In the last few years my company has managed to turn a two thousand pounds investment into an internet business turning over several million a year. We’ve made lots of mistakes over the years, but we’ve also done some things right.
1. Relentless Focus on Customer Service
If there’s one key to building a successful business, this is it. When you go to every possible length to keep your customers happy, they will appreciate it, they will buy from you again and they will recommend you.
In fact, I’ve known angry customers turn into loyal companies after we’ve sorted out a problem quickly.
i. Get your goods out to customer as fast as possible. We aim to dispatch every item ordered before midday the same day, but we usually do much better than this. Customers love it when they order something on Friday at 3pm and it gets there on Saturday morning.
ii. Rectify mistakes promptly: Mistakes happen. When they do, apologise and rectify it – quickly. If something gets lost in the post, resend it, if something breaks, replace it without a quibble. If you have caused the mistake, send the customer something for free.
2. Minimise every cost – but not at the expense of quality
I have a bank manager friend who says he knows when a company is going to fail – it happens after they build a large flagship office.
Until we were turning over a million pounds, I worked from my kitchen (usually with a pot bubbling on the stove at the time!) We were lucky enough to live in an old farmhouse, so stables got turned into stock rooms and portacabins were put in the yard. The last straw was losing my dining room – after that, we had to move on!
When our growth eventually forced us to move, we found an ex-world war two ammunition bunker in an industrial estate which we could rent for a hundred pounds a week.
And as for flagship buildings? It’s never going to happen.
The two areas where we are prepared to spend is on the product and our staff.
One of our Chinese suppliers told us that he could provide our products to us at any price we wanted – but the quality would be terrible. We believe in supplying the best quality we can. This paid off when trading standards came in to one of our resellers shops and stripped their shelves off a competing company’s product, noting that our products were fully compliant.
3. Reward your Staff
Another area where you should be prepared to spend money is your staff. As you grow, you rely more and more on your staff to provide the customer service which is so essential to your business. But how can you expect them to a good job if they don’t feel valued?
i. Pay a fair salary: We actually pay the highest wages in our area. But for a minimum, you might want to consider joining the Living Wage. Display the Living Wage logo on your adverts – you’ll get people applying because they want to join a company which cares about their staff.
ii. Pay bonuses: One problem with high salaries is they need to be paid on an ongoing basis. But what about when someone doesn’t perform well, or when the business has a bad month?
Bonuses are the answer. Staff understand that bonuses are related to performance, both theirs and the business.
iii. Give titles and responsibilities: I love delegating (it means I can go on holiday more often). But it also means that staff feel more valued. As you get to know your staff, and their strengths, assign roles and responsibilities to them. Sometimes you can over-promote someone, if you do so, retain them and find a role at which they do really well within their abilities.
iv. Tell them when they are doing well: No doubt you will tell staff when they are doing badly. But you should also tell them when they are doing well. Some employees value appreciation even more than money.
Recently, two members of staff told me that this was the best job they had ever had. That’s almost more rewarding than the profits we make. (Almost!)
4. Hire Carefully
As staff are the most important part of our business, you need to hire very carefully. We had one near miss when a new employee didn’t turn up on the first day of his job. When we told him he had lost the job opportunity, he proceeded to send me abusive emails saying a woman shouldn’t be running a company. Near miss!
Many of our early hirees were friends, children of friends or friends of friends. This breaks our own rules to never hire friends! But all of these people have turned out to be great workers (perhaps because we already had a good idea they were great before we took them on).
i. Have several interviews – don’t rely on just one impression.
ii. If you’re not sure, don’t hire because you’re desperate.
iii. Don’t use the Job Centre – many people here apply for work because they have to, and many are not suitable for the job. Use a site where people are genuinely searching for work.
iv. Always, always, always check references. Don’t bother looking at a written reference, telephone and talk to people directly. Remember tone of voice is as important as what people say, and ask if they would hire them again tomorrow if they had a position open.
5. Focussing on a growth market
Combine new and old talent. We’re a family business, so we have a good mixture of old and new heads. My husband and I have been in business for decades, and the experience (and cynicism!) we have gained helps us to know when to say no, when to squeeze for a better price and to guide our overall strategy.
My son, however, was the one into web design and marketing, and keeps up with the latest social media marketing strategy, while my daughter, who is also a lawyer, makes sure we do everything by the book.
6. Forget traditional marketing
Forget traditional marketing – the return on investment is terrible. We’ve tried magazine adverts and rarely had any success. Want to know what our most effective marketing tool has been?
In fact one of our blog posts has been shared over 40,000 times. Yet the cost of it has been little more than the time needed to write posts. We’ve also gained tens of thousands of pounds worth of free advertising through PR, and hundreds of new customers by handing out business cards with every order.
i. Always measure return on investment. If you have an advert, use a coupon to track how effective it is. Use online tool to measure how effective your online marketing is.
ii. Embrace non-traditional marketing. Creating content for your website is a great way to drive traffic for very little cost.
7. Develop a Relationship with Your Customer
One advantage you have over a larger company is that you are not a large faceless entity – you and your staff are real people.
Many of our customers ask for one of our staff by name when they ring us up, and we’ve received present from customers (if you’re one particular lovely customer, and you’re reading this, thank you but please stop sending chocolates – we’re all getting fat!), praise and dozens of unsolicited testimonials.
i. Communicate regularly with your customers.
ii. Make sure you talk to them, not at them.
iii. Send them promotions, but also your best content, as well as videos and tips on how to use your product.
iv. Listen to what your customers want – and then respond.
ii. Put faces to voices – our customers have told us how nice it is to see pictures of our staff.
iii. Use humour: Our April Fools jokes do well, and we post humour on our Facebook on a daily basis. It has little to do with our business, but your customers love it.
Those are our tips that have helped us grow – and I hope they help you too. Now, over to you – what tips do you have for growing your business?
This post was written by Jean Rasbridge, who is the owner of ecigarettedirect.co.uk one of the leading e-cigarette vendors in the UK. Jean trained as a translator, and her favourite all time job remains working for a company importing wine from France (because of the challenges of the job, not the free wine samples, of course!) She went on to run a shop before becoming a successful designer and sales person and then running an online mobility aids business. She is now the MD of ECigaretteDirect, The Smoker’s Angel. Jean is a mother and a grandmother.