Tuesday, October 28, 2014

8 Ways to Boost Sales of Your Small Business Services

Struggling to differentiate your businesses’ services against the competition? Hoping to close more sales, but not sure how to do so with your limited resources? Here are eight surefire ways to increase your small business sales.

Narrow Your Target Market

Focus in business is everything, but doing so is often hard for small businesses owners who worry that narrowing down their target market will leave them with very few customers left to go after. But going after a specific slice of the market is a great way to get customers to notice you among the fray of companies competing for their business.

The easiest way to do this is to…

Become an Expert in your Market

Being an expert in your field brings credibility, business and referrals. But you’ve got to work at it. It takes more than simply listing your credentials on your website; you need to be out there positioning yourself as a trusted advisor.
This happens all the time around you. Small business owners are writing blogs, hosting free workshops, and giving away white papers and newsletters – all great channels for sharing information with your target market and positioning yourself as a credible expert in your field.

Rank Your Targets

Another way to zero in on your target market is to rank prospects according to profitability. Anyone can do this, from accounting firms to freelancers. Take a look at your client base – which are the most profitable for you? This will help weed out those whose work you really don’t need and those it makes sense to pursue.

Alongside profitability, identify the client profiles that have proven to be your most satisfied. These are the ones who are referring your business to friends and neighbors. Do they represent a particular demographic or live in a certain neighborhood? Perhaps they have a common challenge or need that can help you fine tune your sales focus.

This is market research at its simplest. And it works.

Showcase Your Differentiators

Thank about what makes you different. Understanding and communicating this can really boost sales, and shift the focus away from price alone. 

Fit Your Messaging to Suit your Targets

Once you’ve identified your target and nailed you differentiators, review your messaging and marketing programs to make sure you’re touching the right customers with a relevant message. You might also need to consider your company name and branding to ensure it hits home and reflects your niche.

Sell More to Existing Customers

Here’s another exercise that can ride on the coattails of your customer ranking research. Once you’ve identified your loyal and top-spending customers, think of ways to offer them more.
It’s not as perplexing as it sounds. It can be as easy as setting up a loyalty or VIP program that offers incentives such as promotions, early access to new products and services, rewards points, etc.
This form of customer appreciation is great for keeping you top of mind, driving repeat business, and referrals.

Have a Plan for Each Stage of the Sales Cycle

Does your business have a marketing action plan? Do you know how to deal with aware prospects versus interested prospects? Every stage of the buying cycle is different and deserves a marketing plan all of its own so that you are ready and prepared to nurture those leads further, until you close a sale, and push for referrals.

Optimize the Conversion Process

So you have an interested prospect? Make sure your sales and marketing teams have the tools they need to close the deal. Marketing automation software can really help with this process, but it’s not an absolute must. As mentioned above, start by creating a marketing plan that addresses each phase of the sales cycle – awareness, interest, engagement and sale.

Then think about the timeline that accompanies a typical sale and ways you can match your outreach efforts to keep warming your lead. For example, use your blog or a workshop to generate awareness and earn trust. Then, use social media and your website to encourage prospects to sign up to your email list with the promise of more information and/or special offers.

Now that you have an email address and basic information about a prospect, tailor a personalized marketing outreach campaign to them. Send staggered emails (once a week) and offer more information. Invite them to check back in for a demo, webinar, or other “learning” experience.

If they still aren’t ready to convert, consider mailing them an offer or promotion and follow-up with a sales call.
All through this process, you are deepening your relationship with the prospect by offering value – not just chasing a quick sale. This type of “guided selling” can really help improve your conversions dramatically.

This blog post has been repurposed from sba.gov. Click here for the original post.

