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March 2011

Are You a Robot? 3 Tips to Prioritize Your Work-Life

I have a confession to make.
Robot_300px
I love to work hard. I love to make things the best they can be. I love to chase after dreams and goals and help others do it, too. I never have a shortage of ideas and I can’t wait to try ALL of them. And I love to say yes, even when I should say no or wait.

These are not the traits of a Time Management Super Hero. And such habits, if left unchecked, won’t lead to Keeping My Head Above Water. In fact, it leads to robot-like thinking, feeling and doing. Beep!

For the past two weeks, I allowed myself to become a working machine. Driven and laser-focused on my goals, I was willing to sacrifice the important things to get it all done. I neglected my health, my mind and my relationships. And I sat in my office chair so long without breaks that my robot hinges got stuck. It's a good thing I know a great human mechanic.

I need a can of WD-40, and I’m ready to be human again. If you’ve become a robot, too, these three tips will help us set our priorities back to human-mode:

  1. Take care of your body. Eat right, exercise, sleep, take vitamins and drink lots of water.
  2. Take care of your mind and soul. Pray or meditate or journal. Read books that feed your brain good things.
  3. Take care of your relationships. Without family, friends and coworkers - or business allies - there is no feeling or meaning to life.

I know what you’re thinking. All of this takes time. Yep, it sure does. But if we neglect these three, we become robots and then no amount of success matters.

Need some additional inspiration? These movies have a similar message:

For Love of the Game, starring Kevin Costner
The Incredibles, a Disney-Pixar Animation
Up, a Disney-Pixar Animation
Rocky, starring Sylvester Stallone
Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon

What other movies or tips do you recommend? Post them in the comments and save the human race! Beep!

-Jocelyn Wallace

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One Year Into Health Care Reform – Its Impact on Wellness

In light of the one-year anniversary of health care reform, I am frequently asked what I think of it.

Health Care Reform I see it as an opportunity to create a new way for health care providers and employers to deliver on the promise of greater wellness. Suddenly, wellness isn’t a concept that employers and health care providers are pursuing in spite of bureaucratic barriers – it is a value that can be freely expressed because those barriers are falling.

From where I sit, health care reform has made four areas in the promotion of wellness better by:

Empowering the Patient-Physician Relationship. Health care providers rely on a core team of professionals to ensure the greatest care for that population. This means that physicians must lead in the mission to strengthen patient trust. Organizations are encouraged to make the transition from being hospital-driven (high cost, acute) to becoming physician-led (lower cost, long-term).

Building technological bridges to the patient. Telemedicine, particularly for rural patients, is a critical component of controlling and reducing health care costs while improving quality of delivery.  It goes without saying that - in Iowa - that is a big issue.

Lowering bureaucratic barriers. Something has always challenged the ability of physicians, clinics and hospitals to achieve the best care for patients: the structure of Medicare reimbursements. Historically, Medicare has reimbursed hospitals based on patient volume, not quality of care, penalizing high-quality care states like Iowa. This created a system where the patient can become an afterthought. That is changing.

Providing greater wellness for the local community. Following reform, compensation for care is much more likely to compensate providers for “best” care, rather than “most” care. Health care reform allows for and encourages Coordinated Care. 

Organizations are encouraged to pursue Coordinated Care payment reform models involving a variety of allied organizations that will improve the health of the local populations, enhance quality of health care services and reduce local health care costs. These models involve organizations that previously were not encouraged to collaborate. If successful, the programs can be repeated wherever it makes sense for our communities.  They better support overall wellness than the current models.

So, one year in, I see dramatic opportunity in areas that have been stuck in neutral, at best, for decades. What do I hope to see in the next five years?

A simple-to-understand, wellness-centered experience for the patient, led by physicians with a renewed personal approach to the practice of medicine in a system that invigorates our workforce to foster vibrant communities of people living at their healthiest.

Facebook decides who sees our Fan Page wall posts

Screen shot 2011-03-28 at 7.16.26 PMAs I was reminded while reading a recent report put out by HubSpot.com -- Facebook doesn't believe that all Fan Page wall posts are created equally.  In fact -- every time you put something on your wall, you're  being graded.

They use an algorithm called EdgeRank that determines who gets to see what in their newsfeed.  If you are getting a lot of comments and likes on your postings -- you will score a higher score.  The higher your score, the more people will see your pearls of wit and wisdom.

You've read a million times that social media isn't about you.  It's about creating community and conversations.  All true.  But, when surveyed -- Fan Page fans said they originally joined in the hopes of getting some special offers from you.  So you're going to have to strike a balance.

Here are some other ways to increase interaction on your page...and goosing up your EdgeRank ratings:

Time yourself:  Updates done in the morning and over the weekend tend to gather more activity and interactivity.  It only makes sense. You'll catch more people online and ready to click your Like button during those times.

Don't overshare: Updating your wall status or sharing new content is about quality, not quantity.  Every other day or so seems like a tolerable amount for most FB users. No matter how interesting you think you are -- no more than once a day.

Don't over repeat:  If your FB fan page is simply a place for your tweets or some other social networking updates to appear -- don't bother.  Tell me once -- I'm interesting.  Tell me the same thing twice and I notice.  Tell me the same thing three times and I am either bored or annoyed or both.

Think multimedia:  We love videos.  And we love to share them.  So as much as I love the written word -- be sure you add some variety to your postings with audio and video files.

Bottom line -- all Facebook Fan Pages are not created equal.  Especially in Facebook's eyes.

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Planning: Social Media Policies for Employers

Many companies are considering whether and how to draft or update social media policies for their personnel.  I would encourage those employers to spend some time in the “planning” stage of that process. In working through this planning process, companies would be wise to (1) involve information technology, human resources, other company decision-makers and legal counsel; and (2) identify the company’s needs, goals and expectations of any new or updated technology policy. Hand-and-mouse

In walking through this early planning stage, please keep in mind that sample handbooks or personnel policies aren’t nearly as helpful to employers in this particular area as other areas.

