Home Business, Home Run
OWN - JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2011
No one needs to know your office is in your spare bedroom. Making your company seem larger than it is can help project a polished, established image for your home-based business. And it’s easier than you might think.
The home-based business landscape is changing.
Home-based businesses have long appealed to entrepreneurs seeking cost savings. But appearing as savvy as businesses with more capabilities was a challenge.
Now, with new services and technology, it’s simpler, faster and less expensive to compete with larger companies.
More people than ever see running a business from home as a viable option. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of self-employed people working exclusively from home leaped 25 percent, according to U.S. Census data. That’s the most recent data available, but anecdotal evidence points to an even bigger increase during the recent economic downturn, as small businesses looked for expense reductions and laid-off workers started new enterprises. About one quarter of businesses with employees operate primarily from home, according to NFIB senior research fellow Denny Dennis.
The growth is expected to continue as companies looking to stay lean rely more heavily on outsourcing to home-based businesses rather than hiring employees.
But even as the popularity of home-based businesses grows, the challenge of making it known that you’re not a fly-by-night operation remains. Often, appearing larger than you really are can help you come across as more stable and can reassure customers and prospects. We know that size has nothing to do with the quality of service you deliver, but it never hurts to appear well-established and professional.
“The perception of a larger business lends credence to a more substantial operation, whether it be more resources or more people,” says NFIB member Paul Anderson of Anderson Accounting Services LLC, a home-based accounting consultant in Sterling Heights, Mich.
From virtual offices to phone services, here’s how to make it happen—or how to work more efficiently, even if you’ve been running a home-based business for years.
First impressions matter. One key to making a lasting impact on customers is meeting them in a professional space, rather than inviting them into your spare bedroom or basement office.
NFIB member Paul Rux of Paul Rux Associates Inc., a Mount Horeb, Wis., company that does business consulting, project management and college business course planning, decided when he started his company that he would never invite clients into his home office—a living room he shares with his wife, who is an artist. Although Rux believes more people will work from home in the future, he says his customers still aren’t ready to accept it. “[Meeting in your home] looks like you can’t afford better,” he says. “It looks like you can’t be a part of the main-line economy.”
Instead, Rux often takes clients to a reserved meeting room at the University Club of Madison, where he is a member. “It’s a part of the image game…you want to send a message of quality,” he says. “It’s a way to brand yourself. It tells customers you value them.”
For business owners who meet with customers frequently and need a more permanent office setting—or even want to appear as though they operate from that location—virtual offices provide the amenities of a real office. From solid wood conference tables to nice restrooms for clients, these spaces have the perks without the pricey rent.
Providers such as Regus Business Centers and Davinci Virtual give home-based businesses access to the services of an office suite for a monthly fee, which ranges from $100 to $300 depending on the location and services provided. These include access to a private office with a meeting room, a professional business address, mail collection and handling services, a live receptionist and access to technology-equipped conference rooms.
If all you need is an office or a meeting room on occasion, you can also rent one for an hourly, daily or half-daily fee. Websites like DavinciMeetingRooms.com can help you locate one. These services have thousands of national and international office spaces, which is ideal if your target market is in another city or country.
You may even be able to rent space from another local business owner. Katrina Harrell, CEO of YourSimple Bookkeeper, a Raleigh, N.C.-based business that provides bookkeeping and accounting services to micro-businesses, only needs to meet with clients on occasion, so a local therapy practice allows her to use a conference room for free. The space is set up so clients can’t tell it’s an alternative arrangement. “I wanted to be able to play in the same field as everyone else, and I’m making it possible to attract clients that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to attract,” she says.
Amplify Phone Power
Enhancing your phone service with a virtual phone system can not only help you appear larger, it also streamlines the way you manage calls.
Virtual phone systems like Grasshopper and RingCentral Mobile use technology known as Voice over Internet Protocol to manage your incoming calls. They link with your existing phone service to control incoming calls with automated greetings, multiple extensions and call forwarding to other landlines, cell phones and Internet numbers. They also provide toll-free numbers and local, national and sometimes international numbers that customers can call to reach the system. Once a customer selects an extension, the call is routed to your phone.
That means you can take a business call from your cell phone when you’re on the road—and the caller won’t know his or her call was forwarded to you. (You must already have a number through a phone service provider to set up a virtual system and to make outgoing calls.)
Harrell subscribed to a free trial of eVoice and was hooked. She found that the virtual phone system was ideal since she has clients in more than one city and plans to expand to more markets. She posts a toll-free number on her website, and two local numbers for the major cities where she has clients. When customers call, a recorded greeter answers the phone and prompts them to enter one of three extensions for various departments. Regardless of the extension they dial, Harrell picks up the phone. “It ensures our prospective clients [know] that we are a professional business,” she says.
