Small Business Tip of the Day: Creating Contracts

I’ll start this post off by saying I am not a lawyer, and none of what I put anywhere on my site should be construed as legal advice.

Today’s topic, however, is one that involves legally binding agreements. So let’s just say the following are my opinions on the basics of creating contracts for your small business.

As a small business owner, if you aren’t using written contracts yet, you should be. Although verbal agreements are valid, enforcing them gets tricky when the parties disagree over what was previously discussed and have nothing in writing to back either side. Therefore, written contracts are best for everyone involved.

Image: www.behavioradvisor.com
Image: http://www.behavioradvisor.com

If you follow a few basic guidelines, your written contracts can become another business tool in your skill set.

  1. Get all the details down in writing. Even something as seemingly obvious as who is providing the service and who is receiving it needs to be spelled out. It’s most important to include: the date the contract takes effect, the names (and roles) of the parties involved, the exact products or services included in the deal, any and all deadlines for completion of the contract terms, and the payment amounts and due dates.

  2. Don’t allow legal jargon to complicate your contract or intimidate you not to create one in the first place. In fact, you can create a perfectly legal contract without any legalese. My best advice is to keep your wording as simple as possible and avoid any ambiguity if possible. A clear, simple contract makes it easier to spot any potential mistakes and allows either party to edit any risky or uncomfortable language.

  3. Include an escape route.  Name the specific terms under which you or the other party is allowed to end the contract. Include how to give notice of contract termination to the other party and how far in advance the notice needs to be.

Keep in mind that while it’s a good idea to create your contract in a professional format, any kind of agreement in writing is legally binding. (I once rented a condo from a woman who worked in the legal system—she drew up our rental agreement on the back of a piece of scratch paper!!)

Also, don’t forget that all parties involved in the agreement need to sign the contract. If a representative from your company signs, be sure he or she has the authority to act on behalf of the company.

I have seen and heard a few contract horror stories in my career. Based on your own experience, what contract tips do you always practice?

The Year of the Blog

Are you one of those people who wakes up every morning and “reads” your smart phone as though it were the newspaper? I am! I check each email inbox, then move on to my news feeds. If it’s a good day, I can spend at least half an hour browsing the day’s top stories over a cup of coffee. Something I read today caught my eye…

Somewhere in my Twitter feed this morning was a business article stating how 2012 was the year of Twitter. According to the author, last year Twitter ruled the social media scene.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say 2013 is going to be the year of the blog. Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve read at least a dozen articles and blogs about content marketing. This morning my Sunday newsletter from business genius Chris Brogan was all about how to create content that interests your customers and makes them feel like they are a part of something–like they belong.

In my experience, creating content is the hardest part of blogging. Setting up a blog is fun and exciting, linking the blog to social media accounts is satisfying, but there’s something about sitting down and staring at a blank screen that sucks the inspiration right out of me.

If I’m right and content will be king in 2013, then small business owners who want to stay on the path to sustainable growth must understand the importance of blogging. My advice? Take a cue from Twitter’s success and make your blog more like a conversation. Keep it light rather than formal. Ask questions. And at least some of the time, share content about topics you truly love. If you’re passionate about what you’re writing, chances are you’ll strike a nerve with someone else who shares the same interest.

Are you one of those people who shares online content when you find it truly engaging or entertaining? I am, and if my social media feeds are any indication, most of us are. I believe this year, the most successful small business owners will be the ones who create content that compels their audience to join the conversation. So what are you waiting for?

Día de Reyes or Three Kings’ Day

Later today, I’m planning to celebrate el Día de los Reyes with my fiancee’s family. Yesterday, I made the mistake of assuming this was going to be another tequila party, since most of the Mexican festivities tend to go that route. My fiancee looked at me like I was crazy and said with his Costeño accent, “Eet’s not a party! Eet’s bread with hot chocolate! And if ju get the beibi doll, ju haf tu trow the party nex taim.”  Ah, ok. Now I understand. And I’m supposedly the crazy one here?

Since I have a tendency to think a lot of the traditional customs are a little cuckoo before I understand them, I decided to do a little further investigation into this holiday so I could share the knowledge with you all.

Image: bashapedia.pbworks.com
Image: bashapedia.pbworks.com

So, the basic premise of this major holiday is it’s held on January 6th and commemorates the arrival of the three kings with gifts for baby Jesus. Traditionally, Mexican children do not receive their gifts on Christmas Day, but instead on January 6th. It is understandable, then, why this is an important holiday for old and young alike!

