How to Make Content Marketing Work for Your Small Business

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Small business owners know they should be doing something to promote their business online, but what exactly that thing is sometimes seems vague and unclear. Or worse: arbitrary, a waste of time, lame. And it’s true, when you take a cursory look at the online marketing efforts of most small businesses, it’s not hard to find examples of the toothless, the boring, the uninspiring.

Content marketing is the practice of creating ‘content’ that will appeal to your audience or customers, while also supporting your business—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. So what does that mean? Well, for starters, if you’re anything like me, the word ‘content’ has a slightly dry, even pejorative feel, like the thing it’s describing is just taking up space, filler, inessential. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And the reason for that has something to do with the second half of what we’re talking about—the part about your audience or customers.

Most small businesses simply do not exist in a really thrilling lane that lends itself to obvious opportunities for telling exciting stories. However, it’s highly likely that a decent number of your customers choose to support your business over other similar local businesses because in some way, you and they are on the same team. You are joined by an invisible thread that binds their loyalty to businesses that understand their needs, affirm their values, or in some way add fulfillment to their lifestyle. Because you are bonded to your customers that way, they are predisposed to be interested in the stories you can tell about your business. On the internet, your customers can become your audience.

So, content marketing is really about telling your audience things that will capture their attention and give you a bigger share of their mind. There’s a term for it, it’s mindshare. For businesses, mindshare is like loyalty on steroids. It’s loyalty, but also trust, engagement, and all of the other things that fuel meaningful connections between a business and its customers.

Small businesses have lots of opportunities to create really great content marketing, but it can be difficult to get started.

What is it?

Broadly speaking, it could be anything: videos, blog posts, podcasts, micro-sites, e-zines, newsletters, music, workshops… anything goes. The way to think about this is to choose the best format to fit the story you’re telling. Content marketing can be simple and easy and direct and virtually painless to create, or it can be part of a bigger vision of how you want your business to live in the world — how you want people to find you, what you want them to know about you, what story you want to tell.

What is it about?

It can be about you—how did you get started? What is the thing about your business that matters to you most? What do you know that no one else knows? What were your formative influences? What advice do you have to offer to your peers? What are the most interesting things you’ve experienced as a business owner?

It can be about the people who work for you—who are they? What are they good at? What is their role in the team? How’d they wind up working for you? What separates them from the other people who have sought to work for your business? What are they interested in outside of work?

It can be about your ‘thing’—where does your thing come from in the world? How do you get it? How did you find it? Why is it better than other things? What are your earliest memories related to it? How does it make people’s lives better? What does this thing look like in the world with actual people using it?

It can be about your customers—who are they? Like, actually who are they as individual people? Where do they come from? What do you learn from them? What are they interested in outside of your thing?  What are their values? What matters most to them? How did they find you? Why do they need what you have? Why do they choose you over other options?

The answers to these questions will form the basis for the stories you can tell through content marketing. Starting out in content marketing will require a little bit of experimentation. You’ll need to understand what platforms your audience is using. What social networks, apps and websites do they visit? You’ll need to define what success looks like. A good goal to start with is to begin amassing an audience. You can measure this by analyzing hits to your website, new followers across social media, video views or content impressions, as well as brand mentions across social media and the web.

There are tools to help you optimize your approach, and we’ve written about some of them before (19  Essential Social Media Tools for SMB’s). Focusing on reach may seem tangential to your current business priorities, but building trust and gaining mindshare with an audience who is interested in the stories you’re telling will allow you to be more persuasive and more effective when you begin to integrate more focused content marketing campaigns.

Starting out in content marketing can seem overwhelming to small business owners, but it shouldn’t be. You don’t have to do everything and you don’t have to be super active everywhere. Pick one thing, and put in the work to become really good at that one thing. This focus comes naturally to entrepreneurs—it’s related to the skills that keeps your business growing.

Imagine that your online presence is T-shaped. At the top of the ‘T’ are all of the areas where you have a presence. All of the social platforms, your website, and all of the places that your audience resides. But in the stem of the ‘T’ is where you’re focusing your most intense energy. Be pretty good at a lot of things, but be really great at one thing, and you can generate a huge amount of interest from your audience.

How to Write a Growth-Centric Business Plan for Your Small Business

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With the growing acceptance of “lean startups,” the “done is better than perfect” mentality, and accelerated launch approaches like those proposed by Startup Weekend, it’s safe to say that the traditional business plan has become something of an historical artifact.

Rather than creating generic business plans that paint pretty pictures of where they want to be, entrepreneurs are shifting to creating growth-centric business plans that define how they’re going to get there.

For a startup that wants to climb into the ring with big brand incumbents, that focus on growth is critical.

That’s not to say that traditional business plans were ever completely useless. They allowed us to visualize and consider the critical elements of launch, which created a kind of foundation to build from. While the resulting businesses may not have looked like what was painted, the plans were enough to provide a glimpse to investors.

The process had its uses, but that’s changing now. The modern business plan is one that is focused on growth and scaling a business. While it’s a pivot from traditional business plans, it’s still very much vital to success.

Why Develop a Business Plan?

For every entrepreneur who grew after creating a solid business plan, you can likely find a half dozen tales of startups that launched with notes on a napkin. But notes on a napkin are still a plan of sorts.

And having a forward-thinking plan contributes to success.

One study shared by Small Business Trends found that, of 2,877 SMB respondents, 1,556 respondents had not yet completed a plan. Among them, only 43% were experiencing growth, and only 36% had secured funding.

