Archive for the ‘Business’ Category


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.


How to Kickstart Your Marketing Efforts in 2015

1-14 Kickstart Mktg smallMarketing is the engine that feeds your small business.  As we jump into the new year, it’s time to kickstart your marketing and public relations activities. You want to divide your activities by those that engage prospect customers and those that keep your existing customer.  Here are five ways to kickstart your marketing machine in your small business:

  1. Send a Note to Existing Customers to Check-In: To keep your business top of mind, send an email to check-in and see what’s going on with your existing customers. Don’t make it about any kinds of hard sell, just call to say happy new year.  Be sure to put your business phone number, address, website, social media contacts in your email signature, so they can give you a quick call or note back.
  2. Organize Your Calendar: Look at your 2015 calendar and mark down any special dates that are relevant in your industry. Think of creative ways to share information that will bring customers in especially on key holidays. If you’re a retailer, you can run promotions for President’s Day, Valentine’s Day, 4th of July or Halloween. Holidays are opportunities to make sales on related products. Take advantage of it.
  3. Build a New Partnership: One of the fastest ways to find new customers is by partnering with a business that already has complimentary clients or relationships you’re looking for.  By leveraging the credibility of a partner they can pave the way for their clients to trust your business much faster.  Also be willing to present yourself as a white label solution. Remember, 20% of a deal you would have never had is great profit.
  4. Create a new free offer: Everyone loves free stuff. A great way to get potential customers to give you their contact email is to create a free download offer. If you are a financial planner, offer a free report or ebook with tips for “How to Retire RICH Before 50.”  Once you get their contact information use email to nurture the relationship.
  5. Get More Social: This year look for opportunities to boost your social media marketing efforts. Look at ways to build more engagement on your social accounts. Consider kicking it up on your  Facebook page, Instagram account, in your LinkedIn Groups, Pinterest boards and Twitter account. Try venturing out the one new social media site this year. Try Searching popular topics or hashtags that people are engaged in so you can join the conversation.

You can use a combination of these methods to kickstart your marketing efforts this year to keep your business top of mind with your target customers.  


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: How to Learn From Your Company’s Customer Service Mistakes

1-13 customer service mistake smallWhat happens at your small business when somebody makes a customer service mistake? Do you reprimand the employee and then forget about it? Big mistake. Everyone on your team, not only customer service employees, can learn valuable lessons from customer service goofs.

To gain value from errors, just as with everything else in your business, you need to create a system for doing so. Here are six steps to keep in mind.

  1. Start by writing down problems. In the heat of the moment, you may not have time to do more than quickly deal with the issue and satisfy the customer. However, you and your managers should always record what happened so you can discuss better solutions in more detail later.
  2. Set up a system for collecting customer input on an ongoing basis. This can include online reviews and ratings on external websites, comments from customers on social media, emails or letters that your business receives from customers, or comment cards in your business.
  3. Once a month, go through the information you’ve collected about customer service mistakes and problems. Note any recurring trends. For example, maybe several customers have complained about being put on hold for long wait times when they call your business to make an appointment. Clearly, this isn’t just an isolated incident.
  4. Dig deeper. Do long hold times occur on certain days or at certain times? How is your business staffed at these times? Is the issue one of inadequate staff, staff unresponsiveness, or technical issues with the phone system?
  5. Get input. Hold a monthly meeting to discuss customer service issues with your team. Depending on the size of your business and the nature of the issues, you might want to start by going over problems with key managers first and then bringing customer service employees in for a bigger meeting to discuss challenges and solutions. Involving front-line employees will often uncover issues you didn’t know about that could be solved easily. For example, adding a self-scheduling appointment app to your website could eliminate the need for customers to wait on hold at all.
  6. Don’t accuse. The group meeting is not the time to put individuals on the spot. The focus should be not on who made the mistake/s, but on what everyone can learn from them and how they can be prevented in the future. 

Mondays with Mike: What You Can Learn From Hyper-Startups

1-12 business plan smallThere are time-tested procedures for starting a business – from writing elaborate business plans to generating sales projections.  While we can learn a lot from following traditional paths, there’s a host of new entrepreneurs who start their businesses in a flash – moving from idea to implementation in a matter of hours.  These hyper-startups are volatile, flexible, and sometimes unstable, but there’s a lot we can learn from them.

