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January 2011

3 ways to be sure your advertising will fail

106594702 No one likes to think about and surely no one likes to actually accomplish it -- failure.

And yet day in and day out some business owners and marketing directors make some common mistakes that almost guarantee it.

Let's look at three easy to avoid errors when it comes to traditional advertising.

Trying to reach more people than your budget will allow:  For a media mix to be effective, each element in the mix must be substantial enough to establish retention.  Too often, people sacrifice repetition for the sake of reach.

Assuming the business owner knows best:  If anyone has a bias or a blind spot about a business - it's the person who owns it.  You're on the inside looking out.  You can't possibly see yourselves as the consumers do.  Find perspective.  Talk to customers.  Do some research.  Ask an outside consultant.

Assuming that a late in the week schedule is best:  Most business owners buy ads that run on Thursdays and Fridays.  Which means you have to share the space/time.  Imagine having 1/3 the competition for your audience's attention.  Sound good?  Then, consider buying early in the week.

~ Drew


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Protecting the Heart

February is American Heart Month. During this month, the American Heart Association leads an effort to continue to raise awareness and money for research and education of heart disease.  It is the leading cause of death in the United States, and stroke is No. 3.

The heart is our “ticker.” It keeps us going each day. By protecting our hearts, we are Protecting the Heart protecting our lives. The heart is susceptible to many risks, some that can be controlled, and others that cannot. The American Heart Association identifies three steps you can use to reduce your risk of heart disease – the ABC’s of preventing Heart Disease.

  • Avoid tobacco
  • Be active
  • Choose good nutrition

Other factors you can control include lowering your blood cholesterol and blood pressure, aiming for a healthy weight, managing diabetes, reducing stress and limiting your alcohol intake.

While these lifestyle changes can significantly lower your risk for heart disease and stroke, there are some factors that are uncontrollable, such as:

  • Age – 82 percent of people who die from heart disease are 65 or older
  • Gender – men are more susceptible than women
  • Heredity – Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to have it as well
  • Race – African Americans, Mexican Americans and American Indians are more susceptible

For those who are at higher risk, it is important they make the lifestyle changes necessary to help fight heart disease. In order to live a healthy life and keep your heart ticking, it’s important to begin prevention early, allowing your heart to beat longer and stronger.

Although this month is dedicated to taking care of the heart in your body, you should also consider taking a look at the heart of your business as well. What is the core idea at the heart of your business?

Each business has a defining principle that drives the business and allows its leaders to make decisions. For example, in the book, Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath use Southwest Airlines’ core value – “THE low-fare airline” – as an example. According to the Heath brothers, Southwest bases every decision they make on this one simple statement.

It’s a company’s core value that helps create, and fulfill, its mission. According to Early to Rise, an online wealth and success magazine, core values:

  • Clarify who you are
  • Articulate what you stand for
  • Help explain why you do business the way you do
  • Guide you in making decisions

Just like your heart is what makes you “tick,” the heart of your business does the same. During American Heart Month, take time to take care of your body’s heart, as well as your business’ heart. Line up your decisions at work and in life to benefit your heart and help it to beat longer and stronger.

The Social Media Revolution: Don't Overlook Legal Risks

After already scoring four Golden Globe Awards earlier this month, “The Social  Network,” a movie about the founders of Facebook, just received eight Oscar nods.  All the media buzz surrounding this week’s Oscar nominations – or more specifically, the buzz surrounding this movie – inspires me to make a couple points about social media and the law. 

First, all the excitement over this movie further illustrates that social media has become a truly colossal cultural phenomenon.  Our understanding of the Internet has truly shifted.  What was once thought of as a mere repository of information is now considered an interactive tool.  This idea of the Internet as interactive is sometimes referred to as “Web 2.0” – a term representing this changing trend in the way the Internet is used. 

But I would go even further.  Social media has changed more than just the way we understand the Internet.  As I have said time and again, social media – or perhaps Web 2.0 more broadly – has changed the way we understand information, technology and interaction in general.  Because Web 2.0 has introduced such fundamental changes, it’s necessarily influencing us in our personal lives and in our professional lives.

