Archive for the ‘Business’ Category


Experience Your Business the Way Your Customers Experience It

About this series: This series of articles from Nextiva will help you grasp of the essentials of customer service: the principles and guidelines that will serve you well in any era, regardless of trends, changing technology, and a constantly evolving customer base. Our guide is Micah Solomon, customer service and customer experience consultant, author, and speaker.

Every day you’re in business, take some time to make sure you’re experiencing what doing business feels like, looks like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like as a customer.

Even great companies fail at this, more often than they realize.

A simple example

Here’s a simple example of what can go wrong, and why.  Do you ever wonder why it’s so often chilly in your favorite restaurant?  Even the great Charlie Trotter’s restaurant was notoriously frigid, for all the warm service you received as a guest there. 

The reason is this:  Restaurant work is hard, active work.  Restaurants are staffed by employees who are on their feet, hustling, working their rear ends off.  Good employees. Helpful employees. But employees who most likely don’t realize that sitting down, expending zero calories as you wait for your caloric infusion (dinner), is going to cause a guest to have a different sensibility relating to comfort and temperature.

It’s not always simple

Striving to see things from your customer’s perspectives has some inherent traps. If yours is an unusually innovative company or trying an unusually innovative approach, sometimes you will throw intentional or unavoidable obstacles (a steep learning curve, for example) in the way of your customer.  This means sacrificing immediate sales or immediate ease of use in the interest of ultimate success.  For example:

  • Maybe you have the wrong customers. This is a reasonable theory, for those of us who are truly brave and truly trying something new.  If you’re opening a restaurant with cutting-edge cuisine (sorry about the cascading foodservice examples today—I must be hungry) in a primarily tourist-trappy “Tour Buses Welcome” part of town, it may take time before you are discovered by the discerning diners you’ll truly need for your business to ultimately thrive.
  • Maybe your customers won't immediately get what you're about, and maybe that's ok. If you can see into the future (like Steve Jobs) there’s a chance you can bring your customers with you, not instantly but over time.  Just because a system seems alien on day one doesn’t mean it always will.  Remember how weird having a mouse and no keyboard commands was in the ‘80s until we adapted.  Think about what it was like when ATMs were introduced.

Don’t kid yourself.  Usually you’re being oblivious, not innovative.

Most of the time, this innovating-ahead-of-the-customer isn’t what’s causing your blind spots. What’s going on is more likely that you’re simply unaware of how your business comes across to your customer, how you’re abusing your customer’s patience and aesthetic sense while the poor customer is trying to do business with you. 

You need to become aware of, and then eliminate:

  • Elements you intend to be simple that are actually confusing

For example: Does your website violate usability rules and expectations?

  • Elements you intend to be easy that are arduous

For example: A customer can be in a heck of a bad mood by the time they even get into your store if they find it hard to find parking, if your address is unclear, if your hours are incorrectly reported by Google or Yelp. 

  • Elements you intend to seem trustworthy and straightforward, that don’t come across that way to your customers

For example: Pricing that a customer assumes to be all inclusive but that requires extra charges to be complete. (Charging for wifi may seem reasonable to a hotelier, since she knows what it cost her to install the system, but it won’t seem that way to a hotel guest.)

How do you get there?

Well, there’s no "we are there now—we’re done“ in customer service. But it’s a process you have to start, and continue, forever.  Including:

  • Park where where your customers park
  • Come in the same entrance your customers come in
  • Read what your customers read (for example online reviews of your company — and of your competitors); don’t assume their journey with your company begins on your website or at your front door
  • Use the public website for your company, logging in as customers log in (no insider override here, please).

Amazon box as delivered by UPS/ copyright Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

(c) micah@micahsolomon.com

Wonder why amazon.com is such a powerhouse?  Well, there are a lot of reasons.  but here’s one you probably only think about if you live in the Seattle area:  Amazon has 80,000 built in customers.  Literally everyone who works there orders from them, the same way the rest of us do.  And these 80,000 users catch issues fast, suggest improvements minute to minute and day to day (which are then often acted on right away).

There’s one more element to it.

