Posts Tagged ‘business tips’


How May I Direct Your Call?

Cara Plowman has been a member of the Nextiva team since December 2010. She has previously served as Nextiva's OLS Supervisor and Technical Support Manager, and is currently the team's Channel Operations Manager.

When I started my career at Nextiva, I wanted to make a name for myself, have my voice be heard. An eager 20-something, I knew little about the emerging technology known as VoIP, or to what extent my voice really would be heard.  Curious about all facets of cloud communications, I certainly started poking my nose around the office – hungry to learn what everyone knew about VoIP.  I quickly realized how deep the waters run, and how pliable the service has to be in order to meet the needs of so many different styles of business in multiple industries. 

Almost immediately I gravitated towards a high-demand feature, the auto attendant.  A fan favorite as more companies utilize automated systems, the auto attendant replaces the old fashioned switchboard operators of yesteryear.  Think, “How may I direct your call?”   Or, remember the movie Office Space, “Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking, just a moment.” 

Previously, auto attendants did not leave a great impression on the caller, as they were often shuffled off to hold music by an over-worked, cold secretary. Beginning in the early 1980s, many companies started realizing there’s a better way to route callers, and do so without utilizing man-hours.

At first glance, the auto attendant may seem to be yet another hindrance to “talking to a real person.” But peel back the layers and there’s so much more.  I spent the past 3 years working as one of the “voices” of Nextiva’s auto attendant and "greeting recording team," recording thousands of custom greetings for industry leaders, start-up entrepreneurs, and even a few residential customers.  I learned a few tricks of the trade along the way I’m happy to share.

The big and small of it all

big-dog-little-dogIf you are new to VoIP, you may not know where to start when it comes to drafting an auto attendant. A great first question is, “Do I want my business to look small? Or big?” 

To properly approach this, you’ll need to know where you stand in the realm of the business world.  With only a handful of employees under your wing, it’s easy to designate your company as a small business. But what if you have 20 employees?  What about 50 or 100?  Essentially you should decide if you want your business to look bigger than it is or smaller than reality?

Remember Mom and Pop shops where you call and talk directly to the business owner no matter the time of day? Well, that charm and level of attentiveness isn’t easily obtainable in the modern world. However, if you’re setting up your attendant and want to go for that small-town tenor, make your greeting short and sweet. Delivering callers quickly to a live person should help you convey this impression.

On the contrary, let’s say your business is a one or two person operation. You may not want all clients to know you’re a startup company still. Or, perhaps you are so busy you’d like to have callers navigate through an automated menu to buy time.

Fortune 500 or startup, an auto attendant can dynamically change the way you operate your business.

Take it on the run

If your business expands multiple locations, an auto attendant can unify your business in countless ways. First, with an automated system you are able to have one primary contact number but still route callers to any location under the system. For example, let’s say when your main number is called the greeting states, “Press 1 for the California location. Press 2 for Arizona.”  Now your main number expands over any physical location imaginable. In the past, each location would have a designated phone number.

Or, let’s say you have a representative who works from home or travels. Auto attendants, and VoIP in general, make it easy to route callers to remote employees, while the caller is none the wiser. This also works great if your business utilizes outsourced teams, for example.

Another option is to use the attendant if your business secretary is out for the day or on vacation. Setting up an emergency greeting you can use in cases like this will likely turn a hectic day into one more manageable.

Although you may choose not to use an attendant for day time hours, many entrepreneurs choose to deploy an automatic greeting for times when the shop is closed.  This is a great alternative to being open 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week.  And don’t forget, you can still route calls to remote locations, such as a cell phone, so you never miss a call.

Design on a Dime

Nextiva offers all account holders a free greeting recording, which is a great way to experiment with your new phone system. First you’ll want to draft a game plan. Start with a simple layout and then add to it later. Analyze how callers use your current phone system, and what features would improve their experience.  Let’s say callers are currently routed quickly to a phone, but are placed on hold often for long periods of time. Expanding your greeting would help your reps stay organized and better prepare for the next call.

