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April 2010

When Your Personal Attention Is Needed

We are fortunate to live in age where there are so many ways to stay connected in our business and personal lives. It’s amazing to think that Facebook, a tool that has been around fewer than five years, last month reached 400 million active users and became the most visited Web site in the U.S.



But recently, I was reminded of just how instrumental face-to-face meetings can be in achieving business goals. Last week, more than 800 individuals from my organization gathered in Des Moines for our annual leadership meeting. The volume of advice shared, ideas generated and relationships solidified made me realize that the value created by this event would be extremely tough to duplicate by any virtual means.


Even though many of us are faced with tighter budgets and new economic realities, it’s a good idea to think about the times in your business cycles when meeting in person will pay great dividends. In a global survey of Harvard Business Review subscribers, 95 percent of respondents cited face-to-face meetings as a key factor in successfully building and maintaining long-term relationships. More than half of the respondents mentioned the following reasons to have in-person meetings:

·  Meeting new clients to sell business

·  Contract negotiations

·  Understanding/listening to important customers

·  Identifying new growth opportunities

·  Building relationships/managing geographically dispersed teams


According to a 2009 Forbes Insights Survey, business executives, while relying more heavily on remote meetings than compared to a year prior (mainly for budgetary reasons), believe long-distance meetings frequently suffer from:

·     Reduced attention spans

·     Inability to inspire or build morale

·     Challenges for some participants to gain recognition

·     Difficulty to build trust


Of course, in our personal lives it’s just as important to make the effort to “be there” to grow our bonds with friends and loved ones. Relatively new communication tools such as Skype, which now has more than 20 million people using its service at peak times, have certainly filled a need for affordable and more engaging communication. However, even video conferencing can fall short when it comes to conveying emotion or allowing participants to act naturally.


I can’t help but think about one of my senior staff members who recently located from the Quad-Cities to Des Moines six months before her family could join her. Phone calls, e-mail, Skype and other technologies helped her stay connected with her family during the workweek, but now that they are all together again she let me know that tech-enabled communication pales in comparison to the real thing. Sharing dinner together, tucking kids into bed and generally being together are tough to re-create digitally.


The types of moments where we should make the effort to be together come in many forms and vary for us all. 

Think about where in your business and personal lives there might be a need to boost the amount of personal presence. Our time is precious these days, so consider spending it by cultivating those relationships that mean the most.

Get the referrals that are best for you!

97892907 We all know that the best way to win new business is to have your old vendors and customers introduce you to your potential new customers.  Referrals and word of mouth are about transferred trust based on the previous relationship and allow you to bypass many of the initial dance steps.

But is everyone a good referral source?  Or do you need to be strategic about who you ask to be a referral source.  Let’s face it, some clients and vendors are better referrals than others. 

But I think it goes beyond that. Before you can know which clients are best suited to help you grow your business, you'd better know what you are best suited to deliver.  

As we've talked about before, branding is for the bold.  When you have the courage to define your organization's brand, by default you are also saying that you're not going to try to be everything to everyone.  Branding is about narrowing your focus and your reach.  You will not cast your net as wide.  But you will drill down a lot deeper.  But before you can ask someone to sell you, you’ve got to help them understand who is a good fit and who isn't.

So think about that.  How would you explain to someone else who your best customer is?  I'm guessing the answer to that question is tied to what you do best.

What is it that makes your offering unique?  What can you own?  When you're being as objective and honest as possible -- what are you better at than just about anyone else?

Describe that work...and the people you do it for to your referral sources.  Give them a crystal clear picture of the best you.  Then, ask them who, in their circle of influence, might you be able to genuinely help.

Concentrate your energy in terms of actively soliciting referrals within your area of expertise.  Honor your brand.  Actively grow your business within your brand.  Drill deeper.  And ask your best clients to help!

~ Drew

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We're Talking About Practice ... to Improve Sales

The above clip is the reaction of 11-time NBA All-Star Allen Iverson after his former coach, Larry Brown, made public comments regarding Iverson's practice attendance and focus. Iverson is one of the most naturally gifted players to ever play the game. In fact, early in his career their was speculation that Iverson might surpass Michael Jordan as the greatest ever. However, as you can see, Iverson may not have appreciated the role that practice could play in his (and his team's) ultimate success.

