Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Have you checked your online reputation lately?

As business owners you have a good deal of control over how you advertise, what stock to order, and your store layout and design.  However, you can’t control your customers – especially what they say about your business.  If a dissatisfied customer complains in your store or on the phone you can try to appease them and prove that you will do your best to correct the situation.  But, what if they don’t complain directly to you, or what if they post their complaint on their Facebook page, to Twitter, or on online review sites?  You may never know what customers, former employees, or others are saying about your or your business unless you take an active role.


Even if you don’t actively participate in social networking or don’t have a website, there is no excuse not to check what is being post about your business.  Recently, Jeff Hyde, Dana Ollendyke, and I released a series of podcasts with the goal of informing food businesses about social networking tools consumers use, what types of information (exclusive sales, recipes, etc.) they expect food businesses of post online, and how online reviews influence them and their purchasing decisions (the 19 Social Media and Food Retailer podcasts are available for viewing at: http://www.youtube.com/user/PSUFoodandFarmBiz).

Based on our research, and explained in more detail in podcast 18 and 19, 82% of our survey respondents read consumer reviews on the Internet.  Aside from the website where a product is purchased, at least a third of consumers rely on reviews posted on sites such as Yelp.com, Yahoo! Reviews, and Facebook.  Additional data, such as likelihood to post negative reviews based on age (see graph below), is also discussed in podcast 19.




So, the question is, are you aware of what is being said about your business online?  There are a number of strategies you could use to learn about potential chatter, good or bad:

1) Read what might be posted about your business on www.Yelp.com, www.local.yahoo.com, and similar review sites.  Be aware that consumers can add a business to the listings on some of these sites without the business owner’s permission, and then post at will.

2) Sign up for an alert service such as Google Alerts (www.google.com/alerts) or Yahoo! Alerts and create an alert for when your business name is mentioned online.  An email with links to articles, websites, blog postings, etc. that match the alert term (your business name) is then sent to your email “as-it-happens,” daily, or weekly.

3)  Run frequent searchers for your business’ name on sites like www.whostalkin.com, www.samepoint.com, www.spy.appspot.com, or similar.  These sites search for mentions on a variety of social networking sites such as Twitter, Flickr, and blogs.

Certainly, once you begin monitoring your online presence you’ll get a feel for what tools work best for you and what additional tools help you keep tabs on what is posted online.  The key is to incorporate frequent online monitoring into your scheduled operation tasks.  In a future blog posting I’ll describe some strategies that you can use to correctly respond to unfavorable and, yes, favorable reviews (you’ll want to do this!).  

Friday, March 23, 2012

What's All This Talk About "Pink Slime"?

Media platforms (TV, radio, twitter, search engines, etc) across the country have been teeming with talk about "pink slime". As explained by Edward Mills, associate professor of dairy and animal science at Penn State, "pink slime" (also known as lean, finely textured beef or LFTB) is the lean meat that remains on fat trimmings removed from beef carcasses and that cannot be reclaimed with a knife cost effectively. This remaining meat is separated from fat in a mechanical process that involves heating minced trimmings only to about body temperature (100 degrees) then centrifuging to separate lean from fat. Because the trimmings may harbor dangerous pathogens that can cause foodborne illness, they are decontaminated with either ammonia gas or citric acid.

(Photo from http://live.psu.edu/story/58528#nw4)

The reason LFTB has turned into such a hot topic in recent weeks is that the U.S. government plans to buy LFTB beef and use it in the national school lunch program. The words "ammonia" and "school lunch" together are creating a huge debate on the safety of the use of LFTB. According to Professor Mills, "This issue really has been elevated in social media. Claims made that this product is not safe are blatantly untrue. From a microbial-pathogen point of view, the product has a better reputation than straight ground beef."

To read more about LFTB, please read the article "Expert: 'Pink slime' may be unappetizing, but it's safe, genuine beef".

Whether people are basing their views of the use of LFTB on facts or emotions, either way, I'm guessing this will remain a hot topic (and affect sales) in the beef industry for awhile.

