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October 2008

Networking Nov. 3 - 7

Networking is a key element in building relationships. What are you doing this week to further your career and business? Check out these upcoming networking events in Greater Des Moines.

Branding eventsBlog
Wednesday, Nov. 5
McLellan Marketing Group will host a branding breakfast from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. at Iowa Workforce Center, 430 E. Grand Ave., Des Moines, and a branding lunch from noon to 1 p.m. at Simpson College’s West Des Moines campus, 3737 Westown Parkway, Classroom 9. Register to branding@mclellanmarketing.com.

Johnston breakfast
Thursday, Nov. 6
The Johnston Chamber of Commerce will host a Breakfast Before Business event from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. at TimberRidge Elementary School, 7370 N.W. 54th Ave., Johnston. Register by Wednesday by calling 276-9064.

Urbandale Business After Hours
Thursday, Nov. 6
The Urbandale Chamber of Commerce will host a Business After Hours event from 5 to 7 p.m. at Multimedia Imaging, 9943 Hickman Road, Suite #107.

Johnston Business After Hours
Thursday, Nov. 6
The Johnston Chamber of Commerce will host a Business After Hours event from 5 to 7 p.m. at Entourage Salon, 5525 Merle Hay Road, Suite #185. Register by Wednesday by calling 276-9064.

P.S. I love you

23405055_2 Many businesses use a pitch or sales letter. Want to make yours more effective?

Add a postscript. 

Research has shown that a postscript is one of the first (and depending on the letter's layout and copy, sometimes only) elements that the reader looks at.

So, use that P.S. to:

  • Re-state your offer
  • Add a bonus to your offer
  • Drive home a deadline
  • Drive home the price

If you write it correctly - it will pique the reader's interest and draw them back up into the body of your letter.  And don't think the P.S. technique is restricted to sales letters.  You can use a P.S. online, in a voice mail message or even in a radio spot.  Get creative.  A long pause in a radio spot or voice mail message could easily work just like a P.S.

P.S.  No, I am not going to use the P.S. to demonstrate how effective a P.S. can be.

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Obama vs McCain: Courting the Tech Vote

Amidst the online punditry over presidential candidates, there is very little actual insight as to how the candidates' platforms might affect those in the information technology profession and, by extrapolation, those of us who use and rely on information technology. While I have strongly conservative leanings, having voted Republican since I was old enough to reach the lever, this year's election has me thinking with a much more tech-based Libertarian mindset.

According to TechCrunch, the second most popular blog on the planet, information technology voters strongly prefer the policies of Ron Paul over the rest of the field. Ron Paul, however, is no longer in the race, so here is how the two remaining major party candidates stack up on the issue of technology:

Net Neutrality
Winner: Barack Obama

Net Neutrality refers to the idea that you should be allowed to access any portion of the Internet you like. If the big Internet Service Providers want to prevent you from visiting Web sites that do not pay them an advertising kickback, or charge more to visit selected "packages" of Web sites, much like cable does now, there is nothing to prevent that from happening. 30518340

Sen. Barack Obama has stated that signing a guarantee of Net Neutrality into law will be a priority during his first year in office. Conversely, Sen. John McCain opposes Net Neutrality legislation.

Winner: None

Both Sen. McCain and  Sen. Obama state that they are interested in preserving and strengthening the online privacy of their constituents. In terms of putting their votes where their platforms are, however, both Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain voted in favor of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). These amendments grant immunity to electronic communication service providers that conspired with the government to spy on United States citizens. Regardless of the rhetoric, this vote indicates that neither candidate is a stalwart protector of online privacy rights.   

Winner: Obama

Both candidates support a strong stance against foreign infringement of music and movie copyrights. If both candidates follow through with their other copyright proposals, as opposed to merely dumping taxpayer money behind stopping the overseas sales of bootleg copies of Gigli, the plans seem equally beneficial. With regard to the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), however, there is a difference between the candidates. The DMCA offers safe harbor to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) accused of hosting copyright infringing material on their servers. If the material was posted by a third party, the ISP merely removes the accused material and forwards the complaint to the third party poster. If the poster submits a defense to the ISP, the ISP reposts the material and sends the reply to the complainant.

Recently, this issue arose in the context of the presidential campaign. A YouTube video in support of Sen. McCain was taken down in response to an allegation of copyright infringement under the DMCA. Per the DMCA, YouTube took down the videos and forwarded the complaint on to the McCain campaign. Instead of merely following DMCA protocols, or attacking the DMCA itself as being intrinsically unfair, the McCain campaign wrote a letter to YouTube explaining why it should receive VIP treatment and not have its videos taken down.  This "I make the online rules, but I do not have to follow them" mentality is certainly frightening. For this fantastic mix of hubris and cojones alone, McCain falls far short on the issue of online copyright protection.

Other Intellectual Property
Winner: Tie

President Bush just signed the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2007 (PRO-IP Act), into law. The PRO-IP Act creates a new Intellectual Property Czar and promises federal government assistance in the policing of patents, trademarks and copyrights. Whether this means protecting the intellectual property interests of the "big guys" to the detriment of the "little guys" and stifling both innovation and online functionality in the process, will largely be determined by the philosophical bent of the next president.

Sen. Obama wants to reform the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to make our patent system clearer and more predictable. He also sees the need to update our system of copyright to balance the interests of civic discourse, innovation and investment against the interests of copyright owners. Sen. McCain also supports additional resources for the USPTO, to ensure timely, predictable and effective patent review. In addition, Sen. McCain is interested in providing alternative approaches to patent litigation. While certainly a laudable goal, it is not clear how he intends to implement and manage such extremely complex reform.

The downfall of both plans is in the execution. Will the proffered reform be in favor of small inventors and intellectual property development, or in favor of large companies and a chilling of innovation? Only time will tell.

Technological Savvy
Winner: Obama

While technological savvy is by definition a very subjective category, it is probably the most important. Without some "hands on" experience with emerging technologies, tech issues are much less likely to come up on a candidate's radar, let alone be properly addressed. The more experience a candidate has with technology, the better equipped he or she will be to push legislation which either promotes or regulates that technology toward the greatest good. Just as caveman were not overly interested in regulating fire until they actually got burned, so to Luddite candidates have little interest in regulating things such as 700MHz spectrum auctions, until complex problems have arisen and the opportunity for a simple regulatory solution has long passed. Costs increase, delays ensure and hundreds of new technologies and businesses die on the vine, awaiting a solution.

So who's the man, when it comes to tech savvy? Well, despite John McCain having created the Blackberry, neither major party candidate is a techie's dream candidate. While voters at TechCrunch resoundingly favored Ron Paul, the two major-party candidates at least demonstrate a better grasp of tech issues than our current leaders.

Sen. McCain, while generally fairly pro-technology in his platform, takes a decidedly anti-net neutrality and anti-renewable energy stance. He has also admitted that he is "illiterate" when it comes to computers. Despite these flaws, Sen. McCain's strong leadership skills and tech savvy advisers make him far preferable to the existing leadership.

Sen. Obama's technology platform indicates computer "illiteracy" will not be a concern. Furthermore, his proposed resolution of complex tech issues indicates both a tech and consumer friendly approach.  While he may not be the best pro-tech candidate, he is certainly the most pro-tech of the viable candidates.

Information technology professionals often feel disenfranchised by candidates' clear ignorance of the issues affecting online activity. Especially disheartening is the fact that the next president's policies will govern for the next four years, a lifetime in the tech world. While the present election is clearly a choice between the lesser of two evils when it comes to technology issues, hopefully the foregoing analysis provides some basis for choosing a leader committed to increasing legislative attention paid to pro-tech and pro-consumer issues.

