Archive for the ‘Business’ Category


5 Strategies to Bootstrapping Your Business

1-28 Funding Options SmallAs you prepare to become your own boss, you need to get your finances in order. You’ll need enough money to cover 6-12 months of business and personal finances before you even launch your business. That being said, you have a few options to consider in terms of where that money comes from.

1. Savings

If you’re lucky enough to have a well-padded savings account, kudos to you. This should be your first option for funding your business. Note: don’t jeopardize your own future by taking the money out. If you have a savings account to cover “rainy day” home repairs, the last thing you want to do is take that money out, and then find you need a new roof!

Consider leaving your money in your savings or money market account, and just taking what you need. That way, your money continues to earn interest.

Benefits: Using your savings account keeps you from having to take out a business loan, which many entrepreneurs are reticent to do. If you have less than stellar credit, you can purchase a Certificate of Deposit and use it as collateral for a loan while earning interest.

2. Bank Loan

The Small Business Association (SBA) is set up to help businesses get the money they need to start a business. There are banks that cater to small businesses just like yours that can help you find a great rate. Start with your own bank, or look for one that does small business lending.  Look for alternative lenders as well, such as Women’s Business Loans. Note: banks don’t lend to startups, so you’ll need to be in business two years prior to applying for a traditional bank loan.

Benefits: The SBA provides a guarantee for business loans, which means applicants with challenged credit score still have an opportunity to get funding.

3. Your Retirement Fund

You can borrow against your 401(k) to start a business. With this option, you essentially use your own money to fund your company, then pay yourself back. Just make sure you pay it back! Sometimes there can be penalties for borrowing funds, so you want to make sure you are aware of them before you take this option.

Benefits: 401(k) financing actually has lower risk than an SBA loan. If things go badly, you still have to pay for the loss, but the 401(k) provides before-tax money, reducing the effective cost. Plus, there are no credit implications and your house is not on the line as collateral.

4. Home Equity Line of Credit

If you own your home, borrow no more than 80% of your home’s value through a home equity line of credit to avoid having to purchase private mortgage insurance.  You’ll increase your chances of getting approved for one if you have great credit and good payment history. Make sure to pay attention to what current interest rates are before deciding on this strategy. And remember: you’re putting your house on the line, so if your business fails, you risk losing it if you can’t pay the loan.

Benefits: Funds are easy to access once you’ve been approved. The interest is tax-deductible, since it’s mortgage interest.

5. Friends and Family

Having a friend or family member who’s willing to invest in your business idea is a real boon. Some may want to be involved in the business in exchange for the investment, while others may hand you a check and say “pay me whenever.” Either way, make sure you’re clear on payment terms (and offer interest) and how willing you are to have someone involved in helping you make the business decisions.

Benefits: If you have a family member who can afford to loose the money they invest in your business, this means they could be more patient with letting you build your business.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: Creating How-To Content for Customer Service (and More)

1-27 how-to for customers smallIs how-to content part of your small business’s content marketing strategy? If you aren’t creating content that shows customers how to do something, you’re missing out on a big opportunity to provide customer service in a format that customers increasingly want.

Suppose you own a company that sells kits to remove the “haze” that develops on the headlight lenses of cars over time, decreasing visibility. If you sell your kits wholesale to retailers, you want to make sure customers are satisfied with the product—otherwise, they might return it and retailers will stop carrying it. But a product like this can be tricky to use. The answer? How-to content that expands on the directions packaged with the product.

You can—and should—create how-to content in a variety of formats. Some people learn better by reading, others by looking at photos and others by watching a video that talks them through it, so offering options covers all your bases. In the example above, you could write blogs about how to use the product, make one blog photo-based showing each step with captions below, and finally create a video showing the product in use with a voice-over giving directions.

Once you’ve got your how-to content, share it in a variety of places. Of course, your business website is the number-one place to host it. Include it as part of your customer service page. Also put videos on your YouTube channel and share links to the content on social media.

