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April 2008

How do real people dream BIG?

Okay... so I'll admit that this post is a little self-serving.  Or at the very least... it's biased. 

Why?

Well... a few years ago, we started something called the BIG dream gathering... because we knew that EVERYONE has BIG dreams. 

We do, don't we?  Big_dream_will

Even though many of our BIG dreams get buried or dismissed... we all have 'em.

Want proof?

Well, back in 2006, we got the idea for this thing called a "BIG dream gathering" and we hosted it at our house.  We invited a few friends over and asked them to put their BIG dreams on sheets of paper and post them on our walls. 

Then we encouraged everyone to walk around and look at each other's dreams to see if they could help out... either by offering an encouraging word, a connection or some support.

Well... the proof is in the response. 

We expected 20 or so people to arrive.  We had 60+ people come that first night.

We expected the gathering to last a few hours.  It wound up lasting a week!

Most importantly... numerous BIG dreams got launched... by real people.

Yup.  The response was overwhelming. 

And... again... it's proof positive that we all have BIG dreams.

The challenge is that we can't or don't think about them most of the time.

Some seem impossible.  Some seem too big.  Some seem too risky.  Some seem too expensive.

So... how do real people dream BIG?  How do they bust past those feelings and those fears?

Well... as the BIG dream gathering has continued to grow... we've been given a pretty amazing vantage point to see BIG dreams happen to real people.  And I ain't going to lie... it's been pretty cool.

What does it boil down to?

  1. Getting some clarity.  We ask everyone who comes to describe at least one of their BIG dreams.  Plus, we ask them to tell the world about what they already have in place and what they still need.
  2. Getting some help.  We have everyone put their dreams up on the walls in various categories.  (ie. Business, Family/Relationships, Education, Government, Spiritual, etc.)  Then, we encourage everyone to go around and look at each other's dreams to offer some encouragement, connections and/or help.  It's a bold step when you ask for help... but for a bunch of real people... it's been the most important thing they've done.
  3. Giving some help.  It's always a good feeling to help someone else out.  But that feeling is taken to a new level when you help someone with their BIG dream.  We've seen everything from someone jumping in to assist a single mom who needed help with her daughter's car, to a venture capitalist who helped a budding biz person with ideation.  And... again... I'm still not sure who gets blessed more... the giver or the receiver.  The smiles are usually pretty big on both sides.

So... yeah... these simple concepts seem to be at the heart of how real people dream BIG!

How about you?

How do you dream BIG?  What do you do to go after those dreams?  What's worked for  you? 

Come on.  Become a part of what we call the BIG dream movement... no matter where you live.  Get clear.  Get some help.  And... give some help.

I mean heck... if it ain't us... the freaky cool biz people... then who's gonna do it? 

Who's going to get the country and the world to dream BIG again?

And hey... if you're in Des Moines on May 13th... come and dream BIG with us

Photo credit: Trish Toma-Lark

Spring cleaning for safety

Cleaning_1 How safe is your workplace?

  • Do you inspect hand and power tools regularly for wear and tear?
  • Do all four feet of your stepladders rest on the same surface area?
  • Are you able to move around your stockroom easily without moving things?
  • Are your sprinklers visible and fire extinguishers easy to reach?
  • Do your employees wear proper clothing when working with materials such as resins, adhesives, cement, concrete, fiberglass and insulation?
  • Have employees been provided with the appropriate protective gear (aprons, face shields and gloves)
  • Is your workplace adequately ventilated?
  • Do you have a safety plan and an emergency evacuation plan in place?

If you answered “no” to any of the questions above, then a little spring cleaning may be just what you need to clean up your workplace and reduce your loss ratios.

This is the perfect time of year to get updated and organized.

If you are unsure of where to start, log onto the internet or take a look at your insurance carrier’s website.

There is a wealth of information available to you and the majority of it is free. 

Look for categories such as “risk management” or “loss prevention” and you’ll be surprised by what you will find. Most information will be separated by industry with extensive detail on the do’s and don’ts in the workplace.

You will also find webinars (online classes) and DVD’s available for purchase along with links to government sites and others such as National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the National Safety Council.

So make sure you are maximizing the benefits that your insurance offers and get your workplace cleaned up today.

The Holy Trinity of Project Management

Cooking_holy_trinityIf you have ever been in a New Orleans kitchen, then you know that many a good Cajun dish starts with the "holy trinity":  celery, onions, and peppers.  Saute them until they are just right, and they become the cornerstone of many excellent meals. 

But you need all three to achieve just the right flavor balance.

As I learned from one of my early mentors, project management starts with its own "holy trinity":  Communication, visibility, and accountability.  All three of these together serve as the starter recipe for any successful project.

Communication is key.  As any certified project manager will tell you, a good PM will spend upwards of 90% of his or her time communicating with the team, the stakeholders, the users, and the executives.  As Emily Foshee notes,

A good project management system will provide a valuable mechanism to streamline communications with your customers and between your employees. It will help your employees complete each project phase on time and on budget, which will increase customer confidence and ultimately increase your company’s revenues.

Visibility is a forgotten element of project success.  If your project isn't hitting the right radar screens, then there will be nobody there to protect it when it hits road blocks.  Having (and using) a project dashboard report to demonstrate what projects are being tracked means that the focus will be on the right projects.  Chris Spagnuolo's dilemma on Agile/Scrum projects drives home the importance of visibility:

...Because the metrics are based on actuals being provided in near-real time by project team members, executives and customers can "peek" into the project at any given moment and know exactly what the situation is.  They don't need to wait for the weekly or monthly status reports.