Brett Trout

Are YP's Caught in the Middle?

I recently had the opportunity to finish reading a book that gives a scathing analysis of36589261 the economic reality being faced in the Midwest. The book, "Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism by Richard Longworth," was written before the massive government bailout recently passed by Congress, but still deals with our economic perils in stark terms.

deals with the Midwest's struggle to stay competitive against overseas markets, counter to the expectation that capitalism needs to seek out foreign opportunity. Author Richard Longworth paints a picture that emotionally appeals to those in the Midwest as if the region was hit with some economic parasite that has left an empty landscape full of rural ghettos. Anyone living in Iowa can relate to this conversation over the apparent decay of Iowa's rural communities and the division between rural and urban.

Longworth correctly pinpoints the divisive battle that happens between rural and urban communities, not just within the confines of the state, but even in the larger confines of Midwest state vs. Midwest state. Caught insinuates that Midwesterners' characteristics and ideology are no match for globalism, which the book also attacks.

Midwesterners are described as unskilled, risk averse, change resistant, sluggish and indifferent. An Iowan himself, living and working in Chicago, Longworth appears to come off hypocritically harsh toward Midwesterners. Yet, at the same time, who else but someone from the region could give paint such an emotional picture and get away with it. No doubt Longworth is attempting to say there are no easy answers. However, he does suggest solutions to the crisis, which, on first read, appear to be immigration as the immediate fix, while a reemergence of city centers and a redirection toward research and biosciences are the longer term fixes.

After reading Caught, I was left to ponder two questions: Has the ball already been put in motion to return the Midwest to its heyday? And is the return of YPs to the Midwest a sign of progress?

There are definite signs in the Midwest of more regional collaboration, as well as an increased focus on research and biotechnology. It would appear that some, particularly in Iowa, are trying to lead the way in this renaissance.

Only time will tell.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

I read a great post one time by Thom Singer at Some Assembly Required concerning the importance of sales and marketing plans...specifically, the execution of a plan (or lack thereof).

Thom writes about clients who feel once they have a different or unique business idea, customers will simply line up outside the door. He calls it the Kevin Costner School of Business Development and it may work for a short time, but someone eventually will come along with a similar idea and a way to execute it!Treadmill

I'm somehow still surprised when sales people or sales organizations will tell me how they're struggling with something like sales or recruiting. I'll immediately ask them to show me their sales plan. Or I'll ask them to tell me about their long-term recruiting strategy. Nine times out of 10 they stare at me like a deer in headlights. Part of what we do at Merge Today is to encourage our clients to discover their brand and create sales and marketing efforts based on that brand. But ultimately it’s up to them to make it work, to execute.

Hoping to be successful and executing a well devised plan are two very different things. It's like the guy who watches the Olympics and goes out the next day to buy a treadmill. But inevitably it ends up being a very expensive clothes rack. Creating a sales plan is a great start, but you must willing to execute to see any results.

Are you ready to plan? Are you ready to execute?

Get Rid of Performance Reviews? Not So Fast!

Improving employee performance is the goal of almost every employer. In pursuit of this19152867 goal, the mainstream approach is to use an annual performance and pay review. But a UCLA Professor, Samuel Culbert, says that employers should get rid of the performance review!

In the WSJ Culbert wrote,

"To my way of thinking, a one-side-accountable, boss-administered review is little more than a dysfunctional pretense. It's a negative to corporate performance, an obstacle to straight-talk relationships, and a prime cause of low morale at work. Even the mere knowledge that such an event will take place damages daily communications and teamwork."

I understand Culbert's point. No one enjoys the performance review process, whether you are the boss or the employee. It's also true that many supervisors do a very poor job of conducting performance reviews. Fellow IowaBiz author Victor Aspengren has said that most companies use subjective rating systems in their performance reviews, which leaves everyone in the company, supervisors and employees alike, dreading the annual review process.

What happens next is what I call the Lake Wobegon effect: Every employee becomes "above average" because supervisors are unwilling to hold employees accountable. Then, when it comes time to discipline or terminate employees, companies are often shocked when I tell them it may be difficult to discipline or terminate an employee because of their employee evaluations.

But it's not that easy to dismiss performance reviews. Employee evaluations are valuable proof in an employment lawsuit. Poor performance must be properly documented. Otherwise, the judge or jury will not believe you when you say the employee performed poorly. You should conduct the evaluations on a regular basis, usually at least once per year. And Victor's ideas on creating a dialogue with your employees is on the mark as long as that dialogue is open, honest and holds employees accountable for their performance.

Hat tip to Daniel Schwartz of the Connecticut Employment Law Blog who wrote a nice post about the professor's article.

Fiddling on the Roof

When I think of business leaders in these tough economic times, I'm reminded of the fiddler19215046 on the roof. The fiddler's true passion is making beautiful music. His only real problem is to avoid falling off the roof while he fiddles. Where does he need to focus his energies -- on making beautiful music or on clinging to the eaves? If 95 percent of his energy is devoted to holding on and not falling, it's doubtful that he'll be playing much music with the remaining five percent. However, if he can learn to steady himself, have confidence in his balance, and maybe even look out and survey the beauty of the world around him, he can live his passion and continue to make beautiful music.

What about you? Are you crouched down in a defensive mode, hoping at best to hold on, devoting 5 percent of your resources to new ideas, fresh approaches and bold initiatives? Or are you standing tall, scanning the horizon for new audiences, continually improving the quality and value of your products to keep them as memorable as ever?

Your answer says something about the role that fear plays in your psyche as a business leader. In the final analysis, fear is the only thing that can ever defeat us. We can more consistently achieve our potential -- and our organization's potential -- if we are not distracted or intimidated by the fear of falling/failing.

While others are worrying about falling/failing:

  • Seize the moment. Be even more aggressive in your selling efforts. Call on people you've never had the courage to call on before. Play your music for them with passion. Given the tough times, they're looking and listening for opportunities where they might not have considered looking before. That's where you come in.
  • Innovate. Package things differently. Offer new solutions. Give enticing incentives to an audience that didn't even know they liked your kind of music -- until you showed up fiddling. Let passion prevail.
  • Be persistent. If you know you're making beautiful music, never stop playing. Play with energy, drive and a need to finish. Get someone to help you if you need to be better organized, disciplined and focused. Do it now -- don't procrastinate.

I've heard it said, "Life is like a grinding wheel. It will sharpen you up or wear you down, depending on what you're made of." That metaphor is especially true in tough times. Use this dip in the economy to sharpen your skills as a business person and a leader...and to prove what you're made of.

Systems are Not a Guaranteed Lock for Success

The company makes a big announcement that a new system will drive performance and make36600480 the company a better place to work.  I am sure you are familiar with the systems - lean, six sigma, theory of constraints, just in time inventory, open book management, the latest performance appraisal system, employee ownership, touching toes, et cetera.

In many cases the systems are implemented, and in a month, year or even years down the road, things go back to the way they were.  There may have been some financial gains for a while, but soon the embedded cultural memory sucks them back out.  The initial wow and energy fades, and once again people are working in the same old company with the same old problems - nothing really changed.

Why?  Because the systems are not implemented within a framework that engages the employees.  The systems are implemented without any input from the employees that will be impacted by the systems.  There is no clear alignment of how these systems will improve communications, build teamwork, encourage the adult to adult relationship, create opportunities for employee growth, or improve leadership in the company.

The surveys by Gallop show that over 70 percent of workers are not fully engaged.  Systems are valuable, but if you implement them without a focus on employees you are doomed to failure.  Remember that if you involve someone in a decision, their follow through on the results of the decision will dramatically improve.  Implementing systems within a context that engages employees is the ticket for lasting success!

