About Austin Ries

Austin is the Small Business Correspondent at Zoho Corp. He writes about various topics concerning your small business from current events to helpful tips as well as how Zoho products can benefit you.

Want Loyal Customers? You Have to Earn Them

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friendly mechanic handshaking with familyI was stuck in traffic the other morning going to work. The right lane was closed for construction so the approaching vehicles were all corralling into the left lane. Unfortunately, at nine in the morning on one of the busiest streets in Austin, Texas, this process doesn’t happen quickly.

The vehicle in front me was a delivery truck for an Austin-based liquor store called Twin Liquors. I’ve seen these trucks countless times before, but I never looked too closely at the logo on the back. Funny what five minutes of stop and go traffic makes you notice.

The logo is nothing special. A circle with an illustration of the two founders — heads and shoulders only similar to a bust — but it was the line below them that caught my attention.

“Trust Twins.”

It’s as simple of a line as you can think of. Trust Twins. Trust our product. Trust our service. Trust us.

This phrase really stuck with me because of its transparency but also because of its ambition. Getting your customers to trust your products and brand is one of the most essential components for success. Essential, and yet oftentimes, the most difficult.

For small business owners, gaining the trust of customers and clients can make or break your bottom line. Just think about the places of business you frequent yourself. Why are you loyal to that brand or keep returning? Why do you recommend the company to a friend? Because you trust they will not only have the product or service you are looking for, but also trust you will be treated with respect. You trust that your presence and dollar is valued.

On the other hand, it’s incredibly easy to lose your customers’ trust by making mistakes. This can be anything from not delivering on a promise you made to not being honest with your customers or providing bad customer service.

So let’s look at some ways you can immediately start earning loyalty with customers.

Learn From the Big Boys

Okay, not everyone’s business will be as big as Coca Cola, Amazon or Apple, but that doesn’t mean you can’t study how they gain customer loyalty. In many cases, these companies have risen and stayed on top not because of sales or share in the marketplace, but because they have made it a priority to establish relationships and trust with its customers.

Former global marketing officer of Procter & Gamble Jim Stengel told Entrepreneur, “we’re seeing more of an emphasis on brands building emotional relationships with consumers because it’s powerful and it works.”

Need examples? Amazon, arguably the most trusted brand in America, earns its customers’ loyalty and trust by offering low prices, free shipping on many orders and a convenient check-out system so customers can shop and buy hassle-free.

Southwest Airlines breaks all conventional rules of the airline industry by not charging for checking bags to offering open seating and even having fun and engaging flight attendants who impersonate Elvis or sing the safety directions before take-off.

The fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A offers unprecedented customer service to every person who walks through their doors. Yes they have a tasty product and “invented the chicken sandwich,” but they also treat every customer with respect. Customers like to feel important and at Chick-fil-A, you feel like the most important person in the world. You trust that every time you walk in those doors you will be greeted with a smile and hear the words, “my pleasure,” from every employee.

Prove You Trust Your Customers 

Trust is a two-way street so before you can expect customers to trust your brand or product, they need to feel like you trust them. There are a number of companies that have success because they established trust with customers by first proving they believe in their customers.

High end department store Nordstrom has a reputation for offering great customer service by trusting customers returning items. In fact, the store was rumored to have taken back a set of snow tires despite never selling tires in the first place.

And while this story is somewhat a myth, Nordstrom has gained the trust of its customers by promising to accept items the customer claims are defective, no questions asked. And they deliver on that promise.

Realize Trust Takes Time

Building loyal relationships and trust with your customers doesn’t happen over night. Earning trust is not about doing something right one time. It’s about proving yourself over and over again with every customer who walks through your doors.

This includes making sure you are doing your job well day in and day out. From creating great products or offering exceptional services to being innovative in your field and keeping your promises, building trust happens across multiple platforms over consecutive months and years.

Don’t lose patience. Customers notice when companies deliver on promises, but more importantly, they notice more when companies fail to deliver. Study companies that consumers trust, as well as companies that have lost the trust of the public so you can begin developing quality relationships that keep your customers coming back time and time again.

