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March 2008

Concensus or Chaos?

1510963196_ae60e4e4d2Your day begins and one of your key management people informs you of a policy change.  The day continues and another management person informs you of the policy, but states that they totally disagree with the decision.  By the end of the day the rest of the management team has informed you of the policy change, but another management member tells you they disagree with the policy.

Soon you are thinking, what a bunch of idiots.  They make a decision and then tell everyone they disagree with it.  You are not alone with this way of thinking.  To many companies have not developed their leadership teams to a level where they fully support decisions.

If this scenario is prevalent in your organization, you have some serious issues to deal with.  Issues need to be debated, discussed and disagreed with.  Once that process is completed and the decision is made, then the group backs the decision 100%.  If it is not 100%, then I guarantee you will have organizational chaos.

This will allow those "thorny people" in your organization the opportunity to thrive.  They will see these differences and use them to back their own agenda or use them to try and topple a key management person.

Be sure your decision making teams in the organization have laid the ground rules for how they support decisions even if they disagree.

Flickr photo by rstrawser

Do you smell smoke?

Life in these United States recently posted a top ten list to check yourself to see if you are suffering from "Job-related BURN OUT."

Here are a few... Is_your_hair_on_fire

5.  Visions of the upcoming weekend help you make it through Monday.

3.  You leave for a party and instinctively bring your ID badge.

2.  Your DayTimer/Work Planner exploded a week ago.

The list made me laugh and cringe... all at the same time.  Can you relate?

I wouldn't be surprised.  More than half of the workers surveyed in a recent study claim to be working under a great deal of stress…while 77% say they are burned out!!

Can you smell smoke around your office?  Is black soot from burn out a badge of honor in your company's hallways? 

Or... maybe you work from home and you thought burn out would be a thing of the past... only to realize that checking e-mail at 10:30 pm is more the norm now than it was when you had a cubicle or a corner office! 

Geeeesch.  What's a person to do?

Well... one of the most important things you can do is acknowledge that it's an issue.  It sounds so simple but this is key.  Let's just say that it's the first step... and maybe the most important step.

Are you wondering if this is you?  Here's a simple test I give my clients

First step: Rank the following items from 1 to 10 (1 being least important and 10 being most important.)

_____ Spiritual Life

_____ Relationships/Family

_____ Relationships/friends

_____ Health and exercise

_____ Income

_____ Upkeep of home

_____ Continued learning and personal development

_____ Career

_____ Volunteering… church/community involvement

_____ Other: ________________________________

The Second Step:
Now think about how you spent your last 24 hours... your last week... even your last month.  Does your schedule reflect your ranked priorities? (Note: This is tough. For most of us, it doesn’t. This is one of the reasons why we tend to feel a lack of balance in our lives and why we burn out.)

How did you do?   

If your ranked priorities and your schedule didn't align... you might be seeing the orangeish hue of the burn-out flame.  Because... when our lives and our priorities don't match up and/or when we are not in our sweet spot... burn-out tends to be around the corner.

If this is you, check out some of these on-line resources:

The main thing is... acknowledge it and do something.  Work with a friend suffering from the same thing and get out of it together.  Talk to a friend who has dealt with it... and see how they did it.  Or... dare I say it... work with a coach to address it before the flame engulfs you. 

It's critical and if it's not dealt with, it can have lasting impact on your commitment, your focus and your calling... let alone your health and your relationships.

So... sniff sniff... see if you smell smoke.  If you do... take some action because where there's smoke... there might be burn out!

Join in the convo... if you've had some success with dealing with work-related burn out... click comments below and let the world know!

Photo credit and kudos to: superlocal

Will your business auto policy cover you in a rental car?

Car_map Here’s a short quiz:

1. Are you a business owner that uses your vehicle for both business and personal use?
2. Is your vehicle titled to your business entity?
3. Is your vehicle insured under your business auto policy? 

If you answered “yes” to these questions, then you will be surprised to learn how this affects you when renting a vehicle.

This subject was sparked by a recent meeting I had with a prospective client. As we discussed his vehicles and coverage, I learned that all of his personal vehicles were titled to his business.

While he had them insured under a business auto policy, he did not have the proper endorsement that would cover him should he rent a vehicle.

Now, you might be thinking "how often does that happen?"

Well in my most recent spring break travels, like many others, my family took a road trip this year. As we were driving down the freeway, I noticed many rental vehicles on the road. At the hotel, we met a family that owned a small business in Texas. We ran into them again later at a nearby outlet mall and I noticed that they were traveling in a rental vehicle. After noticing that, I wondered if they were at risk.

So what does this mean to you? Well, it’s simple. If you answered “yes” to the questions above, you may not have coverage if you rent a vehicle.

What can be done?

Just be sure that you have the hired auto endorsement on your policy.

The cost is minimal and will ensure that your liability insurance is carried over in the event that you need to rent a vehicle. It is also a good idea to review your vehicle use with your agent.

As Brian mentioned in a previous article, keep personal, personal. Therefore, if you no longer use your vehicle for business, then it may be beneficial to re-title the vehicle and insure it under a personal policy.

This can give you broader coverage and save you money.

Implied Complexity

RussspacepenI've always loved the story about the NASA pursuit to find the perfect pen for astronauts.  Independent businessman Paul Fisher spent one million dollars of his own money to develop a writing utensil that could be effectively used in space.  Wow!  What an impressive project!  Fisher must have felt so proud to have accomplished such a feat that would move the space program forward exponentially.  That is, of course, until it was publicized that the Russians had beaten them to it.  The Russians used pencils.

How about your project scope?  Are you making your project scope way too complex?  James P. MacLennan wrote a post advising project managers to keep things simple to avoid scope creep.  His comments made me smile:

Keep It Simple, Sir! Feature creep is the greatest enemy of the short-term project. Some features (like quality / testing) are not what you'd want to negotiate out of the project. Thinking about cutting short on documentation? You naughty, normal person ...

But how do you keep it simple?  How do you avoid complexity in your project scope?  How do you avoid adding too much too soon?  I like Rosa Say's approach.  Ask "why"... A LOT.  Asking the right question can lead to a much simpler project scope than asking a lot more of the wrong questions.  If NASA had just asked for a writing utensil that can work in space, they may have come up with the pencil solution.  Instead, they added a constraint (pen) which added complexity to the scope.

What questions do you need to ask about your projects to keep the complexity in check and prevent scope from getting out of hand?

