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November 2007

Would you please report to security?

Just as I was about to sit down at my gate at the airport this week, I heard my name over the intercom.

"Would Mitch Matthews please return to the ticket counter." 

That's not something you ever want to hear... especially when you're minutes away from needing to jump on a flight.Security

So I threw my bag over my shoulder and hoofed it back down to the United counter. 

The whole time I was wondering to myself... "What could it be?"

When I arrived, I knew the problem in an instant. 

My Dutch Boy Paint can was sitting on the counter with airport security hovering over it. 

Yup.  That's right.  I had a paint can in my luggage. 

Why? 

It's a prop for a talk that I give on the power of asking the right questions and innovation.  (By the way... have you seen how cool their paint can is?)

The reason they'd called me back down was that there was "paint residue" in the can. 

There wasn't much but it was enough to be considered hazardous material. 

I made an argument that I'd taken the can on 8 flights prior to this and it had not been seen as dangerous before. 

But that didn't hold any water with the security agent.  In fact, I think it made him more determined.  (Hindsight's always 20/20!)

In the end, they destroyed the paint can and I was almost late for my flight. 

PLUS... I'm told that I'll be receiving a letter from the FAA in the next few weeks explaining the new regulations on what can and can't be taken on a plane.  How about that?!?

Now you may be asking why I brought this up when I'm supposed to be talking about work-life balance?

Well, the reason is... I have to admit that deep down I knew that something like this could happen.

I'd thought about cleaning out the can numerous times.  But I never got around to it. 

I just never thought I had enough time to do it. 

Can you relate? 

But, at the least convenient time... it became a problem. 

The 5 minutes that it would have taken to clean out the can turned into 30 + minutes of stress, a dance with airport security... and a letter from the FAA!

My question to you is "What's your paint can?" 

No, I don't think your doing dorky things like hauling paint cans on airplanes. 

But I'd bet that you have something around you... in your business... at your desk... at home... that's your "5 minute task." 

Something you've been avoiding?

Something that you haven't wanted to take the time to do?

My guess is that it's also something that... like my paint can... could blow up on you if you don't take the time to address it.  (Figuratively speaking... of course.)

What is it for you?

What could you take 5 minutes to do today... that might save you hours of stress later?

How would it feel to have it done? 

What would getting it done save you from?

Join in the conversation and let us know.  Then... get 'er done!

Photo credit: ellesmele

Is that worker actually an employee?

Help_wanted Let’s take a minute and look at a few industries where an apparent employee might not be an employee.  Today we’ll focus on businesses that are seasonal in nature or that have high turnover. 

Hard to think of an example? I’ll help you out – restaurants and landscapers.

Picture a college town where you have students who need jobs.  In college towns you have restaurants and plenty of part-time help.  The only problem is getting them there and keeping them employed.  Turnover is usually quite high.

The leased worker
Because of high turnover and the lack of reliability the restaurant owner, who we will call, Frankie, decides to outsource wait staff through the local staffing agency.  Now the owner can focus on the restaurant and not the hiring, firing and training of staff.

The incident
Frankie is walking through the kitchen while the beeper is going off for someone to remove the daily special from a boiling pot.  In the spur of the moment, Frankie decides to just remove the pot from the burner and a waitress just happens to be turning around at the same time.  Frankie splashes hot boiling water on the worker “Karen” as they both turn into each other. 

This is definitely going to leave a mark. 

Frankie is OK – but the leased waitress is burned badly.

Who covers the work comp claim?
The staffing agency pays for the workers’ compensations benefits that are due to Karen. But due to the severity of the injury, the leased waitress feels the need to bring action against Frankie. 

Confusion
Frankie turns in the claim to his general liability carrier only to receive a denial letter because the waitress is a “temporary worker” and not an employee.  Now an argument
between the insurance carrier and Frankie pursues and Frankie is just beside himself. 

The insurance carrier wants to classify Karen as a leased worker not a temporary worker

Remedy the situation
When you, as a business owner, use a staffing agency that provides workforce on a short-term or long-term basis, carefully review of the details of the arrangement. 

Do not hesitate to call your insurance agent and discuss options on how to provide insurance coverage. The definitions of leased and temporary employee need to be understood by all parties involved.

For the purpose of simplicity, I have taken a very complicated situation and briefly touched on the ways workers are classified in insurance policy language.  A worker could be classified as a 1099 or subcontractor, a leased worker, temporary worker or even a volunteer.   

Issues Now or Tissues Later

Warning_light"Why do we need to communicate all of these problems?"

The question seemed legitimate coming from the young and relatively inexperienced project manager.  His concern was that if he communicated what was going wrong on his project that his management would perceive that he wasn't able to handle problems on his own and was either whining or tattling.

What this young project manager had not yet learned was that 90% of his job is communication.  If he's NOT communicating the issues that could bite him later, he's leaving himself open for considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth when those issues and problems blow up.  According to Craig Brown of the Better Projects blog,

Good communication is iterative. Each new round of communication and feedback helps parties narrow the opportunity for misunderstanding.  Keep communicating and you learn to accommodate the natural filters and barriers that are inherent in new relationships.

He's right.  I've communicated things to management, they've reacted (sometimes overreacted and blown up over it), I've calmed them down and clarified, they've wised up, we've all taken action.  But at least the problems and issues were communicated.