For example, a sexual harassment policy generally delivers the same message to employees, regardless of the employer’s size, industry or business objectives. 

A technology policy, however, has to be tailored to the individual company’s unique business interests. Whereas one company may want to encourage its sales group to learn how to market the company on Twitter or Facebook, another company may be compelled to focus first on important privacy considerations. 

Ultimately, businesses have to identify the considerations driving the policy for the policy to be effective. Although model policies may offer some helpful tidbits, companies shouldn’t let samples distract them from their own distinct goals.

Connect to the Unconnected

Pop!Image by chrisafer via Flickr

Wait. What? You mean I need to know people who don’t know many people? That seems to defeat the purpose of networking in many minds.

But after reading the post “The Most Important People in Your Network” by Rob Cross on the Harvard Business Review, it all started to make a little bit of sense.

We have all heard that it’s not what you know but whom you know that counts. However, many young professionals out there building their network, myself included, seem to be focused too much on the quantity of contacts they have, instead of the more important one: QUALITY.

But wait. Don't I need to be “in the know?"

In today’s social media age, there are too many people waking up each morning with the thought, “How am I going to gain 100 more followers on Twitter today?” Now, I’m a believer that it is important to have a social media presence, but maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is, “How am I going to gain one great new contact today?”

Cross does a good job outlining why bigger is not always better. What I took away from it that we need to be making sure our contacts are working for us. You can have a presence on as many social networking tools as you want, but if you are running into the same group of people or stretching yourself even thinner, what are you really accomplishing?

Having fewer contacts that keep you top of mind might just be a more powerful tool than a handshake with 100 different people each morning. Those few excellent connections will be more likely to share new ideas, be a better learning tool and be more likely to introduce you to others you REALLY need to know.

I’m actually hoping to see a few constructive responses to this post. After all, I have a hard time piecing together why it would be a negative to have more connections. Maybe you feel the same way?

However, there is one golden rule we all need to take away from this post - especially those of us who are young professionals with popped collars thinking we just have to know everybody.

Build relationships, not connections!

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Boring Blog - Part 2

Jimmy Gill - Confectionary Stand BImage via Wikipedia

If you read my previous blog, you may recall that the boring stuff saves money. The last blog addressed Iowa law regarding security interests in goods sold.

Iowa’s UCC provides that it may be necessary to place the public on notice of a security interest to protect that interest. This blog focuses on filings at Iowa Secretary of State to protect or "perfect" security interests. 

Bill’s Bakery Supplies has a security interest in equipment sold to Smith’s Confectionary Inc. Bill will want to protect his security interest and place others on notice of his interest. (This is called perfection[1].)

Article 9 of the Iowa UCC codifies the steps necessary for Bill to perfect his security interest. If the security interest is in goods, Iowa Code section 554.9501 designates that a financing statement is to be filed with the Iowa Secretary of State. A form that has all the required information is available from the Iowa Secretary of State’s website.

 A financing statement must provide:

(1) the name of the debtor;

(2) the names of the secured party or a representative; and

(3) the collateral covered by the financing statement.

Financing statements are filed under the debtor’s name. For registered organizations (LLC, corporation, limited partnership, etc.) the exact name of the organization as it appears in a state’s record must be used on the financing statement. If the debtor is an individual, the full legal name must be used. For example, If Bill’s Bakery Supplies mistakenly placed Joe Smith’s name on the financing statement instead of Smith’s Confectionary Inc., Iowa Code section 554.9506(b) states the financing statement would be seriously misleading.

"Seriously misleading" financing statements are not sufficient to place the public on notice of the security interest or to protect the secured party. Even simple errors such as spelling a corporation’s name incorrectly or using a symbol instead of a word (“&” instead of “and”) may render a financing statement seriously misleading.

The necessity of these nuances becomes clear when viewed through the eyes of a third party who attempts to determine if there is a security interest in certain property. If Smith's Confectionary Inc. later attempted to use the ovens purchased as collateral for a bank loan, the bank would check the public records to ensure there are no security interests attached to the ovens. Without proper filing under a specific name, the bank would have  difficulty verifying information.

Avoid problems by:

  • Knowing with whom you are dealing. As a matter of dealing, get government issued verification of names.
  • Checking public records. Many Iowa organizations must file with the Iowa Secretary of State.
  • Remembering that handshakes seal deals, but contracts prevent problems. Putting it “in writing” is a greater show of trust than a handshake.
  • Filing immediately. In my next post (and last in the series of boring blogs), I will address how to determine the priority of competing security interests.

If you read through to the end, I commend you. Business leaders who read the boring stuff avoid pesky problems . . . and have less need for me (a litigator).

- Christine Branstad 



[1] Lodge complaints about legalese elsewhere. I use NO legalese in my writing.

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It's Time to Defrag

A hard disk drive with the platters and motor ...Image via Wikipedia

Plunk down megabucks for a new computer. Still -- inevitably, eventually -- it'll become sluggish.

Frequent use of certain programs and stored documents causes pieces of information to become scattered, making your computer search for the pieces before they can be used. To fix it? You have to run a program that retrieves the pieces and brings them together where they can be more accessible again.This process is called "defragmentation." The secret is sensing when it's time to defrag.

Life's like that. We're all busy people. Like pieces of information on our hard drives, we can become scattered, and overwhelmed by everything on our plates and the constant pressures of being on call at work 24/7. Research on well-being though shows that the best adjusted people are generally the busiest people, both at work and off-work. The secret is they know when and how to defrag.