Aside from fueling your growth potential, there are a number of reasons to create a more contemporary business plan:

  1. You’re forced to look at the whole of your business and clarify your objectives.
  2. Your plans lead to roadmaps, which increase the speed at which you accomplish tasks that are critical to your growth.
  3. You develop a solid framework for decision making, even if that decision is to pivot.
  4. Your idea is subjected to harsh truths that will root you in reality and objectively analyze the viability of your business.

While plans don’t necessarily need to be complicated, including certain elements and taking a structured approach, provides the greatest chance of growing a small business exponentially.

“Many startup businesses fail to realize the importance of a good business plan coupled with a realistic financial forecast and cash flow,” says Matt Connolly, founder of myLovelyParent. “Referring to the business plan regularly and comparing projected figures with actuals can help the owner take steps to amend the plan and targets for the business.”

The 4 Pillars of a Modern, Growth-Centric Business Plan

While a traditional business plan puts a great deal of emphasis on executive summaries, with a foundation in market research and financial forecasting, a growth-focused business plan is based on four key principles:

1. Agility

Agility is one of the most critical attributes for accelerating the growth of a small business. A business plan needs to be developed around rapid ideation, deployment, and your ability to pivot. Because every business plan is a framework, you must take a nimble approach. This lets you embrace what’s new, try what has not been tested, and throw out what’s broken well before you waste a tremendous amount of time sticking to a set of guidelines.

2. Efficiency

Part of your plan will involve detailing your processes, workflows, and the people involved. Building a business plan with efficiency in mind ensures that you and your team won’t stall coming out of the gate. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting bottlenecked by the very processes you created. Choosing the right tools, and defining those tools, is critical.

3. Focus

Focus is part and parcel of efficiency. You’ll have overarching goals to reach, and getting there requires focus. When processes and plans change, you have to maintain focus on the primary goals. Adjust your path, and get back on course.

If you’re not focused on forward growth, you won’t know what to do or which direction to travel to reach your goals.

4. Insight

“In God we trust; all others bring the data.”

That’s a quote from William Edwards Deming, an American engineer, statistician, and management consultant who was largely responsible for advancements in both Japan’s and the United States’ industrial and commercial production processes.

He is regarded as having had the most significant impact on Japanese manufacturing of any individual not of Japanese descent.

His statement underlines the importance data plays in making decisions and planning for growth. Data, reporting, and insights are how you measure the success of your business plan. Unless a burning bush tells you it’s time to shut it down, you use the data to find out what’s working and what isn’t—and you make changes based specifically on that data.

Creating a Growth-Centric Business Plan

With these principles in hand, you can begin drafting your business plan. Before you start piecing information together from research and data, keep in mind that your business plan should be treated as a guide. It’s not a doctrine chiseled in stone.

You also shouldn’t feel pressed to include more information than is necessary. A business plan, even one built around growth strategies, doesn’t need to rival War and Peace in scale. What’s important is injecting value in what you include.

Consider the following elements when putting your plan together and building that sustainable growth strategy.

1. Define Your Solution

Every customer that approaches you is doing so because they have one or more problems. They’ll have questions that need answers in order to help them zero in on the main issue. Your customers are following a path that eventually leads to a solution.

Your plan should clearly lay out what the primary problem is for customers, and what solution you’re providing that will help them. Understanding the solution you provide (your products or services), and how your customers benefit, is a major component that will shape a majority of your marketing going forward.

2. Pinpoint Your Market(s) and Customer(s)

“You need to establish that there is a market for your product and work out how you’re going to access it,” says Geraldine Abrahams, director of TWM Productions. “Identify who your typical customer is and how you’re going to connect with them. A good start to a plan is to include a personal statement to establish your motives, objectives, and vision.”

At this stage, you need to be able to clearly define your ideal customer(s). Key demographics and behavior information should be noted, such as their age, education, job title or occupation, and income range. You can delve deeper, and any data you uncover can be used to drive your strategy.

The most successful brands have been able to thrive and grow because of their ability to understand and define their customers. This can be difficult for a startup with no customers, and may require a little research.

Combine what you know along with assumptions about your audience, and support those assumptions with research. The most direct way to research the market and your audience is to find your competitors. Examine how they talk to their audience(s), their online habits, interests, demographics, etc.

It’s okay to start with a high-level buyer personas, as you’ll refine and reexamine them and your audience segments for specific campaigns in the future.

“In the body of the business plan you will detail what market research you have undertaken and summarize the findings,” writes Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation. “These findings will have helped you create sales forecasts which will then translate into turnover in the financial plan. It sounds obvious, but I have seen many plans that don’t provide the correlation between the two and where it is obvious that the financial plan has been written ‘bottom up’ so the sales figure becomes the balancing entry.”

3. Determine Your Value Proposition

Your value proposition answers the question “Why would customers buy from us instead of our competitors?” Your value proposition is not your solution; instead, it’s a statement of differentiation that makes you unique from others in your market.

The value proposition is part operations, part marketing, and part strategy. Once you have it defined, it becomes the foundation of your competitive advantage because it’s something that your competitors cannot replicate.

Your value proposition may change over time, but it needs to be defined early on. Your customers will subconsciously weigh your company against others, leaning on your unique value to determine who they will do business with.

In order to define this element, you’ll need to spend some time performing a competitive analysis of your market. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your solution is so unique that you have no competition.

Competitors aren’t just other brands offering the same product. Your competition includes substitute products and alternative options – which includes the customer performing the work on their own or creating their own solution(s).

“Don’t become blindsided by your excellence,” says Anna Morrish, former marketing executive at DMC Software Solutions. “You may believe you’re the best in the business with no threat of competition, and maybe that is the case, but if you’re creating a plan for investors, they want to see that there is a market for your business. If there is no competition, where is the market? Make it clear in your business plan how you’re going to compete. The use of charts, graphs, and images will provide factual and visual evidence which can help to back up your potential ideas.”

