“People don’t know what they don’t know,” Shark Tank’s Daymond John said in a recent profile in Chain Store Age. “Find people around you whom you can ask for advice,” he suggests to entrepreneurs. We are hard-wired not to ask for help, but good mentors can play a significant role in your store’s success.

This made me think about a new business in our city that has gotten off to a rocky start. Customers are talking about what they’re doing wrong, but as someone pointed out, the business owners really need to reach out to someone they trust to get some honest feedback and advice. Consumer criticism just spreads to other potential customers.

Who can you turn to as a mentor? Your business peers are a great place to start. You could either talk to colleagues in your area, especially if you demonstrate a willingness to work cooperatively to increase everyone’s success, or to people running a similar business in another community. Joining a business association, a buy local group or a service club is a good way to meet people who may be able to help you.

Customers can also be a great source of feedback. Invite your friends to be your first shoppers, and see if they have any ideas for how you can do things better. If you are facing a major decision, such as whether to move your store or to change direction, invite your top customers to come in for a casual conversation about the topic. Don’t forget to serve refreshments, and to reward them with a gift card or other token of appreciation.

You should also have a team of professionals backing you up, including a banker, insurance agent and accountant. While these advisors may not be free, their input is worth what you pay for it. Prepare your questions in advance to make the best use of their time.

There are a number of programs offering mentorship by volunteers, often retirees who worked in your field. The best known of these is SCORE, which is a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Some communities have mentor programs specifically for women or minority business owners, pairing a newbie with someone experienced.

It is hard to take criticism, which I suspect is one reason that most of us are reluctant to ask for advice. Keep in mind that you don’t have to make every change that is recommended, although it’s important to listen respectfully and keep an open mind. Your mentors may have some great ideas to share about how your business can improve.

Happy Retailing,
Carol “Orange” Schroeder

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