4 Ways to Separate Your Business from the Competition

After a company survives its first few years of operations, priorities shift from getting customers to keeping and growing its clientele. While the Small Business Association estimates that half of businesses fail during the first five years, it’s easy for things to go south for an organization approaching middle age.  

For smaller organizations, stagnation is often attributable to a failure to differentiate from the competition. Business owners going through the motions of running their stores day-to-day are destined to forfeit market share to competitors that either outcompete or disrupt them entirely.

While it’s tough or even impossible at times to compete on the basis of price, a business can always make a better effort to improve customer relationships. Successfully forging and managing these over the years can help a business survive the driest of sales spells.

Here’s four techniques I’ve seen work for a small business entering its thirty-first year of operations.

1.  Handwritten Thank You’s & Tactical Direct Mail  

In an age where most communication is conducted online, it may seem aggressively idiotic to engage with customers using physical mail. It’s increasingly expensive to spend, takes time to assemble, and has dismal response rates. Right?

While the first two concerns levied are valid, the last is not always necessarily true. By sending mail that doesn’t scream “advertisement,” you greatly increase the chance that someone will take the time to open your letter and consider its contents.

In particular, people appreciate it when you acknowledge their support or patronage. “Thank you” are two words that people probably don’t hear enough during the day. As a result, it stands out when a business shows their gratitude in a sincere, personalized manner. 

For added customization, you can also consider addressing envelopes by hand for select recipients. In an ideal world, everyone gets this treatment – but you may not have the time or interest in doing this work for everyone. My recommendation is to provide greater levels of personalization for customers who spend above a certain threshold or were memorable in another manner.

You can also condition customers to welcome repeat mailings if you pair a thank you with a coupon that grants them a small discount on some of their favorite items.

While discounts and thank you cards can be digitally distributed online in a fraction of the time, bear in mind that most inboxes are inundated with messages daily. As physical mail volumes decline, it’s easier to stand out in physical mailboxes if you craft a distinctive direct mail campaign. 

2.  Recognizing customers online and in-person

In the perennial classic, “How To Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie advises people to make people feel important. These days, there is no shortage of ways to accomplish this task in both the digital or physical realms.  

When you walk into my father’s store, you’ll quickly notice photographs nicely adorn every inch of wall not taken up by products. Each features a hot rod owned by a customer, often right after they’ve made a purchase at the store. While visiting the shop, I’ve seen longtime customers come in and search for their picture on the wall to make sure it’s still there.

When someone has a sense of belonging, they’re much less likely to stray from a brand unless you’re losing badly on price or another key factor. Why shop elsewhere when a company recognizes your role in its success?   

If your business lacks a physical location, it takes little effort to create a dedicated customers page on a website where you can feature satisfied clients. A little recognition online goes a long way for some people – it can give them the same excitement that a child might feel if he or she were featured on the local news.

To compound this recognition effect, consider hosting competitions on your social media pages. Competitions on platforms like Facebook can easily solicit participation when you dangle a small prize for people to win. If your brand is sufficiently established enough, the prize can be free (e.g. featuring somebody on your homepage for a week).

Of course, monetary incentives or product discounts are generally most effective, but you don’t necessarily need to use either every time. In fact, changing prize types is a good idea as it often changes the composition of competitors; it gives you an idea of who values what and which reward motivates the masses the most.

My father’s business has a customer base that’s rather tight-knit – many have gotten to know each other over the years at racing tracks. To capitalize on their camaraderie and competitive spirit, his competitions take the form of Facebook posts challenging followers to guess the car featured in a photo. The car featured almost always belongs to a customer, past or present. In fact, his source material is often the photos that he keeps on the wall in-store! Others were from his personal collection built over the years.

Seeing which customers engage online in these sorts of competitions will allow you to determine prime targets for direct mail campaigns, as suggested above. If they’re already interacting with your brand and company online, it’s likely that they won’t ignore a deal and thank you that you send to their mailbox.

