Getting online customer reviewsYour business can live or die based on customer reviews.  It's a reality you as a business owner needs to embrace.

Whether you like it or not, the internet has given your customers a soapbox to voice their pleasure or discontent when it comes to how they feel your business treated them.  They may be right, they may be totally off the wall, but that doesn't matter.  The only thing that matters is that they can do it, and you need to understand that.

A Shift In Power

In the old days, if a customer was unhappy with the way a business treated them, they might vow never to shop at that business again.  They may tell a few friends and family members, but that's probably as far as it would go.  Limited reach.  With the internet, provide crappy service to the wrong person, and something like this could happen.

While your customers now have a platform for voice their opinions about your business, you still have most of the power.  You have the ability to create a great customer experience, or a terrible one.  The businesses that tend to hate customer reviews are the one's who treat their customers with indifference.  If you treat them well, they will treat you well, nothing to worry about.  You'll always get that one customer who's never satisfied and will leave a poor review no matter what you do.  The good thing is that most people know the difference between a  “complainer” and a valid review.

Why Are Online Customer Reviews Important?

The obvious answer is that people who are considering doing business with you often look for confirming evidence that it's ok to do so.  Reviews from their peers plays a strong role in determining if they will call you or not.  Despite the fact that some online reviews are fake, people still tend to trust them as cited by a recent report from Forrester Research.

When it comes to search engine optimization (SEO), specifically Local SEO, online customer reviews play a role in how your website (as well as your Google Plus Business page) ranks in the search engine results.

People are influenced by online customer reviews

Source: 2013 Zendesk survey

3rd Party Review Sites

While having customer reviews and testimonials on your website can lend credibility to your business, people still know you were the one that put them there in the first place, so they take it with a grain of salt.  3rd party review sites like Yelp and Angie's List, tend to be more trusted as the customer is able to write and publish the review without the input of the business itself.  You never see bad reviews on a businesses's website, but you may see lots of them on a 3rd party website.

Love them or hate them, you need to learn how to work with them.  You're customers can leave a review on one of these websites and their isn't much you can do about it except respond appropriately.

Tip: Review sites use algorithms to filter out fake reviews. Read here to find out more.

How Do I Get Customers To Leave Reviews?

That can be tricky.  The majority of  reviews come from a small percentage of people.  People that write reviews tend to be very happy or very unhappy.  Some people make writing reviews a natural part of their experience with a business, others never even think about it.  So what do you do?

  1. Ask for reviews.  The best time to ask is when you've completed the work and the customer is happy.  They are feeling good about the experience so strike while the iron's hot.  If no response, send a really nice follow up email 3 days later to remind them.
  2. Make it easy. Give clear, simple instructions on how to leave a review for whatever site you want them to leave it on.  Print up instruction cards (or create an email template) that explains the process for them.  The more hurdles you can remove for your customer, the more likely they will leave you a review.  Some people will start the review process, but quit when they get stuck (and frustrated).
  3. Don't offer incentives.  Your customers will leave a review because they like your business, offering incentives will dampen that goodwill.  You don't have to buy reviews, you just have to ask for them. Not convinced?  Read this.
  4. Rinse and repeat.  For every 10 customers you ask, only 1 might leave a review.  If you're consistent with asking, at the end of the year you'll still have quite a few reviews under your belt.  Think of it as a long term strategy.

Sample Email

Dear Mrs. Smith,

This is Julie from XYZ Company.  Just wanted to say thank you for choosing us for your recent home renovation project, we value your business and look forward to working with you again in the future. If you were happy with our work and the service we provided, we would consider it an honor if you wrote a review for our business.  It will take less than 5 minutes and you can start by clicking here (insert link to your company page on review site).  Once again, thank you for choosing XYZ Company.  If you have any questions, feel free to call anytime.

Kind Regards, Julie

Where Should I Ask My Customers To Leave A Review?

There are thousands of review sites to choose from, but only a handful are worth your time.  Many of the major review sites are feeders for smaller sites, meaning a review on the Yellow Pages website could possibly result in the review showing up on other review sites as well.  Below are some of the top review sites in the USA and Canada.  This isn't a complete list of review sites, though this is a good place to start if you're just getting started.  You're business may not be a fit for all of them, as some (like Homestars and Angie's List) cater to certain types of industries.