Figure out how many access points callers require to reach your staff – say, Billing, Sales and Management, and then create dialing options for your attendant.  For example, let’s say you have two primary departments callers can be routed to.  Create an easy-to-follow attendant that welcomes callers, states the company name and 2 dialing options. Then, add in personal touches, such as a company slogan or a nicety, such as “Make it a great day!”

Welcome to PaperTime, the best in the biz when it comes to paper accessories. If you’d like to talk to a sales representative, please press 1. Otherwise, press 2 to speak to the next available support technician. Or, if you’d like to leave a voicemail, please hold or press 3. We appreciate your business, and be sure to make it a great day!

Life Hacks: Auto Attendant Edition

  • Don’t talk too fast or too slow!
  • Long auto attendants can frustrate callers; Be sure your attendant isn’t working against you. Use a timer to see how long it takes to navigate your attendant – most average 1-2 mins.
  • Make sure the script is well-written and easy to understand.
  • Test to be sure night-time schedules work properly.
  • Set up a generic “Closed for the day” greeting for holidays or unexpected office closures.
  • Update your attendant whenever your business needs change.
  • Don’t stray too far from the norm – make sure callers can navigate the system with ease.

Work Your Biz Wednesday: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

Are you prepared to start your own business? Here are 5 questions any would-be entrepreneur should ask themself, from the Small Biz Lady, Melinda Emerson.


Creative Ways to Get Cash to Run Your Business

There is very little that you can count on in business.  But one thing is universally true — banks and investors are the most interested in giving capital to the businesses that need it the least. Given this universal truth, how can small businesses get the capital that they need to operate and grow?  It may be time to open your mind to creative cash flow methods that can infuse your business with the money that you need when you need it.

Leverage Your Customers

One way to achieve financial fitness is by practicing what I call “cash flow yoga.”  Simply put, you need to find ways to take cash in quickly, while letting it out slowly.  Rather than making your products or deliveries up-front and then chasing down payment, why not flip that traditional formula on its head?  Move to a system where you pre-sell and then, fulfill product orders.  Or, if you sell services, ask your customers to reserve your time with an upfront deposit.

Pre-selling definitely improves your cash flow, helps you save time chasing down payments and helps to filter out deadbeats.  Moreover, it also teaches you a great deal about the popularity of your products, so that you know what and how much to produce — and what products to abandon.

If you think that customers will not welcome this approach, the right marketing can transform this strategy into a selling point. For example, I advised a woman selling organic cosmetics that using a “made to order” messaging would keep her from having to retain inventory and allow her to take payments, make the products and then, deliver them. 

Just be sure to know the laws about deposits in your jurisdictions, so that you know how long you have to deliver while being compliant.

Embrace Gift Cards

??????????????????????????????????One major gift card vendor reports that consumers spend over $100 billion in gift cards each year.  And 72 percent of gift card holders spend more than the value on their cards.  But you do not have to be in the retail industry to benefit in this way.  Many businesses can boost their up-front cash by issuing gift cards or certificates.

Gift cards and certificates provide a win-win for you and your customers.  If you run a time-sensitive business like a tax accounting firm, pre-paid clients know that they lock in the knowledgeable support that they need during the busy tax season — and  if you combine the pre-pay strategy with a discount, even save money by paying upfront.  Not only does it provide a cash infusion into your business, you can better anticipate your future workload, so that you can plan resources effectively.

Before you start making these offers, however, you need to keep two important caveats in mind.  First, you need to review state and local laws to make sure that your strategy works for your business.  Additionally, pre-payments require different bookkeeping practices.  When you sell gift cards, they represent liabilities to your business.  Once you deliver the products or services, they become revenues.

“Kick Start” Some Cash

You may not know the term, “crowdfunding,” but you probably recognize the name Kickstarter, which is one of the most popular sites used by people looking for financial “backers” for their new projects and products.  Although there have been recent legislation changes around crowdfunding equity, there are many crowdsourcing platforms that allow you to seek contributions in exchange for providing perks and benefits to your sponsors.  For example, a $100 sponsor for your flying widget might receive a widget once they are produced.  $250 sponsors might also see their names on the packaging.

