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September 2007

Sometimes you just need to play the game...

This week, I attended my son's chess club orientation.  He's in 1st grade and it was his first experience with the game.Chess

Now... I'm not going to lie...  the thought of teaching a group of 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders how to play chess is a bit scary, but... a couple of brave parents took the job and started working with the kids to explain how it all worked.

One parent started by reviewing the rules

He did a great job of explaining how the various pieces moved.  He showed the kids how some moved forward, some moved to the side and some could go anywhere they darn well pleased. 

For a while, the kids stayed with him... grasping at the rules and logistics.  But then, you could tell... they started to get lost in everything there was to understand. 

So another parent came from the back of the room and simply said, "Maybe we should just have everybody try to play the game?" 

You could tell the first parent was relieved by the suggestion and the kids launched into experimenting with the various pieces. 

As you can imagine, they devoured the game. 

Some kids were laughing.  Some stared at the board with the intensity of a Russian Chess Champion. 

Most made mistakes as they played... but they were learning as they went.  It was fun.  It was an adventure.

Then it struck me.  Sometimes we are just like these kids.  Right?

We get a new idea or get struck by something we want to try and we dive into the rules and the regulations.  Right?  It's not a bad thing.  Many times, it's the smart thing to do.

Maybe it's an idea for a new product. 

It would make sense to research the rules around that.  It would also make sense to do some research and check out the markets, competitors and opportunities.  Right?

Or maybe you're thinking about a new job

It would be important to check into things before making a leap.  You know.  Read about the industry.  Talk to people who are doing it.  Find out more.  Dig in.

BUT... just like kids getting lost in the rules of chess... sometimes we get stuck there.  Don't we?  Our eyes glaze over and the idea dies on the vine. 

Sound familiar?

Well sometimes you may just need to "try to play the game." 

Maybe you shouldn't spend thousands on equipment for your new product right away, but maybe you could find someone to help you make a prototype to test with people.

Maybe you shouldn't march in and quit your job today, but maybe there's someone you could to spend time with that's doing exactly what you want to be doing.  Maybe you could spend a day shadowing them to experiment and see if you really connect.

What do you think?

Okay, so here's my suggestion after watching the kids learn how to play chess and after coaching hundreds of people over the past few years:  Figure out a way to "play" today. 

Try something.  Have some fun.  Limit the risks.  But get out there and play the game.

Sure... just like my 1st grader... you will make some mistakes.  But isn't that one of the best ways to really learn? 

So... What are you going to try today?

Click "comments" and join in the conversation.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon

Playing It Safe

Bankruptcy_court Many small business owners that are just starting out feel they can not afford to protect themselves against every risk. 

I wonder what business owners are thinking when they feel they do not need Products and Completed Operations Coverage.  I usually get the response, “Well, that stuff is just too expensive and if something goes wrong I’ll just file for bankruptcy and start over.”

My question is, “What do you do if you have a product that is wonderful and just needs a little twist here and there to put you on the next cover of Time magazine?” 

You just filed bankruptcy and have no way of getting this product back into production with the correction it needs. And now a competitor has made alterations and gets it out into mass production. 

If you had purchased Products Liability Coverage there is a good chance that you could have sustained the loss and continued on in business.

If you are a small business owner that makes a product, do not overlook this particular part of your coverage.  It is very important to look at your overall risk factors and determine where to spend your premium dollars. 

I know in the news recently that a very well-known baby crib manufacturer is having one million cribs recalled.  Turn on your television and you’ll hear about all the toy manufacturers that are going through recalls due to dangerous levels of lead.

If it can happen to the big businesses it can happen to the little ones, too.

Look to the next post for more details on Products Liability Coverage and further discussion concerning Completed Operations Hazard.

Flickr photo by Hess Kennedy

Martha Stewart Need Not Apply

Stoplight_greenWhen documenting the status of a project, one of the hardest things to do is determine the color status of the project.  For simplicity's sake, the three obvious color status choices are red, yellow, and green.

Red essentially means that the project is in chaos mode.  No progress can be made until pressing issues are handled.

Yellow denotes a cautionary mode for the project.  It means that some elements are derailed but that the project (with the right attention) can move forward.

Green refers to a project that is in a controlled mode.  All of the critical elements are firing on all cylinders and need little outside intervention.

I've had people try to get very creative on project status.  It is as if three colors are not enough.  Here are statements I've from actual project managers:

  • "We're green but with the slightest tinge of yellow.  Let's report the color as lime."
  • "The project is essentially red, but I still feel that we can pull it out.  Since you won't let us be orange, can we choose a more reddish color like pumpkin?"
  • "There are elements of all three.  Let's call it a stoplight swirl."

While all three help generate the appetite, none truly conveys to a reader where the project is.  One of the key skills of project managers is decision-making.  And if a project manager cannot decide on one of three colors, one really must wonder if that project manager is ready for the true rigors of project management.

MarthaOf course, my favorite is the project manager who was expounding on exactly how red his project was, just as the fire station next door received an alarm and sirens began blaring.  I congratulated him on his use of sound effects.

So, based on the links provided, do you feel comfortable reporting your project as red, yellow, or green?  More importantly, do you know what to DO when you see a project reported with such a status?

Carpe Factum!

Customer Satisfaction? CHECK!

Checklist_2 A client of mine is a pilot. One day he brought me the checklist of things he must go through before taking off in his plane. I was shocked at the multiple pages, with multiple columns of items typed in a tiny font. There are so many details it's a wonder that he gets to fly at all. I'm sure that there are days when the preparation and checklist takes more time than the actual flight!

I've always said that the difference between good and great is in the details.

