Small Business Social Media Guide

American Express is offering a free guide called Implement Smart Growth Strategies. It doesn’t go into great detail, but it does give some good examples of small business social media success.

It’s amazing to me that in 2010, almost 2011, so many medium to large businesses just don’t get social media.  It’s one area where smaller is definitely better.  I think what they’re missing is the “social” part.  Folks who use facebook, twitter, and other social media tools aren’t looking for slick presentations.  They want content.  They want information.  They want to be entertained.  They want to believe that the companies they choose to follow actually care about them.  Some big companies understand this.  Most don’t.

As a small business, you’re online approach should mirror your personal approach.  “Well, good morning, Mr. Buckley.  Gee I’m glad you came into my business.  How can I help you today?”  Not, “Go find the stuff you want, put it in a cart, then stand in a long line to give me your money.”

Check out this AmEx guide and think about what you can do to serve your customers better.

Practicing What You Preach

Apologies for the long gap between posts. I’m afraid it’s been a very busy few weeks.

One of the basic premises of Saint Benedict’s Rule for living the monastic life is consistency. It’s also a good rule for running our businesses. Obviously what we believe is important, but it’s even more important to be consistent in our beliefs.

There’s a running battle (Maybe battle’s too strong a word, disagreement may be more appropriate.) between the lovely and talented Mrs. B and your favorite blogger over the topic of Wal Mart. As a small business czar, I find her shopping for groceries at Wally World to be problematic. We’ve compromised on her alternating between the local grocer one week and Wal Mart the next.

It’s not a perfect solution, but for now it’s the best the Irishman and the German can do. It’s an uneasy truce. Sometimes spouses can influence everyone except each other. (She’s a weight-loss counselor. I’ve obviously remained immune to her arguments. Another standoff.)

I thought about this recently while I was trying to catch up on my podcast listening and watching. Andrew Lock does an excellent weekly video blog called “Help, My Business Sucks!” Recently he praised Hertz Rent a Car for their marketing strategy involving built-in GPS units in their vehicles. Hertz has long been at or near the top of the rental car industry stressing quality over price.

Then, just two episodes later Andrew tells us that he rented a car from Thrifty and that he had a number of problems with both the car and the company’s service. Andrew, buddy, you’re not being consistent.

This blogging stuff isn’t as easy as it looks. Oh, yes, it’s easy to sit at the keyboard or the microphone and offer good advice to others. But when the rubber meets the road, sometimes we have to make hard choices. “Buy American” I type on my Thailand-made keyboard. I pontificate “Buy local” while I munch on my White Castle burger. Andrew tells us to emulate Hertz but rents from Thrifty.

Sometimes we have no choice. As far as I know, there are no American-made keyboards and White Castle doesn’t play fair. Their burgers are addictive. If there were a local restaurant with an equally-delicious sandwich, I’d eat there in a heartbeat. (At least until their burgers clog my arteries to the point where I have no heartbeat.)

Here’s the thing. Mike Buckley, and Andrew Lock, and you must be as consistent as possible. I’ll keep trying to get my better half to buy her groceries from the local chain. I pointed out Andrew’s inconsistency in a blog comment. And you, my independent business owner friend, must patronize local business as often as you can.

If you’re a retailer, please don’t let your customers see you coming out of the warehouse club with a cart full to overflowing. Sometimes we have no choice, but when we do, the long-term success of the business is more important that saving a few cents on a box of soap powder.

More “Undercover Boss”

After yesterday’s post I watched another episode of “Undercover Boss”, this one featuring Coby Brooks, President and CEO of Hooters.  As you might imagine, Brooks finds both good and bad in his company and gets a hard time from some folks on the street who don’t appreciate the Hooters concept.

I’m no prude and I’ve enjoyed wings and beer at a couple of the Hooters locations (including one that’s featured on the program) but it is a little difficult to reconcile the company’s public profile with some of Brooks’ comments during the show.  He says he’d have no problem with his daughters joining the family business and that everything about the chain is wholesome and family-friendly, but early in the show one of the company’s ads flashes by on the screen:  “Hooters-More than a Mouthful”.

