When you’re serious about growing your small business it makes sense to get the best advice possible. You can do that even if money is tight by tapping the expertise of Small Business Development Center (SBDC) advisors and consultants. SBDCs are funded in part by the United States Congress through a partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
SBDC Centers offer free consulting and free or low-cost training. (Find yours here.) Their results speak for themselves: SBDC clients grow sales by an average 18.1%, which is 4.3 times the national average. March 20th is SBDC Day, and to celebrate, we assembled some tips from their experts.
Here 15 SBDC pros share strategies for taking your business to the next level.
1. Leverage Your Competitor’s Weaknesses
Make a list of your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses. Thoroughly research them so you are able to take their weakness and make them your strengths. You don’t want to compete with them on their strengths when you can target their weaknesses and excel there. That’s your competitive advantage!
Tamela Darnell, management consultant, KY SBDC at Murray State University
2. Stand Out In A Digital World
It’s as simple as it sounds, but sending a handwritten note to customers is one of the best ways to keep customers and get new referrals. Anyone can send an email, but when customers receive a handwritten letter, they know that you took the time to think about them, write the note, and mail it. (Who even has stamps anymore?!) Those notes become treasures for small business owners who many not otherwise receive much deserved accolades and you’ll be top of mind next time they or a friend is in need of your product or service!
Gina Woodward, regional director, America’s SBDC at WTAMU
3. Develop Disruptive Customer Service
Disruptive customer service is a desired level of service that is delivering a customer experience that is so exemplary that it literally creates brand ambassadors for your business and blows the competition away. That begins with declaring exemplary customer service as a core value in your company and supporting that declaration with ongoing training and tools for every member of the organization from the top down.
Mark Collier, business consultant, Georgia’s SBDC
4. Groom An Employee to Buy Your Business
Start looking now for a potential person to purchase your business to keep it thriving and growing long after you exit. One of the best places to look is at your own employees. If you find an employee that shows interest and potential start grooming them now. It may take a couple of years for you to sell (or be willing to sell) and in the meantime you have the opportunity to foster and mentor a great employee to become the next owner.
Susan G Desgrosseilliers, business advisor, Maine SBDC at the University of Southern Maine
5. Cooperate With Your Competition
If you have a bricks and mortar business located next to other businesses, collaborate and promote as a city or neighborhood. The more ways that you can find to work and promote your businesses together, the more ways you will create a friendly and warm environment that your customers will love.
Here in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, several independent restaurants joined up to market together. And CLE Urban Winery had an event where it offered the product of another local small business, Brewnuts. They are both advertising for each other, and making more sales.
Katie A. Van Dyke, director, Ohio SBC at Cleveland Heights Library
6. Really Know Your Customers
One of the biggest missteps that a company can make is thinking that they know who their customers are. Research shows us that most businesses have not taken the time to truly understand their customers. The easiest thing to do is to survey your customers, let them tell you what you are doing right— and believe me they will tell you what you are doing wrong.
You also need to look at demographics, geographics, and psychographics to obtain the full picture of who your customers truly are. If you master this concept, you will be better at catering to their needs and making them your customers.
Carleen Dotson, training specialist/business consultant, Ohio University SBDC
7. Don’t Fall In An Email Trap
Sell yourself, not just your product or service. Face to face contact, as well as a phone call, are powerful ways to establish trust and maintain that confidential relationship. Email has become the sad standard of sales in 2019; although important, it lacks the personal touch. Don’t fall into that trap!
Mary Kay Della Camera, microenterprise business advisor, Connecticut SBDC at
UConn School of Business
8. Make Your Website Pop
Revamp your website if it is more than 5 years old. Website design has evolved, internet users are more savvy and you don’t want to be considered “obsolete” in a glance. Simple changes like placing your logo and call-to-action in the upper left corner; using concise, keyword-rich content that is understood easily; and the addition of hyper-linked buttons to your product or service page placed above the “fold” or “scroll” line can make a big impact in user experience and bounce rates.
Laura D. Katz, area director, Athens, University of Georgia SBDC
9. Stop Taking Customers For Granted
It’s a commonly accepted business fact that it is easier and less expensive to keep an existing customer than it is to get a new one. As small business owners we have to make a concerted effort not to take the customers we have for granted. Small simple things can make a big impact, so do what you said you would do, go the extra mile and follow up, asking for feedback. Start with these things and loyal customers will follow.
Bill Burnham, growth acceleration specialist, Florida SBDC at USF
10. Schedule Downtime
The reality of running your own business is that you can work 24/7 and there’s still more to do! When helping clients prepare an operating plan, I always recommend scheduling at least two weeks for vacations. I also recommend taking breaks during the day – for a short walk or meditation – for rest and renewal.
Ann Garbarino, NYS certified senior business advisor, SBDC at Stony Brook University
11. Leverage the Power of Partners
Look around for key partnerships in all aspects of your business. Are there ways to partner with supplies, distributors, wholesalers or retailers that would cut your cost of goods sold (COGS) or marketing? For instance, your organic dog treats require vegetable pulp, is there a juice bar that regularly throws out pounds of pulp?
Kim Sherman-Labrum, associate business consultant/training coordinator, Idaho SBDC in Boise
12. Plan Your Cash Flow
Map out your cash flow for six to twelve months. As your sales increase, it’s even more important to do this, since your inventory and payroll expenses will probably occur before your customers’ money hits your bank account.
Karen Goldner, managing director, Illinois SBDC at Women’s Business Development Centers
13. Go Broad In Your Search For Financing
Businesses need to explore all options when looking for financing. Usually the front line of financing sources are the banks and rightfully so. That is what they do best. There are some who use the SBA guarantee programs and others who don’t.
But there are other entities involved in that universe. Starting at the neighborhood level, there are the Community Development Corporations (CDCs). Their mission is to improve their own business districts and have funding to do that from tax abatements to grants. Then there are municipalities. They also have an economic development component helping businesses located within their jurisdictions. Then you have the counties which have the economic development officers and then state programs.
Honeycomb and non-profit Kiva have crowdfunding options. There are also online lenders. Business owners need to explore as much as possible in their quest to get financing.
Brent G. Rondon, certified global business professional (CGBP) manager,
Duquesne University SBDC
14. Learn How to Delegate
Whether you have employees, subcontractors or family pitching in, learning how to delegate effectively can be the difference between reaching new heights and burning out. Many small business owners are accustomed to doing a variety of things themselves instead of enlisting the help of others, so it can be challenging to identify the tasks you don’t need to do yourself and assign the work to someone else. Once you overcome the challenge, though, you will have more time to dedicate to what you do best — grow your business.
Denise Whitford, business advisor at the Connecticut SBDC
15. Add “Smile Makers” To Your Product Line
These “smile makers” are four categories of target-audience products almost guaranteed to be a selling success. Add products for children, grandchildren, family and pets, the fastest growing purchasing categories.
Rita A. Mitchell, certified counselor, USM SBDC and Penny Bolton, business consultant, Murfreesboro, TN.
This article was originally written on March 15, 2019 and updated on January 27, 2021.