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Body_RememberMe.jpgby Robert Lerose.



Tax professionals are fond of saying that tax planning and preparation should be a year-round concern, not just on April 15.


Similarly, a seasonal business that hopes to do well during its peak season needs to find ways to stay uppermost in the minds of its customers and prospects during the inevitable off-peak times.


Business owners and marketers are availing themselves of a range of strategies today to do just that—from traditional offline meet-and-greets to pointed online communications.


All of these marketing channels have elements in common that boost their effectiveness. Among them: knowing target customers, capturing data about them, and then segmenting it very carefully.


"This really helps you focus your marketing efforts," says Caron Beesley, owner of April Marketing, a Virginia-based marketing communications firm.

Different customers, different offers

A prospect who requests information about your product or service for the first time could get one type of marketing message; for example, an invitation to register for your newsletter. On the other hand, you might send a loyal customer a special preseason offer.


PQ_RememberMe.jpgMoney-saving incentives have their place, but Beesley cautions against leading with early bird discounts.


"You have to be careful that you don't cannibalize your offer," she says. A clear, direct email program with a message such as "Book now for the season" or "Get ahead of the crowd" raises the awareness of customers and preserves the value of your product or service at the same time. 


Customers also respond to, and get involved with, email campaigns that offer genuinely valuable, intriguing, or even amusing information sent in the off-season.


Jeanne Rossomme, a blogger for SCORE and founder of RoadMap Marketing, her own Washington, DC-based marketing company, recalls a woman who runs an educational camp during the summer, but sends target-specific emails to her customers throughout the year with a math theme.


For example, on March 14, she'll send an email devoted to discussing the value of pi (3.14).


"It's really just a simple email saying, what are some ways you can celebrate pi with your kids?" Rossomme says. "Or, what are some ways you can get your preschoolers to learn about fractions?" Things like that are applicable to the woman's audience, she explains. 


The tactic must work: the woman says that the emails are read by a large number of recipients. Newsletters, case studies, and white papers are other forms of content marketing that succeed.

Get to know the top guns

Another technique Rossomme favors is harnessing the power of social media. This, she explains, can expand your company's presence by identifying and nurturing the top "influencers" in your particular area, such as bloggers or distributors.


Then, follow them and try to establish some kind of connection, whether by responding to a blog post or answering a question. In short, make yourself known early as having the information they need, when they need it.


"[Once] you have that connection, you can reach out to that person because they already know who you are," Rossomme says. "[Then] they're more willing to advertise or talk about your product."


The off-season is also an ideal time to prepare some of your content—such as Facebook posts or articles—and to come up with a schedule for distributing it at the proper time.


"You basically have this engine running with everything teed up in advance," Rossomme says. "Your time isn't spent during your crazy busy season writing content. Instead, that's already been done and you're able to respond quickly to any inquiries you get."

Face-to-face selling that pays off

While the Internet may have turned us into a global community where everyone is a potential customer, generating support in your own backyard also keeps your pipeline filled. Grassroots efforts should not be overlooked.


When Steve White started a gourmet cheese store in the popular summertime destination of Cape May, New Jersey, he opened his doors at admittedly the worst time of year—the middle of winter. Yet, ironically, it turned out to be beneficial.


"Even though that was our slow month, we got familiar with our product, how to sell it, and how to take care of it," says White, co-owner and co-manager of the Seaside Cheese Company with his wife Barbara. "When the summer hit, we had all the kinks worked out."


During their off-season, the couple went door-to-door, introducing themselves to the motels, B&Bs, and restaurants in the area. Their low-key, soft sell approach allowed them to work out package deals and spread news about their store by word-of-mouth.


Still, they haven't abandoned online marketing altogether. Their Facebook page gets updated a few times a week with cheese facts, upcoming cheese releases, and a new macaroni and cheese dish that they offer every Friday—again, content targeted to their particular audience.


Setting up stalls at the regional farmers' market, advertising in the top spot on a local sightseeing map, and adding to their product line to better serve their customers, have also raised their visibility.