If you need additional cash to bring a product to market, crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo may be the right solution.  But, unless you get enough pledges, you will not obtain the funding you need, so you need to actively promote your listing.  Too many entrepreneurs think that if they build it or list it, that sponsors will just line up.  This isn’t the case- you need to take an active role to make sure that your project is fully funded. Get your friends and family involved in your project, and then make liberal use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media to let the world know where to go to learn more and sponsor your project.

Also, the more excitement you create, the more involved your sponsors become.  Consider fun and informative videos, creative perks and fun descriptions that create engagement.  If you do it right, you may get more than money- sponsors may even make suggestions on how to improve on your original concept or share new product benefits that will improve your marketing.  The advantage is that small business owners can gain financial and collaborative benefits from their sponsors without giving up ownership in their companies.

Banks aren’t always waiting in the wings to help fund small businesses, but that’s no reason to throw in the towel.  Your entrepreneurial spirit and some out-of-the-box thinking can go a long way to help supplement your cash.


Where Small Businesses Are Stuck in 2014

During the course of their career, every small business owner gets stuck. The key is to know where and how to get unstuck.

My annual survey of 5,000 small business owners identifies the problem areas. Here are a few excerpts:

  1. Treating their company like a job. The Survey: Over 40% of owners do whatever customers need in order to earn money for their business. This does not allow them to strategically ramp up a profitable business. The Solution: Don’t take every piece of work offered by a customer. Focus on what the company is good at and get more of that profitable business.
  2. The daily plan gets interrupted when entering the office. The Survey: 53% don’t have a plan for their day or it gets destroyed when the start work. The Solution: Before opening email, voice mail or social media, do two important tasks that will make the day productive.
  3. Stocksy_txpe7f75a0ezH4000_Small_41935They never take a break. The Survey: Over 50% said they are too busy to take a break and always have their phone near them. This is because they have a fear of getting left behind. The Solution: Find a daily place without a smartphone where personal batteries can be recharged and let creativity flow.
  4. They fear failure. The Survey: Over 40% said that failure is not an option. They fear it so much that they stop taking risks in their business. The Solution: Accept failure. Learn something. Let go of that failure and take another action to get to another success.
  5. They are afraid of selling. The Survey: 41% are either afraid of rejection or not sure how to build a relationship with a prospect. 59% said that they are too busy servicing existing customer to find new ones. The Solution: A company can’t really sell anything to anyone. They need to be there when customers are ready to buy by executing a daily systematic marketing plan.
  6. They stop marketing as soon as they have sales. The Survey: 58% only market their products when they do not have sales. They also believe their products are so superior that they do not need to market them at all! The Solution: Execute a systematic marketing plan through content marketing on a weekly basis.
  7. They don’t know how to use or have stopped with social media. The Survey: 54% either do not have a social media strategy or have stopped using it. The Solution: Social media is part of promotion. Use it to form relationships by providing help to customers, prospects and connectors.
  8. They let poor performing employees stay. The Survey: 53% never fire employees since it is too uncomfortable or they are too loyal. The Solution: Be slow to hire and quick to fire. Find the team that makes the company profitable. Fire anyone that does not add productively to the company.
  9. They don’t ask for help. The Survey: 44% never ask for help because they believe they have to figure it out on their own. Many others are unsure of who to ask for help. The Solution: Find a formal or informal group of advisors and mentors to answer pressing questions. Do not go it alone!
  10. They allow personal smartphone usage at work. The Survey: 74% do not monitor personal use of smartphones which can destroy company productivity. The Solution: Have a written policy that personal smartphones are not to be used during work except in emergencies.

Bonus: They rarely review their financial statements. The Survey: Over 20% never look at their financial statements because they are hard to understand. The Solution: Get trained to understand every line of the company’s financial statement. Review them monthly.

Tell me where you are stuck!


Mondays with Mike: Secret Short Cuts – Legal Aid

What’s the difference between a bad lawyer and a good lawyer?  A bad lawyer can drag a case out for years.  A good lawyer can make it last even longer.

All kidding aside, legal fees aren’t necessarily the first thing entrepreneurs think of when they’re adding up the costs of doing business.  As litigious as society is, though, you’re foolish if you don’t engage an attorney to ensure that you’re legit and covered in case of legal action.  Don’t have the $350/hour lying around to consult a lawyer?  Keep reading.

