Archive for the ‘Business’ Category


How Your Business Must “Get Religion” to Be Successful

2-13 Company Culture smallWhen I travel around the world, I learn a lot about world religions. Each one actually has three attributes in common:

  1. A philosophy: There is always a maxim that its followers live by. Judeo- Christians have the philosophy of the “Golden Rule”; that is “treat others the way you want to be treated.” Hinduism believes in the existence of a soul that migrates from one body to another after death and a law of karma that determines a person’s destiny in this life and the next. Buddha emphatically preaches to “believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
  2. Rules and rituals: This is how a person who follows the religion practices it. In Judaism, there are rules on what to do on the Sabbath and how to eat only kosher food. Christianity allows their priests to grant followers forgiveness for their sins. Hindus revere cows and do not eat their meat. Buddhists mediate to get to a higher place known as nirvana.
  3. Stories: The most important part of many religious texts are the stories about the activities of the prophets and gods. These are recounted repeatedly and serve as an effective teaching method to support the philosophy, rules and rituals. There are stories of the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus curing leprosy, and Buddha fasting on his many travels.

Small businesses need the same three attributes to be successful:

  1. Vision and mission (philosophy). Employees will band together to serve a great business purpose. This needs to be clearly articulated by the small business owner and reflected in every action the company takes. Why does your business exist and who does it serve? Where and how is this stated inside and outside the company?
  2. Policies and culture (rules and rituals). This goes beyond the human resources manual that every employee gets with all the company rules. It’s culturally what is accepted and rejected inside the company. It has to do with who gets hired, promoted and fired. It’s a tally of who is celebrated and who is scorned. Every company has these policies although many times they may be informal, but no less important.
  3. Celebrate success (stories).  This includes how the company got started, took risks and made sacrifices early on. In retelling these stories, they take on a certain myth-like status. Everyone knows that Apple started in a garage. But some stories about well-known successful companies are actually urban legends including eBay first selling Pez dispensers. Regardless, these exist because people learn lessons best through story telling.  

Which of these does your company have and which are weak or missing?

 


Refreshing Your Customer Service Experience (Without Losing Your Core Identity)

2-12 hotel guest checking in small

Once you've initially succeeded in interesting your customers in your brand, once you've succeeded in pleasing them with your customer experience and customer service, you need to work on keeping their interest by adding clues and cues to the plot.

Any meaningful service, any meaning customer experience will start to grow stale over time. Service signatures, scripted interactions, and product offerings that delighted customers at first will get copied, replicated, and bastardized over time. They'll lose their intended meaning (Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company's signature phrase, “My pleasure,” for instance, has lost some of its freshness now that you can get a $2.99 rendition of it from a server at —I kid you not—Chik Fil A. This has led Ritz-Carlton to  change up its language of late to keep it fresh and authentic, authenticity being a key attribute that Ritz-Carlton is striving for in its revamped modern-day hotel brand.)

And, of course, design and product offerings will get stale and tired. What's fabulous to a customer on visit one will be "fine but nothing new" on visit five.  And, especially in this era of intensive and friction-free social sharing, you need something fresh, something, literally, to write or tweet home about, to tantalize your customer.

Retelling a story too many times

Retail is perhaps the most ruthless of businesses in the extent that customers are expecting change–regular seasonal changes and special holiday revamps. Restaurants can also feel stale after a few visits and need new menu items, a fresh cocktail list, or new art on the wall to keep customers engaged and coming back from visit to visit, and after three-ish years, most restaurants need a major overhaul to stay successful. The same is true to only a slightly lesser extent for many other service businesses.

For a business to stay relevant, it needs to be relentlessly reinventing itself, including its once cutting-edge practices. A friend of mine described to me his reaction to the practice at Nordstrom of coming from behind the counter to hand you your shopping bag. “This was pretty cool the first five times or so. Around the sixth time, it became annoying; it just seemed like they were slowing me down for the sake of their internal ceremony.” And I’ve seen a similar loss of love for the once-fresh idea of printing a guest’s name on a menu at a destination restaurant. The first time you see this by your plate, you're undoubtedly amazed. The third time, you’re bored and ready for a new trick.

Businesses need to realize the shelf life of any such scripted or quickly-expected service interactions and change it when the expiration date hits. To keep today’s customers coming back a business needs to constantly improve, update, and appropriately add to its line of products or services –on a schedule faster than ever before.

