Posts Tagged ‘business tips’


10 Trends in Customer Expectations

3-20 Customer Expectations smallHere are 10 trending ways that customer service, customer experience and, most of all, customer expectations are changing.

  1. Customers’ definition of what’s fast and what’s not has grown more extreme on an almost daily basis. An escalating expectation of timeliness doesn’t just apply to product and services delivery (where amazon.com has so dramatically set the lead). It applies to the speed of response they expect from you to any issue they have or query they shoot your way. Remember, “we respond to all inquiries within 24 hours” means you’re answering in about 46 days, I figure, if you do the conversion to internet time.  It’s simply not good enough.
  2. Customers, more and more, expect omnichannel integration. I hate to get buzzwordy, so I apologize for this one, but omnichannel at its essence just means that customers expect you to honor the same offers in all channels (web, in-store, phone, mobile), and they expect you to let the customer move between channels without it being a hassle. A credit card given over the phone should be on file when you try to shop in the store. A purchase made in a store across town should be returnable by ups. And so forth.
  3. Customers expect extended hours: 24/7 or as close as you can get. When I interviewed Google not long ago, they quietly mentioned to me that they offer support to their adwords advertisers in 42 languages, including offering English-language support 24/5. That’s pretty good, considering we’re talking about B2B, non mission-critical support. And it puts pressure on those of us who aren’t Google to up our game, or at least our support hours.
  4. Customers expect accuracy. Typos are no longer acceptable in a cut and paste world. Nor are inaccurate claims of what is in stock, or missed delivery dates, considering the technology and process improvements that your competitors have made, and that customers have grown accustomed to. However…
  5. Customers are more willing than ever to assist you (or, I suppose, assist themselves), participating in the service process on a self-service basis, including typing in their own contact info and hard to spell names to avoid the unacceptable typos I refer to in point #4.
  6. Customers expect just about everything to come with a money back guarantee, implied or explicit. You can put in all the fine print you want, but they’re going to expect you to waive it and take the damn dog back, period. Even if pulling it off means, ultimately, sticking it to your own vendors. Amazon of course set the lead here, both in offering the guarantee and in doing the back-office vendor stickage [which I don’t actually encourage] required to pull it off.
  7. Customers don’t want to pay for shipping, or other “hidden fees,” for that matter. Amazon yet again set the lead here.
  8. Customers especially expect you to be monitoring their communications, complaints, and compliments, regardless of channel–and bending over backward to respond both quickly and thoroughly. If a customer says something about, or to, a company via twitter, a web form, or any other channel, they expect the company to notice, to react, to respond.
  9. Customers dislike overly scripted service. This is a prominent aspect of a larger trend: the desire for authenticity.
  10. Customers feel empowered. It’s not just that they know they’re “always right,” they know they always have a voice due to all of the social media options at their disposal, if you forget that they’re “always right.”  The good news is that while they know they have options, just a click or two away, by and large customers hope you realize this too, and that you don’t make them use that twitchy clicking finger. They’d rather stay than switch, but only if you treat them right.  For which, as a start, refer back to points 1 through 9 of this article.

Keeping Your Email Out of the Junk Folder

3-19 email to inbox smallA hot topic on the subject of email marketing is how to keep your company’s emails out of your prospect’s junk folder. It’s one of the most complicated parts of email marketing which cause a high rate of failure. Here are some steps to get your emails to where they should go: the inbox!

1. Send Emails in Batches

It may be easier to send an email to an entire list, but this is not an effective practice. Spam detectors are looking for companies using mass emails. Sending out smaller batches minimizes the risk of email providers (Google, MSN, and Yahoo!) getting spam complaints bundled together at one time. Batch the lists when sending more than 2,000 emails because this is the maximum that should be sent per hour. Many paid email marketing systems will do this automatically.

2. Clean and Update Email Lists

When email providers see a mailing list with a lot of bad accounts (i.e. ones that don’t exist, has been disabled or has a full inbox), they penalize the sender. This increases the likelihood that company emails will go into to the junk folder. Surprisingly, some estimate that US consumers change their email account every six months. This means a lot of updating, but it is a necessary practice to prevent from being labeled a spam provider.