  1. Reach out to customers right away.  While traditional models would have you create a prototype and run alpha and beta testing with a sample of potential customers, hyper-startups rope their customers in right away.  Using crowdfunding and crowdsourcing sites, entrepreneurs can solicit startup funds, feedback, and suggestions from end users before a product is even produced.  Bonus – when you do have a product to take to market, you’ve already established a list of potential buyers.  You’re researching and marketing all at the same time!
  2. Let your best customer find you.  Now, I’m not suggesting that you won’t need to do any marketing in order to reach customers, but what is worth pointing out is that by assuming you already know who your customer is, you may be missing out on your best customer.  Keep an open mind in terms of who will be excited about your product, and even about new or unexpected uses for your product or service.  Hyper-startups know to listen to the chatter.  Don’t limit yourself by thinking you know it all.
  3. Be mobile and be ready.  As more and more business is done on iPads, smartphones, and tablets, the speed with which a savvy entrepreneur can move from idea to income has become mindboggling.  Being ready and able to work wherever and whenever inspiration strikes makes you more effective and more efficient.  Integrating social media with your startup right away lets you make changes and share news anytime, anywhere.
  4. Ride the wave – and know when to throw in the towel.  Hyper-startups can flourish in a flash and fail just as rapidly.  Keeping abreast of trends and market shifts is essential if you’re going to make hay while the sun shines.  Not only does staying up on what’s hot keep you profitable, but it can also permit you to shape trends, in addition to reacting to them.  Encourage your customers to stay connected and keep in touch about their experiences and needs.  Not only are your vocal customers key in keeping your offerings current, but they’re also your best marketers, bringing in new fans every day.
  5. Plan for success (and prepare for failure.)  So you’ve got a brilliant idea.  Are you prepared for what you’ll do if it’s a crazy success and you have more business than you can handle?  Make sure you have a plan for how to scale up production and delivery just in case you’re a big hit.  Also, have an exit strategy, a stop-loss point at which you’ll cut your losses and move on if the startup doesn’t flourish.

Hyper-startups are inherently volatile.  They depend on the changeable desires and interests of notoriously fickle consumers who seek out the new and noteworthy.  That doesn’t mean hyper-startups are all bad.  It’s possible to make a lot of money in a very short period of time, provided you’re prepared.  Even if you choose a more traditional route to starting your company, there are elements of these rapid developers you can use to make your efforts more effective, even long-term.


Three Ways To Stop Frustrating Your Customers

1-9 angry customer smallWhile customers love being wowed by exceptional customer service, they also appreciate simply being served, without frustration, by a company whose systems, processes, and approaches make sense and are well-executed.

If this doesn’t describe your company and the customer experience it offers at present, here are three ways to turn that around. Time, I have to warn you, is not on your side here: Clunky systems are becoming less and less acceptable in today's marketplace; respect for and anticipation of what your customers want are the watchwords for a successful customer experience.

1. Help Customers Find It For Themselves Customers appreciate the ability to have genuine, meaningful contact with a company, especially if the company has empathetic, intelligent, empowered humans working for it.  However, customers only want to be in touch with you when they need you, not when you force them to contact you because of bad process design and lazy systems implementation. Customers don’t want to have to call you just to find out that their order has shipped; they want an automated confirmation.  They don’t want to call you for your GPS address because your site only lists your PO Box.  And they eventually will stop calling. If you want word about you to spread, don’t let the word that spreads be how hard it was to find something in your FAQ’s—or to find your FAQs in the first place. You, in other words, need to be the expert here, providing expert information where the customer can easily find it, so they feel informed and at ease when they work with you. 

Amazon.com obsesses over these kind of stupid inquiries from customers (note: the customer isn’t stupid for making the inquiry; a company is stupid if it's forcing the customer to make the inquiry) and searches them out (the inquiries, not the customers) for destruction.  Most elementally, they were the first well-known company to replace all the irritating calls you have to make to see if your order had actually been received with that instant automated confirmation that customers now all pavlovianly depend on.

2.  Personalize and Curate Results for Your Customers Apple’s personal assistron, Siri, may seem like a bit of a toy, and certainly has her limitations, but she’s good at finding the question within the question: I tell Siri "I have a headache," and she comes back with “I have found 4 drugstores not too far from you.” (One time she responded “I found 8 emergency rooms not too far from you..” “Siri,” I retorted, with some dismay, “Isn’t that a bit alarmist? I don’t think it’s that bad a headache.”) While Siri seems like a bit of a novelty act, she’s one of the most visible (make that “audible”) manifestations of an important phenomenon that is well on its way to transforming customer service: the trend toward, and desire on the part of customers for, information that is electronically curated for them in a personalized manner, and is delivered to them instantly. Here are some examples, ranging from the mundane to the literally lifesaving, from which you may find inspiration.