Of course most of us accept that athletes must practice. Practice is basically part of the job description.  However, when the subject of practice comes up in sales, the reaction can be something similar to that of Allen Iverson.  Below are a few.

"My sales are great.  Why should I practice?"

If this is your reaction to practicing your sales process, you may be a Naturally Gifted sales person.  Don't settle being great when compared to everyone else.  Practice to achieve your full potential.

"I don't have time to practice.  I'm too busy trying to make sales."

Are you really just Unorganized?  Perhaps you have some semblance of a sales system,  but you don't really know it thus you can't really practice following it and no improvements can be made.  Learn and practice it and your percentage of successful execution will increase.  You will still be busy, but it will be closing sales instead of chasing them.

"Role play?"  Gulp!

Are you Fearful or Self-conscious?  Most are when it comes to role playing ... and most who try a career in sales struggle.  Coincidence?  The bottom line is that you have to get uncomfortable to get comfortable, so practice!

"Each situation is unique.  How can I practice?"

Sounds like there is No Process.  There is nothing to practice.  Read some books, take a class, hire a sales consultant.  Do whatever it takes to develop a process that you can practice.  Otherwise, unless you are naturally gifted, you won't survive long.

As a business owner or a professional sales person, you have the opportunity to help many other businesses and people by helping to solve their problems and reach their aspirations.

Don't limit your own impact by failing to practice!

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Knowing You Don't Know

The Lost Hindu Temple in the Jungle MistImage by Stuck in Customs via Flickr

Knowledge is power, they say, and when we don't know, we tend to feel powerless and afraid. And yet, being able to embrace and accept a certain level of unknowing is a good thing.

Like the old Hasidic rabbi who crossed the village square every morning on his way to the temple to pray. One morning, a large Cossack soldier, who happened to be in a vile mood, accosted him, saying, "Hey, Rebby, where are you going?"

And the rabbi said, "I don't know."

This infuriated the Cossack. "What do you mean, you don't know? Every morning for 25 years you have crossed the village square and gone to the temple to pray. Don't fool with me. Who are you, telling me you don't know?"

He grabbed the old rabbi by the coat and dragged him off to jail. Just as he was about to push him into a cell, the rabbi turned to him, saying, "You see, I didn't know."

Leaders can fall into the trap of seeing their role as the one who should know it all -- and then worse yet, think they do! We are so used to instant gratification, faster computers and microwaved food. We want instant weather, stock quotes, public-opinion polls and interest rates on our Blackberries and iPhones. We find it hard to let things go unknown or unfinished for very long. We want to know immediately what's going to happen next, don't we?

But in the end, the most important things many times show themselves slowly, and in their own time.

Edward Gibbon conceived his history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire while listening to a choir of monks at vespers. Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg was nagged by the problem of how nuclear reactions produce the heat of the sun -- until it came to him one day unbidden as he was driving around Boston in his red Camaro. The idea for the microwave oven came to Percy Spencer one day when a chocolate bar melted in his pocket as he stood in front of a magnetron, the microwave tube used to power radar.

Sometimes our greatest insights come when we don't know, and know that we don't know...but we're open to the prospect of the "knowing" showing up unexpectedly. Like Archimedes who allegedly discovered the law of gravity while taking a bath. Who would have known?

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Planting Seeds

4152434736_6bc52547f8 Spring has arrived and it is time to plant the seeds that will blossom into flowers, fruits and vegetables.  The process takes time, patience and nurturing. 

Organizational change follows a very similar process. The timing of organizational change is critical, as is the timing of planting the seeds for organizational change. The introduction of an idea, concept or vision of change can easily fail if is not planned well.

Implementing change randomly or following the latest fad typically results in lack luster results. To increase your chances of success, plant the idea of change early and let it slowly evolve with the influence of others.  When the time is right, nurture it, feed it and let it grow into the fabric of the organization. In time, change occurs and the organization improves in a natural and powerful way.