3. Include a Clear Unsubscribe Link

Providing subscribers an opportunity to unsubscribe from a mailing list is not only a best practice, it is a legal requirement. Providing an unsubscribe link means that readers are less likely to jump straight to marking an email as spam. The top criteria for ending up in junk folders is number of spam complaints, so these must be avoided.

4. Become a Contact

Seize every opportunity to encourage those on an email list to add the company as a contact (sometimes called white listing) because those emails will always go to the inbox. Make sure the email comes from a real person not info@yourcompany.com. The best times to encourage this are in the email sign-up confirmation, on the confirmation page, and during customer service transactions. For example, write that “in order to ensure that you continue to receive quality information you requested from us, please add us to your contact list.”

5. Don’t Use Big Images

Sending an email with only images is a bad idea. Spam filters are on the hunt for image-based files because they often contain words that would normally get caught in the spam filters. Since they can’t read the words on an image, they play it safe and assume it’s spam. Make sure all emails contain real text for the filters to read, so they can know the email is safe and pass it on. Including small images an email marketing copy which can be seen on mobile devices is encouraged; it’s the image-only emails that are a problem.

6. Avoid Certain “Spam” Language

Spam reads like spam. Some of the most common words in junk folder emails are Viagra, free, drugs, porn, and guaranteed winner. Additionally, don’t use ALL CAPS, colored fonts, or multiple exclamation marks. Many email marketing solutions check the “spam score” of an email before it is sent.

7. Don’t Buy a List

Sending a promotional email to someone you’ve never had contact with before is illegal according to many digital laws, so buying an email marketing list is not suggested. Buying a list will also increase the chance that people will report the message as spam.

How has your company been successful getting to the inbox?


How to Hire an Accountant

Rubber stampTax time is fast approaching, and hopefully you have your financial records in order, but in case you don’t here’s some advice on how to hire an accountant. While there are many aspects of your business that you can handle on your own, accounting is one worth turning over to a professional. Accounting goes far beyond simply sending invoices and tracking expenses; a good accountant can also help you with your taxes, as well as find ways to keep cash flowing.

First: Understand Your Needs

In addition to accountants, there are also bookkeepers and Certified Public Accountants that provide slightly different services from one another. A bookkeeper will set up your accounting software and enter receipts and invoices into the system weekly or monthly. She can also handle payroll data and quarterly taxes, as well as create monthly financial statements like balance sheets and cash flow statements. If your needs are simple and you don’t need help preparing your tax return, a bookkeeper may fit the bill.

An accountant, on the other hand, takes on more of the day-to-day bookkeeping needs of your company. An accountant can do everything that a bookkeeper can, with the addition of being able to prepare business taxes. Accountants are typically trained to interpret and analyze financial data, and you’ll pay more for the privilege.

And finally, a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an accountant who has passed a rigorous state exam. They’re the only ones of the bunch that can certify an audit. They also provide tax planning, and are highly qualified experts. Naturally, they’re the most expensive option.

Narrow Down the Selection

Ideally, the accountant or bookkeeper you end up working with will have experience with both small businesses and your industry. If you are unfamiliar with accounting terms like depreciation, chart of accounts, and cost of goods sold, you’ll want an accountant who will be patient at explaining it all to you. Remember: even if you hand your finances over to a professional, you still need to understand them. A good accounting partner will be communicative about her process, and will be willing to teach you.

You can hire an individual that works for several companies as a consultant, a smaller accounting firm, or a larger practice. I tend to go with one of the first two options, since they’re more affordable and service tends to be more one-on-one with smaller practices and solo practitioners.

Getting a referral from a colleague or contact can help you find someone faster. Check with others in your industry to find out who they use. Take into consideration your needs, your budget, and their offerings, then whittle your list down to your top three choices.

What to Ask

Interview each provider or firm, just like you would if you were hiring a full-time employee. Some of the questions you should ask include:

  • What accounting software do you use?
  • Do you provide software setup?
  • Do you provide monthly bookkeeping?
  • What is your hourly rate?
  • Can you provide three small business references?
  • Do you work onsite at the client location?
  • What industries do you specialize in?
  • Do you also prepare business taxes?

