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August 2010

The Triple Bottom-Line

It's tough to be young and in the business world.  Rather than relying solely on my observations on the impact of young professionals in Iowa's business world, I've been seeking the perspective of others, both young and older.

This month, I talked with my good friend Christian Fong, founder of Fong Strategic Consulting , a management consulting firm, and a former candidate for the governor of Iowa. Still in his 30s, Christian has never been afraid to make bold decisions, which should be expected from someone who graduated from high school early and attended business school at Dartmouth College. I asked him to give me some insight on what Next Generation Iowans should be focused during these uncertain times.

Here is his response:

 

Vogue US v. Vogue NipponImage by superfem via Flickr

Iowa has never been a place where we embraced a “greed is good” business philosophy.  We never bought into the economic philosophies built on the presupposition that self-centeredness was a virtue, and the key to free markets. Instead, we know that while free markets are vital to a healthy economy, narcissism is not.

That Iowa way of doing business is now in vogue. Corporations have decided that they can do well by doing good. They talk about the triple bottom-line, where they have financial profits, and at the same time do good for their community and the world around them.

Individual Iowans, especially the professionals that are emerging as today’s leaders, should think about a similar approach of a balanced life with a triple bottom-line.

Bottom-Line One: This is the traditional bottom-line, measuring financial profit. You need to be good enough at what you do, and make a product or service that people are willing to pay for, so that you can make money.

Bottom-Line Two: Beyond the profit motive is a second bottom-line: being a productive part of your community. After all, professionals, like businesses, do not live in a vacuum.

Here in Cedar Rapids, I led an effort after the Flood of 2008 to have businesses release their employees to help clean up houses, churches and even competing businesses. I did not have to twist arms of corporate executives to make it happen. They understood that what was good for their community and good for their employees. Andhappy employees are, of course, necessary for a healthy bottom-line profit. Each individual made the decision to give up potential business deals or progress on career strategies and get into their community to help make it better.

You do not have to wait for a flood. Choose to go vote, buy local, volunteer at your church or join a nonprofit organization’s board. Good citizens, whether corporate or individuals, are great for a community and the benefits work both ways.

Bottom-Line Three: Simply put, mission matters. A good income and a good community can create a good life. But people want more than a good life. They want a meaningful life, and they want to work for a company that is making a difference. Some will define a mission as ecological – perhaps it is a focus on sustainability, in all its forms. Perhaps it is meeting the real needs of people around the world. Perhaps it is a spiritual focus on healing the hearts of broken people around you. But without a mission, it is hard to keep pointed in the right direction as individuals and companies.

Are you making a difference? Are you meeting needs of the people in your community in ways that put them first? Are you making a good living, being excellent at what you do? If so, you are showing a profit across your triple bottom-line. - Christian Fong

Fong Strategic Consulting specializes in helping small and medium-sized companies define a strategy, and obtain the financial resources, to grow.

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Break Out of Your Routine to Avoid Burnout

Webster's defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” A condition that can affect people of all ages, burnout can also arise out of almost any activity.

Burnout Blog

For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article cited the struggle many parents and children go through to avoid burnout while seeking to find the right balance with sport teams, family time and other interests. It's a topic of discussion that has ramped up in recent years as the number of children involved in travelling sports leagues grows, and the age when they begin to play competitively continues to lower.

While there are many positives to playing sports, children specializing in one sport can experience too much competition, overtraining and excessive travel according to Dr. Gerald Masterson and James White. To avoid burnout, they suggest:


· Encouraging children to learn a lot of skills

· Allowing for breaks from sports in the calendar year

· Not having children specialize in one sport until they are in high school

· Remembering that sports are just games and should be fun and enjoyable to those who participate

 

In business, people often feel similar dissatisfaction stemming from repetitive, undiversified or unrecognized work. This can lead to stress and burnout that will result in decreased productivity and ultimately hinder one's chances of success.

 

 

It’s important when you notice your productivity level decreasing due to burnout to take steps to prevent the situation from getting worse. Consider these steps from Helpguide.org:

  • Actively address problems. Take a proactive approach and you’ll feel better if you assert yourself and express your needs.
  • Ask for new duties. If you’ve been doing the exact same work for a long time, try something new.
  • Take time off. Sometimes you need a complete break from work. Use the time away to recharge your batteries and take perspective.

Pressures to win and succeed in life can cause stress in anyone’s life, which can lead to burnout. In order to stay healthy, enjoy what you’re doing and succeed in life, take the proper steps to avoid burnout.

Media training tip #3: Make it quick and memorable

93536134 So...you're going to be interviewed on your local TV noon news segment.  Or you have reporters calling because your company is in the middle of a controversial issue.  Or it might be that a blogger wants to do a digital interview using web cams.

No matter how friendly, how laid back or how intense a media interview might be -- there are some basic rules you should remember to take full advantage of the opportunity (or to mitigate the damage if that's the scenario.)

I'm sharing a series of tips (you can find tip #1 and tip #2 by clicking on the numbers)  that will help you make the most of your 15 minutes of fame!  Today, let's talk sound bytes.

Grab them at the start: The stark reality is that the average audience member (whether they're watching you on TV or reading a story about you in the newspaper) has the attention span of a gnat.  So if you aren't fascinating from the get go, you'll lose their interest.  So make the first words out of your mouth absolutely memorable.  If you can be provocative or surprising, all the better.

Don't be a walking run on sentence: Reporters are looking for money shot quotes.  Be concise in your answers.  This is especially true for TV or video interviews.  The editors will be looking for short, pithy comments that they can slice and dice into a story.