4. Establish Your Goals and Objectives

Launching a business without goals and objectives is something that derails growth the most often. With no goals to focus on, it’s easy to get distracted. Rather than sailing to your destination by a predetermined route, you’ll be spinning the wheel of the ship in zig-zag motions every time something twinkles on the horizon.

“You must identify and commit to no more than three priorities and then go to work on creating the projects and tasks needed to pull these off,” writes John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing. “And, you must say no to the idea of the week that shows up to knock you off course.”

Once you’ve established your primary goals, break those down into smaller and more achievable milestones. This process creates a roadmap you can follow to reach the end goal. When things inevitably change and you have to pivot, you can refer back to your milestones and roadmap to course-correct and get back on track.

5. Map Your Operations

Traditional business plans usually want your organizational hierarchy to be defined. This is essentially a “who does what” list of staff. That’s an important element to include, but a business plan aimed at accelerated growth needs more meat around the team.

When you map out your operations, you shouldn’t start with the hierarchy to determine what needs to be done, and who does it. Start at the end of the funnel with your customer as they stand there with the solution in their hand and work backwards. For your ideal customer who just converted, ask yourself:

  1. What are each customer’s minimum expectations for the product or service, and how it’s delivered to them?
  2. What processes are necessary to make that final conversion?
  3. What resources, tools, and equipment need to be in place for those processes to work?
  4. Which departments are involved, directly and indirectly, with the conversion and delivery to the customer?
  5. Who are the people in those departments? What are their roles, who holds them accountable, how do they communicate with one another, and what is their role in communicating with the customer?
  6. How many of those people are needed, in individual departments, for processes to work flawlessly, and to meet the minimum expectations of the customer?

6. Create a Clear Marketing Strategy

You can’t grow your business without a marketing strategy. You may not have the seven-figure marketing budgets of larger incumbent brands, but that’s fine. The right strategy could create tremendous growth right out of the gate for your business.

Ideally, you want to show why you feel your target audience will embrace you, and how you plan to get your brand in front of them. Your strategy will be driven by market analysis and other research you’ve done up to this point and will be one of the more detailed segments of your growth strategy.

Or it may be the slimmest. It boils down to your audience, the competition in your market, and how you’ll leverage your value proposition.

Some companies spend hundreds of thousands on complex campaigns that include social ad costs, media buying, explainer videos and commercials, web design, direct mail, and more.

Others see success with far less of an investment by following a direct strategy. Grasshopper, a VoIP service for entrepreneurs, sent out chocolate-covered grasshoppers to influencers before launch. That simple launch strategy netted them a quarter of a million YouTube views, 170 earned media mentions, and approximately 30,000 referrals over a 90-day period.

wagepoint-article-marketing-campaign

Key areas of focus for your marketing strategy include:

  1. What channels you’ll use reach your audience – where are they most accessible?
  2. Who are your primary audience segments and refined buyer personas – who will your campaigns be targeting?
  3. What formats you’ll use – video, digital written content, audio, images, print?
  4. Will you produce the content in-house or with an outside advertising agency?
  5. What are the goals of these individual campaigns – what do you expect from each effort?

Your marketing strategy is likely to draw the most scrutiny if you’re seeking funding. Investors want to see deadlines and expected data. They want to know what kind of web traffic and social engagement to expect, and they’ll want to know how you intend to track it all.

For every campaign you lay out in your business plan, you need to know what metrics you’ll be monitoring, and the key performance indicators of this success. You should also include forecasts for conversions and the customer acquisition costs (CAC) for your strategy and engagement.

7. Outline Your Financials and Forecasting

Financials and forecasting are important parts of both traditional and growth-centric business plans. Investors want to see numbers to measure expected returns, margins, and profits. You also want to set a financial goal so you have something to drive yourself towards.

Your financial projections are going to be the last inclusion in your business plan because they need to include data from a lot of the other components. Everything has a budget and expected cost that should be included.

This is not a section for accounting – accounting consists of records from today working backwards. This section should be for projections from today onward.

When laying out your projections, don’t just estimate a single budgetary, expense, and P&L plan. Instead, include three financial plans:

  1. A conservative plan
  2. A moderate plan
  3. An optimistic plan

Each of these plans should be broken into monthly/quarterly statements with realistic and achievable revenue goals.

“When a new or young company presents financial projections, lenders and investors will want to have data which supports the company’s financial assumptions,” says Marc Prosser, co-founder of Fit Small Business. “Where did the company get its numbers for gross profit and amount of inventory it will need to purchase? If the company is using industry benchmarks, it will gain more credibility in the eyes of investors than saying the company made reasonable estimates. How can you get this data in your business plan?”

If you have existing sales records to substantiate your projections, you can include those, but it doesn’t need to be in line-item detail. You can always pull more detailed reports if asked.

Likewise, if you’re already operating and you’re refining your business plan to improve growth, use your financial data to help with your growth plan. Revenue growth only happens one of three ways:

  1. Increasing the average order value or size of the transaction.
  2. Increasing the number of purchases or lifetime value of the customer (reducing churn).
  3. Acquiring more customers.

Use existing merchandising, customer, and financial reports to forecast change can help determine opportunities for improvements, such as better marketing for more acquisition, new products, or focusing on customer delight.

Putting the Pieces Together

While a contemporary business plan has a number of components, it’s only as complex as you need it to be in order to create a strategy that will accelerate the growth of your small business. Don’t let the scale of putting the information together prevent you from making progress.

The biggest obstacle is just getting it started, and getting it done when you’re trying to run a business or gear up for launch. Instead of treating it like an interruption, or some ugly task you need to do, view it as a constructive means of defining what you want to achieve and how you’ll get there.

