Archive for the ‘Business’ Category


4 Tips to Achieve Your Personal Finance Goals Before Starting a Business

2-18 personal finance smallBefore you can commit to funding your new business, you need to take care of your own personal financial goals. You need to move into starting a business with a strong financial record, as well as money in the bank. This makes it easy for you to qualify for a small business loan, if you need one down the road, and keeps you from stressing over not having the funds to cover your expenses while you’re waiting to turn a profit.

1. Eliminate Personal Debt

Don’t start your business weighted under credit card debt. The average American household has about $15,000 in credit card debt, a staggering number if you want to bootstrap your own business.

Having zero debt frees up your credit capacity, so work on zeroing out credit card balances and paying off your car so that you can focus only on basic expenses such as your mortgage, phone, gas and electric, cable, and food. The leaner you run, the more you’ll have to put into your business.

2. Improve Your Credit Score

There will come a time in the all-too-near future when you need credit, be it in the form of a store credit or just credit from vendors you work with regularly. If your credit score isn’t good — say, under 750 — you might not get that credit or pay a much higher interest rate. Since your business will have no credit history to begin with, they’ll look at your personal credit score, so you need to focus on cleaning up your number if it’s less than ideal.

Don’t know your credit score? You’re entitled to one free credit report a year from one of the big three indexes. Get your copy here and start your plan to improving your score.

3. Set Aside 12-24 Months of Household Expenses

You will not make a profit instantly, so you’ll need to keep paying those household expenses in the meantime (another reason to lower your debt: you’ll have less to pay in expenses!). Having 12-24 months’ worth of money to cover expenses may sound drastic, but it’s better to have more than enough than to find yourself unable to pay bills in 6 months.

If you don’t currently operate with a budget for your household, now’s the time to create one. If, in the process, you find places you can reduce your expenses, such as cutting the cable cord, go for it.

Remember: if you’re quitting a job with health benefits, you’ll also need to factor in the cost for your health insurance. It will be significantly higher than your employer-sponsored plan.

4. Have Your First Year of Working Capital

In addition to your personal expenses, you’ll need to be able to cover your business costs until your business gets going. A year’s worth of capital should be sufficient. Again, start with a budget (even if you’re using guesstimates at this point) so you know what expenses you need to plan for.

Since you’ll have a pretty sizeable chunk of money in savings for your personal and business needs, consider opening a money market account or high-yield savings account so that you can earn a little interest while it’s sitting there.

If you get your money straight before starting your business, that will be one less things stressing you as you start your small business.


Nextiva Customer Success Story: Nella Law Group

Cloud-based phone systems can benefit all types of office environments by bringing companies reduced costs and enhanced features. Nextiva serves over 100,000 businesses across the country, including thousands of law firms. We understand how critical it is, in particular for lawyers, to be able to handle clients’ calls properly every time.

Our latest Customer Success Story spotlight features Nella Law Group, a boutique law firm in Los Angeles that helps small and mid-sized businesses with their legal needs. We met with Rahsaana Allen, founding and managing attorney of Nella Law Group, to find out more about her team’s experience with Nextiva’s phone service.

“Prior to Nextiva, I had the standard Verizon basic business plan. It was very expensive and it didn’t offer a lot of flexibility,” Rahsaana explained. “I did a lot of research into what voiceover IP company I wanted to go with…Nextiva stood out from the pack.” Her team and clients are now able to experience:

  • Accelerate client response time – It’s impossible to be in the office 24/7, but features such as Voicemail-to-Email allow Rahsaana to receive messages any time, from any place.
  • Reduce monthly expenses – “I’m able to offer my clients a much more competitive legal rate,” explained Rahsaana. One of the greatest benefits of VoIP service is a bundled flat monthly fee.
  • Eliminate answering service – Multiple Call Recording options allow the Nella Law Firm team to ensure that clients are able to reach the right line every single time, whether they’re dialing an extension or main number.
  • Increase billing accuracy – Rahsaana can easily access phone records from the customer dashboard to review phone recordings and read call history reports to ensure an accurate client bill.
  • Boost productivity – Rahsaana’s team can now instantly swaps calls from one device to another with no hang-ups or hold time, allowing them to remain mobile throughout the day.
  • Improve client relations – The Nextiva dashboard lets the Nella Law Firm team access reports that show call trends that can affect staffing and other business decisions.

Meet Rahsaana and hear her story here:

Time is money for a business, especially for law firms. We understand that efficiency and productivity are a key to maximizing the time small business owners have to serve their customers. Give us a call at 800.799.0600 to chat with us about what phone system and features could best benefit your business!


