Why Your Business Needs a Community

Today, a vast part of brand awareness and business success points directly to online communities and consumer advocates shaping brands, driving growth and increasing revenue. But if brand advocates and online communities are assets that can bring value to a business over the lifetime of the company, then why are so few brands today investing in the resources needed to build community and help them flourish?

Loyal community members are known to purchase more, foster deep brand affiliations and advocate more strongly for a brand than non community members.

The sense in committing to community

I learned my first lesson in the value of brand communities when I was 17. I was working part-time after school and on weekends at our local ski shop, B&D Sports & Ski Hut in Redwood City, California. I was a cashier-sales-rental department “associate” and I couldn’t have been more excited about it.

B&D was a family-owned business. We were a Ski Magazine and Ski Industry Authorized Dealer (which made us extra special, and me even more proud) and we were known for our  ‘customer first’ approach, outstanding choice of skis, boots and outerwear, and “all help, no hype” service.  The owners, Larry, and his wife Jean, strongly believed that returning customers were the future of our business, and, that customers were people and not walking wallets or cash cows.

So while there was the need to sell our goods to keep our jobs, there was also a firm “sell for the future, not the day” and a “no milking the customer” policy in place. It didn’t matter if customers were just coming in to chat or making the mega-purchase, every customer was treated equally.

Our goal was to create Faberge Organics Shampoo word of mouth marketing, where customers would tell a friend about our personal touch to business, and the friends would tell two others –and so on, and so on and so on. And it worked. We had a loyal and growing customer base that would return yearly to purchase new products, get their skis tuned and purchase those last minute “must have” items.

Our staff was a fun-loving bunch of ski, board and surf enthusiasts (in the summer months) who got a thrill out of telling, not selling. Our job was to make sure our customers got the right stuff so they could make magic on the mountain.

There was “no tech talk” to customers unless they were begging for it (and some actually did). If that meant forgoing a sale to a valued customer because we didn’t have what was right for them, we did, and that was okay because they’d remember us for not selling them something they couldn’t use. And remember us they did! Our customers were so loyal that they’d even stop by during the week on their way home from work to share their ski adventures with the crew.

The store turned enough of a profit to pay the bills and keep a staff of 15 to 20 employed in the winter, but there wasn’t a whole lot left over. Newspaper ads (and billboards!) were all the rage, but they were expensive and there wasn’t a budget to invest. Although the idea of hundreds of new customers traipsing through the door was attractive, growing our current clientele through word of mouth,  and building the best and most loyal community of customers we could with what we had, was our focus. We weren’t worried. We had what we needed: one of the most knowledgeable teams around, excellent merchandise, snacks at the register, cold beers in the fridge, parking lot BBQs, and our secret weapon: weekend bus trips for families.

Yes, for those who could handle the 3am Saturday mornings, parents and kids could join one of “Kelly & Brett’s Amazing Tahoe Bus Trips; a 4am depart for a fun filled day to a different a different resort in Lake Tahoe. The trip came complete with a four-hour bus ride each way, music, movies, half-price ski rentals, morning donuts, after ski snacks and a discounted ski ticket.

We didn’t make a dime off of the trip. The price of the seat price covered the bus and the tickets, and this was the highlight of the winter for a lot of kids and adults who otherwise might not have been able to get to the mountains as often as they wanted. It was a staff highlight as well.  Life was good, winters were white, our customers were happy and sales were strong. It couldn’t get any better. And then, it got worse.

One fine summer day, a chain of ski stores called Any Mountain opened their doors a half mile down the road. Their purchasing power was multiplied times the number of locations they owned and they were able to offer pre-season discounts all season long. The talk of the town was all about “the store who must not be named” (also known as “the discount devil”, “the price popper” and “that store down the road”) — Any Mountain.

We were scared.  And probably more accurate than that, we were sad. The writing seemed to be on the wall. The Discount Devil down the road was most likely going to put us out of business. The fun would be over and we’d have to either find “real jobs”, (i.e: in an office) or apply at “That Store” for a job. And no way was any one of us ever going to work there.

So, we prepared ourselves for dismal sales and for our customers to flee. We figured the ones who complained most about our high prices, but for some reason continued to purchase, were already out the door. We made plans to cut back on staff and purchasing for the following season. But once the season started rolling, something interesting happened.

Yes, our sales dipped, but they didn’t dive. Yes, we needed to scale back on staff, but not by that much. Yes, our customers checked out the competition and even purchased skis and clothing there. But by the end of the year, most of them came back. Our sales were down, but for the most part, our most loyal customers stayed with us. And even better, they continued to bring friends with them, who also became loyal customers even though they knew they could get better prices down the road.

Our sales were down, but we weren’t out of the game. They could have bought elsewhere, but our most loyal customers stayed with us, and they even brought their friends. The personal touch trumped deep pocket discounts.

If we had invested our time and money in acquisition tactics or participated in deep discounting to compete on price, our customers probably would not have returned. If that is the only way you can differentiate yourself, and brand yourself, then what unique selling proposition do you have to offer?

Fast forward to 2015, and community proves to be one of the most valuable assets to a company. The tools and ways we do business have changed, but the principles haven’t. So why are so few brands investing resources in online communities?

Drop me a line below and let’s chat. I’d love to hear your thoughts.




15 thoughts on “Why Your Business Needs a Community

Add yours

  1. Kelly! Such a great first post! You’re exactly right, if you take care of your customers, they will take care of you! At the end of the day it really does come down to having a customer-centric mindset. The business in your post did, and that’s why the big national chain couldn’t beat them. They could offer lower prices but they couldn’t offer better customer care! Actually I guess they could have, but they chose not to.

    We appreciate the businesses that appreciate us. Simply as that.