Carpe Factum!

...You Might Be a Call Center!

Bigstockphoto_toned_and_high_contraI'm spending the week call coaching with a client who operates two "call centers" to help them improve their customer service.

They are a small company with 15-20 people in each location taking customer service calls. That's not a lot of Customer Service Representatives, but they are still a team of people who spend most of their day answering customer's calls. That makes them a call center.

Many people think of "Call Center" and they think of huge, cavernous floors of cubicles with hundreds of people answering calls 24/7/365. But a call center can be defined in much broader terms. I've had several managers, who will walk me through their operation of 50, 80, 100 people who do nothing all day but answer the phone, emphatically say to me, "We're NOT a Call Center."

And Denial is not a river in Egypt.

If you have one person in your company who spends the majority of his/her time talking to customers on the phone...you might be a call center.

If you talk to customers so much you invest in headsets...you might be a call center.

If you have to route customers to the appropriate person or department...you might be a call center.

If you are taking orders over the phone...you might be a call center.

If you are providing after the sale service via the phone...you might be a call center.

You might not like the term, but perhaps you should embrace it. The Call Center industry has a whole wealth of knowledge and expertise that can benefit Call Centers of 1 as well as Call Centers of 1,000.

Using Twitter to network yourself and your business

TwitsmThe concepts of networking and being connected have been critical components of doing business for ages. Technologies like LinkedIn and Facebook have allowed us to expand our professional networks online.

However, the one social network that I've derived the most professional value out of thus far has been Twitter, hands down. For those that aren't familiar with Twitter, it's a growing social network of about one million users, built upon short, 140-character status updates (or "tweets") between participants.

Twitter is virtually spam-free and has connected me to dozens of like-minded people working in similar industries here in Des Moines, and beyond. Eventually I've ended up meeting most of these connections in real life, either through Des Moines Twitter Meetups (we call them "TweetUps") or at industry conferences.

So, if you're a freelancer, a small business owner, an entrepreneur, or in a sales role, I would absolutely recommend adding Twitter to your social networking toolbox. (I'm assuming you already have a presence on LinkedIn - but if not, you should do so.)

One thing to note about using Twitter: Unlike LinkedIn, you're expected to not just have a presence there, but participate in all the conversation going on. Twitter's value comes from the quality of conversation you engage in and the quality of connections - not the quantity.

Happy tweeting!

Nathan T. Wright

Extending a helping hand

Picture_3_2 Today, many businesses are using their charitable giving as a marketing tool. And with good reason. For many companies, the dollars they donate to various charities would add up to a sizable advertising budget.

Some companies, however, are looking to do even more with their charitable dollars. They want to partner with a non-profit that somehow ties back to their product or service. They want the charity to fit their image and audience.

If you are looking for a charity that’s just the right fit for your organization, there’s a website that can help. Network for Good has a search engine that will allow you to use key words, charitable categories, and geographical perimeters to find charities that are a good match. If you happen to be a non-profit, you might check to make sure you are listed. While you’re there, visit their section specifically written to help non-profits make the internet work for them.

A great example of how powerful these partnerships can be is playing out right here in Central Iowa.  NCMIC Group (and this blog's sponsor Professional Solutions Insurance Services is also a sponsor) is announcing today their presenting sponsorship of the YESS Derby Duck Race to benefit the Youth Emergency Services and Shelter non profit.

From the charity's perspective, they get brain and brawn from NCMIC Group as they launch this brand new event (dumping 10,000 ducks into Jordan Creek Township's lake and holding a duck race).  Some lucky duck (sorry...can't help it) will win a brand new Toyota Matrix.  YESS couldn't pull this off without NCMIC Group's support and helping hands.

From NCMIC Group's point of view, not only do they get to raise money for a fantastic charity -- but they also get lots of media exposure and good will. 

A great partnership for lots of very valuable reasons.  Who could or should your business partner with?  There's nothing wrong with creating a win/win situation that also benefits your company's marketing goals.

By the way....to adopt a duck (you do not have to be present to win) for your shot at the car or any of the other superb prizes....go here or if you're local, go to any QuikTrip, Panera Bread or Jordan Creek.

Define Yourself

Tedbook The best things in life are free

At least when it comes to things like Ted Demopoulos' new eBook Ted Demopoulos' effective internet presence.  Ted is a National Information Security expert and author of several books on blogging and personal branding. His latest book walks you through transitioning from online obscurity to a well-defined internet presence. While limiting the impact of online defamation may not yet appear on your radar, by the time it does, it may be too late.

Getting people to see your radical transparency

Earlier this month I wrote about the importance of becoming radically transparent. By being proactive, you, and not your competition or a single vociferous customer will define your online reputation. While having a well-defined online reputation is great, it is of little value  relegated to obscurity. The key is to fill the first several pages of a Google search with the radical transparency you define.

Lots of free tools vs. One expensive tool

Paying a professional to increase your Google ranking overnight may seem like a simple solution. However, once you stop paying the professional, you run the risk of having your reputation free-fall back into search engine obscurity, leaving you again vulnerable to those who just might not define your reputation so eloquently. A much better solution, and a cheaper one as well, is to utilize an arsenal of free online resources to organically grow your online exposure.

The Right Tools

The internet is full of tools to increase your exposure. But which are the easiest, cheapest and most effective? Ted Demopoulos' effective internet presence explains how to leverage social networks, blog comments, lenses and even book reviews to expand your reach.  In addition to getting you seen by search engines, these tools also allow you to see what others are saying about you. Identifying and addressing potential reputational issues early is the key  to keeping them from spinning out of control.

It is going to get worse before it gets better

Stars like Sarah Jessica Parker and Dawn Wells are critically aware of how much more quickly attacks on reputation spread when compared to accolades. Now average Joes and Josephines are experiencing the international phenomenon as it spreads down the long tail of internet. Metablogs like Digg, Reddit and Fark are seeing an increase in both the quantity and quality of Schadenfreude hitting everyday people and businesses.

Before it is too late

Unfortunately, by the time you realize someone has commandeered your online reputation, it is often too late to start your building your online reputation. A solid, organic online reputation takes months or years to develop. The more time you take developing your presence, the better that presence will serve you in identifying and curtailing the impact of online defamation and critical news.

