Author: Chris Lee, Senior Director of Information Technology
I am not a dog trainer. Far from it. Nor am I a game show host. And last time I checked, I didn't see 'Undertaker' written on my resume. I'm no expert in those areas.
That said, I do happen to know a bit about electronic communication, the internet, websites, and how to use those resources in a professional and effective manner for business. This is because I am a professional web developer and database designer and have been working in Information Technology since before many people were using email on a regular basis.
Listed below are 10 tips that will go a long way toward both using some of the online tools available today, as well as making sure your business is professionally represented online.
Make sure you have a professional web site. While this may seem obvious, please re-read the previous sentence again. Honestly, it is better to have no web site at all than to have an amateur-looking one. By amateur-looking, I mean a web site that looks as if young nephew Billy designed it in MS Word while on his semester break from college.
You need to hire a professional web designer to create your web site. Period. By professional, I mean an individual or a business that develops websites on a full-time basis. And how much does a web site cost? Ah, the question of the day. Well, how much does a car cost? Get the point? It all depends. There are zillion web designers out there but here are a few pointers to remember:
Make sure you see at least three samples of the designers work. And don’t just look at cutesy little flash movies posted on their web site. Rather, go and visit the sites they have claimed to have designed.
Look for diversity in the designs. Do they all look the same? Do you like the overall direction the design firm takes with the look/feel?
Don’t simply trust ‘testimonials’ that are posted on web sites. Rather, ask to contact their past clients directly in order to discuss their experience in working with the web designer or firm.
Make sure they have a phone number that you can reach a human being during office hours. If there is no phone number posted, and only some silly contact email form, then take your business elsewhere. Seriously.
The issue of how to best choose a Web Developer deserves its own dedicated article because there are so many other factors to consider. The bottom line here is that if you approach the hiring of a web developer with the same set of standards youd expect from any expert in the field, you should probably be ok.
If you don’t yet have a web site, make sure that you at least have registered a domain name. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you do not yet have a domain name (www.example.com), then you should go get one before the sun sets by the end of today. Registering a domain costs less than 10 bucks for the year, and ensures that you own the ability to use that name when you do decide to build your web site. There are many cheap domain name providers. Two providers that I would recommend are: www.networksolutions.com and www.namecheap.com. Again, you do not need to have a web site in order to register a domain name. So do it now before someone else grabs your name and it’s too late.
Use a professional email domain. Nothing screams out amateur or ‘part-time’ more than a business that uses an email address like ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ or ‘email@example.com’. Seriously, leave the free email domains like Gmail, AOL, Yahoo, etc. for personal use and go get yourself a professional domain that is preferably tied to your web site. Any web host should be able to set this up for you with no problem.
So, for example, say your web site is called ‘www.example.com’. You should have your email address be firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can’t bear to live without Gmail or Yahoo, etc., there are ways to hook your web domains into some free providers (like Gmail), as well as use other features like forwarding---but this is outside the scope of this article---and a practice I currently don’t often recommend for business use.
Taking this a step further, you can set up multiple email addresses for different purposes. Example, you can have ‘email@example.com’, or ‘firstname.lastname@example.org, or ‘email@example.com’ and list those on your site depending on the service requested. These three different email addresses can all forward to your single address so that you only need to check your email on one account. Or you can use an email reader like Outlook or Thunderbird (free) to access the email from each separate account. Or if you have multiple employees, each employee can be responsible for a specific account.
Also, avoid cutesy email names. Think about it. Would you ever see an email address on IBM’s corporate website that is ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ or ‘email@example.com’. Of course, not. Keep the email names as generic and professional as possible. If you only have one address to use, then probably ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ is your best bet. Again, this all conveys a sense of professionalism.
In fact, you don’t even need a web site at all to use a professional email domain! You only need to have a domain registered and hosted for email. Ask your web professional or web host for more information on this.
Get a Google Plus page for your business. It takes only a few minutes to set up. Remember, Google is still the King of All Search Results. Enough said.
Twitter. If you don't have time to send tweets, then at least get a Twitter account that has your business name in the title so you can reserve that right now. I say 'reserve the name right now' because I want you to focus whatever little time you do have on the basics first: a professional web site, using email in a professional manner, etc. Then, once you’ve accomplished all those tasks, you can then use Twitter and become that super-cool, 140-characters or less blogger. Fair enough?