You want to find an accountant who you can trust with your finances, and who will be with you for years to come. Don’t overlook how important the selection process is, and spend enough time on it to find the best fit for your company.


Mondays with Mike: 7 Tips For Improving Office Morale

3-16 Employee Hapiness smallEvery office goes through cycles – from motivated, focused productivity, to the doldrums of boredom and complaints.  When you see the need for a collective boost in spirits, try out these tips, guaranteed to get your staff back on track.

  1. Daily Huddle.  Try conducting brief, daily meetings designed to keep your team collectively focused.  Identify challenges and goals, then get right back to work.  I like to conduct these meetings with the entire team standing, so there’s no temptation to get too comfortable.
  2. Schedule change-up.  In nearly all cases, there’s really no reason to require every single member of your staff to work the same set hours.  If it makes sense for some folks to work unique schedules and manage their personal lives better, you’ll discover they’re more focused and ready to be productive when they’re on the clock.
  3. Focus on the Why, rather than the What.  Remembering why you started your business – and reminding your staff of your purpose – can help employees redirect their energy toward accomplishing big picture goals.  Look at the benefits you provide your community if you need inspiration to keep going.
  4. Say thank you.  It doesn’t cost you a cent to express your appreciation.  Make sure your staff knows how much you appreciate them, and they’re more likely to go the extra mile for you and your customers.
  5. Listen.  Just like dealing with an irate customer, you need to provide a private way for dissatisfied employees to air their grievances.  Getting the problem out in the open lets you manage office problems, and it keeps your employee from spreading dissatisfaction to the rest of the staff.  If your staff thinks you don’t care about their concerns, their productivity and morale will inevitably suffer.
  6. Take the bullet.  While you don’t want to fall into the trap of being the number one troubleshooter for your company, sometimes the very best thing you can do is swoop in to save the day.  Letting your staff know you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work will inspire them to greater heights.  If they know you have their backs, they’re more willing to be creative and innovative.
  7. Provide a change of scenery.  Monotony is the slayer of creativity.  When your staff tires of staring at their cubicle walls, take a field trip!  Whether you reward your employees with a day at the baseball park, or you band together for a community service day, sometimes giving your staff a change of scenery is all you need to reinvigorate them.

Most of us are operating on a budget and have more work to do than we have hours in a day, but you’ll be surprised at how effective an investment in your staff’s collective happiness can be for your company.  Keep ‘em focused.  Keep ‘em on track, and you’ll reap the benefits. 


Six Ways that Small Businesses Can Go Green for St. Patrick’s Day

3-13 St. Patty's Day for Biz smallAs a small business owner, you undoubtedly spend every day looking for ways to promote your business and increase your clientele. Just about every business takes advantage of Christmas to increase sales, with “Black Friday” representing the first day of profits in the retail world. Do you really want to wait until the end of the year to drive your bottom line? Why not get started earlier in the year? Perhaps the green in St. Patrick’s Day really stands for money.

Here are six ideas that can help you grab enough green to encourage company growth and prosperity.

1. Save Customers Some Green

Whether you offer a new customer discount or take cash off of orders for existing customers that provide referrals, the connection between money and St. Patrick’s Day green is an obvious one, but this particular holiday offers some natural benefits. For one thing, it lets you take shameless advantage of the color green in promotional materials. It also provides a natural time limit, allowing you to make your offer last for the entire month, for a week or even just on the actual day of the holiday. Most important, it helps jump-start your business early in the year.

2. Green Up the Environment

As many as 15 percent of local individuals define themselves as environmentalists. Your company may not make biodegradable diapers or cleaning products formulated from veggies, but the green tie-in lets you demonstrate your environmental interests. This is great time to tout your recycled product packaging or advertise your company’s sponsorship of a local recycling effort. For example, if you run an auto repair shop, offer to shoulder the recycling charges for all oil changes performed in March. And don’t worry about competition from eco-friendly businesses — they’re probably busy preparing for Earth Day in April.

3. Make Green a Lucky Color

A luck-of-the-Irish contest can attract more clients to your business. Make it easy to enter. Customers can “like” your Facebook page, provide an email address on your company web page or walk into your store to complete an entry form when they see a sign in your window. Entrants get a chance to win valuable gift certificates and other prizes — and you increase your customer database for future sales and promotion efforts.

