The simple SEO steps to get you started

co-workers using computer

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is all about helping people find your site as easily as possible. Essentially, we are trying to do what we can to work with the Google algorithm. The algorithm is the way that Google programs their search functionality and it decides whether you appear on the first page or not. There are lots of easy ways to make sure that your website is as accessible as possible for Google and, just as importantly, for your customers and visitors!

Be real, natural, and write for people, not optimisation.

Google are smart. They have evolved their search algorithm (the machine that decides what results to show in a Google search) to punish businesses who try to ‘stuff’ their websites with too many keywords. Your SEO aim can be easily summarised in one sentence; write content for your audience, the way they speak, about what you are good at and what you know. Share what you do well and explain why you do so.

Your keywords.

Take a step back and look at your business and the way you plan to attract customers to decide which keywords you want to focus on. Think about what people would be typing into Google to find you. Try to think at a deeper level about what questions people would type here. What are the problems or frustrations that you would solve for them?

The technical bits: Page titles and headings, in-links, alt-tags, XML sitemaps and URL structure.

Don’t underestimate how effective it can be to use your target keywords in all elements of your page or article. Consistency is key and, if the keywords naturally belong there, your page will rank higher in a search.  These are all elements that you can do yourself when updating your website if you’re a bit tech-savvy. If you aren’t comfortable doing this yourself, there are plenty of virtual assistants who do these things well!

Think about your domain name.

The best time to do this is before you buy it! It’s never too late to look at a new domain, though. The reasons you may want to do this include:

  1. If your domain is too similar to your competitors’
  2. If your domain is similar or the same as a very popular brand, movie, person or another topic that gets searched a lot
  3. If your domain makes you sound like you do something else (ie. using the word security when your business is not in that industry)
  4. If your domain is too long and hard to remember
  5. If you have changed your business name

It’s important to consider the SEO implications of changing your domain name. If you have a high level of trust and your Google results are very high, it may take a few months to get back to this position with a new domain.

Fresh content.

You should be updating your website regularly. Add new content to your newsfeed and update your product and services pages as your business evolves. Your website should give an accurate picture of the way your business changes and grows. If your focus changes, update your website. If you have a special offer on, update your website. When your staff change, update your website. If Google was looking at a history of website changes they should be able to see how your business has changed and grown. This honest reflection in your website will help your SEO a lot.

SMEs using the ATO like a “bank” – what your clients need to know

Man going over documents

As of the February 21 2020, the ATO will disclose tax debts over $100,000 that are overdue by more than 90 days to Credit Reporting Bureaus (CRB).

Business owners historically have used the ATO as a “bank” by not paying their tax commitments on time, rather than utilise their own capital or commercial working capital products to help with their cash flow needs.

If reported to a CRB, this can affect their credit score through comprehensive reporting changes and restrict their ability to access credit.

As per the ATO “Disclosure of business tax debts” reference material, the ATO will only disclose tax debt information of a business to a CRB if the business meets all of the criteria outlined on their site. Read more here.

To help business owners combat this, start by understanding their cash flow needs and if required, help them setup an appropriate working capital facility.

For brokers wanting to learn more about working capital facilities and cash flow products contact your Commercial BDM or our Business Scenario and Platform Support team on 1800 063 210 (opt 3) or business@afgonline.com.au.

What is SEO and why does it matter for my business?

Father and son

SEO stands for search engine optimisation and it’s the process of affecting the visibility of a website in a search engine’s unpaid or organic search results. In other words, it means your website appears clearly in the searches returned when a customer types your business name into Google or a similar search engine.

An SEO strategy looks at how search engines work, what your clients may be searching for, what keywords or search terms they are tapping in, and which search engines they are most likely to use. Optimising your website is the best way to rank most highly in returned searches, and this can be done with the use of specific keywords, dynamic and regularly updated content, adding keywords to a web page’s metadata, and the inclusion of relevant links.

SEO is a bit of a ‘dark art’ in that the rules are always changing, algorithms are always played with and the way search engines operate also shifts. These changes ensure that search engine companies stay competitive against each other, react to new trends and technologies, and ultimately that it is harder to reign supreme in searches 100 percent of the time without paying for it.

Important things to remember:

Content is king
Search engines love content that is constantly being updated and that is “keyword rich”. Having keyword rich content is easy to implement, it can be simple things like mentioning the suburbs or areas you service on your website. These will be the things people will search for. Aim to make your content more interesting, by doing this you make it more likely to be shared, which is an important part of the next pillar of SEO: relationship building. Not all your pages will have link-worthy content, but the more unique and relevant your copy is to your users, the more inbound traffic you’ll see coming to your site.

Linking between sites
If you have other websites that link to your website this adds value to your ranking within search engines. So besides the usual suspects of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn where you can link back to your own site easily, you can try to arrange with other resources online. These can be business partners you may have, community networks or local business groups just as a few simple points.

