Small-Business Answer Book

Get the answers to your crucial business questions in the first section of our three-part series.

Editor's note: For more answers to your most pressing business questions, visit our Small-Business Answer Desk

Hoping to pull out of a sales slump? Looking to launch your first website, but don't know where to start? Ready to overhaul your company image? Over the next three months, we'll give you the answers to these and other crucial business questions.

Q:I'm seeing a slump in my company's sales. How can I give them a boost?

A: Every company, at one point or another, experiences a sales slump. But the sooner you take action, the easier it will be to increase revenue. Here are four steps to follow to get out of a sales slump.

1. Call on satisfied customers. These are the people you know best; presumably, they're the ones with whom you have the best relationships. Are there additional ways to satisfy their needs, or do they have new needs you can meet? Ask how their business is doing. Is there a way you can help them serve their existing customers or find potential new ones? Once you learn about their problems and challenges, you can come back to them with fresh solutions.

2. Analyze your existing accounts. Different accounts have different sales cycles. Sales may take a week, a month or two years. Sometimes, you get so caught up in landing the big one that you forget about the smaller accounts with shorter sales cycles that can bring money in now. In business, you have to look ahead and think long term. But you also have to take care of day-to-day responsibilities. It's important to keep those factors balanced; don't get so focused on one that you lose sight of the other.

3. Stay on top of business and world news. Always keep in mind how current events might affect your customers. Look for sources that will give you new ideas on how to fine-tune your activities and target your customers more efficiently. Read materials that will help you speak to your customers in their business language. Learn more about how other people grew their businesses. There's always a lot to learn from the successes-and failures-of others.

4. Don't waste time. Be selective about your customers. Don't keep doing business with someone just to keep them in your client base. Some customers are simply not worth the trouble for the amount of business they give you. If an opportunity doesn't meet your expectations, move on.

The best way to pull out of a slump is to keep moving forward. Remember: See the people, sell the people, serve the people. Don't let a temporary slump turn into a slippery slope.

Q:I'm thinking about taking my business online. How do I set up a website?

A: Begin by creating an e-commerce plan. Since you're exploring new territory, including making decisions about technology and marketing, and establishing a new set of vendor relationships, you need a well-thought-out plan to guide you.

First, make a list of possible website names. Type "domain registration" into your favorite search engine, and you'll find a list of companies like Network Solutions and that can guide you through the proc-ess. For a modest fee ($15 to $70), you can register a domain for two years.

Before getting enmeshed in design details, get the big picture by writing a site outline. A thorough site outline includes five elements: content, structure, design, navigation and credibility.

A variety of hosting companies and website solution companies offer combination web-hosting/website-building packages. Most of them have tools that allow you to build a professional-looking website as part of an all-in-one package sold alongside their hosting services.

When it comes to online sales, your web host can handle your transactions. It can collect orders, handle credit card transactions, send an automatic e-mail to customers thanking them for their orders, and forward the orders to you for handling and shipping. Another option is to buy an electronic shopping cart program so site visitors can complete transactions online.

Here's a checklist to keep you on track as you develop your site.

  • Keep your e-commerce strategy in focus.
  • Ensure your website loads quickly.
  • Put full contact information on your home page.
  • Make sure your online message is clear.
  • Keep graphics clean and eye-catching.
  • Check that your website is free of glitches and dead ends that frustrate visitors.
  • Make sure your website meshes with the rest of your business.
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This article was originally published in the October 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Small-Business Answer Book.

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