Browsing Articles Written by

Carol Roth

Carol Roth is a radio host on WGN, a CNBC TV contributor, a ‘recovering’ investment banker & a bestselling author of The Entrepreneur Equation. You can find her on Twitter @CarolJSRoth or at www.CarolRoth.com. She also has an action figure made in her likeness.

5 Ways to Run a Successful Small Business While Retaining Some of Your Personal Life

By August 26, 2016 No Comments

When you operate a small business, you look for creative ways to provide your employees with a work-life balance to offset the many sacrifices that they often make. This is how you reward them, while trying to stop them from fleeing to larger employers that probably offer less daily pressure.

But, are you doing the same thing for yourself? The head honcho certainly has a greater incentive to work around the clock, but this stops being effective when exhaustion and poor health become the inevitable result. Granted, Tony Stark (a.k.a., Iron Man) probably only takes time for himself when he needs medical attention, but you are not a superhero.

With the right system in place, you can refresh and restore yourself without damaging your business. Here are five ways to scratch out time for yourself and your family, while keeping your company strong.

#1. A great second-in-command can lighten the load

In the early days of your business, micromanaging was probably a virtual necessity, but your business is stronger now. At some point, you have to be able trust others to do their jobs well and make decisions on their own.

You need to groom at least one person to handle emergency situations as well as you do. Empowering someone that you can trust as a second-in-command can provide you with a day off or even a much-needed family vacation.

#2. Working from home works for the top boss, too

Just as some of your employees work effectively from home, you can do the same thing. As long as your job does not require physical contact with your employees (which would probably create HR issues, anyway), a single tool can provide access to data and face-to-face meetings. Your employees will think you're right there with them while you let the cable guy in for a service call — or comfort your child during the flu.

#3. Make a schedule — and respect it

You turn off your computer every night to let it rest (or at least you are supposed to), so why don't you do the same for yourself? If you're bound to your calendar, then schedule time for sleeping, eating, family, and maybe even a movie or a great TV show, if that's what it takes to make you see that time as important.

Now: let's talk about vacation time. Life has few certainties, other than that the perfect time for that vacation will never come. But, you will discover that work life can and will go on without you, so pick some dates and etch them in stone. Unless the place is burning down, you don't have to know about it — that's what your second-in-command is there for. But, keep in mind that going to the most secluded resort or romantic getaway means little when your phone continues to beep, so turn it off. Better yet, leave it at home.

I insist on getting away at least two weeks per year without being followed by business issues. My husband and I pick a date and make it non-movable. Then, before I leave, I set up a humorous auto-responder warning people that emails sent during my vacation time will be deleted. Of course, I provide my planned return date and I may even consider mentioning a contact person who can help while I'm away. But, this is optional, since anyone who is likely to have a major emergency already knows whom to call.

#4. Involve your family in your work

This is not the same as griping incessantly about work problems at the dinner table (when you get a chance to actually sit there), or even Bring Your Kid to Work Day. But, if you look at your job through the eyes of your family, you can probably find aspects that they will find interesting and they might even come up with fantastic ideas (out of the mouths of babes and spouses).

#5. Turn business trips into family vacations

Many small business owners travel so much that they seldom have the luxury of tucking in the kids (or the spouse, for that matter). When those trips take you to fun or beautiful places, perhaps the family can accompany you. Of course, you'll have to plan ways to keep them entertained while you're working, but you can also schedule family meals and side-trips, even if you have to extend the trip an extra day or two to make it worthwhile.

Work-life balance can strengthen your business

When your business was very small, you had very little depth to ensure successful daily operations without your personal intervention. However, you're not a robot. Without periodic R&R, you can't maintain peak personal performance. Your decisions suffer, you make mistakes and you lose the creativity needed to continue growing the business. Let go of some control and accept the fact that your business will be stronger when you make a plan for lightening your personal load. See you in Tahiti!

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5 Ways to Make Your Small Business Innovate Better Than the Big Guys

By August 9, 2016 No Comments

There's no escaping it — small companies must be flexible enough to continuously react to changes in the business environment. Reaction definitely keeps your business alive, but it takes a proactive, innovative approach to encourage growth. Innovation can (and should) come from anyone on your team, and your close-knit relationships actually put you in a better position to innovate than many of your largest competitors.