There’s value in getting to know your customers outside of their interactions with your company.  In other words, finding out what the rest of their lives look like.  This isn't easy either, but it’s important. Otherwise you can only create an environment that is comfortable for people who are more or less similar to you. To give you a simple example of this: I worked with some car dealers recently who had the most male-defined waiting rooms you can imagine.  Although more than 50 percent of their purchases (and, I’ll bet, even more of the decisionmakers on purchases) are women, the overwhelmingly male managers were who had picked out the furniture and even the magazines for the weighting areas.  They would have done better to have someone (most likely female) who understood the norms and expectations of their customers a bit better.

Seeing your business from the viewpoint of your customers isn’t easy, and won’t always come naturally.  But it’s worth it. 

 

© 2014 Micah Solomon


Using Internet Monitoring Software to Increase Employee Productivity

Stocksy_txpe4825224HV7000_Small_184198Small business owners used to be able to walk around their offices to see the work that their employees where doing. But as organizations are have become increasingly virtual, it is now impossible for a manager to accomplish this since work is now done at client sites, coffee shops, and homes. As a result, many small business owners are up at night wondering if employees are working or just playing video games during the day.

Productivity is being impacted. A 2013 salary.com survey showed that 58% of employees waste up to 60 minutes per day on non-business related websites during the work day, not including lunch or break times.

One solution to this problem is to use an internet monitoring software service for employees. Web monitoring and filtering is traditionally installed to block adult content, phishing sites, or to reduce time wasted on shopping and social media sites. One company, Rawstream is a cloud-based web monitoring and filtering product that helps employees spend their time online productively, profitably and safely.

This tool shows the exact amount of time a user spends looking at a particular website. It gives managers the visibility to see what employees are working on in real time no matter where they are via the application dashboard and report generation function. It also allows managers to see what files are being put into sharing apps like Dropbox, Google Drive, One Drive, and Cubby. The software shows who is using the content sharing apps and lists any files shared that break company policy to protect against the sharing of files containing sensitive data such as credit card numbers. More importantly, employees have access to their own web usage reports, so they can examine their own habits and learn to use their time on the internet more effectively. Managers and employees can also set time limits to access to sites or block certain sites.

There are several benefits for small businesses to use web filtering solutions. Company production can increase when employees are not wasting time on websites that have no business value. Additionally, managers can have more confidence in allowing employees to work off site, giving employees the flexibility to work in an environment they can be most productive.

Too “Big Brother” for you? Remember that just letting employees know that the company is using an Internet monitoring tool will actually boost their productivity.


How to Find a Mentor for Your Small Business

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????Have you ever considered finding a mentor in your industry to ask for advice on running your small business? Having a mentor can help you avoid mistakes they’ve made and guide you to finding a faster path to profit and prosperity. And it’s also great to have someone to bounce ideas off of. Here are some suggestions for how to find the right mentor for your company.

First, Figure Out What You Need

Are you looking for a mentor who can advise you on running a business just like yours? Or someone who can help you in a particular area, like marketing, sales, or product development? Knowing what area you want to improve in can help you figure out where to start your hunt.

Look Around Your Industry

There are likely people who have worked in your field for years that are willing to help you along the same path. If you don’t know many people in your area, attend industry networking events to meet them. Ideally, you want to find someone who’s a little further down the path than you are so he can help guide you based on his experience.

Visit Local Small Business Resources

You’ve probably got a SCORE chapter or Small Business Development Center near you, so take advantage of the free access to business professionals. If they can’t help you, they may be able to connect you with willing folks to serve as mentors. The best thing about SCORE is that you can find a mentor online as well as in person. Also look for a Women’s Business Development Center, they offer great resources as well for men or women.

Check Your Online Network

Don’t overlook your online contacts in your search. While you might not be able to meet face-to-face, having a virtual mentor you can connect with on Twitter or LinkedIn can still provide the benefits you’re looking for. Pay attention to who you interact with on social media, or search for someone you think has the experience you need.

How to Approach a Potential Mentor

Finding a mentor is all about relationship-building, so be prepared for the long haul. Start by simply getting on this person’s radar so he or she knows who you are and what you do. Support him in any way you can, such as by sharing his blog articles or responding to his status updates online.

If the person you’re considering is local, invite him to coffee to get to know one another. If it feels right, mention that you’re looking for a mentor and see where the conversation goes. Be sure to highlight what the other person will get from the relationship. Many people might not even consider that you’d want them as a mentor, so don’t be afraid to ask flat out once you’ve built up the relationship. They’ll likely be flattered.