Create memory tricks for the audience: Use acronyms (if they actually make sense...don't force it) to help the audience remember your key points.  Or take advantage of a rhythm or rhyme to help plant the core points.  (Stop, Drop and Roll comes to mind).  These are often easy CGs (computer graphics) that can be added on the screen (broadcast or video)  or a call out box (print or web) that can be added to enhance your interview as well.

End big: Whether it's a challenge or a warning or a bold statement -- you want to close the interview in a way that won't quickly be forgotten.  Even if you're trying to squeeze in a web address or phone number for more information, don't let that be the final thought.

Media exposure can be an incredible benefit to an organization.  So when you get the opportunity -- make sure you maximize it.

~ Drew


 

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Business Bloggers and Copyright

96814923 Bloggers are pretty much awesome. Clearly, I’m objective about that.

What I mean: whether blogging or otherwise engaged online, most savvy users of interactive technology for business understand the importance of using online tools responsibly and want to ensure online initiatives comply with federal copyright law.

I can’t cover every potential land mine, but this post will be the first in a series addressing a few copyright issues business owners, corporate communicators, marketing professionals, and others often encounter online. I also hope to debunk some prevailing misunderstandings.

How many parts to this series, you ask?  I cannot stifle my free spirit by limiting myself to something as restrictive as a precise number. That, and I’m not sure yet. Generally, federal copyright law gives the copyright owner a number of exclusive rights (i.e. to copy, adapt, publicly distribute, publicly perform and publicly display).

Though exclusive, they are not absolute.  Among the limitations on these rights, “fair use” stands as one of the most important.

Although the fair use doctrine is flexible, it’s much narrower than many assume. The federal copyright act doesn’t define fair use, but it does set forth considerations for courts to weigh in deciding whether a particular use may be considered fair. No single factor is determinative.

  • The statute first suggests a handful of presumably favored uses, including criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research.
  • The purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or for nonprofit educational purposes. This may be tricky in the context of blogging: information may be free and educational, but the author may clearly be blogging for marketing benefits. Would this affect a court’s view of the commercial versus educational nature of the use?
  • The nature of the copyrighted work.  For example, are you repeating a fact or are you repeating someone else’s unique turn-of-phrase used to convey that fact?  Bloggers may repeat facts or ideas contained in someone else’s online content, but may not copy the particular way in which the original author expressed that information.
  • The amount and substantiality of the use in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole. Contrary to popular misconception, fair use can’t be boiled down to a particular word count or percentage-of-original. (i.e., “I only used ten words from the 500-word article,” “I only copied one paragraph out of seven” or “I only quoted ten percent of the original piece”). According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “short quotations will usually be fair use, not copyright infringement.” Again, though, there are no clear-cut rules.
  • The effect of the use upon value/potential market of the copyrighted work. Linking to the original, for example, may help minimize this risk.

When in doubt, get permission in writing or consult an attorney.

Stay tuned for my next post, which will explore further copyright issues that frequently pop up for bloggers and other online business communicators. If you’d like more information in the meantime, the United States Copyright Office offers some great resources, including its Copyright Basics circular.

- Megan Erickson

Megan blogs for IowaBiz for educational and informational purposes only, and nothing in her blog posts should be considered, construed, or relied upon as legal advice or as establishing an attorney-client relationship between you and Megan, you and Megan’s firm, or you and anyone else. Additionally, Megan will try to incorporate into her writing enough clever wit to offset the boring nature of this disclaimer she made us include.

Becoming an entrepreneur

24-inch x 2 Workspace (iMac)Image by liewcf via Flickr

It's tough to be young and in the business world. Rather than relying solely on my observations on what is the impact of Young Professionals in Iowa's business world I've been seeking the perspective of others, both younger and older, to get their perspectives.

The first person I talked to was Alexander Grgurich, a young professional entrepreneur trying to make his way in the business world. Alex is already on his second successful start-up company and has even dived into actively participating in municipal politics. I asked Alex to give me some insight as to what inspires a twentysomething to become an entrepreneur. - Isaiah McGee

Here is his response:

I’ve been fascinated with entrepreneurship from an early age, selling candy out of my locker or running my own placemat advertising business in high school. I think it’s the sense of adventure and knowing that you’re risking it all to forge your own path that keeps me coming back for more.Thankfully, Des Moines embraces young entrepreneurs like myself and is developing a collaborative work environment that is spawning more and more innovation at every turn.


I recently opened Foundry Coworking, a collaborative office space for other innovative entrepreneurs and creatives in the area. Coworking is an international movement taking root where people can share office space and amenities while building a community centered around success and making each other better. Cheap office space can be found anywhere, but what really separates coworking environments is the community of “doers” in the space, the relationships that form, and the events that are held to make the community that much better.


As much as the entrepreneurial life is rewarding and exciting there are times where that inspiration and positivity can be difficult to keep up. I’ve found that being surrounded by people with the same challenges that I have has been a great motivator to pick me up and keep me focused when I need it. Although my fellow office mates are all in different industries than I am, we all share an ethos that pushes us to help each other and strive for success.


The economic trends of late have pushed a lot of people into the realm of freelancing or creating new ventures. As this trend continues and more people come to value the freedom and rewards in having your own business, collaborative work spaces will continue to satisfy a need in the community.


Whether it’s Foundry Coworking, Impromptu Studios, or Performance Marketing Group, Des Moines is blessed to have so many coworking spaces and I recommend everyone stop by each one for a day to get some work done, attend an event, or just to visit and meet new people. - Alex

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Let Them Breathe!