Companies are finding new and creative ways to use technology and social media to benefit business.  For some reason, however, many of these companies forget to keep an eye out for the potential risks that accompany each of those benefits.  The legal risks may arise out of countless factual scenarios, and may fall anywhere within a continuum of various areas of law, as well.  Just one area of law for business owners to consider:  employment law. 

The ability to be “connected” 24/7 means it’s easier for employees’ personal lives and work lives to become much more intertwined.  Many of us have used technology during the work day for personal reasons and/or have used technology on our personal time for work reasons.  Maybe you log on to Facebook via your desktop at the office to let your son know you’ll be late for dinner.  Maybe you get home and realize you forgot to check on a customer file, and use your personal laptop to remotely log into your online directory at work.  Whatever the case may be, there’s no doubt the ever-changing role of technology has led to a “spillover” between social-versus-professional realities.  The blurred lines created or exacerbated by technology have led to an environment that often poses new, different or changing risks to businesses in many different ways – including as employers, specifically.
Companies can safely assume a significant portion of their workforces are engaged online in one way or another.  Employers should be mindful of how this reality intersects with their own obligations, expectations, business interests, legal exposure and so on. 

Hi, my name is...

Example of an American grocery store aisle.Image via Wikipedia

"The name's Bond. James Bond."

No matter what field of work you are in, I could list 100 reasons why it is important for you to get out and NETWORK.

Don't worry, I'm not going to. However, in constantly being bombarded with networking events to attend, I can tell you that it is a skill you need to learn.

Yes, networking is a skill. And like anything else, it comes easier to some than to others. There are many types of "introverts" who have difficulty walking into a crowded room where they may not know a single face.

If you fall into that cateogy, please read "The 4-step program for successfully networking as an introvert" by Jamie Millard and Chris Oien, both of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin Cities.

Understand that learning how to network and building a network takes time. For the introverts who need that extra push into the room, know that everyone there is in the same shoes you're in. They wouldn't be there if they weren’t interested in meeting you. :)

After giving the 4-step program more thought, I think these tips are excellent even if you are the most outgoing person in the room. Networking takes a plan. When you go to the grocery store with a list you have a plan. And nine times out of 10, you walk away with a completed plan plus a little extra. Think of networking the same way. Go in with a mission as simple as connecting with five new people. You'll walk out meeting 10 and being well ahead of your goal!

My favorite point made in the 4-step program blog is "know your talking points." In other words, have a plan for what you are going to say. To take this advice one step further, I would suggest beware of getting backed into a corner with one or two others. Hit on your key points, sustain the connection and move onto someone new.

Oh, and as you move on to introduce yourself to someone new, be sure to extend your "Hi, my name is..." with the same confidence Mr. Bond delivers his famous line.

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New Administration -> New Rules

The Iowa state seal.Image via Wikipedia

Despite the refrain of pundits, new administrations are not "same old same old." New leaders come in with new ideas, new agency leaders, and plans to “make a difference."

The most direct effects are felt at the agency / administration / department level (I will just use "agency" for the remainder of the blog). If your company has someone dedicated to the regulatory process, that person will get to know the new guard and review changes. If, like most small businesses, that job falls on you, take steps to recognize upcoming changes.

1)    Check the agency website every week until June.

2)    Call and find out if the agency sends out a newsletter. Get on the list.

3)    Call the lobbyist for your business association and ask to be in on the lobbyist’s newsletter.

4)    Check your association website regularly.

If you are tech-savvy, get the appropriate RSS feeds. If you are not, ask a teenager to help you.

Most agencies want you to be in compliance and want things to move smoothly. Find a liaison who will help ensure that you have the appropriate information to be in compliance.

My next blog will focus on proactive steps you may take regarding the laws/rules before you become ensnarled in red tape.

- Christine Branstad

Sitting in the Catbird Seat

WLA nyhistorical Cat and bird squeaky toy late...Image via Wikipedia

In his inaugural address, Gov. Terry Branstad told us that Iowa is at the "catbird seat of history." On Jan. 23, on Meet the Press, CNBC's Erin Burnett referred to some political figures "sitting in the catbird seat." It's obviously the place to be. What's that phrase mean for you as a leader? What does sitting in the catbird seat look like for you?

