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4 Tech Trends that are Changing Small Business

tech trendsWhen it comes to using technology, one thing is clear: Small businesses that embrace it are growing faster than those that don’t.  From mobile applications to social media, and cloud computing to data management, “new” ways of doing business centered around technology are taking hold and becoming the norm for millions of small and mid-sized firms nationwide.

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Here are 4 tech trends that are reshaping how the most successful small businesses are facing the future:

1. Mobile Adoption Soars: A new study by the SMB Group, which tracks technology adoption by small and medium businesses, shows that mobile use continues to skyrocket. In the last two years, the number of small businesses using mobile-friendly websites has nearly doubled, from 18% to 35% according to the SMB Group study. Meanwhile, the use of mobile apps for employees continues to increase, as does the number of small businesses using mobile commerce solutions.

Business owners are also spending more money on mobile. On average, a small business spends about 11%-20% of its technology budget on mobile. And two out of three business owners expect to spend more on mobile next year in areas such as devices, applications, security and consulting services.

The big problem, however, is that most small firms still struggle with how to manage the explosion of mobile devices, apps and the so-called “bring your own device” (BYOD) phenomenon, where employees are asked to use their own smartphones or other mobile devices for business purposes.

In the past year alone, use of mobile apps for employees – including email, calendars and customer relationship management (e.g. SalesForce) – has jumped 20% among small businesses. And the number of businesses adopting BYOD policies for employees has more than doubled.

As you embrace mobile, however, be careful to track how it’s actually benefiting your business. It’s not enough to embrace mobile solutions just because everyone else is. Look for areas it can really make a difference for your business, such as inventory tracking where mobile devices offer huge time savings.

2. Social Gets More Serious: The percentage of small businesses using social media continues to rise, up to 58% from closer to 50% just a year ago. Still, only about one in four small firms use social media strategically to pursue specific business goals. Most others take an informal, ad hoc approach, without any specific business goals in mind.

But the social bar is rising. More business owners want to ensure that their increasingly time-sensitive investment in social media pays off and are developing plans to map their social efforts to specific business outcomes, such as increased sales.

To make your efforts in social media pay off, consider using an outside service such as HubSpot (www.hubspot.com) that offers all-in-one web-based software for attracting leads and converting them to customers, through social media and other channels.

3.  Cloud Cover Expands:  Cloud computing – essentially, using web-based instead of PC-based software – has quickly become the “new normal” for millions of small business.  There’s a cloud application for nearly anything your business needs to do, from accounting, expense tracking, data backup and storage, to time tracking, project management, document signing and hundreds more.

Working “in the cloud” simply makes sense for small businesses. It lowers your cost (no software to buy and install, although many cloud services require a fee), is far faster to deploy and gives you access to the kinds of computing power that once belonged exclusively to bigger businesses.

4. Information Overflow Drives New Data Solutions:  The mobile-social-cloud triumvirate that emerges from the first three trends is generating unprecedented amounts information that few small businesses can manage, let alone put to use. This data fire hose is at full blast, and isn’t likely to abate. Businesses that figure out how to harness and turn some of this information (customer wants and needs, for example) into useful insights will gain a big competitive advantage.

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6 Preventive Steps That Could Save Your Business

preventionIn our fast-paced, ever changing business world, the notion of “prevention” – which generally means doing something you don’t absolutely have to do right now – often gets lost or set aside. But with so much riding on how smoothly things run at your business, that ounce of prevention can indeed far outweigh a pound of cure later on.

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Think of some of the threats your business faces: computer viruses and other tech malfunctions, on-the-job accidents, employee theft, shoplifting, lawsuits, machinery downtime and broken equipment. All of these things can slow you down, cost you money and even put you out of business.

Here are six key areas where prevention can really make a difference to your business success, along with some preventive solutions.

1) Theft and Loss Prevention: Whether it’s stealing client lists and confidential data, fudging expense reports or stealing merchandise and materials, employee theft and fraud is a serious threat to small businesses. Shoplifting, employee theft and other types of “inventory shrinkage” can eat away your profits. Installing a loss-prevention program will help minimize losses. Include background checks on employees as part of your system. The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (www.napbs.com) can help.  Conducting regular audits or “checkups” can help you detect fraud or theft and also serve as a deterrent. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) helps companies of all sizes detect and deal with workplace fraud. Visit www.acfe.com.

