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June 2007

Stressed? Well... don't think about the purple cow!

I recently had a coaching client say, "I'm so stressed out.  I just can't help thinking about all the bad things that might happen at work right now.  I can't get anything done... and I can't stop thinking about work when I get home."

I said, "Don't think about the purple cow."Purple_cow

She was a little rattled.  Then she responded with a weak "what?"

I explained that I once had a high school psychology teacher who tried an experiment with us. 

He started the class by saying, "Today... I have a simple request.  I don't want you to think about purple cows."

I think my response at the time was something close to my coaching client's.  I said, "What?"

He said, "It's simple.  I don't want you to think about purple cows.  I don't want you to think about whether purple cows have horns.  I don't want you to think about whether purple cows have purple spots.  I don't want you to think about purple cows eating grass.  Just don't think about purple cows."

Then... he did the unthinkable.  He started to ask everyone questions about what was on their minds.

"Tim.  What are YOU thinking about?" 

Tim's response, "Purple cows."

He continued already in a huff.  "Margaret.  What are YOU thinking about?"

Margaret's voice cracked as she said "purple cows." 

He said... "But I clearly instructed you to NOT think about purple cows!" 

He continued around the room until he got to Debbie.  Debbie's response finally brought a smile to the teacher's weary face.

What did Debbie say? She simply responded with..."A pink gorilla."

Yup.  Debbie had figured out how to beat the purple cow that was staring everybody else in the face. 

She knew that instead of trying to not think about something... she needed to replace it with something better... something more vivid.  She needed to think of something new that would replace the old.

So, what does this have to do with being stressed out?

Well... my client was trying to not think about her negative thoughts and predictions, but it wasn't working.  She was trying to NOT think about purple cows. 

So... instead, we worked on a set of questions that would help her to replace those negative images with a more positive thoughts.

Some of here favorites were:

  • What's one positive thing that I'm learning right now... that will help me in the future?
  • This might not work, but then again it might.  So, what's one positive thing that could result from this project?
  • What are 5 things that I can be grateful about... right now?

So... what are some questions that you could ask yourself to replace the purple cow with the pink gorilla.  Or in other words... what would help you move from the negative thoughts causing you stress and worry... to more positive thoughts... that free you up to relax... and become solution oriented?

Click "comments" and join in the conversation.  Let me know some of the things you could think about to replace your own purple cows.

Photo credit: juliaf

When Your Dream Car Turns Into a Nightmare

Mercedesbenzslr_2 It took a month for you to pick it out.  You looked at every magazine you could find to make sure you were making the right choice.  Consumer Reports solidified your decision.  You ventured to the dealership and let them know you would like the new Limited Edition Mercedes SLK55 AMG.

You ask the new car salesman if the car can be equipped with all the amenities you can think of.  Don’t forget those special order 17” rims and low profile tires! Finally …you have put together your dream car.  You write the check and the salesman lets you know that the vehicle is on back order and you can expect to have yours in 30-40 days.

So you wait. Then the call comes, telling you your car is in. You make arrangements to pick it up over lunch.  Do you call your agent? Or do you make the general assumption that everything is covered?

Then, just a few days later you wake up, look out your front window and someone is getting into your new car.  You rub your eyes one more time and see the car being backed out of your driveway.  What’s going on?

You call 911 and they tell you to call the police.  Can you ever find the number to the police station when you need it?

What is going to happen next?  You call your insurance company and report the claim.  You need a car; you are late for a very important business meeting across town.  Your insurance company sends over a Ford Focus with no power steering and a manual transmission.  This is not anything like your dream car! 

Your rental reimbursement coverage is $25 a day for a max of 30 days with a max payout of $750 and they did not want to exceed your limit of coverage.  A question to discuss with your agent will be about your rental coverage and the limits you currently have.

The insurance adjuster assigned to your case lets you know that a stolen car usually turns up in a chop shop or is found in a few days. 

Then you get a call saying they found your car, however, it has been in a police chase and has hit a telephone pole.  The adjuster says they can fix your car and things will be O.K.  You feel relieved - until you see your car.  Pictures reveal that the telephone pole was actually pushed back as far as your dashboard. 

In your mind, there’s no way they can fix the car. But the adjuster explains that due to the value of the car they have to fix it.   Of course this leads to many phone calls and discussions with your agent. 

What next?  You never dreamed this could happen.  You call your agent and explain that the rental car company has picked up your car because coverage has run out on your policy.  Your agent explains you only have rental car coverage for 30 days and the rest is out of your pocket.  The agent also lets you know that those rims and tires on the car were not insured and the front two need to be replaced.   Confused yet? 

In the same conversation your agent lets you know that he heard through the grapevine that your car may take a little while to get fixed.  Months go by and you have now been making your car payment as well as a rental car payment of $45 a day because you wanted a car more comparable to your dream car.  And there’s no word on when your car will be repaired.  What is going on?

Remember that your Limited Edition vehicle was on back order to begin with.   So where do you think your auto repair shop and insurance company are going to find parts when the auto manufacturer is still in the production phase of vehicles?  They won’t be able to.

Oh – and don’t forget about your deductible.  Are things starting to add up for you? 

This is a very short rendition of a very long, drawn out claim.  And it doesn’t end when your car is returned to you. What if you don’t like the way your car handles after it is fixed?  What if you have further damage that the insurance company did not find until you start driving it?

Whether this is a company car or a personal car, the claim could be very similar. Or it might even be worse if it is a corporate car and it’s needed for the operation of your business.

There are many things to consider when you purchase a new car. Don’t take for granted that the car is adequately covered by your insurance carrier.

Photo from Creative Commons

How Cluttered Is Your Project?

ClutterTaking a cue from my blog buddy, Steve Farber, we're on a mission to de-clutter the Johnson household this summer.  My younger daughter is transitioning quickly from "toddler" phase to "little girl" phase, and we're done with any new inputs into the procreation system, so it's time to get rid of all of the infant and toddler toys, trinkets, clothes, etc. we don't need.  We've also figured out that, after 13 years of marriage, my wife and I have collected our fair share of junk over the years.  I've been making trip after trip to Good Will and Salvation Army, and numerous items have just wound up being tossed altogether.  It's a very liberating feeling.

Now... how about your project?  How much junk and clutter are bogging down your most important initiatives?  What do you need to do to get rid of some of it?  How do you decide which elements of your scope need to go and which ones need to stay?  Pretty difficult, eh?

Not really.

The first question you need to ask yourself is "Why?"  Do you have a good solid problem or opportunity statement?  Can you fill in the blank in 10 words or less:  "We are committed to completing this project because ___________________."  If you cannot answer that simple question, then back up and force yourself to answer it.  Challenge yourself.  Let your staff and stakeholders challenge you.  If you find you can't answer that question, then maybe your problem is beyond decluttering.  It may be a case of throwing out everything.  The entire project may be clutter.  If your answer has the words "we need" or "we have a lack of" then you need to go back and keep trying; you haven't defined a problem as much as you've already defined the solution.