Be that as it may,the most telling episode in the show is probably when Brooks visits the company’s manufacturing plant (They make their own wing sauces and dressings.) in Atlanta.  The corporate office is also located in the Georgia city.

First, he says that morale in the factory was high when Dad was still alive (he died in 2006).  The elder Brooks would often visit the plant and talk to the people.  The current CEO admits that he hasn’t been in the plant since he was a teenager.  Don’t forget that the plant and the corporate office are in the same city and that Robert Brooks has been gone for four years!  Patti, the Business Manager at the plant tells Brooks that she has some concerns about morale.

The real enlightenment comes when Brooks asks one of the employees about the owner.  To make a long story short he says that the elder Brooks was a great guy and everybody loved working for him.  When our hero asks “What about the son?” what he hears is far from complimentary.

Of course, there is a happy ending with the newly enlightened CEO promising to do better.

Here’s the thing, this isn’t that unusual a story.  Almost without exception second-generation ownership is never like the first and third-generation owners are even less effective.  The founder had a dream and it was the focus of everything he did.  Charter employees shared in the dream and gave 110% to help achieve it.  It was usually a win-win for everyone.

Generation II comes along.  They knew about Dad’s (or Mom’s) dream but chances are that the business was already successful by the time they were old enough to really understand what was going on.  They’ve always enjoyed the fruits of the successful company but never experienced the struggles it took to get there.  Generation III has grown up around a successful business and have little or no idea of what it took to get there.

Coby Brooks didn’t aspire to join the family business so maybe we can give him a bit of a pass, but it took him four years to find his way to the factory.  No wonder the workers have no loyalty to him!

But he seems like a sincere enough guy, at least as sincere as you can be running a chain of restaurants named after a female body part.  Hopefully for his sake, he learned some valuable lessons.

Postscript:  According to several sources, the chain is for sale.   One reason given is “sagging sales”.

Silver Dollar City Grand Opening AdAnother Postscript:  This weekend’s episode of Undercover Boss will feature Herschend Family Entertainment, one of my favorite companies.  The Herschend family literally started with  nothing but a hole in the ground 50 years ago this year and now owns and operates theme parks and other entertainment properties all over the Midwest and Southeast.  If you watch you’ll see an organization that’s about as much opposite of Hooters as a company could possibly be.  It airs on CBS Sunday evening.  Don’t miss it if you can.

Undercover Boss; “must see TV”

I just finished watching an episode of Undercover Boss, a new series on CBS.  The premise is simple.  CEO’s go undercover to do the front line work of the companies they run.  The episode I just watched featured Dave Rife, the owner and CEO of White Castle.

Rife, and the other CEOs that have been featured learn very quickly that it ain’t as easy as it looks.  Leaving a trail of slider destruction in his wake, he (and the viewers) see that the job of making the little hamburgers requires a lot of hard work by a lot of people and that things don’t always go as planned.

Every episode that I’ve seen ends with the boss developing a whole new respect for the people who do the actual work.  I wish every CEO in America would watch this show and learn some valuable lessons.  But even if you only have employee, there are some good lessons to be learned.

The show airs on Sunday evenings on CBS and you can watch past episodes at the CBS web site.

Are Your Suppliers Letting You Down on the Web?

If, as I suspect, you’re a web-savvy entrepreneur, (If you’re not, how did you find this post?) it’s in your best interest to find the manufacturers who think the same way that you do.  The fact that you’re a blog reader tells me that you know how to find relevant information and that you know what to do with it.

Whether we like it or not, (and we should like it) the way business is done in the US and in the entire world is changing.  You can pretend that you’re customers can’t find the lowest price on anything with just a few minutes of web surfing, but you’d be sadly mistaken.  You can assume that your customers have to leave their homes to shop, but you’d be very wrong.  Maybe you don’t think that eBay and Craigslist are your competitors, but I promise you that they are.