But let's think about the alternative:  Keeping everything quiet and hoping you can resolve it yourself or that it goes away.  If you think your managers and customers get mad when you share bad news with them early, wait and see how they react when you blindside them at a point when there's no longer any reaction time left.

How about opening up the channels of communication with your project stakeholders?  Try telling your management, subordinates, suppliers, and clients what is really going on in a timely fashion.  Then partner with them to fix it.

Carpe Factum!

What's Your Company's Culture?

Culture What's the culture of your company? Service Untitled recently had a great post about corporate culture. Did you know that you have a corporate culture? You do!

Having worked with many companies in may different call centers through the years, I find it interesting to visit and discover that the culture of the company is like. Here are a few descriptions of company cultures I've experienced:

  • The Gulag: No one is to be trusted. The customers are probably lying or trying to cheat us out of a buck. The CSRs are probably giving away the farm on every call. Make sure you ask permission before you do anything. Watch your back. Someone is probably going to lose their job and it could be you. C.Y.A.! "If you need to go to the bathroom, raise your hand and wait for a floor supervisor to give you a pass! But be careful, your bathroom pass rate is being monitored. It will go into your performance management file!"
  • The Commune: Welcome to utopia. We are overstaffed and have people sitting around doing nothing, but that's okay by us. We're family. We don't fire people or lay them off. That might do irreparable harm to their self-esteem. "It was inappropriate for you to cuss that customer out, but I understand that you were probably just having a bad day. Oh, and your QA scores are the worst in the call center, but I know you're never really gotten over the fact that your cat died last year. Here, why don't you have some chocolate and try to do better next month."
  • The Manic: "Look, I know I told you to work on your quality last month, but forget about quality. I just got a call from the V.P. and we've got to focus on SALES. We've got to increase revenues by next week or heads are gonna roll. Yes, we've focused sales before. Let's see it was before last month's quality initiative, before last summer's continuous improvement campaign, before last Spring when we were focused on getting our talk time down, and before last Winter's abandon rate initiative. We need to focus on SALES! Oh - hold that thought...the V.P. is calling again."

It culture important? Sure it is! It impacts morale, policy, and procedures which - in turn - impact the service the customer receives.

So what's the culture of your company? How would you describe it? How would your employees describe it? Share your own experiences!

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and nicholas jon

Planning Your Website: Every Page is Important

Planning_2 Earlier this year, we posed the question How Important is Your Website's Home Page? While the home page is very important, it's not always the entry point for your readers. Therefore, every page is important - and you should have a plan for each page.

If you Google the phrase "planning a website" - not a single result of the first 30 results points to a home page. Each result points to a sub page in a site.

When we begin planning for a site, most of us look at the plan in a family tree type of hierarchy. This is fine for organizing a site, but it's not search engines normally see your site. Think more of a mind map, with each page being indexed.

Knowing that every page could be an entry point, it becomes important to know how and where you want the reader to go next...and then make it easy for them to get there.

Do a quick check of your stats to see what entry points you get readers, then go visit that page to see if your reader has a great first impression....or a quick exit.

Photo on Flickr by netan

Share what you know

Expert One of our strongest held beliefs at McLellan Marketing Group is that it's a wise marketing practice to give away what you sell.

Think of it as sampling -- demonstrating your expertise and giving your potential customers a taste.  It's a great way to establish your abilities.

That's one of the reasons we started the monthly Iowa Biz Business Building Breakfasts -- to let our blog authors each share some of their expertise.  This is your opportunity to hear from some of the area's experts in their specialty area.

This month, we want to make sure you aren't accidentally putting your business at risk.  Do you know the insurance mistakes you can't afford to make?

Why not join us at this month's Iowa Biz Business Building Breakfast to make sure you're not spending money where you shouldn't be or missing coverage where you need it.

As always, there will be no sales pitch.  Just good information you and your business needs.

Wednesday, November 28th
7:30 am
Professional Solutions Insurance Services
University Ave, Clive
RSVP so we know how many to expect.

You'll enjoy a free breakfast and be a lot smarter about how to best protect your business.

Are You an Infringer?

Cake There, but for the grace of God . .
Have you ever sung “Happy Birthday” in public? Forwarded an email? Photographed someone without their permission? How would you feel if you got sued for doing those things? How would you feel if you had to choose between paying thousands of dollars in damages or paying an attorney even more to represent you? I would assume it would teach you a lesson. Unfortunately, the lesson would probably not be a fair and just approach to preserving the rights of intellectual property owners. The lesson would more likely be something which involved a Santeria ritual, a Voodoo doll and a gross of hat pins.

A Costly Backlash
Suing customers into oblivion and treating them like criminals (if only I had a nickel for every piece of DRM and anti-piracy ad I have had to PAY for . . .), has all lead up to a strong backlash against not just the purveyors of these tactics, but against the 99.99% of intellectual property owners who have never even considered using such tactics. With the RIAA suing college students and dead grandmothers and extracting a $200,000+ judgment from a single mother for sharing music on the Internet, things are not getting any better. 

Is the Pig Singing Yet?
According to court testimony, suing music sharers is not even profitable.  I appreciate the RIAA trying to win the ultimate Pyrrhic victory before artists make the RIAA obsolete, but it would be nice if the RIAA could immolate itself quietly, without generating a national disdain for all intellectual property. Just speaking with some of the thousands of people from whom the RIAA has extracted tens of thousands of dollars, I do not get the impression those people appreciate the not so subtle distinction between a single entity wielding dubious tactics to squeeze pennies from paupers, and your average intellectual property owner. Do you think the RIAA left these people with a healthy respect for intellectual property? Given that many of those sued did not have the vaguest idea that what they were doing was wrong, (and that some did not even DO anything wrong), do you think if the next time they get an intellectual property owner over a barrel they are going to be fair?