Even if a salacious story takes over the search engine for a while, a well-rooted online presence will weather the storm as the reputational attacks eventually slip down the search engine rankings. Just a little time spent each month implementing even a few of the tools Ted recommends in his free eBook will serve you better than a Hollywood publicist when you or your company is finally blind-sided by an online attack.

Brett Trout


Believers around the world today celebrate deliverance from sin and the promise of forgiveness.  These concepts have yet to catch on with the IRS.


Temptation lurks constantly for the entrepreneur.  It can seem so easy to take tax deductions for personal expenses.  When they yield to the temptation, the IRS isn't known for mercy.

Wisconsin scrap metal dealer recently pleaded guilty to running over $800,000 in personal expenses through his company's expense accounts, including over $139,000 in personal travel.  The IRS caught up with him, and the 62-year old man is now serving an 18-month prison term.  In addition, he was hit with a $40,000 fine and civil penalties of $263,000.  Oh, and he also has to pay his $351,000 in back taxes, with $283,000 in interest.

When the IRS comes to audit small businesses, their examination program includes reviews of company expenses with just this sort of thing in mind.  That means business owners who run personal expenses though the business books have a reasonable chance of being caught on  examination.  Once they come after you, your odds aren't very good.

The Moral?  If you don't give unto Caesars what is Caesars when you file your return, he'll want a lot more if he catches you. 

Whose agenda are you on?

Sleazysales I was given a sales book some time ago. Well, not so much a book as a 6" X 10" flip chart.

It was a flip chart of effective rebuttals to common objections. It was an entire book on sales techniques and tricks of the trade. How to steer the conversation, how to close the sale and how to persuade someone to do something they don't necessarily want to do.

It was written by one of those guys who claims he could sell a freezer to a penguin or talk a dog off of a meat truck.

It never made any sense to me. Then a couple of years ago I read a book called Let's Get Real or Let's Not Play - The Demise of Dysfunctional Selling and the Advent of Helping Clients Succeed by Mahan Khalsa.

Mahan Khalsa, vice president of the Franklin Covey Sales Performance Group, says that it's intent that matters much more than technique. Is it your intent to get the sale so you can buy that new car you've had your eye on or to win the quarterly sales contest? Or is it your intent to create the right solution for your prospect even if it means referring the business elsewhere?

Whose agenda are you on?

I believe most business owners and business leaders have become very intuitive and discriminating in who they are willing to trust. Our clients quickly process our intent. If your client gets the sense your intent is self-serving, they will quickly shut you out and the sale will die.

Mahan says few people can fake intent. My wife, a native Texan, says if it looks like duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck...it must be a duck!

Do you realize your intent before making a sales call?

Social Media 101 - isn't it time you took the class?

Socialmedia Blogs, social media, web 2.0, RSS feeds.  What does it all mean?  And what does it mean for your business? 

Whether you only serve a local market or your work is global in scope -- there are aspects of these new communication tools that could give you quite an edge.  If you know how to harness their power.

Come hear what Nathan Wright of Lava Row has to say on the subject. 

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

Wednesday, March 26th
7:30 am - 8:30 am
14001 University Ave
Clive, IA 50325

Please RSVP so they can have plenty of breakfast on hand.

Should Employers Allow Employees to Start Businesses?

Seeds I read a Des Moines Register article this past Monday on a young man who is starting a business while employed by another company.  According to the SBA deputy director in Iowa this happens frequently.  I must say that I greatly admire anyone who has the courage and desire to start their own business. But my question is whether this is good for employers?

This is not an easy question.  On the one hand it is important for an employee to grow and allowing an employee to create a business on his or her own time may in fact create a more productive and happy employee.  Particularly if the employee is starting a business that is different than the employer and they do it on their own time there may be no harm.

On the other hand, an employer pays an employee to do their job.  The employee's allegiance should be to the employer as long as that employee is receiving wages and other job benefits, right?

I must confess that I don't know the right answer and it probably depends on the circumstances.  I am aware of many companies that draft policies that prohibit outside business activities while many successful companies provide an environment that encourages employees to start their own companies.

One important risk in allowing employees to start businesses while on the employer's dime is the potential for the employer to start a similar business and steal clients.  This should be prevented.  One way to do this is with a non-compete agreement.  Other ways employers can protect themselves is through the use of confidentiality and non-solicitation agreements

Also, employers may want to read this article on what to do when an employee betrays you.  Unfortunately, many employees are not as upfront and honest as the young man in the Register article.  Employees have a legal obligation to act in the employer's best interests.  If an employee breaches this duty an employer may have an enforceable right.

Let me know what you think.

Photo on flickr by Burpee Gardens.

Creative Interviewing and Manhole Covers

Manhole_cover Q. What's more important during an interview than the questions you ask?

A. How you listen. If you've ever had to live with a bad hire --and who hasn't if you've managed longer than six months! --you know what I'm talking about. Taking the time to interview and hire well is critical, especially when your organization is growing and the labor market is tight.

To find good people, you have to get creative. For example:

1.  Interview at a time that's most convenient for the kinds of applicants you're hiring. If it's tough for them to "slip away" from their jobs to come talk with you, why not make it possible for them to interview before or after normal work hours? Or on the weekend? Not only are you helping them keep their commitment to their current employer -- which says a lot about you -- but they'll also be less stressed because they're not sneaking away to interview at another company.

2. Interview in groups. (This strategy is unique, saves time, and gives you a comparative glimpse of who's in the pool of possibilities.) Invite all potential candidates for an open position to a "group meeting" where you:

  • Tell the whole group about your organization and what it's like to work here
  • Answer their initial questions
  • Watch for the dynamics among the players. Who speaks up? Who's late? Who is most courteous to the other contenders? Etc.
  • Then, have each candidate spend 5-10 structured minutes with a member of senior management. Only the strongest candidates are invited back for more in-depth interviews.

3. Interview -- and make your hiring decisions -- more quickly than others in your market. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying, "Rush the interviewing and hiring process." I am suggesting though that there's value in establishing a tight, but realistic, timeframe for the whole recruiting and hiring process ---and then sticking faithfully to it. You stay focused on who's who in your applicant pool and those in your applicant pool stay focused on you and your open position.

4. Interview using questions tailored specifically for your organization's culture. Is motivation a big deal? Ask about how someone knows they're doing a good job. Are you wanting to recruit the most creative minds? Ask why they make manhole covers round. (The answer: Because covers of any other simple geometric shape could fall through.)

