10 Best Tools to Make Your Small Business Look Big

Wednesday Dec 8th 2010 by Jamie Bsales
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Looking for a way for your small business to stand out, or at least not appear small? Here are our top 10 tools to make your business look big.

There's no shortage of articles on ways to make your small business appear like a larger enterprise to potential clients and customers. From consistent branding to cohesive marketing, such advice is all valid -- but sometimes rather abstract. Harder to find is a list of actual products and services that can make it happen. So we put one together for you:

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Top 10 Tools to Make Your Small Business Look Big

Yahoo Small Business

Whether you have an existing business or are just starting one, your Web presence is vital. Yahoo Small Business offers three essential services -- domain registration, business email and website hosting -- from one source. You can start by having Yahoo register your domain name for just $9.95.

While you're at it, let Yahoo be your business email provider, too. Yes, you get a professional-looking email address that echoes your business name or Web URL, not an "@yahoo.com" address that screams rinky-dink.

Yahoo Business Email's slick Web-based interface features tabs along the top and drag-and-drop actions for easy message organization, along with a handy preview pane just like in Microsoft Outlook (of course if you prefer, you can use your own copy of Outlook to poll your Yahoo Account and pull messages in).

A single email address will run you about $3 per month, or you can sign up for 10 addresses for you and your employees for $9.95 per month (plus a $25 setup fee). All plans include unlimited storage, spam protection and registration for one domain name.

But Yahoo Small Business doesn't stop there. The service also offers Web hosting starting at $9.95 per month, which includes one business email account, unlimited disk space for your site, plus unlimited data transfer (meaning an unlimited number of visitors can check out your site; beware of other low-cost plans that start charging you for data transfer after a certain threshold).

Yahoo Small Business Web hosting; Web tools
Sign up for Yahoo Small Business Web hosting, and you’ll get dozens of templates to pick from it its easy-to-use site design tool.
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You also get professionally designed website templates that make creating and customizing your site a snap, complete with photo galleries, slideshows, video galleries and forms to capture potential customers' vital contact information. You can even add Web storefront features and PayPal support to turn your site into a revenue source.

Affordable Web and Small Business Marketing Services

If you worry that the website templates offered by your hosting provider will look like, well, a template offered by a hosting provider, there are a few design firms you may want to consider. These shops can deliver Web designs, online and print ads, and other services that look like they came from an expensive Madison Avenue design house that only a big company could afford.

For example, Inkzoo provides graphic design and marketing services to smaller company owners worldwide, all from your desktop. The company can handle just about anything, from business cards and flyers to a full-blown rich-media website, creatively and affordably.

Another option is Clover, which lets you create and manage a professional website with the latest features -- with no programming staff. An initial site design costs around $1,000 (compared to the $5,000 and up you would pay at a boutique shop), and the company's Greenhouse tool lets you edit your site, as opposed to having to pay your design firm to make changes.

Automated Phone Attendants

While the Web has taken over the world, don't overlook that quaint device that most customers and clients still use to contact you: the telephone. But you don't have to spend big money on a classic PBX plus hundreds per month in fees to the phone company to make it look like you have a switchboard's worth of phone lines. The coming of age of VoIP (Voice over IP) technology has given rise to a crop of service providers that let you set up an enterprise-class phone system for a fraction of the cost.

For example, My1voice from Protus IP Solutions delivers a virtual receptionist, smart call forwarding, enhanced voicemail and call screening in its VoIP solution, starting at $10 per month. The service lets you set up a professional greeting that directs callers to dial an extension or lets them select from the dial-by-name directory. You can also set up smart call forwarding to send office calls to any phone so that important calls don't go unanswered.

Another virtual voice service is eVoice, from j2 Global Communications. This hosted phone service lets you set up your own phone number -- either local or toll-free -- along with a virtual assistant to answer and professionally route calls. You can even personalize the greeting to offer callers ways to connect to multiple employees and choose which department they want to connect to -- even if all options lead to you. Additional features include call forwarding and voicemail transcription that is sent to you via email or text message, helping you to keep on top of important messages. Plans start at $12.95 per month, and the company offers a 6-month free trial to see if eVoice works for you.

A third choice comes in the form of Ringio, from Ringobon, LLC. This cloud-based phone solution's "secret sauce" is in using the data that your small business has or collects over time to improve the quality of customer phone calls. For example, connect your Ringio account to an online address book that contains the contact information of your customers, and the next time a customer calls, the Ringio system uses its text-to-speech abilities to greet them by name.

If the customer has called before, the system can intelligently decide who the best person in your company is to handle the call. And the CRM-friendly features don't end there. After routing the call, your employee can receive a pop-up message to get a complete overview of exactly what has happened with this customer in the past -- a technology usually only found in large call centers. Ringio service costs starts at $25 per month per user.

SkedgeMe Smart Online Calendar

If you run a business that relies on scheduling clients -- a salon, day spa, medical practice, equipment rental company, training studio (martial arts, music, tutoring and the like) -- then you know what a hassle scheduling customers can be. But log onto a big company's site like Quest Diagnostics, for example, and you'll find a neat feature that lets clients select their own appointments from available time slots at their selected location. SkedgeMe does just that for your small business.

