Taking Care Of Business

Sarah O’Connell

As I write this, we are in the fifth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses in the North Country region have gradually been reopening through the four phases under specific guidelines and with many restrictions. 

    However, for businesses that deal with health and wellness, many are still not allowed to reopen yet due to the level of physical contact or proximity that is part of their normal customer interaction. 

    As the North Country region entered Phase 3, massage therapy businesses were allowed to reopen, as were hair salons and some other personal care services. As we all struggled with the isolation and anxiety produced by the crisis, this was a much welcomed development for those who needed the comfort and care that was beyond essential survival. At the same time, the operators of these businesses had to prepare rigorous safety plans for the state of New York and develop schedules and strategies to minimize risk to their customers. 

    On the other hand, physical fitness businesses like fitness centers and group yoga classes continue to be under additional scrutiny due to the risks inherent in gathering people together in activities that might increase transmission of the virus. Some exercise-related businesses have pivoted to offering virtual or online classes, particularly those with certain instructors who have a dedicated following who are willing to pay through an online payment portal to participate in a Zoom or similar digital meetup. 

    While doctors’ offices and medical clinics were open all along for emergency visits or telemedicine, dentists were not generally allowed to open until June 1 except for emergency situations. However, many of our local providers have noticed that their patients are delaying some appointments like routine checkups until later on in the year. The procedure for entering a medical office often involves waiting in one’s car until called, answering questions about recent health issues, possible contacts with ill people and travel outside the area, and undergoing temperature checks. 

    Some mental health providers who already offered online or telephone counseling have been able to continue to offer that support and have even expanded their customer base due to need. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has gathered a pool of volunteer mental health counselors to handle calls from people feeling especially stressed or anxious during the pandemic. (1-800-950-6264). It can also offer connections to local resources. 

    As with all businesses reopened or reopening in the various phases that the state allows, the key to getting customers, clients or patients to return is to demonstrate clear and well-thought out approaches to providing as safe an experience as possible. Surveys and anecdotal evidence have shown that many people are still very wary of venturing out into situations that might expose them to the virus. Reports of uneven or absent compliance will only delay the process of economic recovery. Recent spikes in infection were directly related to unsafe gatherings during July 4th celebrations leading to the reclosing of some area businesses. Enforcement of the safety guidelines needs to be universal to bolster the confidence of the general public. 

    As of this writing, the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) program was still open and the application window for PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans was open until Aug. 8. Go to www.sba.gov for more information. The SBDC advisors are here to help you through the application process and beyond. We are also available to help you with any other business needs, whether it’s ideas for recovering, marketing, or opening, expanding or buying a business. We are available by phone and email and can have video sessions as well. As the JCC campus begins its reopening process, we will keep you informed if and when we can resume in-person appointments. 

    The New York Small Business Development Center at JCC offers free, individual, confidential counseling to new or existing business owners in Jefferson and Lewis counties. For more information, contact 315-782-9262, sbdc@sunyjefferson.edu. St. Lawrence County residents can contact their SBDC at SUNY Canton, 315-386-7312, sbdc@canton.edu 

Planning Ahead For Your Business

Jennifer McCluskey

I am proud of all the work that you and all of our North Country business owners have done to make it through this difficult time. We may have a long road ahead, but you have worked hard to get here and have held on through many challenges. One way to be stronger for the path ahead is to take a good hard look at how your business did during this crisis and find out if there are things that you could do better to prepare for the future. This is a great time to figure out a solid contingency plan for your business, since this disaster may have exposed areas in which your business is weaker. You have a chance now to learn and to figure out policies that will allow you to be better prepared in the future. 

    One big area where businesses struggle significantly is cash flow and being able to set aside a “cushion” of savings. Sometimes businesses expand too fast or buy that bright shiny piece of new equipment maybe before they were ready. This pandemic may have shown you that your cushion might have been too small to deal with a possible emergency. Have you ever played the board game Risk? In the game of Risk, if you expand too fast then on the next turn the other players will wipe out all your armies because you’ll be too weak to defend. You have to expand slowly from a solid base that can be maintained. It’s the same in business: you need to shore up your current business and have enough savings to support yourself before you start trying to expand. 

