There are plenty of dumb tricks to make your small business appear big: Voicemail greetings that list extensions for imaginary employees; or a name like The Smith Group for a company comprised of a single person.
Better to ask yourself why you want to appear bigger in the first place. “When people think of big companies, they think responsive, dependable, accountable, even if that’s not necessarily true,” says Steve Wilkinghoff. The trick, then, is to act like a big and responsive company. That way, you don’t have to worry when people find out the truth, because your business has already inspired their confidence.
1. Let Software Be Your Staff
Nothing says “amateur operation” like a phone that never gets answered or emails that go unreturned. Luckily, there are plenty of affordable software options that do a good impersonation of a 24-hour assistant. “People have to be able to contact you, they have to be able to get through to you and you have to be able to give them customer support and follow up,” says Wilkinghoff, author of Found Money – Simple Strategies to Uncover the Hidden Profit and Cash Flow in Your Business. Appointment-scheduling software like Appointment Plus or TimeTrade lets customers book time with you directly on your website, then immediately receive an email confirmation (don’t worry, you’ll get one, too), for about $30 a month. And customer-service software like ZenDesk or Desk.com can provide customer support via live chat or email for as little as $20 a month. By helping take care of your clients when you’re unable to, these services “make you look like you have a big operation behind you and inspire confidence in your customers,” says Wilkinghoff.
2. Use VOIP Phones
Email responsiveness is great, but ultimately customers are going to want to talk to you, and you don’t want to miss those calls. With VOIP (voice over internet protocol), you can receive those calls on any phone at any time. Many business owners don’t want to use their cell phone as their primary contact (service can be unreliable and business owners may not want their primary phone to be recognizable as a cell phone). With VOIP you can give out one number that will reach you anywhere at all. And the best part? VOIP can save you money over conventional phone plans. Verizon Small Business offers VOIP plans that start at about $65 per phone, and Vocalicity charges even less, about $40 a phone.
3. Get Your Name in the Press
Nothing makes your business look credible like a write-up in an established publication. Julie Bashkin, founder and CEO of a small business that sends samples of healthy products to subscribers once a month, wanted to convince the large brands she does business with that she wasn’t some fly-by-night company. So she hired a small PR firm to get her business mentioned in magazines like Cosmopolitan and Shape. “We wanted to give the impression that we weren’t just a start-up, and coverage in the press gives you a ton of credibility,” she says. Not that you have to hire a whole PR firm to do it: PR freelancers can be had for a as little as $50 an hour, and can yield surprising results. Ask other business owners for recommendations or do a local web search for independent publicists.
4. Be Honest
Inevitably, some customer is going to ask about the size of your company. When that happens, don’t lie, just answer the question they’re really asking. “What they really want to know is, ‘Are you dependable and can you take care of me?’” says Wilkinghoff. “Be honest: Tell them, ‘I’m a sole proprietor’ or ‘I have a small staff,’” but follow up with “we use cutting-edge technologies and are available 24/7.” Once they hear that, he says, “they don’t really care that you have only three employees.”