Most Recent Posts

// by Rieva Lesonsky / May. 26, 2015 0 comments
Business Data

Is your sensitive business data really safe, or are you just fooling yourself? Even if all your tech security precautions are in place, such as updated software and firewalls, employees could be putting your and your customers’ data at risk, according to a new survey.

Human error was the number-one cause of data security breaches last year, according to a study by BakerHostetler, accounting for 36 percent of incidents. The next most common causes were outsider theft (22 percent), insider theft (16 percent), malware (16 percent) and phishing attacks (14 percent).

Only two-thirds of the incidents were detected by the company itself; in the rest of the cases, the company didn’t know about it until an affected party contacted them. Worse yet, the average time that passed until a breach was detected was 134 days—more than four months!

A lot of bad stuff can happen in four months, especially if your industry involves handling sensitive customer data like credit card numbers, Social Security numbers or health data. So how can you protect your small business from employee error when it comes to data security?

Of course, you should still use basic security measures, such as automatically installing software updates, setting up firewalls and using antivirus software. But those technical protections alone are not enough. “Social engineering” is the biggest risk small businesses face when it comes to data security, according to IT security expert Kevin Mitnick, founder of KnowBe4. Social engineering is any method by which hackers or thieves trick individuals into divulging information—whether it’s a phishing email that has them click on a malicious hyperlink, or a phone call posing as a bank employee and asking to confirm an account number.

To alert employees to these risks, set data security policies and stick with them. Make this part of your employee handbook and require every employee to demonstrate knowledge of the policies.

For instance, policies requiring employees to select complex passwords, change passwords every three months and always log out at the end of the day can help keep you safe. Use one of the many automatic password generators and/or password keepers, such as Roboform, LastPass or Norton’s, to ensure employees aren’t just picking “password” or “123456” as their passwords. You should also restrict what type of information is given out over the phone.

Habits die hard, and employees tend to revert to easier ways of doing things. Updating your policies and providing new training every six months will help keep employees on top of security trends.

Of course, your employees aren’t the only weak links in your business’s data security. You need to be just as aware of the risks and equally strict in following your own procedures.

Last, but not least, know that not all security breaches are electronic. According to the BakerHostedtler study, more than 20 percent of breaches in 2014 involved paper records. Limit access to sensitive paper records to employees who really need access, and regularly shred documents that are no longer needed for your files.

Not sure what steps to take to fully protect your business? Your SCORE mentor can help. Visit www.score.org to find a mentor today. 

Rieva Lesonsky
Columnist and CEO
GrowBiz Media
Rieva is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a content and consulting company specializing in covering small businesses and entrepreneurship. She was formerly Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine and has written several books about small business and entrepreneurship. 
// by Aliana Marino / May. 22, 2015 0 comments
Who's Nurturing Today's Businesses?

This month’s SCORE infographic highlights the current trends of small business ownership. It also identifies the growing impact of female and Latino entrepreneurs on the economy and employment.

The number of women-owned businesses is growing 1.5 times faster than the national average.

From 1997 to 2014, men-owned businesses showed a:

  • 34.4% increase in number of companies
  • 6.5% decrease in employment
  • 45.1% increase in revenues

During the same time period, women-owned businesses showed a:

  • 67.8% increase in number of companies
  • 11% increase in employment
  • 72.3% increase in revenues

Flower Infographic

9.1 million women-owned businesses hire 7.9 million employees (other than the owners) and generate $1.4 trillion in annual revenue. The highest industry concentration is in health care and social assistance, educational and other professional services.

…And more and more businesses are owned by women of color

Ownership Growth

Business ownership by women of color increased from 1 million in 1997 to 3 million in 2014. These businesses increased:

  • 193% in number of companies
  • 216% in revenue

The growth of Latino-owned businesses is up 43% since 2007.

Latinos open small businesses at a rate 2 times the national average. Number of Latino-owned businesses:

  • 1.57 million in 2002
  • 2.26 million in 2007
  • 3.22 million in 2014

Download this month’s SCORE infographic for more details. To start or nurture your own small business, work with a SCORE mentor for free.

