The school term is in full swing, and the summer holidays are now a fading memory for children embracing the new academic year, and all of its fresh challenges. Business owners who are parents may be breathing a sigh of relief their offspring are back in the term-time routine, but they could also learn something from their kids’ example. Even if your company is doing well, there’s always some new skill to acquire, or better method of working that might improve efficiency. Where should your company be swotting up, and what are the gaps in your business knowledge?
Identify your weak points
To know where you could do better, you need to be honest about where your weaker points lie. It’s hard to do on your own, so enlist the help – and critical eye – of an outsider, whether a trusted adviser, such as your accountant, or a professional mentor. Even canvassing members of staff about where the business could improve might help. Employees are at the coalface, and well-placed to spot outdated processes, or point out systems that don’t work efficiently. But, there are some areas where SMEs frequently fail, or, at the very least, could try harder…
Do you know your true target audience? Too many small companies operate on instinct, rather than conducting market research to establish who really buys their goods and services, and devising a solid marketing strategy to win, and keep customers. Look at your competitors, see how they market themselves, and adopt – and adapt – some of their better ideas. Consider how you differ from your peers, and whether you can make a merit of your distinction, and market yourself on this difference. Have you measured whether your current marketing efforts are proving effective, or if, in fact, you’re wasting money, and time?
Your marketing methods may be out-of-date. Newspaper adverts or directory listings may have been good for winning business a decade ago, but have you stopped to assess how much new custom is coming your way from such paths, if you’re still using them? Be honest, are you keeping abreast with technological developments, and where your customer base is looking for information? They’re almost certainly online, and probably using social media, as we’ll explore shortly, so you should be tapping into these areas, too. If you feel out of your depth using new technology, think about hiring an external consultant, or agency – research from Browser Media shows SMEs hiring an external expert for their Boost Capital for a short-term business loan. Making sure that you have enough money in company coffers to cover day-to-day expenses is essential to the running of any firm, yet there are some basic measures many company bosses fail to take to keep the cash coming in.
Having systems to issue, and track invoices is one sensible step. Late payments have been the undoing of many a small enterprise, and without proper processes in place it’s all too easy for debtors to withhold funds owed for even longer. Decide whether to use manual accounts, or to make an investment in accounting software – probably the more sensible approach in this day, and age. For as little as £30 a month you could get a state-of-the-art cloud accounting software package, which is quick, allows you to gain access to information anywhere, and has enormous capacity. More firms are realising the merits of cloud-based systems – six out of ten SMEs now use cloud technology, according to recent research from BT Business, and the British Chambers of Commerce. And, once you know your profit and loss figures, gross margins, individual costs, and who owes you what, you’re in a far stronger position to maintain control over your operation, and its finances.
Making technology work for you
First of all, make sure you have a digital presence – 30 per cent of Britain’s SMEs and charities are still not online or using social media, according to the latest UK Business Digital Index. Your website should be up-to-date, fully transactional, and you need to use the information collected from it properly. Google Analytics, for example, is a hugely useful tool to discover who’s visiting your site, how often, and from where – Simply Business has explained in detail how to get the most from your website’s analytics in a recent guide.
Social media is another must in your business’ digital marketing efforts, as we’ve discussed on this blog before – it’s fast, free, and potentially vast in its reach. Using Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and other social media platforms is a vital ingredient in modern customer service provision as well – your customers are likely to be using these forms of media, so you need to be there, too. But don’t spread yourself too thin, make sure you understand what you’re doing, and know what you really want to say, even if that means getting some expert advice.
Planning for the future – and funding it
You probably started out with a business plan, but when did you last look it over? Circumstances change within a company, and in the marketplace more broadly, so your business plan should also evolve with the times. It’s not just a document to show when you’re seeking investment, it’s a guide for you, and your team about what the business is for, and where it’s headed.
Ask yourself whether the market still wants what you set out to offer. Is it time to diversify, or develop a new range of products or services? Have you spotted a niche that’s ripe for exploitation, and that your business could adapt to provide? Have you got enough staff, and the right skills in the business to achieve your goals? A business plan is not set in stone, and it’s healthy to revisit it regularly to see if it’s still relevant, and where gaps in it – or the company – exist.
Ponder your stated plans for growth, and how you might fund them. Business owners are more inclined to borrow for expansion than was the case a few years ago, according to the latest figures from the Bank of England, but too few still realise there are now a range of funding options for SMEs apart from the traditional route of approaching the high street banks. Alternative finance – peer-to-peer lenders, asset finance, and unsecured, short-term providers, such as Boost Capital – are all on the rise, and can offer small business owners more flexible forms of capital, and a faster path to the money they need to flourish.
So, take the chance to shed your ego, admit your business’s failings, and learn new skills, or polish old ones, to make your enterprise more successful, and up-to-date. With a bit of effort, some extra capital, and a few tweaks to operations, your company could soon be at the top of its class.