January 31, 2011

Social Media and Listening to Your Customers

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

Are you listening to your customers?

They’re “talking” about your company, your products and services – not to mention those of your competitors – all over the Internet on popular social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Delicious and Digg, to name a few.

They’re also commenting about your company on blogs and niche market forums.

If your company is not already engaging in social media to monitor and respond to customer feedback, you should be. It’s no longer enough to hear from your customers by phone, mail or surveys. Successful companies are those most in tune with their customers. And your customers today are on the Internet.

The numbers alone should persuade your company to take a more active role in social media. Facebook last year added more than 100 million users, and the number of Twitter users was expected to exceed 18 million by year’s end.

“When you have 300 million people on Facebook, that’s a huge business watering hole,” said Lon Safko, a social media expert and author of “The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools and Strategies for Business Success,” in an interview with Inc.com.

Social media is a great equalizer, equally accessible to companies large and small. It’s particularly valuable to small businesses, which can listen to their communities on social media in lieu of spending tens of thousands of dollars on market studies.

The first thing any company should do is become familiar with social networking sites. They run the gamut from “microblogging” (think Twitter) to video sharing a la YouTube and Vimeo.  Here’s a snapshot of what the most popular sites offer:

Facebook: This site allows users to create profiles, which can be updated with recent activities, photos and links. Businesses can create fan pages and keep customers up to date on promotions, new products and other news.

Twitter: Users frequently update their followers on personal pages, using 140 characters or less. Businesses can use Twitter pages to cultivate customer relationships and provide updates on promotions, new products and news.  Twitter links can drive traffic to company websites.

Delicious and Digg: Both are social bookmarking sites that enable users to share online sites. For businesses, it offers a way to track the most popular sites and topics users are sharing with one another.

YouTube and Vimeo: Video-sharing sites essentially are virtual TV channels.  Businesses can post commercials, advertorials, customer and client testimonials and “fireside chats” by executives.  Some companies prefer to post video messages instead of traditional blogs.  Viewers are invited to post comments.

By listening in to these popular communities, companies can modify their marketing messages to better resonate with their markets.The social media can put customers directly in contact with their favorite brands.  Customers can post specific product questions, and companies can answer immediately, all in a transparent, public forum.  Companies that do so build their reputation as accessible and eager to support their customers.

Twitter offers a way to find out what customers are saying about the competition.  Simply type a brand name into the search bar to review all recent mentions.  If you discover a large number of customers unhappy with a competitor, you can respond by “Tweeting” about the benefit of your products or services.

Twitter also offers immediacy. During the recent snow storms on the East Coast, which stranded tens of thousands of airline and rail passengers were stranded, Delta Air Lines Inc. scored positive customer response by responding to the tweets of stranded passengers and using that initial contact to rebook them on other flights.

Experts advise that companies be true to the spirit of social media and act honestly and transparently. Social networks should not be used as one-way marketing and advertising channels. Social media works best when companies talk to people and respond to their positive comments with gratitude.

Expect occasional negative comments and deal with them on a case-by-case basis. Don’t ignore them. Ignoring any customer feedback is bad business. Respond to all comments, tweets, posts and commentary in a timely manner. Responses should be helpful, professional and conversational in tone.

Did you happen to watch this video by guitarist Dave Carroll, about how his luggage was damaged while flying with United Airlines? It’s a classic case for why your customer relations strategy must be incorporated into your social media plan.

In this story, someone witnessed luggage being thrown by United Airlines baggage handlers in Chicago. The luggage belonged to lead guitarist Dave Carroll, a member of the Sons of Maxwell band. What ensued is precisely what you want to avoid. It became a long, nightmare of sorts for United Airlines who were negatively promoted in an award-winning song that was composed by their unhappy customer!

The bottom line is that if your current and potential customers are having conversations about your brand online, your company needs to be part of those conversations too and participate in the outcome.  Engaging in social media requires energy, strategy and patience. The payoff is there.  Your company can be part of active, entertaining  conversations and receive critical feedback about your brand and your products.  Getting started is much easier than you think!