The efforts are obviously paying off: White says they've enlarged their store twice and received glowing comments on the consumer rating site Yelp. Starting Memorial Day, they will expand their hours of operation year-round.


"I know Cape May is a seasonal town, but even if one person walks through the door, they'll know we're open," White says. "You've always got to keep doing different stuff." 

It’s popular these days to suggest that small businesses add social media to their customer service toolbox. After all, it’s free and where the people are, so going in that direction makes sense.


However, that being said, using social media for customer service is often something done more in theory than in actual practice for many small businesses because they think that it’s just too much work and the payoff may be negligible. The fact is though, the opposite is usually true; it is not that much work and the payoff can be huge.


Here is a small, but very telling, example:  A colleague of mine loves to eat at Morton’s Steakhouse so often that he is in their system as a “best customer.” When he calls, Morton’s computer recognizes his phone number, they know what he likes, they call him by name, the whole nine yards. One time, at the end of a long day of flying across the country, he tweeted to his more than 100,000 Twitter followers in jest, “Hey @Mortons, why don’t you meet me at the airport with a porterhouse steak when I land?!”


Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss.


Can you guess the rest of the story? You bet. When he landed, he was stunned to find a server from Morton’s waiting for him with, yes, a porterhouse steak. The fact that the restaurant was 25 miles away from the airport was just one of his shocks.  Since he has such a large Twitter following, when he tweets he is happy with a particular company, it carries weight. You can bet that Morton’s thought delivering a steak was probably a small price to pay for such a potentially positive outcome.


There are all sorts of morals to that story, but the key one is this: The benefit of using social media for customer service, aside from being able to intercept problems (discussed below), is that resolutions like these have the potential to go viral.


In the real world, when you make a customer happy, you have one happy customer. But if you adopt and use social media for customer service, that happy customer is much more likely to become an “e-vangelist” for your company, and tons of people will hear your success story.


And therein lies the power of this idea.


Aside from delighting customers, the other benefit of this process is that the opposite is also true – you can put out virtual fires much more quickly if you are active on social media. If you are not present when people start posting bad things about your business, you will lose customers and might not even know why.

The actual procesPull Quote 5-29-12.pngs of using social media for customer service requires three steps:


1. Engage in the conversation: Many people think that the point of social media for customer service is to deal with upset customers quicker and easier, and while that is true, it just may be that the most important part has nothing to do with upset customers.


It does have to do with delighting customers, engaging with them and creating connections with them. You can use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn to ask for insight and feedback from your customers. Post a poll. Get product ideas. Give them a coupon. Ask and answer questions. Forge a connection. Engage them.


2. Monitor what is being said: Now, finally, we get to the obvious purpose of using social media for customer service, namely, to deal with upset customers who are posting negative things about your business online.


This part requires some work and vigilance on your part, but it’s worth it, because left unchecked, such comments can ruin your online reputation, and that in turn can bleed into your offline one.


Consider the restaurant down the street from me that recently changed its name and completely rebranded itself. Why? Because one customer got so mad at something they did that his online assault became fatal. When the restaurant finally realized that it had an online reputation problem, it was too late. They eventually had to start over under a new, untarnished name.


So you need to monitor what is being said about you. Places you should look include:


  • Yelp
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Epinions


3. Respond as soon as you see something:  Surveys show that when someone is upset enough to post something negative online about your business, they nevertheless can not only be placated, but actually have a high likelihood of becoming your customers again if you engage them online quickly and work sincerely to solve their problem. In fact, almost half will go so far as to delete the original, negative post.


As you can see, using social media for customer service in the age of social media just makes good business sense. How have you used social media to strengthen your customer service? Or, how do you plan to? Share your thoughts with the SBOC community below.



About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest, The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.

Body_QAgregpitkoff.jpgby Sherron Lumley.


Greg Pitkoff (pictured) is the founder and managing director of GRiP Communications in Brooklyn, New York, a public relations agency representing 1-800-FLOWERS.COM and its subsidiary brands, as well as other B2B clients, franchises, and small business chains. He took some time with business writer Sherron Lumley to discuss what every entrepreneur should know about the basics of public relations.