USA

Google +

Yahoo Local Listings

City Search (There is currently no way to add your business listing, if you want to try manually, read this article)

Yelp (Caution: If your customer isn't an active Yelp user, their review will most likely not stay active)

Judy's Book

Angie's List

Insider Pages

 

Canada

Google +

Yelp (Caution: If your customer isn't an active Yelp user, their review will most likely not stay active)

Yellow Pages

Homestars

Slow and Steady wins the race

Don't run out and solicit everyone you know to write you a review.  Not all at once anyway.  Review sites use sophisticated algorithms to detect fake and paid reviews, getting too many at once will set off alarms.  Think of it as a long term marketing strategy and look to develop a system where you can pick up a few quality customers reviews each month.  If you can do this, you'll be ahead of 90% of your competitors.

 

Creating websites is a challenge. Even for those that have knowledge of the technical industry, they have to deal with the fact that there are over 300 million websites online; huge competition. Standing out from the crowd is something that needs to happen in order for a website to be successful.

 

For most online businesses, SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the key to their success. Some search terms generate thousands of searches every single month. Having the ability to rank for those terms can help to boost a business dramatically.
Here are some things to consider…

 

Video content

Video content can have a huge impact on a visitor. The problem is, most search engines have no real way to index this content. They can’t scan the video for relevance and they can’t track the user’s response to that video. For that reason, a video alone is not going to rank in search engines.

 

Most companies will accompany a video with a 2-300 word description, or they will include the transcript of the video on the page. This content will include keywords and search engines will find relevance to the topic, helping it to rank in search engines.

 

Meta descriptions

Many people misunderstand SEO. They visit top SEO blogs and realize that their meta description has no value in terms of helping their site rank in search engines; they leave it out.

 

How are potential visitors going to know that you have products at the lowest prices, or that you offer the best information on the internet? Every action is a result of a call-to-action. You need to persuade potential visitors that your content is worth reading and this is where writing a great meta description really comes in.

 

Titles

SEO is not just about ranking higher in search engine rankings. When you eventually get the rankings that your website needs, you need to convert impressions into views. Imagine you are a user looking for a post on “The easiest cake to bake”. You are going to skim read the top 10 results that appear.

 

You are generally going to look at the URL, description, but it is the title that is likely to catch your eye. A “5 Step Guide To Bake A Cake in 30 Minutes” is likely to catch their eye.

 

If you have a snappy title that manages to explain what the article will provide, then you will be on to a winner. Your impression: visitor ratio will increase dramatically, meaning that you don’t just rank in search engines, but you are maximizing the value of those rankings.

 

Page URLs

Some quick research will prove that page friendly URLs are going to rank much better than numbered URLs. For instance, if you are trying to rank for “Football”, then having yoursite.com/football is going to be much better than yoursite.com/blog/686.

 

Search engines use a range of factors to determine the relevancy of pages and this is one of them. So, when you create a page or post, make sure you incorporate URLs that are closely related to the title and keywords.

 

301 redirects

Maybe you have changed the page structure of your website? Perhaps you have realized that you need to incorporate page friendly URLs into your website? The problem is you have links, giving your site great SEO value, to the old URLs. Not a problem!

 

All you need to do is set up a 301 redirect. This is a permanent redirect which will pass on all the link juice that the previous page has. As soon as a search engine crawls the sitemap, the link juice will be passed on.

 

Sitemaps

If you want to rank in search engines, the search engine needs to see a blueprint of your website. It will regularly crawl this blueprint to make updates in search engine listings. This blueprint is the site map. You need to make sure that you have an up to date sitemap that allows search engines to crawl. You can submit a sitemap manually, but if it is easy to access, then search engines should pick it up automatically.

 

Conclusion

The list goes on. Whilst the majority of SEO results are based on technical aspects, some are not. Remember that SEO is not just the art of ranking in a search engine; it is also the art of converting impressions into visitors and those visitors into paying customers.

 

Grant works at Vibe Tech Media. They offer content packages, including blog posting services. Click here to find out more. 

Each week I like to post useful tools and resources that you may be able to use for your business.  The resources I post here are either free or available at a low cost.I don’t go into much detail here, so feel free to check them out yourself and let me know what you think.  If you know of any great tools and services that will help small business owners, please share them in the comments below.