Aliana Marino
Communications Manager
SCORE
Aliana is passionate about helping small businesses thrive and getting the word out about the great work SCORE mentors do across country. 
score.org | Facebook | @SCOREmentors | More from Aliana                   
// by Hal Shelton / May. 21, 2015 0 comments
Business Plan

Over the last few months, I’ve discussed a number of different ways you can set yourself up for success when writing a business plan. I’ve also looked at some of the common business plan mistakes, and how you can avoid them.

In today’s post, I’d like to take a deeper look at 10 smart things you can do when writing, and rewriting, your business plan.

1. Write a clear two-page executive summary.

Your goal in the executive summary is to energize the reader to read the whole plan. Make a persuasive case upfront for why the business will be successful and why you are the right person at the right time to lead this business to success. Be sure to include clear statements explaining your value proposition and competitive advantages.

2. Emphasize the customer need or problem you are satisfying.

 Your business plan should be about the products and services you are providing to satisfy a customer need or fix a customer problem. Show how you can drive demand: Provide evidence of the size and acuteness of the problem and how you are uniquely satisfying/solving it.

3. Understand your own strengths, skills, and time available.

Often start-ups consist of one employee — you, the founder. What are your skills, what do you like to do and not do? How much time do you have available? These are important questions to calibrate your expectations and determine where you will need support.

4. Spell out the business model.

For yourself and for a lender/investor demonstrate how you are going to generate revenue. How are you going to get paid? And for what will you get paid? Who are your customers, and in what sales channels do you find them?

5. Include a believable sales forecast.

The sales forecast must be supported with detailed action plans encompassing your marketing and sales process; including lead-generation strategies, open-for-business campaigns, demos, and overall messaging. Using industry benchmarks will provide credibility for your sales forecast.

6. Request funding consistent with the needs shown in the forecasted financial statements.

The funding request that’s made in the executive summary needs to be supported by the forecasted financial statements, which are usually for a minimum of three years

7. Tell a banker or angel investor how you will use the funds they provide.

This is called “Use of Funds.” Investors want their funding to go to company activities that will generate future revenues and grow the business. The Use of Funds section doesn’t need to go into much detail, but it must cover all the funds requested.

8. Revisit and refine your first draft.

Write a draft, put it down, think about it, do more research and experiment; then write a second draft and repeat the process. As part of the research, learn from others, get differing opinions, and seek advice from similar businesses in other markets. It is unlikely that any one person will know it all. While entrepreneurs are usually strong willed, they also need to be good listeners and learn from others’ mistakes and accomplishments.

This will take time, but the quality of the plan will significantly increase as you come back with more information and insight with each draft.

If you already have a business plan, you many think you’ve done all you need to.

However, even the best business plans can benefit from revision. Here are a couple tips for updating your business plan:

9. Keep up with changing markets.

Just as your market will change over time, so should your business plan. While your initial business plan might rely on some assumptions about your target audience and what they need, once your business is up and running, you may discover new factors you hadn’t originally considered, including competitor reaction to your business entering the market. Be sure to incorporate this new insight into your updated plan.

10. Update your financial forecast.

Use the results of the past year as a base in developing financial forecasts for the coming year. As a small business, focus on cash flow. Use your business plan as a segue to an annual goal setting and budget process.

Key Lessons

  • A well-thought-out business plan occurs over time, including a lot of interaction with others to learn about your business and market.
  • A focused and up-to-date business plan is the path to good decisions regarding your business idea.
  • A well-presented business plan will facilitate reaching potential customers and funders.
Hal Shelton
Author and Mentor
SCORE

Hal is a SCORE mentor who is passionate about helping small businesses start and grow. He has been a CFO and board member for NYSE/NASDAQ publicly traded companies and nonprofits. He is currently an active investor in early-stage technology companies and is the Amazon bestselling author of The Secrets to Writing a Successful Business Plan

// by James Thornton / May. 20, 2015 0 comments
unsubscribe

Internet users are a fickle breed. One day they sign up for your newsletter because they are interested in a particular topic, then spend the next weeks doing their darndest to bash away said newsletter whenever it plonks into their inbox. Newsletters can infuriate people so much so, that they despairingly reach for the unsubscribe button. 