It goes without saying, but good customers are one of the greatest assets to a business - doubly so if it’s small and growing. Satisfied clients will sing your praises for free and facilitate the organic growth coveted by all businesses. Don’t lose them.

Another great way to recognize people, should you see them in-person, is simply greeting them by name and remembering conversations.  Carnegie noted that there’s no sweeter sound to a man’s ear than his or her name. Keep that in mind when engaging them on the phone or through e-mail, too.

If your business has expanded to the point where you do not greet customers, make sure that those on your frontlines follow this advice.

3.  Seeking customer feedback on everything

The customer isn’t always right, but it’d be wrong to not consider their opinions as a whole when looking to implement larger changes to your business.

To make people feel important, regularly collect and value their input – even if it’s patently wrong. While you’ll sometimes receive suggestions that make little sense, you can also get some great insight sometimes for free while demonstrating a sincere interest in customers’ needs and wants.

If there are repeated issues that arise when people review your company, make a conscious effort to address them publicly and demonstrate how you are working to resolve them in a timely manner. Again, social media platforms are tremendous tools that allows companies to maintain open lines of communication when things go wrong. Use them!

As a shopper, I’m always impressed when a storeowner or company representative takes a time to address all reviews – negative and positive. Even if they don’t completely rectify the issue, I think companies get proverbial points for trying; many simply don’t care enough to ameliorate any bad situation.

Instead, they pad their business with fake reviews. Don’t engage in a slimy practice of this sort – valid criticism will eventually take its toll; you’ll have wasted your time with this sort of endeavor and will look fake in the process.

Just as transparency is rewarded, so too is deception punished.

Getting actionable feedback can be difficult depending on the industry. As a consumer, I’m generally not inclined to provide companies feedback even when a small reward is offered like a discount or free add-on item. A free donut or soft drink or taking a survey isn’t worth it – my time is worth more than $2 or so in goods.

If many of your customers share a similar mindset, consider gathering opinions in a more personal, targeted manner. Instead of attaching a survey at the end of every receipt, simply ask people in person – if you’re online, write them a personal e-mail.

Getting a message from the founder of a company or from an employee is often enough to get people to share a valuable thought or two. Feedback often arises naturally through dialogue, which is started more often by companies that care sincerely for customers.

If people give you a suggestion that works or is ultimately implemented, be sure to thank them – the second point in this post (recognition) can often open up chances to get feedback.

4.  Delivering consistently

Integrity. Quality. Cutting-edge.

For better or for worse, businesses seem to draw from a narrow list of trite adjectives to describe their core values. That said, a common one of these descriptors is actually key to making a business thrive.

Consistency. 

Very often, customers you’ve treated well will reward you by returning. What a company chooses to do when that person comes back is what separates the good from the bad. Organizations in decline will take this repeated patronage for granted, whereas their better counterparts will meet this chance for another sale with the same zeal they gave previously.

Associates at my father’s store over the years implicitly follow a process that predictably leads to the best results for customers. While it’s hard to distill every ingredient for this success in a sentence, winning a sale often comes down to the following:

  • Product Knowledge

  • Good Questions

  • Honesty

In their own ways, my father’s colleagues and associates on the floor wove those three aspects into a customer experience that was almost always positive – even if the store didn’t get the final sale.

Believe it or not, some customers who were recommended to go elsewhere eventually came back when they needed something the store. When asked why they came back, many say it was because they appreciated honesty and clarity in every interaction.

Beyond providing reliable customer service, it’s also imperative that goods delivered or services rendered match customer expectations.

Expectations are elevated when you’ve already demonstrated competence, so there’s a small margin for error when dealing with repeat customers. View each returning buyer as another rock in your foundation – as an opportunity to cement your brand in your community and beyond. In my life, I’ve found that getting to the top isn’t the hard part.

It’s staying there.

