Sunday, September 22, 2013

When A Customer Contacts You, RESPOND YOU IDIOT! - 8 Things You Should Do.

I am a big outdoor person, and in particular a water guy (water skier) so I have a boat.  My boat is about 13 years old, so it is starting to get a few problems.  I bought the boat when I co-owned a boat dealership at the local lake.  The company we were selling for was a great reliable company that had awesome customer service.  As a lifelong small business owner, this was the only company I found to offer such high concern for the customer.

Fast forward 13 years.  I have a digital display in my boat which is going bad.  We have no dealer in the area, so I contacted a dealer about 100+ miles away.  He responded several weeks later that he checked and the part was basically not available. End of story.

I decided there must be an alternative repair solution (something the first dealer should have offered), so I decided to write the company headquarters.  I thought about calling, but needed to show photos of my display.  I thought about emailing, but didn't want to get lost in an email black hole.

In the end I wrote a nice letter detailing the problems including photos and questions as to how I might solve the problem.  Certainly they could think of something!? To be sure it was noticed, I sent it overnight mail (in the big envelope, with Attention Customer Service written on it), and got a delivery confirmation.

Certainly the customer service department will contact me immediately to let me know they received my package and will be working on it.  I waited, one week, two weeks, three weeks and now more than a month has gone by without the slightest hint of contact, or concern for my problem.

As a small business owner, what should you do if a customer has a problem or question and contacts you?

    1. Have systems in place so when a letter, email or phone call comes in, everyone in your organization knows who and how to handle the contact.
    2. Have a system in place to log in the contact so there is an automatic internal follow up system so the customer is not forgotten.  Assign a specific person to follow through.
    3. CONTACT THE CUSTOMER IMMEDIATELY - and I mean immediately, by phone, email or both.  You have to let the customer know you care and you are working on the problem.
    4. Do everything you can to find a solution or answer to the customer's problem.
    5. Keep in contact with the customer to be sure they know you are working on their problem.
    6. When you determine a solution (or not) let the customer know options, solutions, etc.
    7. Follow up with customer a few days later to see if there is anything else they need.
    8. Follow up with customer a few weeks later to see if there is anything else they need.
    What not to do:  What my boat company did, ignore me.  Result for them, I most likely will not buy a boat from them (even though I use to sell their boats) or recommend them to others.

    It is so easy to win over a customer and make them a customer for life by following these 8 steps.  However, it is also just as easy to lose a customer for life.  

    Your pick.

    Tuesday, August 27, 2013

    Come on now, tell the truth when marketing!

    I know we have all seen ads on TV for the next great product that will make you skinny, make you strong, make you younger and of course make the middle age fat guy have six pack abs by just wearing some device a couple minutes a day.

    Most people accept these ads as a little far fetched, and most likely far from being real.  As such customers either buy or not buy based on that skepticism.

    What makes me mad is when a local business, whether small or large chain store, misleads, or uses tricks in their advertising to get customers to visit their store.  Using such terms as 2 for 1, or limited time offer doesn't bother me.  What does is when companies artificially inflate their prices, just to get you in the door.

    Several weeks ago I needed to have a poster framed for my garage.  I have a bunch of posters in my garage already framed so I knew approximately what the cost would be.  As I was discussing this with my wife she mentioned she just got a coupon from an art supply company for 60% off customer framing.  This was a chain store business with a local location.

    Of course my thought was, wow, perfect timing to get my poster framed so I grabbed my poster and off to this company's local store.  That day they were installing a new computer cash register system so were having all kinds of problems getting my order together.  The cost of the frame came to $140, and that was with my 60% discount.  I questioned the price, but with the cash register disruption and the fact I had been there for about 45 minutes, I decided to go ahead and get the price straighten out when I picked up the order.

    The posters I previously had framed at a local custom frame shop was about $145, so naturally I was thinking this price was way off and so I expected a big refund.  Before returning, I also checked online to see how much the frame would have cost and it was about $130.

    With this information in hand I went in to pick up my order.  I first questioned the clerk that the price could not be right.  He checked and said yep, this frame is typically $391.  I mentioned the frame I had done locally by a custom frame shop was only $145 and found the frame online for less than that.  How could the exact (and it was the exact same molding) frame be $391?

    The clerk's response was that we are always running big sales so the retail price is inflated so no one ever actually buys anything at retail.  I responded "So basically the price you charged me, which was 60% off your retail is really your retail price, not your retail price you have listed and so, I really did not save anything"?

    He looked a little confused and then said, well yea.

    Needless to say I learned my lesson from this poor marketing trick and will never do business with them again.  I normally shop at local small businesses but made the mistake of trying to save a few bucks and ended up not really saving anything.