These are referred to as inbound links as they are bringing users to your website. Outbound links are also important, this is when you link from your website to another website. It’s important to link to websites of high credibility, these will be obvious websites like news or industry press sites. The key thing to remember is, don’t go overboard with the links.

Getting nerdy with code
If you know the basics of HTML then you’ll be able to get your head around this, if not just get in touch with the developer that built your website.

  • Meta Tags: This is SEO 101, but optimising your Title and Description meta tags are one of the most basic things you can do to optimise your website. While meta tag optimisation alone won’t rocket you above your competitors in the search engine rankings, it’s an important step in the overall process.
  • Alt Tags: Similar to meta tags, alt tags are the alternative text attached to the images on your website. Adding alt tags gives the search engines crawlable text in the code of the web page. Without the alt tags, the search engines will see a big, block of nothing where some good, optimised text could reside. It’s an often missed opportunity.
  • Headings: Like any good publication, headings also play a big part in the usability of your site. They are the titles and subtitles on the page that help break your big blocks of content into smaller, clearly labelled chunks. Although they have less impact on content optimisation, headings (like H1 and H2 tags) should nevertheless be optimised for the search engines.
  • Body Text: We’ve already covered this earlier but can’t stress the point enough. Keyword rich content should be integrated seamlessly into the body text of every page of your site. Focus on 2 or 3 keywords per page and write for your users, not the search engines. Your text should always be written naturally and should never become bloated with keywords.

Stay clear of writing copy that doesn’t look genuine. If you know the keywords your clients are looking for are ‘hairdresser Brisbane’ don’t write something like “I am a hairdresser from Brisbane that can help with hairdressing styles in and around Brisbane and the Brisbane area.” You probably won’t rank for the word “Brisbane” writing like that, and even worse your website will likely get punished for what is known as “keyword stuffing”.

A basic understanding of SEO is essential, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all for every website. Like anything, a successful marketing strategy is multi-faceted. It includes a range of activities and mediums, but at the end of the day, your customers need to find you, and that’s where SEO comes in.

Keeping it personal

With corporate giants Facebook and Uber in hot water over privacy breaches, how can SMEs with fewer resources make sure they don’t run foul of Australia’s costly new data breach laws?

Fast-growing companies and successful SMEs could be the hardest hit when it comes to new data breach laws, according to cyber security expert Sorin Toma.

Mr Toma, who heads up cyber advisory firm Xpotentia and is the University of NSW’s principal adviser on cyber security, says thousands of small businesses have failed to keep pace with growing security demands.

The expansion of online business and resulting changes to workplace practices, including online data storage, integrated cloud accounting software, and multiple connected devices in the workplace has created a perfect storm of heightened risk for SMEs.

At the same time, hackers are growing more sophisticated, with identity theft and ransomware attacks more prevalent.

Mr Toma says this leaves many SMEs exposed under the government’s new Notifiable Data Breach scheme, which requires businesses with a turnover of more than $3 million to report data breaches to both the individual affected and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). Failure to do so can result in fines of up to $1.7 million.

“Our research has found that businesses are not prepared for the new regulations, or indeed, the new wave of highly-skilled cyber criminals operating within the Australian market,” Mr Toma says.

Businesses in the danger zone are those just above the $3 million turnover threshold that do not have the resources to employ dedicated cyber security staff.

“They are the ones that are going to get hit the hardest because they just don’t have the tools; they don’t have the expertise and they don’t have the people to deal with this.

“A lot of the time, a small business might not know a breach has happened. It could send you bankrupt,” he warns.

And while the reputational cost of reporting data breaches to clients could be damaging, failure to report could equally result in crippling fines.

“Data breaches are surprisingly common, with a Telstra survey finding 59 per cent of Australian companies detected breaches on a monthly basis1 in 2016,” he said. This figure in itself makes me wonder whether the government has allocated sufficient resources to process and assess a wave of data breach reports.”

After the Notifiable Data Breach scheme came into effect on February 22, more than 30 reports were made to the OAIC in the first three weeks, with the regulator tasked with assessing all reports to decide whether further action is needed.

Mr Toma says grey areas in the scheme may also cause confusion, with legislation stating data breaches likely to result in “serious harm” must be reported. “This places the onus on SME owners to make an assessment they may not feel qualified to make”, he says.

Ransomware attacks, for instance, may not necessarily be reportable because data may simply have been locked but not copied.

Mr Toma says he does not expect there will not be any prosecutions under the new scheme until it has had time to bed down.

“I expect it will be tested somehow, but probably not for a year or so,” he said.

Right now, it is imperative SMEs implement best-practice cybersecurity measures.

