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5 minutes to build a more profitable business in a post-bailout economy

Everyone’s busy these days and I am no exception. If only the Borg could talk to WordPress:)

Because everyone is so busy, and because I’ve sensed a tenseness (but not a panic, at least not yet) among the small business owners I’ve talked to this week, I thought I might take only 5 minutes of your time today to help you tackle the stress you might be feeling.

If you are struggling to figure out where your customers are, or where they went, as well as where to find more, and how to keep them, give this a try:

Take 5 minutes EVERY DAY to think hard about what you can say to your customers and prospects TODAY that will benefit them, be of value to them, be of interest to them and make their lives and businesses better.

The money and time you spend to do this will be the best marketing investment you can make.

You might say, “Fine Mark, this is fine for us, show me what you’re doing so I can get an idea how to do this myself.”

Fair enough. This very issue is why I have an email newsletter, a print newsletter, a radio show, a business column in the local newspaper, speaking gigs, a book on the way (not as fast as I’d like…) and so on.

Despite all those things, and despite the fact that I am busier than ever…this is why a live TV show is just around the corner.

What are you doing to communicate with your prospects and clients?

How are you providing even the smallest piece of value to them every day, every week, or at the least, every month?

What are you doing to make sure that you are using the media that reaches each type of learner (some are readers, some listeners, some watchers).

Remember, despite all the noise in the news about the bailout, the election and everything else that’s going on, your economy isn’t dependent on Washington. Your economy is dependent upon you. Take the 5 minutes, and take it now.

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Frozen by the bailout?

You might find it difficult to concentrate on improving your business with all the events going on in the financial world. After all, your primary bank might get purchased tomorrow, or your office building might get sold to someone in Costa Rica, then what do you do?

Probably nothing – at least nothing you can do about it. Meanwhile, another day got frittered away wringing your hands over stuff that you don’t have any control over. Did *that* help your business?

When stuff like this is going on, it’s always a good time to reassess your market, and be wide-eyed and inquisitive about markets that might not have been there 2 months ago. It’s also wise to consider how these things might impact your business.

What’s not good is to rub callouses on your hands worrying about it. Most of what happens to you is under your control. No, I don’t mean that you can make a phone call and impact global financial markets. On the other hand, maybe you can pick up the phone and call your Congressional rep’s office and make sure they know how you feel about the issue of the day.

But don’t be frozen by all the chaos, perceived or real. Times like these, no matter how you view them, are always full of opportunity. The biggest risk is often taken on by doing nothing.

If you’re in the business of marketing hamburgers, you might think that the financial problems going on don’t really impact you all that much, or that they’ll hurt you by making people less likely to eat out.

On the other hand…

  • You should be looking at properties to expand into when they flip over, or to switch to if that makes sense. Maybe they’re simply worth putting an option on.
  • You might be looking into ways to offer a budget night out for families.
  • You might be adding catering to your services, since people who ordinarily get to go home for dinner might be working overtime trying to keep their finances straight. Or trying to keep their business open, or chasing that great new opportunity they discovered.
  • You might be looking at ways to help families whose parents are working an extra shift or an extra job due to whatever difficulties they are facing. Meal delivery? Pickup? Think, then act.
  • You might be looking around for that next great new employee who got laid off from someplace else. As an example, one of my clients got 29 resumes for a recent administrative assistant opening. Many of the candidates were outstanding and the final 2 were really amazing.

I’m sure you can think of other angles to pursue, so don’t be frozen all the bailout talk. Take stock and assess your exposure, but keep your focus. Be observant of changes in your market and new markets that you can serve.

Not everyone will be doing that. You should be.

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Building a Better Mousetrap

Younger readers of Business is Personal might not remember this old Tareyton cigarette ad, but it reminds me of one of the hardest sales jobs around: Selling a “Me Too” product.

A “Me Too product” is a replacement product for one already on the market and (presumably) successful.

I say “presumably” because you really don’t even know for a fact that it is successful unless you do serious market research. Yet the research to make a wise decision about a “Me Too” rarely gets done.

Let’s assume that you’re an accounting expert and a programmer and you just can’t stand Intuit QuickBooks and it just makes you nuts thinking about having to use it even one more day. The natural thing for a programmer to do in this situation to (not so) simply: create their own “perfect” product from scratch and wave goodbye to the old product forever.

But that emotional response ignores a critical thing required to make a business success out of that project…

Do you offer a compelling reason to switch?

Think about it for a moment: What would it take to get you to stop using QuickBooks, or Microsoft Office, or some other software that is entrenched in your business. Think about the time and money you’ve invested in knowledge and training.

If you’re having difficulty with that thought process, think about what it would take to get you to stop eating meat, stop drinking, become celibate by choice, or switch from a Western religion to an Eastern one. Or vice versa in each case.

In each of those cases, the requirement is “a compelling reason”.

There has to be a seriously compelling reason to get people to change from “Tolerable Product A” to “Your New Baby – aka Totally Awesome Product B”, particularly when Product A is embedded in the business processes of the entire company and has been in use for years. Worse so when the quirks of Product A have actually infected the business processes of the company.