The SkedgeMe online service employs an outward-facing calendar, allowing customers or vendors to self-schedule appointments anytime they want, instead of having to call your office during business hours and tie up one of your employees as they hunt for a mutually agreeable time. Since SkedgeMe is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) tool, there's no software for you to install and maintain.

SkedgeMe; Web tools
With SkedgeMe, business owners can let their clients and customers select and book their own appointment slots online.
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Getting started is as easy as entering your business info; the assets, staff or resources customers can select to schedule; and the times/days those are to be made available. You can tie your SkedgeMe micro-site into your main website, so customers can click on the calendar link and see and select available time slots on their own any time day or night. SkedgeMe will even send them (and you and your staff) a confirmation and reminder via email. SkedgeMe service costs $29 per month.

LivePerson

Think only big companies can offer live chat support on their websites? Well, your customers think that, too, so they'll assume you have a sprawling customer service department if you deploy LivePerson. The LivePerson platform allows you or your staff to handle multiple customer inquiries at once, eliminating annoying phone queues and disguising the fact that your customer service team may be limited to one or two agents.

LivePerson can also make it more cost-effective for you to offer customer service at all hours by cutting the number of agents you would otherwise need to staff the phones, letting you offer 24/7 customer service -- just like the big guys. The platform costs $99 per month per operator you want to support.

UserVoice

And if you think only big companies can offer community feedback and voting on their websites, meet UserVoice. This online community-builder application lets you integrate user feedback, voting and other interactive features just like all of the major sites. You can let your customers submit discussion topics and join discussions (with or without requiring a login), and vote on the ideas and suggestions you or others propose so you can improve your product or service.

The online form makes it easy for customers to submit their feedback, and as they type in their idea UserVoice's search-as-you-type feature automatically finds similar feedback for a user to vote on, so they don't create a new entry that duplicates an existing one. Plans start as low as $19 per month.

RevenueExpect

Also on the interactive services front, RevenueExpect offers small business owners another way to deliver individual customer attention. The service provides instant insight into customers who have abandoned transactions on your website, allowing you or your staff to reach out to those customers proactively.

RevenueExpect works by providing data from users that is entered into the form before and after the submission process, hence capturing information -- including phone number, email addresses, IP address, and geographical location -- even about abandoners. It also provides data on the number of total conversions on a given form, letting you know if a given form is working or needs to be redesigned. The service costs $50 per month for each domain and supports an unlimited number of forms per domain.

Constant Contact

It's happened to you: You've been a satisfied customer of a business, given them your email address, but then never heard from them again. That's a dead giveaway that it's a small operation. You can avoid making that impression with your own business while also increasing revenue with an email marketing service like Constant Contact.

This service helps you build polished email marketing campaigns with professionally designed message and newsletter templates to keep your customers engaged. You can build recipient lists by location, interest categories, or other criteria so you can target your programs to specific contacts.

On the back end, Constant Contact tracks and reports which mailings were opened and by whom, so you can easily see which promotions resonated with customers and which did not. The company also recently rolled out the Constant Contact Event Marketing service to help small businesses and organizations professionally promote and efficiently manage registrations and RSVPs for their meetings, functions, seminars and other events. Constant Contact's services start at around $15 per month.

HyperOffice

Small businesses such as architectural/engineering firms that rely on document collaboration and interactive project management with customers have been at a disadvantage compared to larger competitors on the technology front. Deploying and maintaining sophisticated collaboration and communications platforms generally requires the big investment and IT resources only a big company can afford; but not if you use HyperOffice.

This cloud-based collaboration and messaging suite make it look like you have an IT department behind the scenes running a sophisticated collaboration platform that lets you share documents and other files with clients (and of course your remote workers). You can easily set up a customer-accessible portal (branded with your company logo and colors) to share documents and messages with clients.

Microsoft Office 365; Web tools
Microsoft Office 356 is a cloud-based take on MS Office productivity suite, with a host of additional features.
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The company also recently added more sophisticated project management features into the suite, including task dependencies, interactive Gantt charts and more. And these features are on top of the business-class email, shared calendars, contact management and other features. HyperOffice subscriptions start at $44.99 per month for five users.

Microsoft Office 365

All of these tools can make you look a larger business to outsiders, but what about having some big-company perks for you and your staff, as well? Microsoft Office 365 offers small businesses an easy-to-use set of Web-enabled tools and business-class productivity services.

The cloud solution delivers anywhere-access to email, important documents, contacts and calendars on nearly any device -- including PCs, Macs, Windows Phones, iPhones, Android and BlackBerry devices. In a few clicks, you'll be able to access enterprise-caliber productivity applications and Office Web Apps, for viewing, editing and sharing documents.

You also get easy-to-use design tools to build a professional-looking website quickly, and your site will let you share documents securely with colleagues, customers and partners. The platform even includes online meetings with audio/video conferencing and multiparty data sharing. Those interested in trying it can sign up for the beta program now, and Office 365 will go live early in 2011 at an estimated price of $6 per user per month.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology editor and writer with 18 years experience covering the full range of hardware and software products. His specialties include notebook and desktop PCs, printers, displays and small-business software and Web services

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