Lay out your expectations for the relationship:

  • How often you’d like to meet, and how (phone, email, in person)
  • What you’d like to learn from him
  • How you can reciprocate (offer business referrals, etc.)

Your potential mentor may have other ideas about how you can work together, so be open to hearing them.

As you build your mentor/mentee relationship, be grateful for the time he gives you, and find ways to show your appreciation. A heartfelt thank you note can go a long way, as can a thoughtful gift during the holidays.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: Declare Your Employees’ Independence

???????????????????????????????The best thing the owner of a growing business can do is give his or her employees their independence. No, I’m not talking about firing your employees; I’m talking about giving them the freedom to make their own decisions about how to get their work done.

As you undoubtedly know by now, it’s pretty much impossible for a small business owner to single-handedly do everything that needs to be done. That’s why you hire employees, right? Then why do so many of us refuse to let employees do their jobs, instead micromanaging them until they (and we) are miserable?

Here are four steps to giving your employees their independence.

  1. Provide training. Of course, you don’t want employees to totally wing it. Provide training in how to do the job, and give them direction in terms of what you want the results to be and what the overall goal is.
  2. Step back. Once employees know what you want and how to get there, step back and let them get from Point A to Point Z without offering your help (unless, of course, they ask). Who knows? Your employees might figure out a better way of getting things done.
  3. Empower decision-making. Customers hate it when employees have to “ask a manager” about every little thing. Provide parameters within which employees can make their own decisions about customer service, such as offering $X amount of comped food in your restaurant or refunding a certain amount of money with no questions asked. When employees feel trusted, they feel valued.
  4. Plan for the future. Discuss with your employees where they want to go in your company and how they can get there. When employees feel you have a stake in their future, they’ll give the business their all.

By giving your employees their independence, you’ll also gain freedom—the freedom to focus on what really matters in your business instead of sweating the small stuff. 


Mondays with Mike: Improve Your Client Relationships With Social Media

In the olden days – you know, before Facebook – the success of a marketing campaign was often simply a measure of how much money you had to spend.  After all, we know that if you repeat something often enough, then people will believe it. 

My, how times have changed.

People consume information so differently now, that the weight of a single television commercial or magazine ad is often diluted by all of the impressions that we get from other forms of media, and that’s a huge opportunity for small businesses.  You can build your brand without investing tons of money, if you’re willing to invest a little time.  Consumers are looking for a genuine connection and a way to interact with a company, and you can give them what they want by using social media.

There are lots of serious minded folks who dismiss Facebook and Twitter as frivolous fads – wasters of time and energy.  What those folks don’t know is that their company is most likely already being discussed on social media.  Whether you run a restaurant or a carpet cleaning service, chances are good that there are online reviews of your business.  If that doesn’t scare you, it should.  The conversation is happening.  The only question is whether you want to participate and start to shape that conversation into one that presents your company in its best light.

Responding to reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor is a great opportunity to thank happy patrons for their business, and it’s also a chance for you to see what your customers didn’t like about their experience.  If it’s appropriate, a public acknowledgement of their complaint and a promise to make it right shows that you value your customers and are invested in providing excellent service.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Social media also gives you a chance to invite prospective customers in for a virtual visit.  You can post pictures of your daily special at the restaurant, or you can write a quick blog post about why you’ve chosen a particular brand of environmentally safe cleaners for use in your customers’ homes.  You can run silly little contests on your Facebook page, inviting folks to provide suggestions for your newest drink creation or offering a freebie for the 1000th person who likes your Facebook page.  The idea is to get your customers involved on your social media platforms.  Invite them to share pictures of your business on Instagram, and make sure you monitor all of the possible sites that might have reviews of your business.  It’s possible that you’ll luck into some great, unsolicited free advertising, but if you carefully cultivate your social media presence, you’ll end up interacting with far more consumers.

Your company’s reputation depends on your relationship with your customers, and you can manage that relationship – in part, anyway – by using the free social media tools available to you.  Whether you’re in love with Facebook or not, you’re missing out if you don’t acknowledge the powerful opportunities that it provides you.


