The value of software tools to make your business life easier

In the face of the day to day challenges of getting your ‘business-brain’ back into gear after the Christmas and New Year hiatus.  I thought it might be interesting to look at some ideas that can help make your business life easier.

Regular readers will know of my admiration of Peter Drucker and his pithy quotes encapsulating so many truisms of business. Possibly my favourite is this:

 "The two most valuable functions of a business: Innovation & Marketing. 
These are the only two functions that contribute to profit.
All others are costs."

Given that a key objective is (normally!) to sustain and develop your business, I think Drucker’s quote gives some insight into ways it may be a little easier to do this. If it is the marketing and innovation functions that are the primary drivers to sustaining and growing your business, then maybe this is where you should focus? If you can reduce the demands of the rest of your business, maybe this can make things easier?

Cost: more than just money

When we think of cost, it is only natural that we think of cash, yet money is not the only consideration.

Businesses are based on 2 fundamental resources. money and TIME. I come across many businesses where the owner concentrates on saving money with no thought to the potential time cost.

The danger of this approach is that any financial savings are swallowed up by the time cost of having to work less efficiently. Savings are only real if you reduce the combined demands for money and time.

Technology – we just want it to work!

Over the past 20 years or so, technology has hugely changed the way we run our businesses. The internet and new software applications have brought opportunities that were inconceivable in the 1980s and ’90s. But these opportunities can come with an Achilles heel – particularly if you focus too much on saving money.

A common marketing approach with many web-based apps is the ‘Free Version’.  You get to use the software at no cost. This may be fine to start with but the more you use it – and the more you come to rely on it, the greater the problem.

Most ‘Free’ software has limited functionality at some level. If you find you use an application regularly but run up against the ‘Free’ limitations, you can end up spending more and more time trying to work around the restriction. Any benefit you gained in the first place gets wasted by your distraction in trying to keep it free. The problem is exacerbated when it comes to technical support. Understandably, Free software has little or no technical support – maybe a few online blog posts but rarely more. If you have technical problems with your free software you can find yourself completely stuck with no place to turn.

When it comes down to it, the best software tools are the ones we don’t really notice. We just want them to work!

Business needs investment

Whatever you may think, you cannot run your business for nothing. Every business, however small, needs some level of investment.  Rather than fixating on keeping software free, sometimes, moving to the paid-for version is a sensible move. This said, I would always advise using apps that have a wide user base and extensive, positive reviews. If you are committing to some software, you want it to stick around and be developed.

Often the cost is only modest – less than a sandwich a week. You will remove restrictions meaning you can use the software as much as you need to for the benefit of your business rather than spending time struggling to stay within arbitrary limits. You will normally also open the door to professional technical support. Fixing issues becomes s0omebody else’s problem while you concentrate on your business.

A word on Open Source software

There is some fantastically successful open source software out there, developed by a community of coders for altruistic rather than commercial motives. Surely this is ideal if you are looking for a free solution? In theory, yes, but in practice, most really successful open source software has been commercialised, at least to an extent. Also, by its very nature, open-source tends to be the realm of techies. If you want to use it you need to know what you are talking about. Not ideal for the average small business.

Focus on what is important

By embracing good, professional software tools, you can get on with the regular tasks in your business more quickly and easily. You are safe in the knowledge that when things break (they inevitably do!) it is in the interests of the developers to make sure they are fixed quickly while you carry on with your own business.

By streamlining routine tasks, investing in effective systems to free up your time, you gain the freedom to get on with the innovation and marketing that are the things to really drive your business forward.

You know what is important in your business. You also know which are the time-consuming tasks that distract you from focusing on the important tasks. Maybe a modest investment can help you redress the balance? Perhaps it is worth taking a look?

Get your business off to a great start in 2020

Happy New Year!

Along with Easter and the Summer, New Year is one of the three times each year when most people take some time off then come back to work inspired to take their business forward.

However, despite best intentions, it is very easy to find things quickly slipping back into the same old routines as day-to-day demands start to impinge.

Here are my top tips for progress and success in 2020:

1. Have a plan

Regular readers will know that planning is one of my recurring themes. It’s also one of the recurring themes in our podcasts (hear more at https://podcast.bsamarketing.com) but planning is vital. If you don’t have a plan and just make things up as you go along, you are not in control of your business. I’m not saying you won’t succeed but if you do, it will be luck.

Planning doesn’t need to be complicated. There are lots of business planning tools online but here is my suggestion of key questions to ask yourself:
• Where are we now?
• Where do we want to get to?
• How are we going to get there?

I’m thinking strategy here; should you be doing more of the same or are there changes that need to be made? What is the best way of using what you have to move your business and to make the changes?

Also, remember that your plans should be developed in the context of your business vision. This is the big picture, the WHY you are in business (do you actually know?!). Your business vision is about the long term rather than short term finite targets.

2. Take Action

Making plans and setting objectives is all very well but a bit of a waste of time if you don’t actually do something about it!