A classic adventure movie scene has two people momentarily trapped under water with only one scuba tank between them.  Typically one of the people is an experienced diver or a spy or at the very least, has the emotional control to keep from panicking.  The other person is generally not skilled and is often overwhelmed and panicky.

The person in distress quickly learns to trust the other person to help them!

Imagine two amateurs in the same scenario.  One takes a breath from the regulator and hands it to the other person.  Just as that person is halfway through their breath, the first person yanks it back because they fell like they need to breathe.  Pretty soon they are fighting for air.  Neither gets the chance to breathe regularly and neither is able to relax.

The only chance for their survival is for one to hold their breath long enough for the other person to get their air and relax.

Scuba Diver An elite salesperson is in control of their need to "suck air."  To get their prospects to relax and trust them with their "business life," they "hold their breath" until their prospects have had all the air they need.

In other words, the elite salesperson knows that they build more trust with their prospects by listening rather than talking.  Because it is so hard for many people to do and because most people are not used to being heard, it is a tremendous demonstration of true empathy and caring.

When it is their turn to breathe, the sales pro does not hog the air.

They may make a short statement, ask another questions, then give the breathing regulator back to their prospect.

Have you had extraordinary results through extraordinary listening?

Photo on flickr by bubblesandbugs

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Practices that Supplement Contracts

baker's dozenImage by foreverdigital via Flickr

How Many in a Baker's Dozen?


Industry practices and specific relationships may create unwritten contractual terms that bind the parties. This blog has more legal analysis than usual, but read on. Really.

 

Iowa’s Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) governs transactions in goods. Iowa’s UCC section 554.1303 addresses three principles that may supplement or amend contracts:

  • course of performance,
  • course of dealing, and
  • usage of trade.

Course of Performance: This addresses conduct between the parties in a current contract when:

(a) the agreement of the parties with respect to the transaction involves repeated occasions for performance by a party; and

(b) the other party, with knowledge of the nature of the performance and opportunity for objection to it, accepts the performance or acquiesces in it without objection. To better understand Course of Performance read ABC Metals & Recycling Co., Inc. v. Highland Computer Forms Inc. which is a case involving claims about amounts paid for paper. A contract provision provided the price for the paper was on a particular website. After the contract was formed, the website shut down, but the information became available on another website. The second site was used by both parties. The five year use of the second website became a determining Course of Performance.

 

Course of Dealing: Your prior dealings with a party may create a Course of Dealing, which is an understanding that becomes part of a future contract, even if not specifically stated. To better understand Course of Dealing read St. Ansgar Mills Inc. v. Streit which is a case involving a hog farmer who regularly ordered feed corn from the mill. The mill would either send order confirmations to Streit for signature, or hold the orders for Streit’s signature. Often, turnaround for signatures was a month or greater. The hog farmer called in two orders for future delivery of corn; the mill held the confirmations for a signature. When the farmer returned more than one month later, the price of corn had significantly dropped. The farmer refused to sign the order, stating that the written confirmation had not been delivered within a reasonable time. The Iowa Supreme Court considered prior orders showing Course of Dealing where significant time passed between oral purchase orders and delivery of written confirmations.

 

Usage of Trade: Some industries work with such similar goods that industry-wide standards and practices develop. To better understand Usage of Trade read C-Thru Container Corp. v. Midland Mfg. Co. which involves a contract between a manufacturer of bottles and a buyer. The manufacture asserted that the buyer did not order a sufficient amount. The buyer asserted that the manufacture did not provide samples to assure a suitable product. The Iowa Supreme Court found that the buyer was allowed to provide evidence of trade practice and could argue that the industry has a standard of providing samples prior to orders.

 

What does this mean for your business?

1)    Know how other businesses handle similar contracts. (Especially if you are venturing into a new industry.)

2)    If you want to deviate from a common business practice, get written agreement.

3)    Define your business relationships in the same way that you define the actual terms of a contract, with attention to clarity.


- Christine Branstad

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Find Balance; Be Busy

Charge Bikes, SomersetImage by Into Somerset via Flickr

Do your employees have work/life balance? Do you? With all the downsizing and rightsizing going on, people are busier than ever at work, putting in longer hours, carrying more stress. Being busy may not be the problem though.

Research on well-being shows that the best adjusted people are generally the busiest people, on- and off-work. These are individuals who are not one-dimensional. They're not so consumed and focused on what's happening at work that when they leave work, they're too exhausted to do more than crash and cocoon. They have found a way to force the issue of balance in their lives.

As an employer, one of the most valuable benefits you can provide your associates is assistance in regaining much needed space and sanity and, yes, balance, in their lives. You can do this by:

  • modeling this practice yourself as a leader. Talk about your passions outside work. Bring in pictures of yourself skydiving. Keep your golf trophy on your credenza. Demonstrate that it's okay -- and important -- to totally disengage from work once in a while and do something you enjoy. Set the right tone for living with balance by way of your consistent behaviors.
  • encouraging others at work to add things to their off-work life. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best adjusted people force themselves to structure off-work activities just as much as on-work activities. They schedule them, structuring them into their lives. Times to exercise. Community, religious or sports activities. Coffee with friends. Things they enjoy doing, but without time set aside for them, work and life's busiest crowds them out.
  • providing perks that are especially considerate of employees' busy lives, like flexible hours, telecommuting, and parent friendly assistance. Such perks don't have to be costly. McGraw Wentworth, a provider of group benefits, offers on-site pickup and return of clothes that need laundering. Think of the off-work hours saved with that benefit! Hours that can be spent playing with the kids, reading, biking.