    I know this is hard for businesses that are constantly living on the edge of solvency. But maybe now is a good time to make a financial plan to figure out how you can get to the point where you do have enough of a cushion to get through a couple of months with little to no income. And if you don’t think it’s possible for your business to ever get to that point, maybe you need to make some radical changes, or possibly maybe it’s time to move on and try something new. Talk to your SBDC counselor. We can help you develop strategies, look through your budget and see where changes can be made, and provide support in whatever way you need. 

    Other areas you might want to consider looking at include:  

  • Develop work from home or contingency location plans. You may have found that having some of your employees work from home went OK for your business. If you likely now have the technology capabilities you need to implement this strategy again in the future if needed.  
  • Assess communication between you and your employees. Now that they are back in the office, find out if there could be ways that you all could communicate better in the future. What systems are you going to put in place so people can get access to critical information and can make critical decisions? Does everyone know his or her role in a crisis?
  • Put key business instructions in writing in an employee manual, or consider training employees to be able to do each other’s jobs. What if a key employee or owner gets sick? Would the business be able to function without that person? Are other people than the business owner authorized to speak to the bank, accountants, and attorneys if needed?

If you need assistance with your business during this difficult time, you can reach out to your local Small Business Development Center office. If we can’t meet with you in person, we can talk on the phone, teleconference, or email, whichever works for you. We are free, confidential, and always available to help. You can reach the SUNY Canton SBDC at (315) 386-7312, SUNY Canton SBDC at Clinton Community College at (518) 324-7232, or the Watertown SBDC at JCC (315) 782-9262. 

People First: Greeting to boost business

Brooke Rouse

Over and over again we hear that our people are our greatest asset, the communities are so strong and the people make it a very warm place, even in the depths of winter. However, locals, visitors and new residents will often comment on the contradictory nature of North Country people when it comes to business. We hear that it is common to walk into a shop or café and not receive a greeting, which automatically translates into a feeling of not being welcome. As we try to build ourselves as more diverse communities, open for business and welcoming to visitors, this lack of engagement can be perceived as prejudice, judgment or a pure lack of interest. None of these messages are good for business. 

    As a business owner or manager, it’s easy to get caught up and fully consumed in whatever you are doing, whether you are at the front desk or in a back office; cleaning the machine, entering inventory, trouble shooting an accounting hiccup. The important thing to remember is that your customer is first, no matter what. A quick pause, a greeting and a smile go a very long way. It is also critical that your entire team understands the importance.  

Here are a few suggestions to improve your customer engagement:  

Hello, is this your first time in the shop? 

    If it is their first time, you can welcome them with a quick pitch on your products and offerings, while pointing out different areas of your business (a personal tour). This is an opportunity for a free commercial that they may not know from just wandering around the store. If they have been before, you can note any new products or offerings and thank them for coming back. This does not have to be a strong sales pitch, but rather a simple tour and introduction. You can include some positive, personal remarks about how long you have been open, highlights of your physical space or business history. This is all part of the experience, which cannot be achieved by shopping online. You can follow up with – Is there anything specific you are looking for today? – Make sure that you are not doing all of the talking. By understanding their needs (why they came in!) you can help them to quickly find a solution or get an idea of what additional products or services you may want to make available.  

Do you live in the area? 

    Knowing if they are local, drive distance or visitors will allow you to make more of a personal connection to begin a business relationship. You can follow up with – What brings you to the area? – If they have moved for a job, as a student or for family, you can help orient them to the area, referring other businesses and highlights of the community that will help make their move or stay more enjoyable. If a customer sees you as a community ambassador, they immediately form a positive memory and feelings about your business, which is certain to translate into positive word of mouth. 

    If they are not from the immediate area, you can ask – How did you find out about us? – Now, this is your opportunity for some valuable feedback on your marketing tactics. If they saw you on social media, radio, tv or in the newspaper, you can start to better understand your return on marketing dollars. You will also get a sense of how far your reach is – how far people are willing to travel. 

    Share these few ideas with your team, print them out and put them by the register! You may be surprised by how a little effort will go a long way.

A Family Focus On Business: Relph Benefit Services serve the north country

From left to right: Jack Gorman, John Bartholf, Bob Relph Sr, Fred Tontarski, Bob Relph Jr, Mike Wiley stand together at the site of their newly built office in 1989.