6 Common Problems with Business Websites

In an age where commerce is increasingly conducted online, few business owners dispute the importance of building a website. That said, a substantial number of organizations project an air of unprofessionalism by failing to refine their digital presence.

In particular, small business owners are particularly susceptible to several pitfalls because they lack the time or talent to avoid them.

While larger companies have bigger budgets to build a compelling online presence, their smaller counterparts can still take steps to address some serious, unforced errors. Taking the time to tackle these issues one by one can pay dividends and will give your organization an edge over ones that fail to do the same.

As a content writer, here are the six most common problems that I encounter when looking to revamp content for small and medium sized businesses.  

1: Taking Too Long to Load

According to Google, 53% of mobile browsers will abandon a website if doesn’t load within three seconds. In their report, “The Need for Mobile Speed,” researchers analyzed more than 10,000 mobile Web domains and discovered that mobile sites loading within 5 seconds earn up to twice as much mobile ad revenue.

When compared to sites that take 19 seconds to load, faster sites also enjoyed 25% higher ad viewability, 70% longer average sessions, and 35% lower bounce rates.

These findings from 2016 largely align with my experiences as a member of a younger generation accustomed to instant results. Given that speed has become a given, slow sites unfairly or not appear antiquated and shoddily constructed.   

To avoid these perceptions, consider improving your hosting plan and employing a minimalistic design. Strongly think about using a dedicated hosting over shared hosting, as the latter becomes increasingly untenable as a site grows in size and popularity.

A minimalistic design is also easier on the eyes and doesn’t overwhelm people, who are only so willing and able to process so much information at any given time. Use images and videos selectively and optimize them for viewing on the Internet. Tools like Photoshop, Gimp, and ImageOptim can compress and crop pictures to cut down on file size.

By comparison, walls of text won’t slow your site down as much, but less is still more. Depending upon your business, it may be better to consolidate detailed information into documents that can be downloaded from your site. Downloads are also easily tracked, so an added bonus of this arrangement is gaining insight into prospects most interested in your products and services.

2. Not Optimized for Mobile Viewing

The ubiquity of the smartphone has unsurprisingly led to a seismic shift in Internet usage habits. In 2018, a slim majority (52.2%) of all web traffic was generated by mobile phones, up from 50.3% the previous year.

While this figure has dipped slightly in 2019, it’s unwise to design a site that loads poorly on phones. Most prospects will not take the time to view your website from a desktop computer; they will simply seek a competitor who’s already taken the necessary steps to win their business while on the go.

Google has an aptly named tool available here to assess the degree to which a website is mobile friendly. The feedback provided in the output pinpoint the precise issues that cause pages to load poorly.

Commonly, websites appear awkward on mobile devices because they were designed before the ascendance of mobile browsing. If problems are too numerous with a current site build, consider starting from scratch and using user-friendly DIY solutions like WordPress or Squarespace. Templates and plugins with both providers are generally mobile friendly and developers abound with expertise with both should you wish to outsource this work.

Efforts to make sites snappier and more responsive generally make them better suited for mobile viewing – be sure to consult with a web designer and SEO experts for the best results.

3. No Call to Action

Some sites successfully take care of the technical details like speed and mobile-browsing, only to stumble on the basics of communication. Perhaps the most common error is neglecting to add a clear call to action.

Websites should strive to serve as more than digital landing pages – capitalize on the attention of a customer or prospect by inching them closer to a sale. If you don’t sell products online, clearly and prominently post contact information and compelling reasons to engage with your business.

Taking my own site as an example, I provide a succinct description of the primary service on the homepage along with a prominent “Hire Me” button that links to a contact form.

For e-commerce sites, consider generating a sense of urgency by borrowing tactics that have always had historical success like sales and limited time offers. A clear navigation system and search bar are indispensable, as are relevant images and product metadata.

Indicating a limited number of items in stock has personally gotten me to pull the proverbial trigger on purchases several times and leverages our psychology. People hate missing out on things and can better justify a purchasing decision in the present if they believe that option won’t be around in the future.