Elected officials aside, people have proven for centuries that they detest change. To management, change often means sunk costs, lowered productivity and bad morale.

If your compelling reason is so easy to understand and so obvious that everyone from the CEO to the mail room clerk gets it, change seems like a good idea and most everyone gets on board or is easy to convince. If the only people who get it are at the boardroom level, you might have a challenge on your hands.

Do yourself a favor: Before you write a line of code, before you design a screen or a database, answer a simple question: What is the compelling reason that will cause people to line up for a chance to switch to your software?

At that point in the process, you should already have a conceptual model of what your new product will do, so this shouldn’t be difficult or expensive. In fact, it should roll off your tongue in a heartbeat. It might even be your Unique Selling Proposition or Unique Sales Position (different folks call USP different things).

It isn’t just the programmers. You can find it everywhere, even in cafes and pizza shops.

Believe it or not, people drank coffee before Starbucks existed. When they opened, Starbucks wasn’t just another coffee shop like all the rest. They created a compelling reason to go there. In fact, they created several different compelling reasons, attracting different groups of people.

Today, smart coffee shops fighting for market share create compelling reasons to go to their place instead of boring old Starbucks. They offer gourmet beans, live roastings, live music, readings, art exhibits, networking events, free internet access, gourmet foods, online ordering, delivery, party catering, gift packaging and so on.

What’s the compelling reason you give people that’ll make them want to line up for a chance to switch?

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Why your staff wants more profitable work to do

Consider the profitability of the work being done by each member of your staff. Are they making your business more profitable? Or are they doing non-critical work that a computer or service could do?

Why not automate those often lame-but-necessary tasks?

Why? Because you arenâ??t getting it all done otherwise.

Want proof? Call a vendor who performs a service or sells an item that requires installation. More often than not, youâ??ll not find someone who can deliver today, or even this week.

Despite the state of the economy. Or perhaps, because of it.

Odd example: I was told late last week that Amtrak passenger trains are packed to the gills because they don’t have any more passenger cars to put in service. Now donâ??t get me wrong, thatâ??s good thing because it means theyâ??re busy. Busy is good. Means they are doing some things right (and of course that fuel prices are high).

But backlogged and having to force businesses and consumers to go to your competition isnâ??t good, and itâ??s a fine line between busy and too busy.

What’s bad for Amtrak in this case is also bad for you. And that’s where the profitability of the work your staff does will come into play.

On one side of the fine line: things that require your expertise.

On the other: stuff that a high school kid could do in their sleep (and they need more sleep anyhow, right?).

Those are the kinds of things to target for automation.

It isnâ??t about getting rid of people. Itâ??s about giving the people you have the kind of work that generates profit, rather than simply keeping them busy in low-value jobs that take them nowhere.

Why do they want that?

Because the kind of work that generates profit is the kind that makes a job – and thus an employee – more valuable.

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“What value are we going to provide customers that no one else does?”

Today’s guest post is a story about Honda that comes from MSN reporter Lawrence Ulrich.

The source of that quote that I’ve used as title of the post?

It’s a quote from Dan Bonawitz, Hondaâ??s vice-president of corporate planning. When short-sighted Honda store owners clamored for a 8 cylinder pickup, Honda corporate responded with that question.

It’s a good question to ask yourself.

“What value are we going to provide customers that no one else does?”

There’s no market leadership in “Me too”, even though you see it in the automobile business year in and year out. “Me too” has never been Honda’s style. As a result, this isn’t the first time that Honda has been in this position, though it is a bit more obvious this time.

Are you part of the herd, or are you leading the herd?

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Preparing for business disaster: Replacing You.

You may find it uncomfortable to think about this one, and you might even be lazy when it comes to implementing things related to it, but it’s important to do so.

What steps have you taken to deal with something happening to you, or a key employee?

Insurance companies have “Key man coverage” (and yes, I fully realize it is available for women, surely by now you realize that all of the women in my life are key<g>).

Do your key people have key man coverage?

What have you done to prepare your company for the worst?

Would they know where everything is? Are there instructions to help find it?

If it’s a family-owned business, have you talked with your family and put plans in writing for succession?

Are you cross-training other family members, or other employees?

We’ve talked at length about documenting employee processes, but are YOURS documented?

Is there a checklist of things that must be done weekly, monthly, quarterly? For example, are you the only one who knows what EFTPS is? Certainly anyone can pick that up and do it, but if they don’t know they need to…big problem.

Coming in this discussion: technology, marketing to clients who think your biz is toast, what others have experienced and what you can learn from it.

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Why don’t you do what you know needs to be done?

I was listening to Sam Clark this morning and he was talking about a group he surveyed about their business habits and noted that 86% of the people surveyed had no plan.

We talked about this when I first heard this comment from Sam a few months ago, but didn’t really press the issue.