E.B. White said, "I arise each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day."

 Finding that balance between "saving and savoring" -- between work and non-work -- is hard, but vital. So, get busy.

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Firing a Customer

Fired!.pngImage via Wikipedia

Most businesses will take the step to fire a customer that is not profitable or presents a potential liability to the company.  How many businesses would fire a customer to protect their employees?

Obviously a business would fire a customer if they presented a physical threat to an employee, but would the business fire them to support their employees and show that they trust in the work they do?

It really boils down to who is more important - the employee or the customer? The debate rages as to who is most important.

Companies that place their employees first have no trouble firing a customer that violates the ethics and principals of how employees are expected to treat each other. Being a customer does not give added influence into these organizations. These companies believe in the culture they have created and will not let anyone cross the limits, including the customer.

The bottom line is important, but what is the greater cost? What signal does it send when an employee is expected to grin and bear it, no matter what type of behavior a customer may exhibit? Firing a customer is one of the most significant acts of support a leader can make.

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Free Data for Maximizing the Value of Your Business

Logo for NAICS (North American Industry Classi...Image via Wikipedia

Maximizing the value of your business often requires expensive research for about your marketplace and your competition. Much of the information you will need to have is available from one of the many government agencies. Here are some websites:

Market Size

The Census Bureau assigns you a Standard Industrial Code, or the new North
American Industry Classification System number that describes your service or
product. By knowing this number, which may be found at www.census.gov/epcd/www/naics.html, you can tap into:
   1. Zip code, metropolitan, statewide and national economic trends for your industry
   2.The economic analysis for the country as a whole
   3.Detailed content information, such as sectors, programs, or data products, from subject
      specialists at local or federal census bureau offices

Patent Information

Patent and competitive product information can be found at www.uspto.gov. Using a very powerful and extensive keyword search engine, you can search 31 different fields, including competitor's names (under "Assignee Name" in PTO parlance) or product type (under "Abstract"or "Description/Specification") to find:
  1. All the issued patents for those competitors
  2. All the issued patents of your unknown competitors (In other locations and markets)
  3. How a competitive product works
  4. Competitor's "Published Applications" that are undergoing patent review (You
      can comment on their validity)
  5. Patents of products that the competition decided to abandon (and are now
      usable by anyone)
  6. All the locations of both known and unknown competitors
  7. All the key innovators working for your competitors

Competitive Pricing

More than 9,000 contractors offer their products for purchase to various governmental agencies through the General Service Administration's website at www.gsaadvantage.gov. GSA Advantage is fully searchable database by keyword, part number, manufacturer, contractor or contract number, or product classification. The GSA Advantage website will help you find:
   1 .If your product is priced right against your competitors
   2. If your quantity discounts are competitive
   3. If your delivery times are typical
   4. If the additional cost you offer for setup and delivery are competitive
   5. If there are other distribution methods for the competitive products

Other Information Sources

Many other free government data sources exist. Here are just a few:
  1. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (www.bea.gov): GDP by state and industry,
      corporate profits, state and local personal income, et cetera.
  2 .The National Technical Information Service (www.ntis.gov): Information on
      government funded research in your industry
  3.  The U.S. Department of Labor's "America's Career InfoNet" (www.acinet.org): Wage
       data available by occupation for all states and over 300 metro areas.

Enjoy your search.

- Steve Sink

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Does Your Brand Change Once the Customer Says Yes?

Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentw...Image by Powerhouse Museum Collection via Flickr

The other day Drew McLellan sent out a newsletter about "Is Your Customer Experience On Purpose".  A recent purchase of mine got me thinking about this in context to the sale process.  I was buying a mattress for my bed at the local Slumberland Furniture Store.  My wife and I had picked out the mattress, bought the mattress cover and were ready to leave.  There was just the matter of paying for the mattress and arranging for delivery. 

The sales person let us know they could deliver the mattress on Monday.  That is when Slumberland's brand changed.  My wife mentioned that afternoon would be better for us.  That was the moment.  Right then.  When the sales person said something to the effect of "we are not allowed to make requests for delivery times".

Let's be honest.  How many of you have a day to just hang out and wait for the delivery person?  Especially when you PAID for the delivery.   We went home scratching our heads over this lack of customer service. 

Slumberland, in one moment went from "customer oriented, desiring to help find the best way to sleep" to dictatorial.  Even worse is the written information they included with our "receipt folder".  Stapled inside is a sheet of paper titled "Customer Expectations for Home Delivery".  Here are paragraphs two and three for your review.  When reading these, think about the brand experience:

Q: How is my two-hour time calculated?
A: The two-hour time frame is based up on our truck's route.  Your two-hour time frame will be assigned to you.  Slumberland will call you two days before the scheduled delivery date and give you a two hour time frame, (i.e. 1-3 pm).  This means the delivery could occur anytime during the scheduled two hours.

Q: If my two-hour time frame does not work for me, what other options do I have?
A: Once the truck is routed, we are unable to change time frames.  You have a few options: (1) Leave a key in a safe place for our delivery drivers.  (2) Is it possible to have a neighbor, apartment manager or family member help?  (3) Also, our delivery drivers can call you when they are on their way to give you time to meet them.  (4) If these options do not work, we can help you reschedule your deliver to the next available day.

I especially like (4) above.  In essence, if this delivery system will not work, we will put you through it one more time. 

