Offense or Defense? Small Business Owners Play Both!

As we approach the end of the regular college football season, most Americans are ready to cheer on their favorite teams during December’s conference championship games and the bowl games beginning later in the month and continuing into early 2014.

Professional football fans are right in the middle of the regular season, which will culminate on February 2 at Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey.

Amateur and professional football players generally have one specific position to manage and focus almost entirely on playing offense or defense. Small business owners, however, do not have the luxury of devoting all their time and energy on one specific task.

Entrepreneurs wear many different hats and often change them throughout the day, if not more frequently.

Entrepreneurs must be ready to tackle any situation or challenge that each day (or hour) brings.

A small business owner plays offense and defense. Often he’s the head coach, leading the team and making crucial decisions. Sometimes, she’s part of a special team, bringing unique skills and unconventional thinking to a project. Other days, he might be the quarterback, making a lightning-fast decision and finding the best team player to take the next step.

Companies must carefully weigh their environment and decide when an offensive strategy will work best and when a defensive position might be more helpful.

Launching a new product or service should involve a marketing strategy that is bold (an offensive posture); at other times, it might be best to bring in your public relations crisis management team. Although the latter may start as a defensive move, having the right message broadcast at the right time can quickly move you back to a more comfortable place (ownership of the ball).

An entrepreneur who can easily adapt from one position to a completely different one without changing stride is likely to be an exceptional and proactive manager of his resources. Employees tend to gravitate toward these types of leaders and want to be part of this style of team management.

No matter what the size of your business, it’s a tough field in today’s economic climate. Technology changes, which is good but can also produce additional expenses. Competition may increase as new companies enter the field and charge far less than the average, just to “get going.” Customers become fickle. And so on.

View your business and each day as a head coach. Strategize in advance, be aware of unexpected challenges and send your strongest players out to keep the offense up and the momentum moving!

Just as I Remembered: Why Consistency is Important for Your Company’s Success

I like consistency. I bet your customers like it, too.

Consistency brings repeat business from satisfied customers. It’s a simple thought, but one that is often overlooked in small companies.

Franchises are a step ahead in that regard. Although part of the charm of travel is discovering boutique hotels and wonderful local restaurants, if you are in a strange town and didn’t get recommendations from friends or do some research prior to arriving at your destination, are you going to take a chance or simply go with the familiar — patronizing places you recognize and know will deliver the products and services you need?

If you’re in a hurry and driving in a strange part of your own town, are you likely to pull up to a Starbucks or McDonald’s for your coffee fix? You would, after all, be familiar with how the drive-through systems work (even the dual lanes and separate windows for payment and product) and whether or not the restaurant takes plastic cash. You know how many ounces are in each size and what they cost. You probably don’t even have to review the menu unless you are in the mood to try something you don’t generally order.

If your customers are coming back, they are pleased with the consistency of your product or service.

They are also probably familiar with the interaction they expect to have with your employees and have been satisfied with their experiences in the past. Whether your customer chats with a representative on-line or welcomes a member of your staff into his home, he knows what to expect. In retail settings, especially, customers feel confident locating store personnel when employees wear some type of company uniform. Although each is a unique individual, your employees should be relaying a consistent message through consistent behavior. Think of a different scenario: a hospital patient is also a customer. Although the stakes are higher and more personal, patients are looking for consistency from health care workers. If one medical professional washes his hands carefully and dons protective gloves before certain procedures, wouldn’t the patient expect that same behavior from the other staff members?

Also remember to keep consistent with your marketing. Branding is extremely important to a company’s success. Logos and slogans are to be recognized and remembered. Think carefully before making a decision to change either of these. Keep your message consistent in all written materials, packaging and advertising, as well as in the content of your web site and on social media.

Inconsistency is definitely inefficient. Corporate policies and ongoing training go a long way toward encouraging consistency. It is tempting as an entrepreneur to sometimes just take each day as it comes, but this often causes the business owner to spend a lot of time and energy putting out fires instead of preventing the initial sparks.

Thoughtful consistency is an integral part of a successful business plan.

Do You Hear What I Hear? (More on First Impressions)

When a potential customer contacts your company via telephone, what is the first impression received? Is the caller warmly welcomed by a live operator or receptionist, or does he get dumped into a frustrating, endless cycle of automated voice commands?

Sometimes the obvious is the most easily overlooked. A business owner has only one chance to make a first impression. Today, it’s common for a potential customer’s first visit to your company to be made by telephone, so make that initial contact a positive experience for your caller.

The first time a potential customer visits your company (whether in person, via telephone or through the Internet), he should immediately feel comfortable and confident about doing business with you.

Think about the image presented to someone who phones your organization for the first (or 50th) time. Will the caller feel welcomed and important? Is he likely to remain on the line to finish the transaction or call again for products and services in the future?