Expand on your basic how-to content by:

  • Creating new content to deal with common problems or questions customers have with your product.
  • Developing content that shares creative ideas for using the product. For example, can the headlight kit also be used for other purposes?
  • Upsell additional products. If there’s a complementary add-on that goes with the headlight kit, include it at the end of the headlight-kit content.
  • Take it to a general audience. You might create a video about car care in general (like how to maintain a car’s like-new look, or get a car ready for a car show) and include your product as part of the process.

As a bonus, how-to content not only answers customer service questions, but also serves to drive traffic to your website and build your business’s reputation. Using keywords that potential customers are likely to search for, such as car care, car repair, etc., will help attract online searchers to your content and spread awareness of your business.

Done right, how-to content keeps existing customers happy and attracts new ones, too. 


Mondays with Mike: What They Told You About Sales Is Wrong!

1-26 sales trips eye contact smallWhat’s been written about sales tactics could stretch from here to the moon and back.  There are seminars, webinars, and even one-on-one coaches who promise to give you the low-down on surefire tips to close a deal.  What’s wrong with the accepted truths about sales?  Many of them are wrong!  When you look at evidence, we discover that sometimes these techniques can backfire and actually hurt your chances for making the sale.  Here are some tips to watch out for:

  1. Make eye contact.  The goal of this tactic is to create a connection between you and your prospective client.  While you do want to connect, too much eye contact is frequently interpreted as aggression and can actually make a client uncomfortable and less likely to buy what you’re selling.  Intermittent eye contact is much more comfortable and still helps you create a connection.
  2. Quote a range of prices.  Say you’re working to land a new client for your cleaning service.  You tell the client it’ll cost between $100 and $200 monthly for your services.  You think that by giving a range you can settle in the middle and satisfy both parties, but here’s the trouble:  your client hears $100, and you’re hoping for $200.  If you settle at $150, then your client feels ripped off, and you’re disappointed.  A much better strategy is to quote a specific price, preferably one with wiggle room.  If you quote $170, knowing you’re willing to negotiate downward, then when you settle at $150, your client feels like he got a bargain, and you’re precisely where you wanted to be.  A specific price with room for expected negotiation is more likely to give you a win-win outcome.
  3. Assume the sale.  In the old days, we were taught to make your pitch assuming success.  The trouble is that consumers are wise to this not-so-subtle attempt at manipulation, and engaging in it can make you seem a little sleazy.  Telegraphing your attempts to toy with clients’ emotions is a fail, in part because it makes customers feel like you think they’re suckers – easily manipulated and not very smart.  Respect your customers enough to let them make their own decisions.
  4. Give them no way out.  High pressure sales can work, at least in the short term, but it’s not a recipe for long term success.  Consider this:  there’s an entire legal niche for attorneys who specialize in handling cases for clients who have buyers remorse after being pressured into purchasing a time share.  The tactic of shutting a client in a room and holding them there until they sign has major negative ramifications.  If your customers feel like they’re in control, they’re going to walk away thrilled to have given you their business, rather than walking away feeling like they’ve been ripped off.

The best sales people are psychologists, in a way.  They understand what consumers want, and they find a way to deliver it.  Assuming the goal isn’t just a one-time sale, building business deals that treat your clients like partners will result in consumer loyalty and future sales, as well as referrals based on great experiences.  Don’t let tired truisms guide your sales pitches.  Take the time to use tactics that are proven effective.


Fourteen Ways To Improve Your Customer Service–Starting Today

1-23-15 first impression smallHere are fourteen new ways to look at your business/ questions to ask yourself/ approaches to consider that will help you improve the customer service and customer experience that you offer.