If you are a beef producer, has this controversy affected your sales? Do you use LFTB? Would you voluntarily label your products as to if they do/do not contain LFTB? What do you think is the best way to educate consumers on LFTB?

As a consumer, how do you feel about the use of LFTB? Do you think products should be labeled as to if they do/do not contain LFTB?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Attracting Food Stamp Customers

In these times where more and more people are struggling with money, consumers may have to turn to the food stamp program in order to feed their families. As an agricultural entrepreneur, these shoppers may spark a new market segment for you to explore.

Food stamp shoppers were a recent topic in the Supermarket Guru's video series on food shopping. In this video, the Supermarket Guru discusses ways to attract food stamp shoppers and keep them coming back.

-Your top goal should be to show that you appreciate their business whether they are using food stamps or not. To do this, you want to build long-term relationships with your customers. One example is to create a customer loyalty program (read more about that here).

-Price tags should include some indication (whether it's a special color, symbol, etc) of food stamp eligibility. As you can see by my rudamentary price tag examples below, the baby carrots (a food stamp eligible item) price tag has a blue background. Diapers (not food stamp eligible) are posted on a red background.





-Teach and encourage customers to choose ingredients for healthy meals. This can include pamphlets on reading nutrition labels, recipe cards, cooking demos, etc.

-Educate customers on cutting food waste including the difference between a "use by date" and a "sell by date". Also, encourage customers to freeze foods if they can't use them by their expiration dates.

As an ag entrepreneur, do you accept food stamps at your business? If yes, have you seen a rise in the number of customers using food stamps? What kinds of products do you see food stamp customers buying most often? Do you offer any education for your customers on buying and preparing healthy foods?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Leading Employees With Your Personal Values

Being a small business owner is no easy task. If you have employees, they will automatically look to you for guidance and support in their working environment (whether you give it or not). So how do you foster your employees' success? Inspire them!

In the article "Why Great Leaders Inspire Others" by John Baldoni, he describes how to be a great leader. "Followers want to believe that their leader stands for something, and, to an extent, may be better than anyone else at the job. Such a conviction defines why followers defer willingly to leaders." As the leader of your business, it is critical to your success that you develop this inspiration in your employees.

Baldoni also describes what kind of people are seen as inspiring. "The world needs men and women in management who are competent and caring leaders. These folks may run their businesses according to their bottom line—but they do not run their lives that way. Instead, they are engaged in their communities as well as with employees. One thing I note in family owned businesses is the personal commitment that people at the top feel for people who work with them."

What not to do: Be a boss that constantly yells and doesn't facilitate an "inspirational" workplace.


What to do: Work alongside your employees. Develop that "family atmosphere" and inspire them with your personal values!


As an ag entrepreneur, do you think of yourself as a person who leads with your personal values? Are you engaged with your community? Are you engaged in the development of successful employees? Do you create a working environment that facilitates a "family" environment?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Developing and Monitoring a Social Media Strategy

My colleague (and fellow blogger here), Sarah Cornelisse, and I have recently made presentations about social media strategy.  It's an absolutely critical topic as businesses explore ways to use Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. to engage customers, other business owners, consultants, or even educators like me.  The primary point we make is that the things a business owner hopes to accomplish though these tools should be consistent with the overall business goals. Allow me to explain...

Developing the Strategy
In business planning, we often teach that a strategy describes what the business is going to do to get from where it is to where it wants to be (as defined by goals and objectives). The social media strategy, then, reflects the plan to use social media tools to achieve the business's goals and objectives.  There should be a clear and compelling reason to use social media to achieve the business's goals, then.  Starting a blog or a Facebook Page shouldn't be done "just because."

The reason to do any of it lies in what you want to accomplish.  If you want to reach out to customers and your customers are on Facebook, then developing a Facebook Page makes a lot of sense.  If your research shows that your target market is not using Twitter, then don't start tweeting.  Simple, right?

Once you think you know which tools to use (which may require some trial and error), you should identify what you wish to accomplish through each one.  Are you using the tools to teach people about what you do? To provide insider information on discounts/sales? To provide useful information (such as recipes)?  Deciding at this stage what you hope to accomplish, along with how you plan to measure progress, makes tracking your progress much easier.

