12 Steps to Upgrade Your Business

The first flush of New Year’s Resolutions has worn off.  Are you still on task to meet your goals?  Or is this going to be another year where your business runs you, instead of the other way around?

I decided on 12 things that I am doing this year to upgrade my business.  Now, 12 things may sound like a lot, but the trick is to break it down into small steps, and that’s what I have done:

1. Ask Customers What’s Important to THEM

Talk with your existing customers — don’t just assume.  Pick up the phone or send an email and ask “what can I do better for you?”  In today’s environment they may have totally changed priorities.

Wendy's listening to customersTake, for example, Wendy’s. Recently they changed their ad campaigns to reflect the new economic realities of their customers, with their “3conomics” campaign. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Pick up the phone and call your customers — They’ll be delighted that you called!
  • Do a customer survey — One of the unsung trends for small businesses is the entry into the market of easy to use, DIY survey tools, from Survey Monkey to QuestionPro.
  • Implement one of the customer feedback services on your website — Get Satisfaction and similar apps are an easy way to “listen” to what customers think.

2. Be Strategic

Small businesses are notoriously thinly funded and thinly staffed (yes, I know all about that).  Consequently,  we business owners get into a habit of reacting.  We spend much of our time putting out fires.  Instead of guiding our businesses, they “happen to us.” Here’s what I am doing about that, this year:

  • Make every action create the business I want, not the business that happens — After doing some traditional strategic planning, (1) I wrote down my strategic objectives, and (2) I am visualizing my strategy in action.  For me, the visualization part is crucial.  I sit down in a quiet room with the door shut.  I carefully visualize in my mind’s eye what my ideal business will look like.  I even imagine my P&L, visualizing a number for my desired top line (sales) and bottom line (profit).   It helps me focus on what I need to do and not get distracted.
  • Set objectives with your employees — Earlier this year, I “sat down” with my people (OK, we did it through email), and set objectives together with them — objectives that align with the company’s goals.  I have their objectives tacked to my bulletin board.  I also encouraged them to print them out and post them on their own bulletin boards where they can see them to stay on track. 

3. Differentiate Your Business

Even if you are in an age-old industry, you can differentiate it.  Zappo’s is in an old industry — selling shoes. Yet they manage to be different from the competition, starting with the memorable name, to their storied customer service and wide selection.

I started by writing down what my business will be known for.  Imagine that you are a newspaper writer, writing a story about your business.  What would you say in 25 words or less to finish this phrase:  “my  company, a business known for ______.”  I’ve decided that I want Small Business Trends to be “an online publication known for having a finger on the pulse of trends and showing business owners how to capitalize on those trends.”  That’s why we started our trend series earlier this year — a series of articles designed to profile trends for 2009.  While this might seem obvious, it took the act of writing that down to crystallize that I needed to widen our circle of trends articles.

4. Partner – where it makes sense

“No man is an island.”  That’s especially true for small businesses. I’ve often said that I owe a lot to partners, such as Federated Media, with whom I’ve partnered on advertising sales on this site.  That partnership has been responsible for helping grow my business.  But too often I see vague, poorly-defined partnerships that languish — heck, I’ve been in some.  One side or the other doesn’t give a partnership enough critical thought, or is too timid to ask for what they want. The half-baked effort is a colossal waste of time. 

So this year I am asking prospective partners “how exactly do you see us working together?” and “what’s in it for both of us?”  I am insisting that any prospective partnership be distilled down to a few bullet points.  If the partnership can’t be articulated in a few short bullets, don’t spend time on it or get caught up in aimless product demos.  With a recession on, none of us can afford fishing trips.

cloud computing5. Learn a new Web technology

The sheer number of applications now available for small businesses — especially online or “cloud” applications — is now so great that it feels impossible to keep up with them.  But don’t give up because you feel overwhelmed.  I have 2 action items:

  • Learn one new thing myself — Forget boiling the ocean.  If you’ve been holding back from learning how to design a brochure, or learning how to upload video from your Flip camera to YouTube, now’s the time to learn. But here’s the secret:  just pick one thing.  Get good at whatever you picked.  You’ll gain confidence that will help you tackle other technologies and software applications later on.
  • Encourage staff to each upgrade a skill — A former boss of mine when I was in the corporate world was fond of saying, “Inspect what you expect.”  If your staff knows it’s important to you that they master a new skill, they will enthusiastically rise to the occasion. It increases their self-esteem, too.

