Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Five Tips to Keep Customers Happy

A happy customer is a return customer. And courting return customers is easier on the bottom line then expending resources always searching for new customers. But small blunders can send even the most loyal customers to the competition without even a wave goodbye. A little upfront time spent improving your customer service approach will save the headache of trying to repair damaged customer relationships.
Respond to Emails and Phone Calls
A company that quickly returns customer phone calls has an edge in building customer loyalty. Trust exists when customers know their concerns and questions are taken seriously. A customer that trusts a business is more likely to continue purchasing from that business and recommending it to others.
Honor Appointments
There is nothing quite as frustrating for a customer than scheduling an appointment with a business or service provider only to be kept waiting. Or worse yet, to be stood up. Remember, customers may need to take time off work or juggle other appointments to meet with you. If you are detained, plan to be no more than five minutes late and call to let the customer know you are on your way. Reschedule when necessary, but do so with 24 hours notice so the disruption to the customer's schedule is minimized. Keep appointment rescheduling to a minimum and make sure the client has a consistent contact when scheduling appointments.
Respond to Information Requests
When someone requests information about your company via e-mail, a Website form, over the phone or through some other means, he or she expects a response. When a company fails to respond, whether due to poor organization, incorrect contacts or a busy schedule, customers are left feeling abandoned. Have a policy in place for responding to information requests. For example, make it clear to customers that you will respond within one business day to their questions and requests. Make sure all your employees are aware of the policy and stick to it. Your customers will thank you!
Keep Promises
If you promise to complete a job by a specific date, do so. If you offer a money-back guarantee, honor it. If you advertise a 24-hour response time, you had better make sure you contact your customer within 24-hours. If you can not keep your promises, it is better not to make them or at least be realistic with what your company's capabilities are. When you make a promise to customers will hold you to it.
Say Hello
When a customer walks into your business, show them they matter. A smile and a friendly hello tell the customer he or she is important. Even if you are busy with other customers, acknowledge each customer who walks into your store or who is in line at your counter. A simple, I will be with you in a minute, goes a long way towards building good will. And good will is the basis of strong business relationships that stand the test of time.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writing the Essential Business Plan

It's tempting to jump in with both feet when starting a business. There's so much to do, from choosing a company name to finding employees. Before adding too many items to your to-do list, though, take a deep breath, sit down at your computer and write out a business plan. A business plan serves two main purposes.
  1. It is a resource for leaders within your company to follow throughout the life of the business.
  2. It is a resource for others such as investors and creditors to learn about your company.
Each business plan is unique to the company that creates it. Length and content may vary based on the audience that will view the plan. If you are writing for investors, focus on the financials. If you are writing for creditors, include information that explains how they will be repaid. Because your company is a growing and changing business, your business plan will also change, but by including key information about your company you will always have a jumping off point for making key decisions. Some common elements of a business plan include the following:
  • The Executive Summary--The executive summary is a short overview of your business plan that entices readers to read the entire plan. It describes your business concept including a description of your product or service, the market you will serve, your unique business attributes and financial highlights.
  • Business Profile--In this section of the business plan, provide detailed information about your company’s history, ownership structure, company locations and your start-up costs. Start-up costs could include costs to develop your product, license fees, insurance costs, rental fees, and marketing costs. You can also include capital you have available when you launch the business.
  • Products or Services--Tell readers what you sell and why it would be a benefit for them to purchase your product or service. If you have developed a product or service to meet a market need, mention that here. Explain what features of your product or service make it different from the competition and why those differences are important to consumers.
  • Market Analysis--Define the market characteristics where you will be offering your product or service. List industry trends, past growth rates, current sales and industry size and growth forecasts for the future. Also include any regulatory restrictions on your industry and costs involved with abiding by those restrictions. Also include information about your target market. The target market is specific segments or niches of the market you will sell to. Don’t forget to include a list of your competitors.
  • Financials--It is important to have a good grasp on the financial health of your company even if you are in the early stages of your business launch. Investors, potential partners, creditors, even future employees want to know what capital you have available and what you will need to operate. In this section include balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow statements for a 12-month period. If you’re business is just getting off the ground, supply realistic forecasted financial information. An accountant can help prepare these documents if you don't feel comfortable doing so.
Keep your business plan concise by only including relevant information--no filler. Bullet points, headings and short paragraphs make for easier reading.




Friday, September 10, 2010

Responsible Record-Keeping

Maintaining your businesses financial health is a combination of planning, organization and financial management. Many businesses have been sunk by bad record keeping. Here’s an example. A dear friend, who happens to be an accountant, hired a furnace expert to solve a heating problem. He came to her house, identified the problem and quickly got to work. The repair took a short time and her furnace worked marvelously. She thanked the repairman profusely and sent him on his way. He told her the bill would arrive in the mail. Two weeks passed. No bill arrived. Another week passed and no bill. She called his office to remind him to send a bill. Another week passed and she called again. The bill never came. Bad business? Yes. Rare? No. Ask a dozen people and you are likely to hear similar stories. If a client has to ask you multiple times for an invoice, your business is doomed. A few simple steps when you start your business will save you headaches and lost business down the road.

First, use accounting software to record sales, create bills and pay invoices. Accounting software does much of the record keeping work for you. You can set up customer accounts, enter sales, create invoices, track late payments, and monitor expenses and bank accounts easily. By keeping your business information in one place you won’t have to wade through a pile of paper to see if you invoiced a client or received payments. To find information about software for your business, run an Internet search on bookkeeping or accounting software to compare popular brands.

Second, always keep your personal finances separate from your business finances. This means establishing business checking and savings accounts, using a business credit card for business purchases and documenting personal money loaned to your business. Make sure to record any payments back to yourself so that your accounts are kept balanced.