Catbirds, along with their cousins -- the mockingbirds -- are known as the mimic thrushes. The catbird is named for its ability to mimic the sound of a cat's meow. And here's where the "sitting" part comes in. They seek out the highest perches in trees to sing and show off. They're "sitting pretty," as the American phrase goes.

To mimic the sound of one of your most common enemies...that's pretty bold! Like asking for trouble. At the same time, the catbird is smart about where and how it's bold. It will stand alone, take a stand, be bold. But it's strategic in where and how it spreads its message.  

How does this relate to your role as a leader? Where and when do you need to be more bold? Maybe it would almost feel like being reckless in some way. And where and how can you do that in such a way that you're "sitting pretty?" You have the advantage; others can't help but hear what you're sharing. Your positioning is impeccable.

The first mention of Govenor Branstad's phrase showed up in James Thurber's 55 Short Stories from New Yorker, in November 1942:

"She must be a Dodger fan. Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions...'sitting in the catbird seat' means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him." That's the kind of balance we're all looking for, regardless of whom we're leading!

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The Cooperative Alternative

431920059_c705874aa5_tThe economic downtown and the loss of jobs has created a souring opinion of work, leaders and corporate America. The sudden loss of a job emphasizes how little control individuals have over their employment status.

If it is important for people to have more control over their work, then the cooperative model should be considered. The model has been around for centuries.

The cooperative principals are as follows:

  • Voluntary and Open Membership
  • Democratic Member Control
  • Member Economic Participation
  • Autonomy and Independence
  • Education, Training and Information
  • Co-operation among Co-operatives
  • Concern for Community

Cooperatives provide direct control by the workers of the business. In some cases, each person has a vote. The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives gives more detail of the principals at their website

Cooperatives have not been a mainstream business model in the United States, but maybe it is time for them to become a major player in the recovery of our economy.

Flickr photo by BNNS.de

Elbows off the table

Modern Manners Guy LogoImage via Wikipedia

Mind your manners.

Now it may seem that having good manners is just common sense, but let's not take anything for granted. After all, we have manners, or maybe we should call them unwritten rules, which help make for a more stable office environment. As a young professional, are you following the "7 Tips to Help Young Professionals Fit In" as noted by the International Business Times CareerWise?

While all these tips are important, there were a few that stood out to me, such as, "Don't text!"

I know you are thinking, "OMG, did u really just say that?" While smartphones may bring many benefits, nothing will bother your boss more than walking into a meeting and laying that phone out on the table. Unplug for a few hours, roll your sleeves up and get to work!

And for those of you bringing your phone to the treadmill with you to work out... trust me, you're not that important. :)

Getting back to rolling up your sleeves, you should understand that it just isn't fair. In the real world, you are only as valuable as the work you produce. While many young professionals still look for that nod of approval, believe me, there is no report card with a star on it that you can bring home and show your mom anymore. Take your "good work," if you even get that, and get back to it!

But let's finish up on a positive note. Continue to dress to impress because many of us actually do. While office codes have become more and more lax in terms of appropriate dress, I actually see many young professionals looking to turn business casual back into business professional. It doesn't hurt to be the best dressed in the office, so keep putting that tie on.

There may be a generation gap in terms of what are acceptable manners, but as young professionals we are the ones who need to come forward and bridge that gap. After all, no matter how much time passes, your mom will still be telling you to keep your elbows off the table.

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The Midwest Maybe

Farm road in Champaign County, IllinoisImage via Wikipedia


It is worse than no or yes. It is often said out of kindness, but has the opposite effect in many cases. An East Coast investor relayed the term "The Midwest Maybe" to a close friend of mine. When I heard it, I burst out laughing. Then I stopped and realized how sad it really is. We in the midwest are known for being friendly and kind. When asked to buy from a new vendor or to invest in a business or venture, we often reply with a "maybe". What we are not doing in many cases is telling the truth.  