Like a great QB (yeah, I'm a Colts fan), you must implement
the play. (Source: wegotthiscovered.com)
Implementing the Strategy
Implementing a social media strategy requires that the right people have the right tools to present the right message.  The right person (or people) is the one who knows the business and can "speak" for it.  The right tools may include computer hardware, tablets (such as an iPad), a mobile phone (an absolute must, in my opinion!), or training on how to use the tools.  Good social media users know how to craft an engaging tweet, cut a Facebook post down to the most critical information, and when to include content such as video or photos.  They also know how to generate connections and possibly leads through relationship development.  (Note to self: Blog about that...)

Those representing the business should have a good understanding of the business and should know exactly what the business's owners are hoping to achieve through social media.  With that, these people can manage the messages on a day-to-day basis.

Monitoring the Strategy
The coach (yeah, I'm also a Braves fan)
watches to see if the results meet expectations.
(Source: www.zimbio.com)
Analyzing data from your social media tools can help you be sure that your implementation is on target!  Facebook Insights, blog statistics, You Tube data, and other tools, such as TweetReach, can provide data on items such as how many people viewed your post, how many clicked on it, how many shared it with others, etc.  Some tools will even provide demographic information, revealing who is most likely to respond to your post.

Armed with data and the goals you set for your social media activity, you can now compare the two and see how you are doing.  Are you reaching the people you hoped to reach?  Are you communicating effectively?  Is it leading to growth in fans, followers, friends, etc.?  If you are achieving your social media goals, which should have been set to move you toward your business goals, then this success should lead to increased customers, sales, and profits.

Parting Thought
If you're new to social media, don't expect your profits to double within days of launching a Facebook page (for example).  Your social media plan should integrate into your broader marketing plan, leading people consistently to like you, follow you, friend you, etc.  In most cases, it takes some time for a business to build a community on social media, but it does happen with a well-considered plan and persistent implementation.  Even though you may hear that social media are "free," you absolutely must understand that it takes time (and time = money) to create and post engaging content and to respond to other's content.  However, your strategy will help you use your time wisely!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Making the Decision to Fire an Employee

As a small business owner, keeping you and your business profitable, sustainable, and pleasant can rely heavily on your employees. What if one of them isn't making the cut? Below are some signals from the Young Entrepreneur Council (a non-profit organization that provides entrepreneurs with access to tools, mentorship, and resources that support a business’s development and growth) that it's time to let an employee go.



*No Call/No Show- Always be sure to document on a disciplinary report basic reasons for letting someone go. For example: on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012 (Employee) did not arrive to work or call the manager to indicate she was unable to come to work.

*Integrity is Essential- If the employee has broken their integrity to the company, shame on the company—perhaps you need to have the conversation on how important it is to keep integrity. But if the employee breaks integrity a second time, shame on the employee. There is no need to give them another chance; this is the time to find someone else.

*Take Action When Actionable Feedback Is Ignored- Making mistakes is a pivotal part of an employee's learning and growth. When they happen, it's an opportunity to tell the employee what went wrong, provide coaching to curb future mistakes, and make clear what future success will look like and create a timeline for its achievement. Then, if an employee does not uphold his or her end of the performance improvement plan, you can take action.

*Hire Slow, Fire Fast- No leader has ever fired an employee and then said to themselves, "I wish I would have waited six more months before firing that person." If you're spending a significant amount of time considering this option, it means you should have already fired them.

*What Does Your Team Think?- In a small company, your team's happiness and attitude are absolutely critical. Having high-performers is important; but having a high-performer who spoils the mood of the team is never worth it. Make sure that everyone is aligned in your culture—if someone does not fit and will not adapt, you have to let them go for the benefit of the whole.

To see more tips from the Young Entrepreneur Council, please read the article "Enough is Enough: When to Fire an Employee" by Fox Business.

Firing an employee is never a fun task, but if they are bringing down the team, morale, profits, or scaring away customers, it's for the best that they leave.

As an ag entrepreneur, have you ever fired an employee? Why did you fire them? Do you have any tips on how to make the firing process as painless as possible? How has your business improved since that person has left?