Personally, I am guessing that Slumberland outsourced their delivery and then squeezed the margins on the delivery company.  The delivery company found the most efficient method of delivering furniture and implemented it.

No matter why this is the case, the entire customer experience that was positive is quickly forgotten. 

In your business, remember that the customer experience is an ongoing experience.  It does not end until the customer stops using your product or service.  Make sure that your customer experience is what you planned it to be through out the entire customer experience.

- Mike Colwell

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Gateway to a Project

Gateway_Arch We just returned from a vacation in St. Louis.  Because my older daughter has been reading the Percy Jackson series, she wanted to see where a pivotal scene occurred in the first book... atop the Gateway Arch.  When I was a kid, it was a great novelty to just go up to the top of this cool-looking thing.  Now, as an an adult, I was more fascinated with the history of it.

The monument was first conceived in the mid-1930's.  Attorney Luther Ely Smith wanted to restore the St. Louis riverfront from decay, so he began pushing for a monument honoring Jefferson's 1803 Louisiana Purchase and St. Louis' role as the gateway to westward expansion.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the idea.  Many meetings and bond issues were held to gain support for the idea.  It wasn't until 1947-48 that a national contest was held to select a winning design for this monument.  Architect Eero Saarinen's design of a catenary curve was selected.  Construction did not begin until 1963 and ended in 1965; however, the tram which transports people to the top was not operable until 1967.  The Arch opened to the public in 1968.

Granted, this is just a thumb-nail sketch of a very rich history of the entire project; however, there are some powerful project lessons to be learned:

  • Project definition can sometimes take long periods of time, and it is important to define the problem well and figure out who is going to take ownership of the problem (i.e., pay for it) before moving onto the solution phase.
  • The longer amount of time spent on planning, the shorter amount of time proportionally will be spent on execution (note the length of time between awarding the winning design and actual construction).
  • Know what issues are show stoppers and which features are "add-ons" - structural problems caused the Arch construction to halt; items like the tram were handled after the external portion of the Arch was constructed.

And thus ends the Johnson summer vacation for 2010.  Someday my children will be thankful that their dad geeks out on project management education... even at the Gateway Arch...well, ok... maybe not.

Carpe Factum!

Service that Surprises

Be politeImage via Wikipedia

I've had two experiences in the past couple of weeks, which, together, have reminded me of a great customer service lesson.

First, I received a general e-mail that had been sent through our group's website. A gentlemen who our group worked with for a client project more than 15 years ago wanted to send greetings to our group's founder, Chuck Wenger. The client mentioned what an impression Chuck had made on him and mentioned a particular instance when a woman entered the meeting room and Chuck courteously stood to acknowledge her presence and welcome her to the meeting. "What a cool and respectful gentleman," the former client wrote.

Then, I zipped into Culver's the other night for a quick bite. I got up and headed to the soda fountain to refill my drink. There was a gaggle of teenagers around the machine who dispersed as I approached. One young man turned and almost ran into me. He stopped, smiled and said, "Excuse me, sir," before stepping aside to let me pass. It was such an unexpected, courteous gesture that it became a memorable experience for me. I told my wife and have thought of it a couple of times since.

Courtesy is a behavioral art form that has waned in recent generations. Many young people entering the workforce have not been taught to say "please" and "thank you." The act of showing deference to another person, politely excusing yourself, or expressing appreciation can become memorable service moments (that you remember 15 years later) because they are becoming more and more rare in the marketplace and in our culture as a whole.

We could all use a little courtesy and manners coaching. Surprising customers with the simple act of standing when they enter or saying "excuse me, sir" could be all it takes to make your company's service stand out in the crowd.

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Plan for the Unexpected

spider web with fog droplets, San Francisco.Image via Wikipedia

The "race is on" attitude toward social media has slowed and given way to a business community that recognizes that successful social media strategy and execution is far more important than simply having a presence.

One must-have item on the planning list should be crisis communications.

Social media gives everyone a voice. This has opened up infinite doors of opportunity, especially considering the economic times in which social media platforms and peoples’ usage of them skyrocketed.

Businesses and non-profits that saw slim budgets grow even slimmer during this time, as well as cutbacks, layoffs, and unemployment, was the theme of nearly every conversation with friends, family and colleagues. Social media were free marketing and communication tools that gave every individual with access to a computer a microphone and spotlight.

However, just like at karaoke night, not everyone should have a microphone.

There are those who will attempt to derail your social media conversation. They see a tragedy or crisis impacting an organization as an opportunity to step up to the open mic. These few bad actors - often called “trolls” -  are seemingly waiting in the wings ready to pounce with gratuitous sarcasm, caustic allegations and negativity. This can easily inspire a public relations tailspin. The best thing to do is to approach it calmly, rationally and methodically.

First, hopefully the answer is yes! Do you have a policy that addresses how you handle these types of situations? If not, don't wait until you have a problem. Instead anticipate several 'what if' scenarios and establish a policy for handling them. Next, plan to respond swiftly, but rationally. When a crisis situation involving the organization arises, respond on social platforms with consistent messages to your offline media statement.

Brevity is expected in social media and in this case is your friend. It is not necessary to engage in conversation beyond sharing the official statement. It's important to listen to the audience, but understand exactly what your are hearing and who from. When a visceral response aimed toward you comes in writing via the social web, the volume of one voice becomes so loud it sounds like 100. If a good portion of the community responds in anger, more may need to be said. However, if only one or two out of thousands are making noise it can be handled with more precision.