Dan Kennedy calls it the “Monday morning reinvention” – where people show up at work Monday morning and start all over again. They sit down, they get coffee, and then they start figuring out what they need to do that week, at least until they’re distracted by a few joke emails or a link to someplace that takes them somewhere else until it’s “suddenly” lunchtime, or mid-afternoon.

Would it shock you to look across the room at 100 people at today’s Rotary Club meeting or Chamber of Commerce lunch and find that only 14 of them are working a plan to get where they want to be.

The other 86 have:

  • No plan for today.
  • No plan for tomorrow.
  • No plan for next week.
  • No plan for next month.
  • No plan for getting their business, or their part of the business, from where it is today to where it will be tomorrow. A

We all know that you have to plan in order to achieve what you want, so why do so few people do it?

Start today. Don’t give me that “one of these days” comments, or “I’ll start on it next week, it’s too late for this week”.

Do it now. As soon as you finish reading this post.

Why now? I already know you aren’t working – because you’re reading this:)

If you aren’t working a daily or work week plan, take 15-30 minutes or however long it takes and figure out what your most important achievements for this week will be.

Now take a few minutes and figure out what the first few steps are to work toward each one, and start on them. NOW.

As you finish those first few steps, figure out the next few, and then knock them off.

At the end of the day, spend a few minutes planning tomorrow. Repeat it the rest of the week at the end of each day.

If you *are* one of the 14% who are working a plan, don’t forget to re-assess where you are at the end of the day, adjust as necessary and stick to it.

Do what most people aren’t doing. Get what most people arent getting.

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Fuel cost thoughts for small business owners

To the consternation of many, I’ve quietly noted for several years that the rise in fuel costs would also have some positive impacts on us and on our society – in addition to the obvious negative ones.

It’s not a liberal or conservative issue, it’s a pragmatic one.

Among other things, higher fuel costs will…

  • force us to become more self-sufficient, both as individuals and as communities.
  • force us to become better thinkers. The smartest business now has even more of an edge.
  • force us to become better planners.
  • force us to become far more responsible to ourselves, our neighbors and to our businesses.
  • force us to deliver even more services via the Internet
  • force us to use the Internet to fine tune the logistics of every aspect of our businesses
  • require our communities to become far more dependent on the individuals and businesses within, rather than on a largely-faceless community 600 or 6000 miles away.

That last one is where the business that has a personal relationship with its clients will shine.

What should fuel costs have the small business owner thinking about?

The obvious thing is the rising cost of shipping and transportation of goods.

While it is “really cool” to order a new computer on the internet at 2am and then be surprised to have the Airborne guy standing in my driveway with the computer box at 8am that day, the cost of making that happen is far more than the $5 extra I paid to make it so back in 1987.

The changes that rising fuel costs cause require some thought, no matter what you do or sell.

Some might not be so obvious, and those are the ones that can make the most difference.

Look for things that are below the radar of “most people”.

One example: the real estate business

Evidence is appearing that prospective home buyers are looking far more closely at the location of homes and the resulting commutes.

The higher price of homes close to town is offset by shorter commutes to work and shopping. How many people in California (much less Boise) would rather spend that extra 2-4 hours a day with their family rather than on gas, as they stare at the back of the car in front of them? Suddenly, even with California wages, those numbers become significant.

If you are a Realtor or a mortgage broker, you have to be watching for small changes in people’s behavior before they become large changes. You might start selling more homes in areas that are less congested (slower traffic, longer commutes), yet still close in and convenient.

You might have a new tool that takes MLS address info, ownership years, employer data and change real estate agent farming forever.

Maybe you “niche yourself” by offering a service for employers that helps their people find homes closer to the office, or a similar service for employers who are moving employees to the area.

You might focus your attention on selling those remote homes by touting their access to broadband internet and place your marketing attention on work-at-home business owners, telecommuters and the like – people who are far less concerned about commuting distances.

Distances to day cares from work and homes are now more important. This will affect your ability to find employees. Minimum wage work will be chosen more carefully, since commute costs will eat into a small wages quickly.

If you were having a hard time finding people a year ago, commute costs due to fuel prices might complicate that further.

You must put far more thought into those 3 little words: location, location, location.

The best Realtors are going to find smart ways to leverage today’s issues, as they always have, only the parameters have changed.

It isn’t just real estate though

If you do a lot of mail order/internet order/phone order business, how are you preparing your business to do more locally?

What if shipping costs tripled tomorrow? Would your mail order business survive? Where would you find “replacement” customers locally? How would you attract them? Would you focus on regional mail order clients vs national? What changes in your product line are necessary to succeed on that refocused client market?

These are things you should already be thinking about, no matter what you do.

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Productivity on a weekend!

Today’s guest post is about a couple of tools that I thought you might find handy.

Slither over to David Seah’s blog and you’ll find 2 pretty handy tools to make you more productive: The Printable CEO Series and The Compact Calendar.

photo credit: ericmcgregor

As you might expect, I think the more planning and scheduling you can do – the more productive you will be – assuming there’s a dose of self-discipline in there as well. Look at it this way, it’ll give you lots more time to watch American Idol on the TiVo – on YOUR schedule 🙂