Monday, October 27, 2014

How small businesses can improve their digital security

It’s important to note that digital information theft has surpassed physical theft as the most commonly reported fraud.
Small businesses can be victimized by the current rash of digital scammers, just as individuals can.
Here are 10 tips for small businesses from the Federal Communications Commission, designed to keep them safe from the onslaught of would-be digital thieves.
1. Be sure your employees are trained in security principles. Instruct them in the use of strong passwords and proper Internet safety procedures. That includes being distrustful of unsolicited e-mails even though they may look legitimate and never clicking on links in such e-mails. Have established rules and procedures for protecting your customers’ information and other data.
2. Keep your company’s digital devices protected from online threats by being sure security software, web browsers and operating systems are always up to date.
3. Use firewalls. A firewall is a set of programs that prevent outsiders from getting to data on your private network. Free software is available online. Don’t overlook employees who work from home. They should be protected as well.
4. Have a mobile device action plan. Require password protection, data encryption and security apps to protect while using public networks. Lost or stolen equipment should be immediately reported.
5. Back up data. Use an automated backup system if you can, or at least manually back it up once a week, with copies stored either offsite or in the cloud. Backups should include word processing documents, electronic spreadsheets, databases, financial files, human resources files and accounts receivable/payable files.
6. Control who uses your devices and see that each employee has their own user account. Lock up unattended laptops, as they are often targeted for theft.
7. Secure your Wi-Fi network. Set up your router or wireless access point so that it does not broadcast the network name, and password protect access to the router.
8. Secure your payment cards. Work with your bank or credit union to be sure the best tools and anti-fraud services are in use. Isolate your payment system from other, less secure programs. Never use the same computer to process payments and to surf the Internet.
9. Control employee access to data. Try not to allow any one employee access to all data systems – just to the specific data necessary for their job. Never allow them to install software without permission.
10. Tighten account authentication procedures. Require unique passwords and change them every three months. Multifactor authentication, requiring additional information beyond passwords, should be used if possible. Check with financial institutions that handle your data to see whether they offer multifactor authentication as well.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers useful information for business data security at business.ftc.gov/privacy-and-security/data-security.
It is vital for small businesses to stay on top of the latest developments in security of their data.  Data thieves are keeping up to date. So should the rest of us.
This blog post has been repurposed from the Better Business Bureau of Kansas. Click here for the original post.

Read more here: http://www.kansas.com/news/local/article3354604.html#storylink=cpy

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How to Stop People from Wasting Your Time

This blog post has been repurposed from the Harvard Business Review. Click here for the original blog post.
We’re all too busy, spending our days in back-to-back meetings and our nights feverishly responding to emails. That’s why people who waste our time have become the scourge of modern business life, hampering our productivity and annoying us in the process.
Sometimes it’s hard to escape, especially when the time-waster is your boss. But in many other situations, you can take steps to regain control of your time and your schedule. Here’s how.

State your preferred method of communication

For years, millennials have famously eschewed phone calls — but almost everyone has a communication preference of some sort. Regina Walton, a social media and community manager, told me that she, too, hates talking on the phone, a habit she developed after years of living abroad; email is almost always better for her, as “I can respond when I have time and usually am very fast to reply.” You can often limit aggravation (and harassment via multiple channels) by proactively informing colleagues about the best way to reach you, whether it’s via phone calls, texts, emails, or even tweets.

Require an agenda for meetings. 

Pointless or rambling meetings account for a disproportionate share of workplace time leakage. Here’s a solution: insist on seeing an agenda before you commit to attending any meeting, “to ensure I can contribute fully.” You can model the practice by writing an agenda for any meetings you chair, and offering to share the template with others. In fact, you could push to establish company norms that include best practices such as eliminating generic “updates” (which can usually be emailed in advance) and clearly indicating the decisions that need to be made as a result of the meeting. “Discuss expansion strategy” would be a murky and perhaps unproductive agenda item; “Decide whether to open a Tampa office” can guide the conversation much more clearly.

Police guest lists. 

Meetings are also dangerous when their list of invitees has been wantonly constructed, filled with irrelevant people and lacking decision-makers with the authority to get things moving. If you’ve been invited, ask two critical questions. First, do I need to be there? Looking at the agenda (which you’ve insisted they provide), you can gauge whether your input would be valuable or if you can just find out details afterwards. Second, will the (other) right people be there? If you’re theoretically deciding on the Tampa expansion strategy and the executive in charge of Southeast operations isn’t in the room, it’s likely you’ll have to repeat the whole process again for her benefit. Make sure you understand who the real decision-makers are, and don’t waste your time (or other people’s) until they can be present and participate.

Force others to prepare. 

