Lockdown. Is there a silver lining for business?

These are strange times.

Everything, including the world of business, has been thrown up into the air. As they land, things have changed – or have they?

Yes, we are being asked to work from home if at all possible and always ‘socially separate’ but the vast majority are healthy, and the measures in place are designed to keep us that way, hopefully avoiding unbearable pressure on the NHS, keeping resources available for those who are in need.

Running a business has challenges all the time, COVID-19 is just another one that happens to be affecting most people all at once. If I have learnt one thing from over 30 years in business it is that challenges encourage adaption and adaption can deliver real benefit.

So how can you adapt to see the real benefit for your business when the dust settles? Here are my thoughts….

1. Don’t panic

Suddenly being told you can’t go out to business and finding clients cancelling or postponing the projects you rely on is a real shock. It is easy to be like a startled rabbit in headlights and just freeze. Perhaps this is a natural reaction but take a deep breath and count to 10. Business is a long term proposition and any successful business should plan for knock-backs. The unexpected can happen at any time. It is good to have a ‘rainy-day’ fund. The rainy day is here but there is no need to panic. Better to plan.

The essence of business is cashflow. So perhaps the first step is to address cashflow concerns. The government has already stated that they want to protect businesses from the impact of Covid-19 and have announced extensive measures to provide direct financial support through a mixture of Grants and Loans. Details are still sketchy but probably the best source of information is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-employers-and-businesses-about-covid-19/covid-19-support-for-businesses

This page is being updated pretty regularly.

For the self-employed it has just been announced (in the past few minutes!) that support will be broadly in line with that already announced for emplioyees on PAYE. Implemetation will inevitably more complex.

Beyond direct government support, you may also be able to make arrangements with customers and suppliers to ease you own financial path. Banks, lenders, mortgage companies etc. are all offering support.

Naturally, some businesses are more vulnerable than others but as the adage goes: Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Don’t panic. Don’t be the rabbit in the headlights. Take control and make a plan (where have I said that before!). Your plan can be your salvation.

2. Work on your business

It is often quoted by SME owners that they are too busy working in their business to work on their business – not any more!

The optimists can see the current situation as a real opportunity. Your business fundamentals haven’t changed. If you had a good business on 1st March, you can still have a good business when the crisis abates. OK nobody knows the full timescales but taking a 3-6month view seems reasonable in the light of the available evidence.

Once you have your plan to ride out the storm, you can look ahead and work to make your business a better business, ready and stronger for when the economy reopens.

3. Tap into your expertise/experience

We all try to  run our business in the best way possible but inevitably you sometimes have great ideas but never find the time to implement them. Now you can!

Also so you may see ways that others operate and think ‘That’s a good idea, I could learn something from this‘. They may be customers, suppliers, competitors, or others. There can often be ways you see others operate that could work in your business and make your business better.

Now you have the time to tap in to this knowledge/expertise and do something about it! Have confidence that your successful business in February is still sound – and now you have time to make it better. The work that isn’t being done now will need to be done later so make sure you are ready for it – and ahead of the pack.

4. Stay engaged with your customers and markets

When things get difficult, inevitably, business owners tend to focus on their own needs but, as I have talked about above, it is great if you can get your head around accepting the short-term situation and return to thinking longer term. Don’t forget the infinite game that we are still playing. Many people may be focused on their own needs but it is still good to talk.

Stay engaged with your contacts. There are lots of ways to do this and technology offers some great opportunities. We look at some in this post.

Remember though that engagement doesn’t mean selling. Many businesses blur the lime between marketing and selling, seeing any communication as sales promotion. I don’t belive that now is the time for the hard sell. It is about us all trying to work together to get through. Better to focus on help and support. Make sure people know where you are if they need you.

Try to be helpful. Many business owners are understandably anxious. A bit of altruism in challenging times can pay real dividends in the long term. We all know we are in business. Our business is our livelihood and we don’t suddenly have to do everything for nothing. It is about mutual support and balance.

5. The way ahead

Things have changed – there is no going back.

The current pandemic was previously only in books and Hollywood – now it is real and affecting everyone.