Just as many American children leave milk and cookies for Santa, Mexican families also leave an offering for the three kings on the evening before they arrive. They traditionally leave out their shoes (or small boxes) with a little bit of hay (for the reindeer–er, camels). In the morning, the hay is gone and is replaced with gifts for the children from the kings.

Rosca de ReyesImage: abullseyereview.com
Rosca de Reyes
Image: abullseyereview.com

Another custom, and one I in which I will participate for the first time today, is eating sweet bread in the shape of a wreath with a baby Jesus figurine hidden inside. The bread is called “Rosca de Reyes,” with “rosca” translating to wreath. The tradition with the little baby Jesus doll, “el muñequito,” comes from the Biblical story of how baby Jesus had to be hidden from King Herod, who wanted to kill him. Whoever gets the piece of bread with the figurine inside is supposed to host a party with tamales on February 2, which is el Día de las Candelarias.

Ay ay ay, I’ll have to find out more about that one and get back to you!! That is, if this doesn’t become another all-night fiesta!

Small Business Tip of the Day: Understand Your Target Market

In business school, the subject of defining target markets comes up repeatedly. Define the market with demographics and psychographics, don’t be too general, don’t narrow it down too much, do your research and slice that pie!!

Although identifying your target market is undoubtedly an important step in creating your overall marketing plan, I think a lot of small business owners get lost in the technical lingo and either try to market to everyone or fail to formulate a plan at all. As someone who’s not a fan of the “Ready, Aim, Fire” approach, I want to share my take on how small business owners can better understand their target customers.

Target

1.  Define the original purpose of your business. Yes, again. Many small business owners who are fighting for enough business to turn a profit lose sight of their original goals. Stop for a second and write down why you are in business. What product or service are you offering? Be specific and try to remember why you started your company in the first place. Did you want to help others? Was your goal to get rich? Did you desire to make a name for yourself? Whatever the reason, get back in touch with that logic. Make sure it still applies, and reaffirm your commitment to doing business the way you always intended. If you don’t take this first step to defining your overall business goal, then you can’t very well understand your target market.

2.  Look at the the customer base you currently have. Who is using your service? What is the average person who buys your product like? Instead of trying to come up with an age, sex, income level, etc. for your target customer based on what you think your target customer looks like, take a hard look at what they actually look like. You may be surprised at what you find, but effective marketing is aimed at the people who want to buy your products, not at the ones you think should be buying them.

3.  Connect the dots. Once you are 100% committed to your business goals and you have a good idea of who your most frequent customers are, all you have to do is put the pieces together. Find a creative way to show those target customers your business meets a need they currently have or will have in the near future. When I reach out to potential clients, I like to consider the lifestyle of my target customers and show them how my business fits in with and improves that lifestyle. You have to find the approach that works best for your business, and if you have a hard time with this step it may be a good idea to seek the advice of a business consultant.

I know the demographic/geographic/whatevergraphic approach to market definition serves its purpose, especially when applied by professionals and academic experts. But if you are the average small business owner, then you may not have the knowledge or the patience to wade through the jargon.

My advice: Understand that marketing to the appropriate customers is a worthy investment, and apply whatever method allows you to focus on and reach those customers.

Stay focused and do work!
Stay focused and do work!

My goals for 2013

January 1st. The day our resolutions begin. A clean slate from last year’s mistakes and shortcomings. It’s a day when many begin diets, ban alcohol and vow to get serious about cleaning the house/office/car/yard more often.

Since none of those typical goals sounded appealing to me, I decided to do something different this year. In the past, I’ve gone the way of “run at least X miles per month” or “stop eating fast food.” Guess what? Setting limits and monthly minimums for myself only made me feel like a failure when I didn’t hit the mark.

This year I promise not to limit myself. Instead, I’m going to free myself from being so calculated and cautious.

I’m going to write more, take more risks and spend more time outside. I know, I know. Those goals sound pretty vague and don’t relate to any specific measurable progress. This may not sound very smart. So I’ll explain myself.

Too many times to count, I was the kid in class who knew the answer to the question but waited for someone else to raise their hand. I would glance around sideways, thinking how obvious the teacher or professor was being with her clues, unable to believe no one else knew the right answer. I would then start doubting myself, thinking maybe it wasn’t so obvious. Of course by then the teacher had given it away or so many students had guessed wrong that I would chime in without fear.