  1. Are you easy to use? You won’t know until you try.  Try your own website without your company-provided auto-log in.  Is it easy?  Or a pain? Come in the front door and see if the door swings open easily, or whacks you on the shoulder.  And so forth.
  2. First impressions matter. Walk up to, and into, your establishment with the eye of a customer. A customer perception is his reality, and a first impression is important because it tends to linger in a customer’s memory. Ditto if that fist interaction is on the phone, via chat, or via mobile.
  3. Impressions before the first impression matter.  Of course, there is no “before the first impression.” But the first impression is very likely happening before you realize it: how you’re portrayed online, how your grounds look well before the front door.  Disney even obsesses over the route to their parks for this reason.
  4. Last impressions matter. It’s so easy when you’ve “completed” an interaction with or project for a customer, to rush on to the next one with the next customer.  Doing so can erase all the goodwill you created.  The “goodbye” is an important stage, one of the most important, because (like a first impression) it tends to linger in a customer’s memory.
  5. Do you offer self-service options for your customers?  Many customers want them today: unless you’re open 24/7 or at least all conceivable business hours in all time zones in which you have customers, you need such options. And even if you are open ‘round the clock, many times customers today just want to handle it, or at least be able to check up on it, themselves.
  6. Do your self-service options include escape hatches? For when the self-service isn’t working or the customer isn’t in the mood–there should be an easy way out, to reach a human.  Make it obvious, like hitting “O” on the phone.
  7. Do your customers have to ask you to answer questions for which the answer should be obvious?  Customers don’t like to be burdened to contact you for items that could easily be provided for them on a self service basis.  Do your FAQ’s actually include the questions that customers want the answers to?  Or were they written six years ago by your web developer?  Do they get an auto-confirmation when they order or do they need to call to ensure their order wasn’t lost in the ether?  And so on.
  8. Timeliness: Are you considerate of your customer’s time?  This is a big, big, big one.  A perfect product or service delivered late is a defect.
  9. Consider the feedback you receive from your customers “free customer service consulting”–this is info of great value, not an interruption of your day. What could be better than to get information directly from your customers? And yet, responding to it, reviewing it, acting on it can feel like an interruption of our work if we don’t carefully check our attitude. Also: Don’t batch your surveys and then review them at the end of the month—scan them right away to see who needs to hear from you now.  
  10. Benchmark outside your industry. If you sell furniture, don’t just benchmark other players in the furniture industry to figure out how fast, easy to use, nice your company should be.  Your customers’ expectations for manners, timeliness, quality… come as much from Starbucks, Apple, and other great consumer brands as they do from the others in your particular field.
  11. Language matters. It is extremely easy to say the right thing, but to say it wrong.   Actively work on the language that is used in customer interactions 
  12. Standards matter. For example, a doorman at a great hotel is rarely blindsided by a guest trying to enter while the doorman’s back is turned. How can that be? Standards. In this case, the standard is usually that ‘‘doormen work in teams.’’ They simply face each other and subtly tip each other off if someone is coming from behind. They quite literally have each other’s back, leading to a consistently comfortable, welcoming, hospitable experience.
  13. Empowerment matters.  You can’t write a standard for every eventuality. Your employees need empowerment–autonomy–to deviate from it if the case, the customer, requires a different approach.
  14. Fight actively–every single day, every single shift–against getting in a rut.  The principle of hedonic adaptation means that your hundredth day on the job, naturally will not be as intense–as exciting, stressful, and so forth– as the first day.  This is good to some extent, but it means that you have to actively strive to remember that this same day is the first interaction your customer has had with your company, and you need to keep your attitude fresh to match theirs.

Why No One Wants to Be Your Mentor

Small business owners frequently cite that having a mentor is one of their top keys to success. So why don’t you have one? It’s because you have misconceptions about what a mentor looks like and how they can help.