SL: Tell me about GRiP Communications and what you do.

GP: Today, GRiP Communications works with business-to-business and consumer-focused clients, providing public and media relations campaigns, strategic marketing counsel, franchise networking, social media consulting and related services.


SL: How did you get into public relations?

GP: I moved to New York following college to start my career. For the first 10 years, that mainly involved serving as a writer and editor for a variety of trade publications focused on small businesses. I also spent a few years as director of communications for a trade association involved with international trade. After working for other agencies, GRiP Communications was established in March 2007. From the moment I hung up my shingle, I had my first two clients, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM and Little Gym, an international franchise of children’s fitness centers. Working with franchise companies became my core business.


SL: When you work with small business owners, what is the first thing you want to know?

GP: As I prepare to develop a strategic PR campaign, I ask them: 1. Do you have a clearly defined objective for what you want to achieve through PR? 2. Have you identified a specific target audience that you want to reach? 3. Are your customers businesses or consumers? 4. Are they primarily local or based nationwide or even worldwide?


PQ_QAgregpitkoff.jpgSL: What do you think is the most overlooked aspect of public relations for small businesses?

GP: For one thing, a lot of small businesses don’t realize they can effect change and produce results through PR. A lot of people don’t understand what PR is. Some think it’s advertising or marketing, but PR represents a larger editorial product. It’s the placement of news and stories and messages with the media that are of use to the readers. Also overlooked is the role that social media can play.


SL: How important is social media in a small business public relations plan?

GP: It’s a critical part of PR today, used proactively to reach your audience. Depending on the nature of the business, whether it is more consumer-facing or more business-facing, different types of social media will be more effective. The nature of Facebook and Pinterest is less formal and therefore a less professional voice is accepted. People don’t necessarily see the benefit of business marketing with social media, but LinkedIn is a good choice for business services to establish a social media voice. There are many divisions to LinkedIn to consider, such as posting status, business pages, having an active and genuine voice in LinkedIn groups, and initiating and participating in conversations. 


SL: Small businesses often start with a small budget. What PR could they do on their own?

GP: In addition to having a voice on some of the social media channels, small businesses can also familiarize themselves with the local media. There is growing success with hyper-local media such as, for example. There is an opportunity whenever a new form of communication is looking for content. Research the beats of reporters and figure out who covers what. There may be more than one person, depending on what the story is, so don’t limit yourself to only one contact. Start that type of relationship.


SL: What aspects of PR are best handled by a professional agency?

GP: When you want to continue strategic relationships on a consistent basis, a PR firm is a good tool for you. Hiring an agency is a pro-active plan. One of the things my clients appreciate is that I am constantly monitoring the media and looking for an opportunity. An agency has the time—a client is busy doing a million other things to run the business.


SL: Who are the audiences that a small business wants to communicate with through public relations?

GP: PR can help you communicate with all of the audiences—internal, external, investor—but the length of the message, type of message, and voice will vary. With investors, you will have a different voice than with customers, for example. PR can help you reach all the constituents of a business.  


SL: Could you speak to the importance of reputation management for small businesses?

GP: Reputation management is very important. For example an unsatisfied customer is not uncommon when you do business and this could lead to disparaging remarks. Once it’s out there—and as good as you are, there’s always a chance—it’s important to respond in a proper way. Proactively try to do as much as you can. Take the proper approach. All businesses should have a crisis communication plan to nip a problem in the bud, or turn a negative into a positive, according to how you handle it.

Sign of the times: When I first wrote my book, The Small Business Bible in 2003, I never mentioned the phrase “social media” – because it didn’t exist at that time. When I wrote the second edition in 2007, I mentioned it once and, even then, the only site I touched on was MySpace because it was the most relevant site.

But the book kept selling, so when my editor asked me last year if I had anything new to say if we did a third edition (just published), I jumped at the chance to add 10 new chapters on, you probably guessed it, social media. I also cover apps, Groupon, technology – the whole gamut of new ways small businesses are changiSteve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.pngng and growing.