Also consider incorporating product suggestions on product pages to pick up ancillary sales. Simple as the idea is, many simpler storefronts fail to emulate this strategy – one among many that helped propel companies like Amazon to the forefront of e-commerce. The easiest customer to sell, as experienced salespeople will tell you, is the one you already have.

Finally, if you have customer e-mail addresses, a reminder regarding an abandoned cart cannot hurt your cause. At worst, it goes ignored. At best, it closes another sale and bumps your conversion rate up, which then improves your return on investment.

4. Riddled with Errors

Good looks never go out of style. Think of grammatical errors like acne – very avoidable aesthetic issues that can mar an otherwise beautiful appearance. With enough pimples, you can sadly turn off a lot of people who would otherwise be interested. Take it from a guy who experienced adolescence.  

If time is limited or writing is simply not your strong suit, there’s little shame in seeking the services of a talented writer and editor. These professionals, beyond helping your business realize its potential, are often familiar with best practices by competitors and can provide valuable, industry-specific insight.

While the cost of collaborating with a freelance writer may seem expensive, it pales in comparison to the cost of losing sales from those unimpressed with your website. As shallow as it seems to judge a page based on simple errors, it’s important to remember that a website is all some people have to form an opinion about you.

With so many options and so little time, the importance of a strong first impression has never been greater. Stakes today are certainly higher than in the past, but the potential to grow a business by marketing online is equally promising.

For a few laughs, take a look at some particularly awful typos compiled here in a blog post on HubSpot. Then, sincerely reflect on how embarrassing mistakes like these are for a brand – and think about what it’s like to be immortalized for not being able to spell.

Don’t be sloppy online!

5. Broken Links and Dated Content

To continue the appearance analogy, think of dated content like wearing clothes from forty years ago to a party where everyone else is with the times. While you’ll certainly distinguish yourself from your peers, your newfound notoriety will likely be negative. Similarly, new beats old on the world wide web.

Indeed, search engines like Google rank results higher when site content is consistently refreshed. Although this preference seems like a hassle or unfair, it’s logical. As a search provider, Google succeeds when it supplies searchers with content most relevant to their queries. Considering how often the world changes, relevance often means “what information is most recent.”

One way small businesses can leverage this trend is by curating a blog or distributing newsletters on a monthly or quarterly basis. Giving customers information they never thought they actually needed is terrific way to differentiate your business from the competition. Customers reward sincere effort and strong service with their continued patronage.  

As a site grows and evolves, it’s also important – perhaps essential – to ensure that the links still lead to the correct content.

Broken links are like doors that open into a brick wall; it’s a disappointing and sometimes frustrating experience for visitors to websites. Some will tolerate an error or two, but many will get discouraged and give up entirely on your site if they can’t find what they seek quickly.

If linking to external content, be sure to check if that information is still available on the linked website. Remove the connections if the material isn’t available anymore; you’ll save visitors to your site time and gain their appreciation.

Note that broken links should always be avoided internally, too. When updating your site, test and ensure that connections between pages behave as normally. Since your domain is perceived to be entirely under your control, web surfers will blame you if issues arise.

Finally, if you include a year in the footer of your website, make sure it’s the current year.

 

Conclusions

The key to succeeding online is seeing your website as an asset rather than a liability. Solid sites are hallmarks are modern, professional organizations – you’ll struggle to find one today that’s an exception to this rule. Part of their success stems from taking the time and effort into building a digital presence that complements their physical business.

Of course, the process of designing and implementing a website can seem overwhelming. But every climb to the summit of a mountain starts with a single step. And for a journey of this nature, it’s a trek that can be done with the support of professionals and colleagues.

Consider enlisting friends and family with skills in these areas or recruiting freelancers to fill gaps. Independent web developers, graphic designers, and writers very often welcome more work and can provide quality results at reasonable price points. By delegating work to appropriate provider, you can devote your attention to other urgent matters that need solving.

