Four Business Functions You Could Outsource Right Now

One thing in plentiful supply in today’s business world is help. Orbiting every industry are providers, consultancies and independent contractors offering a wide array of support services. Simply put, it’s never been easier to outsource certain business functions so you can better focus on fulfilling your company’s mission and growing its bottom line. Here are four such functions to consider:

  1. Information technology. This is the most obvious and time-tested choice. Bringing in an outside firm or consultant to handle your IT systems can provide the benefits we’ve mentioned — particularly in the sense of enabling you to stay on task and not get diverted by technology’s constant changes. A competent provider will stay on top of the latest, optimal hardware and software for your business, as well as help you better access, store and protect your data.
  2. Payroll and other HR functions. These areas are subject to many complex regulations and laws that change frequently — as does the software needed to track and respond to the revisions. A worthy vendor will be able to not only adjust to these changes, but also give you and your staff online access to payroll and HR data that allows employees to get immediate answers to their questions.
  3. Customer service. This may seem an unlikely candidate because you might believe that, for someone to represent your company, he or she must work for it. But this isn’t necessarily so — internal customer service departments often have a high turnover rate, which drives up the costs of maintaining them and drives down customer satisfaction. Outsourcing to a provider with a more stable, loyal staff can make everyone happier.
  4. Accounting. You could bring in an outside expert to handle your accounting and financial reporting. A reputable provider can manage your books, collect payments, pay invoices and keep your accounting technology up to date. The right provider can also help generate financial statements that will meet the desired standards of management, investors and lenders.

Naturally, there are potential downsides to outsourcing these or other functions. You’ll incur a substantial and regular cost in engaging a provider. It will be critical to get an acceptable return on that investment. You’ll also have to place considerable trust in any vendor — there’s always a chance that trust could be misplaced. Last, even a good outsourcing arrangement will entail some time and energy on your part to maintain the relationship.

Is this the year your business dips its toe in the vast waters of outsourced services? Maybe. Our firm can help you answer this question, choose the right function to outsource (if the answer is yes) and identify a provider likely to offer the best value.

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.

Make Sure the Price is Right with Market Research

One way to help ensure that the new year is a profitable one is to re-evaluate your company’s pricing strategy. You need to devise an approach that considers more than just what it cost you to produce a product or deliver a service; it also must factor in what customers want and value — and how much money they’re willing to spend. Then you need to evaluate how competitors price and position their offerings.

Doing your homework

Optimal pricing decisions don’t occur in a vacuum; they require market research. Examples of economical ways smaller businesses can research their customers and competitors include:

  • Conducting informal focus groups with top customers,
  • Sending online surveys to prospective, existing and defecting customers,
  • Monitoring social media reviews, and
  • Sending free trials in exchange for customer feedback.

It’s also smart to investigate your competitors’ pricing strategies using ethical means. For example, the owner of a restaurant might eat a meal at each of her local competitors to evaluate the menu, decor and service. Or a manufacturer might visit competitors’ websites and purchase comparable products to evaluate quality, timeliness and customer service.

Charging a premium

Remember, low-cost pricing isn’t the only way to compete — in fact, it can be disastrous for small players in an industry dominated by large conglomerates. Your business can charge higher prices than competitors do if customers think your products and services offer enhanced value.

Suppose you survey customers and discover that they associate your brand with high quality and superior features. If your target market is more image conscious than budget conscious, you can set a premium price to differentiate your offerings. You’ll probably sell fewer units than your low-cost competitors but earn a higher margin on each unit sold. Premium prices also work for novel or exclusive products that are currently available from few competitors — or, if customers are drawn to the reputation, unique skills or charisma that specific owners or employees possess.

Going in low

Sometimes setting a low price, at least temporarily, does make sense. It can drive competitors out of the market and build your market share — or help you survive adverse market conditions. Being a low-cost leader enables your business to capture market share and possibly lower costs through economies of scale. But you’ll earn a lower margin on each unit sold.

Another approach is to discount some loss leader products to draw in buyers and establish brand loyalty in the hope that customers will subsequently buy complementary products and services at higher margins. You also may decide to offer discounts when seasonal demand is low or when you want to get rid of less popular models to lower inventory carrying costs.

Evolving over time

Do your prices really reflect customer demand and market conditions? Pricing shouldn’t be static — it should evolve with your business and its industry. Whether you’re pricing a new product or service for the first time or reviewing your existing pricing strategy, we can help you analyze the pertinent factors and make an optimal decision.

Following the ABCs of Customer Assessment

When a business is launched, its owners typically welcome every customer through the door with a sigh of relief. But after the company has established itself, those same owners might start looking at their buying constituency a little more critically.

If your business has reached this point, regularly assessing your customer base is indeed an important strategic planning activity. One way to approach it is to simply follow the ABCs.

Assign profitability levels

First, pick a time period — perhaps one, three, or five years — and calculate the profitability level of each customer or group of customers based on sales numbers and both direct and indirect costs. (We can help you choose the ideal calculations and run the numbers.)

Once you’ve determined the profitability of each customer or group of customers, divide them into three groups:

  1. The A group consists of highly profitable customers whose business you’d like to expand.
  2. The B group comprises customers who aren’t extremely profitable, but still positively contribute to your bottom line.
  3. The C group includes those customers who are dragging down your profitability. These are the customers you can’t afford to keep.

