Ask most people what they like about working with small marketing firms, and you'll hear answers such as "their personal approach" or "I'm not just a number to them" or "I get to work with the heavy hitters instead of some trainee just out of school."
Yes, those are some of the things they say when things are going well. But should the perceived service level drop, those same enthusiastic supporters begin to question their decision about working with a small firm.
In particular, things that they used to find charming—such as a live person taking messages instead of a system putting a call through to voice mail—suddenly become indications that maybe they need to consider a somewhat larger, "more professional" firm.
The good news is that these small-agency quirks don't have to be fatal. In fact, many can be fixed by applying simple technology that provides big-business tools while allowing firms to stay true to their small-business core. The following eight cures to the common small-marketing-firm ailments will help ensure that your company doesn't fall into the "too small" trap:
1. Don't have one phone line for all your business communications
Nothing says "too small" like a phone number that returns a busy signal or a phone that rings and rings until the caller finally gives up.
In today's business world, someone placing a call (instead of sending an email) expects the call to be answered or, at the very least, routed to an auto-attendant or voice mailbox. Though a standard private branch exchange (PBX) phone system might be too costly to install and require too much specialized knowledge to maintain, virtual PBX services can provide the same professional "face" without the equipment investment or the maintenance.
Those services automatically route calls to extensions that you set up, and they provide voice-mail services so callers can leave a message. Callers will never get a busy signal and won't be stuck in a ringing loop, and so they will gain confidence that you have the staff to service their business.
2. Don't keep using a portal email account for your business
An email address that reads @gmail.com, @aol.com, @yahoo.com, etc., makes you look like a small-timer with a serious lack of working capital—and perhaps one that doesn't expect to be in business for very long.
Since your firm has a website, most Web hosts allow you to create one or more email accounts with an address of @yourdomain.com. If you don't have your own domain yet, buy one! You can create one for less than $10 per year if you look around a little. Then put up that website so customers can get to know how good you are and new customers can find you.
3. Don't make your customers wait while you switch your phone over to accept a fax
Similarly, don't give your customers an earful of fax screeches when they try to make a call. Either way, your customers start to wonder whether you're big enough to handle their business.
An Internet fax service solves both issues by allowing you to send and receive faxes via your email account or a secure online server. Your customers never know the difference; to them, they're sending to and receiving from a fax machine. But it's much more efficient for both of you.
As a bonus, you're able to send and receive faxes from anywhere you can get an Internet connection, making you far more reachable than you would be if you were relying on an office fax machine.
4. Don't give customers a series of phone numbers to call
Business cards (or email signatures) with too many phone numbers on them can be confusing to customers. Often they're not sure which number to call and when, so sooner or later they decide that the best number to call is your competitor's.
That is when a virtual PBX system can again come in handy. It allows you to provide a single phone number for customers to call and then rings multiple phones (office, home, mobile) either all at once or in a sequence that you determine. It takes all the guesswork out of calling for your customers while ensuring that you're always reachable, which is often the reason they signed with you in the first place.
5. Don't wait a day or two before responding to customer calls or emails
Customers love when you're giving them all the attention. They love you a whole lot less when you're giving all the attention to someone else. Deep down they know you have other clients, but they don't like to think about it.
Checking voice mail regularly is good. Having your voice-mail messages find you is better. Virtual PBX systems allow you to send voice mails to your email inbox so you're always aware that a caller left a message—and expects a prompt reply.
That expectation applies even more to email. Be sure to check it often. If your business is such that you can't open a laptop regularly (or can't access the Internet everywhere you go), invest in a mobile phone with email capabilities. The more reachable you are, the better service you'll be able to provide.
6. Don't include text-message abbreviations, typos, poor grammar, and other mistakes in written communications
As the line between our business lives and our personal lives continues to blur, some people think that it's OK to communicate with business associates the same way they do with friends. It's not.
Using text abbreviations (such as "r u" for "are you") makes you look like someone playing at running a business. Typos and poor grammar may allegedly make your blog look "real," but they do little for creating a professional image for your business.
Take the time to create well-crafted business communications, and proofread them thoroughly before sending them. You'll be amazed at how that attention to detail helps you stand out from the crowd.
7. Don't have constant technology problems
Sure, every firm experiences a technology glitch (or even an outright outage) now and then. But if you're constantly apologizing for technology malfunctions, soon your customers will seek out a competitor whose technology does work.
Unless you have gone from being a marketing firm to an IT consulting company, you may not have the technical knowledge to deal with IT problems quickly. Rather than continuing to tear your hair out trying to learn IT management on the job, why not just outsource it? Some firms will manage the equipment you already own, and others will let you create your network on their equipment.
Either way, keeping your systems up and running becomes their job, which allows you to focus on doing your job for your customers.
8. Don't lose all your customers' files
Telling a customer you lost data due to a hard-drive crash is like telling your teacher the dog ate your homework. It may be true, but it doesn't excuse you from the loss. Nor does it present you in a very good light.
The IT departments at a typical enterprise set up and perform automatic backups on a frequent basis—sometimes more than once a day. That way, if a hard drive crashes, the data can still be recovered. If you don't want to deal with that hassle yourself, there are hosted services that will back up and store your data for you via the Internet.
Remember, there are only two kinds of users—those who have had a hard drive crash already, and those who will. Make sure you have a solution in place.
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