Chatbots and Customer Service

Every entrepreneur and business owner knows that customer service is key to a lasting and successful project, initiative, or company. Being the department that possibly interacts the most with your audience, it’s highly likely that you have spent countless hours looking for the best customer service employees and tools to elevate your service to the next level. When the digital age arrived, however, the rules with customer service began to change. No longer were you greeted with a, “Hello, how can I help you?” from a real live person, but instead with a, “Please press 1 for more options” message coming from a robotic voice. While both methods are efficient, it’s important to note that the customer service rules have changed, and programs like chatbots will soon become the norm.

 

Chatbots were born out of a necessity to more efficiently police and traffic calls in high volumes. Quite frankly, it would be nearly impossible for a small office of people to handle transferring incoming calls for a large company such as Wells Fargo or Apple in a timely manner. And with the technology available, companies are able to save money by no longer needing to hire that team of switch-board experts. Chatbots are also attractive to businesses because they allow the customer to have total control of the direction of the call, instead of relying on who is on the other end to understand what they need.

 

At first, chatbots were not very sophisticated and often served as a point of frustration for customers. Since they work off of keywords and not actual context, customers had to readjust their own customer service visions and learn how to interact with the new technology. Chatbots have come a long way since then, and have been integrated with machine learning technology that allows for an easier experience thanks to advancements within artificial intelligence.

 

Chatbots are able to do more than just get a customer from one complaint to a solution, however. They also can yield valuable data and metrics that show where the majority of customer complaints come from. Further even from this, because of the real-time nature of chatbots replacing employees live-chatting with customers to troubleshoot, they’re able to point customers in the direction of other services on your site that they may be interested in as well, all from the keywords that you used during your chatbot inquiry. This will drive sales and increase customer satisfaction.

 

The bottom line behind chatbots and customer service is to not be afraid of the growing technology. There is a healthy balance between an in-person customer service rep and chatbots, and by learning about the best practice for both services, you can create a custom service platform that will serve your customers in the best way possible. And as technology continues to advance, look to chatbots to become even more capable of driving your business towards success in more areas than just customer service.

How to Lead Millennials

There are dozens of proven management strategies and techniques in practice in today’s corporate world. What managers are seeing now, however, is that those techniques may not be connecting with their new, young, millennial employees entering the workforce.

Millennials, the children of baby boomers, essentially, require more than employees of the past, because they’ve been given more than others in the past. With access to the internet possible since the time they were toddlers, they’ve discovered a whole world at a young age that those before them haven’t had access to. This has given them an edge in knowledge, but has also slightly stunted their ability to connect with management styles of the past.

If you are a leader in your business and are seeing a disconnect between you and your new employees, the techniques below will serve as a strong starting point in bridging the gap in your management strategy.

Work Must Have Meaning

Millennials have a need to connect with their work. If they don’t feel connected to the purpose of your business, they will simply go somewhere else. Even if your business doesn’t serve the public in a philanthropic way, having opportunities within the company in the form of charitable events and sponsorships will help to offer a connection.

Emphasize Training

No one likes to be thrown into the fire on day 1 when starting a new job. And while this must happen to a certain degree at some point, millennials are especially sensitive to this technique. Make sure they are well-equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed within your business.

Showing Respect

Something that has given the millennial generation a slightly bad reputation is what some call a “sense of entitlement.” For millennials, what this translates to is, respect. Showing respect for the value they bring to the table is crucial – and, they do bring new skills to the table that should be respected – and will ensure that they show you respect as well.

Try A New Schedule

A new trend seen within many young companies started by millennials is the 4 day work week. Millennials value their time. After all, having been exposed to the power of the internet at such a young age, they know there is a whole world out there to see and it’s important that they see it. Giving your employees the option of working 4 10-hour days instead of a traditional 5 day work week will not only keep your young employees but can draw new employees in.

Do you have a favorite management style for millennials? If so, tweet them to me @PepperRutland on Twitter, or message me on LinkedIn!

What to Expect When Working at a Startup

A start-up company is not just like any other new business. It’s a new business that has its sights set for big things, and while start-ups are young companies that have their work cut out for them, success is not easy.

 

A quote from the cofounder and co-CEO of Warby Parker explains this further in a recent Forbes article. “A startup is a company working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed.” Those are tough odds for young companies looking to break into their market. And yet, start-ups continue to be on the rise in the U.S., with thousands of young hopefuls looking to be a part of the next big thing.

 

If you’re considering a job with a start-up, or are looking to join an existing start-up, here’s what you should expect.