But why do people do this? If you’re running an email marketing campaign, it’s important you find out. With a few tweaks to your strategy, and with the help of good email marketing software, it’s possible to turn would-be unsubscribers into avid readers.

Here are some of the main reasons that people may be unsubscribing to your newsletter, along with some expert advice on how you can address each problem.

Problem: You’re sending too many emails

People hate a clogged-up inbox. When was the last time you heard someone complain that they aren’t receiving enough emails? One of the sure-fire ways to put off customers is to send them too many emails. They will start to see your newsletter as a menace in their never-ending battle to clear their inbox. A recent GetData study reveals that the volume of emails is the main reason why people unsubscribe from a newsletter.

On the flip-side, you don’t want to be sending too few mailouts. People can forget that they subscribed to you in the first place and unsubscribe, since they aren’t sure why they are getting your newsletter.

Fix: Perform periodicity tests

“Creating multiple drip marketing campaigns that you can test against one another will help determine this (if you are sending too many/too few emails),” says Nick Campbell, brand strategist at Partiqal, who has worked on campaigns for brands such as Kia, Kmart, and CI Games“

“Send more messages to one randomized group, and less to another, and then look for the best engagement and conversion rates. You can test any number of variables in this way, as long as you are controlled in your approach.”

Problem: Your content is irrelevant

One of the top reasons people unsubscribe to emails is if they aren’t relevant to the recipient. ‘But then why did they sign up in the first place?’ you ask. Perhaps they signed up to it when they had a particular need or interest that’s no longer there. For example, they were buying a house at the time, but now they’re settled and don’t need a newsletter about properties in the area; or, they were really into petcare products but then their dog died. 

In many cases, there’s no point trying to win these people back, since they simply aren’t your target audience. It could, however, be the case that you’re simply not responding to the questions your customers want answered.

Fix: Segment your readership

“The more you know about your subscribers, the more relevant a marketer can make the content,” says Brett Farmiloe, Founder at Markitors, who is a Mailchimp email marketing specialist. “The most important tactic lies in list segmentation. Rather than lump every subscriber together, invest time in segmenting subscribers by campaign activity and collected data.”

Problem: Your newsletter isn’t optimized for mobile

These days, more than half of emails opened are done so on a phone or a tablet. No matter how elegant and sharp your newsletter looks in a browser or desktop mail client, it could look like trash when rendered on a mobile. You have to make sure that your newsletter is mobile-friendly, or your audience will be hitting the unsubscribe button in droves.
 
Fix: Adopt responsive design

“Design and code your emails to be responsive,” says David Carpio, Director of Email Marketing at Zeeto Media. “Most statistics show that half (if not more) users are opening their emails on mobile. If you’re not using responsive design – or are mobile-friendly at the very least – you’re doing yourself a disservice, but more importantly, your subscribers.”

Problem: Too much (or too little) content

People generally don’t have time to read long emails, so it’s important that you keep your newsletters concise to avoid them getting overwhelmed and reaching for the unsubscribe button. Likewise, if you’re very light on content in your newsletters, your subscribers won’t see the value in your correspondence and could become ex-subscribers.

Fix: Use the “three-second scan”

“The best strategy I've found is what I call the "three-second scan test"- look at an email for three seconds (no longer) and tell me what this email is about. If that can't be clearly answered in three seconds, you likely have too much going on within your email,” says Nick Marvik, CEO of Northwest Tech (NWT3K), who previously worked for Amazon.com as an email marketing expert.

“Simplify your email and focus on direct calls-to-action -- take the user outside of their email inbox to further educate them. Don't use email to try and stuff everything into one package. Often times, minimizing the amount of content within an email and focusing more on the main message and CTA will dramatically increase your overall click-through-rates.”

Problem: You’re sending newsletters at the wrong time

Email open rates vary based on what time of day the newsletter is sent. As a result, it’s important to think about when you’re sending it out to avoid people missing your content. If they are constantly missing your content, then eventually they may just unsubscribe without paying any regard to what you’ve got to say.

