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September 2009

In Full Swing

Sometimes child’s play shows the path to business success. For example, during a recent stroll in a Des Moines park, I saw parents pushing their children on the swings. The scene was encouraging: It’s great to see families playing at the park and staying healthy, and the image reminded me of each organization’s process to guide new employees toward success in the workplace.

4884808-360x541_swing When a child gets comfortable on a swing, parents explain how to build momentum and keep moving without a gentle push. In the business world, orientation initiatives have similar goals: To ensure the retention of top talent and decrease a new-hire’s time to productivity while helping the employees feel welcome, valued and prepared for a solid future with the organization.
 
Guidestar’s orientation best practices suggest a “three month and beyond” plan to prepare employees for their new position. The process includes a number of vital steps, including:

  1. Completing an agenda for the new employee’s first week on the job.
  2. Scheduling times for the new hire to meet with key staff members.
  3. Assigning a mentor to act as an immediate resource.
  4. Providing an office tour on the employee’s first day.
  5. Aligning expectations and discussing management style during the first week.
  6. Providing formal feedback on the new employee’s job performance after 90 days.
  7. Seeking suggestions for improvement regarding the orientation process.

Just as parents slowly retreat at the first sign of success, a supervisor or mentor should gradually let the new employee take the lead on projects. It’s important to know when to step aside and support the employee while guiding him or her toward greater effectiveness, efficiency and success.

Stop selling

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This probably going to sound like blasphamy.  And maybe it is.

I’ve had this conversation about four times in the recent weeks.  All with different people, marketing different products or services.  But they all started out the same.

“I’m not closing very many sales.  What am I doing wrong?”

In digging a little deeper, it was inevitable that what the marketer was doing wrong was pushing for the sale.  People will buy what they decide they want to buy. They will not buy what you’re selling.

Your job as a marketer is not to sell. Your job is to help the customer want to buy.

A distinct difference.

Sellers talk.  They have a pre-ordained speech that they offer up to potential customers.  They know how to weave in the features.  They might even have a favorite customer success story or two to tell. They’ve got a great graph that clearly highlights the superiority of their product over the competitors. They’re sincere.  They believe in their product and genuinely want to help their customers.

So what’s wrong with that?

One thing is missing.  The customer.

In that cavalcade of talking, there was very little listening.  There weren’t questions asked. For the most part, it could have taken place without the customer being present.  And that’s the key word.  Present. To be a good salesperson, which let’s face it, is what a marketer is – we must be present.

Being present means that you start by listening. And when you’re done listening, you ask a few questions. Which demands more listening.  And you repeat that pattern until the person either says one of two things. They either say thank you and goodbye or they ask if you will sell them your product.

What would happen if you didn’t push for the close but instead let your customer push for it?


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Cut Your Legal Fees

What Your Lawyer Won't Tell You
Something you probably won't overhear your lawyer discussing is how the recession has dried up the market for legal services. Many lawyers, who only a year ago were working and billing at unprecedented levels, now find themselves scrambling for work. Large law firms around the globe are cutting staff and

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dropping their hourly rates.  Law firms are cutting starting salaries and hiring fewer new lawyers. Lawyers are leaving larger firms to form smaller, more nimble, more specialized firms.  By specializing and increasing efficiencies, they can actually charge lower hourly fees, while earning more money for themselves.

Big Firm Problems

The problem with many larger law firms is they become bloated, stuck with a lot of dead weight. Stellar performers often leave larger firms, taking a core group of talented associates along with them. Over time, a pool of less efficient attorneys tends to accumulate. Another problem with big law firms is that they often require their attorneys to bill a minimum number of hours every year. In a difficult economy, it becomes harder and harder to meet these mandatory annual minimums.Ask your lawyer if he or she has a minimum number of hours they are required to bill. If your lawyer responds in the affirmative, consider whether that is an incentive you want your lawyer to have, in environment where your business is one of the law firm's steadily declining number of revenue sources.

Turning the Problem to Your Advantage
Inertia is a powerful force. If you have been with your law firm or a lawyer for a long time, it can be difficult to make a switch. In today's economic market however, cutting legal fees can be one of the most painless ways to bolster your company's bottom line. It simply can not hurt to shop around. Quality is obviously more important than hourly rate, but in a buyer's market you may be able to upgrade and cut costs at the same time. Ask other professionals you know for referrals and talk with some new attorneys. Most will be happy to meet with you to explain how their blend of expertise and hourly rates can meet your needs. Worst case scenario, you may end up with information you can use to convince your current attorney to cut the hourly rates they currently charge you.

Brett Trout

(ABC) Always Be Closing?

One of my first jobs after graduating from college was with this horrible company that sold refurbished telecommunications equipment over the phone. It was horrible. The “sales manager” of this company must have watched Glengarry Glen Ross just one too many times. It was an ABC (always be closing) mentality. I must have really needed the money.

But even back in the mid 1990s, this seemed like an archaic way of doing business. I didn’t last very long and soon was introduced to the right way of selling by one of my heroes and mentors, Keith Lamb. Keith is the one who first taught me the art and science of executive recruiting. He’s the one who taught me how to ask good questions, and then how to shut up and actively listen.

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In a recent blog post Ari Galper, founder of a sales training organization called Unlock the Game said, “Outdated sales skills fail to address the core issue of how we think about selling and unless we get to that core and change it once and for all, we’ll go on struggling with the same counterproductive sales behaviors.”

The following is a list of Galper's seven new sales behaviors that should cause you, if you’re a graduate of the Glengarry Glen Ross School of Sales, to rethink how you approach sales.

1. Stop the sales pitch. Start a conversation. When you call someone, never start out with a mini-presentation about yourself, your company, and what you have to offer. Instead, start with a conversational phrase that focuses on a specific problem that your product or service solves.

Notice that you are not pitching your solution with this opening phrase. Instead, you're addressing a problem based on your experience in your field you believe they might be having

2. Your goal is always to discover whether you and your prospect are a good fit. If you let go of trying to close the sale or get the appointment, you’ll discover that you don't have to take responsibility for moving the sales process forward.

3. When you lose a sale, it's usually at the beginning of the sales process. If you think you’re losing sales due to mistakes you make at the end of the process, review how you began the relationship. Did you start with a pitch? Traditional sales language leads prospects to label you with the negative stereotype of “salesperson.” This makes it almost impossible for them to relate to you with trust or to have an honest, open conversation about problems they're trying to solve and how you might be able to help them.

4. Hidden sales pressure causes rejection. Eliminate sales pressure, and you’ll never experience rejection. You can eliminate rejection forever simply by giving up the hidden agenda of hoping to make a sale. Instead, be sure that everything you say and do stems from the basic mindset that you’re there to help prospects identify and solve their issues.

5. Never chase prospects. Instead, get to the truth of whether there’s a fit or not.

6. When prospects offer objections, validate them and reopen the conversation. Most traditional sales programs spend a lot of time focusing on “overcoming” objections, but these tactics only create more sales pressure. They also keep you from exploring or learning the truth behind what your prospects are saying.

