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How to Drive More Word of Mouth and More Questions for February

Personal recommendations are more important than they’ve ever been before.

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We have equestrian games coming to town with 100,000 visitors expected in the area. How can I take advantage?

Lucky you! This gift horse trotting into town is possibly wearing golden hooves. “It’s fair to assume that visitors to equestrian events have the resources to spend — and studies show people are more likely to spend when they’re on vacation or doing things they enjoy,” notes Andy Malis, co-founder of MGH, a full-service ad agency in Owings Mills, MD. First thing to do is inquire of your sales reps if they will have booths or some other promotional events you can partner in? Retail store consultant Kate Peterson recommends you make a special effort to explore joint promotion opportunities, especially those that involve onsite events in your store. “Work with targeted vendors to set up a themed trunk show in the store,” she says. If there’s no corporate connection, Malis recommends going it alone. “I would contact the organizers of the event and find out every possible way to get in front of this audience. They may be offering sponsorship packages.” And if you can’t actually participate officially, think ‘outside-the-event’, he says. “Which hotels and restaurants will be involved? Can you create a ‘Welcome Package’ to be given to each attendee? Include some local foods/beverages plus info (do you offer emergency repairs or lens replacements?) and incentives to visit your store.” It goes without saying that this advice applies to any large sporting event that maybe coming to town…

How can I grow my business when only so many dollars are spent on eyewear in my rural market?

The first thing to test about any rural location are your assumptions, says retail trainer Bob Phibbs. Don’t think that just because you operate from a small town, everyone in that market knows your services. Second, don’t assume that because you’re the only optician in town, people won’t go elsewhere. “People probably drive from farther away to reach your store, so as a business owner, you have to give them a good reason to keep coming back,” he says. Phibbs recommends doing your own research, including walking around your area and knocking on doors to find out how many people are aware of your services. (And if there is an art walk or some other business community event that will put you in touch with new groups of customers, sign up!) Second, test your hours. “If your store is closed on Sundays, you may be missing out on two of the top four money-making times,” he says. Third, through interactions with customers and even studying the license plates in your parking lot, find out where your customers are coming from. With this information, you will able to tweak your marketing and other outreach activities. It’s possible you could run targeted Facebook ads or rent billboard space to catch traffic from a much wider area.

I suspect a rival is trying to poach one of my best sales associates. Should I try to pre-empt them with a pay rise?

Happy employees don’t leave for a small amount of additional money, so the first thing to do is sit down with your associate and see if there are things you can do to remove any frustrations from her current work life or if there are perks (more flex time?) or professional challenges (responsibility for a big marketing campaign?) that could tempt her to stay. Throwing money at them is unlikely to help if you don’t remove what’s unsettled them in the first place (and unless you’re prepared for everyone else to know — as HR experts like to say, compensation is confidential for about 11 seconds). Staff churn is a natural part of business life, especially in a strong economy, and non-compete agreements are a blunt tool that workers resent. A better approach is to foster a great culture. Check in with your team periodically to make sure employees feel challenged, engaged and appreciated.

We still seem to be running into a lot of resistance to blue-light filtering lenses even after the doctor prescribes them. Any ideas?

It sounds like you have to do a bit more work before the patient reaches your opticians. Education should start in your waiting room with a video loop running to provide general information about blue light (and, in particular, how it can affect children, who are spending more and more time exposed to digital screens). Next, the pretest room, your assistants should start the conversation about lifestyles and eye use. ZEISS’s marketing materials recommend a line like, “I bet your eyes feel very tired at the end of the day with so much computer work. I’ll have the doctor talk with you about BluTech lenses to make you feel more soothed and protect your eyes from the blue light that is emitted from the screen.” It is now the doctor’s role to provide the authority, explain the benefits (better sleep, less strain, improved light sensitivity, prevention of potential conditions like macular degeneration,) and make a specific recommendation, as needed. In the best cases, the optician can then simply fill the Rx, but as with any sale, it’s the reassurance provided at the close that is key to generating customer satisfaction. Blue light pens, demonstration aids from your vendors, computer apps and physical comparisons with untreated lenses can all help here (tap your vendors for help). With the overriding emphasis on vision health, your patient should leave protected and satisfied.

How can I drive more word-of-mouth marketing?

Personal recommendations have always been the lifeblood of small business, but in the era of Facebook, Yelp and Google reviews, word of mouth (WOM) has taken on a different meaning and is now even MORE important to attract new customers and patients (studies show prospective customers attach as much credibility to an anonymous star rating as to a friend’s suggestion). It also requires a new, more tech-savvy response. Start by looking into an online review platform like Podium, Yotpo or Grade.us that centralizes the process and reaches out to customers via text messages to encourage them to leave reviews (search the phrase “online reputation management”). Of course, a larger megaphone won’t do you much good if the message is less than complimentary, so there’s still no getting away from the bedrock of WOM — excellent service. You can juice people’s experiences with your brand via community events, customer appreciation events, personal follow-ups, handwritten thank you notes, and those random acts of generosity or goodwill that drive surprise and referrals. Keep in mind that WOM is so fluid it requires constant testing and experimenting: What stories to tell people about your store, what offers, what inside incentives will work? For example, a “Thank you for the referral” card that includes a voucher for $25 off the next purchase might work in one market. In another, giving an existing customer the opportunity to pass on the discount to a friend — or share it — may yield better results. Keep testing!