    1. Exactly, Mack. People vote with their dollars and regardless of prices, they want to be treated special. There are little ways you can show your customer you appreciate them without bus trips. It’s all in the thought and in the thank you!

      In all fairness, Any Mountain runs a great business and light snow years and increased competition forced them to change their ways a bit too. Their service is pretty good now 🙂

  2. Kelly,

    What a way to kickstart this blog! This is awesome.

    As a teenager, I used to play video games at a local arcade. There were quite a few in my area but always ended up there anyway. The owners, who were close to retirement age, were super nice, often gave me a quarter to play for free. When I didn’t have time to go home for lunch or needed a place to stay to do my homework right after school, they would have a table and sandwich ready for me.

    The place was usually quiet, except for afternoons, so I could talk to them about anything and they would listen.

    As a result, I brought all my friends. The owners treated them in the same way. We all ended up spending money every day.

    When they had to close, my heart broke. The place was attached to so many great memories. I never went back to any game arcade after that.

    My story and yours are similar. If you treat people like human beings and not numbers on a list or dollar signs, you will get their love and trust in return.

    “If we had invested our time and money in acquisition tactics or participated in deep discounting to compete on price, our customers probably would not have returned. If that is the only way you can differentiate yourself, and brand yourself, then what unique selling proposition do you have to offer?” – I feel this quote could be the beginning of a book! 😉

    1. A book! Oh, at the rate it took to get this post out that could take a while! Thank you for your support though 🙂

      When B&D Ski did finally close I think there were a lot of people who felt the same.

      You’re absolutely right. People shouldn’t be seen as a walking dollar sign. I can purchase anywhere. I’ll go to where I’m treated like a person, not a walking wallet.

  3. I am certain this first post will be one of many interesting blog posts to come. Congratulations ! Your first post is relevant to what I “live” every day at paper.li. From the day you passed the baton over to me to manage Customer Care, I’ve learned a lot from you about the importance of community and have seen first-hand how important a sense of community is in order to create and keep (through thick and thin) loyal customers. In today’s fast-paced, hyper-competitive business environment, companies would be wise to pay attention to building community if they want to stand out from the pack.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Julia and commenting! And more than being there through thick and thin I think we’ve both experience the opportunities to learn from – and innovate with – community, while working at Paper.li.

      There are some wise companies out there getting it. They’re looking forward as to how both the business and community can benefit from a relationship. The ROI is so much more than simply counting the cash in the register today. When you start thinking of community as partners and extended team members, and no longer “just customers”, the possibilities are endless!

      Keep up the good work. Community Management’s not for the faint-hearted. You’re doing an excellent job!

  4. Great post Kelly and I totally agree with you. I think the best sales people are the ones that don’t try selling. I’ve always taken the approach that you listen first and then provide the best answer/solution regardless if you’re selling one of your products or telling them about someone else’s. Customers/clients know at that point that you’re honest and have their best interest in mind and I think a lot of people find that refreshing because they expect so much less. Lower prices might get people through the door once, but great customer service gets people back through that door on a regular basis.

    1. Thanks for your comment Josh. Small business owners usually always understand this. It’s when teams start moving towards a model of acquisition over loyalty when that message gets trampled. What I love about technology today is that the customer first effect can truly be so easily amplified, allowing for greater traction and user growth — and all without a hard sell.

  5. Hey Kelly! Cool post! Sadly, value, quality and loyalty suffer greatly, when too much emphasis is spent on purely monetary gain. I’m all for the “it takes a village…” ideology in that it take a community coming together to improve and grow the economy. Oh, I enjoyed the #BizHeroes chat Tuesday! Greg Morgan (@reelmovieguy)

    1. Greg, thank you for your comment. I agree. It DOES take a village and it takes dedication to a broader view of how community and companies can work together to build a business that will endure.

      Thanks for joining #bizheroes. I really appreciate it and I’m certain the community enjoys meeting and learning from you.

  6. This is fabulous content! As a consumer, I 100% agree that $’s don’t matter nearly as much as the experience and they way I am treated by a Retailer/Vendor or Service. As a Sales Person/ Business Development professional pitching to Brands and Retailers about enhancing their Customer experience, this is exactly what they (Brands/Retailers) need to hear and aggressively make changes where needed. Our world of Commerce is changing and as we evolve through E-Commerce and Mobile, the reality is the customer is much smarter, and has many resources or avenues to get the information and service they want. Thanks Kelly for this Blog and opening eyes to this Reality. My current company (ChatID) empowers this thinking and the reason why I am so passionate about adding to our fast growing, strong list of Brands and Retailers. US Based for now, but Europe is coming very soon. 🙂

  7. Ricky, thank YOU for taking the time to leave your comments. In the long run, it is going to be the companies that put people before profits that prevail. It takes a leap of faith for many to walk that road though.

    I worked in sales for a good amount of time and it takes a strong leader to pull this line of thinking through. When we put the customer first, everybody wins.

    I look forward to your company coming to Europe. Be sure to let me know when you do!

  8. Hi Kelly,

    Great article. I am a firm believer in the theory of building a community and making a name for yourself. My father was a small business owner with a welding firm whose biggest customer was Uni-Lever. He could have gouged the big multinational company, but instead was alway fair in his pricing and always made sure the work was done correctly. I worked for time to time during university in the summer.

    One time a group of engineers and project managers came up to me and said, “You’re dad is one of the most honest and straight up guys we know. He could charge us a lot more but he doesn’t, because he’s that kind of guy and you should be proud of him” I was proud and still am. My father instilled that belief in me, and now that my wife and I started our own online business a couple of weeks ago, we’ll make sure that bring that same ethos to our company.

    Justin Gallego

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