Home-based, virtual, and small businesses have it tough. Appearing professional and attempting to compete with larger competitors who have more money and resources can be a daunting task. Below are eight must-have tools and services for any small business owner who wants to appear professional and grow their business without spending a fortune.
A small business can't rely just on email for communication; a good phone system is critical. While a dedicated home line with voicemail is okay, it won't give you the appearance of being larger and trustworthy. If you want to compete with bigger businesses and exude professionalism, Gotvmail is the perfect service.
Gotvmail provides a virtual PBX system – a virtual phone system that gives you greetings and extensions. When someone dials an extension, it forwards their call to a phone number you've designated in the control panel. The phone number could be your home phone, cell phone, or mom's house. Wherever you are. If you don't pickup, the caller doesn't hear the voicemail on your home or cell phone – the gotvmail voicemail greeting that you've created will take over. Other features: place callers on hold with music, transfer caller to another extension, and have an 800 number. There are numerous advantages to using Gotvmail:
- Your business appears more professional and trust-worthy
- Creates a strong first impression for prospects who are interacting with your business for the first time
- If you're away from your home, you can still receive calls by having calls forwarded to your cell phone or other location
- Virtual businesses that have people working from various locations can appear to be consolidated in one physical location
- Consistency across extensions – when someone calls in, they are always greeted with the same phone system and format
- Email notifications when you receive a voicemail (Blackberry, anyone?)
I have received numerous compliments on my phone system, and have referred many people to Gotvmail who all love it.
Marketing your business online and dealing with search engines can be difficult and time-consuming. If you are waiting for a web developer to make updates and paying for their time, you know how stressful this can be in the back-and-forth process. And if you haven't updated your website since it was built, you're really loosing out on search engine rankings.
Compass helps you promote your business online by handling the majority of the "search engine stuff" for you and letting your focus on running your business. You can manage almost every aspect of your site yourself with only basic computer knowledge – and make updates when you want to. Website stats are built right into Compass to give you very detailed reports of your visitors, your top search engine keywords, where your traffic is coming from, what pages they are looking at, and how long they are spending on your site. Create goals and monitor conversion rates (such as how many visitors fill out an inquiry form, and how those visitors compare to visitors who did not fill out an inquiry form). It's a 360 degree marketing tool.
While there are other systems out there that help you manage your website or blog, Compass was built specifically for small to mid-size business owners to grow their businesses. The focus is on marketing your business and on simplicity – Compass is described by users as "intuitive" and "easy-to-use." The Compass service includes managing all of the website technology – hosting, email, and software updates – so you can focus on content.
A phone system from Gotvmail is a great place to start, but don't record the company greetings yourself (your own voicemail should be the only greeting you record). Hire a professional voice talent to record it for you. A professional voice talent is someone who has a unique voice for commercials, phone greetings, radio, etc. They usually have their own recording studio and can record your greetings for you and send you the electronic files to load right into Gotvmail. This may cost $100-250 depending on who you go with – but it's money well spent!
Don't limit voice talents to just your voicemail greetings – flash demos, videos, anything that requires speaking. It's hard to explain the difference this makes – but it makes a huge difference and creates an image that you couldn't achieve if you recorded your own greetings.
I'm not a big fan of faxing – it just seems so outdated to me. With email, you can send attachments and files easily. But sometimes, you just need to receive a fax. The client may not have a scanner to scan in the file, and if it's a larger business, they likely have a fax machine anyways.
eFax is a service that allows you to send and receive faxes using your email. Faxes are delivered to your email attached as PDFs, and you can send faxes out as email attachments.
If you work in a home-based or virtual business, you are likely holding a lot of responsibility and wearing many different hats. For the simplest example, take an entrepreneur who has to do all of the work himself. If there is an emergency, there is no one at "the office" to take the call or email – it's just the business owner.
Having email available on the go is indispensible – it lets you respond to clients quickly and handle emergencies when they come up. And how you handle an emergency situation is what clients always remember. In a time of panic, you don't want the client to feel like they can't get a hold of you within a reasonable period of time.
Some people like the Blackberry, others like the iPhone. It doesn't really matter – choose what you like best. The idea is to have email available on-the-go.
If you don't have a mailing list, you should consider getting one. Many people will visit your website and be interested in what you provide, but maybe they are not ready to buy today. Maybe they need to show it to someone else first. Don't lose this lead by making them come back to your site; encourage them to leave their email address so you can remind them your business still exists. Your existing clients can be in your mailing list as well to keep up with your company's updates and for brand visibility.
Enter MailSpark. MailSpark will let you create a mailing list for free – you only get billed when you actually mail something out. And mailing out to your mailing list is very cheap - $5 plus 3 cents per email. There are no monthly costs or signup fees. MailSpark will provide you with the HTML code to insert into your website and you're ready to start building your list. I always recommend businesses add this to their site – if the list is small that's fine, but maybe you'll notice a high interest in your mailing list. Since you aren't paying unless you send, MailSpark is definitely worth using. You can subscribe to an RSS feed for your subscribers so you're instantly notified when someone new signs up.
Act! is a contact management software. I know – your email program holds all of the contact information you need. But Act! takes it further. Besides storing detailed contact information like birthdays, Act! allows you to keep notes for each contact so you can see when you last spoke, what the status of their account is, or use it for invoicing purposes. I created a background field in my version where I keep track of general background information like where the person grew up, family, hobbies, or anything else that may come up so that I don't forget.
Act! also allows you to assign groups with contacts, and associate contacts with companies. In my version, I created groups that represent the various industries someone could work in. When I add a contact, I assign them to their industry. This has been incredibly helpful to find someone – lets say I am looking for a print designer – or when someone asks for a referral in a specific industry. Not only can I find contacts in that industry, but I can look over the notes to refresh my memory.
Act! helps you keep organized, but also look professional. Clients will occasionally give you personal information while you're at lunch or mention a small detail in an email. If you're a small business owner, you should store that information so you don't forget it. Before you meet them for lunch next time or play a round of golf, brush up on their information in Act! so you have something to talk about. It shows that you cared enough to remember – and that differentiates you from everyone else who doesn't make an effort.
Bascamp is an online project management tool to keep tasks, team members, and the project organized. Upload files, create milestones, and have discussions. Allow your clients to login and review deliverables, leave comments, and keep up with your progress as you work on their project.
Have you used any of these services? What have your results been? Am I missing anything from the list that you have had good experiences with?