That’s the “how we get results” approach that successful brands use every day to define their campaigns and refine growth strategies.

“If it really is a working document then it should be changed and altered as often as the business and routes to market dictate,” says Rosie Wolfenden, co-founder of Tatty Devine. “I think it is quite a cathartic exercise in that updating the plan helps reinforce the commitment to the next part of the journey.”

There’s No Better Time Than Now

You won’t find a single template that is the ideal layout for business plans, and there’s no shortage of choices. For those who prefer to study in order to handle things on their own, Entrepreneur has a library of business plan guides to help you develop the business plan that best fits you.

If you would rather start with a pre-assembled template that contains many of the elements we discussed in this article, both Entrepreneur and Enloop have template libraries to give you a head start.

A happy medium between the two options is business planning software, with detailed tutorials and wizards to help you create the perfect custom business plan to grow your business. StratpadPalo Alto, and LivePlan are three good options to get started.

“Wherever you are in your journey, you have a need to develop the knowledge and plans to guide you to a successful business operation,” says Hal Shelton, author of The Secrets to Writing a Successful Business Plan: A Pro Shares a Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Plan That Gets Results. “While this learning and planning process takes many forms, shapes, and levels of intensity, it is all considered part of the business planning process. Learn how a well-thought-out business plan can dramatically turn the odds in your favor.”

Have you developed a growth-centric business plan for your brand? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Shrad RaoAuthor: Shrad Rao is our Go-to-Market maverick. His passion and commitment to our company is evident during many sleepless nights as he ponders our next move. Some say he might be Batman – well, it’s really only him saying that so we don’t actually believe him – or do we?

4 Ways Your Business is Wasting Money

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To err is human. Many entrepreneurs make mistakes when starting a new company, and that can often result in the downfall of a company. It’s not because they pigheadedly or recklessly jump on a new business idea. Enthusiasm and passion are requirements to succeed. However, small business owners make errors without actually understanding or even realizing it until it’s too late.

These may be sparked by idealism or even eagerness to get ahead. There is one truth, though, that often gets ignored: there is no secret elevator to success. You have to take the stairs. It’s commonly in our habit to believe we can find shortcuts and make mistakes that drain the budget. Heading into business thinking we are always the exception and the one in a million that can find success without hard work leads to subtle errors.

Your Marketing Gets Too Complex, Too Fast

Many entrepreneurs know the real power of excellent marketing. However, it can go from your strongest asset to your biggest liability. Ineffective marketing that you cannot measure is a potential money drain on your company that you should remove. It’s paramount to pay attention if you are using services of other PR firms. It’s often that they cannot be held accountable for the results. And if you can’t feel or measure the success rate, it’s a drain on your funds.

For a small business, you first need to focus on generating revenue and understanding how you can improve. It’s not a time for extravagant marketing efforts. Start small. If there is a part of your marketing that leaves you with more questions than answers, it’s a drain. Glossy branded materials are part of it. You might get pleasure from investing in business cards, mugs, t-shirts, or other things that have your company’s name on it. These are part of the money leaks that need fixing and can cut your budget dramatically. Focus on your customer first, and then on yourself.

You’re Trying to Find the Shortcut to A Vast Customer Database

You can’t buy customer engagement and loyalty. It’s as simple as that, no matter the guarantees of other parties who promise a large user base of followers and likes on social media. In this day and age, it’s almost shocking how many businesses believe this is a good investment. It rarely works, and it’s, unfortunately, difficult to measure. Even if it looks good for your page to have thousands of followers and even more people to email, “bought people” will only hurt your image and waste your money.

It will harm your outreach efforts. And that’s because these bots are obviously fake, and people will realize it. You will gain accounts that follow hundreds of other people, but nobody will follow them. That means that they will not be using their “influence” to draw people to your business. These “fans” and “customers” have no interest in your services or products, and they are not your target audience. They are a waste of money that could be better spent finding clients the authentic way.

You’re Investing in Technology You Don’t Need

While purchasing expensive office equipment is a clear waste, the subtlest culprit is an investment in expensive subscription-based software. More often than not, this refers to marketing automation programs, custom services (such as a tailored design for your website), or even cloud storage software that you do not truly need. It’s natural to want the best and pay for the best. You may afford it, but it becomes a waste of your money when you do not use it to a full extent.

Stick to your budget. Many SaaS solutions have big corporations in mind. Thus, their services might not be of use to you or, at the very least, not at full price. It’s one of the reasons why most startups fail and it’s certainly applicable to established small businesses. It’s a small leak. However, “Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.” (Benjamin Franklin)

You’re Focusing On Hiring More, Instead of Better

Even though you shouldn’t neglect your employees, there is such a thing as over-investment in your staff. This ranges from expensive office equipment to certain commodities that are not truly needed. However, the true waste of money is hiring errors. Whether it’s an unbalance between departments or simply inexperienced people that need to training and reach no results, it can place a severe strain on the budget.

Business owners often neglect the time and money spent on each new trainee. It can become an unknown way to waste money, and you would be better off opting for freelancers. While it’s certainly exciting to see your small business grow, it can become a drain really fast.

Due to some major mistakes, studies have estimated that 3 out of 10 new businesses fail in less than two years. As time goes on, this number increases to 5 out of 10 within the first five years. While the numbers are not encouraging, they can be avoided.

The most important aspect to remember is that you need to assess and reassess constantly. Don’t focus solely on success stories. Those may reach your ears easier, but they’re in the minority. The rest are not an overnight success and instead have been carefully avoiding mistakes.

Author: Ioana Sima: Writer. Gamer. Architecture student. Coffee Addict. CMO at DigitalWebProperties. Follow Ioana on Twitter for random musings & online marketing news. 