Accountability is becoming a rare commodity in the workplace today.  It seems there are more and more excuses, acting in inverse proportion to results.  Creating a culture of holding people accountable for results (both in a positive and negative sense) is critical to getting things done.  As Bob Mitera comments:

As a former business owner and project manager...what if I was tired when I was supposed to be approving your pay check? Yeah...I thought so. Get to work.  If (your people) are accountable to themselves or their family...they will take action with or without you. Don't mistake passion for a job as loyalty.

Again, just as a Cajun cook needs all three elements of the holy trinity to make a successful meal, the project manager needs to channel all three elements of this holy trinity to make a successful project.  Missing any one of the three leads to something less flavorful.

Carpe Factum!

What are you not hearing?

Picture_2 Just because you don't hear a lot of things being said about your company doesn't mean they are not being said.

  • Many people don't know how to listen
  • Many senior managers prefer not to know
  • Many senior managers are shielded from what's being said by underlings covering their respective patooskies

"If I don't hear anything, things must not be all that bad."

Customers make judgments the moment you answer the phone. Customers make judgments the moment they step up to your counter. It may or may not be a conscious judgment, but the impressions are immediate and they are lasting.

If the impression is overwhelmingly positive, they may mention it to their family and friends. If the impression is negative they may just be motivated to tell everyone. Most often, the impression is not overwhelming one way or the other, but don't think that it let's you off the hook. The customer will talk.

In casual conversation people will discuss a customer service experience and your customer will consider his or her experiences. Then those impressions will form into opinions. Those opinions will become word-of-mouth marketing. Positive or negative, people will talk.

Are you managing your customer's experience?



Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and Shuttercat7

What does success look like in a social media campaign?

Roi1 I'm frequently asked about how to best track ROI on social media marketing efforts. My answer is that social media ROI is next to impossible to figure. That may sound like a cop-out, but it's the truth.

The benefits of reaching out and connecting with your customers via social mediums are intangible. How do you extrapolate the ROI from participating in a conversation on a message board or blog, where you cleared up some negative misinformation about your brand or product in an honest, transparent and meaningful way? You can't measure that.

Sure, there are basic metrics that you can track on your website or blog, like clickthroughs, referrals, bounce rates and user sessions, but there is no metric for being part of an online conversation with your customers.

There are other ways to gauge success. Maybe it's increased visitor engagement and participation, which could take the form of more user comments on your blog posts, or more consumer-generated content (photos, videos, etc.) uploaded to your brand's Facebook Page.

Embarking on a social media campaign can force you to re-think how you visualize success.

It's a very back-to-basics approach, similar to the intangible fundamentals of really good customer service: going out of your way to listen to your customer's needs, and being able to respond to those needs quickly.

Your return on investment: Loyal, life-long customers.

Do you give good voice mail?

30393325 Let's face it, there's a whole lot of marketing that is done over voice mail.  Whether we want to or not, we end of leaving a significant number of voice mail messages throughout the day.   Just like you'd want your sales letters (read this example of a horrendous one) to leave a strong, branded impression -- you want your voice mail messages to do the same.

Over at the Art of Manliness blog, there are some great suggestions for leaving the perfect voice mail message.  Here are some that I think particularly impact the listener's impression of your brand.

Plan ahead so you do not "umm" yourself to death.  If you want to sound like an expert or at least a credible adult -- have your VMM ready to go, long before you hear the first beep.

State your name.  Tell them who you are and if you have a connection, identify it right away.  "Hi Bob, this is Drew McLellan.  My friend Tim Johnson said that your logo was a sorry sight and you needed my agency's help."

Give it up right away.  Do not make them suffer through your entire rambling voice mail just to get your phone number.  Cough it up.  Twice.

Cut to the chase.  If you didn't follow the first bit of advice, odds are you are not going to score big points in this arena either.   Nothing you have to say is worth enduring 3-5 minutes of voice mail blather to get to the nugget.    Be clear.  Be  articulate.  But even if you can't muster either of those -- be brief!

In many cases, your voice mail message is your first impression.  Don't blow it. Be sure to reflect on your brand and how you could best deliver it in 60 seconds or less. 

The good news is, most people are horrible at leaving voice mail messages.  So if you can master some key skills -- your voice mail will stand out and you'll be the first one they call back!

Marketing Pitfalls of Social Networking

36598791 The Lure of Social Media
Social networking is all the rage amongst cutting edge marketing gurus.  Rather than force your message down the throats of random unreceptive consumers, social networking provides a platform whereby your best customers proselytize your message for you.

Not only is having customers doing the heavy lifting cheaper and easier, it is much more effective. Who is a potential customer more likely to believe, an infomercial or a friend? Assuming a certain savvy in friend selection, the answer is clearly the friend. When multiple friends join in evangelical rapture around a product, the drive to purchase soon becomes irresistible.

Off the Charts ROI
The low cost and high value of advertising via social networks is not lost on savvy companies. Hiring a handful of hipsters to tout your product's virtues online is relatively inexpensive.  Moreover, the results can be quite impressive. Not only will an effective social networking campaign result in a significant increase in sales, but it will increase brand loyalty and perceived brand value as well. 

The Necessity of Disclosure

One problem often overlooked by marketing agencies, however, is the necessity of full disclosure. While anyone is free to profess the wonders of Screaming Monkey Slingshots, if I were receiving compensation for such a promotion, I would have to ensure this relationship is clear to the you, the potential Screaming Monkey Slingshot purchasing consumer. 