We should be thankful that it isn’t worse than it is. SARS and Ebola are significantly more deadly even if they proved easier to contain.

We are being forced to think differently. Some things will be harder/slower/more challenging but others will be easier/faster/better. By first addressing the immediate adversities and clarifying your strategy for the coming months (essentially a cash-flow plan) you can then start to look ahead to prepare to your business, ready to make the most of the opportunities when the world re opens to what will be the new normal.

As with any significant change. Some will benefit and some will struggle. A bit of objective thought and planning can help make sure there is a silver lining to this strange, locked-down world for you and your business.

As always, I am happy to talk.

Stay safe and stay positive.

4 Tools we could no longer live without

As we discussed in this week’s Marketing Matters podcast, one or two things have changed over the last couple of weeks!

One of the biggest changes for many is the need to WFH (work from home), remote from the normal office environment. For us, it’s no different, and I am now writing this post from home.

Up to now, the ability to work remotely was something we did occasionally and if we could not, it wasn’t a big deal! Now it is a necessity. A number of systems, which we had seen as peripheral to our operation, are now key. I thought this would be an opportunity to talk about our experiences with cloud applications and to highlight the four that we cannot live without right now:

1. Office 365

Through Office 365, Microsoft delivers a suite of office programmes as software as a service. Most people’s introduction to Office 365 will be Exchange email + Outlook. This in itself is a great tool, and gives you full access to your email from anywhere with a web connection. Anything you do being synced across all devices. But beyond Outlook, O365 delivers a full suite of programmes that allow you to be location agnostic (functional from wherever you are, as long as you have a connection to the net). Yes, this includes the staple office apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint etc), but it also gives access to tools like One Drive, which gives you cloud access to files, Teams, for on-line collaboration, and many more.

With an Office 365 subscription and an internet connection, you can turn any PC (or Mac) into a fully functional office tool in a matter of minutes, with full access to all your contacts and files.

2. Zoom Video Meeting

2 months ago I had pretty much never used Zoom. Now video meetings are a key part of my working day. We have looked at and tried out a number of video meeting systems (Skype, Zoho Meeting, Microsoft Teams, Facetime etc.) but at the end of the day, Zoom.us is our favourite, and here is why:

  1. It just works – It’s my experience that the technology just works, and does not get in the way of what I am trying to do. In my book this is the number one requirement. If you have to think too hard using a piece of technology, you are probably not going to use it. Whilst there may be a learning curve, once you are used to it, it should just work and in my experience, in this area Zoom delivers.
  2. It is platform agnostic – Unlike options such as Facetime and Skype, where generally all parties involved must sign up to a proprietary system (Microsoft for Skype, Apple/IOS for Facetime) – With Zoom, only the person initiating the meeting needs an account. Whilst other people do need to download a small app (which happens pretty seemlessly) there is no need for all participants to create an account, and it works on pretty much any device, desktop or mobile.
  3.  It has a free option, and some useful paid add ons – With the free option, the only real limitation is meeting length, capped at 40 mins – This will probably be fine for most, but the paid version at £12 per month, is great value if you need longer meetings. What’s more, only the person initiating the meeting needs a paid account to gain this benefit.

….however….

As so often with technology, nothing is perfect. There are downsides, and in the case of Zoom, the downside is their privacy policy, which allows them to collect data from your calls, including videos, screen shares, chat transcripts etc. and to use this data for various purposes. Zoom do say they will not sell your data. Whilst privacy is a concern, it does very much depend on how and why you are using Zoom. For us, and the types of conversations we have, right  now we see it as a good tool with the benefits outweighing the negatives.

For those who want to use a video chat for more sensitive purposes, maybe an alternative tool might be more appropriate. However, in our experience none of the other options deliver comparable performance, functionality or ease of use.

3. Xero Accounting

Historically, we have used Sage Line 50, and recently moved our accounts onto the cloud with Xero.  Sage is a good system, that worked well for us for many years, but it was predominently desk based, and relied on a data file that needed to be moved if you wanted to access it from a different location. Whilst Sage has moved on since we switched and now offer cloud options, Xero is again totally location agnostic, and allows you to manage your accounts from whereever you wish (so long as you are on line!).