Photo on flickr by ManHole.ca

Control Freak!


The opportunity is now... this is the greatest opportunity for your company to grow and evolve.  It seems obvious, people talk about it, others are putting forth the energy to make it happen. 

Yet, lurking in the dark shadows of your organization is the evil and ever present control freak. 

In many cases it is the owner, the president/ceo, or some other key person in your organization.  They may be liked, they may be hated, but either way they want to control everything.  They believe that without their input the organization will go into a downward spiral of chaos and destruction.

The key to understanding control freaks is that in many cases they suffer from the following traits - lack of self confidence, trust no one, lack balance in their lives, can only find meaning in their work, have no vision, and in some cases they can see nothing past their ego.

So what does one do when a control freak is present?  Pray - for some that may be the answer.  When dealing with control freaks, you must consider that their behavior is an attempt to protect themselves - something that we all do in crisis.  One key is to maintain your own self confidence with a quite and purposeful measure.  Your own control is a key tool when dealing with the control freak.  Hold the course until you can no longer stand the storm.

Flickr photo by Paul

Can two accounts make work/life balance easier?

When it comes to work-life balance... I'm all about simplifying things.

You know what I mean?  Igoogle

  • Removing anything that's not necessary. 
  • Organizing piles. 
  • Canceling unneeded meetings. 
  • Clearing off the desk. 

Yeah... simplifying is critical.

So... I'll admit when I read Peter Palme's post about using two separate igoogle accounts to help to simplify his work-life and his life-life... I cringed. 

But as I read on... I liked the concept more and more.

He explains that he uses one igoogle account to help him organize his work-life.  It searches leadership quotes, relevant news and weather forecasts for cities he might be visiting... and has those ready for him whenever he checks in.

Then... he explains that he has a separate igoogle account to help him manage his personal life.  When he visits that account, he'll find the latest recipes, movie times and his personal schedule. 

Again... although I'm all about simplifying things and eliminating duplication whenever possible... I like the idea of being able to pull up work stuff without getting distracted by some of my personal interests.  And I like the idea of being able to have access to the power of igoogle for my personal interests without being reminded of work stuff.   

And for you creative types... you can visit Snipperoo and find out a way to customize your igoogle and make it even MORE you... whether it's the "work you" or the "life you."

So give it a try and let us know what works for you on your work page AND your personal page.

Be "flood smart"

Flood_3 Well, we’re finally seeing some of the snow melt away - and I for one am happy to see it go!

But with the melting away of winter and the soon-to-follow spring rains, I’m reminded of the potential for flooding that can occur. 

Ever wondered what your “flood risk” is?  There’s a great way to find out!  Just log onto floodsmart.gov - enter your business address and you’ll get the information.

Some fast facts, courtesy of Floodsmart.gov:

  • Floods and flash floods happen in all 50 states
  • Hurricanes, winter storms and snow melt are common (but often overlooked) causes of flooding
  • Just an inch of water can cause costly damage to your property

And, to add to the dilemma, flood loss is excluded under nearly all commercial property forms. So what’s the solution?

Sometimes flood can be added to your business insurance policy by endorsement.  But since many insurers are unwilling to provide flood insurance, the National Flood Insurance Program is often the best source of flood insurance available to a business owner. 

Flood loss can be catastrophic - yet the cost of flood insurance when compared to the damage it can wreak is fairly inexpensive.  A good rule to use when deciding on the purchase of insurance – why risk a lot for a little?   

An interesting statistic to consider when weighing the odds – the average paid claim for the last 10 years (1997 to 2006) was $46,168.  Compare that to a $100,000 flood insurance premium, which is about $500 a year. 

What makes good sense to you?

Does Your Project Get To Go On Spring Break?

Spring_break_guysIt's spring break!  Yea!  Get out the swim wear!  The suntan lotion!  The beverage of choice!  The warm breezes!  The beach!


You say you can't?

You have to stay put and work on your project?  Worse yet, you have to work harder because everybody else is gone.  Bummer, dude.

Holidays can be the kiss of death to a project schedule.  I was reading the Manic Monkey blog the other day, and had to chuckle about this line:

Unfortunately with a very busy Christmas holiday all group members are slightly behind on the completion of their gremlin. This has therefore put us behind. We are now ensuring all modeling, texturing and rigging is completed by 1st February.

Here's a little trick I've used while planning some projects where there will be a holiday or a series of days (like spring break) where people will probably be gone.  You can do this on any project management software (my preference is MS Project).  Find the weeks where a substantial number of the project staff probably will be gone and block those days off as "non-working time."  I don't do this all the time.  For example, when every second counts, and the executives have passed down a "no vacation" rule for the staff, then I wouldn't recommend trying this.  However, if the project will be going for several months, it's important to remember that people have lives.

Project_plan_working_timeHere are some common dates/events I will consider blocking off:

  • Thanksgiving
  • Christmas and New Year's (last two weeks of the year)
  • Spring Break
  • Memorial Day Week
  • Independence Day Week
  • Labor Day Week

The benefits to the project can be phenomenal:

  • Allows the team to have a balanced life
  • Builds in contingency time without being obvious to anybody on the project (I don't tell people I'm doing this when I do - otherwise it can be perceived as an invitation to procrastinate)
  • Allows other team members/tasks to play catch up during these weeks when other project staff is gone
  • Takes reality into account.  People will be gone at certain times of the year.  Get over it.

Do you have other recommendations for introducting reality into your project planning?

Carpe Factum!

Rule #1: Supply the Customer Demand

HertzThose who aren't business travelers are prone to think of business travel in somewhat glamorous terms. They think of the jet-set business person rolling their suitcase and flying off to exotic locatiaons, staying in nice hotels and eating out at great restaurants.

Those of us who travel often are prone to roll our eyes and think, "Fine, you go to Fargo North Dakota next time. You're welcome to spend the week in the Beds-R-Us economy hotel in the fourth-floor handicapped room (next to the elevator engine) in my place. Go ahead and eat at Chili's, Friday's, Bennigan's, Applebee's and Ruby Tuesday's on consecutive nights (Can you say, "pepto bismol?").

The thing I've learned about business travel is that it takes only one minor service mishap to mess up your entire trip. There are a million customer service touch-points between Point A and Point B. Like those wood bricks in a game of Jenga, it only takes one to bring the whole trip crashing down around you.

