Like it or not in this fast-paced business world, whether you need computers, desks, machinery, or even vehicles to get your small business started or to support its growth, the cost to acquire and maintain these items can easily overwhelm your bottom line. However, there’s another, potentially more cost-effective option—leasing.

Leasing offers many benefits beyond monetary expenditures. Rather than having to weigh the trade-offs of various items for a long-term investment, you can get the right equipment for a specific need.

Leases can be negotiated to conform with project-specific or time-based needs (e.g., month-to-month, seasonal, or annual). Routine maintenance and upkeep can often be included in your lease payment, freeing you from another responsibility and ensuring the equipment is always ready to use when you need it.

Many small businesses find leasing a good way stay ahead of technology when it comes to computers, copiers and other systems. Why allow your growing business to be hamstrung by aging tools when you can replace them easily with the latest technology?

Leasing also saves time. In addition to not having to find financing for a new equipment purchase, equipment leasing companies are typically staffed with experts who are up to date on both the equipment and the specific models that will best meet your needs.

Also consider leasing’s potential costs. For example, the lifetime cost of the asset is generally going to be higher than if you purchased it. You also forgo any ownership in the equipment, which can be especially costly if you rely on the equipment and find at the end of the lease that the equipment is too expensive to purchase outright. And while lease or rental payments on assets used in your business are fully deductible, they may not offset the tax benefits of depreciation deductions on owned equipment.

Fred S. Steingold, writing for http://www.NOLO.com (Law for All), lists pros and cons.

Advantages of Leasing Equipment:

Less initial expense: The primary advantage of leasing is that it allows you to acquire assets with minimal initial expenditures. Because equipment leases rarely require a down payment, you can obtain the goods you need without significantly affecting your cash flow.

Tax deductible: Lease payments can usually be deducted as business expenses on your tax return, reducing the net cost of your lease.

Flexible terms: Leases are usually easier to obtain and have more flexible terms than loans. This can be a significant advantage if you have bad credit or need to negotiate a longer payment plan.

Easier to upgrade equipment: Leasing allows businesses to address the problem of obsolescence. If you use your lease to obtain items that may be outdated in a short period of time, such as computers or other high-tech equipment, a lease passes the burden of obsolescence onto the lessor.

Disadvantages of Leasing Equipment:

Higher overall cost: Leasing an item is almost always more expensive than purchasing it. For example, a 3-year lease on a computer worth $4,000, at a standard rate of $40/month per $1,000, will cost you a total of $5,760.

You don’t own it: You don’t build equity in the equipment. Unless the equipment has become obsolete by the end of the lease, this lack of ownership is a significant disadvantage.

Obligation to pay for entire lease term: You are obligated to make payments for the entire lease period even if you stop using the equipment. Some leases give you the option to cancel, but early termination fees always apply.

If these factors add up to a decision to lease, consider how long you anticipate needing the equipment. If you expect it to be for a long time and want to establish equity in the equipment, ask about building a purchase option into the lease so that a portion of your payment is credited to the purchase price. And make sure you fully understand what you’re signing. It may be helpful to have your attorney examine a lease before completing the transaction.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Cultivate Customer Loyalty

Question:            As a small business owner it is important that I have repeat customers and that those customers recommend my business to others. What can SCORE suggest as some good methods to encourage and acquire customer loyalty?

Answer:              Every successful business, sports team or group has a “go-to” player, someone who can be counted on to perform and deliver whatever is needed in specific situations.

As a small business owner, you want your firm to be a “go-to” resource for your customers, the place they’ll turn to whenever they need a certain product or service, regardless of other options that may be available.

To achieve that distinction, you have to develop loyalty among your customers. At first glance, that might seem easy to do; give them what they want, and they’ll come back, right?

Not necessarily. Customers always want to feel valued and know that their specific needs will receive special attention. But building customer loyalty has become more challenging with the convergence of trends such as easy access to data about competing companies, more price- or location-driven purchasing decisions due to economic factors, and a sense of greater expectations of value from that purchase.

Both businesses and consumers have recognized the value of loyalty programs. Only 12% – 15% of customers are loyal to a single retailer, according to the Center for Retail Management at Northwestern University. But that small cadre of shoppers generates between 55% – 70% of the company sales. Some food retailers find that as much as 65% – 95% of their sales go to members of loyalty programs (53% of food retailers offer loyalty programs with 3/4 of program customers using their loyalty cards at least weekly and 88% at least once a month). ( See CRM Trends for more information).

Fortunately, there are many tactics to foster customer loyalty that can be easily integrated into your day-to-day operations. A simple “thank-you for your business” will go a long way, but so too will a personalized thank-you note, especially in the digital age. Don’t cut and paste sentiments or use a form letter; think about what those customers have needed, and let them know you appreciate their business.

