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Building an online business often means you’re on your own and starting from scratch — no IT department to set up your email, no design guru to make a logo, no professional writer to craft website copy. So most bootstrapped entrepreneurs use their current resources to get things going, like utilizing a personal email address and phone number for business interactions.
But once you’re up and running somewhat smoothly — because let’s face it, you’ll never stop putting out fires, even if you become a Fortune 500 company — it’s time to start cleaning up your business and separating the personal from the professional.
A lot of this cleanup means focusing on branding. Your brand is the look and feel of your business. It is defined by the elements that set you apart from your competitors. And if you want to stand out in a crowded market, every little detail counts. Here are nine quick and easy steps to get from “brand new” to “branded.”
1. Get a dedicated phone number
Having a dedicated number for your business is a no brainer. It allows you to share your contact details without giving out your private phone number. It ensures you don’t accidentally answer a customer’s call with an unprofessional “Yo, what’s up?” Plus you probably don’t want your customers to hear that five-year-old voicemail greeting featuring the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song.
You can go the old-fashioned route and get a dedicated cell phone line for your business, but it is probably cheaper and more convenient to set up a Google Voice number. In addition to being free, you’ll have a separate number, online storage of your voicemails and the ability to forward your incoming calls to any phones that you want.
If you’re really looking for a professional shine, you might want to consider getting a toll-free 800 number. Some online services, such as Grasshopper, have similar functionality to Google Voice that allow you to forward your number to a cell phone or even set up calling trees, such as pressing 1 for sales and 2 for returns.
2. Get a P.O. box
Again, it’s time to separate the personal and professional. A P.O box let’s you set up a mailing address for customers and suppliers without giving away where you live. Plus you’ll know any packages you receive are safe and secure rather than sitting out on your doorstep in the rain.
If you’d like to take a step further, you can use a service like Mail Boxes Etc. or UPS Store that will provide you with a street address rather than a P.O. That means you can get package from all the major carrier, not just USPS. And many locations now offer 24-hour access, which is great for moonlighters.
Another upside to having an actual address is that you can appeal to your local customers. Many times, seeing that a business is located in your hometown or state can invoke an immediate sense of loyalty. Wouldn’t you rather support the home team over the visitors?
3. Get your own domain name
You need a quick and memorable way for people to find you. A lot of services offer free domain names when you sign up, but that usually means a long, wordy, impersonal URL. This might work for getting up and running quickly, but you’ll want to switch to your own private domain name as soon as possible.
When choosing your domain name, try to keep it short and sweet. People are much more likely to remember a simple domain over a complicated one. Oh, and spell your words correctly. Unique or unusual spellings can be “cool” or “edgy” but most people looking for your site are going to spell things the way they are used to seeing them. Visit our post on choosing a domain for your brand for quick tips, including SEO considerations.
Bonus: Get your own private SSL. You should always be using an SSL on pages that transmit secure information such as credit cards or billing information.On platforms such as Bigcommerce, you can use a free shared SSL to immediately protect your buyers’ information. But investing in a private SSL means your domain name stays the same on your secure pages. It’s all about the branding, remember?
4. Set up a business email account
Sure, your Yahoo! or Gmail address will work just fine for emailing your friends and family. But when you send and receive emails with your customers, you want professional and consistent branding. To accomplish that you need to create business email addresses using your domain name on a reliable email provider.
Email addresses are a lot like domain names. Many online services provide add-on complimentary email service, but you’ll likely want to set up with a dedicated email provider to get the best possible features and reliability. Two great options are Google Apps for Business or Office 365 for Business, which both offer business-class email with 99.9% uptime and some great additional perks such as document editing, online storage and more. The best part is that it’s very affordable, usually only $5 per month per email address.
Bonus: Sure, email@example.com is a tried and true email address, but don’t be afraid to get a little creative. A lot of great online businesses are starting to use fun addresses like “hello” instead of “contactus.” It adds a little extra fun and personality to your interactions.
5. Order business cards
This one may sound like a no-brainer, but business cards are an excellent tool for word-of-mouth marketing. For a very small investment you can get business cards from an online service like Vistaprint or Moo. In the long run, you’ll probably save money by getting them professionally printed rather than running through a couple of ink cartridges at home, plus they’ll look much better.
6. Set up an About Us and a Contact page
Notice I said “and” and not “or.” Many people don’t understand the importance and difference between the two, which creates a sub-optimal customer experience.
The “About Us” page is your chance to show your customers what your business is all about. Give them a quick overview of what you sell, why you sell it, and what makes you different (and better) than the competition. Since visitors to your website don’t have the opportunity to meet you face to face, this is your chance to convey your passion and mission.
The “Contact” page is where your customers are going to go if they have questions, comments or concerns. Make this page easy to find in your navigation and include all your contact options. Remember that P.O. box, telephone number and email address you set up earlier? Well this is their time to shine. Just don’t clutter this page with information that is a better fit for the “About Us” page, make it a quick and easy reference point for your customers.
You can make it even easier for your customers to get in touch with a contact form. This will allow them to quickly input their return email, their name and what they are inquiring about with copying and pasting your email address or opening their email program. For more advanced options, consider integrating with a third-party app like Wufoo, EmailMeForm or Kontactr.
7. Stop trying to be a web designer
Of course, if you actually are a web designer you can skip this one. Otherwise, take note. Web design and graphic design are rather technical fields with a lot of study about how design and functionality intersect to create a great user experience. I often see web design newbies trying to “improve” their sites with tons of badges, terrible color palette changes and annoying pop-ups.
Getting a professional, usable and beautiful website without any coding has never been easier! Most online services offer you a selection of pre-designed templates to help make your site look professional and attractive as well as easy to use. Bigcommerce offers over 100 pre-built templates, including Style Editor-capable templates (meaning you can quickly and easily change the color scheme and fonts) and a selection of beautiful premium templates. I highly recommend using one of these templates or hiring a trusted web designer to build a custom theme instead of throwing your own together. This also makes it easier to change your theme if you ever want to give your website a new look or make it more attractive to potential buyers.
Bonus: If you do want to become a web designer, there are a ton of online resources out there to get you started. Check out the free courses at CodeAcademy or W3Schools to learn the basics. Or you can really step up your game with a subscription to Treehouse where you can learn web development, design basics and business basics.
8. Take better photos
Photos are the best way to introduce online visitors to your products. Big, clear, realistic photos will allow them to virtually handle the products, giving them a clear view of their quality and intricacies.
If you’re not on a budget, go all out and hire a local photographer or use a photography service like ProductPhoto.com. Both of these options will take professional-grade photos and handle the post-production touch ups. If you are on a budget, check out our awesome article on how to rock product photography for less than $50. While a DSLR camera will get you great results, most smartphones these days have cameras capable of taking some pretty solid shots.
And don’t forget to take some photos of your products in action. A plain white background will show off product details, but a photo of your item with a person or in use can provide a sense of scale and personality as well. Mix both styles of photography to create a complete experience for the customer.
9. Look the part
Here’s one for businesses that engage in face-to-face transactions: get a uniform. No, I don’t mean you have to sell out and squeeze into a corporate suit every day, but having a nice logoed shirt will add immediate credibility and professionalism to your interaction. A tasteful printed tee or an embroidered polo shirt will look put together while reinforcing your brand. Several online services help you create custom attire, but you can also look for someone local so you can pick out what you want in person.
What do you think makes a business look more professional?
You’ve probably done your fair share of shopping both on and offline, so what do you look for to gauge the professionalism of a business? What has worked for you in the past? Let us know in the comments below.
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