Know Yourself

This post was written by Gloria Flanagan, Assistant Director, Alexandria SBDC I attended two programs last week – one was the Alexandria Small Business Roundtable discussion on work spaces (home-based businesses, co-working spaces, executive office suites, brick & mortar, etc.). The second program was a Retail Week workshop sponsored by our colleagues at the Community… Read more »

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This post was written by Gloria Flanagan, Assistant Director, Alexandria SBDC

I attended two programs last week – one was the Alexandria Small Business Roundtable discussion on work spaces (home-based businesses, co-working spaces, executive office suites, brick & mortar, etc.). The second program was a Retail Week workshop sponsored by our colleagues at the Community Business Partnership on how artists can use social media to engage their audience.  Very different subjects – right? Yes, but they had a common thread that is worth noting. It involves knowing yourself, being honest about how you work, what you enjoy doing and what you do well.

The Roundtable discussion centered on how various individuals work. Do you need to have all of your projects in front of you all of the time so that nothing “falls through the cracks”? If so, a co-working space is probably not your optimal setup; you are not going to want to put everything away at the end of the day. Until you can afford a workspace that is all your own, you may well be a “dining room table” worker at home, and that is okay. Many entrepreneurs start out that way, and some like it so much that they continue to work from home even when they could afford to rent an office.

Do you work well in fluid situations and get energized by the people working around you? If you like this dynamic workspace and are not continually distracted by what other folks are doing, then a co-working space may be perfect for you. There is no right answer or space that is perfect for everyone, but if you take the time to think about how you really work, there is an optimal space for you.

On another note, it is generally understood these days that whether you are in business to sell your art, your product, or a service, you will need to include social media in your marketing plan.  One of the first points that the presenter at the Artist’s Workshop made was to think about who you are and what you like to do. This is important in determining what social media platform or platforms you choose to use.  He said that he is a “maker”. He does not like to write. A written blog, while an excellent marketing method for many entrepreneurs, is not for him. He told the artists that people like to see their art (photos!) but also like to see how it is made. A short video showing the process and production would help the artist begin a relationship with the person viewing their art, beyond the individual piece itself.

Choosing your primary social media platform requires you to consider how you like to communicate, but you should not be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. Experiment a bit and see what works for you and your business. Remember that it is important to be consistent, so pick something that you will be able to keep up. If social media is just not for you on any platform, you may have to hire someone to do it for you. Again, be honest with yourself about what you can and will do. A little introspection, whether on where you work or how you market your work will go a long way to building your success. There is no “right way” – there is something that is right for you!

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Exceeding Customer Expectations

This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday of the month for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. From the moment a customer or client comes into contact with a Small Business,… Read more »

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This article was written by Ray Sidney-Smith, facilitator for Alexandria Small Business Development Center’s monthly Business Development Roundtable. You may join us every third Tuesday of the month for different topic-based discussions for Small Business in the City of Alexandria, Virginia.

From the moment a customer or client comes into contact with a Small Business, they are having an experience with your brand. And, it matters. How much impact and to what extent you have control over that first moment is likely great and minimal, respectively. And, what we want as Small Business owners is to increase our control over every touchpoint with a client. This is whether it is during marketing, sales, fulfillment, or post-delivery customer interactions. It’s important so that their first touchpoint isn’t our last chance!

For the May Business Development Roundtable at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we discussed, Exceeding Customers’ Expectations: How to Motivate Yourself and Your Staff to Provide Excellent Customer Service. And, the participants at that Roundtable had insights that I thought proved useful for all Small Business owners trying to get a handle on customer experience and customer service management.

What is customer experience? What is customer service?

A frequently-asked question I receive at workshops and seminars is, what is the “customer experience” I speak of when I’m relating stories about how potential clients come into contact with a business on Social Media? (This relates to all first contacts with potential clients online and offline, by the way.) I would call this “brand messaging” in professional jargon, but more simply it’s what your customer sees, feels, and hears, which I detailed in a recent blog post on branding for Small Business. I think of customer experience as the sum total of your brand strategy’s value from the perspective of your customer, and customer service as the transactional, day-to-day interactions that build up to the customer experience.

