Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Downturn in Economy?

As small business owners, we do not typically operate under the same constraints faced by major corporations. We don’t require Board approval to make changes to our marketing strategies, we have greater flexibility with the content and direction of our marketing programs and have the ability to efficiently and effectively market ourselves with minimal expenditure.

The economic downturn has caused many companies to downsize their non-revenue and ‘non-essential’ departments.

By taking time and seriously considering long term goals for my business, I have utilized my new-found free time to maximize efforts in expanding my offering and taking a long, hard look at how I have been marketing myself.
When employed full-time, my small business was more of a dream than an active reality. I ordered the supplies needed to have the ability to launch my business when the timing was right. My office is filled with fantastic marketing materials for, ironically, my online marketing business. I have a few clients that I work with on a regular basis, but did not have the time to take on new commitments.

Post-layoff, I took the time to beef up my website, order third-generation business cards that now present the image I want to sell to my clients. The businesses I worked with in my past professional life have now become clients and prospects – they know my ethics, they recognize my abilities, and we have a pre-established positive relationship.

For established small business owners, I encourage you to seek out new ways of building your business. If you have a website, but are not active on social media – now is the time! Most of the tools are free; establishing accounts, finding a preferred social network stream aggregator to monitor your business presence online, and getting involved in the newest trends.

Early adopters of internet ‘trends’ have the luxury of being among the first to get your brand name populating search engines, generating traffic through online gaming programs, and being involved in your area’s online community. It takes time, yes, but if you are experiencing a slowdown in traffic, the time is available – it’s how you choose to use it.

Seek out online communities in your area and become active. Share your personality first and product second with thousands of people in your area, for absolutely free.

If you are not internet savvy, or just simply don’t get it, that’s fine – there are plenty of former professional marketers with years of experience just starting their own companies to show you the way and assist you in your efforts. Think of how you began your business, how you wanted to share your product or your skills with the world and re-energize that dream.

Downturn is only that for those that stay below the wave. Grab your board and rise above it. The view is endless!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ever just feel like you’re holding on, things are speeding by, and you’re not always sure where you’re going?

I got in my car yesterday and there was a little green bug on my windshield. I started the car, backed out the drive, and headed to work. Stoplight after stoplight, the bug stayed put. I was sure that when we hit the highway, he’d be blown off by the sheer force.

Unwisely (don’t try this at home), I kept my eye on the bug as I sped down the I-94. It fascinated me, watching him adjust his little body and change his grip on when a gust pulled a leg or two up and he nearly blew off. He must have adjusted five or six times in the 25 minute 60mph highway commute, and yet he hung on.

At first, I wanted him to be blown off – being a bug and all. Then, as my speed increased and time went on, I began admiring his tenacity. I actually wanted him to hang on until it was ‘safe’ for him to fly off.

You can see the analogy coming from a mile away, but here we go. Life takes us quickly ahead, and sometimes, we don’t even know where we’re headed.

Some days, we feel the pressure of the world pushing down against us. Winds of change start blowing, and we don’t know where we’re going to end up. Then, just when we start losing our grip, we adjust our little legs and hold on.

What we tend to forget is that there is always someone ‘behind the windshield’ that we are not aware of, watching our progress, seeing how we react, and admiring our tenacity. People out there are pulling for us, and we may not even be aware of it.

The bug flew off when I stopped on the exit ramp, and headed straight for the median, which was dotted with bright yellow flowers (okay, weeds). His new place was not my yard, not even close to my yard, but it was nice. Pretty even.

When we feel that we are speeding out of control, it does not mean that the outcome will be negative. We simply need to adjust our little feet, hang on for dear life, and when we see a golden opportunity, we must let go of what we know and trust that our tenacity will be worth the ride.

Friday, May 7, 2010

How many "Georges" are you?

GEORGE: Ah you have no idea of the magnitude of this thing. If she is allowed to infiltrate this world, then George Costanza as you know him,Ceases to Exist! You see, right now, I have Relationship George, but there is also Independent George. That's the George you know, the George you grew up with -- Movie George, Coffee shop George, LiarGeorge, Bawdy George.