I suggest you take you planning ideas and then ask yourself what specific actions you can take towards achieving your objectives. This is about what are you going to do TODAY, TOMORROW, THIS WEEK, not what you might do over the next month or 2!

You already know that running a business requires discipline and drive. Having an action plan puts focus on actually doing stuff towards achieving your goals. It’s a cliché but you do need to find time to work ON your business rather than IN your business.

3. Focus on specifics

One problem with planning is balancing short term actions with the ‘big picture’ vision where objectives look great on paper but it can prove difficult to take realistic steps to achieve them.

Having a meaningful action plan is so important so let’s have a look at 5 specific areas of your business where you can make a big impact:

1. Keeping in touch: Review everyone you have done business with / had enquiries from over the last year – are you still in contact?

Keeping in touch with contacts is my top tip. Email and social media make it easy and inexpensive (or free!) to keep in touch and building relationships with contacts who know you and can give you more work is the best way to grow business.

2. Focus on Good Customers: Sort your customers in order of billed revenue – now sort in order of the effort you put in – Do they match? Should you be looking to lose some of your ‘hard work’ clients?

Recognising that not every customer is a good customer was a big lesson for me.

If you are confident in your processes to bring on new business, it can be easier to let some customers go if they don’t really fit your vision. Even if you aren’t so confident, losing one or two smaller clients who take up a disproportionate amount of your time can free up a surprising number of hours to focus on building more ‘good’ clients

3. Build on your success: List your 3 big successes from 2019 – what can you learn and apply in 2020.

Sometimes, good things happen and you don’t even notice! Have a think about your high points from the past year. How did they happen? Was there something you can take into 2020 and repeat or build on the success?

4. Learn from mistakes: Recognise your key disappointment from 2019 – what can you learn and apply in 2020.

Hopefully this will be harder because you’ve had more success than disappointment, but sometimes you can learn more from a negative than a positive. By staying confident and recognising the lesson learnt you can avoid repeating the experience.

5. New ideas: Are there products or services that you could add to your business in 2020? Do customers ask you for things you don’t offer at the moment?

Good businesses constantly review and refresh their offering in line with market demands.

As well as coming up with your own ideas, or using suggestions from customers, check out what your competitors are up to. Market research can be a powerful ally.

And finally…

Running your own business can be challenging, but also very rewarding. Many SME business owners spend up to 70% of their waking hours focussed on their business, so don’t forget to try to enjoy yourself!

Whatever you do, I hope you have a productive and prosperous 2020.

What makes a good client?

When you first start in business perhaps any client is a good client – so long as they pay! While this approach certainly has a focused simplicity, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

I have been asking myself what makes a good client for BSA for more than 30 years. I still don’t have the perfect answer. The problem, I now realise, is that my priorities shift. With every change in outlook, so what constitutes my ‘ideal client‘ changes. Talking with others, it would appear that I am not alone in my quest for client perfection! Maybe some objectivity, based on real-world experience, might be helpful.

Client or Customer?

Do you have clients or customers? The way I look at it is that if your business sells products, you sell to customers while if you are more service-based (even if products are part of your proposition) then you sell to clients.  This is a bit of a simplified view but it holds true for most companies. Consequently, it is helpful in this discussion where I am primarily talking about clients – i.e. where the service you deliver is at least a significant part of what you do. Big retailers wax lyrical about the shopping experience  – look at John Lewis’s latest push to develop ‘experience playgrounds‘ – but, in my book,  this is very different to a typical SME service business where having a good relationship ‘fit’ with your clients is pretty much essential.

The importance of fit

A key lesson I learnt a few years ago is the importance of ‘fit’. Like every other company, we have a way of doing business. As a small SME, this way is substantially driven by the people in the business. Trying to work with clients who don’t relate to this approach is fraught with difficulty. Not necessarily impossible but almost always hard work! Conversely, dealing with clients who do connect with our approach gives a great platform from which to grow a solid, long-term business relationship.

The challenge is that I can’t dictate how others think or feel. I can’t make someone relate to our approach. This means that even if someone shows an initial interest in our services, if the fit isn’t there, there is a chance the interest won’t lead anywhere. I used to see this as a negative but now it is definitely a positive.

Of course, this idea only succeeds when sufficient people do connect! It might be a good thing if some potential clients don’t have the fit – but there must be enough others who do!

It’s not about the money

I said at the start of this piece that maybe any client who pays is a good client but, as BSA has evolved, I am increasingly of the opinion that this is the wrong way to look at relationships with clients.

Actually the important thing is that you have a strong relationship with your client based on mutual benefit and respect.  Clearly, a business is a commercial entity so must have a fee structure that works. However, if your focus is on delivering real benefit, this will mean you are directed at delivering value to your clients. They will then be more than willing to pay for your input.

Focus on delivering benefit and the money will follow.

