Getting Started In This Business – Getting Things Going, Keeping Things Going


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If you have been following this series of posts, you should be set to do business online.  Now comes the hardest part, doing business online!

One of the really hard parts about getting your business going is getting customers “in the door”.  With a traditional brick and mortar business your physical location will start attracting customers even before you open.  People will walk by, see the construction and your name so they know what is coming.  Opening online just doesn’t work that way.  You need to do a lot more work via your family, friends, social networks, professional organizations, etc.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a good networker.  Even so, I’ve made it a point to send email to family and friends letting them know about my new business (including a link to my site!).  I’ve also posted notices on my Facebook page and started a page for my business.  I’ve also promoted businesses that I work with.  In some cases they have reciprocated.  I’m not on Twitter.  Call me old fashioned, but I don’t get that whole idea.  If you use Twitter, or any other networking/communications tool, be sure to broadcast the news about your business through all of them.  If your business plan includes an advertising budget, be sure you get your ads going the day you launch.

When you talk to people you know, or meet at social events, the question will likely come up “what’s new” or “what do you do”.  Don’t be afraid to tell them.  One of the tips you get when conducting a job search is to develop an elevator speech.  An elevator speech is a short introduction to something, you, your business, etc, that can be delivered while riding the elevator in a commercial building.  Such speeches are usually no more than thirty seconds long.  Develop your elevator speech for your new business.  Practice it until you have it perfected.  Once delivered, if the other person is interested, they will lead it into more of a conversation.

Along the same lines, have business cards ready.  Even in this digital world, they come in handy.  If you are at a party and in the first half hour someone tells you about a website how likely are you to remember enough to find it the next day?  (Yes, I know you could go to the site on your phone while talking to the person, but most people won’t!).  Because I started a photo business I considered it to be important that my business card really show off that fact.  I used one of my images as the background on the card and then added the necessary text.  Remember, you don’t necessarily need to put your name on the card!  My business is John Feist Photography, so I would hope the recipient can figure out my name!  You do need to include your url (your website address e.g. JohnFeistPhotography.com)  You also need to provide an email address.  Do you include a physical address and phone number?  That’s up to you.  I think phone numbers are good.  They give your prospect another way of contacting you.  Strange as it may seem, we all have different communication preferences.  Do you really want to miss a potential sale because a customer couldn’t text you or get you on the phone?  Physical address is a different question.  Most eBusinesses don’t really need one unless you are doing fulfillment from your address.  If you are doing fulfillment you need to give people a way to return things, hence your address.  Also for now, many people expect to find an address on a business card.

Next you need to think about updates.  There’s a commercial running on TV lately that starts out saying in technology if you are not moving forward, you are moving backward.  Think about successful websites.  The basic layout may remain the same, a good thing as customers know how to find things easily.  The content and merchandise will change very regularly.  Develop a plan for how and when you will change your product mix or add/remove items.  If you are opening a clothing site aimed at North America, are you going to be selling many down parkas in July?  Don’t be in constant change either.  If I buy a new offering from a website and tell a friend about it a week later, we’d expect it to be there!  This also ties back to an earlier post about inventory management.  You should only display merchandise you have, or be very clear when you will be able to ship.

Part of updating your site is keeping your customers coming back.  Most hosted sites will give your customer the option of receiving email updates from you.  There are numerous ways you can get the email address of your customers and prospects.  Sending email updates is a tried and true mechanism for keeping visible to your customers.  Remember, getting a general purpose update once or twice a week from a website is fine, getting several a day is spam.

Another mechanism for getting customers back is via loyalty rewards.  Not all hosted sites will provide you with the capability to run a major loyalty program like the airlines and credit card companies do.  I don’t know too many small businesses that want that.  You should be able to offer coupons/discounts pretty easily.  A very good way to get repeat traffic is to send your customer a coupon for maybe ten per cent off their next purchase as part of your follow up on the initial purchase.  If you do that be sure that the offer has an expiry, otherwise someone may decide to use it in five years!

Another tried and true mechanism is having a sale.  Sales are held for a variety of reasons.  The two you should initially focus on are getting people to your site and moving inventory that you’d like to discontinue.  Functionally, running a sale on line is no different than doing it in a physical store.  Decide on the items, decide on the markdown and let people know about them.

Finally, find ways to be visible in the real world.  If you are located in a smaller community and offer a somewhat unique service or product, let your local media know.  You never know when the local newspaper, radio or TV station will need a filler piece.  Another good avenue can be teaching.  Most communities offer free adult education courses.  If you are opening a site that sells tools, offer some classes on using tools.  You can get some easy plugs in for your site, perhaps giving your students a discount.  Be creative and know your market.  A friend of mine recently launched a line of yoga clothing.  Her sales are via her website KiraGrace.com.  Kira knows the business.  As part of her launch, she got glowing reviews from fitness and yoga publications.  She also goes to yoga studios and conferences with trunk shows so that more people see her line.  All of her appearances are publicized via social media.  Take a look at the site and you’ll understand why I don’t use the product (hint it’s womens yoga clothing).  I do tell my friends who may not know about her when she’ll be in their area and not just my yoga friends.

This will be the last entry in this series for a while.  As I get more into this business, I’ll share my experiences and learnings.  Please check back as I will continue to blog on some other topics going forward.