Again a priceless facility in these times.

4. Cloud PBX IP Phone system – 3CX

The final one on my list is our phone system. Coincidentally, we switched from an office-hosted ISDN phone system to cloud-based 3cx just two months ago. Boy are we glad we did! 3CX works seamlessly when we are in the office, working as a traditional system with desktop extensions. When we were forced to work from home, switching the extensions to home was a doddle. Again, because everything is hosted in the cloud, all management of the system can be done online, anywhere with a connection to the web.

With the right tools, Working From Home need not be an issue

For us at least, these four tools have meant the switch to Working From Home has been bearable, even if it is taking a bit of getting used to! From the perspective of our clients, it has hopefully been fairly seamless. We are still able to pretty much operate “Business as usual”. In many cases, somewhat ironically, we find we are speaking to to people “face to face” more often than we have before!

I think that some of the changes arising out of necessity in the current lock-down climate will have positive repercussions for our business long into the future.

Why WordPress?

I recently wrote how, in a ‘real-world’ business, I believe you should think about technology as the means, not the end. The ‘end’ being your business goals while technology is the tool to help you achieve them. (You can read more here)

I’d like to continue this theme looking specifically at websites and, even more specifically, why I am a fan of WordPress.

Why do you want a website?

A website is a business tool. So, what are the business goals that you want your website to help you achieve?

Most people answer this question quite generally (more sales, more leads, growth etc.) – but these goals aren’t very SMART. In fact, more often than not, the creation of the website becomes the goal itself – which brings us back to focusing on the wrong thing. Aaargh!

Having a website doesn’t make your business better. It is how you use your website to achieve business goals that can make your business better. However, if the focus is on building a website, it might only be after it is launched that you turn your attention to the business goals you want to achieve using it. This is where having a website you can ‘do stuff’ with yourself starts to be extremely valuable.

Why WordPress?

A traditional (coded) website needs a knowledgable webmaster to manage it. In a small business, this normally means outsourcing which tends to be either costly (if your supplier is good at their job, so ‘in demand’ and able to command higher fees), or frustrating (if you go down the ‘friend of a friend’ route but find your ‘web person’ ever more difficult to get hold of!)

Back in 2003, WordPress launched and started the trend of more accessible options for building websites and blogs. Since then, WordPress has developed into the single most popular website development platform in the world. Some estimates calculate that around 35% of the entire internet is powered by WordPress with over 50,000 new WordPress sites being launched every day!

At BSA we built our first WordPress website in 2011 and we haven’t looked back. I continue to be impressed with its flexibility and practicality. So what is so great about it? Why is WordPress ideal for most SME business websites?

Cost-Effectiveness

The core WordPress software is open source meaning it is free to use. This is a great starting point for building a cost-effective website. Of course, involving a professional supplier to design and build your website does bring in some cost but the nature of WordPress allows sites to be built relatively quickly and efficiently meaning a lower project cost. Furthermore, the accessibility and flexibility I discuss below bring additional cost benefits in relation to the ongoing use of your website as a dynamic business tool.

Flexibility

Because WordPress is so popular, there are LOTS of people out there who build ‘plugins‘ to add functionality to the core WordPress platform. OK, many of the popular and respected plugins do come with a fee (though there are often free versions with fewer options) but the fees are normally modest and great value for the additional functionality you get.  After all, you are using your website to make your business better and effective investment is at the heart of every successful business.

If you are looking to add bells and whistles to your website to make it work the way you want for your business, chances are that someone has written just the plugin you need!

Accessibility

WordPress is designed with Content Management in mind. Day to day management of your website content can be handled in-house (if you choose). Gone are the days when every change of a picture or text means tracking down your web developer and receiving their bill!

Bear in mind that making your website accessible and easy to use day to day should be part of the initial design and build project. Spending a bit more to get your site properly set up for you or your team to manage in-house is a valuable investment.