As a professional business writer, I love working with small and mid-size companies with their communications. To learn more about my areas of expertise, click here. To reach out and collaborate, click here!

 

The Seven Deadly Sins of Writing

With writing, it’s remarkably easy to discover what actually works.

To get why certain written pieces are effective, it’s helpful to look at what doesn’t work. Below are the seven most common ways that writers sabotage their messages with readers. Included are some samples of the sins and how to rewrite them away:

Sin #1: F-Orientation

Self-interest is universal, so ignore this principle at your peril.

Effective writers know their audience and always emphasize benefits (b) over features (f). To better understand this distinction, let’s consider readers of a financial newsletter devoted to retirement strategies.

A feature-oriented article states the facts. On the surface, such an orientation doesn’t seem problematic – until you start considering some startling statistics. A survey conducted by Empower Retirement found that 66% of respondents didn’t understand the meaning of “rebalancing investments” and 69% were unclear on the meaning of “asset allocation.”

When people become confused, they lose interest.

This unfamiliarity with financial terminology underscores a truth across all industries – people don’t care for the details. Excluding subject-matter experts, what people want to know is how your product or service helps them.

A common way to shift away from an f-orientation is to address readers by using “you” – the second person. Let’s continue this example by reading some copy that has an f-orientation and a b-orientation:

  • F-orientation: MoneyGrow is a leader in the financial management application space because its proprietary algorithms consistently minimize capital risk. This novel system, backed by over half a billion dollars in venture funding, optimizes asset allocations, rebalances portfolios, and completely automates complex investment decisions that ordinarily is handled by trained experts.

  • B-orientation: MoneyGrow is a new mobile application that helps you save and invest your money. It’s easy to use – and it effortlessly takes care of the details so that you can spend your time on things that make you happy! Our system minimizes risk and maximizes returns. You supply the funds and we make it grow!

Note that stark contrast between the two samples. The F-orientation also sins in other ways, which leads to the second item on our list.

Sin #2: Jargon

“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon”

- David Ogilvy, American business and advertising magnate

As a rule, the simplest way to state something is often the most elegant. While complexity is tough to avoid in some contexts, abundant jargon reliably alienates readers.

Jargon is particularly prevalent in technical and scientific communications, both of which are notorious for being inaccessible to the wider public. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that this sin may, in part, dissuade people from entering these fields entirely. As a rule, write for an educated audience that can understand concepts, provided that they are explained in terminology that’s widely accessible.

Sin #3: Length

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”

- Blaise Pascal, French mathematician

Writing concisely benefits the reader.

Rhetorical flourishes and fancy words are fun to show off as a writer, but they’re usually not appreciated when being read. At best, they’re unnecessary; at worst, extra language is redundant and can make authors look foolish. Consider the following passage:

NeoFreon can be considered to be the most unique cooling agent currently known to man, as it is unlike anything else available on the market at the moment.

This garbled mess clocks in at twenty-eight words, which isn’t unreasonable – the only problem is that the same idea can be better conveyed in only seven words:

NeoFreon is a uniquely potent cooling agent.

Phrases like “can be considered to be” can be removed entirely in favor of simpler, active verbs. The adjective “unique” implies novelty, so there isn’t a need to say “it’s unlike anything else available on the market.” Also, why close with “at the moment” when “currently” is used earlier in the sentence?

While these examples are extreme, extraneous language is common and always obscures your message. More importantly, it takes up room that can be devoted to information that matters to your audience.

Periodically, you will want and even need longer sentences for clarity and variety. Just don’t write more when less will suffice. The time and attention of readers is limited, and you have a brief window to win them over.

Sin #4: Disorganization

Form follows function.

Stated simply, the shape an object takes often tells you what it does. For example, cups have a handle so they can be held, along with an area that can reliably hold fluid.