The moral of the story is that business these days is changing, as Bill Gates so aptly put it, at the speed of thought. Things that were not important a few years ago are critically important today. Not surprisingly, the issue of most relevance is social media – how you will use it and how to prevent your employees from abusing it.

The answer in this e-world, and as boring as it may sound, is that you simply must have a social media policy for your small business. Indeed, social media policies are now as important in the workplace as harassment and non-discrimination policies.

Consider the story of the employee who was on her company’s Facebook page last year. While adding content and checking out new likes, she received an invitation from a fan to view a video. Thinking nothing of it, she clicked over to it and was directed to a page that said she needed to update their Java software in order to watch the video. She did, and then Bam! their Facebook account was instantly hacked and hijacked. It turns out that what she downloaded was not a Java update at all, but a virus.

Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss.

That is just one reason why you now need social media policies.

As you would with any new policies and procedures you adopt, you should begin by thinking through what you are trying to accomplish by implementing them, what unintended consequences may result and how they will affect your staff’s workflow.

When it comes to social media, most companies adopt policies that are intended to:

  • Safeguard accounts
  • Protect the brand
  • Build reputation
  • Prevent idleness and distractions

Among the different policies that you might want to consider and adopt are:

Internal standards for tweets and posts: What is your culture and brand? These must be reflected in your social media presence and, therefore, the employees who are authorized to post for you must be made aware of what is and is not acceptable posting. Offensive or off-color posts must be outlawed. Be specific as to what you consider off-limits posts, and conversely, what types of posts are appropriate, encouraged and will further build your brand and reputation.

Forbid the sharing of non-public information: In order for this to be successful, employees need to know what is considered confidential. Be sure to clearly spell it out for them.


No fighting: When employees blog and post for the company, all efforts should be made to avoid negative interactions with the public.


Standards for the personal use of social media on company time: This is a big issue for many small businesses. You may want to have a fairly relaxed rule and have it say something like “use your common sense,” or you may need to be more descriptive, limiting social media to a certain number of hours a day, or none at all, depending on the circumstances.


Private Pull Quote.pngmentions of corporate policies/behavior: By the same token, remind employees that the Internet is a public forum, and they should be careful of making disparaging remarks about the company or sharing proprietary company information. This should also apply when they are posting under their own social media channels. It is similarly wise to have employees understand that their personal posts about the business in off-hours must be labeled as such, and is not being done as a representative of the business.


Requiring that all updates be done in accordance with your IT folks: As the story above shows, social media fraud is exploding, mostly due to the unauthorized, inadvertent downloading of viruses.


Above all, encourage your employees to use their best judgment. That will often trump everything else.


Lastly, once these policies are adopted, they must then be disseminated via email, employee handbooks and posted visually where appropriate. Adopting them and then sticking them on a shelf to gather dust invites problems. Have you adopted any social media policies for your employees? What have you found works, or doesn’t work? Share your thoughts with the SBOC community below.


About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest, The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. StraussYou can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here.

Body_OnlineRep.jpgby Erin McDermott.

“Awful work and unethical business practices! Stay away!”

“I will be sure to tell everyone I know how disgusting this place is.”

“They will suck the money out of you any way they can and do substandard work. AVOID AVOID AVOID!!!”


It’s the Wild West of web commentary out there for small businesses today. Cloaked by online anonymity, customers can and do say anything—including the real examples above, for a dry cleaner, a restaurant, and a portrait studio—often leaving trails of remarkably hostile reviews, false allegations, and even shockingly personal attacks.


But in an increasingly digital world, your search results are also your online résumé, written by people you most likely don’t know.


“People have a tendency to hide behind their computer screens and they’re unedited,” says Ruth Ann Wiesner, founder and CEO of RAW Marketing, a social-media management and online marketing consultancy near Chicago. “They don’t take into consideration that they’re hurting a business or an actual person.


Recently, Wiesner had a client dealing with a commenter posting negative comments on a review site.  This unhappy customer even went as far as to attack the small-business owner herself—including nasty remarks about her hairstyle and shoes. “That’s not even the business she was in. I mean, why?” Wiesner says.