My wife and I are staying in a Springhill Suites this week. Marriott does a nice job overall, but I notice that, as a business traveler, it's the "details" that annoy me. The water in my "kitchenette" faucet doesn't work. The list of channels on the in-room channel guide are completely wrong. They may seem like nit-picky things, but when they don't work they annoy you. When they annoy you it affects your overall impression and satisfaction with the experience. Will it affect my decision in the future. Probably.

Perhaps the channel guide and faucet aren't on housekeepings checklist.

Do you have a checklist of what your customer expects? Do you check and double check that you are delivering the details in a way that will satisfy customers?

Blogging is More Than Lunacy

Blogging Blogging isn’t the lunacy many proclaim. There is some lunacy, but there's more to blogging than lunacy.

Many use blogging to journal thoughts, photos or sound bytes. But that's just a few ways to use blog sites. There's more.

Smart business people are beginning to use blogging to increase their findability, position themselves as an expert in their field and to engage in conversations with their customers.

While those that are using blogging for business are finding success, some professions still have their defenses up on the subject. Maybe it's fear.

Hearken back to yesteryear, when the complaint against television was that it would kill radio. It didn’t. But radio did find different – if not better – ways to be used. The outcry against blogging is similar in some professions.

The archive, architecture and frequency of a blogging is changing the professional worlds of web development, marketing, copywriting, and public relations.

Web Development
Here are the distinct differences between a static web site and a blog site:
1.    Timestamped, Archived Content
3.    Ability for the Reader to Engage
4.    Syndicated Content (or RSS Feeds)

Search Engines have a responsibility to deliver fresh, relevant content to their user or face losing them to competitors. Because blogs are updated frequently, provide depth with archived pages, and are have a categorized architecture – search engines are attracted to blogs.

RSS feeds is another reason web development is changing. Because users can receive content without the ads and design – web development is changing.

Marketing and Copywriting
Today’s customer craves a meaningful relationship. While they may switch loyalties and practice diversity – it’s in search of a business that practices meaningful outreach and treats the customer like royalty.

Since blogs allow the reader to receive the content however they choose – and since blogs allow for a form of open dialogue – the company that blogs will be talking with their customers, rather than at them.

Don’t Just Publish – Participate
Blogging isn‘t just about publishing your message, but also about participating in a larger discussion with other bloggers – namely your customers and prospects.

Like any other conversation, blogging has two roles: Listening and Talking. There are tools such as Google’s Blog Search and Technorati that allow you to search the blogosphere by keyword or web address. By subscribing to the RSS feeds of these results, you begin practicing “Search Once and Subscribe.”

Blogging is more than just quilts and cats, pictures and poetry. They are that and more. While some say it's lunacy - there are lunatics driving cars on our roads...but I'll bet you still drive a car.

Photo on Flickr by Sue Richards

Lights, camera...sales?

Camera There are many ways to deliver a marketing message. One that is often overlooked or erroneously dismissed as being too expensive is producing a video. YouTube has changed some perceptions in that arena but not so much in the marketing field. 

In reality, the return on the investment can be significant, even if you get a top notch professional to shoot your video. Some of the advantages are:

~ Delivers the intimacy of extended one-to-one communication.

~ Compared to TV ads, non-interruptive.

~ Allows three-dimensional views of products, show a product in use or a service provider in action.

~ With music, action and color, generates emotional impact.

~ Can bring your employees and their passion for your business to life.

~ Can be combined with CD, DVD, or streaming video technology to translate to an easy direct mail piece or web page content.

~ Is a powerful storytelling medium.

Wondering where you can use your video?  Your lobby.  Your website.  Your e-mail campaign.  Your annual meeting.  Staff recruitment.   New business pitches.  And that's just the beginning. 

What is Fair Use?

CyberLaw: A Legal Arsenal For Online Business

Ignore the Urban Legends
I am not making money on it; it's fair use.
They should be happy with the press, I'm making them money, it's fair use.
It didn't have a copyright notice on it; it's fair use.
If you are hearing these kinds of statements flying around your office, keep me in mind. You will likely need a copyright attorney in the very near future.    

Don't Believe Everything You Hear
Better yet, you can take a little preventative action now and avoid ever having to go to court in the first place. So, what do you need to know about copyright. The first thing is to never believe anything about copyright law unless you hear it from a copyright lawyer; and even then you might want to check out a second or third opinion until you find a copyright attorney you can trust.

What is Fair Use?
In some situations it is permissible to use limited portions of a copyright work, including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, news reporting, scholarly reports. This is particularly true for current news stories & historical analysis (to promote accuracy). The quoted material, however, must not be unreasonably large and must not destroy the market for the original work (quoting the salacious portions of Monica Lewinsky’s memoirs).

Be aware that courts rarely uphold a claim of “fair use” in a for-profit, commercial context unless the use is directly tied to parody, news or critical commentary. In determining whether your copying constitutes “fair use” the courts will look at:

1) The purpose and character of your work-Are you making money from the copies?
2) Nature of copyrighted work-Is it a form book meant to be copied?
3) Amount of work taken-Are you taking 90% of the work or 2%?
4) Economic impact of taking-Are you taking the 2% that makes people want to buy the original (Lewinsky passages)?


In determining whether a use is a fair use, courts weigh all of these factors, along with additional factors indicating why or why not your use might be allowable under copyright law. If you are copying 1% of the non-critical portions of a form book for your own personal use, you are okay. If you are selling 98% complete copies of the The Davinci Code, you are in trouble. For anything in between, it is best to either consult your copyright attorney for advice or stick with copying works already in the public domain.

Now, For the Really Important Question
Am I going to get sued? Curiously, the answer to this question often has little to do with the legal analysis. No law or lawyer can tell you whether you are going to get sued. Whether you are going to get sued depends much more on the motivations, as well as the relative strengths of the parties. Is the entity from whom you are taking the copyright work an 800lb gorilla run by the guy with an itchy trigger finger you fired three years ago? If so, a detailed analysis of the esoteric legalities of fair use under United States Copyright Law is kind of a moot point. You are going to get sued. And since you likely do not have the $30K+ to fight the case, you are likely going to lose or settle for far less than what might otherwise be considered “fair.”