 

Four basic cyber security steps Mr Toma advises SME owners to undertake immediately are:

 

Know where your key data is held

Look at where you store sensitive data – client details and financial information. Using cloud-based systems is not necessarily risky, but businesses must be aware where companies handling their data are based and what security provisions are in place.

“I’ll give you an example,” he says. “I got called in by a small business. They were worried that the off-shore manufacturers might steal their secrets or IP.” When he examined their processes, Mr Toma found they were using an online data storage company headquartered in Shanghai. “Without their knowledge, all their data was being held off-shore already.” He says business should be aware some companies may try to make it appear they are based in Australia or the US when they are not.

 

Secure it

Look at what controls you can put in place around sensitive client information. “So if it’s on
the cloud, it’s not such a bad thing because you can go to the cloud providers and you can purchase extra security and it’s just a matter of cost,” Mr Toma says. Paying for additional security could save you in the long run.

 

Consolidate and secure your base network

How many devices are connected to your business network? How is the network and each device secured? Mr Toma warns that the base network is the most common entry point for hackers chasing more valuable data. Once criminals breach your network, it can be relatively easy to find passwords to access sensitive cloud data, he says. Invest in a good antivirus package and network firewall.

 

Run regular system security checks

Cyber security is never a ‘set and forget’ issue. For SMEs without experts on staff, hiring a contractor is advisable. Mr Toma says businesses should begin with a full audit of systems and practices, followed by regular system scans every few months.

 

Notifiable Data Breach scheme

  • Applies to businesses with turnover above $3m, or that trade in personal information.
  • Effective from 22 February 2018.
  • Stipulates data breaches that may cause “serious harm” must be reported to the individual(s) concerned and the Office of the Australian Privacy Commissioner.
  • A data breach may include the loss or theft of a device containing personal information; hackers (or unauthorised personnel) accessing personal information; or when personal details are mistakenly provided to the wrong person.

 

More information is available at the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner

1 Telstra Cyber Security Report 2017 – managing risk in a digital world, https://www.telstra.com.au/content/dam/tcom/business-enterprise/campaigns/pdf/cyber-security-whitepaper.pdf

Super stoush

The big super funds are targeting self-managed super – a popular choice for small business owners – over burgeoning borrowing for property investment. And the push is on to make the $20,000 write-down facility permanent. Here’s what to watch for in next month’s Federal Budget.

It’s shaping up as the battle of the big guns against the little guys.

The big super funds are calling for a crackdown on self-managed super funds (SMSFs) borrowing to invest in property.

It puts at risk an increasingly popular wealth-creation strategy for business owners: to use Limited Recourse Borrowing Arrangements (LRBA) to buy their own commercial premises through SMSFs.

In the past 10 years, banks and non-bank lenders have been issuing loans products to target the growing SMSF market, promoting them as a way for business owners to buy commercial premises through their super fund.

In a pre-budget submission, the big super funds’ peak body, The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA), has called on the government to end direct borrowing by superannuation funds because it is becoming too risky.

“The amount of funds borrowed using LRBAs has increased substantially from $497 million in June 2009 to $25.4 billion in June 2016, an increase of around 5,000 per cent,” the ASFA submission states.

The submission argues direct borrowing, even through LRBAs, puts retirement savings at risk
if investments go south. Taxpayers may end up carrying the can, through the provision of aged pensions, the ASFA claims.

The association acknowledges only about seven per cent of SMSFs were currently using LRBAs,
but it states half of these had more than 80 per cent of the fund’s total assets in LRBAs.

“This indicates a lack of diversification within such funds.”

The big super funds’ position echoes that of David Murray’s 2014 Financial System Inquiry, which also recommended an end to direct borrowing through superannuation.

Acknowledging the difficulty of unwinding existing arrangements, the ASFA pre-budget submissions calls for an end to borrowing, leaving current loans in place.

“ASFA considers any changes to the arrangements should involve removing the ability to enter into LRBA arrangements in the future,” the submission states.

With the 2018/19 Budget to be handed down on May 8, the big super funds are also hoping the government will crack down on sham contracting.

The rise of the ‘gig economy’ has many in the industry, and in government, concerned about stagnant super balances. To that end, the ASFA submission also urges the government to increase penalties and lower the bar for prosecuting business caught using sham contracting arrangements.

If a worker is classified as a contractor, rather than employee, businesses are not obliged to pay benefits such as superannuation or annual leave. While more flexible work practices have caused confusion, many employers have been found to have deliberately misrepresented staff to avoid super obligations.

The legislation currently requires the employer’s error to have been reckless, but ASFA backs a Productivity Commission call for the Fair Work Act to be amended to allow prosecution where the classification was something an employer could be reasonably expected to know.

In other pre-budget submissions, small business industry groups are pushing to have the government’s popular $20,000 instant asset write-off scheme for small business made permanent. At present, it is set to end on June 30, reverting to $1,000.

