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April 2007

"I'm 42 and I'm still not sure what I want to be when I grow up!"

I recently had a business owner say this in a coaching session. 

JournalShe continued, "I don't know. I used to really enjoy what I do... but now... well... it's just not fun anymore.  I'm thinking that I need to make a change.  I'm just not sure it's what I want to do anymore."

Can you relate?  Maybe you used to love what you do... and now... well... now it's just a "job."  Maybe you're even feeling the "itch" to make a change.

Well... if you can identify... you might benefit from the same homework I gave my coaching client. 

My assignment: Write down your "fun list."

You might be saying, "What's a fun list?"  Well... my coaching client asked the same question.

There are 4 simple steps to the "fun list" assignment.

  1. Grab a journal to write in.  (My coaching client chose a $8 journal from Borders.)
  2. Go some place where your mojo really flows.  You know... a place where you can really relax... feel good and not be interrupted.(My coaching client chose her favorite coffee shop.)
  3. Write down 100 things that you love to do. 
    • Think about it... if it brings you joy... write it down. 
    • If it's fun... write it down. 
    • Don't filter.  Don't judge.  Just write 'em down.
    • NOTE: Anything is fair game.  I've seen "burping" show up on these lists.  I've seen "Eating Ben and Jerry's at 2 AM" on the list.  Again... don't filter... just write down whatever comes to mind.
  4. Stay there... until you're done.
    • NOTE: This might be tough... but it's worth it. 

To some... this might seem trivial, but my client tried it and we wound up uncovering some things that changed the way she lived.  But... I don't want to go there yet.  We'll talk about those discoveries soon.

Are you up to the challenge?  What would be on your list?  Take some time.  Write down your 100. 

It's fun... and whether you're 20, 30, 50 or 80... it might help you to figure out what you want to do when you grow up!

Oh... and in the meantime... comment and let us know a couple of the things on your list!

Photo credit: ronin beav

Who needs a Certificate of Insurance?

Remodeling_2 If you’re hiring someone to do work for you (building, remodeling, etc.) – you’ll want to make sure they have sufficient insurance coverage while they’re doing that work. A Certificate of Insurance will indicate what levels of insurance they have.

You don’t want to hire someone who doesn’t have adequate insurance. Here are some good questions to ask:

  • What’s considered "enough" coverage?
  • If you lease space, does your lease agreement specify what is required of a contractor or subcontractor?
  • Do they have workers’ compensation coverage? If not, will you be responsible if the person you hired is hurt and blames you?
  • Who do you ask for a Certificate of Insurance? The contractor? Their agent?

Be certain to ask questions and review the actual Certificate of Insurance. It’s a good idea to get the Certificate of Insurance during the bidding process. And make sure it’s an original – not a photocopy.

Here’s a sample of a Certificate of Insurance. How do you know it’s an original? Make sure your name is in the box in the bottom left corner.  Download sample_cert_of_ins.pdf

Flickr photo by lambdachialpha

The Triple Restraint

Some of you may be saying, "Um... Tim... are you sure you don't mean the triple CONSTRAINT?  You said 'restraint.'  I think you got that wrong."

Tripleconstraint_2 To which I answer:  nope.  I meant it.  The triple RESTRAINT.  The triple constraint, as many of you are already aware, is the core principle of project management.  It's the good-fast-cheap-choose-two mindset.  It means that something's gotta give.  Good project managers can generally manage to one of the three:  schedule, scope, or resources.  Excellent project managers more often than not can manage to two of the three.  Very few can give their clients everything they want without altering the space-time continuum (and then being selfish enough not to share their advanced physics knowledge with the rest of us... GRRRR).

The point of this is that we all recognize that there has to be a trade off.  For many small businesses, that trade-off comes in the form of time or money.  Show me a small business owner who says she or he has more than enough of either of these, and I'll show you a small business owner who is probably stagnating and/or is in denial.  Hence, scope and quality get short-changed. 

Regardless of the size of your business, you have to identify two things:  which constraint absolutely cannot budge regardless or circumstances (e.g., we absolutely have to open our new store in time for the summer season) and which constraint has the most give (e.g., spend as much as you need to in order to get it right).  The problem falls with the latter:  we never identify the flexible constraint.  So all three become a RESTRAINT such that NOTHING moves forwared or gets done.  By demanding that all three are managed to unrealistic expectations, you've just bound (and gagged) your project stakeholders.  And you've inadvertantly created a culture where bad news will not be shared (and believe me, there will be bad news).

So before you undertake your next major project for your small business, take out a piece of paper and draw a triangle.  Label your schedule, your resources, and what you need to do.  And then think ahead to that inevitable point in the project when push comes to shove.  And figure out what absolutely cannot give.  And then drink a healthy dose of the humility-reality cocktail to figure out what must give for the project to move forward.  See?  You're already half-way to becoming a better project manager.