Harvey Mackay says, "Knowing when not to work is as important as knowing when to." Because this thing we call work/life balance really has nothing to do with 50/50 or clock time. It has to do with how we use the time we have. Here are three tips for defragging:

  • When you work late and have only an hour with the kids before their bedtime, are you there with them in the present tense? Or are you obsessing about something the CFO said to you in the parking lot after work? Focus on the moment. Defrag for 60 minutes.
  • If your worklife consumes you, add things to your off-work life. Seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? Yet research shows that the best adjusted people forced themselves to structure off-work activities into their schedules, just like they do meetings and offsites at work. They schedule time for the gym, they put date nights on the calendar with their significant others, they set aside 30 minutes a night to read mysteries or romance novels, just for fun. They structure in defragging time.
  • Bring your strengths at work into play at home. If you're great with people, start a neighborhood group to fight for a cause. If you like to organize things, volunteer to start up and organize a committee at church. When you're doing what you're really good at, in a relaxed setting away from the pressures of work, you can easily slip into defrag mode.     

Define what "balance" means for you. Then live it. Before you become sluggish and scattered. Know when it's time to defrag.  

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Trust

5456455785_721aa5d47e_tIf there is one thing a company or leader should focus on, it is trust.  It is the bedrock of successful companies, cultures and families.  Unfortunately, trust is a vanishing quality in our world today.

The violation of trust has become a mainstream event in our society and companies.  It is not discussed, people are not held accountable and, to some degree, it is accepted as normal behavior.

High levels of trust lead to high levels of safety, tolerance, innovation, communication, creativity... the list is endless.  Trust is the key to unshackling the potential in people and organizations.  If change is needed, then focus on this one important human trait, and only this.  Forget everything else and be fanatical in the pursuit of trust.  It will not be easy, and it will require a tremendous amount of energy in the beginning.

But give it time and the energy will come back ten-fold.   

To put it all in perspective, answer this question: How many times can we violate trust in our most cherished relationships? We know the answer, yet we go about our business lives violating trust like eating candy.

Build trust and unleash the potential in your organization.

Flickr photo by UnforgetFire

Central Iowa Nonprofits Using Social Media

Give, take 'n shareImage by Funchye via Flickr

Nonprofit organizations were not the first on the social media bandwagon, but they seem to be making up for lost time. It seems not a day goes by that I am not invited by a friend to donate, volunteer or simply "like" the Facebook page of an organization. Some organizations are pretty quiet and just seem to be "collecting people" on their sites.

But there are quite a few others that are doing a great job with social media in Central Iowa. Here a three of my favorites:

  1. Central Iowa Shelter and Services - This homeless shelter uses both Facebook and Twitter to give updates on the shelter, request supplies and donations, and most importantly, thank shelter volunteers. With new shelter on the drawing board, this is great time for them to be more visible in the community.
  2. Prevent Blindness Iowa works to fight vision loss by educating Iowans about eye health and safety. March is Workplace Vision Wellness Month, so this Prevent Blindness Iowa blog post offers all employers free materials to hang up in the workplace to educate workers on preventing accidental eye injury. The organization also uses Facebook and Twitter to communicate its mission.
  3. The Pet Project Midwest's mission is to keep pets with loving families. Volunteers operate an Iowa Pet Alert (an Amber alert-type system for lost pets using social media) and a pet pantry to help families in need provide food and other items so they can keep their pets during times of financial hardship. The Twitter account is particularly effective in getting quick, short messages out to other pet lovers to find wayward animals quickly. The organization is also on Facebook, where they often share photos of people who donate to the organization.

Nonprofits have some special considerations when it comes to starting and maintaining a social media program. Most are understaffed or run by volunteers, therefore running the risk of leaving social media as the last thing on the "to do" list.

The entities listed in this post all have something in common; very passionate social media employees and volunteers who believe in the power of social media to make a difference. Any organization that starts a program should make sure that the person who does your social media posting is not the only reason you're doing it. Make it a part of your organization and its mission.

What's your favorite Central Iowa nonprofit? What did I miss?

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Best book of 2010 - Business Model Generation

Business Model Generation Cover A client showed me a book called Business Model Generation.  It is fantastic.  I have rarely found a book so useful to an entrepreneur.  It is a perfect resource for determining your business model.  For those who do not understand what a business model is, it is an even better resource! 

The book is organized into six sections.  The first lays out the elements of a business model and a visual representation (the Canvas) of the model  Each element is clearly explained.  The second section of the book puts many companies you know business model in the context of the canvas.  This is a great way to internalize how the canvas works. The third section deals with designing business models.  If you are in a small group trying to get your start-up model refined, this is a great resource in itself.  The fourth section is on strategy and the last two sections deal with Process and Outlook. 

I am going to make this required reading for my clients going forward.  It is on my shortest of short lists for best books for a start-up. 

If you haven't figured it out by now, I think you need to buy and read this book!

There is a 72 page preview available here.  Take a look.

Mike Colwell
www.bizci.org

 

Great Customer Service Links

LinkedImage by Ian Sane via Flickr

People often ask me for some of my favorite links with regard to customer service. Focusing on some lesser known blogs with which most readers are unfamiliar, here are a few reliable sources for great discussions on service related topics:

  • People2People provides great content out of a passion for serving customers well.
  • Return Customer is the work of Joe Rawlinson, who always provides good content.
  • Terry Starbucker is a champion leader from the customer service trenches. From front line supervisors to the executive suite, Terry has great advice for leading the charge.
  • Service Untitled has been providing great conversations on customer service for years. Always a good read.
  • Service Quality Central (SQC) provides great content on customer service focusing on service quality efforts on the phone.

Enjoy!

- Tom Vander Well

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Does Better Service Cost More?

Customer Service CentreImage by xcode via Flickr

There was a recent article in SmartMoney magazine that chronicled the growing trend of businesses that charge customers for higher levels of customer service. While the trend is growing, it is certainly not new. But it raises some great questions, and so let me start the conversation.

Historically, the cost of providing higher levels of service was passed on to consumers in the price of the good or service purchased. Shop at Wal-Mart and expect a Wal-Mart level of service. Shop at Nordstrom's and you expect a better service experience. In other words, you get what you pay for.