Creating value will help boost loyalty. Ask your customers if there is anything else you could be doing for them. Then, after they tell you, do it. If you blog or send an e-newsletter, include some stories or links to topics they may find interesting, or relate the value of your products or services in an engaging, social way. You may also want to consider incentives such as discounts or freebies for frequent customers.

Review each customer “touch point”—your phones, your website, your store—to determine the kind of reception customers get, and how helpful each one is from the customer’s point of view. And make sure your employees also feel valued. When they feel good about working for you, they’ll give customers an even better experience.

Even if your best efforts fall short and a customer goes elsewhere, you can still gain from the experience. Ask them why they switched. If there’s something you can change or improve on, do so. You may not regain that customer, but you can use that input to better serve the customers you have, and those you hope to attract in the future.

And … include your SCORE mentor in this process. He or she has acquired priceless experience in the business world and you can benefit from their knowledge of how to add value for your customers and inspire loyalty.

By Ginni Trask, Graphic Artist and Writer for Wizards of the Web

SCORE Client/Contributor

Question:            A few months ago a close business associate convinced me to join a networking group, but I can’t see what good this is doing and it hasn’t resulted in any sales so far. Does SCORE think that networking can be effective for small businesses?

Answer:               We join and attend business networking meetings; we eat and we meet other business owners, but do we really understand the purpose and effectiveness of networking? How do we know that paying our dues, attending meetings and passing out our literature is really working?

Most often entrepreneurs don’t have a clear understanding of the power and effectiveness of networking for small businesses. They think if they show up and pass out business cards that customers will come pouring in. Not so. Additionally, many lack a clear understanding about how to effectively network to grow their business. The word is net-WORK. This means that you make a special effort to throw out a net that eventually generates work for you and your business. It isn’t difficult and it can be both easy and pleasant with the right purpose and plan of action.

The most important step is to know your purpose for going to networking functions. It’s about building reciprocal relationships. First and foremost it is to let other business people within the network get to know you and come to rely on the quality and professionalism you provide for customers. Over time this builds confidence among your business peers and allows them to become comfortable referring you to their valuable clients. Also, regardless of your purpose for attending a networking event, you must understand that it is never about getting a sale at the meeting. Not ever! Remember, people want to deal with those they know and trust.

So here are a few examples to help you understand how to functionally network:

Look for Strategic Partnerships: Networking is a great way to find a strategic partner. Before you go, determine what type of strategic partner you are looking for. A builder might want to partner with a flooring company. A baker might want to partner with a realtor who gives “Welcome” baskets to their recent buyers. That is what a strategic partnership comprises.

Build your Contact List: Networking is a great way to build your list of contacts. Open events and Chamber of Commerce mixers are excellent venues for that. Groups that meet on a regular basis may not be best for this as you would need to join the group and attend the meetings. But if building your list is your primary purpose, be sure to get permission BEFORE you add anyone to your email or newsletter list.

Build a Referral Source: Be clear about the type of referrals you want. Are you looking for referrals for a specific type of product or service you provide? Are you looking for someone to help your business? Are you looking for a graphic artist or a web designer or printer? The more precise you are about the referrals you are seeking, the more qualified referrals you will receive.

Recognition: You may only want to build your visibility within the community. You are not there for business, you are there for recognition. Networking is a great way to gain brand awareness for your small business.

Just keep in mind that it is never about getting the sale! If you do get a sale; great! But it is a huge misconception to think that making a sale is the purpose of networking. Don’t network with that intention. Networking is all about building relationships with the people you meet. Do your networking with the knowledge that it is only a small part of your efforts.

What makes networking truly effective happens in the follow-through—building reliable, trustworthy relationships with people that will learn to depend on you and whom you can also depend on and refer your clients.

Northern Arizona is noted for its tight small business communities and I was reminded of this when I had to let an employee go. Can SCORE give me some ideas on how best to manage my business reputation?

“Being aware of how others view us is critical to business success today and it starts with integrity,” says Heidi McCarty owner of Customers First in Prescott Valley. “And, it’s not just your integrity but that of the people who represent your business also.

“When you discover a mistake has been made, emphasizes McCarty, “it’s important that you take responsibility. We all make mistakes, but facing this squarely with your customers will set you apart. Be the kind of person you would want to do business with; one whose handshake is as solid as a contract.”

Warren Buffett summed it up pretty well. He said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.

McCarthy relates this local scenario. A woman had an appointment to have her hair done by a stylist who was also the salon owner. The woman was repeatedly left sitting in the chair with wet hair while the owner did such things as take an inordinate amount of time to make a selection of background music, deal with deliveries and other routine tasks when there were others who could have handled those duties. Needless to say the woman found a new stylist. Building personal and respectful relationships is critical in today’s fast-paced world.