We all hope and expect that others will prepare for meetings with us. Surprisingly often, they don’t. Even when they’re requesting the meeting, they may have done very little research and waste our time with extremely basic questions they could have Googled. Instead, we need to force others to prepare in advance. “Force” is a harsh word, and that’s intentional ­— because it’s not burdensome for people who would have prepared anyway, yet it effectively weeds out the uncommitted
Will you face blow-back by toughening up and putting clear boundaries around your time? Inevitably. But you may also find that people start to respect you ­—and your time ­— a lot more. Most of us wish we could control our schedules better. If you’re willing to step up and argue for smarter policies (like requiring all meetings to have agendas), that benefits everyone. The key is to frame your advocacy not as purely self-interested (“I don’t have time for this nonsense”), but instead as a manifestation of your commitment to the company and your shared mission. “I want to make sure we’re all as productive as possible,” you could say, “and that’s why I think it’s important to make sure we’re respecting each other’s time.” In the end, that’s a hard message to resist.

Monday, October 20, 2014

6 Essential Elements of Any Internship Program

This blog has been repurposed from sba.gov. Click here to view the original blog post.

Internships represent a burgeoning market. According to Internships.com, 67 percent of 2013 graduates completed at least one internship during college, and a separate study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that approximately 90 percent of student interns said they’d accept an offer for a full-time job from their internship employer.
If you’re looking for enthusiastic, low-cost labor, internships can provide your small business with many benefits. After all, internships don’t just help you meet your immediate work needs, they can also help you test drive talent and assess potential future employees.
Internships are also great for your brand and demonstrate that you’re giving back to the community and its students.
If you’re serious about hiring interns, then it’s time to implement an internship program – one that ensures you attract the right talent for your needs, keeps them busy, drives development and covers all your legal bases.
Here are six essential tips for doing just that.

Paid or Unpaid Internships

Let’s start with the money.
If you’re serious about your internship program, then it’s a good idea to compensate your intern(s). What’s the going rate? Ask around and research current trends based on your expectations of the intern and their duties. As a guideline, the average hourly rate for bachelor’s degree level interns is $16.35. Remember that your state’s minimum wage requirement also applies to paid interns.
Unpaid internships are also an option, but the U.S. Department of Labor puts very firm limits on the work that can be performed in these situations. You can read more about these restrictions here. In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know about what an unpaid intern can and can’t do:
  • Unpaid interns can’t do any work that contributes to your business’ operations.This includes any tasks that help you run your business, like documenting inventory, filing papers, answering emails, etc.
  • Unpaid interns can shadow other employees and perform duties that don't have a business need. For example, a bakery may allow an apprentice/intern to decorate a tray of cookies that will not be sold to customers. Because the task was only a training exercise for the apprentice/intern and the bakery did not receive any benefit from that work, the bakery would not have to pay that student worker for that time.

Understand What You’re Getting Into

As you approach the process of hiring an intern, it’s important to understand how an internship is different than a full-time, part-time or even volunteer-based position.
Primarily, an internship is a learning experience for the intern. As such, the experience should complement the student’s field of study, be structured as a mentoring relationship (you’ll need to appoint a dedicated supervisor to assume this role) and has distinct learning goals throughout the course of the program. Keep these considerations in mind as you craft your program, which leads to our next point.

Define Your Needs

Certainly your student intern will have needs and goals, but as the hiring company, you’ll have some too. Take a look at your business and its needs and capabilities in light of how you can an intern can mutually benefit from your program:
  • How will you pay or otherwise compensate an intern?
  • How can an intern help you with your business goals?
  • Do you have enough work to support an intern? Think about short-term and long-term assignments.
  • Do you have enough work for multiple interns?
  • Is everyone bought into the idea (because they need to be)?
  • What’s the best time of year to hire an intern and for how long?
  • Who will supervise and mentor your intern? Can they carve out enough time to take on the task?
  • What ramp-up and ongoing training can you provide?
  • Do you have available office space and other resources?

Don’t Ignore Labor Laws

Spend some time familiarizing yourself with employment laws in your state. If you have legal counsel, talk to them as well. You want to make sure you and your intern are clear on worker’s compensation issues, workplace safety, harassment and discrimination laws, benefits, etc. Your legal counsel can also help you put together a contract of employment for your intern(s).