10 Pieces of Advice to Ignore

Entrepreneurs get advice every day from their professional advisors and information they read. A lot of it needs to be ignored. Pay close attention to disregarding these platitudes and what to do instead:

  1. It takes money to make money. Many entrepreneurs spend too much money getting their company off the ground. In fact, having a lot of money can lead to being wasteful. Use small investments to test ideas and get paying customers. Based on this success or failure, spend alittle more money to test the next action.
  2. Do what you love and the money will follow. This principle has the entrepreneur focus on what they want to do instead of what the customer wants. Building a company is about finding the pain a buyer has, not what the entrepreneur wants to provide. Instead, do what you love and if you solve a customer’s pain, the money will always follow.
  3. Failure is required for success. This is what many entrepreneurs tell themselves when they fail. While failure is not required for success, ultimately it is part of every entrepreneur’s experience. Never fear failure. When it comes, acknowledge it, learn what you can, then take another action to give you another chance at success.
  4. Failure is not an option. Not only is it an option, it is the most likely outcome. Get comfortable with the fact that you will fail some of the time and not knowing exactly what will happen next.
  5. A penny saved is a penny earned. This is short term thinking. While it is important to be carefully frugal with your money, not every transaction needs to yield the maximum profit. Successful business owners invest in long term relationships.
  6. Good things come to those that wait. Waiting is typically not in an owners DNA. As another platitude says “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it”. Being proactive rather than reactive will typically win the day.
  7. A penny for your thoughts. Be careful not to give away your value to customers for free. Entrepreneurs typically undervalue their products and services since they are uncomfortable asking customers to buy.
  8. The customer is always right. If the customer was always right, most entrepreneurs would be out of business! When the customer has a concern, the most important thing is to listen and show empathy. They don’t need to be right, but always need to be heard.
  9. Another day, another dollar. Making money is not a linear process. Successful small business owners look for the leverage in profitability and this typically is not in the form of working harder or longer hours. Look for the financial leverage points in hiring other people, intellectual property or a dedicated distribution channel.
  10. Money doesn’t grow on trees. While this is literally true, there is ways to make money all around any entrepreneur. Follow the customers that have the money to solve their pain and the money will follow. 

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How Spreadsheets Can Turn You into a Business Super Power

Posted on by Carol Roth

supermanphoneboothWhen Clark Kent runs to a phone booth and emerges as Superman, a competent, mild-mannered news man begins using an entirely different set of skills to save the world.  These days, phone booths are a rare sight, but you don’t need one to develop business super powers.  By embracing the capabilities of spreadsheets, you gain skills that help you wear the many hats (or capes) that you need to run a successful business.

You are already well versed in providing your goods or services to happy customers, but any business requires you to be equally adept at planning, organizing, analyzing, reporting and countless other activities.  So, update your superhero wardrobe and toolkit by replacing your many hats with a single spreadsheet cape that helps you super-charge your capacity to handle any type of business task (although I don’t recommend going with the superhero look of wearing your underwear over your pants). 

Here are a few great ways that you can use spreadsheets to “save the day” in your business.

Handling Administrative Tasks Faster than a Speeding Bullet

Like me, you probably view administrative activities as the evil villain in your business day.  How many of your filing cabinets contain nothing but time sheets, expense reports, travel advance requests and other forms that your employees use to keep track of administrative issues?  And how many employees spend countless hours checking the math and making sure that these forms are complete? 

Spreadsheets to the rescue!  When you switch from paper to spreadsheets for your business paperwork, you can release floor space for better uses than paper filing, while freeing employee time (or your time) for more valuable tasks.  Since my college days, Microsoft Excel has been my spreadsheet of choice (which may explain why the company is now one of my clients), so that’s what I recommend.  Microsoft Excel provides an amazing array of helpful templates when you create a new spreadsheet.  Heck, they provide over a dozen templates just for employee time sheets.  But on the off chance that you cannot find the template you need, you can probably find it online on Microsoft’s Templates page.  Browse these templates to get inspired on how you can streamline your administrative duties.

Planning and Reporting with X-Ray Focus

Spreadsheets make planning and reporting easier, more accurate and more collaborative.  By building in assumptions and using formulas for calculations, you can easily test different scenarios, such as what happens if you were able to generate a cost reduction for a key client or what happens if you doubled your revenue.  By copying the current year’s formulas, you can also project future years without having to recreate the wheel each time, which saves you time.  And your customers, lenders and accountants won’t need X-ray vision to find or understand the information that they need.

And, of course, templates are available to help you create everything from startup business plans to just about any type of financial report that you can imagine, so you don’t even need to create them from scratch. 