Think Like a Business
While I am all for fighting the good fight and not paying the bad guy money to use against the next innocent victim, a Pyrrhic victory, or more likely complete immolation at trial, does not help anyone. You may think you are becoming a martyr for the cause, but getting wiped out in court may actually do more harm to future victims than paying money. Large corporations often use a track record of putting infringers out of business to extract settlements. The smartest move for you is to review your copyright material beforehand to check for any potential copyright problems. If you own a business, be sure to include "fair use" policies in your employee handbook. With copyright issues, an ounce of prevention can be worth about seven figures of cure.

For more on fair use, as well solutions to the most common internet law problems, be sure to check out CyberLaw: A Legal Arsenal For Online Business.

Enron's Binge - Your Hangover

20070923 When the Enron scandal broke, it was hard for a small businessman not to laugh at the $6,000 shower curtains, the offshore accounts, and the extravagant excesses of the period.

Then Congress got involved, and now the laugh is on all of us.

Congress added "Section 409A" to the tax law in response to the use of high-tech deferred compensation arrangements by corporate looters.  These new tax rules on "non-qualified" deferred comp plans were carefully tailored by Congress to apply to... almost everyone.

It has taken the IRS three years and hundreds of pages of regulations to try to make sense of Sec. 409A, so we can only scratch the surface here.

THE TAX PENALTY

If you make a mistake designing or operating a plan covered by Section 409A, two bad things happen:

- The employee covered by the deferred compensation plan pays tax on all amounts that have been deferred for his benefit since he was employed - even if the employee didn't receive the amounts, or even if he never receives them.

- The employee also pays a 20% penalty tax on the deferred amounts included in income


ITS REACH

You don't need to have a Ken Lay-sized retirement plan to be covered by Section 409A.  It's almost easier to list plans that aren't covered by Section 409A. 

Traditional "qualified" retirement plans are not covered by Section 409A.  That means it doesn't affect:

- Section 401(k) Plans;

- Profit-sharing plans;

- Defined benefit retirement plans

- ESOPs

Plans that are affected include almost any other arrangement that defers employee pay more than 2 1/2 months after the year in which it is earned.  This can include "phantom stock" plans, stock option plans, and supplemental or "top hat" plans for executives and owners. 

But the rules don't only cover executives and owners.  The IRS recently had to address how Section 409A affects schoolteachers who have their salary for the school year spread over 12 months to ensure a summer paycheck.

THE DEADLINES

Last week the IRS announced that employers have until the end of 2008 to draft documents for plans covered by Section 409A.  But there is a more pressing deadline.   Employers generally have only until the end of 2007 to decide whether to bring old plans into compliance with the new rules, or to instead terminate them and distribute the funds to employees without the 20% penalty tax.

TALK TO YOUR TAX ADVISOR

The Section 409A rules are complicated, and the penalties for violating them are severe.  If you think you even might have a plan affected by Section 409A, discuss them with your tax advisor.

Links:

Section 409A Final regulations

IRS DELAYS DOCUMENT DATE FOR 409A DEFERRED COMP RULES

Prior Section 409A guidance

Think Around the Constraint of Time

Let's face it, time is one of our most cherished assets and also one of the smallest assets we possess.  The challenge lies in finding a way to capitalize on what little time we have as business owners. 

A quick tip to make the most out of a networking moment.  In this instance, the networking activity is a presentation from a company in the Bio-Technology Industry:

Assume you know nothing about how a polymer reacts to a DNA strand filled with bio-nucleic acid.  Now, assume you are listening to a 3 hour presentation on the entire subject. In the back of your mind you're thinking 'none of this pertains to me.'

Truth is, that presentation does pertain to you.  The trick is to look beyond the boundaries of the information and find a way to create value from your time.  Here are some questions to ask yourself during that presentation:

  1. Who do I know that isn't here that could benefit from knowing this company?
  2. Who do I know that would make a good strategic introduction to this company?
  3. Who is in the audience that I haven't yet introduced myself too?
  4. Who would the presenter know that may be able to benefit my business?
  5. What is the presenter doing good/bad that I can learn from for my own presentations?

The fact of the matter is, there are opportunities surrounding each and every one of us. It's up to us (and us alone) to look on the edges of mainstream activity to take advantage.

Where Should You Incorporate Your Iowa Small Business?

Where should you incorporate your Iowa small business?  This question is asked a lot by Iowa_pic would-be small business owners.  The question used to be surprising but after seeing and hearing numerous advertisements for Delaware and Nevada corporations on the Internet and on satellite radio it is definitely a legitimate question.

Delaware has reputation and history on its side.  Delaware's Division of Corporations boasts that more than a half a million business entities make their legal home in Delaware including more than 50% of all U.S. publicly-traded companies and 60% of the Fortune 500.  Businesses, especially large ones, choose Delaware because of the state's business laws and respected Court of Chancery.  Most observers say it is because of Delaware's predictability. 

Nevada has recently exploded in popularity for many businesses.  This is due to Nevada's pro-business climate, low-tax mentality and the lack of an information sharing agreement with the IRS.

Delaware or Nevada may offer viable options for some companies but in general most Iowa small businesses are probably wise to incorporate in Iowa.  First, Iowa has very low fees when it comes to incorporating your business.  It is a $50.00 fee to file Articles of Incorporation for a domestic corporation in the state of Iowa.  Further, it only a $30.00 fee every two years for a biennial report if you file online.  These fees are extremely low compared to other states.