Turning Support into a Strategic Resource for Your Business

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In traditional business, customer support teams focus solely on satisfying the customer. They enable a pain-free, enjoyable customer experience while sales and marketing teams drive home revenue and create new customers. Right? Not so fast.

Modern businesses are starting to understand that support teams can be an incredibly powerful (and reliable) revenue channel, too. Happy customers means more than increased customer satisfaction (though that’s still imperative). Happy customers also mean a reduction in churn, stabilized retention, customer referrals, and an opportunity to improve the bottom line.

Despite the critical role of support in every company, support teams are often overlooked as strategic contributors to long-term revenue goals. This is an oversight; when positioned correctly, customer support teams have the power to contribute a unique angle to your value proposition.

So, what is your true value proposition?

Your value proposition relies on the business elements that set you apart from the competition. Most commonly that’s defined by the quality and personality of a product or service. Your support team can hugely contribute to this, too.

As a quick exercise, consider your business’s unique value proposition. Within your organization, what team resources contribute to its differentiating value? Which teams enable value, versus drive it? If you can’t answer these questions quickly, fear not—you are not alone. Many businesses have a difficult time identifying the value-adding resources within their organization, or even worse, fail to recognize those that do at all.

One study from I See Systems affirms that this recognition gap originates with a lack of understanding of how resources “act together to create value.” They suggest that resolution lies in understanding how resources “in their fundamental area relate to those of other areas when we divide the organization’s resources into two types, enabling and value-driving.”

With this in mind, we’ve come up with three effective ways your business can better identify resources, and better position your customer support team towards the value-driving category.

1. Incorporate multi-team collaboration into internal process

It’s time to get involved. To ensure your customer service team is driving value to the bottom line, immerse them in the resources that more commonly identify as value-drivers, such as teams on the hook for revenue and finance-related deliverables.

When these teams become inter-dependent allies, a new level of efficiency, productivity, and potential innovation to problem solving opens up. Indeed, a study published in Harvard Business Review states that as software tools mature, collaborative decision-making contributes “not only to reducing costs and increasing efficiency, but also improving business strategy.”

Carve out 30-minute standing meetings for open communication and opportunities to collaborate. Sometimes the best projects happen when two unlikely forces team up to focus dual effort on one challenging task!

Ask for invites. Invite yourself to marketing campaign retrospectives and roadmap briefs. Crash a daily standup for other teams once a week. Be proactively curious about what other teams are working on. In turn, incorporating other teams into approval process for projects, such as technical content or webinars, will smooth out customer-facing wrinkles before they happen, and build trust within your resources.

2. Cross-functional training

Often, the most exemplary employees are those with a working knowledge of the business from diverse perspectives. How do we enable that type of worker? How do we ensure that most, if not all, employees are considering the bigger picture in their day-to-day problem solving?  How do we set our teams up to drive value, not just for themselves, but also for the teams around them?

A great way to accomplish this is cross-functional training. It doesn’t need to be complex, fancy, or even entirely formalized. This type of training could be accomplished from listening to recorded support or sales calls to better understand their pain points and strengths.

Some companies prioritize cross-functional training to the point where, say, a new marketing hire may be required to conduct a support call or answer inbound tickets as part of their onboarding flow. As a result, a bond of trust and connection is made internally, and the new hire acquires a broader understanding of the business.

3. Leverage customer service metrics & SLA compliance to drive data-driven value

One of the most influential ways to position your customer support team as a strategic resource is through measuring the right metrics. When it’s time to discuss next year’s budgets, new hire allotment, or other growth opportunities, what information do you bring to the table? In order to be easily recognized as a value-adding resource, it becomes increasingly critical to deliver the most important and relevant metrics.

Recently, Kayako put together the Ultimate Guide to Customer Support Metrics that can help you craft that metrics suite and drive home your team’s value. Key support metrics, coupled with the establishment and enforcement of SLA compliance, are sure-fire ways of better positioning customer support teams as a strategic resource.

Okay, but is this really worth all the extra work?

Now, you might be left thinking, “this sounds like a lot of extra and unnecessary work. There’s just not enough time in my day.” We know the workload of a customer service team, especially in a managerial role, is unyielding and never-ending. We truly get it. But remember, the original reasons we explored these solutions in the first place–to reduce churn, improve retention, amplify referrals, and drive value to the bottom line—have resounding personal benefits for you and your team as well. Short term benefits may include a more balanced workload, increased delegation efforts, and cross-functional support from colleagues in new ways. Long term benefits may include bolstered hiring capacity, bigger budgets, and a newfound mutual sense of trust in your organization.

With every day, more businesses understand that customer service teams can, and should, deliver tangible business value. They understand that happy teams create happy customers, and happy customers correlate high levels of retention, customer referral, and returning business.

So the question isn’t whether or not you can afford the time or energy to prioritize customer service as a value-adding resource; the question is whether you can afford not to.

Author: Alicia Carney is a Product Marketing Manager at Kayako. Originally from San Francisco, Alicia is passionate about creating awesome customer service experiences for people all over the world. Outside of Kayako, she loves exploring Europe with nothing but a backpack, a bottle of wine, and ample amounts of cheese.

A Simple Test: Are We Managing Like Jerks?

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Are we who issue orders to associates or employees ever acting as jerks? We’d never like to think so, or we wouldn’t do it in the first place.

If someone is saying “This is confusing to me,” when you’ve given an instruction or order, there are a number of ways to respond. Of course it may be appropriate to explain your reasoning, or ask what part of the instruction is confusing.

But, as one CEO pointed out to me recently, it may be more appropriate to ask yourself if the instruction was necessary or worth the effort in the first place. He worded it a bit differently, as in the headline to this insight. Sure gets your attention.

