When you consider all the responsibilities to focus on as a small business owner, sales and marketing are often amongst the first things that come to mind. Marketing decisions are often phrased as:
- How will I grow this year?
- How can I keep my current customers coming back?
When you ask a marketing expert their opinion about such things, they’ll likely start discussing the various marketing methods available and guide you based on the type of business you run. That’s all well and good, and we’ll get to that later on. But first, you have to make sure your customers have a good experience when they do business with you. Until you have a solid operation with consistently good customer service, marketing can be a waste of precious time and energy. Whether you’re a service-based business, a retailer, an auto repair shop or any other small business, your marketing should always start from the inside out.
Before you make investments in advertising, social media and other forms of marketing, here are three important things to focus on:
1 Staff Training
Most consumer surveys in the small business segment reveal the overwhelming importance of a well-trained staff. When asked why they left a particular company or business, things like rude staff, staff didn’t know how to help me, staff complained they hadn’t been trained are almost always at the top of the list. Be sure to train your employees on how to properly greet your customers. Product training will inspire confidence in your employees and can often times motivate them to cross-sell.
2 Location Appearance
If you run a brick and mortar business where customers visit, pay attention to the visual experience for customers when they walk through your door. This is critical if your business is located in a strip mall or a large shopping area. Typically you and your staff park behind the location or away from customer parking and may not enter through the same door as your customers. When you’re in a location every day it’s easy for the visual experience to fade into the background, sort of like background noise for the eyes. You may not notice that the paper sign you hung 5 years ago at the register is now dingy and the corners are puckered, as an example. Take a walk outside to your customer parking lot and walk into your location as if you are a customer. Take it in and consider whether or not it’s welcoming and representative of the value you provide. Do this at least once a month as things can creep up without your notice.
3 Make it Easy
Never before have customers been so time-starved and stressed. Look for ways to make it easy to do business with you. Examine your operational process and determine whether or not it favors you or your customer. Sometimes a procedure you’ve implemented for efficiency on your part is a turnoff for customers and could be costing you money in the long run. Look for ways to simplify the customer experience so whatever it is they buy from you doesn’t feel like a chore. Common ways to do this include:
In-store Signage – is it clear? Easy to read? Attention grabbing?
Customer Forms – this is a common complaint amongst consumers. Is there a way to simplify or truncate customer paperwork? Unless your business involves mortgage closing or escrow services, your customers shouldn’t feel like their buying or selling a home.
Products and/or Services – is it easy for customers to identify what they need or want? Do you have too many options or not enough?
Payment Methods – do you offer easy and convenient ways for people to pay you, either via retail or through invoicing?
Once you’re ready to wow your customers with an outstanding experience you can begin to tackle the marketing plan. For some small business, traditional forms of marketing like print and radio advertising, neighborhood mailers and direct mail remain effective, for others it has long stopped working. Let’s focus on the 5 marketing tools that can benefit almost any small business.
Remember the Yellow Pages? Some of you will. The website has replaced them. By now most small business have some form of a website because the internet is the number one place people go to find information. If you do not have a website it is like not having a sign on the front of your door, maybe worse. Websites are the most effective way for you to tell your customer base who you are, what you offer, your hours of operation and how to find you.
Some websites are considered online brochures, while others are more sophisticated and perform business transactions between you and your customers. Regardless of the type of business you own, the key thing to your website is making sure it’s fresh and appealing. If you haven’t updated your site since last year, you’re behind.
There are still people who are leery of email marketing and don’t grasp how it can be used to provide value to your customers, and you. Email can be used to market your business by sending newsletters or automated marketing emails that are triggered by certain actions (ie when potential customers go to a certain page on your website or abandon their shopping cart on your website). Birthdays are often a common reason to email your customers, or promoting new products or special, seasonal offers. The newsletters provide useful information so that your customers will want to read future issues. This keeps you top of mind for when they are ready to buy.
The trick to email marketing is collecting data from your customers that allow you to effectively email them. For some businesses the nature of your customer transactions lend themselves to naturally collecting this kind of data. For others, customer loyalty programs can be used to collect the necessary information. In either case you have to explain to the customer that you plan to communicate with them on a somewhat regular basis and give them an “opt out” option as your email marketing transpires. Email is a very low cost marketing method. Because the cost is so low, it requires very few customers to be generated as a result of it for it to have a positive return on investment, which we’ll get into further on.
Facebook remains the #1 social media site where friends connect, interact with each other and stay in touch. A Facebook page is a place where you can basically create a mini webpage for your business within the walls of Facebook. This mini webpage works very similar to your Facebook profile (if you have one and know what that is). A group page is very similar but instead of being for a business it is for a group of people that have a common interest. A great way to take advantage of groups is to create a group that is relevant to your business. An example would be a knitters group if you sell knitting supplies.
Clearly there are a lot of people going into Facebook every day. But this is not the only reason to consider it as a marketing tool. The real reason is that Facebook pages and group pages are free, you only need to set them up once (so they take minimal effort), and they allow you to repeatedly get your name in front of prospects. And there’s considerable marketing velocity that can take place with Facebook. Every time you post something on your page it will show up on everyone's news feed that "like" your company page or are "members" of your group page. Although the algorythms used by Facebook change continuously, when someone your posts a comment on your page, it may be viewable to all of their friends on Facebook.
While Facebook remains the most popular form of social media overall, Instagram is becoming more and more popular. If you customers are less than 40 years old, you should expose your business on Instagram as well.
Google Places Page
This is a page that lists information about your business on Google Maps. Things like your contact information, website address, hours of operation, pictures, videos and even electronic coupons. This is basically free and you set it up only once. Of course if something about your business changes, like your address or hours of operation, you need to update your page right away. It will probably take one hour or so to set it up initially and then you have it forever. Google Place pages also often show up very high in Google when people are doing searches that are either location based or when they include a city name in their search. Like a website, this is a modern from of the Yellow Pages except it can be far more powerful.
A Referral System
Referral systems are a great way to attract new customers. Referrals from your employees, customers, partners, friends and family members are the best source of new customers for most small businesses. Referrals are effective because people typically trust other people in their social circle. Many small business owners report their referral system as their best marketing tool.
Determining Where to Spend Your Marketing Investment
As a small business owner, you should consider all five of these marketing tools in various forms and invest based on a Marketing Return on Investment, or MROI. Determining the MROI is a very simple formula.
Profit from Sales Gained
Less Marketing Cost
= Net Profit
/ Marketing Cost
Subtract your marketing costs from the profit you gained on the sales resulting from the marketing campaign. Then take that sum and divide it by the marketing costs to determine your MROI.
This seems like simple math, and it is for the most part assuming you can easily calculate your profit from sales gained. The trick is identifying the source of your new profit and attributing it to the right marketing investment. For example, your website is always “on,” whereas your email marketing efforts are scattered throughout specific timeframes. Asking new customers how they learned about you is a hit or miss exercise and the accuracy and completeness largely depends on the volume of your transactions and the method in which you conduct business.
It's best focus your MROI calculations on the sporadic campaign-oriented marketing efforts throughout the year. Measure your uplift in sales against periods when you ran a promotion or sent an email marketing campaign.
Put Email and Social Media at the Top of Your List
As you’re considering which marketing tools to focus on, keep in mind the best communications are personal. That’s why email marketing and social media should be at the top of your list. Both offer channels of direct communication and allow you to be transparent with your audience. These types of messages can be authentic and help you build trust with your audience and increase the likelihood of building brand ambassadors out of your biggest fans. These channels also offer the biggest bang for your buck. Finally, there are very few challenges and marketing goals that you can’t accomplish through email and your social media profiles.