"Freshen the guest experience without changing its core identity"–Patrick O'Connell

On the other hand, change for change's  sake is very, very hazardous.  Because the goal of customer service and the customer experience isn't buzz–it's loyalty; it's repeat business that keeps you alive. So while it's true that customers seek innovation from the companies they frequent, if a company only invests in change, then how can a customer remain loyal–what, to put it bluntly, is left for them to be loyal to? So there’s a tension to navigate between innovation and maintaining quality through tradition.

In an interview I just did with the celebrated restaurateur and innkeeper Patrick O'Connell – proprietor of the Inn At Little Washington and President of Relais And Chateaux – Chef O'Connell puts this well: “Cultivating loyalty is a tricky business. It requires maintaining a rigorous level of consistency while constantly adding newness and a little surprise—freshening the guest experience without changing its core identity.”


How to Hire an Attorney for Your Small Business

Lawyer handing over legal document at  a meeting in a cafeEvery business needs the services of an attorney. Having access to one can help you navigate complex areas like patents, trademarks, copyrights, and contracts. They can also help you choose the best business structure for your company and create employment contracts and nondisclosure agreements, if you need them. Some attorneys specialize in helping small businesses and can be reasonably priced, even for the smallest budget.

Start by Identifying What You Need

Beyond identifying the areas you need legal expertise in, you’ll also need to determine what type of lawyer you need. Some can help with general small business tasks, while others specialize in trademarks, patents, and copyrights. If there’s a specialist for what you need, seek him out. You wouldn’t go to a general practitioner if you had orthopedic issues.

If you have no need for copyrights or any complex legal advice, you can probably get by taking care of your needs on your legal questions with a general small business attorney. If, on the other hand, you want to patent your intellectual property or need several different complex contracts drafted, you’re better off hiring a professional with that expertise.

Ask Your Network for Referrals

Before you do an internet search for an attorney, see if anyone you know is acquainted with a small business lawyer. A referral can go a long way toward helping you find the right person for the job, and it will cut down on the time you spend vetting different options.

If no one you know can refer a lawyer, check with your local SCORE or Small Business Development Center to see what leads they can offer. You might even find one that partners with the local bar association to offer pro bono advice to startups!

Do Some Research

Once you’ve got your shortlist of possible attorneys to work with, dig into their qualifications online. You can review each one’s credentials on your state bar’s website or here. You want to ensure that your attorney is licensed and admitted to practice before the courts in your state. It may also be helpful to see if he has ever been reprimanded or involved in illegal activities (red flag).

Interview Your Top Three Choices

Starting a relationship with a lawyer is something you want to do carefully, because the right fit could make for a long and fruitful relationship. Always ask for business references (and check them), as well as questions like these:

  • Do I need to provide a large retainer to get started
  • What is your fee schedule for routine and non-routine services?
  • Will you provide itemized bills?
  • What is your typical response time?
  • What is the best way to reach you?
  • Have you worked with any businesses in my industry?
  • Can you give me an example of how you have helped clients secure business opportunities?
  • Can I call you on any legal problem?

Not only should the right lawyer give you satisfactory answers to these questions, but you should get a good feeling from her. You need to be able to trust your attorney with your business, so it’s important you listen to your gut in the interview.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: 5 Things to Look for When Hiring Customer Service Reps

Waiting Room: Receptionist Takes Insurance CardWhen hiring customer service reps, you need to do more than assess the job candidate’s experience and dot the i’s and cross the t’s on a job application. Here are five factors that are just as important as experience, and how to assess them during the interview process.