JERRY: I, I love that George.

GEORGE: Me Too! And he's Dying Jerry! If Relationship George walks
through this door, he will Kill Independent George! A George, divided
against itself, Cannot Stand!


As a small business owner – with a life – we know that unlike megalo-corporations with many departments and divisions, it is our persona and our actions and inactions that speak directly to the nature of the business we own and operate.

Confession: In the early days of my professional life, I had ‘work’ me and ‘party’ me. The work me was replete with articulate work voice, meticulous appearance, and all of the apropos brands festooned about my person. I was a rainmaker, and the high-rolling investors I worked with expected nothing but the best. They got the very best, personal, respectful, and thorough service from me. …Then there was the party me. A nightlife animal – a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’ a-whoopin’ and a-wailin’ - the things-get-going-around-12:30am life of the party. Goodness help me if those worlds collided.

Inevitably, as George and I ultimately learned, worlds always collide. If you’re not yourself when you’re being yourself – when are you? Rather – which ‘you’ is the real you?

Like it or not, your ‘you’ is your business. If you’re reading this blog, you have likely have chosen to venture out and do our own thing – and in doing so, there are two key things that small business owners must accept: consistency and transparency.

We cannot be separate people living separate lives based on our location or time of day. In the eyes of our customers, we are our business.

Much as I’m not interested in seeing my doctor or teacher out at the bar pounding shooters or ‘faced on Facebook, our customers don’t want to see us acting in a manner inconsistent with the trust we have built with them through our business persona.

It takes time, money and substantial effort to build a customer base. We all know the stats regarding cost of keeping customers v. finding new ones. Why take a chance jeopardizing the business you have worked so hard to build?

This doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun, it just means that if you don’t want your worlds to collide, live in one world! Inject your awesome, unique personality into daily business life and make the choice to simmer down the things you wouldn't want your best client/customer to see.

World-meld into your favorite you - trust me, it's much easier this way.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

But it's ME!

I am a raving fan of my family doctor. He is thorough, attentive and patient, the staff is knowledgeable and efficient, and even the lab does their work with little to no discomfort. Yet, at the four minute mark on hold listening to how “important” my call is, I begin to feel a wee bit put-off.

I know the wonderful receptionists give the very best service to all of their guests, yet I am experiencing a frustration that many of us have felt when things aren’t as personalized, as timely, or as efficient as we believe we deserve. It’s what I term the “but it’s ME” factor.

The soothing hold music is on its second loop at the six-minute mark. Six minutes and ten seconds after I dialed – a 2010 eternity – my call was answered. Of course, I got great service.

So what happens when your guests call or email you? Your raving fans no doubt have a very strong, “but it’s ME” factor, occasional users are having their suspicions confirmed either positively or negatively about their decision to use your company, and new guests have nearly as strong of a feeling of “but it’s ME” as your raving fans. We all want answers NOW, simply because it’s me.

We have a company-wide standard that all emails are personally acknowledged within 20minutes of receipt, and have a year-end goal to reduce the wait time to six minutes. After two unanswered rings, phone calls roll to another sales consultant and in-house guests are greeted between 10-20 seconds of entering the building.

Standards have been set in order to improve the quality of the customer experience. As with goal setting, if an organization is without a guideline for the speed at which we acknowledge our raving fans or newest customers (both should be the same by the way), we tend to get lost in the moment – a very dangerous place. Being lost in the moment can lead to customers seemingly getting in the way of us doing our jobs.

“Ugh – another phone call. Sheesh, when am I going to get this paperwork done?”
“My emails just won’t stop coming today!”
“It’s one thing after another!”

Sound familiar? Customers can’t get in the way of us doing business – they ARE our business. When we’re the ones providing the product or service, we need to adopt the “of course I can, because it’s YOU” attitude toward each of our customers.

When guests feel that we place the same importance on their questions, needs or concerns that they have - and they know that we understand and we care - we can leave everyone with their, “but factor” feeling really good about us and the way we do business.

By the way, the doc’s office just personally called to let me know that my concern was taken care of, I’m sure they did that just because it’s me.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Feeling adrift in the ocean of Web 2.0?