Let’s hope the RIAA and MPAA fade away, or at least choose some new tactics before they turn the entire country into a nation of infringers.

Brett Trout

 

Tax Theories of Relativity

200711221 When families get together for Thanksgiving they talk about all sorts of things.  Maybe they even talk business.  When relatives do business, the tax law becomes suspicious.

When you do business with relatives, the tax law has ways of tripping you up.  Some are perverse.  For example, if you sell a corporation you own to your sister at a loss, the tax law disallows the deduction.  But if the corporation itself has loss carry forwards on its own tax return, those losses are limited because under a different set of rules for corporations, your sister isn't your relative.

You could write a book on all the tax rules that can cause tax trouble for relatives who do business with each other.  A few of the common issues:

- If you incur a business expense by doing business with a relative, you can't deduct it until it is time for the relative to pick it up as income.

- You can't deduct a loss on a sale to a relative.

- Some like-kind exchanges with relatives done through intermediaries fail and are currently taxable.

- If you redeem stock of a corporation owned by your relatives, the proceeds might be taxed as dividends instead of as a stock sale; even if your sale is at a loss, you might be taxable on 100% of your proceeds.

Different provisions of the tax law have different definitions of "related party."  Most of these definitions are broad enough to bring in partnerships or corporations owned by your relatives, and some are even broad enough to bring in aunts, uncles and cousins.  So if you hatch a big business deal with your family over the holidays, check with your tax advisor before you follow through.

Be A Relationship Farmer

Farmer Have you ever caught yourself asking the question... "What value does this person bring me?"  If so, you're not alone.  It's very normal but may not be the best way approach a networking situation.

As a networker/collaborator/business development/salesperson, I believe that is important to operate on the "you just never know" principle. 

Often times, the people you meet aren't the direct contacts into sales opportunities for your organization.  As a matter of fact, the real opportunities lie layers deep and can only be reached through strong relationships.

We must work very hard to develop and nurture the relationships around us before scratching someone off your list.  As my good friend Richard Rowe says, "Networking is farming. Not hunting."

Concentrate on growing your relationships rather than monetizing them and your sales yields will grow.

Oh yeah... Happy Thanksgiving! 

Protect Yourself When Signing Contracts

Contract I love this post from New York business lawyer Imke Ratchko regarding the best practices in executing a contract.

Her tips (and my comments):

  1. Don't let technology or anyone else fool you.  This is a great lesson.  Once I negotiated a employment contract with another lawyer for several hours.  The last version of the day contained language that had been inserted for the first time and not discussed previously.  If I had not read the entire agreement (for what seemed like the tenth time) we would not have caught it.
  2. Date the contract.  It goes without saying but it often does not happen.  It is important to date contracts for a variety of reasons including statute of limitations and it puts the dealings between the parties in chronological context.
  3. Both parties should sign the agreement.  Again, it is surprising how often this does not get done.  While the contract still may be enforceable without both signatures it is obviously best to have the signatures and avoid a potential dispute about whether a party agreed to the terms.
  4. Initial last minute changes to the contract.  Sometimes changes occur at the last minute.  If this occurs each party should initial by each change.  If time is available rewriting the language is always the best alternative.
  5. Sign in your correct capacity.  If you are a corporate officer, you should sign in your corporate capacity such as President or Vice-President.  If you have an LLC sign using "Member" after your name or use your title.  This helps limit personal liability and indicates to the other side that you are signing the agreement on behalf of your company and not personally.  Similarly, make sure the entity is the party to the agreement and not you individually.
  6. Check the other party's authority to sign.  You should make sure the person signing the agreement on behalf of the other party has authority to do so.  It is often a good idea to include language in the signature block that indicates the agreement is signed by an authorized representative of each party.
  7. Get an original executed contract of the contract for your files.  It is generally not required under the law but it is often helpful to make sure that each party to the contract has an originally executed agreement.  So if there are two parties you will sign two sets of the agreement.  Perhaps not so important today and into the future with the use of electronic signatures however.

Photo on flickr by diylibrarian

Hire Talent That Tests You

Interviews What do you look for when you need to fill an open position on your team?

  • Someone you're really comfortable with, who sees things like you do, whose career path mirrors yours?
  • Or, someone who does things and says things and sees things in ways that are sound --but different? You know, someone who leaves you curious and intrigued after an interview. Maybe not totally comfortable, but a little bit challenged.

Comfortable is good when we're talking about our Lazy Boys. Challenged is good when we're trying to build a bold, balanced and diverse team. After all, we need the best talent we can get to make our businesses purr and roar. But in order to do that, as hiring managers, we need to be comfortable surrounding ourselves with people who aren't like us. Complement us, yes. But not duplicate us.

There's almost an aura, an energy, that emanates from a group of talented people at work:

  • offering up unique perspectives to the same problem,
  • seeing solutions that others don't see,
  • and challenging each other with respectful push-backs.

Are you secure enough to invite the people who work for you to challenge your opinion?

  • We can't be afraid to select strong and bright and competitive people.
  • We can't afford clones of ourselves, as comfortable as that might be sometimes.
  • We need people on-board who have or will have -- with some specific development -- the ability to take our jobs.