Register domains for common misspellings of your business name. I’m surprised at how many people don’t do this for their web sites---even the larger corporate clients I run across. For example, say you have ‘example.com’ as your domain name. You should also register ‘exampel.com’ and have that domain redirect to your home page if someone types it into their web browser. I had a recent client do this and we noticed that they received each year about 4,000 extra visitors arrive to their site this way. It’s less than $10 to register a domain name for the year. This is a good idea, trust me.
Consider registering your name as a trademark. I’m not a lawyer but before you go to all the hassle in designing your web site around a specific name or logo, you should go visit the ‘United States Patent and Trademark Office’ web site (http://www.uspto.gov/main/trademarks.htm) and do a search on the name you want to use. Again, you should consult a lawyer if you have any additional questions on this. Should you successfully obtain a trademark, you can then have that extra nifty TM character display next to your business name on your web site. There are many benefits, both legal and professional, to having a registered trademark.
Produce a professional electronic newsletter. Like creating your web site, the key word here is ‘professional’. Having a professionally produced and consistent newsletter that is published on a fixed schedule to your clients is a wonderful (and often underutilized) marketing tool. Your web site should have a newsletter sign-up form, and you should also be keeping track of all the contact information from past and present clients. You are doing that, aren’t you?
Get your newsletter designed by someone that knows and understands HTML email formatting. Sometimes web designers and HTML newsletter designers are not experts in both. You can also use an outside service. Two I recommend are: Campaign Monitor (http://www.campaignmonitor.com/) and MailChimp (http://www.mailchimp.com/)
As to what to include in your newsletter and how to publish it: This would necessitate another article, but basically upcoming seminars, specials, interesting dog training tips (keep them generic and basic), or whatever. The point is to stay in touch with, and grow, your customer base.
Learn to write professional email. Oh boy, I could go on and on and on and on about this one. Pretty please, with sugar on top, if you don’t already, learn to write professional email. This means:
No morse code. In other words, if you have to answer email to a customer using your cell phone, Blackberry, iPhone, etc, don’t 4get that it’s annoying 4 person 2 figure out what u r trying 2 say when u write like in cellphone morse code like this. Nobody is that busy.
No Signatures that resemble ‘War & Peace’. It’s excellent practice to have titles (like CPDT-KA or whatever) after your name, but to have 9,000 additional lines below that going on and on and on becomes unwieldy when a customer is trying to look back through a conversation thread containing multiple emails back and forth. No offence intended, it’s just that with email, messages often get stacked on top of each other in a thread.
NO ALL UPPERCASE LETTERS. Please. Don’t do that. REALLY annoying and difficult to read.
no all lowercase letters. they look silly and unprofessional in anything other than aol instant messages coming from a 13-year old.
Write 50% less than you would for an equivalent printed publication. Really, ditch the, like, uh, fillers and get to the point. But be careful also because email does not convey emotion and your clients could take your message the wrong way.
Always include a phone number. If I’m hiring a professional dog trainer, and she/he sends me an email, I want to be able to quickly find their phone number and their web site without a lot of hassle.
Avoid spam generating words: Don’t say that you will be giving away FREE! coffee and donuts at your puppy kindergarten classes. That may get your electronic newsletter blocked and sent to the spam box by many email providers. Better to say, ‘complimentary’ coffee and donuts. You get the point. Again, this is why you want to hire a professional to assist you with these tools.
Use Google Voice. There are many cool and useful features with Google Voice for business and personal use. I’m running out of time here, so take my word for it and check out this page: (http://www.google.com/googlevoice/about.html)
Remove the silly ‘Sent From My iPhone’ or 'Sent From My Android' sentence from automatically appearing at the bottom of your emails. OK. I had to stretch a bit to fill #10 here. But nobody cares what device you are using and this does seem like you have no office (and that you are answering email and writing back to your clients in the middle of your supermarket shopping). To change auto-signatures in Android, consult the documentation specific to your device.To remove it from your iPhone, tap ‘Settings’, then tap Mail, then tap Signature. Make your changes right there.
You can actually substitute your own email signature here with your professional business one, which is probably a good idea if you use your phone solely for business.
I’ve barely touched the surface of what you can do to improve your professional online presence. However, I’ve given you some of the basics that you should consider. Good luck with all of this and I look forward to seeing you online!
Chris Lee is the Senior Director of Information Technology for Rikter Corporation (www.rikter.com), a professional web site design company headquartered in Georgia. He is the proud owner of one bi-blue Shetland sheepdog and is very thankful he is married to a professional dog trainer.