Telephone Doctor recently commissioned a survey that discovered the following:

  • 85% of consumers indicated that telephone courtesy makes a difference when choosing which business they will patronize
  • 65% prefer doing business with companies who have real people answering calls versus those that use an automated attendant
  • 65% stated they are frustrated when placed on hold immediately after calling a company
  • 48% refuse to conduct business with a company if they receive poor customer service over the phone
  • The most frequently noted complaint: being placed on hold

 

The nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization Public Agenda discovered that a whopping 94% of its survey sample indicated it was “very frustrating” to phone a business and be greeted with a recorded voice rather than one of a live person.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, telephone operators are one of the top ten positions expected to decline within the next twelve months. Today’s voice recognition systems continue to improve dramatically, and the increase of electronic communication has considerably reduced reliance on the telephone.

Although many companies have made the transition from live operators to automated attendants for a variety of reasons (most notably to reduce overhead), the survey findings discussed in this blog should be carefully considered. Business owners may wish to ensure callers have a way to reach a live operator, and all employees interacting with customers on the telephone should be professional and courteous. Operators should be able to listen and really comprehend what the caller is requesting, so they can answer the question and fulfill the order or get the customer to someone who can.

Here's hoping you hear what your customers do!

First Impressions: A Customer at Your Door

This is the first in a series of several articles on how to better position your company to potential and existing customers.

We've all heard the phrase, "First impressions count." This is a true statement that is sometimes easily overlooked by a small business owner. It seems obvious, but if you have a physical location, you should always be thinking about maximizing your curb appeal.

The first time a customer — an existing or potential one — visits your company, the customer should immediately feel comfortable and confident about doing business with you.

Residential real estate agents often request that homeowners looking to sell first spruce up their homes as much as possible in order to generate interest from potential buyers. The same is also requested from business brokers prior to listing a company for sale.

The time to think about curb appeal is not just when selling, however. Having a professional and inviting entrance is sure to help retain existing customers and attract new ones.

Stand outside the front door of your business and look at the impression you may (or may not) be making through the eyes of your customer. If a first-time visitor walks past your building, is he likely to enter your door? Here are some helpful tips:

  • Is your company name and street address clearly visible?

  • Speaking of signage, do you have enough — but not so much that it appears cluttered? And, is everything spelled correctly? You'd be surprised how often we notice poor spelling and grammar: not the best first impression.

  • Is the exterior clean and pleasing to the eye? Perhaps a coat of fresh paint or some planters at the entrance might be a good investment.

  • Does the front of the company convey the message you want to send to customers?

  • Is the entryway tidy, and is it easy for customers to reach the door and access the business?

 

Of course, first impressions don't stop there. Once the customer is inside, what does he see?

  • Does your reception area include friendly, knowledgeable staff members to greet visitors?

  • Is the lobby clean and uncluttered? (Keep an eye out for messy papers and disorganized working surfaces.)

  • If signage is present, it is helpful or distracting? Is your company's name (and/or logo) prominently displayed?

  • Does the lobby become an extension of the entryway and reflect the message you want to share with visitors?

 

Many small businesses employ the use of a welcoming sign in their reception area. If an entrepreneur knows of a visit in advance, most guests appreciate seeing their name as they enter the front door.

Comfortable seating areas, flowers and plants and the offer of a beverage are other welcoming touches that visitors notice.

Here's hoping your visitors become long-term customers!

Internet Searches are Key for Business Buyers

Recently, I’ve noticed several articles in various publications regarding changes in residential real estate marketing strategies. It seems that open houses (except those hosted for other real estate agents) are no longer a preferred way to reach potential home buyers. Today’s tech-savvy buyers prefer to research listings on the Internet, taking virtual tours when and where it is most convenient to them. Most buyers, these articles note, make a decision whether or not to contact the listing agent based on these virtual home tours.

This got me thinking about buyers looking for a business to purchase and the similarities of utilizing the Internet for research. The majority of advertising and marketing for business brokers is handled through web sites that feature businesses for sale. While a few of these sites are available to entrepreneurs looking to sell their companies themselves, the majority are available only to business brokers through professional subscriptions.
As we’ve discussed, maintaining confidentiality of the business is a key factor for a successful business transfer. After all, a small business owner does not want to announce to his customers or competitors that he is thinking of retiring or leaving the industry.

The larger sites available to business brokers offer more space for describing key points about the companies for sale, while still maintaining complete confidentiality. Business brokers are experienced in wording listing descriptions that grab attention and highlight the factors most buyers will find attractive.

You only get one chance to market your business. Most buyers will find your company’s listing by searching online. Make sure to maximize your marketing strategy when the time is right for you to sell.

Top Tips for Selling Your Business

Most entrepreneurs readily embrace new tasks and roles and are used to being in charge of everything relating to their companies.
However, before rushing in to market and sell their small businesses, business owners will want to keep the following tips in mind. The dance between buyer and seller is a delicate one, and it is very easy for one small misstep to ruin the entire deal.

Prepare in advance – General housekeeping should be scheduled well in advance of marketing the business. This includes a physical clean-up of the premises, making needed repairs on equipment and perhaps enhancing the curb appeal of the company with a new coat of paint or adding plants and shrubs to welcome guests through the front door. Housekeeping also includes getting files — particularly those relating to accounting — in order. Buyers will expect to review financials dating back at least a few years during due diligence.