Some companies and Customer Service Representatives seem to get that. Other companies, when it comes to customer care, are smoking their socks. Take this week, for example. Flying into Cincinatti last Tuesday night, I realized I hadn't made a reservation for a rental car. No problem, I'll go to the Hertz counter with my well-worn Hertz #1 Gold Card.

There were no rental cars at Hertz. There were no rental cars at Avis, or Budget, or Thrifty or Rent-a-Wreck. There was not a rental car to be found at any location in the entire city of Cincinatti. As the Hertz shuttle was taking me back to the airport terminal to get a cab, I asked what global convention was going on in Cincinatti on a Tuesday night that had all the rental cars rented.

"It's like this every night," the driver said. "The companies decided it was too expensive to have cars sitting around so everyone down-sized their fleet so you're assured every car will get rented every night. Fly in on a Sunday night, there still won't be any cars."

Step one in Customer Service is making sure you can supply the customer demand.

I took a cab to Louisville. It broke down on the way. Anyone want to go to Laredo for me next week?

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and Heilemann

Digitial back channels rawk SXSW Interactive festival

Facebooklacy_3Recently I attended the South by Southwest Interactive festival, and have come away with one over-arching theme:

Digital back channels can be extremely disruptive to any organization. Even a conference that celebrates disruptive technology.

I saw this happen in person at the Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg keynote interview on Sunday. During the discussion, the crowd became increasingly unruly, feeling that the right questions weren't being asked of Zuckerberg, while criticizing the moderator's particular interview style.

This was all occurring via digital back channels like Twitter (an SMS-based social network) and Meebo (collective online chat), accessed via mobile devices and laptops. The frustration spilled over when Mark Zuckerberg finally told the interviewer, Sarah Lacy, to actually "ask questions."

It was at this moment that the crowd's dissatisfaction exploded into a vocal revolt, resulting in wild, enthusiastic cheers. The group then turned on Lacy, drowning her out and shouting random questions that they wanted answered, immediately. It was digitally-driven mob rule!

While this was a relatively small example of disruptive technology, I feel it's a microcosm of what is happening all over the web: The peer-to-peer crowds have wrestled away control from large, traditional organizations in business, media and politics. This can take many forms: becoming famous via YouTube without any Hollywood agents or studios. Music downloads. Companies freaking out because somebody is posting negative comments about their product on a blog.

Technological disruption has been going on since the invention of the printing press. It's up to organizations to prepare for this, and learn how to respond.

Meanwhile, conference organizers must learn from this incident, and adjust their expectations for what attendees require out of a panel or keynote.

Sweeten the deal

22609695 One of the tried and true techniques of the sales letter is the sweetener.  Basically, it is something extra you offer, to move someone from consideration to purchase.

Here are some deal sweeteners you should consider in your next sales pitch:

  • Free information
  • Discount
  • Samples
  • Free trial
  • Sign up now, quit any time
  • Buy A, get B free
  • Contests or sweepstakes
  • Time limits
  • Free gift
  • Good/Better/Best choices
  • Guarantee
  • Special financing
  • Membership

Don't be shy about trying some of these sweeteners.  They add some punch to your mail piece and encourage the audience to act now, rather than whenever they get around to it.  Keep in mind, most of these offers would work equally well if you were selling face-to-face, through the mail or some other tactic.

Networking works even when you're not sure how

Networking Often times, when we first meet someone, we're not sure how they can add value to our network or if we can add value to theirs.

There usually is no master plan.  There might not even be an immediate "ah ha, I know how he can help me" (or how I can help him).  Instead, there is the recognition that he/she is a person of character. 

Someone that we would find value in knowing. 

And sooner or later, we will be able to help each other.  We just stay connected

.  Networking isn't about spotting someone you can exploit.  It's about making connections with people you like and respect, knowing that eventually you'll be able to be of value

. Building your network is not a series of calculated moves and tactics.  It's staying open to possibilities.  It's helping first, knowing you'll be helped in return.

The message?  Don't sweat it if you aren't sure how a new connection will be of value.  Just stay in touch, offer help/connections where you can and have no fear.  Sooner or later, you'll both reap the benefits of this new relationship.

Is Your Lawyer Radically Transparent?

Radicallytransparenttilt Radical Transparency
Radically Transparent is a new book by Andy Beal and Dr. Judy Strauss which explores the issue of online reputation.  It used to be time consuming and difficult to put a bead on someone's reputation. You actually had to talk to someone they knew. Today, unlocking someone's reputation means simply hopping online and firing up a search engine.

Clients Define Reputation
Accordingly to the authors of Radically Transparent, one third of Americans have voiced their opinion about a product or service online.

For the past several years, savvy service providers, like lawyers, have been taking charge of their reputations, writing blogs, addressing comments and monitoring the web for any sign of client discontent. Taking the reins of one's own reputation and addressing client issues before they catch fire is the most critical element of radical transparency.

One Client Can Define A Company
This is a far cry from the service providers of old. It used to be that one or two bad clients out of maybe a thousand did not matter; it was merely the price of doing business. Today, however, that one client can destroy a reputation overnight.

Beal and Strauss examine the case of Kyptonite locks. Virtually overnight one user, posting one video of how to pick Kyptonite locks with a BIC pen undermined consumer trust the company had taken decades to build. By identifying the problem early and taking immediate action, Kryptonite was able to get new locks in the hands of nearly half a million customers, turning a public relations nightmare into a reputation building experience.

Are You Hiring a Business or a Lawyer?
How do you select the right lawyer? A good start is to search online for lawyers in your city specializing in the particular area of law you need. Did you find the name of a business or the name of an actual lawyer? Which one are you looking to hire? Every firm has good lawyers and bad lawyers. Which one are you going to get? Do not take chances. Hire the lawyer, not the law firm.

Research Reputation
Once you have some names, do a little research. Unlike the yellow pages, where the only additional information you can find is what the lawyer paid extra to have you read, an internet search reveals everything anyone has ever written online about the lawyer.

While the lawyer's website will provide a lot of solid background information, it is not going to provide much in the way of reputation. Using the lawyer's website alone, you might just get the impression that he or she is the best lawyer in the world.

Other Resources
Look for things other people are saying about the lawyer. What do clients and customers think of the lawyer? Do a Google Blog search. Does the media think the lawyer is worth quoting? Search Google News. What do online gurus think of the lawyer? Check Technorati. What do the lawyer's peers think of him or her? Check out the attorney's peer review rating on www.Martindale.com.