The Law
In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission made it clear that if a paid endorsement "might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement . . ., such endorsement must be fully disclosed. More recently, the United Kingdom has adopted similar provisions into it's lengthy new Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. These prohibitions extend beyond merely paying stealth marketers to exploit social networking channels. The prohibitions extend to enlisting employees or other paid personnel to post anonymous comments, to advising fans to deceive others as to their involvement in a campaign and to posting fake product reviews.

The Ethics

So, what constitutes "full disclosure?" Unfortunately, there are few hard and fast rules. Obviously, regardless as to the extent of your disclosure or lack thereof, you never want to deny a paid relationship or deceive a consumer as to its existence. Beyond that, the message, the medium, the product and the promoter, all play a role in what constitutes acceptable minimum disclosure (AMD).

Blacklisted for Life
To assist companies in this regard, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's Ethics 20 Questions provides a self-assessment to determine whether you might be in danger of violating not only government prohibitions on word of mouth advertising, but also your own customers' trust. Of particular note is question number 19, regarding "Hiring an Agency."

The question asks whether the advertising agency you are considering has "previously engaged in unethical practices." This should frighten a lot of marketers considering launching a social networking campaign. In addition to placing your agency at odds with the federal government, an ill-conceived social networking campaign may black-list your agency for life.

Brett Trout

It's not so much our mistakes; it's what we learn from them

The 2007 filing season is over.  Either you've filed or extended.  Either way, you probably know the extent of the damage by now. 

If you had to write a check to Uncle Sam, you may feel it's too painful to ponder how to ease the tax bite next year.  Rather than run from the pain, put it to use in planning for 2008.  Here are some thoughts to ponder while the pain is still vivid.

200803263 DON'T FALL BEHIND.

The hardest tax problems are those when people don't keep up on their taxes. It can happen when you reduce your withholding too much.

It can also happen when you don't keep up with your estimated tax payment obligations. If you own an interest in a partnership or an S corporation, it can become a problem in a hurry, especially if you spend the nice distributions they give you without putting them away for your taxes.

Your first quarter estimate was also due April 15.  If you haven't paid it, don't delay.  If you were underwithheld, fix it now while you still have more than 8 months over which to spread the pain of increased withholding.

DO THE EASY STUFF NOW

Most people who come to their tax preparers in April looking for a miracle have already squandered most of their tax-saving opportunities. These are likely to be found at work. Take advantage of the easy stuff:

- Maximize your 401(k) contribution. If you aren't at least putting in enough to get the entire employer match, you are making an unforgivable financial blunder. More is better.

- Review your health plan opportunities. If your employer offers an Health Savings Account option, think not twice, but several times before rejecting it. Many employers offer generous breaks to switch to high deductible health insurance, and most of the time you'll be financially better off with an HSA. If there is no HSA at your job, make sure you take full advantage of the cafeteria plan.

- Start funding your 2008 IRA. The main benefit of these is tax-free buildup of earnings; if you fund it now instead of next April, your money is tax-sheltered an extra year.

- If you are saving for college, put a little money away in a Section 529 plan like College Savings Iowa every month.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

One of the perplexing things about being a tax preparer is seeing somebody with a $500,000 W-2 unable to raise $30,000 to pay taxes in April. You should always have some amount of cash easily available.

Some people advocate enough to pay six months of living expenses, but I think you can do with less - especially if you have some other investments, or if you have a house. If you are a homeowner, open a home-equity line of credit, and then don't use it except for emergencies - like a $30,000 tax bill.

YOU DON'T HAVE TO REPEAT YOUR MISTAKES!

One well-known self-employed taxpayer got into a bad habit of failing to use one of the retirement savings options available for self-employed taxpayers.  One this mistake was pointed out to him, he got it right on his 2007 1040

This self-employed taxpayer put $45,000 into a Simplified Employee Pension, giving himself a $45,000 deduction for, in effect, taking money from one of his pockets and putting it in another. 

So while you can't change your past, you can change your tax future -- starting today!

Are you sending ripples through your community?

503453190_324a3756de We've all done it. And we still do it because it's fascinating.

When standing next to a beautiful still pond, we can't help it. We begin looking around for the nearest stone and toss it in so we can see the ripple that is created, and we stare in amazement as those ripples grow larger and larger. 

I was introduced to my wife after running into a mutual acquaintance of ours at a gas station. I met Blake Reding of REL Productions at my wedding because his wife was our decorator. And the first client I ever introduced to REL was someone I had come to know through my church.

It's through the power of relationships that our lives have been shaped. It's been my philosophy for sometime now that if I can help enough people in my network someday it will come full circle. And it has more than I ever could have imagined. Just recently I read a book that has had a profound impact on the way I think. More than anything it gave confirmation to the philosophy I have been practicing for the last year and a half. The name of the book is called The Ripple Effect and it was written by Steve Harper, a creative entrepreneur from Austin, TX.

The first paragraph of chapter 1 says it all:

The most powerful, the most successful, the most satisfying accomplishments in both your life and your business result from the relationships you form with other people in the world.

It's truly amazing how this law of reciprocity works.  How has this concept helped your business grow?

flickr photo courtesy of Richard Thompson.

Business Estate Planning & Charitable Giving

Acorn Do you have an estate plan?  It has been reported that approximately sixty percent of people in the U.S. do not have a will.  Of course having a will is critical if you have children but let's not forget about your other baby - your business.

As the owner of a closely held business much of your wealth may be tied up in the business.  If you have not planned properly you may cause tremendous problems for your heirs.  After paying probate and estate taxes your heirs may also encounter liabilities that were payable upon your death.  All this during a time where the business may have decreased revenues due to your death.

