Souls Matter in Business: How to Make Sure Your Business Has One

I was recently asked to answer some questions by a technology insurance blog: 

They used one of my answers, but I had written out some others which I share here. It was a great exercise in thinking about some of the issues on which I love to work with business owners. I think the answers also work for more than just technology companies. Here they are:

How can you best communicate to current / potential customers that your business has a “soul?”

You know who you are. You know your values. But perhaps they are unarticulated? Take the time to dig in and think them through and then make some of them public. Put them on your website. Make them the DNA of how you operate your business. This will communicate both directly and indirectly what you stand for as a person and as a business.

Revisit them quarterly and assess if you are straying from what you set out to be like.

It will also remind you how to negotiate unforeseen questions that come up in the day to day running of your business. Staying close to your core values in how you run your business will spill over into how you are seen by your employees and ultimately how you are seen by your customer base and investors. Finally, if the relationships between you and others does not work because of conflicts that arise, it might be because your values differ from another stakeholder. Perhaps the business relationship needs to end.

Be purposeful and intentional about the process. Also, be honest with yourself. If you feel like you should hold to a value, but ultimately that value isn’t you, people will see through that. In the long run that can be damaging. But articulating your values helps you know yourself and your soul, which will communicate your ethical core to others.

Is there a way you can resolve customer disputes to show that your business really does care?

Go above and beyond customer expectations and empower your staff to do so as well. Every client, whether it's a large business or a sole proprietor, behind that entity is a person with a story. Life happens, and when you can make the life of that person more valuable and recognize their dignity, you are not only honoring the client, but you actually become a better person. But you have to set boundaries. If you have clients that abuse your generosity or diligence, perhaps it's time to part ways.

What are some ways you can help out / give back in your community?

There are so many. Never jeopardize the viability of your business, but do give back somehow. The ways I like the best are the ones that marry the mission of your business with social impact. You are an expert in your field. Use that expertise to give back and perhaps learn from the experience. For example, if you are a web design shop you could offer web design consultation for a non-profit whose web presence needs a facelift at a lower rate or pro bono. To make it even more interesting, you could offer a package to ten clients who agree to pay a little more if you then do a pro bono web page for a non-profit from a selection of the five candidates non-profits you chose. Your clients vote on the non-profit. By doing this your “philanthropy” goes both upstream (to your paying clients) and downstream to the non-profit. It might even get your clients to think about how they can give back, not just through you but in other ways. Of course, in this case, the methods are sector specific.

But there are other ways to give back. You could go the classic philanthropic route and give away a small percentage of your revenue to non-profits and let your employees own a part of the decision-making process to where that money goes. It gives your employees purpose. You could allow your employees to spend some time volunteering on your clock. Or you could take a hit on productivity and take on an intern from an underprivileged background. You give somebody a leg up. The returns here are hard to measure, but if you invest the time to listen to your intern about their background, you might learn a lot about a market you did not even know existed.

Should a small business owner take a stand on issues? If yes, what is the best way to handle any potential blowback?

This is a tough question. It depends on the issue and the values the business owner has and how strongly the values of the business owner overlap with the issue they want to stand up for publically and in the name of the business. For a small business owner, I would recommend staying out of causes that are strongly associated with political party rhetoric. Remember, you don't want to scuttle your business over something that might not be as important as taking care of your employees, or your income. Similarly, if it's an issue over which you have little influence or your business cannot have a large impact on the issue, why risk it?

Unless it affects your business directly or effects the mission of your business, you should be careful. But if the issue is a part of your core values and you know your customer base well enough to know they care about that issue too, go for it.

When it comes to blowback, I have a great example. I know a small business owner who operates a web design company. They support KIVA, the microloan portal. Whenever they can put down enough money to make a meaningful contribution to a cause, they do. They also put a little line in their email signature that mentions that they support KIVA and link to the website. Surprisingly to me anyway, they did get blowback, and potential customers complained about it. They decided to continue supporting KIVA but also took out the link from the email marketing signature. Of course, they could have decided that their support for KIVA was an outworking of their values and the type of clients they want are the type that at least do not mind being informed about what the web design company does to give back in a little thing like an email signature. You know your customer base. Be wise, or seek wise counsel about how to deal with the blowback.

If all else fails? Apologize. Perhaps the blowback is merited? Perhaps if your "giving back" is done not in the name of your true core values, but because you thought it might bring you business, well perhaps your potential clients sees a disconnect with how you run your business and what you say your values are. That's why it's important to stay honest and consistent when you articulate those values and make some public. Equally, if you have not made some of your values public, perhaps there is a disconnect between the audience that you are marketing to and the values you hold. And sometimes you just have to let people go elsewhere if the business relationship is not a good fit. That might be hard, but it might be better in the long run.