Is your head in the clouds?

Cloud: It's a term that is being thrown around like three-month T-bills...a lot for youBlog non-financial folks.  If you didn't know, there are some cloud-focused data centers being built here in Iowa by Google and Microsoft, so Iowa is becoming more and more of a "cloud" state.  So what is "cloud"?  John Foley of InfoWeek had a great article back in September on defining this phenomenon.  Here are the seven characteristics that really define it for me:

  • Off-site. A basic principle of cloud computing is that you're accessing IT resources that are in a data center that's not your own. That means you don't buy the servers and storage, someone else does. So-called private clouds are the exception, but forget them for this discussion.
  • Virtual. IT resources in the cloud can be assembled with drag-and-drop ease. Employing virtualization, cloud service providers let you assemble software stacks of databases, Web servers, operating systems, storage and networking, then manage them as virtual servers.
  • On demand. In the cloud, you can add and subtract resources, including the number and type of processors, amount of memory, network bandwidth, gigabytes of storage, and 32-bit or 64-bit architectures. You can dial up when you need more, and dial down when you need less.
  • Subscription style. These tend to be month-to-month deals, often payable by credit card, rather than annual contacts. Amazon charges in intervals of ten cents per hour for EC2.
  • Shared. For economies of scale (that's what cloud computing is all about), many service providers use a multi-tenant architecture to squeeze workloads from multiple customers onto the same physical machines. It's just one of the things that distinguishes cloud computing from outsourcing and from hosted data centers.
  • Simple. Many of the cloud services providers -- whether they specialize in application hosting, storage or compute cycles -- let you sign up and configure resources in a few minutes, using an interface that you don't have to be a system administrator to understand.
  • Web based. Others might make this characteristic No. 1, but I put it last to make the point that there's more to cloud computing than the Web. That said, it does involve browser access to hosted data and resources.

How are you looking at cloud computing?  Is this something that your company is investigating, implementing, will never even come close to attempting?

One way that I see companies moving into this computing model is Disaster Recovery (DR).  Here is where you can completely automate site failover by leveraging VMWare and SAN replication.  The technical complexity and overhead have always made DR solutions out of reach for most companies, until now.  Here you can have a complete DR solution, but your CapEx cost for hardware/software is eliminated and now a much smaller monthly OpEx is in its place. 

I've learned that there is a company that is putting this together here in Des Moines and another that is working closely with them to help customers architect solutions into that cloud infrastructure.  I'll be posting more soon about this.

Stressed out? Take the "O.T.W. Challenge."


You are at your desk.  You hear someone yell "FIRE!"  You begin to smell smoke.  The fire alarm sounds.

All of a sudden your heart starts to pump.  Your adrenaline does too.  You are able to run like Lolo Jones... hurdling waste baskets... rounding corners.  You make it out of the building in record time!

That's the fear that allows your body to respond in that way.  Fear is good.  It's your body's natural defense system.  Fear is what allows people to survive in scary and dangerous places.  Yup.  Fear is good.

Now... imagine a new situation.Worry

You are sitting at your desk and your boss walks by with an angry look on their face.  You start to wonder what would cause that "look."  You wonder if you might be part of the problem.  Your mind starts to race... filling in possible scenarios of possible mistakes you've made... or things that you've said in the past few days that could be misconstrued.  Within minutes your heart is pumping, imagining possible punishment.  You feel a bead of sweat as you ponder loosing your job.  That's worry. 

Worry isn't good.  It's what zaps your energy.  Worry is when your imagination races and paints pictures of negative outcomes.  Worry is when your creative mind works against you by creating nasty predictions.  Worry is a killer.  It's bad.

It shifts your creativity to produce negative results instead of positive solutions.

And, let's face it, with today's headlines there are A LOT of people worrying.  Aren't there?

Worry zaps your energy.  It zaps your joy.  It also causes you to over-analyze, so you get stuck.  And this can happen at work and at home.

What if you were able to break away from worry... at the office... at home?

Here's a challenge for you. 

I call it the "O.T.W. Challenge."

List out 10 times that you worried about something.  Then think about how many times the things you worried about really played out. 

Then, with each situation, ask yourself...

  • What if you hadn't worried in the situation? 
  • What would that have done for your creativity? 
  • What would that have done for your energy? 
  • What would that have done for your ability to enjoy what you were doing?

Then... in one situation over the next week... when you have the opportunity to worry... make a commitment to your self to identify it as, simply, an "O.T.W. (an Opportunity to Worry).

And then choose to not worry. 

Yup.  That's right. 

Identify it for what it is:  An "O.T.W." 

And then just say, "I'm not going to take that opportunity right now." 

See what happens.

Invite a friend to take the challenge with you.

Check with each other.  Share your results.  Encourage each other.  See if what it does for your creativity... your enjoyment... your peace of mind.

Then, click "comments" and let us know how it goes!

Photo credit and kudos to: tishay

Eight ways to reduce your insurance costs (without compromising coverage)

Unhappy_moneyIt’s no surprise that everyone is feeling the financial crunch these days – especially if you’re a small business.

You may need to find some creative ways to save some money any way you can. Here are a few ways that both small businesses and consumers may be able to cut down on the costs of their insurance premiums without compromising their coverage.

  1. Shop around.
    Prices vary from company to company, so it pays to shop around. The easiest way to do this is to work with an independent agent who has access to a variety of carriers. Make sure you work with someone who understands your business.  It is also important to pick a company that is financially stable. Check the financial health of your potential insurer with rating companies such as A.M. Best and Standard & Poor’s.
  2. Look at group rates.
    Purchasing your insurance through a business or professional organization can save you money. The savings typically outweigh any member dues. General business organizations, such as your local Chamber of Commerce and the Better Business Bureau also offer business insurance discounts. Your local home-based business association may offer lower prices on home-based business insurance.
  3. Choose a higher deductible.
    Deductibles represent the amount of money you pay before your insurance policy kicks in. The higher the deductible, the less you will pay in premiums for the policy.
  4. Consider a package policy.
    A Business Owners Policy (BOP) is often significantly less expensive than a self-designed plan. BOPs include: property insurance for buildings and company owned contents; business interruption insurance, which covers the loss of income resulting from an insured event (such as a fire) that disrupts the operations of the business; and liability protection, which covers a company's legal responsibility for the harm it may cause to others.
  5. Set up a risk management/loss reduction program.
    Insurers will often lower your rates if you put a program into place that will minimize losses from fire, theft and employee and customer injuries. These can include workplace safety training programs, disaster preparation and human resource intervention. Consider installing a security or fire system. If your line of business uses vehicles, install anti-theft devices and hire drivers with good driving records.
  6. Consider relocating your business.
    Deciding whether to relocate depends, to a large extent, on what kind of business you operate and where you move to. Moving from a downtown area to a suburb, for example, may reduce premiums on your property and vehicle insurance, and even your workers compensation insurance.
  7. Work closely with your agent or broker.
    An insurance professional can provide invaluable advice to help protect your business. It is important to keep your insurer informed about any changes in your business operations. This includes major purchases, expansions or changes in hiring or in the nature of your operations.
  8. Have the right amount and type of coverage.
    Having the right amount and type of coverage along with a carefully developed business plan that includes disaster preparedness can save you money in the long run. Be sure to keep your agent fully apprised of any changes within your business that might necessitate changes to your insurance coverage. Such changes may include: adding employees, expanding your business, increasing your inventory or materials, and purchasing major equipment such as tools or vehicles and adding suppliers.