Introduced in the 2015/16 budget, the write-down facility aims to encourage small businesses
with turnover up to $10 million to invest in new equipment by allowing them to claim accelerated depreciation on items up to $20,000 in value.

Tax and Super Australia, which represents tax agents, argue in their pre-budget submission that constantly changing thresholds cause confusion for SMEs and the $20,000 limit should not merely be extended, as was done in 2017/18, but made permanent.

“This ($20,000) threshold is having a real effect in the small business community in both encouraging investment in productive assets and reducing compliance burdens,” the submission states.

The Council of Small Business Australia (COSBOA) also supports making the $20,000 threshold permanent, and renews its support for the establishment of a small business investment allowance
to facilitate greater deductions on assets above $20,000 and up to $2 million.

On the productivity front, COSBOA also calls for mental health programs aimed at small business owners and the introduction of federally-funded domestic violence leave, which could be more impactful for small businesses that often lacked the resources to respond effectively.

Pre-budget submission from a range of industry and interest groups can be viewed on the Treasury website.

Cash in a flash

Australia’s New Payments Platform could turbo-charge cash flow for SMEs, with 24/7 real-time transfers banishing the time payments sit in limbo.

Imagine a day where your mobile phone number is all clients need to pay; where bank transfers clear within seconds; and payments into your business account are automatically reconciled.

Australia’s New Payments Platform (NPP), launched in February, aims to make this an everyday reality, revolutionising the way individuals and businesses make and receive payments. But, like all revolutions, its success hinges on how quickly people jump on board.

“Right now, there’s been little uptake,” says Australian Invoice Finance managing director Greg Charlwood. But it is early days, and he has high hopes for the NPP, saying businesses – particularly those in the B2B sector – stand to make great efficiency gains when the system reaches a critical mass of users.

“If banks dramatically increase promotion (of NPP) I see acceleration happening in the first year, with a high level of take up within two years,” said Mr Charlwood.

High take-up rates are critical, because both payer and payee must be registered to use the NPP system. At present about 60 financial institutions – from big banks to small credit unions – offer customers access to the platform. (Contact your financial institution to inquire or register.)

Developed over the past five years by a consortium of 13 companies – led by the Reserve Bank and including the big four banks – the NPP essentially provides a new financial infrastructure for Australia.

The key features of the new system are:

  • It provides real-time settlement 24/7.
  • It can attach more data to payments than traditional systems – 280 characters, compared to the previous 18-character limit – paving the way for simpler automated reconciliation.
  • It introduces the ‘PayID’ as an alternative identifier to cumbersome BSB and account numbers. Customer-chosen PayIDs can be something easy to remember, such as a mobile phone number, email address or ABN. Clients only need your PayID to direct payments to your account.
  • It has a layered architecture to support multiple services. So, to use an analogy, think of the NPP as a smart phone – in the same way third-party developers create apps to capitalise on a smartphone’s capabilities, it is hoped new financial applications (called ‘overlays’) will be developed to leverage the functionality of the NPP.

The first overlay, a system called Osko (developed by BPay), allows individuals and businesses to begin using PayIDs to send and receive payments.

NPP CEO Adrian Lovney anticipates more overlays will build on this as more users join NPP.

“We see the platform’s data capability as a potential boon for future business application. From simpler invoicing to automatic reconciliation across core business processes…the NPP will provide an important building block for innovation,” Mr Lovney said.

A new feature Osko is expected to roll out in coming months is a ‘request to pay’ function. This will allow individuals or businesses to send a digital bill which can be reviewed and paid with a single click, provided supplier and client are both are registered to the PayID system.

Mr Charlwood says the NPP PayID could also reduce accounting errors, because entering a PayID triggered the system to display the linked account name for cross-referencing, something that did not happen under the present BSB/account number system.

PayIDs will also make it easier for businesses to switch financial institutions to chase better deals. Traditionally, changing accounts could cause headaches, ensuring customers have new details and that direct debits are updated.

“The PayID will allow businesses to change banks without having to notify suppliers or customers of new account numbers,” said Mr Charlwood. “The account number can simply be changed on the PayID without the counterparties even needing to know that the change has occurred.”

Mr Charlwood believes the B2B sector stands to benefit most from efficiencies in the new system, as they are the least likely to deal in cash payments.

“Business can do their bit by encouraging others to get on board,” he said.

The system has received some criticism, with a recent Productivity Commission report raising concerns about restricted access to the platform, particularly for fintechs.

Mr Lovney says it is simply a matter of balancing security and integrity with access.

“While it may sound great to have an open door, in a payments system that enables the movement
of funds in real-time, it’s obvious you need to have some controls. That’s why the NPP allows various levels of access, each with clear criteria,” he said.

At present, institutions seeking direct connection to the NPP must be prudentially regulated authorised deposit-taking institutions.

