Archive for July, 2014


Tips to Effectively Manage Remote Workers

I may not be Captain Kirk, but my extensive travel schedule makes it imperative that I meet my business responsibilities while remaining connected to my base.  Some of your employees may have the same needs.  Sales territories keep your reps far from your home office, but even local workers may need to work from home during inclement weather — or even just because they prefer wearing fuzzy slippers from 9 to 5.

Remote work can make sense, as long as your employees have the resources that they need to excel at their jobs wherever they are.  But it also takes disciplined workers and supportive managers.  Here are some tips on how to decide which employees will be effective remote workers and how to ensure that they provide professional representation for your company.

Identifying Good Remote Workers

If an employee that reminds you of Ferris Bueller or Dude Lebowski asks for the opportunity to work from home, just say no.  Self-motivated employees, on the other hand, are likely to be even more productive when they don’t spend time commuting to an office where distractions and interruptions typically exceed those that workers might find at home.

Still, employees who want to work from home need to show that they have an appropriate, interruption-free work area.  For example, they probably need to send the kids to daycare or hire a nanny.  But just as important, look for employees who already display dedication, as evidenced by the following traits:

  • They consistently meet or exceed deadlines, even if it means coming in early or staying late;
  • They take work home while still putting in a full workday, particularly when that work requires unfettered concentration;
  • They keep you informed of progress without the need to prompt them;
  • They are good problem-solvers on their own, but they know when to seek your help.

Remote Employees Must Maintain a Professional Image to the Outside World

No customer, vendor or other outside party should ever see the laundry basket in an employee’s living room and seeing the inside of a coffee shop is no better.  In other words, business contact must occur outside of the home in professional surroundings.

You work hard to develop a professional image for your business and your employees need to maintain it, no matter where they are.  I count on Regus (who, for disclosure is a client of mine, and whose services and locations I have used as a client of theirs for years), one of the largest providers of flexible workspaces in the world, for the professional image that I need. 

Using professional remote workspaces allows you to rent anything from office space to meeting rooms on an as-needed basis, but if you regularly provide remote workers with access to flexible facilities, a resource like Regus’s Businessworld card can help keep costs under control while providing a professional working environment.

Technology Creates a Bridge between Workers and Home Base

Stocksy_txpb13c4b25pg7000_Small_205271

Most remote workers use a computer in some capacity to do their jobs.  It doesn’t matter if 

they carry a company laptop back and forth between home and office or if they use their own computer — as long as they have access to the right functions.  But once you take employees out of the office, you often need additional technology such as the following to keep them connected:

  • A reliable Internet connection;
  • High-quality and secure access to your office computer network, including email, using collaboration suites like Office 365;
  • A quality phone system, like those provided by Nextiva;
  • The ability to attend interactive meetings and video conferences online.

Having appropriate technology makes it seamless for you to collaborate with your team or even your vendors from almost anywhere in the world.

Avoiding the Isolation of Remote Work Environments

I know someone who was forced to work from home during her first months with a new employer simply because her office computer did not work.  She would come in to the office for meetings, but she lamented that the delay in getting to know her co-workers made her feel alienated from the team.  Years later, after she formed a bond with the team, she started working from home several days a week.  She enjoyed her time at home, but she always felt a sense of renewal when she returned to the office.

All employees must feel a close connection to the company and their co-workers, and it is your job to make sure that happens.  By conducting regular one-on-one and department phone meetings, you provide them with vital information relevant to their daily activities, but face-to-face contact is incredibly valuable as well.  You should make it clear that you expect local employees to come to the office on a regular basis, and even workers on the other side of the country might be able to travel in for the quarterly company meeting or other major events.

Everyone would enjoy the chance to wear fuzzy slippers and PJs during their work day, but this is just one of many reasons why studies have shown remote workers to be generally happier and more productive.  Still, it is important to make sure that a remote workplace does not equate to a remote connection with the company team.  With your guidance, employees who receive this benefit will earn your trust every day — especially if those fuzzy slippers have your company logo embroidered on them.