That’s just one example of how I’ve played it safe over the course of my life. Trust me, I could go on for hours about my aversion to risk and my obsession with not doing something unless I was certain I would succeed.

Now that I have my own business (something I thought I as a chickenshit could never do), I feel it’s so important to set meaningful goals because my personal growth means growth for my clients and growth for my business.

If you’re still reading, I’ll share my reasoning for choosing each of these goals, not because I think it’s perfect advice for everyone, but because I know it’s perfect for me and I hope it will inspire you to do what’s perfect for you.

Write more. I have to spend more time putting pen to paper. Yes, I’m one of those people who prefers to see my words in ink on an actual sheet of paper. If I take the time to write down a goal or an idea, I feel far more committed to seeing it all the way through. When it comes to my blog, this past couple of months I haven’t written a fraction of what I wanted to. Partly because I haven’t made the time, but also because I was afraid to give the wrong advice or even put myself out there and have no one respond.

But this year I commit to put excuses and fear behind me. I will write down my ideas and I will blog about whatever is on my mind. I will do this not for the benefit of others, but for my own personal growth. It’s good to write. Writing cleanses the mind and frees up space in my cluttered brain. So I apologize in advance if my blog becomes even more random. I have to do this for me.

Take more risks. This goal will be the tough one for me. Last year I learned I was stronger and braver than I ever imagined, so in 2013 I’m going to be open to more possibilities, even when there are unknowns. Especially if there are unknowns. I’m going to ask what I think are the dumb questions. I’m going to reach out to new clients in a more direct manner. If the answer is no, then I’ll go in a different direction.

I have some potentially wonderful news I’m not allowed to share yet, but if it all goes through there will be a good deal of risk involved. I could fail. I could have to go back to square one. But I could also open the door to unlimited possibilities in my target market. So I don’t care if it’s scary. Hey, I quit my well-paying day job last month in a horrible economy because it wasn’t making me happy anymore. That was and is scary. It was risky. But they say nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Spend more time outside. There is no mystery behind this goal. I love the outdoors, I have two furry babies who love the outdoors. Instead of worrying at my computer about how I’m going to get by, we’re going to spend more time walking, running and hiking in the fresh air and sunshine. I don’t think that could hurt anything. In fact, I think it’s going to help give me the confidence and the balance to reach my other two goals. I think I’ll get started on this one right now!

Siberian Husky-style inspiration
Siberian Husky-style inspiration

Simple Marketing Rules for Small Businesses

I recently had a marketing inquiry from a small business owner in Cabo who needs help with her web pages. Her concern was that I would not be able to work with her budget, since she recently spent too much on advertising already and is still not seeing the traffic she hoped for.

Her budget I can work with. I really try to work with any budget so the business owner can see results as soon as possible. But her mistake in spending on the wrong type of marketing really got me thinking. I want to share some simple Dos and Donts for small businesses so overspending in the wrong marketing areas can be minimized.

Do

1. Do make setting up a website and social media pages a priority. In today’s world, a business without a website is easily forgettable. Many customers investigate a company’s reputation online before paying for their products/services, so if you don’t have a website you automatically lose a bit of credibility. The same goes for social media–these days businesses are expected to be connected, so take advantage of the free networking opportunities and create some basic social media pages.

2.  Do use your connections in the community to publicize your business. Attend networking parties and events to pass out business cards and meet new contacts. Write your own press releases and send them to local newspapers, magazines and online journals. A press release does not have to be perfect, just look up the format and write about your new business or your new product launch. If you already have a blog or social network page, publicize the businesses you know and trust in the area–many will pay you back with free advertising on their own pages or via word-of-mouth referrals.

3.  Do follow up on every customer inquiry or comment. This is especially important at the beginning. Think of building your network as an investment. It truly is.

Don’t

1.  Don’t spend money on print ads, no matter how tempting the deal or how convincing the salesperson is. Take it from a Journalism major, print is a dying business. The chances are high that your ad will be tossed out before it’s even seen by a majority of readers. You’ll have far more reach with online networking–the world is literally your audience online.

2.  Don’t pay a web developer to do your website until you investigate all your options. Sites such as WordPress or Weebly allow you to build your own basic website for free. I encourage you to take a look at these sites and explore their features. Most small businesses could get by with a site built on one of these platforms while you start generating income, and they really are easy to use even if you know nothing about web programming. You may be able to save thousands by doing your own website or by paying a friend to set it up for you using one of these sites.