Fortunately proper planning may eliminate many of these problems.  Using buy-sell agreements and trusts are two of the ways that business owners can protect their assets and reduce taxes.

Another important life-goal for business owners is charitable giving.  This week's Des Moines Business Record has an informative article on available options for starting your own philanthropic legacy

Even if you are young, consider an Acorn Fund through the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation.  For an initial contribution of $1,000 and a commitment of $600 per year until the amount equals $10,000, a young business owner could start their own permanent endowment fund.  And not only do you get the deductions for charitable contributions but you may also be eligible for additional tax credits.

photo on flickr by Norma Desmond

Humility--the Great, Quiet Virtue

Humility "Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way."

Remember that line from the Mac Davis song of the 70's? Given all the forces working on leaders today, it IS hard to be humble!

Think about it. Many of the leadership books lining the shelves in today's bookstores speak of charismatic personalities, undaunted courage, willingness to sacrifice everything, noble passions, and unwavering commitment to a cause. We're urged to stand out, tout our results, and polish our charisma. Nothing wrong with being seen, that's for sure.

There does seem to be a disconnect though between the advice to "stand out" by trying to stand out, and the reality of those who stand out because they lay back. Here's what I mean.

  • In the research for his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins found that the truly great leaders demonstrated personal humility. What does that look like in a person? A compelling modesty, a shunning of public adoration, never boastful, acting with quiet, calm determination, using inspired standards (not inspiring charisma) to motivate.
  • In the workshop I do based on the book, Crucial Conversations, I teach the concept of striking a balance between confidence and humility. Leaders have to be confident enough to contribute their ideas and to see those ideas as being valid and adding value. At the same time, they have to be sincerely humble enough that they wouldn't think of trying to convince and compel others that only their ideas are the "right" ideas. Instead, they influence through their humble and tentative and respectful approach to engaging others in dialogue.
  • Joseph Badaracco sees effective leadership as more a matter of character --who the leaders are -- rather than tactics -- what they do. In his book, Quiet Leadership, he refers to a trait like modesty as an unglamorous, everyday virtue -- not associated in any way with heroic leadership. Modest leaders are effective because they are realists and don't inflate the importance of their efforts or their likelihood of success. As one leader in his book says, "Look, all I'm trying to do is leave a trace on the beach." I like that. Rather than trying to build a castle on the sand, a humble leader is satisfied with leaving a trace on the beach, recognizing the reality of coming tides and winds.

So, really, how humble are you?

We're talking sincere humility, not false modesty. Would former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir's comment apply to you? She said, "Don't be so humble, you aren't that great."

Photo on flickr by flygirljc

Do You Fire The Person or The Behavior?

1393707899_8b6830b58c

Firing an employee should be one of the hardest things a manager or leader has to do in an organization.  The process and the attitude that is maintained towards this person is critical to how they cope with a termination.  It is not just simply pressing a button.

When companies state that their employees come first, I would bet that this only counts for those that are employed not the ones being terminated.  Once the mark has been placed on the employee's back, they become second rate.

Instead of firing the person we should be firing the behavior.  If you have been the person fired (which I have), there is a big difference when the focus is on behavior and not the person.  Focusing on the person is destructive, confusing, and typically based on hearsay and rumors.  Focusing on the behavior requires specific examples and data that occur over time.

If you are believer in McGregor's Theory Y, then your belief in the "good of people" supports focusing on behavior. 

The example - the person that continues to have an attendance problem.  Does this make them a bad person - absolutely not!  They are engaging, when they are there they do a good job, they are smart - they just have a problem with attendance.  The termination process gives them ample opportunity to change the behavior.  When the final conversation is conducted it is now about attendance behavior, not that they are a bad employee or person.  When they walk out the door, they are mad at themselves and not the company for what has happened.

Give this some thought and then think about changing the behavior of your company's termination process.

Flickr photo by dadadreams

What are your employees saying about their work-life balance?

Microsoft is doing some things to hear what their employees are thinking and saying.  But they are also spreading the word about it.  Check this out.

What would your employees say if they were asked?  Do you cringe at the thought?

Well... obviously... Microsoft has done some things to adapt and strengthen opportunities for balance.  How about you?

How do your employees think you are doing?

So... why not ask? 

See how you are doing.  Then keep going.  Why not ask what could be improved?  You know... go right to the source and ask what they'd like to see.

You may not be able to do everything that's asked of you... but studies have shown... especially with the newest workforce... the Millennials... that an increase in work-life balance leads to an increase in employee loyalty and retention.

By the way... why do you think Microsoft made this video?  Do you think things like this have helped them to entice some of the best of the best to come to the great Northwest? 

How could you apply some of the same concepts to draw the best to your company... and then keep them there?

Terrorism Act extended

World_trade_centerMany of you no doubt have recently received new Terrorism Disclosure notices and endorsements from your insurance companies or agents.  “What’s this all about,” you might be thinking.

It all began, of course, on September 11.

The insured property loss from the attack on the World Trade Center has been estimated at $20.3 billion by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). 

They also estimated that there were 49,000 property loss claims.  Of the total - 30,000 were for personal property, 15,000 for commercial property and 4,000 for auto damages. 

The insurance industry had clearly been unprepared for the devastating losses that occurred that day.  Policies contain a war exclusion which has been standard for many years. But was September 11 a war? 

The conclusion of the courts was no – a war is a course of hostility between sovereign nations – so the exclusion did not apply.  The property losses were settled as acts of vandalism. But the amounts were staggering for insurers whose pricing models had never contemplated such losses. 

If insurers can’t reasonably predict when and where a terrorist event might take place and how much it might cost, it seems unlikely they will be able to accurately factor such an event into the cost of insurance.