Virtual phone systems are also beneficial for entrepreneurs who operate more than one business or website.
Michael Epstein, president and CEO of eDimensional Inc., a Jupiter, Fla., company that develops and sells virtual reality video gaming products online, uses Jive. Epstein has a unique phone number for each website that he runs, and when a call comes through Jive he sees which number the caller dialed. That way, he can anticipate his customers’ concerns.
In the past, automated answering systems required owners to purchase difficult-to-install hardware and expensive phones, but these newer, “virtual” systems operate through the Internet. Some use your existing phone, while others require phones compatible with VoIP technology. You log on to an online account to manage the system. These systems come at a much lower cost than a landline, although some services require you to purchase compatible phones.
Build a Better Website
There’s no question that simply having a website legitimizes your business. But appearing just as professional as a big company with a fancy site is the tricky part.
What constitutes a “good” small business website has changed. Bob Scribner, principal of Executive Advantage LLC, a Columbia, Mo., company that provides human resources, business coaching services, and compensation and benefits assistance to businesses, found his website was sufficient for sharing information with customers and prospects, but customers couldn’t really get to know the company.
With help from a developer, Scribner added a blog and customer testimonials to the site, and he plans to add one-minute videos that feature him explaining important human resource issues. “This is one more way of touching people,” Scribner says. “They come, they see us, they get some info that can be helpful to their business. It’s one way of being in the office.”
Projecting a larger image means not only having a site that looks professional from a design standpoint, it also means making you and your company transparent online so potential clients know they’re dealing with “real” people with the appropriate credentials.
Geoff Vincent, CEO of BizCompare Inc., a Mississauga, Ontario-based company that provides an online business directory for research and sales lead generation, uses his “About Us” section to provide extensive information about the resources BizCompare provides, the audience who uses it and the mission of the business. In addition, it names him and the company’s co-owner, and provides information about their past experience.
“I want to be clear and evident so people know it’s a legitimate business site,” Vincent says. “It’s very much about credibility.” To increase his visibility online, he also expanded to social media sites and writes blog posts for an industry website.
You may not want to list your home address on the Internet, but many shoppers won’t buy from a company that doesn’t list a physical address. Since Vincent’s target audience is in Canada and the United States, he lists an address in both countries. Rather than providing his home address, he provides addresses at mail collection centers. It protects his privacy and adds professionalism, he says.
Ultimately, having an updated website not only allows you to appear larger, but it also helps you reach a wider audience. Scribner says his new website targets customers who comprise what he calls a “new generation” of business owners.
“They’re technology people,” he says. “And we need to communicate the way the person we’re communicating with can receive it best.”
Enhance Customer Support
Being quick on your feet when customer service issues arise is sure to land you new customers—and help keep the ones you’ve got. A set of tools is cropping up that helps you manage customers’ requests quickly, so they won’t feel like there’s only one person sitting on the other end of the screen—even if there is.
Web-based help desk software, like Get Satisfaction, Zendesk and HESK, is bringing the days of being put on hold to an end. The services create an online dashboard where business owners can privately answer customers’ questions, concerns and comments. Although features vary, most include a ticket system to track customer support issues, a database of previous questions, and a public section for frequently asked questions.
The software can be integrated into your website, as well as with Salesforce and other customer relationship management products. (You may need to hire a Web developer to set it up.) The online help desks add a social arm to traditional CRM systems that track and organize customer information.
YourSimple Bookkeeper’s Harrell recently began using Get Satisfaction for her bookkeeping business. It integrates with her website, and customers can leave feedback, pose questions, raise concerns and praise her business on a unified platform. A list of frequently asked questions populates on one part of the screen so customers can view and comment on them.
“It’s showing we take the initiative to be more technologically advanced, that we’re progressive, that we take a proactive approach to servicing our clients, and that we understand that as a customer, your needs are very important,” she says.
Epstein, of gaming company eDimensional, answered emails under multiple user names when he and a friend began their business out of their dorm room in college.
Ten years later, after moving into a physical office and hiring more staff, he’s using HESK to manage customer requests and give the perception of a large company with an online support system.
The help desk gives people a sense there’s a team behind his operation, Epstein says. “There’s a method and organization of doing it rather than just emailing someone,” he says. “It’s the perception of having a system, of having something well-organized and robust that gives people the perception that we know what we’re doing.”
Forget Word documents and cumbersome email
attachments. For a list of online collaboration tools for small business, visit www.NFIB.com/online_collaboration.