Carpe Factum!!!

It Only Takes ONE to Make a Call Center

Phone It was a nice on-site visit. We'd been graciously invited, by a Senior Vice-President, to come for a tour and discuss what our group might be able to do to help this fledgling company as they experienced a period of explosive growth. As the tour wound up we retreated to the V.P.'s office.

"You have a very nice call center here," I observed.

"Oh, we're NOT a call center!" was the sharp, vehement response.

Hmmmmm. Forty people in a network of cubes primarily employed to sit, answer the phone and take anywhere between 50 and 100 orders a day. Another team of people employed to sit and answer 40-80 customer service calls each day. "You're NOT a call center?"

Believe it or not, this is actually a common response. People hear "call center" and they envision a cavernous, dark call floor with huddled masses crammed into sweat shop conditions cranking out calls 24/7/365. If that's your definition of a call center, no wonder you have no desire to link your little operation to such a term. Yet, I would argue the definition of "call center" is more expansive. In fact, if you've got one person whose primary function is to answer the phone, talk to customers, take orders or provide service/support - you're running a call center.

Currently, our "largest" client operates upwards of 25 call centers across the country (more internationally), employing hundreds and hundreds of CSRs. Our "smallest" client has two people in one rural office office taking phone orders (We used to have a client with two CSRs, but they experienced 100% growth - they now have four!).

My point is, call centers of all shapes and sizes deal with surprisingly similar challenges when it comes to keeping up with incoming calls, satisfying customers, and measuring the quality of service that's being delivered.

Related Post: The Secret of This Team's Success

Photo on Flickr by americanlibraries

How Important is Your Web Site's Home Page?

Click Let me start by saying your home page is the most important page of you web site. However, it may not be as important as you think. Many times, a small business puts almost all of their energy and thought into a fantastic home page, and ends up ignoring sub pages.

Most search engines index web pages individually. This means the homepage is not the only entry point for a user. That said, what can you do to help your first-time visitors navigate their way around your site?

  • Navigation: Have a link to your home page on every page in your web site. If a user lands on one of your sub pages and likes what they see – they will be looking for the top level next. Can they find it?
  • Clickable Banner: Lately, there is a trend to have the banner or logo of web pages clickable, sending users directly to the home page. It’s becoming intuitive to users. Even if you have a link to the home page, make your banner/logo clickable to the home page.
  • Contact Info: Have a contact link - and better yet, complete contact information -on every page.
  • Frame-less: Aargh!  As a user, I can’t stand a site designed in frames for several reasons. First, if I want to bookmark or share a sub page of your site, I can’t because you’ve used frames. Same said for sites designed completely in Flash. One thing to remember when using frames and flash: Looks great, Less traffic.

Your home page is the web address on your business cards, brochures, adverts and email signatures (though that’s another strategy to discuss later). It is important. Just don’t neglect the importance of your other web pages.

So…aside from your home page, which page on your web site is the one you want visitors to see most?

Additional Reading:
- Biggest Mistakes in Web Design, 1999-2015 by Vincent Flanders
- Web Analysis, Behavioral Targeting and Advertising by Anil Batra

Photo on Flickr by yoppy

Is planning just a platitude?

Picture_1

I can list off a bunch of adages about planning.  And as I do, you're going to nod and agree.  After all, it makes good sense.

"If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."

"Measure twice, cut once."

"A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow."

"It wasn't raining when Noah built the ark."

So then, why don't you have one?  Don't look at me like I'm crazy.  95+% of you do not have a marketing plan.  Does that mean your business will fail?  Probably not.  But it does mean you'll:

  • Spend more money
  • Reach fewer of the right people
  • Be swayed by persuasive sales people rather than staying the course
  • Be less efficient
  • Grow your business more slowly

Think of it this way.  If I told you I was going to pay you to drive to Salt Lake City and that your compensation was going to be based on how quickly you could get there, would you use a map?

Same thinking applies to marketing plans.  Could you be successful without one?  Sure.  But it's going to cost you more and take you longer.  So why not just use the map?

After all, isn’t running a business like a journey?  You have finite resources and you’re trying to get as far as you can while using them as wisely as possible.

If you don’t have a marketing plan --- tell me this.  What is your substitute for having the map that will conserve your resources and extend your reach?


Flickr photo courtesy of steve_w.

Top Ten Legal Oversights That Can Shut Down Your Website (Part II)

In my last post, I examined legal oversights 10 through 6 that can shut down your website. Now here are the top five.

5. Breaking the Law

Liability: It is often difficult to navigate, with any precision, the hundreds of laws and regulations that cover different types of websites and industries. Failure to comply with federal legislation, such as COPPA, Graham-Leach-Bliley, HIPAA, or international conventions such as the EU Directive, could lead to drastic penalties. While fines and injunctions can be costly they are often overshadowed by the costs associated with litigating and defending liabilities associated with breaking the law.