Perhaps the federal government will be permanently in the business of providing a backstop for the insurance industry when it comes to insuring terrorism.

The Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) was created as a temporary measure to allow time for insurance companies to develop their own solutions and products to insure against acts of terrorism.  But late in 2007, President Bush signed legislation enacting a seven-year extension to the act. 

The law extends the federal program that creates a shared system - public and private compensation for insured losses resulting from acts of terrorism.  And now, domestic terrorism is included as well as foreign terrorism.

Are you covered?
Currently, workers compensation policies do not exclude loss due to terrorism or war. That means that employers with a lot of white collar workers located in office buildings are now viewed as high-risk accounts.

From a property standpoint, more than 60% of large and mid-size firms carry property terrorism insurance and the trend continues to grow. 

To view the current nationwide threat level - visit The Terrorism Research Center.

Spring Cleaning Your Project Archives

Spring_cleaningThe requirements and specifications drafted for your project solution.

The minutes from all of those project meetings.

The status reports, drafted weekly.

The change requests, approved or denied.

The project plan.

The business case... or project charter... or statement of work... whatever you use to define the project up front.

What happens to all of these things when you are done with your project?  Well, there are a couple of different approaches. 

Ending a project is like spring cleaning.  Things either get thrown away, go in the garage sale pile, or go into seasonal storage (to be brought out later when needed).  Unfortunately, many project managers treat all of the project documentation like one of the first two categories (dispose or never access again) instead of the third.

Saving your project files in an easily accessible location allows reuse for other project managers to learn from you and your project - the good and the bad.  It also diminishes rework on future projects.  ("Remember that great test plan that Fred wrote last year?  Yeah, use that as a template.")  You no longer have to reinvent the wheel.

So don't toss that documentation into the spring cleaning bin too quickly.  It may be useful after all.  Just find a way to store it effectively so others can access it.

Carpe Factum!

Need a customer service tune-up?

47fae65b7dde Companies large and small want to improve the quality of service they deliver to their customers.  But, how exactly do you do that in a systematic way?

For entrepreneurs and corporate executives alike, a process of continuous improvement can seem hopelessly out of reach.

Come hear Tom Vander Well of c wenger group share a simple plan that can help any company take a step on the journey to improve their customer experience.

Join us for April's installment of the Business Building Breakfast series.

Wednesday, April 16th
7:30 am - 8:30 am
14001 University Ave
Clive, IA 50325

Please RSVP so they can have plenty of breakfast on hand. Want to know more? Read about the entire series.

When to edit a Wikipedia page about your company: NEVER!

Wikipedia It's tempting to want to create and/or edit a Wikipedia entry about your company or even yourself, and the collaborative nature of the site makes it easy for you to generate your own content. However, the best advice is to never write/edit your own entry, and never pay someone to do it for you.

When clients ask if I can help them craft their Wikipedia page, I refer them to Wikipedia's conflicts of interest page, which states: "Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a forum for advertising or self-promotion."

There are lots of benefits to being on Wikipedia: Links back to your website or blog, an increase in traffic and a bump in search engine points. But if you don't let your Wikipedia presence happen via true grassroots efforts, you will get caught. The Wikipedia community is incredibly active and passionate about self-policing the online encyclopedia - they can typically detect self-serving additions and edits within a matter a minutes.

There are also tools available such as WikiScanner, which can cross-reference page edits with IP addresses to find out exactly who is behind a specific edit. In the past, employees from Yahoo! and The Pentagon have both been caught tweaking their own organization's pages.

Look, this all comes down to basic best practices within the social media landscape. Eventually, fake grassroots efforts (AKA "Astroturfing") will inevitably be discovered, and your organization wouldn't want any part of such a public relations mess. Businesses should focus on what really matters: Keeping their customers so happy that they take it upon themselves to write a Wikipedia entry about the company.

Nathan T. Wright

Give them a choice

30326632 As consumers, we are all about choice.  We like options.  Our country has really gone through a "personalization phase" where everything is better simply because it is more customizable.  Walk down the laundry detergent aisle grocery store and marvel at the options available to consumers

We need to apply that thinking to our business as well. 

How can you offer your clients more choice?  Be creative.  It doesn't just have to be in terms of your product or service. 

  • How about delivery options? 
  • Download an electronic version? 
  • Overnight shipping versus ground? 
  • Or what about payment options? 
  • A discount for payment upfront? 
  • Convenient terms for stretching out the payments?

One of the most valuable resources any customer has these days is time.  So how about charging a premium for exact appointment times - say we'll be there at 8 am rather than from 8 - noon?  Turnaround time could also be something you let them control. 

Are you seeing a trend here?  Most of these choices can also be new profit centers for you.  If someone wants it faster, in a different format or special treatment - there is a value to having that option.  Which makes it a win/win for you both.

Social Networking and the Law

Picture_1_2 What is Social Networking?
Social networking can take many forms: blogs, podcasts, videos, text messages and others. In its purest form, social networking involves making connections between people, based upon commonalities. The commonalities may be personal, professional, geographic or any one of a thousand other factors. Some of my social networks include Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and my blog readers. Social networks build communities, solidify relationships and provide resources. There are actually very few things that can boast an ROI even remotely approaching that of a correctly deployed social networking strategy.

Social Networking and the Law
With the popularity of social networking at an all-time high, I often get questions about how the law applies to social networking.  In my experience, what the person really wants to know is "Will social networking land me or my company in court." Strictly speaking, many social networking activities that violate the rights of others are unlikely to land you in court, whereas activities that are otherwise legal might end up making another social networker so angry that they sue you on principal. At the very least, legal but inappropriate behavior will likely get you tossed out of your social network and/or irreparably damage your reputation.

