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Lesson #19: Believe In Internet Phone Service

28 May

Few things are as terrifying as bad phone service…

Okay, maybe chainsaw wielding maniacs and midget zombies are scarier, but if your business phone goes out it can be a huge inconvenience (if you’re lucky) or a major setback (if you have zombie luck). There are tons of better options than the traditional phone companies – services that offer a whole bunch of extras plus incredible reliability for prices that will reduce costs. Change plans and you can even greet your chainsaw wielding maniacs by name.

Reader Question: Kudos For Technology!

23 May

Today’s reader question comes from Stacy in Laguna Beach, CA. She writes:

I own a boutique clothing store. We’re in the middle of upgrading our computers and switching to a different sales program. It makes sense for us to upgrade, but my staff already knows the current system and I’m worried about training them in the new one while still helping people in store. Any advice?

First of all, kudos for taking the plunge and upgrading your system, Stacy. I’m not talking metaphorical kudos, either…

Kudos

Somewhat delicious and vaguely nutritious! (source: bp.blogspot.com)

That’s right, Stacy, I’m shipping you a box of Kudos Bars – the bizarre mixture of candy and granola that only a child who just finished soccer practice could love. I’m not sure where to buy these anymore, but I’ll make it happen. Maybe they’re big in Japan.

Anyway, moving on to your question… there are definitely issues that come with a technology upgrade, and you’ve pointed out one of the big ones: what’s the best way to integrate the new stuff?

The first thing you can do is know the new system backwards and forwards yourself. As the boss, it will really help your employees if you’re an authority on the thing they’re learning. One of the most

Nerd

A nerd can help. (source: dvuser.co.uk)

confusing things about learning new technology is that sometimes it’s hard to even know the right questions to ask. The more you learn about your new toy, the easier it will be to navigate any issues.

Maybe you’re not a technophile (or maybe you are, but you’re the boss and you’ve got more important things to do, like worry about that stinking Spiderman), so you might also think about hiring someone with expertise in the new system, or at least someone who will pick it up quickly. Either way, having a point person for your staff’s questions will make things way easier.

images

The learning curve for drawing a learning curve can be steep, too. (source: casualgamedesign.com

If you haven’t already decided on your new system, I’d recommend checking out reviews of the products you’re considering. It sounds like ease-of-use is one of your primary needs, so Google your options and see what your peers have to say about the learning curve. You’re also likely to find mentions of the product’s customer support staff, which could be useful in finding a company that will keep working with you after you’ve bought their product. Who knows, there might even be a book or two out there that can guide you on your way (there’s no shame in being a dummy, Stacy).

However you decide to go about integrating this new technology, just remember that’s it’s a big step for your business. There will probably be a few hiccups along the way, so don’t panic. As long as you can find a partner offering powerful business tools, and you do your best to educate yourself and your staff, the upgrade will work out for you.

Even if it doesn’t, you’ll always have your Kudos.

Lesson #18: Customize Your Business

21 May

Lots of successful businesses build customer loyalty with personalized service. No, not like this.

The more personal you can be with your patrons, the more likely they are to come back. Do you think Norm would have kept going back to Cheers if nobody knew his name? The bar would have needed a whole new theme song! Now, you don’t need to memorize names and faces like some kind of Jason-Bourne-super-spy, but the more information about your clients you have on hand, the better. Try a handy dandy phone or computer service that can do that work for you, and create your own business full of Norms.

One Simple Fix For Broken Service

17 May
Ice Cube

“I wish there was more comprehensive data about my consumer base, G.” (source: rollingstone.com)

The wise man pitctured aboce once told us to “chiggity check yourself before you wreck yourself.” Sage advice from a dude named after frozen water. And yet, for some reason many business do not check themselves. Is the problem that they do not know they’re going to wreck themselves?

Our friends at Forbes think that might be part of the issue when it comes to bad customer service (note: I say “our friends at Forbes” in the same way I might say “my friend Mick’s band is on a 50th anniversary tour”), and they’re also pointing out a solution:

You’ve probably seen this survey question before, as loads of big companies use it: “How likely would you be to recommend this company to a friend or colleague?” You’re asked to rate that likelihood on a 1-10 score …The magic comes in how you evaluate and follow up on the scores you get.

