For Best Results, Start Your Strategic Planning Early

Time flies when you’re having fun — and running a business. Although it’s probably too early to start chilling a bottle of bubbly for New Year’s Eve, it’s certainly not too early for business owners to start doing some strategic planning for next year. Here are some ways to get started.

Begin with your financials

A good place to find inspiration for strategic objectives is your financial statements. They’ll tell you whether you’re excelling or struggling so you can decide how strategically ambitious or cautious to be in the coming year.

Use the numbers to look at key performance indicators such as gross profit, which tells you how much money you made after your production and selling costs were paid. It’s calculated by subtracting the cost of goods sold from your total revenue. Also calculate current ratio, which is calculated by dividing current assets by current liabilities. It helps you gauge the strength of your cash flow.

Examine other areas

Human resources is another critical area of strategic planning. What was your employee turnover rate last year? High turnover could be a sign of poor training, substandard management or low morale. Any of these problems could undercut the strategic objectives you set.

Examine sales and marketing, too. Did you meet your goals for new sales last year, as measured in both sales volume and number of new customers? Did you generate an adequate return on investment for your marketing dollars?

Finally, take a close look at your production and operations. Many companies track a metric called customer reject rate that measures the number of complete units rejected or returned by external customers. Sometimes a business must improve this rate before it moves forward with growth objectives. If yours is a service business, you should similarly track and assess customer satisfaction.

Set new objectives

With a review of your financials and key business areas complete, you can more reasonably set goals for next year under the banner of your strategic plan. On the financial side, for instance, your objective might be to boost gross profit from 20% to 30%. But how will you lower your costs or increase efficiency to make this goal a reality?

Or maybe you want to lower your employee turnover rate from 20% to 10%. What will you do differently from a training and management standpoint to keep your employees from jumping ship this year?

Act now

Don’t let year end creep any closer without reviewing your business’s recent performance. Then, use this data to set realistic goals for the coming year. We can help you choose the best metrics, crunch the numbers and put together a solid strategic plan.

The 1-2-3 of B2B Marketing

Does your business market its products or services to other companies? Or might it start doing so in the future? If so, it’s critical to recognize the key differences between marketing to the public — or even certain segments of the public — and business-to-business (B2B) marketing.

Whereas wide-scale marketing campaigns generally need to be simple, concise and catchy, effective B2B campaigns are typically more detailed, complex and substantive. Here are three critical points to keep in mind.

1. Solve their problems.

You’re not selling a product or service; you’re selling a solution. For example, a company selling aspirin is offering to solve the problem of anyone with a headache. But in B2B marketing, you want to show how your product or service can help a company cure the cause of that headache, not just the symptom.

Think of it from your own perspective. When other companies try to sell to you, you’re not going to pay for anything without an acceptable return on investment. Tell the businesses you’re marketing to precisely how your product or service will solve problems in areas such as productivity, quality, time, and costs. Better yet, show them with real-world examples and testimonials.

2. Provide plenty of specifics.

When marketing to the public, an abundance of detail can confuse or bore buyers. In B2B marketing, specifics are often what close the deal. Every industry faces myriad challenges that encompass a wide array of technical, technological, and regulatory details. Speak their language. Make it clear you understand what they’re up against.

And give yourself plenty of room to do so. Whereas a traditional sales letter or pamphlet sent to an individual is usually best kept short and colorful, B2B marketing materials can be longer and more detailed. Apply the same principle to social media: Posts directed at other companies can go to greater lengths as long as they include current and cogent points.

3. Get to know the people involved.

If you tried to get to know every person included in a mass marketing campaign, you’d never get anywhere and probably go out of business. In B2B campaigns, however, specific people — that is, those who make the buying decisions at your targeted accounts — mean everything.

In fact, under an approach called account-based marketing, a company directs its B2B marketing efforts directly at the individual or set of individuals at each targeted account (or certain high-valued accounts). It’s the “personal approach” writ large, with your sales and marketing staff working together to get to know and appeal to the sensibilities and personalities of the people representing the companies that buy from you.

Obviously, any B2B marketing effort will need to go beyond these three points. Nonetheless, they should form a solid foundation in this often-tricky area. Our firm can help you assess the financial impact of your marketing efforts, B2B and otherwise, and come up with strategies for the future.

