Running a small business can be demanding year-round, but those stresses take on a new intensity during peak season. In fact, peak sales can make or break a small business’s year.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to preparing for your busy season, we talked with some of our past FedEx Small Business Grant winners about what they have learned from past peak times and how they are preparing for success this year.
1. Plan, Plan and Then Plan Some More
The key recommendation that we heard from grant winners is to start your planning as early as possible. Peak season will present a small business with unique challenges, so it’s important to control the issues that you can anticipate.
The grant winners use sales performance figures from previous years to forecast for peak. Dana Donofree, who founded AnaOno, a lingerie company for the breast cancer community, stresses, “If you sell a manufactured product, you have to plan your inventory months in advance. Look at previous sales seasons, current inventory, and any scaling of business you might expect so you can plan as accurately as possible. But remember, it is also an art.”
Peak can mean a boom in business for many companies, but grant winners say it’s important to prepare for all production scenarios.
“You have to plan for both the upside and the downside,” says Judith Irving, founder and partner at Fat Toad Farm, maker of traditional goat’s milk caramel. “Your sales could be lower than you expect, so don’t overcommit and expose your business to unnecessary risk. Be prepared for a production slowdown. On the other hand, sales may be higher, so figure out how you can maximize production to meet demand, if needed.”
Judith Irving’s Fat Toad Farm sells specialized gifts during the holiday season that staff prepares in advance. According to Judith, “Our gift options are time consuming to create, so we try to make just enough ahead of time so we aren’t making things as needed for orders during peak.”
2. Identify Your Website’s Weaknesses Now
If you’re selling online, make sure your website is bulletproof before peak begins. Scrutinize how customers are using your site and how to optimize their experience to encourage return visits. The vendor Crazy Eggcan help with that process by using visual analytics tools that provide intelligence, including the locations where customers are engaging with content and how far customers scroll on your pages. You can use this information to help you position important elements on your website to get more clicks.
Also, plan to optimize your website for search engines to attract new customers. Our grant winners advise you to pay close attention to your e-commerce processes likes billing, fulfillment and returns to find any flaws before peak-season pressure begins.
“Get your vulnerabilities straightened out as best as possible now,” says Judith. “Do not plan on any IT upgrades or platform changes once it gets past September. All those bugs need to be worked out now, and if your systems aren’t perfect, at least you know that you have to be vigilant in order to keep operations running smoothly.”
3. Prepare to Staff Up
Be realistic about your staffing needs. Because small-business owners can often do many things well, it can be easy to dismiss the need for help.
As Dana puts it, “If you, as a founder, are in high demand, you must have the staff available to help with the increase in sales and the work that goes into meeting demand. Gearing up with temporary help is an option that allows you, as the owner, to focus on the business and reach new customers during this critical moment.”
Paul Pallas, operations manager at SWISCO, a supplier of hard-to-find replacement hardware, experiences the same stresses. He says SWISCO hires college students as seasonal staff to work in the warehouse during peak time. He cautions, “Do not hire permanent employees unless you need them for non-peak times of the year.” According to Paul, it’s key to hire and train seasonal staff before peak begins to keep your business running smoothly during the high-volume period.
4. Plan to Manage Customer-Service Strains
Peak provides an opportunity to build relationships with customers. It can also bring some customer-service headaches, but a little planning can help you expertly navigate any challenges and develop customer loyalties as a result.
“Customer service needs, like helping customers troubleshoot with shipments, any product issues and answering questions about seasonal promotions, increase during peak,” says Andrea Sreshta, co-founder of LuminAID, the inventor of a solar inflatable lantern. “It can be a lot of work to manage the inquiries, so we plan for the increased time needed.”
FedEx Small Business Grant winners Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork, co-founders of LuminAID, demonstrate how their product can provide light to people in powerless disaster areas. As the sellers of a novel product, they expect more product questions during peak, whether it’s from populations in remote areas or e-commerce customers.
5. Set Expectations With Customers
Setting expectations around the fulfillment process is an important element of customer service during peak for e-commerce businesses like LuminAID. “We’ve learned that come holiday time, understanding shipping deadlines and communicating those deadlines and cutoffs to customers in multiple places on your website and over email is important,” says Andrea.
Take time to understand the 2018 FedEx holiday service schedule early so you can map out how you’ll communicate delivery expectations with your customers.
6. Learn From Your Peak Experience
“We now have a track record under our belt, based on years of success; we can use this information to create moments of growth,” says Dana. “Now, we are ready to take the learnings of previous peak seasons and apply them to our current rate of sales.”
Peak season can serve as a stress test for your business. Like these FedEx Small Business Grant winners, use it as an opportunity to learn from your triumphs and setbacks to build greater successes in years to come.