Nothing is forever…

At BSA, we are proud that most of our clients have worked with us for many years. Some for 10 years or more. It is a strong sign that we are doing something right!  Even so, nothing lasts forever. Circumstances change, personnel move on. Just because you stop working with a client doesn’t mean anything has gone wrong, it is just a natural progression. If a good client relationship is based on a good fit, then if things change for either you or your client, it may be that the fit is no longer so strong and it is time to evolve.  This is part of running your own company. What is important is that if business with a particular client does wind down, it shouldn’t impact on your relationship. Even a past-client can be a great advocate of your business for referral to new prospects.

…but try to keep the door open

Even with the natural ebb and flow of good business relationships, we have found it immensely valuable to keep the door open with past clients. Even if there is only a very small, low-cost service you can continue to deliver after the main work has concluded, this keeps the door open and a flame under the relationship. You still have a basis for keeping in touch. Just as the pendulum can swing away from a good fit, so it can swing back again!

At the end of the day, whether at home or at work, good relationships take time to develop and it is in everyone’s interest if they are respectfully nurtured.

Do you believe in your business?

Why do we do what we do?

I don’t know about you but I kind of fell into running my own business. I didn’t make some bold decision one day to set up BSA Marketing, I grew into it.

If I am honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing to start with. I had been working with my father and then, following his sudden death, I found myself holding the reins, and the debts, and the responsibility to our staff. I was almost too busy every day to stop and ask myself what I was doing and why! This went on for about 3 years and I really believe that if I had carried on down this path, the business wouldn’t have survived – and it nearly didn’t.

That was 30 years ago and recently I have been thinking about back then and how things evolved. From being on the brink of bankruptcy, how did BSA survive? What changed?

Believe in your business

I am convinced that there was one decision I made, above all the others, that put me on the track to success. I must stop trying to run my father’s business and start to run my own business. This meant moving away from just doing what we did and shifting to think about what we were delivering to our clients. Do I really believe in it?

This shift is fundamental to the essence of running a business. If you aren’t 100% committed to your own proposition, it is hard to build a sustainable company.

Marketing is a real belle-weather of this commitment. Marketing is about communicating your proposition and brand values, rather than just selling your products/services. You do marketing because you really believe that what you offer is beneficial. If you are committed to your business, you want to tell people about it. You know that they will appreciate the outcome of doing business with you. At a fundamental level, you aren’t trying to sell your products or services because you don’t need to. You know that if your customer understands your proposition they will want to buy from you!

This may sound a bit arrogant but actually, you are laying your business on the line. Deliver on your proposition, and your customers will come back for more. Fail to deliver and your customers will go elsewhere in future. Your business will fail.

Listen to your market

While belief in what you are doing might be core to building a strong business, blind faith is a step too far. If marketing is about communicating your proposition to your target market, part of this process is generating a response – and it is important to listen to that response. A common theme amongst successful business owners is the time it takes to create a successful company. In the words of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos:

Overnight success took 10 years

It is while you are growing your business through the early years that your belief in what you are doing is particularly important. You must have the confidence to stick to your guns. However, you must also be ready to listen to your market. It is customer feedback that helps you refine and improve your proposition, but if there is ever uncertainty about what your market is saying, you should always be ready to stand by your own intuition. Use the feedback you get but don’t be dictated by it.

Stick at it – with a plan

If your overnight success is going to take 10 years to come good, you need to be ready to stick at it! Confident persistence in following your belief is at the heart of most successful businesses. The biggest risk you face is running out of cash and this is why having a clear plan is so important. While you can’t predict the future, a plan helps you manage what the future throws at you. Your plan is also the statement of your belief in your business. You aren’t just making it up as you go along. Your plan is your framework against which you can make new decisions as you are presented with new opportunities – or challenges!

In my experience, it is a real privilege to run your own business. It can be hard work and challenging but the opportunities it presents can be difficult to achieve in any other way. However, unless you truly believe in your business, you are unlikely to see what it can offer to you.

Joined-up marketing with PIMMS – A practical approach

In most SME businesses, marketing is either focused on planning or doing.

Rarely is it focused on both. Why is this?

I think it is because the marketing services offered to SME business owners are either focused on planning (i.e. consultants) or doing (i.e. design, web, search, pr, social, direct, e-mail etc.)

SME marketing is rarely truly joined-up marketing, focused on both…. But it should be!

Good marketing is joined-up marketing!

PIMMS is the BSA planning model which not only helps you plan your marketing but also creates a coherent, joined-up marketing process for making things happen – sustainably. Let’s take a look at the key elements of PIMMS – Plan, Implement, Monitor, Manage, Sustain

PLAN

Your Goals

Planning is not about having a plan! It is about thinking through your goals and defining the processes you want to operate in your business to help you achieve your goals.

These processes must be practical and logical. Things you can and will do.

It is particularly important that you write down your decisions. If you don’t, it is easy to use the benefit of hindsight to massage your memory!

If you quietly forget the actual decisions you took and choices you made, it is impossible to reflect on them and consistently adapt to reflect the reality you find.