Most importantly, how transparent is the attorney? Does anything on the web look like it was actually written by the lawyer, or does most of it look like sanitized fluff courtesy of the lawyer's public relations firm? Based upon what the lawyer has written, does he or she seem knowledgeable? honest? open? Does the lawyer address issues in clear, concise language, the way you would like your issues addressed? Does the lawyer provide plenty of free online information relating to your legal issues?

Why Choose a Transparent Lawyer?
Radically Transparent lawyers run the risk of exposing too much. The more open they are online, the more likely you are to find out something about them you do not like. So why do they do it? Most radically transparent lawyers have found that the quality of clients they do receive as a result of their transparency, far outweigh the clients they lose. More importantly, it is far better to avoid a potential personality conflict before the relationship begins than six months down the road.

While choosing a lawyer you feel comfortable with online is no guarantee of face to face success, it sure beats merely relying on your fingers to do the walking.

Brett Trout

March 15 comes on the 17th this year.

The first big business tax return deadline looms.  March 15 is the tax return due date for calendar-year corporate tax returns -- both for "C corporations," which pay tax on their own income, and "S corporations," which pass their income out to their shareholders. 

Because the 15th is on a Saturday, the actual due date is pushed back to the following Monday, March 17.

Tax returns aren't the only things that are due. 


  • If you accrued bonuses at year-end and you want them deducted on the 2007 return, they need to to be actually paid to the employee by March 15.  This deadline applies whether you are a corporation or not.  Partnerships, which have an April 15 filing deadline, need to meet the March 15 bonus payment deadline.

If the payment was accrued to a "related party," it had to be made by December 31, 2007 to be deducted on the 2007 tax return. 

  • If you have unpaid pension or profit-sharing plan contributions for 2007, they need to be paid by the due date of the return.  That means either the payments must be made by March 17 or the return must be extended.  An automatic extension is available on Form 7004, but any corporation income tax due for 2007 should be paid by March 17 anyway. 

If you extend a corporate return to delay the plan contribution, be sure you wait until after March 17 to actually file, or your extension will be for naught.

Whether you file your return by March 17 or extend it, make sure to document your extension.  If you mail your returns or extensions, be sure to mail it "Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested." 

A little extra postage goes a long way towards preventing penalties if the IRS says you filed late.

5 Basic Rules for Negotiating a Business Contract


Most small businesses will enter into a contract or business deal from time to time. 

Some agreements may be simple while others may require the skills of a contract or business attorney. 

In either case, you will want to feel comfortable that you have negotiated your best deal possible. 

The following are five basic suggestions for negotiating the best terms for your next business contract:

  1. Set out your goals before you start.  The process of writing down your goals in the negotiation helps you clarify what you intend to do, understand the importance of significant issues, and commit yourself to making it happen.
  2. Do your homework.  You should know the law, relevant facts and figures.
  3. Decide what you really need and what areas are "throw aways."  Be prepared to trade something to get something important to you. 
  4. Build trust and listen to the other party.  You learn far more in a negotiation from listening than you do from talking.
  5. Manage your emotions.  Resolutions rarely occur when parties lose their temper or become irrational. 

For more see this post on effective negotiation.

photo on flickr by Nabeel H

When Good Employees Say "Good-bye"

Good_employee "Hey boss, I'm quitting."

Remember the last time you heard those words? Did you breathe a sigh of relief? And say to yourself, "Good. Now I don't have to fire her!" Or did your heart stop when you thought about the endless hours of interviewing and on-boarding that awaited you and the rest of the organization?  Your reaction probably depended on the role, longevity, and productivity of the person delivering that fateful message.

Firing employees is one thing. But when good performers say "I'm leaving," there are two things you'll want to do:

  • Find out why
  • Be gracious

Find out why. Of course you're going to ask the person why they're leaving. And they'll tell you things like:

  1. "My wife got a job in Seattle and I want to go with her."
  2. "I'm starting my own business."
  3. "Moxi Java is offering me more money."
  4. "I'm looking for something more in line with my skill set."

Many times those reasons are not totally true. Would the guy still have followed his wife to Seattle? Yeah. But would Mary have started her own business if she'd been totally satisfied at your company and her supervisor's leadership style? Maybe not. Will she tell you in an exit interview what really propelled her to make the decision to quit? Maybe not if she doesn't want to burn bridges or put references at risk.

But it IS important for you to know the real reasons why good people leave your company. Probe. What's the best way to do that?

  • Hold a basic exit interview -- but tell them that you're going to give them a call in six to eight months. Without exception, in that follow-up interview, your former-top-performer will be less fearful of reprisal, they'll have had some time to reflect and be more objective, and they've probably gotten some valuable perspective from their new surroundings.

Be gracious. Wish the person the best in whatever it is they're going to be doing. And mean it. Be sincere. Send them off on a high. Point them in the direction of on-line resources like Career Hub if they're not sure what they want to do or how to go about doing it. Career transition consultants like Billie Sucher offer workshops -- like her Between Jobs program -- to help individuals find that next place to plug in. Show your departing stars the respect they've earned as valuable contributors and chances are, at some point, you'll be saying "Hello!" to new stars they've sent your way  .

Photo on flickr by jdweinmann

Organizational Readiness

2103023439_d5bb8475fc_3Is your organization ready to pounce when the time is right?

In highly evolved business cultures, the business is in a continual state of readiness. Just like the fox, the business has focus, energy, and a plan to pounce when the time is right to ensure success.

Does your business struggle to handle; opportunities for growth, when a key person is gone due to illness or death, or even struggle when someone takes a weeks vacation?  If these points ring true, then you have some serious work ahead of you.

Yes, you need a plan - business, strategic, operational, etc...  Too many businesses go through some type of planning process and yet they continue to miss the mark.  Why? 

They fail to have the tough conversations that need to happen before any planning can be done. Tough meaning - everyone avoids a certain person, failure to follow through, consistency in words and actions, lack of knowledge or common sense, lying, respect towards co-workers.

Make your list of tough conversations and start acting on them now.  Nothing is going to change until you make the effort. Pounce on the tough issues and your business will be ready to pounce on opportunities.                                     

Flickr photo by Neil Phillips

Buy your ticket!


So I know that I border on trite by making the following suggestion... but I'm going to do it any way.

Go buy a lottery ticket.

Yup.  A lottery ticket. 