Look at it this way: if we're honest, we already have team members who are better at some things than we are. Through the hiring and staffing process, we have the opportunity to enhance and leverage that fact even more.

Harold R. McAlindon said "The quality of an organization can never exceed the quality of the minds that make it up." Hire the best minds, the strongest talent, you can afford. And then let them test you.

Photo on flickr by Gelatomettista2

Please Make A Decision!

91385737_2f9ecc3586_3I am sure that we all have experienced times when we have dreaded making a key decision at work or in own personal lives.  We agonize and procrastinate until the bitter end.

Organizations can sometimes fall into what I call analysis paralysis.  The culture of the company is to be cautious, frugal, cover your back, and analyze decisions to death.  No one wants to accept the responsibility from their decisions.  Things get discussed for years and still no decision is made.

I know companies that have discussed and presented the same idea for six years!  Six years of blah, blah, blah.  Do you think that employees in a company where this happens are motivated to excel?  Absolutely not.

When decisions are not made, there is no forward momentum for any type of change.  There is no action therefore there can be no reaction (the laws of physics).  Organizations become septic.

Make the decisions that need to be made.  Get the flywheel moving so some type of energy is released in the organization.  If you make the wrong decision, step up and admit it, then make another decision to correct it.  Leadership demands decisions, employees need decisions to be made for them to excel, customers need decisions to be made to satisfy their needs and encourage them to come back.

Quit putting off the dreaded decision - make it - adapt - and move on.  Life keeps moving forward even if you do not.

Flicker photo by Garrettc

Some schoolin' and retoolin' on work-life balance

Okay... so I took the red-eye back from a speaking gig in California on Thursday night so that I could walk my boys to school on Friday morning. 

Yup.  I made it home in time.  School_desk

Yup.  I took a stand for my priorities. 

Yup.  I crashed and burned out of total exhaustion later that day. 

Can you relate?

It's days like that that remind me that even though I coach people on work/life balance, I also need to take some refresher courses on the subject from time to time. 

Yes.  I need to go back to school on balancing my work priorities and my life priorities.  How about you?

So... today... I thought I'd share some of my most recent schooling on the matter. 

Sound good?

Class 1:  Wendy Piersall offered 20 work-life balance tips for the overworked entrepreneur.  I especially liked her reminders on asking for help, blocking out time, running hard and then relaxing hard and lastly... her recommendations for getting a coach.  (My bias might be coming out there!)

Class 2:  Erina Lee at eHarmony Labs (Yes... that eHarmony) posted about some recent studies looking at work-life balance in relationships.  It's a bit more clinical... but it's still some good food for thought.

Class 3:  Susan Bernstein dug into the types of questions we're asking ourselves... especially around the concept of work-life balance and living a fulfilling life.  It's simple but instantly applicable.  Check it out.

Okay... So how about you? 

What have you been learning about work-life balance?  What has life been teaching you?  What have you been learning from others?

Jump in the conversation and let us know! 

Photo credit and kudos to: soldeace

What? I have no coverage?

Covered We always want to know what is covered in our insurance policy.  Does anyone ever really know what is not covered in their insurance policy?

What’s excluded?
An exclusion is a provision in an insurance policy that eliminates coverage for certain risks, people, property classes, or locations. Why are there exclusions? Several reasons including:

  • Eliminating coverage for uninsurable loss exposures
  • Eliminating coverages not needed by most insureds
  • Eliminate coverages with special treatment
  • Reduce coverage duplications
  • Maintain premiums at a fair level
  • Reduce the probability of moral and morale hazards

In the Commercial General Liability Policy there is an exclusion for contractual liability.  To better explain the idea of an insured contract, two examples of contracts are provided.

One example includes a contract that fits the definition of an insured contract.  In the second example, the contract does not fit the definition of of an insured contract.

When is it an insured contract?
A local lawn service company contracts with a local hospital to mow the grass and trim the trees and shrubs on the grounds of the hospital.  The service contract for the lawn service company makes them responsible for any property damage or bodily injury caused by their employees.  If the lawn service company leaves a limb or pile of branches on the sidewalk and a passerby trips and is injured and then sues the hospital, the insurance carrier of the lawn service company would respond.

When is it not an insured contract?
A developer of a medical clinic contracts with a construction firm to erect the building according to particular specifications of a medical clinic.  If the construction firm does not adhere to the specifications in the contract, the medical clinic developer may sue the construction firm for breach of contract. 

The construction firm would have no coverage under their commercial general liability policy since the contract does not involve tort liability assumed by the construction firm.

Exclusions are always overlooked until claim time. 

However, claim time is not the time you want to find out you have no coverage. 

As a reminder, read your insurance policies.  I know, boring!

Just think how you would feel after a loss if you found out that the current exclusion could have been removed with an endorsement to your policy.

Frankenstein's Project Manager

FrankensteinMy Drake students had an interesting discussion last weekend during class.  I asked them to "construct" the perfect project manager.  They were given permission to play Frankenstein for a few minutes and share what skills and abilities the ideal PM would have.  Attached to each of their ideas, I've provided a blog link for further reading on the topic:

Did we miss anything?

Carpe Factum!!

How Do You Lure a Customer Away?

Airline_2I am a long-time frequent flier with United Airlines. As such, I have occasionally commented on the degradation of service I've experienced through the years (which has been documented elsewhere), and pleaded for improvement.

