What is Your Competitive Advantage?

What makes a potential customer want to buy your goods or services from you rather than from someone else? If you are a small business you may not be able to compete with the “big guys” on price.  So what sets you apart?  This is something that all small business owners need to think about… Read more »

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What makes a potential customer want to buy your goods or services from you rather than from someone else? If you are a small business you may not be able to compete with the “big guys” on price.  So what sets you apart?  This is something that all small business owners need to think about and cultivate. What makes you special?

At a recent Small Business Roundtable, several of Alexandria’s small business owners discussed what might differentiate their small business from a competitor. The first thing to recognize is how to make your product or service superior to that of competitors. Often it is because the customer experience is superior. Not too many folks worry about the “customer experience” when they buy paper towels or other ordinary goods – let the online services and big box stores deal with those. However, if what you sell is a product that people want to try on, touch, or feel, or taste, then you can offer what a big store or online service cannot, a pleasant experience for the shopper.

The same is true for most services. There are apps and online services for everything from banking to web design, and most of us do some purchasing online.  However, if your printer or designer had their shop around the corner, wouldn’t you consider that they would have a better “feel” for your business that some anonymous online presence? If you can offer the “local touch”, and are able to communicate that to your potential customers, than you have found a competitive advantage. Remember this when you do your own business-to-business purchasing as well. For your business and for the small business community around you, be sure that the word gets out to buy small and buy local.

The personality of the small business owner and the employees can also be a competitive advantage or, unfortunately, a disadvantage. A pleasant greeting on the phone and in person can go a long way. Know and advertise your neighborhood and your connections. People like to do business with folks who “know people”. If you can recommend the ice cream shop around the corner on a hot day, a great coffee shop where someone can rest for a few minutes during a busy day, or a great local dry cleaner, your customer will see you as a part of the local community. Reinvigorate the experience of doing business with your company, and with your business community — that is your competitive advantage, and it will bring the customers back time after time!

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Branding Your Business

A recent Small Business Roundtable addressed the topic of Branding Your Business. The consensus during this facilitated discussion was that the “brand” of a business is the complete experience that customers or clients have as they interact with the business. It includes visual and emotional components such as in-person and telephone interactions, printed materials, social… Read more »

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Branding Your BusinessA recent Small Business Roundtable addressed the topic of Branding Your Business. The consensus during this facilitated discussion was that the “brand” of a business is the complete experience that customers or clients have as they interact with the business. It includes visual and emotional components such as in-person and telephone interactions, printed materials, social media, website, and even your position in the community.

Just as a person can influence but not completely control their reputation, a business must do everything possible to create and enhance the experience that customers have before, during and after contact in order to enhance their brand. So how do you, as a small business owner, influence and mold your brand?

First, think about what people like about you and your business. How are you different from the other companies in your area? Look at both your target market and at your competitors. Identify your mission and make sure that the spirit and culture that you want for your business is reflected throughout all interactions.

Listen to your elevator speech and how you and your employees answer the telephone, greet customers, and interact with each other. Are you all on the same page?  If the vibe that you want to show the world is calm, soothing and professional, make sure that is what comes across to those encountering your business across all platforms. Are you the happy and cheerful place for your customers? If so, make sure that your people and your website, location, and social media interactions are happy and cheerful.

Once you have thought about your culture and the image that you want to project, take a look at your visuals. Logo and your identity can be a challenge. Everyone has seen logos and visuals that are tired or just don’t seem to fit the business. It is often easier to spot this in someone else’s business rather than your own, so ask your trusted customers and even friends for input.

A branding specialist at the Roundtable suggested that we think of the brand of a business as its body, and the logo as its face. You need to take care with your logo, as you take care of your face. If your logo is done successfully, it can be a building block to position your brand for success. It is important that your logo be designed carefully so that it can give a consistent look and feel throughout all platforms and media. What works on a business card should also work as a text avatar and look great on your website and mobile devices.

Your logo designer will most likely accomplish this by producing multiple logos with different backgrounds and tag lines that work with the requirements of each medium but with a consistent look across all. Particularly if your customer base is cross-cultural, it is very important to make sure that your name, abbreviation, or symbols do not have cross-cultural implications that reflect badly on your business. Remember that what looks funny or stylish in one culture can be considered an insult in another.

Keep in mind that often simple is better. The Nike swoosh is about as simple as it gets but is a recognized logo throughout the world and a good “face” for the Nike brand. A professional branding expert will also be able to guide you regarding color choice; different colors often promote different emotions, and you want to be sure that your color choices reflect your culture and your brand. Once you have considered your culture and your brand and decided on your logo and color choices, be sure to use them consistently in all facets of your business. Ultimately, it is all about communicating to the world what you and your business are all about; if your visual identity does not “speak” to what you do, it is time for a refresh.