For the new start-up company, a "maybe" can be fatal. The start-up hears "maybe" and thinks maybe yes. They work hard to follow up and try to win the business. Only later do they find out that the "maybe" was really a "no" hiding in kindness. For the start-up, the "maybe" became a time and resource waste.  

For the company looking to raise money, a "maybe" is seen as interest and perhaps validation. "I have three investors interested!" the entrepreneur claims. Perhaps. Or perhaps what he has are three acquaintances that will not give him the honest "no".

If you hear a "maybe" in business, you need to learn more. Ask what it will take to move the maybe to yes.

If you are the one delivering a "maybe", make sure you mean "maybe yes". If you mean "maybe no", just say no. You will do far less damage and free up the time of the other person to pursue another yes.

- Mike Colwell

Is Zappos a BAD example of customer service?

Nike shoes.Image via Wikipedia

I read an interesting post recently by Robert Bacal in which he argued that Zappos Retail Inc. (and Nordstrom Inc.) is a bad example to idolize in the area of customer service:

"These companies are singular companies. That is, they exemplify what works with ONE company, with a very specific culture, in a specific industry and often the success of these companies is because of the people who drove the companies to be extremely customer service oriented. You don’t have those people. You don’t have the culture or any of the variables that you will need to effectively model your business on theirs."

It's an interesting argument. And as a graduate of Disney University's School of Customer Service, I get Robert's point. My small consulting firm in Des Moines looks nothing like Walt Disney World in any way, shape or form. I was enthralled to learn about all that Disney does to serve customers exceptionally well, but the differences between Disneyworld and c wenger group are so great that the application of service strategies and principles can be an impossible stretch.

I've always argued that the key to successful customer service is knowing:

You don't have to be Zappos or Nordstrom to figure that out.

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You Are the One (a-ha song)Image via Wikipedia

This week, the Pentagon decided to revamp its social media approach.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Douglas Wilson expressed his concern to Wired Danger Room over the Pentagon's approach to social media as being a "stovepiped professional area." (e.g. its social media was operating in a silo.)

Now, heading up the social efforts and social voice of the Pentagon is the communications team. This was a social media a-ha (not the band) moment: social media is where public relations, marketing and digital developers converge.

There are different social media roles for different aspects of a strategy. Communications and marketing will not effectively execute on a social media strategy without the expertise of digital developers, programmers and creative designers.

Those who know and understood the public voice of a corporation best are public relations, marketing and communications departments. Social media are public outlets.

The expertise and talents they bring are best employed in the strategic planning of content; the use of the social platforms, such as: Facebook, YouTube and Twitter; to engage in public conversation and action; to allow, reply and interact with the public. This part of the team also helps with visual aspects of a company's digital presence, because they have grasp on the need for brand consistency.

Web developers, as well as application and game programmers, bring talent and capabilities that also play a key role. Developing applications, games, websites and microsites that are connected across social platforms provide easily shared content and are dynamic. These building blocks establish a foundation for engagement with the community.

Put them all together to create and execute a customized, digital strategy that will provide the ideal environment for the target audiences to interact with your company and one another.

It's not one or the other that makes it work, it's tapping into a team of many different talents.


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You may have already messed up your payroll

20110116-1bizCongress changed the payroll tax rules for 2011 less than two weeks before the start of the year, so it's hardly surprising that some of the millions of employers out there haven't got the message.  Are you one of them?

The new law reduced the employee share of the FICA tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent, for 2011 only. The employer tax remains 6.2 percent, on wages up to the $106,800 FICA base. That means many employees who have already received 2011 paychecks have been overwithheld.

If you have overwithheld on your employees, what should you do?  The IRS says you should make it up by under withholding the same amount overwithheld sometime before March 31. 

The FICA change isn't the only one that applies for 2011 payrolls. The income tax withholding tables have been adjusted to reflect the end of the "Making Work Pay" tax credit. You can find IRS guidance on all of these 2011 changes in their Notice 1036.

Flickr image courtesy Marcin Wichary under Creative Commons license.

Beware of reactionary pricing

We use an on-line vendor to provide extranet services for our clients.  We'd been with them for oseveral years.  We recently discovered a better, cheaper solution.  It wasn't the cheaper that sold us.  It was the ease of use for our clients.