Managers can be jerks as easily as anyone with a bit of power misused or misdirected. So here is the simple test. Before issuing any kind of order to perform a task, think of how this might be interpreted by the person receiving the order. Take the cynical view—the worst case possibility. Because it’s a guarantee that many of those on the receiving end will do just that.

Did your proposed order pass the jerk test? Will the requested outcome advance any of your goals—or just provide an increment of satisfaction? Will the output be used in a meaningful way? Or will this just be another reason for that cynical associate or employee to label you with that term?

Now raise the stakes of that order to the corporate level. Will a whole department or all those under the level of the issuer feel a bit of the jerk syndrome?

Well, then. You have a tool for the question. And you know how to use it. Think back to your past. Ever think that of an action by a leader in your past life?

Why Your Retail Business Needs to Start Accepting Chip Cards Right Away

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Your customers don’t really care if they have to swipe or dip their card. So why should you?

While EMV (which stands for Europay, MasterCard, and Visa) is standard in Europe and elsewhere around the globe, American merchants have been slow to adopt this new industry standard—six months into the EMV Liability Shift, CardHub estimated that only 42% of retailers had switched over to EMV.

There are several reasons why American retail businesses (and especially SMBs) are lagging. EMV “chip cards” take longer to process than magnetic stripe credit cards, and your business is not legally required to accept them. You’ll also have to buy an EMV-enabled payment terminal if you want to accept the new chip cards at your retail store or restaurant business.

What’s more, customers can become irritated at the point of sale when they’re not sure if they should swipe or insert their card, and some people prefer the faster swiping method when possible. After all, it’s what they’re used to.

But despite all that, if you don’t accept chip cards yet, you need to start—ASAP.

Here’s why:

1. They are fraud-resistant.

Chip cards are resistant to credit card fraud. Old-school magnetic-stripe (sometimes called “magstripe” for short) credit/debit card transactions are much easier for fraudsters to intercept, using an inexpensive card “skimmer.” With this device, just about any criminally inclined person can steal nearby credit card information and clone it onto fraudulent cards.

While no technology is completely fraud-proof, chip cards are inherently more secure because their embedded microchip encrypts the cardmember’s bank information into a code. Run-of-the-mill fraudsters simply don’t have the sophisticated technology required to decrypt this code or clone it onto a counterfeit card.

2. They protect your business from lawsuits.

The great EMV Liability Shift finally hit the US in October 2015. The key word here is “liability.” This relatively new law means that while your business is not required to accept EMV payments, you are legally responsible for fraud that occurs as a result of your NOT accepting EMV cards.

It can be a little confusing, especially because EMV cards still have the magstripe, allowing you to swipe them if an EMV terminal is not present.

But here’s what EMV liability means for you as a merchant: say a customer has an EMV-enabled card, and you swipe it instead of “dipping” it; as a result, some lowlife skims the card information from this transaction and steals your customer’s money. Based on the new law, your business is now responsible for these fraudulent charges, because you used the less-secure technology. (If the customer doesn’t have an EMV card, you are not responsible for fraud occurring on their card; however, all major bank cards are slowly rolling over to EMV.)

So, while you will have to spend money to upgrade to the new terminals, it could cost you exponentially more if you don’t upgrade—especially if the fraud occurs on a large scale, as with the massive Target credit card hack that took place in 2013. Do you really want to be responsible for millions of dollars in fraud damages?

3. Criminals are targeting small businesses that don’t use EMV.

If you still haven’t upgraded to EMV, you now have a pretty big target on your back.

Since EMV-compliant businesses are so much harder to steal from, criminals are targeting the businesses that haven’t upgraded to the new technology yet.

Unfortunately, this means small businesses are at a greater risk for credit card fraud, since most larger and nationwide businesses have upgraded to EMV already. In fact, overall retail fraud has actually increased since the EMV Liability Shift.

Bonus: You can start accepting ApplePay and other NFC payments.

Many EMV terminals are also NFC (“near-field-contact”)-enabled, allowing you to accept smartphone payments, such as ApplePay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay. Most customers aren’t clamoring to pay with NFC yet, but it’s forward-thinking for retailers to offer this payment option, especially as mobile payments become more prevalent.

Don’t let your business be a sitting duck for criminals who could cost you your livelihood. Most point-of-sale systems and credit card processors now accept EMV; all you need to do is purchase and install the terminals—generally setting you back about $150-$200 apiece. Even if you’re a small startup, you can still accept chip cards without much hassle; Square, which lets you take credit card payments on your mobile phone, sells an EMV/NFC reader for only $49.

For help making the EMV switch and accepting chip cards at your business, you can find some useful resources on the U.S. Small Business Administration website.

shannon-vissersAuthor: Shannon Vissers is a contributing writer for Merchant Maverick, a comparison site that reviews and rates credit card processors, POS software companies, shopping carts, mobile payments services, and small business software. Follow her on Twitter: @ShannonVissers.

Avoid These 3 Risks When Seeking Investors

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Becoming a small business owner is a stressful prospect. Even the most experienced in their field struggle when they go from being under the safe gaze of a corporation to being completely on their own. Double that stress when it comes to financing their venture. Even bootstrap startups are going to struggle with funding after a time.

Angel investors or venture capital funds are eventually going to become a part of your future plans. While finding people to invest in your future will probably be easier than you expect. But even with a solid product or service, there are risks.

Being aware of those threats from the beginning will help you avoid these common investor traps.

Improperly Guarding Assets

Let’s say you get a great investor. Your business is booming, things are looking up…then tragedy strikes. Your investment pool is tainted by a scandal. Your small business, in spite of being totally unrelated, falls under scrutiny. Legal issues arise, and you are facing serious consequences for their bad behavior.