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What Your Business Can Borrow from the “Good Old Days”

By July 28, 2016 No Comments

Even baby boomers, whose parents were young during the Great Depression, grew up hearing about “the good old days”. Every generation has its own version of that magical time, even though they all grew up in a world that seemed on the verge of imploding. I know a woman in her 90s who still fondly reminisces about taking a pillow to sleep on the beach because it was too hot to sleep in her third-floor walkup before the advent of air conditioning.

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How to Bridge Between Millennials and Boomers in Your Small Business

By July 14, 2016 No Comments

Common stereotypes say that all boomers are grumpy know-it-alls who insist on ordering the younger generation around and that millennials are the true know-it-alls who will never admit that their older counterparts may have learned a thing or two during many years on the job. This leaves you with an important question: can baby boomers and millennials co-exist or even thrive in the same workplace?

Your small business cannot afford age-related discord when every person counts. Older workers are remaining on the job longer than they have in the past, but the millennial generation represents a larger percentage of people entering the workforce. So, how do you get two diverse factions to work together in peace and harmony? Here are five keys that can help them work together — and create alliances that make them valuable teams.

 #1. Personality matters when integrating older and younger workers.

It is very easy to view age as the only reason why your employees are not getting along. Not so fast- in reality, personality clashes are major sources of discord, regardless of age. You probably need to focus on personality types when developing good working relationships.

Every age group has its share of grumpy workers. If you arrange for any grumpy worker to mentor another one, you can expect the same explosive relationship as you would get by combining old and young grumpy workers.

So, when you need any grumpy employee to mentor someone, make sure that the mentee knows how to turn the other cheek. An employee who cannot create conflict will eventually stop trying, opening the door for a good relationship to develop.

Of course, successful employee combinations do not all pertain to levels of grumpiness. Combining individuals of like personality types can be successful as well. Put two high-energy workers together, for example, and you're likely to benefit from a powerhouse team.

#2. Mentoring can work in both directions.

It is common to assume that your company only needs the “old codgers” to mentor the young upstarts who just came in, but it's a two-way street. Everybody has knowledge to share. At one end of the spectrum, anyone with a longer history in the company can provide valuable advice on company processes and procedures. At the other end, the newbies probably have up-to-the-minute technical knowledge that identifies when those processes and procedures cry out for updates.

Your millennial team members have fewer pre-conceived notions to limit their thinking. When they envision new methods and technology that can make life better for everyone, they are willing share their ideas with everyone, young and old. Will a seasoned employee reject a valid idea that makes life easier? Of course not; few people want to work unnecessarily harder.

Rather than awarding ultimate power to a mentor, it's better to introduce both members of a new partnership as a team. There is nothing wrong with a healthy, respectful debate that may culminate in solutions that you can approve for implementation.

 #3. Develop relationships through shared experiences.

Boomers probably walked uphill in the snow to and from school each day… without shoes. Millennials probably had parents who drove them… until they could drive themselves. But, the fact is that they both went to school and the boomers recognize that going by car is better than traveling on foot.

Never assume that a past filled with challenges creates a person who wants the challenges to continue. Boomers are more likely to respect high-tech shortcuts, as long as they do not cause errors. Millennials don't want errors, either. They will agree to periodic quality checks, even if the process is a tad slower.

 #4. Focus on similarities.

Maybe it's time to ignore the generational differences and listen to the experts, who say that all age groups share certain needs. They all need (or at least prefer) meaningful work, they enjoy collaboration and they love to learn.

As the boss, you need to recognize these similarities and design jobs that incorporate them. Try to avoid assigning too many blindingly-mindless tasks. Provide teams with opportunities that capitalize both on similarities and differences to meet shared goals.

#5. Encourage teams to capitalize on each member's assets.

Older athletes necessarily favor strategic intelligence developed from experience over the brute strength that they had they had in their youth, but both approaches have value to the team. Your job is to help multigenerational workers to recognize each other's strengths — and recognize when those strengths provide the synergistic benefits that allow them to solve problems or modify processes together more effectively than they could do on their own.