Now some of these items may sound simple. However, I continually visit with consumers and small business owners and often find that they overpay on their insurance. I have discovered incorrect addresses, coverage for buildings, personal property and vehicles that the owner no longer owns and policies that are pieced together rather than packaged.

These are items that can greatly affect your insurance premium.

I know, many of you don’t like to deal with your insurance, but that is why you have an insurance agent. Now is a great time to pick up the phone and set up a time to review your coverage – to make sure you’re getting the most for your money.

Let's Give 'Em Something to Talk About

Dangle_carrotAs a project management consultant, one question I receive very regularly is how to motivate the project team, especially if the project is long.

My philosophy on motivation is to get people who really want to be on my project in the first place... in other words, to generate my own passion and energy.  If they don't want to be on my project, I like to give them a reason to want to be on my project.  I mention this article when I teach classes, but Tom Peter's Wow Project article is timeless.  Talk about building passion into ANY project.

The most exciting project I was ever on was a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliance implementation.  Why was it fun?  We made a conscious decision to make it fun.  We built relationships within the core team.  We did goofy things for the training video.

There are some projects where the scope is so boring that you really just need to trudge through it.  However, what really makes or breaks the motivation factor is how much people know you care about them.

Here are a few things you can do to make your project more enjoyable and keep people motivated:

  • Food - There's a reason Jesus held the Last Supper instead of the last board meeting.  Have a food day.  Take your team out for lunch.  Cater lunch in.  There's just something about the tantalizing aroma of chow that gets people up and going.
  • Certificates and Recognition - Criticize in private; praise in public.  Make a big deal when an individual (or even better, a team) has a big win.
  • Play - not only will it get people away from their work for a while, it's been shown that play time actually improves people's creativity and analytical thinking skills.  Building some play time into the day may make your team more productive.
  • Brand yourself - give your project its own brand (T-shirts are a fun way to advertise your brand identity), but give your style of management and leadership its own brand as well.  Create a brand story that says, "Hey, I'm both fun and productive" and you'll have people beating down the doors to work on your project.
  • Budget for it - stick in an extra few bucks (the amount will depend on the size of the team and the length of the project) to do a few really special things for people throughout the project life cycle.

These are just a few things you can do to help people trudge through the sometimes less-than-pleasant activity of project management.

Carpe Factum!

The Importance of Service in Uncertain Times

The economy is what we've all been thinking about the past few weeks. How is it going toBlog_2 affect my clients? What's the bottom-line impact on my business? Perhaps we all should have been considering how to build customer loyalty a year or two ago. Nevetheless, there's no time like the present to start giving more than lip service to our customers.

Our group has completed countless customer satisfaction research surveys for clients over the past 20 years. While each client and each project is unique to a particular business, I have had the unique opportunity to see trends across many different businesses and customer segments.

Certain customer expectations are penalty variables. "Resolving the issue" is a great example. If I have a problem, I expect you to resolve the issue. If you don't resolve my issue, then I will penalize you by being unsatisfied. However, if you do resolve my issue I'm not going to give you much of a reward in my satisfaction. It's what I expected you to do. Period.

Other customer expectations are reward variables. These tend to be "soft skill" dimensions like "courtesy," "friendliness," and a "personable service relationship." If you perform well in these dimensions, I'm going to reward you by being even more satisfied than if you had just resolved my issue. The more I reward you, the more likely I will be a loyal customer. I want that pleasant, relational service experience along with buying my widget or receiving the services you provide.

In tough economic times, companies who have built customer loyalty tend to feel dips in the market less acutely. Wise businesses have prepared for the storm by finding out what drives their customer's satisfaction and loyalty and then delivering on those dimensions of service that keep customers wanting to come back. Even if we don't have much money to spend, we still all "want to go where everyone knows my name."


How your social networking activity can help your job search

We've all heard horror stories about how someone's social networking "presence" has disrupted their chances at landing a job. I would argue that, if used properly, your online identity can actually aid your cause when looking for a new career.

Let's face a couple of facts, first:Blog

1.) Employers can - and will - look you up online. They'll search for your name on Google, then LinkedIn, then Facebook. If you have a Twitter feed, they'll read it. It's well within their rights as an employer to do so.

2.) When we engage in activity on social networks (and the Web in general) we can leave behind permanent digital footprints. In many cases this will be public record - forever.

Look, our social network profiles are new forms of self-expression, so if all your pictures on MySpace involve you running down the street naked after doing a keg stand, chances are an employer won't look too favorably upon that.

That doesn't mean we have to neuter our personalities online. When I was hiring last spring, I looked at the profiles and activity of applicants within social networks to get a better grasp of them as human beings. What do they do for fun, what are they involved in, what are they passionate about, what sorts of pop culture do they absorb, what are their musical tastes, et cetera. These extra tidbits can really round out a personality beyond just a resume. In fact, I almost immediately passed over the ones who had very little social networking activity - due to lack of personality, but mostly because it was highly relevant to the job opening (social media strategist).

You can hang on to those keg stand photos, but take advantage of the robust privacy features within MySpace and Facebook. Feel free to share these photos with your friends - but not the whole world when you're seeking employment.

To sum up, let your social network profiles be a showcase for your personality and passions, and this can be a tremendous asset during the interview process.

Nathan T. Wright

I got away with it, right until they arrested me...

It can be so tempting. Your company has made some money this year, and you'll need to pay some extra taxes. You promised your spouse a new kitchen. Why not have the company pay the remodeling contractor and call it "repairs"? The bigmouth at the golf course says that's how he afforded his new house. You get a deduction, a shiny new kitchen, a happy home and the joy of less tax.

At least until the IRS stops by. 

One thing the IRS has learned over the years is that people like to run their personalBlog_3 expenses through the business.  Standard IRS procedures include reviewing company invoices for company-paid personal expenses.  If the IRS comes by -- and they do like to visit closely -- there's a real good chance that they'll find this sort of thing.

And what happens if they do?  The IRS may not just ask for back taxes and penalties.  Ask the Wisconsin scrap metal dealer who got 18 months in federal prison -- on top of having to pay $351,753 in federal taxes, $263,814 in civil fines, and $285,733 in interest. 

Or ask the Iowa injection molding company owner who will serve a year in federal prison after pleading guilty to diverting funds from his company for, among other things, home remodeling. 

Paying taxes is bad, but paying taxes, interest and penalties is worse. And doing all this and going away to federal prison is a grand slam of misfortune.  It's wise to keep your personal spending out of your business and stick with above-the-table plans for reducing your tax bill. 

Partnering Up

32337763 Synergy. Win/Win. Cooperation not Competition. All buzzwords in today's marketing world. But the truth is, it's always been more fun when you work collaboratively.

And in today's economy -- smart business.  Don't leap to the conclusion that you need to start lowering prices or reducing your offerings.  But, you're probably feeling like now probably isn't the time to be adding a lot of infrastructure to your company.  That doesn't mean you can't add services or new products.

Not only is partnering more fun but it can really work. Partnerships are an inexpensive and effective way to leverage both your own marketability as well as taking advantage of someone else's. Of course, they're doing the same thing with your high profile - so everyone gains new ground.

I think the reason most people don't partner more is simply because they don't think to ask. Look around your business associates, vendors and clients. Who could team up with?  What could you do together that neither of you could do alone?

Ask yourself these three questions as you look for new partners.

What is the jelly to our product/service's peanut butter?  In other words, when people need you, what else do they almost always need?

Who is already talking to my ideal customer?  What business shares your potential client profile?  Maybe you could pitch them together?

Who could I add value to?  Be sure you're looking at this as a true win/win.  If you add some value first, your new partner is sure to follow.

