The Franklin County Chamber of Commerce’s Goal is to Provide More Personal Contact with Our Businesses.

As we address the question of what your Chamber can do for you, I’m actively following my own advice: thinking outside the box and collaborating with others on new ideas. To gain insight into where our business community stands in the grand scheme of things, I read posts from other Chambers and peruse the feeds from some of the national Chamber organizations. Apparently, this is a question that is not unique to our community. Chambers across the country are facing the same challenge in meeting the needs of their members – business owners who are facing the same devastating struggle to survive. Just as we are, those Chambers are trying to find meaningful ways to connect with businesses. They, too, are trying to demonstrate to businesses that there is actual value to Chamber membership.

Our chosen strategy is providing more personal contact. My goal in particular is to visit 100 businesses in my first 100 days as the Executive Director. With each visit I make, I learn a little more about the needs of our area businesses. I have found that many needs are common to most businesses due to our current circumstances, but I’m also finding that some are unique to particular types of businesses. I’m hoping that 100 meaningful conversations with 100 business owners will not only help clarify their diverse and evolving needs, but also help define what the Chamber can do, compared to what it has historically done, to meet those needs.

These anecdotal accounts of specific visits aren’t to toot my own horn, but to illustrate how important each business is to the Chamber and our community, and to show how simple connections with each other really do work to foster understanding, find common ground, and encourage the exchange of ideas that can help us keep going in these particularly trying and stressful times.

On one brutally hot day, I was out making visits to several local businesses. Many people were out and about and there was an atmosphere of busyness everywhere. It might have simply been because it was right around lunchtime, but I took it as a good sign that businesses were once again getting customers, that orders were being filled and just maybe, the economy was returning to some state of “normal.”

As I made my way through a shopping center, I came upon a dry cleaner, tucked away on the far side of the plaza. Like most dry cleaners, it was fairly utilitarian in appearance, with nothing especially distinct about it. What made it stand out to me, though, was a familiar smell that took me back to my childhood – when I used to walk past the neighborhood dry cleaner on my way to and from school each day.

I smiled at the memory and opened the door to go inside. There were a few customers in line waiting for their turn to either drop off or pick up their clothing. I stood out of the way as I waited a few minutes for an opportunity to talk to the lady behind the counter, who was taking care of each transaction. As I watched, I realized that she was not only handling the transactions at the counter, but she was also running back and forth, juggling everything else. I decided that there just wasn’t going to be a good opportunity to have an actual conversation, so I left a Chamber brochure and my business card on the counter, figuring that if I had a chance to stop by again, at least she would be familiar with my name.

I went on about my day, finished up work, picked my son up from school and made my way home. Just before dinner, I received a phone call from the owner of the dry cleaning business. She said, “Hi! You stopped by my store today and left behind your business card and brochure. I wanted to call just to say thank you for considering my business for the chamber, but…”. Before she even completed her sentence, I knew what was coming next. She told me about her struggles with finding employees, and her challenges making ends meet, while still trying to keep everything running. Becoming a Chamber member was just not the most pressing issue she was facing right now.

Being a business owner myself, I sincerely understood her position. It often feels like the guy at the circus spinning the plates on those long poles, finding time, finding employees, being asked to do more, and being asked to give to another group or cause. It just isn’t always in the cards. I told her that and the conversation immediately changed from a ‘have a great night and thank you for calling” to one of shared experiences followed by an example of one of the successful ways in which I have been able to find employees.

For years, college students and the semi-retired have been tremendous sources of employees for one of my businesses. I understand that they are only available temporarily, but it certainly helps! We discussed some strategies for finding those types of workers. She seemed to appreciate that I wasn’t just trying to talk her into a membership, but was was listening and sharing simply as one business owner to another.

We talked about other struggles with business ownership, and she told me about her past unhappiness with being a member of another Chamber in the area – how it was impossible for her to get away during lunch and that she just didn’t have the energy for events at the end of the day.

I briefly mentioned how we are trying to do things differently than what the Chamber has traditionally done. After about 45 minutes of talking, sharing stories and offering helpful suggestions, we left the conversation with a promise to reconnect again in a few months. She even said that she would consider a chamber membership once things returned to normal. I understood where she was and how her immediate needs superseded any “extras,” like Chamber membership.

Sometimes talking to the business owners who are NOT Chamber members can be an invaluable resource to us as we are learning about the changing needs of businesses in our community and how the Chamber can best meet those needs.

We are finding unique ways to partner Chamber members together, to get business owners to take ownership of how they use the Chamber, and to provide more of a community approach than we have in the past. Sharing experiences with other businesses means that sometimes you are the one offering solution ideas and sometimes you are the one receiving them. That collaborative effort is what we want to encourage in our community.

Lately, many businesses are struggling with trying to fill the gaps that the loss of employees and the loss of revenue have created. It can have a domino effect on many aspects of the business and on the business owner’s life in general.

If you have struggles with finding employees, please share your experience in the comments, which will give others the opportunity to share possible solutions. If you have some success stories with getting or keeping employees, please share your experience in the comments, so others may gain valuable insight.

As always, we value your input!