Small-Business Answer Book

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

Hoping to improve your online customer service? Wondering when to lower prices? Looking for ways to minimize your tax burden? Read on for answers to these and other crucial business questions.

Q:I'm ready to spread the word about my business but don't have much to spend. How do I promote my business on a budget?

A: Every business needs to promote itself to win new customers, but traditional advertising is expensive, and some forms of promotion--like spam and fliers placed on cars, for example--can make you more enemies than friends.

It's not a bad idea to set aside a small, annual budget for traditional advertising. Decide which advertising medium--radio, TV, direct mail and so on--will best help you reach your target customers, and define your peak times for advertising throughout the year. Also think about how you might team up on promotions with another company that suits your product or service. This company might be a supplier or a well-known local business that has some synergy with yours.

Next, get web-savvy. An easy-to-use website is one of your best promotional tools, as well as a low-cost opportunity to teach customers about what you sell. Think about how you can incorporate certain online tools, such as an opt-in e-mail promotions program, meant to help you reach your target customers. A few other tips for promoting your business on a budget:

  • Be able to describe what your company sells in 10 seconds or less.
  • Give customers a discount on their next purchase for referring a new customer.
  • Generate press coverage by pitching yourself to journalists as an industry expert available for comment.
  • Ask customers to provide testimonials for your product or service.
  • Sponsor a local event.
  • Send thank-you notes to customers, suppliers and other people you come in contact with.
  • Relax--building awareness of your brand takes time.

Q:Can I get a business loan? What kind should I apply for?

A: Most entrepreneurs need to borrow money at some point. The good news is, there are many different loan programs. Unfortunately, that's also the bad news. In other words, the money's out there, but it can be confusing to decide which loans to apply for, especially because many loans fund specific things. Here's a quick breakdown of some common loan types.

SBA loans: The SBA backs various types of small-business loans made through local banks and agencies. These loans can be used to buy equipment, inventory, furniture, supplies and more. For information on SBA-backed loans, visit www.sba.gov/financing/sbaloan/snapshot.html.

Line-of-credit loans: These short-term loans let you access a specified amount of money that's deposited into your business checking account on an as-needed basis. You pay interest on the amount that's loaned to you. Line-of-credit loans can be used to buy inventory and pay operating costs for working capital, among other things, but not to buy real estate or equipment.

Revolving lines of credit: When a lender offers a certain amount of money to a borrower and allows the same amount to be borrowed again upon repayment, it's a revolving line of credit.

Loans from friends and family: Money borrowed from friends and family can come with the best low-interest repayment plan you'll ever get. Borrowing from loved ones, however, carries risk. Set up a repayment schedule in writing, and stick to it so Thanksgiving dinner doesn't become a family battleground.

Angel investment: Of course, most family members won't eagerly write you a check for $250,000 to fund your startup. This is where an angel investor comes in, particularly between the first and second years of your company's existence. Angel investors, however, typically demand equity, a high return on investment and a well-defined five-year plan in return.

Q:My online orders are down. How do I improve customer service online?

A: If your online orders are down, faulty customer service could be to blame. The best thing to do is to think like the first-time buyers visiting your website. Your business is an unknown commodity to these people, and they have many unanswered questions: Is this a legitimate company? What if I pay for a product, and they don't ship it? Who do I contact with a question or complaint? How do they handle returns and refunds? Meanwhile, customers who have already bought from you had these questions answered when they placed their first orders.

The goal of any commercial website should be to make customers feel like they're actually holding or seeing your product in person. One way to increase customers' comfort levels is to have information-driven pictures accompanying your product descriptions so there's no confusion about the products. It's also important to make your site easy to navigate so it quickly answers customers' questions about deliveries, payments, shipping and refunds. And make sure your website contains your company's complete contact information, including the company's mailing address, phone numbers and important e-mail addresses.

Next, get serious about delivering good service. Create a strict time frame for responding to customers, and install an automatic e-mail response generator that lets customers know their orders have been received and also lists the items to be shipped. Send another e-mail when the order actually ships. Amazon.com is a good model for this strategy.

An automatic e-mail response to customer e-mails sent via your company website is another way to let customers know their message went through and that it will be answered shortly. Even better, make a company representative instantly available through e-mail and phone. With online sales in particular, you must practice the three A's: accuracy, availability and accountability. Practice makes perfect, and the payoff will be huge.

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Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the December 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Small-Business Answer Book .

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