Wise manufacturers are working with their dealers to provide them with the best, most up-to-date tools and information.  We’re in the midst of an economic crisis yet many retailers are thriving.  Often, but not always, these dealers are supported by like-thinking vendors.  Some dealers thrive in spite of their vendors, not because of them.

By way of disclaimer, I don’t claim to be the most knowledgeable person on the subject of social media, but I have been a blogger, podcaster, and forum administrator for quite a while.  Between this blog and its predecessor, I’m approaching my 900th post.  I regularly follow dozens of blogs and podcasts.  Obviously I’ve invested a lot of time and effort in providing information to small business owners.  I guess that, since you’re reading this, you must find some value in the content of Mining the Store.

Sadly, there seem to be a lot of manufacturers who just don’t get it.  Twenty-first century business owners want and need help.  The climate is just too hostile for each of us to reinvent the wheel every day.  Likewise, very few suppliers have all the answers.  (even if they think they do)

The key to success in the year 2010 is community; communities of people with common interests who get together online to share information.  Whether it’s politics, sports, health matters, or business, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can find communities of interest where any question can find its answer.

A wise supplier will get involved in the communities that affect his/her market and become a contributor.  Simply lurking, seeing what people are saying, is critical but it’s far from sufficient.  The days of a company looking down at its customers, considering them necessary evils, are over.  There are too many other vendors who treat their dealers as partners in the supply chain.  They will be successful.  Make no mistake, the same rules apply to retailers and their communities.

The bottom line here is that you have to hold your vendors feet to the fire.  Demand that they give you the help that you need or you’ll take your business elsewhere.  I don’t want to generalize too much, but there are vendors whose sales are down who actually blame their dealers.  They have such a perfect product and such infallible marketing programs that the problem couldn’t possibly lie with them.  Therefor the fault must be yours.  One sales manager actually wondered on an industry forum why “the better dealers” aren’t participating.  Maybe it’s because “the better vendors” aren’t participating?  I’m just sayin’…….

I’m not advocating for insurrection here.  But I am suggesting that you insist that your suppliers give you the help you need to move the product through the marketing chain to your/their customers.  History has shown, even with the help of the Internet, that it’s very difficult for a vendor to go directly to the consumer.  They need you more than you need them.  If they aren’t giving you what you need, they’re not doing their job.

NEVER Prejudge a Customer!

running shoeThe story you’re about to read is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I think most of us learn this lesson the hard way, but maybe today we can save you from yourself.

Mary is very overweight.  But she’s working hard to get into shape.  In fact, she’s training for a 5K run.  The other day she went into a large sporting goods store, not necessarily a big box, but at least a medium box.  She was looking for a pair of running shoes.

I won’t call this guy a “salesman” so I guess we’ll refer to him as a SDRG (shoe department retail guy).  Anyway, the SDRG approaches Mary and asks if he can help her.  (Not the best way to approach a customer, but in this case it’s the high point of the conversation.)

Mary answers that she’s looking for some shoes.  SDRG answers, “Mam, these are running shoes.”

Mary answered, “Yes, I know.”

SDRG, “No ma’am, these are RUNNING shoes.”   In other words, “Lady, the buffet line shoes are over there.”  The meaning wasn’t lost on Mary.

She answered, “I know these are running shoes.  I’m training for a 5K run and I’d like to buy some shoes.  In fact, I will buy some shoes, but not from this store.”

She went on to explain what SDRG could do with his shoes.  Since this is a family blog, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

The point is, you can NEVER prejudge a customer.  Appearances can be deceiving and relying on something so notoriously fallible as a first impression can lead to a lost sale or worse.