    Tom's #1 rule to marketing:  Don't mislead the public by over inflating your prices only to always discount them.  It is misleading, and really bad marketing.  Customers will catch onto this, and award you by not doing business with you again.

    Be truthful with your customers, market to them honestly and in turn they will reward you as devoted customers forever.

    If you would like assistance with your small business marketing,  please give us a call at the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center. We are here to help local small businesses with no-cost business counseling services.

    Thursday, July 18, 2013

    Make Your Store Visually Unique and FUN FUN FUN!

    Several months ago I was in Las Vegas and with the wife went shopping at the Forum Shops at Caesar's.  Anyone knows me, I am far from being a shopper, especially at malls.  However, I am always intrigued by the way stores market their products, and Las Vegas is known for going over the top as to marketing.

    One store really caught my eye, as it is so cool I am not sure how anyone could walk by the store and not stop in.  I know my wife was more than happy to let me look around and take some pictures while she found something to buy.

    The store is H&M, which to me meant nothing as I have never heard of this store, but found out later they are all over the country.

    The store had very unique and interesting displays.  There was a large screen video playing along with music that fit the mood.  It was just a cool and fun place to shop; something I thought I would never say about a mall store, heck I even bought a shirt.  A lot of thought, and money went into the design of this store, and I am sure the sales are strong because of it.  If you go to Google Images and type in H&M Las Vegas you can see a bunch more photos.

    As a small business, being able to afford the type of design and displays as this store is going to be way out of the budget.  But as a small business owner and entrepreneur, what can you do to make your business fun to shop at, and visually exciting?  

    Can you add interesting displays, TVs, music, photos, games, interactive products, fish tanks, etc. to make the visit to your store memorable.  Maybe it is just offering a play area for children while mom shops.  How about offering free beverages (Grand Piano and their free Cokes), or even popcorn for the kids, dog biscuits for the pets, a social gathering for a club, the list is endless............

    Ever small business can do something to improve the look and feel of their business appearance, both inside and outside, and thus make it more enjoyable to shop, meaning customers look forward to stopping at your store.

    I can think of many stores I shop where the store looks the same as it did 20 years ago, most likely they hadn't even painted in 20 years.  Heck, if you can't think of anything else to do, just paint your place a different color and move some stuff around.

    When I had retail stores we would move inventory around when it wasn't selling.  When the inventory was moved, it was noticed as something new and a frame that hadn't sold in months would sell in days because it got noticed.

    Step back from your store and look at it as if a new customer to your business (or asks your customers what would be cool).  What is the look and feel of your store?  Is it a welcoming, fun, cool place to shop?  If not, how can I make it so?  To get truly devoted customers you need to have exceptional customers service, but you also have to make your place a unique, and exciting place to shop.

    If you would like assistance with improving your coolness, give the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center a call.  We are a non-profit business counseling service that offers no-cost consulting services to small business and entrepreneurs.  Find out more at 

    Monday, July 15, 2013

    McDonald's 60 Second Guarantee???

    Recently I popped into McDonald's for a quick lunch. When I pulled up to the drive-up window to pay, the clerk handed me a 60 second sand timer.  She told me they offered a 60 second guarantee that from the time you pay to the time you pick up your food would be less than 60 seconds, or your meal is free.

    I though, wow, that is a neat twist on customer service where you get actively involved in the process, plus showing you how efficient they are at moving traffic.  After I paid I sat there watching the sand slowly go through the glass.  Part of me hoping the sand would run out so I would get a free meal, while a part of me rooting for them to beat the clock.

    As I sat there watching the sand slowly seep through the tiny hole in the two sides of the glass I noticed the person in front of me appearing to be doing the same.  McDonald's had gotten everyone's interest in this simple little tool that involved the customer, just like social media.

    Time continued to move forward and I noticed cars were only slowly moving forward.  There appeared to be no hope they would meet the 60 second deadline.  There was still one car in front of me when suddenly the sand ran out.  Their 60 seconds was up.  I felt bad for the team as they worked so hard to make the time, but maybe it was just an unreasonable time to meet.  Maybe they really never had a chance to meet it, especially at 12:00.  Should they have used a 90 second, or even 2 minute timer.   I would still be happy to have my food in 90 seconds and be excited they actually beat the time, for real.

    At last, I pulled up to the window to have the lady hand me my food.  I know they tried hard to meet this deadline, but just could not.  Should I ask for my free meal since they did not deliver?  How many other people asked for their free meal.

    As I handed my timer to the lady, I quickly turned it over so it showed there was still plenty of time left, and said with a smile, you beat the clock, good job and drove off with my happy meal.