Use the Power of Charts and Graphs

Analyzing data can be valuable for companies to see trends and deficiencies.  Whether you have one client that is accounting for too much of your business and creating additional risk, or a continual increase in your expenditures of professional services, sometimes it is easier to see with the visual presentation of charts and graphs.  Using spreadsheets, you are just a few clicks away from converting that dry data into colorful charts and graphs that instantly make data evaluation a snap. 

Not only do charts and graphs make it easier for you to analyze data, they are great for transforming presentations as well.  

Whether you do it all in your small business or even if you have the luxury of delegating number crunching to an employee or two, your business needs consistent, accurate and professional-looking information to grow and prosper.  I hope that you will use these suggestions to replace drudgery with productivity.  Then, continue the adventure by finding many other ways to use spreadsheets to make the switch from mild-mannered business owner to business superhero.


How to Build a Massive YouTube Audience

?????????????????????????????????????????????YouTube is the #2 most commonly searched website online. In fact, how to videos are the most common content searched on YouTube, but when you are really trying to make a splash online you want to create a viral video. I don’t believe in luck, I believe in proven systems. There is a process for creating a viral video.

Three things all viral videos have in common they are authentic, entertaining, and memorable. In order to create a YouTube strategy your should develop a specific point of view. Think about the types of content you want to be known for, determine how you will distribute the content, to how you will optimize it along the way.

When it comes to building a massive YouTube audience. There are fundamentals that need to go into the copy and video production. As as a former television producer, I have some specific thoughts about quality production here my four basic rules.

  1. Keep is simple. A sixth grader should be able to understand the point.
  2. Keep it brief. Never produce a video over 2 minutes. (Honestly, keep it to 1 minute)
  3. Make sure it’s visual. Nothing is worse then using a video, when you really should have used audio.
  4. Invest in quality graphics. Professional artwork makes a big difference in how a video is perceived.

Many viral video campaigns fall flat because they don't follow these five steps:

  1. Create an emotional connection: Does your video make your audience reflect on a time in their past, have a good laugh or picture themselves in the future living their dreams. People share things that make them feel a certain way. Your content should create an emotional connection with your audience.  
  2. Make your message stick: We all love slogans, they are so easy to remember. Alliteration is another great tool wordsmiths like to use to create association with messages.  Pick something that is easy. What we share in social media defines who we are and our brand. Your message in your video needs to be clear and something people will want to be associated with.
  3. Teach em something: People love to learn new stuff. If you have developed a new way to do something that you share in an entertaining way, that can become viral. People respond well to easy steps. Try to incorporarte 3-5 action steps in your videos.
  4. Time your release: Pick a day and time to release your video when you'll need less overall views to reach the top of YouTube leaderboards in your chosen category. You’ll want your views to spike significantly during the first 24 hours to show YouTube algorithms high rates of views, likes, comments and shares.
  5. Rally your network: Get social proof for your video and some immediate views by emailing your fan list, inviting your Twitter followers, and Facebook fans to share it. You can use a platform like GroSocial to boost views from Facebook, where video is huge.

If you develop powerful viral video, you could create a whole new audience for your small business. 


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: How to Develop a Content Marketing Strategy

Are you using content marketing in your small business? If you ever write blog posts or articles for your business website, send out email newsletters or even post on social media, the answer is yes. Content marketing means creating content (text, visuals or both) and sharing it with your current and prospective customers through your website, social media or elsewhere online.

Content marketing is becoming more important as a marketing strategy. Last year, 90 percent of business owners in the Content Marketing Survey Report from Econsultancy and Outbrain predicted content marketing would be more important to business in 2014. What separates successful content marketers from those who try and fail? Having a content marketing strategy is crucial.

With just 38 percent of those in the survey reporting they have a content marketing strategy, developing one will clearly put you ahead of the pack. So how can you create a successful content marketing strategy?

  • Set goals. Figure out what you want your content to accomplish, whether that’s educating potential customers, getting existing customers to buy more from you, spreading the word about your business or establishing you as a thought leader in your industry.
  • Create quality content. Good-quality content is key to success. If you don’t have the talent or staff in-house to create good content, use sites such as Freelancer.com or Elance.com to find qualified content marketing writers.
  • Mix it up. Content isn’t just words—in fact, photos and videos often get more attention. Consider posting pictures of your employees or customer events, videos demonstrating your product in action or behind-the-scenes interviews with employees or satisfied customers to add excitement to your content.

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