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2013

QAbobbyharris_Body2.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

 

Since founding the Tampa-based transportation and logistics company, BlueGrace Logistics, three years ago, Bobby Harris has made Twitter an integral factor in his firm’s interactions with customers and vendors. In fact, Harris has become such an ardent social media evangelist that he now conducts frequent Twitter “boot camp” sessions for his staff and has also given numerous speeches discussing best practices for businesses using social media. Recently, Harris talked with business writer Iris Dorbian about how small businesses (which account for 50 percent of his clientele) can leverage Twitter to improve ROI. The secret, he says, is treating every customer, prospect, and employee like a human being—not a disembodied dollar sign.

 

ID: What propelled you to use Twitter at the ground level of your business?

BH: We bring in a lot of people who are real go-getters and found that they were gravitating to social media quite a bit. We weren’t intimidated by it at all because we saw its value on many fronts. We adopted it very early on.

 

ID: How do you use it specifically in your business? Do you use it to build brand equity, drive sales, increase ROI, etc.?

BH: A lot of business owners will first say, “What’s in it for me?” They’ll think it’s good for SEO or that customers will only engage with them because they see them on Twitter. But that’s not how to go about it—although you do get more online visibility with Twitter. That’s the secondary effect. The primary effect is that it’s a great way to connect with your entire culture, which includes customers and especially employees and vendors.

 

For instance, I have about 140 [employees] here. I started as a small business and now we’re much bigger. Early on, everybody knew everybody because there were 10 people working here. But when you get this big, you can’t do that. So what happens now is that I can get onto my Twitter feed and check what’s going on with everybody’s life in just five minutes. I’ll see that Sally’s son hit a home run and Tim’s dad is going to go into surgery tomorrow. It starts a very interesting dynamic where people are much closer.

 

Conversely, they can know a little more about me as a CEO. Sometimes you’re behind a door and it’s very hard to do that because you don’t have time for everybody or you’re traveling a lot. But with Twitter, they know where I am. We all know each other a lot more. And if you get a customer on Twitter and you engage them through social media, you don’t lose them. There are statistics that will prove that with the customers [you cultivate] on social media, you have a much higher satisfaction and success rate with them.

 

ID: Do you have an example of that?

BH: Our single largest client is very engaged with us on Twitter. He knows everybody here and most of them know him. And he directs the business of the largest account we have! His being on Twitter helps us understand what he needs and what he’s doing. We even know where he’s at and what’s going on with his week. It’s a way to bring the world a lot closer to you.

 

QAbobbyharris_PQ.jpgID: Do you ever use Twitter in marketing campaigns?

BH: We absolutely do. Sometimes we promote various sports events or contests or we’ll use Twitter to put out information about our latest technology. A lot of times we’ll get people who’ll engage with us on that. We’ll also get customers who’ll call and say, “I was looking for a freight company to get some shipping done and I came across you on Twitter. How do I set up an account?”

 

But I don’t believe you get there until you start generating content and creating the culture and making sure that everyone in your company is engaged because you need a lot of interaction to make that happen. But when you do, it’s extremely powerful.

 

ID: How do you determine if Twitter is right for your small business?

BH: It’s pretty much across the board that it’s going to be good for your business—I don’t care what industry you’re in or what size your business. The other thing you have to remember is you also follow your own market. So it’s an information source. If you’re a cleaning company, what you’re going to want to know in your local market is news, such as what your competitors, customers, prospective customers, and vendors are doing. With us, we’re very tied to the shipping industry so we know what’s going on with diesel fuel in parts of the country and in the world as well as the new legislation that’s going to affect us. There’s no way [that being on Twitter] is not going to help you improve your business.

 

The other thing is that it takes very little time. It streamlines your world because you’re going to be looking for data. If you’re a small business and you choose not to be in social media, that doesn’t mean a disgruntled customer won’t be talking about you. But by going on Twitter, you can monitor the conversation about your company, respond to complaints, and engage with customers.

 

ID: Based on your experience and insight, what best practices should small business owners employ when using Twitter to drive sales, increase ROI, etc?

BH: Number one: don’t be restrictive and govern what your people tweet to a large extent. You have to embrace it. Don’t fear it. Number two: it’s not a marketing function; it’s a company function. If you [assign it] to just one marketing person, it will fail. You can have someone lead or champion it, but everybody needs to be involved. And number three: be social. It’s social media. Step out of your comfort zone and let others know you. People do business with people.