Here is why people don’t want to be your mentor:

  1. They don’t know you. You won’t find mentors by reaching out to strangers since they don’t know you and won’t invest time in helping. Instead, look around at the inspiring people you are already interact. Your mentor needs to be someone who believes you are worthy of helping. Ask who in your network already fits that profile.
  2. You ask for mentorship. “Will you be my mentor?” Sheryl Sandberg explains that, “If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no. When someone finds the right mentor, it is obvious.  The question becomes a statement. Chasing or forcing that connection rarely works.” When looking for a mentor, author Ryan Holiday says don’t even use the word. A mentor is a label that can only be applied to someone over time, and by the time that label can be applied, it is already very clear what that person’s role is. Just like any other relationship, it has to grow and transform into what you both want it to be. Let them develop slowly over a period of time.
  3. You take without giving. The “mentor-mentee” relationship needs to be a mutual exchange. While at first it may seem like you have nothing to bring to the table, this is not the case. Give your time by finding articles, links, or news that can benefit your mentors. Make connections for them to your network. Tweet their posts, comment on their blogs, and share their updates. Ask how you can be of service to them.
  4. You are a drag to mentor. Take a closer look at yourself. Are you somebody you yourself would like to mentor? Are you eager to listen, learn and committed to implementing the advice you receive? People don’t want to mentor those who are sensitive to criticism and stuck in their ways. Arguing with all feedback is a major red flag to a potential mentor that you aren’t worth their time. Excuses are also a barrier.

Be great at what you do. Work hard and be dependable. Go out and become that person that others would love to support and nurture in business.

1-22 Business mentor small


Is Your Passion Enough to Start a Business?

1-21 passion into business smallPassion is an overused term in business. You keep hearing “do what you love,” but you need to be thinking about whether your passion is truly sufficient enough to start a successful business. To create a business you must provide a product or service people are willing to pay for. Maybe you love knitting baby booties, and want to make millions doing so. I’m sad to tell you: unless you employ about 10,000 other baby-bootie knitters, you will likely never reach that financial goal.

It’s important that you assess whether your passion has a profit center before you start that business. By making sure you can actually make money you’ll ensure that your business will be able to weather an economic crisis and other bumps in the road. You also need to be able to scale that profit center beyond what your own two hands can create.

Assess Your Passions

Start by looking at what you’re passionate about. Your list will likely include things you can quickly mark off your “possible business” list, like “watching WWE fights or The Food Network.” You simply aren’t going to be able to build a business around that!

Maybe you’re an avid bike rider who’s passionate about taking kids on long cross-country bike treks. Or you love animals and have a knack for training them. Maybe you are good at helping friend pull together a killer look or update their wardrobe. These are passions you can build a business around.

But go beyond those obvious passions, like what you enjoy doing in your spare time, and look at the abstract. You might enjoy working with small teams, or planning events. You might love closing a sale, or have an eye for home design. Some of these passions may be worth considering starting a business around, while others may simply be useful as you develop your business.

Consider Your Goals

Going back to that baby bootie example. If you’re content knitting 25 hours a week and making enough cash to take a vacation, leaving you ample time to spend with your kids, this could be a sustainable business model. You have to look at your resources (at this point, that’s just you, the knitter) and determine whether you can accomplish what you want with them.

Maybe you’ve got money squirreled away, and could hire your knitting club to triple your production of booties. Now you’re talking! You could create a virtual network of knitters (say that 5 times fast) and grow your business from there.

Passion is a great place to start in becoming your own boss, but it’s not the only factor to consider. You also need to be able to make enough money to hit your goal, while maintaining the type of lifestyle you desire. Profit is how we keep score in business, so just make sure you are honest with yourself about whether or not your business concept can actual make money.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: Are You Ignoring Your Returning Customers?

1-20-15 customer rewards smallHave you ever had this experience: You see an ad or offer for some amazing deal for a company of which you’re a longtime customer—something big, like “50% off a year’s membership.” Wow, you want to take advantage of that! But you can’t because there’s only one catch: The offer is for new customers only. “Hmph,” you think. “What am I, chopped liver?”