I know that the big lotto in Iowa is at umpt-teen bazillion dollars... so go buy one.

Just one will do.


Well... hasn't anyone ever asked you a question like "What would you do if you won a million bucks?"  I bet they have.  And I'm also betting you took a stab at answering it.

Maybe the answer came easy or maybe it was hard.  Maybe you stayed at a surface level or maybe you got specific. 

As a coach, I've asked similar questions of my clients to help them to dream big and think beyond their current situation.

But I have to tell you something... no better said... I have to confess... I haven't done this exercise personally for a long time.

That all changed this past Saturday night.  My wife and I had some spare time and the need to take a drive so we grabbed a lotto ticket on the way out of town.  As we drove we just started dreaming as if our ticket had hit BIG!

Sure we thought about what the dream house would look like, where we'd vacation,  who we'd go a see.

But then... we went beyond that... way beyond that.  And we started to get specific!

For example, we started to dream up a non-profit that we could start.  We thought about what it could achieve.  Who it would help.  Where it would be based.

Then, we went further. 

We thought of the people who'd sit on the board, the people we'd need to walk us through the process, the specific people we'd impact. 

I mean, we had lists of specific people and specific names!

We allowed it to get so real that we could see it actually happening. 

We could hear it.  Smell it.  And taste it!

Now, I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of gambling.  And I'm not even a big fan of lotteries... but that dollar on that night was a great investment.  Not because we hit the BIG jackpot.  (Cuz, we didn't.) 

It was a great investment because it allowed my wife and me to take a mini-dream vacation. 

We got to see a bit of our future and explore it.

Plus it left us asking the question... why wait on the dream?  Why not go for it now with or without the lotto's help!?! 

That dollar and that silly little ticket allowed us to dream a little bigger,  laugh a bit more,  and with a little divine inspiration mixed in... we saw a future that excited us in BIG ways!

So maybe you don't need to buy an actual ticket.  But I know for us it just made it a bit more fun... and a bit more real. 

Plus I know that lotto ticket will be taped to my journal, next to our notes as a $1 souvenir for our little vacation to visit the possibilities. 

So... what would be on your list?  What would you do with all of your earnings?  Click comments and join in the conversation!

photo credit: Yoni L

Building Damage and the Canceled Lease

Lease_building My landlord doesn’t want my money. 

As crazy as it may sound it could happen.  You ask how and why?  In my last blog post I mentioned I would discuss a coverage form that would cover financial losses a tenant might incur if his lease is canceled because of damage to the premises by an insured peril.

Did you read the small print?
Cancellation of a lease may cause the tenant (lessee) to suffer a financial loss in a few of the following circumstances:

  1. In my prior post, I spoke of improvements and betterments.  You are a business owner and have improved your space by the tune of some $50,000 and a fire loss occurs to the strip mall you’re in that causes the landlord to cancel the lease.  Would your tenant’s use value of the improvements and betterments be a loss you want covered?  You just spent $50,000 and your landlord is canceling your lease.  I’d be pulling my hair out.
  2. You are a tenant that has a rental rate much lower than the current rental value of comparable premises.  What would your loss be if the landlord canceled your lease?  Did you have a long-term lease?  The loss would be the additional cost to rent an equivalent premise for the duration of the current lease.  I might have something to say about that if my landlord canceled my lease.
  3. As a tenant, you paid advance rent that is not recoverable under the terms of the lease in the event of cancellation.  What is your loss?  The loss would be the value of the advance rent.  Would you want that back?

The small print
Some leases of premises permit the landlord (lessor) to terminate the lease if  (1) the building or premises are damaged by fire or other perils to a stated percentage of value of the building or premises, or (2)  the amount of time required to repair or replace the damaged property exceeds a stipulated period in the lease.

How do you protect yourself?
You need to have leasehold interest insurance on your policy.  This covers the total amount of net leasehold interest of the insured for the unexpired period of the lease. 

Here’s an example: if you’ve paid a year’s rent in advance and have your lease canceled after two months because of damage, etc. mentioned above – the lessor must refund you the remaining 10 months of rent.

The amount of insurance is automatically reduced during the life of the lease.  If you are in a long-term lease or in an area where rents are rising sharply, the cancellation of a lease could pose a substantial threat to your business.

Sound confusing? It can be. That’s why it’s a good reason to work closely with your agent and review your lease to make sure you’re covered.

High Pressure Front

BlizzardAs I'm writing this, I'm thinking about the weather. 

Yesterday, it was 63 degrees and sunny and beautiful.  This morning, I woke up to four inches of snow and temperatures in the teens. 

It makes you wonder if Mother Nature is letting her geeky nephew, Clarence, intern in the weather department without adult supervision.  But we're Iowans.  We're hardy and resilient to change when it comes to climate.

Are your projects as resilient as Iowans are to changes in the environment? 

As we know, in business, things can change on a dime.  And while we joke about the weather ("wait five minutes; it'll change"), we have less of a sense of humor when it comes to our projects.  As Jim Garr writes in his Technology Services blog:

The real value here I think is to anticipate that change and then position yourself (in this case IT staff and technology inside MDC) to respond. Put the right people in the right places as much in advance of the "need" as you can...and the resulting impact will be a much smoother transition for ...almost everyone.

That's a challenge for many of us in the technology world...while many will profess that they embrace change and welcome it....I can tell you first hand that sometimes those words are nothing more that lip service. IT staffers as much as anyone else can be less than enthusiastic about being resilient in the face of change.

Jim has a point.  When I'm working with clients who are a little further along with their process maturity (i.e., they don't cry foul at the slightest hint of project rigor), I suggest setting up a "change triage process" in tandem with handling regular change control procedures. 