Third, save all business-related receipts in an easy-to-remember location. A file folder, storage cabinet, even a shoebox will work. Include anything related to travel, office equipment and supplies, transportation, software, and any other business-related purchases you make. If you use your personal car, computer equipment, and phone for business purposes make sure to keep all receipts relating to the business use of those items. If your business makes charitable donations keep those receipts as well. You will need your receipts when tax time rolls around to figure out your tax deductions.

Spend time up-front establishing proper and accurate bookkeeping procedures so you can spend the rest of your time managing your profits rather than counting your losses.

Learn more about managing a home business in Managing Your Business the Toddler Way by Michelle Novak.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Raiding the Piggy Bank

Tradition in my family dictates that every pink and perky baby receives a coordinating pink and perky piggy bank. Some piggies are plump and some are petite. Other piggies are silent when coins drop and some oink up a storm. Some require a hammer to share the wealth while others just require a twist of the fingers. My child’s favorite is the bottomless piggy bank where money goes in and it comes right out again in a never ending stream of cash.

As a business owner, knowing whether to choose a piggy bank that is plump or petite, silent or loud, locked up tightly with strings attached or open ended is an important step in building your business. When it’s time to pick a piggy, consider your type of business, financial need, credit history and economic conditions. Options for financing include:

Self-Funding

If your start-up costs are minimal and you want to keep financial entanglements to a minimum, reaching into your own pockets to fund your business may be a good choice. Self-funded companies work well when your overhead is low, you have enough seed money to support most of your day-to-day operations for at least a year, and your debts are limited.

Third-Party Financing

Third party financing may be an option if you have a good credit rating and have start-up and operating costs that you cannot cover out-of-pocket. Lending options and terms vary by bank but some financing plans to investigate include:

  • Small Business Administration Loans
  • Bank Lines of Credit
  • Bank Loans
  • Grants

Investor Financing

Another option for funding your business is to seek investors. These are people such as family and friends and angel investors who will provide you seed money with the expectation of receiving a financial return on their investment.
Learn more about managing a home business in Managing Your Business the Toddler Way by Michelle Novak.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Moment in the Life of a Homepreneur

I was at home preparing for a big meeting when I noticed my flash drive was missing--and with it, my presentation. I had put the drive on my kitchen counter next to my portfolio and cell phone--but it had disappeared. I looked everywhere. It wasn't under the bread bag on the counter, or the pile of refrigerator letters on the floor. I checked the kitchen table which was still covered with breakfast dishes. Nothing. Then I went up to my child's room. She was in the middle of imaginative play and I rudely interrupted her by opening her bedroom door.

"Have you seen my flash drive?" I asked in a panic.
"No," she said.

I was nearly in tears. This was the biggest meeting of my career. I had five minutes to get out the door, and the tiny drive was missing.

Then I looked at my child's toy. She was galloping a horse through a field of blocks and string. Around the horse's neck was a bridle made of bright blue ribbon. At the end of the ribbon was my flash drive. I untangled the drive from the horse's neck, gave my child a hug and headed off to my meeting.

Such is the life of a homepreneur.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Organization Will Save Your Organization

In the office, you had a small corner of the corporate world from which to ply your trade. You may have had a cubby in cubicle city or an office with a window. Either way, your space was compact, standardized, and vacuumed by the night cleaning crew. Not so at home. Unless you live in a studio apartment, you home has multiple rooms to spread out your stuff. And stuff can make a mess. Receipts, contact business cards, and paperwork all pile up quickly. Mix in your personal bills, magazines, and junk mail and you have business paper chaos. Searching through stacks of paperwork reduces productivity and can lead to errors. Organization isn’t complicated. It just requires a little extra effort and a method to sort through the madness.

Step 1: Set aside space for a filing cabinet. In today’s electronic business world much is done through e-mail, fax and phone, but paper still exists and needs to be stored. Create a file for bills, customer documents, and receipts. You may need these documents for backup if questions arise about work you have performed or bills that require payment. They also come in handy at tax time when you are searching for deductions.

Step 2: Set up a filing system on your computer. This filing system can mirror your paper filing system if you like consistency and will be scanning in paper documents for backup. Otherwise, choose categories that make the most sense. My system includes folders for each client. Within the client folders I include invoices, client work in progress, important e-mail messages, and faxed documents. I also have folders for business receipts that I receive through e-mail.

Step 3: Organize your contact information. Losing contact information is a quick way to miss business opportunities. Contact management or spreadsheet software such as MS Excel provides a single location to store all your contact information. Contact management software has the added advantage of being able to track client conversation notes, reminders, and documents in one place.

Learn more about managing a home business in Managing Your Business the Toddler Way by Michelle Novak.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

New Twist on Old Tactics

We've all heard popular marketing calls to action.
  • For a limited Time Only!
  • Act now or miss this opportunity!
  • A once in a lifetime chance!
Maybe we've even used a few in our advertising. These phrases are designed to spur consumers to buy products quickly. But do they work or are consumers becoming wise to the ways or marketers? With a flood of ads on TV, the Internet, the radio, mobile devices and even in bathroom stalls, it is possible that consumers are learning to tune out advertising. Or maybe they just aren't getting the right message.

Audiences are increasingly segmented and generic calls to action may not yield results because they aren't the appropriate message for the intended consumer. For example, if an experienced, financially savvy car buyer is looking for a new car, she may ignore Act Now messages. She is more likely to spend time researching the pros and cons of different car models before making her decision. Messaging that provides the information this buyer is looking for is more likely to attract her attention.

Because of this change in consumer expectations, a good first step in creating messages to attract consumers is to create customer profiles. Learning consumer groups' buying habits, where they get their information, and how they make their decisions and then building messages around those profiles will yield more targeted messaging that does more than "sell" to potential buyers. It will inform and hopefully incite the consumer to action.