Many small businesses make the mistake of ignoring their biggest source of income: recurring customers. OK, maybe not “ignoring” them completely, but giving them the short end of the stick when it comes to attention, special offers and prime treatment.

It’s natural that getting new customers should be a key part of your business strategy. After all, every company needs new business in the pipeline to survive and grow. But the bulk of your time and attention should go to your existing customers. Why? Here are just a few reasons:

  • They’re already loyal customers.
  • It costs less to keep them satisfied (and buying) than it does to replace them.
  • Keep them happy and they’ll tell friends about your business.

What can you do to provide better treatment for your returning customers? Here are some ideas:

  • Hold special sales or events just for loyal customers.
  • Offer them early access to new merchandise or services.
  • Give them the chance to lock in current prices for the coming year or when they renew.
  • Use automation tools such as a CRM system to track details about your customers so you can personalize your customer service, offers and interactions. You can even greet them appropriately when they call your business!
  • Use technology that creates a record of customer service interactions so that when recurring customers contact you with problems, you can quickly access their histories.
  • Investigate loyalty programs for small businesses. There are many affordable options that integrate with your marketing, enabling more targeted outreach to returning customers.

It’s OK to create special offers and deals for new customers only—just be sure you provide equivalent or better rewards for customers who have shown their loyalty to your business. 


7 Things Successful People Never Ever Do

happiness & freedomIn a business person’s day, there is always more tasks than hours. The key to being successful is not to do more multitasking in an effort to cram more into each day. It’s not to work harder with longer hours to get everything done. What separates very successful people from the rest of the pack is not what they do, but actually what they never ever do. For example:

  1. Never hold on to the past. Successful people don’t let the future get shaped by what happened in the past. They don’t hold a grudge. They evaluate results of their success or failure, let go of it and move on within 24 hours of any event. Successful people realize that there is more opportunity in the future than the past.
  2. Never make big decisions. They never bet the company all on one action. They prevent this by making small incremental choices. Successful people test every result and then make another small decision to get to where the business needs to go.
  3. Never focus on perfection. It costs too much to achieve and there is that constant nagging feeling of failure. They would rather be done than have the job be perfect so they can learn from the results. This doesn’t mean successful people ever do a bad job, but rather, they do 100% and then move on to the next opportunity.
  4. Never do it all themselves. Successful people know that small business is truly a team sport. They know how to leverage each opportunity using other people and outside resources to accomplish their goal. Successful people realize that this is the key to building a company that is not just about them.
  5. Never say yes to every customer request. They know what their company is good at and carefully choose the problems they solve for their customers that will show the most value. As a result, they are able to honor existing commitments. In addition, successful people do not work with every interested customer and fire the ones that don’t match their culture.
  6. Never multi-task. Successful people know that multitasking only gets more things done poorly. They focus on the tactic at hand and then move on to the next one. They know how to block out common distractions like email and social media notifications.  Successful people can intensely focus for short periods of time.
  7. Never hang out with “Negative Nellies”. Successful people don’t keep company with other folks that are constantly telling them why something can’t get done. They don’t feed the neurosis of complainers who always want to say that the sky is always failing. Instead, successful people work with a team that has a can-do attitude where anything is possible.

As a successful person, what do you never ever do?


Help Out Your Customers Before They Know They Need Your Help

1-15-15 Alerting Customers small

What do customers prefer–strongly prefer–to having to ask your company for help, or for information, and then having to wait for an answer?  They like it if your company gets to them first with what they need as customers before they have to ask for anything themselves.

So, if you want to become irreplaceable to your customers, it’s time to develop a mindset–a companywide customer service policy, in fact–of “getting to them first”: providing customers with the information or assistance they’re going to need before they have to reach out to you to ask for it, before, in fact, they even know that they need it. 

Depending on the scale of your business, you will likely be doing this using modern communications technology and automation.