3. Don’t use your personal social media pages as your business pages. No matter how much you feel your business reflects your personal life, it just takes one photo of you after hours or on vacation to give a new client the wrong idea. Don’t risk tarnishing your business reputation with a personal comment that can be taken out of context on your personal social media pages. If you keep the business pages separate, you will also likely give more thought to the content you post.

I hope these rules help you navigate the tricky waters of marketing your small business on a budget. It can be difficult, but the results of effective, affordable marketing can be so rewarding when you start earning greater profits.

The True Meaning of Día de los Muertos

Black and white version of a traditional “Day of the Dead” skull

When I first heard of the “Day of the Dead” as an important Mexican holiday, I was skeptical of its traditions and fairly certain I would never participate in what many told me was a “mockery” of death. Here in the U.S., death is a somber, reverent occasion. Once the funeral passes and the mourning casseroles are all eaten or discarded, I think our instinct as Americans is to hurry on with our lives and put the grief behind us as well as we can. It’s safe to say most of us don’t have parties to bring up the subject of our dearly departed each year. Yet, after learning all about this Mexican tradition and celebrating it myself for the past few years, I think perhaps we should celebrate our deceased loves ones in some way more often.

In case you’re still not convinced, I’ll try to share the short version of how to celebrate El Día de los Muertos, as well as the meaning of some of the traditional items associated with this holiday.

Día de los Muertos 2011

A true Day of the Dead celebration begins at midnight on October 31. The souls of departed children (Los Inocentes) are said to return on November 1st, which coincides with the Christian holiday of All Saints’ Day. On November 2nd (All Souls’ Day), the souls of deceased adults have their day, the actual Día de los Muertos. Traditionally, the loved ones’ souls are honored in cemeteries, in family homes and, in some regions, they are also celebrated in parades and/or town gatherings.

In many small towns in Mexico, preparations for the party begin weeks in advance. Festive sugar skulls are created and sold almost everywhere, pan de muerto (a sweet bread that may have a small skull baked into it) is prepared, and the final touches are placed on altars to honor the departed souls in a tradition that is reverent yet somehow overwhelmingly positive in its spirit. Families create altars as an offering to their loved ones, and these altars are meant to remember the dead in a happy, lighthearted manner.

My Day of the Dead altar–2012

This is where I disagree with descriptions of this holiday as mocking death. It is not mocking in a negative sense, but rather seeing death as a part of life and thus not letting it drag you down with it. In many Mexican villages, families visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried and spend the day cleaning the gravesite and bringing offerings of foods and other items the deceased enjoyed while they were living.

The following are the meanings of some of the most traditional items you will find on a Día de los Muertos altar:

Photos:  A photo of the loved one is always a central part of any Day of the Dead altar. The photo can be framed and its purpose is to show who is being honored by the altar.

Foods:  Many different foods can be used on the altar, ranging from traditional choices such as tamales or sugar skulls to whatever the deceased family member loved to eat most in life–be it chocolate chip cookies or pumpkin pie! The purpose of the food is to nourish the traveling soul after his or her long journey from the Other Side.

Water:  The altar is not complete without a glass of water to quench the spirit’s thirst upon his or her return. I substitute a Diet Coke, which I know my loved ones would appreciate even more than water if they were thirsty.

Candles:  Candles are placed on the altar to guide the spirit back to his or her loved ones. I always use vanilla scented candles on my mother’s altar because she absolutely adored them in life.

Flowers:  A special flower–cempazúchitl (marigold)– is used on the altar for the the Day of the Dead celebration. It is said the scent of the flower draws the soul of the loved one back to the altar for their yearly visit.

Other Items:  As you might have guessed by now, each altar is different based on the individual being honored. Some other common items found on some altars include salt (said to purify the offering), colored paper (cut into decorations to make the altar even more attractive) and anything else the deceased was passionate about in life.

A happy picture of my late mother on her Day of the Dead altar

I have seen many different kinds of tributes on Day of the Dead altars, from Old Bay seasoning to Jack Daniel’s to crossword puzzles! This is what I love most about this holiday. It is truly about reliving the positive memories your loved one gave you–not mourning or crying, but rather celebrating death as an inevitable part of life.

Motivation: Three Easy Ways to Get Out of the Slump

Fear. Worry. Anxiety.