One of the traps of airlines is the frequent flier programs. Now that I have "status" with United, I'm less likely to try the competition and lose the, albeit poor, perks I get from flying with the ol' stand-by (pun absolutely intended). But this week I did it. I flew American.

I really wanted to be "wowed". I wanted American to give me a reason to switch my allegiance. I wanted a great experience.

Instead, I was treated like another head of cattle being herded into the cramped quarters of the cattle-car. There was limited human interaction with the airline employees. My flight sat on the tarmac for about 15 minutes waiting for a gate on one flight. The other flight sat just feet away from the gate for several minutes waiting for someone to man the jet-bridge. Service was uninspired.

Customers often settle in to doing what is easy, what is known, what is comfortable.

It takes an exceptional customer experience to get customers to switch. The challenge is made even greater when you realize that any call, any customer walking through your door could be giving you that one chance to "wow" them and make them switch. What are you going to do to show them you're different?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and luzmymind1

HEO is Better Than SEO: Write for Human Eyeballs

Search I get questioned a lot about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). I always recommend Human Eyeball Optimization (HEO) over SEO.

Think about this: Who is the customer of a search site?  A user (almost always a human being).  If Google doesn't consistently provide relevant results, the user goes to another search site.

That said, help Google help you by helping their user. Write your content and design/develop your site for human consumption. If people hate your writing, Google hates your site.

Some small businesses still think there are tricks to ranking higher in search results due to placement of hidden keywords, lots of meta tags, or having your site submitted to 80 search directories.

Better practice is to think of who and how people search for content. Then write towards that end. If you know what your customers and prospects value and are searching for, provide that content on your site. You'll be found.

If you're paying lots of money for SEO service rich in "robot" and geek-speak, you've probably thrown away hundreds of dollars.

Ever wonder what a conversation with a Google spider, would be like?



The shifting population and what it means to you

World As if juggling all your day-to-day tasks isn't enough, as marketers we really need to keep track of the trends that will have impact on our business, services and products. 

The shifting population is a trend that is definitely going to change the way we all do business.  The world is getting smaller, literally and figuratively.

Here are some facts associated with the trend.

  • Currently in the United States, on average, women of child bearing age are having fewer children than ever before.
  • Starting around the year 2015, more people will die than babies will be born in the US.  This is a direct impact of the aging boomers.
  • By the year 2025, it is predicted that mandatory retirement age (and the social security benefits etc.) will be at least five years older than it is today.
  • Older Americans will be healthier and work longer, many until their late 70's, although most will not work full time or year round.
  • Because of the shifting population, finding and retaining employees will be one of the biggest challenges a company will face.

Think about what you sell and how you sell.   

Recognizing that we are only 10 years away from feeling the effects of this population shift and adjusting your business models now, could give you a profound advantage in attracting and retaining both customers and employees. 

The time to react is now.

Avoiding lawsuits is as easy as 1, 2, 3

Buttons I just returned from speaking at BlogWorld in Las Vegas. The huge number of attendees and speakers comprised some of the brightest online minds on the planet.

Not surprisingly, the main focus of these folks was harnessing the Internet to do their businesses' bidding. While the established ventures had their cadre of lawyers thwarting legal dangers lurking around every corner, most of the smaller and newer companies had any idea if what they were doing was simply an online version of digging their own legal grave. Emboldened by the impunity with which sites like YouTube seem to operate, many figured that even if they were breaking the law, some magical YouTube fairy was going to sprinkle magic invincibility dust over their business.

You know, because their approach was so cool. Most of the smaller companies seemed to be betting the entire future of their company on the existence of this magic fairy dust.

The fairy dust approach, however, may not be as strange as it might appear on first blush.

Confronted with the crippling legal fees necessary to bring their websites into legal compliance, many smaller companies opt to funnel money toward growth, rather than protection. Eventually all large online companies get their legal ducks in row. It is just a question of whether the company can fly under the radar of online legal complexity long enough to afford competent legal counsel.

While obtaining legal counsel from the outset is clearly the best option, if you are set on initially "winging it," there are some steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of a lawsuit destroying your online presences before you make the leap to legal counsel. Actually, even after you have an Internet attorney looking out for you, these steps still may help to lower your legal bills, keep you out of court and allow you to focus on doing what your company does best.

1) Play Nice

Although controversy breeds online interest, defaming a competitor, unfairly comparing your products to that of a competitor or using third party trademarks or copywrited material is a recipe for disaster. When in doubt, take the high road. In my experience, nothing gets companies involved in online lawsuits more often than provoking a litigious competitor. If they sued someone else, it is much more likely they might sue you.

2) Don't Ignore Red Flags

New clients often come to me after receiving a second cease and desist letter, or even after they have been sued. At this point options are much more limited. Although avoiding legal costs might be a priority, contact a cyber-friendly attorney at the first sign of trouble. Even if your own employee mentions that what you are doing might be a problem, a half hour discussion with your attorney could save you tens of thousands of dollars in litigation fees down the road. If they sent you a cease and desist letter through their attorney, it is unlikely that ignoring the letter is going to be a money maker for you.

3) Think Before You Act

Avoid the tendency to act on emotions, rather than business acumen. Your Internet attorney can often work wonders, but your knee-jerk missive to a company accusing you of online infringement or unfair competition will rarely work to your advantage. As Mark Cuban said at BlogWorld "Go ahead. Write it. It feels good to write it. Just don't show it to anyone."

