Black business owners, let’s talk.

Supporting minority-owned businesses is important, especially within the black community. Building up the capital and wealth within our own community is the only way we can truly prosper and use our tremendous buying power to invest back into ourselves.
When it comes to black people supporting black-owned businesses, a New York Times article stated:

Blacks spend less money in black-owned businesses than other racial and ethnic groups spend in businesses owned by members of their groups, including Hispanics and Asians. A [2014] report by Nielsen and Essence estimates that black buying power will reach $1.3 trillion in the next few years, yet only a tiny fraction of that money is spent at black-owned businesses.

Unfortunately, the Times’ article is not surprising. It’s not a rare thing to hear complaints from black customers patronizing black-owned businesses, nor is it rare to hear complaints from black small business owners regarding their black customers. I’ve heard both sides, and as a previous small business owner, I understand concerns of both sides. It’s time for us to get out of our own way, and for business owners to understand patron perspectives and vice versa. This is the first of a two-part series of posts dedicated to black business owners and black patrons. First up, a word to black small business owners.

***And let me be clear, this post is not for the thriving, black- (and everything else)-supported small businesses out there (because they do exist!), this is for business owners having a hard time connecting to their black target audiences.***

Black-owned businesses need to understand the following from black customers:

Quality is important

Unfortunately, the reality is that when you start a small business, you’re competing against the mass marketplace that has the resources to offer products and services of a certain caliber of quality. That’s not to say that as a small business owner you can’t compete, but it is to say that you have to come as close to the expectations for quality that your target audience expects. This means knowing that black people expect and are worthy of good, quality stuff, and it means investing all that you can to get the best possible product. You don’t have to go for broke, you can start with a minimum viable product (MVP)*, but that MVP needs to be executed well and with your target audience’s expectations in mind.

Punctuality is important

CP time is unacceptable when you’re running a business. If you want to be taken seriously as a business owner, you have to meet the expectations that people have set for businesses. Walmart and Target open and close at the same time every day. People depend on this consistency and make decisions based on the expectations those businesses set. Now, it’s understandable that some people are running businesses in addition to doing other jobs. For unavoidable instances of tardiness, you should set your customers/clients’ expectations as soon as possible.

Customer service is important

From my experience and the experiences of others I’ve observed, dealing with white people in customer service usually goes one of three ways:

  1. They look past you. The service isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. The person is just doing what they have to do until it’s time to go.
  2. They’d clearly prefer not to be helping a person of color or they think you’re going to steal, so although they don’t want to help you, they’re sure to keep an eye on you.
  3. They are nice as pie. Very friendly, very helpful, the entire experience makes whatever you’ve just done a bit better.

About 65-70% of the time, I think #3 holds up the most.

A common complaint with patronizing some black businesses (or interacting with black customer service reps for that matter) is the service. Along with general customer service comes doing things how and when you say they will be done, and the timeliness in which questions/requests/concerns are addressed. People like to feel good and valued, especially when they’re spending money, and as a business owner, it’s your job to follow through on that. It’s not about being fake or kissing ass, it’s about being about your business and the way in which your business is executed. Be attentive, approachable, friendly and helpful. It goes a long way.

Depending on your target demographic, affordability may be important

It’s hard when you’re just starting out with your own business. You have to invest a lot of time and money to get things in a good place. The drive to recoup that investment as fast as you can  is completely understandable. However, before setting up shop, you really need to understand your target audience and what they can truly afford. Do research on the average household income. Is your business offering something that would be considered a necessity or a nice-to-have? If it’s the latter, then understand people will be more reluctant to pay a premium price. And even if you know for a fact that ol’ dude stays with a new pair of shoes, that doesn’t mean he can or will sacrifice or pay a premium for your new [less-known] product.

Remember, your prices don’t have to stay the same. You can start low to get your name out there, and then increase over time as people understand your value. It may take longer for you to see profit, but could lead to a much better result in the end.

Personability is important

Fortunately for places like Walmart, Target and McDonald’s, most large companies are faceless–meaning people don’t associate such businesses with a person or a name. The thing about small businesses is that usually they start out strongly associated with the person in charge. That means, if people have negative feelings about the business owner, they’re going to automatically have negative feelings about the product. Is that fair? No. But it’s human nature. If you want people to support you, be nice to them. You can stay true to who you are without making other people feel bad in the process. Maybe people don’t have legitimate reasons to dislike you. That’s okay. Focus your energy on making on a positive impression on people that you can influence. And please, I beg of you, if you’re a business owner, please don’t put up posts about haters and naysayers–it’s just not worth it, and it doesn’t look good on your part.

Marketing is important

Just like closed mouths don’t get fed, un-marketed businesses don’t get customers. Word of mouth is important, but more times than not, you won’t be able to sustain a business through word of mouth alone. You have to figure out who you’re talking to, what it is you have to offer them, and then communicate the value of what you’re offering, and then find out the best way to deliver that value. That’s what marketing is all about. You could be missing out on customers simply because you have connected with them in a way that effective marketing can facilitate.

Authenticity is important

You want black people to support your business. I want black people to support it, too (hence this post). But the truth is that you can’t assume black patrons will flock to you just because you’re a black business owner. That said, don’t use “blackness” to try to convince people to support you. This means going overboard and trying to establish phony, meaningless connections in the name of being united, when in reality, it’s all for the sake of a dollar. See above, the quality has got to be there, and you just have to be you. Authentically you. Nothing more, nothing less.

Perseverance is important

So maybe you got all of the above correct, and you still struggle with getting the support of black customers. Keep on keepin’ on as long as you can. Sometimes it just takes time for people to come around and realize the value you offer. Be diligent in your work and in your product, keep grinding and stay positive. They’ll catch up.

*What is an MVP?
A minimum viable product (MVP) is the most toned down version of a new offering that involves use of the least amount of resources. This helps business owners get a feel for how people/customers/the market will respond to the offering before investing a bunch of resources to trick it out to its full potential.

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Southern girl with a soft spot for Harlem. Biggie enthusiast with kindred spirit ties to Beyonce. Martin's Gina. Jerry's Elaine. Communicator. MBA-haver. Too complex for anybody's box.