7. Never defend yourself or what you have to offer. This only creates more sales pressure.

 In fact, come right out and tell them that you aren’t going to try to convince them of anything because that only creates sales pressure. Instead, ask them again about key problems they’re trying to solve.

Then explore how your product or service might solve those problems. Give up trying to persuade. Let prospects feel they can choose you without feeling sold.

The sooner you can let go of the traditional sales beliefs that we’ve all been exposed to, the more quickly you’ll feel good about selling again, and start seeing better results.

These days people hate being sold. So stop selling. Talk to your prospects. Ask intelligent non leading questions. Help them find a solution. And have enough courage to refer them elsewhere if you don’t have or sell that solution.

They can't sue me. I am a corporation.

The Corporation of Design @ WorkImage by arjin jvia Flickr

Small businesses owners hiding behind the mantra “I can’t get sued! I am a corporation!” must remove misconceptions. Anyone can sue anyone for anything. If you form a valid business entity, however, you may discourage suit or find an early exit from litigation.

 

Two things to do:

One: BE A REAL CORPORATION.

Two: ACT LIKE A REAL CORPORATION.

 

One of the most desirable features of corporations, limited liability companies and limited partnership, or limited liability partnerships, is that liability is generally limited to the amount of the individual owners' investment.

 

The answer to questions about whether you are personally liable for:

  • actions (negligent or intentional) of employees, or
  • accounts payable to vendors, or
  • failure to perform corporate obligations  

may lie in whether you have acted as a real corporation and if you can show the realness of your corporate identity.  

In a real-life-worst-case scenario: Joe Businessowner[1]comes in and states that he is being sued by Jane Bystander who was injured by an employee who ran over Jane’s foot with a forklift. Joe paid employees out of his personal account at times, and out of his business account at times. He also paid his personal electricity bill and his vacation out of his business account. Joe has never filed a certificate of incorporation and he has never kept meeting minutes. Now Joe says, “well they can’t get my money can they? I paid $50 to the Secretary of State and I am a corporation.”

In less egregious case, Jack's Construction Company claimed that Jill's dog-grooming business was under the same corporate protection. The supplies were paid for out of the corporate account, but all proceeds were going to Jill (Jack's wife). 

 

In many states including Iowa, the law provides that if the owners of a company do not follow general business protocol, creditors (including people who file lawsuits) can “pierce the corporate veil” and attribute personal liability to the owners of the company.

The attorney for the creditor (other side) will typically demand to examine your company’s records.

The best defense is to maintain precise company records[2]including:

  • A Minute Book. - company’s records which may contain: written actions and minutes of meetings[3]. Anything significant should be documented in minutes including elections of directors and officers, contract approvals, budget and changes to the governance of the company. Meetings usually need not be held in person. Telephonic or e-meetings are common. 

 

  • Bylaws or Operating Agreement. - documents addressing business governance (possibly including: who votes, how votes are counted, tax issues, buy/sell, dissolution and other rights).

 

  • Stock or Unit certificates register. - tangible evidence of business ownership. Most commonly, the number of shares/units is less important than the percentage of ownership of the total outstanding shares/units. Certificates may also categorize shares as non-voting owners (“silent partners”); or owners may have a right to a preferential return.

 

 

  • Separate accounting-  If I need to go over the importance of eliminating the co-mingling of owner funds and business funds, see paragraph above about worst-case scenario.

In a sentence: if owners ignore business formalities, the law will ignore the separate existence of the business entity.

In my experience, the business owners who ignore business formalities do not (or didn’t) believe in the potential for growth and success of their businesses. Attention to detail and formality at business start up is not expensive. Inattention may be costly.

 

- Christine Branstad



[1]Not his real name.

[2]If this sounds like “too much hassle” read my prior blogs on putting things in writingand succession planning..

 

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What's Love Got To Do With It?

In "LoVe" Germany..HappY ValenTine's...Image by Thai Jasmine via Flickr

Steve Farber, author of The Radical Leap and The Radical Edge was in town this week, talking with business leaders about his newest book, Greater Than Yourself. This is one passionate guy!

In fact, for Steve, passion is at the very epicenter of leadership.  One of his key principles is "cultivate love." Love for what you're doing, what you're leading. If you're passionate about what you're doing, you're more likely to "generate energy," Steve says, and "inspire audacity." And if that passion is authentic and a reflection of who you really are at work, great things happen. People jump on-board and help make your vision a reality. 

I remember Jim Autry, executive at Meredith Corp., in the 1980s saying, "if you're in management and don't like people, get out of management."

Rudy Giuliani said of leadership, if you don't love people, do something else."

Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines said, "I would far rather have a business led by love than by fear."

"Be madly in love with all the people you are leading," said Ken Blanchard, co-author of  The One Minute Manager.

What's your take on this? Is being that passionate about what you're doing and caring that much about who you're leading realistic? And necessary? Farber says if you're not fully and passionately throwing yourself into the role of leader, then you're a "poser." A pretend-to-be leader. What's your take on how many posers there are out there, versus passionate leaders?

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The Power Of Passion

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My father has lived alone the past two years and has just recently started to see a wonderful woman. The other day, he made this statement to me: "Vacuuming and dusting the house is not so bad when you have a good reason for doing it." He has a new passion for life and it has changed his perspective at all levels (he was married to my mother for 40+ years, the only women in his life until two years ago).

I am sure that all of you can relate to the feelings that my father is experiencing. It is truly amazing what happens to individuals and organizations when passion has been lost. Daily tasks become burdensome, we start to question why we do what we do, and cynicism comes alive. Our energy seems to leak away and we feel like we can never make any headway.

Why is that organizations and individuals loose their passion for life? It is fear, lack of knowledge and getting stuck in the rut.

It is safe to stay in the rut or routine of life or work. We know what to expect and it is simple. As time goes on the safety is comforting, but everything starts to dull and tarnish as we continue to do the same thing. Gaining new knowledge can change this. New knowledge allows us to change perspective and gives a new luster to the former dulled and tarnished tasks.

The lesson, as my father would advise, is to face yours fears and take the first step. There is knowledge to be gained everywhere. Break out of the rut once in while to truly see what life has to offer.

Find your passion and you will find a new way to live life. 

Why Some Owners Are Afraid to Sell

not for saleImage by suttonhoo via Flickr

Here are some general characterizations (some fair and some not so fair) of why some owners are afraid to sell their business.

Adverse to recognizing a loss in the value of the business.  

  • All offers to buy are not the same.
  • Many owners do not understand the tax issues and how to deal with them in maximizing the sale.
  • Owners have followed the latest trend and it has taken value, time and capital away from their core business thus destroying value.
  • A rigid adherence to the business plan while the market has changed.
  • Fear of not getting the highest price.
  • Creating a false comfort level.
  • No exit strategy.
  • Inability to change.
  • Failure to have a succession plan for family or key employees.
  • Setting an unrealistic price for the business.