Fix: Aim for the middle of the week

“We try to send on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning around 11 am EST,” says Deborah Sweeney, CEO at MyCorporation. “We find that we have a fairly high open rate in the middle of the week as opposed to the beginning, when readers are busy, or the end of the week, when people are ready for the weekend. Also, East coasters tend to be later to work, so we send it out later for those on the east coast.”

James Thornton
Chief Editor
GetApp

James is chief editor at GetApp Lab. He has worked as a software journalist for the last 15 years, documenting everything from the rise of the smartphone apps to the impact of cloud technology of modern business. He's excited about how apps are shaking up the worlds of HR, sales, and business intelligence.
GetApp.com@GetApp​ More from James

// by Rieva Lesonsky / May. 19, 2015 0 comments
Business Credit

  According to a survey by Creditera, nearly half of small business owners don’t know they have a business credit score—even though that score is critical to obtaining business loans and other forms of financing.

More scary statistics from Creditera’s research:

  •  20 percent of small businesses have considered closing their doors in the last 12 months, and financial issues are prominently cited as a reason why.
  •  26 percent of entrepreneurs didn’t expand their businesses or hire more employees because trying to find the funding to do so is too frustrating.

Lack of awareness about your credit score has big repercussions for your business’s goals and vision. About 40 percent of the small and midsized businesses Creditera polled didn’t know their business credit scores and those entrepreneurs envisioned business growth of less than 5 percent. However, nearly 75 percent of the small and midsized business owners who do understand their business credit scores have loftier goals, envisioning business growth of 5 to 20 percent.

They say knowledge is power—and clearly, knowledge of your business credit score, how to improve it, and how to protect it can give you the power to grow your business. So where should you start?

  • First, check your business credit score by contacting business credit reporting agencies D&B, Experian and Equifax. If you see any errors, correct them. Continue to check your report regularly (at least once a year) for accuracy.
  • Don’t mix business and personal credit. Many small business owners charge business expenses on personal credit cards, and vice versa. This is a big mistake. Always use business accounts to cover business expenses—otherwise, your business won’t build its own credit report.
  • Pay your bills and vendors promptly. Just as with personal credit, making timely payments is of the essence in maintaining a good business credit score. Also ask your suppliers to make sure that they report your payment history to the relevant business credit scoring agencies, since not all companies will do this unless you ask.
  • Use credit wisely. You need some business credit to build a credit score. It’s best to have a few different business credit cards so that if one company suddenly changes terms or lowers your limit, you won’t get caught short. Also consider obtaining a business line of credit, using it and paying it back. It’s best not to use all your available credit—try to keep usage to 30 percent of your total credit available. This reassures lenders that you have plenty of wiggle room.

Need help getting your business credit score in shape? Your SCORE mentor can help you develop a plan for improving it. Visit www.score.org

Rieva Lesonsky
Columnist and CEO
GrowBiz Media
Rieva is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a content and consulting company specializing in covering small businesses and entrepreneurship. She was formerly Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine and has written several books about small business and entrepreneurship. 
// by Jeanne Rossomme / May. 18, 2015 0 comments
Latino Business Man

Last week I attended the Inaugural Summit of America's Future - Conversations on Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Inclusion, and Leadership presented by the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society program.  http://www.aspeninstitute.org/events/2015/05/11/latinos-society-inaugural-summit The purpose of this event, full of leaders from the business, political and educational communities, was to deepen the understanding of the US Hispanic market, both as a community and as business leaders. 

The demographics are striking.  By mid century 85% of the US population growth is projected to come from Hispanics.  This will be a young group with the average age just 18 years old.

And as entrepreneurs, “Latinovators” are a significant and growing force for the US economy:

  • Hispanics are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs.  In general foreign born Americans start businesses at three times rate of non-foreign born.
  • Latino-owned businesses represent half a trillion in revenue and $3 trillion in purchasing power.
  • The Latino community is super engaged in social media and are the highest users of Facebook and instant messaging.

In the panel discussion Latinovators: Inventors, Entrepreneurs and Change-makers several impressive entrepreneurs talked about their successful companies and the struggles in getting there:

Tanya Menendez, Co-Founder and CMO of Maker’s Row http://makersrow.com/ , a platform to help companies find American manufacturers.  Tanya was named as one of Forbes “30 under 30” entrepreneurs to watch.