The Law vs. the Rules
While it is indeed advisable to obtain at least some background on the law regarding contracts, intellectual property infringement and defamation, probably the most important factor in keeping you out of social networking hot water is to investigate, and closely follow, the rules of etiquette with regard to the particular social network you are using.  Be aware, each type and subtype of social networking has its own set of rules. Confounding the problem is the fact that these rules are rarely written down anywhere.

Learn the Unwritten Rules
The best way to learn the rules is to  "lurk."  Most social networking sites allow you to sign up and just take it all in for a while. What type of language to people use? The general rule is to not say anything you would not say at the dinner table. What is the frequency and content of the information people provide to the social network? Primarily social networks often view commercially motivated, or overly frequent contributions, as spam.

Staying Out of Court
Probably the biggest factor in ensuring your social networking does not land you in court is to not make anyone angry. Spirited debate is fine and often even encouraged. The most important thing to remember is to not cross the line, remain professional regardless of what anyone else does. Do not get sucked into arguments with professional fight-pickers, called "trolls." Do not bad-mouth anyone or any business. 

Be yourself.
Hopefully you can convey at least a little of your personality through your social network, while remaining professional. It is a lot easier to be yourself and social networkers are notorious for ferreting out phonies. While there are obviously no guarantees, following the unwritten rules of your particular social network, acting in a professional manner and being yourself will serve you well in your quest to build your network, hopefully without the time and cost involved with fighting a frivolous lawsuit.

Brett Trout

Don't cheap out when you bring your tax return to the post office!

An entrepreneur's tax return isn't necessarily cheap.  One relatively prominent entrepreneurial couple filed a 2005 tax return with three schedule Cs and from a bunch of partnerships.  Their return fee was a cool $16,535.

Maybe you spent hundreds of dollars to have a preparer do your business return. Or maybe you spent the 30.3 hours the 1040 instructions say is the average estimated time it takes to do your own return. Either way, your tax return represents a substantial investment in time and/or money.

200804101ibiz_2

Now isn't the time to cheap out. Unless you are filing electronically, you ought to spring for the extra $4.80 to file your return "certified mail, return receipt requested."

It's well worth the time and trouble of going to the post office to get that postmarked receipt. The tax law is full of sad stories of taxpayers who lost thousands of dollars because they didn't have a postmark to document that they filed on time. Don't let it happen to you!

If there's no post office open or handy, you can also use a mailing receipt from one of the designated private delivery services authorized by IRS for timely return shipment. As they don't use P.O. boxes, you'll want to refer to Russ Fox's handy list of service center street addresses.

And don't procrastinate, because Jiffy Express isn't a designated private delivery service.

Child's Play

Redlight Remember that game we played as kids, "Red Light, Green Light? The leader would yell "Green Light" and everyone would begin running as fast as they could towards the finish line. Then the leader would scream, "Red Light" and you'd have to stop dead in your tracks or be forced to start from the beginning!

Mahan Kahlsa suggests we should also watch and listen for the red lights and green lights when meeting with a prospective client.

A few weeks ago I had what at the time seemed like a good sales meeting. The client was giving me great information and I could quickly begin to understand where the issues were. When our time was up, we shook hands and agreed to get others involved and move forward through the process. Though I sensed a little hesitation in scheduling a follow up meeting, I let it go. I certainly didn't want to press the issue!

RED LIGHT!!!!

I haven't had a conversation with him since that day. I've put in a couple of phone calls and an eMail, but no response. Maybe I was caught up in the ideas and the solutions, and wasn't paying attention to what he was really saying.

Next time your moving through the sales process with a client, pay attention to the red lights. If you're truly engaged and listening you should see them flashing!

Preventing Employee Theft & Dishonesty

Apples Gary Jensen of the Pickle Fork had an excellent article on how to avoid putting rotten apples in your basket.  Gary points out that employee theft and dishonesty not only hurts the bottom line but it can ruin a company's reputation.

So how can you stop employee theft and dishonesty before it starts?  Gary shares six things every company can do to help avoid the bad apples with a few comments added from me:

  1. Verify Past Employment History - great idea.  It would also be a good idea to have the employee give permission and provide a full release to the past employer in order to get a frank disclosure about performance and character.
  2. Conduct a Criminal Background Check - nearly 1/2 of all applicants have some discrepancy with the information they report to employers.  See this informative article from Law.com for more.
  3. Pull a Credit Report - remember to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
  4. Test for Dope - May be a good idea but Iowa has specific regulations regarding drug testing.  Make sure you know what you are getting into before you drug test.  Some employers may not be willing to take on the responsibilities required under the Iowa drug testing statute.  See my post on drug testing basics for Iowa employers.
  5. Talk to Uncle Chuck – Check those job references.
  6. Double Check Those Credentials - ISU, Notre Dame and other universities have been caught by this one.  I know private businesses have as well.

While you may never stamp out employee theft and dishonesty completely, implementing Gary's steps are certainly a step in the right direction.  And as he said, consulting your employment attorney can also reduce the chances you will get sued in the process.  Always seek legal advice before implementing policies of this nature.

photo on flickr by beta karel

A Culture of Discipline

Discipline Discipline. Boy, that's a word that raises all kinds of angst even in the most got-it-to-together individuals. In our businesses, we value discipline. We want more of it. But developing it...there's the rub!