Today, businesses are beginning to acknowledge that there is a cost associated with providing good service. Instead of passing the cost along in the prices of the goods or services, they are asking customers to pay for it separately. The airlines are a great example. The ticket price gets you on the back of the plane from the back of the line. Want to check luggage? Pay for it. Want a snack? Pay for it. Want a little leg room? Pay for it. Want us to care at all? Pay for it.

The technology sector is another industry who are big into the practice. We all fear picking up the phone to call tech support. Are we going to get lost in the fifth level of IVR hell? Will we be banished to speak to an unintelligible lemming on the other side of the world? Now companies are beginning to offer higher levels of service and support... for a price.

Of course, some businesses pride themselves on finding one of business' Holy Grails: keeping prices low and providing superior levels of service. Southwest Airlines and Zappos are two of the faddish examples. While there is certainly a cost associated with training their employees and taking care of customers, these two companies have found a way of creating a culture of service while holding their price points reasonable.

There is a common myth in the call center industry that providing better service takes more time. From both experience and data, I know that to be false. So is it equally mythological that providing a superior service experience costs more money? Should the customer have to pay?

What do you think?

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Should you be sending some of your rent to the IRS?

The author of a best-selling book said "The World is Flat."  Though the world may never be as flat as that author's prose, Iowans find themselves dealing with foreign businesses more and more. Sadly, perfectly innocent transactions with foreigners can have tax land mines.

IABIZ 20110316 Pretend that a foreign company buys the Des Moines Building. Now pretend that you rent some prime space there for your business and pay $100,000 in lease payments this year to the landlord. The foreign company takes your money, but neglects to file a U.S. tax return. Would you be happy to then write a $30,000 check to the IRS? Happy or not, you might have to.

The tax law requires U.S. taxpayers to withhold 30 percent of rents paid to foreign taxpayers. If you didn't get the paperwork in order before taking that prime Des Moines Building space, the IRS could come after you for that 30 percent. So how do you protect yourself?

First, you get a Form W-9 from the landlord (you should be doing that anyway to find out whether you have to issue a Form 1099 for the rent). The W-9 includes a statement certifying that the signor is a U.S. person. As long as you don't know otherwise, the W-9 protects you. Even a foreign-owned corporation incorporated in the U.S. is a "U.S. person" -- but an LLC wholly-owned by a foreign person normally is not.

If you find out the taxpayer isn't a U.S. person, you might still be able to avoid the withholding. If the foreign taxpayer treats the rent as "effectively connected" with a U.S. trade or business, they can give you a Form W-8 ECI -- letting you off the hook for withholding. Alternatively, they may provide a Form W-8 BEN, allowing you to withhold at a reduced rate under the provisions of the tax treaty with the landlord's home country.

If your foreign taxpayer can't give you a W-8 ECI, then you have to withhold. The withholding has to be deposited based on a schedule available on the IRS website; you have three days to deposit withholding of $2,000 or more. You have to report the withholdings on Form 1042, due on March 15 the following year.

The Moral?  Foreign landlords can lead to unhappy tax surprises.  Fortunately, you can protect yourself by getting a W-9, and by taking the proper precautions if it turns out you do have a foreign landlord.

QR Codes -- should you be using them?

Screen shot 2011-03-15 at 12.16.28 AMA Quick Response (QR) is a two-dimensional code that looks like the bar codes we’re used to seeing on products in the grocery store.  What makes them the hot new marketing tactic is that these codes can be scanned by smartphone cameras.  Once scanned, they automatically pull up text, photos, videos or URLs.

I can hear you now... more new fangled fiddle faddle.  (Okay, perhaps you didn't say fiddle faddle, but you did roll your eyes.)  But let's keep in mind these facts:

So smartphones continue to dominate and if the predictions are correct -- will only grow in their prevalence.   QR codes allow us to turn just about any experience into an interactive one.  They can add more context, drive a consumer to take an action online (sign up for an e-newsletter for example) and bring multimedia into the experience.

Check out this amazing example of QR code usage from NYC's Central Park (click on the link) and before you think this is only happening on the coasts -- our own Joseph's Jewelers recently used a QR code in one of their ads.

Here are some of the other ways they’re being used:

On business cards: A QR code on a business card could drive people to your LinkedIn account, your online resume, a Facebook fan page or a request information page on your website.

To route a crowd: Some colleges are using them during freshmen orientation as a high tech scavenger hunt.  Businesses can create a game with check in spots to make sure visitors to a new facility or an open house get the full tour.

Instant coupons/discounts: A great way to condition your customers to scan your QR codes is to tie them to discounts or deals.  Whether you display them by your cash register, e-mail or mail them to your best customers or let people draw a QR code card out of a fishbowl to see what discount they’ve won – the goal is to get their attention and have some fun.

QR codes are very new so don’t be surprised if many of your customers aren’t familiar with them.  But they’ll be commonplace in no time, so why not begin experimenting with them now?

* Give it a try -- scan the QR code on this post and enjoy a very creative list of 50 ways you can use QR codes in your marketing.

Drew

 

 

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Staying Well With Chronic Disease

About 50 percent of all health care costs are tied to about 5 percent of the patients – those with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Some of the high cost is in the nature of long-term disease. Obviously, something that is treated once, such as a broken arm, will cost less over the long-term than something that should be managed daily for many years.Puzzle - Chronic Disease Management

But some of those costs are excessive. Many chronic diseases have management approaches that are well-defined by physicians, research and other experience. For example, some sort of approach that involves medication, diet, exercise and monitoring is often involved in the treatment of chronic patients. Where the high costs kicks in is when a person with a chronic disease is hospitalized or has some sort of episode that requires extensive and expensive testing.

A lot of this problem can be laid at the feet of third-party insurance providers who have processes and payment models that guide patients toward the emergency room or hospital.

But there are steps that a person managing a chronic disease can do to keep their own costs down while avoiding an unnecessary hospital stay.

There are approaches that the individual can take to feel better and more in control of his or her chronic disease. From maintaining a regular schedule of “well” or “maintenance” visits with the primary physician to maintaining healthy fitness and eating habits, one can convert disease management into a total wellness approach. Even finding an outlet to tell one’s own story can contribute to wellness!