Ricardo Garcia Amaya, Founder of VOIQ https://www.voiq.com/, an app that instantly enables a mobile on-demand call center – expanding access to jobs for call center operators and access to quality, affordable call centers to businesses.

Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca, Founder and CEO of DREAMers RoadMap http://dreamersroadmap.com/, an app to help connect undocumented immigrant students with college scholarships and financial aid. Sarahi herself is a DREAMer (and winner of a recent innovator’s award) and created this business concept after struggling to get college funding.

When asking this inspiring group, “What is the Secret to your success?”, they offered this advice:

  • Work hard and be tenacious. There is no blueprint so keep searching for information and resources.
  • Think bigger.  Though Latinos are over-represented in numbers as entrepreneurs, this panel saw an issue of scalability.  Think bigger and look for ways to create a business model that can be repeated. For inspiration look at solving problems within your own communities.
  • Dont underestimate the power of small checks.  The greatest hurdle for Latino entrepreneurs is access to capital.  There are still few Latino venture capitalists and angel investors so many new start-ups struggle with migrating through the process and pitching involved in getting first round funding.  Instead, this group recommends reaching out to the Latino community with requests for “small checks” to get started.  Even $1000 will get a developer in Argentina and can help get a business through those critical initial pre-revenue months.  Be comfortable asking for money, going to meetup groups and getting the word out.
  • Ask for help.  Find mentors who believe in you and push you. Coaches talk to you, Advocates talk about you and Mentors talk with you.  Create and sustain a network of all these supporters.
  • Embrace failure.  Ricardo Garcia Amaya’s uncle said it best, “You are a clown until you are not”, or get comfortable with failure.  Deep down you need to know that you will survive failure and therefore can continue to take the needed risks.  Failure is important because this is how you learn.  When people say “no”, ask why and learn from it.
  • Believe in yourself.  Share your story and others will jump onboard.

PS Check out thedream.us, a website on getting an affordable higher education.  The site features colleges (such as Miami-Dade Community College) that can offer a four-year undergraduate degree for a total of $25,000 as well as some $81 million in scholarships.        

Jeanne Rossomme
President
RoadMap Marketing

Jeanne uses her 20 years of marketing know-how to help small business owners reach their goals. Before becoming an entrepreneur, she held a variety of marketing positions with DuPont and General Electric. Jeanne regularly hosts online webinars and workshops in both English and Spanish.
www.roadmapmarketing.com | @roadmapmarketin | More from Jeanne

// by Aliana Marino / May. 15, 2015 0 comments
game plan

In this month’s client success story, Ken Jenkins, president of GotProHealth, discusses how he fulfilled his dream of entrepreneurship after playing in the NFL. He found new coaches at SCORE who helped his small business thrive.

A different playing field

After 5 years of rushing the football, Ken Jenkins hung up his helmet to start his next career. He spent the next 20 years working in various fields like banking and IT, but nothing felt right. Then he became a massage therapist, married an acupuncturist and discovered the benefits of alternative medicine. Ken knew these complementary techniques would also help his NFL buddies manage their post-football ailments.

Ken and his wife Amy felt more people should know all their health options, but one issue arises in the world of alternative medicine—you don’t know whom to trust. They realized a solution. Why not create a network of the best alternative healthcare practitioners available around the country? They established this network using a vetting process, so anyone could find a trustworthy and qualified provider nearby.

New coaches

In 2012, SCORE developed a partnership with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) while Ken was a member. The organizations joined resources to help ex-NFL players explore entrepreneurial options for life after football. Ken took full advantage of the partnership. He attended a SCORE workshop and met SCORE mentors Dee Rogers and John Clarke.

Ken worked with his new coaches to develop all aspects of GotProHealth. Joe helped with financial aspects and established business milestones. Dee assisted with marketing strategies. They met once a month for six months, then once a quarter, and now twice a year. The result: a growing network of alternative medicine providers who not only treat Ken’s NFL teammates but people who never stepped on a football field.