 Flickr photo by organic gardening association

In Hot Water

Hot_water_heater Todd Razor, our intrepid editor here at IowaBiz, knows that I push the envelope for completing my articles on time.  But he also knows my track record for doing so, and he no longer panics with e-mails or phone calls the evening before a post is due.

This is one time we may have had an exception to that rule.

At 9:35 p.m., I sat down to write my post on project management for Iowabiz.  I was thinking something nice and green in honor of Earth Day 2010.  Oops... need to check on something in the basement.  Hey, what's this wet spot?  And this one?  And this one?  We've NEVER had water in our basement.  I called my wife down.  She went into bloodhound mode (she's really good that that) and was able to isolate the growing puddle to our hot water heater.  Our 14-year-old-now-rusted-out-on-the-bottom water heater.

We were in hot water.  Literally.

We scrambled to pick up some of the critical items, which generally don't play nice with a growing circle of wetness (stacks of my books, for one), and got things to higher ground.  We called our neighbor, a handyman-extraordinaire, who was able to give us some good names of plumbers. He said he would get right on it first thing in the morning (so I hope by the time you read this, there is a plumber at my house).  We also shut off the water and the gas to the current hot water heater.

So... that brings me back to my IowaBiz article.  And I'm wondering how YOU handle the crisis-laden curve balls which come out of nowhere and land smack-dab in the middle of your nicely laid-out schedule. John Lawlor wrote a great post summarizing Business Continuity Planning for the organization, and many of his elements apply to projects.  There are a few add-ons I'd like to make to keep you out of hot water:

  1. Maintain your project - make sure the infrastructure of your project is sound, that you are tracking issues and status regularly, that you are doing a pulse check, and that you make sure there's no "rust" or "leaks" showing.
  2. Alert early - a small part of me wanted to ignore the water when I first saw it.  My wife and I were both busy.  One of the kids must have just spilled something.  But there was enough evidence of something wrong, I had to let my key stakeholder know what was up.
  3. Diagnose the right problem and cause(s) - our first thought was that we had water seeping up from the ground.  But that didn't make sense, given the fact that we'd never had that problem prior.  We wondered about possible leaks from upstairs.  It was only after we pulled back the carpeting, saw the water (and its directional movement) that we were able to figure out the source of the problem.  Be prepared to do some detective work and don't jump to conclusions.
  4. Know your go-to people - I called my neighbor once we knew what was going on.  He deals with this kind of thing all the time, so he told us what to do and how to do it.  Then he promised to have his contact call us first thing in the morning.  Know who your project go-to people are, and treat them with the respect they deserve for covering your tail.
  5. Solve it quickly - I'll be heading to the hardware store in the morning to buy a new hot water heater, and doing what it takes to get it installed quickly and correctly.  When one lives in a house with three females, lack of hot water is an emergency not to be taken lightly.  On your projects, when the solution is evident, don't mess around.  SOLVE IT.  It may mean unpleasant things like firing people, but this is where the "Carpe Factum" mindset comes in handy.

So now it's after midnight and I'm just NOW finishing my post.  I'm still on time for that, despite the huge set-back in my otherwise perfectly-planned evening.

At least my mishap provided some needed last-minute inspiration.

Carpe Factum!

How the Economic Recovery will Further the Iowa Age Drain

Map of USA with Iowa highlightedImage via Wikipedia

Iowa has joined the rest of the country in turning the corner on the recession, with each of the workforce generations playing a key role in those efforts.

But Iowa’s economic recovery will come slower than other parts of the country, due to our lack of job growth. This may have further consequences then we realize.

According to a new study from Price Waterhouse Coopers, Generations X and Y will fuel the shopping growth needed to spur an economic recovery. Though Gen X is only about 75 percent of the size of the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations, they will mostly be responsible for the spending that is needed to fuel the economic recovery since Boomers need to recoup wealth lost during the recession of the past few years and Millennials don’t make enough money.