And strangely, some owners find it more comfortable to be decisively wrong (not selling) than to be vaguely right (getting most of what they want).

Feel free to contact me with any questions.

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Sticky fingers – and I'm not talking about BBQ

Sticky fingers When times are tight – people’s hands can get a little sticky. I came across an article regarding retail businesses in Iowa City and, surprisingly, they have had a 52 percent increase in theft over last year.

Could your business sustain such a loss in a year? Or what if the loss occurred over time and it amounted to thousands of dollars?

Now, this article talks mainly about shoplifting and perhaps your business is not retail, but there are other forms of theft that can have a detrimental effect on businesses. In the past, I have talked about data theft and identity theft, however, this article reminded me of a couple of situations dealing with employee theft:

There was this restaurant that I was familiar with that had five locations. Their bookkeeper was a trusted employee and had worked for this company for many years. Her primary duty was to collect the daily receipts, reconcile them and make the deposit. Everything was tracked and double checked by a staff accountant.

So it appeared that they had an excellent checks and balance program. However, this individual found a loophole and it was later discovered that she had embezzled close to $100,000 from this company over the course of five years. A little bit here and a little bit there – ends up to being a lot when it gets counted!

There was another incident with a computer store. One of their employees – actually it was a manager – was skimming equipment from his employer and reselling it. 

As I think about this more, I can recall countless situations where I have heard about companies that had inventory missing, locks left open, misuse of credit cards and product shipments not arriving at their destinations. I am also confident that many of you can remember reading stories just like these – does anyone remember the CIETEC scandal?  It is truly amazing how creative a thief can be. 

Desperate people will do desperate things.

Regardless of your industry, employee theft and dishonesty should be a concern to every business owner and good controls in place can reduce your exposure. Good tips to follow are:

  1. Have an internal audit system in place
  2. Perform criminal background checks on your employees before you hire them – especially if they are going to be handling money.
  3. Use someone other than the person who makes the deposits to balance the checking account.
  4. Have procedures in place for your computer operations.
  5. Use an independent accountant to perform your audits.

While it is virtually impossible to eliminate all of your risk, you can have procedures in place to reduce your risk. You can also make sure that your insurance policy has coverage for employee dishonesty. 

Now, keep in mind this coverage does not normally apply to business owners and/or partners and it does have limitations. However, it can certainly protect an employer from financial loss due to fraudulent activities of an employee.  So to make sure your business stays out of the headlines, review this coverage with your agent to protect your business today.

Dressing Your Projects to the Nines

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Congratulations to Hubbell Realty for successfully completing their Hubbell Extreme 9 Homes in 9 Days Project... EARLY.  They successfully built nine row houses from foundation to completion in only seven and a half days.  I had the pleasure of catching up with Rachel Flint, Director of Marketing for Hubbell, who was kind enough to give me a tour the afternoon of their big ribbon cutting ceremony.

While this project is amazing from a community-building standpoint (it will provide needed housing for Anawim, a program for low income families), it's an even more amazing feat when you consider it from a project management standpoint.

  1. Vision - Hubbell was first challenged with this project soon after completing an episode of ABC's Extreme Home Makeover.  About two years ago, they decided they would do this project of 9 homes in 9 days in the ninth month of 2009.  Since then, they have unwaiveringly stuck to their guns in completing this $1.5 million project.  Defining the end state is a key first step.
  2. Reuse - ABC let Hubbell have their "playbook" for completing a project of this scope so quickly.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, they used what was already available.  How many of your organizations are wasting time inventing what's already there?
  3. Planning - About a year ago, planning began in earnest, with the past few months seeing weekly meetings among all of the team leaders, trade partners, donors, etc.  People were held accountable for owning their part of the plan, defning their scope, and understanding the resource needs needed to get there.  Then they made sure all resources were lined up before the project began.
  4. Document and Communicaate - There was one version of the truth for each shift and each work stream:  the playbook.  It was treated as the Bible for getting things done.  The week of execution, teams were working around the clock, and each shift manager spent as much time as needed to communicate critical issues and tasks to the next.
  5. Check your Broader Stakeholders - The Des Moines Police stepped up patrols around the neighborhood and many organizations donated deeply (Rachel gushed about all of the restaurants who provided food for the workers).  A Senior Center voluntarily displaced themselves so Hubbell would have a command center.  ITA Group created a volunteer management database for tracking the labor.
  6. Dedicated Resources - over 2000 volunteers worked around the clock for over seven days to complete this project.  Construction, procurement, and delivery were just some of the functions being managed.  Because of the strong vision and dedication, there was absolutely no infighting, drama, or office politics occurring, despite the large number of people involved.  Resources were color coded (blue shirts for volunteers; red shirts for team leaders).  Everyone understood their role and their tasks.
  7. Tracking - the schedule was created in 15 minute increments (try managing THAT Gantt chart) with updates four times daily (at least).  Because they had accounted for everything that could go wrong, they never considered that everything could go right.  Hence, contractors were being brought in earlier.  They knew this because they had a plan and they followed it.
  8. Communicate - since 90% of project management is communication, they not only created strong lines of communication internally, but Lori Blachford of the Drake School of Journalism spearheaded the social media aspect of this project, creating Facebook and Twitter updates, as well as Youtube videos.

So thank you, Hubbell...  Not only for contributing to the Des Moines community as a whole in a visible and positive way, but for providing us with an example of project management done very, very well.

Carpe Factum!

Three ways to listen to what your customers are saying about you

Hearing impairmentImage via Wikipedia

For small and large businesses alike, it's important that you have your ears open. If you are deaf to the thoughts of your customers, you're likely going to be blind to what you can do to meet their needs. Here are three suggestions to help listen to your customers:

  • The on-line ear. If you're not plugged into social media, you might be missing the on-line conversations that are happening about your business. Google Alerts are a free service that allow you to be notified when somebody writes something about you or your company. Go to Google, click on the "more" link on the top menu, then look for "Google Alerts." Put in a search term. You might start with just your company name. I will often tell clients to do a search for their company name followed by the word "sucks." You'd be amazed at how common it is for an angry customer to write "[enter company name here] sucks!" Now, when something is said on-line about your company, you'll get an email telling you so! You can decide how to respond.
  • The personal chat. Customers are generally willing to tell you what they think if they genuinely believe you're interested in what they have to say. Think of a few key questions you'd like to ask your customers. Then, simply approach a customer. Introduce yourself, tell them you'd appreciate their opinion about their experience. You might start with a quantifiable question (e.g. "On a scale of one to five, how would you rate your experience in our store?"). You could ask a fill in the blank question (e.g. "The one thing that would have made my experience in the store better is [fill in the blank]"). You might be surprised at what you hear, and at the appreciation customers show that you value their opinion.
  • Survey. On-line feedback is generally going to give you feedback from people who had really good or really bad experiences. Personal chat will give you good, honest feedback - but from a limited number of customers. A small, targeted survey of customers right after they've visited or contacted your company will give you the best, most definitive picture of your average customer's thoughts and expectations. It is a larger financial investment, but will also yield the greatest, most actionable information from which you can make tactical decisions that will drive satisfaction and loyalty.
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Help! Facebook is ruining my company!

