Tips for Local Food #4 : Leveraging Free & Low Cost Tools

As part of our series on Top Tips for Local Food Distribution, we’re diving a little deeper into each of the 5 tips we gave. This week is ‘Leveraging Free & Low Cost Tools. You can also read our guide to Social technology, Funding, or Giants!

More Tips for Local Food from Bucky Box - Leveraging Free & low Cost Tools

 

Have you ever tried to run a local food business armed only with a telephone, Microsoft Excel and email?

 

Many people around the world are still forging on down this path, but there’s a revolution happening around the internet which can make things easier, create more time to do the things that matter, and free you up from painful admin.

 

Core components of local food distribution mainly involve Ordering, Customer Accounts, Communications, Packing & Delivery Logistics, and Payment Reconciliation, so lets take a look at what’s out there that can help you do these things, better.

 

Ordering

It’s time to take your customer’s orders for the week! How do they make orders at the moment? Phone? Email? Facebook?

 

Well a shopping cart can be a good way to handle online ecommerce transactions, and there’s heaps of options. Of course, generally you will need to already have a website (which you could build through services like WordPress [free]), which you can then use a plugin for – just search WordPress Ecommerce, and you’ll find many options!  Or you can use a specialised ecommerce service like Shopify (paid service), which provides themes and payment options.  Most of these options will cost either a) ongoing hosting fee, b) upfront cost, or c) % on every transaction and/or monthly service fee.

 

You’d generally be able to expect an email when orders are made, or a spreadsheet of orders at the end of the day.  Some of these options are quite flexible to create a catalogue of products so for example, you may offer a Standard Vege Box, plus a list of extras – you should be able to do this, but most of the shopping carts are created for a ‘stock list’ of say 20 or 30 products which do not change regularly.

 

Customer Accounts

Managing your database of customers needs to be carefully done to ensure you don’t drop the ball!  Some people will be regular customers, some will be ‘inactive customers’, and some will be ‘potential customers’ who have expressed interest but not ordered yet.  You’ll likely have different tasks for each of these, so you’ll likely need a to-do list of actions too.

 

You might run a spreadsheet with all these names, contact details & orders against these people, but as we all know – spreadsheets can be fickle beasts – prone to human error (ever written over a cell and found a moment later that the Undo button wont work!?).

 

A customer relationship database might be another way to deal with this.  There’s some great tools like OnePageCRM (paid service) which are created as lite-Sales tools which could be adapted to house all those relationships and schedule reminders & follow ups, or there are a number of free options in the Mac App Store, or Google Chrome Marketplace.

 

You might also like a to-do list app which synchs across all your devices so you can keep track of things – take a look at Wunderlist (free), Trello (free) or Todoist (free).  These are great if you’re not tied to the desk all day – whether you’re out on the farm, rushing around suppliers or markets, or simply on your day off & want to run a couple of chores.

 

Communication

Well if you’re not in communication with your customers, you’re likely to be out of business pretty quickly.  There’s a proliferation of tools in this space now – we wrote a little about some of them (and how to use them) in our Get Social : Using Social Media tools for Local Food guide.

 

We would heartily recommend you’re using a suite of communications including:

  • – Phone or VOIP services – such as Skype (free or low cost)
  • – Email – you can’t go past Google Mail (free or low cost)
  • – Support Desk – if you want a simple & powerful helpdesk & knowledgebase, check out Uservoice (free or low cost)
  • – Social Networks – Twitter (free) is a great service for business-to-customer communication, and channel for storytelling & reaching out to new customers. Also a Facebook Page (free) is a great way to connect less formally with your customers, tell your story and share pictures of your products, customers & suppliers.

You can also check out our blog about finding new customers & Marketing guides, as well as our roundup of existing support & resources for local food.

 

Packing & Delivery Logistics

This is where things sometimes start to get tricky. It’s one thing taking all the orders, it’s another thing making sure they get to the right place at the right time, on the right day.

 

Unfortunately there’s not a lot of tools in this space which haven’t been developed for courier companies or logistics firms shipping products around the country.  There are systems like Delivery Biz Pro (paid-service), which seem angled a bit more at home delivery services, and we expect some more to arrive with the rise of Ebay, Etsy and the likes, but mostly those goods head out in the regular post services.

