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Body_QAandyswindler.jpgby Robert Lerose.


With the explosion in online tools and applications, small businesses can be understandably bewildered when figuring out a strategy that pays dividends. To cut through the clutter, Robert Lerose spoke with Andy Swindler, president of Astek Consulting, who founded his Chicago-based full-service interactive marketing agency nine years ago. Some edited excerpts from the interview:

RL: What should small business owners keep in mind as they put together a web strategy?

AS: Clearly define your business goals. Certainly you have to be agile enough to make course corrections, but sticking to those goals really can be a guiding light through that process long before you think you need a Facebook page or something else.

RL: What common mistakes do you see websites make?

AS: It probably depends on what era the website was built in. If you go back five years, a lot of websites were still built using Flash. That has largely gone away. Now, everybody uses Google almost every day. Knowing just a little bit about search engine optimization (SEO) can increase the value of your site because you're aligning what you're doing and what you're putting out there with what people are actually typing into Google.

RL: Can you give some examples of relatively simple tactics small business can use?

AS: A blog can be a really easy way to get started. Anybody can go to WordPress and almost instantaneously get a blog up and running. The nice thing about it is that it tends to support some basic SEO tactics fairly well. If you can get people linking to your site and your content that will also elevate you on Google. Another thing I would say is, get some meaningful content on your homepage. The homepage is still the most important page of a website in terms of how Google ranks them. Google’s search algorithm wants to see the terms that are relevant to the business that people are searching for.

PQ_QAandyswindler.jpgRL: Any suggestions about what to put on that homepage?

AS: It varies depending on the business. If you're not a web designer and you don't have the resources to hire one or you don't have the time to learn this stuff yourself, starting with a template can be incredibly efficient. The nice thing about Word Press is that there are thousands of free themes and templates. I also recommend a site called Templatemonster

RL: What else?

AS: Speaking more tactically, keep your navigation simple. Bigger buttons, more white space, and a clearer direction about what a user should be doing. You have to find a way to tell your story and lead them through it in a way that makes sense. That's the cardinal rule: you want people to hang around long enough to get to your call to action.

RL: Search engine optimization is a way for website pages to rank highly in a search by using such things as keywords. What perspective can you give about this?

AS: One common tendency is for businesses to really focus on their brand name. But typically what we see is, you're going to come up first in a search for your brand name anyway. But there are people out there who want your product or service and don't know you exist and they think about your product or service in a certain way. There's a free tool called Google Insights. It will give you an at-a-glance view of actual search traffic over periods of time. You can type in multiple keywords and actually chart them out and see how many searches those keywords are getting. Once they're at your website, make sure you tell them something useful or offer them a coupon--whatever you want to do to bring them into your orbit and close that deal.

RL: There's a lot of talk about social media—a lot of pressure, really, for business to have something in place, even if they're not sure which platform to be on. Your thoughts?

AS: Social media is about building relationships and talking to people conversationally. Facebook is a great way to experiment. It's a very easy tool to use. Social reviews, something like Yelp, are as relevant as ever. All the search engines have some kind of local search function built into them. Google, as an example, has Google Places. Every small business needs to go onto Google and claim their business page. It's really important because if you have ownership of it, you can add details, write your own description for your business, and add photos. It's not something you need to maintain as much. Google, Yahoo and Bing—they have a local directory submission process that a small business can go through. You should do it across all three.

RL: Email marketing is still an effective way to reach prospects and customers. What are your recommendations?

AS: There are laws that dictate how you can collect and use email addresses. I recommend putting some sort of email sign-up form on your website right on your homepage. When you send email out, you don't want to send a big blast. There are services that do that and which handle all of the technical backend stuff. We really love a service called MyEmma.

RL: What about buying or renting a list?

AS: I think of that as a last resort because there are so many more genuine or natural ways to get in touch with people. Having a newsletter can be a great way to keep people informed. MyEmma will not accept rented lists at all. That's one reason they have good penetration rates. They're a 100-percent pure opt-in organic service.

Body_IdentifyCust.jpgby Cindy Waxer.


Today’s business marketers are under extreme pressure to identify top customers and make smarter business decisions in record time. However, pinpointing a business’s most valuable customers is harder than it sounds.