Second, you won't avoid Iowa taxes by incorporating your Iowa small business in Nevada or Delaware if you are doing business here in Iowa.  The tax and corporation laws of Iowa will require you to register your company and pay fees as a foreign corporation in Iowa and you will be required to pay Iowa state income taxes for any income earned.  (You also do not avoid federal income taxes by incorporating in Nevada despite the lack of an information sharing agreement with the IRS).

And the perceived court advantages in Delaware?  That might be fine for a large business that is actually going to litigate a case in Delaware but it is probably not cost effective for most Iowa small businesses to litigate their cases in Delaware.  Besides unless you have well-written forum selection clause in contracts your Iowa small business will likely end up in Iowa courts anyway.

If you have questions regarding where you should incoporate your Iowa small business be sure to contact a business attorney licensed in Iowa. 

Photo on flickr by rsgranne.

It's Not About Charisma and Perks

Motivation When it comes to motivating others at work, it's not about relying on power or charisma or perks. Oh sure, you can always play the "power card" if you have to. You are the boss, afterall. Or the department head. Or the team lead. (And at home, you're the parent, right?)

But the secret is, don't start with power. There are so many other ways to get people to do what they're supposed to be doing -- what they signed on to do --and these other ways are much more effective. Try some of them first. Put the "power card" in your back pocket and only use it as a last resort. So what are some of those other ways?

1. Clarify natural consequences. In their book, Crucial Confrontations, the authors explain that what ultimately motivates people are consequences. Natural consequences.

  • Individuals anticipate the consequences that will result from a particular behavior.
  • They weigh those consequences out in their mind.
  • Then they choose how to act, or whether to act at all.

You and I do this too. It's human nature. So how do we motivate by clarifying natural consequences? We help the other person see what happens, or doesn't happen, as a natural result of their behavior.

For example, we might ask, "If you exclude the IT department from the planning team, what are the things that are likely to happen as a result?" If we help them think through those natural consequences, chances are they will see the wisdom, for themselves, of including the IT department. They will be motivated to do what needs to happen. But not because you told them they had to. And the "power card" never left your pocket!

2. Use goals to motivate. Most people like to measure themselves against a standard. They are turned on by reasonable goals. They like to know who can run the fastest, jump the highest and sell the most. And if they get to help set those goals...WOW! That's even more engaging. So work with them to set just-out-of-reach challenges and tasks that will be learning opportunities -- their first sales call, their first solo presentation to the Board, etc.

3. Identify people's hot buttons. What do they do first? What do they talk about all the time? What gets them excited? These are things we ought to know about the people who are working every day to help us be successful as leaders. Do what you can to provide what drives your team members. If you're not really sure what those drivers are, ask. They'll tell you.

Rupert Murdoch summed it up well. "In motivating people, you've got to engage their minds and their hearts. I motivate people, I hope, by example -- and perhaps by excitement, by having productive ideas to make others feel involved." Notice that Murdock says nothing about charisma or perks.

Photo on flickr by Erich J. Harvey

Governance - Which Way Will You Go?

Sox_2 In today's complex world, the structure of your corporate governance is critical.  How your board of directors, officers, and trustees provide checks and balances is extremely important to the success of your company.  If you do not think this is true, remember the Enron and WorldCom disasters.  These examples of poor governance forced the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley.  This act was our governments reaction to help prevent the financial disaster that the employees of Enron and WorldCom experienced.

What direction is your company headed?  Have you given thought to your corporate governance structure? If all of your governance is centered in one person, you may want to change this.  The decision making process will always get better results in a group versus an individual.  You may want to consider adding non-family members or non-officers to your governance structure.  Even better, bring in outside experience from areas that can add value to your company.

Letting go of the reins can be scary, but mixing up your governance structure can restart the growth of a company and spread the burden of corporate success.

Flickr photo by Delares (Eliud Martinez)

Don't Let 'ISM' Slow You Down

Employee or Independent Contractor?

My fellow author, Rush Nigut, touched on some very important issues concerning W-2 employees and independent contractors.  A great reference tool can be the www.irs.gov  web site or the Iowa work force development website as well, www.iowaworkforce.org

These two sites can be your guide in your decision process.  But of course, always consult with a tax advisor.

What does this have to do with insurance you ask?

The first words out of my mouth would be, “A tremendous amount.”

Man_in_suit If you have employees who receive a W-2 you’ll be purchasing workers’ compensation insurance. If you think you’ll get around that (and save yourself some money) by saying they’re “independent contractors” – think again.

Let’s say you require your employee – maybe an office manager – to be in the office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. And that person has several tasks you expect them to do at a certain each day – pick up the mail, make deposits, etc.

Does that sound like an independent contractor?

What about a sales person - someone who has flexible hours and who generally has an end result (sales) rather than specific tasks at each time each day?

The sales person may be considered an independent contractor for insurance purposes. But probably not the office manager.

As a business owner, it’s always a good idea to understand how one thing (like how you classify employees)  affects something else (like insurance). Make sure you’re keeping both your tax advisor and your insurance agent informed. If they understand your business, they’ll be a great partner.

On Tooth Paste And Project Tasks

Crest_and_colgateI'm switching brands of tooth paste from Crest back to Colgate.  There's really no difference in price or performance.  For the same amount of money, I get my teeth adequately whitened, and my breath at least doesn't cause people to run screaming from the room in some kind of sensory-induced agony.  (I do, however, have many other tools at my project management disposal to make people run screaming from rooms.)  I'm abandoning Crest in favor of Colgate because of their lids.

You see, I like using the toothpaste containers that can stand upside down and yet still upright on their lids so the toothpaste always settles closest to the opening.  The problem with Crest's bottle is that - even when supposedly closed - the toothpaste oozes out and makes the lid a sticky mess.  The Colgate container seals tightly so that no toothpaste escapes between uses.

