Sunday, August 26, 2012

Small Business Marketing: Eye of the Beholder

You've probably heard the maxim, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." This is nowhere truer than in defining a small business. Everyone from chief catalyst to receptionist to clean-up crew needs to be concerned with company image, performance, response time, etc., because every action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, affects client perception.

This is the real definition of branding: how your clients see you. It doesn't matter how slick your website, how memorable your logo, how many Twitter followers or Facebook "Likes"  — or even how outstanding your product or service may be. If a customer's experience is being left on hold for three minutes while she silently fumes, that's your brand.

Think about the positioning that describes your core brand. For example:

  • What we're known for: comprehensive marketing communications, with a specialty in social media marketing
  • Our clients: emerging businesses in the health/wellness vertical
  • How customers see us: solid experience, broad knowledge, end-to-end programs
  • What sets us apart: fresh approach, industry expertise, creative and effective campaigns, measurable results.
Now the key is living up to this promise. Just as you wouldn't appear for a major presentation in shorts and a T-shirt (unless, perhaps, the prospect sells surfboards or beach apparel), you don't want to unintentionally sabotage client perception by ignoring a request for information or failing to resolve a complaint.

However, it's also human nature to be forgiving when a business acknowledges its error. Consider this story: a customer ordered a book and card set from a small online retailer and received an e-mail response saying the order would be shipped no later than July 31. When she hadn't received anything two weeks later, she e-mailed again, saying that unless the package had been sent via media mail, it ought to have arrived by now. She also left a telephone message a day later. Still no response.

Quite annoyed, the customer phoned a second time a day later and reached the company owner, who, it turned out, was a solopreneur. She explained the shipment had been held up due to a last-minute cover redesign and apologized profusely, saying, "It's entirely my fault. Forty lashes! I should have let you know…" The customer and business owner spoke for five minutes, and the owner promised to overnight the package at her expense.

The upshot? The customer enjoyed her encounter with the entrepreneur, received the product the next day, and now holds the company in positive regard. However, the entire scenario could have been averted had the business responded right away, and indicated when the customer could expect the order to be shipped.

So how can you create the brand you want to be?
  • Return phone calls promptly. If you say you'll call back within 24 hours, aim to make it sooner. If it takes you two days, customer perception will be: you don't care. Same with email: respond with 24 hours — or hire a VA (Virtual Assistant) to help you.
  • Treat callers with respect. Avoid transferring a call more than once, don't place people on hold unless absolutely necessary (and then, just for a few seconds), and NEVER disconnect them!
  • Make the customer right. If someone purchased a defective product, apologize sincerely (send a follow-up email as well), replace it immediately, or refund the customer's money promptly if that's their choice.
  • Have an easily navigable site with clear contact information. Include a toll-free number if possible — and do your best to staff it with a live voice, not voicemail.
  • Know your clients. Greet them with a warm welcome when they enter your place of business, get to know their names, and make them feel glad to do business with you.
Emerson said, "What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say." He might have been describing the hidden dimension of branding. Your brand is you, so let it represent you and your business in the best possible light. Then you'll attract customers who are eager to help you shine.

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