For starters, there’s more than one way to determine a customer’s worth. According to Mac McIntosh, a B2B marketing consultant and speaker from North Kingstown, Rhode Island, there are three main measures of a top-notch customer:


  1. The amount of revenue a customer generates for a company.
  2. The profit derived from a particular customer.
  3. The customer’s overall satisfaction.


PQ_IdentifyCust.jpgBut the work doesn’t end there. McIntosh warns that while businesses can gain invaluable insights from their best customers, they need to determine the most effective way to reach them or risk offending them.


“You have to be sensitive to when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t appropriate to respond to a customer,” warns McIntosh. “For example, rather than inserting yourself into an online conversation with a customer on Facebook or Twitter, it’s better to write, ‘I’d love to talk more about this offline. Here’s my phone number—please call me.’”


Fortunately, many companies are discovering new ways to identify and cater to the needs of top customers without breaking the bank or landing a restraining order.


Build relationships


Take, for example, Mike Schwarz. Founder of Ribbed Tee, an online provider of men’s quality undershirts, Schwarz points to one of the company’s celebrity clients, a high-profile NFL player. “He buys lots of stuff from us, he’s great, and we love it. But I don’t think he really advocates our company or talks about us,” says Schwarz. “We appreciate the business, of course, but ultimately I look at our top customers as advocates who actively endorse or recommend our product.”


In order to effectively target these customers, Schwarz says he conducts weekly Google searches and participates in online men’s fashion forums to find customers that mention or recommend Ribbed Tee’s products. Next, Schwarz says he tries “to establish a personal relationship with them, ask them for their feedback, and offer them a few sample products of new launches.” After all, he says, “When you create a personal relationship with a customer, it further enhances their support and they’ll continue to recommend your products to other people. Quite frankly, it just grows the business.”


Nevertheless, Schwarz says there’s a fine line between communicating with your target audience and stalking them online. “Participating in a forum is an art—not a science,” he cautions. “You have to be very thoughtful about how you participate. The one thing you definitely never want to do is promote your product. Answer any questions, but never be too marketing-driven when talking about your products.”


Connect via social media


For, an online pet food store, Facebook is the perfect platform for identifying and targeting top customers. Recently, the popular online pet food company ran a promotion on Facebook that encouraged fans to pick any three items on for free delivery. “This kind of contest sends a potential customer to our site to browse and find the products they like,” says Alex Zhardanovksy, co-founder of PetFlow.


By doing so, Zhardanovsky says it’s an opportunity to “walk a potential customer through the entire buying experience of an actual customer,” rendering that prospect far more likely to visit PetFlow the next time they require pet food.


But while online promotions can target everyone from upper-echelon clients to mere prospects, Zhardanovsky says, “The best kind of customer you can have is an evangelical customer—someone who’s an influencer in their community. It’s really important for us to keep that customer happy because one happy customer can bring you ten others.”


Technology as a tie that binds


For this reason, Zhardanovsky says PetFlow invests a lot of time and energy in optimizing its auto-replenishment system, which lets customers predetermine how often they wish to receive orders, from once a week to once every four months. Customers can also use the system to make one-time purchases for future deliveries or as gifts purchases for friends and loved ones who have pets.


“A PetFlow customer is someone who has spent money with us,” says Zhardanovsky. “But a top customer is someone who is really happy with his or her experience and would recommend us.”


And in today’s competitive online marketplace, small businesses can ill afford to mislabel or overlook their top customers.

Body_QAmarkkotzer.jpgby Iris Dorbian.


As a longtime marketing strategist and founder of Venture Drive Consulting, Mark Kotzer has amassed over 20 years working with what he terms “scrappy entrepreneurs.” From helping small business owners craft a vision and business model, to product launches and sales development, the Seattle-based Kotzer—whose clients have included Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser—has carved a niche for himself as a go-to-resource for companies seeking to advance to the next stage. Recently, business writer Iris Dorbian caught up with Kotzer to discuss how entrepreneurs can better know their customers without being invasive and how that market intelligence can be used to boost sales.

ID: What’s the best way for entrepreneurs to know their target demo or audience?  

MK: Part of that is going to be derived from the thought processes you put forth when you first started your business. Hopefully, the company will have created a business plan or a branding strategy that they will keep updated at times. One of the things I’ve found with companies is that they think about who their target audience is before they open and then not again. It may be prudent for companies to revisit who their customers are at least once a year. Part of that is going to be driven by who is actually buying the types of products being sold in your store. I strongly recommend that businesses focus on or identify the top 5 percent of their customers. That’s going to give you a much more meaningful indicator of who your target customer should be. You will have lots of people who are “lookers” but not “bookers.”  