“(This) indicates they can manage risk and satisfy participation requirements,” Mr Lovney said.

How to sleep easier as a small business owner

Owning your own business can free you from the nine-to-five grind, help you fulfil your passion, create financial opportunities and give you more control over your life. It can also keep you awake at night. Just ask the two million or so Australians running small businesses1.

So what are some of the traps and trials of running your own show and what can you do to replace the stress with success and a better night’s sleep?

 

Cash flow

Keeping enough money coming in to cover everything that needs to be paid out is probably the chief sleep depriver for small business owners. Many make the mistake of not having enough funds behind them to start with, putting unnecessary pressure on turnover from the outset.

The other error is not reflecting your true operating costs in what you charge for your products or services. All ventures, no matter how small or what business they are in, have costs – rent, wages, supplies, equipment, electricity, freight and travel, to name a few. Under-estimating the full cost of operating your business is one of the surest ways to strangle your cash flow. You might win work or sell lots of product based on your prices but if revenue doesn’t ultimately outstrip expenses, you won’t be in business for long.

How to remedy

  • Start with sufficient funds under your belt to cover running costs while you are building your business.
  • Consider a small business loan or overdraft to help get you started and manage initial cash flow. I can help point you in the right direction to find the right finance solution, so you can get on with doing what you do best – managing and growing your business.
  • Create an accurate pricing model that factors in all your running costs and how much profit you need to make.
  • If offering a professional service, ask for part payment up front.

 

The line between work and home

You might have more flexibility with work hours when self-employed but many small business owners find themselves spending more time toiling than ever before, blurring the line between their professional and personal lives. Our 24/7 digital world doesn’t help, making it easy to check emails from the couch or take a business call while driving the kids to school. Not only are long work hours taxing on you, the business owner, they can take a dramatic toll on your family and other important relationships, compounding your stress levels.

How to remedy

  • Set boundaries and be disciplined with your work hours. While it’s important to be responsive to customers and spend time on your enterprise, you are ultimately in charge of your time outside of business hours. Find a routine that works for you and your family.
  • Eat well and find time to exercise to help manage your fitness and stress levels.
  • Make time for the most important people in your life. Maximise your flexibility to attend school events, read to your kids at bedtime, make a point of eating breakfast or dinner as a family, set a regular date night, steal a weekend away and catch up regularly with friends.

 

Lack of help

It’s a catch 22 and major source of stress for many small business owners – the need to wear multiple hats but insufficient funds, or lack of revenue certainty, to take on extra help. Most small business operators find themselves working in and on their businesses, straddling everything from bookkeeper and financial controller to human resources and marketing. Inevitably, something has to give.

There are plenty of ways to access business support for start-ups if you are prepared to be resourceful.

How to remedy

  • You might be eligible for a grant to support expansion. The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science offers a wealth of online resources to support small businesses, including information on available grants, plus free business advisory services and workshops. Visit
    www.business.gov.au/assistance
  • Tap into extensive skills and knowledge without the burden of full-time wages by employing experienced part-timers, such as parents who are looking to keep their professional skills up but don’t want to work full-time.
  • Talk to TAFEs and universities about internships or part-time employment opportunities for promising students. New talent can require extra supervision but the right hires can also bring energy, enthusiasm and fresh thinking.
  • Find a trusted mentor who understands your challenges and can help you navigate growth. Many business people are willing to lend an hour of their time on a regular basis to impart their learnings and wisdom.

 

Compliance

Between Business Activity Statements (BAS), tax, insurance, superannuation, public liability, payroll, workers compensation and leave entitlements, small businesses face a stack of red tape, rules and forms.
Compliance is a certain trigger for midnight tossing and turning. This is one area small business owners should not try to navigate solo.

There are plenty of ways to access business support for start-ups if you are prepared to be resourceful.

How to remedy

  • Get a good tax adviser who can not only help with your accounting but can make sure your business complies with the latest rules. Ask other business owners for their recommendations.
  • The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission churns out regular updates for small business owners, including compliance requirements and also information on your rights. Explore the many online resources and sign up to the Commission’s newsletters at www.accc.gov.au/about-us/information-for/small-business
  • Employment laws can be a mine field. The Australian Institute of Human Resources portal (www.ahri.com.au/assist) has free resources to help you understand your responsibilities as an employer and be a better boss.

 

www.asbfeo.gov.au/sites/default/files/Small_Business_Statistical_Report-Final.pdf

 


Any advice contained in this article is of a general nature only and does not take into account the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular person. Therefore, before making any decision, you should consider the appropriateness of the advice with regard to those matters. Information in this article is correct as of the date of publication and is subject to change.

Everyone loves a chat

Live chat can drive higher rates of satisfaction than any other form of customer support1. However, it pays to remember that while customers will excuse a mistake, frustrate them when they have a problem and you’ve lost them forever. We lead you through some golden rules for implementing live chat software on your website.

