How Is Your Business Doing?

So, you have had your small business or nonprofit organization up and running for at least a few months and someone asks you how your business is doing.  Do you have a response – and no, “Fine” is not a response.  At this time of year when people are working on their tax returns and… Read more »

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So, you have had your small business or nonprofit organization up and running for at least a few months and someone asks you how your business is doing.  Do you have a response – and no, “Fine” is not a response.  At this time of year when people are working on their tax returns and renewing their business licenses it is important to ask yourself if you really have a handle on how you are doing.  It often takes a while for small businesses to be profitable, but business owners need to keep track from the start to understand their situation.

Do you know how many customers you had last year?  Your total sales?  If your business is a consultant or government contractor, you may have had only a few rather significant clients, and these responses may be easier to give.  If you are a retail, restaurant, or personal service business with many customers you should be able to pull this information from your point-of-sales system – do you know how to do that?  Other Business-To-Business firms, or Business-to-Consumer companies should also have systems in place, through QuickBooks or a similar product that can give business owners the information that they need to make good decisions.  Many small business owners have an accountant or bookkeeper who manages “the books” and does the taxes.  However, as a business owner, it is important that you review what they have done and understand it.  Remember that help is available from your SBDC in areas such as cashflow analysis if you are not sure about your company’s finances.

As mentioned at the end of last week’s blog, it is also important to measure your marketing campaigns.  Do you ask your customers how they found you?  Have you activated and regularly use Google Analytics and similar programs to measure how successful your website, social media and ad campaigns are at bringing in customers?  Remember that an informed business owner is more likely to be a successful business owner, and make it a point to measure and understand your business operations!  You want to be able to respond to the question in the title with “Great – we doubled our profits this year” or “we expect that our current marketing campaign will finally put us in the black”, and not “I don’t know”.  Ask questions, set up your systems, and be informed!

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The Business Plan: The imperative to stay current

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on January 27, 2017. Over the past year, there was considerable discussion about the impact of online competition on Alexandria small businesses. To be sure, Amazon and other online retailers give shoppers options that force our… 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 January 27, 2017.

Over the past year, there was considerable discussion about the impact of online competition on Alexandria small businesses. To be sure, Amazon and other onlibusiness-man-1031755_1280ne retailers give shoppers options that force our small business owners to up their game.

Often, that means providing legendary service or expertise, or a hands-on experience that lures shoppers away from the at-home convenience of point and click.

Small business owners must stay attuned to the latest trends, technologies, fads and fashions. Even more intently, they must follow their particular business niche to see what others are doing — all around the world.

Ideally, this is something that so excites the owner that they can’t help snooping for more ideas. But if this research is beyond their comfort zone or schedule, then it’s time to engage friends or family to do it for them, or hire the expertise. It simply has to be done.

The hallmark of entrepreneurship is constantly living in the shadow of things that need to be done, while not necessarily having the skill set or adequate time to do them. Here are some suggestions to broaden your horizon: become active in your industry and search pertinent journals; attend gatherings of fellow business owners and talk candidly with them to exchange tips and tricks; and pursue social media discussions. Business sections at public libraries and online searches might turn up other ideas.

Staying current does not just apply to your commercial niche. It also requires you to be vitally aware of what’s going on around you, both in the nation and in the region. Whether or not you’re a newshound, you’re a much savvier entrepreneur if you’re tuned-in to current affairs.

It’s essential to become engaged in your community. Whatever media you prefer, you need to actively use all avenues to keep abreast of active issues, and particularly ones that impact businesses.
Community newspapers and Alexandria’s eNews and Point.Click.Connect email bulletins help fill in the details. Business and civic organizations, commissions, economic development activities and city government departments periodically hold information sessions.

These public issues are complex and cannot be fully captured in letters to the editor. It is vital that you become involved in the texture of the community, learn the details, and provide candid and constructive feedback.

The city-funded economic development programs — the Small Business Development Center, Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, and Visit Alexandria, have websites and programs to inform or educate business owners, help them improve their operations and marketing, help them solve problems or help them make vital connections.

The persistent challenge is that so many of Alexandria’s businesses are not connected with these free resources, and too many businesses are not even connected with one another.