Plan for due diligence – In addition to reviewing recent financials, buyers typically will want to see the lease agreement, customer lists, an accounting of inventory, information on FF&E and other similar items. Anticipating what the buyer may request and planning ahead saves time and helps make the seller appear organized.

Be realistic in pricing – You may wish to engage the services of a business broker to determine a reasonable selling price for your company. Businesses that are not priced correctly (particularly those priced too high) will not interest most buyers initially and generally do not sell at all.

Ensure confidentiality is maintained – Business owners must avoid a breach of confidentiality at all costs. Buyers should be qualified in advance and be willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement. A business broker is experienced in how to handle this situation while keeping the process moving along.

Don’t neglect the daily routines – The business transfer process rarely happens overnight, so it is important that the seller continue to focus on his business, keeping it running smoothly and successfully.

Stay flexible – Negotiation involves give-and-take. Realize the buyer is probably also an entrepreneur and may be used to being in charge of situations as well. The willingness for both parties to compromise on some issues will keep the process moving to the closing table.
These suggestions are the top recommendations from experienced business brokers around the country.

How to Sell Your Business, but Keep it a Secret

“Loose lips sink ships.” It’s a familiar phrase to Americans, originally written by the War Advertising Council during World War II as “Loose lips might sink ships.” The British also used variations of the phrase that encouraged citizens and military personnel to avoid careless talk that might serve the enemy.
The phrase is still used today to caution against thoughtless chatter in general.

When selling a company, it is vitally important that confidentiality is maintained throughout the business transfer process. A breach of confidentiality may not only kill the deal, it can cause further repercussions to the seller as employees and customers may leave, creditors may begin to scrutinize more intently and competitors may capitalize on the perceived opportunity.

If a business owner is unable to disclose information, how is he supposed to sell his company?

Business brokers are professionals in this arena and have the experience and tools in place to manage the business transfer process discreetly, helping sellers maintain the utmost confidentiality until the transaction has been completed. This is accomplished by:

  • Marketing effectively
  • Qualifying buyers
  • Using documents that require confidentiality
  • Managing the information flow

 

A business broker should prepare a customized marketing approach for each company he lists for sale. This includes describing the business in a generic fashion — one that will appeal to prospective buyers without jeopardizing the seller’s identity.

Approximately 90% of prospects who initially reply to advertisements are usually not a fit at all, generally because they lack the necessary experience or cash investment for the transaction. There are also a lot of “lookers” or “tire kickers” who can easily drain a seller’s time and tax his emotional energy. Business brokers have the skills to help qualify buyers immediately before the seller is ever involved.

Business brokers use confidentiality agreements, with wording prospective buyers must agree to, in writing, before additional information is released.
Business brokers also manage the flow of information, holding the most sensitive records secure until a formal offer to purchase (with escrow deposit) has been accepted by the seller.

The business transfer process is somewhat unique in that the details of the entity being sold are not shared initially, but rather peeled away as the buyer becomes more interested and continues to offer proof of his sincerity and qualifications.

Entrepreneurs: Trim the Fat and Boost your Profits!

Now more than ever, individuals are looking for ways to cut costs — personally and professionally. This is especially true for entrepreneurs preparing to sell their businesses. Higher profit margins naturally make a company much more attractive to potential buyers, and increased seller’s discretionary earnings generally equate to reaching the closing table faster and with a better selling price.

Most business owners today are using tried-and-true cost-cutting methods, as well as employing more creative techniques in order to reach their goals sooner.

Here are some suggestions you may wish to consider in the continuing quest to lower expenses:

Enjoy the electronic age
Try a voice mail system for your office and use email whenever possible. This may help reduce the hours needed for a receptionist or secretarial staff and could allow these employees to contribute in other areas. There is a variety of affordable software for businesses, which can help increase productivity within the office. Don’t forget to take advantage of the sales and marketing opportunities the Internet provides at little or no cost.

Deal directly with the source
Establish relationships with the manufacturer of products you frequently use. This may help avoid surplus charges added by third parties.

Makes vendors competitive
Sometimes business relationships can become too complacent. Check out current pricing by requesting multiple bids – especially on larger projects. Remember that sometimes the lowest-price offer may actually cost more in the long run, so be sure to examine the fine print and associated details.

Be rewarded for loyalty
For those vendors you patronize, ask about any loyalty programs they may offer. Even if none are publicly promoted, you may find a vendor will express thanks with special savings.

Outsource when appropriate
Both in terms of employees and leasing space, this is an attractive option for business owners. Outsourcing continues to grow in popularity on many levels. Temporary employees or contract workers make sense for seasonal jobs and short-term projects. Try renting or subletting space when it is needed only occasionally (such as a conference room or large space for presentations).

These are only a few of the many ways savvy business owners are making a direct, and positive, impact on their bottom lines. We’d love to hear what suggestions you might have for other entrepreneurs!