These emotions almost always accompany one of my “slumps,” as I choose to call those periods when I lack any and all motivation to get anything done. Prior to starting my marketing business, a motivational slump might have had such relatively harmless results as an overflowing laundry basket, a brief lapse in personal hygiene (eek!) or even gaining an extra pound or two due to not lacing up my running shoes.

http://myinnershakti.com/2012/01/page/2/

These days a slump seems far more dangerous. What if I miss the chance to connect with a potential client just because I’m not feeling up to logging in? Shouldn’t I be posting more blog entries? How negatively does it affect my reputation if I don’t tweet enough?

Well, fresh off the high of launching my business, taking a trip to Baja and getting some very promising leads, this past week I found myself smack in the middle of a slump. I should have seen it coming. I was recently moved to a new location in my day job, which means I’m learning and adjusting (read: getting a mental workout) for 45 hours a week right now. I’m feeling less and less satisfied with my day job in general and that leads to frustration that inevitably spills over into my work at home. Though I know I must be patient, I find myself getting worked up over wanting to work on helping others full-time through my business.

http://www.wolfescape.com/Humour/WorkStress.htm

All this stress and dissatisfaction created my most recent slump, and as I contemplated how to get out of it I received a timely email newsletter from Chris Brogan. His newsletters usually make me feel good in general, and he has a unique ability to write to thousands of people as though he is writing to a dear friend. This newsletter was just what I needed, as the topic was Facing Failure. And when I’m in a slump, I feel like a total failure. After reading his advice, I decided to offer a few tips of my own:

1.  Give yourself a break.

If I did this more, then I am certain I’d experience fewer slumps. If you spend day and night working on one thing or another like I do, then take the time once in awhile to rest and do nothing. Or do something fun. But don’t allow yourself to work. Sometimes when I relax a little bit, I actually get inspired so much that when I go back to my laptop I perform far better than if I force myself to sit down and write something when I’m not motivated.

2.  Take baby steps.

This is a strategy I apply throughout my life, both at work and at home. Whenever I get overwhelmed to the point of feeling useless, I set a tiny goal that I know I can reach. I definitely have lofty aspirations of bringing together entire communities and driving tourism all up and down the Baja peninsula through good marketing practices. But I can’t get there overnight. Hell, sometimes I can’t even think of anything interesting to put on in the morning! So when I’m in a slump, I write down something I know I can achieve that very day. It may be to organize one of my online accounts, respond to a simple email or even just clean my office. Once you get going, you’ll find it hard to stop.

3.  Don’t give up.

Even if you try your best to get inspired and it doesn’t work, don’t get so down on yourself that you throw in the towel. There is a natural flow to life that includes ups and downs. Keep trying! There are many quotes on the topic of not giving up, but an old favorite comes via a quick story from my own life. When my mom was losing her fight with the unexpected return of her brain cancer, I was five hours away at college. Not sure of anything and scared to death, a teary-eyed co-worker made sure I got safely into my car. As I set out to face the unknown, she whispered in my ear, “Sometimes you just have to fake it ’til you make it.” Meaning things might not be okay today, or tomorrow, or for a long time. But one day they will be, and we have to keep moving forward until that day comes.

http://www.seussville.com

So get up. Do something. Do anything and do it well. Though, as Dr. Seuss points out in Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, “un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” In another one of my favorite sources of inspiration, he later declares, “Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So, get on your way!” Yes!!!

Visit Los Cabos: The Gringo Experience

Any time I am able to travel south of the border, I consider it a treat. Everyone who knows me is aware of my love for the Mexican culture–many have told me my corazón is brown on the inside (meaning I am only a Gringa on the outside). Whatever you want to call me, it is safe to say I am at ease with my Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south. If I go by land, by the time I get just a few mile south of Tijuana I feel as though I am worlds away from the worries of everyday life in the States.

The beautiful desert view at the airport in San Jose del Cabo

On my trip earlier this week, I went by plane from the airport in Tijuana. Destination: Cabo San Lucas. Now before you go calling me a typical tourist, let me state that last year we vacationed in Cabo after driving the entire 1,000 miles from San Diego to the tip of the Baja peninsula. Then of course we drove back. While I would have loved to do it all over again, it was not a road trip my dear significant other wanted to repeat. So this time we had a much more typical tourist experience. I much prefer the road less traveled, but there are advantages to both types of vacation. Here’s how we chose to spend our time (and all our money).