 

ID: And what should they not do?

BH: Constantly throw sales pitches out. People like to buy but no one likes to be sold to. Nobody likes spam on Twitter. And if you think maybe it’s spam, it’s spam.

BouncingBack_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.

 

The U.S. housing market appears to be surging again: Sales are up, inventory is down, and prices are rising.


So what are small business owners in the real estate industry doing differently this time around? Plenty.

 

Five years after the nation’s worst real estate market in generations, it’s a new world for people in the business of selling and buying America’s homes. Much has changed: There’s the demise of print newspaper advertising and a new universe of home sales websites to figure out, an array of apps and search engine tricks to get properties in front of the right buyers, and a myriad of short sales, foreclosures, and new regulations for all parties to navigate.

 

Even so, the turnaround has come quickly, catching some veterans off-guard. What was a trickle of activity just months ago has become a full-throttle firehose in recent months in some markets.

 

“It’s like someone threw a switch on January 1,” says Chantay Bridges, a Los Angeles real-estate specialist. “It happened so fast that it was like you went to sleep and you woke up and you couldn’t find a property for your buyers.”

 

The dynamics have changed for everyone. For agents and brokers, it is a far leaner industry. At the National Association of Realtors, membership in 2007 stood at 1,338,001. The number as of February 2013: 963,478. (The last time the ranks were that low: 2002.) The Internet has helped slim physical overhead. Many agents who once commanded desk space in a brick-and-mortar location now routinely work from home or out of virtual offices.

 

Buyers and sellers have adapted, too. Relegated to the sidelines during the market’s darkest days, many have become more sophisticated in terms of their own taste—partly thanks to HGTV’s many reality-TV series and the addictive home-design site Houzz— and understanding what others are seeking when shopping for a home.

 

“Buyers are more savvy than ever. They have the Internet at their fingertips and can compare properties side by side,” says Jay Hart, a principal at New York’s Sold With Style. “They know the value of properties so much better than they used to. If you listed the wrong price, you’re not fooling anyone anymore.”

 

Here are a few lessons real estate veterans say they’ve learned in the past few years:

 

BouncingBack_PQ.jpgEmbrace the Internet

“The last few years have been a challenge,” says Pat Vredevoogd Combs, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Realtor who’s been in the business for nearly 40 years. She says anyone who’s in real estate for long enough understands the constant need to “reinvent yourself” and the past few years illustrate that.

 

The last housing boom came before the proliferation of smartphones, apps, text-message alerts, and the rise of Internet listing titans Zillow, Trulia, and Realtor.com. Combs says what was once a job that was largely done on nights and weekends has now become part of the Internet’s always-on economy and a full-time endeavor for her. She blogs and her site has Web video, since getting her listings to turn up in organic search results, along with her name, picture, and contact details, is a priority.

 

With an estimated 65 percent of homebuyers now starting their hunt online, Combs says she shifted away from print advertising, particularly after her local newspaper stopped publishing daily. The properties she represents turn up on some 360 websites to capture potential buyers’ eyeballs. “By the time we get to talk to buyers, they’ve already gone through all of the listings. They know where they want to be,” she says. “Our job has changed. We are more like consultants. Finding the house takes the smallest part of time of what I do.”

 

Yet it still sometimes comes as a shock to sellers that having their digs show up on the major search engines isn’t free of charge. Combs says to get her independent agency’s image and contact details on the big sites is an expense that’s even higher than the old days of print.

 

“People say ‘Well, you don’t have that print advertising expense anymore, so your services must be cheaper,’ ” says Combs. “Not so. We have to put our money into the Internet end—and that cost has changed dramatically. ”

 

Dig in to big data

Before the crash, Hart says he would have described his firm as a “staging company”—helping sellers make their properties look their best by bringing in furniture, art, and other interior-design tricks to make them seem more attractive. But during the downturn, he and his partner invested in a market-statistics data miner to better focus on consumer behavior. These days, Hart says he considers Sold With Style more of a consultant to sellers on what makes a property move—and why and when.

 

“What we discovered is that there is a greater need for information and advice than there is for accent pillows and sofas,” he says. He and his staff have armed themselves with information to answer the most important questions: At what point in the sales process is a property likely to sell? When is a seller likely to get the best price? And which renovations are most likely to bring the best return on their investment?