Great for Collaboration

I have no doubt that the best way to ensure your website really works for your business is to take ownership and manage the day to day updates and maintenance in-house. This way, your site will stay dynamic (good for SEO!) and relevant to your business (giving your visitors the right information and messages).  A good website shouldn’t be one that you change completely every few years. rather it should evolve steadily over time. However, as part of this evolution, it is likely that you will want to make some more significant changes to your site from time to time. This is where collaboration works well. You manage the day to day while you have specialists on hand ready to ‘get their hands dirty’ to make more significant (and less frequent) changes. It just isn’t worth having these capabilities in-house.

When working with clients on websites, a collaborative approach is our favourite.

Is WordPress Perfect?

I like to keep a real-world perspective and, in the real-world, WordPress is not perfect. There are plenty of gain-sayers across the internet who will point out the weaknesses. However, we have nearly 10 years of practical experience and in all that time, we have found any of these weaknesses can be addressed and negated with a bit of organisation and planning.

This article looks at the potential downsides of WordPress in some detail.

And finally…

Want to know a bit more about WordPress? Here are some links you may find useful/interesting:

  1. The BSA Showcase – some of the WordPress sites we have built
  2. WordPress Stats – some amazing stats showing just how big WordPress is
  3. Get WordPress – Download your own copy

If you have any questions or want to talk WordPress – do get in touch

Technology – Focus on the end NOT the means

The Problem

Running your own business means you need to wear a lot of different hats. Some times you are CEO, sometimes you are the filing clerk!  This diversity can help to make life interesting but sometimes it can conspire against you.

Our client, Helen Burgess, runs On Point Coaching, a professional practice helping clients address both personal and business challenges. When working with individuals, making appointments for coaching sessions tends to be straightforward. Normally it was an integrated element of the coach/coachee relationship. A fairly ‘laissez-faire‘ approach worked well.

Helen secured a contract, working with senior members of staff in a large organisation. She quickly recognised that her normal approach to appointments was not appropriate. It blurred the boundary between professional coach and administrator. Equally important was the danger that setting (and changing) appointments would take up a lot of time for Helen and her clients.

Through her professional network, a contact introduced Helene to 10to8. This is a web-based appointment and diary management system. It looked like it might offer a solution. However, she needed to be sure that the system could address her needs. Furthermore, it had to be implemented in a way that was both timely and effective.

We were already hosting the On Point Coaching website and had done some marketing consultancy with Helen. She contacted us to see if we might be able to assist with her current needs.

Our Approach

Although the core objective was to implement a technology solution to deliver a more appropriate approach to appointment setting and management for her practice, we recognised that it wasn’t sufficient to only know how to install and configure the software. The software is the means, not the end. We needed to be confident that we could help Helen and deliver a better way of managing appointments. To this end, our first goal was to make sure we understood her business and objectives. Our existing relationship meant this was relatively straightforward. The work we had done with her previously meant we had a good understanding of her business methodology, while our supporting and hosting her website meant we also understood the technical structure of her website.

Using these 2 channels of knowledge, we were in a good position to investigate different options and advise, not only on the technical aspects of the appointment system but also to deliver the installation and use our understanding of her business to help ensure it was configured to meet her practical business needs.

The Solution

We agreed that the 10to8 service would deliver the functionality the Helen was looking for and we installed and set up the system. A key part of the set up was not just to ‘make sure that it worked’ but also to configure things so that Helen could maintain flexible availability. It wasn’t sufficient that clients were given the opportunity to book any slot that wasn’t already booked. Helen wanted to only have certain appointment slots available and to be able to easily change these from week to week.

The Benefit

Our approach to this project was to deliver a solution to a business need that happened to be technical, rather than to simply install technical functionality. The technology was the means, not the end.

Consequently, Helen has additional functionality available to her that allows her to run her business more effectively. Where appropriate, she can now differentiate between the professional and the administrative with clients experiencing a more defined service offering which enhances the proposition offered by On Point Coaching.

Key to this is that throughout the implementation, the focus has been on delivering an effective solution that isn’t just technically efficient, more important, it makes the business easier and better!

After all, isn’t that what it should be all about?

Let Helen have the last word…..

“I am delighted with the results achieved by adding the appointment booking function to my website.  It is professional looking and efficient, and has saved a huge amount of time both for me and my clients.  It stores client details, past and future appointments and automatically send reminders, this has resulted in a reduction in the number of late changes.