PQ_QAmarkkotzer.jpgID: Can small business owners know too much about their customers? What are the pros and cons of having that much information?  

MK: The pros are that if you treat the information well, your customers are going to view you as not just a retailer but as a real resource. They’re going to look at you as someone whom they can count on for good advice or to help them solve a problem. Through the loyalty or trust they develop in you over time, they’ll become less price-sensitive and more brand-loyal. And that’s ultimately what the retailer wants. If you’re able to demonstrate through the information you provide on your website and through the quality of service and attention that you provide in-store, customers are going to reward you with their business and be a much greater referral vehicle as well. It’s that stickiness factor that you want.


ID: And the cons? 

MK: If you become too aggressive with the information. It’s a relationship that needs to build over time. With all the information at your fingertips nowadays—particularly if you’re online—retailers can go overboard if they’re too overt or too direct. Saying things like, “We understand what you like or what you’ve purchased in the past” can feel too forward. It needs to be clear to the customer why you’re sharing that information. Also, if you’re asking them to share lots of information during a website registration or before they make a purchase, they’ll more likely enter incorrect information or discontinue that effort.  


The other part of that is once they share [personal data] you’ve got to be judicious in how you use that. Look at it more in the aggregate and understand how that information can be better utilized to support the customers’ needs over time as opposed to being too direct. It’s a subtlety of the tone aspect that needs to be conveyed.  


ID: So much current online advertising rests on behavioral targeting. What are your thoughts about this practice?  

MK: For the small business owner it’s somewhat less of an issue. When you think of behavioral targeting, you think of the ads found on websites. I find it creates a lot of clutter and is a distraction. From the standpoint of a retailer, having ads on a website is a real negative. When people visit your website, that is a reflection of your brand. If you’re trying to be a trusted resource and you have ads that are popping up that are not related to your company—but are related to the specific visitor—then the customer will wonder what else you know about him or her and why do you know it? Retailers have to consider the overall impression their site will create and if there is any value to having ads there. Quite frankly, if the ads are not done well, they can even be competitive to the site itself. It can spur customers to leave your site because something popped up that interested them.   


ID: What’s your best advice for entrepreneurs who want to know their audience without infringing on their privacy? 

MK: Start out small and don’t be overly ambitious. Some entrepreneurs will insist that they have to be on Foursquare or other social media sites. And then they end up not doing anything particularly well. Whether it’s a frequent customer program—a punch card of some type if you’re a brick-and-mortar store or a loyalty program on your website—really focus on how you can best serve those people who clearly have demonstrated a repeated interest in your product. Build on that loyalty by providing incentives for them to purchase more. And over a period of time, give them opportunities to request more information from your business and share more information about themselves.

Body_SellMeSomething.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Have you ever ordered a meal at a restaurant and been asked by the waiter if you'd like a salad to go along with it? Or, just as you're ready to buy a 42-inch flat screen TV, the salesman informs you that for just a few dollars more, you can get the 50-inch model? And, oh by the way—how about a deluxe surge protector to go along with that? 


If you answered yes, then you were the subject of two well known, but infrequently used sales techniques: cross-selling and upselling.        


PQ_SellMeSomething.jpgSimply put, cross-selling offers a product or service that is related to the original purchase (the salad). Upselling moves the customer to a higher-priced transaction. And both can add substantial revenue to any business.


Best leads: your existing customers

Since you've already spent time and money to build your house list, cross-selling and upselling to previous buyers is more cost-effective than acquiring new customers. You can leverage their loyalty and your established credibility.  


"Your customers are your most valuable asset, no matter what size your business," says Pat Friesen, who runs a Kansas City-based business strategy and copywriting agency. “Someone who knows and trusts you is more likely to buy again, buy more, and buy more often.”


For those who think that these techniques are only effective during flush times when businesses have excess capital to spend, Friesen disagrees.


Over the last couple of years, while some companies chose to hunker down and wait out the recession, a lot of smart marketers turned to their list of lapsed or inactive buyers and went after leads that they had not converted yet.


