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.

Ain’t Technology Grand?

My friend Steve, visiting Taiwan on business, posted this picture on facebook of a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.  It’s been a long time since I’ve been over there, but even back in the ’90s, American businesses were all over the island.  Even so, traveling to Taiwan and China was about as lonely an experience as you could imagine.

It’s not that the people weren’t friendly, not at all.  The Chinese are very friendly, hospitable people.  But it’s their home, not mine, and it’s normal to crave contact with your loved ones.  But in those days, phone calls were very expensive and we were allowed to expense only one call home per week.  Besides, there’s a twelve hour time difference between there and here.  I don’t know about you, but when I’m away from home I’m always wondering what Jan and the kids are doing.  When you’re in the Far East the answer is almost always the same.  They’re in bed.

The time change is still the same.  As I write this it’s 10:30 in the morning in Saint Louis and it’s 11:30 at night in Taipei.

But, thanks to the Internet, the communications gap is gone.  Facebook, Twitter, even video chat make instant communications possible.  A person in Taiwan can actually see live images of family and friends for just the cost of an Internet connection.  No time limits.  No bad connections.  Just instant communications.

There are a lot of things wrong with the Internet, but when it comes to staying in contact with family, friends, and business associates, there’s nothing like it.

 

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.

Twitter Can Improve Your Search Engine Ratings

Thanks to Andrew Williams of Vac Shop, Mayfield, Newcastle Australia for pointing out this post at Website Magazine.  Search engines Google and Bing (formerly MSN search) announced last week that they’re going to start indexing Twitter tweets.

According to Website, a new eMarketer report (“Social Commerce on Facebook, Twitter and Retail Sites”) “while some e-commerce merchants are experimenting with these sites, most merchants are still ignoring them.”

Considering that social media sites can be used to promote your business at virtually no cost, it makes sense to use them, especially if your competitors aren’t there.

 

101 Small Business Mistakes

There’s an interesting post at American Express Open Small Business by Gregory Go, with the above title.  While you (hopefully) haven’t made all 101 of them, we’ve all made some of them.  Of course, the key is to learn from our mistakes (and others’) and move on.

The post is broken down into five categories:

  1. Startup
  2. Product
  3. Sales and Marketing
  4. Operations
  5. Big Picture

Check out the article and thanks to American Express for providing such good information.  Thanks, too, to several people who posted a link on twitter, including:

@PXAbstraction

@btushar

@octobermigrate

@federated_media

@msaleem

@annescarlett

@jenbenz

@ConversationAge

@lizstrauss

and several others.  If you’re not using twitter as a source of business information, you’re missing an awful lot.

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.

Important for Facebook Users

Thanks to Donna Papacosta of the Trafcom News podcast for pointing this out.  Amit Agarwal posted an article today on his Digital Inspiration blog on a threat to your Facebook account.

It seems that there’s no end to the number of ways that online criminals will try to rip you off.  This time it’s a Facebook application that attempts to steal your login information.

It looks innocent enough.  It starts with a notification that a friend has sent you an email message.  But when you click on the link, you’re taken to a bogus Facebook login screen, asking for your ID and password.  Fill it out and you’ve given your information to a third party.

If you use Facebook I urge you to check out Amit’s post.  I don’t think anyone can be completely safe from every threat, but it’s important to pay attention to what’s going on on your screen.

Small Business Imperatives

Charles Brad Reynolds, a Warwick Business School MBA candidate asked the following question on LinkedIn.

What do you see as the top 5 innovations that businesses can access, cost-effectively, today that will be imperative for survival and profit maximization in the future.

My vote goes to
1.) Internet facilities for communication, marketing and purchase ordering
2.) Online and electronic banking facilities
3.) Lean Thinking concepts and practices
4.) Business use technologies (laptops, mobile phones, blackberries)
5.) Expanding network (customers, competitors, labour, suppliers, civil, etc)

What do you see as being the top innovations that businesses should be more actively trying to leverage or develop for the future.

There were a number of good answers, many of them focused on the internet and new technology.  Here’s my answer:

“I’m going to take a slightly different approach. You may or may not consider these “innovations” since they’re hardly new. But since they may be overlooked in favor of the latest electronic “toy”, their use can be considered innovative and they’re definitely going to be imperative tomorrow.

1. Relationships. If you’re going to stand out, then you must have strong relationships with your customers and other business partners.