Employers can also help:

  • Evaluate the workplace wellness program’s approach to chronic disease.
  • Consider implementing the CDC’s free web-based LEAN Works! Program.
  • Encourage interested employees to take part in a local or work-site based chronic disease management workshop.

The creation of a health care delivery model that increases the ability of the patient to access better care and avoid hospitalization is critical, but there are steps that you, as an individual and as leader of employees, can do today to ensure that those who contend with chronic disease are nevertheless able to achieve wellness.

End Of The Road

1848785225_9ac29fcaf2_tThere is nothing more stressful than the termination of an employee.  It is a life changing event for the employee and it should not be a surprise.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of companies do a poor job of letting their employees know where they stand in regards to their job situation - layoff or firing.

Companies that truly believe in their people create a process that is based on respect.  Here are some key elements for a respectful process:

  • Regular and meaningful performance feedback.
  • Strong support process for employee to correct behavior.
  • Strong company training program.
  • Human resources should not be the termination lead. They should play a support role for the manager and the employee.
  • Company does not fight unemployment filing.
  • Explains what type of reference will be given to employment inquiries.
  • Has a clear and simple process for the transition of benefits.

How you handle termination makes a huge difference for the employee, the company and the employees that remain with the company.

Do not be the company that terminates an employee and then two months later tells them they will get a severance. Too often, this is a sad but true story. It does make a difference how you terminate an employee.

Flickr photo by blue_william

The Gift That Keeps on Giving…Until Expiration

Walmart Gift CardsImage by sdc2027 via Flickr

This week, I spoke to merchants from the Historic East Village and answered questions about gift cards. Gift cards, or gift certificates, are subject to state and federal restrictions - some overlapping, some conflicting and some confusing.

Federal regulations are found primarily in the 2009 Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (“the Credit CARD Act”). This Act gives the Federal Reserve Board authority to govern business practices regarding credit cards, gift cards, pre-paid cards and the information consumers receive. The federal regulations are controlling unless a state enacts laws which provide greater protection for consumers.

“Can my business place expiration dates on gift certificates issued?” Yes. But federal regulations allow expiration dates as long as certain requirements are met. Requirements include:

  • allowing a purchasing consumer at least five years before expiration;
  • providing a toll free number or website where information about the card can be obtained;
  • providing information about replacing the card; and
  • informing of any fees charged against the balance and where information about the fees can be obtained.


In Iowa: Iowa law states that unredeemed gift card funds are considered abandoned after three years have lapsed since purchase or last use, compared with the five-year requirement in the federal regulations. The Federal Reserve Board chose to not preempt (overrule) state laws regarding abandonment of property which took effect before the federal five-year mandate. The board instead reserved the right to declare individual states' laws preempted on a case-by-case basis. The board has not yet ruled on Iowa’s three-year abandonment law regarding unused gift cards, leaving open the possibility that a gift card issuer will have to turn over abandoned property to the state treasurer after three years, but honor gift cards for five.

“What are the reporting requirements after the three year period in Iowa?”

Iowa Code provides that a holder of presumed abandoned property is to file a report regarding the property with the state Treasurer. The code also provides that when filing the report, the property shall be paid or delivered to the treasurer.

“What if I give gift cards to a charity or an auction and receive no money for them?”

Federal regulations create exceptions for cards issued for ‘loyalty, award, or promotional purposes.’ For example, shorter expiration dates are allowed. Significantly, there must be a disclaimer on the face of the card or certificate stating it was issued for loyalty, award or promotional purposes to qualify for this exception.


If you are confused, the Federal Reserve Board has a guide to gift cards.

The Iowa Treasurer has a complete guide to reporting.

The Iowa Attorney General also has a guide.*


- Christine Branstad 

* Be careful. It appears that the Iowa Attorney General guide came out in 2007 and the most recent federal rules came out in 2010.

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Keep Your Head Above Water With These Time Management Tools

Are you drowning in tasks, calendars, and projects to manage? Need a life preserver?
DrowningMan_300px
Me too.

I grew up in Northwest Iowa on the shores of Twin Lakes, near the small towns of Pomeroy, Manson and Rockwell City. Being a lake kid meant that I could race you to the buoy and back doing my wicked-fast back stroke. My doggie paddle was pretty decent too. 

But on weekends, when the ski boats came out in droves, I didn’t try to stay afloat on skill alone.

I had some TOOLS.

That’s right. Inner tubes. Life jackets. Inflatable rafts. Boogie boards. You just gotta love the tools!

We can have time management skills, but if we try to tread water all day among the speed boat-filled waters, we will eventually need to call for a life guard rescue. And all life guards use tools.

Before I bust out the links to tools, a few warnings:

  1. Be on the lookout for tools disguised as sharks that will eat up your time. Tools are cool, but make sure they have purpose that suits your needs.

  2. Don’t throw time saver skills and strategies overboard just because you have a cool tool. It only works if you focus on getting the right things done within the time available. Figure out what floats your boat and then heave those oars!

Here are a few time management tools that could make the difference between a sink or swim day.

LifePreserver_300px

Task Management Tools: this link compares features

Document Collaboration Tools: this blog post covers the biggies

Read It/Do It Later:
Jott
Read It Later

Instapaper

Track Your Time Tools:
Rescuetime
This blog post covers 6 more cool tools to track your time

If you have questions, opinions or other tools to share, please post them in the comments section. Share your life preserver!

- Jocelyn Wallace

Related Links:
Life Hacker Blog:
Guilt Free Productivity
Mashable Blog:
18 Online Productivity Tools for Your Business

Listen to Twitter

As Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers hone their networking skills and secure footholds in the Hear-stock marketplace, more decision makers are looking to do business right out here in the open, in real time.

By broadening the use of new communication platforms, marketers and media professionals will have an opportunity to carve out an edge over their competitors while continuing to develop relationships in more traditional networking environments.