Playing Tourist

I’m ashamed to say we did some cliché American-tourist-in-Mexico things. For starters, we spent way too much money on things we could probably do here in San Diego for less. Everything in Cabo San Lucas is expensive, and although the prices of many services in Mexico are negotiable, in the restaurants and bars you just have to cough up the dinero. We splurged on several pricy dinners for two, the most memorable being Sunset da Mona Lisa (a must-do no matter who you are if you want an unforgettable view and fine dining experience) and Mango Deck (I am still shocked at the good quality of the food at this Spring Break hotspot). We also enjoyed an overpriced room service meal at the Bahia Hotel that piqued our interest in the hotel’s restaurant…until we discovered it was all the same menu. You should be prepared to pay outrageous prices if you go anywhere in a cab. We spent a sizable chunk of our budget just getting to and from the airport. Expect to blow a lot more money than you planned, just know it’s possible to save in other areas.

The view from the restaurant at Sunset da Mona Lisa

Saving Some Dough

Admittedly, we dove into some of the Cabo tourist traps like giddy first-timers, but we also tried to be sensible on this week-long vacation in paradise. One of our first stops when we got into town was at the local Costco, where we loaded up on sandwich fixings and beer. The going price for a cheap beer in a restaurant or bar was about $3 each, so we saved about a hundred dollars by getting our booze at the store and drinking from our stash when we lay by the pool, walked around town and/or sat on the beach. We also ate a lot of turkey sandwiches for breakfast or in between bigger meals when we would have otherwise purchased appetizers or snacks at an inflated price. Another good tip is to bring your comfortable shoes and go on foot as much as possible. We walked into town at least once a day and took the public bus a few times for as little as 50 cents each. We went all the way to San Jose one afternoon for $1.50 each way, which would have cost at least $40 USD each way in a cab.

Beautiful Catholic church in San Jose

Being Smart

It’s fairly common knowledge that prices are inflated in the high-end tourist town of Cabo San Lucas. We knew this going in and allowed ourselves to enjoy some of those typical high-priced pleasures on our trip. But besides doing our own shopping and hoofing it for much of our vacation, we also tried to be smart when it came to paying for negotiable items. We knew from previous trips and from our friends who live in the area that the price of necessary taxi rides should be negotiated before getting into the cab and that if we offered to catch the next one they would usually bring the price down. When we took a water taxi to Lover’s Beach for the afternoon, we took only as much money as we had paid for the fare the year before, and though we had to walk away from the first two offers, we found a taker for our price and were happy to pay a reasonable rate for the five-minute boat ride. We followed the same strategy when shopping for souvenirs in the little mercado at the north end of town. We took only as much cash as we wanted to spend and found a nice young lady whose first offers were reasonable. We didn’t even negotiate with her because she was more than fair, and we ended up buying all but one souvenir from what she had to offer.

One bus driver had a rabbit’s foot and a crucifix on his dash–foolproof!

Like most of my trips to Baja California, this vacation was full of beautiful scenery and relaxing among friendly faces. I learned a lot about what’s truly worth seeing and what I would skip in the future when in Los Cabos. Of course I also heard the persistent fears about travel to Mexico and had a few laughs to myself about how perhaps even in a place as safe as Cabo it’s true–if you’re not careful, the tourist traps will rob you of your money and the tequila will take your memory with it! Still, the only thing I’ve ever had stolen on any of my Mexico trips was my little gringo heart, which can’t wait to return to Baja soon.

Your Business: Four Things Smart Marketers Do

“Lady Gaga is a marketing genius.”  I’ve heard this phrase uttered more times than I care to count.  And while I’d love to debate the merits of who (or what) is really behind what Gaga does and whether it’s genius or insanity, I can’t deny she keeps her fans engaged about her next move.

Image: style.popcrunch.com

Ask three different business professionals for a simple definition of marketing, and you will probably get three different answers.  Some say it’s simply advertising.  Others call it meeting the needs of your target customers.  Marketing blogger Heidi Cohen put together a list of 72 marketing definitions here.  My personal favorite from her list is #14:

“Marketing is creating irresistible experiences that connect with people personally and create the desire to share with others.”  –Saul Colt of Fresh Books

Call me a jaded consumer, but it takes something out of the ordinary to catch my eye and make me want to share an experience with others.  Since launching my own business, I have definitely taken note of some recent experiences that made an impact on me as a consumer and definitely made me think about how we can make and maintain great relationships with our clients.