Protecting your assets—both personal and professional—can keep you from losing everything. Filing different LLCs are separate parts of your business is one example. Another is protecting real estate from capital gains tax through putting it in a trust.

Protect your assets now to avoid problems later.

Lacking A Clear Business Plan

You have been pitching to dozens upon dozens of investors. Your product is excellent, and you are convinced it can go far. Why isn’t anyone biting? Probably because you haven’t presented a complete business plan that proves you are worth investing in.

A good business plan will have information on:

  • What you have spent so far
  • How much you will need for different aspects of running your business (advertising, development, research, design, employees, etc.)
  • A projection for growth
  • Proof of market demand
  • Future feature/product roadmap
  • Plans for expansion later on

If you can’t prove to your investors that you are on the ball, they won’t give you their backing.

Misspending, Before and After Investments

In the beginning of launching your business you took out a bank loan and put everything into building it from the ground up. But the way you appropriated funds was less than stellar. Now you are seeking anyone at all that can give you the cash to keep going.

What you have done is shown investors that you can’t manage money. That will make them far less likely to give you any, or continue to give it to you if they have already invested. Remember that their goal is to make a profit over time. You have to prove they can rely on you.

Know The Risks To Reap The Benefits!

These three risks are major pitfalls for the average small business owner seeking financial backing. If you are ticking any of them there is a good chance you will lose out on any chance you may have had to land investors.

So be careful, be responsible, and be aware of what can go wrong.

Author: Jackson Cooper shares his expert experiences in real estate, finance, investments, and asset protection with working professionals and everyday men and women to help better his audience’s financial success and security.  Outside of work, he values time with his family, enjoying all that Park City Utah has to offer: skiing, mountain biking, film festivals, and cuisine. Connect with Jackson – TwitterLinkedIn

7 Costly B2B Social Media Marketing Fails

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Social media is better at one-on-one—B2C—marketing, right? Wrong. According to marketing gurus Kipp Bodnar and Jeffrey L. Cohen’s The B2B Social Media Book, Becoming a Marketing Superstar, B2B companies “are a better fit” for B2B for a variety of reasons.

B2B companies tend to have a more focused understanding of their clients. Their depth of subject matter expertise and expert marketing on a budget make social media a great tool for proselytizing clients and nurturing their B2B relationships with followers, who are likely to become loyal clients and promote brand reputation.

Bodnar and Cohen also point out that long before Twitter and Facebook became the social media magnetic magnates they are today, B2B marketers were out front telling their stories and marketing their content through snail mail and pre-information age approaches—brochures, ad campaigns, etc.

However, successfully using the social media tool requires an understanding of how social media works and how, unfortunately, it can sometimes fail. Any failed business promotion endeavor can be costly in terms of wasted time, money and resources.

The bottom line is return on investment, both short-term and over the lifetime of the company. The former may take immediate precedence over the latter, but wise inbound marketing is never shortsighted.

Here are seven typical pitfalls that can lead to costly social media marketing failures:

1. Sabotaging ROI by ignoring lead generation possibilities

When it comes to marketing, according to Kipp Bodnar, “B2B social media is about lead generation.” Sure, building communities and educating your fan/clients base is a worthy long-term endeavor, but, again, according to Bodnar, “if you don’t present lead conversion opportunities, you will never generate the revenue needed to fund your social media marketing efforts.” Stray from the ROI path, and social media marketing could end up in your rearview mirror.

Takeaway: The path back to ROI is through providing a way for social media visitors to complete lead conversion forms for follow-ups to convert leads to sales.

2. Failing to measure B2B Social Media ROI

Leads don’t become ROI until they become actual clients. Guessing about how well social media marketing is going, or simply tracking likes and numbers of followers are not the metrics of marketing success.

Takeaway: Analyzing actual user data across a variety of marketing channels requires time and effort. Measuring the ROI for social media marketing will gather the concrete metrics that make social media inbound marketing worth the effort.

3. Ignoring the potential scope and reach of social media marketing for your business

With the bottom line always at the forefront, it is tempting for marketers to concentrate on the high-quality leads with high-average sales. B2B marketers often overlook the exponential phenomenon of social media reach and how B2B marketing content can spread across the Internet.

Takeaway: Do not ignore the potential enormous reach of social media. Inbound marketing on Facebook and other social media accounts like LinkedIn can pay dividends in building a B2B outreach. Read how to do that in this informative piece by Lindsay Kolowich.

4. Failure to dedicate the resources—time and staff—for social media marketing

Yes, most online social media platforms are free, and it is tempting to add them to the marketing mix because they are there. Adopting social media as a dilatory experiment and just letting it all happen will handicap your B2B social media marketing from the outset, virtually guaranteeing failure.

Takeaway: The reality is that social media marketing always requires more time and money than most marketers expect. Figure on spending twice the time and come up with a strategy for diverting efforts from other nonproductive marketing activities.

5. Being sales-y with insufficient focus on the clients

Social media visitors aren’t looking for boring product descriptions or product-focused content. It is the marketer’s job to hype interest in the product. Using social media to hawk prosaic products misses the mark.

Takeaway: Instead of hawking your wares, publish social media content that specifically relates to your clients’ problems and needs and how your product or service solves and fulfills the latter.

6. Using a single or segmented approach, rather than integrating social media marketing

It is a mistake to rely on social media as a replacement for offline marketing. Social media marketing is but one piece of the marketing pie and works best as a part of an integrated inbound marketing strategy.

Takeaway: Look for opportunities to include and integrate social media with traditionally productive marketing programs. For example, add links to your social media in your next direct mail campaign.