Modern, wheelchair-accessible drinking fountai...Image via Wikipedia

We hear this statement a lot from business executives: "Help! My employees are on social networks all day long, Facebooking and Twittering, and it's killing productivity!"


In response to that, I wanted to build upon my July 2nd post about corporate social network usage policies, where I focused mainly on security.

Social technology is just another scapegoat for diminished workplace productivity - another scapegoat in a long line of scapegoats, since the dawn of the 9-to-5 workday.

Let's review some of the others:
  • Cigarette breaks.
  • The water cooler. 
  • Gossip. 
  • Restroom breaks. 
  • The three-martini lunch.  
  • Magazines. 
  • Personal phone calls. 
  • Solitaire. 
  • eBay. 
  • Instant messaging.
  • E-mail. 
The list goes on and one. Proof that the situation many modern workplaces face right now is a human resources issue, NOT a "social networks are destroying the world" issue.

Here's the deal: As the leader of your company, it's up to you to define expectations for employees. If you're not going to be Big Brother and lock down all the internet ports, that's great, but you need to establish rules as certain employees will inevitably abuse these freedoms.

Internet usage rules aren't a bad thing. In the past, you've been upfront with employees that it's not OK to browse pornographic Web sites, right? Again, all you need to do here is establish expectations that, yes, employees can check Facebook from time to time but they are expected to stay on task and complete the work assigned to them in a timely fashion. You also need to spell out the consequences if they don't follow these simple rules.

What are your thoughts? Has your company or organization developed a social technology usage policy? Do you feel leaving social networks 100 percent open hinders employee productivity? Please leave a comment below, I'm excited to hear your feedback.

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Like-kind exchanges: stay inside the lines

IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washing...Image via Wikipedia

People who make a bundle selling a piece of real estate tend to feel good about real estate investments.  They want to put that money right back into real estate.  The tax law goes pretty far to accommodate such folks.  Section 1031, the "like-kind exchange" section of the tax code, allows taxpayers who follow its rules to roll the proceeds of an investment real estate sale into a new property.  Done right, the gain is deferred until the replacement property is sold.  But one little foot-fault in doing the deal can make the whole thing taxable.

The Basics.  Section 1031 allows you to exchange one property directly for another property of "like-kind" without current tax.  It also allows you to sell a property through an intermediary and roll the proceeds into a replacement property bought from a third party if you carefully follow IRS procedures.  You have 45 days from the time you sell the property to identify replacement properties and 180 days to close.

There are a lot of ways for a swap to go wrong.  Things to be careful about:

Be careful about the 45 and 180 day deadlines.  You have to identify candidate properties in writing in 45 days with your intermediary.  If you wait until day 46, you lose.  If you close on day 181, you might as well never close.

Be careful about your intermediary. One major east-coast intermediary recently went bankrupt because of poor investments of escrowed proceeds.  A Florida man recently received a 100-year prison sentence after looting the escrowed funds of intermediary companies he owned.  Make sure the intermediary is sound, and be careful that the intermediary can only hold your proceeds in the safest investments.  If the intermediary fails, you stand to lose your entire sales proceeds.

Watch out for related parties.  A Hawaii developer had the intermediary buy replacement real estate from another company controlled by the same owners.  This blew up the exchange, making a $12 million gain taxable.

Be sure your property qualifies.  Section 1031 only works when the property is both "like-kind" and "held for investment or for use in a trade or business.  While real estate is generally like kind to other real estate, partnership interests and corporate stock never qualify.  The "held" rule can trip up flippers who try to cash out of property held only briefly.  Personal-use property doesn't qualify; this rule can trip up folks who try to use Section 1031 to sell their vacation homes.  The IRS provides a handy safe harbor for folks looking to swap vacation property.

Get professional help.  Section 1031 is normally taxpayer friendly, but only if you observe the formalities.  Once careless foot-fault can wreck the whole deal.  Use an attorney who understands these things, and get your tax professional involved.

Further reading: IRS.gov, Like-Kind Exchanges Under IRC Code Section 1031

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Testing 1-2-3

36592525 One of the biggest benefits of direct response marketing (snail mail or e-mail) is that you can get almost immediate feedback from your market.  You should be constantly testing to see if you can beat your "control" mailing.

So what should you be testing?  Obviously you should always be testing your lists.  Today, you can refine and redefine your target audience to the nth degree.  Don't be afraid to segment and sub-segment.

You should also test your offers.  Does a certain dollar amount discount create more inquiries than a 20 percent off deal?  What if you add in something free rather than any money off?  How about putting in or shortening a deadline?  What does that do to responses?

Those are the basics.  But where do you go from there?

Copy length:  Many direct response writers swear by the maxim "the more you tell, the more you sell." While some still argue that's true, others point to the USA Today mentality of today's audiences. They want it fast, visual or bullet pointed.

Headlines:  This is the make or break it moment.  The headline either lures the reader in or tells them not to bother going any further.  Your headline should be the "once upon a time" part of the story.  It sets the stage and tells the reader what's in it for them.

The P.S.:  This is the part most people mess up.  They don't include one.  In readership studies, the P.S. is one of the most read elements of any direct response piece.  In many studies a piece with a P.S. out performs 3-to-1 over the same piece without the P.S.

It's a rare marketing tool that can be so specifically tracked, measured and analyzed.  Don't miss the opportunities and incremental business that it can afford you.

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Reach Your Fans (Customers) Any Time, Any Place

5314022-1024x683_espn You’ve got to hand it to ESPN. The sports network offers it all. From college match ups to American Gladiator competitions and BMX racing, they deliver the highlights, interviews and amazing athletic feats via TV, radio, magazine, interactive Web sites and personalized mobile alerts.

ESPN reminds us of the countless ways to get, and stay, in shape. Bored with your running routine? Try rowing for something new. Never liked the mainstream sports (basketball, football, soccer)? ESPN spotlights millions of people participating in cross-county road races, bowling tournaments, poker games and bull riding competitions.

From a business standpoint, it’s ingenious. I’m confident the “WorldWide Leader in Sports” has a strategic plan, with ample research and statistics to back their next steps. But the business model is flexible enough to welcome the unexpected. When football legends and an internationally-known race car driver joined Dancing with the Stars, ESPN brought us the highlights.

They also offer countless interactive options to engage their audience, inviting people to connect with other sports fans, share their passion for a favorite team, blog about sports and join online conversations.
The sports leader’s Web-based PollCenter invites visitors to express their opinions, making it easy to find out how the rest of the “SportsNation” feels about a variety of topics – such as how the Minnesota Vikings will do with Brett Favre at quarterback.