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Networking Oct. 14 - 24

Networking is a key element in building relationships. What are you doing this week to further your career and business? Check out these upcoming networking events in Greater Des Moines.

Happy hourBlog
Monday, Oct. 13
The Central Iowa chapter of the Public Relations Society of America will host a networking event from 6 to 8 p.m. at Jasper Winery, 2400 George Flagg Parkway, Des Moines. Register to Alexson Kane at alexson.kane@nmss.org.

Marketing meeting
Tuesday, Oct. 14
The next Business Innovations and Networking Luncheon will feature Drew McLellan of McLellan Marketing Group, who will present "3 Marketing Mistakes You Can't Afford to Make." The event begins at 11:30 a.m. at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, 700 Locust St., Suite #100, Des Moines. The cost is $10 for members and $12 for nonmembers. Register by e-mailing caspenceri@dmacc.edu.

Breakfast Before Business
Wednesday, Oct. 15
The West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce will host a Breakfast Before Business networking event from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. at Bryton Cos., 1466 28th St., Suite #100. Register by calling 225-6009.

New member reception
Wednesday, Oct. 15
The Ankeny Area Chamber of Commerce will host a new member reception from 7:30 to 9:15 a.m. at its offices, 210 S. Ankeny Blvd. Learn more at www.ankeny.org.

Urbandale luncheon
Wednesday, Oct. 15
The Urbandale Chamber of Commerce will host a luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Foxboro Business & Conference Center, 6165 N.W. 86th St., Johnston. The cost is $20 for members and $25 at the door. Learn more at www.uniquelyurbandale.com.

Norwalk luncheon
Thursday, Oct. 16
The Norwalk Chamber of Commerce will host a luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Fellowship Community Church, 225 North Ave. The Greater Des Moines Partnership will disucss what it means to be a member of the organization. Learn more at www.norwalkchamber.org.

West Des Moines luncheon
Thursday, Oct. 16
The West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce will host a luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at its offices, 4200 Mills Civic Parkway. Monte Wyatt of ActionCOACH will discuss "Roadmap to Success for Business Owners." The cost is $10. Register by calling 225-6009.

Clive luncheon
Thursday, Oct. 16
The Clive Chamber of Commerce will host a luncheon from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Life Laser, 8816 Swanson Blvd., Suite E. The topic of discussion is laser therapy for smoking cessation, weight loss and pain management. Register by Wednesday by calling 222-5295. The event is free.

South Des Moines luncheon
Tuesday, Oct. 21
The South Des Moines Chamber of Commerce will host a luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Wakonda Club, 3915 Fleur Drive. Brette Ridge Mary Kneuven from the Make-A-Wish Foundation will be the featured speakers. The cost is $20 with reservations and $25 without. Register by calling Megan at 333-9779.

Johnston luncheon
Tuesday, Oct. 21
The Johnston Chamber of Commerce will host a luncheon from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. at its offices, 5408 N.W. 88th St., Suite #120. Dr. Mandy Mataya will discuss computer vision syndrome. Register by Friday by calling 276-9064.

Speed networking
Tuesday, Oct. 21
The Iowa Jaycees and Iowa Junior Chamber will host a speed-networking event from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Country Inn and Suites, 1350 N.W. 118th St., Clive. Learn more at www.iowajaycees.org.

Charitable Lunch 'N Learn
Wednesday, Oct. 22
The Greater Des Moines Young Professionals Connection will hold a its first Charitable Lunch 'N Learn from noon to 1 p.m. in the Arthur Davis Conference Center at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, 700 Locust St., Des Moines. The purpose of the event is to educate, engage and energize young people to get involved in their community. Learn more at www.ypcdsm.com.

Ignite Des Moines

Social Networking 2.0
Over the past year, Social Networking has taken the Internet by a storm. In its simplest form, social networking is an online cocktail party revolving around a common theme, interest or medium.  One of the hottest tools for exploiting the benefits of social networking is Twitter. Twitter is a Web site which allows you to write one hundred and forty character micro-blogs, which others can read in a scrolling "feed". Some Twitterers subscribe to Ignite hundreds of feeds, allowing them to be a part of dozens of simultaneous conversations. Sound confusing? It is actually very simple. Carolyn Elefant of www.myshingle.com, explains it best. Twitter bridges the gap between more passive online networking activities, such as blogging, and more traditional networking activities such as attending a sporting event with a prospective client.

Twitter Des Moines
A group of online entrepreneurs converting virtual conversations into real world handshakes may not seem all that unusual. What is unusual is that nowhere is this happening to a larger proportion of the population than right here in Des Moines. Des Moines "Tweeps" from sixteen to sixty not only share an exponentially expanding online conversation, but they regularly translate the conversation into impromptu real world meetings.

Coworking in the Capital City
One Tweep rising to the top of the local Twitter pack is entrepreneur Daniel Shipton. Shipton is the brains behind Iowa's first coworking venue, Impromptu Studio. After building an impressive following online -- as well as off -- Shipton has decided to give a little something back to his community. On Nov. 6, 2008, Shipton and Impromptu Studios will be hosting Ignite Des Moines.   

What is Ignite?
Ignite events revolve around a series of presenters allowed 20 slides and only five minutes to give what at most events would cover an hour or more of presentation time. This affords attendees the opportunity to take in a dozen highly-charged informative talks in the time it would otherwise take to see only one. The densely packed presentations are simultaneously informative and entertaining.

What Else Will I Experience?
In addition to the Ignite presentations, Ignite Des Moines will also include the 2008 Iowa Web Awards presentation by 48 Web, free food and libations, and an egg catapult engineering contest. The entire event is free and wraps up with several "150 second Expert" presentations. These closing presentations involve experts reprising their rapid-fire presentation style, albeit using slides they have never seen before and covering a topic far outside of their own expertise.  As results range from the hilarious to the often embarrassing they are not recommended for the easily offended.   

Most Importantly
While Shipton has gone out of his way to ensure the Ignite Des Moines program rivals that of much larger cities, the real draw is the Ignite community. From artists to entrepreneurs to those just interested in learning more about the vibrant entrepreneurial environment thriving in Greater Des Moines, Ignite Des Moines will draw people of all ages, experiences and backgrounds. The only commonality is that the attendees are all people you should get to know.

See you there!

Brett Trout

In Bad or Good Economic Times, the Answer is Networking

In tough economic times, young professionals have to rely more than ever on what they can bring to the table. Let's consider that there has been frequent talk about the pending boomer transfer and its collision with the brain drain. Young_business_people The belief has been that these two phenomenas will lead to a bear market of job availability. However, for many YPs and others watching or experiencing this economic downturn it doesn't appear as if that is true.

Reality is the brain drain is already here and has been here for quite sometime. Statistically, post college age professionals have been leaving the Midwest for years for more southern or coastal megaregions, at a ratio of six to one.

As for the boomer transfer, tough economic times might delay the transfer, but it will happen. The interesting thing about a market cycle is its cyclical effect and the ability to predict certain realities, even amongst the unknown. So the real question for Young Professionals is "How do I rise above the fray?" How do I set myself apart?" "How do I make myself professionally desirable?" The answer to those questions don't rely in inflated resumes or a checkoff list, but rather something quite simple- Networking.

When I mention networking,  I don't mean your standard predictable business card meet and greet, but more like an serial, authentic drive to build relationships. Building relationships goes beyond just getting to know someone, but establishing what at their core makes them tick, then  giving them something that is of value.  This type of Networking is similar to that Midamerican Energy slogan "obsessively, relentlessly, at your service.