7. Forgetting SEO

Last, but never least, the biggest mistake you can make is to forget about search engine optimization. SEO may be joined at the hip to your website outbound marketing, but forgetting that treasure trove of keywords can nullify the web crawler as a powerful tool to elicit followers to your media message.

Takeaway: Break out that unified keyword list and build it into your social media presence. You need to get on the same page and present a united front for your inbound marketing strategy. SEO, coupled with great content, is the key to unlocking your B2B presence on the Internet.

Social media marketing is both an art and a craft. It straddles the fine line between what everyone is looking for in ROI: instant returns, and payback over the life of an organization.

SEO and SEM for Franchise Owners

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While some of your franchise’s marketing will be dictated and provided by your franchisor, it’s a good idea to still educate yourself on aspects of digital marketing so that you can make sure that your location is found online. Two important facets of digital marketing are search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). While your website may come pre-made from the franchisor, if you have any flexibility to modify it, you’ll need at least a rudimentary understanding of these two critical elements of marketing.

What is SEO and Why Does It Matter to Franchises?

SEO refers to optimizing your website so that it is found in top results of search engines. If someone types in “pizza restaurant san diego,” it should be your mission to have your ice cream franchise appear in the top results. But that doesn’t happen automatically. You as the business owner (and marketer) have to do your fair share of hard work to move your website up the ranks.

Your efforts with SEO will deal primarily with keywords: those words that people type in to find your business. Your website probably already ranks well for the franchise name, but you want it to also appear high in results for your geographic area. So rather than just using the keyword phrase “Little Caesar’s,” you’d want to use “Little Caesar’s Mission Valley” so that people could find your specific franchise in your part of town. Additionally, you want to use the type of franchise you run, like the example of “pizza restaurant san diego” above, throughout your website so that people—and Google—know you’re there.

In addition to including those keyword phrases throughout your website, you can also get an SEO boost by including a blog that uses those keywords, and that provides useful, relevant content for your audience. Google ranks regularly updated content on blogs highly, so it’s a great marketing tactic.

What’s the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Search engine marketing is also designed to help people find you online, but rather than unpaid strategies like blogging and using the right keywords, SEM incorporates paid advertising options.

For some industries, it’s nearly impossible to get to the top of search results the organic, non-paid way, so some franchises might elect to pay for pay-per-click advertising. You still select the keywords you want to appear in results for, but you bid a certain price per click. Let’s say you buy advertising to appear in Google search results whenever someone searches “pizza restaurant san diego,” and you pay $3 whenever someone clicks on your ad, which appears above the organic search results. Ideally, you’d get that clicker to order pizza from you, and you’d make more than your $3 investment.

Pay-per-click ads are great for driving awareness of your franchise location and getting people in the door. From there, it’s up to you to give customers such a wonderful experience that they come back again and again.

Understanding the basics of SEO and SEM can help you do a better job of attracting customers to your franchise online.

How to Reduce Startup Risk Using Existing Technology

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It may not be as sexy, but starting a new business which builds on an existing technology or business model is usually less risky than introducing that ultimate new disruptive technology. There are many levels of innovation that go beyond copying someone else’s idea, but stop short of pushing the leading edge (bleeding edge).

Many of the major business successes started this way. McDonalds didn’t really invent the fast food model—they simply improved on the cookie-cutter White Castle process. Before Wal-Mart made the low-cost high-volume business model famous, there was Ben Franklin and Two Guys who touted it way back following World War II.

The advantage of imitation, with innovation, is that it gives you a solid base for building experience. There is always time later for your next startup, using that disruptive technology of your dreams. Or you may decide that your dream was not really the great idea that you thought it was.

So don’t be intimidated by the negative image that imitation currently has in the startup world. Certainly I’m not recommending just one more Facebook, with a couple of features from Twitter, since social media has an unlimited potential for innovation. Risk level has always been directly correlated to the number of unknowns, so eliminating even one variable will improve your odds:

  • Eliminate one aspect of research and development. According to a classic Harvard Research study, first inventors spend at least a third more on their initial technology than later innovators. In addition, we all know that patent disclosure rules often facilitate legal reverse engineering, and innovation at this point is now much cheaper.
  • Capitalize on the lessons from early adopters and competitors. Smart startups save cost and time by capitalizing on the pivots of others before them. Market research can thus be based on real customers and a previously tested market. Studying and learning from the mistakes of others is the best way to reduce your own risks.
  • Attract investors who fear pioneers catching arrows. Banks have always been more likely to support the franchise model of cloning an existing business, while they avoid, like the plague, a new and untested technology. Most equity investors tend to avoid truly disruptive technology startups, since they take longer and more money to scale.
  • Imitation with continuous innovation predictably drives progress. The auto industry and others have used this model for generations, so business processes and metrics for innovation are well documented. Disruptive technologies are random and their success is unpredictable. Good imitators, like McDonalds, often bypass the original innovator.
  • There is always a related market or new country. The world is now a small place, but startups usually don’t have the resources to saturate all the related markets at once. Imitation with innovation is a great way to jump ahead of the curve. Especially if that new market is your home country, you will have the advantage.

But don’t be fooled by thinking this approach is easier than rollout out a disruptive technology. In many ways, more effort and attention is required to make sure you know what works and what doesn’t work in a given domain. Timing is critical, as well as focus on marketing and customer satisfaction. Competitors can move quickly, and there is no huge technology gap to protect you.

If this approach appeals to you, I recommend that you start by looking for successful businesses, rather than failing businesses, and focus on innovations you could offer to make the businesses even more successful. Innovations are often as simple as better delivery, more customization, or better distribution. Who knows, your imitation with innovation may turn out to be the bigger than the disruptive technology of your dreams.

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