Joe’s tips for your holiday handbook

Happy holidays, business owners! This glad season offers many of opportunities to boost sales and build customer relationships. I know it’s already November, but there’s still time to add a smart strategy or two to your holiday play book. So, let’s get rockin’, Rudolph!

4 ways to add sparkle to your 2012 cash flow.

1.Consider a pre-season sale. Or offer discounts on higher-ticket products or services when paid in full by [fill in a December date].
2.Promote your gift cards. These sales put cash into your account now, before the lucky recipient buys later on.
3.Accept and encourage the use of credit cards. Payments typically hit your account the day after processing. Mobile card readers make it easy for any small business to accept credit card business.
4.Reduce costs by forecasting holiday product needs carefully and eliminating any unnecessary spending. And choose vendors not only for their competitive prices, but for fast turnaround times, good payment terms, reliability, and the ability to pay with credit cards as well.
6 ways to extend the joy into 2013.

1.Be aware of what retailers call the 5th Quarter—the weeks between Christmas and just after the New Year when shoppers have a little extra cash in hand and a few days off to spend it. Even if you’re not in retail, there may be ways to leverage of this lucrative time period.
2.Package holiday products or services into “subscriptions” to keep customers coming back in the New Year. (Think “Seafood-of-the-Month Club,” weekly consulting calls … you get the point.)
3.Start a loyalty reward program now that segues customers into January and beyond. Lots of folks are happy to buy five to get one free. Be creative with your offer to build a little buzz.
4.Have alternatives ready should you get returns. Can’t make a swap? Be gracious. Great customer service today means loyal customers tomorrow.
5.Build your email and mailing list. Capture holiday visitors via opt-in pages on- and offline. These are the customers you can reach out to again and again with news, sales and special offers.
6.Commit to customer conversation. Encourage and respond to comments and you’ll learn what’s important to your fans and continue to be their fave.
A bazillion more ways to build holiday cheer for your business.

Want more? Those very merry folks at Visa have teamed up with USA Today columnist and best-selling author Rhonda Abrams to create a festive guide to the holidays just for small-business owners like us. In it you’ll find all sorts of tips, tools, and fascinating facts to help you make the most of the holidays: www.visa.com/holidaysuccess.

Joe wants to know.

How will your business be taking advantage of this holiday season?

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Joe Banker’s Fantastic Friday: September’s Winning Question - How to tackle daily tasks while managing the big picture

Congratulations to Lauran C. from Yucca Valley, California, who won a slick $100 Visa gift card for submitting this month’s winning question:

“How do you organize and prioritize all of the daily tasks needed to run your small business so that you can still manage your long term goals for growth? I get caught up in the short-term details and don’t want to lose the big picture.”

Thanks for asking, Lauran. This is something many business owners struggle with. Fortunately, neat time management tricks are plentiful. Here are a few of my favorites … I’ll be quick.

Know your true value.

Before you do anything else, ask yourself: If you could do only THREE things within your business, what would they be? Where could you add the most value? These should be things that make a significant contribution to your business success. (Ahem … those long-term goals?)

For a real wake-up call, calculate your hourly rate and ask yourself if all those other daily activities are worth it. (I didn’t think so.) So what do you do with them?

Prioritize—then just say no.

Create To-Do and Not-To-Do lists each evening for the following day. Prioritize your activities as follows and focus first on the #1s:

To-Do (You’ll see a common theme, here)

■Top priority, high-value action
■Mid-level priority, high-value action
■Low-level priority, high-value action
To-NOT-Do (Make this list as big as possible.)

■Delegate
■Discard
Delegate. And automate and outsource.

Make this your new mantra! If someone else can do it as well as or better than you—hand it over. Or, feed your computer some great new software and put it to work. Finally, look into outsourcing, which can be extremely cost effective. Remember—“Is it worth your hourly rate?” (See outsourcing link below.)

Heave-ho and forward-ho.

This is where “Discard” comes in. We often get emotionally attached to our ways of working—even when they’re not working! Unsubscribe to email lists you no longer read. Take a hard look at process and perhaps even people that are causing headaches. Fix problems right away and move on.

