Time is money, no matter what your line of work. Whether you provide support for the back-end operations of a bank, or develop a mobile game, every bit of time you spend on development, support, marketing, sales… it all contributes towards your cost. Now, you’ll find many, many ways of reducing costs by reducing the money you spend on your various business functions – but you can’t really boost efficiency and productivity unless you factor in the time your employees spend on dealing with ‘unproductive’ issues  – prospective deals that promised to be the biggest you’ve ever had but eventually fell through, customer queries that could have been answered with a simple FAQ section but ended up getting channelled through to your phone support staff.

Wasted time has a cost attached to it

Consider this scenario – your sales team is approached by a prospective buyer who wants to know all about the cost involved in implementing your software offering at his workplace. So they set up a few meetings, spend hours trying to understand the client company, prepare a few presentations, take along a developer to better explain the benefits…. In all, your employees could have spent several man-days in pitching for their business, only to find out that your ‘perfect customer’ now thinks that your product might not really be suited for his business, or eventually makes a purchase that’s just too small to justify the effort you made. This is a scenario that could repeat itself quite a few times each year, leading to the wastage of valuable resources – including that most valuable of them all – your employees’ time. And that’s just one example from one department.

What it doesn’t mean

Let’s first take a quick look at what this doesn’t mean – When you’re looking at reducing the time and money you spend on deals that either don’t materialize, or don’t make financial sense, you’re not talking about being arrogant or laid back. It doesn’t mean that your sales team lose their hungry edge by only going after deals they know are a sure bet. And it doesn’t at all mean that you dismiss prospective clients who might not present the best opportunity at this moment. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you jump to provide service for a big customer at the expense of a smaller client. What we actually mean by asking you to streamline your sales and support functions is that you handle them in the manner which allows you to maximize your resources across the board. And here’s how you do it:

Streamline your sales and support channels

1. Find your niche and make it clear

Land Rover wants to sell luxury for off-road enthusiasts or SUV lovers. Rolls Royce only sells to the super-affluent. American Express cards have long been invitation-only. Keeping it exclusive works great for branding and keeps those tire kickers out. Make it clear – in every marketing message your company sends out – as to who your intended target is. Tailor your messages, choose the correct medium, and target only those you want to respond. If you’re making a new helpdesk product, do you really want your messaging to reach 20-year-old students?

Here’s some more information that should come in handy when you’re seeking the perfect niche for your business.

2. Sort out your lines of communication

Twitter, phone support, web feedback forms, Facebook, your online help desk… You’ve got it all sorted out and you think you’re well placed to deal with any query. But you also need to direct  enquiries and questions to the correct department without tying up your support teams. Create specialized support & sales channels for your various customer categories, and make sure you direct people to the correct one. Advertising your business accounting package? Make sure your sales contact information isn’t the same as the one you use for your personal finance app. You could even maintain separate websites for your home and corporate users. When you’ve got specialized sales and support staff for your various products, why not save their time by making sure they don’t get sidetracked directing enquiries around? Instead, make your employees more efficient by directing your customers to the right sales channel at the start.

Make sure your marketing message is on point with these tips.

3. Pre-empt enquiries

Is your sales team reeling under a deluge of enquiries that can be better handled without their intervention? Perhaps basic technical or pricing queries – you certainly don’t need a sales staffer to explain this to everyone! Save your time and keep personalized attention for when it’s required by setting up FAQs and other informative sections on your website. If an FAQ can explain to most of your prospective clients what the hardware requirements are for your new app, must you really money on dealing with these queries over the phone? Make sure the information is out there, and that it’s easy to find, giving your sales team a break from spending their time answering basic queries.

4. Automation

You’d be surprised how often people just turn to a business’s Twitter handle or Facebook page to ask a question. Why not automate the process? At least in terms of acknowledging requests, directing queries to your website, or even automatic, keyword-based responses… You can extend this to email support as well – automation can help you in filtering and redirecting queries based on who’s calling, and even by dealing with basic queries without needing to involve a support or sales staffer. In essence, think about building systems that’ll reduce the need for human interaction unless essential. Let your staff only have to deal with queries that require their response, not for every question that can be more efficiently dealt with by using an FAQ section!

5. Use collaboration tools to make your staff more efficient

If your sales team is like most others, they probably work on several different clients at the same time. Why not boost their efficiency and teamwork by letting them collaborate? Services like Google Apps and Huddle allow your employees to work together – cutting across location, time, and department – on the same project. The uses for collaboration tools are many – work together on sales pitches, send the most critical projects to your most experienced staffers, direct technical queries to the right team, escalate pending issues… In essence, saving time and money by maximizing the most vital resource you have available to you – your highly trained team.

6. Take your team’s feedback into account

Customer feedback isn’t the only vital source of information that can help you deliver a better user experience – your sales and support teams’ input can also go a long way in making sure you’re not short-selling your product by limiting it. Even if the customer’s happy, and sales are rising, it doesn’t mean things are lining up for long-term success. Have you checked with your sales heads and support experts whether they agree with the rosy assessment? Or does the cheery picture hide difficulties your teams might be facing? Perhaps your marketing message is drawing in too many users of one type that could later put too much pressure on your support teams. Or it could be that while your sales are indeed doing well, they could be doing even better if you tweaked things a bit. These guys are on the front-line – they’re the ones dealing with the customer every single day. Hear them out; see what they feel you could be doing differently.

To see what you can learn from your sales teams, check this out.

7. Work on a process, not just a product

Every marketer knows how important the overall customer experience is, but even then, many businesses, especially startups, fail to implement this lesson into their marketing and support strategy. Even in the early stages of designing your app or product, it helps to look at it from a holistic point – after all, it also has to be sold and maintained. Your developers’ and engineers’ work doesn’t end at making a killer app or device – but only when they create a process that works. A customer doesn’t just buy one aspect of your business and his contact with you won’t cease at the point of sale, so it makes sense to ensure your ‘process’ is easy to maintain and works with the minimum of intervention. After all, your sales and customer support staff only build upon what the developers and engineers give them. So perhaps it makes sense to look at the bigger picture right from the start.

Business success doesn’t stop at making fantastic product. You need to sell it, maintain it, and work on improving it to stay ahead of the competition. But sometimes we can get so caught up in pushing sales as aggressively as possible, we forget this. We end up ignoring possible inefficiencies built into our system that could come back to haunt us later, and we often get so blinded by sales success, we forget to stop and see whether we’re really headed in a direction that guarantees long-term success.

But business isn’t about just powering through in the short term. On the contrary, it’s about the long-term vision. Is your business in the right niche? Are you spending your profits on ensuring an efficient support system that will scale up alongside your business? And are you really making the best use of your most vital resource – your employees? Are your sales and customer support functions as streamlined as possible? Or are they still working in an ad-hoc basis that you imagine fits your freewheeling, startup culture more? These are the questions you need to ask yourself if you’re serious about long-term success.