On the other hand, nationally, Boomers are participating in the "Gray Revolution" and are being sought to fill in job gaps, provide temporary relief, or better yet, jump into “just in time” assignments that call for more expertise and shorter commitments. There’s been an increase in human resources departments designing age-friendly practices to attract, retain and promote Boomers. Companies looking to expedite their own recovery will find this pool of wisdom workers inviting.

Millennials face a new problem in establishing their role in the recovery. Undoubtedly, Millennials are helping significantly with both the shopping growth and labor pool. However, Millennials' ages serve as a double-edged sword. They do not providing enough money or experience to lead these main functions of recovery, though their resilience, technically skills, and optimism play a crucial role in helping to sustain recovery and set the prevailing mood.

For Iowa, especially the timing of our recovery, Millennials role may have additional impacts, particularly in the coming months as another year of Millennials enter the workforce. While the rest of the nation is already in the midst of recovery, many Iowa Millennials will once again be enticed to emigrate on notions of job opportunities and income growth in warmer climates.

Many will never return. The one silver lining: the U.S. Census occurs in the spring.

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The more you know about your customers...

...the more you know how (or if) you can help them.

People are motivated by both pain and pleasure.  In this case, let's talk pain. If you relieve someone's pain, you can become a very valuable and highly valued business partner or supplier. Stress is a pretty clear indicator of a pain point for a person. If they're stressed out about it -- it's causing them some pain.

Which is why I found a recent study released by a company called the Continuum Crew, a firm that specializes in understanding mature audiences, so fascinating.

Their survey looked at the following generational groups:

  • Ikes (adults 64-75 years old)
  • Leading Edge Boomers (adults 55-63 years old)
  • Generation Jones Boomers (adults 45-54 years old)
  • GenXers (adults 35-44 years old)

I would guess that those four generational groups cover most of your customers, right?  So do you know what causes them the most stress?  Is it the economy?  Losing their job?  Trouble in their relationship?

Take a look at this chart and I think you'll be surprised. What I found most interesting is how the stresses shift over the generations. Job stress makes sense. As you near retirement age, the work worries should decline. I do have to wonder what the Gen. Jones folks know about relationship management that the generations before and after them haven't mastered.


How could you use these insights to serve your customers better?  

If this is your core customer base or you find the subject fascinating...check out Continuum Crew's blog, Boomers in the Wild.

Of course, this study is just one example of the many ways you can gain insights on your customers.  How do you tap into your customer's hearts and souls?

~ Drew McLellan

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40th Anniversary of Earth Day

98209673_earthday Next Thursday will mark the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day. On that day in 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. In a lot of respects, this was the day when the environmental movement in this country was born. 


While always on the radar, it wasn’t until the early part of the last decade when the idea of “going green” experienced a renaissance and became relatively mainstream. Suddenly, hybrid vehicles, reusable shopping bags, compact florescent light bulbs and the like became fashionable. Then the recent economic downturn hit. Thankfully, the green movement hasn’t lost steam as the Three R’s of conservation became great ways for many of us also to save money:

  • Reduce the amount consumed and thrown away
  • Reuse products for the intended and new purposes
  • Recycle as much as possible and buy products with recycled content

Of course, doing your part to preserve the world’s natural resources is the ultimate reason to be environmentally responsible. And businesses, just like individuals, can have this altruistic motive while also realizing some other tangible benefits. The Green Business Alliance lists reasons for businesses to go green:

  • Setting a positive example for employees, boosting morale and company loyalty
  • Gaining a competitive advantage by differentiating yourself as a green organization
  • Improving efficiency and potentially lowering operating costs
  • Providing a cleaner and healthier work environment

Acting environmentally responsibly will look different from one business to the next. As with every new venture, it’s a good idea to set realistic goals that you can achieve. For example, our organization initially focused on reducing energy and water consumption in our laundry operations. When a solid program was in place there, we then expanded our focus to step up our recycling efforts across the organization.