Similarly, good writers organize information with the incentives of their audience in mind. A text that’s poorly organized often prioritizes less interesting material by placing it in areas of greater importance, like the headline:

KJ Graphics uses latest software to complete incoming design projects

Going back to our analogy, this headline is the equivalent of putting the handle over the top of the cup - it’s bad design. This information is valuable to some extent, but readers are probably only interested in learning about this feature after knowing about benefits. The best headlines are highlights that impress in isolation. That way, even if someone only reads your headline, they still know something valuable:

“KJ Graphics becomes market leader through unparalleled customer service”

People usually want what’s best for them, so they’re likely to read on and see how KJ Graphics became so successful. As they read, they can see that KJ Graphics uses the best tools to get jobs done quickly to please their clients.

The body of your text will vary vastly depending upon the objective, but it’s best to close with a point almost as strong as the opening hook. Then, while you’ve captivated the reader anew, capitalize. Have them do something concrete that advances your goal as a writer (e.g. subscriptions, call, sale):

Now that you’ve heard about us, we want to hear from you! Give KJ Graphics a call today for your free consultation on how our agency can elevate your brand!

While including this bit seems self-explanatory, it’s astonishing how often marketing materials neglect the fundamentals. Disorganized writing also tends to have gaps, so be sure that you include the basics like contact information in any marketing or promotional materials written for a public audience.

Sin #5: Irrelevance

It follows from the first sin that people won’t care about something if it doesn’t help them. That said, irrelevance can also manifest in the form of incongruity – that is, using language that doesn’t suit what’s being discussed. Consider the following advertisement:

Sunny’s Solar Panels are sexy, sleek, and for the savvy eco-friendly homeowner

Let’s start with something that I hope is true for everyone – there isn’t anything remotely “sexy” about solar panels. Quite truthfully, they’re sometimes an eyesore and people don’t exclusively buy them for their aesthetic. Do you know why most people buy solar panels?

They buy because they want to save money and help the environment in the process. With the end in mind, a better alternative may be:

Sunny’s Solar Panels help you save money – and help the Earth when you buy

With even more time, it’s likely that an even more compelling headline could be crafted. That said, these two samples nicely show how irrelevance can quickly derail your objective.

Don’t be needlessly sensational or overly creative. Something written with the audience, benefits, and end in mind will ultimately prevail.

Sin #6: Vagueness

While this piece has repeatedly emphasized the importance of benefits, it doesn’t mean that features or facts are wholly irrelevant. Effective copy and content alike is rife with well-stated facts that establish credibility and build trust in the minds of readers. When you’re short on facts, it’s easy to fall back on vacuous expressions.

Unsurprisingly, empty content won’t connect with people. It simply won’t resonate. Consider this simple sentence:

The iPhone is one of the most popular smartphones in the United States.

Objectively, it’s not bad. But what does popular exactly mean? A little specificity can spiff this line up:

Over ninety million Americans use the iPhone – that’s four in ten of all smartphone owners.

When writing content or copy, it’s invaluable to have all of the facts at your fingertips. Isolate and select information that lends itself to an artful expression – an expression that is crisp, memorable, and relevant to the audience.

Sin #7: Deceit

The psychology behind lying is a fascinating topic that is sadly beyond the scope of this post. That said, it’s fair to state that most people resent being on the receiving end of a lie. Internet clickbait tends to rely on hyperbole and half-truths to entice readers into viewing articles.

Then, after clicking, readers are sad to see the article fails to deliver on the promise listed in the headline. Or worse, it talks about something entirely different and wastes the reader’s time.

In the long term, having a reputation for overpromising and underdelivering will obviously hamper your ability to grow or sustain your operation. Don’t do it.

It’s a simple tip to follow, but you should strive to be honest when you’re writing. This honesty extends to academic integrity - don’t recycle or appropriate content that isn’t your own. Beyond offending the original content creator, you’ll look bad in the eyes of those who discover your theft.