2) Lawsuit Prevention: A lawsuit is a huge drain on your time, money and energy. The story is all too familiar: A small business owner and a partner (client, customer, investor, etc.) have a business dispute they can’t seem to resolve. No one will budge. Threats of legal action, emails and letters are exchanged. Everybody is upset, and productivity suffers under the stress. If a lawsuit results, things get even worse. Solution? Use arbitration and mediation to avoid a legal morass. It’s user-friendly (usually avoids lawyers), inexpensive and helps resolve thousands of business disputes yearly.

The American Arbitration Association (ADR.org) and the National Arbitration Forum (arb-forum.com) can help. Judicial Arbitration & Mediation Services, or JAMS (jamsadr.com), offers dispute resolution services, and can do it via videoconferencing.  For preventive help keeping your business in legal compliance, visit LegalWorkplace.com.

3) PC Problem Prevention:  Both Microsoft and Apple offer free security updates — but you have to download and install the latest versions and fixes. Get what you need at the Microsoft Download Center (Microsoft.com/downloads). For Mac OSX, go to the Apple menu and select “Software Update” to check for updates. Microsoft has some good preventive maintenance advice on its website at www.microsoft.com/athome.

4) Accident Prevention: Keeping things safe in the workplace is vital to a successful business. It’s not just good business, it’s also the law. For free information, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is actually a good source for business owners. From the OSHA homepage at www.osha.gov, click on the “Small Business” tab on the upper right. There you’ll find quick links to small business safety resources, help with compliance, web tools and FAQ.

Many companies sell safety products and training materials, including the Workplace Safety Store (safety.1800inet.com), Northern Safety (www.northernsafety.com) and All Safety products (www.allsafetyproducts.biz).

5) Preventive Facilities Maintenance: If your facilities and equipment fall into disrepair, your business will suffer. Grainger (www.grainger.com) is the top provider of maintenance, repair and operating supplies to businesses in North America. And since there are a gazillion products and parts you might need (Grainger carries over 800,000), their online product search is super helpful. If your biz is big enough, consider outsourcing maintenance. USI Building Services, for example, (www.usibuildingservices.com) is a single provider for all maintenance needs. They take care of supplies, equipment management, scheduling and reporting.

6) Data Loss Prevention: You’ll find helpful virus protection and data backup solutions at MacAfee.com and Symantec.com. For web-based backup and data protection solutions, consider SystemSafe (www.systemrestore.com), Iron Mountain (www.ironmountain.com), Intronis.com and RestartIT.com. Carbonite.com is a low-cost service that offers non-stop, automatic backup over the internet for as little as $5 monthly. Imation.com devotes considerable attention to small business solutions, with helpful tips, advice and product information to help get you started.  Second Copy (www.secondcopy.com), from Centered Systems, is inexpensive software for Windows that automatically makes a backup of your data files to another directory, disk or computer across the network.

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4 Technology Keys to Guiltless Getaways

Technology keyIt’s an ongoing dilemma for millions of business owners: How to take vacations or other time off and still keep business on track. Not only do Americans take far fewer vacations than workers in other countries (hundreds of millions of vacation days go unused in the U.S. annually), but studies show that business owners take the least amount of time off of anyone.

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Many business owners feel somehow guilty at trying to get away, perhaps because they are so emotionally tied to their companies. While the best vacation is one that truly allows you to relax and forget your troubles back at the office, in reality that’s just not going to happen for most business owners and entrepreneurs. So more and more are doing the next best thing by using technology to remotely manage their businesses while away.

Several tech-based “silver bullets” make this possible, including smart phones, tablet computers, cloud-based business management applications and wide availability of high-speed Internet connections. With some planning and a bit of tech-savvy, these things are making it easier than ever for biz owners to banish their guilt and feel more comfortable about getting away.

Tom McGlynn, owner of a California-based personal fitness company RunCoach, used to struggle with keeping his business on track while traveling. Then he discovered how technology could come to the rescue. Now, rather than being office-bound for the summer, he travels around the U.S. to coach marathon runners.