If your situation allows, getting input from experts is recommended as well. Few companies have sustainability as a core competency, so getting sound advice can provide much needed direction and feedback. For example, Iowa Health System just partnered with Practice GreenHealth, the leading sustainability authority in our industry, to get help with:

  • Identifying the optimal areas on which to focus
  • Implementation of programs
  • Learning best practices from other institutions
  • Correctly tracking, benchmarking and reporting results

This week, consider what you or your organization can do to get started to reduce impact on the world’s resources. Or if you already are working on it, think about what can be done to enhance your organization’s current efforts. Encourage your employees to attend an Earth Day event and to enjoy the outdoors. And keep the movement strong in Iowa.

Don't Put on a Sales Performance

Say that you have just moved to town.  Naturally, you want to make some friends.  Here are some suggestions for what you can say as you meet people to try and make friends.

Bigstockphoto_Comedian_Performing_2007182 "So, who handles your friendship needs right now?  Are they doing a good job for you?"

"I could be your one stop shop for your friendship needs from sharing a meal, car pooling with kids, listening to your problems, or even helping you move."

"I have more friends and I have been in the friendship business longer than any of my competitors."

"Let me tell you what makes me your best choice for friendship."

"Do you happen to be in the market for a new friend?"

"How soon would you be looking to get a new friend?"

A "performance" designed to get friends is obviously not an effective way to get friends at all.

In fact, it sends a message that you might be really insensitive or desperate.  That will cause people to politely excuse themselves.

To make friends, two people must discover that they have some compatibility and they must demonstrate to each other that they each may have the subjective characteristics sought after in a friend.

Putting on this type of  "sales performance" consisting of similar statements and questions to those listed above which are designed to quickly identify a prospect and to make a quick sale is just as clumsy. 

Ironically, even though most sales people recognize that trust is an important factor in making a sale, they still approach prospects with a "sales performance.:  They too risk sending the message that they are either insensitive or desperate.

Approach prospects in a similar way to making friends.

You as the sales person and the prospect must discover that you have some mutual business compatibility.  Additionally, you must demonstrate that you have the subjective characteristics of a trusted adviser sought after by the prospect. 

As a sales person, don't ask questions just to set yourself up to pitch your business.  Ask good, genuine questions to learn about the prospect that are provocative, not probing.  Good, provocative questions are focused on the prospect and at the same time demonstrate your intelligence, expertise, and altruism.  These kinds of questions help develop trust in you as it regards your business or profession. Also, when you ask good, provocative questions, prospects will do the same and they will listen to your answer with the same intensity with which you listened to theirs.

Like making friends, you can't consistently perform your way into converting prospects into clients.  It does not always take a lot of time to turn a prospect into a client, but it does take some quality, two-way conversation.

Don't be afraid to be predictable

Do your employees find you intriguing, captivating and full of fresh new ideas? I hope so. 89305878

Do they find you predictable? Even more so, I hope so.

Being both intriguing and predictable seems like a conundrum - an enigma - like you couldn't be both. You can. But of the two qualities, if you could pick only one, I say, go with predictable.

Why? Because one of the most destructive management styles in the workplace is someone who's consistently unpredictable. You've probably experienced that kind of manager yourself, or know someone who has. They're moody. You feel like you have to "walk on egg shells" around them, because you never know how they might react. Everyone waits to see each morning what type of day it's going to be around the office because of how this manager shows up - in a positive mood or a foul one. That's a terrible environment in which to work.

From the time we're little kids, we crave structure, routine, predictability. We never outgrow that need for some sense of consistency in our lives. Consistently unpredictable behaviors on the part of a manager leaves employees feeling like they have little control over their environment. That's not good.

  1. Can people count on you to do what you say you're going to do when you say you're going to do it? I hope so. That's being predictable. As John Langhorne says in the March 15 issue of the Corridor Business Journal, if your say/do ratio is low, people lose trust and respect in you pretty quickly.
  2. Do you over promise and under deliver? That's a predictability gap. That's not good. Pretty soon, people start taking what you say with a grain of salt.

As a manager, how you show up every day at work has the greatest impact on your employees' overall attitudes, satisfaction levels, and performance. Provide the predictability they crave, and captivate them with your ideas.

