Perception IS reality!
This is very evident in business. How your customers perceive you and your business is extremely important. Their perception will be the determining factor in a number of areas:
- How much they trust you
- How much they’re willing to pay
- How much confidence they have in you
- How much they like you
- How comfortable they are
- How serious they take you
Now, let’s look at 5 FREE tools that can make your business look more professional. These tools will not only create this perception of professionalism but will actually cause you to be more professional as a result of implementing them in your business.
Support Ticketing System
Self Hosted Ticketing System
Any interaction with your customers needs to be of the highest caliber. This is the main area in which you have the ability to create the perception you want.
There are a plethora of options available in the area of a ticketing system but two have always stood out to me as being great options and I’ve used both.
For a self hosted option I like osTicket. osTicket does have a hosted option but it’s not free. Those who use a web hosting company that uses cPanel may likely have a 1-click install of osTicket as it’s typically included among the free apps.
osTicket boasts such features as:
- The ability to create custom fields for capturing any data you want from customers during the ticket submission process.
- Ticket filters allow you to route incoming tickets to the right department or person as well as action triggers for automation.
- Collision avoidance ensures that multiple techs respond to the same ticket reducing confusion and eliminating your business looking like there’s no communication in-house.
- You can also assign and transfer tickets at any time.
- Auto-responders ensure that customers are acknowledged immediately.
- Enter notes and service level agreements into tickets or customer accounts.
- The customer facing portal is also very clean and easy to use.
- The dashboard reporting gives you metrics at a glance to keep an eye on things.
As you can see, osTicket is a robust solution and can be tailored for the solo-preneur up to a larger business. Whether you host it on a server in-house or on your web host, its will do a good job for you.
Cloud Hosted Ticketing System
The next ticketing solution that I personally love and currently use is Freshdesk. Freshdesk is used by some very large companies but can easily be used by even the small businesses. It is super simple to use and even end users find it simple to use from their end.
Freshdesk has a free option for up to 3 users which they call the “sprout” plan. Even this free plan comes with a massive amount of features and enough power to run anything you throw at it.
Freshdesk is a hosted solution only. This lends itself to some limitations mainly in the number of unique users (to remain free) but it comes with some very nice features in return. To avoid making this a lengthy section, I’ll sum it up in these highlights:
- Email ticketing capable
- Canned responses
- Automatic solution suggestion
- Automatic email notifications
- Add tags to tickets
- Merge tickets
- Add public and private notes
- HelpDesk automation options
- SLA management
- Knowledge Base
- iOS, Android and HTML5 apps
- Reporting, Customization, Security
- Integrations for other services
Freshdesk can be easily integrated into your website giving your site a persistent ticket submission option.
No matter which option you choose, having a support ticketing system is an easy way to drastically increase the level of professionalism of your business… perceived and actual.
This is the second most favorite task in my business behind making bank deposits. They say that nothing happens until you make a sale. If you’re like I used to be, sometimes the invoicing fell way behind or even fell through the cracks and never got done. I’m embarrassed to say that there’s been more than a few times that I didn’t invoice a customer because I got busy and just forgot about it.
Has this ever happen to you?
Now, I leverage the power of cloud invoicing to create an invoice and email it before I even leave the customer’s site. No more inadvertent pro bono work.
There are tons of free invoicing options as well but most have some very limiting features, such as, you can only have 3 clients. Ok, that’s just not going to really work for most of us.
In this arena there’s one player that stands out and that is Wave. Wave not only offers free invoicing but you can also get an entire cloud accounting solution. No need to spend a small fortune on Quickbooks or other accounting software. After all, who is going to see your books anyway?
The best part about Wave’s free plan is that it has unlimited everything. Actually, Wave doesn’t even offer a paid plan. You may be asking how in the world they pull that off. Here’s the little catch… ad supported. Yes, there are ads but they aren’t intrusive and annoying. For a powerful free suite as Wave has, it’s not a bad price to pay to get it all for free.