After the web became the center of McGlynn’s business, he found that he could do almost anything online – and from the road – including accessing fitness training software, designing workouts for clients and keeping his business books.

Here are four tactics and technologies that can help any business owner achieve guiltless getaways:

1.  Get a smart phone: Busy business owners who’ve embraced smart phones often say it’s a move that has entirely changed how they do business. “I used to carry a laptop when I traveled to keep track of things,” says a tennis club owner who goes to junior tournaments around the U.S. “But now all I need is my iPhone.” He receives and answers texts and emails quickly, keeps track of his schedule, checks tournament draws, gets directions and much more.

For some business owners, the smart phone is also their lifeline to social media while they are away. They can update a Facebook page, send tweets, post content on LinkedIn and monitor results all from their phone.

In just a few short years, smart phones have gone from a technological curiosity to one of the most essential pieces of technology in the small business owner’s arsenal.  If you don’t yet have a smart phone, or aren’t using yours to full advantage, it’s time to step up to the smart phone plate.

2. Run your finances online:  More than almost any other task, the ability to manage the financial side of your business from anywhere is a key to guiltless getaways.  But the days of being tied to desktop software are long gone (or should be). These days, web or “cloud” based applications are the way to go.

You can manage travel expenses, pay bills, do your business banking and keep your books easily online. And that’s just the beginning. QuickBooks Online, for example, is a handy way to keep track of your finances anywhere, anytime – especially while traveling. You can use it to create and send professional looking invoices, check your cash flow and share your books in real time, all without sending files of any kind back and forth.

3. Share and collaborate digitally: It’s never been easier to share files and collaborate with colleagues, vendors and customers online. With services such as Google Docs, Dropbox, Zoho and Basecamp, you can take comfort in knowing you’ll be plugged into what’s happening and can respond to any emergency or opportunity even if you’re away on vacation.

4. Outsource anything you can. Outsourcing is ideal for business owners who want to get more time away. Hire a virtual assistant to help with administrative tasks and scheduling. You might also consider working with other business owners to cover for each other when traveling.

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Top 10 Internet Security Tips for Small Business

Internet securityHigh-speed Internet, interconnected mobile, desktop and laptop devices along with web-based tools and digital applications are making small firms more productive than ever.  But all that online speed and efficiency can come at a stiff price if your website, financial information, social media accounts, business or customer data fall victim to cyber thieves or troublemakers.

According to U.S. government crime data, digital information theft has now surpassed physical property theft as the most commonly reported type of business fraud. That alone is reason for business owners to be concerned. If you aren’t taking up-to-date steps to protect your business, you could be exposing yourself to serious trouble that can threaten your future.

Here are 10 tips from the cyber security experts at the Federal Communications Commission for building a sound strategy to protect your business and your customers from this growing threat:

1. Keep clean machines: Your computers should be equipped with the latest security software, web browsers and operating systems. This simple step is the best defense against viruses, malware and other online threats that are constantly changing. Install key software updates as soon as they are available and set antivirus software to run a scan after each update.

2. Secure your Wi-Fi networks: If you have a Wi-Fi network for your workplace, make sure it is secure, encrypted and hidden. To hide your Wi-Fi network, set up your wireless access point or router so it does not broadcast the network name, known as the Service Set Identifier (SSID). Password protect access to the router.

3. Train everyone in security basics: Establish basic security practices and policies for employees, such as requiring strong passwords, and establish appropriate Internet use guidelines that detail penalties for violating your policies. Establish rules of behavior describing how to handle and protect customer information and other vital data.

4. Provide firewall security for your Internet connection: A firewall is a set of related programs that prevent outsiders from accessing data on a private network. Make sure your operating system’s firewall is enabled or install free firewall software available online. If employees work from home, ensure that their home systems are protected by a firewall as well.

5. Create a mobile device action plan, too: Mobile devices create big security and management challenges, especially if they hold confidential information or can access the business network. Require users to password protect their devices, encrypt their data, and install security apps to prevent criminals from stealing information while the phone is on public networks. Be sure to set reporting procedures for lost or stolen equipment.

6. Backup all key business data and information:  Regularly backup the data on all computers. Critical data includes word processing documents, spreadsheets, databases, financial files, human resources files and accounts receivable/payable files. Backup data automatically if possible, or at least weekly and store the copies either offsite or in the cloud.