Now, let's say you've been able to answer that question and answer it well.  You are undertaking this project because....  You know the answer.  You're confident of the answer.  You can defend it to your stockholders, your customers, your suppliers, your employees, the media, your spouse, and your highly inquisitive two-year-old.  The rest should be easy.  Look at all of the tasks and activities that you are undertaking as part of the scope of this project.  Do they contribute directly to the problem or opportunity you've defined?  No?  Then into the project dumpster they go.

That might sound harsh.  You may have already invested time and energy into completing them.  Your people may have developed an emotionally vested interest in completing them.  Nevertheless, they are bogging down your project and keeping you from accomplishing your critical initiative.  Do you want to get a few things done well and quickly, or do you want to be dilluted with a lot of things that may or may not be done?

Recently, I worked with one of my clients and was mentoring a project manager and project sponsor on a content management system.  The project manager had both the content as well as the platform as part of his scope.  The sponsor challenged him about this, asking whether they needed to be split apart into two separate projects.  The project manager was able to rationally and logically lay out why both components were critical to his project and why both should stay in scope.  It was a very refreshing discussion to hear because it was honest, real, objective, and professional.  There was no "wailing and gnashing of teeth."  It was a model for the kind of raw communication that needs to occur on more projects.

Are you ready to de-clutter your project?

Carpe Factum!

Customer Service Wizardry: Your Voice Tone

Picture_2 "'You may be right,' said Gandalf; 'but this snake had still one tooth left, I think. He had the poison of his voice...'"

In J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings, the fallen Wizard Saruman was a master at using his voice to persuade others towards his evil ways. Stripped of all his other powers, the cunning antagonist was still able to use his voice as a tool for his dark purposes.

Most of us allow our voices to be a slave to our emotions. If we're having a bad day, our voice reflects it. If we're angry, or tired, or happy, or serene - our voices change with the mood like the colors on a mood ring (yes, I'm a child of the 70's!). But it doesn't have to.

Your voice is a tool. Your voice tone, your inflection, your pace, and your volume can all be adjusted at your will, and can be manipulated to communicate any desired emotion. You most likely use your voice as a tool without even thinking about it. As the fictional wizard in Tolkein's masterwork used his voice for evil purposes, you can use your voice for good - good service.

Great Customer Service Representatives learn, or instinctively know, how to use this powerful tool of voice. They might be having a terrible day, but you'd never know it. They inflect their words, adjust their volume and match the customer's pace in order to put the customer at ease and reflect a friendly, courteous attitude.

I know that there are many times that I must "choose in" to providing great service. I have to consciously make my voice serve the customer and not reflect whatever blah mood I might be feeling at the moment. The amazing thing is that when I use my voice as a tool to deliver great service, the emotional reward for making someone's day provides a much needed lift to my own.

Grade Your Website - Without Emotion or Bias

I encounter many business owners who are in love with their websites.

  • Owners who love the cool flash intro every time they see it, though it annoys their users by their third visit
  • Owners who dig the simplicity of the frames that surround the content, though search engines record only one page out of 75 pages in the site.
  • Owners who wonder why they don't rank higher in Google for any of the 54 keywords they've put in their code.
  • Owners who have no idea what I'm talking about...so let's get to the point...

Friend and Iowa small business owner Kyle Eslick was the first of many trusted voices pointing out a free tool called Website Grader.

Simply key in your web address, a few related keywords and if you choose, a competitors site. Within a minute or two, you'll have a web grade on a scale of 100 -- with suggested improvements.

Kyle was able to take his grade from 85/100 to 95/100 with a few minor changes. We took IowaBiz from a 45/100 to 78/100 - and we're just getting started.

Two things to think about as you head on over to WebsiteGrader

  • Website Grader brings no emotion into the grading process. During this test, neither should you.
  • Website Grader bases part of its grading on social media sites such as Technorati and Delicious - these are important pieces in today's Internet. Don't ignore them. (remember - no emotion on this test).

If you want to learn more about how to use the web for your business or more about the social media landscape, check out Kyle's Cove - one of the most popular tech sites around (the globe) and a site that sometimes gets more web traffic than the Des Moines Register site.

Please don't ignore me

Ignore Nearly 70% of business lost in America is lost due to post-sales apathy.

Amazing isn't it? We spend all this time and effort luring them to our business. We seduce them on the sales floor. We listen attentively to their problem and help them find a solution. We gave them a fair price. We smile and wave as they leave.

And then, we ignore them.

There is no hotter prospect than your current client. They know you. They liked you enough to try you once.  Hopefully, they had a reasonable or even good experience the first go around.  So why aren't you talking to them?  Why aren't you telling them more about you? Why aren't you asking them more about them? 

If you don't have a customer retention program - one that turns your clients into raving fans...you need one. Make it simple, easy to implement and something you will actually do.  Consistently.  More important than the program, build the attitude throughout your company.  Your customers deserve to be treated as well, if not better after they reward you with their business.

Start on it today.  It's that important.

Who Owns Your Website?

As a copyright lawyer I am often the one to tell new clients “Even though you paid for your website that does not mean you own it.” Because these clients paid money for their website, they think they own things like:

  • The design of their website;
  • The software code behind their website;
  • Their domain name;
  • The graphics on their website;
  • The other content on their website;
  • The terms of use and privacy policies on their websites.

Most clients think they are obtaining an “assignment” of these things when they write a check. They are shocked to learn that the people they paid to create these things actually still own them. Intellectual property laws are designed to protect the creator, to encourage the creator to create. If you hire someone to design a website for you, what you are actually purchasing is a “license” to use the design for the use intended by you and the designer.

What is the difference between a license and an assignment? With a license, you cannot use the design for something beyond what you originally contemplated with the designer without paying additional money. With a license, you cannot sublicense the design, use it on another website or prevent the designer from licensing the exact same design to your competitor for a small fraction of what you paid.

Similar problems arise with software code, graphics, photos, terms of use policies and other content created by third parties. If you have your employees create these things as part of their job, your company the works are deemed to be “works for hire” and your company is the “author” of the works by law. You do not need an assignment, because the copyright originally vests in your company. Knowing this, seemingly knowledgeable intellectual property attorneys try to apply this theory to independent contractors by contract. The law, however, does not allow these types of website items created by independent contractors to be “works for hire” under the law.

If you want to own all of the rights in the copyright, you need to obtain a written contract, which includes and “assignment.” If you broach this subject with your website developer before you sign any contract, an assignment will often not increase the contract price. If you broach the subject after you have paid, however, the cost of an assignment may be tens of thousands of dollars.

For some items, like terms of use and privacy policies, you may not even need an assignment. You could of course pay an attorney to write a policy from scratch that he or she would never use again. Such “one-off” contracts however, would likely be ten times more expensive than having the attorney merely customize an existing policy they have in their files from which they might obtain some benefit from modifying again in the future. For most legal information on your website a license is typically much more economical than an assignment.