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: How to Measure and Use Net Promoter Scores

2-17 promoter score smallHow loyal are customers to your business? How likely are they to recommend your products and services to others? Doing a Net Promoter Score survey (NPS) can help you get the answers to these questions quickly and take action to build more customer loyalty.

The Net Promoter Score survey was developed by Bain & Company and works like this: You ask customers one simple question: How likely are you to recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague? and have users answer on a scale of 0 to 10 (where 0 means not at all likely and 10 means definitely likely.

The test is scored this way:

  • Promoters” are loyal customers who keep buying from a company and urge friends to do the same (scores of 9 and 10)
  • “Passives” (scores of 7 and 8) are satisfied customers, but are also at risk of being wooed away by your competitors.
  • “Detractors” (scores of 6 or under) are dissatisfied and at risk of spreading negative word-of-mouth about your company.

To find your Net Promoter Score, subtract the percentage of Detractors from the percentage of Promoters. The resulting percentage is your score. For instance, a company with 40 percent Promoters and 10 percent Detractors has an NPS of 30 percent.  Any NPS over zero is good; an NPS of 50 percent or more is considered excellent.

In order to make your Net Promoter Score survey effective:

Deliver the survey at the right time. It needs to taken sent soon enough after the customer experience that customers remember it, but not so soon that they haven’t gotten to use the product or service yet.

Include room for open-ended follow-up. After the single question, include an optional section on your survey for additional comments:

  • Please tell us what you like or don’t like about our company.
  • Would you like to be contacted to discuss this?
  • Name/Phone Number/Email

This gives customers who are unhappy with you space to “vent” about what they didn’t like, as well as to be heard.

Take action on both Detractors and Promoters. Promoters are much more likely to be loyal to your business, buy more from your business and prove more profitable to your business. Use tactics such as:

  • Offering them loyalty rewards
  • Offering rewards for referring a new customer
  • Upselling additional related products and services

Detractors, meanwhile, are likely to badmouth your business, so do your best to change what they’re unhappy about. If a Detractor asks to be contacted, do so immediately! Positive outreach can turn Detractors into Promoters.

Share results with your team. Let your staff know your business’s NPS as well as any specific praise or criticism that customers share in the survey. By doing so, you can help them improve customer service and overall performance.


Mondays with Mike: 6 Steps to Building Better Proposals

2-16 business proposal smallWhether you do it many times a day or only occasionally, we all use written proposals from time to time in order to land new clients.  As important as generating revenue is, I’m consistently surprised by how little time many entrepreneurs spend on perfecting these opportunities to shine.  Here are six concrete ways you can make your proposal stand out from the crowd.

  1. Put your pricing options in the right order.  Your best bet is to start with your highest priced option and descend from there.  Why?  Your prospective clients know how much they’re willing to spend, and you want them making comparisons against your high figure first.  That way, every other option looks like a comparative bargain.
  2. Offer three options.  More than three choices can give your prospect analysis paralysis – an inability to decide when faced with an overload of information.  Fewer than three options can make a prospect feel forced into a decision.  Three is the perfect number.  It lets your clients select one option that’s the best fit and discard the options that don’t suit their needs as well.
  3. Include a partially completed contract.  In short, you want to make it as easy as possible for a prospect to say yes.  Doing as much of the paperwork as you can in advance not only makes it easy, but it also gives them a sense of progress toward a goal – in this case, the completed contract.  We’re much more likely to finish a task if we feel like we’re getting somewhere.  Don’t overwhelm your client with a mountain of blank pages to fill out.
  4. Use the power of font size.  I am not suggesting you hide important details in fine print.  What I am suggesting is that tiny modifications of font size can influence the way your prospects read a proposal.  Making the font just one point larger when you mention their name or their company’s name or highlight a key benefit makes the appealing stuff just slightly more apparent.  Reducing the font size one point for discussion of price – the less fun stuff – can minimize the impact of the cost.
  5. Personalize your proposal.  Odds are good that your prospect is receiving proposals from other businesses, and one sure way to make your stand out is by customizing it to reflect unique details just for your client.  If you send off boilerplate wording, it’s going to be less compelling.  If you use your client’s name and refer to specific attributes or benefits for their particular situation, you’re making a connection between your company and the client that’s hard to ignore.
  6.  Use good quality paper.  So many proposals are delivered electronically that seizing the opportunity to present a polished hard copy on heavy, substantial paper will always make you stand out among the other contenders.  You’re showing the client how important their business is to you, and you’re demonstrating your willingness to go above and beyond to ensure high quality results.