But cheaper doesn't hurt.  And this was cheaper by a couple hundred dollars a month.

90361054 When I contacted the old vendor to cancel our service, guess what their immediate response was.

"We can match their price."

What?  So you've been overcharging me for years?  Or you magically just had a price reduction to the very dollar amount of my new vendor and you were about to call and tell me about it?

Talk about leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

Dropping your price to keep a customer is never a good strategy.  It can only make you and the client both feel taken advantage of and in the end, no one wins.

Your pricing strategy is one of the key components of your marketing message.  It speaks about things far beyond your cost.  It communicates value, customer attentiveness and how you view the relationship, both short and long term.  It's not something you should just stumble into.  And it's not something you should damage by mishandling a situation, like our old vendor did.

There's an interesting article over at Marketing Tips from the Trenches about how to think through a pricing strategy and how to test it.  Worth a read.


~ Drew


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The Strongest Link

Do you perform best when you play to your weaknesses? Admittedly, it is an odd question, but it is surprising how often we rely, not on our strengths, but on our weaknesses when attempting to do something well.  In fact, when the question is worded more “fairly,” the answer might surprise you, too.Strongest Link 1-12-11

A study by Gallup asked, “Which do you think will help you improve the most: knowing your strengths or knowing your weaknesses?" More than half of Americans believed that knowing their weaknesses would be more beneficial.

They are wrong.

In our attempts to be well-rounded, it is very tempting to spend a lot of resources on our weaknesses. Now, improving areas we are weak in isn’t a bad goal, but it can be if, in the process, we neglect our strengths.

When people enjoy their work, they are more engaged and productive. Managers often wonder what they can do to increase employee satisfaction and engagement.

The key is strength-based leadership. Each person’s strength can become a platform for both sustained contribution to the organization and increased employee engagement. By focusing on the strengths each employee possesses, managers can provide positive and effective opportunity for employee engagement.

Neuroscience suggests that between the ages of three and 15, the brain organizes itself by strengthening synaptic connections which are frequently used and those which are used infrequently wither away. Those connections which wither away are not easily changed later in life. Focusing on fixing weaknesses has shown to be more time consuming and less efficient than focusing on increasing the areas where a person expresses talent or strengths.

According to authors, Donald Clifton and James Harter, we are keen at finding faults, in ourselves and others. But “when people become aware of their talents, through measurement and feedback, they have a strong position from which to view their potential.”

Clifton and Harter point out three stages in the strengths approach, identifying, integration and changed behavior. Managers should encourage those who take the assessment to reflect and act on each of the following steps in order to fully appreciate their strengths.

  • Identifying: This involves taking an assessment to help specifically identify strengths and taking notice of them.
  • Integration: In this step the individual learns more about their talents and strengths and understand the reason.
  • Changing Behavior: This involves taking your talents and applying them to your work and everyday life.

Refining one’s strengths leads to the eventual flawless execution of important tasks. This leads to employee satisfaction and engagement, and perpetuates long-term excellence in the workplace.

Every person has weaknesses. If an employee is underperforming, perhaps he or she isn’t a “weak link,” but instead a “strong link” in the wrong place in the chain! Encourage employees to discover their strengths, and you may end up unlocking your organization’s true potential.

Beware Online Scams

Scam Unfortunately, the Internet has greatly facilitated scammers in their preying on the unwary.  If you receive an email from the princess of Yemen saying her child has been abducted and she needs you to wire her $57,000 to help her find her son and rescue dolphins, you’ll probably pause before running to the local Western Union. 

But not all scams raise obvious red flags and may truly seem attractive at first blush. 

For example, in light of the current economic environment, many folks have been lured in by various work-at-home (i.e., “get-rich-quick”), “mortgage relief,” and advance-fee loan scams.  The Better Business Bureau’s list of Top 10 Scams and Rip-Offs of 2010 includes a number of Internet scams.  The New York Times has also recently warned readers to watch out for various online scams.