Solution: Any company that relies on its online presence for business should have an internal regulatory compliance committee. The committee is responsible for following statutory regulations governing the company and its website. Outline policies to comport with regulations far in advance of their implementation deadline dates. Since ambiguities inherent in legislation often make strict compliance difficult, enlist the assistance of outside legal counsel to coordinate compliance efforts. The key is to anticipate regulatory issues before they become a problem.

4. Bad Contracts

Liability: Many companies attempt to cobble together contracts from bits and pieces they find online, or forego written contracts entirely. Most of the time, a problem never arises. In the instances where a problem does arise, however, the lack of an appropriate contract can bring a company’s operations to a grinding halt. Inartfully drafted contracts can actually be worse that having no contract at all. Bad contracts can shift liability onto your company, accidentally transfer intellectual property to a third party or lead to irreparable privacy or security breaches. Bad contracts can gut your company of its intellectual property and leave it racked with lawsuits. Even if an appropriate contract is in place, failure to inform key personnel of important contractual provisions may lead to inadvertent breaches which may also lead to large liabilities for your company.

Solution: Coordinate with outside legal counsel to develop comprehensive contractual strategies to prevent any intellectual property from slipping through the cracks. Rigorous review of third party contracts is also essential to ensure the availability of an exit strategy and to prevent overreaching contract provisions from crippling the company. Having contracts tailored correctly the first time can actually be easier, cheaper, and faster in the long run than trying to put something together yourself. The key benefit, however, is both a reduction in the likelihood of a lawsuit and the amount of your company’s potential liability should a lawsuit arise.

3. Intellectual Property Infringement

Liability: Liability for intellectual property infringement can range from an injunction to a multi-million dollar judgment. If your company’s website includes information which infringes any patent, copyright, trademark, trade secret or trade dress it is only a matter of time before a problem arises. While you may be lucky enough to receive a cease and desist letter before your website gets shut down, that is not always the case.  If your company relies on its website for sales and communication, the ramifications of an unanticipated shut down can be catastrophic. If you become aware of an accusation of infringement and fail to take immediate remedial steps, the court may award punitive damages and order your company to pay the intellectual property owner’s attorney fees as well as your own.

Solution: Everyone associated with adding content to your company’s website must be acutely aware of the proper use of trademarks, copyrighted material and patentable processes online. Assist your employees and website developer by adopting a detailed policy relating to the use and/or dissemination of intellectual property. Be sure you own, or properly license, all intellectual property used on your corporate website. Do not assume you are free to use anything in the “public domain” without detailed documentation of its provenance. If you receive an allegation of infringement any time you waste addressing the issue cause the liability to skyrocket. Informing your employees of appropriate remedial procedures well in advance of a problem, can be the difference between simply removing the infringing material from the website and having the company’s online operations brought to a grinding halt.


2. Ignoring Your Lawyer

Liability: Every company is different. No book or template can take the place of an attorney. If you fail to keep your attorney in the loop, fail to heed proactive legal advice, use contracts improperly, allow intangibles to go unprotected or fail to implement online legal procedures outlined by your lawyer, your company is simply digging a hole from which it may be too deep to extricate itself.  Although problems are inevitable, ignoring the advice of your lawyer often leaves your company without any way to remedy the situation.

Solution: Develop a relationship with a knowledgeable cyber lawyer. If you have a question, or anticipate a change that may change your online legal exposure, give your lawyer a call and do what he or she recommends. Good lawyers can guide you through much of the maze of online legal regulation, but they cannot help you if you do not keep them in the loop or ignore their advice.

1. No Formal Policies

Liability: Your company may float along for a while without any specific written policies regarding website usage or intellectual property protection. You may prefer to keep your head in the sand until a problem arises. Unfortunately, by the time a problem arises, it may be too late to take action. The absence of appropriate policies can lead to irreparable loss of intellectual property or even a lawsuit. If your company does become involved in a lawsuit, your “deer in the headlights” look from the witness stand garners little sympathy from jurors questioning why your company did not have proper policies in place.

Solution: Have detailed written policies and procedures in place before a problem arises. Although appropriate policies will vary from company to company, the foregoing nine issues are a good place to start when considering a general policy outline. Once you have a general outline, begin to incorporate industry and business specific provisions, detailing proper documentation and administrative procedures. Treat the resulting policy as a living document. Enlist the aid of a qualified information technology attorney to periodically review and update the policy to address changes in your corporate information technology structure, your intellectual property portfolio and existing laws.

The Personality of Networking - Part 2

How do you stay motivated? I’ve been asked this question for several years… Even before I decided to join the working world. It’s a tough question, but I’ve been able to answer it every time I hear it. My response typically revolves around passion and sacrifice, but in Part 2 of 'The Personality of Networking', I’ll dig a bit deeper.