Innovation isn’t easy, and sometimes ideas fail, but it’s vital for every organization to stay nimble enough to meet the ever-changing needs of their clients.

And as we enter this year’s football season, consider ESPN’s timeless question: Are you ready?

What's in a Name?

IBM Global ServicesImage via Wikipedia

What is Your Company's Most Valuable Asset?
If you said something other than your company's name, you are doing it wrong. Your company's name, or trademark, is your interface with your customers.  It is how you differentiate the quality of your goods and services from those of substandard competitors. Your name embodies all of the goodwill you have developed with your customers over the years. It is a promise to the customer of quality and value. Without a name, you company simply could not compete.

What is Your Trademark Worth?
Smart companies know the value of their trademarks. For companies like Coca-Cola and IBM, the value of their trademarks are measured in the tens of billions of dollars. For your company, it is measured in the value of your company above its tangible assets. The value of your trademark lies in your customer and vendor relationships, your credit history, your employees, the cost of putting it all together and ironing out the wrinkles. It is easy to see how the value of your company's trademark can easily exceed the collective value of all of your company's tangible assets combined.

Leaving Your Front Door Unlocked

You would never leave your company's front door unlocked overnight. You would never trust a stranger to deliver your bank deposits. But that is what companies do when they fail to take the simple steps necessary to protect their most valuable assets. Many companies elect to stick their heads in the sand and wait until a problem arises. The problem is, by the time trademark problems arise, they have often snowballed to an unmanageable size.

The Ugly Side of Flying Blind
By the time your company receives a trademark cease and desist letter or has its trademark stolen, it may be too late. The problem could be so severe, you may have to forget about saving your trademark and focus all of your resources on just saving your company from bankruptcy. If you picked your company's name without a trademark search, you may be infringing someone else's trademark, without even knowing it. All the money your company has earned under that trademark may have to be turned over to the owner of the trademark.  If you continue to infringe a registered trademark after you become aware of a potential problem, you may have to pay the trademark owner triple damages plus all of the trademark owner's attorney fees.

It Is Just As Easy to Do Things Right
Checking out the name of your company and/or the names of any new products is a relatively quick and painless process. Once you have vetted the name, you may wish to file for federal trademark registration. Unlike state registration, federal trademark registration affords national protection, triple damages, and attorney fees, as well as several other legal advantages. Probably the biggest advantage federal trademark registration provides is the increased likelihood that an infringer will back down, rather than force you into a lawsuit. Trademark attorneys typically provide a free initial consultation to explain their trademark vetting and protection services, along with the associated fees. Trademarks are your company's most valuable asset. The sooner you protect them, the less likely you are to experience a catastrophic problem down the road.

Brett Trout

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Can the Hawkeyes & Cyclones be the Key to Ending Brain Drain in Iowa?

Map of USA with Midwest highlightedImage via Wikipedia

Football fans and non-football fans alike are embracing the annual rivalry that is Cy-Hawk classic. This is the time when the state's two Division 1A teams take on each other for bragging rights as the state's best football team. Its easy to get caught up in the hoopla, the donning of a cardinal red or pitch black shirt to signify your allegiance, the trash talk, or the parties. Even if you are not a football fan, this game can consume a good portion of your attention and disrupt your normal routine.

I always find it entertaining the buildup to the game as both of these institutions have fine football programs, even if they don't always finish with winning seasons. Each university has seen record breaking enrollments in recent years, so its apparent these are great institutions. As a matter of fact ALL of Iowa's colleges and universities from our system of community colleges to our collection of independent private colleges to our regents universities are known for a distinct area where they top the rankings.

 It should come as no surprise that the state of Iowa ranks No. 1 in the Midwest for college student attraction and nationally the state is a Top 5 importer of college students. Thousands of students not born or raised in Iowa seek higher education here each year, creating an actual net brain gain of college students. Additionally, Iowa has a strong brand known for education.

So while the so called brain drain has effected the midwest region hard, our state currently finds itself in a unique situation than its neighbors. We are hemorrhaging young talented people just like our neighboring states, but this happens after college. Iowa is attracting droves of young intelligent minds from the ages of 18 to 21. The state’s cost-of-living, culture of compassion and community and outdoor activities should be advantageous for us, but we lose those young adults after college seeking higher wages and opportunities elsewhere, which leaves a looming workforce shortage that our neighbor states know all to well. 

By employing the techniques that college recruiters use to attract students, to also attract or retain young professionals, We have an excellent opportunity to solve our brain drain challege in Iowa.

Go Hawks, go Clones.

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Follow Up and Follow Through

A prospective client flew me to Michigan a few years ago to talk to me about recruiting some executive sales leaders in an insurance company. I was sitting in the office of the President of the company when he informed me his Chief Marketing Officer would be joining us.

When the CMO entered the room and introduced himself he looked very familiar to me. I had interviewed him several years prior for another position he was not quite ready for. I mentioned our previous meeting and began remembering part of the conversation. He then pulled out of his notebook an article. I don’t remember what the article was about, but it was directly related to the conversation we had in Orlando years before. On that article was a hand written note from me telling him how much I enjoyed our meeting. It meant enough to him that he kept it in his files all of this time.

Now, years later, when this new CMO was put in charge of recruiting new sales leadership, he decided to call on me. This was the result of the simple act of following up and following through.

I am somehow still amazed at how many people I meet with or interview for a potential new job (one that offers them a better position with a better company in a better city for more money) that do not even do the simple act of following up. It’s also a primary reason that a salesperson will fail to close a sale. 169152086_08a66894f2

Kelly Robertson, president of a sales training company called the Robertson Training Group, discussed in a recent post the four reasons he believes people fail to follow up. Those reasons include:

  1. They don't want to appear pushy
  2. They forget
  3. They make false assumptions
  4. Nobody's ever taught them how

Here are a few thoughts I have about the art and science of following up after an interview or a sales call:

  1. Know why you're calling. Just calling someone to "follow up" is a waste of time. You need to be prepared to lead the call with purpose. Be prepared to deliver something of value in your follow up.
  2. A follow up doesn't necessarily have to be a phone call. It can be a handwritten note or a formal business letter summarizing the original meeting and asking permission to call again. It can be an article from a newspaper or an e-mail with an interesting link to new information that you know would interest them.
  3. Do something...do anything. Just follow up. Don't assume they'll call you.
  4. Be brief. Rather than doing all of the talking, ask questions. Then be quiet and listen to the answers. It's amazing what you'll learn by listening.
  5. Do what you say you're going to do. If you tell someone you're going to follow up with them by the end of the week, do it. If you promise to send references, do it. Honor your promises.

And just in case you need some accountability remembering when to make these calls and send the letters bust you, like me, lack some of the discipline (yes, I am guilty too) check out Drew McLellan's post on Client Lunchbox. A fantastic tool!