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Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 21 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at editor@invisionmag.com.

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What the Law Says About Retailers Who Say They’re Selling at ‘Wholesale’ Prices and More Questions for March

Unless it’s true, it might be a criminal offense in your state.

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How can I improve the open rates on my email marketing bulletins?

A few years ago, MailChimp.com did a survey of some 40 million promotional emails and found that those with the highest open rates (from 67 to an amazing 80 percent) were the ones that were — surprise, surprise — the least promotional. Typically, they had subject lines that told the recipient what was inside (they didn’t confuse e-bulletins with promotions or vice versa), they used the company’s name in the subject line, and had straightforward subject lines — they weren’t too “salesy” or pushy (this also helps you avoid spam trigger words). Most email providers will allow you to write subject lines of up to 60 characters but you should try to keep it short and to the point, between 30 and 40 characters and no more than five to eight words.

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Constant Contact, another service provider, recommends you state a clear benefit to opening the email. Email messages that have an “exclusive” offer in the subject line, such as “Private event” or “For select customers only,” can generate an additional 24 percent open rate, according to its studies. Of course, you don’t want to be too dry. Your content should be as friendly as possible. Open with the recipient’s name, use a tone that reflects your personality and end with your signature line. Most important, give them something they want. If they’ve opted in and you are responding to their interests, you too might be able to get super-high open rates.

One of the questions I always get, and hate, is “Do you have to charge sales tax?” How should I answer this?

Here’s a simple way to defuse this sneaky discount ploy. Look at the customer directly, smile, and say, “Actually, I don’t charge sales tax. I collect it.” They’ll get the point. And while everybody wants the best deal possible, they’ll probably trust you more for it. Because if you’d cheat on your taxes, why should a customer or patient trust you to take care of their vision?

My store seems like a reality TV show: unnecessary drama. Addressing it only seems to add fuel to the fire. Is there a way to bring it under control?

You’re not alone. After profitability concerns, this is the No. 1 headache of business owners, says business coach Lauren Owen. Drama and discord create stress and hurt productivity. There is no quick fix but there are a number of things you can do, starting with regular meetings. “Scheduled, well-run meetings are essential to clear communication and team building and addressing potential conflicts,” says Owen, adding that such meetings are conspicuously absent at stores with drama issues.

Other steps include confronting your drama queens, addressing your underperformers (there is often a hidden cost in the resentment they cause), performing a cost-benefit analysis on your high performance/maintenance employees (sometimes they just suck all the energy out of a store), and finally taking a good look at yourself. “Some people actually like drama, despite what they say,” Owen says. “If you were really honest with yourself you might understand that the drama is satisfying some need of yours. Attention? Power? Control? Do you avoid all conflict, even healthy conflict, at all costs?” And are you giving your staff a clear sense of purpose — that eyewear is about something much bigger than business?

My practice has never grown the way I had hoped … or hired for. To keep going, I feel we need to downsize. How can I do it without destroying staff morale?

Layoffs are tough. You can’t have high productivity without good morale, and you can’t have good morale unless people have confidence that the company has a future and that the business is going to treat them fairly if things get worse. Employees need to know that you respect and value their contributions and don’t just view them as a resource.

Sometimes, however, you have no choice but to order layoffs. In that case, remember three rules.

1. Do them all at once. Dragging things out will destroy morale.
2. It’s better to cut too much than to cut too little.
3. Make sure all remaining employees understand that what you’re doing is saving their jobs.

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Finding the Best Tax Professional for You and More Questions for February

Getting a head start on what could be a volatile year, and more advice for February.

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2019 seems like it’s going to be a volatile year. What should we do to get ready?

Eight years of economic growth and cheap credit allowed many business owners to gaze far into the future and craft successful, long-term strategies, but it does seem those times are coming to an end as trade wars, rising interest rates, political turmoil, spooked financial markets and ongoing technological change cast a shadow over what otherwise is still a strong economy. In such a shifting, unstable environment where visibility is low, Donald Sull, a London Business School professor, recommends “active waiting.” Contemplate alternative techniques, explore likely scenarios and focus on general readiness. This is a time of threat but also opportunity. “Keep your vision fuzzy and your priorities clear,” Sull says. “Maintain a war chest and battle-ready troops. Know when to wait — and when to strike. When you grab an opportunity or move to crush a threat, amass all your resources behind the effort.” At the same time, continue making routine operational improvements such as cutting costs, strengthening distribution, and improving products and services. “Though mundane, these initiatives foster efficiency, which can position you to snatch a golden opportunity from rivals’ jaws,” Sull says. It all sounds rather dramatic, but then high drama surely awaits.