Give yourself the gift of time.

Let’s talk boundaries, my friends. Is that 24/7 open-door policy really necessary? And how about those emails? Many time-management gurus suggest checking and returning mail just twice a day. If it’s an emergency, let folks know they should call.

Other tips from the trenches.

■Work in time blocks—50 minutes of focused work time and 10 minutes off each hour. Suddenly you’re a powerhouse!
■Nix multitasking. To the best of your ability, finish one task before starting another.
■Cluster similar tasks. Shifting gears wastes time and energy.
■Touch each piece of paper or email only once. Deal with it or hand it off.
I hope this helps. As always, I’m at the ready if you have additional queries. And remember to send in your questions for October’s Fantastic Friday.

P.S. A big congrats to the winners of September’s random drawing for four additional gift cards: Corey P. from Greenback, TN; Mel K. from Newark, DE; George L from Mahomet, IL; and Pauline R. from Palmdale, CA.

P.P.S. Here’s that link I promised on outsourcing.

Joe wants to know.

If you could only do three things within your business, what would they be? Where do you add the most value?

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Consequential crossover: Why you need to maintain both your personal and business credit

As a small-business owner, you know that you must keep your business and personal finances meticulously separated. (In case you missed that one, yes, you must.) But did you know that when it comes to credit scores, the two are never really mutually exclusive? Here’s why:

If you’re the fresh new face on the business block, without an established business credit history, lenders will have only one thing to go on: your personal credit. So start now to whip it into tip-top shape.

But say you’re a seasoned business owner with a long credit track record—that’s when the two function more independently, right? Not exactly.

Although there are separate business credit bureaus, business lenders are increasingly reporting your credit activity to the personal bureaus as well. The takeaway: It’s vitally important you make every payment on time—and this is doubly important if your employees have business plastic you pay off. You wouldn’t want to accidentally mar their credit—but you could.

So, how do you navigate this important intersection of your two financial worlds? By keeping both your personal and business credit scores soaring, of course. Learn more in How personal credit affects business credit and vice versa.

Joe wants to know.

Have you checked your credit scores lately? Were you glad you did? Why?

Getting personal with market research: You gotta’ talk to people

You have a killer idea for a business, product or service. At least you think you do. But does anyone else? Before you invest in your grand scheme, you need to be certain that others think it’s grand as well. Because without customers who are willing to buy what you’re selling, your idea will never get off the ground—no matter how much money you throw at it.

Alas, many small business owners fail to get the confirmation they need because good market research sounds expensive, and it takes some of us out of our comfort zones—landing us face-to-face with people. Strangers, in fact.

In my humble opinion, friends, it’s time to bite the bullet. Here are three ways to begin.

Get off the computer—Searching for data online is fine for a start, but more than likely it won’t provide answers to your specific business questions. Use search engines to track overall industry data and trends, but then get out of the office and start talking with current and potential customers. Ask them what they think about your idea and how you might improve it to better meet their needs.

Another caveat about overusing the wonderful wide web for your research: You can’t believe everything you read there. (Believe me.) For this reason, you should also meet your local business librarian who will be pleased as punch to help you find reputable, accurate information, including things you may not be able to find online.

Find your ideal customer—Once you’ve signed off and logged out, it’s time to meet and greet. Don’t make the mistake of interviewing just family and friends. (This is more common than you might think.) For one thing, these folks may feel uncomfortable giving you honest feedback. And for another, unless they represent your ideal customer, their feedback may not matter all that much.

Look for opportunities to chat with your ideal customers. They’re out there. In fact, one prerequisite of a good target audience is that they’re easy to find. Otherwise, marketing to them can get costly.

1.First, define “ideal.” Who are the people most likely to buy from you again and again, and refer others?
2.Go out and find them. Look for networking or industry events they might attend and sign yourself up. And every time you tell someone your story, whether they seem personally interested or not, ask them if they know others who might be. Make it clear that you’re not pitching a sale; you’re simply looking for feedback.
3.Start building your prospective-customer network. Now call those referrals … and repeat. Remember the rules of networking etiquette, respect others’ time, be clear about what you want from them, thank them for their help, look for ways to return the favor, and stay in touch.
Can’t seem to find your ideal customers? Talk to related businesses that serve the same type of people. Networking with other business owners is a great way to learn and get referrals. And the 3 steps above work for this audience as well.