McCarty lists four ways to manage and strengthen our business reputations.

The first and probably most important way is to never forget that customers are people, and people like to feel special. Treat each client as unique to you and your business. Not only are they likely to continue to do business with you, they’ll tell their friends. According to Nielsen, 77% of consumers are more likely to buy a new product when learning about it from friends or family. Never underestimate the power of referrals. “If you build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon.com.

Strive to improve your customer relations. Ask your customers what they think. We’ve all seen comment cards in restaurants and hotels. We’re asked to complete  a survey after talking with someone at a call center. So send a survey to your clients. Ask their opinions – ‘what can I do better’? Make this easy on your customers and be sure to include a free-form answer space.

The third tool for reputation management is to listen with an open mind when people talk to you. This can be casually at the check-out counter or when a customer voices a compliment or a complaint directly. Learn what you can do better. EVERY employee is a customer service representative regardless of their job title, so encourage them to bring customer comments and concerns directly to you. And … ask your employees opinions.

Monitor Social Media. People have always shared opinions with their friends and family. But today via Social Media we can reach thousands of people in a very short time. It’s important to respond to both positive and negative comments in a timely manner. How do you know which Social Media channels your customers and clients frequent – ask them? Plus do a bit of research. Don’t just assume your people are on the ‘big three’ (LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter). It is important for you to be where your customers are.

81% of U.S. online consumers’ purchase decisions are influenced by their friends’ social media posts versus 78% who are influenced by the posts of the brands they follow on social media. (Market Force)

Benjamin Franklin summed it up very well: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.

Question:            I have had my small business operating for a couple of years now, but I’m still struggling. Recently I was told that I needed a business identity package. What exactly is this and how will it help my business?

Answer:               You’re like many small business owners, wondering just what a corporate identity package is. And if you already know what it is, you are probably wondering why your small business needs one. After all, you’re just a small business, not one of those big corporations. What’s in it for you?

All businesses have an identity and this identity, or branding as it’s often called, should answer a few questions. How does it represent your business? What is really in it for you? And … What will it do for your business?

As the name implies, a corporate identity package identifies your company to potential clients, suppliers and the general public. It includes your business name, small business logo, your logotype (just a fancy way of saying how things are placed, which font you use, spacing, and other things like that) your company slogan or tagline, and associated printed material– your business card, and letterhead, envelope and forms.

Write a big corporation ask a question and request a business card. Your answer will come on their letterhead, in their company envelopes, and include a company business card. If you take a moment or two to look at big corporations’ identity packages, you’ll soon notice a few important things they have in common.

When you look at it, you see quality. They use only high quality printing services and paper. Sure, that’s going to cost a little more, but it’ll be worth it in the end because it’s an integral representation of your small business’ image. You could print your corporate identity package yourself using your home printer, lightweight paper and business card templates, but how is that going to look? Will that produce the professional image you’re after? What would a flimsy poorly printed business card say about the quality of your products or services?

Big businesses use exactly the same color for their logo and their background every time. They use consistent fonts. Their slogan for example, would consistently be printed in the same font, never a different font or even a similar font, but exactly the same font, and always in the same proportion to the logo. Spacing is consistent. Spacing between letters and between lines is also always exactly the same proportion. What is their secret for a consistent, crisp image? Their logo is designed in vector form so it can be enlarged or reduced without changing proportion or image quality.

Letterhead, envelopes, business cards all match. And if you ordered something from them, the invoice and the statement you’d get at the end of the month would match too. Perfectly! As a small business you probably don’t have the luxury of spending the amount of dollars a big corporation does on their identity. In fact, they sometimes spend millions on their corporate identity. So how do you get a professional look at a small business price?

There are local designers and marketing companies who are highly skilled and, because they adjust their prices for the local market, they offer their services for reasonable prices. You can often get an entire corporate package designed with a unique logo, business card and stationary for less than $500. Add in the printing fees and you have a professional image. You can then use your image for your website, advertising and promotional products and retain consistency.

So, to answer why you should have a small business identity package; if you do it right; if you have a corporate identity package that looks professional, is of high quality, has a consistent logotype, and matches perfectly, you’re going to look just like the big guys even if you’re the smallest business in town. 

The straightforward response to the seemingly complex question of “Who needs a business advisor?” is … everyone responsible for operating a business. That’s right. All businesses, from the Fortune 50 CEO to the one-person operation, need an advisor. The larger questions are why this is important and how to choose an advisor wisely.

The CEO of a public company has mentors as well as a board of directors to turn to. Often they don’t have a choice of who their advisors are but small business owners do. Unfortunately, small business owners often choose to not get any help at all.