Keep in mind that last time I used Wave for invoicing, there was a small reference and logo for Wave at the bottom of each invoice. This bothered me at first but after questioning my customers about it most didn’t even notice it. Sometimes the customer just does not care about these little things that drive us nuts. It doesn’t hurt to ask them though.
The ability to capture payments online right from the invoice is a huge convenience for me and my customers. The small processing fees I pay are offset by the amount of time I save from making a physical bank deposit. Not to mention I get paid faster and fast payment is always good.
Although I don’t really consider this a full featured solution, its worth noting that PayPal has the ability to send invoices as well.
If you’re not capturing email addresses in your business, you’re missing out. As much as people hate junk mail and spam, most people actually want to get email from those businesses they are interested in.
The key to making email marketing successful is not using it as a selling tool (primarily). That’s a topic for another time. Use the emails to bring value to your customers; to build a relationship with them.
The top free service in this area is MailChimp. MailChimp gives you plenty of options in the free price range for up to 1000 email addresses.
Stay in touch with your customers and target new customers using this email marketing platform. If you do find yourself needing more features or outgrowing the free tier, I highly recommend shopping around and not simply jumping up to their paid levels. There are other services that offer more bang for your buck in the paid tiers.
This isn’t really a customer facing tool but having a good project management tool can improve many aspects of your business.
I’ve spent lots of time trying out quite a number of tools in this area. One day while listening to a podcast I heard one tiny mention of a cloud app called Trello. I gave it a try, and I fell in love with its simplicity and power.
Whether I’m trying to keep up with my to-do list or managing multiple projects, Trello can easily tackle these tasks.
At first glance it looks like some sort of weird solitaire app of tasks. Don’t give up on it too quickly. Once you plunder around in it and see how it works and the options available your mind will go wild with the possibilities of this neat tool.
Another great aspect of Trello is that it has full featured mobile apps, so its super easy to work on-the-go or access your projects from anywhere.
You can even assign people to projects so that others can jump into the project and leave feedback, updates, notes, checklists, etc. It really is a super cool tool.
If you don’t document it, it didn’t happen!
Nowadays, documentation can be your best friend. Especially if you’re like me and service the healthcare sector. For me, documentation isn’t a luxury, it’s a legal requirement.
Whether you’re documenting policies, procedures, notes or whatever needs you have, there are two awesome free tools in this area. I use them both in different ways.
The first one is Evernote. Evernote is billed as THE note taking app and rightly so. It’s open user interface lends itself to be molded into whatever your needs are.
Creating notebooks, notes and all the content you want is effortless and the ability to put in images, attachments and more make it that much more powerful.
I like to create a notebook for each client along with specific note cards around configurations, conversations, work done, and proposed work. I can then create links to other sites or documents that expand on these. Linking to other sites brings me to my last free tool. I often link my Evernote content to content in my Google Apps account.
Yes, no list of tools would be complete without mentioning Google Apps. Many businesses of all sizes are building their businesses on Google Apps and moving away from the costly and often cumbersome Microsoft platform.
With Google Apps you can create documents, spreadsheets, presentations and more. You also get a suite of productivity tools as well. From an awesome online calendar to collaboration tools (Hangouts), Google Apps is likely the most powerful set of tools for your business that you can get started with for free. I’m using it right now to create the draft of this article.
Although there is a free version of Google Apps, please don’t have a gmail address for your business email. You will not be taken seriously with some generic email address like gmail, yahoo, etc. As an IT person, you can’t get away with being lazy with technology.
Many of these free tools have even better paid versions if you happen to outgrow their free tiers. There are many more free tools that I didn’t cover in this article. Maybe I’ll do a follow up to this article, a part two, to cover even more free tools. If you want to read more about free tools, leave a comment below this article and let me know.
In closing let me remind you of the power of perception. You have the power to control the perception of your business. Whether its wearing a polo shirt with your logo, maintaining good hygiene or using tools like the ones mentioned in this article, your ability to create a positive, professional experience for your customers is your responsibility.
Customers can find plenty of other people who do what you do. It’s the professional experience that you can create that will make you different. Get out there and create success. But before you go, don’t forget to comment below on this article.
I would love to know, what free tools do you use in your business to make you or your business more professional?