4. Wear Green While Participating in Local Events

Chicago St. Patrick’s Day events begin by dying the Chicago River bright green, followed by a big parade. Naturally, bars and restaurants sponsor the events, but the list does not stop with alcoholic beverage providers. Sponsors include a wide array of businesses, including dance studios, beauty salons, banks and even trade unions. Of course, the media will be there, too. So, whether you sponsor a parade float or hang out with the spectators on the sidewalk, you can increase your brand recognition — or maybe see your company represented on the evening news.

5. Give Away Some Green Bling

Did you know that you can put your logo (and maybe a shamrock) on just about anything? Any visitors to your place of business can walk away with a variety of promotional items, from T-shirts and coffee mugs to flashlights, sports bottles or even USB hubs. Place these items in a re-usable grocery bag with your logo and maybe a few words about your business (go green!), and your logo can remain in front of potential customers for years to come.

6. Offer an Evergreen Movie at Your Place of Business

Admittedly, there really aren’t too many St. Patrick’s Day movies out there, but what about a classic 1952 Irish movie like The Quiet Man? If your customers prefer humor, maybe Waking Ned Devine is more to their liking. With a little extra effort, you can even make green popcorn. Attracting a movie audience gains you an instant audience for your business message as well.

Before the movie, use a welcome message to introduce your business. If you have a promotional video or TV commercial available, play it before and after the main event (wow — double feature!). And a discussion group after the movie enhances the movie experience while enhancing your personal relationship with customers. If they walk away carrying bling bags, all the better.

Be Sure to Make it Unique and Relevant

Doing the same things as everyone else gains your business no more visibility than if you were to jump into the green Chicago River wearing a green wet suit. If you use a little creativity to capitalize on the things that make your business unique, adding a little green will make it pop.


How to Win Against the Biggest Time Wasters In Your Business

3-13 stop wasting time smallMany small business owners confuse being busy with being productive. You are busy, but are you always productive? Are you getting done what you want to complete every day? Wasting time is a luxury small business owners literally can’t afford. Interruptions typically dominate the workday and it becomes difficult to get anything done.

Here are the biggest time wasters in every small business and how to defeat them:

1. Meetings

Meetings are a huge drain on small business efficiency. It’s easy to fall into the habit of holding meetings on every subject and getting stuck in them back-to-back until the end of the working day. What is actually being gained in a particular meeting? What can only be accomplished by getting people together face to face or by phone?

Stop wasting time in meetings:

  • Have an agenda and stick to it. Begin and end on time. Make sure there are stated objectives and review follow ups before the meeting adjourns.
  • Stand up. For quick updates, don’t even give your team the chance to sit down and get comfortable. Hold a stand up meeting for a maximum of fifteen minutes.
  • Leave the phones outside (or turned off). Don’t allow distractions of these rings, buzzes and beeps.
  • Keep it lean. Carefully consider how many people really need to be involved. Too many people drain time and productivity, but a lack of key decision makers at the meeting will ensure that nothing gets accomplished.

2. Social Media

Business owners frequently spend little time on the marketing side of their business. Social media can be a huge time waster reading feeds, crafting tweets, Facebook updates, and writing content for their company blog.

Stop wasting time on social media:

  • Schedule with care. Invest in tools that will allow you to schedule what’s going out weeks in advance and keep track of your company’s entire social media presence in one spot.
  • Narrow your focus. It’s better to be really strong on one platform (hopefully the one where your customers spend the most time) than average across all platforms.

3. Email

Emails are never ending; your inbox seems to go from 0 to 60 unread messages in 3.5 seconds. New email notifications pop up or you check it a hundred times a day.

Stop wasting time with emails:

  • Just turn it off. Automatic email notifications are an interruption and absolutely kill productivity. You really don’t need to reply to every email that hits your inbox within five minutes. It sets the wrong expectation with clients and can mean tasks take twice as long. Only check your email intermittently throughout the day (e.g. first thing in the morning, lunch, before you leave).
  • Set expectations. Let your clients know you only check email certain times throughout the day and direct them to call or text you if they need a quick response.
  • Handle each email once. When reading an email, immediately reply, delete, file or set a follow up time to deal with it more fully. Distribute your emails into folders as soon as you read them. Save documents to your computer with appropriate names and file folders.
  • Unsubscribe. Most emails are subscription-based and now is the time to unsubscribe. Be honest with yourself about which ones you never ever read.