You can use this single question to derive a figure known as your Net Promoter Score, a concept developed by Satmetrix, loyalty expert Fred Reichheld, and consulting firm Bain & Company.

I was surprised to see that this kind of tool is so easily accessible to small business owners, so you might be, too. Even without the resources of a huge, Golitahan service team (yes, Goliathan is a word, I just looked it up), it’s easy to find out exactly how psyched or de-psyched (I’ll admit this one is not a word) your customers are about your brand.

Goliathan

David vs. Goliathan (source: siliconangle.com)

[The] 1-10 scale is broken out into three categories — customers who responded with a 1-6 are considered detractors of your brand who will actively trash you to their friends, while 7-8 responders are considered passive or neutral. Only 9 and 10 scores are considered “promoters.”

To find out how you rate in customer service, you subtract the number of detractors from the number of promoters. The result is your Net Promoter Score.

I know, I know. All this talk of subtraction and the numbers 1 through 10 is pretty math heavy. Let’s make it simple: in layman’s terms, the product of the equation is a comprehensive numerical representation of your company’s satisfaction ratio.

Wait, I think I did that backwards. Moving on.

For small businesses, many owners get feedback from customers one on one when they start out. But as the customer base grows, it becomes harder to have those personal conversations.

From there, often customer service devolves into a fire-fighting activity, where most energy is put toward dealing with angry customers and service disasters. Instead, focusing on improving your Net Promoter Score puts the focus on creating a better customer-service culture for the future that will eliminate the need for fire-fighting.

Think about how many more resources you can put towards improving your business if you’re not constantly dealing with angry customers. That’s not to say the act of gathering information about customer satisfaction will solve problems all by itself, but it certainly could shed light on where your going wrong. From there, you can improve loyalty, which will in turn improve your culture and your profitability.

Even if you’re not interested in having your employees (or maybe your extremely cool automated phone system) gather this specific information in this specific way, you should be thinking about ways you can mine your customers for information. If you can find a good one, you might even end up with more devoted consumers than my friend Mick.

Mick Jagger

Data! (source: askmen.com

Reader Question: When Is It Time To Upgrade?

16 May

The reader questions are pouring in faster than those times when I forget I just filled my Brita pitcher and the top comes off. It’s an imperfect analogy, but there’s no time for a better one! Not when I spent all day digging through piles of reader mail (plus let’s face it, Brita pitchers are hilarious)!

Today’s question comes from Larry in Bethesda, Maryland (home not only to Larry, but also a globetrotting pair of pants).

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Larry’s the one with the hair. (source: fanpop.com)

Anyway, Larry’s got a pretty common problem:

How do I know when it’s time to upgrade my work computer? What I have works fine for now, but I’m trying to grow my business and would eventually like to have more capabilities. Is it better to be ready for that growth, or wait until I actually need something new?

Tricky question, Larry. The answer really depends on the time frame and scale of growth you’re hoping for. Technology will help you grow, but if you upgrade too soon you run the risk of your shiny new computer system becoming obsolete before your company has even caught up to it.

That said, I lean toward upgrading sooner. I was never a boy scout, but Tom Lehrer taught me it’s better to be prepared.

Be Prepared

Patches were cutting edge technology when the Boy Scouts started. (source: abovethelaw.com/)

Odds are if you’re wondering whether it’s time for a new computer or phone system, yours is already out of date. Even if it’s not a huge problem yet, you wouldn’t be asking the question if there wasn’t some kind of need. A lot of technology – especially cloud-based services – can save you money in the short term while also preparing you for the long term, so there’s not much downside to an immediate switch.

In addition, you can never really anticipate your business’s future; projections are all well and good, but what happens if someone walks in tomorrow with a great opportunity, and you can’t take advantage because you don’t have the infrastructure? You can either turn them down, or say yes and put yourself in a situation equivalent to this.

If you still can’t decide, business2community.com shares a couple of signs that it’s really time to upgrade:

Your employees are unable to work remotely: You decide to experiment by having a couple of employees work from home, but soon realize your existing system can’t handle it. Collaborating with vendors, contractors or other employees shouldn’t require physical proximity. For small businesses, virtual collaboration tools can be highly beneficial by helping to increase communication efficiency while also offering savings and convenience.