As an example, she found that insurance companies who pursued all their inactive policyholders (including lapses, cancellations, and unconverted prospects) generated handsome returns. Moreover, since they already owned the names and weren't working from cold lists, their prospecting costs were lower.


"They'd already paid for these customers/leads. There was already a relationship of some sort established, even if it was minimal," Friesen says. "If people were going to spend money during hard times, they wanted to make sure they trusted the people getting their money."


Dispelling the myths of cross-selling

Businesses that are reluctant to embrace these techniques often fall back on outdated excuses about their suitability. A big misconception is that a business will come across as pushy, trying to coerce a sale that the customer doesn't want.


"The benefit in the long run is that you can help your customer by offering additional services and products that they may not be aware you have," says Kelley Robertson of the Robertson Training Group, an Ontario, Canada-based sales training and coaching company.


Robertson practices what he preaches by offering a CD or a book whenever he does a training session. It's another way to stay on a customer's radar screen and earn extra income for his own small business.


Another myth is the fear that businesses will over-communicate and turn off their customers.


Not so, says Robertson.


He will typically send out weekly emails over the course of three weeks to announce a new product or service, changing only the subject line. Even though he may turn off some subscribers, he has found that he more than makes up for it with new revenue he generates.


"As long as you continue to provide some type of value to your customers, they'll listen to your sales letters or your sales pitches," Robertson says.


Put a program in place

Often, sales people stop selling prematurely. One way to counteract this is to put a sales training system in place that makes it easy to learn from successes and failures. To lay the groundwork for an effective cross-selling and upselling culture in a company, Robertson recommends a simple, three-step plan.


First, create a checklist of add-on products and services. Then link them to other relevant offerings in your inventory so your sales team can see the potential universe of additional sales.


Next, instill the idea that upselling or cross-selling actually benefits the customer as well as your small business. Your customers get solutions and you generate extra revenue.


Lastly, ensure your sales people are asking enough questions to find out the goals, objectives, and problems of your customers. Once they have that information, they can better match your products and services to their situation. Hidden opportunities can often be uncovered with some targeted probing.


Robertson experienced this serendipity himself recently. During a casual conversation with one of his clients, he mentioned that he had a particular expertise that the client was in need of—and unaware that Robertson provided.


"It was one of those things that I hadn't thought about because we had never had a conversation about that," he recalls. "Don't underestimate what your customer might be looking for. Take the chance. Make that suggestion."


Whether your small business sells plumbing supplies or time management software, there are a number of ways to start the conversation:


  • "Mention what the customer has bought in the past, especially if there is a direct tie between the original product and what you are now offering," Friesen says. "Also thank your customer for his/her past business. Thank you is a great way to start a letter."


  • Bundle different items into one package (think McDonald's Super-sizing) and offer it at a price that is lower than the combined price if purchased separately but more than if the customer just bought one item.


  • Use expert recommendations to influence behavior and drive sales. Amazon uses this method extensively, which is one reason their revenues surged over $10 billion in 2011.   


  • Set up an auto-responder program or pop-up window on your website that automatically offers cross-selling and upselling opportunities.

Body_GetemBack.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

When the economy nosedived in 2008, Jeff Weiner, president of Uniondale, New York-based HKM Insurance, felt an immediate effect. Because many of his clients were laying off employees, his 30-year-old firm snagged fewer premiums, leading to fewer commissions for his full-time staff of four. As the recession dragged on and customers cut back or left altogether, Weiner’s business experienced two straight years of tough times financially.


“Learning how to manage that sinking feeling that occurs when a major account says good-bye is a milestone for anyone,” write Jill Griffin and Michael Lowenstein in their 2001 book, “Customer Winback: How to Recapture Lost Customers and Keep Them Loyal.” Written at the onset of the last recession, the book makes clear that, after each customer departure, a business faces a stark choice. “You can give in to the disappointment and despair and purge that lost customer from your data files, thereby ensuring that the customer is gone forever. Or you can get focused on the necessary steps to win back that customer.”


PQ_GetemBack.jpgAs the economy continues to recover from the downturn, some small business entrepreneurs are finding that their road back to success involves tracking down lost customers and wooing them all over again. To do so, however, they must be even more resourceful and enterprising than before.


Reposition your sales proposition

For Weiner, his insurance company’s slide finally stopped when he was able to change his customer’s perceptions about what it had to offer.