Don't let the desire to put out the fire quickly keep you from giving it time to go out on its own. I equate it to interacting with children or pets, attention for those seeking attention fuels the fire even if it's negative attention. Falling all over yourself with numerous posts to react to only one or two people who are upset shines even more of a spotlight on those individuals. The lack of attention may result in silencing the offender.

Be prepared to follow through. You put a social media policy in place to address the situation. If you have a case where an individual in your community, whatever platform, is interacting with the organization or its supporters in a way that inhibits the experience for others or otherwise acting outside of established policy, warn them. If it continues, follow through with blocking them. It's not censorship, it is protecting the integrity of the community for the sake of the rest of the audience. If someone was shouting at the screen in a movie theater, the ushers would surely have them removed.

One final thought, be sincere if an apology is necessary and confident if not. Whether on TV, radio, in print or on the social web, we are a smart and intuitive people. We can spot disingenuous from a mile away.
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Deducting your home away from home

vacation_8Image by Lisa{santacrewsgirl} via Flickr

It's vacation time! Maybe you are thinking this is the time to pull the trigger on that vacation home you've had your eye on. Will your tax return help you pay for it?

Maybe. 

The tax law permits you to deduct the interest on debt used to acquire a vacation home as home mortgage interest, as long as you claim interest on no more than two houses, and as long as you deduct the interest on no more than $1 million in home acquisition debt. You can also claim deductions for the property taxes on your vacation home.

If you rent out your vacation home 14 days or less, that's all the deductions you get -- but in that case, you also don't have to pick up any rental income on your 1040 either. 

If you rent your vacation home out for more than 14 days -- more deductions could be available, depending on how much you use the home and how many days you have tenants. The additional deductions come from operating expenses for the home -- utilities, association dues, cleaning and the like -- and from depreciating the cost of the building. You have to allocate the costs between personal and rental use of the home based on days used by you and days used by renters. If you use the house for 14 days and rent it for 56 days, you could potentially deduct 56/70 (80 percent) of the operating expenses.  

But now it gets complicated.  If you use the house more than the greater of:

  • 10 percent of the total days the property is used, or
  • 14 days,

the tax law doesn't permit deductions of operating expenses to reduce your income from the property to below zero. You have to apply the interest and property tax deductions attributable to your rental income against the rental income before can deduct any operating expenses on your way to zero. 

For example, you rent out your Minnesota cabin for 60 days and use it for 20 days. You earn $8,000 in rent. You pay $4,000 in interest and $2,000 in property taxes on the house. You have operating association dues and utilities of $3,600 and depreciation of $4,800 (it's computed on a 27.5-year life).  

First, you split your expenses between the 25 percent personal use and the 75% rental use.  That leaves you with $3,000 in interest and $1,500 in property taxes to apply against your $8,000 rental income, leaving you with $3,500 before operating expenses and depreciation. The 75 percent of the $3,600 operating expenses attributable to rental income is $2,700. That would seem to leave you with $800 of income before depreciation. Because your personal use is more than 10 percent of the total use, and more than 14 days, you can only take enough depreciation to take the $800 income down to zero. The remaining $4,000 depreciation would just carry forward in case you ever have enough rental income to use it.

Even if you use the house so little that this limit doesn't apply, the "passive loss" rules might limit your use of the losses, unless you have other "passive" income. In any case, you need to keep good records, including records of personal and business use.

So while your 1040 won't pay for your vacation home, you might as well take the deductions that you can.  Moving deductions from your schedule A to your Schedule E will usually move money from the IRS to your bank account, and that's a good thing. 

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Immunize Your Organization

“We vaccinate to protect our future.” This succinct message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains the importance of immunizations. During National Immunization Month, take the time to make sure you and your family’s shots are up-to-date and then initiate steps to protect the future health of your organization.

 

Much like vaccinations are an important shield against health threats for humans, business leaders can defend their organizations against internal and external threats by "immunizations" that take the form of careful planning.

 Immunization Blog 2010

With our economy in flux, CEOs must have plans in place to navigate today’s difficult economic times. Lee Froschheiser, president and CEO of Map, a management consulting firm, outlined seven steps for a plan to survive difficult times:

 

1.   Concentrate on what you can control - understand what you can and cannot control, so you’re not misdirecting your time, energy and resources.

2.   Hold regular team meetings- gather your team and set up weekly meetings to discuss and report what is happening within your organization.

3.   Have a “Plan B” - when hard times hit, have a strategy for cutting expenses.

4.   Step up your leadership - in times of crisis, emotions and actions set the tone. Remaining calm sets a good example for your team.

5.   Create teamwork - during a crisis when teamwork can weaken, challenge your team and push them to perform.

6.   Face the brutal facts - only then can you see where the business needs to go and how your leadership can take it there.

7.   Be open and ready to “reinvent yourself” - if you do reinvent yourself, and dabble in a different market or diversify products or services, you will need to define new business components for that fresh direction.

 

A crisis management plan also is essential for organizations. But if you aren’t reviewing and updating it on a regular basis, the plan will be far less effective. In order for your plan to work, all key players need to know their part. Take time to review your plan regularly and make any necessary updates.

 

Although situations may arise you did not expect during an actual crisis, having a plan in place and practicing your response provides a great foundation to begin to repair the situation.

 

Along with “immunizing” against external threats, pay attention to internal threats as well, including your employees. Unhappy staff members can bring down the morale of your organization and significantly decrease productivity. Success Performance Solutions found that 17 percent of employers experienced decreased productivity because of unhappy employees. Take time to evaluate your employees’ satisfaction with surveys and use their feedback to create a better work environment.