Seller Issues

Midwestern storefronts in Romanesque Revival s...Image via Wikipedia

These are some common issues that sellers will have or face when selling their business:

  • The value of your business is not what the seller or advisers say it is. The market determines the value.
  • There are two reasons a business will not sell: The business is overpriced or the seller is not motivated. If the business is priced too high, it will not pass a sanity test for the buyer. What that means is if you look at an acquisition from the buyers’ perspective, it has to be priced in such a way that it cash flows. The buyer has to get a living wage, be able to service the debt and cover any contingency spread required by the bank.
  • Would you pay this much for your business? If the asking price is unreasonable, all the buyers who look at your business will have the perception that you, the seller, are an unreasonable person. This not only makes it difficult to get them to even make an initial offer, but they will have doubts about working with you during the transition.
  • People do business with people who they like and trust. Both buyers and sellers are afraid of unknowns; once they get to know and trust one another they are more inclined to do the deal.
  • Most banks and the Small Business Administration require some seller financing. Seller financing shows the buyer that you believe in he future success of  the business and gives them an added comfort level which usually means the difference between getting a sale or not and  a higher price. 
  • There are benefits to seller financing, including 15 to 20 percent more in sale price and a probable savings in taxes from deferred payments. Buyers will have more confidence in the company if you finance it.
- Steve Sink


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Buying a Franchise or Existing Business

USA 2005 (September 07th) Washington, SeattleImage by Paraflyer via Flickr

There are many options to consider once you have made the decision to own your own business. As many business brokers advise, one strong option to consider is buying an already existing business or franchise.

Business brokers often suggest that, for beginning entrepreneurs, one of the biggest advantages to buying an existing business is that there is already a known history. Contrary to starting a new business, the owner does not have to develop a product and go through the process of determining how much, if anything, people are willing to pay. As such, business brokers point out that there is no need to come up with tedious business plans.

Business brokers also recommend that buying an existing business or franchise has the benefit of an "established" infrastructure. Existing businesses tend to already have a foundation on which the new owner can build and expand. In addition, business brokers point out that such important aspects as customers, suppliers, employees, the building, and equipment are often all part of the package.

Also important: existing businesses and franchises come with the comfort of knowing that the concept has already been successful. Plus, business brokers suggest that this option can actually be less expensive than starting a new business. Since the learning curve is eliminated, the risk of failure is much lower. The hope, as suggested by many business brokers, is that the existing business will continue to be profitable under your new ownership.

Purchasing a business can be a complicated endeavor, but with the help of a skilled business broker, your transactions are guaranteed to go more smoothly, ensuring your success as you buy a business or franchise of your own.

- Steve Sink

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Resurrecting Your Project

Empty_tomb Happy Easter from Iowabiz.  As those who have been reading my posts for a while know, EVERYTHING is fair game for a topic.  No, I'm not a project manager with a messiah complex; however, let's talk for a minute about resurrecting your seemingly dead projects.  You know which ones I'm talking about... those that hold the secret of salvation for your organization, yet - for one reason or another - have been betrayed and crucified by the current establishment.  (NOTE:  All religious references contained in this post do not necessarily reflect those of Iowabiz or the Business Record.)

I've shared on my blog and in my first book the SPARTA method for project rescue and recovery.  While the acronym is easy, the steps can be painful and difficult, depending on both the project and the organizational culture.  Still, as a review, here they are:

  • Stop - quit executing under the old rules and allow the project to get back on its feet
  • Parameters - set boundaries for what the new project must accomplish (and what it needs to ignore)
  • Assumptions - document what conditions need to exist (or what risks need to be considered) for project success
  • Roles - be very clear about who is doing what
  • Tasks - create a new project plan with recovery and the end goal in mind.  Make it quick and effective.
  • Accountability - hold some feet to the fire. There's a reason the old plan (if there was one) failed. Make sure there is follow-through

OK, that being said, there are a couple of things from THE resurrection story which are applicable for project recoveries.

First off, make sure you know what success looks like and don't be so surprised when it occurs.  My favorite part of the Easter story is not at the empty tomb, but on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24).  Jesus' followers had Him in their presence and they didn't even know it.  He dropped all kinds of clues that He had been successful in His master plan, but still they were too dense to figure it out until He spelled it out for them.  Some times project teams and stakeholders can have success staring them in the face, but unless those in leadership spell out that success (however painful it appears at the time) is occurring, people often don't get it.