Whether you own a construction company that regularly writes high dollar proposals, or you’re a catering company who sends out occasional quotes, making sure you get your proposals right makes a big difference in your bottom line.


6 Steps to Systemizing Your Business

2-13 business systems smallWhether you recognize it or not, your business already has a system. But when tasks take too long, cost too much or create substandard results, your system needs anything from a little Botox to a full face lift. Here are six-steps to help you see what you’ve got, identify where it’s going wrong and fix your system to get your business humming.

Step 1: Document Your Current System

Without documentation, you can’t get a clear picture of what you’re doing now, much less how to make it better. Don’t assume that you know what each employee does. Talk to them before you write down every step, identifying who is responsible for performing each task and the flow of work from one employee to the next.

Many employees will have opinions regarding what tasks need to change (or go away entirely). Encourage them to voice their thoughts so that you can note down that information, too. You are now armed with a playbook that you can review before moving to the next step.

Step 2: Eliminate Unnecessary Tasks

Scan your documentation for clearly unnecessary or redundant tasks (including those exposed during employee feedback), and get rid of them. If your employees are performing ten steps when five steps would do the job without loss of quality, they are wasting valuable time. And the extra steps may even make their work less accurate.

This is not a do-it-yourself process. Before eliminating tasks, talk again to the people who perform them, as well as everyone connected with the process. If Joe recommends eliminating two quality checks in his process, but Mary says she spends too much time correcting Joe’s errors, you need to figure out why Joe is so error-prone, and then fix it.

Make sure that you enter these and other changes into your documentation. You’re going to need it later (and forever).

Step 3: Automate

Your employees can become more effective when you judiciously introduce some automation to the process. With technology costs coming down and becoming easily accessible through the cloud, this is now more viable than ever.  Sometimes, you can also automate with a simple tweak. A tool as simple as setting up an auto-responder provides amazing value by buying extra time for responding to email requests.

Step 4: Monitor Results

Until you try out your new system, you cannot be sure of its success. After implementation, keep a sharp eye on the results. Are operations moving along more efficiently in the hands of happier employees? Or is the process hitting bottlenecks while your employees have become numb with boredom? If the latter, work may slow down, leaving you with a system that looks good on paper, but requires further adjustment.

Step 5: Make Tweaks

If you expect to get everything right the first time, think again. This is typically an iterative process involving testing, tweaking and documenting. You probably will see improvements on your first attempt, but no system is perfect. A tweak made to one task may create issues in a later step.

After tweaking problem areas, change the documentation so that your employees will know the steps that they need to perform, and monitor the results again. Rinse and repeat until the system works well.

Step 6: Update Documentation

Once you are satisfied with your new system, it’s time to formalize the documentation. Your employees will need to follow a procedures manual until they know all of the steps. And, when you hire new employees, you can reduce training time while increasing accuracy when they have a step-by-step manual at their fingertips.

Of course, no system is forever. As your business changes, additional changes to the process are almost inevitable. And, let’s face it: busy business owners don’t have the free time to change documentation on the fly — or even think about it, so put a periodic review on your calendar.

Your review may uncover missing information or, more importantly, the need for system enhancements. A semi-annual or annual review requires only a small effort (sort of like regularly straightening your closets, rather than waiting for a major mess). This effort ensures that your information is accurate, while alerting you if it’s time to go back to Step 2.

A Good System Does Not Stifle Creativity

Remember: a great system for your business does not equate to a mindless factory assembly line. Remove unnecessary, confusing or redundant tasks, and you free minds to develop new ideas. Everyone, from yourself on down, can add meaningful contributions to your business.


How Your Business Must “Get Religion” to Be Successful

2-13 Company Culture smallWhen I travel around the world, I learn a lot about world religions. Each one actually has three attributes in common:

  1. A philosophy: There is always a maxim that its followers live by. Judeo- Christians have the philosophy of the “Golden Rule”; that is “treat others the way you want to be treated.” Hinduism believes in the existence of a soul that migrates from one body to another after death and a law of karma that determines a person’s destiny in this life and the next. Buddha emphatically preaches to “believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
  2. Rules and rituals: This is how a person who follows the religion practices it. In Judaism, there are rules on what to do on the Sabbath and how to eat only kosher food. Christianity allows their priests to grant followers forgiveness for their sins. Hindus revere cows and do not eat their meat. Buddhists mediate to get to a higher place known as nirvana.
  3. Stories: The most important part of many religious texts are the stories about the activities of the prophets and gods. These are recounted repeatedly and serve as an effective teaching method to support the philosophy, rules and rituals. There are stories of the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus curing leprosy, and Buddha fasting on his many travels.