  1. Friendliness. Natural curiosity about others, openness and willingness to engage and ask questions are key characteristics of a good customer service employee. Small talk during the interview is a good way to explore how friendly a job candidate is. (Just be sure you talk steer the conversation to topics interviewers are forbidden to ask about, such as whether a candidate is married, has children or how old they are.)
  2. Ability to handle negativity. Good customer service representatives deal with negative emotions (their own and other people’s) in a mature way and, ideally, turn negative situations around. In addition to asking employees about a negative person at their prior job and how they dealt with him or her, try putting them to the test by incorporating stressful situations into the interview, such as telling them the interview is delayed and having the receptionist observe how they behave while waiting, having other employees continually interrupt the interview, or having your receptionist purposely be rude to them so you can see how they react.
  3. Multitasking ability. Customer service requires being able to multitask. A representative might be on the phone with one customer while dealing with a queue of other customers on hold. He might be assisting an indecisive customer at the point-of-sale in a store while the line of impatient customers is growing by the minute. Try setting tasks that incorporate multitasking or distractions, such as taking a written test in a room where the candidate has also been told to answer the phone, or interrupting the test to have the candidate complete a form or sign a document.
  4. Pleasant demeanor. A calming presence and soothing speaking voice can go a long way toward making ruffled customers feel better. If the employee will be dealing with customers on the phone, try conducting a pre-interview by phone to see how he or she comes across. You might be able to eliminate candidates who don’t present themselves well by phone and save yourself some interview time.
  5. Emotional awareness. Often called “emotional intelligence” or EQ (like IQ), emotional intelligence incorporates many facets, but basically it’s the ability to sense and respond appropriately to others’ emotions. A customer service rep with high EQ will know when a complaining customer just wants to be heard more than he or she wants an actual solution, when customers are in a rush and need to get off the phone quickly, or when customers need to be escalated to the next level of service before the situation deteriorates.

When interviewing customer service candidates, be sure to trust your gut. If a job candidate doesn’t put you at ease and you don’t enjoy interacting with the person, your customers probably won’t, either.


Mondays with Mike: 7 Habits Entrepreneurs Should Eradicate

2-9 bad entrep habits  smallI’ve started, run, grown, and sold businesses long enough to know how much we can learn from the unsuccessful habits of entrepreneurs who don’t make it.  By seeing the recipe for failure, we learn much about success.  Here are seven destructive entrepreneurial habits you should watch out for.

  1. Playing the victim, rather than the victor.  If you’re constantly whining “why me?” and focusing on all the bad things that are out of your control, you’re unlikely to be the sort of take-charge, positive person who flourishes as an entrepreneur.  You question should instead be “why not me?”
  2. Favoring ideas over action.  You’re far better off having a mediocre idea and putting in hard work to see it through than you are with a brilliant idea and no work ethic.  Inspiration is the spark, but perspiration is the day-to-day practice of putting your nose to the grindstone and getting things done.  You can’t feed your family on your brilliant ideas alone.  You have to be willing to work.
  3. Raising money, rather than making money.  Many small businesses need occasional infusions of cash, whether it’s for expansion or improvements.  The danger, though, is in spending more of your time chasing down investors than you spend wooing customers.  Revenue is the lifeblood of a company.  Focus on increasing your sales, and you’ll need less investor support.
  4. Relying on your backup plan.  It’s very seldom that you see great things achieved without risk.  If you’re constantly hedging your bets, tinkering with your arrangements in case your new venture flops, then you’re not really all in.  Commit to making your business succeed, rather than spending your energy planning for your failure.
  5. Hiring quickly and firing slowly.  Good employees are worth their weight in gold, and bad employees can cost you far more than you’d ever imagined.  If I could impress entrepreneurs with one single tip in terms of recruiting talent, it would be to slow the process down.  Take your time, hire staff that’s a good fit your company’s climate and values, and if an employee turns out to be a poor fit, then cut that employee out.  You can’t afford to let bad apples spoil a good bunch of employees.
  6. Failing to identify your target market.  If you don’t know who you’re selling to, your efforts in marketing, collecting feedback, and making changes will be seriously inhibited.  Successful entrepreneurs can clearly articulate who their ideal users are, and they frequently cater to a particular niche in a market.
  7. Doing minimum wage work.  I can’t tell you how often I see brilliant entrepreneurs doing unskilled work in their companies.  If you’re spending your time doing work you could hire someone to knock out for $10 an hour, you’re not doing your business any favors.  Your time and your talent are more valuable than that.  Put your energy toward the stuff you can’t hire people to do for you.  Grow your business.  Attract new clients.  Leave the simple tasks for someone else.

Some of the smartest entrepreneurs I know are the ones who see and avoid the obstacles that have tripped up their colleagues.  Success isn’t just about learning what to do; it’s also about learning what you should avoid.


The Customer Service Speed Trap

2-6 stop watch smallI finding myself carrying on quite often about the need to speed up customer service and the customer experience, because customer expectations for speed of service have become so frenzied. This is thanks to mobile and amazon.com and Starbucks, and is a phenomenon that’s even more intense among the important millennial generation of customers. (Born 1980-2000, Millennials are the biggest generation in history. And they've never known a world without a smartphone.)

