Lessons in Creativity, Resourcefulness, From Small Town U.S.A.
Want to learn how to succeed in today’s business environment? Talk to a small town entrepreneur.
Small town business owners have always had to be tough, creative and resourceful – and nearly flawless in their customer service. As a result, they have a lot to teach others in business, including travel sellers, according to rural entrepreneur, consultant and speaker Becky McCray.
McCray lives in a community of 30, just outside the “big town” of Alva, Okla., (population, 5,000). She runs a local liquor store that she inherited from her mother; operates a cattle ranch with her husband; teaches online marketing skills to destination marketing organizations, and consults to small towns.
She is also writing, with co-author Barry Moltz, a book whose working title is From Small Town to Small World: Survival Secrets of Rural Entrepreneurs.
In the first of a two-part series, Travel Market Report asked McCray to explain what small town businesspeople do differently and what travel agents can learn from them.
What’s different about doing business in a small town?
McCray: Some of the things that are different about doing business in a small town make a lot of sense to people that are doing business online. They are things that started in small towns.
McCray: We have always dealt with the fact that any one of our customers could talk to any other of our customers in a small town. Word used to travel through the local coffee shop and get spread around town pretty quickly. Now it spreads online.
For a long time, small town businesses have relied on customer service, knowing the likes and dislikes of their customers, knowing their families. That kind of knowledge about your customer has meant that small town businesses could be kings at customer service.
Are business conditions tougher in small towns?
McCray: Small town businesses frequently have had to deal with less demand because we have a smaller customer base. We’ve had to deal with tighter lending, because we’re dealing with hometown banks.
We’ve had to deal with limited resources in our communities, which has just made us tough and creative. You may be in a town that has a real limited workforce. Another small town may not have educational resources. You can’t count on any one town having all the major resources that you expect in a metropolitan area.
These things are coming into play nationally. So that creativity we’ve developed that helps small town businesses survive is now the creativity that everybody needs.
So what can small town businesspeople teach other businesspeople?
McCray: Let’s start with word getting around. Every travel agency now deals with the fact that all of their customers can discuss every element of their interaction with you online. Your customers now have the ability to talk to every other one. So if you have a problem with one customer, they can tell so many more people.
In addition your customer has the ability to connect with people to find out all the alternatives they have to dealing with a travel agent.
The solution from small towns is to treat each customer as an important individual, to give such incredible customer service to each one of them that they’re motivated to take up the other side of that and spread the good word about you.
Then they will go onto their social networks and tell all their friends, ‘Oh I just had the most amazing experience with these people. They set up my trip exactly the way I wanted. They knew what I needed. They listened to me.’ So the good word spreads also.
What other lessons might apply specifically to travel agencies?
McCray: We’ve dealt with real limited lending for a long time, which means we got real creative about ways to finance our businesses without ever borrowing, as well as being really tight. No one is as frugal as the small town entrepreneur.
Small town entrepreneurs come up with all sorts of creative ways to make do with something, to make it last longer, to do without things that more urban entrepreneurs feel they are entitled to – like a real comfy chair. A rural entrepreneur is more likely to go, ‘This chair is just fine; I can go another year on it.’
That kind of frugality is a good lesson for any business right now. The other thing is being creative about not requiring as many resources.
Say more about being creative.
McCray: Say to yourself, ‘If I didn’t have this resource, how would I get along without it? What would I do?’ Deliberately going through those questions is going to get you some creative answers that may truly improve the way you do business.
Can you make that relevant for travel agents?
McCray: You’re in an industry that’s reinventing itself, so it’s a great time to be asking those creative questions: What if something I take for granted went away or wasn’t available? What would I do in that space?
Asking those questions of yourself in a positive frame of mind puts you in a place to come up with the creative answers that may mean you go in a whole new direction that is a wonderful thing for your business.
What about the online space?
McCray: Every one of your readers knows that you are in an industry that is being squeezed from all sides. It has never been more important for you to communicate directly, one on one with your customers.
It’s never been more important for you to be remarkable, exciting and different, and the only way to do that is one to one, and the only way to make that happen is to get online. That’s where your customers are more than ever.
Next time: Small town secrets to building community – and business – online.