I don't update my Twitter feed every day. Nor do I spend an inordinate amount of time surfing social media sites. But I understand the value of building my brand while receiving short, timely updates from those whom I choose to follow. So I don't neglect the space. I gradually build up my presence online, just as I do in real life.

Lately, I’ve spent less time talking on Twitter and more time listening, which can be tough for sometimes, especially for somewhat loquacious individuals like me. I’ve set up Twitter searches with keywords such as “Business Record,” “IowaBiz,” “Des Moines,” and “Iowa.”

Trust me; I’m not looking for information overload. But I want to stay ahead of the curve on what others are saying about my employer, my community and the industries that I cover. Plus, I’m curious enough to find enjoyment in seeing people around the world mention my hometown or home state. 

Finally, the searches allow me to consume – on demand – timely and relevant information, including links to interesting articles, press releases, videos and other media that I may have missed or may not have been published on the websites I tend to follow.

I share some of the relevant information I find with the broader community – adding value while bolstering my credibility in the space – and reserve some of the best finds for internal research, discussion and development at my company.

Some industry leaders – no, not Charlie Sheen – have barely begun to dip their toes into the Twittersphere as others, such as Ben Milne of Dwolla Corp., Christian Renaud of Startup City Des Moines LLC and Nathan Wright of Lava Row Inc. are working to expand their respective businesses while partnering with like-minded entrepreneurs to explore new opportunities in Greater Des Moines’ tight-knit and collaborative online-offline environment.

Each day, more decision makers are looking to Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites to make initial contacts in the business-to-business realms. They aren't going to your website to find the appropriate department. They aren't picking up the phone to call. They aren't even waiting until Monday.

When I listen to Twitter, I hear a constant stream of potential leads, local sources and timely information.

Twitter is talking. What do you hear?

- Todd Razor

Short, Simple and to the Point

Knife FoxImage via Wikipedia

I've always said that if you can't explain the essence of a project in one page, you aren't ready to head up that project. Or, if you can't hold a powerful feedback session with employees, using  a one-page document outlining what's working and what's not, you have to question whether you deserve to be their manager. What about not being ready to make a group presentation if you can't talk from a 3X5 card?

I'm fascinated with the idea of brevity. So few can do it well. And yet, how do you know what you really think or want to do unless you can narrow your thoughts down to a razor-sharp focus in just a few words. Until you get to that point, I'm not convinced you actually know what you really want.

As an executive coach, I helped a client a few years ago develop the ability to do this. She'd gotten feedback that she was verbose. Her emails and her in-person exchanges were full of excess words and perceived fluff. She became a master at expressing herself with clarity --whether in writing or in person -- in just a few words. Or a few sentences if necessary. Or if need be, a page. Her influence rose quickly within the organization because people actually heard what she was saying, some for the first time.

Bill Joos is a venture capitalist and a marketeer from Silicon Valley. He gets 95,000 applications for funding. He teaches people how to get heard. He and his team at Garage Technology Ventures whittle that number down to 50 funded projects. Bill teaches entrepreneurs how to get heard by nailing the core business proposition down to just seven words. Seven words! Asking for millions of dollars with a seven-word target.
In a recent CBJ Quarterly (Corridor Business Journal Quarterly), Tim Boyle had "The Final Word" and talked about this topic of brevity. He talked about the power of "the six word synopsis," like an NPR-ish sort of parlor game. It's what great trial lawyers do well, he says. They practice "summation," wrapping up an argument with a punch line. Wham! No way the jurors could miss that point!
It's like Twitter-lite. Tim shared a few of his six-word favorites:
  • Text messaging just isn't cutting it.
  • Cancer diagnosis taught me to live.
  • Smart people can overcome their education.

And the six-word epitaph on a gravestone in Los Angeles, "I told you I was sick."

Can you boil the mission of your department down to six words? If you're unhappy with an employee's performance, how would you convey that in six words, leaving no chance of misunderstanding? What's your leadership vision. "In six words, who are you?"

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Dwolla Allows Mobile Money Transfers Via Mobile & Social Media

Dwolla Dwolla is a combination of the words "Web" and "Dollar." Just go into an empty room and say it out loud three or four times. It rhymes with "holla." Now that you've got the pronunciation part down, let's explore this nifty little application.

If you own a retail business, you know how check fees and credit card fees can add up. If you pay your bills by check or shop with credit or debit cards, an increasing percentage of the cost of the merchandise are those fees being passed on to you in the form of higher prices.

According to Ben Milne, the founder of Dwolla, the idea of his company is to "create an ideal financial transaction," that's convenient, fast and cheap for consumers to use. That concept includes saving retailers money by reducing the cost of exchanging money. Here's how it works:

  1. The business or merchant sets up a Dwolla account so it is able to receive payments from people who use it. You can't receive Dwolla payments unless you have it set up in advance.
  2. The customer also must set up a Dwolla account to be able to transfer money from a bank account or credit union account to another Dwolla user.
  3. Once the accounts are in place, you can shop and pay online with Dwolla, use a free smartphone app (both the Droid platform and iPhone apps are available) to pay a retailer at the register in place of cash or plastic.
  4. Business-to-business transactions are also possible, as well as invoicing using Dwolla. I never even knew this option existed until a web developer I work with sent me an invoice using Dwolla.
  5. You can give people Dwolla dollars via social networks Facebook and Twitter as well. In fact, three separate individuals have given me a dollar each, which I have yet to retrieve.

The only fee per transaction is 25 cents, and it is paid by the receiver.

Milne thinks the time has come for an easily available and low-cost exchange system like Dwolla. The technology, ease of use and social media elements make Dwolla very attractive to young people, who are always connected via mobile phone. With a couple of keystrokes on a smartphone, the need to carry a wallet is gone. So far, Dwolla has thousands of registered users and has moved more than than $1 million in transactions.