Succession Planning - How to Divorce or Die or Retire with Dignity (and a little money)

Recession businessImage by maistora via Flickr

Does your business have a viable business succession plan? Ask yourself the following question.

Would your business survive if you (or your partner):

-   got divorced? got married (to a Yoko [1])?
-   died?
-   won the lottery?
-   got sick?
-   wanted to retire?
-   was offered a fabulous job . . . in Belgium?
-   got in a big fight with the others?

Do you want the business to survive all of those scenarios?

Are you and your business partner(s) in the honeymoon stage? Now is the time to make a plan. Are you going through the pain of growth or recession? Now is the time to make a plan. Are you too small to break up? Now is the time to make a plan. Everyone knows a business that has suffered the Yoko effect. You have the power to prevent it from happening to your business. Having a written plan for death, incapacitation, divorce, retirement and sale dramatically reduces future hassles.

Your accountant, tax advisor, financial planner and lawyer can help you implement your plan. Before meeting with them, you need to address the following issues:

Business Priorities

1)   Company structure (management and ownership). To avoid an Earnhardt-like struggle for control, you must make decisions before the company changes hands. Is it important that your oldest run the company? Is it important that your spouse get profits from the company? Do you want your spouse to have a vote in removing your oldest child as CEO?

a.    Voters

b.   Owners (including limitations on ability to sell)

2)   Evaluation of the business. (With the agreement of all owners, shares may be evaluated differently based on circumstance.)

a.    If you are leaving the business, how your shares for sale should be evaluated?

b.   If your estate must sell your shares to the remaining investors, how will shares be evaluated?

3)   Structure of buy-sell agreements.

a.    Amount of time to make payment.

b.   Does the company maintain a life insurance policy that pays for buy-sell at death?

4)   Intangibles. For example, agreement that the logo will stay the same for a period of years, that the company will not engage in the production of rubber vomit, et cetera.

5)   Other property. For example, ownership of intellectual property that is part of the business, ownership of the desk, use of the likeness of your dog (who has served as company mascot), et cetera. (or use of the No. 8 for the Earnhardt family).

6)   Tax consequences of each of your decisions.

You may wish to specify bonuses to current employees for performance or at buy out. You may wish to write severance packages to be offered at the sale of the company.  You may wish to set out a retirement package for partners as they age.

Once you decide how you think things should go, talk with everyone involved:

Your anticipated successor(s) -  If your anticipated successor has plans to pursue a Broadway musical career, you may need to make other plans. On the other hand, your successor may admit some issues with the buy-sell plan and offer tips to make the transition easier. Finally, a named successor may simply work harder for the business.

Your spouse and other heirs - Your verbalized wishes added to the written plan may head off some fights down the line and may provide the correct tone to your wishes.

Your business attorney – You must determine if you currently have the correct business structure before you put your wishes into a workable business succession plan. (FARMERS read this twice. Farm succession planning is another bale of hay altogether).

Your personal attorney – Your attorney can reconcile your personal estate plan with your business succession plan.

Your insurance agent– Your agent can help you determine how life and disability insurance policies work with your succession plan.

Your tax advisor– Each of your succession plan components may have tax implications.

Even a simple succession plan is far better than no succession plan. Failure to get a plan in place is compounding headaches for delivery when you can afford them the least.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] I acknowledge the unfairness to Yoko who I believe was an inspiration not a detriment.

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Just Say, "Wait!"

Head of Odysseus from a sculptural group repre...Image via Wikipedia

It's a beautiful, sunny Saturday in early April. Your taxes are due in one week. You haven't begun to figure them. They're going to be pretty complicated this year because of a career relocation, a new baby and a portfolio that tanked. How do you spend your Saturday?

  • On your Harley, exploring the back roads surrounding your new rural home.
  • In your spare bedroom, at your desk, sorting through bills, checking pay stubs and doing calculations on Tax Pro.

Your simple answer to this simple question might be a simple predictor of your overall performance in life, much more so than your I.Q. It's about self-control. The ability to delay gratification.

Not convinced? Check out The New Yorker article entitled, "Don't! The Secret of Self-Control," by Jonah Lehrer. It tells the story of Walter Mischel's famous marshmallow studies at Stanford University in the sixties. Four-year-olds were invited into a small room with a table and a chair and a marshmallow and given an option by a researcher:

 "Either eat one marshmallow right away or, if you can wait while I step out for a few minutes, you can  have two marshmallows when I return."

Then the researcher left the room.

Seventy percent of the kids ate the marshmallow -- some right away, some resisted the treat for a minute or two. About 30 percent, however, delayed gratification until the researcher returned some 15 minutes later. These kids wrestled with the same temptation but found a way to resist.

That's not the end of the story. The 70 percent -- the "low delayers" -- when followed later in life, were more likely to have behavioral problems, lower S.A.T. scores, fewer friendships, trouble paying attention, et cetera.

What determined the "high delayers'" self-control? Mischels' conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the "strategic allocation of attention." Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow -- the "hot stimulus" -- the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek, or singing songs from "Sesame Street." Their desire wasn't defeated -- it was set aside and momentarily forgotten. The key for them was to avoid thinking about the marshmallow in the first place.

Ever heard of "metacognition?" It's the skill of thinking about thinking. It's what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings, like over-eating or procrastinating. It's like when Odysseus had himself tied to the ship's mast because he knew that he wouldn't be able to resist the Sirens' song, so he made it impossible to give in.

See, will power isn't about will at all...it's about learning how to control our attention and thoughts rather than letting a hot stimulus take over. Learn that and you can tackle an addiction, save more money for retirement, perform at a higher level at work, and -- even-- get your taxes done before midnight on April 15.





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Because They Care

4941528.thl Caring is a trait that many believe is a good trait in organizations. Many hours of training, worrying and even tears are spent by leaders, employees and families in the pursuit of caring.

Yet, as with anything in life, too much of it can be harmful. You may ask yourself - how can you care too much?  Caring too much is harmful when it invades your personal life and when it inhibits the growth of others.

There are leaders and employees that will sacrifice their own families because they care about what happens to the organization in an extreme way. These individuals also have a tendency to expect others to care as much as they do. When this occurs, it creates a lot more organizational stress than what people may think.

Individuals that care too much can also have a tendency to take care of all problems. This behavior does not allow for others to make mistakes and then learn from them. Mistakes are in many cases the best opportunity for individuals to experience critical learning that becomes part of their behavior.  

Does your caring come with a cost to others?  If so, you may need to take a step back and make some adjustments.

Allocation of the Sale Price

Internal Revenue ServiceImage by functoruser via Flickr

Allocation of the Sale Price When Buying or Selling a Business
Most businesses are made up of different types of assets and those assets get different treatment for tax purposes. How those items are identified at the time of the sale/purchase can have a significant tax impact on both the buyer and the seller.