Act accordingly

With the A customers, your objective should be to grow your business relationship with them. Identify what motivates them to buy, so you can continue to meet their needs. Is it something specific about your products or services? Is it your customer service? Developing a good understanding of this group will help you not only build your relationship with these critical customers, but also target marketing efforts to attract other, similar ones.

Category B customers have value but, just by virtue of sitting in the middle, they can slide either way. There’s a good chance that, with the right mix of product and marketing resources, some of them can be turned into A customers. Determine which ones have the most in common with your best customers; then focus your marketing efforts on them and track the results.

When it comes to the C group, spend a nominal amount of time to see whether any of them might move up the ladder. It’s likely, though, that most of your C customers simply aren’t a good fit for your company. Fortunately, firing your least desirable customers won’t require much effort. Simply curtail your marketing and sales efforts, or stop them entirely, and most will wander off on their own.

Cut costs; bring in more

The thought of purposefully losing customers may seem like a sure recipe for disaster. But doing so can help you cut fruitless costs and bring in more revenue from engaged buyers. Our firm can help you review the pertinent financial data and develop a customer strategy that builds your bottom line.

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.

Four Ways to Encourage Innovation in Customer Service

When business people speak of innovation, the focus is usually on a pioneering product or state-of-the-art service that will “revolutionize the industry.” But innovation can apply to any aspect of your company — including customer service.

Many business owners perceive customer service as a fairly cut-and-dried affair. Customers call, you answer their questions or solve their problems — and life goes on. Yet there are ways to transform this function and, when companies do, word gets around. People want to do business with organizations that are easy to interact with.

Here are four ways to encourage innovation in your customer service department:

  1. Welcome failure. Providing world-class customer service involves risk, and inevitably you’ll sometimes fail. For example, many businesses have jumped at the chance to use “big data” to develop automated systems to direct customers to answers and solutions. But the impersonality of these systems can frustrate the buying public until you establish the right balance of machine and human interaction. Remember, every failure opens the door to better strategies for serving your customers.
  2. Link compensation to employees’ contributions. Companies that fail to reward innovation aren’t likely to retain their best customers or establish a good reputation. Because customer service employees tend to be paid hourly or relatively nominal salaries, consider a cash bonus program for the “most innovative idea of the year.” Or you could hold semiannual or even quarterly innovation challenges with prizes such as gift cards or additional time off.
  3. Praise the groundbreakers. Employees who challenge customer-service tradition may find themselves at odds with management. But don’t be too quick to reprimand those with new ideas or methods. Fresh language and modes of communication enter the public consciousness regularly. Give company-wide recognition to those who find ways to adapt — even if their initial efforts bend the rules a bit.
  4. Be the customer. Among the most simple and practical ways to innovate your customer service is to simply pretend you’re a customer to get a firsthand view on how your employees treat those who contact your business. Business owners can make these calls themselves or, if your voice is too recognizable, find someone who’s less familiar but capable of taking detailed notes of the interaction.

Finding new ways to improve your company’s customer service isn’t easy. But innovations are always just one bright idea away. If you’d like more information and ideas about building your bottom line, contact our firm.

Not necessarily a luxury: Outsourcing

For many years, owners of small and midsize businesses looked at outsourcing much like some homeowners viewed hiring a cleaning person. That is, they saw it as a luxury. But no more — in today’s increasingly specialized economy, outsourcing has become a common way to cut costs and obtain expert assistance.

Why would you?

Outsourcing certain tasks that your company has been handling all along offers many benefits. Let’s begin with cost savings. Outsourcing a function effectively could save you a substantial percentage of in-house management expenses by reducing overhead, staffing and training costs. And thanks to the abundant number of independent contractors and providers of outsourced services, you may be able to bargain for competitive pricing.

Outsourcing also allows you to leave administration and support tasks to someone else, freeing up staff members to focus on your company’s core purpose. Plus, the firms that perform these functions are specialists, offering much higher service quality and greater innovations and efficiencies than you could likely muster.

Last, think about accountability — in many cases, vendors will be much more familiar with the laws, regulations and processes behind their specialties and therefore be in a better position to help ensure tasks are done in compliance with any applicable laws and regulations.

What’s the catch?

Of course, potential disadvantages exist as well. Outsourcing a business function obviously means surrendering some control of your personal management style in that area. Some business owners and executives have a tough time with this.

Another issue: integration. Every provider may not mesh with your company’s culture. A bad fit may lead to communication breakdowns and other problems.

Also, in rare cases, you may risk negative publicity from a vendor’s actions. There have been many stories over the years of companies suffering PR damage because of poor working conditions or employment practices at an outsourced facility. You’ve got to research any potential vendor thoroughly to ensure its actions won’t reflect poorly on your business.

To further protect yourself, stipulate your needs carefully in the contract. Pinpoint milestones you can use to ensure deliverables produced up to that point are complete, correct, on time and within budget. And don’t hesitate to tie partial payments to these milestones and assess penalties or even reserve the right to terminate if service falls below a specified level.

Last, build in clauses giving you intellectual property rights to any software or other items a provider develops. After all, you paid for it.

Need more time?

Outsourcing may not be the right solution every time. But it could help your business find more time to flourish and grow. We can help you assess the costs, benefits and risks.