Good, Better, Best: How to Be the Best Leader for Your Small Business

Stocksy_txp4741dc94fC8000_Small_17003Like it or not, as a small business owner, one of your primary roles (if you’ve got employees, that is), is that of leader. If you haven’t had a lot of experience in the past in leading people, you might need a few pointers for polishing your skills. Not to worry: even if you’re not a born leader, it’s something you can improve with a bit of effort and education. And don’t be afraid to sign up for a leadership course.

The Qualities of a Great Leader

While everyone’s got their own opinion about what makes for killer leadership skills, most can’t argue that the following are qualities that can help you manage others with grace:

  • Solid listening & communication skills
  • Striving to help employees succeed
  • Empowering employees to make decisions
  • Striving for self-improvement
  • Learning from mistakes

How many of these qualities do you possess? If you need a brush-up, here are tips for expanding your abilities on each point:

  • Listening & Communication: Let your employees speak without you interrupting them. Pause before responding, and really consider what they’ve said.
  • Help Employees Succeed: If an employee comes to you with a problem, don’t just listen; act. Show him that you keep your word by making change to help him overcome his obstacle.
  • Empower Employees: Show your staff that you trust them to make decisions without your constant approval. They’ll blossom if you let them.
  • Self-Improvement: Realize that good leaders never assume they’ve reached the top, and keep striving to better their skills.
  • Learn from Mistakes: Just like anyone, you’re fallible, so rather than try to deny your errors, take them as valuable lessons.

Why You Should Strive to Be a Great Leader

Do you really need to improve your leadership skills? If you care about keeping your staff happy (and at your company), you should care. As Eric Jackson quotes the old saying in this Forbes article, people quit their bosses, not their jobs. Do you really want to be the reason you keep losing good talent?

Your staff looks to you for guidance on how to conduct themselves, as well as how your company is run. A good leader inspires her staff, not makes them cower under their desks.

Owning Your Leadership Style

If you’ve been to business school or any kind of leadership training, you might be familiar with Lewin’s Three Leadership Styles. These date back to 1939, and while others have been identified since then, these styles of leadership still ring true today:

  • Autocratic: You make decisions on your own without the input of your team, and your word is law. You’re not open to suggestions from your staff, which may make them fearful of you, and may cause employees to be difficult to motivate or keep on board.
  • Democratic: You involve staff members in key decisions, though you still have the final word. Employees feel more vested in the company when they are encouraged by you to provide input.
  • Laissez-faire: This style of leadership isn’t always effective. You put the responsibility of decision-making in the hands of your employees, which may cause your team to feel confused and without strong guidance, since that’s not a laissez-faire leader’s strong suit.

Each of these leadership types (as well as others) has its benefits and drawbacks. The key is understanding which comes naturally to you, as well as which your staff responds best to. For example, if you identify with the autocratic style, but your staff seems afraid to come to you with ideas or issues, try on the democratic hat for a week or two and see if results change. It’s better to align yourself with your staff’s needs than stick to what’s easiest for you.

The better the leader you are, the happier your employees will be. And a small business with happy employees makes for a successful company.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: How to Get Control of Your Email

Is your email out of control? Are you constantly checking it on three different devices and feel like you never get out from under the avalanche? If your emails seem to be multiplying like rabbits, don’t despair—there are ways to get a grip and get back control of your life. Not all of the following tactics will work for everyone—but some should work for you.