Put Together Your Program

Aside from compensation, it’s important to clearly define your program. This will not only help attract and nurture the right talent, but it’ll ensure that the program proves to be a success.
For example:
  • Outline what the learning objectives of the role will be. If you’re hiring a marketing intern, perhaps one of the key objectives will be providing the intern with a basic knowledge of email marketing best practices.
  • Then list out daily responsibilities. Remember, students are used to being given clear direction and a task list will also ensure you have all your needs covered.
  • Add in any short- or long-term projects or assignments that you need help with.
  • Finally, be clear on how you’ll evaluate performance.
Don’t forget the basics too – work hours, business ethics, code of conduct, new hire orientation. Everything you do for a regular new hire should also apply to an intern.


Once again, don’t skip the basics. Put together a formal job description and include the specifics about the role, responsibilities and learning opportunities.
In addition to posting the position on your website and usual recruitment channels, take advantage of specific intern-recruitment sites like Internships.comAfterCollege.com,CareerRookie.comYouth.jobs and MonsterYouthJobs.com. Each of these organizations also participates in the government’s Youth Jobs+ program, an initiative designed to bring together elected officials, local businesses, non-profit organizations and faith institutions to create pathways to employment for young Americans.
You can also reach out to your local college and/or school career service office or even your own alma mater. Many operate internship programs (in return for credits, but not always).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

3 Must-Do Tips for Staying Productive in Your Company Down Time

If you’re in the home remodeling industry, and even if you’re not, chances are your business starts to slow down a little in the winter months. This is a great time to relax, rejuvenate and finish some of the things you’ve been putting off for months. Before you know it, spring will be here and you’ll want to be ready for a new influx of customers. Here’s a checklist of things you can do to help your business during the “down time” of winter:

Get involved in social media. Now’s the time to either launch a social media presence, or give a makeover to your current social media sites if they’ve been neglected. People – your potential new customers -- are stuck inside during the winter months with nothing to do but dream of home improvement projects. Dazzle them with your skills by publishing a blog, posting pictures online or creating “how-to” videos for your website.

Attend networking and educational events.
Use the slow months to broaden your knowledge and network. Sign up for events that provide learning and networking opportunities so you can get to know people and trends in your industry. Conferences, trade shows, and even local business events can help you gain new partnerships and skills that you can use in your business, so don’t pass up the chance to attend them.

Evaluate your business performance and plan for next year. 
Ask yourself some important questions, like what went right this past year, and how can we capitalize on that success? What went wrong and how can we fix it? Am I happy with my suppliers? Use this slow time to see if you find better products and/or prices with different suppliers. Are there any maintenance issues that need my attention? You’ll want to make sure that all of your tools and machines are ready to go for the busy season.

For BBB Accredited Businesses, ask yourself: Am I taking advantage of all of my benefits of BBB accreditation? Do I have the interactive BBB seal on my website and Facebook page? Are there any other places I could add the BBB seal, such as business cards, marketing brochures, estimate forms or other marketing materials?

Just because business slows down for a few months, doesn’t mean the work stops.  The work you do in the “slow season” will help ensure that your business runs smoothly during peak season.

Written By: Susan Bach, Northeast Regional Director at BBB Serving Wisconsin 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Protecting Yourself From Future Data Breaches

Last month Home Depot confirmed its computer systems had been targeted in a recent data breach, and up to 60 million customers credit card information and PIN numbers were stolen. While you can't prevent cyber attacks on retailers, there are definitely some steps you can take to minimize your risk should a data breach occur.

  • Consider a new way to pay. Third party payment methods are much safer than swiping your debit card in the store. Third party services like these have your credit card information stored and do not give the retailer your payment information when you make a purchase. However, many retailers do not yet accept third party services so store valued cards or phone apps are another good choice as your credit card information is not exposed. 
  • If you do choose to swipe your card in the store, it is safer to process the purchase as credit rather than debit. When you process a payment as debit you must enter your PIN into the key pad which then saves your PIN into the retailers data base. Hackers can do more damage with PIN numbers - like creating a second copy of your debit card and withdrawing money directly from your account. 
  • Regularly check your credit card statements. By checking your credit card statements regularly, your chances of catching suspicious activity as it happens increases and you will suffer less damages. Thieves often make purchases in small amounts and then later begin to make larger ones.
  • When the Home Depot data breach occurred many people reported receiving emails from Home Depot offering free credit monitoring. These emails were distributed by scammers looking to gain access to unsuspecting recipients personal information. If you receive an email making claims like this you are better off ignoring it. If the email looks credible you should only move forward after going straight to the source to confirm its credibility. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Your Business, Your Brand – 7 Simple Brand Identity Tips