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The Experience Economy: An opportunity for business

Brooke Rouse

Summer always brings people out; locals, snowbirds, visitors. It’s an exciting time to enjoy our great outdoors, art, culture, events and more. Some people have the gear, the know how and the ability to experience a lot of what is available, and others don’t – partially because they can’t access the opportunity. 

    You may find yourself saying, “I want to paddle that river, but I don’t have a boat, or really want to own a boat or have a place to store it. But I’d really like to go out on the Grasse River.” You may hear about the bike paths and ATV trails and say ‘Hey – I want to try that’, or attend an art festival and say, ‘Wow – I would love to try painting again, with a little instruction.’ Business is about finding solutions, the solution here is the ability to create and offer an EXPERIENCE. 

    The Experience Economy is growing by leaps and bounds, year over year, with the most significant growth in the 18-34 year old population. Still 50 percent of this audience is 45 years or older. This is an opportunity. The term Experience Economy was first introduced in 1998 as an argument that “businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that memory itself becomes the product: the “experience” (Pine & Gilmore). 

    Online shopping has become the number one threat and concern to many retail establishments and brick and mortar businesses and attractions. Business owners are constantly seeking ways to stay competitive in the retail market, typically honing in on tremendous customer service that equates to an EXPERIENCE that cannot be found online. Organizations like the Frederic Remington Art Museum in Ogdensburg have increased their focus on experience, not only for a museum tour, but for the unique opportunity to do yoga in the gallery or learn how to paint. Increased awareness of the museum through events and experiences has ensured greater exposure in new markets and a stronger relationship with patrons. 

    St. Lawrence County has welcomed two new ‘Experience Businesses’ for recreation this year. Seaway Outfitters in Ogdensburg rents bikes, SUP boards, kayaks, rollerblades and offers ATV tours. Grasse River Adventures offers fully guided and outfitted hunting, camping, hiking and canoe trips. This type of service allows people to experience things they may not get to otherwise, reduces risk, and allows for adventure without the hassle. These experiences can be booked on the internet, but are offered and experienced here, on the ground by local businesses. 

    Experience comes from and is shared by passion. Allow yourself to pursue local experiences…if there is not a business offering it, consider creating one or recruiting a friend of family member to do it. Business development assistance is available by local Chambers and Small Business Development Centers. 

    As the Tourism Promotion Agent for St. Lawrence County, we are constantly marketing (and bragging) about our tremendous opportunities to discover things here that even locals don’t know about. We are always seeking more opportunities to refer a business to make the experience happen for visitors and residents. 

Improve your Content (and Grow) in Three Easy Steps

Jessica Piatt

If you’re new to the rapidly expanding world of social media, welcome! It’s a fun place where individuals can create, organizations can expand their brand, and businesses can profit.  It can also be an intimidating world for any user, let alone someone doing it in a professional capacity with little to no experience using social media as a tool to market a service or product.  I’m going to give you the three pillars of creating a cohesive strategy to improve your content on social media. Thus, improving your brand awareness.  If you’re ready to commit to investing in your brand’s success on social media, then these steps can help you accomplish that goal. 

Start with Looking Ahead

    Planning is key when it comes to content creation.  When you look ahead, you’re taking the time to consider your brand’s consistency, your target audience, and what you can offer.  This is to say that you are planning with a purpose.  This is an important habit to initiate because it is crucial to transforming your social media presence.  In my last contribution, I went into this concept in further detail in a piece titled Invest in Your Businesses Online Presence.  In this column, I intend to build on the notion by recognizing it as a paramount pillar in your endeavor to improve your content and increase your growth. Planning with a purpose plays a critical role in your cohesive strategy to improve your content by establishing the ground work for your approach.