7. Control physical access to your computers and create user accounts for each person: Prevent access or use of business computers by unauthorized individuals. Laptops can be particularly easy targets for theft or can be lost, so lock them up when unattended. Make sure a separate user account is created for each employee. Administrative privileges should only be given to trusted IT staff and key personnel.

8. Protect payment card systems and information: Work with banks or card processors to ensure the most trusted and validated tools and anti-fraud services are being used. You may have certain security obligations under agreements with your bank or processor, so make sure you know your liabilities. Isolate payment systems from other, less secure programs and don’t use the same computer to process payments and surf the Internet.

9. Limit authority to install software and access information: Don’t provide any single employee with access to all data systems. Employees should only be given access to the specific data systems that they need for their jobs, and should not be able to install software without permission.

10. Get tough on passwords: Require employees to use strong passwords and change them every three to six months. Consider implementing multi-factor authentication that requires additional information beyond a password to gain entry. Check with your vendors that handle sensitive data, especially financial institutions, to see if they offer multi-factor authentication for your account.

Copyright © 2000-2013 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

12 Tips for Naming a Business, Brand or Product

brand croppedWhen it comes to finding a great name for a business, brand, product or service, it really comes down to this:  A good name should make someone smile or nod, not scratch their head in confusion.

But this notion, mind you, is not universally held. Many businesses – and the branding agencies they hire to help them – have lately leaned toward combining letters and sounds into invented names that are hard to pronounce or understand.

Others prefer to aim for fresh, unexpected names that you don’t need a computer to decipher. One such advocate for fun and likable names and taglines is a San Francisco-based naming firm called Eat My Words (www.EatMyWords.com) that specializes in helping people who find themselves in a business or product-naming pickle.

Here are some naming tips from the pros at Eat My Words who come up with creative brand name suggestions and emotionally-driven company tag lines daily:

Naming a Business

1)    Don’t name your business after yourself. As tempting as that might be, the name is essentially meaningless to your future customers and evokes nothing about your business. What’s more, many names are hard to pronounce, spell or remember. One exception: If your name lends itself to clever word play such as a consultant named Steven Lord who call’s his business “Lord Knows.”

2)    Don’t date your business name. If you select something trendy or numerical (i.e. Women 2.0) the name might appear dated in a few years. Stick to names that can withstand the test of time.

3)    Use a name that will scale to fit future products. As Eat My Words notes, you don’t want to outgrow your business name. For example, if Amazon.com – which originally sold only books — had named itself Bookstore.com, they’d have painted themselves into a corner that would have made it difficult once they started selling anything and everything.

4)    Your name doesn’t have to convey trust and credibility.  That’s something you build through your logo design and marketing materials. If you try to build that into your name, you’ll likely end up with some hopelessly boring options.

Naming a Product

1)    Keep it simple and conceptual.  According to Eat My Words, basic yet powerful words make for the best product names. A few they’ve created include a travel make-up kit named Dash; an all-natural energy drink called Bloom; and a line of gourmet dips for kids called Monkey Dunks.

2)    Avoid acronyms. You should only expect people to remember one name, not two. Brand your product with a full name and let the acronym be something you only use internally.

3)    Name you product before your company. That’s not always possible, of course, but if people only remember one thing, it’s better they remember the name of the thing they will actually be buying (and searching for online).

4)    Select names that work as a family. Apple, for example, created a family of products that all fit together by using the same naming convention around “i” including iMac, iPod, iPhone, iTunes and iPad, among others.

Naming a Brand

1)    Define the personality of your brand in three words that will be your acid test. When Alexandra Watkins was naming her naming agency, she wanted to convey that the brand was “playful,” “creative” and “unexpected,” which lead her to Eat My Words. Something like ABC Name Bank simply wouldn’t have cut it.

2)    Your brand name should be spelled exactly how it sounds and be easy to pronounce. This certainly bucks a popular trend these days, but if you don’t follow this rule you’ll be constantly telling people how to spell or pronounce it. Your brand should be approachable – not something people struggle with and are embarrassed to try and pronounce.

