How a Small Business Owner Kicked Self-Doubt

One of my favorite things is hearing from customer service leaders and small business owners who candidly share the challenges they face. One recent email that caught my attention was from Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts

Aaron Pallesen, owner of Hive Martial Arts

He explained that he was trying to use service to differentiate his business from other martial arts studios. Yet he wasn't sure all the extra service was appreciated.

"There are a few [customers] that will go out of their way to say something nice or write a great review online. However, for the majority it just feels like they expect me to do all this extra work because they want it—some outright abuse these offerings.

"This is both infuriating and makes me feel like I should just go back to the hard sales approach and the extra income. I mean, why offer so many things to add value to the program if 80% of our members just act like they're entitled to something no other martial arts school offers?

"What am I missing?"

Too much self-doubt can be paralyzing and toxic. Here's how Pallesen kicked those limiting feelings and refocused on what his business was doing right.

Seek Advice

Pallesen emailed me out of the blue. He was reading The Service Culture Handbook, and noticed I published my email address in the book, so he reached out.

It's incredibly brave to email someone you don't know and share as much as Pallesen did. We often try to protect our egos by pretending things are going better than they are, but Pallesen was brutally honest about what he was thinking.

I immediately admired Pallesen for his honesty, and his story grabbed me:

"My vision when I opened up shop was to provide a far better experience at a more approachable price point for our urban families; often times at the risk of losing a little money in the short term to gain loyalty and brand ambassadors for the long term.

"The moment we opened, I wanted to build everything around a service culture. This means we don't charge $35-$50 per student, per belt test. We don't charge for specialty classes for our tournament competitors that want to compete but can't afford the $30/month extra. I also removed the maximum limit of (2) classes each student can attend during the week, and allow unlimited classes for those that want to pursue it but, again, are held back due to financial limitations most schools apply for the addition classes.

"I don't do contracts and rely on our service for long term sustainability."

Pallesen felt under-appreciated, and he wasn't sure his approach was working. Nobody likes to experience self-doubt like this, but it's something I commonly see in customer-focused leaders. They always worry about finding a way to do better.

Focus on the Facts

Emotions can cloud our perception of reality, so it can be helpful to focus on the facts. 

I asked Pallesen a few questions about his business. His answers revealed his customer-focused approach was actually working!

  • Customer retention is 25% better than his competitors'.

  • Referrals are up 30% in the past eight months.

  • Gross profit margins are a healthy 55%.

Looking at the numbers helped Pallesen adopt a new perspective. His business was doing well overall, despite the frustrations he had experienced.

Pallesen emailed me back to share his new perspective. "I was up until 3am doing a lot of internalizing and looking more into these questions. It really seems I'm focusing on a couple bad apples, and not the majority."

Work Towards What You Want

There's a difference between fixing problems and making things better. I asked Pallesen a couple of questions to stimulate thinking about his desired future state and what he could do to get there.

The first question was, "What would you like to happen that's not happening now?"

"I want people to experience that 'hero' moment more often. Whether it's because their kid no longer needs occupational therapy because of martial arts (true story), or because their child finally has the confidence that there's no need to defend themselves, they just carry themselves in a way that removes that target. 

"We do hear about it sometimes, and some of our reviews gave me goosebumps as I re-read them this afternoon. However, only about 20% of our members have mentioned those hero moments, and I'd like to significantly increase that."

Okay, now we're getting somewhere! The narrative changed from feeling under-appreciated to feeling great about the successes he's achieved and looking forward to delivering a hero moment to even more people.

My next question was, "I’m sure some people notice the extra services you offer—when does that happen and who notices?"

Pallesen did an excellent job of using this question to look at the situation from his customer's perspective. And it gave him an idea to build on.

"Honestly, while thinking this through, I'm suddenly realizing how many people were surprised after they overheard me talking about some of the specialty classes we offer on Saturdays. If I put myself in their shoes, I can see how it would be easy to forget that these extras are offered if the only time they hear about it is during their initial lesson and orientation.

"Since it's human nature to avoid being wrong or uncomfortable, it's easy to understand why people wouldn't ask about the extra classes without me first initiating the conversation."

This insight helped Pallesen realized the importance of offering additional services at the time of need. If customers don't know about something, they can't appreciate it!

Moving Forward

I could really relate to Pallesen. I can't tell you how many times I've experienced self-doubt in my own business. Fortunately, I have a supportive wife and great friends and colleagues who help me work through it.

It was great to see Pallesen work through it, too.

"When I could get out of that funk and look at your questions objectively I was able to overcome a lot of questions I had about what we are doing. We're on track for a record year, and I should continue focusing on what we're doing right instead of focusing on the couple people that want to try to abuse the system."

Please consider giving Hive Martial Arts a visit if you live in the Minneapolis area!