Never forget, it is impossible to foretell the future. Planning is about defining your best guess based on the information you have and using this to decide what actions you will take to help you achieve your goals. As you move forward, you are always learning. Used properly, your new knowledge can help you make better decisions.

Goals

Why are you in business? How do you want your business to operate? What do you want to achieve, for yourself, your family, your employees, the wider world?

Your goals are the endgame of the PIMMS process. Once you have defined them, you can then set out the path you choose to take to achieve them.

Remember to make sure your goals are SMART – SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timed

Your Proposition

A famous quote from Peter Drucker:

“The purpose of a business is to create a customer”

To achieve this, you need to give your customer a reason to do business with you. This is your proposition.

Remember, customers don’t trade with you out of the goodness of their hearts, they do so because they get value from you.  You might solve a problem for them, or make them feel better? Maybe both?

By defining (and writing down!) your proposition, you crystalise it. This allows you to objectively test it in the real world.

Never mind what you think, do you really solve problems and/or make people feel better?

Unless you are lucky, you will also have competitors. Other businesses who are trying to solve the same problems, deliver the same benefits as you. How can you differentiate your business to show how you deliver benefit more effectively?

Try not to think in terms of what you do. Instead, put yourself in eth position of your customer. What do they receive from you? Your perception of what you do and your customer’s perception may be quite different.

Remember what Peter Drucker says; the business goal is to create a customer.

It is the customer’s perception of your proposition that is most important.

Your Target Market

Creating a customer is central to your business. Where are you going to find your customer?

Having a clear idea as to who is likely to be your customer makes it easier to find them and to make sure you are targeting your marketing in the right direction.

In practice, defining a target market can prove challenging as there is a flip side. By specifying who is your target market, you are, by default, also defining who isn’t!

By excluding some people or businesses, you are saying here is a group of people who could (at least in theory) do business with me. However, I am consciously not planning to market to them as I believe they do not represent a significant opportunity to create the sort of customer I am looking for!

What if you are wrong? Actually it doesn’t matter. You know enough about your business that you shouldn’t completely miss your target audience, and anyway, if you do miss some opportunities, you can target them later.

Marketing is a Process, NOT an Event

Also, remember that your target market will always split between ‘People who know you’ and ‘People who don’t know you’. A good customer will trust you and that means they will know you. Building trust can take time.

It can be helpful to accept that creating a customer is a process. To this end, building a database of ‘People who know you’ and using this as a CRM* tool to grow relationships can be a great way to create customers.

IMPLEMENT

Knocking on doors

Sooner or later, if you are going to create a customer, you have to communicate with your market. OK, maybe not actually knocking on doors  (though why not?) but you have to get out there and take your proposition to your market.

Deciding what to say and how to say it can be overwhelming. There are so many different options – and so many people trying to tell you how their way is the best!

The key is to make a clear, written action plan that you are comfortable with – and then make sure the actions happen.

Remember….

Marketing is a Process, NOT an Event

It doesn’t matter if your action plan isn’t perfect. What does matter is that you get out and do something. By having a written action plan it is much easier to manage your joined-up marketing process and when it comes to reviewing how things are going, a written plan is extremely valuable.

Here are some ideas you may find helpful.

  • Different approaches will be more suited to different types of customer. If you are offering personal/professional services, a more individual/one-to-one approach makes sense.
  • Have different approaches depending on whether it is someone who knows you, or not.
  • Don’t do too much
  • It is better to use one or two communication tools well than to try to do everything

MONITOR

Measuring the Process

By measuring response to your marketing communication, you can see what is working and what isn’t.

Remember though that it isn’t just about signing up customers straight away.   Good customers may take their time to decide to work with you. In fact, a customer who takes their time in the first place can often be a more loyal and long-term source of business. It is worth the wait.

Most digital marketing communication tools such as e-mail, search, social etc. have extensive analytics tools allowing you to measure how people are engaging with your marketing.

Using these tools can help you find opportunities to build conversations on a one to one basis.

MANAGE

Refining the Process

A joined-up marketing process does not just happen. It needs to be driven. This can be challenging because marketing is also the easy thing not to do.

Doing no marketing has no impact today or tomorrow. Not responding to customers or dealing with enquiries does!

It can be difficult to allocate regular time to managing your marketing, particularly if you don’t have a marketing process. You find yourself working from scratch – and this takes up more time. Another reason why it can be easy not to even start!

Having a planned process that delivers meaningful measurement of how things are going makes it much more likely that you will put time to marketing. Even a 10-20 minute weekly review of an established process can point to opportunities that drive real progress.

SUSTAIN

Stick at it

I have said it several times:

Marketing is a Process, NOT an Event

Don’t expect instant success. You might get it, and if you do, count yourself lucky. However, normally you need to work at it.

As someone once said, ‘…the harder I work the luckier I get…’

Actually, when it comes to joined-up marketing, I think it is important not to have to work too hard. If you do, you are more likely to stop.

