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?

The Danger of Digital

This may seem like a strange title for a marketing blog post. These days, marketing is driven by digital platforms. However, it is the very dominance of digital media that makes them both a fantastic opportunity and a danger.

The Danger of Focusing on Tools

One of the greatest benefits that the digital era has brought to marketing is cost reduction. There is a huge range of communication tools with very accessible pricing structures. Often they can be free if you are prepared to learn and do the work yourself.  But unless you have the budgets to use a big agency with broad marketing & technical knowledge, there is a problem. Digital marketing tools (SEO, Social media, PPC etc) are usually sold by technical experts in the tools. They know which buttons to press but marketing expertise comes in second. They are more focused on driving the use of the tool rather than using it in the context of your marketing objectives.

With the focus on the use of the tools, measurement shifts to justifying their use rather than ensuring that they are meeting your business & marketing objectives. Furthermore, the responsibility for fitting the tools into your wider business and marketing plans falls to you. You may be well-positioned to do this. After all, you know your own your business better than anyone. However, unless you are comfortable with the concept of marketing (as opposed to selling), there are potential pitfalls here too. There is the danger that the focus shifts from driving your business goals to simply justifying the tool(s) being used. These are NOT the same.

The Danger of Delegation

While many digital marketing resources are simple to access and use yourself, their very nature makes it easy to delegate management to someone else. As a result, there are always plenty of service providers queuing up to help you. However, because most of these will be focused on helping you to use the tools, it is easy to lose track of why you are using them.

Many SME business owners see marketing as an activity that “gets in the way” of the day-to-day; Something which can easily be put to one side when things get busy. Whilst delegating in these circumstances may seem attractive, it can lead to inefficient use of resources. The people to whom you delegate, whilst experts in the tools that are using, may not fully understand your business objectives, and how the tools can best be used to meet these.

The Danger of Metrics

Another great thing about marketing with digital tools is the level of data available to measure your activities. However, this can lead to probably the biggest danger of digital marketing. It can be seen simply as a short term sales promotion tool, simply targeted to “deliver leads”.

The prevalence of metrics means that it can be very easy to test something new. As soon as the metrics indicate that it is not the “Marketing Magic Wand” that you had hoped it would be, it gets written off as not working. In reality, marketing needs to be viewed in the long term. Good marketing is strategic and delivers a framework which makes short-term, tactical sales promotion activities more effective. As such it is more difficult to measure directly. Whilst digital metrics are essential to the process, they need to be viewed in the context of the long-term rather than short-term objectives.

Mitigating the Danger – Have a Plan

The best way to address the danger of digital is to have a plan. Your plan should set out your business and marketing objectives and how you plan to meaningfully measure progress. This information helps to inform your decisions regarding which tools to use and how to use them. Furthermore, your plan will assist when working with partners in managing these tools. It will allow you to ensure that their activities remain aligned with your business objective.

The plan need not be complex, but it does need to be written down and regularly reviewed. You will find a few posts to help you start planning on our blog.

Another way to make sure that digital tools work for you is to find a partner who understands the tools, but who also has a deep understanding of marketing. A partner who takes the time to understand your business, and your objectives. A partner who can work with you to develop a strategy that uses the available tools effectively to support you in meeting your business development goals.

If you would like to talk to us about how we may be able to help with your marketing – Get in touch.

 

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.

When did GDPR become all about email marketing?

First of all, let me state for the record. I think that on the whole GDPR is a good idea. Putting control back in the hands of the data owner (what the regulation is all about) is a good thing. However, a recent article in the Guardian:

Most GDPR emails unnecessary and some illegal, say experts

Got me thinking about the way it is being promoted, and the fact that the focus seems to be on email address lists rather than the broader and more subtle personal information that is gathered, held and used by many organisations. Uses that have significantly greater privacy implications than who has my email address & how they use it. Over the last couple of months, I have received a torrent of emails asking me me to re-subscribe to lists. Whilst the intentions of these people is admirable (if misguided – according to the Guardian).  I, like most people, am lazy, and as a resuch have not responded to any of them (A recent statistic suggested that resubscription rates are on average, <10%), even though many of them are companies I have bought from or registered with in the past. The upshot of this is that all of these people will stop sending me information, even though many of their emails, I would consider “of interest”. Let’s face it, I would have unsubscribed if I really didn’t want their stuff. Furthermore as a consumer, they have needed my consent to email me for a number of years (under the excising e-privacy laws) anyway! But what about all the people, who have got my email address from who knows where, and are already not complying with the e-privacy laws. Those people not-unsurprisingly have not asked me to re-subscribe and will continue to send me emails. So one result of GDPR is that the proportion of these less interesting emails in my inbox will increase. But what about the new teeth That GDPR has given the ICO? Won’t that mean they can shut down these people with massive fines? In principal, yes it does. but in reality, tthe ICO have had sanctions including the ability to levy fines up to £500,000 since 2003 under the existing PECR, a regulation that already requires consent for email marketing to private individuals With this in mind,  I would hope that they will be using their resources to work with/go after people who are really abusing personal information, gathering it in a more covert way, and using it to target you in ways that you would not expect, ways that create real privacy issues. Lets face it, GDPR, was never really about stopping unsolicited email, it was about putting in place a framework of regulation to address issues like social media data harvesting/mining, to force companies to be open an honest about what data they collect & and how they use it, and at its heart, to put the control back into the hands of us the data owners. In reality technology has pretty much dealt with the issue of unsolicited email. I use exchange/Office 365, and I now unwanted Marketing emails/spam are not an issue for me as Microsoft’s systems handle them admirably. Google’s Gmail system is equally good at managing the issue. So why has GDPR become all about re-subscribing to marketing lists? In my opinion, who has my email address, and who uses it to market to me is the least of the privacy issues on the net at the moment! For me, it just means I will stop getting emails that i might have found interesting. Oh well I guess that just the price of being lazy! I will finish by stressing that this is just my opinion, and I guess time will tell what the real impact of GDPR will be. Let’s hope going forward the focus will be of solving the very real privacy issues associated with the ways we use technology in 2018 and beyond. .

What makes BSA different?

When we speak with people about our approach to what we do, we regularly hear the comment:

"You're a bit different..."

We don’t particularly try to be different but we do focus on working from marketing fundamentals and not get seduced by the latest internet marketing must-have. Don’t get me wrong, we love digital, and the benefits that email and the web can bring to your marketing, but our experience goes back to the mid 80’s and some of us remember the world pre-internet. The bottom line is:

The tools may have changed, but the principals of marketing have not!

It’s still about understanding the true value that your products, skills and expertise can bring to your clients, then developing (and delivering!) messages that communicate this value. Marrying this marketing fundamental with up to the minute digital tools creates a powerful and flexible platform. This is the platform that BSA delivers for its clients. However when we talk to our clients, they often highlight a completely different set of characteristics that differentiate us:

  • Responsiveness
  • Versatility
  • Trust
  • Considered, Practical Action

Responsiveness – Planning is very important, and we would encourage our clients to develop, and use, a solid marketing plan. However, we also accept that in the real world sometimes things simply need to be done now! If a client comes to us on a Wednesday saying they would like to get an email newsletter out to customers on Friday (like one did this week!), we will make it happen. Trust – Trust is our core value. We work to the benefit of our clients rather than for our own gain. Sure, we aim for the ideal of win:win  but we will only suggest a course of action if we believe it is right for our client. Ultimately, if the best value can be delivered by someone else, we will work to find the best partner for the job. We know what we are good at, and we know our limitations. Versatility – No two businesses are the same, and most appropriate strategy and course of action for one client can be very different from another. We recognise this. Rather than thinking “how can we convince a client that their requirements fit our offering“, we think “how can we tailor our offering to deliver best value to our client“. Considered, practical action – The fact that we know our marketing and understand the technicalities of the digital age are a given. It’s our ability to translate these into actually doing relevant stuff  that clients appreciate We believe it is these core values, coupled with a solid understanding of marketing and how technology can be leveraged to deliver real value to our clients – that’s what makes BSA different! Testimonials and feedback from our clients bear this out. Here are a few:

“,,,BSA Marketing was able to help me understand the best way to present my business…”

“…BSA has an incredible grasp of IT and marketing,..”

“…We’ve worked with BSA for eight years and found them to be efficient, approachable and knowledgeable…”

“…Good advice as always!  Many thanks…”

If you’d like to talk to us, or some of our clients, do get in touch

What is the point of grant funding?

Something happened last week, not once but twice – and it really made me question the value some businesses put on marketing, and where their priorities lie. I independently received enquiries from two businesses both asking the same thing:

There's a grant that ends tomorrow. Please can I have a proposal and quotation so I can put in an application.

I didn’t know either business and I don’t believe either of them know much about BSA Marketing.

