Tips to Reinvigorate Your Business

By Christopher Freeburn

Getting customers to spend money is the most important task of any small business owner. This is true regardless of whether the overall economy is booming or not. Here are a number of tips to boost your business's revenues.

Offer Outstanding Customer Service. "Ninety-five percent of all business owners believe that their companies are exceeding customer expectations in terms of service," says John Tschohl, president of the Service Quality Institute. Unfortunately, he adds, that is far from the truth. Indeed, lousy service and poor communication ranks as one of the top consumer complaints and dissatisfied consumers generally do not make repeat customers. Worse, they tend to complain to their friends and neighbors about their bad or lackluster experiences. In fact, some consumer research has found that dissatisfied customers tell anywhere from three to five times as many friends and family about a bad business experience than they do a good one. And now with the advent of online ratings and social media sites like Facebook, Yelp and Twitter, respectively, one frustrated customer can magnify their voice even further and possibly deal your business's reputation a crippling blow. In a competitive economy, you don't need that kind of corrosive brand "badvertising." In fact, Tschohl calls good customer service "a matter of survival" these days.

Make customer service a focus from the top down. Don't just rely on your sales people or customer representatives. Senior managers and company owners must be just as focused. Lead by example. Hire carefully. Not everyone is temperamentally suited for dealing with customers. Make sure the people you hire are capable of dealing with upset customers without losing their cool. Remove any employees who are inattentive to customer needs. Train your employees. Make sure your employees know your customer service goals and have been fully trained in how to handle dissatisfied customers. All company policies for dealing with customer issues should be clearly stated and understood by employees. Your employees must understand how important customer service is to the company's success. Know your customers. Talk directly with your customers about their experience dealing with your firm. Find out who they are and what you can do to improve their experience with your company. Provide methods for them to leave feedback.

Make it easy to pay. Today's consumers expect a wide array of payment options when they shop. Traditional means of payment-cash and checks-have been dropping sharply in popularity among consumers in recent years as many switch to credit and debit cards. This is particularly true among younger consumers who vastly prefer plastic to cash when making purchases. "Convenience is very important to consumers today-the less convenient you make it to do business with you, the more likely that they will look to the competition," says Tschohl. Studies have also found that people tend to spend more when using credit and debit cards than they do when using cash. Obtaining a merchant account to accept credit and debit cards is relatively easy for even the smallest businesses these days. Most financial institutions are eager to get their plastic accepted in as many places as possible. Numerous credit/debit card and electronic payment processing providers exist and the competition for your business is fierce. (For a more detailed discussion of this topic, view our two-part series "Getting Paid.")

Reward customers. People like to feel that they are getting "something extra." You can provide customers with this feeling in a variety of different ways. Offer small gifts to frequent customers who make a certain amount of purchases. Build in tiers of rewards where returning customers can qualify for ever-greater discounts or free samples of your higher-end products. In fact, setting up an aspirational or upwardly mobile rewards program your business can end up benefiting in multiple ways: it spurs repeat purchases, fosters brand loyalty, and introduces customers to a wider range of your product offerings.

Increase your Internet presence. If your business doesn't have a website already, you need one now. Many consumers prepare to purchase a product or service by researching prices and companies online. If your company doesn't have a website, you've already lost out on a number of potential customers right there. Websites also allow your business to extend its geographical reach and alert potential customers outside the typical area in which you operate of your business's existence, possibly bringing in new orders. Adding e-commerce capabilities to your existing website (the ability of customers to make purchases or place orders online) will also build sales by attracting customers who prefer online transactions. Website creation is not as hard as you imagine. Most web hosting firms-the companies that maintain your business's website on their servers-will walk you through the process of creating a website and adding e-commerce features.

Reward employees. Highly motivated employees are crucial for your business, especially if your customers deal directly with them. If your employees display enthusiasm, company loyalty, product knowledge, and go out of their way to be helpful, that experience will leave a significant and positive impression on customers, making repeat business much more likely. Conversely, if your employees show only lackluster product knowledge, appear distracted or disinterested, and are less than helpful to customers, the negative impression they have conveyed to your customers may cause you to lose not only repeat business, but any additional business those customers' recommendations might have brought in. You can keep your employees happy and enthusiastic by making sure they are well compensated for their efforts. This can mean higher salaries, benefits, bonuses, or perks (like vacations or discounts on company products), but it can also mean simple behaviors like listening to your employees, taking their opinions seriously, asking for suggestions, and keeping them informed about what's going on at your company. If they feel valued as employees, they will likely value the company as well.

Keep informed. As a small business owner you need to be constantly on your toes. Larger businesses, with their greater financial reserves, have the luxury of being able to recover if they are caught off guard by changing market conditions. You probably don't. You need to know what's going on in your marketplace and among your company's potential customers. Is the economy really recovering or not? How does that affect your customer base? Are interest rates going back up or staying low? Are there new competitors appearing in your area? How are businesses similar to yours faring? Join your local chamber of commerce or local industry groups and attend their functions. Read the local newspapers and industry publications.