Overall, a great investment that ensures I can focus on coaching rather than the administration of appointments.”

Visit Helen’s website here

3 Tips to the keep case studies flowing

Case studies and testimonials are a staple of marketing communications, but they can be seen as being challenging and time-consuming to put together.

In my experience however they do not need to be. So I thought I would put together my top three tips for keeping those case studies flowing.

1. Remember they don’t need to be fully attributed

Whilst it is always best to be able to directly name the client you have helped in your case study, sometimes this can be a challenge. Especially working within the corporate world.

Rather than naming the client, you could use “A leading player in the …. industry” or simply a “client working in … ” to avoid directly naming them.

Remember though that whilst no-one else will know who they are, the client is likely to recognise themselves in the case study, and in rare cases, they may take issue.

For this reason, I would always recommend talking to clients about the fact that you would like to use them in a case study. Ultimately in these scenarios, it is your call as they are your client. But sometimes it is easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission! In all my career, I don’t think I have ever had a client take issue when referenced in this way.

2. Create a template for writing the case study

Case studies usually follow a set format:

  • What’s the issue?
  • How did you help?
  • What were the outcomes and the benefits to the client?

Putting together a simple template for your case studies means you don’t have to start with a blank sheet of paper when writing them.

If you are able to attribute your client when writing the case study, ideally you should try to include a quote from them, as this will add authenticity. With this in mind, adding some stock question ideas to the template can be useful.

On the subject of authenticity, don’t be afraid to include issues that may have arisen during the project, maybe asking “Did the project go smoothly?” knowing full well that it didn’t. People recognise that things rarely go totally without a hitch and including this, and the way you dealt with unforeseen situations, can speak volumes about the value you add to a situation.

3. Develop a “Case Study Radar”

Tip number three is all about keeping those case studies coming. When you start the process, it is normally possible to come up with a few good case studies, but websites & social media are hungry beasts when it comes to content, so you will need to come up with a sustainable method for regularly generating news cases.

We have talked in the past about the concept of a “content radar” – So constantly having the question “Will this make good case study” in your head is a good start. For custom manufacturers, we have always recommended taking pictures of everything that leaves the workshop, one reason for this is because it makes you ask the question “Would this make a good case study”.

Service businesses can take a similar approach in that every conversation with a client can beg the same question. You will find it surprising how often the answer will be “Yes it would!”

BSA Marketing: What is it all about?

Since the start of the year, we have been exploring Simon Sinek’s ideas around how business (and consequently marketing) can be viewed as an ‘Infinite Game‘. His ideas came out of earlier work he did exploring the value of having a clear vision about WHY you are in business and how this knowledge can help drive your communication and engagement with your customers and target markets.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this line of thought has led me to reflect on BSA. Why are we in business? What is our vision?

I have said many times that despite running the business successfully for over 30 years, I have never felt I have a good ‘elevator pitch’ for those networking moments ‘So what do you do then?‘ This has been an abiding issue – not least as a marketer who is supposed to have this stuff off-pat!

Maybe considering ‘WHY ‘ I am in business, and how this defines my vision for BSA,  would help solve my conundrum?

The BSA Philosophy

I started by reflecting on our philosophy. I am comfortable with the ideas of Peter Drucker that marketing is one of the key elements representing the essence of a business. Furthermore, I recognise how many business owners can struggle with trying to integrate sustained marketing as part of their own business.

We believe marketing should be at the heart of every business and our role is to work with clients to help make this happen.  We also appreciate that technology is a key feature of SME marketing yet too often, this technology is seen as a solution, in itself, rather than simply a tool to help drive marketing. Consequently, a lack of understanding of the technology ends up as a barrier to – your marketing.

This barrier can be reinforced where a company’s marketing is managed or supported by people/suppliers who are technologists first and marketers second.

Our aim is to help address this lack of understanding, appreciate technology as simply a tool, a means to achieving a goal. Then refocus onto that core goal of effective marketing.

All businesses have a ‘sweet spot’ target audience and primary marketing focus should be to engage with this audience.