Previous generations relied more heavily on the resumes and took a more analytical static approach, even though what was binding these positions still ended up being the impact of the relationships, that won't work as well anymore.The emerging workforce generation places more emphasis on the social realm, but A.) how deep our those relationships B.) how broad our those relationships, to test this out compare the number of friends on a Facebook or Linkedin page versus the varying degrees of familiarity  those said friends.

An obsessive networker bent on building long term professional relationships,will constantly be tilling and cultivating her network, in order to rise above the crowd. In order for the young professional to best position himself, professional relationship building has to be a priority, otherwise in bad economic times your left out in the cold, and during good economic times your left for something more hot.

Just Looking, Thanks!

I’ve been selling something as long as I can remember. I worked at a retail store in high school where I sold things like $30 jeans (that was a lot back then), and in college I sold drinks to thirsty students (not a difficult sale). I’ve sold integrated marketing services and for over 10 years I have been involved in executive recruiting, which has to rank up there with the most complex of all sales. I’ve learned a lot about sales over the past 15 years and some of the simplest lessons I’ve learned are the most important.

In the world of life insurance, which my family has been involved in for decades, Jack and Garry Kinder operate the best sales training organization in the business. Kinder Brothers International specializes in management training and sales training as it relates to all facets of the selling profession, and in their thirty-year history, they’ve worked with over 300 clients worldwide. Recently Garry Kinder published a book titled 50 Lessons in 50 Years.
Lesson #48 says don’t waste time with those who waste your time.

"Some people are time wasters. I tell young (life insurance) agents if the client says they want to think it over or they want to compare, hand them your business card and ask them to please give you a call once they’ve had a chance to think it over or compare. If they call you, great! If they don’t, you haven’t wasted your time with someone who’s wasting your time."

If you’re in the business of sales long enough you learn to quickly discern the tire kickers. Their motivations may be different but the result is almost always the same. Not only did you not make a sale but also you lost the time and the opportunity to truly be helping someone who needs your product or service.

So how do you discern the tire kickers in your business?

Protect Yourself from Employment Lawsuits While the Economy Tanks

America is the middle of an economic crisis.  Many pundits say this is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Perhaps your business is tightening its belt and considering how to weather this awful period.  I am sure cutting costs is on the top of your list.

Lawyer and employment-law consultant Shanti Atkins warns that one place seniorBlog management shouldn't skimp is on essential employment law training.  Employment law training should never be considered discretionary, especially in a downturn.  In an excellent blog post on the topic, Atkins references a study published in the Stanford law review that points out what happens to employment claims during an economic downturn:

  • When the economy goes into a recession, there is a dramatic increase in the number of employment lawsuits filed in federal court.  A scarcity of alternative employment serves as a catalyst for litigation.
  • The single largest predictor in the long-term growth trend of case filings is the national unemployment rate.  When the economy booms, employment discrimination case filings fall in the next half-year; when the economy slumps, case filings rise over the next half-year.  This phenomenon explains roughly 95 percent of the variance in the number of cases filed.  A modest rise in the current unemployment rate from 4 percent to 5.5 percent could generate a 21 percent increase in the number of employment discrimination claims.
  • The average damage award to a successful plaintiff rises in business downturns, particularly with respect to employment discrimination suits.  Because the length of time it takes for a plaintiff to find another job increases in a recessionary economy, monetary awards are elevated.

These factors should be alarming to business owners.  So what can you do to protect yourself from the rise in employment lawsuits? I recommend building an ark.  Here's how:

  1. Treat Employees with Respect:  Seems like a basic philosophy, but it is amazing how many employers forget to treat their employees with respect.  Employees that are humiliated or treated in a disrespectful way are much more likely to sue your company.
  2. Communicate with Your Employees:  First, make sure you have an effective employee handbook with up-to-date employment policies and publicize your policies to employees.  Make sure you follow your policies.  One of the easiest ways to land in an employee lawsuit is the failure to follow your employment policies.  Also make sure you have an open door policy where employees are allowed to voice their concerns or complaints.  Do not let complaints fester.  Deal with them right away.
  3. Implement an Effective Unlawful Discrimination and Harassment Policy:  Your harassment policy should include more than just sexual harassment.  There may be other forms of harassment based upon race, religion, age or disability.  It is also critical to consistently train employees and supervisors regarding unlawful harassment and discrimination.  You should train employees on harassment and discrimination issues at least once every year.
  4. Document, Document, Document:  The importance of good record keeping cannot be overstated.  If you don't have something in writing, chances are a jury or judge may not believe it happened.  Be sure to document even verbal warnings and maintain an appropriate personnel file in order to make sure the documentation is not lost.
  5. Conduct Honest Employee Evaluations on a Regular Basis:  Unless your company is headquartered in Lake Wobegon every employee is probably not above average.  Evaluations can be valuable proof in an employment lawsuit.  Make sure poor performance is properly documented.  Otherwise, the judge or jury will not believe you when you say the employee performed poorly but all their evaluations are excellent.  You should conduct the evaluations on a regular basis, usually at least once per year.  I recently represented a client sued for discrimination.  A key in defending the case was the honest performance appraisals performed by management.
  6. Do Not Retaliate:  Employers are often blindsided by retaliation claims.  There are a number of proactive measures you can take in order to avoid liability for retaliation claims.  It is important to avoid retaliation because recent cases have lowered the burden for plaintiffs to prove their retaliation claims and the number of retaliation claims from plaintiffs is continually on the rise.
  7. Take Action and Investigate Promptly: If a complaint arises, make sure you take the complaint seriously and investigate promptly.  A quick and thorough investigation may help eliminate problems before you have a real mess.  You will need to consider who should conduct the internal investigation.
  8. Comply with Wage and Hour Laws:  Ensure your exempt employees (i.e., salaried employees) are properly classified as exempt under the law.  Wage and hour claims are also on the rise and could result in a class action against your company.  This is a common area of the law that is ignored by many employers and could result in significant liability.
  9. Review and Update Your Employee Handbook and/or Policies:  You should at least review your policies to incorporate any changes in the law or your manner of doing business.
  10. Conduct Regular Employment Law Training: As Shanti Atkins says, employment law training is so much more than "training" - it is bottom line risk management.

You may not have predicted the economic downturn. But following these steps can help reduce the chances of a successful employment lawsuit.   To ensure that your company has done everything it can to avoid employee lawsuits, you should have your employment policies, training and practices reviewed by your employment lawyer.

Are you a cryptic informer? Or a hoarder?

Try this quiz:

  • Do you provide all the information that people need to know to do their jobs and to feel good about being a member of the team or a part of your organization?
  • Do you provide individuals with the information they need to make accurate decisions?
  • Are you timely with the information that you do provide?

It seems so obvious, doesn't it? How could you be in a leadership position--whether a team lead, a mid-level manager, or a C-level executive -- and answer anything other than "yes" to those three questions above?

Here's the rub. A lot of the executives I work with every day tell me they do these things. And I think they're sincere; they believe they do. But they don't. They might:Blog

  • Hoard information or not see sharing it as important
  • Tell too little (or too much...which is also damaging)
  • Tell too late
  • Be inconsistent, informing some people better than others
  • Use their favorite mode (email? oral?) all the time, appropriate or not

People want and need to understand what's going on around them. Obviously it's not possible --or necessary --for everyone to know everything. Ask yourself, "What do people need to know so they are well equipped to do their jobs well?" Do they know:

  1. As much as possible about their jobs? This is a no-brainer and applies to everyone on the payroll. You can't give people too much information about their own jobs.
  2. How their role fits within the team and the department and the organization?
  3. The overall vision for the enterprise? What's happening within the industry? The "big picture?"