    Don't forget, the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center (Roanoke SBDC) is here to help with our free no-cost business counseling services for small businesses and entrepreneurs.  For more info on what we can provide, go to

    Thursday, July 11, 2013

    Are You an Encore Entrepreneur?

    There are more than 70 million Americans over the age of 50.  For many of these people they are ending their primary career, but not ready for retirement.  For others, they will be forced to work, but may have lost their job and can't find another.  One option that many people of this age group are looking at is business ownership.

    1 in 4 individuals ages 44 to 70 are interested in becoming an entrepreneur, and 63% of Americans plan to work during retirement.

    Many in this age group (of which I am included) have skills they have developed over the years.  These specific skills can be quite useful in a new business venture, but the skills to actually run a business may not exist.  This is where the SBA and your local SBDC can help!

    The SBA has teamed up with AARP to develop special training programs for this group.  Go to to get the free toolkit.  Additional resources are available at

    Of course locally the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center (Roanoke SBDC) is here to help with our free no-cost business counseling services for small businesses and entrepreneurs.  For more info on what we can provide, go to

    Monday, July 8, 2013

    This Should Be You Annual Business Plan

    I know when you read my topic about doing a business plan, you probably looked the other way thinking "I don't have time for a business plan", or "why do I need one anyway?"

    Many business owners think a Business Plan is for start-up businesses, or for someone needing money.  They might think "I am neither so I don't need any sort of business plan."  Of course they would be wrong.  Things change and believe it or not, your business needs to change.

    When I was running my business, every January I would sit down and write my business plan for that year. It was a strategic plan as much as a business plan, but the terms are insignificant.  The point is that you need to do some sort of planning every year.

    I think simple is always better, so how can I make a simple business plan?  I believe every business every year needs to look at three items, and thus this is my simple annual business plan for your small business.

    1) Your Industry: Every industry is changing. If you sell multiple products, products grow, products shrink.  Take for example the video rental business.  10 Years ago the video rental business was strong, Blockbuster was going crazy and the independent stores were doing well.  Now you can't find Blockbuster, or an independent video rental business anywhere.  If you were in the video rental business six years ago you should have been looking to see what is going on in the industry before you signed a 10 year lease on your building.  The question now is, what is the video rental business 5 years from now, is it your business???

    2) Your Competitor: Competitors come, competitors go.  Some business owners just say "I don't have any competitors"  or "I don't worry about the competition, they should worry about me".  Hey, that is what Blockbuster was saying in 2008.  Every business owner should know exactly who their competitors are and complete an annual SWOT analysis (an assessment of your businesses Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats).  What are competitors doing, have they added new services, have they changed their pricing structure, have they gotten rid of services? What are they doing different, how are they advertising their business?  You really want to know what your Opportunities and Threats are before you lose those opportunities, or before the threats sneak up from behind and destroy you.  Again, ask Blockbuster why they didn't invent Redbox or Netflix?

    3) Marketing: The last area to look at is your marketing.  Believe it or not, marketing has changed over the last 20 years.  Believe it or not, Yellow Page and Newspaper advertising isn't the only means to reach customers.  If you are not aware there is this really cool thing out there that is pretty cheap and can easily reach many customers.  It's called the Internet.  Be sure you have a website, make sure it stays current and relevant.  Look at Social Media, be sure you are evaluating other Internet marketing ideas.  Also evaluate where you are spending you current marketing dollars, and does it make sense.  Are you marketing to your current customers?  Most businesses should be spending more than 50% of their marketing budget marketing to their existing customers.  Are you doing that???  Each Year marketing will change, be sure you are keeping up.

    That's it.  If you follow these three steps every year you will be a more focused, and stronger company and ready to fight another day!

    Wednesday, July 3, 2013

    Help Our Vets, SBA Veteran Pledge Initative

    There are many veterans in the process of transitioning from active service to civilian life and not sure what to do.  Becoming an entrepreneur may be one of the best things you can do with the leadership, discipline and technical skills you learned while in the military.

    As a former Army Officer myself, I know what I learned while in the military has served me well in running my own businesses, and now helping others with their business.

    The SBA has recently announced the Veteran Pledge Initiative whereby they have made a commitment to collectively increase their lending activity to veterans by 5% per year over the next 5 years.  Of course, any loan would still need to qualify, but with this new increase push, lending might be a little easier.

    The SBA also has their program Boots to Business initiative.  For more information go to

    Of course the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center is here to help you in any way with our no cost business counseling services.  We help the individual wanting to start their business or the person wanting to take it to the next level.  Please give us a call.