  • Avoid checking email first thing in the morning. If you find that email sucks up your time and keeps you from accomplishing big projects, try designating the first hour of your day as email-free. Just be sure you use that time to work on key tasks that are crucial to your business—not busywork or checking Facebook. By dedicating a solid hour a day to focused effort, you’ll be amazed how much more you get done. (Disclosure: I offer this advice because so many time management people put it on their lists of must-do’s. Personally, I always check email first thing in the morning. To do otherwise seems counter-productive to me.)
  • Turn off email notifications. If your computer or smartphone dings every time you get a new email, no wonder you’re going nuts. Turn off notifications so you can focus instead of being interrupted every two seconds.
  • Set times for checking email. It’s human nature to seek out the new and exciting. When we’re bored or stressed, it’s natural to check our email to see if anything more interesting has come along. You’ll get more done if you set a few specific times of day for checking email—for example, one hour into your day, right before lunch, early afternoon and near the end of the day. If you let your team know about your email habits, they won’t panic when you don’t respond immediately.
  • Use filters, folders, rules and other tools. Whether you use Gmail, Outlook, Apple Mail or other program, investigate the tools available on your email program to help manage email. Spending a few hours now learning how to automatically sort emails into folders, set rules for what to do with emails and using filters to ensure you don’t miss important emails (and don’t waste time on pointless ones) will save you hours each day in the end.
  • Automate and delegate. If you frequently answer the same types of emails, such as a certain kind of customer inquiry, creating templates with stock language you can edit quickly will save you time. Or delegate these standard replies to an assistant (real or virtual).
  • Pick up the phone. Sometimes we spend hours going back and forth on email when a simple phone call would solve the issue in a flash. Never minimize the value of in-person communication.

Stocksy_txp7269e7953I8000_Small_221240


Mondays with Mike: Experts and Minions

????????????????????????????????????????????????????While entrepreneurs strive to staff their companies with superstars, we all know that there’s usually one person who stands out – you know, the person that everyone (including you) calls when you’re stuck and need expert advice.  Since cloning people isn’t legal – and probably not cost effective, either – it’s easy to feel frustrated when there’s simply not enough of your expert to go around. 

After all, an expert can only be in one place at a time, right?

Wrong!  The solution to your expert cloning needs is to provide your experts with minions.  Here’s an example of how it works:

Let’s say that you own a security company, and you provide installation and monitoring services to your clients.  You have technicians who work out in the field doing the installation and making service calls when something goes wrong.  These technicians are trained, but you’ve got one guy who can always troubleshoot any problem and devise intelligent solutions.  But he’s only one guy.

You can’t send him out on every service call, but what you can do is keep him in the office.  No, I haven’t lost my mind.  You keep your expert in a single location, and you set up a way for him to communicate with everyone out in the field.  When a technician encounters a problem, he gets on the phone with the expert, and the expert talks him through the solution. 

The single most important component of this model is a consistent, reliable, and flexible means of communication, because if your communication goes down, the system falls apart.  Many VoIP (Voiceover Internet Protocol) providers offer all the services you’ll need.  My team uses Skype, but there are other companies who provide similar services.

So your minions can connect to your expert via phone, but if they need to share files, Skype also facilitates that.  If your minion has a particularly sticky problem and needs to show the expert what’s going on first-hand, Skype lets you use a webcam to virtually put the expert on-site.  Think about it … if your minions are connected to your expert, then your expert can be virtually anywhere.  You’ve essentially cloned your expert.

The hidden benefit of this model is that while your technicians are out in the field, relying on the expert for support as needed, they’re also getting additional training when they implement your expert’s solutions.  They have a model for troubleshooting that they can begin to implement in their own work.

This model is surprisingly versatile, as well.  Any business that has to send trained staff out to work with clients occasionally has employees who encounter unexpected circumstances and find themselves out of their comfort zone.  Whether you make service calls to repair copiers, or whether you have a team of sales reps in the market, you never know when your staff will need quick answers from your expert.  Setting up an expert-minion structure and protocol ensures that you have enough staff to get out to your clients, without the expense of hiring a dozen experts.


Buzz vs. Staying Power: Creating a Customer Experience They Want to Come Back To

About this series: This series of articles from Nextiva will help you grasp of the essentials of customer service: the principles and guidelines that will serve you well in any era, regardless of trends, changing technology, and a constantly evolving customer base. Our guide is Micah Solomon, customer service and customer experience consultant, author, and speaker.