It is worth making the time in the short-term to build your plan and getting your marketing process up and running. This will pay dividends later. A good process is much easier to manage!

Download the PIMMS PDF and create your own joined-up plan

Want to know more? Get in touch

Where does marketing fit in your business?

Regular readers will know I am a fan of Peter Drucker. As the master of modern business consultancy, he has the advantage that previously there had been few, if any, quotable business quotes so he could simply say what he thought without having to put his words in the perspective of those who went before. He didn’t have to come up with a new angle on something. He just said it as he saw it – and I reckon he was one bright guy.

Consequently, Peter Drucker is immensely quotable on core aspects of business and marketing. He gets right to the nub of things and gives real food for thought.

Take this one:

 "The purpose of a business is to create a customer."

He goes on…

"Marketing is the whole business seen from the customer's point of view.

Taking these 2 together, I actually think it is wrong to ask the question: Where does marketing fit in your business?

The reality is that marketing IS your business!

Is it that simple?

Hang on a minute!, I hear you cry, my business is to provide this service or that product, and part of my business is to market and sell my service/product.

From your position, inside your business, it may certainly feel like this. You know how busy you are with all the tasks you do to keep your business thriving.

However, just take a minute and think about the first of Drucker’s quotes:  The purpose of a business is to create a customer. This makes sense. Without customers, your business is nothing but cost – in both time and money. It is the margin generated through profitable customer revenue that is the fuel to drive everything in your business. Whether you are a sole trader working alone, or a big corporation, this same basic rule applies. If you don’t have sufficient revenue from your customers, you run out of money and your business fails.

So, if we accept that a customer (or customers!) is the most fundamental requirement and purpose of your business, it makes sense that how your (potential) customers view your business is critical to your success. The process of getting your business messages out and therefore managing how your customers view your business is….Marketing!

So when it comes down to it, marketing is not a function of your business. Marketing doesn’t fit into your business. It is your whole business – as seen from the customer’s point of view. Ultimately, it is the customer’s point of view that is essential!

Some food for thought….

Free software. What’s the catch?

It has long been said that…

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch”

…yet all across the internet, there are offers of free software and applications including:

  • Website software
  • CRM (Customer relationship management ) systems
  • Email marketing tools
  • Cloud accounting
  • Social media platforms

These can all be really valuable tools to assist in running your business. Many are sophisticated applications that have taken thousands of programming hours to build. How come they are being offered for free? What’s the catch?

The short answer is there may be no catch. However, the important thing is to remember that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. People and companies offering ‘Free’ software all get something out of it.

What does Free mean?

To understand what it is they get, we need to look at the different types of Free.

  1. Try before you buy

    You can use this software for a limited time before you have to make the decision to buy a licence to keep using it. This can be great to check if it meets your needs before you have to commit but there are a couple of things to bear in mind. First, the Free Trial period may be quite short so, unless you are using the software regularly, you won’t really have time to properly assess it. Second, it can take a while to set up and get used to some systems so you might find the free trial is over before you are ready to make a decision.

  2. The Free version

    This time, the free version is not time-limited but it is functionality limited. The software app comes in multiple versions with only the paid options having more sophisticated functionality. In my experience, the functionality in eth free version is always too restrictive and there is a key feature that I need which I have to pay to get!

    Sometimes Try before you buy software might have full functionality for a limited period then drop back to more limited functionality. If the limited functionality works for you then this type of software can be a great option.

    Bear in mind that free software normally includes little or no technical support.

  3. Open-source software

    The Open Source movement is an altruistic band of programmers who believe software should be free for all. they will write applications then release them for anyone to download, use and adapt. There many, highly sophisticated software applications available as open-source (Linux and WordPress to name 2). The main catch with open-source software is that the support tends to be technically based (tech support for techies!). If you can work with this, open-source software has some great opportunities.   By its very nature, open-source software evolves and can even simply stop being developed. To address this, some key open source code has been commercialised where a company will take free code and develop it into their own commercial software which they sell and support.

  4. They want something from you!

    OK, you might not be paying money to use an application but you are paying in another way – with your data! It looks free but it isn’t. Search engines and social media are the biggest players here. If you want to know more, take a look at The Great Hack – a Netflix documentary investigating the story around Cambridge Analytica. It’s fascinating but a little disturbing.

The internet thrives on monopoly

The fundamental nature of the internet is as a data communication platform. It thrives on everyone being able to talk to everyone else. Inevitably if you are developing software applications, the chances are you want as many people as possible to actively use it. In fact, there is normally a minimum critical mass of users that you must reach if you are to be successful.

To achieve this critical mass it can make commercial sense so long as you are confident your app really delivers value.  To keep your software free encourages people to use it. Once you have built your user base (and got people committed!) you can then start the process of monetising.  I have also seen situations where lots of different companies launch different apps into a particular market only to find a single company buying them all up to create a monopoly. In these circumstances, the service to customers can often decline, and/or prices increase.