But there's a speed trap here, so to speak, and I want to encourage you to be aware of it: In most business contexts you should be equally leery of sacrificing the customer's experience due to some enforced speed march. What you will find–and what you should emulate– is how the companies most cognizant of time are also the ones who allow time for lingering, for connection. Which is the approach you should take as well.

Take Starbucks, since they are such a paragon of consistent timeliness. Even though Starbucks spends a lot of time measuring and improving how well they match their customers’ speed expectations—delivering a custom (truly from scratch) beverage in a matter of minutes—they don’t let the need for speed suck the life out of the Starbucks experience.

In fact, they go in the other direction: They want the world to linger with them over coffee. Everything is designed to facilitate this lingering, which puts them right on track to please the millennial generation (as well as the rest of us). In spite of their penchant for mobile and online socializing, customers today also yearn for face-to-face interaction and collaboration—from their peers and, often, from your more empathetic employees. All of which takes time and the allowance of time.  

Customers today want the stupid, transactional stuff to take less time, less of their time. They want to wave their phones and have their purchase paid for, but they want the meaningful parts of the customer experience to take more time, or at least better time.

Think about Apple, specifically the Apple Stores: When you're face to face with the genius, you want the breathing room to state your problem, to understand the solution. No rush, thank you very much, now that I've driven across town to meet with you. But you do want to be able to pre-schedule that meeting, and you do want to be able to pay and leave without a lick of paperwork or delay.  Getting this dance just right is the sign of a master approach to respecting the customers' time, and it can be a real competitive advantage. 


What You Can Learn from the Businesses in Mumbai’s Dharavi Slum

2-5 Dharavi Mumbai smallIn January, I had the opportunity to visit India. One of the most eye opening parts of the trip was the half day I spent at the Dharavi slum that was made famous by the movie, “Slumdog Millionaire”. It sits in the middle of Mumbai, the financial capital of India and is the second largest slum in Asia. Dharavi is only one square mile, but is home to over 1M people. The density of the slum grew over the last 100 years because of the expulsion of factories and residents from Mumbai and the rural poor migrating to the city. 

This slum is big business. Dharavi has an active economy with approximately 10,000 household enterprises that mainly employ residents. Being so densely populated, many of them sleep and work in the same place. Dharavi exports buffalo leather, fabric and pottery products around the world. The total “reported” annual revenue of all the small businesses in the slum is estimated at over $665M per year. Most people I talked to believe it is actually over a billion dollars per year.

There is a lot that American entrepreneurs can learn from these business owners. They include:

  1. Find a niche by doing what others won’t. A lot of the work done in the slum is what others in the rest of Mumbai do not want to do. There is a big business of recycling all types of plastics and metals. These need to be sorted by hand which is labor intensive. Many materials also need to be dried manually in the sun afterward. Lesson: What can your business do that customers need, but other people don’t want to do? Go do that at a profit.
  2. Always be testing (ABT). There are no long term business plans written here. People simply find a job that needs to be done and start doing it. Alternatively, they set up shop outside their home or the one restroom that serves 1,000 people daily and see what people buy. If their product or service does not sell well, they adjust the next day. Lesson: Prototyping and testing are an important part of growing any business until you find want your customer will buy over a long period of time.
  3. The highest price is what people actually pay. There is a tremendous amount of competition in Dharavi since there are so many people. They still focus on the value a product or service brings. For example, there is always a “tourist” price which is the highest since they are willing to pay more than anyone living inside the slum. Lesson: Find customers that value your products the most so you can sell at a top price for maximum profit.
  4. Relationships still matter. It’s not only about price, but who you know and have trusted to work with in the past. In Dharavi, historical ties, religion and geographic location within the slum play an important role in the supplier and customer relationships. Lesson: Everywhere in the world, people do business with who they know, like, and trust. Think about the actual basis of your relationships with your suppliers and customers. If it’s not based on trust, then it is more fragile than you think.

What have you learned about business traveling outside the U.S.?


Nextiva Customer Success Story: Austin Cake Ball

Part of our goal at Nextiva is to ensure your phone system is optimized so that you can focus on providing great service to your clients and customers this holiday season.

We’re always eager to hear feedback about our system and service, which is why we love to meet face-to-face with customers to hear their candid opinions about Nextiva. Our Customer Success Story series has taken us across the country to speak with small business owners in a variety of industries, and we are excited to introduce you to our first restaurant spotlight: Austin Cake Ball.