A seller will, of course, want to designate items into classes that will yield a long-term capital gain on sale and thus provide the best tax result from the sale. Whereas, the buyer will generally want to designate the purchased items into classes that provide the biggest up front write-offs.


The IRS generally does not care how the class allocations are made so long as both the buyer and the seller use consistent treatment and use GAAP as a guide. That is where IRS Form 8594 comes in. The form allocates the entire purchase/sale price of the business into the various classes of assets; both the buyer and the seller are required to file the form with their tax returns. It is also very important that allocations be spelled out in the sale/purchase agreement and the treatment must be consistent between the buyer and seller.


Generally, assets are divided into the seven categories very briefly described below:

  1. Cash and Bank Deposits
  2. Actively Traded Personal Property & Certificates of Deposit
  3. Debt Instruments
  4. Stock in Trade (Inventory)
  5. Furniture, Fixtures, Vehicles, etc.
  6. Intangibles (Including Covenant Not to Compete)
  7. Goodwill of a Going Concern

A seller would prefer to designate the major portion of the sales price to goodwill and minimize any allocation to furnishings and equipment. Why, you ask?  Because goodwill is a capital asset, which for federal purposes will be taxed at a maximum rate of 15 percent, while the furnishings and equipment can be taxed as high as 35 percent. On the other hand, the buyer would prefer to have as much as possible designated as furnishings and equipment, since they can be expensed or written off over a short period of time (usually five or seven years) as opposed to a 15-year amortized write-off of the goodwill.  


Whether you are the buyer or the seller, don't leave the asset allocations to chance.  Negotiate the allocation as part of the sales agreement. If you don't, you could easily end up with inconsistent treatment and potential adjustments by the IRS. 

If you are anticipating a sale, please contact your CPA to assist you in structuring the transaction to your best benefit.

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Networking is more than a word

Have you noticed how many companies and organizations are gluing the word “networking” to the title ofBlog their events lately? Though the term has some real sex appeal right now, especially with the coming of age of its little sister, social media, I would argue that simply adding the word to your event isn’t enough to increase the level of interaction.

Just because you didn’t title last year’s lunch-and-learn “Understanding Our 401(k) Plan Networking Hour,” that doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to be more or less engaged this year. What is important is that attendees have an opportunity to truly interact with one another at the meeting.

Want to increase the level of engagement at your next event?

Here are five things you can do.

  • Set aside 15 to 30 minutes to allow participants to hang out and talk to one another before or after your next official program. They are likely going to do this anyway. So why not empower them and get the creative juices flowing?
  • Consider bringing in an entrepreneur like 25 Connections LLC founder Adam Steen to facilitate a speed networking session. This has the potential to fire your people up.
  • Let your employees know that you believe networking is important. Those who are tied to the phone or stuck behind a keyboard all day may feel especially disconnected from their more outgoing peers in the sales and marketing departments. They need a chance to interact with managers and co-workers away from the normal day-to-day grind. Why not provide them with an outlet?
  • Don’t cut employees totally off from the Internet. Social media are gaining a lot of traction. Though putting guidelines in place is important, don’t risk losing valuable leads or alienating employees by denying all access applications such as Facebook and Twitter.
  • Don’t be too formal. Remember, social networking is organic and synergistic. If your event if too proper or ceremonial, people may clam up. Give them some breathing room and good things could happen.

Interested in hearing more about social networking and social media? On Sept. 9, I’ll be discussing the latest trends with Michael Libbie, host of “Insight on Business.” His 90-minute daily radio show focuses on advertising, marketing and consumer trends.

Tune into www.MacsWorldLive.com between 12:30 and 2 p.m. on Wednesday to find out more about how social networking can help you build your brand, your business and your career.

See you in the news!

- Todd Razor

When disaster strikes - are you ready?

Tornado - shoes More than 6,000 homeowners have been evacuated - more than 12,000 homes are threatened – and the fires in California are still blazing as I write this.

It’s obviously a serious situation for both homeowners and business owners, whhich is why I have to ask you, “how prepared are you in the event of a total loss?"

I often meet people who just don’t think it will happen to them. I have learned over the years to never say “never.” In Iowa, we may not be faced with fires like those in California, but we have had total losses due to flooding and tornadoes.

Iowa has averaged 56 tornadoes a year since the inception of the Doppler Radar system. In 2008, there were 105 tornadoes reported – two of which were extremely powerful. As a matter of fact – Iowa had not been struck by a category 5 tornado since 1976.

Insurance protects your assets. But do you know EXACTLY what assets you have?

Whether it is for your business or your home, insurance companies have several resources available to help you. There are also several companies that can provide services to help you document your belongings and store your data.

Companies that I would recommend that can help business owners and homeowners are: 

I have personally used both of their services and highly recommend them.

Time slips away from us pretty quickly. It seems like the older I get the faster time goes. That’s why it is imperative that you have an annual review with your insurance agent.

While it's important to review your basic coverage information, it is also a good idea to discuss the following:

  • Disaster plans – do you have an alternative plan in place that you can implement so your business can continue to operate in the event of a loss?

  • Documentation – do you have documentation of your personal property, accounts receivables and equipment?  If a loss occurs will you be able to provide any proof of damages?

  • Storage – how are your backing up data? Where is it stored? Is your information checked for verification? How will you gain access to it? When will you be able to restore your information and begin operating again?

  • Income – do you have coverage for loss of income? Would you want that loss of income to cover ordinary payroll for your employees– or would you just lay off all your workers if you were not able to operate?

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Start preparing today.


 

Is The Patient Ready To Go Home?

Wheelchair Those who have been reading my blog regularly know that I've been spending an alarming amount of my time in the hospital this summer. No, not as the patient, but merely as a concerned family member. This hospital time has allowed me to overhear a lot of conversations of patients who are about to be released.  Even more interesting, the cancer floor was just a couple of floors below the maternity ward, so many elevator rides were spent with departing new parents with offspring in tow. And a nurse giving last second instructions to shell-shocked adults.

If you think being in the hospital is overwhelming, try getting out (well, with the one obvious exit, but we won't go there). Leaving a hospital comes with volumes of information... from multiple doctors and specialists, from physical therapists, from dietitians and from nurses.  Most of the time, all of the information meshes well, but occasionally you catch conflicting data.

Your soon-to-be newly-implemented project is like a patient who is about to go home.  Many project teams make the mistaken assumption that a completed project means the "patient is healed."  Far from it.  Some project solutions take days, months or even years to become fully functional after their implementation.  Newly completed projects, like recently healed patients, need discharge papers to give instructions on what to do after the hospital stay is over:

  • Change management - don't just throw the solution over the fence at the people who will be using your project solution.  Involve them early and often.  Keep them informed.  Listen to their concerns.  Use them as your sounding board and your cheer leaders
  • Training - tag somebody who can spearhead bringing the organization up to speed on the use of your project solution.  Don't leave this up to chance.  You can be a success on schedule, budget, and functionality, but if nobody knows how to use the darn thing, your project will be perceived as a failure.
  • Timing - if your project is big and complex enough, and if it's affecting enough people, are you going to roll it out in one "big bang" or are you going to phase it in?  How well does your implementation fit with the other projects in your organization?  Does it need to wait a while?
  • Circle Back - talk to the people who wrote the original requirements for your project.  Does the final solution still look like it will solve the original business problem?  If not, why not?  Just make sure you close the loop to keep your stakeholders happy.
  • Ongoing maintenance - the "patient" in my life is being looked over as she grows stronger and healthier.  Is your project being cared for by the right people?  Are there maintenance checks?  Are there service contracts?  Are future version control and upgrades being addressed?