 

Expect Change

Change could happen nearly every day at a startup. Since things are new and really young start-ups tend to only have a handful of employees, there’s likely not a rulebook yet as you’re just getting started on figuring out how to run your business. This makes for an exciting atmosphere, but it can also test your patience. You have to have a high tolerance for fast paced change, because adaptability is really the true nature of your business.

 

Everyone is Important

It’s not a generational approach; at a startup, everyone is a crucial member of the team. Even if there is a solid managerial structure in place, your work is vital to the success of the company. You won’t be able to hide at your desk if you’re feeling drained. This can create a very welcoming and supportive environment but can overwhelm anyone who’s not sure if they are up for the challenge. Teamwork will be heavily relied upon, and new ideas are nurtured instead of being turned away based on your tenure.

 

Benefits, Schedules and Offices are Untraditional

One of the most appealing aspects of start-ups is how untraditional they are. Younger generations have seen those before them fall into a working pattern that leaves people feeling a bit stuck in a routine every day. Start-ups often offer nontraditional job aspects that are extremely attractive, such as an open office with a casual environment, happy hours and downtown lunches with your teammates to celebrate wins, and flexible working hours with unlimited sick days. While these perks sound great at first, they can sometimes become cons quickly. Because startups are still growing, they do not always have the ability to afford health insurance and other standard benefits at a traditional company.

 

Things Move Quickly

Start-ups are a fast paced environment. Just as quickly as your dreams were realized, they can be taken away. While the long term successes will be great, it’s getting there that can be the problem. This means that you have to be able to prioritize projects to accommodate for big clients and changing routines. You could be moving offices quickly as you continue to grow as well. If you usually like to take a third or fourth pass at your work before sending it to a client for review, you’ll have to settle for two rounds. Time is very valuable and it certainly cannot be taken up by any type of doubt.

 

The most important aspect of a start-up is the atmosphere. It’s an exciting time even if you’re working from a few desks in an office basement. Keeping the above job aspects in mind, you’ll be able to adjust to your new job quickly – just be prepared not to settle into any type of routine too quickly.

 

Office Feng Shui: Unconventional Ideas for Your Space

2017 will see a lot of new trends, especially in office environments. Some of these trends have companies around the globe rethinking the layout of their offices in order to yield the best productivity. If you or your employees are feeling drained and your brain gets foggy throughout the day, try adapting some of these trending office layouts.

 

Where to Place Your Desk

Actual Feng Shui practices show that even your desk has an important place in your office. You’ll want to point your desk in the “power position” in order to maintain positivity and authority. According to Feng Shui, you should always have your desk set in a way where you can see your door. This way, you will be able to see opportunity as it comes through your career.

 

Storage Design

Office design is crucial to the atmosphere and culture of a company. Functional furniture and storage cabinets have to match the aesthetic of the office just as any desks and chairs do. To blend your storage furniture a bit, you can use small cabinets as office dividers in an open area, or turn them into a functional seating feature.

 

Flexible Layouts

As technology continues to grow and change at a rapid pace, so should your office. This is not to say that you need to remodel your office every couple of months, but moreso to say that your office should be adaptable for any amount of layouts necessary. If the budget is tight, your offices could double as work event spaces, seminar classes, and large meetings. Having an open concept will help keep this flexibility in your office.

 

How to Feng Shui Your Desk

If you’re looking to get a little clarity at your desk, Feng Shui uses a great layout designed to give you good energy and mental openness. By dividing your desk space up in the 9 sections outlined by the Feng Shui bagua map, you’ll be able to add functional and personal items to your desk that will promote productivity. A few of these steps include adding some greenery to the top left corner of your desk, a photo of a loved one in the right corner, or keeping an agenda near your mouse in the bottom right corner.

 

Office Wellness Areas

One of the biggest trends in recent years is adding a wellness space to your offices. Mental and physical wellness is extremely important for your employees. To keep a good energy and to promote overall wellness, adding bright and open, yet private, spaces will help to clear the mind, while physical wellness can be taken a step further by offering gym spaces and smart kitchens.

 

While these ideas may seem a bit unconventional, they will help you to optimize your office space for the highest productivity rates possible. By pushing the boundaries and trying a new style, the entire nature of your office can change. If you’re looking to remodel your space this year, you’ll want to keep this tips in mind.

 

Small Business Challenges in 2017

Part of the new American dream is staying small in business while dreaming of big success. While small businesses across the country are thriving, there are some concerns that keep owners up at night. It’s not always easy being a small business in a big market, and there are some who are feeling crippled by the challenges they face on a daily and annual basis. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the top challenges small business are faced with in 2017.