This is great advice. A single hastily written angry letter can mean the difference of tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in the online litigation game. Once the other side gets your angry letter, you are unlikely to ever get it back. Personally, I envision typing my letters on an eight foot by ten foot screen, since I know that if I screw it up, that is how I will be looking at it while I spend days on the witness stand explaining it to a jury. Nothing begets more tempered rewrites.

There are no guarantees that the foregoing will keep you out of court, but it just might keep your company out of harm's way long enough for you to afford an attorney of your very own.

It's your company. Is it your deduction?

When you're an entrepreneur, the line between your business and your personal life can get blurry.  When that happens with your checkbook, it means trouble.

Img_6552 John Meyer is an Orange, California engineer and software developer. He started a corporation called Pacific Payment Systems, a C corporation, to develop and market a bar-code based billing software. He worked full time on the project in 2002, when he spent $47,521 in business expenses out of his own pocket, which he deducted on his schedule C. That was a false move.

The Tax Court told him that only the corporation can deduct corporate expenses.  If the shareholder pays them and isn't reimbursed, the expenses are treated as a contribution to capital.  That increases the shareholder's basis, but that doesn't help the shareholder's tax picture until the company is sold.  That's true both for C corporations and S corporations.

Mr. Meyer could have submitted his receipts to the company for reimbursement; the company would have been able to deduct the expenses.  Or he could have had the corporation pay the expenses directly.  But by paying the expenses out of his own checkbook and not turning them in for reimbursement, he lost his deductions altogether.

The moral of our story: if you incorporate your business, run it like a business. The corporation pays the corporation's bills, or your deduction vanishes.

Social Event Networking

Handshake Over the past 3 years, I've heard or seen just about every type of networking event imaginable.  I've also been asked just about every question revolving around networking imaginable.  One of the top questions I hear is "How do you get business from social events?"

My response is usually something like this: When you're participating in a social event, the odds of you developing an instant relationship that translates into business are slim to none.  That's not to say it won't happen, but your odds will be increased if you take the initiative to set up a coffee or lunch within the upcoming weeks.  In that follow up conversation get to know them more intimately and find out what resources you possess that could fill a void with their needs, both personal and/or professional.

After all, in a business world that is shifting and changing faster than most can blink... it's important to have a relationship based on the person rather than your product.  Your products may change but it's what you possess as a person that should remain constant.

Writing Proper Job Descriptions

The_presidencyAccurate and properly written job descriptions can be an invaluable aid in hiring well and legally.  But bad job descriptions . . . well that can be worse than none.  Inaccurate descriptions, and those that an employer allows to become outdated only confuse the hiring process, complicate employee reviews and make accommodation under the ADA a daunting task.

For those reasons, any employer that adopts written job descriptions must commit itself to the ongoing task of ensuring that all descriptions prepared and circulated are accurate initially, reviewed periodically and updated as necessary.

In preparing a good job description, an employer should keep the following in mind:

  • List specific qualifications.  Ensure that all educational "requirements" are mandatory, or consider using the phrase "or equivalent experience."
  • List essential job functions and duties.  Carefully determine if the position has any lifting and other physical requirements.  If the description contains physical requirement, they must be "essential" or the requirement may be found to discriminate against disabled job applicants.  Be as specific as possible about responsibilities and duties, particularly supervisory and discretionary duties, because job descriptions (and duties) are important in determining whether an employee is entitled to overtime pay.
  • Seek appropriate input.  Seek input from employees who hold the position and their managers to ensure accuracy.
  • Identify and list the pay range.
  • Use appropriate language.  Keep language neutral, non-age restrictive and relevant to job requirements.  For example, say "college degree required" as opposed to "recent college graduate".
  • Monitor accuracy.  Implement and monitor a system to ensure that all job descriptions are current and complete.

For further discussion on job descriptions visit an excellent post from attorney Liz Overton on Sullivan & Ward's Iowa Law Blog.  Another insightful post is from Pennsylvania attorney Michael Moore (no not that one) who explains that proper business records (including well written job descriptions) are your only true defense in surviving a wage and hour audit.

Photo on flickr by macartisan.

Standing Out? Or Fitting In?

Shared_vision

If you're a leader...whether you're leading a team of 10, a department of 100, or an organization of 1,000 or more, do you stand out? Or do you fit in?

It used to be...

...that you wanted to stand out. Everyone recognized you as the "go-to-person." Your effectiveness as a leader was dependent on what you brought to the role, your charisma, your intelligence, your ability to make quick decisions. Plus, whatever other personality traits and skill sets were deemed critical for the job. It was about you, out in front, yelling back, "Follow me!"

But not anymore.

Today's picture of an effective leader is someone who "fits in." Who works to understand the values and opinions of their teammates, department members, or company's employees. Why? In order to have a productive dialogue with them about what they believe in as a group, what they stand for, and therefore, what actions the team/department/company should take.

Leadership is now ...

  • the ability to help shape --not dictate -- what people already want --not have-- to do
  • helping people reach consensus on what matters to them
  • bonding with followers in a sense of shared identity that provides a blueprint for action
  • about representing a common "us"

It's no longer about forcing people to comply with what you (and maybe a group of six other "senior leaders") think an organization of 1,000+ employees ought to do.

Sounds good. But does anyone really lead this way? Sure. Lots of leaders do.