Alexandria has so much going for it. Recent consumer surveys show that shoppers much prefer doing business with independent merchants rather than big box retailers. They also look for a sense of place and authenticity. Alexandria is all of those things in spades. It’s time to connect and become part of your business community.

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The Business Plan: Two decades serving small businesses

This post is written by Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the SBDC and first appeared in the Alexandria Times on December 22, 2016. Twenty years ago on December 17th, the Alexandria Small Business Development Center (SBDC) opened its doors to support and strengthen the small businesses that are central to Alexandria’s economy and character. Over… 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 December 22, 2016.

Twenty years ago on December 17th, the Alexandria Small Business Development Center (SBDC) opened its doors to support and strengthen the small businesses that are central to Alexandria’s economy and character.

Over the two decades, the center has answered many thousands of inquiries about a broad range of business matters. It has provided over 25,000 hours of objective feedback and assistance to several thousand individuals, both existing business owners and startups. It has also helped individuals obtain over $71 million in loans, primarily from Alexandria bankers.

The center provides growth and operational advice to existing small business owners, small non-profits and associations, and those interested in starting such organizations. Existing businesses are helped with common problems, or to improve operations and marketing. The center also helps businesses make connections to the organizations, professionals, and resources that can make a real difference.

Those who work with the center from the earliest phase of their startup are typically better organized and prepared for the requirements, and they launch with better connections and more viable and agile operations. With the center’s proactive guidance and ready availability to help owners with problems, the SBDC’s client longevity rates far surpass national failure statistics.

There are many business fundamentals that are constant – market research, planning, site selection, cash management, customer service, forecasting, for example.  The way some of them is achieved has changed a bit over the years.

Social and mobile media have vastly changed marketing, customer relations, and entire business strategies. Online commerce is now an essential business element, as is creating a distinct customer experience.

The SBDC has guidance in all these business areas that might be familiar to some but not to others. We also have ready access to experts on social/local/mobile marketing; human resources; government contracting, nonprofit management, and retail operations. The center’s extensive website (www.AlexandriaSBDC.org) has resources on many timely business issues.

With the center as a free resource for City of Alexandria businesses, clients have access to an experienced staff that has nothing to sell them and is focused entirely on their best interests. Even more important than our highly regarded programs and services, clients say that the center’s candid and objective feedback is what distinguishes us from other programs.

The center is continually adding resources and contacts to meet shifting demands on businesses. It is also responsive to changing times and community priorities. For 2017, the SBDC is partnering with the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership on retail outreach to enhance the vitality of Alexandria’s shopping districts. The center is also connecting with additional business specialists to guide Alexandria owners through pressing business circumstances.

The staff and board of directors of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center are honored to have had the opportunity to serve Alexandria businesses for 20 years. We value the support from and collaborative partnerships with city government and our economic development partners.  Alexandria is truly a closely-knit business community.

We wish you a very happy holiday season and prosperous New Year!

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Happy Holidays!

This will be the last blog post for 2016, new weekly posts will begin again in early January! The Alexandria SBDC wishes all of its clients and supporters a very merry holiday season and a prosperous New Year! We enjoyed celebrating with many of you at our annual Holiday Kickoff reception on November 18th when about… Read more »

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This will be the last blog post for 2016, new weekly posts will begin again in early January!

The Alexandria SBDC wishes all of its clients and supporters a very merry holiday season and a prosperous New Year! We enjoyed celebrating with many of you at our annual Holiday Kickoff reception on November 18th when about 100 revelers networked while feasting on savory bites fromsnow-man-992355_1920 Meggrolls and some homemade sweet treats. This was our final event of 2016, during which the Alexandria SBDC held 34 Workshops and Roundtable events with over 730 attendees, participated in approximately 400 counseling sessions totaling over 1, 000 hours, and responded to hundreds of phone and e-mail inquiries through our website. We truly value our relationships with our clients and look forward to working with all of you in the New Year.

For those who like to plan ahead, a January Workshop and Roundtable are already posted on our events page. We are starting off the year talking about updating your branding and marketing, so be sure to take advantage of those opportunities. We are in the process of planning many more informative workshops and events for 2017 – feel free to send us your ideas! Remember to contact the SBDC at all stages of your business. In addition to startup assistance, we have specialized resources that can help with financing, federal and state contracting, hiring and employer issues, social media and marketing, retail assistance, nonprofit assistance, and many other areas.

