Every morning the masses drive through or stop by their favorite coffee shop for a cup of their beloved beverage. The demand for the perfect cup of java to start each day resulted in the growth of one of the mightiest brands in the business, and it wasn’t long before you could find a Starbucks as easily as you could a McDonald’s.
Soon, though, it became apparent that there could be “too much of a good thing,” and consumers started expressing their disdain for the massive chain store brands popping up everywhere and their preference turned to the “local” neighborhood coffee shop. People spoke with their pocketbooks. In 2008, Starbucks closed down outlets while independent coffee houses brought in new customers without cutting prices. A recent story about this from Reuters indicated that independent coffee houses now represent 54 percent of the coffee market!
The Corporate Backlash Continues…
This phenomenon is not limited to Starbucks or coffee. There is an increasing desire among consumers — myself included — to support and encourage local and small businesses over the monopolizing chain stores. Sure, we all want the best prices and service, but a brief conversation with just about anyone will reveal the growing frustration we all have of dealing with computerized, fast-food mentality “customer service” that larger businesses typically champion. Instead, most of us would prefer to deal with a real, live person who at least appears to have a little more interest in our humanity rather than only making the most efficient profit.
Starbucks has recognized what I call the “Big Brand Backlash” and has actually started opening stores that hide the identity of Starbucks as the proprietor. These stores take on the name of the street they are built on (such as “Roy Street Coffee and Tea,” located at the corners of Roy Street and Broadway in Seattle) and purport to be a local, neighborhood coffee shop! But, I am proud to say that consumers are not proving to be as clueless as the big bean brand was apparently hoping.
“A former Starbucks insider said that Seattle’s 15th Ave. Coffee and Tea — the first of the new not Starbucks stores — is doing only a third of the business of the regular green-logoed Starbucks store that used be at that site.”
So what does this have to do with you as a freelancer? I believe it is extremely significant to the potential growth of the freelance market. A quick look at what the big business competitors of your freelance business have to offer could help you to focus your own marketing and methods in ways that will not only grow your clientele but could also strengthen your presence in your local community and even benefit your quality of life! Here are some of the elements you could look at:
Provide Authentic Personal Service
I do not know anyone who enjoys navigating their way through the computerized voice-recognition telephone services that ask step-by-step questions in order to eventually connect you with either the correct extension or the automated account or billing system. My family can immediately tell when I am on the phone with the cable company or the cell phone provider because the frustration quotient in my usually patient voice is brought to new heights. All too often, I find myself shouting “No!” “English!” or whatever other simple words the computer is finding difficult to recognize.
Counter the Big Brands in your field by providing a human being on the other end of the line who cares about the person who is calling — not just because they are paying you. It doesn’t take much effort to ask how someone’s doing and to genuinely show interest in their reply. If you spend a few extra minutes with each of your clients treating them as people it will go a long way in this day and age when they seldom receive personal treatment anymore. Carry this personal touch over into emails, invoicing, and any other communications you have with your clients and you will not only earn their loyalty, you may even make some friends!
Refrain from Production Line Projects
In my web design business I am often building one to two custom websites per week. While there are ways that I pursue efficiency and there is wisdom in finding shortcuts for many of the steps that are common to every project, one of the main reasons my clients seek my services is that I try my best to make every website unique in its own way. Sure, there are thousands of website templates anyone can use to create a cookie cutter website that is somewhat professional in appearance and functionality. Many people and organizations use them. But, that’s not what my clients hire me for. They want something custom; unique to their situation and necessities. Most importantly, they want to know that they have a website that does not look or act exactly like anyone else’s. In fact, they want their own response to the Big Brand Backlash — they want their own “neighborhood spot” on the World Wide Web.
So, I endeavor to refrain from the production line, crank-out-as-many-as-possible-in-as-short-a-time-as-feasible, cookie-cutter mentality for my projects. This helps clients understand that they are valuable and important in their own unique way, and that their project is special. What person doesn’t want that for their business? Treat your client’s project as though it’s the only one on your plate and you will have a client for life. Throw it on the pile along with all the others, giving it minimal effort or individuality, and you will most likely not be hired by that same client again.
An added bonus to this approach: when each project is seen as a unique undertaking, it can become more like a creative work of art for you rather than a job. I have seen this happen on many occasions and it can greatly increase the enjoyment of your freelance life.
Produce a Quality Product
Sure, this may seem obvious. In order to compete with the Big Brands you need to prove that not only are you better at customer service and provide a unique experience, but your product is superior as well. Quality, personal customer service will go a long way, but at the end of the day clients want a product they can be proud of. Show a client how you are putting your heart and soul into their project. Demonstrate its superiority in its uniqueness. Prove to the client that they have made the right choice by giving the best possible product with the best possible experience throughout, and you will not fail at gaining their loyalty and possibly even an evangelist for your services.
Identify What Makes You Different
In my business there are scores of designers and agencies who are more talented. I have found my own “niche” by combining all three of these elements to create a unique, personal and pleasurable experience for every one of my clients. Many of my clients I have never met in person, but I have a personal and professional relationship with all of them that testifies to the value of incorporating each of the above elements into my methodology.
Take a look at your own strengths and weaknesses and how they compare to the traits of the Big Brands that consumers are looking to avoid. Use this comparison to shape your freelance business into one that the modern customer will find great solace and joy in as they turn to you for an escape from the Big Brand Backlash. You will not be sorry.
What are some other ways you can counter the Big Brands and provide a better experience? Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comments below.