It was a relatively mundane problem – a book order gone astray. But the customer support live chat that ensued was anything but ordinary.

Customer: Tracking shows delivered, but shipment not received.
Amazon customer support: Warmest greetings. My name is Thor.
Customer: Greetings, Thor. Can I be Odin?
Amazon: Odin, Father, how art thy doing on this here fine day?
Customer: Thor, my son. Agony raises upon my life. I am afraid the book I ordered to defeat our enemies has been misplaced. How can we keep Valhalla intact without our sacred book?
Amazon: This is blasphemy! Wherever this book has been taken to, I shall make it my duty to get it back to you. I shall have your fortune returned to you and thereafter we can begin to create a new quest in order to get the book to you.
Customer: OK, so roleplay aside, I have my money back and I reorder the book?
Amazon: Haha, yes. I have refunded you and you need to reorder the book.2

This bizarre Norse-themed chat illustrates two of the key strengths of live chat support:

  • It puts customers in touch with the human face of your business (even better, a human face with a sense of humour).
  • It solves problems in real time allowing customers to feel they’ve jumped the queue of email or phone enquiries.

Conversely – nothing frustrates customers more than automated, or outsourced, cut and paste responses, which waste their time. So here are a few golden rules of chat.

Keep it real: If you have, or are thinking about implementing, live chat software, don’t be tempted
to water down its key benefits by automating responses or overloading staff, which will blowout response times.

Customers expect a response to chat enquiries within minutes, as opposed to hours for email or web form queries.

“The implementation of live chat should be motivated (by a desire) to add value to your customers’ experience in dealing with you, nothing more,” advised BAM Creative digital strategist Jessica Kaitse. In her experience Ms Kaitse said chat options were most useful when used to provide post-purchase support.

Kaitse warned businesses against attempting live chat without sufficient resources. “The reality is that there may be a significant amount of spam coming through the chat, which is an added strain on the live chat resource. It may be that you’re able to deliver much better customer service through email or even phone.”

But if you have the resources, customers love a good chat, with a Zendesk benchmark report finding customer satisfaction for live chat outstripped all other methods of customer support, scoring 92 per cent satisfaction, ahead of email, phone and social media support.

It’s about help, not sales: Businesses should also avoid using live chat to upsell. Customers were wary of sites using chat to encourage them to buy more, rather than offering genuine help and advice.

Some home-building companies have introduced live chat for online sales, but the focus seems
to be upselling. “I personally don’t think they’re using it correctly – pushing deals rather than offering customer service for people who are trying to decide between house plans,” she said.

Timing is everything: Live chat can be initiated by customers, but businesses should consider automating chat invitations when it appears users have hit a snag. “It helps to think of it like dating,” Ms Kaitse said. “You need to wait for the right signals before making a move.

“I recommend not on the first visit and not on the homepage. You don’t want to seem too eager
and scare them away,” she said. But certain customer actions – such as adding items to a shopping cart but failing to progress to checkout – are useful triggers.

“If it’s ecommerce, there is a crucial moment when a customer is in their cart for a long period of time. It may be that they’re weighing up their options and the cost. This is a nice time to jump in and offer
a discount coupon to encourage them to go through with the sale, or ask them if they need any assistance.”

Don’t rely on it for leads: “I wouldn’t consider it as a primary lead-generation tool, so throw that one out the window,” Ms Kaitse said.

“It’s certainly suited to retail for post-purchase support, but it is also a worthwhile tool when a customer is considering an item and may need more details, such as measurements – something more detailed that isn’t in the product listing.”

Generally, live chat provides the best return on investment for high-margin products and services.

It’s not as expensive as you think: Live chat software had become increasingly accessible for SMEs. “There are some free options out there for businesses and a lot of other live chat platforms offer different tiers and services,” Ms Kaitse said. “I particularly like Tawk.to because it’s free, with plenty of standard options, so it’s a good tool if you’re getting your toes wet and don’t want to plonk down a bunch of cash.”

Having said that, time is money. “You do have to weigh up the actual cost to the business in terms
of time and resources,” she said.

Think creatively: Some companies have introduced SMS text-to-chat options, while others have added chat functions to their Facebook page. Linking an automated chat invitation to any 404 errors could also help customers looking for specific information. Include useful features, such as allowing users to bump text size, or request a transcript.

 

1 Zendesk Benchmark: Live Chat Drives Highest Customer Satisfaction, Zendesk, 20 May, 2015,https://www.zendesk.com/company/press/zendesk-benchmark-live-chat-drives-highest-customer-satisfaction/
2 Szoldra, P, Amazon customer service has a guy named Thor and he’s on a hilarious `quest’ to help you, Business Insider, 23 May 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-customer-service-thor-2016-5/?r=AU&IR=T

A world of opportunity

Cracking the export market is becoming easier than ever for SMEs. Take your brand to the world in 2018 with new grants, easy finance and advice from those who’ve done it.