Getting practical

This philosophising is all very well but there is no question that practicality is at the heart of what we do. We acknowledge that trusting someone with your marketing is a journey and that every journey starts with the first step. We have found that the best approach is to start with something specific. What this might be will depend on where you are at with your business. Over the years, there have been three ‘projects’ that stand out at starting points:

  1. A ‘Direct Marketing Project’ – target your message to a key audience – back in the day, this was often by telephone. More recently, email has become the preferred medium. In either case, this recognises that, as it has always been, marketing is about talking to people.
  2. Website (Re)Development –  your website is probably your single most important marketing tool. It is where you can set out your business propositions for people to explore. Sure, skill in building websites is important (we have this) but actually, getting the marketing messages right is THE MOST IMPORTANT. It’s about marketing, NOT JUST technology!
  3. Website Hosting – if your website is your most important marketing tool, you should have control of it. At BSA, we don’t think of ourselves as a hosting company. We are marketers. Yet, we host the websites for most of our clients. Hosting a site makes it easy to access and use the site effectively – for MARKETING – with no technical barriers.

In each of the above, something happens. As a client, you see improvement. More contact with your market. A new website (built with marketing in mind). Access to your website easily and quickly to make it work for you as a marketing tool.

It’s about the marketing

In all cases, we apply our knowledge and understanding of the technology tools to drive a marketing objective.

Furthermore, the finite experience of an initial project gives us a defined platform to get to know one another. We can build a relationship – on your terms.

We have clients where all we do is host their website, but when they need us, we are there, responsive and ready to support. Alternatively, where appropriate, our relationship can develop into making marketing happen using our extensive marketing expertise and technical know-how. We help make business marketing work as a sustainable, controlled process.

Getting to why?

I started this article posing the question (to myself) of why I am in business. On reflection, I think the answer is simple. It might seem a bit cheesy, but I am confident it is true:

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Why? : To make your business better & easier

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Starting with Why – Beyond Features & Benefits

We have been talking a lot recently about the importance of vision in running a business, and today I wanted to take this thinking a step further, to look at the importance of this vision when considering the marketing message for you products and services.

The “So What” Test

The “So What” test is a tried and tested tool for making sure you focus on the benefits rather than features when developing a marketing message for your products or services.

Write a line describing your offering:

“We want to get to know your business before developing our marketing proposal”…

So What!

The line does not really describe the benefit to the client, meaning they could legitimately ask “So What!”

This leads to an iterative process that should lead to the real benefit. In this case, it may be something like:

“Our proposals are tailored  so they deliver real value to your business, helping you effectively meet your marketing goals and successfully develop your business”

A statement that is much more difficult to ask “So What..”

The Power of Why

The “So what” test is a great tool, but if you really want to engage with your potential customers and help them to buy into your vision, making it a reason for them to buy from your business, you need to link these benefits to your vision.

This is an idea put forward by our friend of the moment Simon Sinek in his breakthrough TED talk, “Start with why…”.

His suggestion is that communicating this way – Stating what you do and how this adds benefit, is not very engaging. To develop a truly inspiring marketing message you need to flip this on its head and “Start with Why..”.

  • Why do you do what you do – Your Vision
  • How does this vision drive how you run your business
  • What you do for your customers through your products and/or services

In fact, this means that your marketing message actually ends with the feature, the “What you do”. But because you have led with the more inspiring why and how, by the time you get to the feature (What you do) people are already getting interested.

In another post, we apply this to BSA Marketing, but here, to illustrate my point, I will use the same example used by Mr Sinek in his talk and that is Apple.

Apple make great computers, so traditionally their message would be:

We make great computers…. “So What?” – Feature!

“They are simple to use and beautifully designed” – “So what?” – Feature!

“They are a pleasure to own and take the frustration out of Computing” – The real benefit that Apple might present

But that is not why Apple are so successful, and is not in-fact how they communicate.

In reality, they flip the message on its head and start with why they do what they do.

  • “In everything we do we believe in doing things differently and challenging the Status quo”
  • “The way we do this in a world of clunky boring computers by making beautifully designed, easy to use computers”
  • “By the way, we make great computers …“.