Beyond learning business tools and strategies, Ken also found emotional support. He says being an entrepreneur means staying up late worrying about everything. “It’s nice to be able to call someone…to always have a resource when you get stuck. I can’t tell you what kind of security blanket that is. That makes us feel that we’re not out here doing it alone, that we have someone to talk to who’s been through what we’re going through. There’s never been a problem that they haven’t been able to help us with.”

Create your winning team

For aspiring small business owners, Ken offers some straightforward advice. “SCORE is a free resource, and you would be a lunatic not to engage them. You can’t get that kind of information for free.” He explains that if you paid the true cost of SCORE’s resources, it would “put you out of business before you get into business.”

“SCORE is willing to walk you through and hold your hand through the process. Why wouldn’t you use it?”

Get in the game and start your small business today. SCORE mentors are ready to coach you to success. 

Aliana Marino
Communications Manager
SCORE
Aliana is passionate about helping small businesses thrive and getting the word out about the great work SCORE mentors do across country. 
score.org | Facebook | @SCOREmentors | More from Aliana                   
// by Jennifer Riggins / May. 14, 2015 0 comments
payroll down, revenue up

We live in uncertain times. This is even more true as entrepreneurs. Even when we have stability, we are reasonably worried it may be a fleeting moment, as so much of our professional lives are outside of our control. Hiring a new team member is a big gamble, not just for our end-of-the-month balance sheet, but because we may be attracting talent away from other roles, when we can’t guarantee them a paycheck. 

This article is to teach you how to keep payroll down and revenue up by automating where you need to, as well as when automation will risk your bottom line.

Marketing automation for your startup

A lot of people look at marketing as an art, but really it’s more of a science, relying heavily on experimentation and analytics. For now, you still need one full-time employee, or maybe even part-time or freelancer, fulfilling this role, but, instead of them having to hire a whole team, your bootstrapping startup can get by with that one savvy marketeer and a whole lot of inexpensive marketing automation tools.

This is exactly what ecommerce retailer DollarHobbyz.com has done to scale their business rapidly but cautiously. 

"We are in an age where there truly is an app for everything. The collection of great business apps for email, shipping, inventory, social media management, and more, has allowed us to increase our productivity and, ultimately, revenue,” cofounder Richard Arkell said. “We’ve invested many hours researching and implementing the most beneficial apps, SaaS and they have paid off a hundred-fold.” 

Arkell said in particular that their two-man marketing team has jumped on apps as a way to multiple their effort, not their monthly budget. DollarHobbyz marketing team alone uses this array of tools:

  • Moz SEO and website management tools
  • Ahrefs for social media and search engine automation (SEO)
  • dotmailer email marketing and automation
  • Buzzsumo for content marketing and competitive analysis
  • SEMrush for SEO and search engine marketing (SEM)

“We have exactly two people in marketing right now, and they are able to handle what many companies would need entire teams devoted to,” he said.

Sales automation for your startup

There is a plethora of sales tools, including, but not limited to customer relationship management software or CRM. You can always start out with a good old Excel spreadsheet or Google Sheet but eventually, particularly if you have a distributed sales team focusing on sales that take more than one conversation, you’ll eventually have to upgrade to a CRM.

When your team is still small, particularly five or fewer focusing on sales, you can’t go wrong with small business-focused CRMs like ZOHO or Insightly, both which have decent freemium plans, usually free up to a certain number of contacts.

Go for a sales tool that helps you keep your prospects’ contact information in order and which works to prevent confusing account duplication, but that also has some customizability. Since open-ended questions and their open-ended answers are really important to build and maintain client relationships, it’s always nice to have a CRM with large text boxes where you can internally share details about the client and the sales process. 

Customer support automation for your startup

Customer support software is a testy topic, as overdoing the automation here could not only lose future business, but risk your current customers. 

Good support automation means giving clients multiple places where they can find answers themselves. Searchable knowledge-base tools automate the answering of common questions from pricing to payment to tech nitty-gritty. 