Patra Frame from Strategies for Human Resources kicked off the discussion with a reference to The Washington Post article, “The real value in business may not be the thing so many fixate on”. In brief, the article details that, as Patra put it, “giving people an experience” as opposed to simply selling your wares and services. As the article notes, “‘people will pay for an experience that is superior’ [according to David Sax, author of The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter] to what they can get in the mass market. There is a difference between a thing and an experience. One can be possessed. The other can be felt.” Small Business is positioned perfectly to provide bespoke, superior experiences to our customers and clients.

How does customer service affect your business?

Whether it’s during the sales process, through fulfillment and delivery of services, or service after the sale, customers need you and your staff to be motivated to provide the best level of customer service. According to American Express Survey, 2011, 78% of consumers have left a transaction midstream because of poor customer service experience. Even more shocking is that dissatisfied customers speak up only four percent of the time. That means 96% of unsatisfactory customer experiences go untold to you! That’s money being thrown out the window if you’re not paying attention to customer service. (Source: “Understanding Customers” by Ruby Newell-Legner.) If you make a first-time purchaser a long-term customer, they can be worth upward of 10 times the value of their first purchase. Simply put, customer service makes or breaks your business.

How do you handle a bad customer experience?

Not all customer interactions are going to go well for any Small Business. However, there are ways in which you can address the issue so that it turns a bad customer experience into a positive one. First, it’s been widely noted that speed of response is crucial, that is, the faster you respond to a customer’s complaint the better the outcomes.

Also, show empathy to your customer’s perspective and situation. A startling statistic is something that I heard many years ago from a malpractice attorney, who said that doctors who said “I’m sorry” to patients had dramatically fewer malpractice claims brought against them. The active empathizing with a customer goes a long way.

If it’s within your control, fix the mistake. Many times small business owners think about the short-term impact of correcting a customer service issue and they ignore the long-term impact of a loyal customer. If you keep the long tail approach to your customer service you will be able to make much more money by correcting errors now and putting systems in place so that they don’t happen in the future.

How do you approach online reviews? Ratings?

No customer service conversation could end without a discussion of how online reviews and ratings affect business today.  My general recommendations to all businesses when they receive a poor rating is to quickly respond to the reviewer or rater. Ask if you were able to connect offline so that you can empathize and fix the issue. Finally once you have made the unhappy customer whole regarding the situation, politely ask them to go back and re-review your company. You want people to see that when your business makes a mistake, you fix it. Problems or mistakes will occur with every business. Would you rather work with one that doesn’t correct these matters, or one that makes sure you’re taken care of? In my opinion as a customer myself, that’s far more powerful than all the five-star ratings in the world.

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Showing hospitality to visitors

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on April 27, 2017. The start of baseball season, young green leaves on our trees and hints of warmer weather are signs that we’re on schedule to experience an upswing of visitors to Alexandria. Our Visit Alexandria… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on April 27, 2017.

The start of baseball season, young green leaves on our trees and hints of warmer weather are signs that we’re on schedule to experience an upswing of visitors to Alexandria.

Our Visit Alexandria colleagues tell us that tourism generates millions of dollars in revenue for local businesses and city government and supports thousands of Alexandria jobs. Alexandria gets 3.5 million visitors per year, and they spend $771 million in our community. That generates $25.5 million in local tax revenue, which reduces the tax burden for each of our households by $350.

While there’s definitely an economic return associated with crowds of visitors, there’s so much more. Alexandria’s vitality and cultural richness is sustained by tourist dollars, and our residential quality of life is enriched by the appealing places where we can shop, dine and explore.

Cities that are tourist destinations tend to also spur creative economies. Alexandria attracts these highly desirable creative businesses, and the very charm and vitality that lures owners to move here also helps them recruit skilled workers. Alexandria’s economy is becoming more diversified and less dependent on the government, and our hospitality industry has helped nurture this positive trend.

Our assets also nudge us to be better citizens. We live in a highlydesirable location – Extraordinary Alexandria, as described by Visit Alexandria — and we are compelled to be good stewards of our treasure. We have worked hard over the years to enhance and promote our community’s history, culture, infrastructure, and quality of life. Without the stimulus of tourism, we might be more complacent.

You don’t have to drive many hours to find those communities where tourists used to visit but now streets, stores and run-down hotels are empty. Those townsfolk try many approaches to lure visitors with contrived festivals and quirky museums. We are fortunate to have an authentic atmosphere that draws visitors and it bodes well for our future to embrace those visitors and their support of our city.