Using Free Apps in your business

In general, free apps can be a great asset to your business but my best advice is that you should assume that if you are using an app as a key tool in your business, that sooner or later you will be paying for it. And let’s face it, this is no bad thing. Businesses are commercial operations. If you are getting value from another business’s software then it is only reasonable that you pay them for this value. Pay them and you will have a commercial relationship that you both benefit from. You should also see regular updates and proper technical support – both help to keep your own systems running efficiently.

I often come across small businesses where the owner will adapt the way they work to keep within the limitations of ‘free‘ software. In my experience, this is normally a false economy. Invest in a proper, supported software solution. It is much more efficient. You can focus on running your business rather than spending time adapting to stay free. Most software fees are really quite modest. If you feel it is too expensive, are you really getting good value from that app?

In summary, free software can be a great benefit to a business – particularly in the early days. However, it is important that you understand the possible implications of ‘Free’

…and don’t expect it to be free forever!

The value of process in an SME business

One of the real benefits of running your own business is the freedom to do what you want when you want. OK, we all have to obey the laws of the land and pay our dues to HMRC but if you wake up one day and think –

Today I want to take my business this way….

…you can do it.

It means you can respond quickly to opportunities when you seem them in a way that would be challenging or even impossible to a large corporation.

Of course, you are responsible for actually making it happen and the results that you get when it does but you are free to choose.

This agility can be very attractive to your customers as well. The freedom to be flexible to their needs can make your business a more attractive proposition. However, there are limits.

Agility has a downside

If you aren’t careful, your flexibility means you can end up starting from scratch on every task you undertake. This might be great for your customers in terms of the highly bespoke service they receive but having to do everything from afresh is hard work – and time-consuming. Not having processes in your business can stifle your success.

While SMEs succeed through flexibility and agility, big business succeeds through effective process. Whatever you may think about your Telecoms provider or Utility company, they aim to deliver their service as cost-effectively as possible to as many customers as possible. There is no room for real agility. Big company success derives from building a well-trained workforce focused on repeatedly delivering to customers through well-designed and consistent business processes. Even the small players in these markets are quite big and are often backed by huge investment as they grow and work to become established – and profitable!

Learning from the big boys

So, if processes are central to the success of many big corporations, is there anything here that could be valuable to the SME world? Of course there is!

Even the smallest business has routine.

  • Picking/Packing/Despatch in E-commerce
  • Bookings and client communication in personal services and consultancy
  • Accounts and administration in every business! – Often dealt with by handing over to your accountant
  • Even the creative world of marketing can benefit from process – more of this later

The value of process for SME businesses

The more time/money you spend on the routine stuff, the more it impacts on your ability to deliver great service to your customers – the agile stuff.

By finding better, more efficient ways to do the routine is a key step in growing your business effectiveness.

Don’t just pass the job to an outsider

There are plenty of people who offer to take tasks off your hands but often this can just mean you shift from spending a lot of time on something to spending a lot of money on it.

This isn’t to say outside help is a no-no. Wouldn’t it be better if you could just find a different way of doing something so it was done more efficiently, either by you or your service supplier. The important thing is that you understand the processes so that you know what you are paying for if you use an external resource.

Developing your own processes enhances your business

By developing (and understanding!) processes that allow you to do the routine stuff as efficiently as possible, you can drive some real efficiency. Tasks can be completed by people who simply know how to run the process, they don’t need the knowledge and experience to make decisions on the fly. Also, you can effectively use and manage external help. Process can also save time. This can be particularly significant if you work by yourself. It is less a case of trying to pass tasks to others and more about reducing the time it takes you to do the routine stuff, so freeing up time for more creative activity!

Remember that it can be well worth investing in process. I come across many businesses trying to run everything using free software and apps. They end up making compromises in their business processes to stay within the limits of the free stuff. Being ready to invest some money in setting up your processes using paid-for software and apps (which normally come with much better support) can save significant time and stress in the long term!

Remember marketing?

For many SME businesses, marketing can slip to being the ‘Cinderella‘ activity. Often, marketing is ad-hoc and ‘make it up as you go along’. With this approach, it can be easy for marketing to slip down (or even off) your to-do list. Not doing marketing has no impact on anyone except you so it is easy to let it go when you are under pressure from customers and too busy doing your accounts.

According to business management guru Peter Drucker, marketing is one of the 2 most significant functions of a business so not doing is often a recipe for failure. Not only do efficient processes free up time which can give you more opportunity to focus on marketing, but you can also go one step further and develop processes to help keep your marketing up your priority list.

‘Marketing Automation’ is a real buzz-phrase just now but I think this is more about marketing service suppliers (well, some anyway) dangling a carrot of the (non-existent) marketing magic wand in front of frustrated business owners, than a fully hands-off marketing solution.

I don’t believe that real marketing can be entirely process-driven. Effective marketing needs creativity. However, creativity is primarily around your marketing messages. Communication of those messages is a prime candidate for a process.