 

It’s always important to stay proactive against threats. The important thing is to be aware of what real ones exist in both your personal and professional lives and develop an action plan to put yourself in position for the best outcomes.

Slow Down for Yellow Lights

Traffic lights can have several additional lig...Image via Wikipedia

What do most drivers do when the traffic light turns yellow as they are approaching an intersection?  They step on the gas!

Business owners and sales professionals do this in the sales process as well.  There can be awkward moments in the sales process (yellow lights).  Fearing that the sale may hit a "red light," many will "step on the gas" rather than slowing down to address the issue.

Here is a simple example to illustrate:

Prospect:  "We want this project completed in four weeks.  Can your company get it done?"

Sales Person:  "Uh ... yes."

Although he said yes, the sales person is thinking, "This is going to strain the resources of the company and such a tight deadline may impact quality of the project which will impact the long term results.  However, it feels less risky to deal with those issues later rather than express my concern."

Slow Down for Yellow Lights!

Habitually speeding through yellow lights will eventually cause a costly accident.  A better way to handle these awkward moments is to slow down and discuss concerns until the light turns green.

For example:

Prospect:  "We want this project completed in four weeks.  Can your company get it done?"

Sales Person:  " Perhaps we can.  I will have to review our production schedule to be sure.  However, I do have a concern.  Four weeks is a very tight time frame for this type of project.  More time might be required to insure quality.  What are your thoughts about that?"

The light is certainly yellow.  There are at least four possible outcomes here.

  1. The sales person find out that a four-week deadline is not mission critical and that quality is more important. Green Light!
  2. The sales person may find out that four weeks is mission critical for parts, but not all of the project. Green Light!
  3. The sales person may find out that four weeks is mission critical, but the prospect has resources to help meet the deadline such as their own staff or a big budget. Green Light!
  4. Finally, the sales person may find out that this looks like a nightmare waiting to happen and that she should tactfully walk away. Red Light!  (Obey the traffic signal and perhaps her company can come back to clean it up after someone else screws it up. Green Light!)

Regardless, the best outcome comes from slowing down and addressing the yellow light.

Tell us about some "yellow lights" that you have encountered in the past.  Did you speed up or slow down?

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Low Man on the Totem Pole

Ketchikan, Alaska. Native American totem poleImage via Wikipedia

Have you ever referred to the newest member of your work team as the "low man on the totem pole?" Meaning that he or she is at the "bottom" in terms of value to the team and the experience and perspective they can provide. It's a common analogy in our culture. But it's way wrong, a common misperception.

First of all, consider that Native Americans didn't think of it in that way. They likely put the most important person or symbol at the bottom, at eye level. Would it have made sense to put the most important person twenty or thirty feet off the ground, where no one could see him? Yet in our culture, we have this sense that higher is better. When we carve out organizational charts, we put what we consider the "most important people" at the top, right?

Think about our supermarkets today. What's the most valuable shelf space? The eye-level shelf. That's where the high-margin items go. Marketing experts charge big bucks to help retailers figure that stuff out.

Secondly, that newest person on the team brings a valuable perspective that others on the team have lost, or are in the process of losing. That new member has objective eyes. They can see things that others no longer notice:

  • the unspoken norms, such as safety violations, that have become "undiscussable"
  • sloppy maintenance of company property and landscaping ("Weeds? What weeds?")
  • practices that at first made sense, but now serve no purpose

Diversity is prevalent, whether it's among the faces on a totem pole, or within the boxes on an org chart. That diversity is a challenge and a godsend. Mahatma Gandhi suggested that one of the greatest challenges of our day is finding unity amongst diversity. Instead of focusing on how "high" or how new people are, we need to focus instead on finding unity of purpose. It's through unity of purpose that we can come together synergistically to accomplish great tasks -- tasks where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Astronaut Michael Collins understood the mistake in seeing some positions as lower on the totem pole than others. He said about his role on Apollo II, the first expedition to the moon, "I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo II seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two." Collins was pilot, while it was Armstrong and Aldrin who got to actually land on the moon. How 'bout that for a demonstration of unity of purpose?


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Not Deciding is a Decision Made

indecisionImage by madamepsychosis via Flickr

Sometimes it seems prudent to put off a decision, to sleep on it. Why? One of my mentors once asked me, "what will you know tomorrow that you don't know today"?  We often ask our employees to "execute crisply" or "make the call." Yet many owners will not take the same advice. There are several things wrong with this. 

  • Not deciding on a key issue sends a clear message to your employees and business partners that indecision is OK. If you need more time, make sure you communicate the reason and most important, the date you will make the decision.
  • Opportunities pass by. Your not deciding is most likely closing a window to an opportunity. Let's say your thinking of offering a person a job. The longer you wait the more likely you will lose the candidate and the more money you lose by not having the key resource.
  • You're trying to satisfy everyone. The pending decision will disappoint a employee or partner. Keep in mind while not deciding, you are probably disappointing everyone involved. The longer you wait, the more that disappointment will build. Make the decision. Then communicate first to the person who will be disappointed. Make sure they understand why you chose the path you did. They may not be less disappointed but they most likely will respect you for telling them directly.
  • With out intending to, you look like an amateur. If you are a new business person and are trying to build the respect of those around you, know what you are communicating. A decision not made can cast you as an amateur. That is a tough label to lose.

Mark Suster wrote about this issue a while back in his blog. In it he promotes the idea of "executing crisply" and lists several great examples. 