Small Business Stories You Might Have Missed

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iStock_000019387075XSmallThe amount of information that comes across our computer, smartphone or tablet screen on a daily basis is overwhelming. Photos, and videos, and status updates, and tweets, and links. It’s too much.

We click on 100 million Twitter links and share 2.5 billion items on Facebook everyday. Yes, you read that right. Everyday! You can’t possibly see every story or read every useful article pertaining to the growth and success of your small business.

Keep in mind that we can’t either, but we can do our best to get you a few of the most relevant and interesting articles concerning the small business market in this new blog series. So, in case you missed them, here are four articles you should check out right now.

Job Creation

Despite the United States unemployment rate remaining unchanged at 7.6 percent from May to June, small businesses are continuing to add jobs. Last month, companies with fewer than 50 employees created 84,000 jobs — 45 percent of the total new jobs added in June.

For a full breakdown of the stats and what it means, check out this article from Small Business Trends.

Managing Your Time

If you are a small business owner, you’ve come to one important realization:  there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.

Time management is crucial to efficiency and maximizing your efforts. Vice President of Marketing at Nextiva Yaniv Masjedi takes you through five ways you can manage your time more efficiently so you can not only improve your business, but also have a more peaceful workday.

Optimize Content Marketing

Content marketing is no longer just a trend. In fact, it is believed to be the future of marketing because it encourages people to share links on social networking sites; therefore, driving more traffic to your website.

Sam Slaughter at Mashable discusses the danger of content marketing drifting away from its original intention and purpose and simply becoming link bait. He also gives useful tips to improve your content marketing strategy immediately.

What Kind of Entrepreneur Are You?

Not every entrepreneur or small business owner has the same personality or work style. From investing your time and money into a start up to possibly buying a business, it is important to understand the different types of entrepreneurs so you can make the right decision.

This article takes you through five entrepreneurial styles like total risk takers to “Do It Yourself” enthusiasts, so you can learn how you can maximize your efforts.

Laptops, and Tablets, and Phones! Oh My!

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Businessman at his desk using a digital tabletAs necessary as it is to daily life and my job, part of me is annoyed with our culture’s dependency on technology. Annoyed with sitting in public — restaurant, gym, bar, supermarket, you-name-it-kind-of-store — and seeing the majority of people with their heads buried in a smart phone.

Annoyed that face-to-face conversations are a dead art. Annoyed that a couple on a date can’t make it through dinner without one of them reaching for their phone as the other gets up to use the restroom.

Annoyed that I just described myself.

Yes, whether I like it or not, I’m fully immersed in this lifestyle. Here I sit with not one, not two, but three screens in front of me. I have a laptop, an external monitor, and of course, an iPhone all on my desk. My co-worker is holding an iPad, and if I had the chance, I’d have one too.

And while we all may feel a little like Fred Armisen in this Portlandia sketch from time to time, this is the modern workplace. Multiple devices, multiple screens; each used to complete every task necessary for running your business. But just how many devices does the average worker use, or need?

Whether you realize it or not, we are all using multiple devices on a daily basis. Sitting at home watching a movie or television show on your laptop while texting a friend or checking your email. It’s second nature.

Last year, Google examined this trend and found that 90 percent of people move between at least two devices in order to complete a task. That’s 9 out of 10 people doing something along the lines of checking an email on their smart phone before moving to a laptop or tablet.

statsIn a similar research report from Forrester, the breakdown of how many devices people are actually using becomes much clearer. After surveying 9,900 employees, the independent market research company found that 74 percent used at least two devices on a daily basis at the workplace. Additionally, 52 percent used three or more devices, 16 percent used four or more and 14 percent used six or more!

With workers using personal devices — smart phones and tablets — along with a desktop or laptop, they are able to complete tasks at a quicker rate virtually anywhere. In fact, many researchers say workers are currently adopting mobile technology in the workplace at a much faster rate than when desktops were first introduced.

Multiple Devices for Marketing

Along with understanding the new trend of multiple devices in the workplace, as a small business owner, you should also understand how multiple devices can impact your marketing strategy.

In the same study from Google, the company found that customers often take a multiple-device path before making a purchase. An estimated 65 percent start on a smart phone with 61 percent then moving to a PC or laptop and only four percent moving to a tablet. Twenty-five percent of customers reportedly start on a laptop while only 11 percent start on a tablet.

