The United States is still mired in economic uncertainty, but well-run small businesses can stay afloat and even thrive if they attend to budgets, examine marketing mixes and drive efficiencies, and subsequently expand market share as the competition weakens.
With a new year comes a viral energy to strengthen or evaluate resolves and create new ones. Taking the following actions could result in critical improvements in your operations and bottom line, providing a more efficient and cost-effective plan for 2013.
• Deliver outstanding service. Now more than ever, businesses need to make it a priority to secure loyal customers. Customer service isn’t just basic rule of good business; it should be a living and breathing part of any company. Going out of your way to treat customers exceptionally reaps great rewards, including repeat customers and referrals. It’s about building relationships. If your business provides a special personal touch, moves swiftly to changing market demands and responds quickly to your customers’ needs, it will stand out from the competition.
• Failing to plan is planning to fail. Whether you’ve just hatched an idea for a new business or have been established 10 years, a business requires an annual marketing plan. A solid and well-researched plan is vital to your business’ success, as it provides a foundation. A written plan specifically outlines who you are, what you do, who needs what you do, how you plan attract customers, when you plan to do it and how you should pay for it. It lets your employees, network and client base clearly understand your direction. And, it enables you to avoid the “marketing idea of the week” syndrome.
• Establish an online presence. Eighty-five percent of American adults ages 18 and over use the Internet, according to a November 2012 post from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Having a footprint on the web has become a badge of credibility and not having a website or email address can be a liability. Knowing this, the question is how can you afford not to have a website? Wordpress, Facebook and Wix are just a few free outlets for you to carve your initials into the Web. For a more in-depth look at how to maximize social media strategies check out “Comcast Offers Social Media Strategy Suggestions to Extend Your Business Reach.”
• Give your image a once-over – more than once. Don’t allow your brand to get pushed to the side during a sluggish economy. Your image gives a first impression of your professionalism, organization, reliability and standards. In addition, when your customers take materials home with them, that impression turns into second and third impressions. What does your business look like? Gather your website, business cards, brochures, flyers or anything else you distribute and put them side-by-side. Is it clear what you offer? Are your materials distinct from your competitors? Does your company brand communicate the right message? Is it consistent? Are you up-to-date? Make it a recurring objective to take a step back and evaluate your current state to determine if adjustments need to be made.
• Build some buzz. In a tough economy, deploying public relations strategies are ideal. PR is a low-cost, credibility-building alternative to paid marketing and advertising tactics. PR is also more than just getting your business in the news; it positions your business as a productive citizen of the community while generating exposure. Get involved in your neighborhood with service efforts and build relationships with local area reporters and bloggers. Look for public speaking engagement opportunities and provide media commentary – all of these approaches are ways you can produce and retain customers. Furthermore, unify your advertising, marketing and public relations plans. This interconnection between facets of your business can send it into high gear.
• Recognize your strengths, weaknesses and talk about them. As a small business person who is the rainmaker, idea generator, decision maker and often the arms and legs of the business too, you may want to consider an advisory board who can counsel you on critical issues. Create an informal board of directors that can help you lay difficult circumstances out in the open. During challenging economic times, it is important to be honest and realistic. Your advisors can be a candid voice, support you as you take a leap to the next level or serve as a sounding board. The most productive consultative meetings will bring a group of professionals together who possess a breadth skillsets, experience and diversity.
• Forge strategic alliances. Joining forces with another company is a way to work with a partner towards mutual objectives while maintaining independence. Because resources and knowledge are shared, a healthy alliance can boost market exposure, increase networks, provide an edge over the competition, create new products and services, and reduce costs. In a 2011 Forbes article, CEO of Newtek Business Services Barry Sloane described why alliances are worthwhile, saying, "Doing an alliance deal with a major player clearly adds credibility to a smaller organization even if it doesn't have a bottom-line effect."
• Work smarter, not harder. A savvy leader knows when to not only delegate tasks, but when to ask for help as well. When you ask for help from your employees, you are communicating trust and respect in their abilities which builds powerful morale. As a small or mid-sized business owner, your business card probably says you are the President and CEO… but you also serve as the Chief Financial Officer, marketer and head of technical support. From top to bottom, you have your eye on all facets of the business. Whether your business grows or you decide to make cuts, you will begin to stretch increasingly thinner. Thus, putting trust in those you hire and asking them for help can have a potent impact on your bottom line.
No matter the economic outlook, it is always a good idea to reinforce foundational business practices. Of course monitoring cash flow, taxes and credit are critical as well. But when you ensure your building blocks are durable, you’re more likely to retain firm footing in an unstable economy.