In the past year, the federal government has turned its focus to helping launch Australian SMEs
on the world stage, with government-backed finance and new grants for advice and training. Here are four key things you should do in 2018 to explore or expand your export opportunities.

Get Out There

If your business doesn’t have a strong presence on the right digital platforms you may as well
be invisible. Recognising this, the federal government has rebooted the Australian Small Business Advisory Services program to focus on helping SMEs with digital expansion.

Launching the revamped program in December, then Small Business Minister Michael McCormack1 said the ASBAS program has been overhauled to focus on helping small businesses to get online
and reach out to new markets for their goods and services.

“Commonwealth Bank research2 shows up to 80 per cent of small and medium businesses are delaying the adoption of digital technologies which could provide long-term benefits to their business,” he said.

The ASBAS would allocate $18 million in grants over three years to fund training and advice for SMEs to seize new opportunities and grow their business through digital platforms.

One such platform, the Chinese online shopping behemoth Alibaba, opened its first Australian office in Melbourne in February last year, bringing new opportunities for local business. Austrade has a strategic collaboration agreement with Alibaba Group which aims to expand access to China for Australian e-health, financial services and event management businesses.

Applications for the ASBAS Digital Solutions grant open on January 23 and close on March 6.

Get Finance

In the fast-paced global marketplace, new contracts could put unexpected pressure on expanding small businesses, leaving them looking for quick access to finance.

A broker can help with bank and non-bank small business loans, and can provide information about other options for SMEs who may require an additional alternative solution. One such alternative
is through an entity called Efic, the Australian government’s export credit agency.

In 2016, the government introduced a new arm of SME lending aimed at helping small businesses grasp export opportunities.

The Small Business Export Loan, administered by Efic, provides unsecured loans of $20,000 to $350,000 for businesses with turnovers between $250,000 and $10 million. The loans fund export contracts or purchase orders which should otherwise impact on an SME’s cash flow or working capital.

Efic CEO Swati Dave said some small businesses found it hard to get export finance and felt lenders did not understand the complexities of managing working capital though the export cycle.

“It is in cases like these where Efic is able to help with expertise in exporting and the ability to support businesses when their bank may not be able to assist,” Ms Dave said.

Efic’s website estimated online applications could be made within 30 minutes and were assessed on an SME’s ability to repay, rather than ability to stump up collateral.

An early beneficiary of the export loan was WA water purification company Natural Water Solutions, founded by Quenton Leach. Leach said the company’s sudden expansion into the export market came via an Alibaba enquiry from a Filipino company who wanted to distribute the product locally. Orders ramped up quickly, putting a squeeze on finances.

“If we hadn’t received the funding, there’s no doubt that we would have had a difficult time balancing our orders and cash flow,” Leach said. “The whole idea of the Small Business Export Loan is to give you access to money reasonably quickly without too many challenges and that’s what it did for us.”

Get Knowledge

Knowledge is power, and doing business in the giant marketplaces of Asia could be very different to doing business at home. From the phenomenal power of Chinese social media influencers, to cultural preferences in flavour, style and colour, every piece of information helps you position your brand for success.

Late last year Alibaba Group Australia and New Zealand held its first e-commerce expo in Melbourne. Managing director Maggie Zhou said the expo was an opportunity for Australian small business owners to learn about how to access and succeed in the Chinese market.

“Australian products are highly regarded in China and continue to attract the attention of millions of Chinese consumers who demand high-quality goods,” Ms Zhou said.

Alibaba plans to roll out more e-commerce expo events around Australia this year, with dates to be announced on their website.

Knowledge of cultural traditions can also help you position your brand. Margaret River winery Flametree Wines leveraged Chinese holiday gifting traditions to build a major export market to the country. Free-trade related drops in import tariffs has significantly boosted the competitive edge of Aussie wines
in recent years.

SME import-export networking events could also be a valuable source of information, providing learning experiences from business owners on the same path.

Another handy source of information is the Export Essentials app, launched by Efic and the Export Council of Australia. Aimed at SMEs, the app is updated regularly with checklists, calculators and advice to lead business owners through the basics of planning for export.

Get Smart

Innovation can be the key to a successful export enterprise. And in manufacturing, some of the most innovative firms are those that have upskilled to take advantage of specialised defence industry contracts.

The federal government has announced plans for a defence industry strategy in 2018 that aims to help these niche manufacturing firms grab a bigger slice of the international defence market.

Writing in a defence supplement in the Australian Financial Review3 in November last year, Trade Minister Steven Ciobo and Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said AusTrade and Efic have been tasked with increasing defence exports.