What’s your small business brand identity?
Sure, you’ve got a logo, a website, business cards, signage and perhaps even a storefront – but your brand is so much more than the “look” of your business. While all these can help you project a carefully crafted image to your customers, true branding runs a lot deeper.
Think of Apple and Zappos, for example – two brands that spring to mind as exemplary in their markets. Customers like doing business with these companies. They feel a connection with the brand. But how did they get there? Much of this is down to great products and business innovation, but it’s more than that. Customers know what they are going to get when they interact with these brands, they’re invested in them, and that this requires a brand strategy.
So how does your small business do the same? Here are seven simple steps for nurturing and maintaining your brand.
Get the Basics Right
I already mentioned logos, website, signage, etc. These are the foundations of your brand and it’s very important to establish brand guidelines that stipulate how these elements are used. For example, applying rules around brand colors, use of your logo, images and fonts. Don’t forget to register or trademark your logo too.
Brand guidelines also apply to your “voice,” i.e. the tone your business adopts. For example, a software company that sells to other businesses might want to adopt a voice of authority, expertise and trust. While a software company that markets software apps to consumers could adopt a more conversational voice in its marketing materials.
Capture Your Value
Above all, make sure your brand elements reflect your company and its value proposition. Not to be mistaken with price, value encompasses what you do, what business problem you solve, how your business is different and how you make your customer’s life different after doing business with you.
Use clear language to communicate your value. Don’t be so vague that your message is meaningless. Use simple, clean imagery that resonates with your customers, and use a tagline that succinctly sums up not who you are, but what you do for your customers.
As a BBB Accredited Business, you can use the BBB seal and messages of being a trusted source. BBB Accredited Businesses meet and promise to abide by these 8 Standards of Trust
Let Your Customers Get to Know the Face Behind the Brand
I have a favorite restaurant; the food and service are great, but something is missing – the owner. Despite being a frequent diner, I’ve never had a single interaction with the owner and, for small businesses, this is a huge mistake. Customers want to feel that their business is appreciated and they want to connect with the face behind the business, especially if the transactions are frequent or substantial or one, such as a home renovation project.
This doesn’t mean you have to be on-site for every meeting or visible 100 percent of the time, but ask yourself if you’re really getting to know your customers. Are you responsive and in-tune with their needs? What do they really think about your business?
If you know what you want your brand identity to be and have invested in building it, make sure you’re out there maintaining its integrity. Small business owners need to be just as much an advocate for their brand just as Steve Jobs was for Apple.
Use Social Media to Help Your Brand Shine
Social media has changed the way brands connect and engage with their prospects and customers, opening up new opportunities to talk directly to and with them in real-time. While your basic brand guidelines should apply to the foundation of your social media pages, there are lots of other quick and easy ways to use social media to grow your brand. 
Get Involved in your Community
What better way to get exposure for your brand than giving back and getting involved in the community. Sponsor the local 5k marathon or participate in fairs, farmer’s markets or events – all of these can help build community and extend the trust you’ve earned for your brand.
Become a Trusted Advisor
Becoming a trusted advisor to existing customers and prospects is a great way to differentiate and build your brand. Think about what your business does and the challenges your customers have. Host workshops or webinars and write blogs that offer advice and tips for overcoming these challenges, without plugging your own product or services (use follow-up emails and calls to attendees to do that).
Winning new business becomes a lot easier if customers already know that you’re an expert at what you do (and that you’re excited about doing it).
Police Your Brand’s Usage
So you’ve decided to advertise your business – always make sure whoever designs the ad adheres to your brand guidelines. If not, the power of your brand starts to get slowly diluted. Make sure that partners who use your logo or company messaging stick to those guidelines too.
Likewise, be on the lookout for trademark infringement or any potential copyright theft by competitors. For instance, a competing business could lift copy from your website and use it, unchanged, to promote their business.
Don’t forget employees and if your brand extends to how they greet and interact with customers. Monitor and coach them regularly to ensure they’re upholding your brand values.
This blog post was repurposed from SBA.gov. View the original blog post here.