Social media tools like Hootsuite and Buffer may fit into the marketing column, but are most important for customer support. When something goes wrong or a customer is frustrated or simply when they can’t find your contact info they resort to the very public arenas of Facebook and Twitter first. In order to seem responsible and in order to be responsive, you need to use a social media monitoring tool that you and your colleagues have connected to your mobile for fast response, any time, any place. Even if it’s to just to follow them back and ask them to direct message you their contact details so you can fix it first thing Monday morning, both your current customer and your prospects peeking in on your social media channels will expect response within the hour. 

Above all else, once you’ve automated the basics, make sure it is very clear how and when they can get in touch with an actual human being. Your website footer and your social media must have a phone number or in-use Skype for customer service. You should be clear of times support is available, but then also offer a place with a simple form they can fill out with phone number and a few different times (with area code) to call them back.

When something does go awry or even when a customer is clearly satisfied, other team members need to know. Go for a customer support or tech support tool that integrates with your CRM or sales tools so that the sales rep can know if something went wrong on the support end and be prepared with how the call was handled.

Most importantly, remember, you can automate a lot but you can’t lose the human touch in your business, particularly with customer service.

Go with what works for you and your small business

As a CEO or manager, you need to examine each of your business processes and think about where automation will work for you and for your customers. Take advantage of almost every business software’s free trials to experiment, and focus on tools that work together to streamline your operations. While software expenses are tax write-offs for your business, adding too many tools will actually slow you down, so play around with the right level of automation for you and your small team.

And it’s not just automation that will grow your revenue rapidly.

“Another huge contributor to keeping costs down and revenues up is teaching efficiency practices in all areas of the business – whether it’s the exact process of sealing a package, or as simple as teaching keystroke shortcuts on a keyboard, every efficiency means higher productivity and lower payroll,” Arkell said.

Always look for the right combination of the human touch and tricks and tech to make your small business prosper, keeping revenue up and payroll down until the right moment arises to scale your business.

Jennifer Riggins
Marketing Consultant
eBranding Ninja

Jennifer Riggins is a Jersey Girl in Barcelona, using her passion for writing and marketing to help small businesses define their vision and brand. This eBranding Ninja has a special love for Spanish start-ups, SaaS, and any innovation that helps you grow your business.​ 
Connect with Jennifer on Google PlusLinkedin, and Twitter.

// by Adam Toporek / May. 13, 2015 0 comments
Customer Experience

Large businesses seem to have all of the advantages—economies of scale, pricing power, and brand recognition, to name a few. Yet, small businesses across the United States are beating their larger competition through one simple idea: creating better customer experiences. 

While many large businesses provide great customer experiences, consolidation in industries from banking to mobile phone carriers has created less competition and in many cases worsening customer experiences. Sure, large businesses like Zappos and Starbucks excel at customer experience, but overall, customers are facing increasingly larger organizations and increasingly less personal service.

Using the five ideas below, you can differentiate your business from the mass of faceless, impersonal giants that customers confront every day, and you can turn customer experience into the ultimate competitive advantage.

1. Know Your Customers Better Than Your Competitors

Even in industries like banking that have large, dominant players, small businesses succeed against the odds every day. They do so, first and foremost, by knowing who their customers are and what they want. As a small business, you have the ability to forge deeper relationships with your customers and to learn what truly matters to them.

Technology is your friend. Never before has small business had better access to tools to manage and understand its customers. Customer relationship management (CRM) systems, ranging from basic solutions like Highrise to more robust solutions like Salesforce.com, can be had for a few hundred dollars a month and will often give you as much power and functionality as the multi-million dollar systems used by large companies.

2. Make Customer Experiences Truly Personal

Once you’ve begun getting to know your customers, you should use that data to create richer, more personalized experiences. Personalization is about more than sending a birthday coupon or using the customer’s name in an email blast; effective personalization takes into account customer preferences and uses that information to create a customized experience.

Personalization does not have to be elaborate. “Will you be waiting or do you need a loaner?” is a typical phrase one hears from the service department at an auto dealership. With just a small tweak, that phrase could become this one: “I know you generally prefer a loaner Mr. Smith; would you like me to reserve one for your appointment on Tuesday?” Small, simple personalizations like this one make customers feel like valued guests instead of like another number.