Targeting and Converting Your Company’s Sales Prospects

Companies tend to spend considerable time and resources training and upskilling their sales staff on how to handle existing customers. And this is, no doubt, a critical task. But don’t overlook the vast pool of individuals or entities that want to buy from you but just don’t know it yet. We’re talking about prospects.

Identifying and winning over a steady flow of new buyers can safeguard your business against sudden sales drops or, better yet, push its profitability to new heights. Here are some ideas for better targeting and converting your company’s sales prospects.

Continually improve lead generation

Does your marketing department help you generate leads by doing things such as creating customer profiles for your products or services? If not, it’s probably time to create a database of prospects who may benefit from your products or services. Customer relationship management software can be of great help. When salespeople have a clear picture of a likely buyer, they’ll be able to better focus their efforts.

Use qualifications to avoid wasted sales calls

The most valuable nonrecurring asset that any company possesses is time. Effective salespeople spend their time with prospects who are the most likely to buy from them. Four aspects of a worthy prospect include having:

  • Clearly discernible and fulfillable needs,
  • A readily available decision maker,
  • Definitively assured creditworthiness, and
  • A timely desire to buy.

Apply these qualifications, and perhaps others that you develop, to any person or entity with whom you’re considering doing business. If a sale appears highly unlikely, move on.

Develop effective questions

When talking with prospects, your sales staff must know what draws buyers to your company. Sales staffers who make great presentations but don’t ask effective questions to find out about prospects’ needs are doomed to mediocrity.

They say the most effective salespeople spend 20% of their time talking and 80% listening. Whether these percentages are completely accurate is hard to say but, after making their initial pitch, good salespeople use their talking time to ask intelligent, insightful questions based on solid research into the prospect. Otherwise, they listen.

Devise solutions

It may seem next to impossible to solve the challenges of someone you’ve never met. But that’s the ultimate challenge of targeting and winning over prospects. Your sales staff needs the ability to know — going in — how your product or service can solve a prospect’s problem or help him, her or that organization accomplish a goal. Without a clear offer of a solution, what motivation does a prospect have to spend money?

Customers are important — and it would be foolish to suggest they’re not. But remember, at one time, every one of your customers was a prospect that you won over. You’ve got to keep that up. Contact us for help quantifying your sales process so you can get a better idea of how to improve it.

Build Long-Term Relationships with CRM Software

Few businesses today can afford to let potential buyers slip through the cracks. Customer relationship management (CRM) software can help you build long-term relationships with those most likely to buy your products or services. But to maximize your return on investment in one of these solutions, you and your employees must have a realistic grasp on its purpose and functionality.

Putting it all together

CRM software is designed to:

  • Gather every bit and byte of data related to your customers,
  • Organize that information in a clear, meaningful format, and
  • Integrate itself with other systems and platforms (including social media).

Every time a customer contacts your company — or you follow up with that customer — the CRM system can record that interaction. This input enables business owners to track leads, forecast and record sales, assess the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, and evaluate other important data. It also helps companies retain valuable customer contact information, preventing confusion following staff turnover or if someone happens to be out of the office.

Furthermore, most CRM systems can remind salespeople when to make follow-up calls and prompt other employees to contact customers. For instance, an industrial cleaning company could set up its system to automatically transmit customer reminders regarding upcoming service dates.

Categorizing your contacts

Customers can be categorized by purchase history, future product or service interests, desired methods of contact, and other data points. This helps businesses reach out to customers at a good time, in the right way. When companies flood customers with too many impersonal calls, direct mail pieces or e-mails, their messaging is much more likely to be ignored.

Naturally, an important part of maintaining any CRM system is keeping customers’ contact data up to date. So, you’ll need to instruct sales or customer service staff to gently touch base on this issue at least once a year. To avoid appearing pushy, some businesses ask customers to fill out contact info cards (or request business cards) that are then entered into a drawing for a free product or service — or even just a free lunch!

Encouraging buy-in

A properly implemented CRM system can improve sales, lower marketing costs and build customer loyalty. But, as mentioned, you’ll need to train employees how to use the software to get these benefits. And buy-in must occur throughout the organization — a “silo approach” to CRM that focuses only on one business area won’t optimize results.

Establish thorough use of the system as an annual performance objective for sales, marketing and customer service employees. Some business owners even offer monthly prizes or bonuses to employees who consistently enter data into their CRM systems.