Here’s my secret for low (or no) cost legal aid.  Head to a local university and talk to the head of the legal department.  Offer your business up for use by students (under the professors’ supervision, of course) as a real-life example.  Your business and its legal needs become coursework for up-and-coming attorneys.  There aren’t many situations in business that are truly win-win, but this is one of them.  Students benefit from concrete experience, rather than boring hypotheticals, and you get your legal work done for free.  Professors love it; students benefit; you save big bucks.

????????????????????????????????????????????????Rather than trying to do it yourself with old legal documents that you dug up online (and which might be completely outdated,) you’re going to get cutting edge, custom work.  Students can draw up your incorporation paperwork, make sure your legal disclaimers are airtight, draft your employment contracts, and basically ensure that you’re covered and are in a position to head off most legal problems that could arise.

You’ll literally get thousands of dollars of work for free, and I strongly recommend thanking the classes who work on your case with pizza or coffee from time to time.

One final benefit from offering your business up to a college department is that you get a preview of the talent that’s emerging from your local universities.  In fact, one of the times that I approached the head of the legal department at my local college, the professor recommended that I work with his best student who was about to graduate.  The student prepared my contract, and the process served as a great extended interview.  I hired him after he graduated, and he ended up being one of my most valuable employees.

Now think a little bit bigger…let’s see how this little secret can work in other areas as well.  Are there marketing students in your area?  Students of web design, graphic design?  Think about all of the exciting, creative work you can cash in on while at the same time providing local students with exciting, valuable real-life experience – experience that they can use to get an edge on the fierce competition they’ll face once they’re out looking for work.  Don’t pass up a chance to get a great deal on the services your business requires, while fostering closer ties to your community and helping better prepare the workforce of the future.


How to Keep the Rule of 3 from Ruling your Business

Even with the best laid plans, it has become clear to me that every business project follows the “Rule of 3”: it takes three times longer, costs three times as much and is three times as difficult as it should be.  This is a universal truth, so if you can accept it and even embrace it, you can put yourself on a path toward a more successful future for your business.

Here are some ways to battle some of the Rule of 3 issues that have been frustrating business owners since the beginning of time.

Everything Takes Longer, but You Can Get There

Setting your expectations too high is often the cause of this phenomenon.  Once you align yourself with realistic goals, you can head for longer term success.  Consider the following situations:

  • Getting the big order from a new client:  New customers may want to test the waters by initially offering smaller jobs.  When you impress them by providing high-quality work on time or before deadlines, the large order will come.
  • Getting a new product to market:  Even with extensive planning, Murphy’s Law accurately predicts that something will inevitably go wrong.  Perhaps a vital part is not delivered, manufacturing becomes halted, or your entire software development team gets the flu a week prior to scheduled delivery.  One way to deal with this issue is to develop an accurate delivery date up front — and then, multiply it by three or at least add some padding to the date. The worst case scenario is that you end up delivering early.
  • Providing on-site support for clients:  The moment you lose control over the place where your work is performed or your product is installed, any number of things can go wrong.  If you need to rely on a client’s computer, you might get a defective one.  Or you may set out to install 220 volt equipment in a building with only 120 volt outlets. Make sure that your contract provides detailed requirement specs and estimates the resulting time delays if those requirements are not met.

Of course, time delays can also amount to income delays.  So, make sure that you have enough capital to ride out the extra time.

Creativity and Planning Helps Handle Extra Expense

Stocksy_txp31123075Gu3000_Small_81280Even the big business players want to bring projects in on budget, but additional expenses do not generally bring their operations to a screeching halt.  As a small business owner, you do not have the luxury of overspending, but there are some ways to help avoid — or at least deal with — financial surprises.

Just as you need to add a buffer when planning the timing for an undertaking, you have to do the same when it comes to budgeting.  After a careful analysis tells you that your new widget will cost $5,000 from design to final production, you need to plan for what you will do if the actual expenses turn out to be $15,000.  Even if you don’t have the cash on-hand to deal with the additional costs, create a Plan B so that you have a pre-approved bank loan in place or someone waiting in the wings to help.

