July 21, 2013

Avoiding technology costs time, money

But 86% of small firms still rely on word of mouth and customer referrals.

By JOSEPH PISANI The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Small-business owner Sean Hilty is getting more customers -- and more sleep -- now that he's ditched his pen for a keyboard.

Josh Morton
click image to enlarge

Josh Morton poses with a bottle of his Barrow’s Intense Ginger Liqueur at his production facility in Brooklyn, N.Y. Morton expanded his market by hiring a social media marketer who has connected him with clients via Twitter.

The Associated Press

GETTING STARTED: YOU CAN FIND PLENTY OF HELP ONLINE

Here are tips on how small businesses can use social media:

FACEBOOK

With 1.1 billion users, it’s hard to ignore Facebook. There’s a greater chance that your customers are on it, says Amanda Schuster, a writer and social media marketer. “Even the senior set is using it,” she says. To attract more likes, you will likely need to buy a Facebook advertisement, says Schuster. You can customize the ad and choose the audience you want. An ad can cost as little as $10 a day, she says.

FOURSQUARE

This location-based social network is best for businesses that are on the move, such as a food truck or if you’re selling a product in different locations. A brand of alcohol, for example, can check in at a restaurant or bar that serves its products, says Schuster. Foursquare helps your customers keep track of where your product is sold.

INSTAGRAM

The photo-sharing service works best with businesses that have a visual element. A clothing store can post pictures of its latest styles, for example.

LINKEDIN

LinkedIn isn’t just for job seekers. Small business owners should create a company page on the online professional networking service, says LinkedIn career expert Nicole Williams. You can add contact info, products and other information about your business to the page.

TWITTER

With over 200 million users, this social network also has a big following. Christina Kennedy, a social media marketer, recommends that businesses follow people or companies that you think will be interested your business. They’ll be more likely to check your page out to see who is following them, getting you on their radar.

Businesses can also use the site to deal with customer complaints, or to thank people who say good things.

PINTEREST

The pinboard-style photo-sharing website is popular with businesses that have a visual element. The key here is to be authentic and share photos that users want to see, rather than just an advertisement for your business. A restaurant can offer a photo and recipe for a new dish, for example.

YELP

If you own a restaurant, bar, clothing store or many other kinds of businesses, users of the online review site users have likely created a page for it already. A negative review on Yelp can hurt a business, says Shama Kabani, the founder of Web marketing company The Marketing Zen Group.

Other customers may see it and stay away. Business owners need to monitor their Yelp pages and respond if an upset customer writes something on it. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for positive Yelp reviews offline. Train restaurant servers to ask customers to review the place on Yelp, if they enjoyed themselves, says Kabani.

The owner of auto repair shop HBH MotorWerks used to stay up past 2 a.m. writing his customer's invoices by hand. "I'm a chicken pecker when it comes to typing," said Hilty, 39, about his two-finger typing. "I thought it would take longer to type than it does to write down."

After some pushing from his kids, Hilty started using a Web-based service to type invoices on a computer after writing them by hand for years.

"They're more tech savvy than me," said Hilty, who currently runs his business from his home in Bartlett, Tenn. "They said, 'Dad, you're taking way too long to do that.' I grew up not even having a computer. I finally caved in."

Whether it's a Web-based tool like the invoice system that Hilty uses, a software program, social media sites or mobile payment systems that allow them to take payments using a smartphone, small-business owners are often slow to invest in, and use, technology.

The vast majority -- 86 percent -- say they rely on word of mouth and customer referrals to drum up business, according to a recent Bank of America survey. Just 41 percent cited social media as an effective marketing tactic. According to a separate survey released earlier this year by American Express, as many as 52 percent of small businesses don't use social media.

Small-business advocates say the avoidance of technology and social media is costing small-business owners time, money and potential customers.

"They're stymieing their growth," said Ramon Ray, an author and editor at Smallbiztechnology.com, a media company that educates small businesses about technology.

Small-business owners usually say they don't have enough time to look for ways to use technology to attract business or save time. But finding the right technology can be as simple as doing an Internet search, or asking others for advice, said Deb Lee, the founder of Soho Tech Training, a Washington D.C.-based company that helps small businesses identify which technologies they need.

"Many are slow to just take a step forward," said Lee. "When you stall, you become less productive."

PROFESSIONALISM PAYS OFF

Hilty remained stalled for 15 years, writing out invoices by hand until he found PlanetSoho, an online company that provides invoices, billing systems and other small-business tools. He used to spend up to an hour writing out by hand one invoice per car, depending on the repairs and the number of new parts it needed. Using the online invoice tool has cut that time down to five minutes per vehicle.

Business has jumped. Hilty has about 1,700 regular customers now, up from about 40 a year ago. He said the new invoices look more professional and make customers more willing to recommend him. Each invoice has a HBH MotorWerks logo on it. The handwritten ones didn't. Many customers keep their invoices in their purse or car, Hilty said. He has seen them passed around after church.

Hilty pays $4.95 a month for the PlanetSoho service, which he says is worth it. He now gets to bed by midnight, and his typing skills have improved, too. "I actually use more than one finger now," he said. Business has grown so much that he's planning to move his business from his home to a garage.

Like Hilty, Alicia Villarosa was slow to add technology to her toolbox. She started her personal training business 10 years ago, but only launched a website last year. "I wanted to seem professional," she said, about her reasons for wanting a website. "It makes me more official." She created AliciaVillarosa.net using IM Creator, an online website builder.

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