What can we individually do to enhance this tourism good fortune we’re blessed with? The first step is to be welcoming in every way possible. When you’ve traveled, you’ve perhaps appreciated locals giving you a welcoming nod and stepping up to offer directions or recommendations. This goodwill and ambassadorship goes a long way to promoting Alexandria as a tourist-friendly community.

Our merchants can work with Visit Alexandria to educate their employees on the city’s highlights. When an employee shows enthusiasm and directs visitors to “don’t miss” attractions or restaurants, that’s not just friendly service, it’s branding that results in visitors staying longer, spending more and heartily recommending Alexandria to others.

We residents can also be encouraging to the businesses and organizations that work very hard — in a highly competitive arena — to make Alexandria an exciting and memorable destination. When hospitality businesses express common needs, we ought to pay attention and give support.

Spring has sprung, and it’s a great time to get out and enjoy our community — and let our enthusiasm become contagious to visitors.

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Business Finance 101

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on March 17, 2017. For many of us, understanding financial matters is a challenge, and options for financing the startup or expansion of a business may be difficult to grasp. This is a perfect example of a… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on March 17, 2017.

For many of us, understanding financial matters is a challenge, and options for financing the startup or expansion of a business may be difficult to grasp. This is a perfect example of a great time to contact the Alexandria Small Business Development Center for help. Financial guidance is among the free services offered by the Center.

Astute business owners know that having a financial expert routinely review their financial statements with them makes them better managers. They know that it makes sense to do an annual fiscal check-up. They know that, at the first indication that they need working capital, an expansion loan, or even a startup loan, the most efficient approach they can take is to work through their business plan and loan request with an expert. Some have equated this process with getting coached for an interview.

Alexandria Small Business Development Center Business Analyst, Jack Parker, has been an independent contractor with the Center for 19 years. In that time, he has worked with owners to help them better manage the financial aspects of their business. Over the years, he has helped more than 265 business owners and start-up entrepreneurs obtain loans or investments totaling over $71 million.

As a retired banker, Jack knows what loan officers expect to see in a loan request. He knows that they want those requests to clearly show how that loan will be repaid, and they expect the applicant to provide sound financial projections supported by written assumptions. Some bankers indicate they have greater confidence in the requests that come through working with the Center. Their experience is that Center-assisted applicants are typically much better prepared and are therefore much better credit risks.

Thanks to the Center’s strong partnerships with local banks, bankers often refer prospective borrowers to the Center to obtain guidance. Nine Alexandria banks are currently financial supporters of the Center, and many of their lenders work closely with Jack to connect business owners with the right services. This could include helping business owners develop strong banking relationships, establish lines of credit or seek financing.

Being unprepared for a loan application can have far-reaching effects. Many prospective borrowers might not realize that, anytime your loan application is turned down, it can affect your credit rating. At the Center, Alexandria business owners have access to a free resource who can work with them to fine-tune their loan or line of credit application so that it answers almost every question that a loan officer will ask.  That way, when they approach a lender, they will have confidence in the plan they’re presenting, and have a much greater chance of it being approved.

Whether or not a business owner needs financing, it behooves them to have a strong and confidential relationship with their bank. The Center is glad to have a resource to help Alexandria business owners develop such relationships and better manage the financials of their business. We welcome your contacting the Center for such guidance.

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Spinning Your Wheels on Marketing?

The following blog was written by Heidi O’Leska, Vintage Juice Brand marketing, who presented a workshop on this subject for the Alexandria SBDC last week. More than likely, it’s not the marketing, it’s the message.  I often hear from clients, we spend tons of money on direct mail (or print advertising or social media) and… Read more »

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The following blog was written by Heidi O’Leska, Vintage Juice Brand marketing, who presented a workshop on this subject for the Alexandria SBDC last week.

More than likely, it’s not the marketing, it’s the message. 

I often hear from clients, we spend tons of money on direct mail (or print advertising or social media) and results are less than 1% ROI. No bueno.

So, what’s the answer? 

  • What’s your Why? People don’t buy what you do, but instead, why you do it. They want to be inspired, appeal to their gut feeling/intuition.
  • Pinpoint what your business does differently and better than competition (based on your why).
  • Define what audience is eager for that offering, and within that audience, which is the most profitable
  • Create messaging around that offering that is bold, creative – a true stop them in their tracks and make them think, want to learn more
  • Research and develop a marketing plan to deliver that message or series of messages to your most profitable target audience using the communication tools they are most likely to use.