4. Administrative Tasks

Too often, small-business owners waste time on tasks they don't like or stink at. A lot of these tasks are accounting related—invoicing, payroll, and chasing down bad debt. If you’re spent three hours reconciling a bank statement, you’re making poor use of your time.

  • Outsource. It may seem counterintuitive, but hiring out these tasks can actually be less expensive. How do you value your time? Put a price on it and compare it to the price of paying someone else.
  • Use an online tool. If you’re not quite ready to entirely outsource, make sure you are using online tools to ease your burdens. Accounting tools, for example, generate invoices, follow up with overdue invoices automatically, and give you fast overview of debits and credits so you always know what’s happening in your bank account.
  • Use one system. Use a unified communication solution (voice, video, mobile) like Nextiva so you never miss a customer interaction wherever your staff is located. Get all your messages coming to one place.

Most importantly, the evening before, pick your two “must completes” for the next day. Do those tasks in the morning before anything else and you can call the day a success!

Did your biggest time waster make the list?


Creating A Self-Reinforcing Culture Of Customer Service Excellence

3-12 Customer Service smallHere’s an important question, the answer to which determines whether or not you have any hope of creating a culture of customer service excellence: Are you willing to put the customer at the center of everything you do?  At the center of…

…your company

…your daily routines

…what you determine are best practices

…the way you schedule your day

…even the way you design your webforms?

Let’s look at that last one: webforms. There is a company I know that has over 97 percent of its customer base within the U.S. Yet, to fill out any form on this company’s website, you’ll find yourself trudging through over 200 unlikely options (Swaziland, Solomon Islands, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu…) just to get to the U’s to select “United States.”

This company, like so many others, hasn’t made the decision to put the customer at the center of its operation.

Assuming you’ve made this decision, we can get down to business.

And it’s an arduous business. It’s not easy. Putting the customer at the center doesn’t just mean being sweet as pie, over and over, and over and over again. It does mean that, but it means more than that. Putting the customer at the center is a more complicated, subtle, and demanding adventure than it sounds.

But it will ultimately be a very, very fruitful endeavor.

Doing what comes naturally. Sort of.

Once you’ve made the decision to have a customer-centered mindset, a “spreadable” situation will grow, more or less naturally. This, really, is central to thriving commercially in our world where customer service, customer experiences, are such a crucial part of real-life marketing.

Here’s how the doin’ what comes naturally virtuous circle works:

  • You commit to allocating resources, improving processes… based on the interests of the customer
  • You hire based on the customer
  • Those whom you hire inspire the next people hired through positive peer pressure.
  • Engaged customers themselves become ambassadors for your brand: your extended marketing team for the human-driven world of today.
  • The inspiration you receive from these customers, and the customers they bring to you, inspires you to do your work better and better. Putting customers at the center is no longer a chore, but an inspired passion.

I’m sounding a bit airy-fairy, new agey here, which I assure you I am not. And I have indeed left out many of the hard parts in this description, including developing detailed and battle-tested customer service standards for almost everything you will do that will affect the customer.

But all of this will flow, and will be self-reinforcing, if you start with the decision. 


How to Make Your Business Appealing to Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists

3-11 funding for SB smallSmall businesses and investors can go together like ice cream and apple pie. It is definitely a vote of confidence when someone provides funding that can take your business to the next level, yet there are trade-offs that come with accepting investor funding. If your idea is so big that you know the only way to bring it to success is with the support of outside resources, then angel investors or venture capitalists might be the right fit for your company. However, remember that this class of investor is looking for a good investment. They weight talent first and ideas second, so make sure you understand how to position yourself for this level of funding.

What’s The Difference Between Angels and VCs?

Keep in mind that angel investors and venture capitalists are very different types of investors. Angel investors are usually private individuals who have some money and are keen to use it to get a return, but they may want very little to do with the day-to-day running of your small business. They may fund businesses with lower growth rate projections and be more interested in firms that create value in the community in ways other than high profits.

