Lessons from Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec

What can small businesses do to be successful when competing against much larger companies? Not surprisingly, a lot of it comes down to training.

I have spent many evenings watching back-to-back episodes of Shark Tank, a TV show in which entrepreneurs make business pitches to a panel of prospective investors. One of those investors is Robert Herjavec, founder of The Herjavec Group, an information technology and computer security company, among many other endeavors.

I had the opportunity to interview Herjavec recently at an industry conference I attended in my role as editor-in-chief of health trade publication Review of Optometric Business. In addition to the tips he provided readers of that publication—the owners of eyecare practices—much of what he said could benefit those in learning and development. The focus of our conversation was what small businesses can do to be successful when competing against much larger companies. Not surprisingly, a lot of it comes down to training.

Trusted Advisors

I wondered what a small eyecare company that is competing with such large players as 1-800 Contacts, companies such as Warby Parker, and corporate-owned optical chains in stores such as Walmart and Costco could do to push themselves forward. Herjavec said that a major differentiating point is the trusted relationship a small business can establish with customers so they feel they are “returning to a trusted advisor” when they come back to that small business for services or additional purchases.

When I think about the businesses in my own life that do this, I think of the local pet supply store where I shop in New York City, Whiskers Holistic Pet Care. Many of the employees know me by name, remember the orders I regularly place, and have the knowledge to serve me as consultants, rather than just sales associates. For example, when I asked the person working at the register if she knew of a solution for an irritation on my cat’s ear, I thought she would refer me to another person in the store, but she knew of a product that would help, and related her own positive experience using the product.

Personal Experience

That kind of know-how and confidence takes training and an empowering work environment in which employees, regardless of their role, are encouraged to share what they have learned and act as advisors. To help employees function in this way, it’s important to let them experience your products, giving a certain amount of products and/or services to the employees each quarter or year free of charge or at a steeply reduced rate. All the training programs in the world will never substitute for an employee’s personal experience with a product or service. If that experience turns out to be negative, it becomes a teachable moment for that employee, their manager, and even the company’s top executives.

That employee expertise has to be delivered within the context of a great overall experience. I noted to Herjavec that no matter how great a company’s products and services are, a team of employees who create an unpleasant experience could sabotage a small business. He said that he liked Disney’s Magic Moments concept, in which employees learn that each interaction with customers provides an opportunity to create a moment of magic. How do you train employees to not just do the minimum, but use interactions with customers to provide the kind of wow and high satisfaction that sticks in the customer’s mind?

Impacting Key Performance Indicators

I think it starts with employee engagement and each employee understanding the mission of the business, and the role they each play in helping the business achieve that mission. Open-book management, in which employees are each responsible for tracking and helping to improve a key performance indicator, can bring home to employees the importance of their role. In some of the practices I write about, all employees are rewarded if the business as a whole meets a financial goal by month’s or year’s end. That way, not only do employees understand the impact of their individual role, but what happens when they work effectively with their co-workers to create an overall great customer experience.

Delivering a great customer experience has less to do with big capital investment and more to do with training, Herjavec said. He said, as an example, that when he visits a business he is happy with, it often isn’t the specifics of what happened during the visit, but the overall feeling he was left with at the end of the visit, and how comfortable he felt during his time there, that he remembers. Did the experience feel calm and innovative? How comfortable did he feel when asking questions?

Learning and development that allows employees to experience products and services firsthand, and boosts engagement by having employees participate in tracking and growing the business, is often at the root of small business success.

How do you ensure employees have both the know-how, and enough engagement to care, to deliver the kind of experience your customers will happily return to?