 

Remote Work

Advancements in technology have been very kind to the business world, especially for remote employees. With a slew of applications that can connect businesses, employees, and clients, more and more people are looking to work remotely instead of relocating for new opportunities. While this is a great option for employee retention and attraction, small businesses will need to be equipped to handle this practice. Small businesses will also need to lay out an entirely new list of rules to ensure that this privilege is not abused.

 

Healthcare

The debate rages on with healthcare. For being such a high priority for Americans, unfortunately there are clear losers while the government decides what healthcare will look like for years to come. Small businesses happen to be one of those areas that are getting caught in the cross-fire. Rising costs and uncertainty in policy have made this a top concern for small business owners. According to an article seen on bizjournals.com in early December of 2016, 52 percent of small business owners rank the “cost of health insurance” as a critical problem.

 

Retaining Customers

Every marketplace is starting to become a crowded one, with innovative strategies helping to take businesses further. This makes it easy for small businesses to get lost in the noise. Holding on to key customers and ensuring that they remain a profitable one continues to be a challenge for small businesses. While there are plenty of challenges in attracting new customers, it is important to focus on maintaining your customer base and ensuring they feel like a priority.

 

Stamina

Being a small business owner takes a lot of work. Not only are there challenges to face within the business (see list above), but there are many challenges that face the owner themselves. Being understaffed can cause owners to double the amount of work they should be doing, which can lead to long hours and one tired owner. Maintaining the energy to take on each day with success in mind can take a toll if areas within the business are not being supported as they should be. Hiring an assistant might set a business back a pretty penny but will help owners keep their cool and help them do what they do best: lead.

New Year’s Resolutions for Business Owners

pexels-photo-38196In a recent blog I shared some tips for finding success as a first-time manager; there are some very important, relevant lessons included within. Yet, since success is as much about evolving as it is about getting things right, I decided to create this post as a complement, and/or as a message for seasoned business owners, about making some resolutions to do things differently (read, better) in the new year.

 

  1. Stick To Your Goals
    Considering that just 8% of people who set New Year’s resolutions actually go through with them, this is the most important piece of advice to adhere. Set goals for yourself, both for the long term and short term, and some actionable steps you can take every day to achieve them. If it helps to write things down, get a brand new planner or journal and do that. If you’re not good at keeping yourself on track, partner with someone, like an assistant or confidante to keep you motivated and to hold you accountable to achieving everything you’ve set out to do.
  2. Do Something That Scares You
    Step out of your comfort zone. Going out on your own to start or lead a business is a challenge within itself, and a display of courage and confidence. However, since then, what have you done that made you afraid, that put you in a position where you didn’t have control over the outcome or direction? If the answer is nothing, it’s time to shake yourself up. Try something you said you’d never do; challenge yourself to face your fears, and you’ll be better for it.
  3. Learn Something
    Likewise, commit to learning something new. Whether it’s investing in a few books or actually taking a class, continued development is highly important and deserving of your time and money. To be clear, however, new lessons don’t have to be business or industry related. It can be anything from archaeology to baking. Whatever you choose to keep your mind active and expand the scope of your own understanding, will serve you well in your career.
  4. Improve Your Online Presence
    The Internet isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s getting bigger. If you haven’t made a professional website and career-focused social media profiles, you’re far behind but not incorrigible. In 2017, put more effort into your brand and the message you want to send online. It’s a part of who you are.
  5. Take Time Off
    Last but not least, take time off. So few Americans take a vacation. As the leader of a business, doing so may seem further away from reality because of various, important responsibilities and tight schedules. However, while setting up your calendar, build some time away from the office into your agenda to ensure that you can destress, rejuvenate yourself and be more productive upon your return.

Should You Care About The Way Your Company Sleeps?

time-is-money-1339781_960_720“Don’t lose sleep over it” is an old adage encouraging people not to worry about their problems, whether it’s the kids or money or the dozens of other things about which humans worry. Though it’s considered a mere nicety by some, a few organizations from Unilever to the historic Cambridge University are taking extra steps to ensure quality sleep for their employees, even if it means school: sleeping school, that is.

The Sleep School, led by Guy Meadows of London, is said to address insomnia through drug-free methods, helping its students learn better tools for sleeping and getting a full night’s rest. If you’re wondering whether it’s effective, reviews on his company’s website from The Guardian and The Times seem to affirm his offering. Afterall, Mr. Meadows has spent years studying sleep and has even trained doctors in his own methods, based on his research. Through workshops, The Sleep School, as the name suggests, provides education on sleeping and its benefits.