Differentiators – Best Quality, Best Service, Lowest Prices are NOT differentiators, most people say that, most customers don’t believe it until they experience your product or service, don’t waste time saying it, especially in the 8-10 seconds you have to first catch their attention. What’s the true differentiator? The intersection between what competitors are NOT saying and the true, genuine WHY you started your business. I facilitate messaging workshops with business owners and executives that includes taking an objective look at what competitors are saying and compare that to the true WHY of the organization, as well as its weaknesses. The methodology always results in a differentiator resonates – as well as creative ideas to communicate it.

Most Profitable Target Audience Your business cannot be all things to all people, unless you have a boatload of money to spend (throw away). The most successful businesses start with one very specific target audience and offering. Reaching 10,000 high-income residents within 1-2 miles of your business with a message that appeals to their lifestyle has resulted in 30% response rates vs. a generic message to the entire population with less than 1% return. Even if 1% of a larger population nets the same number of individuals reached as the 30% of 10,000 (3,000) a generic message to all falls flat, resulting in:

  • Lower sales per person
  • One-time customers, never to return
  • Often, bad online reviews. Why? They don’t understand your WHY, they aren’t your audience

As part of our methodology we conduct focus groups and one-on-one interviews with our clients’ various audiences. With data in hand, we narrow down the most profitable audiences and develop personas for each, as the go-to for all new marketing initiatives.

Bold Messaging  – Don’t wimp out. And, don’t try to develop it yourself. Shameless plug, but, creative agencies are objective and well, creative!

Targeted Marketing – With your most profitable target audience in mind…

  • Millennials? – Facebook and even your website is a thing of the past to Millennials, concentrate on Instagram and getting great Yelp and Google reviews. Don’t even consider print advertising.
  • Baby Boomers? – Facebook, Facebook, Facebook – the MOST targeted advertising available. Print in a local magazine that is well respected by residents, with your BOLD message, remember, don’t wimp out.
  • Generation X or Y – A combination of the above, dependent on your product and what is available in your region.

Interested in a 30 minute, complimentary assessment of your brand? Call me (Heidi O’Leska, President, Marketing Strategist, Vintage Juice Brand Marketing), (703) 922-2442.

Branding & Marketing Agency based in Alexandria VA.

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Recognition: Great to Get – Even Better to Give!

On March 23rd, the Alexandria SBDC will celebrate the fact that our colleague Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources has won the award as the State of Virginia SBDC Small Business Veteran of the Year. (click here to attend the celebration – all are welcome!)  We nominated Patra for this statewide recognition several months ago… Read more »

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On March 23rd, the Alexandria SBDC will celebrate the fact that our colleague Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources has won the award as the State of Virginia SBDC Small Business Veteran of the Year. (click here to attend the celebration – all are welcome!)  We nominated Patra for this statewide recognition several months ago because not only is she a decorated Air Force Veteran who paved the way for many military women who came after her, but also because she is an outstanding small business owner who never hesitates to help others, give advice, etc.

Patra’s award is a formal award that had a formal nomination process, etc.  But how many folks do you work with who could use a little recognition themselves? Most of us these days are overworked and underpaid – that is, sadly, a fact of life.  However, most of the small business owners that I know, especially those in Alexandria, realize the benefits of promoting all of us.  We just don’t always take a few minutes to do it. What is the culture of your company?  Do you “work and play well with others”?  Do you empower your employees to act positively either to your customers or to each other, and do you recognize them when they do?  A “good job on that project”, said with genuine appreciation, can go a long way to making an employee feel good about their job.

Likewise, it never hurts to publicly appreciate the other small business owners around you.  If customers in your shop are talking about where they will go for lunch, do you encourage your employees to suggest some of your neighboring restaurants? If one of your vendors does a particularly timely or efficient job, do you take a minute to acknowledge that and thank them?  Did one of your colleagues, or competitors have a really terrific window display or put out an extra-informative newsletter this week? E-mail notes are easy and effective – brief handwritten notes are even better (and many of our local shops have very attractive Alexandria-themed notecards for a reasonable price). Let them know that you recognized their extra effort.  It really only takes a few minutes, but it will make both of you feel great!