3)    Choose a brand name that’s meaningful to your customers. Names with hidden meanings or foreign phrases can’t stand on their own, and you won’t always be there to explain. Each time you have to explain what your name means you are apologizing for it.

4)    The name should create a picture in the customer’s mind.  That’s because people remember pictures more easily than they remember words or letters.

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10 Ways to Amp up Loyalty for Your Business

loyaltyIs customer or employee loyalty lagging at your business these days? Even under the best circumstances it can happen if you take your eye off the ball for even a short while. With so many things to focus on, many business owners sometimes lose sight of just how important customer as well as employee loyalty can be.

Right now, you’re probably scrambling to find new customers or clients. You’re hustling to handle 101 day-to-day tasks and perhaps manage employees or independent contractors as well. No matter what the economic conditions are, however, it’s vital to be vigilant in two key areas:

  • Keeping the customers or clients your business already has; and,
  • Keeping employees loyal and motivated even if raises, bonuses and benefits aren’t in the cards.

Now that the job market is improving a bit in many industries and areas, restless employees may be less inclined to stick around. If they don’t feel like you’ve treated them well or appreciated their hard work, they’ll look for something better.

Customers present an even greater challenge. For most growth-minded entrepreneurs, the tendency is to focus on new business development. But that might have it backwards. The first move should almost always be to keep what you’ve got, because it costs twice as much to gain a new customer as it does to retain an existing one.

Here are 10 tips to amp up loyalty at a small business – five ways for customers and five for employees:

Keeping Customers

1) Provide more frequent progress reports: Show your customer or client the work you’ve been doing and the results you’ve achieved. This will help answer un-asked questions and allay latent fears.

2) Get some face time: If you deal mostly by email, web-connection or phone, make an effort to meet in person. Seeking “face time” says you are interested and gives you an opportunity to literally see things for yourself that can lead to improvements or new business. It’s also a great way to generate referrals.

3) Ask for feedback:  Never assume a customer is completely satisfied. Throughout the sales or work process (whatever that might be for your business) ask how your customer feels about what you’re doing. Then take action on any suggestions. Think of yourself as a waiter who checks back periodically throughout the meal to see if everything is okay.

4) Tune your product or service offerings:  As proud as you may be about your product or service, remember it’s being made or done for the customer or client – not you. Make certain you know what they want, and when they want it.

5) Be open to making changes: Customers may want to change terms, conditions, purchase orders, payment processes or other things. Customers will appreciate if you show a willingness to work with them on adapting to new conditions.

Gaining worker loyalty

Ed Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, offers these employee loyalty suggestions:

1) Say thank you:  It seems so simple, but just telling your employees “thank you” when they’ve done a great job will go a long way. Verbal recognition boosts morale and builds mutual respect. “As a result, employees will not only work hard for you, but they’ll stick with you through thick and thin,” says Hess.

2) Give low-cost bonuses and perks: If you can’t give significant raises or bonuses, show appreciation with less pricey rewards. Options include gift certificates to local restaurants, movie tickets or maybe a paid Friday afternoon off. Also, providing a catered lunch once a month or doughnuts in the morning is a good way to boost loyalty.

3) Help them improve themselves: Your employees will appreciate your willingness to help them invest in their futures. Consider paying for them to attend a class at a local community college or a seminar that interests them (and could help your business, too).

4) Help them get healthy: Providing employees with a gym membership is a great way to say “thank you” and can have multiple benefits. Find out if a local gym will offer a group deal.

5) Ask their opinion:  Employees appreciate being asked what they think. Solicit their ideas on how the business can be improved. You might be surprised by what you hear.

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How to Ring Up More Referrals

referralsCustomer referrals are one of the most powerful and lucrative ways of building business. While word-of-mouth gets you noticed, referrals are even better because the best ones bring purchase-ready customers or clients right to your doorstep (or website) complete with an existing customer’s endorsement.

So it simply makes sense to not only foster more referrals, but also be smarter about the ones you get.

Membership type businesses, such as health clubs, constantly run referral programs by offering existing members discounts or freebies for bringing in others. But small business owners of all types know the magic of referrals, which offer instant credibility for what you sell.

Finding and using referrals effectively, however, can be harder than it looks. Referrals come in several different flavors. If someone merely provides you a name or email address, that’s a low-grade referral. But if an existing client actively talks up your product or service, sets up a meeting or brings the prospect in, that’s a superstar referral.

