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When to Listen, and When Not To

Certainly you want input, and you want to create avenues that encourage criticism. Fail to do that and you can miss out on key ways to improve your business. But it can be hard to square the many opinions coming at you, particularly if they conflict with your vision for your company.
One useful rule of thumb is to value the opinions of fellow entrepreneurs over those of others. After all, they have direct experience in determining whether to stay the course or to pivot, and they also know that risk is an essential element of success--something well-meaning advice-givers often don't appreciate.
Recently, three entrepreneurs from the Lexington, Kentucky area described how they decide when to listen to others and when to follow their gut, during a "Power to the Small" panel discussion hosted by Windstream, a provider of advanced network communications and technology solutions.

Three Simple Questions

Big Ass Solutions, CEO Carey Smith, a maker of fans and related ventilation products, says that most of the advice his company obtains comes from direct conversations with customers. To facilitate that approach, he hired a "Customer Advocacy Manager" who calls every customer and asks them three simple questions:
  1. Did you receive the product?
  2. Do you have any questions?
  3. Is everything OK?
This approach is designed to find and fix any issues customers may have. As a result of some of the feedback, Big Ass changed the packaging design and instructions for the set up and operation of one of its major product lines.

Read Between the Lines

Toa Green, who owns and operates Crank and Boom Ice Cream Lounge, constantly receives suggestions from customers through many channels, from online reviews to comments made at the cash register. She takes note when she hears the same feedback repeatedly, especially when it pertains to her strategic goals. But she also knows when to table certain ideas, even when they seem reasonable. For example, some customers have requested non-dairy ice creams, but she decided that other projects take greater priority.
Like Smith, Green prizes criticism above praise. "We love the compliments and positive comments, but that feedback rarely pushes you to be better," she says."We have regular meetings where we discuss any negative feedback we've gotten and make sure our team knows that these comments are valuable because they help us grow and get better at what we do. "
She says the best advice often comes not from what people say, but what they do. In fact, that's how she got the idea for her current business. She first offered ice cream as a dessert item at her family-run Thai Orchid Café. When people came in to order ice cream but not food, she didn't need a focus group to know that a new business opportunity was at hand.
She initially thought about selling her ice cream to restaurants and through grocery stores. However, as she dipped a toe in the water by selling ice cream at festivals and other events, customers kept asking her where her ice cream shop was. So she opened a brick-and-mortar store, an idea that she says never would have occurred to her without the feedback.

Entrepreneurs Know Best

Entrepreneurs say they're often given well-meaning but poor advice by people who don't know what it's like to operate a business.
Mike Tetterton, CEO of Creative Lodging Solutions, a travel management company, says that because entrepreneurs are a different breed, with a higher risk tolerance, they need to be wary of non-entrepreneur advice-givers who will happily reel off a long list of reasons why the idea won't work. An entrepreneur, in contrast, will focus on solutions to the obstacles. "Consider the downside, and hear what the naysayers have to say, but don't run your life by them," Tetterton says. "I can hear about the downside from my banker."
Green agrees, and says she often turns to a friend who makes craft ice cream in St. Louis to share best practices and marketing ideas, since they are both start-ups in the same line of business. She also talks with other local restaurateurs who have been through similar challenges. When she was developing her original business plan, one of those restaurateurs even gave her his original plan to study.
Now that's the kind of help that no entrepreneur can get too much of.
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