By now, you're wondering why I've abandoned project management discourse to discuss the tools of dental hygiene.  Bear with me, I do have a point.  As project managers, we should want our resources to act more like Colgate than Crest.  When people tell us a task is closed, we want to believe them.  However, how many of you have heard the following when asking about a task's status?

  • "Well, that task is TECHNICALLY closed."
  • "We only have a couple more things to visit and then we can close that task for real."
  • "Come on, close out the task already... it's 99.9% complete."

If you're naive enough to fall for those lines, your project plan ends up looking as gunked as a lid from the Crest toothpaste bottle.  In the eversmall blog, which is also engineered for Entrepreneurs and Small Business, Mark Smallwood provides some great advice on completing project tasks:

It’s sometimes difficult to complete large tasks, but letting them go stale is the best way to discourage yourself. Incomplete projects generate physical, mental, and emotional clutter.

Yes, it sounds very basic, but you'd be amazed how many times those "almost closed" project tasks stay open longer than anybody ever suspected, wreaking havoc at the least opportune time.  Here are some possible techniques to follow when the project task somebody reported as complete actually must be complete in real life as well:

  1. Create exit criteria for task sign-off (at least for critical deliverables).  Make sure that everybody understands what "done" looks like.
  2. Base "% Complete" progress on the number of hours expended on a task and the number of hours left.  This prevents the game of having people creatively estimate the real completion status of tasks.
  3. Hold people accountable for fictional reports.  If somebody reports a task as complete, and you find out later that they lied about it (as opposed to those who genuinely believed the task was done and a new issue arose which caused it to reopen), hold them accountable both for the lack of task performance AND the lack of integrity, and make it very clear what their falsified report has done to the project.  If the behavior continues, remove them from the project.

Remember:  done is done.  Complete means complete.  A finished task implies that none of us will ever see this task rear its head again.

So... are your project tasks more like Colgate or Crest?

Carpe Factum!!!

Don't Put Customers in an Awkward Position

Awkward_position Customers tend to remember the last few minutes of a telephone interaction. You want to send them away with a good feeling. "Gosh, that person solved my problem and was really nice," is a winner. "Wow! That wasn't as bad as I expected. That company does a really nice job," would also be a positive walk-away thought.

That's one of the reasons I walked away with negative impressions from my recent tech support experiences with Intuit when I had problems installing their Quicken program. In each of my three interactions, the CSR waited until the end of the call/chat to ask:

"Would you say that I've done my best to help you today?"

Ummmmmmmmmmmmm....How am I suppose to answer that, especially when my problem was never resolved?

  • No you didn't do your best because you didn't resolve my problem (but perhaps it was the best that this CSR could do and I'm unfairly penalizing this CSR for saying 'No').
  • Yes, I'm sure you did the best you could do (but perhaps they didn't, they just gave me a bunch of b.s. and I'm letting them off the hook by saying 'yes').
  • No, I honestly don't think you did (but I know the follow up is 'How could I have done better?" and I don't really want to get into an Ebert and Roeper critique of their service delivery, especially after being on the phone for fifteen minutes already - so just say 'yes' and get it over with).
  • Yes, I guess you did (but seriously, my issue still isn't resolved and saying 'yes' is just going to give this CSR the chance to pat themselves on the back and receive positive reinforcement when I'm still sitting here with a piece of software that doesn't work! So, say 'no')!

Because working in call centers is my vocation and I know that each of the CSRs is being forced to ask this question, I said "yes" because I felt sorry for them. Nevertheless, I didn't like being put in that position, it only heightened my negative feelings towards the situation/company, and if the company is tracking/using any data from these forced questions/answers it is meaningless, invalid information simply based on the methodology by which it was gathered.

Don't put your customers in an awkward position before you close the call. It's a lose-lose for both parties.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and J.M. Daclan

Quick Attention Span - Your Next Generation of Consumers

There's a loser's limp in some business circles. You've probably heard it (said it?).

"The next generation of consumer has a short attention span."

I'd argue that we may be hearing a negative, when in reality - it's a challenge to us as business owners. Instead of "short" attention span, I'll offer a new label: Quick Attention Span.

As Lisa Johnson puts it in Mind Your X's and Y's:

"There's a rumbling hunger for what's new, better, faster, and more efficient. When something clicks - such as buying only your favorite singles from a full album on iTunes - the new way will rule. Some might chalk up this phenomenon to a short attention span or lack of loyalty, but there's a deeper truth. The market is now a place of constant change. Thriving brands, people and organizations understand how to handle this lightning pace and learn to evolve with each new shift."

It's your responsibility to listen to the marketplace and evolve...or become extinct.

Find ways to connect with your consumer and allow them to connect with each other: be it with a blog, an engaging presence on Facebook, or using social bookmark buttons on each web page.

Blogologist's Warning: A social media presence that is self-serving will backfire. Have a purpose that benefits your audience, and you too will benefit. Having a presence because it's "hot" may be harmful to your business health.

Are you selling FOR them or TO them?

Sale First, let's establish this truth.  We are all sales people

I don't care if you are an engineer, a 3rd grade teacher, a social worker or a copier saleswoman.  You are in sales. 

Every single one of us needs to sell someone on something.  It might be getting your boss to agree to closing the shop early on Fridays or getting your students to study over a week's time rather than cramming the night before. Or it could be getting a prospect to give your copier a spin for 30 days.

So how do you sell?  Where do you start?  What questions do you ask yourself?

Whose bottom line do you worry about first?  Yours or the customer's?

Jill Konrath, author of Selling to Big Companies, wrote an excellent article on this point.  She suggests that most sales people typically ask questions like:

"What do I need to convince them that we're the best?"

She goes on to say that questions that are about selling TO a prospect won't get you there.  The real trick to successful sales is actually selling FOR your prospect.  Ask yourself questions like:

"What can I (my company's product) do to contribute to my customer's success?"