Making the right choice

There are many CRM solutions available today at a wide variety of price points. We can help you conduct a cost-benefit analysis of this type of software — based on your company’s size, needs and budget — to assist you in choosing whether to buy a product or, if you already have one, how best to upgrade it.

Is Your Business Stuck in the Mud with Its Marketing Plan?

A good marketing plan should be like a network of well-paved, clearly marked roads shooting out into the world and leading back to your company. But all too easily, a business can get stuck in the mud while trying to build these thoroughfares, leaving its marketing message ineffective and, well, muddled. Here are a few indications that you might be spinning your wheels.

Still the same

If you’ve been using the same marketing materials for years, it’s probably time for an update. Customers’ demographics, perspectives and expectations change over time. If your materials appear old and outdated, your products or services may seem that way too.

Check out the marketing and advertising of competitors, as well as perhaps a few companies that you admire. What about their efforts grabs you? Discuss it with your team and come up with a strategy for refreshing your look. You might need to do something as drastic as a total rebranding, or a few relatively minor tweaks might be sufficient.

Too much reliance on one approach

While a marketing plan should take many avenues, sometimes when a business finds success via a certain route, it gets overly reliant on that one approach. Think of a company that has advertised in its local phone book for years and doesn’t notice when a competitor starts pulling in customers via social media.

This is where data becomes key. Use metrics to track response rates to your various initiatives and regularly reassess the balance of your marketing approach. Unlike the business in our example, many companies today become too focused on social media and ignore other options. So, watch out for that.

Ask yourself whether your various marketing efforts complement — or conflict with — one another. For example, is it obvious that an online ad and a print brochure came from the same business? Are you communicating a consistent, easy-to-remember message to customers and prospects throughout your messaging?

In addition, be careful about tone and taking unnecessary risks — particularly when using social media. It’s a difficult challenge: You want to get noticed, and sometimes that means pushing the envelope, but you don’t want to end up being offensive. Generally, you shouldn’t run the risk of alienating customers with controversial material. If you do come up with an edgy idea that you believe will likely pay off, gather plenty of feedback from objective parties before launching.

Reconstruction work

A marketing plan going nowhere will likely leave your sales team lost and your bottom line suffering. Maybe it’s time to do some reconstruction work on yours. Contact us for more information and further suggestions.

Do Your Long-Term Customers Know Everything About You?

A technician at a mobility equipment supplier was servicing the motorized wheelchair of a long-time customer and noticed it was a brand-new model. “Where did you buy the chair?” he asked the customer. “At the health care supply store on the other side of town,” the customer replied. The technician paused and then asked, “Well, why didn’t you buy the chair from us?” The customer replied, “I didn’t know you sold wheelchairs.”

Look deeper

Most business owners would likely agree that selling to existing customers is much easier than finding new ones. Yet many companies continue to squander potential sales to long-term, satisfied customers simply because they don’t create awareness of all their products and services.

It seems puzzling that the long-time customer in our example wouldn’t know that his wheelchair service provider also sold wheelchairs. But when you look a little deeper, it’s easy to understand why.

The repair customer always visited the repair shop, which had a separate entrance. While the customer’s chair was being repaired, he sat in the waiting area, which provided a variety of magazines but no product brochures or other promotional materials. The customer had no idea that a new sales facility was on the other side of the building until the technician asked about the new wheelchair.

Be inquisitive

Are you losing business from long-term customers because of a similar disconnect? To find out, ask yourself two fundamental questions:

  1. Are your customers buying everything they need from you? To find the answer, you must thoroughly understand your customers’ needs. Identify your top tier of customers — say, the 20% who provide 80% of your revenue. What do they buy from you? What else might they need? Don’t just take orders from them; learn everything you can about their missions, strategic plans and operations.
  2. Are your customers aware of everything you offer? The quickest way to learn this is, simply, to ask. Instruct your salespeople to regularly inquire about whether customers would be interested in products or services they’ve never bought. Also, add flyers, brochures or catalogs to orders when you fulfill them. Consider building greater awareness by hosting free lunches or festive corporate events to educate your customers on the existence and value of your products and services.

Raise awareness

If you have long-term customers, you must be doing something right — and that’s to your company’s credit. But, remember, it’s not out of the question that you could lose any one of those customers if they’re unaware of your full spectrum of products and services. That’s an open opportunity for a competitor.