Here are eight ways to get more and better referrals:

1. Create a referral-generation plan and put it to work

Referrals aren’t automatic. Some business owners assume that a great product or terrific customer service will automatically generate referrals. Not so. You have to ask. Don’t be shy. Most loyal customers are open to providing referrals. Some even appreciate the opportunity to tell friends, family and associates about something good they’ve discovered.

2. Ask at the right time

Timing is important, but many businesses ask for referrals at the wrong time. The worst time to ask is at the cash register or when you present a bill. Instead, look for opportunities earlier or later in the process when customers are more receptive.  There’s really no predetermined time to ask. Do it whenever opportunities arise.

3. Provide some support

Don’t ask customers to recommend you to others without providing them some kind of backup or support. It can be as simple as a supply of business cards, a link to a special page on your website. It could also be a brochure or some other type of printed material that reinforces the referral and describes what you do.

4. Offer appropriate incentives

The incentive you offer must fit with the kind of business you run. It could be a discount, service credits, an upgrade, a free item or some other trigger that will entice clients to provide referrals. Test different offers to find out what works best.

Communicate details of your referral program to your best customers through whatever means you have available, including a blog, newsletter, email or customer mailings. And be sure to thank customers when they make referrals.

5. Get the right information

When asking for referrals, consider using a form, checklist or web-based system that requests details that will make the referral more valuable. A simple name and number isn’t really a referral at all. It’s just a lead.

At the other end of the spectrum are referrals where the customer actually facilitates a meeting, visit or purchase by the referred person. This makes the customer an active agent on your behalf. Between these two extremes are referrals where the customer authorizes you to use their name when contacting somebody.

6. Target your most influential customers

If resources are limited, consider seeking referrals only from your most influential customers.  These might not actually be your best customers, but they are the people whose opinions would carry the most weight with other people in your industry, community or customer base. By targeting these influencers, you avoid spreading yourself too thin or generating weak referrals.

7. Target related businesses

The health care profession is one of the most adept at fostering referrals between complementary disciplines – specialists, imaging services, physical therapists, medical equipment suppliers and others. Consider the same strategy yourself. Contact businesses that provide complementary services to your own and ask for referrals.

8. Build your relationships

This takes time, but it’s critical because many of your most influential customers won’t provide referrals until you gain their complete trust.  You’ll want to treat each customer contact as if it’s critical to your next referral. Through each sales, marketing or customer service “touch” you are building a foundation of trust that that will one day lead to a valuable referral.

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Why Even Great Marketing Ideas Fail

failure.horizSmall business owners are always devising “killer” marketing or ad campaigns that – in theory at least – will send business soaring. Whether created in-house or with outside help, it can be a great concept, with sparkling design and a compelling message and yet still bomb big time.

What’s up with that? In most cases it’s simply because you didn’t think beyond a great-looking ad, perfectly crafted email, irresistible offer, rousing radio spot or breakthrough banner. Those items – the so-called “creative” – are but one piece of the marketing effectiveness puzzle.

The missing piece is often a data-driven strategy for getting the message into the right places at the right time with the right frequency to make the effort truly pay off.

Art or Analytics? (Hint: Both!)

Another way of framing this issue is to ask a relevant question: Does marketing success come more from art? Or analytics? Some also cast this as a difference between “soft” marketing (art) and “hard” marketing (data-based).

Until recently, most marketers would have fallen back on the old 80/20 rule, explaining marketing as mostly about art, and much less about data or analytics. Lately some folks have made it out to be all about data and analytics – a reversal of 80/20 in the other direction.

In reality, it’s probably in between. Content (another word for creative) is, in fact, more important than ever in a world hungry for good ideas, nicely packaged and digitally delivered, but drowning in a sea of digital mediocrity. Wearing your business owner’s marketing hat, your job is to build trust with customers and prospects by educating them about how your product or service can benefit their lives or businesses so they will think of you when they need what you offer.

In short, you have to break through the cacophony of constant “noise” in today’s digital, Internet- and social media-based world to make sure customers are hearing you.