 

Of course you can use Google Maps (free) as a way to pinpoint where your deliveries are headed, but it’s not highly adaptive to delivery runs with multiple drop offs.

 

Payment Reconciliation

Headaches at 11pm at night trying to match up bank accounts with customer accounts? Hastily scribbled notes on delivery sheets not making sense at the end of the month? This is one of the areas we’ve heard the most frustration about.

 

Yes, there’s 101 online accounting services – being proud Kiwi’s, we’d point you in the direction of Xero (paid service) – we use them in fact, they’re ace, and we reckon they’re streets ahead of the competitors like MYOB (paid service). That said, we don’t think they really cut it for local food distributors when it comes to matching up multiple payments, with multiple customer accounts, on a weekly basis.

 

Of course, there is another option.  Bucky Box has gathered all these insights from hundreds of conversations with local food distributors around the world – and we’ve built our tools for a better food system with them in mind.  Bucky Box helps you with Ordering, Customer Accounts, Communications, Packing & Delivery Logistics, and Payment Reconciliation, all in one turn key solution.  Check out our website to sign up for a trial.

 

Tips for Local Food #1 : Get Social – Using Social Media Engage With Customers

As part of our series on Top Tips for Local Food Distribution, we’re diving a little deeper into each of the 5 tips we gave.  This week is ‘Get Social’ – how you can use new media to engage deeper with customers, suppliers & your community.

Bucky Box helps you navigate the Social Media realms

You keep hearing that you should spend more time using social media for your business, but you’re pretty sure Facebook is a worldwide popularity contest, Twitter is a flurry of 140 character status updates, you can’t see how spending all day looking at pictures on Pinterest is going to help you get customers in the door, and the bills wont get paid by your blog…

 

So, lets be honest…

Why go social?

 

Some people may still need this question answered, and we completely understand why.  On the face of it, social media is noisy, time consuming and lacks clear value to small businesses.  However we want to convince you that the opportunities far outweigh the costs, so let us take 5 mins of your time to explain why.

 

Today, more than ever before, you have an unrivaled opportunity to engage in rich two-way conversations with a range of your stakeholders through a variety of communication tools.  So, what good could come of these conversations?

 

1. Storytelling

Use this opportunity to tell your story.  Tell people about more than just your product or service – tell them about why you set up this business, what you stand for, why you’re passionate about it.  Give your business a human face, be prepared to be a little vulnerable, and admit that maybe you don’t have all the solutions – sometimes in our openness we find great results.  Storytelling is the future of social media as we see it – so take the opportunity to take an active role in the crafting of your own story with words, pictures, video and other engaging media.

Image courtesy of flickr/cambodia4kidsorg

 

Storytelling is key to positive word of mouth (digital and er… mouth…), fundamental to how we remember things, and is rapidly becoming the medium through which customers expect to engage with business, so make your stories worth telling.  Telling your story is an important part of how you elevate your business from engaging in a cost-war ‘race to the bottom’ kind of capitalism, and can help you turn a simple product into a better experience for your customers.  The kicker is, that now, using a variety of new media, you can make your customers part of that story, and give them a voice.

 

2. Visibility

The old phrase ‘all PR is good PR’ came from the desperate desire for eyeballs & ears pointed toward your business. Today, you can get those eyeballs without having to dress a guy up in a chicken suit, write endless press releases, or run yet another promotion.  With the rise of social media, you have a direct channel to millions of people if you are willing to engage in genuine conversation, and/or if you’re able to create & share interesting content to get things started.

 

Image courtesy of flickr/rosauraochoaAs a small business, you can set up an online presence without paying a penny – whether it’s a Facebook Page, a Twitter Feed, or through blogging engines like Tumblr & WordPress, you can get set up in a matter of minutes.  It’s then time to mould a profile around Who you are, and Why you’re in business.  Go ahead – ‘like’ some other people, engage in some conversations, share some relevant stories, pictures and video, and slowly but surely your page will grow in followers too.  Did you know Facebook recently launched a Directory service to help people find businesses anywhere and everywhere?  If people are looking for you, it’s your job to help them find you!