 

Buzz is a mysterious, magical substance. It's what gets customers to your establishment in the first place. 

Books have been written about this mysterious force. But not by me. 

boy looks in window of closed toy store / (c) 2014 Micah Solomon micah@micahsolomon.com

(c) micah@micahsolomon.com

Because buzz only gets you so far, and only for so long.  Literally speaking, it  only gets them to the front door, to try you that first time.

Far be it from me to say that buzz isn't important; Obviously, getting prospective customers interested in what you do is an important first step.  But it's not enough to build a business on, any more than building a business on Groupon discounts is a long-term strategy.

What you need is staying power.  Something that gives customers a desire to return. 

And the best model for this is a vision of home. 

Here’s what I mean: If you want your customers to return over and over, you need to consciously create an environment/product/process/service that “feels like home” to them.

Now, if you think about it, customers don’t actually want the place they do business with to “be like home”– the home of the typical adult, with dirty dishes in the sink, deferred maintenance up the yin yang.  So I use this “home” term advisedly and with some apprehension. 

At home as a typical adult, you are in control, but only on a self-serve basis. In your childhood home (optimally), it was a different sort of experience. Food appeared at mealtimes. You didn’t have to worry about shopping for personal items. When light bulbs blew out, new ones replaced them. When you left in the morning for school, your parents were genuinely saddened by your departure, and they looked forward to seeing you again. Your personal preferences were well known and were ‘’magically’’ taken into consideration.

So how does this apply to building staying power at your business?  Well, spend a lot of time greeting your customers enthusiastically when they return.  Pay attention to how you bid them good-bye when they leave. Make sure that what they typically order is already pre-selected for them and available without any—any—hassle at all. 

This builds an environment that a customer will choose to return to, over and over and over. Where they’re known.  Where they’re welcomed.  Where things work.  Where they not only can get what they want, but where you know what they want before they even have to ask for it.

This is the ultimate way to acknowledge a human being, in this case a customer.

© 2014 Micah Solomon


Desperate for Cash? Beware of These Lenders

One of the main results of the banking crisis that brought the Great Recession was a new law created to protect the consumer through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Unfortunately, this has only moved the focus for predatory lenders to small businesses.

Desperately seeking cash, these owners are now at risk of borrowing money for their companies and not fully understanding the terms of their loans. The subprime lending industry has exploded to $3 billion. These loans are still unregulated and are not protected by the same laws that cover individual borrowers. Mark Pinsky of Opportunity Finance Network says “[For subprime business lenders] the sweet spot is someone who can limp along well enough for six months but probably isn't going to be around much longer…They’re in the business of helping these businesses fail.”

Stocksy_txpbb9bc609CY7000_Small_159204According to Bloomberg Businessweek, one of the companies specializing in subprime lending – also referred to alternative lending – is World Business Lenders. The firm’s representatives pitch their high-rate loans to small business owners who have trouble borrowing elsewhere. World Business Lenders seizes collateral such as vehicles and other assets when borrowers can’t pay, and press legal action where World Business sues companies for missed payments, often sending companies into bankruptcy. In fact, 20 percent of World Business’s borrowers were forced to close down last year, according to former executives.

This capital comes from well-known sources. One subprime business lender, OnDeck, has credit commitments from financial lenders like Goldman Sachs. Interest rates on loans from OnDeck range from 29 percent to 134 percent.