By taking steps to raise awareness of your products and services, you’ll put yourself in a better position to increase sales and profitability. Our firm can help you identify your strongest revenue sources and provide further ideas for enhancing them.

Three Ways to Get More from Your Marketing Dollars

A strong economy leads some company owners to cut back on marketing. Why spend the money if business is so good? Others see it differently — a robust economy means more sales opportunities, so pouring dollars into marketing is the way to go.

The right approach for your company depends on many factors, but one thing is for sure: Few businesses can afford to cut back drastically on marketing or stop altogether, no matter how well the economy is doing. Yet spending recklessly may be dangerous as well. Here are three ways to creatively get more from your marketing dollars so you can cut back or ramp up as prudent.

1.  Do more digitally.

There are good reasons to remind yourself of digital marketing’s potential value: the affordable cost, the ability to communicate with customers directly, faster results and better tracking capabilities. Consider or re-evaluate strategies such as:

  • Regularly updating your search engine optimization approaches so your website ranks higher in online searches and more prospective customers can find you,
  • Refining your use of email, text message and social media to communicate with customers (for instance, using more dynamic messages to introduce new products or announce special offers), and
  • Offering “flash sales” and Internet-only deals to test and tweak offers before making them via more expansive (and expensive) media.

2.  Search for media deals.

During boom times, you may feel at the mercy of high advertising rates. The good news is that there are many more marketing/advertising channels than there used to be and, therefore, much more competition among them. Finding a better deal is often a matter of knowing where to look.

Track your marketing efforts carefully and dedicate time to exploring new options. For example, podcasts remain enormously popular. Could a marketing initiative that exploits their reach pay dividends? Another possibility is shifting to smaller, less expensive ads posted in a wider variety of outlets over one massive campaign.

3.  Don’t forget public relations (PR).

These days, business owners tend to fear the news. When a company makes headlines, it’s all too often because of an accident, scandal or oversight. But you can turn this scenario on its head by using PR to your advantage.

Specifically, ask your marketing department to craft clear, concise but exciting press releases regarding your newest products or services. Then distribute these press releases via both traditional and online channels to complement your marketing efforts. In this manner, you can make the news, get information out to more people and even improve your search engine rankings — all typically at only the cost of your marketing team’s time.

These are just a few ideas to help ensure your marketing dollars play a winning role in your company’s investment in itself. We can provide further assistance in evaluating your spending in this area, as well as in developing a feasible budget for next year.

Four Pillars of a Solid Sales Process

Is your sales process getting off-balance? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. Fluctuations in the economy, changes in customer interest and dips in demand may cause slowdowns that are beyond your control. But if the numbers keep dropping and you’re not sure why, you may need to double-check the structural soundness of how you sell your company’s products or services. Here are four pillars of a solid sales process:

  1. Synergy with marketing.  The sales staff can’t go it alone. Your marketing department has a responsibility to provide some assistance and direction in generating leads. You may have a long-standing profile of the ideal candidates for your products or services, but is it outdated? Could it use some tweaks? Creating a broader universe of customers who are likely to benefit from your offerings will add focus and opportunity to your salespeople’s efforts.
  2. Active responsiveness.  A sense of urgency is crucial to the sales process. Whether a prospect responded to some form of advertisement or is being targeted for cold calling, making timely and appropriate contact will ease the way for the salesperson to get through to the decision maker. If selling your product or service requires a face-to-face presence, making and keeping of appointments is critical. Gather data on how quickly your salespeople are following up on leads and make improvements as necessary.
  3. Clear documentation.  There will always be some degree of recordkeeping associated with sales. Your salespeople will interact with many potential customers and must keep track of what was said or promised at each part of the sales cycle. Fortunately, today’s technology (typically in the form of a customer relationship system) can help streamline this activity. Make sure yours is up to date and properly used. Effective performers spend most of their time calling or meeting with customers. They carry out the administrative parts of their jobs either early or late in the day and don’t use paperwork as an excuse to avoid actively selling.
  4. Consistency.  A process is defined as a series of related steps that lead to a specific end. Lagging sales are often the result of deficiencies in steps of the sales process. If your business is struggling to maintain or increase its numbers, it may be time to audit your sales process to identify irregularities. You might also hold a sales staff retreat to get everyone back on the same page. Contact us to discuss these and other ideas on reinforcing your sales process.