Take a step back and review your materials, and then make sure that your customer interactions reflect the vitality of your visual “face”. Proudly take your brand to the world and watch your business flourish!

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Roundtable Recap: Productivity Tech Tools for Task & Project Management

This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC. The famed Pareto Principle, named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto for his studies of wealthy landowners, can be summed up as, 20% of your efforts produces 80% of your results. And… Read more »

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Productivity Tools for Task & Project MgmtThis week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC.

The famed Pareto Principle, named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto for his studies of wealthy landowners, can be summed up as, 20% of your efforts produces 80% of your results. And this principle has been used in corollary after permutation after derivation in a multiplicity of industries, studies and other principles. While the principle (also called the 80-20 rule and the law of the vital few) doesn’t work out as an exact ratio in all these areas, for the business owner trying to be more productive, it’s a great Litmus test. And, keeping track of that all-important 20% is more consistently done using paper or digital tools like task list managers and project management software in Small Business.

As I said in last month’s blog post (but it’s always a good reminder), every month, Alexandria Small Business Development Center hosts the Business Development Roundtable, where Small Business owners and their representatives come to discuss topical business issues. We learn, network, share and grow together as business in the Alexandria, Virginia, community. January’s Roundtable was a continuation from the success of our November Roundtable on using productivity tools (that you already have) for greater time and email management. We discussed in January issues relating to task and project management in Small Business, that we didn’t have enough time in the November Roundtable to examine. We had a great group who discussed ways for managing by customer, project and task.

One of our Roundtable participants shared that he used Insightly, a CRM (customer relationship management) solution, to manage his sales. I mentioned one of their competitors, Contactually (which is Washington, D.C.-based), also. These tools are really useful when your business is heavily focused on many and frequent touchpoints with your points of contacts (potential, current and past clients). This can be used in conjunction with task and project management software too. In 2014, as part of the Virginia SBDC’s Beyond Google: Marketing & Managing on the Web Webinar series, I presented on the topic, “How to Choose a CRM for Small Business,” if you’d like to learn more about that.

A major struggle with several participants was juggling the paper and digital infrastructure. Some believed it was necessary for them to transition from paper to digital, but it’s been difficult for them to make the leap. Stepping back and noticing what your operational duties, systems and workflows are, this can really help you start to see where paper tools or software that you already have can be utilized, or where new tools may facilitate more productive management of your customers and projects.

The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 and NeatReceipts Mobile scanners were brought up as ways to help ease the paper to digital transition. These tools extract the data from your paper and puts that into your proper tools, along with an image of the item that you scanned (whether a receipt, contract or letter).

Reggie Holmes of Enthuse Creative (one of our Alexandria Small Business bloggers) uses Basecamp in his brand strategy firm. Another Roundtable participant is using Trello for managing her projects and tasks. Evernote came up as a tool. Executive Director Bill Reagan has been using Evernote to scan his business cards. He also uses a paper day planner and spoke about what works for him. Evernote was also lauded for its quick ability to share/synchronize notes with your other computers and mobile devices, as well as others in your personal and business life.

On the task side, many participants were wedded to their paper planners and calendars for writing down and tracking tasks for the day, week. It was pointed out that having the tool, whether physical or digital, accessible and on you during your work hours is a critical success factor in building the habit to collect tasks and projects but also in doing them when you have a moment here or there to review your outstanding items to accomplish.

Having a backup systems if you have a digital system is important. If you lose power or your system has a problem, you should still be able to run some or most of your business operations in those circumstances. Cloud services (like Dropbox, Evernote and Trello, all mentioned earlier) have their own backups of your data, but it makes sense for you to have your own locally or somewhere else in the cloud; there are several services coming out to help you do that such as Revert.io.

Microsoft Project was also mentioned as a project management tool of many larger companies, but that can be used in smaller companies and organizations as well. As luck would have it, I also recently did a Webinar on Productivity Tools for Small Business and covered many project management tools in there. As soon as the archived version is available, I’ll add it to the comments below as a link!

The conversation closed with discussion of Web browsers and how you can set it up to load your online calendar, task manager, project dashboard, email and more all at once. The tabs can be scheduled to open whenever you open your Web browser, or have it open it every day at the start of your workday. As well, don’t forget to tile or cascade windows on your operating system (it’s a pretty easy right-click function on Windows computers, and you can resize and tile windows manually on Mac quickly once you get the hang of it); this can save you oodles of time from toggling back and forth when looking at one window and trying to data-enter into another. Remember, that 20% of your efforts should be spent most wisely to achieve 80% of your business success!

This month (February 17th at noon at the Alexandria SBDC) we’ll be discussing “Multimedia Marketing” at the Business Development Roundtable, so that will be a great discussion if you have ever wanted to do video, photo, audio (e.g., podcasting), or other kinds of media publishing for your business. Bring your lunch or a beverage if you want!