January 22, 2011

5-4-3-2-1: Launching Your Start-Up

Mary MahoneyBY Mary Mahoney

J. Robinson Group Blog

Those of us who live in central Florida enjoy unique proximity to one of the most spectacular audio and visual displays in the world: The launch of the Space Shuttle. The deafening roar and blinding light of the rocket engines can overwhelm your senses and leave a lump in your throat.

Every launch is preceded by a countdown: 5-4-3-2-1.  That sequence culminates a process that began somewhere in the six digits and took months — and, in some cases years — to complete before the flight commander could say the words, “booster ignition and liftoff!”

For entrepreneurs about to launch their start-ups, the process can be just as exciting, emotional and complicated.   I like the analogy because entrepreneurs can learn a lot from NASA, which has set the global standard for managing complex projects through meticulous attention to detail and highly developed processes.

On the flip side, failure to cross every T and dot every I can spell disaster — or, at the very least, cause incredible headaches — for budding entrepreneurs.  That’s because the Internal Revenue Service, state and local taxing authorities, lenders and regulatory agencies expect companies to comply with their rules.  And they aren’t very forgiving!

For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll assume that you have completed the basics that I discussed previously in this space: prepared vision and mission statements and a SWOT analysis, conducted thorough market research, written a business plan and locked up necessary financing.

Now it’s time to take a NASA-like approach to the many issues that must be resolved before you can begin to make money.  Depending on the size and nature of your enterprise, this may be possible to manage with a simple checklist or may take a more complex device, like a Gantt chart, to map tasks relative to each other and a timeline.

If you haven’t already done so, schedule meetings with your lawyer and accountant — two of your most important resources — to map out all necessary legal, regulatory and tax documents that must be completed and filed prior to launch.  It’s important for you to track all deadlines to make sure your lawyer and accountant don’t miss anything.

Some filings likely will involve two or more follow-up actions, which means you must allow time for the bureaucracies involved to receive and act upon your paperwork.  If multiple steps are involved, make sure to build the time into your schedule.  It’s also a good idea to build a cushion of time in to handle unexpected requests.

Among the multitude of legal issues involved in starting a business, Lawyers.com cites 1) choosing and applying for an appropriate business structure (sole proprietorship, corporation or LLC) 2) applying for a federal Employer Identification Number, 3) applying for a federal National Standard Employer Identifier (to track employee health transactions), 4) filing for state and local business and occupation licenses and 5) registering the business name, logo and trademarks.

There are a substantial number of accounting needs to consider, according to business journalist Melanie Evans-Rivera.  They include 1) designing and setting up an accounting system, 2) ensuring that all taxes are paid on time, 3) issuing proper tax forms to employees and contractors, 4) identifying business costs that will be tax-deductible and 5) deciding whether to buy or lease equipment.

Depending on the nature and size of your enterprise and whether or not you hire employees, you may need liability coverage, property and casualty insurance, business interruption insurance, health insurance, disability insurance, life insurance and workers’ compensation insurance.  Look for an agent who represents multiple companies and is experienced in business insurance.

Countdown to launch also is a good time to consider engaging a professional business consultant like J. Robinson Group.  An independent advisor can help prioritize key elements of a business plan, evaluate the price and services of suppliers and contractors, offer suggestions for minimizing costs and maximizing revenue and provide a “reality check” on short- and long-term goals.

Establishing this type of relationship now ensures that your consultant will gain a ground-up understanding of your organization early in the game, when you are most likely to need help.  Your advisor can become a virtual business partner, someone you can call on a moment’s notice for insight, focus and guidance.

Unless you have clients and customers waiting in the wings, it won’t do you much good to go through all of this effort  if no one knows about your products or services.  Even if you don’t intend to invest a dime on traditional advertising, you will need a marketing plan to drive prospective customers to your business.

One last word: Check the U.S. Small Business Administration website, which offers a wealth of mostly free resources including articles on financing, management, sales, operations and development; information about securing loans and grants; and how to work with government agencies.

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