Quality Visuals Count

    Now that you’re in the habit of planning with a purpose (or on your way there soon) it’s time to talk visuals. Visuals are a key component to any marketing strategy.  They are an effective method of making memorable impressions that can be converted to meet a call to action.  And people like them!  With visual content continuing to yield higher engagement rates than text alone, employing this tactic to your overall strategy, as laid out in step one, will produce real results.  However, keep in mind that quality over quantity holds power when it comes to the visuals you associate with your brand.  The photos and videos you post should fit well into your organization’s visual brand, keeping the audience in mind.  It’s true that a picture’s worth a thousand words, but who are you talking to? The visuals you use should resonate with your audience.  Take photos that both represent your brand and hit your target audience (it’s 2019, this can be easily done by using your smart phone) then post them to the appropriate platforms.  When you maintain your brand, act with purpose, and produce quality visuals, it will show in your content. Now, you can take this practice a step further.  Consider which posts are generating higher engagement rates and respond by giving your followers more of what they demand.  Quality visuals, produced within the parameters of your visual brand, made for your audience will enhance your efforts to improve your content and grow your brand.

Words Absolutely Matter

    Having a brand voice is an essential part of success when it comes to social media.  Using a brand voice gives your audience a consistent feel that maintains your brand’s identity and helps build relationships.  Think about the words you type and how they can help you connect. At the Greater Watertown – North Country Chamber of Commerce we believe that when people make meaningful connections, it leads to growth.  It is for this reason why we provide opportunities for businesses, networking experiences for professionals, and encourage organizations across northern New York to use social media intentionally.  The next time you write copy for purposes of social media, do so with your brand’s voice.  Write for your target audience and be consistent with your messaging.  This practice will help your content feel familiar and better resonate with your audience.  Consequently, writing in your brand’s voice will make your content more impactful, therefore improving your connections and growing your brand.

    Well executed content is vital to growing your presence on social media.  In taking the necessary steps to improve your content, you’re committing to the development of your brand.  Utilize the three pillars of creating a cohesive strategy to improve your content on social media.  Implement planning to establish a foundation, use quality visuals made for your audience, and consistently write in your brand’s voice.  These simple, yet effective, steps will result in improved content and yield growth.

Invest In Your Businesses Online Presence

Jessica Piatt

Here in Northern New York, the idea of not having enough time or resources to invest in your business’ online presence is widely accepted as a fixed fact by many businesses and organizations.  It can be difficult to see the value in planning ahead in a digital environment where content is comprised of click bate, feedback is instantaneous, and comment trolls come by the dozen.  When you challenge the idea that you do not have the time, the resources, or the savvy to plan, you will find that this strategy is an investment in your brand, it will make your life easier, and it will prove to be effective.

It’s an Investment

                When you take the time to plan your social media content, you’re making an investment in your brand’s online awareness and therefore you’re making an investment in the growth of your business.  Planning your content ahead of time can be as basic as setting aside time in the beginning of the week, evaluating your business’ needs, offers, or values, and selecting content to reflect those priorities.  Craft a message with your followers, costumers, or clients, in mind, then schedule a time to post.

It Will Lighten Your Load

                Once you’ve taken the plunge and commit to investing in your brand’s digital presence, aim for consistency.  In being consistent, you will make this investment routine.  Once it’s become common practice, this routine will help transform your tendency to be reactive in the digital arena, reclaim control of your brand’s narrative, and be proactive with your online presence. This mega metamorphosis, you will likely free up valuable time at the office and reduce the paralyzing stress surrounding the use of social media as a tool.

It Will Yield Results

                When you commit the time, and maintain consistency, your efforts will yield results.  I’m talking real, quantifiable results here.  When you plan your content keeping your brand and consumers in mind, schedule your posts using measurable data to maximize your impact, and maintain consistency in your diligent efforts, your business will reap the benefits.  Not only will this strategy reduce the time you squander thinking of clever captions at the last minute or reduce the stress you associate with pressures of social media, it will benefit your brand’s overall awareness.  Being present, intentional, and consistent, on social media, makeup the cornerstone of building trust with your audience. 

Resources are your Friends

                Choose platforms which augment your brand.  Once you get started, use the platform analytics available to enhance your objectives.  LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, all offer free engagement analytics for business accounts.  This information is essential to the enrichment of your content production and scheduling.  There are also external resources that can be used to supplement your efforts and strengthen your overall effectiveness.  Give resources like Canva, ColorStory, Hootsuite, Planoly, and/or VSCO a try.  See which apps/websites work best for your brand and implement them into your routine.  If you’re still hesitant, or simply have questions, additional resources such as the Greater Watertown – North Country Chamber of Commerce, or other organizations dedicated to promoting and supporting business are a great start!