One of Iowa's shining examples is Ted Townsend, CEO of St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids. In the September 3-9 issue of the Corridor Business Journal, Mr. Townsend talks about his philosophy of employee engagement and sense of ownership...and how St. Luke's is a Top 100 hospital nationally, recognized in '07 as one of the nation's premier success stories for patient satisfaction.

Who does Mr. Townsend credit for those results? You got it. The nearly 3,000 associates of St. Luke's...the physicians, nurses, technicians, clerical and administrative staffs, and yes, the plumbers and carpenters. 

By fitting in, and representing a common "us," Ted Townsend is leading an organization that stands out within the healthcare industry.

Photo on flickr by Jason Botter 

Not Our Responsibility

346797780_01151b0f21_mResponsibility is a heavy burden for all of us.  Those in leadership roles carry a much heavier load of responsibility that is inherent in leading organizations.

I have been in meetings with management groups that want to change their company's culture.  They discuss the idea for hours. Yet, when it comes time to really walk the talk, they point the woes of the company's culture on the employees. 

They simply point the finger and say it is not their responsibility. 

These are the types of managers/leaders that need to learn a lesson in what responsibility means.  As the manager/leader, it is your responsibility to initiate change in your organization.  The first step must be taken by the manager/leader.  Leaders must be willing to put their necks on the line first and they must be willing to weather the storm of organizational change.

When employees begin witnessing behaviors from their management/leadership group that support change, this starts the cycle of improvement.  Employees start to realize that changes are real and the organization is willing to invest time and money to support change. 

The road of responsibility starts with you - the leader.    

Flickr photo by lunawhimsy

How can we have fun?

Before author Dav Pilkey hit it big with kid's books like Captain Underpants and Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot... he was working at Pizza Hut.Captainunderpants_logo

In fact, his real name is "Dave" but when the manager of his Pizza Hut went to make his name badge, he ran out of label-maker tape so his name tag came out as just "Dav." 

It stuck.

Well, as Dav was schleping pizzas he dreamed of writing and selling kid's books... lots of them.

But he didn't ask "How can I sell a bunch of books?" 

The question he asked himself was... "How can I have fun writing and selling kid's books?"

Good question.

[Now you might be thinking "It's kid's books.  How can you NOT have fun?"  But have you looked at the shelves of kid's books lately?  Let's just say that you can see numerous examples of authors that aren't having fun.]

Bottom line?  Dav's question paid off.

Dav has sold over 8 million copies of his books and he continues to add titles and games to his list of successes.

This gets me thinking.

What if we asked that question of ourselves today?

"How could I have fun as I ________________ today?"

I know... I know...  it might appear to be harder to ask this question of yourself, if you're in a job you don't love or if you know that it's going to be a stress-filled day of meetings or if your business is hurting. 

But, what if?

What if we asked that question of ourselves?

I recently spoke on this topic at a weekend conference and a person in the audience raised her hand and said, "I'm going to ask this question now."  She continued, "Mine will be 'How can I have fun while I search for a job?'" 

The thing I loved about her response was that she was smiling a BIG smile as she said it.  It was almost like she couldn't help herself.  She just had to smile.  Yup.  She understood the power of this question.  She got it.

How about you?  Where could you be asking this question today?

Why not give it a try... and let us know what happens?

Are you driving your personal car for business?

Woman_driving_2 Have you ever been in your vehicle and noticed someone talking on their cell phone, writing things down, and piles of samples packed into the back seat of the car?  If you have not, then you are paying way too much attention to the road while driving.

Imagine this …

Acme Plumbing Company employs multiple sales representatives who use their own autos to make sales calls at customers’ premises.  This could be a business premise or an individual premise, the location does not matter.   

It’s how they are getting there that matters.

While driving to a customer’s factory, John, one of Acme’s sales reps, carelessly changed lanes on the Interstate while talking on his cell phone, running another auto off the road and severely injuring the driver and passenger.  Since John was on the phone, he is not aware of what has happened. 

Can a claim be made?

Of course!  But who is going to be sued? 

The victims made claim against both John and Acme Plumbing Company.  Acme Plumbing Company’s business auto policy provides coverage for “any auto” for liability coverage.  Will this auto policy cover Acme Plumbing as well as John against the described claim?

Who’s covered?

Unless Acme’s business auto policy has been modified to include the employees as insured endorsement, it will cover Acme Plumbing only. 

John, you are on your own.  John, have you started to worry yet? 

One victim in this case is in need of a wheelchair for the rest of their life. 

Where does John turn?

Hopefully John has a personal auto policy that is paid up and in good standing.  The one thing John has done is tell his insurance company he drives his car to work 3 miles. John has heard that his premium will be less if he only drives his car to work and John is all for paying less premium. 

Can the company deny this claim? John uses his car for business sales calls but didn’t tell his insurance company. 

Is the agent now responsible?  Oh, I forgot to mention, John purchases all his insurance over the internet. 

I hope things work out for John. 

I Would If I Didn't Have So Much Stuff To Do

RacingagainsttimeI was talking with a friend recently about project management and small business.  He works for a small town newspaper here in Iowa as an editor, and I asked him how he balances the critical "git'r done" initiatives with the normal day-to-day operations.  What are the things that worry him about completing projects as a small business manager?  He said that the following are what keeps him awake at night:

  • Resources - finding the people and the funds to get stuff done.
  • Definition - being able to figure out what the solutions are.
  • Doing More With Less - the constant constraining pressure to accomplish a lot while spending a little.