Sales representatives of these types of lenders can use confusing terminology such as “short-term capital” and discuss “money factors” instead of interest rates when talking to potential borrowers. Here are steps you need to take before signing any loan agreement:

  1. How much are you borrowing? Know the exact amount you will receive after any application, up front or prepaid fees.
  2. What is the actual annual interest rate?  Make sure you understand in writing the nominal and effective annual percentage rate.
  3. What is the borrowing term? How often do on time payments need to be made? What are the penalties for late payments?
  4. Are there other fees for paying off the loan early? Some agreements apply all the term interest even if the loan is paid ahead of schedule.
  5. Is there a personal guarantee? Are just the officers of the company signing the documents or do you need to personally guarantee it as well?  Stay away from these types of guarantees that can put your personal savings and home at risk.
  6. Don’t rush it. Don’t be in a hurry to sign any document. Think about it for a day. Show it to a professional advisor (or a banker) to get their opinion on this source of capital.

Always look at all other available sources of capital before agreeing to this type of loan. Check for help from friends, family, customers and additional business cash flow management.


5 Ways to Make Money Through Text Messaging for Your Small Business

???????????????????????????????It’s nearly impossible to go anywhere without seeing people using their smartphones to text, talk, use apps, or surf the web. More than 90 percent of the U.S. population has mobile phones, and those individuals spend 19 hours per day with the device at arm’s length (some even more!). If you’re not using text messaging as part of your marketing and business development plan, you’re missing out on serious opportunity to connect with your customers and increase sales.

Text messages are one of the most-read methods of communication, with a 97 percent open rate (that’s much higher than the average email gets). And 85 percent of text messages are read within 15 minutes of receipt. This is a boon if you’re trying to get people’s attention right now. Here’s a look at how you can leverage text messages to make money for your small business.

  1. Get permission first.  You must make sure that your customers want to hear from you via text message, or you’ll risk suffering a huge backlash and potentially losing customers.
  2. Use text messaging as a relationship building tool. Like with any type of business development venture, don’t immediately start using a text messaging strategy to sell products and services. Instead texting should first be a way to build relationships with current customers and prospects. Send out useful information that customers will want, such as appointment reminders or coupons. Just remember not to send text messages too frequently or you’ll risk irritating people.
  3. Use text messaging to support existing marketing and sales efforts. One of the best ways to use text messaging is to present special offers, which lead customers to buy in the store or online. For example, if your business has a sale on a Monday, a text message can be sent Sunday afternoon to remind customers about this opportunity to shop and save.​​Starbucks will often send out text messages to customers reminding them to use their “treat receipt” (morning coffee receipt) to buy an afternoon drink at a discounted price. The “treat receipt” is an existing sales strategy, and adding the text messaging component helps to encourage customers to come back for a second purchase on the same day.
  4. Develop exclusive mobile content. You want customers to pay attention to the text messages you send. As such, don’t simply promote the same discounts and offers you send in email and your website. Create specific offers such as a 20 percent discount using a text message code. This will train the buyer not to ignore your texts.
  5. Find the right service provider. This is an important step in order to deploy a text messaging strategy for your business. There are text messaging platforms available for iPhones and Android devices that allow geo-tracking, which shows the geographic location of the mobile device holder. This is important if you plan to send text offers to customers who are near your business.

A text messaging strategy is a critical part of business development and marketing in today’s multi-channel marketing world. Remember to use texting to form relationships before going straight for the sale, and think about a strategy before sending your first message. 


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: 5 Customer Service Trends You Need to Know About

In the pioneer days, customer service at the local general store meant a friendly greeting and wrapping a purchase in brown paper tied with string. Today, customers’ expectations have become far more sophisticated—and so has customer service. Here are some of the top customer service trends today, as identified by Forrester Research, and what they mean to your business.