“But Joe,” you might ask, “with all the social media out there, can’t I just converse with people from the comfort of my office?” In theory, yes. But it takes a good amount of time and effort to build an online community, and you may not want to wait that long for answers—or invest that much in an idea before you know it’s a winner.

You say you’re already Googling with gaggles? Or a whiz at online surveys? Great! But there’s still nothing like in-person conversations for teasing out the details and creating new relationships.

Know your story—In order to get reliable feedback, you need to tell everyone you talk to the same thing or feedback will be difficult to interpret. If you find you’re getting a less-than-glowing response to your always-consistent story, tweak your idea accordingly, re-noodle your telling and begin again.

Fortunately “failure to launch” isn’t a problem for most entrepreneurs. But failing to launch right can be. If chatting up the masses is difficult for you, I suggest these 7 pointers . Then get out of your comfort zone and start getting personal with the only people who can give you real-deal answers: your customers.

Looking for other great ways to elevate your business idea? You got it, just check these secret ingredients for success.

Joe wants to know:

Quieter entrepreneurs are really quite common. If that’s you, how do you get over your reluctance to talk to others about your business?

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What is Section 179?

By Craig Veurink for Connect

When you hear the words Section 179 what do you think of? Is it where your season tickets are located at with your favorite sports team? Maybe it is part of the legal description of some property you own? Or is it an important part of the Internal Revenue Tax Code that can really be a benefit to a small business owner? The answer could be all of the above but the focus today will be on the famous Section 179 IRC tax code that many business owners have taken advantage of to gain tax relief.

Section 179, as it is commonly referred to, has allowed businesses to accelerate depreciation on purchases of both qualified used and new equipment. Most equipment purchases qualify including certain vehicles and software in the year they are purchased.

Historically, the depreciation expense would be allocated to the equipment each year based on the life of the equipment. The IRS added Section 179 in order to stimulate the economy and encourage businesses to accelerate the purchase of equipment to take advantage of the tax deduction.

In 2010 and 2011 the deduction limit grew as high as $500,000. In 2012 the Section 179 deduction limit is $139,000. Without any Congress intervention it’s expected to be reduced to $25,000 in 2013. There are a couple of other key things to remember on Section 179. There are limits on the deduction which include a cap on the total equipment purchases that a business can make in that tax year. The limit for 2012 is $560,000 and it is set to be reduced to $200,000 for 2013. An example of the calculation of this would be if a company purchased $600,000 in equipment in 2012, the Section 179 deduction limit would be $99,000 ($139,000 limit - $40,000 amount exceeding the limit = $99,000).

Another note to remember is in addition to Section 179 there also is bonus depreciation available. This is only applicable to new qualified equipment purchases. Keep in mind that bonus depreciation is set to go away in 2013 along with the earlier mentioned reduction of Section 179 if Congress does not intervene. So it is clear that it is important now to determine what if any action you should take.

Action items:

■Talk to your CPA right away to see if from a tax standpoint you can take advantage of Section 179 and/or bonus depreciation. This is the time of the year when you should have a reasonable picture on where you will end up for the year from a profit standpoint.
■If your visit with your CPA indicates you can take advantage of either Section 179 or bonus depreciation, do an overall analysis of your business on equipment needs. Analyze what equipment needs to be replaced or can be added to improve efficiencies and allow for profitable growth.
■Finally, meet with your banker once you determine what equipment you are looking to buy. He or she can look at multiple options to finance the purchase if needed. Your banker should even be able to pre-approve you for your purchases to eliminate any uncertainties before approaching the vendor to negotiate your purchase.
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Restaurant Possible

By Lori Syverson for Connect

Albanese’s Roadhouse Restaurant
Location: Waukesha, WI
Established: 1982
Number of Employees: 42

A hit reality show takes failing restaurants and tries to turn them around with $10,000 in two days. The reality is that change in any business, especially a family-owned business doesn’t happen in two days. When change does happen it can be slow and painful for everyone involved, including the employees. But Albanese’s Roadhouse, a family-owned restaurant with a history of more than 70 years of success found a way to bridge the generation gap when it comes to change management.

