Giving small firms an image 'facelift'.
From the time people are young, they are encouraged to look beyond outer appearances and focus on what's underneath. Recall the adages: "beauty is only skin deep," or "never judge a book by its cover."
While those are great sentiments, the fact is perception is reality. And numerous studies have shown that the average person reacts more favorably to people and things that meet their pre-conceived notions of how others should appear--regardless of what's inside.
That same kind of thinking applies to the business world. If it didn't, organizations trying to attract a certain type of clientele wouldn't spend so much on high-end office furnishings. Instead, they'd go with less expensive, utilitarian furniture and decor.
The reality is that it's important to make a good first impression. For a small business, that means giving the appearance of being substantial and able to deliver.
In other words, while a firm may be small, it should appear that it has the resources (employees and financial) to handle its customers' business without straining.
But that can be challenging for some smaller companies, and that's where technology can help. There are a number of tools that can give smaller organizations "big company" cachet.
Consider email addresses. When many consultants start out, for example, they use an email address with the email@example.com,@gmail.com,@aol.com, etc. That's because they're free, easy and managed on the back end.
Instead of settling for generic email identities, tell customers your company is substantial by purchasing a domain name that ties into the business and route all the firms' email through it. Domain names through some providers cost less than $10 per year, and often also provide an email address (or sometimes several variations of it) for free.
A Phone System Can Help
Nothing says "unprofessional" like a telephone that frequently gets answered by senior executives or goes to an answering machine when the party being sought is not available.
Instead, consider a virtual private branch exchange (PBX) phone service. This is a service that provides all the benefits enjoyed by larger firms--such as a professional greeting, auto-attendant, multiple extensions, voice mail, company directory, call forwarding, etc.--without a big investment in capital equipment.
A virtual PBX is especially helpful to companies that employ workers who are frequently out of the office, or work outside the main office (out of town or state).
Unlike a standard business phone system, a virtual PBX extension can be forwarded to any phone, anywhere. If a main office is in Iowa, but two employees work in California, the system can create similar-sounding extensions for them like 101 and 102, 103, etc.
For mobile workers, the same feature extends to cell or home phones. In fact, the phone system can be programmed to ring the office, mobile, home, branch office or anywhere else all at once or in sequence, so employees are always available to customers and prospects.
A professional voice-mail system can also send email notifications that a voice message is pending. It can even email a voice file so employees can hear their messages without dialing into the office.
Though much business communication is handled via email these days, more formal communication (such as letters of agreement, welcome letters, thank you for your business notes, etc.) make a better impression when they are professionally printed on high-quality paper stock.
Local printing firms, as well as big-box office-supply retailers, can create these stationary products at reasonable prices. There are also online companies that provide professional-quality printing. This is a small investment that can make a huge impact on the customers and potential customers your small business is trying to impress.
Another thing to consider is the content of the messages. If business writing has never been a strength, consider upgrading skills in these areas. Many community colleges offer business writing classes that can help whoever does the firm's communications to write better.
On the spelling front, don't trust it all only to the built-in spell checkers in popular office software. They can't distinguish between "to," "two" and "too," but there's a good chance the readers can. Either shore up capabilities in this area or find someone to proofread materials before they are sent. (English majors at local colleges make good candidates for this type of work.)
Try to see the business from the outside, as others view it. If you can't be objective, enlist someone who can, because a little image facelift may be just what's needed to drive a small firm toward big success.
Steve Adams (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president of Marketing for Protus (www.protus.com), an Ottawa, Ontario-based firm that provides software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools for small- to medium-sized businesses.