You may also be able to manage the additional costs with some creative strategies.  For example, a vendor might be willing to barter its product in exchange for one of your products or services.  If you think bartering is not a viable way to conduct business, I recently heard of a web designer who conducts all business within a “gift economy.”  He designs and builds websites as gifts for his customers, trusting them to gift back based on what they believe is fair value for his work.  While he reports this business model has worked well for him, I’m not recommending — or even suggesting — that you take such an extreme approach to your cash flow.  But entering into a barter agreement can be valuable in a pinch.

It May be Difficult, but You Don’t Have to Go it Alone

There is nothing better than the power of people.  Every small business owner should find a support group of other business owners that they can use as sounding boards for business challenges.  The Web offers many ready-made groups that you can turn to, or you can form your own group.  Often, the experience of expressing your concerns out loud is enough to help you find solutions.  And the chances are that others in your group have worked through the same issues and have found successful solutions.   At a minimum, they can provide you with some comfort when things are inevitably more difficult than you expect them to be.

Dealing with the Rule of 3 can be one of the most frustrating aspects of running any business, but you can lessen its effects with creative thinking and a few good friends. And for those times when you feel overwhelmed by these issues, remember — there’s always ice cream.


20 Words to Get Your Posts Read

The key to getting any business content read is its headline. Take a lesson from print media, articles with boring titles never get read. Here are 20 words to make sure that prospects and customers read what your company posts:

  1. Numbers:  3, 5, 7 or 10 are a clear winners. Even numbers are less popular. Every reader wants a simple step by step list to accomplish their task.
  2. Easier: They want your business to make it easier for them. They seek an easier way out or an easier way to solve their pain.
  3. Rock star: Most customers have a secret desire to be a famous rock star even if it is only in their immediate world. They will pay anyone to get there.
  4. Capture: The best word to help customers get what they desire. It denotes things that are not easy to accomplish.
  5. Killer: This is a powerful, yet controversial word. It can backfire if used in times of domestic violence.
  6. Secrets: Every customer wants to learn the secret formula that not everyone else knows so they can benefit from it.
  7. Stocksy_txp870288944a3000_Small_22647Perfection: Consumers are always striving for this ideal. They know they can’t really achieve it, but it does not stop them looking for help to get it.
  8. Quick: Customers have no time. They want something fast (see “Easy”). This can be learned from the popular fast and prepared food craze.
  9. Dangerous: Many customers lead fairly mundane lives and seek safety. They want to read about dangerous things they should avoid.
  10. Clever: Customers hope to gain an advantage by being cleverer than the next person. This is a quality that is almost universally admired.
  11. Next level: Every customer wants to go up, forward and to the next higher level. They will buy whatever can help them get there.
  12. Guarantee: This helps mitigate the risk a customer is taking in their purchase. If the results are “guaranteed”, they feel more comfortable to act.
  13. Boost: Customers want quick help to get higher. The “boost” is a popular and warm image from childhood.
  14. Latest: Many customers are addicted to the “shiny object syndrome” and always want the latest and greatest. Companies feed that desire.
  15. Mega: Americans always like things which are large. In fact, the bigger, the better. Many believe that a higher quantity means increased value.
  16. Absolutely: A better way of saying “the best”. It leaves no room for doubt.
  17. Ridiculous: Customers like to hear about the “crazy” so they can pass along these stories to friends and associates.
  18. VIP: Every customer wants to be part of something that not all people can join. It makes them feel special.
  19. Limited time: Customers will act if they believe there is scarcity.
  20. Worst: Unfortunately, people are more attracted to the negative, than the positive. This is the basis of the popularity of every reality TV show.

What are your best headline words?


Mondays with Mike: Fast Flow Prospecting

Stocksy_txpaa3f874fBY3000_Small_164426The business world moves too fast for any of us to rest on our laurels.  While Monday might be great, smart entrepreneurs worry about Tuesday, knowing that ensuring a steady stream of new clients is essential for a healthy business.  It’s a struggle we all face – finding high quality prospects to convert and keep our companies growing. 