Mary told this story to my wife who works for a weight loss company.  I know she plans to repeat Mary’s story to all of her meetings this week and I doubt that she’ll disguise the name of the store.  By the end of the week the story will have gone viral in the community.  There’s no telling how much damage will be done to the store’s reputation because one employee decided that a well-fed lady couldn’t possibly be interested in running shoes.

Telephone Etiquette

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What with high gas prices and time pressure, your customers and prospects are using the phone more than ever to get price and product information.  How you and your staff handle this important means of communication may well determine whether you ever get a chance at someone’s business.

Jeff Mowatt provides an interesting telephone test on the business know-how web site.  Questions include how long your phone rings before it’s answered, what you say when you answer it, and how you put a caller on hold, among others.

One point that’s very important is how you juggle a phone call and a customer who is actually in your store.  I recently waited several minutes, cash in hand to make a purchase while the person behind the counter looked things up for someone on the phone, never even making eye contact with me.  I eventually left and went to the competitor down the street.

You want to turn callers into customers, but you can’t ignore the people who have taken the time to make the trip to your store.  It’s a delicate balance, but one that can have a big impact on your business.

[This post originally appeared at Mine Your Own Business on October 2, 2006]

Impulse Items

This post originally appeared at Mine Your Own Business on October 23, 2006.
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We all know that grocery stores love to put high-margin impulse items near the cash register.  They know that, while you’re waiting in line, you’ll keep your mind occupied by looking over the merchandise that’s right there in front of you.  Most of us will be tempted by something, if not every time, at least enough times to pay for the shelf space. (Isn’t it ironic that the slower the service is, the longer you have to stand there and, up to a point, the more you’re likely to buy?)

This same psychology is used throughout the store.  The most profitable items are always located at eye-level, with the less profitable ones near the floor.  The higher profit may be in the form of larger margins, or it may be in the form of rebates from the manufacturer for the prime spots.  A successful grocery store will never put staple items like milk and bread in the front of the store.  Intense competition on these items makes them very low-margin.  If you’re going to buy them, you’re going to have to walk past other, more profitable areas of the store, much like the Las Vegas casinos make you walk past the slot machines to get to the cheap buffet.  There are many other ways that grocers, who work on razor-thin profits, use human nature to increase both sales and margins.

How about your store?  Have you studied your customers to see what areas of your store they naturally gravitate to?  If you haven’t, you should.  If you carry something that’s a staple, the equivalent of milk and bread, it should be at the back of the store.  High-margin accessory items should be displayed near the check-out just like the grocer’s candy bars and magazines.  This is also a good place to have an add-on item that the customer may not have considered buying when they came in.  And, in case they don’t have their glasses on, your staff should mention these add-ons to every customer.

I once managed an electronics store.  One year I had an opportunity to buy a pretty nice car ice scraper for 50 cents.  I marked them $1.99, stacked them by the cash registers, and paid my salesmen a quarter for every one that they sold.  We sold hundreds of ice scrapers that winter, at $1.24 profit each.  The customers were happy because they got a nice ice scraper that wouldn’t break off in their hand the first time they used it.  My salesmen were happy because they made an extra quarter, and sometimes more, on just about every sale (this was when a quarter was really worth a quarter) and my boss was happy because I was adding extra margin to almost every sale.

As we approach the busy Christmas season, it’s important that every square inch of your selling space generates the maximum amount of profit.  A little time spent analyzing customer traffic patterns and placing the most profitable items in the spots where they are most likely to sell could pay big dividends.

Small Business-Are You Ready for H1N1?

Unless you’ve  been living in a cave for the last few months, you’ve surely heard of H1N1, or swine flu.  The disease is spreading rapidly in areas of the world which are already into “flu season” and there’s no reason to expect that the United States and Europe will be any different.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have put together an excellent web site with information on the disease which includes tips on how to stay healthy.  According to the CDC, the disease hits young people the hardest so old guys like me are less likely to get sick, but I wouldn’t count on that.

Here’s the thing.  As a small business owner, you’re business could be at risk if key employees get sick, especially for an extended period. Have you given any thought to what you’ll do if that happens?