This means that a strong web presence across multiple platforms is as important as ever. This also means advertisers and marketers should approach each platform differently in order to appeal to their consumers more effectively. You have to tailor ads or content to best fit the device consumers are using.

“While marketers once generated content to fit manufactured and static advertising placements, consumers now control their own flow of content — from day to night, and from screens large and small,” Natasha Hritzuk, senior global director of Research & Insights at Microsoft Advertising, said. “So it’s even more imperative that marketers understand consumer motivations in order to meet them in their moment.”

The reliance on technology and multiple devices in the workplace and in marketing is only going to intensify in the coming years. By understanding this trend, you can not only use these devices to your benefit by completing tasks, but by also reaching your audience on multiple, dynamic levels, across various platforms.

Employee Recruiting the Smart Way

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Successful Business People.Face it. Sooner or later – if your business is having success and growing – you’re going to have to hire employees so you can move on to the next level.

Here’s the problem. Every other company is competing for the brightest minds and most talented employees too. So how do you set yourself apart and get ahead of the competition? How can you recruit with the best of them? Here are a few ways you can get the most out of your recruiting process right away.

1. Utilize Employee Referrals — You already have great and productive employees who not only get the job done, but also fit in with the company culture. Why not utilize their address book or Facebook friends list? Looking at employee referrals as potential candidates is a great way to find qualified people without having to use social media or a headhunter. Referrals can also help speed up the hiring process and give you inside knowledge about the candidate’s character, personality and work ethic so you can streamline the hiring process.

2. Spend Time on the Job Description — This part of the recruiting process is often overlooked, but it can actually be one of the most important factors in finding that ideal candidate. Spend some time crafting a job description that accurately reflects not only the importance of completing tasks, but also qualifications and work experience necessary to benefit your company. If the job required 2-3 years of experience, make sure you say so. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you don’t want in a candidate either. A number of small businesses fail to accurately describe the details of the job, and therefore, don’t get the best possible candidate applying in the first place.

3. Use Social Networks — This may seem overwhelming, especially with what seems like an endless number of social media sites out there, but if you aren’t utilizing Linkedin, Facebook, or any other social media source, you are missing out on a number of recruiting opportunities. Start with creating a good online presence with a complete company bio and contact information. Make sure you appear human so potential employees feel an instant connection to your brand and company culture. Then, start using social media resources like filtering Facebook ads to those who have previously shown interest in your brand. You can also look into applicants Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter profiles before bringing them in for an interview.

4. Get Out of the Office — It’s easy to just draft a job description, post it online or in a local print publication and wait for resumes to come to you, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll find the best candidate. Get out of the office and away from your computer and find the brightest and hardest working people out there. Go to trade shows or conferences and talk with people about their background and work experience. Go to colleges and universities when they host job fairs and talk to recent or upcoming graduates about their future plans. In this ever-changing and dynamic professional landscape, you need bright young minds with experience with technology, even if they don’t have “real-world” experience just yet.

5. Stay in Contact with Candidates — As a job applicant, there is nothing worse than applying for a job or going in for an interview and not hearing anything from the company for weeks. Stay in contact with potential employees. Busy schedules are understandable, but if a candidate doesn’t hear back from you after a week, he or she may take another opportunity. Keep them informed about where you are in the hiring process. If you offer the job to the candidate and they turn it down, don’t burn that bridge. Stay in contact. They may change their mind six months from now or a position may open up at your company they are better suited for and more excited about.

So take action today and start recruiting the right employees that will help your company move forward in the coming years.

Finding Time for Vacation as a Small Business Owner

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My father is a small business owner. He’s been a small business owner for eight years now. His small business is a lawn care and landscape company in my hometown just outside the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

What started as a three-lawn, single-mower operation back in 2005, has transformed into a full-time job with over 60 yards a week. Mostly from referrals, my dad was getting new yards and expanding on a weekly basis. For a while, I couldn’t talk to him on the phone without the conversation going something like this:

“Picked up another yard today.”

“That’s great!” I’d say. “More business.”

“Yeah. Better than the alternative. Gonna have to start working Saturdays.”