 

“Now we can explain what makes buyers choose one property over another, or what factors influence a buyer to make an offer close to asking,” Hart says. “Our goal is to take the fear and uncertainty out of the process of selling a home. Our job is to understand what makes someone tick from the moment they walk into that listing.”

 

Know your game cold

In the red-hot Los Angeles market, Bridges says limited inventory has swung the region deep into sellers’ favor, with some new listings attracting dozens of offers within hours, escalating all-cash bidding wars, sight-unseen contracts, and scrambles for clients to get early access to open houses. With the industry in a frenzy, she points to the network of colleagues she’s groomed over the last few years. She cites one listing in January in which she knew the house would sell quickly—but gave a few selected brokers an hour-long head’s up before she posted it more widely. It sold before the day was over.

 

With a market moving so quickly, it’s the little details of your reputation that matter. With all parties forced to be so nimble, inexperienced or unprepared agents are getting stampeded, Bridges says.

 

“It doesn’t hurt to happen to know or have worked with the listing agent before,” she says. “Some offers are selected on their whim. They like you, your clients, and they encourage their client to take your offer.”

Focus on what customers care about most

Sam DeBord, managing broker at Seattle’s Coldwell Banker Danforth, says he’s been able to cut the firm’s advertising budget by 80 percent in recent years, largely by moving away from local print media and being part of a national franchise network in a busy major market. In that shift, he says they knew they would lose the leads that venue provided them; so his firm invested time and money in building its website, Seattlehome.com. He tried to make the site as pleasing, useful, and interactive as possible for users—and save them the time of perusing the national listing sites, which only led them back to their local site. These days, DeBord says his firm is spending a fraction of that old budget to keep the site updated and maintained—and generating more leads. “The ongoing costs of maintaining the site are nothing like dealing with outside marketing,” he adds.

 

“Any time there’s a bubble, it encourages business practices based on short-term profits at the expense of long-term strategy,” DeBord says. “Everybody wanted to buy and you didn’t really have to focus your marketing or branding to make sure people wanted to work with you long-term. But when the crash came, a lot of them didn’t have a plan in place to make money when the market was down.” His local market lost 20 to 30 percent of its agent members in the lean years.

Now, the majority of his agents work in virtual offices and only come in to the main office when there’s a need. Gone are individual desks, monitors, and receptionists. “From our mind-set, to survive the ups and downs of the market, we cut out the things that our clients didn’t care about,” DeBord says. “Our clients didn’t care how big our office was—they just cared that we were professionals who could help them through the process."

SmallTalk_Body.jpgby Heather Chaet.

 

Google “business networking” and you’ll see links to articles on how to increase your Facebook Likes and Twitter followers. Connecting with potential customers and business partners via social networking is, by now, an essential part of any company’s growth. Despite the skyrocketing impact of social media over the past decade, however, the importance of old-fashioned, face-to-face networking has not faded. Shaking hands at conferences and making chit chat at cocktail parties is still one of the best ways to expand your brand’s reach, build your business, and create vital partnerships. So, just how good are your networking skills? To turn that annual conference small talk into a critical company connection, look over this list of networking Dos and Don’ts.

 

DO research who is coming

If possible, look over the guest list for any conference or party and make a mental list of those folks you want to meet. Shawna Tregunna, founder and owner of ReSoMe.com, a social media company, explores who is coming online and uses social media to reach out to fellow attendees before the event. “I watch for mentions of [the event] on social media by hashtag or name. I also check out the guest list if it is public. If I see someone I want to connect with, I look for them on Twitter or LinkedIn and [send them a Tweet or message such as] ‘I see we are both headed to XYZ event! I would love to get a chance to say hi. Looking forward to connecting!’ Then, at the event, I have a list of people I know I will connect with,” says Tregunna.

 

DON’T be afraid to approach someone

“Take every advantage possible to meet new people,” says Lori Cheek, founder and CEO of Cheekd.com, a sort of reverse-engineered dating site that provides its members icebreakers they can use to introduce themselves to new people. “When attending networking events, I find that it’s most advantageous to go alone so that you’re forced to talk to new people,” suggests Cheek. “Understand everyone is there for a similar reason and, for the most part, want to make new connections, so don’t be shy—just walk up and introduce yourself. The only thing you have to lose is an opportunity.” Cheek also offers a reminder not to make quick judgments. “Efficiently communicate and never dismiss a single soul—you never know who you're talking to, who they might know, or how they'd be able to contribute [to your company].”