A few tips to keep in mind when reading through your inbox:

  • Be particularly careful of schemes asking you to pay something up front. 
  • Remember you may always check out businesses and websites at the Better Business Bureau.  You might also just run some general Internet searches to do a little investigating of your own before you conduct business with an online business.
  • For information about consumer protection and how to file a consumer fraud complaint, visit the Iowa Attorney General's web site.
  • You may find additional consumer protection information at the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
  • Think twice before doling out personal information online.  Is the web site reputable?  Is it secure?  Privacy Rights Clearinghouse offers information and resources for dealing with a security breach.

Know the Salesperson's "Why"

I have heard business owners and sales managers say it many times: "You just can't find good sales people" or "sales people just don't want to work."

The truth is that there are plenty of good sales people who do want to work. However, sales leadership and business owners spend far more time thinking about what the salesperson's results will do for THEIR OWN career or business rather than thinking about what the results mean for the salesperson.

What difference does it make?

Well, sales leadership has always assumed that good sales people are motivated almost entirely by money.  Pay good commissions and good salespeople will deliver.

However, research proves that not many people are truly motivated by money... at least not for long.

If you have salespeople, start off 2011 by talking to them about "their why." Not the politically correct "I just want to do my part for the company" why. Rather, find out what they want.

Anything they want will fall into one of four categories.
1. Money for something
2. Time for something
3. Autonomy
4. Attention
When you understand their why, then help them to see their sales role as the vehicle for getting what they want. Become their biggest supporter. Whether formally or informally, customize incentives and rewards based upon their "why."

You will find that you will get your best results by helping your salespeople attain  what is most important to them.

A composed satellite photograph of Africa.Image via Wikipedia

For example, one year one of my salespeople had planned a mission trip to Africa. She knew what she needed to earn and by what date. This gave all of our sales meetings a context that was relevant to her rather than. After all, producers are not intrinsically motivated by numbers on a spreadsheet. (We even shared her objectives with clients who made personal contributions.)

Despite what my ego would like to believe, she was working hard to achieve her dreams, not mine.  It was my job to make them congruent.
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Cast Down Your Bucket

A metal bucket. Image taken on 2007-04-12 in L...Image via Wikipedia

When someone recommends a new approach, or comes up with an idea that seems really far out, what do you do? Most leaders drop that idea onto the "sieve" in their brains that analyzes new data and a couple of things can happen.

  1. The idea might fall right on through because it doesn't line up with perspectives and philosophies that have formed their "screen" over the years. It doesn't catch. It's dismissed out of hand. 
  2. Sometimes though, because the idea is so unusual in contrast to what's already seen as ok, do-able, or right, it's grabbed up. It's weighed rather than tossed.

The story is told of Booker T. Washington's 1895 Cotton States Exposition address, where one of his illustrations alluded to this need for intentionally weighing an idea that at first blush might seem outlandish.

"A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal, 'Water, water; we die of thirst!' The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back, 'Cast down your bucket where you are.' A second time the signal, 'Water, water; send us water!' ran up the distressed vessel, and was answered, 'Cast down your bucket where you are.' And a third and fourth signal for water were answered, 'Cast down your bucket where you are.' The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River."

It's especially hardest when we're stressed and our options seem limited to be open to new ways of seeing things. It's easier to let what might be a perfect solution fall through the cracks because it doesn't align with our hardwired options.

When was the last time you caught yourself grabbing hold of a new idea that you first wanted to dismiss? Did it end up becoming your new norm?

P.B. Medawar said, "The human mind treats a new idea the way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it." Grab ideas and at least weigh them before tossing them aside. "Cast down your bucket where you are."

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Exit Strategies From Your Business

2199251281_3f7127db3a_t Many owners out who are looking for exit strategies for their business. John Abrams is one owner who found a strategy. He created an ESOP at South Mountain Co. as an exit strategy. The book "The Company We Keep" is a  story of his journey. Follow this link to a video where he tells part of the story.

If this video strikes a chord inside you, there are three upcoming events that can provide tremendous insight, contacts and data as to how employee ownership/ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) operate.

The information and links to these events is as follows:

All three of these conferences have occurred for more than 15 years. Attend one and you may be the next author of a book on employee ownership.

Flickr photo by Miller Info Commons

Give Me Five!