With regard to domain names, be sure that whomever you have register the domain name, that they register it under the name of your company rather than theirs. You might not notice the difference until the time you want to move your website to another host service and your web hosting service refuses to release the domain name they registered to themselves, rather than you.

For third party content, including pictures, graphics and charts you find on the web, it is best to avoid incorporating them into your website, even if you feel they are in the public domain or that the use is a “fair use.” Many companies have had to pay huge royalties for the use of material a third party posted online as public domain without the authorization of the true author.

One final note, keep an updated back-up of everything on your website. It is not worth a dispute with a designer or web hosting company shutting down your website during negotiations. Nothing ensures good faith negotiations more than having your own copy of your website code.

S Corporation losses: the basics

S corporations have soared in popularity in recent years, to the point where they are probably the preferred entity choice for closely-held businesses.  S corporations generally don't pay their own taxes; instead, their income passes through to their shareholders' returns. 

Why would you do such a silly thing as elect to pay extra taxes on your 1040?  There are two main reasons.

First, S corporation income is only taxed once - when it is earned.  Distributions of S corporation income are generally tax-free.  This contrasts with C corporations; they pay tax on the income as it is earned, and the shareholders pay tax again when it is distributed.

Second, S corporation losses can deductible on the owners returns.  But you have to be careful.  S corporation losses may be deductible, but maybe not this year, or not in full, or to all shareholders.  The tax law has many traps to limit loss deductions - some easily avoidable, some not so much.

The first limit to losses is your basisTaxpayers can deduct losses to the extent they have basis in S Corporation stock or in loans they have made to their S corporation.  Basis starts with what you pay for your stock; it increases for S corporation earnings and capital contributions, and it declines for losses and distributions.  If you make a loan to an S corporation, losses can reduce your basis in the loan; if you repay the loan before income has restored the basis, the repayment can trigger taxable income.  And remember: you don't get basis in an S corporation just by guaranteeing its borrowings.

Next, the basis has to be "at-risk."  The at-risk rules are horrendously complex - so much so that the IRS hasn't been able to write final regulations for them in the 30 years since they were enacted.  In general terms, is "at-risk" to the person ultimately "on the hook" for payment.  But if you borrow the money from a related party, the tax law might say you aren't "at-risk" -- even if you borrowed from a cruel and unforgiving sibling.  If you need to be "at-risk," borrow from your banker, not your relative or business associate.

Finally, "passive" losses aren't deductible, even if you have plenty of basis and you are "at-risk."  Congress enacted the passive activity rules in 1986 to shut down the retail tax shelter industry.  You can only deduct "passive" losses to the extent of "passive" income in any year.  If you can't deduct them, the passive losses carry forward to future years to offset other passive income; when you sell your interest in a "passive activity," you can deduct any remaining losses from that activity.

So what makes a loss "passive"?  The passive loss rules work against taxpayers who don't work in a business, or who invest in rental real estate.  As an individual taxpayer, you are passive unless you pass one of these tests during the tax year:

  • You participate at least 500 hours in one activity; or
  • You participate at least 100 hours and at least 500 hours in more than one "100 hour" activities; or
  • You participate at least 100 hours and more than anybody else, or
  • You are the only participant; or
  • You materially participated in five of the past ten years) or in any three years for a service activity).

There is also a "facts and circumstances" test, but that's a last resort. 

Rental real estate is "passive" unless you are a "real estate professional," which is another set of rules altogether.

Bottom line? The ability to deduct business losses is a good reason for many taxpayers to use S corporations.  If you expect S corporation losses, talk to your tax pro before year-end to make sure you are eligible to deduct them.

5 Tips on Getting and Staying Connected (2)

This is the second of three-parts. Also see 5 Tips on Getting and Staying Connected (1).

Hand Back on April 22nd I wrote a post for Iowabiz.com that had a segment dealing with the sacrifice involved in networking. More specifically, the long hours that are required and the fact that there are several options for networking... you just have to seek them out.

Tip # 2 - Attend Seminars and Professional Development Business Functions
In many instances you should view these functions as if you're reading a business book.  You're not going to believe everything you read/hear and it's up to you to take out pieces of information that you can apply to your business.  Here are some things to focus on when attending these events:

  • Re-Connect.  In many cases, you'll run into people you already know. Make it a point to follow-up with them and find out if they're in need of any resources.
  • Connect.  Make it a point to seek out others that you don't know.  Remember, people are there for a reason and it may take pro-active steps to start a conversation.
  • Make Yourself Visible.  Separate yourself but don't stand in a corner.  You can make yourself standout by 'working' the room and introducing yourself.  If you have too, strike up a conversation in the beverage or food line.  This allows for one on one interaction and makes for great practice on your elevator pitch.
  • Follow-up.  Make sure to gather business cards and follow-up with an e-mail or phone call... and then buy them a coffee.  Sometimes the best 'marketing dollars' can be spent on a coffee and an hour long conversation.
  • Make it a Habit.  If you continue to pursue networking events, they will soon become easier and easier to attend and most importantly... this will make them effective.

Stay tuned to Iowabiz.com for tip # 3

Protect Your Iowa Business With a Non-Compete

Handcuffs Many business owners I talk with are reluctant to enter into a non-compete with their employees.  These business owners are afraid an employee won't sign or a confrontation will occur.  Some just don't believe they should keep the employee from finding a job - even if it is to the employer's detriment.

But to avoid disruptions to your business or losing customer relationships you should consider non-compete agreements in certain situations.  This is especially true if the employee has a close relationship with the customer and could easily take the customer if the employee leave your employ.

The best time to secure a non-compete agreement is when you hire the employee although continued employment may be sufficient consideration to bind even current employees.  Iowa courts have developed a three-part test to determine whether a non-compete agreement is enforceable:

1.  Is it necessary for the protection of the employer's business?

Factors to consider:  Does the employee have a great deal of personal contact with customers?  Is the employee in a position to lure customers away?  Have you spent significant time and money training the employee?

2. Is the non-compete unreasonably restrictive of the employee's rights

Factors to consider:  Is the non-compete limited in time?  The most common time restrictions are 1-3 years.  Courts tend to favor shorter time restrictions.  (This will always depend on the cirmcumstances of the particular case).

Is the non-compete limited in geographic scope?  For a local business, a 50-mile limit may be reasonable while a regional business may use a scope spread out over several states.  It depends on the market area of the particular business.  Because of the Internet and other technologies, geographic limits are becoming a less effective way to control competition from former employees.  Businesses must carefully consider how to be reasonable and still control competition in the global marketplace.

3. Is the non-compete prejudical to the public interest

Factors to consider:  Does the particular non-compete harm the general public?  This part of the test has rarely been used to invalidate non-competes in Iowa.  For example, non-competes in Iowa have been upheld against doctors and dentists where you might expect that limiting access to health care could harm the general public.