 

3. Validation & Insight

With a community building up on your page (even if it’s still small), you have a group of people who you can interact with; often that’s really important in the early days of your local food business as it gives you the opportunity to get validation for ideas (before implementing them) through the likes of Polls, or insight into the reasoning behind your customers & potential customers’ buying decisions (through comments).

 

Take this opportunity to engage in conversations and let your customers co-create the future of your business with you.  Previous to this digital ‘social’ landscape, it was possible to talk one-to-one or one-to-many, but with these decentralised communication tools, you can engage in genuine many-to-many conversations.  Embrace it, and think about how you can use new media in more ways than simply storytelling – perhaps it could be a useful customer service tool, a way to identify new pricing models, a way to alert customers to their deliveries or a way to generate a new brand identity?

 

4. Real Time & Early Warning

The great thing about new media is that much of it happens in real-time, meaning you have instant answers, insights, and feedback.  This real time world can make your business more lubricated for decision making, more responsive to change, more adaptive to positive & negative feedback, and more willing to test & experiment.

 

That gives you a huge advantage over some of the alternative ways to do Food Distribution (naming no names…) as often there are monolithic processes & systems behind industrialised food chains.  Play on your nimbleness as an advantage – you can be flexible and responsive to change using social communication – a prized asset in unstable economic, climatic & societal times.  We’re predicting the rise & rise of local food over the coming 50 years.

New media can also be great early warning systems for when something isn’t right – it’s better to be the first to hear so you can make changes and retain customer loyalty, than suddenly lose a customer of 5 years because they don’t have easy communication channels, or think you don’t care.  You can use Facebook & Twitter as highly effective tools  to engage in day-to-day or semi-regular communication with customers to keep the conversation casual – that way they’re more likely to let you know when something is wrong, rather than walking away and you never knowing why.

 

Take the customer service initiatives that Air New Zealand have been winning awards for left, right & centre. Most of these are driven through their team which monitors the social media streams; they have embedded the team into their business so that they’re part of the service, and they use the social environment & conversations with customers to test new ideas and gauge interest, as well as drive awareness of promotions & offers.  They’re able to turn a negative customer experiences back into positive ones through their real-time service, as well as deploying ‘acts of kindness’ through the ‘Air New Zealand Fairy’.

 

5. Measurable

The data driven approach to online community building, sales & conversations is a valid one, as long as you don’t use the data in isolation.  Using the metrics related to engagement such as ‘Talking About This‘, you can get insights into what’s working and what’s not – it lets you spot trends more easily, but it wont make you better at creating communities and having conversations – that’s where you need to be paying attention & asking the right questions.

 

What should be in your Toolkit?

  • Facebook – work with the social giant that has been working to create a better place for people, businesses & community groups to hang out online. Work with the social graph to learn more about your customers, other stakeholders, and engage in conversations.  There’s some good run downs on Facebook Pages here and here.
  • Twitter – the thriving local food community on Twitter is ready and waiting to chat! There’s millions of people using twitter now, so use a mishmash of hashtags, geolocation & conversation to find local customers & other people who you can reach out to for help! More good guides here, here and here.
  • Online Advertising – Google does a good job of giving you visibility for a tiny daily budget, and now you can also reach out to use Facebook Advertising & Twitter Advertising too. The ability to target down to highly defined demographics make online advertising a great option for finding new customers as a small business.
  • Blog – we’d recommend using a blog to create regular, changing content which tells your story and gives customers regular updates which create value for them.  Check out these guides to blogging for small business.
  • Pinterest – last up is the ‘newcomer’ which is on the up – a social network based on aesthetic ‘pins’ – also known as pictures.  Whilst Pinterest is quietly driving 1000’s of people to websites around the world, the world is busy enjoying the visual revolution! Here’s a Pinterest guide to get you started, and a couple of people we think you might like; HISBE, Flavrbox & Food+Tech Connect.
  • Check out our ‘Hashtags for Local Food‘ blog, or start searching for more information about Social Media on twitter, there’s some great guides for Local Business use.
**UPDATE**
Local Food - plenty of opportunities to tell your story.
If you’re looking for a guide to get started with Social Media, then check out the Spredfast Resource – Pocket Guide to Social Media.
Mashable have also picked up on the trend of Farmers & local food distributors uptake of Social Web tools.