Motivation:
I broadly define motivation in this case as, 'the drive and desire of an individual.' This can be for monetary reward, personal satisfaction or both. This is essentially what makes a person get out of bed everyday.Being able to define why you do what you do will make it easy to decide who you are. The following are traits often demonstrated by an effective networker:

  • Implementation - Setting specific networking goals and achieving them. The goals a networker sets should not revolve around seeing how many sales they can make, but rather simple goals like handing out two business cards per day. In this case, you should set achievable goals and follow through. If you find that at the end of the day you haven't handed out two cards... then get your butt to the grocery store and hand ‘em out!
  • Determination – The belief that you will create success.Far too often, I see individuals give up when they don't see success being created from the networking they have done. Reality is that some of the time, nothing will happen. On the other hand, many times things are being created from your efforts that you'll never even realize.You must be able to trust in yourself and your judgments that you've surrounded yourself with the right people. Good things will happen.
  • Sacrifice - Successful networking requires long hours.The excuse, "there are no networking events available" doesn't apply. If you can't find a networking event; you aren't looking hard enough. Check into your local associations and visit their events. Events are held at all hours during the day/night and it's up to you to make the time commitment to attend. This often leads to becoming a networking nerd; which is okay if you remain light-hearted and don't take things too seriously.

In my opinion, attitude & motivation can be learned/trained or born within. It’s imperative to recognize which characteristics you lack and strive to fill the gaps. In an ever changing and competitive market place; a business can thrive through the networks we build.

Franchise Due Diligence Resources

Are you interested in a business franchise opportunity?  It seems as though more and more Iowans are choosing franchises as an option rather than starting businesses on their own.  It is extremely to important to conduct due diligence and check out franchisors thoroughly. 

Inc.com has an excellent Guide on Buying a Franchise.  Topics covered include:

and much more.

You should also check out my podcast with Joe Cooney of Frannet which covers some basics of buying a franchise.  Joe also has a list of questions to ask franchisors.  But remember, when conducting franchise due diligence there is no substitute for digging in and working hard.  Above all, always interview as many franchisees as possible to get a better sense of how the franchisees themselves are performing.   

Jim Carrey's dream

Check The story goes that before Jim Carrey was famous, he walked up to the Hollywood Hills and wrote a check to himself for ten million dollars. On the memo line, he wrote, "For Services Rendered." For years he carried that check in his wallet, pulling it out occasionally to keep his dream clearly visible in his mind. Now he's one of the highest-paid entertainers in the industry, getting well over twenty million dollars for just one film. What role do you think that check played in his success?

Have you heard the stats about how fewer than 3 percent of people have clear, written goals? And how they are usually the most successful in every field? Supposedly less than one percent of people write, rewrite and review their goals on a regular basis.

It's been my experience, as an executive coach for lots of very competent people, that there's something almost magical that happens when someone writes something down. With an ink pen - a pencil - a keyboard. Once like Jim Carrey or over and over again every morning as an affirmation. Doesn't matter. What matters is getting down what you want to do or achieve. The very act of putting it down puts something, somewhere, into motion. I can't explain it but things start to come together to make that goal or dream a reality. It's like by writing it down, we declare ourselves in the game.

I've seen executives achieve incredible goals. And it all started by capturing those goals  in writing. A picture might be worth a thousand words. But a written goal -priceless.

Employee Training, Higher Profits

389317348_f4f0204df5_m_2We spend the first 18 to 25 years of our lives immersed in education and  training.  We are required to get an education, and for some we choose to further this education once the required part is over.  Our society pays billions of dollars to educate the young.  Families pay $100,000 to see their children get a college education.  Companies hire the brightest and most talented people to improve the business. 

It all sounds great until we realize that the vast majority of companies fail to continue the education and training of their employees.  They go out of their way to get the best, but then they fail to invest in keeping these people the best.  Many companies look at training as a cost that gives little return.

Training should be one of the key investments a company makes.  Research shows that training drives company profits and share value.  I have found that typically only 15-20% of companies have a budget for education and training.  Do you have a budget?

A strong education/training program provides the following:

  • Higher company profits
  • Recruitment tool
  • Decreases turnover
  • Higher shareholder returns
  • Individual growth
  • Increases business innovation

Smart companies realize that education and training is a must in todays environment.  The world is changing at an incredible rate - so you would be advised to make sure that your employees are keeping up.  Make the education and training investment today.  If you do not, you may not be around tomorrow.

 

Are You On Empty?

Gas We recently purchased a new vehicle and I've been having fun with some of the gadgets. 

One of my favorites is a counter that ticks downwards as you drive. It tells you how many more miles you can go before you run out of gas.  I just love that. 