Strategy and Analytics

Even the best marketing ideas will fail without proper planning, preparation and implementation. This is the strategy part. For example, what’s the main audience for your killer creative?  If you’re fuzzy on that, you’re in trouble to start. Or even if you do know exactly who you want to reach, if you don’t know how or where to reach them, that’s another dark cloud ready to rain on your marketing parade. And if your offer or call to action haven’t been thought through, honed and tested, you’re similarly doomed.

Think of it this way.  Even a mundane ad, direct mail piece, radio spot or email will generate some results if properly targeted. What you need is the best of both worlds to make it really sing.

And you absolutely need to learn exactly how and why your hard-earned marketing dollars are netting you a return or not, and what you can and should do in the future to squeeze every ounce of improved profit from your effort. This kind of metrics-focused marketing starts with three main activities:

  1. Setting goals and targets up front. These should include such things as how many incremental sales are generated, how much revenue each sale produces and the gross margin. In short, you want to know precisely what impact your marketing efforts are having on revenue so you can make changes as needed.
  2. Designing or selecting your marketing programs to be measurable in the first place. You’ll want to know the incremental contribution of each individual marketing effort you undertake in order to compare results.
  3. Focusing on decisions that will improve your marketing results. The idea is to adapt and make changes along the way.

Here are three key marketing metrics most small business should consider:

  • Lead Conversion Rate: Converting leads into sales is what really counts. Your conversion rate is the percentage of leads that ultimately become sales (10 sales from 100 leads = a 10% conversion rate).
  • Revenue Per Customer:  Once you know how much the average customer is spending, you can make better decisions on whether to focus on new customers, selling more to existing customers, or both.
  • Customer Acquisition Cost: This boils down to what it costs you to gain a new customer. It’s a critical number to know for deciding what you can spend on your marketing efforts.

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8 Keys to Re-energizing Your Business

energize keyIt’s a tough world out there. Customers are demanding more. Competition is keen – sometimes from unexpected places. Your business must work harder and smarter to improve profits. And on top of it all, there always seem to be new taxes and regulations to deal with.

Sometimes however (not that this includes you, of course), business owners don’t make the best planners. “We are action-oriented people,” says Bill McBean, who launched and sold several businesses and is now General Partner in the family-owned firm McBean Partners. “But by taking a hard look at a few key places and putting a plan in place you can bank on a more prosperous future,” he says. McBean, author of The Facts of Business Life (Wiley, 2012) suggests these ways to put your re-energizing plan in place:

1) Improve your own leadership skills

Since success starts at the top, you should evaluate where your own leadership skills need improvement. Start by looking at what’s working for your business and what’s not. Evaluate honestly how things are going. Are you supplying the business with what it needs to succeed – equipment, time, capital and resources? Are you paying employees based on what you want them to accomplish? Have you let any bad habits slide that need addressing? Now you can look ahead and decide what you need to do differently.

2) Do a full review of systems and procedures

In essence, systems and procedures actually operate your business, thought many owners misunderstand this concept, says McBean. Again, evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. Look for outdated processes that continue merely because “it’s the way we’ve always done it.” For example, inventory must change with the market, along with pricing and policies, since what sold well a few years ago might not sell well now.

3) Go on a gross profit-building mission

This step alone is one of the business owner’s most powerful weapons. Look for ways to cut costs and increase gross profit. “Don’t assume you know how much things are costing you,” says McBean, “or that your employees are reacting to new sales opportunities.” Ask yourself: What expense mistakes did we make last year and how can we avoid them now? But don’t cut just for the sake of cutting. Look for smart ways to save money and start building a cash cushion.

4) Re-engage employees

A successful business needs employees who care as much about the company as you do. “Engaged employees are energized,” says McBean. “They handle problems on their own and actively look for ways to improve the business.” Seek out new ways to show employees you care. Even a simple “thank you” can help tremendously. A paid afternoon off, movie passes or other small perks also work wonders. Find out what frustrates employees most in their jobs and – if possible – supply tools or training to improve the situation.

5) Set specific goals and amp up the energy

Your goal with goals is to aim high, but be specific, says McBean. And remember that goals must be measureable. If goals are not measurable you can’t gauge progress and will eventually abandon them. What gets measured gets done.