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The sales experts you quote often recommend role-playing exercises. But my sales staff always slinks away when I suggest them. How can I get them to play along?

That may be because the focus is negative, says sales trainer Dave Richardson. Make the role-playing positive and fun. First, play the role of the salesperson and let your salespeople critique you. Then, when it’s your turn to play the customer, instead of saying, “Here’s what you did wrong,” start off by telling the person what you felt they did well and what you would change if you had the opportunity. Always finish on a positive, encouraging note, Richardson says.

Our marketing team’s images were recently lifted and used by the vendor for their advertising without crediting us. When I contacted them, they said, “We’re sorry; it was the intern’s fault.” How should I handle this?

If it was “the intern’s fault,” who approved the final vendor layouts? But regardless of whose fault it is, you should get some compensation for the use of your images, says business management consultant Kate Peterson. The vendor would have paid for the images had they used any other marketing professional to create them, so they should have no issue with paying your in-house team. “I would suggest that the retailer assign a fair price (what she typically pays her team per image) and send an invoice directly to the head of the company with pics of their ads and an explanation. If applicable, tell them you will apply the amount of the invoice against an outstanding balance,” says Peterson. “The key here is to remain positive and confident, as opposed to challenging. Assume they are expecting to compensate, and communicate in a tone that expresses confidence in their interest in doing the right thing.”

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My business is only four years old and up until now I’ve done my own taxes but now I’d like to find a tax pro. Where do I find a good one?

Online directories such as CPAdirectory.com, Accountant-Finder.com and AccountantsWorld.com are a good place to start. Most will allow you to search by name, location and industry focus. The National Association of Tax Professionals also offers an online database of tax preparers, and the American Institute of CPAs has one for CPA firms. If you do contemplate hiring a tax preparer you found online, request referrals to past clients so you can ask about the quality of the service they received. A possibly better strategy is to ask people in the industry. This is because your ideal target should have some experience doing returns for vision-related businesses as every industry has its own rules and deduction options.

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Personality Clashes and More Questions for This Month

Read the answers to some of your holiday questions.

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Our holiday events are approaching. What are the best finger foods for an in-store event?

Balancing what tastes good — usually greasy or gooey food — with what looks sophisticated and doesn’t leave crumbs around the store or sticky fingerprints over your eyewear or frame boards is a tough balancing act. But store trainer Kate Peterson thinks she’s seen the answer: small, clear plastic drink glasses. “One presentation had a small amount (about three-quarters of an inch) of ranch dressing in the bottom of the cups, along with a variety of veggie sticks (carrots, celery, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash). The glasses were all arranged on a tray, so instead of having to pick up the veggies and scoop dip onto a plate, guests simply picked up an easy-to-handle, pre-made serving, which could then be dropped into a trash bin when they were done. Peterson adds that she saw a similar but more “savory” twist on this treatment with cocktail sauce and jumbo shrimp (tails removed). Don’t want ranch dressing in your store? Try cubed cheese and seedless grapes, which are always a crowd favorite, and easy to prepare.

I need ideas on how to give my optical a quick, cheap facelift before the holiday season starts.

The problem with quick, cheap facelifts is that they look exactly that — quick and cheap. Take a hard look at your store and if you find worn fixtures splash out and get them refinished. Then focus on creating a killer (but easy-on-the-pocket) winter-themed display. Bare branches, lots of white, big candles, spray-on snow… Be bold about moving your merchandise to new locations. Try them in higher or lower positions, with new props or with more space than usual. And if you’ve got a boring wall you just don’t know what to do with, throw up another mirror. People are endlessly fascinated with themselves.

I’m thinking of opening a new retail optical outlet in what’s possibly the most crowded market in the country; there are over three dozen optical retailers here in a college town of 400,000. I feel I know this market but should I look elsewhere?

A crowded marketplace isn’t necessarily a bad sign; conversely, it may be an indicator of the huge demand for a product or service. The secret to business success isn’t finding an empty field, it’s filling a need, and that generally means a niche. Sometimes niches are created because everyone is chasing the big-ticket-buying crowd or the youth market or there are changes in fashion or technology that the existing players may have missed. The real question is whether you can do something better or differently. “Just don’t think you can do it by being the cheapest,” says marketing expert Brad Sugars. “You’re the little guy; you don’t have economies of scale. The big guys can make up in volume what they lack in margin. You can’t.”

I’m a junior member of a front office team of eight. They’re all good people but one of the older girls bugs the hell out of me. It’s purely a personality thing. What do I do?

Focus on the positives. Remind yourself of the contributions she makes. If that’s too hard then at least don’t fall into the trap of recruiting allies to your cause. Sure, it feels good to have someone confirm she’s annoying but it also makes her presence a bigger issue. Try to minimize contact and ask yourself, does she irk everyone or is there something about you that has you grimacing like this?

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