Why? 

Well... I tend to be one of those people who goes and goes until I'm almost on empty. 

Now... I know that as Coach... I probably shouldn't admit that.  But... it's just in my nature.  I'm getting better... but as a recovering perfectionist... it's something I have to work on daily.  How about you?  Can you identify?

As I was driving the other day... watching the miles tick away... I started to wonder, "what if we had one of those "tickers" internally?"  You know... something we could watch to see if we're almost on empty... emotionally... physically... mentally.

The more I thought about it... the more I realized we do.  Okay... we might not have a digital ticker thingy... but we do have warning signs.  Right?

What are some of yours? 

For me... you can tell that I'm close to empty when my creativity starts to dry up.  It's also when I'm quicker to see the obsticles instead of the opportunties.  Another clue is when I'm quicker to get mad at a situation (or myself) instead of laugh. 

When I start to see those warning signs... I know that it's time to stop and fill up. (Next week... we're going to talk about how to fill up.)

This week... I'm just going to ask you how you know your tank is getting empty?  What are some of your signs?

I know... I know... this might seem like kind of a negative question.  But... it's important to think about it.  I'd even suggest you journal about it.  That way... when you start to see the "signs," you'll know to slow it down... and fill 'er up.

So... what are some of your signals that your tank's getting low?

Oh... and if you can't wait until next week for some suggestions on filling up... check out this great post at lifehack.org.  (Click here to check it out.)

Have you read your lease lately?

Bldg_for_lease_4 Typically, most business owners sign their lease and file it away in a safe spot - and then forget about it. But it might be worthwhile to review it and understand exactly what you're responsible for in case of damage. For example, are you responsible for:

  • Specific limits of liability insurance
  • Damage to store front glass
  • Naming landlord as an additional insured and providing certificates of insurance
  • Restoring to original condition if changes are made to the structure
  • Snow removal (sidewalk, parking, etc.) to avoid slips and falls
  • Landlord's increase in insurance premiums

It's a good time to ask some questions to make sure you understand your lease and to make sure you have insurance coverage if needed.

Other issues to consider:

  • If damage to the property occurs and you need to find another space to lease, is the original lease considered null and void? Or will you be required to pay rent while the space is being repaired?
  • If there's damage to the common building - but not to your particular space - making it difficult for you to conduct business, what are your options?
  • If there's damage to your spce and you have made improvements to that space, is the landlord now responsible for repairing any work performed by or on behalf of the tenant?

Don't assume you understand your lease. Ask questions, make notes and do a little research so that you understand your options.

For additional information about leases, go to this website.

Git'r done!

Larrycg_2 OK, I have a confession to make:  I'm really not all that much of a Larry the Cable Guy fan.  Don't get me wrong; I don't dislike him either.  And I can hang with the blue-collar-red-neck crowd as well as the next guy.  The thing I really, really do like about Larry is his catch phrase:  "Git'r done!"  When people ask me what my company name (Carpe Factum) means, I tell them that it's Latin for "Git'r done!"  Ok, that's not entirely true.  It means "seize the accomplishment," but the sentiment is still there.

Which brings me to why I'm a member of this group:  I love to "geek out" on project management.  I hang out with project managers.  We talk about Gantt charts.  We gush over the latest add-on to Microsoft Project.  We discuss best practices for status reports.  We groan about our latest project challenges.  But most of all, we share an intense passion just to "git-r done!"

There's one big "wait just a cotton-pickin' goll-darn minute" caveat to throw into the mix.  I like "git'r done" with a purpose.  I never recommend a tool to anybody unless there's a really good reason to use it, regardless of the size of the company.  And my clients have ranged from the really large companies to the itty-bitty teeny-tiny companies.  Regardless of the size of company, everybody wants to accomplish a goal.  As Tom Peters once said, "All white collar work is project work."  I'd add that a lot of "blue collar" work is project work, too.  So if you are worried that I'm going to start writing dissertations on earned value calculations, just put that one to bed right now.  It won't happen.  What I will do is help you identify how you can "git'r done" better than you are right now.

And knowing your task list and everything that needs to get done, isn't that better than any Larry the Cable Guy special that's on television?

Make a Good First Impression on the Phone

Phone_smile Just like mom used to say, you only get one chance to make a first impression. It's not uncommong for us to consider the impression we make in person, but few business people consider the first impression they make on the phone.

It's important to answer your phone well. By the time you finish greeting your customer, he or she has already made a judgment about you, what kind of mood you're in, and how easy you'll be to work with. It's not uncommon for customers to listen to a monotone or gruff Customer Service Representative (CSR) bark out a greeting and decide to hang up and try again for someone who sounds like they'll be more pleasant to work with.

