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I think any business owner would have to agree that the recovery from the recent GFC has played havoc with many small businesses and it is still playing a part in business strategy.

It is no secret that most small and large customers have, since emerging from the most recent fiscal nightmare, reduced discretionary spending. This was made worse in Australia, as we’d also had political elections on state and federal levels. The associated negative publicity and media circus that ensued stopped any positivity in the market. Consumers lost confidence in their future. Spending stopped.
As we emerged from the negative and pessimistic outlook, clients, buyers and vendors felt the need to look for what they perceived, rightly or wrongly, more affordable methods to get services and goods they wanted to purchase.
The internet became the method of choice. The big winner has been China. Alibaba, Amazon and Ebay have been instrumental in changing people’s buying habits. But Alibaba has been the main success story in the last 5 years, making the very humble founder a Billionaire overnight, once the company went public recently.
Their low prices could soon change though. Going public may well curb their growth as prices will probably rise as shareholders are now in the mix. Investors will want increased profits to maximize their investment, and resellers will probably be expected to cut them a bigger piece of the pie in terms of %’s paid for each sale.
But I digress.
Because of the ease of access to the web, finding alternate sources and comparing prices and reviews is amazingly easy and fast to do. But for every positive, there are a few negatives. It is also easier to be ripped off. It seems that every shonk in any business has a Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail account.
Businesses are finding it increasingly difficult competing with a sluggish market. Add Google to the mix and it is making it more difficult to compete on a level playing field.
How many of us now shop online? If we are honest, we are all doing it. I’m not even sure why they produce telephone books any more. I haven’t opened one in 7 years.
Consumers are working longer hours and simply do not have time to window shop as much now. Shopping online during the nighttime when we have time to sit back and relax is becoming the norm. No phone, no kids, no chores… just a relaxing time to browse without some sales assistant pestering us for a sale.
What about or own industry? Do we find our business prospects who looked excited about our product last month are procrastinating this month?  It can be a telltale sign of a Google shopper.
So what is the answer?
It’s pretty simplistic; we need to maintain a presence in cyberspace.

The obvious answer is Social Media. For a long time I assumed this form of interaction was a phase. I learnt quickly that it wasn’t. My Facebook business page generates a lot of interest and it does help people recognize me when I’m out and about. Yes, I have got work directly from my social media pages.
But, it is not just a case of having a page and hoping for the best. For social media to work, you have to be regular with your interaction. You need to post every day. You also need to keep up to speed with the way social media works. Remember, it is a money making concern so if you opt for only the free choices, you will make little impact. Sometimes you have to invest in promotion. Social media is still one of the cheapest forms of business promotion on the World Wide Web.
Look around. How many people, either clients or prospective clients, are Android or iPhone savvy? Consumers and business people are increasingly reachable electronically via smart phone, computer or tablet for a large part of the day.
The demographic using electronic communication is huge - everyone from teens to retirees. The Internet is not limited to their home or work computer. Now, they have access to data 24/7. If you want their attention, you have to be available 24/7 too. So a good website is a must.
That has become the nature of business accessibility now.  The humble web site has become a valuable tool that needs to be updated constantly. A web site gets dated. It needs to be kept relevant or consumers will overlook your site for a fresher look. The internet is constantly evolving and we need to keep that in mind with our yearly marketing budgets.
Another way to combat losing customers to the internet is communication.  We need to show the existing clients that they have a real value to our business.
In the ‘Spoken Communications’ blog, the author researched the cost of acquiring a new customer as opposed to retaining an existing client.
Their research found that it was 6 to 7 times more costly to acquire a new customer against retaining an old customer. The research also found that if a customer is left dormant for over 5 years, you have a 50% chance of losing them forever. Personally, I would have thought you’d have 100% chance but I didn’t do the research so what do I know.
The author also found that a business can increase their profits by up to 95% simply by boosting their customer retention rates by as low as 5%.
That is a pretty good argument for better communication, don’t you think?
We also shouldn’t assume a former customer who hasn’t purchased from you for a while will never buy from you again. Some businesses continually monitor their direction. Someone that let you go a year ago may realise that you offered a better service, were easier to deal with, or that you were a better proposition than the company they changed to. Your old client may ask you to come back. It does happen. It has happened to me. If you haven’t kept in contact with them, they are less likely to remember you. Out of sight, out of mind.
Then you have those that move over to a franchise only to realize that they have systems in place that perhaps don’t fit in with their needs, like faster turnaround. They may also turn over staff regularly. There is no bond, trust or relationship forming between the client and the supplier. This bond or trust will often be enough to keep customers coming back.
Statistics show people will probably switch jobs seven to 10 times within their careers. Just as it is expensive to find new clients, it is equally expensive to keep training new staff. We can have a better prospect of retaining business if our clients feel comfortable with our staff. Regular turnover of staff often prevents clients from building up a bond with our business. That’s why small businesses often have an easier job at retaining clients than larger ones do.
The business owner of a successful business should know his/her clients too. Taking an interest builds that bond. It also makes communications with the client base much more worthwhile.
The real secret to success is to treat all your clients as partners in your business growth - whether they spend $200 a month or $5000 a month.
I’ll give you an example. Back in 1996 I went in to business for myself after my family sold off our large sign shop. I struggled to get regular work and frankly I would have cleaned an elephant with a toothbrush if it helped me pay my rent.
One day I got a reply from a letterbox drop I had done in an industrial area. A small motorhome manufacturer wanted a small job done every month putting pin stripes on motorhomes. The previous contractor doing the job had been sacked for abusing the management.
The job was a bit of a pain, always last minute, always changing colours and always working in a dusty environment. But I appreciated the work. It was an average of $400 a month every month. It paid some bills.
Over time, I got larger clients, bigger contracts and my business took off. I no longer needed the small motorhome manufacturer but, I had built up a good relationship with the staff, their business was growing and I felt obliged to stay.
Then out of the blue, the owner died and his ‘silent’ partner put the business in to administration to keep creditors at bay and give him time to work out the businesses viability. I was out of pocket a few thousand dollars.
The administrators cleaned out the bank account of $500,000 in fees and charges. They took every last cent and the motorhome company was put up for sale. I think I got 10c in the dollar back.
The business was quickly sold to an American multinational. All the staff was kept on and I was retained.
They told me latter that I was retained as my relationship with the management was always good and communication was always free and open.
When the new company took over they ramped up the business immediately and my income went from $400 - $600 a month to $5,000 a month within a very short period of time. They became one of my biggest clients and remained like that for many years.
The lesson I learned was this: don’t ever pigeon hole a client as a dollar value. You just never know how they will grow.
But again, I digress.
Running any business is never easy. It can feel like you are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. So what can you do to soften the prospect of tough times? Communicate.
It can be as simple as Direct mail, Email, Social Media, Loyalty cards or a simple phone call. Whatever you do, do it sincerely.
It is all about being proactive rather than reactive. Become a partner with your client base. If they are struggling, find a way that you can help them. Value their business and they will value yours. It will lessen the need for them to try and google someone else.
Google is often touted as being our friend, but when you are in business, it can also be enemy #1.
It all comes down to our own attitude to our client base. The rest is up to you.


Shane Drew