“I had to reinvent myself because a lot of people knew me as the health insurance guy,” says Weiner. “I had to expand to new products.” In the wake of the economic downturn, Weiner beefed up his company’s offerings to include life insurance, long-term care insurance and other options. By early 2010, he says his profits started to rebound.


But he didn’t stop there. To stay abreast of what former clients were up to and what others in his industry were experiencing, he fell back on a tried-and-true tactic: He networked.


Schmoozing beats losing

Right around the time his company started its comeback, Weiner started a networking group in Westbury, Long Island, composed of a dozen small business entrepreneurs. (Membership is currently up to 250). Meeting for lunch a few times a week, members briefly discuss their companies and current needs while also exchanging business ideas, referrals, and opportunities. Not only have these casual confabs helped Weiner’s business accelerate its recovery—since its nadir in 2010, HKM’s revenues have grown 25 percent—they’ve reaped handsome dividends for other members as well.


“We had a marketing guy get his single biggest client in 25 years at a session,” says Weiner.


Networking certainly did the trick for Alan Winnikoff, co-principal of the small New York-based boutique PR firm, Sayles and Winnikoff Communications. The nearly 10-year-old company, which employs a full-time staff of six, caters to clients in the so-called glamor sectors—the arts, media, and entertainment—as well as nonprofits and start-ups. After the recession hit in 2008, Winnikoff also experienced a slump, although due to contractual agreements with clients, it was delayed.


“We thought we were getting though it,” he says. “We were able to tap into digital start-ups and, for awhile, we had that but then it stopped. We got hit the worst starting in fall of 2010 for about a year. We’re just coming out of it now; 2011 was our most difficult year in terms of billing.”


Like Weiner, Winnikoff sought to remedy his company’s lost earnings by reaching out to former clients who had either moved on to different jobs or launched new businesses during the recession.


“We had a client who was a president at a major media company,” he recounts. “But in the summer of 2008, that company cut back. We lost them at that point and then this client—we’ll call her Madame X—she left about a year later.” After her departure, Winnikoff made a point of reaching out. Over lunch, the two reconnected and when she later started work at another firm, the ongoing relationship paid off. “They hired us on her recommendation,” he explains. “She introduced me to other people, which led us to more opportunities.”


Less Money Now, More Money Later

Sometimes keeping or winning back a lost customer means accepting leaner profits in the short-term. And while this advice might sound counterintuitive or even self-destructive in an economy that remains precarious, it can reap lucrative long-term dividends.


“We have a client that’s a TV production company,” explains Winnikoff. “They do great work, but in fall 2010, they told us, ‘We’re shutting down for December and going to put you on hiatus for a month and then hire you back for January.’ They did, but they also cut our fee.”


After the move, Winnikoff reflected on his options, trying to gauge the long-term value of the relationship. “I decided to stay with them even though we’re doing the same amount of work for less money,” he explains. To Winnikoff, the tradeoff was worth it, as the decrease in revenue didn’t outweigh the risk of losing the client—and the prospect of more lucrative work in the future—forever.


In their book “Customer Winback,” authors Griffin and Lowenstein try to put this strategy in financial context. Using as an example a customer that regularly spends $200 a month, they estimate that full impact of losing that client, which includes bad word-of-mouth advertising and missed opportunity costs as well as the direct revenue loss, could total up to a staggering $432,000 over 10 years.


Speak Your Way to Client’s Hearts

Another tactic that can drum up business and reclaim former customers involves public speaking. Even if you’re not comfortable with speaking to groups, it’s important to “put yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new, something different to market yourself,” explains Erica Prince, founder and president of The Professional Speaker’s Bureau based in Roslyn, New York. “Don’t be so complacent. Force yourself. Get a topic you’re super knowledgeable about and the comfort level with come.”


Prince, whose company has been around since 1995, says that entrepreneurs who make public speaking engagements part of their marketing arsenal can end up getting better returns on their investment than if they bought print advertising.  “If you’re an expert [in a specific area], that’s good,” she says. “That will get you the clients that another person who’s not speaking won’t get.”


And getting more clients—whether they be of the new or long lost variety—is what growing a small business is all about. As someone who’s seen his ongoing customer reclamation efforts pay off handsomely, Winnikoff couldn’t agree more: “I’m very optimistic about 2012.” 

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