Pulse – With the coming shutdown of Google Reader, millions of people are searching for alternatives.  Pulse allows you to add and customize your RSS subscriptions in visually appealing way.  It also makes it easy to save and share articles via it's many 3rd party integrations.

Level Up – Mobile payment processor that helps you create marketing campaigns using mobile devices.  Low processing rates and assistance in creating mobile advertising campaigns.

Business quotes from Bruce Lee

Have questions about the best tools to use for your business?  Contact me with your questions and you can rest assured you will receive a response!  Contact me here

Categories and Tags, what's the difference?

WordPress is a wonderful platform, both for blogging and for building a traditional website.  It provides so many great features to help the non-programmer update and manage their website.

One great feature of WordPress is it's use of taxonomies.  Taxonomies means to group things together.  In WordPress, this is primarily done through the use of Categories and Tags.

Making it easy for your visitors to navigate your website and to find what they're looking for is important when it comes to providing a great user experience.  Try navigating just about any government website and you'll understand how frustrating it can be when common sense isn't taken into account when creating a great user experience.

There is often confusion on how to organize your content when it comes to Categories and Tags, today we're going to go over what they are and how to use them effectively, both for your visitors and the search engines.

Categories

Think of a Category as a topic you regularly cover as part of your blog.  A general rule would be to have around 4-8 Categories, more or less depending on how broad or narrow your range of topics are.

When to use a Category or a Tag? There is no hard and fast rule here, it really depends on how often you cover a certain topic when you determine to make a topic a Category or a Tag.  For me, if it's a topic that I know I'll be covering on a regular basis, I will look at making it it's own category.  If not,  keep it under a broader Category topic and will create Tags for those articles to make them easy to organize and find.  You can always create a new Category (or remove one) if you find the need to.

Tip: Think of your blog like a book, with the Categories being your Table of Contents and your Tags being the handy Index in the back of the book.

Wordpress categories

General rule is to not attach more than 2 Categories to an article, it creates a poor user experience when someone finds the same article across several Categories.  If you find yourself doing this, you need to re-think your Category structure.

An example would be if you wrote about Productivity as one of your main topics.  Productivity would be a Category for your blog and in it, you have several articles around mobile apps related to productivity. You might use the Tag “Mobile Apps” for these articles.  If you find that you're writing regularly about mobile apps for productivity, you might eventually turn it into it's own category, naming it “Mobile Apps”, or “Technology”.

When naming your categories, be sure to think like a first time visitor to your website.  You want to use descriptive names that are easy to recognize.  Remember, people are trying to find information on your website, make it easy for them to find it.  Naming a Category “Things I Like” doesn't help your visitors much when it comes to finding the information they want.

Tip: Don't use the same name for a Category and a Tag, the search engines and WordPress treat them both the same.

When it comes to optimizing for the search engines, descriptive Categories will make it clearer to them what topics your blog covers.

 

Tags

Most blogs make poor use of Tags.  Many bloggers look at it as an opportunity to do some old fashioned keyword stuffing.  I've seen articles with 30+ Tags attached to it.  This makes for a terrible user experience and renders your Tag management system useless.  Use Tags sparingly.  While you have to use at least one category to publish an article in WordPress, you don't have to use Tags if you can't find a valid use for one.

Example of poor Tag use in WordPress

Poor Tag Use

Tags should be highly relevant to the content, making it easy for visitors to your site to find the information they're looking for.  You typically won't need more than 2-3 Tags for an article and sometimes you may not use any, which is ok.

Tip: Tags are meant to organize topics for your visitors, not for keyword stuffing.  

Don't create Tags when you'll only be using that Tag a few times.  Visitors use Tags to find relevant sub-topics on your site, make sure they are descriptive and relevant to the content they're attached to.  If one of the Categories on your cooking site was “Baking”, and you wrote an article on gluten free cupcakes, two good Tags would be “Gluten Free” and “Cupcakes”.  Now if a visitor is reading this article and wanted to find out what other content you have about gluten free cooking, they could click on the “Gluten Free” Tag and get a list related gluten free articles on your site.

Tags can easily get out of control.  If you don't spend time keeping your Tags organized and on topic, you may find that you have hundreds of Tags that are of no value to your visitors.  If you don't want to spend the time managing your Tags, the best practice is to keep them to a minimum.

Keep your taxonomies organized

How well you organize your Categories and Tags will have a direct impact on your visitor's ability to find the content they are looking for, which leads to longer engagement and possibly a new customer.