Because it seems like a simple skill, we often take it for granted that we're doing it well. If you're not sure how well you do at "informing," ask some trusted team members and peers  (...who will be honest with you) to assess your performance on the eleven basic qualities and questions listed above. Then, when you do, accept that feedback as a valuable gift, because you've just been informed about your foundational status as a leader. Good luck!

Take The Leap

Life is boring, work is boring, you are stuck in a rut and need some new excitement.  This isBlog_2 when it may be time to take a flying leap into unknown territory. Quit thinking and do it.

I am sure you have heard at work that it is time for change, yet nothing really ever changes.   If you want to see significant change in your organization, then get started with action.  Getting employees doing vs. thinking, will create quicker change. I am a big believer in planning and thinking things through, but do not get the "analysis paralysis" disease or in simple terms "all talk and no show".  Getting employees involved in the change that will impact their work days will get you much higher buy in and less skepticism.

No matter what area you want to change in your business - get your employees involved will produce better results.  Please remember to be patient, give them ample time, and be the cheerleader not the impatient leader of old.

Be the leader that takes the leap first, gives the tools to the organization to do the same, and then gets out of the way of the tsunami of creativity and energy that will be unleashed.

Using "vuja de" to be Innovative and Creating a Dynamic IT Environment; Part Two

Like I stated in my previous post, the concept of “dynamic IT” has been around for a few years now and has started to gain some traction. But not as much as it really could (or should). The “dynamic IT” concept and push for innovation go hand-in-hand here. By taking the vuja dé idea, IT and the business should be looking at and understanding what capabilities exist in the marketplace that they aren’t taking full advantage of, moving on them and then using them to improve the way they do business today.Blog

A word of caution first; An enormous divide exists, albeit the gap is starting to close quickly. But the business still faces the accelerating challenge to be more dynamic. IT has historically responded slowly to changing business needs. This divide can be very evident in fast-cycle industries such as high-tech manufacturing, consumer goods, et cetera, where the speed of business cycles often outstrips the speed with which IT can react to new market demands.

Here is where IT needs to be utilizing vuja dé more now than in any time in history. Virtualization and other technologies allow IT to break the old traditional ways IT has worked and really provide that flexible infrastructure that is needed. To use another quote from a previous post where Jim Champy said, "For the first time in history we can work backward from our imagination rather than forward from our past".

Again; vuja dé

I’ve mentioned ‘dynamic IT’ many times in this post and I’m sure you’re asking “so what are the drivers for a more dynamic IT?” In my experience of getting vuja dé wit it (sorry for the Will Smith reference), the most pressing needs driving the dynamic IT shift are:

  • Speed
  • Performance
  • Cost

I see these top drivers mapping directly into two paths that organizations are taking as they develop a more dynamic IT capability, focused on improving:

Business strategy automation and execution:

  • Focus on responding faster to changing business needs by improving the ability to quickly deliver and integrate applications, data and work flow that support new business requirements and improve productivity.
  • Use IT to monitor business performance and speed the business’ operational adjustments to market changes and supporting policy-driven actions. This comes from developing key metrics in conjunction with the business side and pro-actively monitoring and making tactical adjustments as needed to ensure success.

IT operations management and automation:

  • Focus on delivering higher service-level performance in support of the business and lowering the cost of infrastructure on which the business applications depend.
  • Link, monitor, and manage – end-to-end – all IT operational elements that support a business activity, from hardware and system software to business applications, data, work flow and business process.

There are two key areas where I see IT management focusing. On the “business strategy automation and execution” side of things, they need to focus on using virtualization and other technologies to create new business value through IT by moving more quickly and cost-effectively in developing/integrating the applications, data and work flow that support business process execution. From the “IT operations management and automation” perspective, we (IT) need to increase IT efficiency and performance. To do that we must deliver better IT operating performance in support of the business and lower IT operating costs by:

  1. Automating labor-intensive tasks
  2. Developing end-to-end management capabilities
  3. Reducing the “hardwired” inflexibility through more virtualization (i.e. desktops, storage, et cetera)

There are lots of challenges here and I’m hoping that with a little vuja dé you will see that the many technologies out there can help put you more into the "dynamic IT" set and make great things happen for your company.

Is it time to give telecommuting another look?

As I brainstorm with individuals and organizations on ways to improve work-life balance, one of the options that comes up is telecommuting.

The thought makes some employers bristle, for sure... the possibility of lost hours of production due to the distractions of home...  the laundry calling... the dog barking in the hopes of a walk...  phone calls from friends.

But many leaders and companies are giving it a second look, for a number of reasons beyond work-life balance.

Interestingly enough, studies have shown that creating flexibility through strategies like telecommuting can have a positive impact on loyalty AND productivity. 

I'll post more on these in the future, but for today I wanted to look as some other timely reasons companies are making the switch.

Going green is one reason. As many companies are trying to become more environmentally friendly, they look to telecommuting to help. In fact, one study found that telecommuting cut gas consumption in the U.S. by 840 million gallons last year.Telecommute

Another reason is higher gas prices.  In fact, the recent increases at the pump has pushed telecommuting out of its "Just for the Young Employees" category, and made it a perk that appeals to all ages and all levels of management. One recent study of IT executives showed that 33% of the execs studied had increased the days they telecommuted last year.

Improvements in technology are opening up these possibilities as well. 

For example, I was recently conducting some generational training with a client and the issue of telecommuting came up. 

One executive quickly dismissed it by saying "That's something we tried last year, but it didn't work."

But another exec in the room quickly responded by bringing up the fact that some of their recent software upgrades would allow for a lot more flexibility and remote access.

So, they are going to give it another look.

How about you? Is it time to give it a try?

If so, here are a few tips to consider:

  • Start slow
    • Find certain groups or projects to test it with
    • Set specific parameters and measure impact on performance and productivity (Many companies have seen an increase in production!)
    • Pick projects or jobs that allow for clear benchmarks for productivity
  • Another tip is to offer it as a reward
    • Offer telecommuting as an option for employees that have proven themselves
    • Let it be a carrot for consistently providing excellent work and for working well independently

What do you think?

Where have you tried it?

How could it work for you? How has it worked for you? What tips would you offer?

Click "comments" below and jump in the conversation!

For some additional ideas, check out Telework Coalition.

photo credit: sean dreilinger

One word can change the meaning of your contract

Confused_contract_2 Whether you are signing a lease for some office space, purchasing a home, bidding on a job, or selling your business, you’ll have to sign a contract.

When you do … be aware of the small print.

Many contracts have a hold harmless agreement or indemnity clauses that can cause future repercussions to you after you have signed your lease, completed your contracted work, or even sold your business.   

So what does this have to do with insurance?

Surprisingly it has a lot to do with it.

Often times there will be insurance requirement language as well as a request for the leasing company or business to be added to your policy. This is typically done through an endorsement.

Agents are often asked to add an additional insured to an insurance policy and/or provide clients with a certificates of insurance. This endorsement actually provides coverage to those additional parties should a loss occur and can protect their interest as well.

Now make no mistake, we are not attorney’s. However, your insurance agent should be your adviser to help you manage your risk.

Your agent should be aware of the language in your contract, not to advise, but to ensure that your policy is endorsed properly and that you are protected.

Managing risk is vital to any business owner. If you don’t have coverage in place when you need it, it can be detrimental to your business -- not only with liability, but with all other costs associated with a loss.

Most people only associate insurance with liability, but in reality it is so much more than that. It’s protection for loss of income, extra expenses you could incur, reimbursement for your property damage, defense coverage and more.   