When you worry about your prospect's bottom line...it will take care of yours.

BONUS:  Are you a smart, savvy woman who sells?  Check out the Sales Shebang Conference.  Just a quick drive to Minneapolis and you can enjoy presenters like Konrath, Michelle Nichols from BusinessWeek.com and many more.

Barbarians at the Gate - Patent Reform and Net Neutrality

Whether you know it or not, Patent Reform and Net Neutrality are issues that will critically impact both you and your business. Unfortunately, by the time you actually notice the impact, the time for action will be long gone. Big business knows how important these issues are. Companies like Microsoft and AT&T have been waging a long and bitter battle over these issues with the end result being to stifle innovation and limit your access to critical technology.

On the Patent Reform front, the United States House of Representatives has just passed the most sweeping patent reform legislation bill in a generation. Experts have long argued that these reforms passed by the House: making it more difficult to get patents, stop infringers, obtain damages and bring lawsuits, all undermine protections afforded inventors under the current patent system. If passed into law, these new patent reforms will encourage large companies to exploit inventions of smaller players, creating a huge disincentive to innovate. Instead of getting price breaks generated by new, competing technology, you will be paying higher prices to larger companies selling older, less efficient, technology. 

Net Neutrality refers to your Internet service provider (ISP) restricting access to certain websites, such as those websites not paying your ISP a kickback. Companies like AT&T and Verizon argue they need to interfere with your unfettered enjoyment of the Internet to generate the income necessary to build out their infrastructure. Although your Internet access will be much worse now, our new infrastructure we will build (given our intrinsically altruistic nature), will exceed your wildest expectations . . . later. Trust us.

Last Thursday the Justice Department argued lawmakers should take no action to defend your right to unfettered Internet access. The reason the Internet is so great is that we get to see the long tail. We get to see what we want to see, not what big time marketers get paid to force us to see  Failing to protect Net Neutrality will see the end of hundreds of thousands of websites and will stifle innovation.

Denying access to information is never a viable solution. Unfortunately, once big ISPs start slicing up the Internet, the time for action will be long gone.

   

Behind on your Iowa taxes? Take a mulligan!

It's April 30.  Your Iowa taxes are due, and it's a big number.  Worse, you just got an order that can make or break your business, and the cost of filling it will leave you tapped out.  You fill the order and you take your chances on your taxes.  One thing leads to another, and soon you owe a chunk to Iowa, with penalties and interest.

Amnesty_2If that describes you, take a mulligan.  A one-time tax amnesty is underway for Iowa taxpayers.  If you file an application between September 4 and October 31, you can pay your back Iowa taxes without penalty, and at only half the usual interest rate.

 

Most Iowa taxes are eligible for the amnesty, including:

  • individual income tax
  • corporation income tax
  • withholding tax
  • fiduciary income tax
  • franchise tax
  • sales and use tax
  • local option sales taxes (regular local option and school local option)
  • hotel and motel tax
  • automobile rental tax
  • inheritance tax
  • motor fuel and special fuel taxes
  • environmental protection charge (EPC)
  • cigarette and tobacco taxes
  • motor vehicle lease tax
  • drug stamp tax

Of course, if you are behind on your "drug stamp tax" payments, taxes are probably the least of your problems.

You should contact a tax pro if you want to take advantage of the amnesty, but for do-it-yourself-ers, here is an application form.

You can learn more at www.iowataxamnesty.gov.

Cold Call Conversation

So how do I start a conversation?... is a question that I hear quite frequently.  My first response is usually... stick your hand out and say "Hi!  I'm so and so."  Typically the conversation should just start from there, right?  Well... sometimes that happens, but sometimes you need to keep it going.

I wrote a post relating to this subject on my business blog several months ago that I believe still rings true today.

There's one important thing that maybe didn't get stressed enough in that post though... can you find it within the page?

If not, here's a hint... It's in Cory Garrison's comment.

Think Twice Before Deducting From Employee's Last Paycheck

Dollar_sign Charlie Longbrief, attorney at law, had just turned off his computer late on a Friday afternoon when the phone rang.  It was Pete Geek who owned a local computer consulting service.

"Charlie, I've got a problem," Pete said.

"Tell me about it," Charlie said.

"Well, I had to fire one of my sales people earlier this week.  The termination seemed to go fine but he hasn't returned his company laptop or cell phone.  I want to deduct the value of those items from his last paycheck or at least withhold his last paycheck until he brings those things back to me."  Pete responded.

"Do you have any type of written agreement with him regarding the return of the equipment?" Charlie asked.

"No, I don't," said Pete.

Charlie advised, "I know it is frustrating but Chapter 91A.5 of the Iowa Code won't allow you withhold the check or deduct the value in this situation unless you have written agreement with the employee where the equipment has been specifically assigned to the employee, and acknowledged in writing by the employee.  Also the written agreement should authorize you to deduct the value of the equipment from the last paycheck if not returned.  If you violate the law you could be forced to pay the employee's attorney's fees, liquidated damages and any court costs plus the wages you owe him.  You definitely have the right to your equipment but you can't get it that way."

"I am glad I asked.  By the way, maybe you could prepare an agreement for my employees to sign authorizing me to deduct the value of the equipment from wages if the equipment is not returned,"  Pete asked.

"You bet.  By the way, you may want to check out a blog post from Jill Pugh on 10 Things to Keep in Mind When You Fire an Employee.  It's also a good idea to review the provisions of Iowa's Wage Payment Collection Act."

"Thanks a lot, Charlie.  I am glad I called."

Photo on Flickr by cutesmallfuzzy.

* This is a hypothetical.  Be sure to seek the advice of an employment attorney for advice in your specific situation.