 

Evernote logoHow do you organize your business?

Still using file cabinets overflowing with old documents you'll most likely never read again?  I used to save every scrap of paper that crossed my desk,…..just in case I needed it one day.  Guess what?  One day usually never comes.  But what does happen is that my office turns into a disaster of old documents I'll never need, new documents I might need, and important documents that I can't find because they're lost in the sea of mess that is my office.

I was introduced to Evernote a few years ago by a friend and fell in love with it.  For an unorganized person like me, it literally changed my life.  I ditched the filing cabinet (or waste receptacle, depends how you look at it) and never looked back.

Evernote is an online application that basically becomes your “brain dump”, allowing to store your notes, ideas, documents, etc, in the cloud.  It works from your mobile device, your computer and even through email.  You can store documents in text, image or audio, and everything is easily searchable as every document is stored into notebooks and tagged for easy reference.  If you're new to Evernote, you can find out more here on their website.

I've been using Evernote now for about 3 years and below are 10 ways that I use it to help me organize my business.  Hopefully you'll find some of them useful for your business.

Keep a digital copy of your receipts

I used to keep all of my business receipts in my wallet, when my wallet got too fat, I'd put the excess into an envelope that I left on the front seat of my car until I saw my bookkeeper at the end of the month.  I told you I was unorganized.  Now however, I have created a notebook in Evernote specifically for my receipts and I share this notebook with my bookkeeper.  Whenever I get a new receipt, I scan a copy of it and upload it to the notebook, tagging it with the month and year.  What do I use to scan the receipt with?  I use my 2nd favorite mobile app, Cam Scanner.  It's an incredibly useful app that uses the camera on your phone to create PDF documents on the fly.  You can actually just use your camera to take a picture of the receipt, though I like the ability to crop and lighten the document with Cam Scanner.

Keep files on your employees

Not in an FBI, creepy sort of way, but for keeping a running file for your employees.  I have a notebook setup for my employees and tag each employee by name.  When they are first hired, I store a copy of their personal data sheet, copies of any pertinent documents they have received, as well as personal notes, like their goals, hobbies, and stuff like that.  On an ongoing basis, I keep notes on achievements they have made, concerns they may have, and anything else that might be useful.  An example of how I use it is if an employee gets a thank you letter or email from a happy customer, I save it and store as part of their file so it's doesn't get forgotten about come employee review time.

Record team meetings notes

I use Evernote to record the minutes of our meetings, as well as image copies of any whiteboard usage we may have had.  If someone has something important to say (or just funny), we occasionally record the audio for posterity.  The notebook is shared with all employees and anyone that missed the meeting can read over the notes (though they rarely do!).

Checklists

I have checklists setup for office and cleaning supplies needed to run our business.  Every month when I do my shopping, I don't have to take inventory or remember to bring that scrap of paper with me that I wrote everything down on.  If someone else is going to get the supplies, great,  I can just send the notebook to them and I'm done.

To clean out your file cabinets

Most of the files in your file cabinet will never again see the light of day, but for whatever reason, you feel the need to keep it just in case.  Over a year ago I took almost every document I have and scanned it into Evernote.  I have never had to reference one of those documents since.  Now I only keep a paper copy of really important documents, though I still make a digital copy in Evernote.  I use a Fujitsu Snapscanner for scanning a lot of documents, the software integrates with Evernote for seamless file uploading.

Store business cards

I rip up business cards as soon as I snap a picture of it and upload it into Evernote.  Even if you don't add text notes along with the image of the card, Evernote has technology that can read the text inside the image, cool stuff!  If you really want to get fancy with business cards, you can use the mobile app Cam Card (same company as Can Scanner).  This will let you crop the card image and add the info into your phone's contact list before sending to Evernote, double cool!

Save marketing collateral and layouts

I keep a notebook with an copy of all of my old marketing materials.  I keep the original design files as well as an image capture of the actual ad, like a snapshot of a newspaper where it ran.  It helps to look over your old stuff to get ideas on what (and what not to) do next time.  If you change store designs, display cases, etc, keeping images of the previous layouts can be useful if you ever need to reference it.  Maybe the new display didn't pan out and you need to revert back to the old one, good thing you remembered what it looked like!