Each one of these bullets could be a blog post by itself.  But if these items are found on your project "discharge papers," there is a much higher chance your project will go on to live a long and healthy life.

Carpe Factum!

Avoiding Common Customer Service "Errors"

Grilled hot dogsImage via Wikipedia

My wife and I love the Iowa Cubs. We are card carrying members of the local boys' fan club and make regular pilgrimages to tradition-rich Sec Taylor Field at Principal Park. As far as I'm concerned, Michael Gartner and his staff give families one of the best values you'll ever find for your entertainment dollar.

And, even at the ball park, you can be reminded of some valuable customer service lessons.

We found ourselves at the concession stand buying our hot dogs before the game this past weekend. The young man behind the counter put one hot dog on the counter and handed the second one to my wife. The hot dog took a bad hop in the little cardboard carrier and my wife dropped the ball. The hot dog fell to the pavement. Flustered, she placed it back on the counter and asked for a replacement.

The young man was incredulous. "It's not my fault!" he said with a shrug of the shoulders (obviously, he would have scored it an E2 for those of you filling out your scorecards at home).

"Are you serious?" my wife responded with equal incredulity.

"I can't give you another one," the young man responded. "I CAN'T!"

In a few quick seconds, the young man had made a few common, critical customer errors that are sure to raise customer frustration and dissatisfaction:

1.    Never risk losing a loyal customer (and the revenues from that customer attending multiple games a year, with multiple trips to the concession stand and gift shop, over several years) over a $3.50 hot dog that cost you a fraction of the price.

2.    Don't focus on blame, but on resolving the customer's issue. While there are always exceptional situations, most customer service issues are simple matters for which the customer wants a simple resolution. Getting into an argument over who is to blame for the situation will not lead to customer satisfaction.

3.    Never tell the customer what you can’t do, but what you can and/or will do to resolve the situation. If the front line employee is not empowered to make a $3.50 customer service decision, then what he or she can do is flag a supervisor to deal with the issue.

To the credit of the Iowa Cubs organization, a responsive member of the concession staff quickly saw what happened, intercepted my wife as she was walking to the trash can and offered to get her another hot dog. It was a nice recovery. No dust was kicked on anyone’s shoes and the umpire didn't have to ejected either player.

It is common for businesses to place the youngest, least experienced and lowest paid staff members in positions where they are the primary face of the company to the customer. It’s critical to ensure that, as part of their training, they understand a few basic customer service rules to deal with common customer frustrations.

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Facebook adds "Get more Fans with SMS" feature

Facebook_logo I was poking around Facebook's Fan Page features the other day and came across something new that they just released. You'll find it on the left-hand navigation of any Facebook Page that you administer, labeled Get more Fans with SMS.


First, definitions: SMS stands for Short Message Service. Basically, it's a fancy term used to describe the standardized system for exchanging text messages between mobile devices.

Second, how does it work? When I clicked on the option, I got this message:

Tell people to text "fan lavarow" to 32665 (FBOOK) from their mobile phones, and they will be added as fans instantly. Standard charges may apply.


When you signed up for Facebook, chances are good that they asked you to enter your mobile phone as an account identifier in addition to your e-mail address. So, Facebook already knows your mobile number, meaning that if you send the text message "fan companyname" to 32665 (Facebook's shortcode), they will associate the phone number with your account and automatically make you a fan of companyname.

One caveat: An organization's Facebook Page must have a username (a.k.a. "vanity URL") activated for this feature to work. For more information on usernames for Pages, click here.

Third, what does this all mean? The obvious, immediate benefit to companies with Facebook Pages is an easy, quick method for gaining more connections with an audience unchained from their desktops or laptops. It won't be long before you see Text "FAN COKE" to 32665 (FBOOK) on the sides of Coca-Cola packaging.

Looking ahead even further, I won't be surprised when Facebook offers out-bound SMS marketing features to companies with Fan Pages, meaning that an organization could "push" some form of messaging, offer or coupon to opted-in Fans via text message. Sending SMS messages isn't free, so Facebook could potentially charge for this feature and monetize the service with some sort of set-up or maintenance fees.

The main takeaway here is that this move will add another powerful component to Facebook's marketing toolbox for businesses.

Deadline looms to claim five-year carryback refunds for loss corporations

2006 Tax FormsImage by herzogbr via Flickr

One of the few silver linings to a bad year is the opportunity to carry back tax losses.  The federal income tax law normally allows you to use a current "net operating loss," or NOL, to offset taxable income as far as two years back.  A taxpayer with a 2008 taxable loss can carry those losses back to reduce taxable income for 2006 and 2007.  This retroactively reduces the taxable income for those years, generating a tax refund.

For 2008 losses, Congress enacted a special provision allowing some taxpayers to carry losses back as far as five years.  That is a boon to taxpayers who may not have had great years in 2006 and 2007, but who did well in 2003-2005.  But taxpayers wanting to use the five-year carryback face a looming deadline

Corporations
that want to use the five-year carryback have only until September 15 to take the five-year carryback.  Any carryback claims filed later only get the normal two-year carryback.  Corporations normally will file their loss carryback claims on Form 1139.

Individuals who want to use the five-year carryback have until October 15 to file Form 1045 to carry back the losses.  This applies to losses from Schedule C proprietorships, Schedule F farms and Schedule E K-1 or rental activities

Unfortunately, the five-year carryback rule isn't available for everybody's losses.  Unless the loss comes from a business with gross receipts averaging less than $15 million for the prior three years, only the two-year loss carryback is available.  If your losses come from a K-1 from an S corporation or partnership, the $15 million test is applied to the entity issuing the K-1, even if your share of the gross receipts is less than $15 million.  Complete details on claiming the losses can be found in Rev. Proc. 2009-26.  Contact your tax pro to make sure you do the right thing with your NOLs.

Congress hasn't extended the five-year carryback rule to cover 2009 losses, so if this is your bad year, the only thing you can do to get a five-year carryback is to contact your Congresscritter. 

Iowa only allows a two-year carryback for 2008 corporation losses.  That's a bargain, though, compared to what's in store: the legislature has already repealed carrybacks altogether for corporations with 2009 state NOLs.  Those losses only carry forward to offset future income -- if the corporation lives to see it.

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