Finally, Iowa has adopted a "partial enforcement" doctrine permitting a court to uphold a non-compete agreement to the extent it is reasonable and allowing the Court to modify terms if necessary.  For example, a court may reduce a time restriction from 3 years to 1 year if the judge finds that is appropriate.  Or, a judge could change a geographic restriction from the entire state of Iowa to a 100-mile radius of the business.  This is different from an all or nothing approach where a judge might declare the entire non-compete agreement invalid if just one of the terms is found unreasonable.  When litigating non-compete agreements in Iowa the parties must consider whether the agreement may be partially enforced.   

If you are one of those who is not comfortable with a non-compete agreement for your employees I would strongly encourage you to have at least confidentiality and non-solicitation agreements.  These agreements generally provide protection for your business without restricting the employee's ability to work elsewhere.  If a departing employee attempts to take clients or other employees with them you will be glad you had those agreements in place.

*Remember there are several pitfalls relating to these agreements if not written correctly so be sure to contact your employment or business lawyer to review and/or draft such agreements.  For more information read this interesting article on The Power of the Noncompete Clause through the Harvard Business School.

Photo on Flickr by D.F. Shapinsky (pingnews)

What makes good managers good?

Good_managers What picture comes to mind for you when I say the word, "micro-manager?"

  • Someone looking over your shoulder at your computer screen to see if you've gotten that report done yet?
  • Someone who makes all the decisions for the department, right down to the color of the napkins for the breakroom?
  • Someone who expects an update every Friday, on tasks you've been doing for two years?

Seems absurd, I know. And yet, there are people out there who manage that way and wonder why good people don't stay.

But you know what? Just as absurd...and as demoralizing...are those bosses we often call "hands-off" managers. These are the individuals who:

  • Think they are empowering people by leaving them alone.
  • Think they do not need to track their employees' performance because "we're all adults".
  • Think that if their direct reports are happy, they'll be productive.

Looming isn't good. But neither is being inattentive. A lack of trust isn't helpful. But neither is trusting too much. "Micro-managing" and "hands-off "are both lacking because neither truly engage employees.

Good managers:

  • Spell out clear expectations.
  • Track performance.
  • Provide direction and support.

Consistently. Every day. That's what makes good managers good.

Photo on flickr by soanesmark

The Separation of Work and Home

321378829_546f5947d4There are many businesses that support the notion that you should leave your personal issues at home and keep focused on the work at hand.  If you agree with this, I pose this thought to you. 

Think of one of the worst times in your home life - now hold that picture in your mind and ask yourself "Was I able to give 100% at work?"  I do not know anyone that has ever answered yes to this question.  Therefore, you would have to agree that work and home can not be separated and are intimately intertwined in our fast paced world. 

Your business culture can add or take value away from the employees work/home balance.  Cultures that support the employees enable them to maintain a higher level of productivity at work, which means higher returns for your business. 

Take a look at the following list of cultural initiatives that progressive companies have implemented:

  • Flexible work schedules
  • Work from home
  • Financial planning counseling
  • Communication training
  • Employee assistance programs for personal counseling
  • Education reimbursement
  • College scholarships for families
  • Sabbaticals
  • Liberal paid time off that includes funeral leave
  • Company libraries
  • Personal development plans and coaching
  • Full benefit packages
  • Health and fitness programs

I encourage to evaluate what you offer at your company.  If you ask your employees what items would work best, your investments in these programs will result in higher returns for your business.  The separation of work and home is a myth!

Flickr photo by erhmanspix

A Perfectionist with a Cluttered House? Is that Possible?

When I'm teaching a seminar on perfectionism... I usually have some fun in the beginning of the day by having the group profile a "typical" perfectionist.

They will shout out things like... "Type A personality!"  "A driver!"  "Controlling!"  "A hard worker!" 

And almost always... someone will say something like... "Their house looks like a museum!  Clean.  Polished.  Perfectly maintained." 

And yes... all of these things can be true.  300905712_b6565adeb8

BUT... can a person have a cluttered home... a cluttered desk... a cluttered life... and still be a perfectionist? 

Yup.

It's true.

In fact, more often than not... a person who is dealing with perfectionism... will have a lot of clutter in their life.

Why?

Well... many times... a perfectionist will look at a task like cleaning their home and they'll want to do it perfectly.  So they'll start to list all of the things they need to do in their head.  Scrub the floors.  Fold the laundry.  Pick up the toys in the kid's room.  Wash the windows.  Dust.  Mow the lawn. 

The list grows and grows because they want to do it perfectly.  Right?

Then they might look at the clock and see that they only have an hour.  And... that's when they realize that they can't get it all done... perfectly.

So... many times... the person dealing with perfectionism... just won't do it.  They stop.  They say to themselves... either consciously or subconsciously... "If I can't get it done perfectly... why even start?" 

Sound familiar?

For you... maybe this happens at work.  Maybe it's research for a new service that you'd like to offer.  Or... maybe it's getting around to hiring that new person you know that you need.  Or maybe it's looking at your benefits package.

You just don't start... because you can't do it perfectly.  It would take too long.  It's overwhelming. 

And maybe... like many people... you didn't even know that you were dealing with perfectionism.

At this point, some might suggest a mantra like "It doesn't have to be perfect.  It just has to be done."  And this can work.  But... as business owners... the risk of this type of statement is that we might produce work that falls short of the  level of excellence we want for our organization. 

So... here's a suggestion. 

When you come up against this challenge.  Break your project down into manageable parts.  Recognize that you can't get all of it done perfectly, right now.  But, you can do one part really really well. 

So decide on that one thing and go after it.

Then commit to scheduling a time to take the next step.

This can help you to break through the stalemate that perfectionism can cause.  And it can help you to get the things done that you need to get done.  Whether it's getting rid of the clutter at home... or getting that BIG project at work... done.

Want to find out more... Check out Rodger Constandse's post on Avoiding Perfectionism without getting sloppy!

What other strategies have helped you to break through perfectionism?  Let us know.  Share your wisdom.  Just click on "comments" and let the rest of us know how YOU do it!

Photo credit: florriebassingbourn

Can you do the math for coinsurance?

Math_2_3You may be familiar with coinsurance if you have a health care plan.  With your property insurance – it’s a little bit different, but a good concept to know about.

With property insurance, coinsurance is the percentage of value that the policyholder is required to hold.  If a policy has an 80% co-insurance clause, and a building is valued at $100,000, the individual (or business) needs to insure the building’s value at $80,000 as a minimum.

Sounds like it might be a good way to save a few dollars on insurance, doesn’t it?

Maybe not.

For simplicity, let’s say you insure your building for $80,000 and the value is $100,000.  Then a fire loss occurs that causes $10,000 in damage.  The claim is calculated by dividing what was purchased ($80,000) by what should have been bought ($100,000).  The result in this case is 80%.  Then the amount of the loss ($10,000) is multiplied by 80% which equals $8,000.  That’s the amount you’ll receive to cover your claim minus any deductible.  Let’s use $1,000 deductible for this case.  You’ll need to foot the bill for the remaining $3,000.