Client referrals have always been a traditional source for new prospects, but there are some problems with getting good quality referrals.  If we assume that you’re providing outstanding service to your existing customers, they’ll have two primary concerns about sharing your services with their competitors.  First, they’ll want you to continue to be available to serve their needs.  They don’t want your success to get in the way of their demands.  Second, if you’re providing a service that gives them a competitive edge – whether it’s personal or professional – they’ll be reluctant to share their brilliant discovery – you – with their competition.  They may want to keep you all to themselves.

The gold ring is the organic referral – when a friend of your client is desperate for a plumber, asks for a recommendation, and the client shares your name.  An associate asks who designed your client’s logo, and they give you a rave review and pass on your contact info.  The problem is that these high quality referrals are few and far between, and they’re also – by their vary nature – inconsistent.

So what do you do?  You require new clients, but cold-calling is expensive and yields poor-quality results.

The answer is fast flow prospecting, and here’s how it works:  You approach your clients and ask them for a referral to their other vendors.  They may look at you like you’re crazy.  The angle, though, is that you’re going to reach out to their other vendors and work with them to provide even better service for your mutual clients.  Whether you can consolidate shipments to save your clients money, or whether you can bundle services and offer predictable monthly payments, working with other vendors can help you create efficiencies and provide better service at a reduced cost for the client who referred you.

Here’s the key, though – once you’ve established a relationship with your vendor partners, then you ask for referrals to their other clients.  You’ll be presented with a pool of new clients – clients to whom you’ll be recommended by your partners, and clients for whom you can provide outstanding, streamlined and efficient service.  You’re expanding your network via new partnerships.

So let’s say that you’re a small, independent internet access provider.  You get some vendor referrals from your satisfied clients and you connect with a company that installs and monitors security systems.  The two of you offer bundled services to your existing shared clients, providing them with better, more affordable internet services that improve the reliability of the security system.  Win-win.

The security company shares its client list with you, and you can now pitch your combined services to a whole new group of prospective customers – customers who can get reliable references from the provider of their security services.

Working together with your clients and their other vendors gives you a much wider field of clients, and provides ample opportunity to improve efficiency and profitability for everyone.

 


How to Get In Bed with Your Banker

Stocksy_txpf799c772Ea3000_Small_104560Most small businesses still need banks. They provide valuable financial services daily for companies. Banks can still be a major source of capital for the promising business. How do you make sure that they are there when you need them? Get your business in bed with your banker! While this many not conjure up a pleasant image, it must be part of the strategy. Getting the banker to know your company’s capital requirements must be established far in advance of when you may need them. Here is what to do and why it works:

Establish yourself as a customer. Open checking and money market accounts at the bank. Use their merchant, ACH and wire services. Pay fees to use their services. Why it works: Bank employees are trained to help customers and you want to part of that group as soon as possible.

Go into the bank weekly. Be seen at the bank and get to know the branch manager and key staff. Visit at least a few times a month. Talk to them about the bank, their family and your business. Why it works: People do business with other people they know, like, and trust.

Participate in common community events. Go to the events that the banks sponsors locally. Show support for their causes. Get on joint committees. Why it works: You can demonstrate what it is like to work with you and share a common goal.

Share the progress of your company. Sit down with loan officers before capital is needed. Show them your sales and profit projections. Impress them with your knowledge of the financial statements. Revisit them when you make progress toward your goals. Why it works: Numbers are power. They are easy to take to a loan committee. Bankers trust business people that understand them.

Get a small loan. This may be a home equity loan (or similar secured asset) to be used by your company. Pay the loan back on time and then try to increase it. Why it works: This builds a reputable track record the bank can reference.

Keep your personal credit score high (as well and Dunn and Bradstreet number). Bankers like numbers that increase. Why it works: A high credit score will show that you can be trusted to borrow money. They believe that past performance predicts the future.

Bring more customers to the bank. Everyone loves referrals. Be responsible in helping the bank grow their business. Why it works: If you help them, they are more likely to help you.

Go for the big ask: It’s time to apply for the bigger loan for your company. This can be a term note or line of credit. Why it works: Because the bank now trusts you and your company.

How have you got a banker in bed with you to get a loan?




 
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