However, sleep is personal. So why should organizations concern themselves with their employees’ sleeping habits? Because, as companies like PriceWaterhouseCoopers has learned, sleep, or the lack thereof, affects overall ability to perform and even deal with stressful situations. What’s more, lack of sleep or insomnia can lead to poor judgement, low productivity and less than optimal leadership. In other words, it makes the company weaker and can be a liability.

The problem is, most assume that a lack of sleep is related to doing better, a stronger work ethic and dedication. That late nights are a sign of someone who’s passionate and willing to go above and beyond. While all of those are probably true and qualities deserving of recognition, studies continue to show that they are unhealthy, though probably not always noticeably ineffective. For example, both billionaire Richard Branson and lifestyle brand maven, Martha Stewart have said they only get around 4-6 hours of sleep per night. They are doing well by most measures, but it is not something others should follow.

According to experts, individuals should get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night to perform at their best. Great sleep decreases fatigue, enhances creativity and develops a noticeably better work environment and company culture. Maybe The Sleep School is out of your range as a company, or just something you are unsure of presenting to your employees. However, you should make its importance known, through newsletters or other literature, and provide the necessary resources for employees to take care of themselves while at home.

Lessons for Your Business from Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go in actionPeople walking around on their phones with their heads down is not alarming. Afterall, in the age of technology, the complete disassociation with the outside world is commonplace from the dinner to table to the office (sometimes unfortunately). Yet, you may have noticed some recent changes in our culture that is consumed by tech. People aren’t just walking around on their phones, they’re talking about them with others, congregating in parks, showing up at random buildings, and driving around their neighborhoods with a purpose: catching Pokemon via this year’s hottest mobile game, Pokemon Go.

If you’re unfamiliar with the game and the story behind it, let me explain it briefly. Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game which uses phone cameras and GPS location data to catch digital creatures (Pokemon), and is based on a nearly 20 year old video game franchise of the same name. Now, less than a month after its launch, the game boasts some 10 million daily players at its lowest estimate, and the number of those doing so is growing. But how did a game that had seemingly past its prime attract such a mass, loyal customer base? Experts from Entrepreneur to Forbes have provide insight.

  1. Leverage Existing Platforms
    Instead of creating the wheel entirely, Niantic (the creators of Pokemon Go) brought their idea to users through an object they already own. With millions of people already in possession of a smartphone, the company lowered barriers related to adoption, allowing users to follow their normal behavioral patterns. In other words, go where customers are and seek to integrate into their lives rather than alter it.

  2. Social Media, Local Marketing and Mobile Integration:
    This strategy, known in the marketing and tech world as SoLoMo, has been one of the largest reasons for the success of Pokemon Go. Niantic has integrated social media with the real world unlike any other game or company, with remarkable success not only for themselves, but for small businesses. Indeed, the popularity of the company has resulted in increased traffic to local businesses and subsequent revenue. Entrepreneur Magazine encourages businesses to do the same through tools like checkins to get customers to engage your business on and offline.

Furthermore, Tech.co shares some very practical examples of how businesses can use Pokemon Go as a marketing tool in addition to learning from it. Some of their advice includes getting on the action by adopting some of the language and themes of Pokemon, which can pay off for your business, turning players into customers. Advertising your business as a stop (if it is one), for those who may not be playing at the time. It requires a bit of effort, but such an acquisition is invaluable, whether the game continues to dominate or not.

How To Keep Growing As A Business

pexels-photo-largeMMR Group continues to grow. Last month, the company proudly announced the purchase of assets and operations of Vector Electric and Controls, Inc. In our 20 plus years as a company, we’ve learned a lot about progress, expansion, and growth as a business. We’re of the belief that there is always room for growth and opportunities to be more impactful. As such, I want to share with you a few tips about how to do just that, regardless of the type of company you manage or lead.