6.  Start a newsletter

OK, now I have to make a confession:  I started a newsletter years ago — actually two different newsletters.  One is for my radio show and one is a general tips and advice newsletter.  Through a combination of factors, both have become sporadic instead of on schedule.  So one thing on my to-do list is to: get that newsletter started (or in my case re-started).  

Remember that email is best used for communicating with existing customers and contacts.  So build a house email list of subscribers who opt in.  Use a good email marketing program like Constant Contact (what we currently use), Vertical Response, or Campaigner to manage your subscriber database and compose professional-looking emails.  And just get started.  “Out of sight, out of mind.”  

7.  Cement relationships with key customers

It’s far less expensive to get a new sale from an existing customer, than to go out prospecting afresh to close a new customer.  Make sure your relationships are strong.  Work on them!  In a recession loyal customers are your life vest.  Invite a customer to lunch.  If you are visiting their city, schedule an appointment.  Consider holding an annual customer conference.  Or it can be as simple as starting a thread on your blog asking readers to introduce themselves.  We recently did that to a fantastic response — I can’t believe we didn’t think of it earlier!  

8.  Automate a process 

If it were not for automation, my business would be more costly to run.  It also would not scale well, and impede growth.  I am already running into issues when it comes to accounting and invoicing, both of which take up more of my time than I’d like.  Luckily, with so many “cloud computing” applications it is easier than ever to automate functions.  So I am tackling some of my internal processes and automating them, such as using online bill pay for recurring invoices.

9. Do something green

power management optionsI never used to think of “green” as being something I could meaningfully work into my small business.  But if last year’s high energy prices taught us anything, it taught us the value to our businesses of conserving energy, even in small amounts. 

One area I know I can do more with is conserving energy with my computers.  Last year I had the chance to talk with some of the HP product managers and my eyes were opened to the advances being made in areas such as “power management.” In its simplest form this means you set your computers to use less power when not actively being used, even if kept on.  Even other products, including printers, are designed to go into a “rest” stage and conserve power when inactive.  

 This InfoWorld survey lists a number of green actions that small businesses can take.  I’ll bet there’s one thing on that list you can adopt in your business.

10. Spruce up your working environment

A cluttered workspace leads to a cluttered mind.  So I have been clearing my workspace — and not just my physical workspace.  You see I am online all day long, so my real “office” is inside my computer.  I am organizing my computers files better.  We do so much in our business (online publishing) through email, that organizing email is a big part of organizing the “office.”  Desktop search, contact management/CRM applications, and email handling/organization apps can make a huge difference.

11. Think outside the box

A few months back Ivana Taylor wrote a great piece on holiday marketing tips that were unusual and innovative.  The good news is, a number of those tips apply even outside of holiday times.  The overriding point I took away from that article was to think differently … be unconventional … in your marketing. 

12. Network, network, network!

social networking sitesFor me, online networking has replaced about 75% of my in-person networking.  I find online networking to be more efficient, not to mention reaching more people.  However, so many people get caught up in our daily activities and neglect networking.  Yet networking can help you find new suppliers; key partners; customers; and even staff. 

No matter how much I feel pulled in different directions with the day to day demands of running a business, I won’t neglect networking.  So I build it into my day, about a half hour a day, mostly from my computer, with the occasional in-person networking opportunity.  I have gotten a good response from Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn — I have gotten new business and more website traffic; found loyal suppliers; and made good friends who inspire me.  Well worth the time.

Now, it’s your turn:  What are the things you are doing to upgrade your business this year?

Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.