That might not be a big deal to some (or maybe $3,000 is a big chunk of change for you). But just consider how you’d feel if you discovered that the value of your building had increased over the years – but you hadn’t increased your insurance coverage.  So now your building is valued at $150,000 but you still only have $80,000 in coverage.  That’s only about 53% of insurance.  At best, you may receive $5,300 toward your fire damage of $10,000 minus that $1,000 deductible.

Your insurance carrier may require you to have 80% coverage to receive any money at all. Is it really worth taking that chance just to save a few dollars on your insurance premium?

Almost all property insurance policies include a coinsurance clause.  Building insurance, contents coverage, inland marine policies, and equipment or tool floaters may all contain a penalty clause.

You don’t need to be a math whiz to use this formula.  But make sure you’re making the right decisions for your business.  If you are a new business, is it really worth taking a chance just to save some initial premium dollars spread out over 12 months or getting stuck with a large bill that you have not budgeted for.

I'm sorry... was that MY job?

RoadkillAnd in the category of the "not my job" award... the undisputed winner is the Arizona Department of Transportation.  After all, nobody said they were responsible for removing road kill before painting the lines on the street.

We've all been there.  That critical meeting where we're going around the room giving updates on our respective status... and then somebody says it, "I'm sorry.  I didn't know I was responsible for that.  Was that my job?"  I see it most frequently when a group of people are assigned to complete a task.  Everyone assumes someone else is doing it, so nobody bothers to pick it up.  So it doesn't get done.

For project tasks and project issues alike, I use a little tool called KODA to prevent this from happening.  It's quite simple.  When there is something that needs to be done or addressed, ask yourself who needs to fit into the following categories:

KNOW - Most of project management is communication.  If Gladys has been sitting down at the same computer for the past 20 years and all of a sudden she has this whiz-bang new PDA gizmo at her desk and nobody told her about it, she's not going to be happy.  That's why it is critical to identify those who need to know about a task's or issue's resolution.  They serve no other purpose other than to be informed that it is done or resolved, thus preventing you from hearing the kiss-of-death phrase, "Why didn't you tell me about that?"

OWN - Who has the final signoff and ownership of a task or issue?  Who is your "buck stops here" person?  Who is the last point of elevation for answering questions and resolving conflicts about a task or issue?  The importance of this role is finding the single person at the correct level of authority.  A respected company VP with whom I used to work often would misquote John 3:16 this way:  "For God so loved the world that he did not send a committee."  A single point of accountability is critical.

DO - Obviously, someone has to roll up his/her sleeves and do the work.  Who is that person?  It may be the same person who owns the task or issue.  Whoever it is, this is the person responsible for ensuring that there's a check mark to indicate it is complete.

ADVISE - Occasionally, you may need subject matter experts to provide knowledge on a given task.  They may possess specific technical or business knowledge about the process or parameters of completing the task or resolving an issue.  If there are resources that those in the "do" column need to leverage in order to complete the task, note those here.

You may not need to use every single category for each and every task and/or issue that arises during your project.  At times, you may have the same person's name in all four categories.  The point of this exercise is that you prevent yourself or your project manager from dropping the ball unnecessarily.

Trust me, project road kill is the messiest kind to clean up.

Carpe Factum!

Improving Your "Serve"

For those precious few who enjoy watching tennis (we’re a sad lot, aren’t we?), this is an exciting time of the year. Two weeks of the French Open quickly followed by a fortnight at Wimbledon.

Tennis20serve2082152 My wife and I have been up early the past two weeks with the television on, watching the live matches from across the pond. I’ve even learned a thing or two. One thing is for certain, if you don’t have a good serve, you aren’t going to make it far in tennis. On the other hand, if you’ve got a World-class serve – it can get you a long way, even if the rest of your game is mediocre.

It’s an apt metaphor for business. You can have a great product at a fair price – but without a quality “serve” you’re going to struggle to make it onto the court with the elite players in your market. Look at the troubles experienced by Home Depot or United of late. If you have excellent service, you will find it easier to slide through some of the rough spots that all growing companies experience. Great service can help generate customer loyalty, even when you’re finding it hard to deliver at the moment.

How do you improve your serve?

  1. Listen to your customers. Do a survey. Find out what they expect and what they experienced the last time they came in contact with your company. Stop guessing what your customers want. Ask them.
  2. Listen to your company. Capture “moments of truth” between customers and your Customer Service or Sales Representatives. Objectively analyze what’s taking place. Identify opportunities for improvements.
        
  3. Fill the Gaps. Provide focused training and coaching, based on what you know (from the previous two steps), that equips your employees to serve well.

"Life is like a game of tennis; he who serves well seldom loses." - Anonymous

Rural Iowa Business? No Web Site? Hello Merchant Circle

I've long been a fan of Merchant Circle and their tools, allowing any business to increase their web presence. No matter the size of either the business or the region, I believe every company can benefit from these tools.

Mc_menuOne local company, Sims Plumbing in Des Moines uses their Merchant Circle page to supplement their company site. Interactive tools they're putting to use:

Before you think this piece is simply an advert for Merchant Circle, let's talk about their Reputation Management tool.

Among the many tools you see to the right, the Reputation Score may be the most important. Tracking customer reviews about your business from sites such as Yahoo Local and Citysearch, you're able to see what's being said about you online (you should be doing this already with Search  Once and Subscribe, but that's another matter).

As you can see from the dashboard, there are other reasons to get started with Merchant Circle (and most of the tools are free!)

Merchantc

How much should you budget for marketing?

Budget This is one of those questions that business owners wonder about, but aren't sure who to ask.  And yes, you should have marketing in your budget.  It's not a "wait until a good opportunity comes along" sort of thing.

If you budget for marketing and create an actual plan - you are 95% more likely to:

  • Actually market consistently
  • Spend to your budget, rather than impulse shop
  • Track and measure success of marketing efforts
  • Be consistent in your message and delivery

So back to...how much should you spend?  A good rule of thumb is at minimum of 4-7% of your gross sales. Some marketers recommend as much as 10%.  There are many variables, like the maturity of your business, percentage of repeat business and the lifetime value of a client.  (We'll talk about how to figure that out soon!)

But if you'd like to get some specific, every industry has a typical percentage of sales that is generally used for advertising and marketing expenditure projections. 

Why not reach out to your industry trade and professional groups?  They should be able to give you the specifics in your field.

Expert Advice For Online Business

Img_9400_2

About twenty years ago I saw a "crotch rocket" sport bike and decided it looked like fun. I really had no experience with motorcycles and did not know anyone who had one, but hey, how hard could it be? I bought one of the most powerful street bikes available and set off tooling around town. It was fun, but I could not do any of the things I wanted to do. I would take a sharp corner and lay it down. Every time I got over 90mph, the bike would shake and scare me. It was fun, well, probably more scary than fun. I did not have the right bike, the right protective gear or the right training. I sold the bike after a year or so after I bought it. In retrospect, I am lucky to be alive.