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Productivity Tools for Time and Email Management

This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC. If you had all the time in the world, would you ever get much done? The British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson would say unequivocally that you would not. After all, you… Read more »

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Productivity Tech Tools November 2014This week’s post was written by Ray Sidney-Smith of W3Consulting, social media consultant and facilitator of the monthly Roundtable for the Alexandria SBDC.

If you had all the time in the world, would you ever get much done? The British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson would say unequivocally that you would not. After all, you had as much time to complete things as you wanted, so what’s the rush? Parkinson’s Law, named after Mr. Parkinson for his extensive observations of working at the British Civil Service, states that work expands to fill the time allotted to complete it. As Small Business owners we all need to recognize the value of our time, and more importantly the effectiveness of the skills, strategies, people, and tools that influence our outcomes. In doing so, we harness the power of not just our personal productivity but also that of the success of our businesses. Every month, Alexandria Small Business Development Center hosts the Business Development Roundtable, where Small Business owners and their representatives come to talk about topics that make a difference in our business and professional lives. November’s Roundtable was all about using productivity tools (that you already have) to use our time and energy better. We had a great turnout and the group started with a discussion of the virtues of their own personal productivity. Where do you struggle with personal productivity? Where do you excel with your time, team, task and project management skills? People had a wide range of struggles and areas of prowess in their own work worlds; we honed in on time and email management in this Roundtable.

Time Management

The Roundtable participants shared their calendar and time planning tools. Several attendees keep digital and analog calendars. Some keep a calendar planner that they carry with them or have at their office desk, so that they can quickly and easily capture events and appointments in their planners without additional technology. Others need the connectivity to share their calendars with others, and like that they can carry their calendars in their smartphones, so they choose to use software-based calendars. And yet others keep a dry erase board-style calendar that helps them map out their weeks, months and more, to get a higher perspective on their time planning.

The question was asked about how to invite people to events (such as a sales meeting, or to lunch), and whether text (SMS) messaging was appropriate. I took the question, since I actually have a strong opinion on the subject. While I regularly communicate via SMS with my family, friends and staff, I connect infrequently with clients, colleagues, vendors and other work-related contacts via text messaging. It is still primarily via phone and email. And, I need to really look at my calendar and look at other planning documents to usually decide on when something might be a good time to meet with a prospective vendor, partner or other business contact. That said, I would very much rather a phone call followed up by an email, or just an email, explaining why one wants to meet with me. That’s just me. And, that’s my point. I believe that you must ask people how they best like to be communicated with in order to be most effective in getting in someone’s calendar. Sometimes you don’t need to ask directly, as you can find out from others, but you need to find out how a person best plans and communicates. This puts them in the right mindset to make the best, most favorable decision to meet with you.

Also, I mentioned during the discussion section about calendars a really awesome Kickstarter project called the Pivot Calendar. Pivot Calendar is an adhesive, repositionable project management tool for your Small Business. You plan by the quarter, so you can have one, two, three, or four quarters up on the wall in your business. What makes it really unique (as you can see in the video above) is the ability to create a horizontal timeline as well as plan within the weeks vertically. It’s a very flexible planning tool for any business or organization.

Email Management

When it comes to the number one productivity drain people in American corporate and small business talk of, it’s email. Email is a double-edged sword because it’s also an amazing technology that has revolutionized the way businesses and consumers alike communicate. It can be the most productive tool in your business arsenal, or the bane of your professional existence. Thankfully, most of that is up to you! At the Roundtable, several people asked and answered questions about the specifics of their email tool.

Sanebox Email Management Tool

One cool tool that was discussed was Sanebox, an email management tool that works with any email system. The way it works is that it connects to your email service (such as Gmail, Microsoft Exchange, Yahoo, AOL, Outlook/Live) and on mobile devices (i.e., iOS and Android) so you can manage through Sanebox. It creates “smart filters” that separate unimportant email messages from the important ones for you. As well, it categorizes, spam proofs your email, unsubscribes email newsletters with one click, defers email you want to read or respond to later, and can even save email attachments to your Dropbox file storage account for you. It’s a pretty powerful tool for the Small Business owner looking to maximize their time spent on email.

Because of the success of our discussion this month, we resume the Roundtable program in January (as we don’t meet in December) with a follow-up to this month’s topic. We will cover the areas we didn’t get to discuss at this session: task, project, and team management productivity tools. As a productivity enthusiast, these topics speak particularly to me personally, professionally and intellectually. More importantly for you, these productivity tools help you make more money, have more time for your family and friends, increase your quality of work and life, and decrease distress (the negative kind of stress) overall in your daily life. There are countless other granular benefits, but I’m sure you can think of those yourself. In the next month, I offer you this wisdom from the group—make time to take time to consider the productivity tools you use already and how well you use them. You don’t need more tools to become more productive most often. It is usually a matter of making better use of the tools you already possess, digitally and physically.

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