3. Rapid Response Is Your Secret Weapon

If customer service had a Zen master, he would ask, “When a complaint falls in a Fortune 100 company, is anyone there to hear it?” Shortening the feedback loop, the amount of time from feedback to response, is one of the easiest ways to differentiate your customer experience from larger organizations—and from many small ones as well.

How fast your organization responds to customer feedback and how well you “close the loop” (make sure both the issue and the cause of the issue are resolved) can go a long way towards creating a customer experience that is often not replicated by larger organizations.

4. Bend at the Places Big Business Breaks

In larger companies, local stores and frontline teams are often boxed in by policies and procedures created by legal and operations departments hundreds of miles away. These rules are not always ill-advised, but they are often driven by factors other than enhancing the customer experience. In many cases, local teams do not have the flexibility to know when a rule can be put aside for the benefit of the customer; you do.

Make sure you know which processes and policies are iron-clad and which can be bent or adapted. Use the nimbleness of your small size to your advantage. When you can, make exceptions, circumvent processes, and override policies to make each customer experience as exceptional as possible.

5. Empower Your Teams to Power Your Experiences

Once you embrace flexibility, do so as an organization. Make sure you empower your teams to be flexible, not just supervisors and managers. While most large companies keep a firm grip on their teams, customer service legend Ritz Carlton shows the effectiveness of empowerment by granting any employee up to $2,000 to solve a customer issue without needing management approval. The dollar amount is unimportant; it is the principle that is useful.

Use smart empowerment to empower your employees to solve as many problems in real-time as possible. It’s not just about having a budget; it’s also about circumventing processes and making sure that your frontline teams do not have to fill out three TPS reports to solve a simple service issue. Empower your teams so that five-dollar problems don’t escalate into five hundred dollar problems.

Using the five ideas above, any small business can use customer experience to establish advantage over larger competitors. Speed and flexibility are your assets; use them to make every customer experience a great one!

Adam Toporek

Adam Toporek is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast. He is the owner of CTS Service Solutions, a consultancy specializing in high-energy customer service workshops that teach organizations and frontline teams how to deliver Hero-Class® customer service. Connect with him on Twitter.

// by Rieva Lesonsky / May. 12, 2015 0 comments
Community

Did you know that being socially responsible not only helps your community, but also helps your business? In a phenomenon called the “benevolent halo effect,” when companies are involved in socially responsible causes, consumers perceive their products as being better quality, a study in the Journal of Consumer Research reports.

For example, when consumers were told a winery made donations to the American Heart Association, they rated the company’s wine as better tasting. They also believed that a variety of products, ranging from tooth whiteners to running shoes, performed better when they were told that the companies donated to charity.

Although this study focused on donations to charity, the success of companies such as Tom’s Shoes in recent years has shown that going beyond just writing a check to being actively involved in a cause is an even better way to consumers’ hearts. If you’d like to enjoy the benevolent halo effect for your business, here are some tips:

  • Choose an activity that’s not only close to your heart, but also relevant to your business. For example, if you own a women’s boutique and you care about helping the homeless, consider donating clothing to a group that helps homeless women find jobs, or visiting the organization and giving them fashion makeovers.
  • Enlist your whole team in the project. Let your employees suggest ideas for a charity and activity, then vote on the winner so they’ll be as enthused about giving back to that cause as you are.
  • Get your customers on board. Enlisting customers in the cause gets them engaged with your business and builds a strong relationship. For example, the boutique could hold a clothing drive to collect used clothes for homeless women, or let customers know that your team will volunteer at the homeless shelter a certain time every week and they’re welcome to help, too.

One thing not to do: Don’t advertise your socially responsible activity. The study found that the benevolent halo effect diminished when companies blatantly advertised their good works. Instead, use social media and public relations outreach to promote your cause in a more subtle fashion. That way, you won’t turn customers off, but will inspire them to join in with you in giving back to the community.  

Speaking of giving back, the mentors at SCORE are ready to give back to you by helping you with all elements of your business. Visit www.score.org to get matched with a mentor today. 

Rieva Lesonsky
Columnist and CEO
GrowBiz Media
Rieva is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a content and consulting company specializing in covering small businesses and entrepreneurship. She was formerly Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine and has written several books about small business and entrepreneurship.