Second, there will be detractors who do not want you to be successful on this project.  Certainly, the government had a stake in making sure Jesus' resurrection wasn't broadcast (Matthew 28).  Sometimes stories circulate about any little problem on the project's recovery, just as they did in first-century Roman-controlled Jerusalem.  Make sure the facts speak for themselves about the project.  If you are maintaining good records about progress, and you keep everything factual on your project plan, status reports, and issues log, you will have credibility on your side.

Finally, keep the main thing the main thing on your resurrection.  No need to share the stage with fictional rabbits bearing candy.  If your project is important enough to warrant a recovery effort, then it is important enough to give the right level of executive attention and resources and focus.

Enjoy your day, however you celebrate it.

Obfuscating Customer Service Claims

87453332 Spin.

It's what we expect in the political world. Statistics are thrown around with little or no heed to the context or the source. As a friend of mine once told me, "83 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot." [cue rim shot]

But, of late I've been noticing how companies spin their claims of superior customer service. I've long held that many companies measure quality by making up a number on a report. I've had the opportunity to analyze really poor customer experience in the contact centers of companies who hype their customer satisfaction awards in the media. Statistical claims of superior service can be equally deceiving.

Take Sears product pick-up, for example. I've recently found myself going back to Sears to make some major purchases. They are doing a lot of things right, and I've been impressed with their employees both in the store and on the phone. I can tell that Sears is making an effort at delivering a great customer experience. Perhaps that's what my experience this week stand out.

I found myself at the Sears store on Merle Hay Road this past Tuesday. I'd picked up a partial order of patio furniture because it all wouldn't fit in my vehicle the previous day. "No problem," I'd been told, "we'll put your name on it and you can pick up the rest tomorrow. Just show us the receipt." So, I arrived and scanned my receipt in the kiosk. Nothing. The order had clearly been coded as having been picked-up in full the previous day. So, I entered my name into the kiosk to speak to an associate. In the twinkling of an eye my case showed "completed" on the kiosk status screen. Maybe a glitch. I entered it again. Immediately two other customers came in and scanned their receipts. Their cases appeared below mine on the screen. There were now three open cases for pick-up.

A couple of minutes later, an associate came out and called my name. I gave him my receipt and explained the situation with the partial pick up from the previous day. While he was out in the lobby, he also took the receipts of the two other waiting customers and disappeared into the back.

Suddenly, I looked at the kiosk status screen and noticed that all three of our open cases showed "completed," yet we all stood there waiting for our merchandise. The associate came out with the second customer's order and loaded it. He went back without a word as to why the customer who came in after me just received his merchandise before me. A few minutes later the associate came out with the third customer's order and loaded it. I'd now been standing there for somewhere around 10-15 minutes watching two customers who arrived after me get their merchandise while I was completely ignored. On his way back in, the associate finally stopped me and asked, "So, what was it you were picking up?"

It took another five minutes or so of waiting. All in all, I got my merchandise pick-up completed in somewhere around 20 to 25 minutes. While I was waiting by myself in those final minutes, I noticed the sign on the wall showing that 100 percent of customers had their merchandise pick-up "completed" in less than 5 minutes the previous week. Uh, right. I looked at the kiosk screen that showed my case had been "completed" in just over 3 minutes, but that was over 15 minutes before and I was still standing there. Obviously, Sears defines "completed" as an associate taking your receipt from you and walking into the back room.

I would argue that there is a gap between Sears' service claim and the reality of the customer's experience. But, hey, the statistic sure looks good on the wall (and on the report to corporate).

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Leadership: Pass It On

Two recent events have reminded me of the importance of engaging future generations of leaders and imparting what wisdom and skills we can to help equip them for success. And we all know this is particularly important in Iowa, where we have seen some challenges in retaining young professionals.

96964092  Last month, I met with some of the most dedicated people in the Des Moines metro area at the Business Record’s annual Forty Under 40 event. I was awed by the passion and success of these individuals as well as by the positive influence they are exerting on the organizations fortunate enough to be associated with them.