Early in the New Year we will be sending out our Annual Impact Survey to our clients. Please watch for the survey and complete the few short questions about how your business did in 2016. The aggregated results of this confidential survey are crucial to the Alexandria SBDC’s funding request to the City of Alexandria, the SBA, and the financial institutions and others who support our efforts to offer free services to the Alexandria Small Business community. These funding partners like to see that those using SBDC services are getting value from the resources the SBDC provides.

Finally, though this is a very busy time for most small business owners, we hope that you will take the time to enjoy the season with your family and friends. There are several events in Alexandria that will put you in the spirit right in your own back yard – see the website of our colleagues at Visit Alexandria for ideas, www.visitalexva.com.

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Shop Small for the Holidays in Alexandria, VA

This holiday season, make your shopping experience memorable and worry-free in Alexandria, the DC region’s Shop Small headquarters for independent boutiques. You can opt small and shop a local experience in a magical setting of holiday wonder all season long. New this year is 116 King Holiday Pop-Up and expanded Random Acts of Holiday Cheer. The season… Read more »

The post Shop Small for the Holidays in Alexandria, VA appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

This holiday season, make your shopping experience memorable and worry-free in Alexandria, the DC region’s Shop Small headquarters for independent boutiques. You can opt small and shop a local experience in a magical setting of holiday wonder all season long.

Image Credit: M. Chenet for Visit Alexandria

Image Credit: M. Chenet for Visit Alexandria

New this year is 116 King Holiday Pop-Up and expanded Random Acts of Holiday Cheer. The season includes an alternative Black Friday experience on November 25, 2016 with free parking and deals from nearly 50 boutiques, and Small Business Saturday on November 26, 2016 with in-store activities in which visitors can meet the makers and small business shakers and enjoy exclusive “Shop-Taste-Create” experiences.

During the holidays, historic Old Town Alexandria is transformed into a winter wonderland reminiscent of a simpler time. Meet the makers and small business shakers at dozens of independent boutiques that welcome you with greenery at their doorsteps, offering everything from chic fashions and home décor to classic toys and gifts for dogs. With 80% of Alexandria boutiques and restaurants being independently owned, it is easy to get expert advice and products curated by local owners who are often on site to find the perfect gifts for everyone on your “nice” list.

Check out the Visit Alexandria blog at ExtraAlex.com for a full run down on the following:

116 King Holiday Pop-Up
November 10-December 31, 2016

Random Acts of Holiday Cheer
Saturdays November 26-December 24, 2016 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. 

Black Friday Alexandria
November 25, 2016

Small Business Saturday
November 26, 2016

Learn more about holiday shopping and events at VisitAlexandriaVA.com/holidays.

The post Shop Small for the Holidays in Alexandria, VA appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Shop Small for the Holidays in Alexandria, VA

This holiday season, make your shopping experience memorable and worry-free in Alexandria, the DC region’s Shop Small headquarters for independent boutiques. You can opt small and shop a local experience in a magical setting of holiday wonder all season long. New this year is 116 King Holiday Pop-Up and expanded Random Acts of Holiday Cheer. The season… Read more »

The post Shop Small for the Holidays in Alexandria, VA appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

This holiday season, make your shopping experience memorable and worry-free in Alexandria, the DC region’s Shop Small headquarters for independent boutiques. You can opt small and shop a local experience in a magical setting of holiday wonder all season long.

Image Credit: M. Chenet for Visit Alexandria

Image Credit: M. Chenet for Visit Alexandria

New this year is 116 King Holiday Pop-Up and expanded Random Acts of Holiday Cheer. The season includes an alternative Black Friday experience on November 25, 2016 with free parking and deals from nearly 50 boutiques, and Small Business Saturday on November 26, 2016 with in-store activities in which visitors can meet the makers and small business shakers and enjoy exclusive “Shop-Taste-Create” experiences.

During the holidays, historic Old Town Alexandria is transformed into a winter wonderland reminiscent of a simpler time. Meet the makers and small business shakers at dozens of independent boutiques that welcome you with greenery at their doorsteps, offering everything from chic fashions and home décor to classic toys and gifts for dogs. With 80% of Alexandria boutiques and restaurants being independently owned, it is easy to get expert advice and products curated by local owners who are often on site to find the perfect gifts for everyone on your “nice” list.