Social media is kind of like an ocean’s wave: vast beyond comprehension, powerful and deep, yet gentle enough for anyone to dip their toes; it can transport information (and ultimately product) across the globe, and it can destroy those passively taking in the scenery in record time.

The thousands of groups, services, news and information gathering sites, social networking sites, video-sharing sites, etc. are like shells deep enough in the water to swirl around with each passing wave, but not too large to get swept out to sea and lost forever.

Carrying this forth, we are the sand – 1.6 Billion of us online at differing depths into the sea of Web 2.0. Each of us with different levels of interest in participation, each of us safe in our own shells with our own groups, sites, etc.

Just because we may not see the ocean for the sand, trust me - it’s out there. It can be very scary, but just like any other adventure, social media involvement begins with a few small steps:

1. Prepare yourself to let go of the old advertising paradigm. Devising a sale and plopping an ad in the paper isn’t going to cut it anymore, and gimmicks only work when they truly connect with customers. Most of us aren’t up for any unnecessary time-wasters and are looking for valuable information, not a schmaltzy sales pitch.
2. Prepare yourself to really listen to your customers. Gone are the days of being able to ignore customers, because someone new was just ready to walk in the door anyway… They’re not flocking anywhere, and if you get a customer, you’ve got to genuinely work to keep them.
3. Prepare yourself to really hear what your customers are saying. Yeah, see point 2 about that…
4. Dig in and listen to what’s being said about you, your business, your competitors, your industry, your area, etc. Pack up your ego and embrace the concept that you can’t get better until you get honest. Sometimes, that honesty will sting. But, like a flu shot, the sting only protects you from something more insidious. Learn from what’s being said.
5. Look and see who the ‘influencers’ are and see what they are saying and who is listening to them. The Web’s not a popularity contest although some might think that way…), it’s a valuable resource. Learn who gets heard in your market area and initiate conversation.
6. Do not do not do not hop into the Social Media ocean with a hearty hi-ho sales pitch. You will get pushed under. ‘Nuf said. Save the sale for later.
7. Here’s the toughie – begin interacting with influencers and groups – as YOU, not as your business. The old phrase that still is true online is that customers don’t care what you know, until they know that you care; that you’re listening, responding and being a part of something bigger than your business.
8. Have fun! Social media is about letting the world see you first, getting to like you second, and then listening to what you have to say.

Safe sailing!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The purpose of this blog is where I would like to talk to you for a few minutes about unnecessary or just words in general that are not really so much

...needed in email communications that you send from day to day.

Brevity, folks. Short and sweet is the language of the internet. Save the grandiose flourishes for writing holiday thank you cards to your grandma.

The top 10 most annoying business email messes:

1. I would like to thank you for – Well then, thank them. “Thank you for…”
2. The purpose of this email is to let you know that your request was received and will be responded to promptly by one of our…Your request was received and is in process.
3. I just wanted to – Don’t downplay your actions. You are not “just” a salesperson, or “just” an anything who does “just” something – you are, and you are conducting business. Period.
4. I want to first start off by saying – just say it. It’s not the Constitution, there’s no need for a preamble.
5. Thank you for your inquiry!!!!! You chose to look at an AWESOME product!!! Where do I start… Always only one exclamation point or question mark in business communication, if any. If you want to add strength to your statement, use your words, don't artificially inflate them through obnoxious, yelling CAPITALIZATION and childish overuse of punctuation.
6. I m soooooooo :) that u can txt. biz is nt ur bff. No texting shortcuts or (goodness help us all) smiley faces, in business prospect or customer emails. Never. Ever. Ever.
7. There are less products… Fewer is used for plural items, less for a single item:
Fewer customers = less money
Fewer deer = less venison
Fewer quarters = less time on the parking meter
8. I have been working with customer’s for 2 years… Working with customers’ what? Making words plural in English is often as easy as adding an ‘s’ to the end of the word – no need for pesky apostrophes until you’re talking about something belonging to someone, or you are shortcutting a word:
Customers’ opinions
That man’s opinion / his opinions
That customer’s going to express his opinions
9. Cut and paste in emails. If you’re going to cut and paste text from other sources, at least take the time to make sure that the font code translates correctly.
10. Thanks, Erin. Use a complete signature. Overprovide information. If you make it difficult to find you, people will find someone else.
Erin who? What's her title? From what company? What’s the phone number? How about linking the web address so I can visit the site now? Perhaps I’m driving there – what’s the physical address? Can I find, follow or friend you online?