Business Tips for Back-to-School Time

Late summer and early fall, when so many families have members returning to educational facilities of all shapes and sizes, is also a good time for businesses to creatively step up their business development efforts, whether it’s launching new marketing initiatives, developing future employees or simply generating goodwill in the community. Here are a few examples that might inspire you.

Becoming a sponsor

A real estate agency sponsors a local middle school’s parent-teacher organization (PTO). The sponsorship includes ads in the school’s weekly e-newsletter and in welcome packets for new PTO members. Individual agents in the group also conduct monthly gift card drawings for parents and teachers who follow them on Facebook.

The agency hopes parents and teachers will remember its agents’ names and faces when they’re ready to buy or sell their homes.

Planting the seeds of STEM

An engineering firm donates old computers and printers to an elementary school that serves economically disadvantaged students. The equipment will be used in the school district’s K-12 program to get kids interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

At back-to-school time, a firm rep gives presentations at the schools and hands out literature. Then, in the spring, the company will mentor a select group of high school seniors who are planning to pursue engineering degrees in college.

Participating in STEM programs fosters corporate charity and goodwill. It can also pay back over the long run: When the firm’s HR department is looking for skilled talent, kids who benefited from the firm’s STEM efforts may return as loyal, full-time employees.

Launching an apprenticeship program

The back-to-school season motivates a high-tech manufacturer to partner with a vocational program at the local community college to offer registered apprenticeships through a state apprenticeship agency. In exchange for working for the manufacturer, students will receive college credits, on-the-job training and weekly paychecks. Their hourly wages will increase as they demonstrate proficiency.

The company hopes to hire at least some of these apprentices to fill full-time positions in the coming year or two.

Finding the right fit

Whether schools near you are already in session or will open soon, it’s not too late to think about how your business can benefit. Sit down with your management team and brainstorm ways to leverage relationships with local schools to boost revenues, give back to your community and add long-term value. We can provide other ideas and help you assess return on investment.

Trust Is an Essential Building Block of Today’s Websites

When business use of websites began, getting noticed was the name of the game. Remember pop-up ads? Text scrolling up the screen? How about those mesmerizing rotating banners? Yes, there were — and remain — a variety of comical and some would say annoying ways to get visitors’ attention.

Nowadays, most Internet users are savvy enough not to be impressed by flashy graphics. They tend to want simplicity and the ability to navigate intuitively. Most of all, they want to feel protected from scams and hackers. That’s why, when maintaining or updating your company’s website, trust is an essential building block.

Make it personal

Among the simplest ways to establish trust with customers and prospects is conveying to them that you’re a bona fide business staffed by actual human beings.

Include an “About Us” page with the names, photos and short bios of the owner, executives and key staff members. This will help make the site friendlier and more relatable. You don’t want to look anonymous — it makes customers suspicious and less likely to buy.

Beyond that, be sure to clearly provide general contact info. This includes a phone number and email address, hours of operation (including time zone), and your mailing address. If you’re a small business, use a street address if possible. Some companies won’t deliver to a P.O. box — and some customers won’t buy if you use one.

Keep contact links easy to find. No one wants to search all over a site looking for a way to get in touch with someone at the business. Include at least one contact link on every page.

Mind the details

Everyone makes mistakes, but typos and inaccuracies on a website can send many users to the “close tab” button. Remember, one of the hallmarks of many Internet trolls and scamsters is ineffective or even nonsensical use of the English language.

Check and double-check the spelling and grammar used on your site. Bear in mind that programs that check spelling look only for misspelled words. If you have correctly spelled but misused a word — for example, “to” instead of “two” — a spelling check won’t catch it.

Also, regularly check all links. Nothing sends a customer off to a competitor more quickly than the frustration of encountering non-functioning links. Such problems may also lead visitors to think they’ve been hacked. Link-checking software can automatically find broken links within your site and links to other sites.

Construct good content

Obviously, there are many more technical ways to secure your website. It goes without saying that cybersecurity measures such as encryption software and firewalls must be maintained to the fullest. But, from a content perspective, your site should be constructed first and foremost on a foundation of trust. Our firm can provide other ideas and further information.