Keep an ideas notebook

This is an important one for the business owner.  You never know where a great idea will hit you, usually it's when you're driving in the car or running on the treadmill.  Just grab your phone, open Evernote, and start recording your ideas via an audio note.  Beats grabbing for a pad and pen when you're on the highway.  What if you see a great advertising piece that sparks an idea?  Take a picture of it and save it in your ideas notebook.  You get the point, you can record your ideas anytime and in any format with Evernote.

A notebook for competitive analysis

What new marketing collateral is your competition using? Have they changed their price points?  You don't need to go crazy here, but it's useful to have an idea of what your competition is doing. It's helpful to periodically review what products/services your competitors are promoting and any deals they are offering.

How do you think you can use Evernote for your business?

I outlined 10 ways that I use Evernote to organize my business and create an almost paper free office.  There are hundreds of other great business uses for Evernote, how do you think you could use Evernote in your business?

 

 

Each week I like to post useful tools and resources that you may be able to use for your business.  The resources I post here are either free or available at a low cost.I don’t go into much detail here, so feel free to check them out yourself and let me know what you think.  If you know of any great tools and services that will help small business owners, please share them in the comments below.

Croc Doc – A free document and collaboration tool that lets you upload an document or image and markup and highlight documents.  Great for collaborating on draft documents and images.

Prezi – Presentation tool that lets you create beautiful, mind map style presentations.  Make your presentations less boring and more interactive.  Free and paid plans available.

give-it-all-youve-got-quote

Have questions about the best tools to use for your business?  Contact me with your questions and you can rest assured you will receive a response!  Contact me here

Obama care for small businessSmall businesses will be one of the biggest groups affected by the Affordable Care Act and business owner still have a lot of questions about the new law. Time is running out for answers to these questions as enrollment in state health care exchanges is set to start on Oct. 1, 2013 for coverage beginning Jan. 1, 2014.

Some of the common concerns for employers are: Do they need to offer coverage to their employees? Where can they purchase coverage? What are the benefits included? Will there be penalties involved if they don't provide coverage? And there are plenty more.

 Here are five things small businesses should know about the Obama administration's landmark law.

 

The small business health options program will not be available until 2015

Small business health options program or SHOP is a major provision of the Affordable Care Act. The program will allow small businesses to purchase insurance directly on the health insurance exchanges without going through a broker.

Unfortunately the federal government decided to delay the implementation of the program until 2015. It was originally scheduled to go live with the rest of the law on Jan. 1, 2014.

With the new SHOP exchange, employers will be able choose the level of coverage they want to offer – bronze, silver, gold, or platinum plans. They can also set how much they would contribute to the cost of the insurance (with 50% as the minimum).

This delay will make it more difficult for small businesses to continue to offer health insurance. Some people think that the complexity and added cost of providing health insurance coverage will make life more difficult for employers, so the delay might cause major consequences.

 

No penalties for businesses with fewer than 50 employees

Under the new law, businesses with fewer than 50 full time employees will not be forced to offer health insurance. This could be good news for local shops who are concerned about the added burden of offering coverage to their workers.

However, businesses with more than 50 full time employees must offer health benefits coverage or pay a penalty of $2,000 per year for each full-time employee in excess of 30 full-time employees.

In addition, large employers cannot offer just any type of plan either. The health benefits coverage they offer must be affordable and comply with the minimum health benefits set by the law or pay $3,000 per year for each full-time employee receiving federal financial assistance. The penalty cannot exceed what the business would pay if it did not offer health care coverage.

 

Your number of full time employees depends on hours worked

The new law defines full-time work as averaging only 30 hours per week. This will affect businesses who employ part-time workers to avoid complying with the rule that requires businesses with 50 or more workers to provide coverage or pay a penalty.

So if you have two employees who work 15 hours each per week, they will be considered as one full-time employee under the new law.

Here an example on how to determine your total number of employees according to the website Small Business Majority:

 

Example: For the 2010 tax year, an employer pays 5 employees wages for 2,080 hours each, 3 employees wages for 1,040 hours each, and 1 employee wages for 2,300 hours.

 

The employer's FTEs would be calculated as follows:

1) Total hours (not exceeding 2,080 per employee) is the sum of:

a. 10,400 hours for the 5 employees paid for 2,080 hours each (5 X 2,080)

b. 3,120 hours for the 3 employees paid for 1,040 hours each (3 X 1,040)

c. 2,080 hours for the 1 employee paid for 2,300 hours (hours limited to 2,080)

Total: 15,600 hours

2) FTEs: 7 (15,600 divided by 2,080) = 7.5, rounded down to the next-lowest whole number).