“There is a major role for specialised small to medium enterprises to supply niche products and services to global value chains in the defence sector,” they wrote.

One Australian firm already involved in supplying the US Joint Strike Fighter was Heat Treatment Australia, which was founded in the 1970s as a traditional manufacturing firm. When Australian manufacturing went into decline in the ’90s the firm invested in research and development and reinvented itself. It now supplies heat-treated components for the US Joint Strike Fighter program
and – after opening a facility in the US in 2016 – is looking to expand into aerospace, renewable energy and high-performance vehicles.4

1 In a pre-Christmas cabinet reshuffle Craig Laundy was appointed the new Minister for Small and Family Business. Michael McCormack became Minister for Veterans Affairs and Defence Personnel.
2 Majority of Small Businesses Delay Adoption of Technology Offering Long-Term Benefits, Commonweatlth Bank Newsroom, 19 September 2016, www.commbank.com.au/guidance/newsroom/small-businesses-research-tech-201609.html
3 Ciobo, S, Pyne, C, Government’s export strategy has suppliers poised for growth, Australian Financial Review – Defence supplement, 29 November 2017, pp1, https://www.efic.gov.au/media/4231/defence-oped-ministers-ciobo-pyne.pdf
4 Passmore, D, Risks paying off in new age of manufacturing, The Courier-Mail, 3 January, 2018, pp2.

Don’t bank on it

SMEs are turning away from traditional banks as lending to small businesses becomes big business for a slew of innovative new lenders.

Traditional methods of getting a business loan involve patience, piles of paperwork and a few trips to the bank and your accountant.

These days, SMEs can apply online and get loans approved within 24 hours, with a host of new players disrupting the small business lending market.

The boom in non-bank lending is great news for business owners, according to AFG Commercial General Manager Keiran Evans.

“It’s become a much more competitive market and that means more choice for borrowers looking for fast approvals and flexibility, particularly around how their loans are secured, and the terms and conditions attached,” Mr Evans said.

For example, SMEs could access loans up to $250,000 through non-bank lenders without necessarily having to put their family home on the line as security.

“While Australia’s big banks are tightly regulated by APRA, non-bank lenders are currently monitored, but not regulated, which allow them more flexibility”, Mr Evans said.

“Awareness among business owners about alternative finance options is still relatively low, but this is where good broker advice can be invaluable.”

Non-bank finance is available for anything from cash flow or asset finance to multi-million-dollar loans to buy premises.

Peter Vala, Head of Sales and Distribution with non-bank lender Thinktank, said his company found broker channels the most effective way to reach clients.

Founded in 2006, Thinktank is a specialist commercial property lender that has written more than $1 billion in loans over the past decade to SMEs and investors.

In recent years, Mr Vala has seen considerable growth in the non-bank lending sector thanks to a combination of money markets freeing up and lower interest rates. Tighter regulations on big bank lending has also allowed non-bank lenders to step in and fill gaps in the market.

“Access to reliable and cost-effective funding has allowed lenders outside the banks to innovate with products to better suit evolving borrower demands,” Mr Vala said. “This is where the non-banks have been at their most agile and where the banks, as regulated by APRA, have pulled back in certain areas, allowing the non-banks to step in very effectively with products that are often superior with respect
to conditions, terms and structure.”

Thinktank, for example, will fund up to 75 per cent loan to value ratio (LVR), offer up to five years interest only, and did not require annual revaluations or loan reviews.

“A good example in our case is the roll out and ongoing enhancement of our SMSF-LRBA (self-managed super fund-limited recourse borrowing arrangement) product, which now accounts for around 20 per cent of all new loans. Another area of development for us is in catering for slightly more specialised areas such as child care, student/backpacker accommodation and hotels/motels,” Mr Vala said.

Along with established institutions such as Thinktank, non-bank lending has also been revolutionised by the emergence of new ‘fintech’ lenders such as Prospa, Spot Cap and Get Capital to name a few.

“The way the fintechs have hit the ground running and are leveraging technology to offer cash flow and working capital finance solutions to Australian businesses has been a revelation in a segment long-acknowledged as under serviced by traditional lenders,” he said.

Fintech-enabled lenders, as the name suggests, use financial technology and multiple data sources
to quickly assess small business loan applications. This allows them to leverage two major advantages over the big banks:

  • Speedy application and approvals.
  • They can offer unsecured loans to businesses with strong performance indicators.

Growth of fintech lending in Australia has been so rapid, Australia’s Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell joined forces last year with FinTech Australia and The Bank Doctor’s Neil Slonim to work on a report aimed at helping SMEs better understand non-bank lending.

“With rapid growth in the number of lenders and the variation of fintech products, it becomes more difficult for SMEs to make informed decisions about which products and lenders best suit their circumstances,” Ms Carnell said. A final report is due to be published in February, which is expected to include a self-regulatory regime.