sorts of emotions that can get in the way, and make it hard to close that door or my ego. When the feedback comes from less informed sources, it’s easy to make excuses for why that set of suggestions isn’t valid. For example, the editor is not a farmer and may not understand references to agri-tainment or value-add. As a result, she may suggest that I use different terms. While I would argue for the accuracy of my original words and concepts, her critique provides a great point of reflection: I should define potentially unfamiliar terms. Keeping an open frame of mind allows all feedback to become valuable, even if no changes are made as a result.
Similarly, a chef might be tempted to brush off complaints about food or service by suggesting the customer is ill-informed. An organic farmer may suggest that his customers don’t appreciate his produce because they have a supermarket-standard for price, packaging and appearance. The entrepreneur may be correct in these assessments, but it’s of little importance if he doesn’t have customers buying his product.
In order to best align your quality and value with your customers, you must solicit feedback.
What can you do to make sure that opening up your work to others is a productive experience, and not a wave of discouragement? Here are some tips:
Focus on the end goal. If a customer, colleague or friend takes the time to offer feedback, it’s because they want to see you succeed. Your ultimate goal is to provide the best product (or service). Feedback should not be misconstrued as a personal affront. This is especially important to remember because not everyone is graceful with their words or delivery.
Acknowledge that “less knowledgeable” sources have less bias. While my editor may know very little about farming and accounting, her outside perspective can help me ensure that my content is accessible to a wider audience. She may see things that my eyes glaze over because I’m so familiar with the content. Similarly, a non-chef can share perspectives about quality and service that a chef may miss.
Approach the situation as an opportunity to learn something new. Sometimes the feedback comes at a time when you know it might be bad. Perhaps you catered a party, and the food was not as successful as you had hoped. Or the meat you sold was not butchered as cleanly as you would like. It may be easy to tune out the feedback because you already know at went wrong. When you solicit feedback, you may hear a new suggestion to address problem areas.
Listen. Listen. Listen. The temptation arises to explain ourselves, why we did what we did… why I chose particular words or structures, why a farmer chose to package the CSA shares or a food producer priced her products. If you explain your choices, you may miss an important opportunity to hear what your customers want and improve your business.
Use body language to reinforce your receptiveness. Despite the temptation to close up, stay open. Ask questions, smile, and make eye contact. Even if you are talking on the phone, focus your attention on the speaker. You may learn something new.
It’s not easy to make ourselves vulnerable, but it provides the best opportunities for growth and success.
** For marketing support, contact Myrna Greenfield at Good Egg Marketing.