All too often this is the cause of the business failure statistics we hear so much about. The small business owner will claim they either don’t have the time or the money for an advisor. How can you not have the money to get help from someone that can potentially save or make you more money since you obviously are not getting it done on your own? Or how about that time you are lacking? Maybe if that owner sat down for an hour with an advisor, they would be able to see why they don’t have time and then do something about it with the help of someone who has already been there.

Working with an advisor can be a very enlightening experience. You will start to see the forest from the trees and not feel like you are the only person on the planet going through tough times. And with an advisor, this gives you a sounding board and a board of directors to turn to for advice. These are two great resources.

Actually, small to mid-sized business owners receive greater benefits from an advisor than big businesses. Many of the tasks small business owners juggle take time away from things that need to be a priority in order for their company to succeed. And – that’s a problem.

The question now is how to find the right advisor. Some are purely “coaches” and others are true developers and implementers that will roll up their sleeves with you. It’s up to you to pick the type of person you want or need. Here are some things to consider:

Do your personalities mesh? If not, don’t bother with them because you will end up fighting even when you agree on the advice.

  • Have they owned a small business before? Large corporation managers know little about successfully operating a small business. These are two significantly different worlds.
  • Don’t worry if a potential advisor doesn’t know your specific industry. Many of your issues have nothing to do with your industry. However, if the advisor has contacts and resources in your industry this would help address specific problems.
  • Look for flexibility. A potential advisor that pushes for more than 20 hours a month of your time is probably out for money. Until they work with you, there is no way of knowing what is needed to meet your goals.
  • Make it a local thing. There are plenty of local advisors for every company in your area.

Once you make the intelligent decision to get help you should commit to working with your advisor for a good 6 months. Nothing happens overnight so be open to suggestions and make the use of time with your advisor a priority. Remember an advisor or coach should never make a decision for you; they are there to make suggestions and guide you.

Question: I believe in conducting my small business ethically, but sometimes I am unsure if my employees understand what I expect. Can SCORE give me suggestions and guidelines for establishing a business code of ethics?

Answer: When we hear of a corporate financial scandal, dishonesty, or a negligence lawsuit, we wonder why doing the right thing seems so difficult. In truth, it shouldn’t be. And most of the time, businesses of all sizes treat their customers, employees, suppliers, and colleagues with honesty and integrity. Yet there is always the temptation to cut corners or say something not entirely accurate, particularly when it is rationalized as “just this once.”

The problem with doing something “just this once” opens the door for doing it again, and again. Even if you get away with it, you still know about it. And if you don’t get away with it, renowned investor Warren Buffett said it best: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” You must also be aware of the very small, tight business networks that exist in our Northern Arizona communities. Gaining a reputation for unethical practices can quickly be a death knell for your business.

However, because the world of small business today is so complex, we may still encounter situations where “the right thing” may not be so obvious. Options for handling a situation may have trade-offs that make the choice particularly difficult, leaving you to wonder if the best you can do is something that is the “least wrong.”

And, although you may have confidence in your own values, you also want to cultivate a culture of quality ethics among your employees. Simply establishing a zero-tolerance policy on ethics violations is not always enough. They too may face difficult ethical decisions, and be uncertain about the consequences of reporting them. In cases such as these, what you don’t know really can hurt you.

That’s why successful entrepreneurs make ethics a regular part of their continuing small business education. Many utilize the Josephson Institute of Ethics , a non-partisan, non-sectarian organization that develops and delivers services and materials designed “to increase ethical commitment, competence, and practice in all segments of society.” In addition to booklets, training, and other resources the Institute offers a regular e-newsletter and podcasts from founder Michael Josephson.

Another resource is the non-profit Ethics Resource Center , which has been devoted to independent research and the advancement of high ethical standards and practices in public and private institutions for nearly 90 years.

Popular for all types of learning are the Dummies books. Business Ethics for Dummies is structured in the same common sense, easy-to-read format. This book  states that employees look to you when it comes to business ethics as the example of what’s expected:

1. Make sure that your words and actions are in sync. One of the most important things to remember in business is an old adage: “Actions speak louder than words.” Employees want a leader who does what s/he says. Sure, they listen to what you’re saying, but if your actions are contradicting your words, then your message is lost.

2. Employees will watch your behavior as a guide to what is acceptable conduct. You are the rule, not the exception. That means you need to establish the behavior that you expect or want others to adopt.

3. Base your decisions on values. Values are your first step toward employee empowerment and teamwork. Shared values make your employees feel like a team.

4. You need to be able to tell employees what the company stands for and what it’s trying to achieve. Then you need to practice what you preach.

Your SCORE counselor can work with you to establish a policy for you and your business to make sure your ethics are beyond reproach.

Enhanced by Zemanta