Now, twenty years later, I am hopefully a little wiser. I still like bikes, but have put aside a little of the hubris that prevented me from asking for help when I needed it most. I went and spoke with some licensed expert motorcycle racers I knew. They told me which bike, equipment, training and tracks would likely be right for me. I followed their advice to the letter and hung on every word and recommendation they offered. There would be time enough for experimentation, but without a baseline, I would never be able to tell if my changes were helping or hurting.  My buddies told me what I was doing wrong, where I could improve and items I could use to go faster and do the things I wanted to do.

I studied, purchased the right equipment and hung on every word of advice they gave me. I took and passed my track license and my amateur racer license. In a little over a year from the time I first rode my new bike, I was on the podium at an amateur sprint bike motorcycle race, placing second in front of many other smaller bikers with bigger bikes and much much more time at the track. That picture to the left is some of my on-track advisors (guru-Randy was just too fast to make the shot) in Calabogie Canada the day before yesterday.

What was the difference? I now know what I do well and what I do not. I also know that I do not want to waste time researching an answer someone else has on the tip of their tongue? I just did not want to reinvent the wheel. I had experts at my disposal, why not use them to help jump to the top of the learning curve? This advice applies even more so to companies looking to expand their internet presence. You can do it yourself, but enlisting the help of internet experts in law, marketing, blogging, capital management, customer service, whatever your company needs to conduct online business.

Do not lose that entrepreneurial spark. Just learn the track before you start cracking the throttle open here and there. Let the experts get you on the right track and headed in the right direction.  After a few laps, you should have a feel for what you might change to make things flow even better.

Otherwise, you can try it on your own for a while. You still find people like that at the racetrack. While I have yet to see one of them on the podium, they do get frequent flier miles from the trackside ambulance team.

Limited Liability Sometimes Isn't

Legislators aren't held to 'truth in advertising' standards.  If they were, we wouldn't have "limited liability companies."  We'd have maybe "Pretty-much Limited Liability Companies Except Maybe for Taxes."  Nobody would want to call their business a PMLLCEMFT, though, so we have LLCs.

Since they were introducStocks ed in the 1980s, LLCs have largely displaced traditional partnerships when new businesses are set up.  That is because they allow owners to achieve the benefits of partnership taxation - great flexibility and only one level of taxation - without having any general partners who are personally on the hook for partnership debts.

LLCs have one other big advantage over partnerships: you don't need a partner.  The tax law provides that single-member LLCs are "disregarded" for tax purposes.  The tax law treats taxes the single-member LLC to its owner as if it weren't there.  In theory, this allows a sole proprietor to have corporation-like protection against the liabilities of his business.

Sometime things don't work so neatly in practice, as accountant Sean McNamee learned last month.  He owned an accounting firm that he set up as a single-member LLC.  Somehow he got behind on his payroll taxes by $67,000.  The IRS never takes that well.  They sued Mr. McNamee to collect the taxes.  Mr. McNamee argued that because he operated as a limited liability company under Connecticut state law, he had no personally liability for the payroll taxes, or for any other liabilities of the LLC.

The federal courts disagreed.  Both the trial judge and the appeals court said that "disregarded" means "disregarded," and that for purposes of collected the accounting firm's employment taxes, the LLC might as well have never existed.  As far as the employment taxes were concerned, Mr. McNamee's liabilities weren't limited at all.

Of course, no matter what entity you use to operate your business, you should never get behind on your payroll and withholding tax payments.  The IRS can collect from anyone who is "responsible" for remitting withheld taxes who fails to do so.  That's as true for a corporation or LLC as it is for a sole proprietor.

5 Tips on Getting and Staying Connected (1)

Almost a year ago, I was asked by Juice Magazine to give five tips on how to get connected and stay connected to the business community.  I was limited by space, so I'm excited to be able to expand on them now.

Tip # 1 - Blog
I have witnessed much debate over the last few years on whether blogging is worth the time commitment.  In my opinion, it is well worth it.  Besides the fact that your website/blogsite will become more findable... wouldn't it be great to network in your sleep?  We've all heard that we should strive to make money while we sleep, but what about networking in our sleep?  Below are my networking tips, based on my personal experiences, within the blogging category:

  • Hire a blog coach.  By investing a small amount of money and time, you'll find that your blog will be more dynamic and effective in a shorter amount of time.
  • It's very hard to put your thoughts out on the web.  So, before you decide to jump in, start to read a few blogs first.  When you are comfortable reading posts, then type in a comment.  The author will appreciate it and you'll instantly establish a new connection.
  • When you finally decide to write your own blog, your blog should 'sound' like you.   When you meet someone face to face, you know if they are 'being real' or not.  Your blog shouldn't be any different.
  • To maximize your reach, you should post everyday.  Since I don't do that; I won't recommend it, but you should post at least 2 times per week.  The more you post, the better chance you give yourself to make a new connection.  The more connections you make, the better chance you have to make a new customer.
  • Write your thoughts down.  With all the distractions in the world it is easy to forget a great idea for a post.  Take the time to write it down when you think about it.  If you don't, you may lose that great thought forever.
  • Don't try to be perfect with your writing.  One of my biggest challenges is making sure everything sounds right before I post.  When I do this, it takes a long time and gets very frustrating.  Don't forget to let conversation happen.
  • Don't be too long with a post... (and that's why you'll have to wait until the 22nd to read Tip # 2 on Getting and Staying Connected...)

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Wolf A few days ago Brian Honnold had an excellent post about the fear of lawsuits by America's small businesses.  The most alarming statistic?  Small businesses bear 69% of the total cost of the tort system to all U.S. businesses.  That's $98 billion a year in costs.  Further, six in ten small business owners feel constrained when making business decisions because of the fear of lawsuits.

So what's the solution?

Many call for legal reform.  That's what the Institute for Legal Reform is all about. But is it really working?  Despite millions of dollars poured into extensive campaigns, it is apparent our nation's small businesses do not feel any safer.

Should we kill all the lawyers?  Wait . . . I shouldn't have said that.  I am a lawyer.

The best protection for small businesses is to build a solid foundation.  A house of bricks rather than one of straw or sticks.  As Brian discussed, insurance is a component in building that solid foundation but other protections are necessary.