Like most small business owners, my dad’s company is a 24-hour-a-day job. It’s constant planning and working to make sure he gets to every customer, every week. It’s his life.

This is the story of the small business owner. Weekends barely exist, let alone vacation time. In fact, a recent study reported that 41 percent of small business owners take vacation time less than twice a year, and 18 percent never take vacation at all.

Another survey, from Sam’s Club in 2008, reported that 50 percent of small business owners only take major holidays off. To put that in perspective, that’s less than half the number of vacation days the average professional takes every year. (The average number of vacation days outside of holidays in the United States is 13).

But does it have to be like this? We know that for some small business owners, taking vacation time is simply not an option. However, it’s important for not only your own health and success, but also the health and success of your business, to take some time away from the daily grind of dealing with customers or creating a marketing strategy. You have to get away and recharge.

Fortunately, advancements in technology have made it easier than ever to get away from the office while also staying close and “connected,” from your mobile device. Years ago, vacation time meant you were away from the office, and therefore, away from every aspect of the business. You had no idea what was going on until you returned.

Not anymore. With cloud technology, you can access anything you need as long as you have an Internet connection and a device — laptop, smartphone or tablet.

“Small and medium-sized businesses have clearly confirmed the growing importance of mobile services accessed via phone, smartphone and tablet devices when it comes to operating their business,” senior director of product management at Cbeyond Bill Thomson told Business News Daily.

Cbeyond, a cloud and communication services provider, conducted research highlighting the importance of mobile services in running a small business. They found that 42 percent of small business owners would have trouble operating their business without mobile technology. That’s almost half of all small businesses in the country that would lose business and profit without the luxury of working on-the-go.

Additionally, the survey reported that a third of all small business owners claimed their business would not just suffer, but would not survive without mobile services.

Look outside. The sun is shining (at least in Austin, Texas), the weather is warm, and a body of water is calling your name. Trade in another two days at the office for a long weekend at home, in the mountains or on a beach with friends or family. You deserve it.

And remember, with mobile and cloud technology, you’re never more than a few clicks or swipes away from your business. Just in case of an emergency.

How Visuals Can Immediately Improve Your Small Business

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Steve Jobs

Photo courtesy of ZDNet

Let’s play a game. I’m going to describe a painting, using only words, and you have to try and guess it as quickly as possible. Don’t worry, you shouldn’t have to be an art history major to figure this one out.

Okay, here we go:

Night has fallen across a sleepy rural town tucked in the foothills of a small mountain range. In the center, a church steeple reaches to heaven like the countless prayers echoed behind its walls. Above, a tapestry of blues and purples swirl across the canvas, crashing like waves on a shore — a blanket of tranquility protecting the townspeople below.

Any guesses? Don’t worry, I’ll keep going.

It’s nighttime, but the sky is not dark. No, it is a flare with 11 golden stars and a waning crescent moon, each enveloped in an eternal glow like candles at an all-night vigil. 

I hope by now, most of us know the painting I’m talking about. It’s Vincent van Gogh’s, “The Starry Night,” one of the most famous works of art in history.

Almost everyone has seen a picture of this painting at least once in his or her life. It’s absolutely breathtaking — a masterpiece. But something gets lost when you read about it instead of seeing it. No matter how eloquently one may describe a painting or sculpture, nothing quite compares to seeing the brushstrokes and emotion with your own eyes. (Seriously, read the description again, then look at the painting here. It’s no contest).

Keeping this in mind, why should your business or sales presentation be any different? Visuals are just as important when talking with an audience or to a client as they are anywhere else. You need more than words.

Making the Most of Visuals for Your Business

Statistics show that 65 percent of humans are visual learners and that the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text. Therefore, if you’re giving a presentation without some type of visual, you’re ignoring a majority of your audience before you even begin.

So let’s look at a few ways you can start using images and visuals for your business’ website or during your sales presentations to further engage your audience and hopefully attract more clients:

1. Product Videos for Your Website

Videos are one of the most effective ways to present information about your company or product without a large financial investment. Consider making some short videos to help explain your products to potential customers, especially if your product works well with a visual demonstration. A simple video can go a long way in not only improving your image as a “current” company, but it also keeps website visitors engaged longer than other media.