Texas-based Austin Cake Ball resides within Copper Restaurant & Dessert Lounge just north of the city in The Domain shopping center. Diners can satisfy their sweet tooth with a full menu of bite-sized cake balls, in addition to the full dining and cocktail menu that the restaurant has available.  The holiday season means that Austin Cake Ball expands their menu from classic options such as chocolate, red velvet, salted caramel, and Oreo to include festive flavors like pumpkin spice and white chocolate peppermint. In addition to shoppers dropping in from the nearby shops, the restaurant receives a steady stream of dining reservations and cake ball to-go orders – especially in the fall and winter months.

Austin Cake Ball Office Manager, Christi Greene, explained why their business decided to switch to Nextiva, “Before we used Nextiva it was extremely frustrating; we would unfortunately hear stories of people not being able to connect to us and our business.” And those were only the stories that Christi’s team heard – how many other potential customers had they lost because phone calls weren’t coming through?

Anticipating high volumes of bakeshop custom orders and restaurant reservations over the holidays, Christi looked to other business phone solutions so that their phone communications wouldn’t be hindered. “When folks reach out to us via telephone, it’s essential that we’re there to answer the call and that they don’t get a busy signal,” Christi says. Nextiva was able to give her team this peace of mind.

“With our Nextiva service, I know that our guests and clients are able to reach us, make their reservation or place an order and receive great information,” explained Christi. “Our phone system is our lifeline to the outside world.”

Meet Christi and hear her story here:


Marketing 101: 5 Key Marketing Terms to Know

2-4 Mktg 101 smallWhen you start a business, it is extremely important to have a marketing plan. A marketing plan is essential in helping you develop an understanding of what actions you can take to bring success. When people look at statistics about small businesses and see that only about half of all small businesses make it to their fifth birthday, it can be daunting to jump into such cold waters.

However, if you take the steps to prepare for entrepreneurship, you have given yourself a boost over the hurdles that plague the small business owners who become just another statistic. Your marketing plan establishes how and to whom you promote your product or service. Before your write your marketing plan, let’s review some crucial marketing terms to help you have a clear idea of what this approach entails.

1. Marketing

The term marketing encompasses a large range of behaviors undertaken by businesses to communicate their brand message with their customers. In a nutshell, marketing presents products or services in ways that make them desirable. Your advertising, website, social media profiles, and newsletter are all part of your marketing efforts, and are the efforts you undertake to persuade potential customers to become paying customers. Marketing uses both emotional and rational appeals to attract customers and encompasses a wide variety of actions and components. Creativity in your marketing is vital, and the returns can be enormous.

2. Market Research

The term market research may seem overly dry or academic, but it is extremely important. In short, market research tells you who is your customer and why they could buy form you. It also can tell you how many potential customers exist for your market. You may think that everyone will want what you offer, but your market research will tell how likely that scenario is.

For example, the cost of your product may eliminate much of the potential market, or your product may be too specialized to attract enough customers to support your costs. It is important to not just examine the current market, but look ahead to the long-term as technological or cultural changes might transform the market. Good market research gives you solid ground on which to begin your endeavor.

3. Advertising

Advertising is another broad category of marketing focused on bringing attention to a product or service in order to create a sale or build awareness. Product placement in movies is a form of paid advertising, as are pay-per-click ads online. Branding is a key component of advertising. You can use advertising to build brand awareness via media, such as a placing a Facebook ad. Your market research will tell you where, how, and when you should be advertising.

4. Sales

The culmination of all your efforts is sales — that moment when you have convinced your audience to take action and bring out that plastic to make a purchase. Sales is the goal where your marketing, market research, and advertising all lead. Sales activities include direct marketing, selling (including in person, via the Internet, phone, or networking) and trade shows. Any action that results in an exchange of goods or services for money or an equivalent is a sale. How much you sell and when you sell all factor into your bottom line.

5. Profit

Profit is how you measure your success in purely economic terms. It is the amount of money you’ve made after you deduct all your costs of doing business, such as direct and indirect expenditures. Pricing directly impacts your profit! A completed business plan gives you insight in how your specific profit model works. Remember, if you are prepared from the outset, you have strengthened your chances of success in the future.

Understanding these key terms and applying them in your marketing plan ensures that you have a solid plan for what you are selling, how you will sell it, and to whom you will sell. Marketing is the umbrella under which you will execute your marketing research, plan your advertising, make your sales, and calculate your profit. Social media — and media in general — is the means by which you take your message to you audience, but a tight marketing plan is meant to guide your messaging and help you identify the best channels for it.




 
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