Where are the Benefits?

But we must ask why this works? By traditional marketing thinking the communication ends with What we doWe make great computers – The features.  So where are the benefits?

The philosophy is that by the time the message gets to the feature “We make great computers”, people are already bought into the benefit of buying an Apple computer, phone, etc. The benefit is already clear in the buyer’s mind to the point that they do not need to explicitly state it. They are already asking where do I sign?

Your vision must add value

There is no doubt this works in the case of Apple, and there are many other examples where starting with Why is a great marketing strategy. But I think it is making one big assumption. That is that the vision delivers value in the eyes of the buyer. In many markets, especially the more cynical B2B arena where people may be less emotionally connected to their purchases, it is important that you communicate how your vision delivers value to the market, and in reality, this message should be central to your marketing communications.

Succeed in doing this and Staring with Why can be a powerful marketing tool.

 

 

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.

Marketing is an Infinite Game

Over the Christmas break, I have been reading “The Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek. The main message is that business should focus on long-term objectives driven by the vision of the organisation. In reality, this is a vision that is never finally realised. It will develop and move forward as time passes. In practice, most business leaders are driven by meeting finite goals or targets. Whilst these are normally easy to measure, they are often not helpful. They may even be harmful to the organisation in the longer term.

Great businesses are driven by a vision, and one aspect of a true vision is that it should be open-ended rather than achievable in its entirety. The aim of the business should be to continually move towards their vision. “Success” at any point, if this must be measured, should primarily consider “Are we happy where we are and happy we are moving in the right direction?

Marketing, with its objectives to own and communicate the company vision, must too be open-ended.  Success in marketing terms should be confirmation that people are buying into and getting behind the vision of the company. This can be demonstrated in many ways; by purchasing products/services or being advocates/champions for the brand, for example.

Is much marketing too finite?

If we believe the idea of an open-ended vision, we must ask why marketing is so often focused exclusively on finite goals?

Part of the issue, I believe, lies in the way marketing services are bought and sold.

In most cases, the sales pitch of companies offering marketing services and support is all about delivering finite solutions, targeted at achieving distinctly measurable goals: Social media likes, advertising clicks and conversions, SEO rankings, etc. All of these, whist important tools in delivering the overall marketing objectives, are just that; tools. They are important elements, but when they become focused solely on delivering finite objectives and winnable goals, the wider vision can be quickly lost!

Keeping things infinite

The antidote, I think, is to take a step back from the day to day when considering your marketing. Switch to focus on your overall vision; the “Just Cause” as Mr Sinek puts it. What is the thing that makes you get out of bed and go to work each morning? With this mindset, you may well find your motivation  is completely different. Now the goal is not to win by hitting targets, but to keep playing, moving towards you “infinite” vision. In this context the marketing objective will change.

The short term finite objectives (Social media likes, advertising clicks and conversions, SEO rankings etc.) and even bigger business objectives like driving turnover and profit, are no longer the ultimate objectives that must be met at all costs or abandoned. They are now simply necessary steps that keep you in business, and support the broader objective that is to allow you to continue towards your vision.

Staying in the game

One criticism of this way of thinking is that businesses must be viable in both the short and long term. Without embracing short-term goals, there is a risk that a business will fail.

Clearly, this is absolutely true and can not be ignored. If you run out of resources, your business will fail. However, rather than taking short-term goals as the final objective, they need to be seen for what they really are; a necessity to sustain the resources to stay in business, and allow the company to continually move forward towards its vision.

Short term marketing objectives too, should not be seen as the ultimate goal, but rather stepping stones on a path. Furthermore, if meeting these short term marketing goals does not support the wider vision of the organisation, then maybe their motivation needs to be questioned? What are you actually trying to achieve in your business?

If you think about it logically, we spend our lives striving to stay in the game. To suggest that we can ‘win’ and have completion is missing the point. There is always something more – at least until we die! Furthermore, to be a real visionary, you should recognise that even when you reach the end of your life, the game continues….

Want to read more?

If you would like to read more about business as an Infinite Game, you will find Simon Sinek’s book here on amazon.

He also has some great talks on YouTube