Unfortunately, sometimes people don’t read their contracts before they sign them. Maybe they compare it to reading their insurance policy. A lot of words that may not make sense, so why bother?

What is really concerning is when they don’t have their attorney review it prior to signing. This is where problems can begin.

So the next time you enter into a contract, you may want to think about having an attorney look it over.

An attorney can consult with your agent, review and explain the contract to you and offer suggestions to make sure that your best interests are protected.

You may be surprised by this … but contracts are negotiable. So if you happen to find yourself entering into a contract and are seeing words like: 

  • any
  • all
  • persons
  • whatsoever
  • nature
  • whole
  • wholly
  • directly
  • indirectly

...you may want to seek your attorney’s advice prior to signing it.

Vanilla, Please

Vanilla_ice_cream_coneI'm currently in New Orleans speaking at the local PMI chapter event:  Project Management All Jazzed Up. It's been a wonderful visit, and I've enjoyed sharing with fellow practitioners how to become more creative and how to build "office politics proofing" into their project plans.

One workshop I attended yesterday was entitled "Fight for the cause" by Lisa DiTullio. Wow! She was an amazing speaker who exuded credibility, having pulled off an incredible multi-million dollar project recovery for a major health-care insurance institution in Boston.

What impressed me about her presentation was not a lot of flash or theory, however. Lisa and I are actually kindred spirits:  we like simplicity. She told a story of being a young girl in south suburban Boston and going with her large Italian family for ice cream every Sunday afternoon. Given all of the flavors to choose from, she always selected vanilla.

Why? Well, the flavor of vanilla is basic. It maintains its integrity. It's simple, without pretense. And it's very easy to accessorize. You can add just about any ice cream condiment to vanilla ice cream and it improves both. Having watched my daughter request sour gummi worms with her bubble gum ice cream, I know there are combinations which no rationally thinking person should attempt.

How vanilla are your project management processes? Are you easily wowed by the chocolaty richness of Lean Manufacturing? What about the fruitiness of Six Sigma? The big problem with these is that they leave little room for flexibility. Is there a nutty consultant who has sold you their "flavor of the month"? The templates for these methodologies work well if you stay strictly within their confines. Lisa and I talked for a long time yesterday after our respective workshops were finished, and we realized that while we're both pro-process, we're anti-methodology. We like to keep things simple in our project processes and then accessorize to fit the situation. We may pull in a tool from Lean or Six Sigma, or we may just make up a new "flavor" depending on the need. But by going vanilla, we keep our flexibility intact.

Are you afraid of project management because of the complexity of some of the methodologies out there? Are you overwhelmed by the sheer volume? I have a book on my shelf at home of project templates - it's over two inches THICK. I rarely reference it. It's easy to become spooked by project management. Hence, I choose to manage my projects with a foundation of only four documents:

Then you can accessorize this "vanilla" project management with additional tools and templates... AS THEY ARE NEEDED.  How can you make your project management more vanilla to maximize both flavor and flexibility?

Carpe Factum!

Creating a Customer Experience Framework

Every company is going to struggle to create and deliver a consistent customer experience. It only gets more complicated when you have a wide range of employees from competent to clueless. To that end, many companies adopt a quality program designed to make sure employees interact with customers a particular way.

One common mistake that companies make is to recognize the difference between creating a "framework" for delivering a common experience and creating a minion of impersonal robots.

Let's take greeting a customer, for example. Let's say your goal is for each customer to be greeted in a friendly, personable, invited way. If possible, you want to build on your brand recognition.Blog_2

A "framework" for your employees would include certain elements that you'd like them to consistently include when greeting customers:

  • A salutation ("Good morning", "Hi", "Welcome to...", "Good afternoon!" et cetera)
  • Use customer's name (if it's a familiar customer)
  • Inviting question ("What can I get you?" "How can I help you today?")
  • Personalization (e.g. Telling a mom with kids "Looks like you've got your hands full today!" or a customer dripping from the rain "It's tough to stay dry on day like today, isn't it?")

The key with providing your employees a "Framework" of behavioral elements is that they can find a way to apply the "Frame" while letting their own personality and style shine through. Each employee can find phrasing and style that is comfortable for them and gives it their own personal twist.

The "robotic minions" style of service delivery is to give your employees a script and ask them to parrot it to every customer no matter who walks in the door and no matter what the circumstance:

"Welcome to Wenger Widgets where our widgets create a wonderful world. My name is Tom. It will be my pleasure to assist you. Could I interest you in our "Winsome Widget" today?"

Yuck! Even the best employees with the most positive of attitudes will tire of such a script - not to mention the customers who must sit and endure it.

To create a consistent customer experience, throw the script away. Provide your employees with a well-constructed framework of behaviors and then help them personalize it.

How to market your company during an economic downtown

It's a well-known fact that the first victims of economic downturns are advertising and marketing budgets. As a company, how you do maintain your brand's presence and top-of-mind status with very few dollars to spend?

One of the things you'd want to look at is reaching out to online communities as aBlog_2 representative of your company and starting/joining conversations there. In most cases this is completely free, and requires only a time commitment and some knowledge of digital community best practices.

Here are the fundamentals you'll need to know:

1.) Choose online communities that are relevant to your services or product. Selling off-road vehicles or ATVs? Why not jump into the Iowa Outdoors forum and see what they're chattering about.

2.) Listen and mingle first. Behave like you would at a cocktail party. Mill around for a bit, find pockets of like-minded people and start conversations, or join those already in progress. Don't run up, grab the mic, and start screaming about what you have to sell. Be human.

As far as time is concerned - get started by dedicating a few hours per week. Like with any marketing effort, you get out of it what you put into it. The more time and passion you throw into this the better your results will be.

Form relationships instead of fleeting "impressions." Recently, two Des Moines-area companies have sponsored TweetUps (meetups for Central Iowa Twitter users). SmartyPig hosted an event, complete with prizes and giveaways, at a location that could only be discovered through a digital treasure hunt. Paragon IT is sponsoring a TweetUp this Thursday evening to better connect themselves with local entrepreneurs and business leaders. These are both fantastic examples of companies that have embraced Twitter as a low-cost marketing tool. (Full disclosure: I was involved in the creation of the SmartyPig event.)

Marketers, don't let the downturn slow down your efforts. With a little savvy and a few best practices there are thousands of affordable (and sometimes free) options social media channels that you can take advantage of.

The perks of running for high office, and your own business

There are plenty of drawbacks to running for president, but there is at least one perk, of sorts:Blog_2 free tax advice. Candidates have taken to releasing there tax returns in recent elections. This gives them access to the collective wisdom of an Internet full of armchair tax advisers.

When Barack Obama released his 2000-2006 tax returns, the blog world noticed that Mr. and Mrs. Obama had not opened a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan. The SEP, a glorified IRA, enables self-employed taxpayers to deduct up to 25% of their self-employment income when they contribute it to a SEP-IRA account. Sen. Obama's income came from his writing; his wife had consulting income.

You can set up and fund a SEP as late as the due date of your return. The only documentation required is a Form 5305-SEP for your records and a deposit to your SEP account with your friendly banker or broker by April 15 - or October 15 - if you extend your 1040. You may be able to contribute as much as $46,000 to a SEP for 2008.

SEPs aren't just for politicians. They are available to any business. Because they generally require proportionate contributions for all employees, they are most popular with self-employed taxpayers. While they aren't as flexible as other qualified plans, they are the easiest to run, and they are the only kind that can be set up after year-end.

Senator Obama's free advice didn't go unheeded. The Obamas' 2007 return featured $45,000 in SEP contributions -- saving $15,000 for taking money from one pocket and putting it in another.

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