 

Delegate Everything Except Uniqueness

Uniqueness Executive coaching is a hugh force in the world of training & developement today. My coaching practice is bigger today than it's ever been. Having your very own sounding board, learning partner, executive coach is a perk that many managers and directors are insisting on from their leaders.

But when partnering up with a coach, what's often the tendency to focus on? Weaknesses. Flaws. What's wrong. This comes from our childhood training where we learned that the secret to success in life is to "get better at what we're not already good at." That's dead wrong. That forces us to be preoccupied with mediocre behavior, performance and results. It results in a perpetual sense of frustration, wasted potential, and missed opportunity.

What should be the focus? Talents. Strengths. Uniqueness.

Think about it. As human beings, we spend our lives in a number of different "zones" or situations.

  • Sometimes we're forced, or we mistakenly chose, to work in areas that do not play to who we really are, to our strengths. If we're right-handed, it's like having to do all of our work with our left hands. It's hard. No fun. And we'll never be at --or do--our best.
  • Most of the time we are fortunate enough to be able to operate in areas that we are competent in. We have strengths in. We enjoy most of the time.
  • But...who are the most successful and happy in their careers? As entrepreneurs AND intrapreneurs? Those who are blessed with being able to play to their uniqueness. To KNOW and to BE who they truly ARE.

Think about how different your life would be -- whether you are president of your own small business, a department head, or an individual contributor -- if you could spend your day doing those activities:

  1. that you absolutely love doing,
  2. that give you more energy than they consume, and
  3. that produce tremendous results in relation to the amount of time you invest.

You can. You can be a learner, be confident, and be creative. You can have a sense of simplicity, clarity and serenity. How? Identify what your unique strengths are (...see list of activities above!) and do only them. Delegate everything else on your desk --your to-do list--to individuals who have uniqueness where you do not. Who have strengths where you have weaknesses.

Pay others to do those things that they are uniquely gifted to do, that fall outside your uniqueness, and look at what happens. You benefit, they benefit, and your business prospers. What are you waiting for? See list of activities above.

Photo on flickr by http://www.flickr.com/photos/romanticidio/

Fear Fear

347262327_2372e6b239It is unfortunate that are so many people driven by fear.  Fear of job loss, rejection, success, public speaking, being overweight, spiders, snakes, love - the list is endless.  With every fear that we have, we miss opportunities for growth, change, and knowledge.

Take a minute and write down your own personal fears.  I am sure that this is something that 99% of us have never taken the time to do.  Now look at that list and ask yourself why you have not taken the initiative to overcome those fears.  Do you not like your answers?  Have you come to grips with those fears?  Is this making you uncomfortable?

Now take that discomfort and multiply it by the number of people in your organization that are experiencing fear due to the culture you have created.  I would venture to say that you have never asked the question of your employees, since it is highly likely that you have not asked yourself this question.

You should fear fear in your organization.  Fear is what holds back the true potential in your organization.

Flickr photo be Seetwist

Feeling buried? Is bankruptcy an option? (E-mail bankruptcy... that is.)

Do you ever feel buried by your e-mail in-box?Email_2

Have you heard about the growing trend of declaring e-mail bankruptcy? 

No?  Well... Lawrence Lessig (Wired columnist) described this tactic after spending 80+ hours trying to dig out from under the weight of his log-jammed in-box.

He said, "Bankruptcy is now my only option," as he sent a mass e-mail to his "correspondence creditors."  (Click here to see how Lessig did it.)

The key was that not only did he come up with a strategic way to turn over a new leaf... but he also committed to staying on top of it from that point on.  That shift is important.

Well... now... this trend is continuing to set people free.  And it's even impacting the way some people read blogs.

Yes... that's right.  Blogger/Lawyer Julie Flemming-Brown is even promoting the declaration of "blog bankruptcy."

YIKES!?!  If you're an avid blogger... you might say... "What's that!?!"

In short... Julie had fallen way behind in reading her blog RSS feeds... and decided to draw a line and start fresh.  (Read how she did it.)

Now... I'll say that I'm not a huge fan of declaring bankruptcy when it comes to a person's finances... but when it comes to e-mail and RSS feeds... I might just be for it. 

Especially when you consider the fact that a task left undone wears a person down more than doing it.  And with 100's to 1000's of e-mails piling up... sometimes it's impossible for a person to get out from underneath the load. 

An option... it seems... might come in the form of a mass e-mail and a "delete all" function.

The key is changing the pattern of behavior that got you in the hole in the first place.  If you'd like some strategies on that... you can check out one of my previous posts.

How about you?  What do you think?  Is this an option?  Have you done it yourself? 

Or... are you offended at the thought of being on the receiving end of it?

Click "comments" and join in the conversation.

Photo credit: SweetPea87

Remember Y2K?

Computer_payment_2 Let’s take a look back at December 31, 1999.  Reports were coming out that when the clock struck midnight, every elevator, VCR, television, computer, microwave and many other items were not going to work.  Companies spent thousands of dollars – even hundreds of thousands of dollars – to prepare for this event. 

Overall, did the world shut down?  I don’t think so.  Don’t get me wrong, some companies needed to do some serious upgrades. 

What else was happening around the world? E-Commerce!  Or utter chaos to the insurance industry. 

It was obvious that companies were relying more and more on the internet to conduct business. That meant it was critical that their internal computer systems and networks were reliable – and secure – in order to keep things running smoothly. 

A few insurance carriers developed liability policies that covered claims for third party liability – things like:

  • injury or damage because of a wrongful act, error, or omission in regard to professional services
  • spread of computer viruses
  • infringement of some form of intellectual property right.

Other carriers developed first-party policies.  These polices covered the insured if they lost income or had extra expenses due to the crash of their own systems, software, or web site.

Today, insurance companies look at activities like:

  • E-Business: e-mail and internet site accessibility.
  • Performance of Professional Services: design and installation of networks, monitoring and repairing such systems, system security issues.
  • Media Activities: broadcasting of content, downloads, hold harmless agreements, corrupt files.