And just a couple weeks ago, I hosted a luncheon for all of the interns working within Iowa Health System. I try to do this with each new class of interns for two reasons:

  • First, it’s great to get them more connected to the organization by giving them an opportunity to meet with each other and senior management.
  • The other reason is more selfish. I truly enjoy the energy, fresh perspectives and ideas they bring. There’s nothing quite like meeting with a group that’s ready to take on the world.

With that in mind, spring is here, and it’s not too late to begin planning a summer intern program for your organization. CareerBuilder offers several tips for planning ahead to make working relationships with interns the best they can be:

  • Determine how you will make them feel like part of their teams
  • Emphasize the importance of their work
  • Prepare to give tasks that differ from time to time and at least one they can own and complete from beginning to end 
  • Show how they are positively affecting the company 

If you think you can meet these needs, then it’s time to start recruiting. While it’s worth considering candidates who have the initiative to contact you directly about internship opportunities, most likely you are going to want to select from a pool of applicants. A great way to do this is to work with the career development offices at area colleges and universities.

Whether you are ready for an intern program, another rewarding, more personal job you can take on is to become a mentor. Mentoring gives you the extraordinary opportunity to facilitate a protégé’s personal and professional growth by sharing knowledge you learned through years of experience. 

The American College of Health Care Executives outlines the various ways you can benefit from mentoring:

  • Strengthen your own coaching and leadership skills by working with individuals from different backgrounds and personality types
  • Develop and retain talent in your organization or community
  • Demonstrate in a real way how cultural expectations affect decisions
  • Create a legacy that has a lasting impact, providing you with the satisfaction of helping to develop future talent

Becoming a mentor is a big decision and one that should not to be taken lightly. Much like an internship, it requires a considerable amount of planning, listening and consultation.

Certainly there are other ways to nurture the professional pipeline for your organization and our region. Offer to speak to young professional organizations. Teach a course at a local institution. Work with your own HR department or association membership chair to find out how you can engage and retain the best young talent. But whatever you do, do it for yourself as well. Absorb the energy, fresh perspectives, skill and effort that young professionals have to share in return.

Extend or Amend?

96227200 You've done your part.  You've gotten all of your tax information to your preparer in order and on time.  But you still are waiting on a K-1 from a partnership or S corporation.  It probably won't be big -- why not just file now and be done with it?

It can be tempting, especially if you think you have a big refund coming, to just go ahead and file anyway.  Even so, it's usually a bad idea.

Most businesses are set up nowadays as S corporations or partnerships (limited liability companies with multiple owners are usually taxed as partnerships).  Their income is taxed on the owner's returns directly. They can distribute their income without incurring an additional tax; any funds not distributed increase the owners' basis in their investment, reducing future capital gains.

The K-1 is the way S corporations and partnerships break out their income so the owners can report it properly on their own returns.  Unfortunately for owners, these can take a long time to prepare for a complex business, or one without great bookkeeping.  They don't have to be distributed at the same time as 1099 forms (normally January 31); in fact, they can be issued as late as September 15 on extended returns.

If you are up against the April 15 deadline and still waiting for your K-1, it's usually much better to extend your return.  If you file an extension, you only have to prepare the actual return once -- saving you time and preparer costs.  If you amend, you give the IRS two returns to look at instead of only one.  And if you file without the K-1 and don't correct the return when you finally get the K-1, chances are good that the IRS will notice. 

There are times taxpayers will want to file without a K-1.  If you have a huge refund coming, maybe it's worth the hassle of amending a return later to get the refund now.  Sometimes a failing or failed business just doesn't get a K-1 out in time even for extended returns; then you have to file as best you can.  But normally, extend, don't amend.  You can e-file an extension or file Federal Form 4868.  Remember, extending the return deadline doesn't extend your deadline for paying taxes.  Iowa doesn't require a separate extension form if you are 90% paid in; if you need to pay some cash, send Iowa a payment with Form IA 1040-V by the April 30 Iowa deadline.

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