Greeting the customer with an inviting, positive, professional greeting can put the customer at ease, endear you to the caller and start the call off on the right foot. Here are the common ingredients for a World-Class greeting:

  • Offer a salutation. This might be "Thank you for calling...", "Good morning", "Good afternoon", "Hi", "Hello".
  • Provide the company name. Unless customers have already been informed by the IVR, it's important to let them know they've reached the right place.
  • Provide your name. Customers want to know your name. They want to establish a personal rapport and know that you're going to be responsible for helping. Not providing your name is grounds for suspicion in the customers mind.
  • Invite them into the call. This might be "How can I help you?", "What can I do for you today?", "May I help you?" or any other inviting question.

Some people put these elements all together, and do so well:

CSR: Good morning. Acme Anvils. This is Homer. May I help you?

Yet, the elements don't have to be delivered in one long statement. Because customers often introduce themselves at the beginning of the call, I've heard many stellar CSRs consistently use the elements this way:

CSR: Acme Anvils. This is Homer.

Customer: Yeah, Homer. This is Whylie Coyote.

CSR: Hi Whylie. What can I do for you today?

The last, and arguably most important element, is to present the elements with a positive voice tone. Saying all the right words with a monotone, in mid-yawn, or with the inflection of an angry pro-wrestler is not going to cut it.

One last thought. I discourage companies from greeting the customer with a long, silly, company motto...

CSR: Thank you for calling Radio Shack. You've got Questions. We've got Answers. This is Myron. Can I help you?

...or answering the phone with an upsell before you've even listened to the customer's issue:

CSR: Thank you for calling Big Brand Booksellers. Are you interested in saving 10 percent on your purchases by joining our book buyers club today?

These greetings do not start the call off in an inviting, helpful manner. They will only serve to aggravate and irritate your customers before they've even had a chance to speak.

Further Reading: Upselling Basics for Customer Service

Shake the Cobwebs - Launch a Business Blog

Cobweb_2 We used to think it was so easy. Publish some text and images on your website, put the address on every piece of marketing and wait for them to come visit. The old "if you build it, they will come" idea behind web strategy.

Frankly, that idea was never good - except on the big screen. There is a term for static web pages that never change.  Cobweb. And if your content never changes, even the search engines get bored with your site - and stop coming by as often.

One way to shake off the cobweb blues is to launch a business blog. A blog is a collection of web pages that builds depth in a site while keeping the the freshest content at the top.

Before you sneeze at the idea, rid yourself of the notion that your blogs are only political rants or some controversial conversation between anonymous users. There are many ways to use a blog for your business:

  • Positioning: Launch a blog that gives your audience a glimpse into your thoughts and practices. Link out to industry news and add your thoughts.
  • FAQ: Use a blog to answer frequently asked questions about your product, industry or service. Not only will this help your customers, it will save you time from answering the same questions repeatedly.
  • Photo or Video: Use photo progressions of your work, or put samplings of a video tutorial in each post.
  • Tour Guide: Give your customers a glimpse into your back room, introduce your team with pictures and bios, show some of your process.

Of course, there are still many more ways to use blogs. By building web page depth and keeping your content fresh, you'll get repeat visits from your audience and the search engines. And your cobweb site can remain as your online brochure, while your blog can be the conversation.

Remember, blogs are web pages. While your customers/prospects may not realize they're reading blogs - blog pages are among the most findable on the web. Think your folks aren't reading blogs? Better shake off the cobwebs.

Numbers? But I'm the marketing guy!

Numbers If I asked most small business owners how they'd know if 2006 had been successful, I suspect I'd get a grin and the answer, "if I had any money left in the checking account on December 31st."

While they'd mean it as a joke, it isn't all that far from true.  Let's be candid with each other.  Isn't it one of the unfathomable truths that most business owners/managers don't set or measure financial goals?

I get it.  Numbers aren't fun or sexy.  They aren't interacting with the customers or mentoring the employees. But, without an understanding of the numbers - those opportunities go away pretty quickly.

Think of it this way.  If you were going to build a house, how would you know how much lumber to buy if you didn't have a blueprint?  Before we can craft a marketing plan, you need to know what you're trying to build.

Do you know the answer to these questions?

  • What is your sales goal for 2007?
  • How will you measure/track that goal?
  • What percentage of those sales should come from current customers?
  • From new business?
  • What is your ratio of gross sales to cost of goods sold?  (What percentage of your GS is left for you to spend = Adjusted gross income or AGI)
  • What's your monthly overhead cost?
  • What's your monthly salary/benefits cost?
  • By client, how profitable are you?
  • By product line/service, how profitable are you?
  • How have your business sales trended over the past 3 years?

If you already know the answers to these questions - excellent.  But, if you are like most business people, you might be able to guess but you don't really know for sure. 

Isn't it time to know for sure?  My next post...we'll begin to build a plan to help you achieve those numbers.