Credit: http://www.smallbusinessmajority.org/hc-reform-faq/#1a

 

 

Tax credits are available for businesses with fewer than 25 employees who offer health insurance

Businesses with fewer than 25 full-time employees and average annual salaries of less than $50,000 may receive tax credits of up to 35 percent of the employer's contribution if they provide health coverage to their workers. Next year, the credits may increase to a maximum of 50 percent of the employer's contribution to premiums.

Under the new law, small businesses with fewer than 50 employees have two options: they can provide group plans available through the exchanges (or someplace else), or they can let their workers buy their own coverage through the exchanges. They can decide whether to contribute to coverage that their employees purchase.

The tax credits and subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act will help individuals and families pay their premiums according to their income level. Some businesses with fewer than 50 employees can also choose to save their workers money by directing them to the individual exchanges instead.

 

Alternative medical treatments are offered under the affordable care act

The Affordable Care Act recognizes complementary and alternative medicine such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage therapy, and naturopathy. These treatments are covered under the new law as long as the provider is licensed by the state.

This article was contributed by Michael Cahill, Editor of the
Vista Health Solutions blog. Michael has a degree in Journalism from SUNY New Paltz. Previously he worked as a reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal and as an editor for the Rockland County Times.

What Your Business Can Learn From Franchising
Franchises, you love them and you hate them.

You hate them for creating a mediocre (not always so, see below), cookie cutter style of doing business, but you secretly thank them when you've been driving cross country in the car with the kids for the past 6 hours and spot those “Golden Arches” coming up on the horizon.

When we think about franchising, we inevitably think of fast food because it's everywhere and a part of our everyday environment.  But that's only one example of what a franchise actually is, and it can create misconceptions on what franchising really is.  Did you know that Ruth's Chris Steakhouse is a franchise?  Pretty much every hotel you see on the side of the highway is a franchise.  You probably don't complain about finding a Double Tree hotel (owned by Hilton) when it's midnight and you need a place to crash after a long day of driving.

The concept of franchising has very broad applicationCreating a written operations manuals, it's just that most people only associate it with the bottom rung of quality and service.  In a nutshell, franchising is bringing a group of people together, under the same brand, to dominate a market through a standardized marketing,  distribution, and operating plan.  You can standardize low standards or high standards, it's up to you, the person creating those standards.

The idea of creating a franchise format for an independent business became popular in the groundbreaking book, The E-Myth, by Michael Gerber.  A great book, full of terrific concepts, but it has its flaws.  A lot of his suggestions centered around creating a system of doing business so that you can hire low cost, unskilled labor to run the business.  Here is a quote from the book:

The Model Will Be Operated by People with the Lowest Possible Level of Skill. Yes, I said lowest possible level of skill. Because if your model depends on highly skilled people, it's going to be impossible to replicate. Such people are at a premium in the marketplace. They're also expensive, thus raising the price you will have to charge for your product or service. By lowest level of skill I mean the lowest possible level necessary to fulfill the functions for which each is intended. Obviously, if yours is a legal firm, you must have attorneys. If yours is a medical firm, you must have physicians. But you don't need to hire brilliant attorneys or brilliant physicians. You need to create the very best system through which good attorneys and good physicians can be leveraged to produce exquisite results.”

It's pretty difficult to create an outstanding business when you create an assembly line style format for doing business, run by people making minimum wage.  That's not fun, or creative.  In Seth Goden's book, Linchpin: Your Are Indispensable, he references The E-Myth and the philosophy of creating an assembly line way of doing business with this:

“Here's the problem…If you make your business possible to replicate, you're not going to be the one to replicate it. Others will. If you build a business filled with rules and procedures that are designed to allow you to hire cheap labor, you will have to produce a product without humanity or personalization or connection. Which means that you'll have to lower your prices to compete. Which leads to a race to the bottom. Indispensable businesses race to the top instead.”

The problem I see is that once again, we're talking about franchising as a bottom rung business model, one where minimum wage and unskilled labor rules the day.  That idea sucks. What budding entrepreneur dreams of a business like that when they're first starting out?