Dwolla is a very popular with the social media glitteratzi, as well as technology angel investors and geek types in the mainstream media. Dwolla is just the latest reason the Silicon Prairie is growing into a real force.

On March 2, Dwolla gathered its friends and investors together at Cabaret West Glen to   introduce its newest feature, "Dwolla Spots." Spots will allow Dwolla users to find places that Ben and Shane accept Dwolla payments by seeing a map with retailer locations noted. Dwolla's founders think that users will appreciate users knowing ahead of time where they can use the cashless system. And Ben and his team make time to meet with their supporters and friends in person. Pictured here is Milne and Shane Neuerburg, also of Dwolla, sporting their cool new T-shirts.

Do you Dwolla? How long to you think it will take for this technology to go mainstream?

The Cash Forward Business Model

Cash MoneyImage by jtyerse via Flickr

In the economic downturn, many businesses suffered or even failed as their receivables remained unpaid. For many, the receivables issues had often been viewed as just a part of doing business or an industry standard. Going forward, many businesses are looking seriously at how to build business models where the cash comes up front. For some businesses, this is easier than others.

As you are growing your business, consider changing your product or service offer to drive cash forward in your sales process. Look carefully at how you can leverage your customers' cash through discounts or other incentives. Consider focusing your marketing on segments, where long-pay terms are not common. 

In the early days of Dell, what separated the computer company from the others was its custom-product model through the Web. By allowing the customer to choose options from a menu, Dell enabled charging the customer credit card before building the computer. By not going through traditional retail channels, they avoided the need to build large inventories of product with their own funds. 

Even in retail this strategy can work. Instead of stocking three popular colors of a product, offer to order any color the customer wants. Ask the customer to pay in advance as the product is custom to the customer desire.  

Many times your cash management is a function of your sales offer and process along with you market selection. Make sure these are done to your advantage. 

Mike Colwell
www.bizci.org

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Bill’s best business books

Seated man reading a bookImage by National Media Museum via Flickr

Bill Leaver, president of Iowa Health System, writes about his three favorite business-related books:


“Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin - Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet was famously contentious, consisting of a variety of strong-willed advisors from across the political spectrum, including his key opponents for the Presidency in 1860. What is amazing is this was Lincoln’s intention: He believed the best decisions could be made in an environment of conflicting perspectives. This is a great book on leadership, managing big egos and a great account of a troubling and unsettling time in American history: the Civil War.

“Undaunted Courage” by Steven Ambrose - A riveting account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, this is a story about adventure and perseverance in uncharted territory. But it isn’t sugar-coated. The author does a great job of putting you on the ground with Lewis and Clark. It inspires the reader to take on impossible challenges, one possible step at a time.

“Game-Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin - An objective account of the 2008 Presidential caucuses, primaries and general election. Both parties are covered, and this book shows how narrow the strategic difference is between winning and losing really is. There are so many conflicting personalities and agendas and so many moving parts to political campaigns. It makes for fascinating reading and a useful lesson on planning, teamwork and taking advantage of the right timing.

- Bill Leaver

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Putting a Value on a New Company

MoneyImage by TW Collins via Flickr

Occasionally, I come across a new company that has been successful, and the owners would like to sell. They would like to set a selling price. And without a great deal of history, but with a lot of promise, what should the selling price be? 

The truth is that this is usually an “art”. To place a value on a business that has not been tested is virtually impossible. A positive bottom-line on new businesses is rarely found and may even not be a positive sign. Given these parameters, the valuation process becomes a subjective process for the both the Seller and the Buyer. And it will vary greatly depending upon their expertise, their tolerance for risk, their experience, thier perception of management and the opportunity.

Either party may use discounted cash flow to arrive at a value, but growth projections can cause this number to have wide variations. Therefore, this method is rarely used.

A guide that a Seller might use would be to follow the model for valuation which an experienced Buyer might use: 

1.  Assemble a team of professional advisors.

2.  Determining a value for the tangible and intangible assets

3.  Review the customer base and their growth projections.

4.  Check for contracts. 

5.  A review the competition, the market and entry barriers

6.  Evaluation of the management.

The sum of these factors will assist the Seller in determining a valuation and provide a        credible foundation for negotiations with any potential Buyer.

Good luck.

- Steve Sink

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Acknowledging Customers is First Step of Great Service

Wait and see.Image via Wikipedia

I stood at the customer service counter at Target the other day. It was mid-afternoon and there were few customers in the store. I had a small item to return. The lone representative behind the counter was working with a customer who had some kind of complicated issue. It was taking a while. I get it. Some issues take longer to resolve than others.

What I found interesting, as I stood and observed the transaction taking place five feet in front of me, was that the rep behind the counter did not look my way once. Had the rep and customer been in a constant conversation about the issue at hand, it would have made sense. In this case, however, the rep had a lot of time of standing there waiting for the customer at the counter to write out information on a slip of paper. It was only after the transaction was complete, minutes later, that the rep looked over at me and said, "May I help you?" - as if I had magically appeared in line.

We're a time sensitive culture. Technology has driven us to expect things faster, easier and quicker. Customers get impatient. Even though, as a customer service professional, I was well aware that I would have to wait in queue, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated. It struck me that I simply wanted to be acknowledged.

"Good afternoon, sir," I wanted to hear from the rep with a smile. "Sorry for the wait. I'll be right with you."

By the time that the rep finally acknowledged my presence, I was already experiencing increased frustration with the situation. I'm constantly telling customer service representatives that with each customer transaction, the customer walks away with a judgment about the experience and the company they represent. In this case, my experience did not start when I walked up to the counter, but while I stood waiting in line. By the time it was "my turn," my satisfaction was already diminished.

In most business-to-consumer retail experiences, you will have times when customers wait in queue. The simple act of making eye contact, providing a smile and offering a kind word of greeting can set you up for a positive customer experience. At the very least, it can help minimize or diminish the prospect of the waiting customer penalizing you with decreased levels of satisfaction.