Remember in his book Good to Great , Jim Collins talks about how the great organizations display three forms of discipline:

  • disciplined people
  • disciplined thought
  • disciplined action

And what's so great about those three? With disciplined people, you don't need hierarchy. With disciplined thought, you don't need bureaucracy. And with disciplined action, Collins says you don't need excessive controls.

How free is your business of hierarchy, bureaucracy and excessive controls? Your answer is a reflection of your company's resolve (or discipline).

Whether it's personally or professionally, we pretty much already know what we need to do to achieve what it is we want to achieve, don't we? Think about it. If you want to lose weight, don't you already know what you NEED to do. But having the resolve to do it...there's the rub. The same thing applies to our businesses. If you're gaining lots of new clients but losing old ones, don't you already know what you NEED to do. But having the discipline and commitment to actually build client relationships...there's the rub.

In his book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker, David Maister says, "We know what to do, we know why we should do it, and we know how to do it. Yet most businesses and individuals don't do what's good for them." Guess what the subtitle to his book is. "Doing What's Obvious But Not Easy."

What's with that? I'm totally fascinated by this dilemma of having the will --or call it resolve, determination, or discipline--to actually do what it is we already want or need to do! I'm fascinated both personally and professionally.

I'm probably fascinated by this conundrum because the majority of my professional work comes down to helping business people solve this dilemma for themselves...to find their own breakthroughs in terms of strategy, leadership and relationships. To DO what they say they really want to do. To develop goals, implement accountabilities and celebrate successes.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Ah, but there's the rub!

Photo on flickr by that_yellagurl_keisha

First Impressions

217625680_917be60fdc_mThe young man drove an hour to the interview.  He walked in and announced he was here to interview with Human Resources.  No one knew he was coming for the interview - what do you think his first impression of the company was?

Even better, the VP of Operations set up the interview and told no one.  Then he walked up when the young man arrived said hello and walked away - another great impression.

This company may have blown an opportunity to hire a star performer.  Do you have similar stories? 

It is human nature that first impressions impact us tremendously and that changing that first impression is not just a simple snap of the fingers.  I would encourage you conduct an evaluation on what type of first impression does your company make?

Remember you only get one shot.  If you do it wrong, you will loose customers and employees.

Flickr photo by raspberrytart

What's one of your favorite ways to rest?

Since Sundays are typically a day of rest for many people... I want to take a cue from that...Rest2 and rest.  (Because we all need more rest... right?) Plus... I love to ask questions.

So what am I going to do? 

I'm going to rest... and have YOU write this post.

Yup... instead of me telling you how to rest... I want YOU to think about how you... rest best. 

I'm going to ask you a couple of questions and I really want YOU to think about 'em. 

Sound good?

Ready?

Rest1

So... what are some of YOUR favorite ways to rest?

Before you move on... really think about it.  (Comment on it if you'd like.)

Seriously.  Write them down.  Grab a piece of paper and write 'em down.

Anything surprise you as it came to mind?

Okay... get ready for another question.  Ready?

What would you need to do to try one of these... today?Rest3

Okay... go for it!

And then... let us know how it went.

Sound good?

Photo credit: Photocapy, gabir, Senor Perro

An employee benefits mishap

Twins Are you a small business owner who struggles with having to wear many hats – including handling HR and benefits?

Sometimes it’s a tough balancing act to make sure you’re offering your employees a good benefits package – and still bringing business in the door.

Imagine this ...

As you walk in the office door thinking about your busy day, you’re greeted by one of your employees, Kim. She’s just returned to work after giving birth to twins. Kim gives you a quick update on the kids - they are doing great and it is wonderful to be back in the office. 

You reply in a friendly voice, “So glad to have you back and wonderful to hear the children are doing great.”

Have you just been given notice that an employee now has two new members in the household?  Do you have any responsibility to make sure that those children are on the company’s health insurance plan and you are collecting premium?

Two months go by and one day you overhear some employees talking about Kim’s twins  who are in the hospital with a respiratory illness.  All of a sudden that light bulb goes off in your head.  You never added them to the company’s group health insurance plan. 

It’s time to call your insurance agent!

After a brief discussion you are relieved.  You purchased Employee Benefits Liability

Under this coverage form, your policy would provide coverage if you were found legally obligated to pay under certain circumstances.

For example, if health insurance coverage HAD been in place for the twins and $2,500 would have been paid for by the health insurance carrier -  you may be found legally obligated to pay the $2,500. Generally speaking, your employee benefits liability insurance would cover expenses that should have been covered if the health insurance was in place.

This may also apply to other benefits that you offer such as disability, vision, and 401(k).

Mistakes do happen and it is nice to know you are covered when something serious does go wrong.  In a case like this, you could lose a good employee if you forgot to add new family members to their health insurance plan. 

What would you have done if the children were diagnosed with a more serious illness?  Would you have had enough coverage?

Bustin' My Buttons

Button_brokenI like to have my shirts professionally laundered.  For a couple of bucks, my dress shirts are washed, ironed, starched, and placed in neat little plastic wrapping (which is recycled as packing cushion when I need to mail my books someplace). 

There's nothing like the feeling of contentment when I put on a crisp clean shirt in the morning...

Except...

My one big pet peeve about dry cleaners and professional launderers is when they break a button and don't stop to replace it. 

My last dry cleaner, Reeds, did that religiously.  In the four years I used them as a laundry service, I maybe had one or two button issues.  The prior cleaner, whom I unceremoniously fired, was notorious for breaking or losing buttons from my shirts.  Worse, they were unapologetic about it.  So I switched to Reeds.  But now Reeds has closed their doors, and I'm forced to find a new dry cleaner. 