The Beginning:

For more than seven decades the southeastern Wisconsin icon has been synonymous with homemade pasta and Grandpa’s special blend of wine. Francis and Joe Albanese built Albanese’s restaurant from old family recipes and Fran’s hard work and dedication. Through that same hard work and dedication, in 1982, Fran and Joe’s son Dominic opened Albanese’s in a suburb 20 miles west of Milwaukee. By 1992, the third generation of Albanese’s was at the helm with Dominic’s son Joe.

Challenge:

The business grew steadily over the years with no reason to change the formula that brought success. But by 2006 the younger Joe was noticing a slow, gradual decline not only in revenue but in customers. The three martini lunches that had supported the bar business long disappeared and the customers they had depended on for weekly, sometimes twice weekly visits were aging. Plus, the 25 year old décor and menu wasn’t attracting new customers.

Solution: Learning from past mistakes

The junior Joe Albanese recognized that by not changing the business approach from the past, the business wouldn’t attract enough new customers to thrive in the future. That recognition helped him identify what needed to change. He converted the deli and grocery store attached to the restaurant to a game room that attracted the 20-30 year old demographic. The décor was updated and the layout changed to provide a more open feel. Big screen televisions were added to attract game day patrons.

When describing his grandfather, the junior Albanese referred to his business style as “operating with blinders on. He couldn’t see the potential that change could bring.”

Many family-owned businesses fail because they continue to use old, worn out practices when times have changed. Although the Albanese family patriarch Dominic sometimes grizzled at change, he was determined not to repeat the mistakes of his father and be open to new ideas.

The key to the success for the Albanese‘s or any other small, family-owned company is to merge core business and family values with those of your clientele, which often requires change, to create your own niche.

Today’s change management philosophy talks about implementing change downward toward the employees. But in a family-owned business you may need to start with the family members on the top of the chain to gain their buy-in first. Like many founders they sacrificed with their blood, sweat, tears and bank account to start the business. Hesitancy toward change is their way of protecting what they’ve built. For any individual trying to make a change under those circumstances, the process may need to start from the top sooner rather than later.

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Size doesn’t matter

By Lori Syverson for Connect

As president of a chamber of commerce, I have the unique opportunity to take the constant pulse of businesses ranging from small one-man or woman operations to Fortune 500 companies. I hear about their struggles and successes, what changes worked and which ones proved to be an exercise in what NOT to do.

The health of those companies is improving- albeit slowly. The verdict shows that when it comes to thriving in today’s business environment, size doesn’t matter. Successful practices are evident in the smaller David-size operations as well as the larger Goliaths. The common theme is willingness to change.

Here are some lessons of success shared by businesses that have weathered the economic downturn and come out stronger.

■It’s better to move and have to change course than not move at all. It’s commonly assumed that smaller businesses can turn on a dime. Theoretically, those companies are able to change operations quickly but many get stuck in the analytics trap. Do your due diligence and make a decision.
■When your strategy isn’t working, change the strategy - don’t throw more money at it. Even though a system or process is working, be open to change that will improve the process.
■Fortunately, humans have an innate urge to improve things and are not satisfied with “leave well-enough alone.”
■Be a lean, mean fighting machine. You don’t have to be a Toyota or the size of Toyota to benefit from implementing lean strategies and a philosophy that eliminates waste, reduces costs, and improves quality.
■When the going gets rough- don’t give up on marketing. When the economy heads south or sales are stale, marketing is often the first casualty. While all departments are fair game when it comes to survival, don’t leave marketing holding the bag. Stalling your marketing efforts takes away any momentum you’ve established. Keep the pipeline fresh so both you and the potential client will be ready when the time is right.

Communication lessons learned from Apple

By Aaron Hutchings for Connect

As a business owner, you face many challenges. Perhaps one of the greatest is how you communicate your value to your target audience. Great communication can make or break any small business. Think about how you currently communicate. Do you generate the “buzz” you want? Does your communication translate into sales?