Amazon.com (again with the Amazon, Micah!)'s magic mix of crowdsourcing and algorithmic magic  that allows it to know the item you want to buy (even if it’s not the one you thought you wanted)

Route Happy —  sorts air travel options for you based on a “Happiness Score,” which in their words reveals “shorter flights with better planes, seats, amenities, and flyer ratings”

PECO Energy in Pennsylvania: Automated messaging system lets customers know—based on phone they call in from – if problem has already been reported or if it needs customer to provide more details—and lets you know how long until it is resolved

National Weather Service’s pinpointed “stay inside” messaging vs. searching weather underground etc: this can (at least this is the intention) be pinpointed as closely as the nearest cell tower to ensure you don’t get extraneous messages or miss the one that will save your life.

3. Get to Customers First–Before They Know They Need You A third master skill of creating a great customer experience and superior customer service is what I call "Get To Them First" customer service: Developing a mindset–a companywide customer service policy, in fact–of striving to have customers hear from you before they have to ask for anything themselves.  If you want to learn about the "Get To Them First" subject,  stay tuned for my next article!


Breaking Bad Business Habits

1-9 breaking bad habits smallSmall business owners are among the hardest-working people in the country. They get in early and stay late, handle every business detail and bend over backwards to meet and exceed the needs of their clients and customers. On the surface, these traits are admirable. But they can also stifle the future of your company. Here are five habits to kill so that you can work smarter, instead of harder, and maximize your success.

Working Non-stop

When you turn your computer off at the end of each day, it re-starts completely fresh in the morning.  When you don’t, it starts to work sluggishly and sometimes, it even crashes.  Don’t you think that your mind needs the same break? A little R&R (and a good night’s sleep) gives your brain a chance to process the previous day’s events. And, since it’s not uncommon to go to sleep with an unsolved problem and wake up with the solution, you can sleep guilt-free, knowing that you may continue to work after you hit the sack.  Even just taking some time to exercise, watch television or engage in a hobby allows you to be your best self and in turn, that makes you better in your business.

Short-term Thinking

With cash-flow a common issue for small business owners, it’s tempting to chase every dollar. Granted, you’ll get a quick hundred bucks now if you take on a two-day special project for a client. But, those two days might be better spent going on sales calls to acquire new business or starting a large project that will realize major income, even if you won’t see it until next month.  Or perhaps you have a temporary solution to a business issue that doesn’t take into account future issues that the new solution might cause to your customers.  Don’t just think about today; be focused on your ultimate goals.

Doing Everything Yourself

Most entrepreneurs wear all hats in the early days of their businesses, but during times of growth, they have to learn to let go of the daily minutiae. At some point, you need to outsource or delegate, even if you don’t think others can handle every task as brilliantly as you do it. You definitely should continue to monitor the progress of all business operations, but let your employees, contractors and/or service providers do things in the ways that they are comfortable while you focus on the aspects of your business where you can add the most value and be best utilized.

Addressing the “Urgent” Rather than the “Important”

The squeaky wheel may get the grease, but a wheel might make no noise before falling off of the car. So, even though Customer A is yelling the loudest — or yelled most recently — Customer B (or even a new customer that you are courting) may have more important issues.

Your job is to correctly prioritize every task and stick to your decisions. If newer issues are more important than others on your to-do list, place them higher on the list. This simple method allows the most trivial issues to naturally fall to the bottom of the list (which, by the way, might help identify great tasks to delegate).

Being a “Yes Man” (or Woman)

Every business owner needs to learn how to say “no.” You can only take on so many projects at once. You can lose your reputation and clients if you have to cut so many corners that you turn out less-than-stellar products or services. Before taking on new work, remind yourself of your end goals as a business and use those goals as your litmus test. If you’re already short on time and responding to a request does not further those goals, you need to turn it down.

Let your business habits match your business cycle. The habits that served you in the early days of your business do not necessarily make sense as your company becomes more mature. Don’t be constrained by the “I’ve always done it this way” attitude. Take a little time to determine the best ways to use your time and resources to take care of your business and yourself. 




 
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