Your infrastructure can’t support the best tools for your business: In some cases, a business needs a major computing upgrade, but often, it’s the small things that cause the most problems. Relying on a relatively slow DSL Internet connection, for example, will hamper your productivity, especially when it comes to using current online services. Running cloud-based programs that require a lot of bandwidth could crash the company’s entire system if their infrastructure is outdated.

Dial Up

What a cute, technologically inept dog. (source: chzbgr.com)

While your business can probably get by for a while longer with the technology you have (unless you’re using dial-up, in which case it’s a miracle you even loaded this page), it could also be hampering your growth. Anticipating the future of your business is key, and – to make a profound, yet incredibly redundant statement – technology is the future.

Lesson #17: Think Outside the Box. But Not Too Far Outside.

14 May

Boy, businesses sure don’t want to be inside that proverbial box, huh?

Creativity is incredibly important in business. But there’s a difference between diverging from your competition to gain an advantage, and being different for different’s sake. In fact, it’s pretty likely that there are aspects of your competitors’ businesses that you can imitate to improve your service (if you’re into the sincerest form of flattery).

You can only think of ways to be different once you figure out where to be different. Go through basics like location, products and technology, and then the boundaries of your box might just open up.

In Social Media We Trust

10 May

Turns out we’re not the only ones hyping the internet these days. Even a little, tiny publication like Forbes Magazine is talking about how important the web is to small businesses.

Social media is no longer just a clever marketing tool: It’s also a fast-growing channel for customer service. Over half of consumers now use social media to directly reach out to companies to report satisfaction, lodge complaints, and ask questions, says Nielsen’s 2012 Social Media Report. And one in three social media users now prefer social care to contacting a company by phone. Small businesses should move beyond marketing, and find ways to use social media to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Forbes

Listen to Forbes, dogg. (source: unsimilar.com)

Way to rip off my ideas, guys!

I know what you’re thinking: sure they say all that stuff, but is Forbes really a trustworthy name? The answer is no… Trusty J. Honestman is an trustworthy name. Unfortunately, I just made that name up. But luckily, Forbes isn’t the only name you have to trust on this –  you probably noticed in the previous paragraph that Forbes is reporting on a survey by the Nielsen Company. You’ve likely heard of Nielsen from their TV ratings system, and I say if you can’t trust the people who keep Two and a Half Men on the air, who can you trust?

Trusty Old Man

Trusty J. Honestman, Esq. (source: illinoisgenweb.org)

Forbes also has some tips on how you can improve your service through social media.

Respond Quickly

Small businesses should understand the growing expectation among social media users for a rapid response to their social media interactions. Over half of Twitter users expect a response within two hours of tweeting about a customer service issue, while 51% of Facebook users expect a 24-hour response, according to a 2012 Oracle report.

That “meep meep” you just heard was your competitors zooming past you to respond to complaints, like zippy Roadrunner. Meanwhile, like poor ol’ Coyote, you’re still ordering dynamite out of a catalog (or something). Your company might not have the resources to monitor Twitter/Facebook 24 hours a day, but even a small social media presence can help expedite your service.

Wile E. Coyote

Don’t be him. (source: theawesomer.com)

Be proactive

If you have a known service issue, don’t wait for the complaints to roll in. Be proactive in letting customers know what happened – and how you plan to fix it. For small businesses, a widely broadcast social media message will also save time and resources in answering individual questions and complaints during a crisis.

The great thing about social media is its accessibility. Hopefully your business always hums along without any disruption. But if something does force you to close up for a day or two, there’s no way you’re going to be able to call every customer. You can, however, very easily whip up 140 characters for a tweet and something a little longer for a Facebook post or e-blast to minimize communication issues.

Dedicate Resources

Don’t treat customer service as a marketing responsibility. While marketers typically focus on pushing out information, it’s important to dedicate resources to listening and responding to what customers have to say. Set expectations by letting customers know when you will have someone online to answer questions.

This idea is more universal than social media – you can apply it to your in-person sales, and even the way you work with your employees. Listening is incredibly simple, but so easy to overlook. The best way to solve a problem is to avoid it in the first place, and a lot of problems can be anticipated through gathering information from everyone who has any part in your business. Social media is simply one part of a healthy business – just like a good product, or making sure your technology is up to date.

If you don’t think I’m telling the truth, just pretend my name is Trusty.