FREE  support for your business

We’ve said it a few times but the government (and the EU) are clearly keen to support SME businesses. There is an extensive range of grants, loans, and other support out there all targeted at helping SME businesses take a more planned and strategic approach to business. OK, the application process can sometimes be a bit bureaucratic but the bottom line is that there are pots of money that YOU can dip your hand into to help develop YOUR business. download (1) Inevitably these pots are only so big and any funding programme will only run for a limited time but why does it keep happening that there is a flood of enquiries just before a fund closes? Is there too much focus on grabbing the money while you can rather than planning what you want to do with it?   But there’s the key; many grants are about business development, and effective, sustainable development requires consideration and planning. So arguably, if you are driven to start applying for a grant because of an availability deadline, is it already too late for the grant to be of any real value to you and your business? The way that funding is administered can make things even worse! Inevitably funding projects have to come to an end; not just in terms of an application cut off but also in a payment cut off. You may have been awarded a grant but if you don’t get the project finished and apply for payment of the money, there is a risk you will miss a deadline and find that you are too late to receive anything! Grant support should be aimed at helping businesses grow, develop and be successful. Some funding can be generous and ease the viability of a project. However, there is also responsibility on the owners and managers of companies applying for grants to ensure that the grant funded project has the best chance of succeeding and delivering on the opportunity. I believe this means that a project should be properly planned and executed and the value of the project to the business is considered notwithstanding the availability of a grant. The project is key. If you are only applying for a grant to try to get your hands on the cash before a deadline, is this really sound business practice? Needless to say, we didn’t engage with our two enquirers!

BSA develop and operate web-based conference bookings management system

The Client

  • Longmark Tax Conferences creates and delivers a series of  specialist tax conferences at convenient, high-quality venues around the UK
  • As well as London locations, the programme offers professional tax specialists regional access to the latest tax-law developments otherwise only available in the capital
  • Conferences are attended by up to 150 delegates with top speakers from the Tax Bar and other specialist practitioners

The Problem

  • The conference booking management and administration had evolved from the original start-up and was handled manually
  • As the business grew, the manual systems were becoming increasingly time consuming and cumbersome to maintain
  • With a high reliance on manual, and often duplicated data entry, administration was open to the risk of errors and inconsistencies
  • With a significant demand for hands-on staff time, the conferrence administration was expensive to run
  • There was minimal integration between handling conference bookings and the lists used for promotion of conferences

The Solution When a key member of the administrative staff left, there was the opportunity to review the approach to conference administration. Having run the existing system for 3 months to build a thorough understanding of the processes, BSA was able to design and propose a more structured system based on a private, secure, web-based platform. The proposed system:

  • Handles bookings, invoicing and delegate administration
  • Significantly reduces data entry requirements and eliminates data-entry duplication
  • Automatically produces management reports
  • Simplifies communication with conference delegates
  • Facilitates efficient promotion of conferences:
    • Integration with a dedicated email marketing system
    • Data support for direct mail activity
  • Reduced operating costs by around 60%

The Benefits

  1. The new system paid for its development costs within 6 months.
  2. A single source for conference marketing data, bookings management, delegate administration and management reports.
  3. Data accuracy has been improved, with the system being quicker and easier to run.
  4. Better access to bookings management reports

…and a final word from Longmark Founding Partner, Mike Longman:

“BSA Marketing took the time to really get to understand our business. From the early days they had a clear vision of the benefits that an integrated online system would produce for us. They managed the development and implementation stages very effectively and have delivered a cost effective system that works well in practice  and can incorporate further functionality as needs and opportunities are identified.

BSA continue to work with us to drive our conference administration and email marketing.”

If you want to talk about the potential for practical, web-based data management in your business, please get in touch

Grants for businesses in North Derbyshire

We have just identified a new initiative operating in and around the Peak District national park offering support for start ups, sole traders and small businesses. The scheme called “Live and Work Rural”, is operated in conjunction with The National Parks Authority & EMDA. The scheme will help you with:

  • Developing Ideas
  • Marketing
  • Networking
  • Green Solutions
  • Small Scale Equipment

If you would like to learn more about the scheme, you will find further information on their website www.peakdistrict.gov.uk. If you would like to discuss a potential project please contact us, we are always happy to talk.

Website Development Grants for North West Manufacturers

The Manufacturing Advisory Service – North West has a new programme offering grants to qualifying North West-based businesses operating in the manufacturing/processing who are looking to develop their presence on the web and make more use of the fantastic marketing and business development opportunities. BSA Marketing is a fully accredited associate of MAS North West. If you are a manufacturer in the North West of England, and are interested in enhancing you web presence, get in touch. Through MAS North West, BSA can also offer, at no cost* to you, a full review of your current web marketing. For more information, visit our grant information page *Conditions apply – please Continue reading “Website Development Grants for North West Manufacturers”

Marketing Training & Mentoring takes to the road

Pursuing our philosophy that “We want to teach people how rather than simply do it for them!” BSA Marketing will be on the road in Buxton next Tuesday to promote our grant supported Marketing Mentoring Programme at the free Do business in Buxton event. If you can get to Buxton on Tuesday, we would be delighted to talk to you about how you can access FREE (Grant Supported) Marketing Training to help you take your business forward. Alternatively, give us a call on 0845 050 1023, and we would be delighted to discuss the possibilities with you.