The web site Flu.com offers a flu toolkit for business.  I’ve added a link to the site in the right column.  The site strongly suggests that every business should have a plan in place for dealing with H1N1 and other illnesses.  Some key points:

  • Examine your policies for sick leave and working from home.
  • Identify essential employees, essential business functions, and other critical inputs.
  • Share your plan with employees.  [I would suggest that it might be even better to get them involved in preparing the plan.]
  • Prepare a business contingency plan.
  • Establish an emergency communications plan.

Keep in mind that key suppliers and business partners may not be available in the event of a serious outbreak.

As a small business, especially in difficult economic times like these, having a plan to minimize the effects of a possible interruption of your operations could be the best investment you’ll make this year.

More tomorrow.

Retailing-My Top Five Business ‘Killers’

On Tuesday I pointed you to an article by the Retailer Owners’ Institute called “The Top Five ‘Killers’ of Retail Sales”.  As I wrote at the time, the information in the article was very good, but it was from a bean counter’s perspective.  Today I’d like to give you my top five list.  I’m not saying that my list is better.  Any item from either list could be a business killer.   In fact, the two lists combined would make a pretty good top ten.

5.  Unattractive place of business. People want to shop in a place that’s bright and cheerful, clean and neat.  Take a walk outside and view the premises with a critical eye.  Does the outside make a customer want to come inside?  Then walk in the front door imagining that you’re the customer.  Is your store inviting?  Is everything clean?  Do the displays look fresh and interesting?  Is there proper signage?  Would you shop there?

Be brutally honest.  If the answer to even one of these questions is “no”, you have work to do.

4.  Poor marketing. The idea of marketing is to get customers into your store.  No marketing = no customers.  It’s as simple as that.  Here’s the thing.  Good marketing doesn’t have to be expensive.  Many would argue that word-of-mouth is the most effective marketing of all and it’s virtually free.  The Internet, especially social media, makes it possible to reach out to our target audience at little or no cost.

If you don’t know what to do, there’s plenty of information right here on the web and there are a number of books that are excellent resources.  I recommend “Marketing Your Retail Store in the Internet Age” by Bob and Susan Negin and “The Profitable Retailer” by Doug Fleener.

3.  Poor Salesmanship. Even vending machines are designed to present the product in the best possible light.  If your staff isn’t knowledgeable about the merchandise, sales may be hard to come by.  Sales are made to people by people (with the exception of those vending machines).  In good times, products may fly off the shelf but in times like these, your staff must be able to convince the customer that your offering is the best.

2.  Poor Customer Service. This one goes hand in hand with number 3.  There’s no excuse for poor service and today’s customer won’t stand for it.  Follow the Golden Rule.  Treat customers the way you want to be treated, and mean it!  Someone once said, “Sincerity is everything.  If you can’t fake it, you’ll never be successful.”

You and your staff must genuinely want to make the customer’s life easier and better.  If your number one motivation is profit, people will see right through you.  You may make a sale but you won’t make a friend.  And friends are your best source of word-of-marketing.  Isn’t it funny how all these things tie together?

You may be thinking that great customer service should be number one and a lot of people would agree with you.  But, like I said, all these things work together so here’s my number one.

1.  Unhappy Employees. Unhappy employees will almost guarantee numbers two through five.  They won’t care how the place looks.  They won’t care about marketing.  They won’t practice good salesmanship and they won’t care about serving the customer.

While a happy, satisfied customer may be the ultimate goal, the quickest way to make sure that happens is to have a motivated staff.   Make the staff happy and they’ll make the customers happy.

As a small business you may not be able to offer the perks that a big company can.  But you can make your staff feel like part of the family.  You can offer them intangibles that your bigger competitors can’t like flexible hours and more control of their own career.  You can give them a voice in decision-making and make them feel important every single day.

Happy, motivated employees are the key to a successful business.