Expert mentors give boost to rural businesses

Seated, from left: Ken Anderson, director of entrepreneurial and small business development at DEDO; Trisha Newcomer, economic development and IT manager for the City of Seaford; Tracy Skrobot, executive director of Middletown Main Street; and Karen Gill, owner of Royal Treatments in Smyrna. Standing, from left: Noa Kornbluh, Main Street coordinator of Downtown Milford; Lee Nelson, executive director of Downtown Milford, Paige Deiner, owner of Milford Massage, Wellness and Yoga; and Diane Laird, state coordinator, Downtown Delaware. // Photo by David Kleinot
Seated, from left: Ken Anderson, director of entrepreneurial and small business development at DEDO; Trisha Newcomer, economic development and IT manager for the City of Seaford; Tracy Skrobot, executive director of Middletown Main Street; and Karen Gill, owner of Royal Treatments in Smyrna. Standing, from left: Noa Kornbluh, Main Street coordinator of Downtown Milford; Lee Nelson, executive director of Downtown Milford, Paige Deiner, owner of Milford Massage, Wellness and Yoga; and Diane Laird, state coordinator, Downtown Delaware. // Photo by David Kleinot

By Christi Milligan

Milford small business owner Paige Deiner is the first to say she received help when she opened her downtown massage, wellness and yoga business. Now with three years of experience and one expansion behind her, she’s paying it forward.

Deiner is an expert trainer with the Rural Business Mentoring Program (RBMP), an initiative of the Delaware Economic Development Office that puts professionals with real world experience in front of connected business leaders.  Through a series of workshops, the professionals “train the trainers” — giving them a tool kit of strategies and good business practices to pass along to other small business owners in rural and Main Street designated towns.

The Rural Business Mentoring Program is administered by DEDO through a three-year $200,000 grant from the USDA’s Rural Community Development Initiative, which stipulates a sustainable model for training and educating small business owners.

For Diane Laird, state coordinator for DEDO’s Downtown Delaware program, the parameters of the grant forced her team to think outside the box and utilize the knowledge base they had.

“We haven’t seen something like this in any other state,” said Laird. “It’s full circle.”

That’s because several of the trainers, including Deiner, are Project Pop-Up success stories — entrepreneurs who were given a shot at a brick-and-mortar storefront and three months’ free rent through DEDO’s annual Project Pop-Up program. Thirteen spaces in a number of Delaware’s designated Main Street programs have been filled through the program on a long-term basis, according to Laird.

The result is some stabilization in the vacancies that plague rural towns, and a wealth of trial by fire experience for Pop-Up recipients — knowledge they’re eager to share through the RBMP workshops.

“When you’re a small business, it’s really scary,” said Deiner, a former newspaper reporter who relocated from Arizona to Delaware. “Depending on what your background is, you’re going from employee to employer and you don’t have a lot of time the skills that everyone else has, like a financial director or a marketing director.”

Laird said she invited between 20 and 30 business leaders, including shop owners and town managers, to attend the workshops and earn their certification as mentors. Attendees must attend four workshops before they’re certified through the program as business mentors.

This “train the trainer” model includes a series of 10 workshops that range from customer service advice, retail and economic planning, to marketing and promotion advice and social media and eCommerce essentials. The workshops were scheduled with two statewide training initiatives, including the Governor’s Entrepreneurial and Small Business Conference and an eCommerce workshop sponsored by Delaware Technical Community College.

Deiner paired up with Karen Gill, fellow Pop-Up Owner of Royal Treatments in Smyrna to share essential customer service practices.

Deiner said she focused on the merits of a customer service plan, a blueprint often overlooked in favor or marketing, business and financial efforts.

“You need a chain of command for when someone has a complaint,” said Deiner. “Eighty percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your people and rarely is that troublesome customer from that 20 percent.”

But they still require attention, and a good customer service plan will let employees know just who just field the call, and how much time and effort should be expended mollifying the complaining party, said Deiner.

“You need to apologize and give people choices and options,” said Deiner. “That empowers the customer. And sometimes at the end you need to kindly suggest they maybe they would be happier taking their business somewhere else.”

Woody Gill, husband of Karen, is the owner of Smyrna Cards & Gifts, an expansion of his wife’s business. Gill said he worked in the corporate sector for more than 40 years before becoming a small business owner.

He’s attending workshops as a trainee, hoping to hone his skills in social media so that he can mentor other upstarts.  “It’s a base knowledge that I didn’t have that,” said Gill, who said did not attend his wife’s workshop.

Laird said sessions are videotaped for access from certified mentors and for future similar programs and mentors who complete the program will be certified in particular areas, then serve as a go-to resource for businesses that need assistance in a particular area.

“We want this to be a sustainable model, something we can take to rural communities,” said Laird. “These are good businesses and they just need a little help.”

 

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