There is nothing else in the world that can stir up excitement like a new product announcement from Apple. Take the iPhone 5, for example. For months, techies, bloggers, news outlets, and Apple enthusiasts have been all abuzz as to what life changing features this new phone will have. With the announcement now past, I decided to examine the phenomenon of the excitement Apple generates when it announces a new product.

From an outsider’s perspective, Apple has a brilliant communication strategy. They communicate to their target audience typically only when they have something great to say. If you look at the past couple of months and examine Apple, there is an important lesson that a business owner can learn. Consider for a moment when you communicate to your customers? Is it when you have something great to say?

In today’s global marketplace, being an effective communicator and having a communication strategy are more important to your business’s success than ever.

Look at how Apple announced its latest iPhone. CEO Tim Cook took the stage with nothing but a simple projection screen behind him and he allowed the product to be the center piece of the announcement. When you look at the communication of the announcement, it is fairly simple. As an outsider, it works because Apple portrays its new product as the most intuitive and simple to understand on the market.

Just like Apple, you have a product that your target audience wants. Start with the product when developing your communication strategy. Talk about the product’s features and the experience of using the product. Next, consider how you communicate and whether your communication translates into sales.

Use the questions below to help evaluate how your business is currently communicating. In the upcoming weeks, my blog will be providing you additional detail on how to create and implement a winning communication strategy.

Challenge:

Take a few minutes and answer these simple questions. They will help you develop (or fine tune) your communication strategy.

■Who are the groups with whom you communicate (employees, customers, vendors, etc.)?
■What is your message?
■Is your product (or service) the centerpiece of your communication?
■What methods do you use to communicate (email, phone, texting, fax, and/or web conferencing)?
■After you communicate, evaluate whether your communication has made an impact and what modifications should be made?
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Gung-ho for “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”

By Karen Gutiérrez for Connect

Reading “Getting Things Done” last summer, I had the eerie feeling the author had somehow broken into my office. Drawer full of random gadgets that may or may not work? Yep, got one of those. Stack of reading I keep pushing aside in favor of “emergency” emails? Yeah, that too.

First published in 2001, David Allen’s book is considered a classic of time-management literature - the kind of thing that turns people into devotees who go on and on about it at parties. Search Twitter for the hashtag #GTD and you’ll find at least four tweets an hour. Ask on Quora.com, “How can I become more organized” and some people will simply tell you to read this book.

Now I know why. “Getting Things Done” is still hugely relevant, because it perfectly captures the dilemma of so many of us in today’s economy. We work with vast amounts of information streaming in and out of our inboxes – research, due dates, requests for assistance, shopping lists, kids’ schedules, etc – and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. What we need is a way to get all this stuff out of our heads and into an effective system for taking action.

Allen’s method involves bringing closure to all your mental notes – everything from work obligations to broken gadgets to home-improvement projects - by jotting down a real note for each one of them. You can do this by maintaining lists, using your calendar, creating files and/or a combination of all three. You may already have plenty of “to-do” lists, but Allen helps you see the holes in your system. For instance, if you’re making lists but not regularly checking or using them, then they’re not going to work. If you’re making lists but leaving off your long-term dream projects, you’re not going to feel fulfilled.

I highly recommend reading the book for yourself, so you can understand not only what to do but also why Allen’s system works so well. Follow his steps and you’ll end up with what he calls a “mind like water” - the martial arts term for a relaxed state of constant readiness. At any moment, you can react quickly and confidently to sudden changes in your priorities, because you know exactly where you are with all the other things on your plate.

