In the DIY culture of small businesses, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the options out there, and finding the time and money to dedicate to IT projects is not easy. All the same, IT is becoming an increasingly important aspect of being able to connect with customers and close sales. Here are 10 things you can do (some of which are pretty easy) that can help you use your IT resources to increase your revenues and profits.
1: Turn off the spam filters for sales accounts
Time and time again, I see businesses that have their accounts for inbound customer communications set up like personal accounts. Unless you make very little profit, the time needed to manually sift through spam is far less than the cost of lost sales, as important communications go astray. No spam filter is perfect, and lots of customers' emails somehow end up in the junk email bin or get deleted outright. If you are going to use a spam filter on these critical emails, use one that does not permanently block the emails.
2: Beware the coupon sites
Coupon sites are all the rage right now, but many small businesses have been burned by them. Not only are you giving a deep discount, but the terms are often tough for a small business to work with. Things like not being able to restrict the number of coupons sold, delayed payouts (to account for refunds), and the site's fees often mean that the business takes a beating. If you come out of pocket on inventory or have other per-sale costs, you can lose your shirt in a hurry.
Even for businesses without a per-sale cost model, the deals can be damaging. For example, a local gun range owner reported to me that his deal for inexpensive lane time sold a lot of coupons, but the coupon customers all showed up right before the coupons expired, causing big lines for the full-price customers.
3: Always provide an incident or reference number
While no one is a big fan of automated replies of the "Your email is important to us" variety, one valuable purpose they can serve is to provide a reference number for the incident or contact. Even if you do not use anything fancy for this, giving customers some sort of number to refer to is an important part of being able to follow up with them (or for them to follow up with you). It also helps ensure that when you talk to a customer, you both know what the call is in reference to.
4: Automatically notify customers as the status changes
The "big boys" with their automated systems often get a few things right — like status change notification emails. You need to be doing this, especially if your products are custom items. I've recently been dealing with a lot of vendors selling made-to-order or on-demand items, and a common theme is that communications are very poor. After a while, you wonder if you should just cancel your order and place one with a company that has the items in stock but not quite as customized.
Keep your customers in the loop and they'll be less likely to start looking at other vendors and cancelling orders. Many e-commerce solutions offer this functionality, so it's worth checking the documentation. If your system doesn't offer such a feature, you should make a habit of sending emails manually.
5: Get a CRM
Customer relationship management (CRM) systems are typically associated with big businesses, and this has been the case for a while. CRM systems usually require a ton of maintenance and upkeep, and they have high costs and difficult installations. But a new breed of CRM vendors are changing the rules and offering CRM systems (usually Web-based, with zero install or IT department needed) that are targeted at the small business. A CRM system is much more than a fancy email client; things like those order status change notifications and contact reference numbers are usually baked right in. Add on top of that CRM's other uses, and it is well worth your time to look into using a CRM in your business.
6: Search for yourself
Do some searching on the Internet for your business, and you may find yourself with a pile of things to take care of. For example, many sites list businesses' contact details, hours of operation, etc., and if those are wrong you will need to correct them. If there are reviews sites talking about your business, take the time to read each review. Then honestly evaluate whether they point to any problems you need to address or whether they give you a new opportunity for business.
While the temptation may be to post bogus reviews or to respond with nasty comments on the bad reviews, don't. Instead, use these reviews as an opportunity for customer service! If a customer had a bad experience, publicly offer to make it right. You need to make this a regular part of your workflow too, because taking a month to respond is just as bad as not doing it at all.
7: Analyze your Web site
It's easy to put up a Web site, but it is a lot more work to determine whether it is helping you generate sales. Start with Web log analysis software or Google Analytics to get an idea of what users are looking for, what pages are popular, how long it takes users to find the information they need, and so on. If you have a complex site or online applications, you may want to seriously consider hiring a usability expert. The cost of an expert can easily be paid for by an increase in sales if you do enough business online. Even if you can't afford a usability expert, using your logged traffic and conducting informal listening labs can provide you with valuable data to improve your site.
8: Put Skype to work
I cannot say enough good things about using Skype for business. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it combines a ton of useful functions, such as VoIP, IM, international calling, Web conferencing, and screen sharing, into one package. And it has enough market penetration within businesses that you can use it for dealing with customers in a business-to-business situation much of the time. For me, being able to do Web conferencing and screen sharing is a critical part of doing business, and I can't work without it. I like to backstop Skype with dedicated screen-sharing systems too, just in case I'm working with someone who does not have Skype, but I find that this is increasingly rare.
9: Hire a pro for your Web site
One of the great temptations for any small business is to try to save money by doing things themselves or having an unqualified friend or family member do them. And while that may work in the short term, the long term costs are often much higher than you think. This is especially true for a Web site, where the difference between an amateur job and a professional one is glaringly obvious. Sure, it may cost you some money to have a professional do your Web site, but they will get it done much faster than you will, and your time does have a value to it. More important, the professional will do things much better than you will. If you've ever decided not to purchase something from a company because its Web site did not feel professional or lacked things like a proper shopping cart and ordering system, you can see how easy it is to lose sales by doing your Web site yourself.
10: Use "Real email" — no excuses
I see this time and time again: The small business that would rather save $5 or $10 a month by using a free email account from Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc., than to just buy a proper domain name and get good email. What's the problem here? Well, for one thing it is unprofessional. It looks absolutely horrible to a potential customer to be dealing with a company too cheap to get email. If your target market is individual consumers or you have a unique offering that no one else does, you may be able to get away with it, but certainly not when working with other businesses.
Another problem is that the free email often has overly aggressive spam filtering that you can't control. You do not have to give up the things you like about these services by getting "real" email, and in fact, some free mail providers (including Google) have a paid option that gives you additional control, lets you use a domain name, and so on.
What other suggestions do you have for SMBs that are trying to increase sales? Share your advice with other TechRepublic members.
Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.