Here are five suggestions on how to protect yourself from lawsuits:

  1. Use written agreements.  Unfortunately the day is over when you could rely on a handshake.  Make sure that your agreements are comprehensive.  The agreements should always set forth the rights and responsibilities of the parties in detail.  It is a good idea to have your written agreements drafted and/or reviewed by a business attorney.
  2. Have a comprehensive employee manual.  Employee lawsuits are on the rise and a major distraction for your business.  A written employee handbook affords you a better opportunity to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to litigation.  Disputes are are less likely to occur when your employees know the rules.  Keep in mind that a well-written employee handbook can help your business but a poorly written handbook can cause even more problems for your business.  Don't pull a template from the Internet without consulting an employment lawyer.
  3. Maintain your corporate or other limited liability structure.  Make sure to keep your personal guarantees to a minimum, stay current with corporate records, pay your applicable taxes and do not mix your personal assets with your business assets.
  4. Protect your intellectual property.  Consider obtaining trademarks, copyrights and patents as applicable.  Consult an intellectual property lawyer in order to protect yourself against infringers.  Likewise, avoid infringing someone else's intellectual property.  Before deciding on a business or product name you should check to see if the name is trademarked by someone else.  Similarly, be careful not to steal copyrighted materials for your own use.
  5. Consider alternative dispute resolution.  Mediation is often an efficient way to resolve business disputes.  It is a process in which the parties to a dispute, with the assistance of a neutral third party (the mediator), identify disputed issues, develop options, consider alternatives and work to reach an agreement. There is a time to go to court but consider the costs of the litigation before making that decision.  Approach the decision of whether to litigate in a business-like-manner rather than emotionally.

Be proactive.  Don't wait for the wolf to knock on your door before you protect yourself. 

Photo by Laenulfean on Flickr.

Take Risks; Run With Scissors

Risktaking If you want your business (or your team) to stand out, to have the numbers that earn it the reputation of "best in class," you've got to do something. Something beyond just paying people to show up and do their jobs. Maybe even beyond meeting their "mutually-agreed upon" annual goals.

What is that extra something that makes some businesses perform like they're on steroids? Risk-taking. Some organizations have found a way to make it safe for employees to want to stick their necks out, speak up, and challenge the status quo. (Sounds risky, doesn't it?) And at the same time, they've found a way to be ok with putting company resources at risk when employees try something not currently on the dashboard. And even when they screw up...big time!

What does it take to build and nurture that kind of risk-taking culture?

  • Senior management has to be comfortable talking about their goofs. If top management doesn't lead the way (showing that they are serious about trying something and talking about it in order to learn from the mistake) then you might as well throw in the towel. 
  • Remove the risk of risk-taking. Let people run with scissors; turn them loose to do risky things.
  • When failures happen, don't see the risk-taker as a failure. Only the initiative failed. In other words, don't take the scissors away from them. Throw another risky challenge their way and turn them loose. It will demonstrate your confidence in them and restore their confidence in themselves.
  • Celebrate failure. Mistakes happen if people are fully engaged. You know, thinking like the owner, the big boss, an entrepreneur. Don't hide the mistake. Bring it out in the open and talk about it freely so everyone can learn from it.

Of course, you want to minimize screwups.

  • Ensure that employees have project management skills. Then they'll have a better sense of whether the risk they're about to take truly creates value and is worth the trade-off. They'll be able to detect when a venture is in trouble. And have the courage to raise a red flag.
  • There may be functions or roles where you DON'T want people taking risks, like in finance for example. Simply tell them, and tell them why. they'll understand that their scissors are for cutting, and you'd better not catch them running with them !

Photo on flickr by blakeemrys

We are guilty until proven innocent

Gavel_3 Did you know that lawsuits and the fear of getting sued cost small businesses in the U.S. $98 million in 2005? That statistic comes from the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. It includes money spent on:

  • damage awards
  • settlements
  • legal costs
  • liability insurance premiums
  • costs incurred by insurance companies on behalf of policyholders

That same study reported that the fear of lawsuits is affecting decisions made by business owners. How?

  • 48% of small businesses are concerned about frivolous and unfair lawsuits
  • 46% have been threatened with a lawsuit
  • 34% have been sued in the past 10 years
  • 62% have made business decisions to avoid lawsuits

As a business owner, are you willing to take a chance with percentages?

I know if I owned a business it would help to know if my defense costs were outside my limits of insurance coverage. What good is $500,000 in coverage if my defense is costing $300,000? I know we all have an attorney as a friend, but do you know one who really wants to work for free?

I started by saying we are guilty until proven innocent. Why? Because you can be accused of doing just about anything - and until you prove your innocence you are guilty by being accused.

By purchasing an umbrella policy you are possibly picking up broader coverages and elminating some possible headaches. Unless you have this conversation with your insurance agent, you might have gaps in your protection. You might find out you're in need of professional liability or director's and officer's insurance.

Projects As Hurricanes: A Lesson In Estimating

HurricaneprojectionsIt's hurricane season, and here in Iowa I feel safe and snug dealing with the occasional tornado watch and the even more infrequent tornado warning.  I'm always fascinated with the process of tracking hurricanes and, being a Weather Channel junkie from time to time (my wife teases because I know all of the meteoroligists names and that I consider Jim Cantore one of my heroes), I can glue myself to the television whenever a big storm is brewing.  To me, that's real news.

Now, imagine if the folks at NOAA placed one of our "typical" corporate executives in charge of their hurricane center.  I can just hear the conversation now:

Executive:  Jenkins, I see there's a new hurricane forming.

Jenkins:  Yes sir, it's just a tropical depression off the coast of Africa right now, but we'll see how it develops.

Executive:  Screw that namby-pamby generality stuff, Jenkins!  I want to know how strong it will be, exactly where it will hit, and when.  Ever since Katrina, our stakeholders are demanding better information sooner, and you know it.

Jenkins (blinking in disbelief):  But, sir... the fact is that we just don't know all of that information yet.  There are too many variables affecting each storm.  Jet streams.  Air currents.  Pressure fronts.  There's no way...

Executive (interrupting):  You will get me that information by close of business today, Jenkins.  And you'd better be right.  Your job is riding on it.  Now go!!!

Sigh.  We think it sounds ridiculous, right?  After all, we all understand the "cone of uncertainty," and we allow the meteoroligists some degree of latitude over the course of a few days and several thousand miles to provide us with the best information known to date.

Estimating is one of those thorns in the side of project managers and project stakeholders alike.  As a project manager, I understand that there are variables that can affect any given task.  There are risks that can undermine even the best-laid plans.  There are assumptions that need to be made about how long something will take.

A couple of months ago, James Sawyer, a Senior Analyst with TranSystems / Automation Associates, Inc. posted this about estimating in his blog.  Here's an excerpt from his thoughts:

As we get more and more experienced, we're supposed to get better and better at the accuracy of estimating our tasks. But bad things can and do happen during the course of a project, and our estimates don't always line up with what it takes to do the work in reality.  This can be frustrating for us and for the PM, especially when it starts blowing the budget. But why does it happen?  Maybe it's not just that we're horrible estimators (though all of us need to continue to improve in this area), but that there's something inherently funky about the act of estimating itself.