Here are a few of the concepts from “Getting Things Done” that have made the biggest difference to me over the last three months:

■Break down your work projects into specific “next actions,” and write these down on your lists. This means your to-do items won’t be something general like “Inventory management project” but rather a specific action, such as “Call Bill at xx company for pricing on inventory-management software.” Every project has a next step to move it along, and failing to spell it out can leave you feeling too overwhelmed to make progress.
■Don’t include on your to-do lists the date you intend to complete something. Too often these dates change as emergencies come up. You need to be flexible, so why make yourself feel bad about a missed date? Instead, use your calendar to capture the stuff that absolutely must be accomplished on a particular day, and leave undated other items on your to-do lists.
■Complete tasks on your lists during the right blocks of time - meaning the moments when your energy level and time available matches the complexity of the task. When I have, say, 12 minutes before my next meeting, and it’s 4 p.m. so my energy is flagging, I scan my list for no-brainer stuff I can knock off in that amount of time.
■Got a dream project you may never get around to doing? Put it on a “someday maybe” list and let it go. You’d be surprised how the simple act of writing down the idea can mentally free you up to take the first step.
■Use lists to manage both personal and work-related tasks, and break down the lists by context. For instance, I have an “Errands” list that consists of all the things I need to do while out and about. If I’m in my car with a bit of free time, I call up my errands to see if I’m near anything I can get done. Similarly, I keep a “Phone calls” list. If I’m waiting on the kids somewhere, I pull it up to see who I can call while I’m idle. Since adopting this approach, I’ve done more networking and RSVPd on time for more events than ever before, which not only feels good but also really shocks my friends.
■Immediately answer emails, return phone calls, etc., if doing so will take less than two minutes. If you defer such tasks until later, it will take you longer than two minutes to capture the task in your system, so you might as well do it now.
These are just a few of my favorite tips. There are plenty more of them in the book.

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Why social media matters for your business

By Karen Gutiérrez for Connect

I can always get excited about a new caffeine source, and fortunately, my Facebook friends keep me informed. Last week, somebody posted a picture of a new café not far from my place and within a few days I was there. It may become my new favorite hangout.

Sound familiar?

Texting, Facebooking, blogging – social media is the new word-of-mouth for businesses large and small. Almost without thinking, people are snapping photos, posting them while “checking in” sometimes even leaving a review while they’re at it.

So what does it all mean for you, the owner of a business? You’re already pretty busy – in fact, a group of small and mid-sized businesses says lack of time is the No. 1 obstacle cited by small business owners who aren’t engaged in social networking.

Should you try to make the time? Is it worth it? From where I sit, the answer is yes, absolutely. Here are a few reasons why.

■Social media is how your future customers will expect to interact with you.

There are more members of the Millennial generation (ages 16 to 34) than there are Baby Boomers, and Millennials are more social online. About 33 percent of them are more likely to buy from a business if it has a Facebook page, compared to 17 percent of non-Millennials, Boston Consulting Group says.

Get started with social media now, and you’ll be ready as this generation (and the one after) becomes part of your customer base. You’ll also be better prepared for the rapid shift taking place in mobile. By 2016, e-marketer estimates, 74% of all cellphone users in the U.S. will have a smartphone, compared to 48% today.

Smartphones are the key to generating buzz. The easier it becomes to post that photo or send that tweet, the more those things will happen. You can amplify positive messages about your business – and be efficient with your time – by using apps on your own phone.
■If you want to be found on the Internet, it helps to be active in social media.

Search engines are increasingly relying on social signals to deliver the most relevant results to users. This means Google and Bing, when ranking your page in an organic search, take into account things like the number of times your URL is shared on Facebook or the number of pins that link back to your site from Pinterest.

This connection between social buzz and search was first acknowledged in 2010 by Google Web Spam Director Matt Cutts. Ever since, SEO experts have been running experiments to understand how it works. Increasingly, they’re finding strong correlation between social activity around a brand and that brand’s ranking.

As the leader of your company’s social-media strategy, you can create opportunities for conversation and sharing that ultimately help people find you on the web.
■Monitoring social media is like eavesdropping on what your customers really think. You can use the results to get better at what you do.

At U.S. Bank, where I work, we capture and analyze more than 6,000 mentions a month of our company in social media. Some of this feedback is delivered immediately to people on the frontlines. The rest is regularly provided to our leadership, from top level executives down to product, branch and marketing managers.

The insights gleaned from social media can help us all understand our customer pain points and how to address them. And once you start listening, you’ll see the value in joining the conversation yourself – thanking your fans, “liking” that Facebook photo, commenting on a customer’s experience.
Are you active in social media? What were your reasons for taking the plunge?

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