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Warm up with water

Winter cold wears on our bodies, and our minds wander to sunnier, warmer days when windshield frost and snow fade into memory. Today, however, trudging through harsh morning winds, scraping ice off the car, and bundling up are activities that seem to be a very fixed ongoing routine. 

Winter hydration 2-25-11
Along with all of this, our appetites rise during the winter months. Guzzling down coffee and eating rich foods become staples in our diet used to cope with the wintry chill. In the midst of trying to beat the cold, we forget about the most important element of our diet. Water.

In the summer, it is easy for you to remember to hydrate. The scorching heat makes you sweat more and it seems obvious to drink more water.    

      
Even though you aren’t hot and thirsty in the winter, water is still crucial. The rich foods and consumption of caffeinated drinks makes your body demand more water to ensure proper functioning of your digestion system. Water can help protect your skin, as well as counteract the dry conditions that cause your skin much stress in the winter. Also, keeping hydrated is important in preventing congestion and sinus diseases that are all too common in the winter months. 

When it gets to the details of exactly how much water one should drink, there are differing opinions. But regardless of the specific recommendations about the exact amount of water per day, there’s no question that hydrating is an important daily element of wellness.

Water is related another part of your health besides the physical -- your mental health. Fatigue, weakness and poor concentration can all be early signs of dehydration.
Although we all forget to hydrate on occasion, dehydration can be a symptom of common mental illness such as depression. Some symptoms of dehydration can also further intensify the ill effects of dehydration: it can become a debilitating cycle of illness.

Water is your friend in the workplace. It provides energy, hydration and mental health. It is easy to implement a water wellness program in your place of work. Moving from drinking fountains to the more sanitary Bottle-less Water Coolers will keep your office better hydrated as well as environmentally friendly.


Whether you are trying to stay healthy in the winter or stay on your game at work, water is a key factor that can help you achieve both these goals. The benefits to your health and wellness are endless when you are adequately hydrated. So, as you persevere through the end of the winter months, don't forget the water!

Oh behave!

Austin Powers: International Man of MysteryImage via Wikipedia

We learned in preschool about the ins and outs of social interaction and acceptable behavior and responses. (i.e. don't pick your nose and wipe it on your friend, they might have an adverse reaction.)

"Social" by definition is an amicable interaction or relations between two or more individuals.

Like life in-person, knowing and understanding the way people behave when interacting with them through social media will improve the experience for all. These are a few social behaviors to maximize on:

 

  1. We respond to topical leaders. We like to hear from those who are an authority on specific topics. This is where the C-suite executives can play a role in your organization's digital presence, offering topical and timely advice on industry issues.
  2. People are sheep. I first heard this phrase in a fifth grade social studies class. I remember that because it struck me as sort of an aha moment about how we interact. Share ways that others are interacting with you by the numbers or by the activity. If you are asking your audience to share a video testimonial, show them videos others have submitted.
  3. We are creatures of habit. Provide consistent material, both in timing and in content and your audience will grow to expect it and continue to come back to you for it. I receive daily email updates from Seth Godin's blog, I don't read them daily, I read them every Thursday morning. It's my habitual routine.
  4. Who doesn't like freebies? Most feel an immediate connection even with the offering of something for free and are more likely to engage with you as a result. People feel a need to give something back when they have received something from you.
  5. Entertain me. Music, gadgets, videos, movies, television, games, comedy, performing arts, automobiles - from infancy, we delight in one source or another of entertainment. Be creative in your content and seek to entertain. This doesn't necessarily mean be silly - but rather smart, witty and clever. Offer your own interesting perspectives.

I could go on with the list, including competitive drive and the need to feel a part of something. With all of these the important elements, do not lose track of when communicating is basic social, human behavior. Don't forget you and your team members are human, too, hopefully.

What do you respond to?

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In a hurry? Maybe you shouldn't be.

Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, after ...Image via Wikipedia

No business owner enjoys doing taxes. Even at its best, it's a distraction from what you'd rather be doing. When the law changes every year and your preparer always seems to want the tax information sliced just a little differently, it can be a headache. So you want to just get the stupid thing filed and done with.

If you do business in Iowa, this probably isn't the year to hurry.

Congress enacted two big changes in how fixed assets were depreciated for 2010:

  • It increased the maximum "Section 179 deduction" to $500,000. Section 179 allows taxpayers to take a current deduction for asset purchases that would otherwise have to be capitalized and written off over a period of years through depreciation. 
  • It enacted "100 percent bonus depreciation" for most new assets placed in service after Sept. 8, 2010. That means qualifying assets -- most "new" assets (not used) with a life of up to 20 years -- can be written off in the year of purchase without regards to the limits that apply to Section 179 deductions.  For example, bonus depreciation can create an operating loss that can be carried back to get prior year taxes refunded; Section 179 does not. New assets placed in service before Sept. 9, 2010 qualify for "50 percent bonus depreciation," where half of the cost is immediately deductible and the rest of the asset cost is depreciated over a period of years.

Iowa has not "coupled" with increases in Section 179 limits or bonus depreciation in recent years. The current Iowa House of Representatives voted to adopt both the increased Section 179 deduction and the federal bonus depreciation rules effective for 2010. The Iowa Senate is considering similar legislation, but its future is uncertain.

As a result, your tax preparer doesn't know what Iowa's depreciation rules will be for 2010.  If the legislation fails to pass, no bonus depreciation will be available for 2010 Iowa tax returns, and the maximum Section 179 deduction on an Iowa return will be $134,000. 

That's why you might want to wait and see what the Iowa General Assembly ends up doing. If you file and guess wrong, you may have to amend your Iowa returns. If you have a pass-through entity - an S corporation or a partnership -- the wrong guess could require amending all of the owners' personal Iowa 1040s.

Amending returns costs money. So though you naturally want to be done with your taxes, this probably is the year to be patient on getting your Iowa business taxes done.  Meanwhile, follow the Business Record and taxupdateblog.com to see which way the Iowa General Assembly comes down on this.

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