The insurance industry has identified some of these areas of risk and changed the wording of the insurance contract itself.  The definition of “property damage” now gives identity to the word “data” which limits insurance coverage.

If you perform any of the three mentioned activities – e-business, professional services, and media activities – please review your insurance policies and language with your agent. 

Photo from Stock.xchng

Developing Your BS-O-Meter

Gauge_needle_2Somebody once asked me who the hardest resources are to manage in a project.  My response was simple:  IT resources.  Why?  Because they are the least predictable.  They run the gammut from "Oh we've never done this before... it'll take at least six months" to everything being "Oh, that's easy, a day... tops."  Generally, neither one is correct, but they amuse me in their efforts.  (NOTE:  I'm also highly appreciative of the technical skill they bring to the table, so I tend to cut them a little slack unless they are repeat offenders.)

I was reading a useful article by Luc Richards entitled, "Project Mangement - It's Just a Button."  In it, he describes his experience with a developer who offered that any IT change could be done in five minutes because "it's just a button."  People who try to dismiss estimates as inconsequential should take Luc's words to heart:

For one, this button needed an action attached behind it, which didn't yet exist. Furthermore, adding a button would mean updating the SRS, user documentation, and test cases. Finally, it had impact on other applications that were affected by the action attached to this button. Not only did we now need to modify these other applications, we needed to write an upgrade script for our existing customers who were migrating from an earlier release to this new and improved version of our software.  To make a long story short, his 5 minute button lead on average to a 4 day effort.

One of my most requested keynote speeches is entitled "What Your Project Team ISN'T Telling You" and we cover this very scenario.  Luc's telling of his predicament amused me so much, though, that it was worth the link-out.

When you have an IT guy who gives you an "off the cuff" estimate, start asking some of the following questions:

  1. Have you ever done this before?
  2. How many times?
  3. What is the longest this has taken you?  The shortest?
  4. Why is there a range between these two numbers?
  5. What are the biggest risks inherent with this task?  How will you handle them to keep it on track?
  6. What skills do you need to work on this task?  Can you do it alone?  (Tell me now on this or forever hold your peace.)
  7. What is this task dependent upon?
  8. What could derail this task?
  9. Who knows enough to sign off on this task and approve that it is done correctly?

If they cannot give me answers ... good answers... real answers... answers I can take to the bank... then my BS-o-meter starts going off and I tell them it's time to slow down and make them think this through... until I get the answers I want.

Once we can have a dialogue about tasks where I feel comfortable, then we can proceed to Carpe Factum!

Service is a Cornerstone of Long-Term Profitability

Cornerstone Great customer service is a cornerstone of companies who look for long-term success. There are plenty of companies out there looking to make a quick buck with no regard for the customer, but it's just that - a quick buck. Here today, gone tomorrow - take the money and run.

Those companies who have a vision for something build to last must address the impact that service will have on their success and their future profitability:

Disney, American Express, Mariott, Nordstroms, Land's End. Companies built on a providing quality products/services at a reasonable price backed by a positive service experience stand the test of time.

Is service a cornerstone of your business, or an addition you're planning to tack on at a later date?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and cwalker

Is Podcasting Part of Your Strategy?

Podcast A few years ago, the term multi-media referred to having a presence in print, radio, TV and the Internet. Now, it's almost necessary to have multi-media in your web presence.

Text, Images, Video and Audio.  While video is getting a lot of play (and should be considered for your business), it may be more affordable to begin podcasting.

The National Pork Board offers its PorkPod podcast with an embedded player. This way your audience can download the podcast or listen from within the browser.

While this isn't a podcast, take a listen to Brian's radio spot - right here in the browser:

Play in Browser:

Audacity is a free, easy-to-use software available (MAC and Windows) for recording and editing sounds.

Easier still is BlogTalkRadio. Just pick up the phone and record. Within minutes after recording, BTR turns your recording into a sound file you can embed in your browser. Our own Rush Nigut does this at RushonBusiness. Sherry Borzo at dsmBuzz also uses this method.

Similar to blogging, one of the best ways to get started podcasting is listening first. Anita Campbell compiled a great resource 100 Small Business Audio Podcasts along with a backstory behind the list.

Related Articles:

- How to Start Your Own Podcast at WkiiHow
- Creating and Publishing Audio at HipCast

Want an hour of free marketing consultation?

Expert Then attend our first Business Building Breakfast on September 19th.  I'll stay and answer any questions you have about marketing your business.  On the house.

Every day, some of Des Moines smartest business leaders dispense practical ideas you can use to grow your business here on IowaBiz.com. 

Now, this great resource is coming to life in our monthly Business Building Breakfast series.

Come hear one of our areas most sought after business advisors share their expertise. 

September 19 – Marketing and Branding with Drew McLellan, McLellan Marketing Group 7:30 am – 8:30 am.

October 17 – HR and Leadership with Shirley Poertner, Poertner Consulting Group 7:30 am – 8:30 am.

November 28 – Business Insurance with Brian Honnold, Professional Solutions Insurance Services    7:30 am - 8:30 am.

December 19 – Life/Work Balance with Mitch Matthews, Kick in the Pants Coaching 7:30 am – 8:30 am.

All of the events will be held at:

Professional Solutions
14001 University Avenue, Clive, Iowa

Let's review:

  • Experts who can help you build and grow your business -- FREE
  • Time and access to ask any questions you have about YOUR business -- FREE
  • Networking opportunity -- FREE
  • Hot breakfast and plenty of coffee -- FREE

We promise no gimmicks, sales pitches or boring speakers.  Give your business a monthly boost.  Mark your calendars now for the Business Building Breakfast series.

RSVP for September's event so we know how many eggs to crack.

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