2. Communications. Here’s where the “toys” come in. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and others. Use them IF they help your business.

3. Empowerment. Unless you want to work yourself to death, you have to have people working for you that you trust and you must give them everything they need to excel, including the ability to make mistakes.

4. Knowledge. Never before have your customers had access to knowledge as they do today. You MUST stay ahead of them or be left behind.

5. Customer Service. This is really a combination of the other four. Find out what your customers want and let them know that you have it. Empower your people to give the customer what she wants and then get out of their way.

I personally have nothing against MBA’s (well, maybe I do.  But that’s a topic for another day.) but, there’s a lot more to running a small business than the things they teach you in B-School.

Treat people the way you’d like to be treated and you’ll have a sound foundation, regardless of the tools you use to get there.

Welcome to the Real World

Ben McConnell

Ben McConnell

Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba write The Church of the Customer blog.  If the names sound familiar it’s because I have referenced the blog often in the past.  Ben and Jackie know their stuff and their blog is a good read.

The day-to-day problems of running a business can often seem overwhelming, especially in the current economy.  But yesterday, Ben jerked me back to reality with his post, Welcome to the Real World.  See, Ben just found out he has renal cell carcinoma, cancer of the kidney.

Any problems I might have fade into insignificance by comparison.  Our daily struggles may seem like life and death, but usually they’re not.   There’s nothing like a grapefruit-sized tumor to remind us of that.

Ben is optimistic.  As he points out, it’s good that God gave us a spare kidney in case one of them fails.  He writes, “The prognosis? So far, it’s good. My capable surgeon, Dr. David Phillips, himself a high-level tennis player, which made me like him immediately, will evict this tumor, this cancer, this hobbit, along with my entire kidney, on Friday.”

There are a couple of things we can learn here.  First, like a lot of us, Ben admits he avoids doctors and the medical system.  But after considerable pain he went to the emergency room.  Staying away from the doctor, especially when you know something is wrong, is never a good idea.

Second, while the business is important, nothing is more important than our health.  Keep things in their proper perspective!  A lost sale or a late shipment or a missed deadline is important, but keep it in its proper place.

Finally, social media is an amazing thing.  I don’t know Ben McConnell personally.  But, I’ve been reading him for years so I do feel a connection.  We’ve corresponded a few times, either through blog comments or other social media tools.  There’s enough of a link that I feel his pain, I’m concerned for his well-being, and I will include his recovery in my prayers.

Welcome to the Real World” is the title of Ben’s post.  Our “real world” is very different from our parents’.  People who once would have been strangers now touch us in very real ways.

Watch Where You Put Your Paw!

There’s been a lot written recently on the web about an incident involving Domino’s Pizza.  It seems that two employees (now former employees) posted a video on YouTube of themselves doing nasty things to the foodl before serving it to customers.  The video was seen  by more than one million people before YouTube took it down.  Domino’s demanded that the video be removed because it violated their copyrights.  Even though the video has been removed from YouTube, it’s still out there and if you’re you interested, I’m sure you can find it.

Patrick Doyle, President of Domino’s has responded with an apology, also posted on YouTube.  I’ve linked to this video because I think we can all learn something from it.  Critics have complained that Doyle took too long to respond, but otherwise, it looks like the pizza chain has taken positive steps to limit the damage.

Here in Saint Louis, another food chain is facing a PR problem that hasn’t gotten the national attention that Domino’s has received, probably because there’s no YouTube video.  But as reported in the local newspaper,  a woman is suing Chuck E Cheese, claiming that she was groped by the mouse.  According to the suit, the chain’s mascot, a human-sized mouse, put his paw where he shouldn’t have.

Interestingly, the incident took place on August 8, 2008, nearly a year ago.  The suit is seeking punitive damages and court costs and claims that the plaintiff has suffered “emotional damage.”

I don’t mean to make light of sexual harrassment.  It’s a serious issue.  But both these incidents point out an unpleasant fact of 21st century life in the USA.  Your employees have the potential to do serious damage to your reputation. As long as they’re working for you, you’re responsible for their actions.  And with online sites like YouTube the damage can be far reaching.

Domino’s has promised to tighten up their hiring processes and to do more inspections of its restaurants.  Aparantly Chuck E Cheese is still deciding what they’re going to do.  In any case, we have to be constantly on our toes to make sure our staffs conduct themselves professionally or we could be in big trouble.