 

DO listen…and listen and listen

“Listen more than you talk. People invariably like someone who listens to them and makes them feel interesting and appreciated,” says Lisa Thompson, L.P.C., director of professional services for Pearson Partners International, Inc., a full-service retained executive search firm. Thompson suggests keeping your own story to a minimum. “Avoid immediately going into too much detail about what you offer. Unless they indicate a real interest by asking direct questions, you will bore them and they will want to escape,” suggests Thompson. “Practice describing what you do in just a couple of sentences.”

 

DON’T stay in just your industry

Getting beyond the folks within your industry can benefit your company in surprising ways. New ideas for marketing partnerships, insight on fresh ways to approach sales, and more solid business opportunities may arise from chatting with someone in another field or specialty. “It pays dividends to diversify your connections. Raise your awareness of the circles you spend your time in and if the circles have become too narrow—one type of industry, one type of profession—make it a point to widen the circle from time-to-time,“ writes founder and CEO of Impact Instruction Group Amy Franko in her e-book 35 Tips to Build Lasting Strategic Relationships.

 

SmallTalk_PQ.jpgDO take notes

Katie Shea, director of marketing at OrderGroove.com, a company that launches and manages subscription programs for major retailers, suggests taking a brief moment to take notes on people you meet. “If you are at a large networking event like a cocktail party
or fundraiser, it's easy to collect dozens of cards, yet difficult to keep
track of all of the different two- to three-minute conversations,” says Shea. “After a few
conversations, take a break to write personal notes on the back of each
card you've received—[things like] ‘NYU alum, born in South Africa, avid traveler.’ Not only will this jog your memory of the conversation, but your new
contact is likely to be impressed that you remembered such a personal
detail about him or her during later conversations.”



 

DON’T get stuck in conversations

Having a few ideas on how to exit a conversation is just as important as having opening lines to start one. Being “trapped” with one person for too long means missed opportunities to connect with others. “Learn to handle networking vultures and elegantly get out of a conversation with someone who wants to stick with you,” suggests Thompson. “You might say there is someone across the room you just have to speak to, or introduce that person to another and move along, or have other possible strategies up your sleeve.”

 

DO follow up in person

Keep that brief conversation going after the event with another face-to-face meeting—even if you don’t see an immediate use for the relationship. “You’ve heard the saying that if you need a relationship, it’s usually too late to build it. It’s often why people end up feeling as though they’re being insincere, because continual relationship building isn’t a habit built into their everyday life,” notes Franko. “A quick conversation with a new contact is rarely a bad
thing, but where the deals happen is later down the road. Be sure to follow
up—offer to buy coffee, lunch, a drink—with those individuals that you
believe offer synergies to your business,” offers Shea.

 

DON’T have an out-of-date online presence

To cultivate and grow relationships, many go beyond “just touching base” periodic emails. They build on that face-to-face networking with social media, which means it is vital your LinkedIn account is always up-to-date, and you are active on at least one social media channel. “I will connect with everyone within 48 hours [of an event] on LinkedIn with a unique greeting and ask for their other social channels so we can stay in touch,” notes Tregunna. “I then try to do mentions of them on social media if they are active – ‘Great meeting <person> at <event> on <date>! If you haven't connected with them here you should try!’” That virtual connection keeps the lines of communication open and ready for future business opportunities that happen in person.

SalesTraining_Body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

 

Your small business has reached an impasse: Growth has stagnated the past year and your usually driven sales reps have not been able to progress beyond their quotas. They are also experiencing difficulties closing deals.

 

Although you would normally consider coaching your sales staff through this rough patch yourself, you’re too busy trying to keep your business afloat. But there is an alternative: sending your sales reps to outside training. Is it worth the time and investment, though? And how do you determine if one program is reputable and another a scam?     

 

Decide what skill(s) you want your reps to work on

Sometimes a sales slump can be attributable to a variety of reasons, ranging from low morale to lack of teamwork. Like an emergency doctor in triage, small business owners need to closely assess the source of the problem and then seek out a solution designed to fix it.

 

Linda M. Orr, a sales consultant who works with small businesses, says rather than offer a pre-packaged workshop, she always customizes her training programs based on the needs and wants of clients.