Top Ten Legal Oversights That Can Shut Down Your Website (Part I)

Many legal problems can shut down your company’s website. Here are the first five of the top ten most likely culprits:

10. No Website Disclaimer

Liability: Liability depends on the type of disclaimer omitted and the resulting damage. Good disclaimers often cover errors and omissions on the website, third party links and the website not constituting an engagement of any kind. Including irrelevant, redundant or non-applicable items in a disclaimer, however, may diminish the insulation from liability the disclaimer is designed to provide.

Solution: Be sure your disclaimer relates to your industry and the specific information contained on the website. Draft the disclaimer for your typical website visitor and be sure you yourself understand every aspect of the disclaimer

9. Privacy Breaches

Liability: Failing to properly inform website visitors of the company’s privacy policy, or using confidential information contrary to the policy or industry regulations, can cause severe repercussions. Large-scale or egregious breaches in privacy can quickly devolve into a financial and public relations nightmare.

Solution: Post a detailed privacy policy which dictates the disposition and security associated with the various types of private information you collect. Be sensitive to how you may use the information in the future, as a narrow policy may be difficult to broaden after you have collected the information. Be sure to comport with all legal and regulatory restrictions pertaining to your particular type of business.

8.  No Chain of Command

Liability: Thinking someone else is covering the problem can cost your company millions. Not only may your company be liable, but your officers and directors may be held personally liable if they were made aware of the problem, but failed to take appropriate action.

Solution: Develop a coordinated chain of command. Draft written reporting procedures and protocols for addressing IT issues on a timely basis. Designate a Chief Information Officer (“CIO“) to coordinate directly with the Board of Directors and reduce critical IT-related delays and failures.

7. Failure to Protect Intellectual Property

Liability: Intellectual property is the primary asset of most online retailers, software companies and companies with a solid brand identity. Reclaiming lost trademarks, customer lists, proprietary technology or patents is often not possible. Failure to properly protect these assets can, single-handedly, destroy your entire company.

Solution: First, find out what intellectual property your company has and document ownership. Second, file for intellectual property protection on intangibles such as trademarks and patents. Third, draft and execute intellectual property transfer/license documentation well prior to any use of intellectual property from outside the company.

6. Security Breaches

Liability: Lapses in security translate over one trillion dollars in annual corporate lossees. While hackers account for a portion of this number, disgruntled or careless employees account for most of the losses.

Solution: Carefully tailor a security plan for your particular industry and type of website.  Identify and prioritize the potential risks. Adopt a strict security policy, even if one is not legally required. Be sure to include flexibility in the policy and remedial protocols in the event of a breach.

Next. The top five oversights . . .

Do taxes stink?

Yes, taxes stink.  If you’re successful, you get used to the smell, but you never do much like it.  Like any cost of doing business, you try to pay as little as you can under the circumstances.

Managing your business taxes has a lot in common with managing other business costs.  You don’t expect to reduce your operating costs all at once on the last day of the year, let alone after the year is over. Don't expect to do it with taxes, either.

Like other costs, taxes are managed by getting the right systems in place, and then doing the operations right.  In tax, the systems start with your choice of entity – S corporation, C corporation, proprietorship or partnership.  They also include your retirement and benefit plan choices.  Your operations include paying your taxes on time to avoid penalties and paying your expenses in ways that count at tax time.  That’s what we cover here at IowaBiz on the 11th and 23rd of each much, and every day at www.taxupdateblog.com

I've got lots of good stuff to cover, but I'll be happy to consider requests - just leave them in the comments.  Now go back and mind the store. 

The Personality of Networking - Part 1

Handshake It's been my experience as a networker/connector that there are several pieces to the overall puzzle often referred to as connectivity.  One piece of this puzzle revolves around the personality traits of a successful networker.

Two basic characteristics within a personality that make for an effective networker are Attitude & Motivation.  First, we'll focus on a networking attitude.

Attitude
I broadly define attitude in this case as, 'any person that recognizes their strengths and weaknesses and utilizes them to achieve success in their personal practice.' In my opinion, it is important to recognize early-on what you don't know and surround yourself with the expertise you need to grow. 

Over the past three years, I have seen the following attitudes in effective networkers:

  • Fearless - It takes courage to walk into a group of people and introduce yourself to others.  In many cases, someone that is unwilling or unable to approach a group may miss an opportunity for collaboration.  Sometimes a group may seem unapproachable, but in reality the group is in a comfort zone that will make them MORE approachable.  In order to find this out, you have to step outside of your personal comfort zone and make that determination.

  • Light Heart - Life can and will throw you curve-balls.  Think back to a time you've met with someone and instantly knew they were having a bad day and couldn't care about anything you had to say.  Did you want to force a conversation that you knew they didn't want to have?  An effective networker is often able to hide their negative emotions (if only for an hour) in order to produce results from a conversation.  An effective networker can also utilize their positive attitude to brighten the other's day.