Fingers of the left hand.Image via Wikipedia

Americans are sick of partisan politics. Since the November elections, "compromise" is the word of the day.

Not everyone is willing to reason together of course, not if it means giving in on anything they feel strongly about. In fact, it is like some people would rather see nothing happen -- see progress stall -- than reach across the aisle, find common ground and collaborate on a decision. The fact that there's even an aisle at all is problematic!

It is not just politicians. We've all seen results suffer in organizations because leaders didn't know how -- or didn't want to -- dialogue, and then, when necessary, reach consensus.

I was talking with an IT executive the other day and he was telling me about a team-based decision making tool their "scrum" teams use. (Scrum teams. Now there's another intriguing concept. But I digress...) The decision making technique is called Fist-to-Five and it comes in really handy when there is not total agreement on how to move forward with a project. Those times when it's important to canvass all team members' opinions in order to refine the decision and ensure buy-in on everyone's part. When it's not ok to say nothing and then complain later.

Here's how it works: When there's disagreement -- perhaps partisanship -- about a decision within a project team, a cross functional team, a leadership group, a staff committee, even a family, you let people vote using their hands and display fingers to represent their degree of support.

  • Fist: a no vote -- "I need to talk more about this and would require some changes before I could agree."
  • 1 Finger: "I still need to discuss certain issues and suggest some changes."
  • 2 Fingers: "I'm pretty comfortable but want to talk about some minor issues."
  • 3 Fingers: "I'm not in total agreement but feel comfortable enough to go with this decision."
  • 4 Fingers: "I think it's a good idea/decision and will work for it."
  • 5 Fingers: "It's a great idea and I will be one of the leaders in implementing it."

A team is ready to move forward with a decision once they've addressed the concerns of anyone displaying fewer than three fingers.

"Moving forward, making progress." Like "compromise", our hope for tomorrow.

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Leaving the Partnereship

Many business owners enter into a partnership without a good buy/sell agreement in place.  Often this puts a heavy burden on the buyers, sellers and heirs.   The problems with most agreements are:  1. Failure to define the terms of the exit, 2. What criteria will trigger the agreement?  3. How the company is valued today and in the future, 4. Defining the terms of transferring the business to the new owner(s), 5.  Will the partners honor the agreement and the penalty if they do not?  6. The valuation terms for a partner who leaves voluntarily or is terminated, 7.  What happens when the company has other obligations that do not allow it to meet the terms of the buy/sell agreement?   8. Failure to use a professional in drafting the document.

Personalities make it difficult to define the perfect buy/sell agreement.  However, some elements for a buy/sell agreement should include:
1.  Establish the valuation formula and terms before the deal.
2.  Insure that there is a clear path for the separation.
3.  Define the criteria that will be used in determining valuation, surviving partner, exiting, deal structure, and a non-compete agreement.
4.  When the parties cannot agree, who will arbitrate and what authority will they have?

Good Luck
Steve Sink
Certified Business Intermediary
Merger and Acquisition Master Intermediary

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Everybody sells, but some do better

Steve Jobs with his MacBook Air at Macworld 2008.Image via Wikipedia

Starting a business requires two skills above all else. Selling and marketing. I am often asks what separates an entrepreneur from an inventor. Selling and marketing. 

Christian Renaud said something the other day that I thought was right on target:

"Marketing is getting the date. Selling is convincing the date to keep going out." 

Let's start with selling. When I was growing up as the youngest of three boys, I spent a lot of time trying to convince my mother that I was ready. Ready to ride my bike downtown, ready to stay up later, ready to buy my own clothes. Little did I realize what great training that was in learning to sell. It is interesting that selling is the only high-paying career track for which you cannot get a degree from a university. 

If you are going to start a business you are going to do a lot of selling. If you feel selling is a weakness or it scares you, you have a decision to make. You either need to learn to sell well or forget going into business. Can you hire sales people? Maybe. But unless you have a lot of money and a lot of time you will probably not succeed. The best sales people do not want to work for someone who does not know how selling works.