Do this during the planning phase, so you are not reacting to change while it is happening.  For those changes which come up suddenly, completely blindside you, and need immediate attention, try the following:

  • Establish your triage decision-makers.  Who are the people who can and should make quick decisions, and have the ability to read the signs to make the best decision for the project and its stakeholders?
  • Determine whether the change is controllable (can you avert or delay the change).  If you can buy yourself more time, then do it.  Move more controllable changes to your normal change control procedures.  Only critical environmental changes should move onto your triage team.
  • Determine how the change affects the scope and the schedule (note, I did not say cost).  Then think about the dollar value of the additional effort to make it happen, or the lost dollar value of a delay (i.e., opportunity cost of being late to market).  This is your triple constraint discussion.
  • Write up the tasks that need to happen in the first day and the first week.  Make assignments and set people loose to make them happen.  Then use this time to build out your other tasks to handle the change.  It may be that a revised project plan must be one of your first deliverables; however, on some changes, you will know what must be done before formal planning can occur.  Don't hold up a critical change because of the planning.
  • Keep the decision-making centralized to as few people as possible, but pull in subject matter experts to give you the information you need.  If you are under the gun, the last thing you need is decision-making by committee.  Bring in your experts, but make the final call.
  • Communicate to your stakeholders what is happening and why.  Don't leave your team or your customers in the dark.  Most people are understanding of changes that are outside your control.  What they want to know is that you are still in charge.

Doing these proactive steps can help you adapt quickly when the environment doesn't play nice.  Now I need to go shovel snow.

Carpe Factum!

Internet Businesses Need Customer Service Too!

Bigstockphoto_customer_service_fe_2We often think of Customer Service in terms of a local, face-to-face retailer or calling a large corporation's 800 number. As internet retailers crop up on a daily basis like web-based mom-and-pop shops, those who operate these businesses would do well to give consideration to how customer service is going to factor into their business plan.

I recently ordered a specialty item from an internet retailer called Incredible Inedibles. Despite the annoying background music at the site (perhaps the fact that it's the Godfather Theme should have been a warning to me) they had exactly what I needed at a reasonable price. The site said that they shipped the custom made orders in 2-3 weeks and I needed it in four, so I figured I was okay.

The item hadn't arrived in stated three weeks so I went back to the site.

There was no phone number. There was no contact information other than a generic hotmail email address. I still had the confirmation e-mail for the order. So, I replied and asked about the status of my order, explaining that I needed it the following week for a specific event.

I received a reply back from Cicely Catalano "The Fake Food Chef":

Hello Tom,

Your order will be shipped out tuesday priority mail. thank you

Let's ignore, for the moment, the obvious grammatical errors and stick with the circumstances. I needed the item for my event, which ran Thursday through Sunday of the following weekend and had explained in my e-mail that Thursday was my deadline. When the item did not arrive by the Thursday I needed it, I emailed back to inquire about the status. The reply came:

Hello Tom, you will receive tomorrow it will be delivered by Fedex Thank you

It didn't arrive Friday. It didn't arrive Saturday. The following week, I emailed Cicely and asked her to stop shipment and immediately refund my money. My item mysteriously arrived the following FRIDAY, one week after it had been promised in her second e-mail.

Being a blogger, I like to give web-based businesses a chance. I have often found that these people understand the details of customer service and are working hard to provide exceptional service. But, then you have a company like this one, who gives every web-based business a bad name and makes customers gun-shy from doing business with any small, web-based retailer.

If you operate a web-based business, here are a few basic essentials for providing great customer service that are illustrated in my experience:

  1. Make sure your customers can contact you by phone and that your contact information is easily accessable on your site. Customers want to be able to pick up the phone and talk to a real human being if they need to do so. There are so many low-cost telephony options out there today that it's a black mark against you if you don't have one. Having just a hotmail or yahoo e-mail address is another black mark. It says that you're not the real deal. You should at least have an e-mail address with your domain name on it.
  2. Be utterly professional in all your communication. If you email, make sure you write in complete sentences, that your grammar is correct, and make it personable. When you write a customer, acknowledge the situation so the customer knows they've been heard. When you don't do so, you give the customer the impression that you're not a professional business. It gives you the impression of being a back-alley, fly-by-night, internet fraud.
  3. Just as I would train any call center Customer Service Representative providing after the sale service, you must always acknowledge the customer's issue, apologize appropriately and immediately work to resolve the issue.
  4. If you can't resolve the customer's issue, it's better to be honest and acknowledge it up front rather than make a string of broken promises. You may not have a happy customer on your hand, but some customers are going to appreciate and respect your honesty. When you lie (that's the customer perception of it) and provide multiple broken promises, there's no way you can hope to win back your customer.

If web-based retailers want to win business away from their brick-and-mortar counterparts, they are going to have to provide more than a quality product at a fair price. They are going to have to provide exceptional service that keeps customers coming back.

Is your intranet a desolate graveyard? Try a wiki.

WikiGood communication between employees is vital to all businesses, large or small. E-mail, unfortunately, often falls into the "bad communication" category. Tone is misinterpreted, context is lost and messages go missing.

That's why today many companies are experimenting with internal wikis and private social networks to improve communication among their team members. Think of this as just an evolution of the corporate intranet.

By adopting the social features that have made online destinations like Wikipedia and Facebook successful, businesses can transform their stagnant, one-way intranet into a bustling expressway of shared thoughts, insights and collaboration.

Here are a few quick pointers for initiating a wiki project within your business:

  • Start small. Choose a team within your organization to start using the wiki - not everyone at once.
  • Develop a strategy to roll it out internally. (Hint: Don't announce it via e-mail.)
  • Give the wiki time to evolve. If users aren't taken by it immediately, keeping pushing ahead, keep the faith and keep training.
  • Determine what success is. Reduction of e-mail volume? Better communication? Knowing your goals ahead of time will allow you to justify the project later on.

If you're ready to get started, there are multiple resources available, ranging from free, hosted services such as PBwiki, all the way to enterprise-level apps. Good luck on starting up your wiki!

5 keys to postcard marketing success

Postcard Remember how much fun it was to get a postcard from someone?  They often told of vacation adventures or far away places?  Back then, you probably didn't think of them as a marketing tool. 

But today, you know that direct mail and postcards are a cost-effective and attention grabbing way to deliver a marketing message.

There are some "rules of the road" when it comes to postcards that will ensure you get the most out of the effort.   Next time you are planning a postcard campaign, remember these:

~ Don't get overly cute with your headline.  Be direct.  Be bold. Deliver the benefit.

~ Keep it brief.  Do not cram your postcard with copy.

~ Use first class postage. You have better control over delivery time and if you imprint "address service requested" on the postcard, you'll get your undeliverables back.  That keeps your list and database clean.

~ If you are on a tight budget, be judicious with color.  Depending on your graphics, two-color printing will often do the trick.

~ Think over-sized.  They're much less likely to get lost in the stack of mail.

Why do postcards work?  Think of their key attributes.  Simple.  Fast.  To the point.  Effective.  Hard to argue with that combination!

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