Venture capitalists, who usually work as a collective firm rather than individuals, have deeper pockets, but desire larger and faster returns. They usually will require a much larger stake of your business to entice them to partner with you and may even take over management of your business as active backers. However both types of investors will become your partners and require a piece of equity in return.

There are many ways to appeal to angel investors and venture capitalists. The main thing to keep in mind is that you will have to work very hard to interest them and have conclusive evidence that your organization brings substantial value to the table. Here are five ways to make sure that you’ve got what it takes to encourage this level of investor.

1. Build your business (and your personal brand)

There is no way to avoid it: building your business takes hard work. One great way to make sure you succeed in this task is to become an expert in your field. Dig deep to build those skills. You may want to look for a mentor or networking group to ensure you continue to grow in areas like public speaking, marketing, or management. Consider this an investment in both you and your company.

2. Solve a problem

Make sure that your business solves a problem for which your customers need a solution. You need to be able to convey to an investor that you understand this problem, as well as how and the why your company is the best solution for this problem. There is no room for feebleness here. You must be on point. Rewrite your business plan if you have not yet fine-tuned this aspect of your business.

3. Have an amazing team

In short, your team must work together effortlessly and complement one another’s skills. Trust me, venture capitalists will go through your roster with a fine-tooth comb. They want to see your team in action and know that you can withstand whatever challenge comes your way. Always hire candidates who bring a variety of hard and soft skills to the table so that you can create a culture of success from the outset.

4. Have a phenomenal pitch

Your pitch must be persuasive, thoughtful, and farsighted. It will go hand and hand with your business plan, but you must be able to convey in confident and concise speech the essence of that plan. There is an art to delivering a pitch, so make sure the right person delivers it.

5. Always have the big picture in mind

If you have your eye on the big picture, you are guaranteed to keep things in perspective. Be honest with yourself about your venture and its challenges, so that you anticipate market changes that affect your industry before they arise.

Investors want humble founders who know the industry, the competition, the technology, the business climate, and regulatory issues. In short, they want to see someone who has their feet in reality, but is reaching for the stars. If you can be that person, you’ll find the right investor to help your business grow.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: To Find Good Customer Service Staff, Get Social

3-10 hiring with social media smallLooking to hire customer service employees this year? You’re not alone. According to the most recent SurePayroll Scorecard, which tracks small business hiring trends nationwide, 38 percent of small business owners are planning to hire salespeople or customer care representatives in the coming months.

With competition for good customer service workers heating up, more and more small business owners are turning to social media to find job candidates. In particular, 25 percent of small business owners use LinkedIn for recruiting—a huge increase from the 4 percent who did so last year. In addition, 18 percent use Facebook and 4 percent use Twitter.

LinkedIn has long been known as a hiring spot for big corporations, but now the nation’s smallest businesses are embracing it, too (the average company in the SurePayroll Scorecard has just six employees). It only makes sense if you’re looking for customer service employees—who need to be energetic and people-oriented—you’d turn to social media. After all, social media is all about interacting and sharing with others, so you can get a good sense of an employee’s people skills by using it.

How should you start when looking for customer service staff on social media? LinkedIn is a great place to start, since people often begin there when looking for jobs. Make sure your company LinkedIn profile is up to date, and post updates about changes in your company, new projects or opportunities. Of course, you can also use LinkedIn’s job listings to actively seek customer service employees, but sometimes you can find good candidates by looking for them, instead of waiting for them to come to you. Try joining groups related to your industry or customer service related issues. Pay attention to who contributes to discussions in the groups and what they have to say. You can then reach out to people you might want to consider as candidates and see if they’re looking to make a switch.

Facebook and Twitter can also work well for alerting potential customer service employees to opportunities at your business. You can tweet or post with a hashtag related to your industry, the job title or customer service jobs in general. You can also share photos or videos of your staff at work, or testimonials from your employees, to convey a sense of what your company is like to work for and get job candidates interested.

No matter how you reach out to candidates on social media, make sure you always direct followers to a place they can get more information about the job, whether that’s your business website or an online job listing. 




 
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