A young IT professional I work with taught me a terrific marketing lesson the other day. I was struck with her insight and how specifically it applies to every single small business we serve. It applies to our small business customers and to our business, Ideagility, and her wisdom comes straight from the source — as a hopeful customer of a some of the top brands in the world. The very smart Piper Ryan has kindly given me permission to share the following.

We were discussing big brand advertisers and how quickly it’s become the new ‘cool’ to promote diversity and inclusiveness in their ads on television. Don’t get me wrong — we love diversity and inclusiveness for all people. Whether promoted in print, television, movies or within families and communities, these are the messages we want to hear, we want to live. These are the messages I want my grown sons to hear. And someday very soon, we hope that a beautifully diverse and inclusive world is the one that all kids find ‘normal’.

But here’s what Piper had to say:

“Give me a break. Nike may be all “just do it” for girls of all sizes but they don’t even offer a triple X sports bra. Target? Don’t make me laugh. Their plus size clothing is two racks sandwiched between maternity and clearance.”

I thought about Piper’s comments a lot, especially about how they apply to small businesses. Are you listening hard to your customers? Is our own small business doing enough to listen and respond? Small business owners work darn hard for a tight marketing budget and they sure can’t afford to waste any of it.

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So let’s get real. If you offer a business service with stiff competition — and if your customers struggle to understand how all of these competing services differ — you have an extra big challenge. Businesses like Applied Restoration promote one of their unique advantages, best warranties in the business, online and within their communities. As a result, they really stand out. They want to be found increasingly over time and it’s working.

But if your branding — on your website, your ads and with every service each employee delivers — isn’t an authentic reflection of your company in action, customer’s will find out. They’ll likely find out fast. And small businesses simply can’t afford that.

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A couple more of the many small businesses in my own raving fan club include ServiceMaster Solutions, where Piper works. The team is on call 24 hours a day serving huge customers like health care networks and hospitals. They’re committed to building a company that employees and customers are proud to call their own. They promote from within and offer training and mentoring to help entry level employees advance. They listen hard to customers, show up and care every day. And Eric, over at Pest Solutions LLC has been working for years to deliver the best service possible to commercial, consumer and government locations and to do so in a “green as can be” manner. This may not be an easy challenge when dispatch is serving older, home-bound residents and campus sized facilities all at the same time, but Eric and his team get it done with style and a grin every day.

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May your own team be real, and may you always be found.