Check out the Visit Alexandria blog at ExtraAlex.com for a full run down on the following:

116 King Holiday Pop-Up
November 10-December 31, 2016

Random Acts of Holiday Cheer
Saturdays November 26-December 24, 2016 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. 

Black Friday Alexandria
November 25, 2016

Small Business Saturday
November 26, 2016

Learn more about holiday shopping and events at VisitAlexandriaVA.com/holidays.

The post Shop Small for the Holidays in Alexandria, VA appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Roundtable Recap: Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use

This article is written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting, who facilitated the October SBDC Roundtable discussion: “Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use”. Let’s face it, Small Business Customer Service is tough. Most Small Business owners don’t have a Customer Service department separate from the rest of their team. You are… Read more »

The post Roundtable Recap: Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

This article is written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting, who facilitated the October SBDC Roundtable discussion: “Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use”.

Let’s face it, Small Business Customer Service is tough. Most Small Business owners don’t have a Customer Service department separate from the rest of their team. You are most likely your only and/or best customer service representative, if not one of a few staff. So, it doesn’t matter where Customer Service fits in your organizational chart because it is infused in all parts of your business—from sales and marketing to delivery and fulfillment. At the October Business Development Roundtable at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we discussed Customer Service. And, it was clear people had definite expectations not only of the businesses that served them, but they also felt the challenges of provcustomer-serviceiding great Customer Service themselves.

“Customer satisfaction” is the term Peter Baldwin of MarketForce Strategies prefers, and he says is about the outcomes not just the actions along the way with a customer. If a potential customer comes in thinking well of your business, you want that goodwill to continue when they leave your office or shop. So much of marketing is about customer satisfaction. It was a consensus in the room that the Alexandria business owners were aware of this and ready to make that happen in their own businesses.

It was also evident that all have had bad customer service experiences as a consumer and also as business owner with their own vendors. These can be fruitful in the sense that they teach us how not to respond to customers in these moments. When a customer comes into initial contact with your business, they are in need of good customer service; they clearly have a problem (i.e., a need or want) and meeting with you, there’s a potential solution to that problem. When a customer is in the process of working with you or buying a product from you, customer service is pivotal in making sure the deal goes through. Small Business owners lose a substantial amount of business because of a poor customer service experience during the sales process. Don’t let that happen to your business by getting feedback, and training yourself and your staff in good customer service skills. Finally, customer service comes into play when a customer has a problem, whether that’s at delivery/fulfillment or afterward. Your job is to satisfy your customer within reason and law. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can try your best to do so in your business, and we know that this pays compound dividends in repeat business and referrals for local business.

Some points to take into account from our discussion of our challenges in providing great customer service.

First, give responsibility to your staff to be able to solve minor customer service issues. Customers enjoy the swift resolution of minor issues. It might be the ability to give refunds or exchanges for a certain product or service price point for specific reasons without manager approval. Also, training your staff so that when you don’t have a product or service that will satisfy a customer that you recommend to them someone who does. That builds goodwill for your company and will bring that customer back when they have a need or want that you can meet.

Next, getting customer feedback from point of contact through the transaction process and after the sale. Customers are a wealth of information and the best way to tailor your services or products to satisfy them is to ask them for information. Of course, you need to do so tactfully and not to the point of annoying or driving customers away, but each touchpoint with a potential, current or past customer is an opportunity to get a bit of data about them and their satisfaction with your business. These bits of data build into a greater picture that you can use to provide even better products/services and customer service over time.

Last, making sure that you are aware of online reviews today and how that can impact customer satisfaction. You need to not only monitor your customer reviews, but also encourage your customers to go to Google, Yelp, Facebook, TripAdvisor and other online review websites to let you know how well your business is doing. This increased exposure is positive for several reasons, but in the vein of customer service you can learn if something is going awry so that you can fix it in the future. And, when you do, simply reach back out to that customer who may have left a less-than-pleasant review and ask them to re-review your business. Most often if you solved their issue, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how willing and happy they are to tell others how you fixed the circumstance.

As I said at the top, Customer Service is tough. But, with some diligence and training, it doesn’t have to keep you up at night. Learn as much as you can about delivering great customer service for your target audience, fix issues when they happen to the best of your ability, and train your staff to do the same.