If you find you struggle to get your marketing messages out to your markets, maybe process can help break the blockage and make things happen.

Process is undoubtedly a valuable tool in the business arsenal but remember:

Focus on efficient, sustainable process, not just getting the job done.

Your website in 2019

Your website in 2019

Over the past few weeks, we have had a number of clients contact us all saying the same thing, they want to refresh their website. All of these set me thinking about websites and how they fit into a business.

Things have changed a lot over the past few years. Up until quite recently, a business website was normally either a static ‘Brochure’ site or a data-driven e-commerce ‘Shop’. These 2 options have merged and nowadays, virtually all websites are data-driven, whether or not you actually sell products or services online.

Here are some ideas how you can check your website is fit for 2019.

Your shop window

It is a bit of a cliché but your website IS your shop window. Whether you are a fully-fledged online shop, a business professional, or a sole-trader just launching your new venture, when prospective customers/clients want to know more about what you offer, the first place they visit is your website. It is vital that your website ‘tells the story‘ of your business that you want your customers to hear.

Look is important but experience is more important

I was in a meeting recently (with one of the clients I talked about above) talking about a new website, and the primary thing they wanted to know was ‘what is the new site going to look like?‘ Now, don’t get me wrong, a website needs to look right – that is, it needs to look right for its business. It is a part of ‘telling the story’ – but it is only a part.

The reality with modern business websites is that the majority are built around pre-designed templates. There is relatively little bespoke design work going on – design is expensive! The thing that makes a website stand out is good images. Understanding what photography you want and commissioning a professional photographer can be the most realistic approach to getting a website that works for you visually.

Even cracking photography is only part of the story. If your starting point is simply ‘What’s it going to look like?’,  you have missed asking the most important question:

What do I want my website to do?

Another way of asking this question is to think about the experience you want your site visitors to have and what actions you want them to take.

Different pages, different objectives

The most important page in your site is the first page people see. While this is normally your ‘Home Page’, it might not be. A website can have an array of ‘Landing Pages’ all designed as a different first step in a website experience. As it is the most common, let’s look at your Home Page.

I believe a website homepage needs to do 2 things:

  1. When a new visitor arrives and takes a look at your home page, they are looking for something. At this point, they will only give you a few seconds to come to the conclusion: It looks like I’m in the right place. This isn’t to say they can see exactly what they need, rather that they have confidence they can find it in your site.
  2. Once your visitor is happy that they are in the right place they then need to know where next?  What is the next step to find exactly what your visitor is looking for.

This second step is likely to be a link to another part of your website so at this point, your home page has done its job. Beyond the home page, you should be aiming to assist and guide your visitor to their goal, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It’s not about you

I’m sorry, but you aren’t as important as your customer – at least not in their mind!

An effective website really embraces this concept and focuses on engaging with visitors drawing them in, rather than talking at them. Of course, yours is a commercial operation and your goal is to do profitable business with your customers. You need to weave your sales proposition, features and benefits into your engagement.

This way you lead people to buying from you rather than you selling to them – almost always a more effective approach for a long and mutually beneficial relationship – the best sort!

The calls to action

No website is perfect, nor can you second-guess the requirements and expectations of every single one of your site visitors. Hopefully your site does deliver for most visitors so, when they find what they are looking for, you must have a clear call to action telling them what to do next in the process of doing business with you.

For the minority who lose their way on your site, the importance is options. If a visitor feels that you look like a good option for their needs but they just can’t find what they want, offering ways to make bespoke enquiry, (maybe by email, telephone or chat system) can be key.

Let’s face it, unless your website is an online shop where people can place orders, the primary goal of most websites is to generate an enquiry!

Your website is a process, not an event

Change is constant. In 6 months, your business will be different to what it is today. 6 months later it will be different again.

Will your website adapt to keep up? Too often the answer is No. I started this article saying a number of clients had approached us looking for an updated website. This is what happens. A website is seen as a project. You build a site and launch it. Although there is normally talk about content management, in my experience, this rarely leads to anything significant.

The event of a new website launch slips behind the natural process of business evolution.

By seeing your website as a process from the outset creates a platform where website support, maintenance and update is built in. The evolution of your website becomes a natural element of the evolution of your business. You won’t need to be looking for a new website in 3 or 4 years’ time. You’ll already have one!

If you would like to talk to us about your website as a process for 2019 and beyond, please get in touch.

A better approach to website development

3 stages of website development

Creating a new website for your business is important. However, the normal approach to building a new website can create issues down the line, particularly for owner-managed SMEs who don’t have the necessary technical resources in-house.

We have discussed in other articles how, for many businesses, their website is a vital shop window. Even if potential customers normally come from Word of Mouth or other referrals, your website is almost always used as a way of checking you out.

Your website should continually be updated to reflect your business as it is today, not when the site was launched. Regular new content particularly News and Blog articles can be dated. They demonstrate that you are active and that your site is being kept current.