  1. Hire the right people
    Your human assets are the most valuable part of your company. Even if you have the greatest ideas or the largest budget, without the proper talent to manage and execute each of those, the business is nil. Hence, hiring is the most foundational tip for growth and long term success. Look out for people who understand your company’s objectives, its strengths and weakness, and the details of their role. Invest both your time and money in attracting great employees; doing so sets a positive precedent for everything to come.
  2. Have Clear Goals
    The next step is to define what success is for your business and how you want to get there. Perhaps, for your company that means reaching a certain number of customers, opening a second location,  or earning a set amount of revenue. Regardless of what it is, every business needs a list of clearly defined goals and a plan for realizing them. Overtime, as those goals are reached and as your company evolves, your goals should as well. It’s also important to prioritize these objectives and ensure that the rest of your team is on the same page.
  3. Be Strategic
    This step requires a greater level of perception and calls for realizing opportunities that were not previously mapped out, but make sense based on the position of the business itself. With very calculated marketing, mergers, or other business strategies, companies can build an enterprise that is not limited only to rigid goals, but that moves based on what is expedient for the business. Always be sensible about your choices and alert to the possibilities which surround you.
  4. Learn From Mistakes
    Every choice or strategy will be not an immediate hit. In fact, some can be an outright failure; that’s a normal part of business. The best way to recover is to learn from the mistake. Ask yourself which part or parts of the process went wrong and why. Only then can your and your company create more successful outcomes going forward, rather failing multiple times over an avoidable issue. There is no guarantee that all things will work, so don’t be afraid of risk. Even the largest companies from Apple to Google frequently have major failures. As a company, however, your power is in controlling the controllable.

Finally, every business starts somewhere; many with just a simple idea and the work of a single individual. Nevertheless, no one goes into business with small aspirations. Every entrepreneur’s goal is to bring their skills, product or resource to as many customers or supporters as possible. Following these simple practices and words of advice can make the likelihood of such a reality.

Best Social Media Practices for Small Businesses

Pepper Rutland's photo of facebook and scrabble piecesBefore the 1990s, companies relied mostly on print and broadcast media, such as television and radio, to get the word out about their products, services and/or progress. Prior to those inventions, word of mouth and various guerilla tactics were the focus. Nevertheless, with the advent and subsequent ubiquity of the Internet, businesses saw the importance of getting online. Those who weren’t early adopters, relying still on the aforementioned tools to reach customers and supporters alike, learned quickly that “the net” could not be ignored. Today, more than half of small business have their own website. However, as trends continue to evolve beyond a mere home for your business, the need for web presence via social media has become just as, if not more, imperative to the success of business owners, especially smaller businesses. Yet, while most have at least taken steps to create a social profile, not many use it to their full advantage.

Nearly two years ago LinkedIn reported that 81% of small to medium business had some form of social media. Why the remaining 19% hasn’t caught up is a concern in itself, but that’s not the primary issue at hand. Of those which do have a profile, approximately 95%, virtually all, of them use it for marketing reasons alone. While this makes sense given the wide reach of such platforms at little to no cost, simply using the space to announce deals, sales or new products is akin to handing out flyers on the corner. You may reach a lot of people, but it doesn’t guarantee connection nor interest. Therefore, creating a strategy for engaging your social media audience is key. Here are tips for doing so.

1. Create Quality Content

Consumers are exposed to about 5,000 ads per day, in comparison to 2,000 in the same time, just 40 years ago. The oversaturation and overpopulation of advertisements have led many to either tune them out or block them altogether. That said, using your business profile to do just that creates an automatic division between yourself and the client/customer you’re trying to reach. Instead, create and publish content that is informative and relevant to your product or service. As a result, your business comes across as an authority on related subjects, and appears to onlookers as a brand that is interested in its customers, not just selling to them.

2. Interact With Followers

Use social media to be social. Just as it would be rude to only talk about oneself and never respond to any questions, comments or inquires, in-person, the same applies online. Perhaps there is no dedicated social media person on staff, thus making it difficult to respond to every single interaction; however, merely acknowledging the message goes a long way. Such can be done with a simple like or share on many social platforms. And when it makes sense to do so, follow back.

3. Use Analytics Tools

The larger and more popular websites provide very specific and helpful data, including how many people viewed a post as well as liked and/ or shared it. Not only do these details provide insight about the value of your content to your audience, they can provide key information about how many people you’re actually reaching and optimal times for doing so.

4. Be Channel Specific

As the old saying goes, there’s a time and place for everything. Each business owner or dedicated social media specialist would do well to note best practices of each platform. For example, content on Twitter must be shorter, to the point, and use of hashtags bolster the length of your reach. On Facebook, content can be a little longer, more in depth and media heavy. Hashtags are not as effective, though available, and click through content, such as a link to an external website or presentation, are normal. Using a cookie-cutter approach to all platforms only diminish the effectiveness of your message and goals online.

As we enter this new year, there is an even greater incentive to try new things. With over 2 billion users on social media, an incredible opportunity exists for all businesses to not only acquire new customers but to retain them. Regardless of your product or service, your audience is online. Your competition will certainly be doing all they can to reach them. Beat them to the punch.