Small businesses need the same three attributes to be successful:

  1. Vision and mission (philosophy). Employees will band together to serve a great business purpose. This needs to be clearly articulated by the small business owner and reflected in every action the company takes. Why does your business exist and who does it serve? Where and how is this stated inside and outside the company?
  2. Policies and culture (rules and rituals). This goes beyond the human resources manual that every employee gets with all the company rules. It’s culturally what is accepted and rejected inside the company. It has to do with who gets hired, promoted and fired. It’s a tally of who is celebrated and who is scorned. Every company has these policies although many times they may be informal, but no less important.
  3. Celebrate success (stories).  This includes how the company got started, took risks and made sacrifices early on. In retelling these stories, they take on a certain myth-like status. Everyone knows that Apple started in a garage. But some stories about well-known successful companies are actually urban legends including eBay first selling Pez dispensers. Regardless, these exist because people learn lessons best through story telling.  

Which of these does your company have and which are weak or missing?

 


Refreshing Your Customer Service Experience (Without Losing Your Core Identity)

2-12 hotel guest checking in small

Once you've initially succeeded in interesting your customers in your brand, once you've succeeded in pleasing them with your customer experience and customer service, you need to work on keeping their interest by adding clues and cues to the plot.

Any meaningful service, any meaning customer experience will start to grow stale over time. Service signatures, scripted interactions, and product offerings that delighted customers at first will get copied, replicated, and bastardized over time. They'll lose their intended meaning (Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company's signature phrase, “My pleasure,” for instance, has lost some of its freshness now that you can get a $2.99 rendition of it from a server at —I kid you not—Chik Fil A. This has led Ritz-Carlton to  change up its language of late to keep it fresh and authentic, authenticity being a key attribute that Ritz-Carlton is striving for in its revamped modern-day hotel brand.)

And, of course, design and product offerings will get stale and tired. What's fabulous to a customer on visit one will be "fine but nothing new" on visit five.  And, especially in this era of intensive and friction-free social sharing, you need something fresh, something, literally, to write or tweet home about, to tantalize your customer.

Retelling a story too many times

Retail is perhaps the most ruthless of businesses in the extent that customers are expecting change–regular seasonal changes and special holiday revamps. Restaurants can also feel stale after a few visits and need new menu items, a fresh cocktail list, or new art on the wall to keep customers engaged and coming back from visit to visit, and after three-ish years, most restaurants need a major overhaul to stay successful. The same is true to only a slightly lesser extent for many other service businesses.

For a business to stay relevant, it needs to be relentlessly reinventing itself, including its once cutting-edge practices. A friend of mine described to me his reaction to the practice at Nordstrom of coming from behind the counter to hand you your shopping bag. “This was pretty cool the first five times or so. Around the sixth time, it became annoying; it just seemed like they were slowing me down for the sake of their internal ceremony.” And I’ve seen a similar loss of love for the once-fresh idea of printing a guest’s name on a menu at a destination restaurant. The first time you see this by your plate, you're undoubtedly amazed. The third time, you’re bored and ready for a new trick.

Businesses need to realize the shelf life of any such scripted or quickly-expected service interactions and change it when the expiration date hits. To keep today’s customers coming back a business needs to constantly improve, update, and appropriately add to its line of products or services –on a schedule faster than ever before.

"Freshen the guest experience without changing its core identity"–Patrick O'Connell

On the other hand, change for change's  sake is very, very hazardous.  Because the goal of customer service and the customer experience isn't buzz–it's loyalty; it's repeat business that keeps you alive. So while it's true that customers seek innovation from the companies they frequent, if a company only invests in change, then how can a customer remain loyal–what, to put it bluntly, is left for them to be loyal to? So there’s a tension to navigate between innovation and maintaining quality through tradition.

In an interview I just did with the celebrated restaurateur and innkeeper Patrick O'Connell – proprietor of the Inn At Little Washington and President of Relais And Chateaux – Chef O'Connell puts this well: “Cultivating loyalty is a tricky business. It requires maintaining a rigorous level of consistency while constantly adding newness and a little surprise—freshening the guest experience without changing its core identity.”


How to Hire an Attorney for Your Small Business

Lawyer handing over legal document at  a meeting in a cafeEvery business needs the services of an attorney. Having access to one can help you navigate complex areas like patents, trademarks, copyrights, and contracts. They can also help you choose the best business structure for your company and create employment contracts and nondisclosure agreements, if you need them. Some attorneys specialize in helping small businesses and can be reasonably priced, even for the smallest budget.