Alongside this, the more long-lived content such as the products /services you offer, the sectors you supply and information about the business and staff all needs to be monitored and kept up to date. Think about your business as it is now and how this compares to where you were 12 months ago. My bet is that your business has moved on and evolved. Has your website kept up? Your website should be dynamic-just like your business.

Why is it then that so many projects to develop a new website are seen as an Event rather than a Process?

I believe the answer lies in the way most website projects are handled. Let’s have a look at this and then discuss if there might be a better approach…

The 3 stages of website development

Normally a website development project goes through 3 stages:

  1. Design
  2. Build
  3. Use

1. Design

We all want our new website to look great so it is important to start with a good ‘look’. Effective design is a skill. It always intrigues me how graphic designers can come up with ideas that just look ‘right’. This has always been the case for printed design. The advent of websites added another layer of challenge – creating a design that will work effectively as a website. You don’t need to know how to build a website to achieve this but you do need to understand how a website is built and so what design elements will work – and what won’t!

Once you have a design, this stage is complete. Until you need to change your branding or ‘look’, the work of the designer is done.  They can move on to their next project.

2. Build

Building (coding) a website is a completely different job to designing a layout. It is (normally) done by different people. These days, very few websites (particularly in the SME arena) are built from scratch. They are almost always built on an established website development platform. WordPress (our favourite!) is head and shoulders the leader in this field. Even so, building a website that is easy for visitors to use and navigate (and owners to update) can be technically quite complex.

Another aspect of site-build that often gets sidelined is what you want to show and say – the content. I explore this further later on.

The initial site-build stage is a ‘project’. However, as a site is used and the business develops, there is almost inevitably the desire to add and develop new functionality and sophistication.

3. Use

The ‘biggy’! A website is a business marketing tool. While the initial design/build can run for a few weeks or months, the Use stage will run for a few years. So why is it that most website developments are seen as a project that ends with the site being launched?

Here are my thoughts…

I want my new website to look modern, attractive and creative. The first thing I need to do is engage a designer to develop a ‘Look’ for my site. However, I don’t want the cost of a dedicated graphic designer to create a look that then has to be passed to a specialist web development company to take the design and convert it into web code, functionality and pages. To get around this, many (most?) ‘web-design’ companies tend to combine the design and coding functions under one roof. By using one of these suppliers I can commission a design and build project. I can let them get on with it, approving things on the way as necessary.

This approach looks sensible, combining stages 1 and 2 and then delivering me a website I can use. However, the reality can be quite different.

Web development in the real world

A website is for life, not just for Christmas! – OK, not exactly, but you get my point. The issue is that a website can be designed and built without any real focus on ‘Content’. I regularly come across frustrated web design companies who will start a project and get to the point that they go to their client and ask for relevant content for th new site only to be told:

Can’t you just take the content from the old site?

To a point, yes; but this suggests there has been no real thought about how the shiny new website is going to be used as an ongoing marketing tool for the business.

Furthermore, strong imagery is increasingly important in website development. Most businesses simply don’t have a library of relevant, high-quality photos. Sometimes it is possible to use photos and graphics from the growing choice of royalty-free image libraries but other times you really do need bespoke photos from your own business. Organising photography takes time – and can be an unbudgeted expense. Not an ideal scenario.

By combining design and build (stages 1 and 2), the website gets launched (maybe with slightly incomplete content?) and the web design company moves on to the next project while the site owner is left to get on with stage 3.

Because many web design companies are focussed on a ‘project’ approach, making updates and minor changes to existing sites can be seen almost as an irritation. This approach can be slow and costly for the site owner.

We regularly talk to people who are frustrated with a website that is 6-12 months old. they want to update and make changes but support can be patchy, costly – or both! As a result of cost and/or poor support, too often a site is left and not developed/kept up to date

An alternative approach

I believe these days a better approach is to look at Stage 1 (Design) by itself and combine Stages 2 and 3 (Build and Use) in a collaborative way. The site is built so that day to day updates can be handled in house ant little or no cost while support is on hand for the more technical developments which are required every now and again.

With this strategy, a website can be used with ongoing support from the site builder who understands the technical structure and functionality. the website becomes a process, not an event. Most routine updates can be done in-house with support as/when necessary, while more significant site developments and enhancements can be planned and executed alongside the ongoing use of the site to market the business.

But what about the design? A new site needs to look great.

A few years ago, the phrase ‘website template’ was normally followed by jeers of derision. Website templates all look the same – and you can tell! Not anymore! There are now 1000’s of professionally designed templates available and most offer lots of opportunities to customise. Once you have added your own pictures, words and other content, your site is as bespoke as if you had paid £100s or even £1000s just for the design.

Of course, there is nothing to stop you engaging a graphics professional to design a fully bespoke site look fore your bsuiness. This is something we do regularly for clients who need that little bit extra.

With the combined ‘Build + Use’ approach, you create a dynamic marketing communication platform supported by technical know-how that a business can use and evolve to deliver a current and effective ‘shop window’ that stays up to date and of which they can be proud!