And with my first trip to the new cleaner, what am I finding on my shirts?  Broken buttons.  I think I'd rank "button condition" above starch level on my satisfaction scale for professionally laundered shirts.  You could say it's a "hot button" of mine (OK, bad pun, sorry).  I'll give the new cleaner a shot at fixing the issue by communicating to them how important this one criterion is to me.  If they don't fix it, I'll be shopping for another dry cleaner.

But let's tie this issue back to our projects.  What are the success criteria that define the quality of project completion?  We use terms like "user friendly" without giving specific criteria for meaning.  We talk about wanting things "as soon as possible" but don't tell people how we're defining the "possible" part. 

On some of my projects, the team will do a short exercise before we begin defining requirements.  I ask everyone on the team to define two terms:  "Cold weather" and "Small town."  The definitions come back all over the board, both in quantitative (below 32 degrees, under 5000 people) and qualitative (hat and glove weather, only has a Casey's) terms.  We then use this exercise to talk about being specific on defining our project solutions.

The blog, Neeru's Corner, agrees with the approach.  Guest blogger Jim Swanson nails the ambiguous language problem very well

The truth is, one of the surest ways to fail in requirements is to say to your users, "Give me your requirements," then stand back and "catch" them. Why doesn't this work? The stakeholders are experts in their domains. While the analyst probably has more expertise in the IT domain, the two speak different languages. The stakeholders truly do not understand exactly what IT needs to be able to develop an effective system for them.So the only way for a project to obtain comprehensive, correct, and complete requirements from all stakeholders is to truly elicit them. Elicit means to probe and understand the requirements, not just capture or gather them.The reality is that the quality of the requirements depends on the quality of the solicitation of them by the analysts.

So as you are defining your next project, take some time to work with all of the key stakeholders to better communicate and document your expectations.  And if you can recommend a great dry cleaner in the Urbandale vicinity, please let me know.

Carpe Factum!

Are You Treating Good Customers Like Bad Ones?

Bigstockphoto_questioning_a_call_81Most of our customers are great. Most of our customers are a pleasure to serve. Customer Service would be a breeze were it not for those few nit-pick customers who are a drain on our time, energy and emotions. I've noticed in the break room that it's the one negative customer who becomes the focus of the CSR's attention rather than the nine who were just wonderful to work with.

Focus on the negative, and it's easy to start treating your nine good customers like they are just like the one difficult customer.

Some customers are good customers who are frustrated, angry and have a legitimate complaint. You want to take care of those. Apologize for the issue, resolve the issue, grease the wheel and they will keep rolling back in.

There are, however, squeaky wheel customers who are not worth the grease. They are few and far between, but they are there - working the customer service system for every penny, nickle and dime they can squeeze out of the frazzled CSRs.

The key is to learn to tell the difference.

One of our clients has a large collection group. After monitoring and analyzing some of their calls we discovered that a few collectors were treating almost all their customers like they were dead beats. Yet, when we ran the numbers we found that less than one percent of the company's customers ever got to the point that they were charged off. The overwhelming majority of customers who ended up in collections were good customers who just found themselves in a tough financial spot. Armed with this knowledge, we were able to help the collectors focus on providing quality service to worthwhile customers who were behind on their obligations.

The result? It's common for that company to hear customers say, "I always pay you first, because you treat me with kindness and respect."

Have you focused your time, energy and resources on the nine profitable customers or the one nit-pick customer who will never be satisfied? What are you doing to learn to tell the difference?

Have you added video to your website yet?

Picture_8_270x372 There's a common perception that integrating video content into your website can be expensive. However, this isn't the case any more — video-to-web is fast, easy and affordable.

Showcasing your product with video creates a much more intimate connection with your website visitor than just a photograph, diagram or list of services. Probably the best example of this is BlendTec's "Will it Blend" video campaign, which illustrates the blending power of their products on objects such as iPhones and marbles.

Additionally, if you use a video-sharing application to host your content such as YouTube or Blip.tv, your video is instantly shareable in a peer-to-peer fashion. These services allow you to cast a wider audience net outside of your own website.

So how do you get started?

  1. Equipment. Depending on the final quality you'll need, you can hire a freelance videographer to shoot it, or simply create your own content with affordable digital video equipment such as the Flip cam.
  2. Get it on the Web! This is much easier than it sounds. There are many video-sharing websites out there to choose from — I mentioned YouTube and Blip.tv earlier, but there's also Viddler, Veoh, Revver and many more. It's a snap to upload your video file to any of these websites and they will take care of file hosting and bandwidth for you, usually for free.
  3. Integrate it. All video-sharing applications allow you to easily embed your video content into your website, blog, or social network profile. Typically this is as simple as copying and pasting a snippet of code.

In summary, there's no reason to drop $10,000 on an expensive video shoot for your website. With the right tools and a little curiosity, you'll be on your way to integrating video in no time.

Nathan T. Wright

Answer it once, use it over and over!

Questions Think about the advice you've given your customers over the years.

You've probably answered hundreds of questions on topics related to your business. No doubt, your customers have valued that information.

It could be even more valuable than you realize.

Write down the most commonly asked questions, along with the answers.  There you have it-- you've just created a question-and-answer tip sheet or in Internet lingo a FAQ (frequently asked questions) sheet.

Now, print some up and mail them out to your database of current customers. (you do have one, don't you?)

  • Or put it on your website
  • Or use it as a new business mailing
  • Or leave some at your reception desk
  • Or include them with your next round of invoices
  • Or use it as a newsletter article starter

...you get the idea - find a way to share your expertise.  It can only do your reputation and your bottom line some good!

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