Often, companies wait until the web or social-network heat hits a boiling point before they make a move to address their online reputation. (And even old-school shops that don’t have a website aren’t immune: Sites like Google Maps, Yelp, Kudzu, YellowPages, epinions and others include any and all businesses, and offer a review function as well.)


If you’ve been procrastinating about protecting your Internet rep, where do you start? Below you’ll find what a few pros suggest to get started.


First rule, don’t fake a review—ever

You’ll get caught. And forget dirty tricks.


Take a deep breath and Google yourself

Don’t wait until the rabble reaches a crisis point. Take a good look: Is your company site the top result during a search of your company name? Is the information you see accurate? Is it positive or negative? If it helps you sleep at night, Internet search experts say only two percent of users ever skim past the top 10 results. But business owners should dig deeper and look down into search-result pages two, three, four and five. You may see a pattern of where certain comments originate. And who knows—you might even see some glowing recommendations, too.


Be proactive

Sign up your business for official Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest accounts. These will be yours to control—including which messages appear on them and which don’t. And be sure to get a Google Alert for your company’s name, as well as your name—that way, as soon as the Google scanners come across new references, an email will pop up in your inbox and identify it to you.


Another thing, and this may be difficult to hear, gentle reader: Several experts advise small businesses to also query their company’s name on Google Alerts with—sad to say—the word “sucks” next to it. “Yep, you read that right,” says Wiesner. “Make sure you are being notified every time someone on the Internet uses your name along with the most preferred way of showing disapproval.” Another tactic to consider—buying that negative URL as it prevents it from falling into the wrong hands.



PQ_OnlineRep.jpgEngage your reviewers—carefully

Keep cool-headed and stay polite when addressing negative comments. Be firm, but offer solutions to problems. Avoid getting sucked into an unending battle with critics.


Still, watch out for “brand terrorists,” says Andrew Barnett of Elasticity, a St. Louis-based firm that manages corporate reputations, marketing, and social media. He once dealt with a bedding retailer who had a customer whose bed remote control stopped working. After a dispute arose about a replacement, Barnett says the customer went on a tear, bad-mouthing the business on nearly two-dozen sites, even warning off would-be customers who were researching a purchase. Eventually, the retailer broke down and got the customer a new remote. “There are plenty of people out there who have figured out that if you complain enough and loudly enough, it can work to [their] advantage,” Barnett says.


Find a pro to help

Reputation-management services work to emphasize positive remarks about a person or company online and diminish negative search results, by addressing problem comments, boosting new content, and reacting to changes in search-engine algorithms.


“You can’t remove negative comments but there are a great many things you can do minimize their effect,” says DeAnne Merey, president of New York’s DM Public Relations, which specializes in crisis management and online-reputation work. “The goal is to balance the entries and dilute their impact.  While the solution is not overnight, with the right response these comments will be displaced and moved further down the search results over time.”


But beware: If you engage a reputation-management company and they don’t ask if the allegations online are true, be worried. “If they don’t mind the fact that you’re ripping somebody off, chances are they might be ripping you off, too,” says one industry insider who declined to be named. Ask for references from businesses they’ve worked with and look at those companies’ search results.


Price-wise, reputation-management companies charge anywhere from $200 to $600 a month for small businesses, depending on the type of business and its geographic region. For bigger companies, the services are much more complex, and the price goes up accordingly.


Double down on customer service

It may sound simple, but try to not give your customers reason to complain. Most of the time, when bad things are said, talking directly with the customer can remedy the situation. This also gives customers a great story to tell that will make you look good and help spread positive word-of-mouth.


Sort of like Ruth Ann Wiesner’s client with the nasty commenter. Wiesner said she worked with the owner to respond to the reviews. The commenter actually apologized and, a few days later, even showed up at the business with flowers, saying she didn’t realize how hurtful the comments were until she re-read what she’d written.


The business owner spoke with the customer and gained some new insights on her criticisms. “She said she would put new policies and procedures into place to avoid the bad situation from happening again,” Wiesner said.


But, the business owner added, “I’m not changing my hair style!” 

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