Register for Patra Frame’s celebration at this link: https://nvite.com/BunkerBrews/eoerym

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Save yourself grief: Ask questions and seek advice

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on February 23, 2017. Savvy entrepreneurs recognize that their expertise has limits and that they don’t know what they don’t know. Surviving and thriving depend on learning how to ask questions and knowing where to look for… Read more »

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This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on February 23, 2017.

Savvy entrepreneurs recognize that their expertise has limits and that they don’t know what they don’t know. Surviving and thriving depend on learning how to ask questions and knowing where to look for help. We hate to see businesses run into serious problems that could have been prevented with a simple conversation.

From their earliest business concept, entrepreneurs benefit from objective feedback and learning about approaches they might not otherwise consider. The Alexandria Small Business Development Center has expert consultants who are adept at identifying problems that even the best of plans might overlook.

Careful planning is always enhanced by a fresh perspective. With comprehensive feedback at the earliest stages, strategies become much better defined. Best of all, services at the center are without cost, so precious resources are conserved for other startup and growth expenses.

During these early-stage consulting sessions, entrepreneurs often learn about issues that require further research. These include zoning or other locational considerations, licensing, permits, and potential restrictions. Forewarned of these requirements, entrepreneurs can make better plans with fewer expensive surprises.

The City of Alexandria has designated small business facilitators to help entrepreneurs with preliminary and detailed planning — hopefully before leases or other obligations are signed. Their focus is on helping people through permitting and licensing processes. They can be reached at 703-746-4213 or 703-746-4268.

The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership’s expert staff is familiar with the city, the real estate market, rental rates or sales comps, and can assist businesses with the site selection process. Its services are free and an essential stop before anyone considers, much less signs, a lease.

Additionally, the small business development center has further leasing guidance and a Leasing Checklist on its website. Both economic development and small business center staffs are able to advise entrepreneurs on Alexandria neighborhoods, their civic and business groups, and how to make the best entry with their business.

Financing is another area where entrepreneurs often need expert advice before making a formal application. Every application you make could affect your credit score, and being declined reduces your prospects with other lenders.

Meeting with the small business center’s business analyst — a former banker — can help strengthen your presentation to a loan officer, much like being coached before an interview. The earlier that preparation takes place the better.

There are other professionals whose expertise will save new entrepreneurs many headaches — and dollars — if they are consulted early on. Attorneys and accountants should be part of your management team from the start.

Human resources consultants can help you avoid potential pitfalls as you start hiring employees. Marketing professionals can advise you on your branding and social media presence. The SDBC keeps lists of reliable professionals for a broad range of small business matters and it can advise you where to get help for a variety of circumstances. Feel free to contact us for referrals.

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The 11 Basic Rules of Window & Interior Merchandising

Several days ago, visual merchandising expert DP Miller presented a workshop at the Alexandria SBDC on the 11 Basic Rules of Window & Interior Merchandising.  The speaker stressed that you must know the rules, and the reasons behind them, before you can “break” them.  This is the first of a three-part series on this subject… Read more »

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Several days ago, visual merchandising expert DP Miller presented a workshop at the Alexandria SBDC on the 11 Basic Rules of Window & Interior Merchandising.  The speaker stressed that you must know the rules, and the reasons behind them, before you can “break” them.  This is the first of a three-part series on this subject – upcoming sessions will occur in April and May and will go into more detail of the practical steps to be taken to have impressive displays.  More information about these sessions and registration will be listed on our events page.  A brief summary of the rules follows:

Rules 1 – 3 – The Relationship Rules

  • Rule 1 – Approachability: Avoiding the Wall
  • Rule 2 – Psychological Perspective: Removing Virtual Obstacles
  • Rule 3 – Shopability: Making it Easy

Rules 4 – 11 – Practical Merchandising

  • Rule 4 – Dynamic Presentation: The Waterfall Effect
  • Rule 5 – The Golden Pyramid: Giving and Playing with Height
  • Rule 6 – Repetition: Of Color, Shape, or Item
  • Rule 7 – Graphic Use of Color: To Pop, Contrast, or Playing with Shade
  • Rule 8 – Negative Space: Finding Rest in the Void
  • Rule 9 – An Odd Rule, or the Rule of Odds: Couples can be Boring
  • Rule 10 – The Golden Rule to Understanding Visual Weight:
    • Short to Long
    • Light to Dark
    • Left to Right
  • Rule 11 – One Less Line: Avoiding Visual Noise

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