  1. Customers want “pain-free” service. Basically, this means making it easy for customers to get the help they want, anytime, anywhere. For example, customers now expect to be able to use a variety of communications channels to get customer service. Voice is still the number-one channel used for customer service, but self-service, chat and email are all gaining in popularity. Moreover, customers expect the same level and quality of service, whether they’re using the phone or live chat. Finally, they expect to be able to start an interaction in one channel and seamlessly complete it in another.
  2. Stocksy_txp6f31b4d2H08000_Small_165665Customers are going mobile. Most customers expect to be able to interact with customer service on a mobile device. It’s important you don’t just present a smaller version of your desktop website on mobile; instead, use responsive design to ensure customers can view and interact with your site whether they’re on a tablet, desktop or smartphone. For mobile, your customer service interface should be simple, intuitive and easy to use.
  3. Customer service is getting proactive. One big trend Forrester noticed: Nearly one-third of bigger companies plan to invest in proactive outbound communications with customers this year. For your small business, that could be anything from calling customers to follow up after a sale, to randomly surveying customers about your service, to using shopping cart software that reaches out with an invitation to live chat when customers’ actions indicate confusion.
  4. Companies are moving customer service to the cloud. More companies are relying on cloud-based, SaaS solutions rather than installing software. This enables them to keep current on changes in customer service and maintain fluid databases with new knowledge about how to handle customer problems and inquiries.
  5. Companies are incorporating self-service. Forrester reports that 67 percent of consumers use web self-service knowledge to find answers to their questions. Savvy companies are looking to supplement their own knowledge bases with user-generated content, which enables customer service employees and customers alike to find answers to a wider range of questions and problems more quickly. 

Mondays with Mike: 4 Steps To Taking Your Business On The Road

I’m a self-taught mobile business evangelist.  When I made the decision to convert the way I did business from the traditional, office-based model, I literally never looked back, at least not fondly.  Now, everything I need to conduct business is in my backpack, and I can work – quite easily, in fact – from anywhere in the world.

Getting your business ready to go mobile isn’t without its pitfalls, though, so I’ve compiled a game plan for getting there with minimal hassle.

  1. Communication is key.  The single most important component of your mobile business strategy is ensuring that you can communicate reliably with your staff, clients, and key contacts.  Skype is the solution for my company.  It lets me talk by phone, conduct video conferences, and it even lets me send messages.  When you’re on the road, you can’t afford to be out of touch, so it’s worth it to research your options and make the choice that meets all of your needs.
  2. Use the cloud to store and share data.  In addition to being able to talk to clients and employees, you’re also going to need a way to store and share your data securely.  Google Drive works for me, and I simply can’t overstate how critical it is to be able to access, edit, and share files from the road.  Even if you end up paying for your cloud storage, you’ll end up saving money in the long run when you factor in the savings in both time and money.  No more searching for a fax machine or waiting for documents to arrive.  Being able to share files – even large ones – by pointing and clicking is critical.
  3. Create contingency plans.  Ask yourself what you’d do if your laptop battery died.  What would you do if you couldn’t find reliable wifi?  What if Google Drive stopped working in the middle of a negotiation that relies on sending and receiving files?  Think through the problems that could arise and start developing solutions.  Whether it’s a backup battery or a second cloud storage account, you’ll save yourself huge headaches if you do some troubleshooting before you need it.
  4. Take a deep breath and jump right in.  Force yourself to go mobile.  Even if you start with a single day, making yourself actually do it will help you identify problems with your systems and give you the confidence that you can, in fact, survive outside your office and outside your comfort zone.  As you start going through your regular tasks from a mobile office, you’ll start to realize all the benefits.  You’ll appreciate the flexibility, and you’ll quickly see that you’re actually more efficient.

Much of working outside the office relies on technology, but one of the things that I love most about working from my backpack is that I’m free to schedule more face time with my important clients.  Rather than being tied to a desk, I’m free to actually go seal a deal with a real handshake.  Your laptop doesn’t distance you from personal contact; it simply lets you keep tabs on your business while you go forge those important face-to-face connections. 

Stocksy_txp3af72c081C7000_Small_212542




 
Nextiva Logo

phone-icon Sales phone-icon Support
Nextiva is the leader in Business VoIP Services. Copyright 2014 Nextiva, All Rights Reserved,
Terms and Conditions, Privacy Policy, Patents, Sitemap