I think Mr. Sawyer hit on the key issue:  ESTIMATES ARE NOT REALITY.  They should not be treated as such.  They are important, and they do constitute the lifeblood of the project's cost and duration and resources needed.  However, they should be drawn in sand rather than cast in cement.  Based on my own experiences (as well as advice shared by trusted colleagues), here are my top 10 tips for estimating:

  1. Estimating is a team sport - do no rely on an estimate given by only one person.  Do a Google search, talk to similar professionals, and ask intelligent questions.
  2. Estimates improve as time progresses - revisit your estimates on a regular basis.  As you learn more, you may be able to provide better data to reset expectations.
  3. Do not punish bad estimating - instead, learn from inaccurate estimates.  Why were we so far off?  What didn't we know that we should have known?
  4. Document assumptions - undocumented assumptions resurrect later as excuses.  If you know that an estimate is only true if certain conditions exist (e.g., on-time delivery), then write that down.  It gives you more credibility if the assumption was violated than it does if your estimate was wrong.
  5. Identify risks - new technology, new processes, and inexperienced team members can all affect an estimate.  Make sure you go into your estimates with your eyes wide open.
  6. Apply contingency according to risk - avoid the urge to add 50% across the board.  Look at each task individually in light of #4 and #5, above.  Those tasks or resources that have more assumptions and risks associated with them should be given more contingency time and cost.
  7. Sometimes a SWAG is OK - for those not familiar with the term, SWAG stands for Silly Wild-A**-Guess.  And there will be times when that is the best answer until additional information becomes available.  While there are tools such as PERT to help you, occasionally the best estimates come from the gut.
  8. Estimates are more about communication than math - in reality, setting and sticking to a budget is often-times subordinated to ensuring that expectations are set (and reset) appropriately and that key stakeholders are not blindsided.
  9. Obtain signoff on estimates from resources - make sure that the resource working on the task agrees with the estimate allotted for that task.  If they don't agree, you're just setting them up for failure.
  10. Look at the big picture of the whole project - if your individual task estimates are off, but your project concluded within a reasonable time frame, celebrate the accomplishment.  As discussed in #3, punishment does nothing to improve estimating skills.  Use it as a learning tool for next time, but let the team know how proud you are that the project completed. 

Estimating is only a fraction of the activity which a project manager performs.  Don't misunderstand me; it's an important aspect of project management.  It is not, however, the only aspect of project management.  Following the tips above should make it a slightly easier task.

Carpe Factum!

"Okay" Doesn't Drive Customer Loyalty or Word of Mouth

My wife and I took a little vacation a week ago. We'd never been to St. Louis, so we spent four days exploring. Wendy and I area always looking for ways to let our "inner-child" have some fun, so one of our days was spent at Six Flags St. Louis. It was a gorgeous day and we arrived early - looking forward to enjoying a long day of thrills and excitement.

We had an "okay" time.

Thesaurus.com provides the following synonyms of "okay": adequate, average, decent, common, passable, standard, sufficient, tolerable, unexceptionable, unobjectionable.

Does that sound like a list of words that will drive positive word-of-mouth and customer loyalty?

The difference between "okay" and "great" is usually the result of attention to small details that are done - and done well. Here were some small details that left an impression on me at Six Flags St. Louis:

  • Most of the park needed a fresh coat of paint, some rides reminding me of those dingy traveling carnivals that set up in the local K-mart parking lot each summer.
  • Because it wasn't high season, many rides, shows and attractions were either not in operation or were only operating during short windows of time - but this wasn't well communicated. We stood in line waiting for over a half-hour waiting for one ride to open before giving up and moving on. It wasn't opened until hours later - but not one of the park employees who walked by the long line of customers bothered to tell us that.
  • Wendy read my thoughts a few hours into the experience when she asked, "Why do we have to pay full admission price if some rides aren't operating, some food stands are close, and most of the shows they advertise aren't being performed?" They had all our money, but we weren't getting the full Six Flags experience that had been advertised.
  • The park wasn't particularly clean.
  • I stood in line at one food stand to get one of the hot dogs they advertised. After waiting about 15 minutes to get to the front of the line and asking for the hot dog, I was told, "Oh, we don't have those anymore. They've never bothered to change the sign."

Did we have fun? Yes.
Did we enjoy the rides? Yes.
Was I thrilled and excited? No.
Did I feel it was worth the price of admission? No.
Would I return? No.
Would I recommend the park to my friends? No.

If you want to make your business memorable, if you want to drive positive word-of-mouth about your business, if you want your customers to keep coming back again and again, if you want to lead way - then you have to be more than adequate, average, decent, common, passable, standard, sufficient, tolerable, unexceptionable, or unobjectionable.

The Best of IowaBiz - May 2007

In case you missed these Small Business tips, here are the top posts (based on page views) on IowaBiz for May:

The most popular post via RSS Feed views didn't make this list, but dwarfed the pack in feed views (maybe it was the headline):

Thanks to our readers, subscribers and especially those who helped spread the word with links back to IowaBiz:

Don't Just Show the Video - Share the Video

A lot of companies are looking at the rising power of video and jumping on...something. Hardly the bandwagon, but more Iowa businesses are starting to produce video content.

Last month, I shared a video on understanding RSS feeds by CommonCraft. The numbers tell the success story. Over 80,000 views; 9 translations; close to 700 links.

This month, they've shared a video on understanding Wikis. Notice what they do here:

  • Produce a short video
  • Upload it to thrid-party video sites (Blip.tv, YouTube, dotSub)
  • Encourage  content producers (mainstream media, bloggers, everyone who has a connection) to share the video on their own site

That third step is where a lot of small businesses fall short.  The mentality of  "come to my site"  for the content is limited thinking. Don't just show the video - share the video. That's how things go viral.

Becky McCray at SmallBiz Survival has a great DIY on video publishing on the web (and here's a recent SmallBiz Video sample).

Other Resources:
- Why UStream will Change Mainstream
- Video Communities: YouTube | Google Video | BlipTV | Revver | dotSub

Your customers' prized possession? Their time.

Watch So spend it wisely.

I got a packet today, from someone who is trying to sell me a service that I'm probably interested in.  We'll call me a lukewarm buyer. I don't know enough to be a hot buyer, but the potential is there.

I had asked the rep to send me some information.  I received a very nice folder/brochure, a DVD and a cover letter.  The cover letter says:

"Blah, blah, blah.... In addition, there is a DVD enclosed that will tell you all about the products in about the first 20 minutes."

What?  The FIRST 20 minutes?  Are you kidding me?  What in the world makes them think I am going to watch their promotional material for almost a half hour? It is never going to happen.  And now, because I didn't get the information I needed, I've become a much less interested buyer.

Consumers today have a USA Today mentality and attention span.  Give it to me short and sweet.  Or I don't want it.  Technology has given us the tools to skip, skim or just ignore marketing messages if they aren't delivered in a palatable way.

How are you doing in this arena?  Are you being mindful of your potential customers' attention spans or are you cramming as much information at them as possible?

Are you being skipped, skimmed or ignored?




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