2. Effective Slide Shows during Presentations

The days of boring slide presentations are over. New technology lets you create visually enticing and interactive presentations to keep your audience engaged throughout your presentation, so don’t be afraid to flex your creative muscles. These aren’t your normal slide shows. Think of the late Steve Jobs when announcing a new Apple product. More images, more movement and less bullet points. Draw your audience in and keep them there. If you are describing features or an update on a new product, show the audience what it does, don’t tell them.

3. Communicate A Lot of Information without Saying Much

In today’s world, you don’t have long to get your point across. Just look at popular new mobile applications like Vine or Snapchat. Users have six seconds of video or a pictures that disappears after five seconds to get their point across. If you want to communicate a large amount of information with someone, you need visual representations – infographics, charts, etc. Anything that can convey 15 minutes worth of information into about 15 seconds. Otherwise, your audience is moving on.

I realize the irony in presenting the above information without many visuals. Believe me, I wish words could come across as beautifully as the effervescent glow surrounding the stars and moon of Van Gogh’s painting. There is a place for written content and oral presentations, but if you can start thinking of your marketing in terms of visual representations, you will immediately improve its effectiveness.

5 Ways to Recruit the Best and Brightest Graduates from the Class of 2013

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iStock_000024577981XSmallOver the past month, tens of thousands of college students across the United States earned their associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degrees. And after the graduation celebrations die down, these students will each begin pursuing a profession in a number of different career fields.

So what does this mean for you as a small business owner? How can you capitalize on these young, energized and passionate young adults?

A number of graduates will begin working for large companies because these businesses can offer enticing salary, benefits and security packages, as well as opportunities for advancement. As a small business owner, it may seem impossible to compete with larger companies in order to recruit top talent from the class of 2013.

One challenge facing small businesses is a simple lack of information for these graduates about the benefits of working for a small company. And while you may not be able to offer incentives big companies can offer, recruiting graduates can be simpler than you think with the right strategies.

1. Have Good Relationships with Local Schools

The importance of a college education is much more than just making good grades in order to graduate. It is also about having opportunities to network with businesses in the area. Students value the opportunity to network with potential employers. By establishing good relationships with local college and universities, these school can keep you connected with students who are close to graduating or have just recently graduated. This can also keep you informed on when the schools are hosting job fairs so your business can attend.

2. Use Your Size as a Benefit

Big companies have the brand name and look glamorous, but they aren’t always ideal for a graduate’s first job. At a small company, an employee can have the opportunity to get exposed to a number of different areas of the business as opposed to one department or task. They can also attend important meetings, communicate and connect with team leaders, directors and even the CEO on a daily basis — an opportunity that wouldn’t be possible at a larger company. (For example, here at Zoho, we all have the opportunity to reach out and speak with CEO and co-founder Sridhar Vembu whenever we want).

3. Talk About Your Company’s Culture

One of the most important aspects of a job for recent graduates is not necessarily the salary and benefits. It’s the work environment and culture of the company. Millennials want a job they enjoy going to on a daily basis at a company with a culture and personality that fits their own . Make sure graduates understand they are free to be themselves at your company and emphasize how the company values hard work and dedication. This can go a long way in recruiting talented and excited graduates.

4. Look at Students Before They Graduate/Offer Internships

There are a number of resources available for companies to begin looking at prospective employees before they walk across the stage. Use alumni networks, the local college career centers and offer both part-time and full-time internships for students. One of the best ways to avoid competing with other companies for a graduate is to establish a relationship with the student before he or she gets their diploma. Many students go on to work for the company they interned for during school, so don’t underestimate the power of an internship.

5. Place Importance on Your Online Presence

Finally, focus on creating a strong online presence for your company. From a visually impressive website to social media networks like LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, millennials want to know they are working for a tech-savvy company. Make sure your website has engaging content and visually impressive videos that attract young candidates. You can also utilize social media to post ads and highlight job opportunities at your company.

Believe in Your Business

You don’t have to be a large company to recruit the top talent from the graduating class of 2013. By implementing the above strategies and remaining confident in your company and company culture, there is no reason you cannot find talented, passionate and hard-working millennials who can help build your company on a daily basis.