6) Boost you product or service offerings

Can you squeeze out another product or service from what you already have in place? “For example,” says McBean, “there’s nothing stopping an auto parts store from selling marine industry parts, especially if you’re located near water.” People need what they need, when they need it, so make it easy for customers to get what they want. And don’t ignore the power of impulse purchases or convenience items – even if they aren’t matched up with your core products.

7) Revamp your marketing

Look careful at who your customers are now. Have they changed? Are you trying to reach them in ways that make the most sense? For example, might the money you’re spending on ad placement be better spend on direct mail or online? Does social media marketing make sense?

8) Look for ways to impress loyal customers

Your customer base is critical so it’s essential you find ways to foster loyalty. Beyond offering a great product or service, what will keep customers coming? The prize goes to business owners who are more creative in answering this question, and who offer more than simply what customers “expect.”

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main

5 Ways Mistakes Can Make a Business Better

mistakeWith little cash, and even less wine industry experience, Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey launched Barefoot Wine in – where else – their laundry room. They built the brand and later sold it to wine giant E&J Gallo.

Now the business owner duo share what they learned along the way with other business owners. One of their major lessons: Improving your business by admitting mistakes. Houlihan believes that customers judge you more by how you react to mistakes than how you behave when all is well. “Every business makes mistakes,” he says. “Denying that they’ve happened only makes an already awkward situation worse.”

In short, dodging responsibility hurts your reputation more than if you’d owned up in the first place.  (In this vein, my posts on avoiding the accountability blame game and how to create a winning business culture might also be of interest.)

Since they knew almost nothing about wine making or the wine business at the outset, Bonnie and Michael – who’ve written a book called “The Barefoot Spirit” (Evolve Publishing, 2013) – made their share of doozies. Some even threatened the entire business. So they quickly resolved not to fret errors, but rather make them opportunities to grow.

For example, Barefoot once put the wrong bar code on a store’s shipment of Cabernet, causing it to ring up at a lower price. Barefoot itself caught the mistake and Michael quickly showed up at the store’s corporate office with a check for the store’s loss, plus extra for the expense of dealing with the mistake. He then informed the manager in detail how Barefoot was changing its internal processes to make sure the bar code problem would not happen again.

Here are five things that must happen for mistakes to make your business better:

1)    You own up

This can be tough, and uncomfortable. But you need to utter the mea culpa and acknowledge that you are, in fact, not perfect. The sooner you own up, the easier it is. There’s less drama and you can get on with fixing the situation faster. Besides, says Houlihan, people actually like a little imperfection now and then. It shows a level of authenticity, vulnerability and humanity. And it’s hard to be angry with someone who says, “You’re right – I messed up.”

2)    You figure out how it happened

Admitting fault, however, isn’t enough. If you simply try to put it behind you you’ve just increased the chances it will happen again. Dig into it. Find out why the mistake occurred so you can fix the faulty procedure or process. That’s why Barefoot Wine made sure its employees weren’t afraid to make or report mistakes – those that involve technical errors, that is. Houlihan is adamant that bad behavior or inability to perform should not be overlooked. “Real progress in progressive companies is often built on the backs of mistakes and the improvements they spark,” he says.

3)    You don’t blame, you aim

Sometimes it might be easy, and temporarily satisfying, to point the finger at someone for a mistake. But if it happened on your watch, and you are accountable for the finished product, you ultimately share the blame in the customer’s eyes. So get to the bottom of what happened and aim your focus on what you and your business can do to prevent the mistake from happening again.

4)    You write it down

This is an important but often overlooked step. If you successfully resolve whatever sparked an error, pat yourself on the back and say, “Well, that’s cleaned up!” you’re making another mistake. If you don’t write down or record it in some way, even you (not to mention others) are in danger of repeating the original error. Says Houlihan, “When you’re still smarting from the pain of a mistake it’s easy to think you’ll always remember what went wrong. But over time things get fuzzy and you won’t.”

5)    You resolve it won’t happen again

Along with your apology, assure the injured parties that it – whatever “it” was – won’t happen again. Voluntarily describe how the mistake happened and what changes you are implementing to prevent its recurrence. And most importantly, tell the other party how you and your business are going to make things right. Handling an error this way will reinforce the feeling that you are, ultimately, a trustworthy company.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.  Follow @140Main