Before you can sell a customer a product or an investor a plan, you have to find them and convince them to let you try. That is marketing. Here is the key for someone starting a business. Who are your first 100 customers? List them by name. You can't? Okay. Write a one-page description of the perfect customer. Tell me about their needs, wants, lifestyle, et cetera. Can't? Fail.  

You cannot market to the world. It just does not work. You must market to a very identifiable group of people. That group should share more similarities than differences.  Being able to identify a specific group that you offer your product or service to is key to marketing efficiently.The second key to efficient marketing is to measure everything. The first consideration of any marketing effort is how well can you measure the outcome. If you cannot measure the outcome of a marketing campaign or event, you should not do it.

As you contemplate starting a business or you are looking at how to grow your business make sure you can successfully sell better than your competition. Make sure your marketing is aimed directly at your perfect customer and measure each marketing campaign's effectiveness.

- Mike Colwell

An Attitude Check to Start the Year

A few months ago, my wife and I watched the movie "Gosford Park." It's an interesting 87643671 take on the classic English whodunnit genre with an all star cast. What's interesting about the film is the way it reveals the lives and experience of the serving staff in an English household. Though the owners of the house go about their lives oblivious to the small army of people who take care of their daily lives, the staff take great pride in doing their jobs exceptionally well.

In one memorable moment, Helen Mirren's character states "I know what they need before they're aware they even need it." That stuck with me.

As I've trained various customer service teams through the years, I've often reminded people that working in customer service means, by definition, that you are a customer servant. I've had more than one team or individual threaten to go ballistic on me when I make this point. "I am NOT a SERVANT!" The label of "servant" is an anathema to many people, as if the thought of putting someone else's needs ahead of your own is something to be avoided.

I've come to believe that exceptional customer service is rooted in having the right attitude. If you want to be great in customer service, it's best to have a servant's heart. Anticipating customers' needs, resolving customers' problems and answering customers' questions are honorable and worthwhile pursuits. It is not always easy to do. The human element makes it frequently messy. Like baseball, you may strike out as often as you get a hit a far more times than you hit a home run. Nevertheless, it is an incredible feeling when you knock one out of the park, exceed expectations and make a customer's day.

As we begin 2011 and think about our goals for the coming year, I urge all of my colleagues in the customer service field to start the year with an attitude check.

  • Do I have a "serve" or "be served" attitude?
  • How can I serve customers by better serving my coworkers and fellow CSRs?
  • What attitude adjustment do I need? How will I accomplish it, and when?

Too late for year-end tax planning? Not for 2011!

Yes, 2010 is in the books, at least as far as year-end tax planning is concerned.  There are still some things you might be able to do to affect your 2010 taxes - perhaps an IRA contribution.

But the big 2010 issues are settled and now it's all about adding up the score.

20110101ibizYou may have spent yesterday frantically making last-minute tax moves, but for the most alert taxpayers, year-end planning starts today -- for 2011. For tax planning tools that allow you to earn money tax-free or tax-deferred, today is the best day of the year to make your payments.  Think about it: the whole point of something like an IRA is to earn income that's not subject to current tax.  The sooner you move money from a taxable account to a tax-deferred account, the longer you get the tax advantage.

So let's do some year-end planning right now and start funding our tax-deferred savings vehicles.  Here are the most important 2011 limits:

IRA contributions: lesser of earned income or $5,000; for married couples, spouses can use spouse income to qualify.  For taxpayers who turn 50 by year-end, the limit is $6,000.  Whether you qualify for a deductible or "Roth" contribution will depend on your 2011 income.

401(k) deferral:  $16,500 annual limit, plus $5,500 for those who turn 50 this year, or have already done so.

Health Savings Account contributions: $3,050 for single plans and $6,150 for family plans.  These contributions require you to have a qualifying high-deductible health plan.

College Savings Iowa contributions: The 2011 limit for CSI contribution deductions on Iowa returns hasn't been announced, as far as I can tell, but the 2010 limit is $2,811 per donor, per donee.   The 2011 amount won't be any less than that, so you can put it the $2,811 now and top it off later.

So get busy! If you get your contributions in now, you can spend Dec. 31 making your hangover plans.

 Flickr Image courtesy Pinti 1 under Creative Commons license.

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