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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Bring your toughest design problems!

will be showcasing many projects and explaining our services at the BL Business Expo on Friday June 2nd. Please Join us.

The BL Business Expo Event, in its 13 year, showcases the products and services of over 100 Northern Virginia exhibitors and sponsors. Please contact Gaddis Architect, at [email protected], 9730701-8800, for a complimentary entry voucher. Please stop by our booth to see our projects showcased and learn about how we can help solve many tough design problems and create high performing spaces. We look forward to meeting you there.

AGENDA

8:00 am : Doors open for Guests.

(The Exhibit Hall is open NON-STOP until the end – Seminars will take place in a separate Room)
8:15 am – 9:15 am:
Making LinkedIn work for Your BusinessSeminar
Jennifer Dalton, LinkedIn Specialist
9:30 am – 10:00 am:
Opening Ceremony
National Anthem, welcome address,Sponsors recognition, with Emcee:
-Angel Livas, Media Specialist
10:15 am – 11:45 am:
Protecting Your Business, An IT perspective Seminar
-Fred Haggerty, IT Specialist
12: 00 pm – 12:30 pm:
Everything that You Ever Needed To Open A Business,
But Were Afraid To Ask
Seminar
Gerald Geddes, CPA
12:45pm – 1:30 pm:
Break the Rules & Make more SalesSeminar
Nema Semnani, Sandler Training
1:45 pm – 2:00 pm:
Door Prizes & Farewell Remarks
(We have some serious door prize for you. You would want to be there to take them home.)
Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.

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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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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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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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