  • Opportunist - It is of high importance to see opportunity when it is not readily apparent.  In a situation that has signs of little promise, an effective networker should be armed with open-ended questions that can lead to a potential opportunity (if not for them, then for someone else).  These questions can be as simple as: “Where are you from?”, “What is your passion?”, or “Does your neighbor have rabbits?”  Some of the best meetings come from those that show no signs of opportunity.  Many times questions can disarm a tense conversation and produce great results.

By recognizing different characteristics of your attitude, your odds for success will be increased as you move into the networking process.   

Iowa is Not a Litigious State

In October of 2006 I posted about an Iowa Association of Business and Industry survey regarding how Iowa business leaders perceived the legal climate in Iowa.  The survey stated that many business leaders are dissatisfied with Iowa's legal climate and believe it is costing the state jobs because of competition with other states.

That survey seemed to contradict the U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey which said Iowa ranks fourth in the country for judicial fairness.  Iowa has ranked in the top five for each of the last four years. 

So, which is it?  Well, we may have the answer.  Jim Carney, Legislative Counsel for the Iowa State Bar Association, says that Iowa's civil trials are on a downward trend.  In the latest addition of the Iowa Lawyer Carney pointed out that there has been a 17.5 percent reduction over the last five years in civil jury trials relating to tort law.  Moreover, the number of civil jury trials in Iowa continues on a downward trend.  There were a total of 262 civil jury trial in the entire state during 2006.  But even more important Carney says is the fact there has been a 44 percent decline in the total number of jury trials (civil and criminal) from 1994 to 2006.  In 2006, 37 counties in Iowa reported no civil jury trials while 21 counties reported one civil jury trial, 18 counties reported two and 7 counties reported three civil jury trials.  All in all, an astonishing 83 counties reported three or less civil jury trials.

Why the downward trend?  One of the major reasons for the decrease in civil jury trials is the increased use of mediation as an alternative to taking cases to court.  Overall, my experience with business clients leads me to believe that Iowa's judicial system is just as good as any state.  There are always ways to improve our Iowa's business climate but it just doesn't appear the facts support the notion that Iowa's legal system is a problem.   

Stand for something

Disconnect_2 Employees often tell me -- with regret -- that they don't respect their management; they don't think they're trustworthy. They're often in organizations where core values of integrity and trust are plastered on the walls and slapped on coffee mugs. Why the disconnect?

Don't you wonder what people are looking for in their leaders  -- that the leaders think they are already providing? Because you can bet when I'm in conversations with the leaders in those same organizations, they believe they are honest and trustworthy and deserving of respect. Not only from their employees but from their customers too.

They're subtle, these things we refer to so glibly as trust and respect. We know at our core if we respect someone and yet, it's tough sometimes to articulate why. Just like parents who say one thing and then do another, leaders leave an impression with people of whether or not they are deserving of the respect they assume comes with their roles.

What is that quality that teenagers see lacking in their parents that leads to behavior appalling to their folks? It's congruence - or the lack thereof. For many parents, their messages and their lives are two very different things. They're kidding no one, most of all their kids.

Neither are leaders. When a leader talks about investing in employee development for the long term but then clearly makes decisions driven by next quarter's stock price, employees see through it. And talk about it among themselves. They jump ship ("misbehave") and leaders wonder why.

True leaders know what they stand for and they live by those standards. There's congruence between what they say and what they do. They've got to stand for something if they expect others to stand with them.

Flickr photo courtesy of dollhead77.

Evil or Good?

390624312_5721d4a1fb_mWhen one evaluates a company's culture, one of the key indicators of what type of culture exists is how the owner of the company views their employees.

As the owner, do you come to work and dread all of the issues you face  in dealing with your employees.  When you review your financial statements and look at the payroll line do you wonder why you are giving your money away to these people.  You are the one that took the risks, gave your time, postponed vacations, and made it all happen.  The employees are never satisfied and they are always wanting you to give more of your money to them - employees are evil!

OR...

As the owner, do you come to work and look forward to working with a group of people that are dedicated to your business.  You value them for what they give to the business, but you also value them as individuals.  Looking for ways to provide personal growth, opportunities to advance, and even helping them when they choose to take another position somewhere else.  You are grateful for what they do and how it allows you to build wealth - employees are good.

So what type of owner are you?  What would the mouse in the corner think - the one that sees and hears everything you do?  If you are a risk taker, ask your employees and see if they agree with you.

Flickr photo by PortugePunk

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Our goal is pretty simple.  We want to help you grow your business.  We want you to make more money, find new customers, protect what your building -- from both a legal and insurance point of view, create an incredible experience for your customers, employees and most of all - yourself.

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