Software optimize

10 ways tech can boost sales for SMBs

SMBs that are smart about leveraging technology can see impressive sales increases. Here are some ways to use your IT resources to accomplish great things.

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.

More advice?

What other suggestions do you have for SMBs that are trying to increase sales? Share your advice with other TechRepublic members.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

9 comments
jlanus_z
jlanus_z

Disclosure: I happen to be one. that said ... Long ago, when the Internet was young, there were a few usability experts and they were quite expensive. It was the Internet Bubble time, when billions of dollars were burned. This is no more so. Now we are many and don??t charge as much as others did during the good ol' Internet bubble times. Some free advice: Usually SMBs (and not so "S" Bs) publish their mindset through their web site, aligned with their goals. This is not that good, because in order to be a better marketing tool, the web site should be aligned with the costomer's goales, not the company's. A simple and common example is a company that publishes a conglomerate of sub-sites, each one exposing their own products. This can be seen in IBM ans Microsoft sites. The issue with this is that the customer needs first to learn the company's "map" and only after doing so will be able to sketch a path. If the site was customer-oriented, it would start by making evident that customer's path. This would make the user feel as if the company understood their needs and would build confidence.

Bomber1JZ
Bomber1JZ

From a customer's perspective, I could not agree more with number 10. Nothing turns me away quicker from buying something from a website than having a gmail or yahoo contact address!!

realvarezm
realvarezm

i know that it may seem so basic, but many SMB fall int to, from a password for the wifi with the fragile WEP protocol, to not use a router that can have security functions set. But most of all it is amazing that in this kind of enviroment you can find people playing angry birds for a whole hour! So that can be other issue how to evaluate the performance of users trough a monitor program for web traffic or general use of a terminal. It is very basic but i bet you have that scenario many times.

Tom Chapman
Tom Chapman

I like the points you make referring to keeping the customer up-to-date with notifications. Not communicating with a customer can end up leaving them in the dark, and possibly losing their trust. Combining points 4 and 5 seems like a logical action - with the CRM solution alerting you when a notification is due. Staying in touch shows the customer that you are a human company, and that you care about their business - not to mention giving you the opportunity to cross-sell (IF appropriate!)

pkwooster
pkwooster

Your suggestions are great and as the owner of a small business making websites for other SMB's I appreciate your comments about the DIY attitudes of most small businesses. One thing you should correct is the unnecessary use of jargon such as SMB's especially in your headline. Plain language is always easier to read and sells better. /Peter

net-essence
net-essence

Great article, we're sure to pass on the information to our clients. We focus on delivering Efficient and Cost Effective IT Support for small businesses with 5 to 50+ people, however, one thing we're starting to move into is how mobile devices can benefit SMBs. Demand from workers to use the same technology at work and at home is driving the take-up of schemes in business to make this possible. Bring your own device (BYOD) programmes formalise the use of smartphones and tablets at work and enable businesses to reap the benefits while retaining control. One of the benefits of schemes to enable staff to use their own devices reduced costs. Read more - http://www.net-essence.co.uk/IT-Support/mobile-devices-in-company-policy.html

Paul A Thomas
Paul A Thomas

Thank you Justin, Your tips are a perfect partner for my marketing tool kit! I am sure to be referring people to this article. It is hard to believe that in 2012 people still need lessons in what I consider basic sales sense, (Internet) knowledge and etiquette. Cheers, Paul

groundhog32
groundhog32

Couldn't agree more regarding company "maps". Just compare the different approaches by Microsoft and Apple. Worlds apart.

oluwagbenga
oluwagbenga

I like this article. The need for a professional web designer cannot be underestimated. There are websites and there are WEBSITES. Regards Olugbenga