Next month’s Roundtable is about holiday season marketing, so join us on November 15 to be a part of the Alexandria Small Business conversation, while networking and growing your business.

The post Roundtable Recap: Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Roundtable Recap: Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use

This article is written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting, who facilitated the October SBDC Roundtable discussion: “Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use”. Let’s face it, Small Business Customer Service is tough. Most Small Business owners don’t have a Customer Service department separate from the rest of their team. You are… Read more »

The post Roundtable Recap: Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

This article is written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3 Consulting, who facilitated the October SBDC Roundtable discussion: “Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use”.

Let’s face it, Small Business Customer Service is tough. Most Small Business owners don’t have a Customer Service department separate from the rest of their team. You are most likely your only and/or best customer service representative, if not one of a few staff. So, it doesn’t matter where Customer Service fits in your organizational chart because it is infused in all parts of your business—from sales and marketing to delivery and fulfillment. At the October Business Development Roundtable at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we discussed Customer Service. And, it was clear people had definite expectations not only of the businesses that served them, but they also felt the challenges of provcustomer-serviceiding great Customer Service themselves.

“Customer satisfaction” is the term Peter Baldwin of MarketForce Strategies prefers, and he says is about the outcomes not just the actions along the way with a customer. If a potential customer comes in thinking well of your business, you want that goodwill to continue when they leave your office or shop. So much of marketing is about customer satisfaction. It was a consensus in the room that the Alexandria business owners were aware of this and ready to make that happen in their own businesses.

It was also evident that all have had bad customer service experiences as a consumer and also as business owner with their own vendors. These can be fruitful in the sense that they teach us how not to respond to customers in these moments. When a customer comes into initial contact with your business, they are in need of good customer service; they clearly have a problem (i.e., a need or want) and meeting with you, there’s a potential solution to that problem. When a customer is in the process of working with you or buying a product from you, customer service is pivotal in making sure the deal goes through. Small Business owners lose a substantial amount of business because of a poor customer service experience during the sales process. Don’t let that happen to your business by getting feedback, and training yourself and your staff in good customer service skills. Finally, customer service comes into play when a customer has a problem, whether that’s at delivery/fulfillment or afterward. Your job is to satisfy your customer within reason and law. You can’t make everyone happy, but you can try your best to do so in your business, and we know that this pays compound dividends in repeat business and referrals for local business.

Some points to take into account from our discussion of our challenges in providing great customer service.

First, give responsibility to your staff to be able to solve minor customer service issues. Customers enjoy the swift resolution of minor issues. It might be the ability to give refunds or exchanges for a certain product or service price point for specific reasons without manager approval. Also, training your staff so that when you don’t have a product or service that will satisfy a customer that you recommend to them someone who does. That builds goodwill for your company and will bring that customer back when they have a need or want that you can meet.

Next, getting customer feedback from point of contact through the transaction process and after the sale. Customers are a wealth of information and the best way to tailor your services or products to satisfy them is to ask them for information. Of course, you need to do so tactfully and not to the point of annoying or driving customers away, but each touchpoint with a potential, current or past customer is an opportunity to get a bit of data about them and their satisfaction with your business. These bits of data build into a greater picture that you can use to provide even better products/services and customer service over time.

Last, making sure that you are aware of online reviews today and how that can impact customer satisfaction. You need to not only monitor your customer reviews, but also encourage your customers to go to Google, Yelp, Facebook, TripAdvisor and other online review websites to let you know how well your business is doing. This increased exposure is positive for several reasons, but in the vein of customer service you can learn if something is going awry so that you can fix it in the future. And, when you do, simply reach back out to that customer who may have left a less-than-pleasant review and ask them to re-review your business. Most often if you solved their issue, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how willing and happy they are to tell others how you fixed the circumstance.

As I said at the top, Customer Service is tough. But, with some diligence and training, it doesn’t have to keep you up at night. Learn as much as you can about delivering great customer service for your target audience, fix issues when they happen to the best of your ability, and train your staff to do the same.

Next month’s Roundtable is about holiday season marketing, so join us on November 15 to be a part of the Alexandria Small Business conversation, while networking and growing your business.

The post Roundtable Recap: Great Customer Service Tips We Can All Put to Use appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.