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How (not) to Run a Successful Service Business




Is there a predictable path to success as a small business owner? At Pepperlane, we've dedicated the past three years to working closely with small business owners in order to answer this question.

Much to our surprise, we found that the answer is an emphatic "Yes!" And the steps to success are all fairly simple — but that doesn't mean they're easy.

Let me illustrate what I mean by telling you the tale of two service business owners in the same industry who achieved very different results...

A Tale of Two Business Owners

The first one (let's call her Alice) didn't have a lot of experience in her industry when she first joined the Pepperlane community. But she jumped into the arena, Brené Brown style, and right away started to offer to help other members out wherever she could — offering advice, referring clients, or just being supportive.

She was down-to-earth, funny and engaging. She wasn't afraid to ask questions and be vulnerable about the areas where she was struggling. She had the courage to try things out, see how they worked, learn from the experience and move on. Her interactions with other members, whether at a Pepperlane event, via email or in our Facebook community, all seemed to demonstrate her generosity and positive attitude.

And then, as if by magic, more opportunities started to flow her way. She suggested interesting ways to collaborate with other members. She reached new clients through Facebook and her Pepperlane network, which helped to expose her business to their networks. It didn't take long before her business was off and running; she was building a solid client list and beginning to thrive.

The second business owner (we'll call her Barbara) had quite a bit of industry experience under her belt when she first joined our community. But she took a very different approach. From the beginning, she was very focused on what she could get out of the community. Her community posts fell largely into two categories: self-promotion and negative comments or complaints.

You can see where this is going... Barbara set off a chain reaction that was effectively the opposite of Alice's. Few people were inclined to go out of their way to help her. As she grew frustrated with her lack of results, her tone became even more negative, alienating other members of the community and further cementing a negative personal brand.

Do you want to guess how these two business owners have fared at finding customers through Pepperlane? Well, you don't have to guess, I can tell you: Alice has gotten twice as many leads as Barbara has. Starting with less professional experience. In about half the time.

Yes, Virginia, there IS a better way to build your business

The good news is that being generous, genuine, empathetic and kind really does benefit your business (not to mention your blood pressure). In working with thousands of business owners, we've seen this pattern repeated over and over again. There really is a recipe for success.

The hard part of putting that recipe into practice is the relentless pace of our lives. It takes patience, discipline and a leap of faith to spend time building an audience and cultivating trusted relationships instead of just trying to snatch-and-grab whatever leads you can get for your business. It really helps to have people who can give you feedback, share ideas and help you hold yourself accountable along the way.

We distilled what we've learned about how to build a successful service business into 5 core skills that will help you to build for long term success: we call it the Pepperlane Method.

The Pepperlane Method: 5 Core Skills to build a successful business

Everything we offer as part of Pepperlane Membership is designed to support you in learning and practicing these 5 critical skills:

#1. Lead with Generosity

The most successful business owners we've had the pleasure of working with have this in common: they lead with generosity in relationships with partners, collaborators and customers. They share useful resources. Make connections and referrals. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. Say thanks to the people who have helped them to get where they are.

This type of generosity comes very naturally to some, and for others it takes more intentional practice. (But like so many things, if you commit to working at it, you can get there!) A great place to practice is Pepperlane's free, private Facebook community, where you can help others with their challenges and find help tackling your own.

#2. Find your niche

If you're already established in your business, this means developing a specialty that helps you to establish a unique value proposition and differentiate yourself from others in your field.

If you're new to your business, finding your niche is all about exploring whether there is a market for your services, finding your first few raving customers, understanding the basics of starting a business (before you invest too much in the process!) and evaluating whether your income potential will be worth your time and effort.

We go deep on these topics as part of the Pepperlane Pathway program. As you're starting to think about finding your niche, take a look at our free Pepperlane Pathway course on How to create an effective online profile for your business. (While this short, self-paced course is designed to help you create an excellent Pepperlane Profile, the recommendations are applicable to any website or web presence you have for your service business.)

#3. Deliver quality service

In a world where social proof is everything, it's important to invest in understanding and correcting your own blind spots when it comes to delivering great service.

Delivering quality service is about a whole lot more than doing great work. It starts with your very first customer communication and continues through to the post-service follow up. (Here's another freebie that can help on this front: a sample Pathway lesson on how to get honest feedback.)

If you don't have processes and tools in place to help you stay on top of your customer communications and collect feedback and testimonials, it's easy to get out of the habit and miss out on an opportunity to improve your service. (Incidentally, collecting feedback and testimonials is the first step to winning repeat business and getting more referrals —everybody wins!)

#4. Tap into your market (without tapping out your budget)

Once you're consistently delivering quality service, you can use your network and the meaningful connections you make through Pepperlane to get the word out about your business without spending tons of money on advertising.

As a service business owner, you should expect that a large majority of your work will come through repeat business and word of mouth referrals. (One recent study of 7,500 business owners found that a whopping 85% of new customers came through word-of-mouth referrals.)

If you need help figuring out where to invest your precious time and energy when it comes to getting the word out about your business, you're not alone (literally or figuratively). Check out Pepperlane's Attract More Customers Pathway program for step-by-step guidance and a supportive peer group. It's designed to help you focus on what works and take action to move your business forward a little bit each day.

#5. Take care of yourself

It's way too easy to put yourself last, but regular rest, reflection and self-care are an essential part of running a business that works for your life. One of the best things about the Pepperlane community is that we're there to remind each other of that simple fact on a regular basis.

One of the easiest ways to take better care of yourself is to give yourself the gift of time by doing what you love (and outsourcing what you don’t!) So don't hesitate to get the help you need by hiring Pepperlane members to keep your business and your life running smoothly. You'll be helping yourself and supporting the mom economy — once again, everybody wins! 


Thanks for reading! If you're curious to learn more about Pepperlane, I encourage you to sign up for our weekly newsletter, or even better, join us for an event! (Your first one is on us!) We'd love to get to know you better and help you build an independent business that works for your life. 

Join us! 

Photo Credit: Header photo by jeshoots.com on Unsplash

Written by Jess Petersen

Jess is a mom of two, an avid runner, and a tech nerd. She's spent her career building products at Boston startups like Carbonite (NASDAQ: CARB) and Hopper from the very earliest stages into successful companies with millions of users. Sharon talked her into starting Pepperlane when she was 6 months pregnant with her second baby. What could possibly go wrong?

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