Options for starting franchise

I'm a proponent that you can take the best that franchising has to offer and apply it to your business, without losing an ounce of your independence or creativity.

How can that work?

It's taking the operational concepts of franchising and applying them to your business.  And before we go on, these concepts don't only apply to franchising, but to any corporate or private business that expands successfully.  Chipolte and Starbucks are just two examples of non-franchised businesses expanding with massive success.

You can only expand and grow your business beyond yourself when you take what's in your head and put it in writing.  You create a handbook on how to run the business.  If you're not looking to expand, that's great, but you still need to do it if you ever hope to take time away from your business.  You can't always be the one doing everything, that's what eventually kills most small businesses (and sometimes their owners).  They get so burned out from the daily grind that they lose the will to keep going.  And if you've ever had your own business, you know that sometimes your “will” is the only thing keeping the doors open.

You're not going to “systematize” every aspect of your business, turning you and your employees into mindless robots.  You're going to create a system of “how” you do business, so the quality and standards you set as the owner are also performed by your employees.  If you don't do this, you run the risk of your employees (and yourself, depending on your mood), delivering a different experience to your customers, depending on who is serving them.  It's hard to “Wow” your customers if you consistently mess up on the little things.

Creating a predictable experience is vital to creating a great business and loyal customers.  It's up to you whether you want to make it a great experience or a mediocre one.  People have a misconception that people don't like predictable.  They don't when predictable sucks.  Would you like it if your Mucho Mocha Latte (I just made that up) tasted different every time you went to Starbucks?  Would you like it if your grocery store decided to change the layout of the store every 3 months because they “don't want to be predictable”?  No, of course not, predictable is good, as long as it's something we like and gives us comfort.

Create an Operations Manual For Your Business

To start the process of creating an incredible, yet predictable experience, is to put everything you do to run your business on paper.  You do this by creating an Operations Manual for your business.  If you use a certain method to create the perfect cupcake, you need to create a step-by-step written guide on how you do it.  You then need to create a system of how you will train others to maintain those high standards when they make those same cupcakes.

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If you don't do this, two things will happen;

1- You're the only one who can ever make the cupcakes.  You grow to hate your business because you can never take more than one day off……forever.

2- You have others make the cupcakes when you're not there.  They don't have a strict guide on how to do it and they don't remember everything you told them last week when you were explaining it.  So they do the best they can, substituting their own way of doing it when they can't remember yours.

Both options aren't very good.

Create very specific, precise guides to how you want these functions performed.  Create a rock solid system for delivering “Awesome”, each and every time, regardless of who's working that day.You then will create a system on how you will train your employees, so receives equal training and are given the same set of expectations. This isn't creating a cookie-cutter way of doing things, it's ensuring your high standards are met even when you're not the one doing it.

So how do you maintain your creativity and uniqueness as a business?

It's understanding what functions of your business need tight controls and which one's need general guidelines.  The ingredients and method you use to create the perfect cupcake are unwavering, no room for creativity.  You want to produce a fantastic cupcake every time, no room for your employees to try anything different.  This requires a step by step written guide so there is no room for ambiguity.

When it comes to how your employees interact with your customers and each other, you understand that you cannot create a system of what they will do and say. In this case, you hire the right team members and have them understand what customer experience you want to create for your business.  It's up to them how they will deliver on creating that experience, but they understand what the outcome should be.  You're not telling them what to say, you're giving them guiding principals on how they should deliver the goods.

Many good franchises will do this, with the smaller franchises giving more wiggle room than bigger franchise concepts.  They know when to implement strict guidelines and when to give general concepts, and allow the franchisees and their employees decide on how to deliver it as long as it's in-line with their business model.  This enables you to create a predictable,high-qualityy experience, without losing what makes your business special.  Think of it like a car.  The engine needs to have precision and predictability in order to function, but you're free to paint, modify, or “trick out” the rest of the car however you like.  Precision and creativity working in harmony with each other.  That's what you want for your business.

All this is nothing new, businesses do this all the time. They are the one's that have happy owners, because they aren't trapped in their business, they are thriving in it.  They can step back whenever they want and enjoy their business, knowing that it won't fall apart because they caught the Flu.

How do you feel about creating a franchise type format for your business?  Do you have a written operating plan for your business?