A Bright Future

                It’s time to invest in your brand’s online presence and take advantage of what the digital world has to offer.  Social media platforms help businesses grow.  When used intentionally, social media can lead to increased brand awareness and build trust with your audience. When you challenge the idea that you do not have the time, the resources, or the savvy to plan, and you recognize that these platforms can enhance your brand and better your business, you will discover the plethora of possibilities that planning content can bring to your business in the North Country. 

20 Questions: Lewis County native grows chamber strength and membership

SYDNEY SCHAEFER \ NNY BUSINESS
CEO and President of the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce Kristen Aucter, poses for a portrait at her desk in the Chamber’s Lowville office.

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Opportunities Found

Sarah O’Connell

The federal government and New York state are committed to ensuring that economically or socially disadvantaged businesses have an opportunity to participate in direct contracts or subcontracts with government agencies and/or prime contractors. They have instituted specific programs to give these firms an opportunity to certify and register. For some contracts, there is even a specific percentage goal that must include small businesses from these designations (called set-asides).  These designations may include women, minority or service-disabled veteran firms.

    For specific federal programs, the SBA.gov website is an excellent resource. Specifically for women-owned businesses, the federal government offers the Women-Owned Small Business designation (WOSB). Doing any business with the government requires registration in the System for Award Management (SAM), and women can self-certify their company as women-owned. However, to get access to what are considered “underserved” industries, women must apply specifically to be a WOSB company. These industries are identified in the WOSB section of the Small Business Association’s website. If the company is determined to be eligible (more on that later) it can work its way through the process at certify.sba.gov.

    In the New York State MWBE (Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprises) program, the woman-owned business must already have been in operation for a minimum of one year. The process is fairly rigorous and calls for uploading of a number of documents as part of the application process, followed by an interview by the agency to confirm the business is truly woman-owned and operated. (Note: the OGS – Office of Government Services – oversees the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business program.)

    How is a business determined to be woman-owned? Some of the basic requirements include at least 51% ownership (where one partner is not female) and meeting the benchmarks that determine that a company is considered a “small business.” These may include reporting that annual sales fall below a certain mark and that personal assets also fall below a certain mark.

    The business must also prove that the business is truly woman-owned and operated, so that a male owner can’t just designate or add a female owner to take advantage of the system.  It must show that the female owner had financial investment in the start-up and continues to have an integral role in the operation of the business. Being the “keeper of the books” is not enough – the woman owner has to have knowledge of and show control over all facets of the business which may include bid estimating, contract writing, control over ordering, etc.  The female owner must spend the majority if not all work hours involved in the business; employment in another workplace is a red flag and may result in rejection of the application.

    The advisors at the Small Business Development Center can help steer companies through the certification processes for both WOSB and MWBE.  Once the requirements are met, opportunities open up for the woman-owned small business. In Jefferson County, 31 companies are certified in the federal WOSB program (according to the Dynamic Small Business Search at sba.gov). The New York State Contract System identifies 108 women-owned business enterprises (WBEs) in the North country region which covers Plattsburgh to Watertown to Oswego.

    Once a business is certified as woman-owned, it can start exploring opportunities that exist within its service area. Many of our businesses work closely with the local PTAC (Procurement Technical Assistance Center), located at the Greater Watertown-North country Chamber of Commerce to identify potential projects to bid. The north country PTAC will be offering a matchmaker event on April 4 where all small (not just women-owned) businesses interested in government contracts can meet with key people from government agencies and prime contractors to introduce themselves and share their capabilities. Visit http://www.northcountryptac.com

for details.

    Planning is underway for our 14th Annual Business of Women networking conference in May. Watch facebook.com/BusinessofWomen/ for more information.

    The New York Small Business Development Center at JCC offers free, individual, confidential counseling to new or existing business owners in Jefferson and Lewis counties. For more information, contact 315-782-9262, sbdc@sunyjefferson.edu.  St. Lawrence County residents can contact their SBDC at SUNY Canton, 315-386-7312, sbdc@canton.edu.

SARAH O’CONNELL is a certified business advisor with the New York State Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College. She is a former small business owner and lifelong Northern New York resident. Contact her at soconnell@sunyjefferson.edu. Her column appears bi-monthly in NNY Business.

20 Questions: Success from the Start

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY BUSINESS

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