For the 23 million small business owners in the U.S. who compete head to head against big-box stores every day, technology is a vital tool that's leveling the playing field for Main Street merchants.
Armed with a tablet and a few key apps, today's small businesses can tweet the day's specials, process a customer's credit card, run a complex loyalty program, manage payroll and much more. These new tools are ubiquitous, inexpensive, simple to use and make it easier than ever to compete with huge corporations.
To ring in the New Year, here are a few ways to utilize new technologies to help increase profits and stay ahead of competitors.
1. Move your business to the cloud. For front-office management tasks, many small-service companies still juggle a combination of paper, spreadsheets and calendars to stay organized. This archaic system can present many issues -- everything from searching through endless file cabinets for documents to making it tricky to share information. Utilizing cloud services can help alleviate many of these hassles.
There's a full-range of affordable cloud-based and mobile tools specially designed to manage customer scheduling, signups, time tracking and billing, among other duties. For example, app Front Desk helps personal trainers, dog walkers and other personal-service companies handles customer management and scheduling functions. For field-service businesses, like landscapers and painters, there is Jobber, which assists with quotes and routes. Another tool is StyleSeat, a platform that provides personal-care businesses, such as salons and stylists, services like emails.
2. Ditch pricy point-of-sale (POS) solutions. Tablets and smartphones with free or premium apps can now replace full-blown POS systems, letting small retailers accept more than cash. For example, everyone from your local coffee shop to your babysitter can use the tiny mobile Square card reader on their Android or iOS device to accept credit or debit cards.
Also, for small retailers that want to cater to both online and physical shoppers, ecommerce platform Shopify's POS syncs customers and sales made online and in the retail location.
My company, Financeit, lets small businesses offer monthly-payment plans for big-ticket items like high-end consumer goods and home improvement projects -- all from a mobile device.
3. Get on board with loyalty and rewards programs. Considering that a repeat customer has a higher lifetime value than a new customer, it pays to invest in customer loyalty. In the past, only big corporations had the resources to offer elaborate loyalty rewards programs, while mom-and-pop shops were left handing out paper punch cards, which would often end up lost in pockets, getting washed or trampled on.
4. Turn to inexpensive tools for backend productivity. Traditional accounting and HR software used to be expensive and require technical infrastructure, but today, business owners can take advantage of easy-to-deploy cloud apps to run efficiently with their limited resources.
Startups have created useful tools that address specific needs, including FreshBooks or Wave Accounting for invoicing and accounting, Shifthub for workforce management and Intercom for customer care and user on-boarding.
5. Take advantage of marketing and sales plug-ins. By adding a simple plug-in app, small businesses can turn their basic Gmail service into something even more powerful. For instance, using Streak turns Gmail into a customer-relationship management tool, allowing businesses to track customers, active leads, deals and sales pipelines from the inbox. Other sales plug-ins include Rapportive, which provides detailed profiles on each contact, email-tracker Yesware and scheduling and reminder tool Boomerang.
These are just a sampling of the many apps that small businesses can use today to get ahead of their larger competitors. The bottom line is that small organizations no longer have to go it alone -- there's an app or technology out there for virtually any business need.