Each week I like to post useful tools and resources that you may be able to use for your business.  The resources I post here are either free or available at a low cost.I don’t go into much detail here, so feel free to check them out yourself and let me know what you think.  If you know of any great tools and services that will help small business owners, please share them in the comments below.

Mention – Create and monitor your mentions online.  Track your business, industry and name mentions and see where people are talking about you and your business.  Google Alerts provides a similar service, but spotty service and threat of closing the service makes this a great choice.

Backtweets – Free tool that lets you search for links from Twitter accounts, domains and individual url's.  Great way to search and find new connections on Twitter, as well as who's promoting your tweets.

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Have questions about the best tools to use for your business?  Contact me with your questions and you can rest assured you will receive a response!  Contact me here

Crushing the competition or building relationships with them?Your competitors are your enemy, you need to find out everything you can about them…..so you can one day crush them.

At least that's the way the thinking usually goes.  Like in war, the competition is seen as the enemy, never to be trusted.  That's BS,……your competitors can be a source of some of your best business, if you let it.

Even the fiercest of competitors understand this.  Microsoft and Apple have the longest standing rivalry in tech, yet they routinely partner with each other on projects, despite being competitors.  Did you know that Microsoft once saved Apple from the brink financial of collapse?  Why would a competitor do that? Ever watch The Sons of Anarchy?  If the Sons, Mayans and 9'ers can create partnerships amid shooting each other, why can't your business form partnerships with the competition?

It's all in the mindset

Don't look at your competition as the enemy, look at them as an opportunity.  Take the Dale Carnegie approach to business.  You share a common customer base with them, figure out ways you can create a win/win relationship where everyone's bottom line increases.  While you will find that some business owners can't get out of the “your my enemy” mindset, you'll find plenty of willing competitors who would love to work together towards a common goal.

Here are 5 ways you can turn your competitors into willing partners

Seek a common goal (or enemy)

Has a new giant box store moved into the neighborhood, threatening to crush your small, independent business?  Are new franchise chains springing up all around you?  If you're nervous about these turn of events, your other competitors are too.  Why not reach out to them and discuss a common strategy to ward off this new threat.  When a big box home improvement store moved into my town a few years ago, the 2 independent hardware stores in my town (who rarely spoke to each other) banded together and started a “buy local” mini-media campaign in town.  They combined forces to fight a common enemy with great success.

Refer each other

A client of mine owns a children's learning center.  They specialize in working with children with disabilities.  The owner of the business made a point of reaching out to the other children centers in her town when she opened and became friendly with them.  She wanted them to know she didn't look at them as competitors, but as colleagues.  5 years in business and the other children's centers in town are her biggest source of referrals.  She in turn refers business to the other centers if she thinks they will be a better fit for a child, or if her center can't accommodate them. The key to making this work?  Send the other business referrals first, to show them you really do look at them as colleagues.

Create a Joint/Complimentary Product or Service

Every business is slightly different, even if on the surface, you offer the same things.  Create a special product/service package that your competitor doesn't specialize in (or want to) and see if they can offer it to their customers. Let them do the same with your customer database. You can also combine both your services into a special package for customers, with each of you delivering a portion of the services.   Maybe you can offer a commission to each other, maybe you don't, you can work out the details of how to make it a fair offering on both sides.  I know of a contracting company that sub-contracts business to one of its competitors when it gets too busy, and the competitor in turn does the same.  They both agree to work under the other company's brand when doing work for each other.

Conduct a Joint Promotion

Team up with your competitor to sponsor a town event or project.  Maybe you can work together to promote the industry itself, rather than your individual business.  A financial planner client of mine joined forces with several other financial planners in her town to run a campaign to promote college savings plans.  They created an educational campaign to explain the advantages of starting early.  They didn't promote any one business, but the idea of saving for college when the kids are still young.  Win/Win.

Create an Event

Create an event for your industry.  If you business is a cupcake shop, why not create an event?  Gather all of the cupcake shops/pastry shops in your town and create the Lollapalooza of all things sweet.  Joining forces with your competitors to promote your industry is a great way to create awareness within the community as well as build relationships with your competition.  Most business owners would never take on such an undertaking, but the one that does can build some valuable connections by running such an event.

What do you think?

Here are 5 relatively easy ways you can start building relationships with your competitors.  I know there are a lot more ways, feel free to add them in the comments or shout them out on Twitter.