 

“If it’s a people skills issue, we go over psychological and communications principles and then do sales roles plays, explains Orr, co-author of When to Hire or Not Hire a Consultant: Getting Your Money’s Worth From Consulting Relationships. “If it’s a value-selling issue (such as wanting to raise prices by 10 percent and knowing how to handle price objections), I have very specific exercises so they understand their value proposition and know how to present it. Sometimes I do more analytical workshops and help sales people understand how to perform major account analytics, forecasting, and customer lifetime value analysis. It all depends on what their problem or issue is.”

 

Consider your budget

How much of the company coffers can you allocate to an external training session? And further, for how long? As you begin to consider a variety of programs, asking yourself these two questions should help you whittle down choices.

If you want your sales reps to get a quick skills brush-up, then it might behoove you to send them to a one-day or weekend intensive session. If it’s something more strategic and tactical, such as how to improve their communications with C-suite personnel and negotiate better deals, then a longer program might be in order.

Mike Montague, a sales trainer at Sandler Training, a 17-year-old Kansas City-based company that helps small business increase their profitability, says the client must be able and willing to invest their time, money, and energy to reach their desired goal. If that means that the client may have to spend a little more money than they would like, then so be it.

Montague says his company offers ongoing training to help clients sustain a considerable level of growth over a period of time.

 

“We teach the material in two-hour weekly classes over the course of a year to help our clients learn, practice and master the initial and advanced strategies and tactics needed to excel,” Montague explains. “We also mentor and coach people to develop the attitudes and implement the behavior necessary to reach the highest levels of success. We have learned that just because people know how to do something doesn't mean they will actually do it, and your attitude is the primary driver of your ultimate outcomes in sales or anything else.”

 

SalesTraining_PQ.jpgInvestigate sales trainers before choosing a program

Although you might think that sending your sales staff to outside training initiatives is critical to improving your goals and ROI, it will be counterproductive unless you do your due diligence first. Ask trusted associates and valued peers for their recommendations and referrals. Learn as much as you can about a prospective sales trainer’s credentials and background. Just sending your reps willy-nilly to a program that you are unfamiliar with on the basis of an acquaintance’s vague suggestion is irresponsible and could spell a disaster in the making. Avoid sales training scams that offer preposterously high promises. Be realistic with your expectations.

 

Orr agrees. “Most of the ‘sales trainers’ out there have no idea what they are talking about,” she warns “They have very little formal training or experience.”

She advises that small business owners look for consultants/trainers who have sales degrees from an accredited sales program, which can be found from the University Sales Center Alliance, a nationwide network of sales centers.

“Sales consultants/trainers should have some experience as well,” she adds. “They should have testimonials and ROI examples of past work. They should also have a detailed proposal that identifies exactly how they will address all of your needs and objectives.”

 

What ROI benefits are you seeking?

Are there specific goals you’re looking to achieve as a result of sending your sales staff to outside training sessions? For example, have you just increased your price point on all products across the board and are worried about how your sales reps will persuade customers that they’re getting the most value from their purchase? Sending your sales reps to a workshop could be the ticket to helping them understand how to overcome this obstacle and, thus, increase your ROI.

Orr offers an example of a small business client that came to her with a similar dilemma: “The sales reps thought raising the [product] price was a horrible thing and customers would never go for it. After the training, they realized that some things sell better with higher prices. [The price increase resulted in] roughly $1.2 million more to [the company’s revenue]. It is difficult to say how much of that was directly tied to the training, but it obviously helped, much more than the cost of the training.”  Orr says she charges roughly $1,000 per sales rep and that companies typically pay anywhere from $6,000 to $30,000 for training. “You can pretty quickly see why there is almost always a positive ROI,” she says. “All you need is for each rep to sell $1,000 more (or stop losing $1,000 in sales) and it has paid for itself.”

Orr says often in training she has managers establish measurable goals for each sales rep prior to the start of the program. This can be on anything from the rep’s total sales to his/her overall profitability levels. And in the six-month to a year follow-up, the manager, at Orr’s urging, will compare each rep’s metrics prior to the training to the data collected afterwards.

“If the training is done correctly and if the sales rep cares and listens, there is almost always an immediate increase, well beyond the cost of the consulting,” she maintains.

Unfortunately, if there are still troublesome issues that demand improvement, then perhaps the small business owner might consider replacing a sales rep with someone more suitable for the position. Sometimes, that could be a key lesson learned for employers after sending sales staff to outside training sessions. 

For a small business to advance to the next stage, it might be necessary to send sales staff to external training programs. Whether it’s to refresh their skills or educate them in current sales techniques, the ROI benefits that might result could make the expense worth the time, money, and investment.

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