Short and sweet does not translate to sloppy and incorrect. Use proper English, and ‘talk’ to your customers with the same respect as you would face-to-face. Finally, if you wouldn’t want to share each and every one of your emails with your boss's-boss's-boss, don’t send it. Considering the available corporate HR software, they’re probably already aware of your online communication skills. Make them (and you) proud.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

“Never invite a customer in, only to disappoint them.” – Leonard Rydell

Eighty years ago (or even twenty) inviting customers into a business was primarily advertising-driven; businesses were local and customers knew their shopkeepers. Businesses advertised in local newspapers, fliers, through interesting signage (think the famous Burma-Shave promotions), and in-store posters. Word of mouth played a part, but an individual’s sphere of influence was limited both in size and in geographic scope.

Interaction took place physically at the place of business, and was typically limited to two individuals - buyer and seller. When things went awry and unhappy customers emerged, damage control was done on an individual basis.

The expectation was, that advertised items would be in stock and there would be an adequate number of knowledgeable staff available to help customers. Phones were answered promptly and politely, questions were answered, and when it was time to commit to purchase, the customer would pay the advertised price.

Never invite the customer in, only to disappoint them. It’s pretty simple business.

In the digital age, the rules of interaction have changed. A growing amount of business is conducted without any interpersonal contact, and even major-ticket items may now be purchased online. The internet (and specifically Social Media) is the fastest, least expensive, most immediate, and potentially the most effective means of interacting with customers today.

The potential for great success exists, and with it, the potential for customer-service nightmares exist as well…

Earlier this month, I was enjoying a lunch of a brand-name prepare-in-the-microwave noodle product when I bit into something that made my teeth zing. I felt a tiny chip in the enamel on my front tooth, found the bit of glass that had come pre-packaged in the lunch. No larger than a peppercorn, it certainly is not enough to kill someone, yet not many enjoy the concept of ingesting glass.

I dug the wrappings from the trash and saved them, thinking the subsidiary of a major food company would want to know about the issue and investigate, then emailed the lot numbers to their online customer service email address. Two days later, I sent the same email to their larger parent company. Two more days later, I sent the email to the major brand name parent company. It’s now been a week and a half since I found glass in their product, yet no one from any of their companies has contacted me.

My sphere of influence here in Minnesota may not be huge, but after nearly two weeks of no response, I tweeted my small little group of global followers (a few over 1000) with the name of the product and my experience. I also posted it to my Facebook page, and encouraged my friends and Twitter followers to share my experience. Now, I’m sharing the experience with you.

I will not be contacting a lawyer, nor do I want free noodles rotting in my garage – I simply wanted acknowledgement that my issue had been noticed. Instead, what could have been resolved with a very simple apology and a promise to look into it so that no one else was eating Kung Pao Noodles-n-Glass, has been shared across the internet. A negative customer-service experience extending far beyond just co-workers and family was disseminated with the push of a single button.

The digital age has dramatically changed the way we conduct business. We shop online, buy from chain stores and if we choose to use the self-scan lane, we can avoid all human contact. Yet increasingly, when things are wonderful (or awful), we turn to our global network of friends, fans and followers to share our experiences.

What are customers finding when they visit your online place of business?
Do you have current blogs, specials and ‘news,’ or is it information several months old?
Do your links work and direct people to the correct page?
Is your contact information easily accessible and in multiple spots?
Are your customer service emails being answered within an hour?
Are you monitoring what’s being said about you and your competition on Twitter?

The internet is an open invitation to the 1.6Billion people on Earth with internet access. Set aside time each day to focus your 2010 marketing efforts to ensure that when you’re extending an online invitation, you’re not disappointing your guests.