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Getting Started In This Business – Customer Service


Ducks In A RowThis is the fourth in a series of posts about my experiences in starting an online business.

I want to start this post with a thank you to everyone who has sent me positive feedback and comments.  It’s nice to know that someone has read a post(s) and found it useful.

That’s a good lead in to talking about customer service.  At a fundamental level, what defines good customer service hasn’t changed since well into the last century.  Your customers expects you to make their shopping experience pleasant and easy.  They also expect that the product you advertise on your site is what they will get.  Your customers also expect to get a quality product that will perform as advertised.  And finally, your customer expects that if s/he has questions or an issue with their purchase, you will be there to answer them and resolve the issue.

What has changed in the digital age is how we deliver customer service.  I’m going to assume that like me you are starting a small business with few employees other than yourself.  In that scenario, you have dozens of things to do each day, probably more than there are hours in which to do them.  Don’t fall into the trap of neglecting your customers in order to do other things.  Remember, just as you can become an overnight success on the web, a negative review of your site can turn that success into an overnight failure.

Because of those time limitations, I’ve structured my customer service to work via email.  The beauty of this model is that I can access my email any time,  any where.  Most customers do not necessarily expect to be able to call you on the phone.  Have you ever tried to call Amazon?  Not easy!  Customers are used to email and other electronic media.  That means that you need to keep tabs on your business in box.  Many businesses have set up an auto reply to their in boxes so that as soon as a message comes in, the “Thank you for contacting us we will get back to you shortly” mail goes out.  Setting this up is not hard, but it does take time.  If you want to assign a problem number or something like it, that takes more time and effort.  In most cases, getting back to your customer within two hours works fine.

Be wary of trying to use social networking and interactive tools to provide customer service.  Facebook, Twitter, etc. are not the place to do customer service.  They are there to be part of your marketing strategy as a mechanism for telling your fans, followers, et al what is new and exciting on your site.  That doesn’t mean you should ignore these networks.  If someone is unhappy and posts it on a social network, you need to respond to the problem, but not via the social network. Take it “off line”.  Beware of trying to implement online or real time chat.  Chat can be a very nice tool, but that too takes time and effort to implement and maintain.  More importantly, you need to have someone available to do the “chatting”  24 x 7 since you never know when someone will want to contact you.

Now let’s add a level of practicality.  While not listing a phone number sounds good, in practice it may not work.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • I do most of my interacting with PhotoShelter.com via email.  However, there are times when getting an answer to a simple question could take ten minutes on the phone or three days on email.  PhotoShelter.com hosts my site as well as those for about 70,000 other photographers.  They have a phone number listed.  Sometimes when I call I get voice mail, as in “all our operators are busy assisting other customers”.  When that happens I leave a message and normally get a call back within an acceptable time frame.  That works fine for me.  Could PhotoShelter.com augment their support staff so that I never get voice mail? Sure, but then I suspect I’d have to pay more for the service!
  • Last year I wanted to do a high quality coffee table book for my wife for Christmas.  I chose PhotoBookPress.com to do the book based on a recommendation in a photo magazine.  They are set up to do everything in the ordering process online.  As I was setting up the book I wanted, I wasn’t happy that what the software was showing me was the layout I had chosen.  Photo Book Press custom prints and hand binds each book, so there are lead times to consider.  I called them about my concern.  I get a fast response from one of their technical people.  He apologized and explained that they had done a software upgrade that hadn’t worked as expected.  He then walked me through a work around that allowed me to get everything in to them in time for Christmas.  As the production process takes several weeks, I got email updates so that I knew where my book was in the process.  The book arrived in time for Christmas and was a big success.

On the flip side, when I switched cell phone providers and went from a Blackberry to an Android phone, there were several features I was used to that were not on my new phone.  Searching the App Store (not necessarily a pleasant experience) I found an app that looked to be exactly what I wanted, Enhanced SMS and CallerID (eCid).  I bought the app, downloaded it and it didn’t work through my blue tooth headset.  After trying the remedies suggested on the vendor’s site, I sent an email.  Over the course of about two hours and several emails we concluded that the app would not work with my particular headset.  The vendor immediately offered me a refund.  I opted to keep the app and upgraded my headset to one that the vendor told me works well (and came from a company who’s headsets I like).  The new headset and app have been working well together for nearly a year.

The above three examples should give you a flavor of what it takes to provide really great customer service.  To wrap up, what you need to remember about customer service is:

  • Deliver what you promise.
  • Be sure you have told your customer how to contact you.
  • Be attentive to all your customer service channels.
  • Be honest with your customer.  If it will take two weeks to get them a replacement tell them that!
  • Be responsive to your customer.  Even if you don’t have any news, if it’s been a while since you updated them on an issue, send them a note repeating your last status saying that you are working on their issue and try to give a realistic completion date/time.
  • Remember what seems like a strange, unusual, weird or stupid question or problem to you is anything but to them.  If you know anyone who was doing IT type support work in the early days of windows, ask them how many times people called saying that the foot pedal didn’t work or the cup holder was broken.
  • And finally, while the old saying “the customer is always right” may not be true for you, DON’T TELL THEM THAT!