Anticipatory Customer Service Messaging

Like much else involved in creating great customer service and a superior customer experience, this requires a masterful touch, far removed from the hamfistedness of a spammer. Applied properly, the principle of ‘‘getting to them first’’ is a powerful way to make customers feel remembered, cared for, and, ultimately and paradoxically, left alone and unbothered, since they can now relax knowing you will, for example:

• Notify passengers if flights have been delayed or gates change, and if the worst happens (a cancellation) rebook them and alert them to the new arrangements, without any work on the passengers’ part.
• Reach out to customers if there’s a delay in shipping the item you’d promised to deliver before the holidays, so they can make alternative plans
• Remind customers of something they ‘‘should’’ be keeping track of themselves, but that you, in your quest to become their irreplaceable vendor, are happy to put on your own shoulders. For example, you can remind them, before they ask, when their mortgage payments are due or when a medication needs to be refilled.

Along these lines, you've perhaps noticed that your credit card company has cozied up to you by taking what should be your responsibility—posting my payments on time—off your shoulders and put it on the company’s. Now, as a result, I’ll bet you're a lot less frequently late on your credit card payments these days, and think a lot less about the idea of switching companies anymore, thanks to that simple automated alert sent to your inbox:

Alert: Your Payment Is Due in 10 Days to X Card Services
To: slowpayer@slackfest.com
Your payment to us will be due in 10 days, for your account that ends in 1111.

Leave ways for them to reach a (fabulous) human being

But you can't do everything with automation.  The effect of being cared for effortlessly (or at least with no effort on the part of the customer) that you've started electronically is enhanced by making sure that every automated addition to your repertoire is accompanied by an option for the recipient to easily reach a human being.

Remember, your marketing department would spill its blood to reach a live customer one on one, so talking with customers isn’t an overhead expense. It’s an opportunity. So strive to offer customers a chance to talk with a human, if that’s their preference, even when you’re reaching out to them through automation.

Where to find opportunities to "get to them first": 

  • With anything you think about more than/more frequently than your customers do. If your business is a mail-order pharmacy, it means you work all day on the intricacies of injectable medications. These are expensive and involved medications used for managing multiple sclerosis and other chronic illnesses, requiring pre-approvals from insurance agencies, typically shipped to the customer every ninety days. Your customer, on the other hand, has a life. She’s doing everything other than thinking about her medication supply in the eighty-nine-day span between reorders. So, you set up the ultimate in bulletproof reminder systems, check for her that insurance and physician verifications have remained up to date, etc., and handle everything for her as transparently as possible, thus becoming her indispensable dispensary.
  • Any time your customers would otherwise be waiting in the dark. Projects and products built or shipped in stages, from insurance applications and disaster relief efforts to cross-country relocations and event planning, are important opportunities to get to your customers first. ‘‘No news is good news’’ isn’t something customers assume or should assume. Regular updates should be your mode of operation.
  • With anything that customers need to know about, if you’re aware of it before they are. This could be protection from a new software virus; many stitches are saved when electronic patches are provided to customers before they need them. Or, let’s look at an application from the fine-arts world: Don’t make your patrons find out for themselves that a sporting event has closed off the normal route to the ballet. Courteously and cannily, the ticketing service used by the Philadelphia Ballet makes sure to send an automated call to ticketholders' phones to alert them to leave extra time so as not to miss the opening curtain.  It also couples the phone call—just for safety—with an email, for example, as follows:

An important message regarding your performance on Saturday at 12 p.m. The International Dragon Boat Festival and the U.S. Pro Bike Race will take place Saturday. Throughout the day Kelly Drive will be partially closed and MLK Drive will be completely closed. Please allow extra time to arrive at the Academy of Music for your 12 p.m. performance.

Sure, the ballet could rationalize to itself that the ballet patrons have already bought their nonrefundable tickets. Which is literally true this time–but the way to have them buy tickets repeatedly, and perhaps become that legacy donor you’ve been looking for is to avoid permitting them to encounter an aggravating experience that leaves a poor taste in their mouths.




 
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