The conversation drifted along to other things, but these were the big ones that stuck out in my mind.  Recently during a bout of blog-trolling, I found Andrew Boyd's Fabicus blog, which pointed me to a series by Jeri Merrell.  She's a consultant who focuses on small businesses.  It's a very simple yet impactful approach:

  1. Refining the idea helps you ask some tough questions about whether the project is necessary and addresses my friend's issues with resources.
  2. Plan the work addresses the design for the solution and the tasks to build it.  Jeri nails the heart of the doing more with less issue as well as definition, although not directly nor intentionally.  Every project manager should read this post.
  3. Make it happen shares ideas about carpe factum - git'r done - seize the accomplishment and emphasizes some of the issues that undermine project success.
  4. Take the leap completes the "hero's journey" to the actual execution of the project... and what prevents some projects from getting there.

Seriously, folks, this is top-notch reading and says it better than I ever could.  Jeri is going to be on my reading list now.  And I'll tell my newspaper editor friend about her blog as well.

Carpe Factum!

"Glass Half-Empty" Customer Service

Customer     How do you perceive your customers? Most companies don't take the time to get to know their customers, so everyone from the CEO to front-line CSRs are left to their own perceptions. While you can trust a few individuals to look at the glass-half full, my experience tells me that - left to our own devices - we often let a negative attitude taint our perception.

    Years ago, our group was asked to make a presentation in a board meeting for a large retail corporation. Prior to our presentation the board was was having a discussion about their corporate identity and mission. One of the board members said, "we sell [expletive deleted] to nerds!" (I don't think this is what Drew would recommend as a tag line!). The interesting (and sad) thing was, we found that the front-line CSRs had a similar impression of their customers. The negativity about their customers trickled-down and tainted most every phone call and service experience.

    Working in client contact centers for almost 15 years, I have found a common experience in every call center. Let's say a Customer Service Representative (CSR) takes 20 calls from customers before his break. Nineteen of the 20 customers were decent, pleasant customers and the CSR was able to resolve their issues capably. One of the 20 customers was frustrated and angry and vented his frustration on the CSR. When break time rolls around, who do you think is going to be the subject of conversation? We don't focus on the 19 pleasant, decent customers who were happy we helped them - we focus on the one difficult customer who couldn't be satisfied.

    Working with customers can be a draining experience. Human nature is easily led to focus on the few negative experiences rather than the positive. Companies must consciously work to remind themselves of the great customers and great customer experiences they have each day:

  • CSRs should keep a note pad or sticky-note handy for a day. Put a hash mark down for every nice, decent customer you helped that day. Then, put a hash mark down for every angry, insolent customer. It becomes a visual reminder that the negative customers are few and far between.
  • Companies regularly get "thank yous" from happy customers. These cards, letters, or emails usually end up on a dusty bulletin board somewhere that few ever read. Warm-up to existing technologies such as wiki, intranet, blogs, and RSS feeds to push these positive messages to everyone in the company!
  • You probably have some raving fans out there. Find them. Offer these customers a tour of your operation and give them some tchotckes. Bring these customers in to your contact centers or a team meeting and let them meet customers (who love them) face-to-face.
  • Use QA to track the percentage of negative customer calls they hear over a period of time and broadcast the results. Data will likely show that "those" customers are the minority.
  • Do the reasearch to get to know your customers and what they think of your company. Broadcast the results to everyone in your organization making sure to compare those who were "very satisfied" with their call to those who were "very dissatisfied". If your company is like most, the numbers will help dispel the "every customer's is upset and angry" myth.

You can impact how your employees perceive and engage your customers!

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and evilpaulie.

Making the Web Better by Making it Social

"How much happier we would be if instead of crippling each other with fear, we competed to empower each others' creativity." - Dave Winer, ca 1996

Maybe you've hesitated engaging with social media because of the flood of choices. Some might call it widget hell. That's about to end.

With HTML and JavaScript, your developers and/or talent can get started...right now. What this could mean is that the developer in Manchester, Iowa doesn't have to live in Silicon Valley to succeed.

Among those involved: LinkedIn, Salesforce, Ning, Plaxo, Oracle, Friendster, Hi5, Slide...and many others.


Others on Open Social:

Marc Andreessen
Michael Arrington
Marianne Richmond
Chris Carfi
Richard McManus
Phil Wolff

Get an early jump on planning for '08

Madman In exactly two months, 2008 will be here.  By then, you should have your marketing plan for the year completed and come January 2nd -- you hit the ground running. 

Would you like to know how you can significantly improve your business right out of the shoot?

If you've got it in you, here's a tough but very smart way to jump start that planning. 

Make a list of customers who were with you on January 1, 2007 but aren't still with you today. Then, swallow your pride and pick up the phone. 

If you demonstrate a little bit of humility, you'll find those former clients more than happy to share their perspective with you.

Here are some questions to ask that former client.

  • What was it about our company (product or service) that made you choose to do business with us?
  • Did your early experience with our company match what you expected?
  • Was there a specific event or a series of events that began to make you question that decision?
  • What was the final straw -- why did you decide to stop doing business with us?
  • What do you wish we had done differently?
  • How did we handle your departure?
  • Is there anything we could do to re-earn your business?

It might not be easy to listen to but, I guarantee you -- if you do this, you will learn something significant. 

Why not take the risk and start '08 off with a burst of insight?

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