Here is your assignment: Take 20 minutes and write down every decision you have waiting for you. List how long you have been waiting and what data you are waiting for. Now be honest: When will you receive any more data? Finally, pick a date to make each decision and communicate the date to the people involved. 

Hold yourself accountable and execute crisply!

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Sweat the Small Stuff

Brsrs I've always appreciated Stephen Covey's example he shares about the big rocks and the small rocks and the sand.  If you have a hefty collection of each and are asked to fill up an aquarium with all of them, unless you start with the big rocks first, then move to the small rocks, and finally fill in with sand, you will not fit everything into the aquarium effectively. 

Then it will be the big rocks (the most important tasks in your life) that will suffer. Brilliant analogy.

In project management, we often remember the big rocks: the tasks on our project plan, the status report, the issues log, team meetings, the deliverables. Those are the only things that make or break a project, correct?

Well, yes and no. Often, the things I see derail project managers are the small rocks like allotting time for WRITING the status report, TRACKING the issues log, HOLDING the meetings, and OBTAINING SIGN-OFF on the deliverables. Each of these seemingly small tasks pale in comparison to sitting down a group of business analysts and programmers to create something big and brilliant. While none of these "small rocks" in and of themselves get you to your final project completion, ignoring them can prevent you from reaching your goal.

Maintaining these small rocks is also a matter of project maturity. The Software Contract Management blog recently shared a piece on scope management and the capability maturing model. Tucked away in one small corner of the article was a critical piece of advice: "Please keep in mind that your responsibility extends to all work on the project, including administrative work, not only the construction" of the software system.

As a project manager, allow time on your plan (10 percent to 25 percent is my general rule) for these "small rock" activities. Ignoring them as inconsequential may prevent you from effectively addressing your "big rocks."

Carpe Factum!

What Do Customers Want: Resolution or Courtesy?

ChoresImage by David Reber's Hammer Photography via Flickr

I had a great e-mail from a reader last week. He asked a question I know many Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) struggle with. Working in a customer service contact center, he is held accountable to provide a fair measure of courtesies, or "soft skills," on every call. Yet, he's frustrated when he hears customers say, "You've been very nice, but you didn't really solve my problem."

Don't customers just want their problem resolved? "They don't care if we're nice. Customers just want resolution," I've heard many CSRs say.

Yes and no. Yes, customers want resolution. With years of experience measuring customer satisfaction across many different companies, I can tell you that resolution is usually the number one driver of customer satisfaction when they call a company's contact center. Resolution, however, is most often a "penalty variable" in the customers mind. In other words, the customer won't reward you for resolving his or her issue. It's simply what they expect. If you don't resolve it, however, they will penalize you.

I think of it in terms of my children doing their chores. I don't gush all over them because they did what they were expected to do: "Oh my dear child. You are wonderful! You are awesome! I can't praise you enough for taking out the trash!!" That's not how it works. Kids don't get rewarded for simply doing the menial chores expected of them. They will, however, be penalized (e.g. grounding, loss of privleges, etc.) if they fail to do them.

Courtesy and friendliness are usually other key drivers of customer satisfaction. Though generally not as important in the customer's mind, soft skills are typically a "reward variable." The nicer, more personable and friendly we are (not robotic, canned friendly, but conversationally friendly) the more the customer rewards us with increased satisfaction.

Leading companies usually understand that customer satisfaction and loyalty require a combination of resolving the customer's issue while serving up exemplary soft skills. Either one without the other is an opportunity missed.

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Who's Listening?

Listening PostImage by Fenchurch! via Flickr

One thing we have all said and heard over and over in social media conversations is the importance of listening. It is amazing to me that those of us using social media in our businesses and organizations are doing such a better job of listening than those who created the platforms.

Last week, Facebook hosted a gathering of PR professionals at its headquarters in California. When I first heard about it, I got a little excited - they are going to hear what features and needs we have from the social platform and make improvements! Alas, I was disappointed watching the video.

Don't get me wrong, the shared insight and utilization about how the company of Facebook is using its own platform was helpful and I 'Like' the page and encourage you to as well for the helpful tips. It is frustrating however that there is much more Facebook could do to increase the depth of how PR, public affairs, and political and marketing professionals could utilize the social platform with some additions and improvements.

Although there is a 'Questions' link for us to submit questions and comments on Facebook, it's limited in space for what you can submit and is essentially the digital equivalent of a suggestion box. Those of us engaging people on these platforms with regularity recognize the need to be a bit more specific in your ask than 'Questions'.

Over a cup of coffee last week, a friend who embraced social media and Facebook said they were becoming less engaged in the platform.  Their reasons are shared by many, and if the developers were listening could be easily addressed. How about a feature, for example, that allows us to filter or categorize the kinds of information we receive on our wall and where we receive it. I'd like to put the pages I like in categories and choose how and when I see them as well as the information that comes into my inbox from them. I would have a box for entertainment, one for news, one for friend updates. That way what my friends are saying - which is really the essence of the attraction of social media - isn't drowned out by the noise of brand, cause or news updates, but I still have access to all of that information.

There are some social platforms that are improving on this front. Twitter is responding to some of the requests of users such as real time updates and the newest "Suggested Friends" feature. Some of the Twitter changes come on the heels of widely used free apps like Tweetdeck and Hootsuite forging the way - which is our wonderful competitive market at its best - and certainly these changes are long overdue.

I'm an Iowa girl whose Mom raised her to always find the silver lining, which is easy in this case so here it is. Social media move far faster than businesses have historically, so it's likely they'll begin listening sooner rather than later.

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