Start by Identifying What You Need

Beyond identifying the areas you need legal expertise in, you’ll also need to determine what type of lawyer you need. Some can help with general small business tasks, while others specialize in trademarks, patents, and copyrights. If there’s a specialist for what you need, seek him out. You wouldn’t go to a general practitioner if you had orthopedic issues.

If you have no need for copyrights or any complex legal advice, you can probably get by taking care of your needs on your legal questions with a general small business attorney. If, on the other hand, you want to patent your intellectual property or need several different complex contracts drafted, you’re better off hiring a professional with that expertise.

Ask Your Network for Referrals

Before you do an internet search for an attorney, see if anyone you know is acquainted with a small business lawyer. A referral can go a long way toward helping you find the right person for the job, and it will cut down on the time you spend vetting different options.

If no one you know can refer a lawyer, check with your local SCORE or Small Business Development Center to see what leads they can offer. You might even find one that partners with the local bar association to offer pro bono advice to startups!

Do Some Research

Once you’ve got your shortlist of possible attorneys to work with, dig into their qualifications online. You can review each one’s credentials on your state bar’s website or here. You want to ensure that your attorney is licensed and admitted to practice before the courts in your state. It may also be helpful to see if he has ever been reprimanded or involved in illegal activities (red flag).

Interview Your Top Three Choices

Starting a relationship with a lawyer is something you want to do carefully, because the right fit could make for a long and fruitful relationship. Always ask for business references (and check them), as well as questions like these:

  • Do I need to provide a large retainer to get started
  • What is your fee schedule for routine and non-routine services?
  • Will you provide itemized bills?
  • What is your typical response time?
  • What is the best way to reach you?
  • Have you worked with any businesses in my industry?
  • Can you give me an example of how you have helped clients secure business opportunities?
  • Can I call you on any legal problem?

Not only should the right lawyer give you satisfactory answers to these questions, but you should get a good feeling from her. You need to be able to trust your attorney with your business, so it’s important you listen to your gut in the interview.


Nextiva Tuesday Tip: 5 Things to Look for When Hiring Customer Service Reps

Waiting Room: Receptionist Takes Insurance CardWhen hiring customer service reps, you need to do more than assess the job candidate’s experience and dot the i’s and cross the t’s on a job application. Here are five factors that are just as important as experience, and how to assess them during the interview process.

  1. Friendliness. Natural curiosity about others, openness and willingness to engage and ask questions are key characteristics of a good customer service employee. Small talk during the interview is a good way to explore how friendly a job candidate is. (Just be sure you talk steer the conversation to topics interviewers are forbidden to ask about, such as whether a candidate is married, has children or how old they are.)
  2. Ability to handle negativity. Good customer service representatives deal with negative emotions (their own and other people’s) in a mature way and, ideally, turn negative situations around. In addition to asking employees about a negative person at their prior job and how they dealt with him or her, try putting them to the test by incorporating stressful situations into the interview, such as telling them the interview is delayed and having the receptionist observe how they behave while waiting, having other employees continually interrupt the interview, or having your receptionist purposely be rude to them so you can see how they react.
  3. Multitasking ability. Customer service requires being able to multitask. A representative might be on the phone with one customer while dealing with a queue of other customers on hold. He might be assisting an indecisive customer at the point-of-sale in a store while the line of impatient customers is growing by the minute. Try setting tasks that incorporate multitasking or distractions, such as taking a written test in a room where the candidate has also been told to answer the phone, or interrupting the test to have the candidate complete a form or sign a document.
  4. Pleasant demeanor. A calming presence and soothing speaking voice can go a long way toward making ruffled customers feel better. If the employee will be dealing with customers on the phone, try conducting a pre-interview by phone to see how he or she comes across. You might be able to eliminate candidates who don’t present themselves well by phone and save yourself some interview time.
  5. Emotional awareness. Often called “emotional intelligence” or EQ (like IQ), emotional intelligence incorporates many facets, but basically it’s the ability to sense and respond appropriately to others’ emotions. A customer service rep with high EQ will know when a complaining customer just wants to be heard more than he or she wants an actual solution, when customers are in a rush and need to get off the phone quickly, or when customers need to be escalated to the next level of service before the situation deteriorates.

When interviewing customer service candidates, be sure to trust your gut. If a job candidate doesn’t put you at ease and you don’t enjoy interacting with the person, your customers probably won’t, either.




 
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