Here are four ways businesses with which I frequently interact have gotten it right:

1.  Be a brand champion.  I have always been a fan of this concept ever since I first heard about it in business school.  A brand champion is someone who backs the brand 110% and always defends the reputation of the brand at all times.  If, as a small business owner, you are not passionate about your product or service, then you are not your own brand champion and will enjoy mediocre success at best.  I am continually impressed by one particular local restaurant chain, which has many brand champions in its waitstaff.  Every face smiles at me when I walk through the store, the staff talks about their other locations to guests and the management team is involved in promoting the brand via social media.  When you have numerous individuals who believe in the brand and are willing to try to convince others it’s worth a try, the resulting satisfaction with the company’s product or service is infectious and customer loyalty is guaranteed.

2.  Do something different.  I have been a customer of the clothing company Express for many years.  Each year, like many companies, they send me a coupon just before my birthday for a nominal amount.  Sometimes the coupon brings me into the store, other times it sits in my purse until I toss it out months later.  This year, however, I opened my birthday card from Express to find a whopping $40 coupon inside!  I couldn’t get to the store fast enough.  I thought it was genius.  No other company has ever rewarded my loyalty in such an attention-getting manner.  And, as I’m sure they planned, I spent well more than the gifted amount of $40 on my visit.  If you can’t offer major discounts at every turn, then think of a way to make a significant impact and reward your customers in a way they will not be able to forget.  A round of drinks on the house, a free little something when they least expect it or an exception to the rule whenever possible will go a long way with most people.

3.  Deliver what you advertise.  This one seems like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised by how many firms are doing it wrong.  On a recent weeknight after work, I decided to order takeout from a family-owned hole-in-the-wall near my house.  I Yelped the place and found rave reviews plus a link to conveniently place my order online.  I was sold.  They offered one of my favorite dishes, shrimp fettuccine alfredo, which I excitedly ordered, for $15 plus tax.  I didn’t care about the price; I was hungry and eager to try something new.  When I got home with my order, I pried back the foil container, thrust my plastic fork into the steaming pasta and…was extremely disappointed to find it was bland and chewy.  Determined to set the record straight, I logged in to Yelp and left my opinion of the meal, describing my displeasure.  I ate some popcorn for dinner and didn’t give the place another thought.  UNTIL…a couple of months later, the owners of the restaurant commented on my review.  Thanking me for my honest feedback, I was thoroughly impressed to see that the little mom-and-pop place had upgraded to jumbo shrimp in their fettuccine pasta due to my review.  They changed the recipe!  And in making every attempt to deliver on their promise of a fresh, delicious meal, they will see me in their restaurant again.  These business owners not only listened to their customer, they followed up and let everyone know they were back on track with the problem solved.

4.  Admit when you’re wrong.  In my day job, I repeatedly tell my staff not to be afraid of a guest complaint.  My hope is to help them realize each time a guest is dissatisfied, we as a company have an opportunity to win them over by going above and beyond to solve their issue.  Of course, the last thing I want is for my employees to drop the ball, but, if they do (because we are only human), then perhaps our handling of the situation can create a customer for life.  I had an extremely negative experience last year with a large furniture chain here in San Diego, specifically with the scam insurance they convinced me to buy.  I Yelped about it, expressing my satisfaction with the products I purchased but clearly spelling out how selling a con insurance policy was negatively affecting their reputation.  I was contacted by a customer service representative, who at this point could have turned me into a loyal return customer.  Instead, she made me feel as though I were stupid and had violated the terms of the insurance.  She repeatedly defended the policy despite my making it blatantly clear (with examples) that I did not believe it to be legitimate insurance.  We emailed back and forth a few times before settling on a resolution–a prorated refund of the insurance fee I had paid.  I still might have returned to her store if she had simply apologized and processed the refund.  I am sorry to say she never contacted me again and the refund was never credited to my account.  While I can understand her desire to back her company, I do not believe it is ever okay to make the customer feel as though he or she has done something wrong, and at some point you just have to admit your company failed and find a resolution that works for both parties.

While I know some of these examples don’t have the most obvious ties to marketing, if you consider them in the context of what you can do to better promote your small business, I believe they can help.  Marketing has many definitions, and I think one of the most important aspects of this concept is making that personal connection with your customers in an endless sea of choices.