True diversity strengthens any business environment.

Diversity extends beyond racial or other cultural differences, and certainly includes the differences between younger and older workers. Blending all types of diversity within a small work force helps bring high levels of excitement and innovation to every job. With a little encouragement, all generations can make vital contributions as your small business grows into a larger one.

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Small Business Owners: The Buck Stops with You When Outside Vendors Create Client Issues

By July 7, 2016 No Comments

Big companies are typically adept at sending customers with complaints to other companies connected to their products. The blame game is all too common. Just recently, one of my colleagues told me about how the manufacturer of her failing streaming DVD player immediately blamed her network provider for a weak signal.

It took weeks of unnecessary research and testing of a perfectly-fine internet connection before she decided to assume that the DVD player was at fault. Knowing that support was not forthcoming, she shelled out more money to buy a different streaming device. That device worked flawlessly right out of the box.

My colleague no longer buys products manufactured by the major electronics company that refused to support its product. And, she tells everyone that she knows to do the same. Maybe that huge company can afford to lose customers, but small businesses rely on customer loyalty. Regardless of who bears the blame for a customer concern, your dedication to problem resolution can win you customer loyalty for life.

Vendor relationships give you the power to help.

Do you have total control over your product or service? Any business relies on other businesses to some degree. Maybe your product is comprised of parts created by one or more manufacturers. Or, perhaps your company creates some form of intellectual services completely in-house, but relies on outside printers to create documentation for your clients.

Your company's work may be stellar, but when an outside vendor fails, your ultimate goal is to make your customers happy with little effort on their part. Your relationships with your vendors typically provide you with more problem-solving power than your customers enjoy. So, even if you can give your customer the printer's phone number, for example, you need to make that call yourself.

Naturally, there are times when your customer absolutely has to talk directly with the vendor — perhaps super-secret security information is needed to resolve the problem. This might be the case when a medical office patient is having billing problems with an outside diagnostics vendor. You probably still have some power to ease your client's path to resolution. Maybe you can connect customers with specific vendor representatives in lieu of sending them to the general-use 800 number that never works quite right. Or, make the call yourself to alert the vendor to the problem and convince someone to call your customer directly.

Present a spirit of partnership with your customer.

Regardless of the source of customer issues, they will take comfort when you quickly make it clear that their problems are your problems and you take the situation personally.

You definitely want to avoid the "us vs. them" mentality between teams within your company, but this is exactly what you want to display when helping resolve customer complaints. Customers can initially feel victimized by the circumstances, but your partnership can be quite empowering. So, if that print shop, for example, produced the documentation on paper so thin that it seemed like tissue paper, your customer needs to understand that the vendor faces the wrath of the loss of your future business if they don't re-deliver a high-quality product post haste.

You don't always have to point fingers… directly

Your customer paid you for goods or services, and you need to take full responsibility for related problems. Even when an outside vendor created issues, the bottom line is that you chose to use that particular vendor. Regardless of your reasons, your customers should never suffer from your choices.

Still, it doesn't always hurt to communicate the causes of problems to your customers. You don't want to blame a vendor outright for no good reason. But, it helps when your customers can watch you resolve their concerns by masterfully taking control of external problems.

Show that you care

You should always display a caring spirit even after an issue has been resolved. Customers who are happy with your solutions may not be fully confident that similar issues will not arise in the future. It does not take long to pick up the phone or send a follow-up email to verify that your customer is fully satisfied with the results and to ask if there are any remaining questions or concerns. The customer who knows that you continue to care is more likely to stick with your company to place future orders.

No small business is an island

Even if your company creates products or delivers services with in-house resources, you don't do it alone. This single blog topic required the use of a computer, several types of software, reliable electricity and a great cup of hot tea for a caffeine burst. When it comes to customer satisfaction, however, everything comes from you. Customers who witness your full control over any situation have the assurance they need to keep coming back to you.

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The Emotional Side of Managing Employees

By June 10, 2016 No Comments

For as long as I can remember, employees have quickly learned not to cry in the workplace or outwardly show any negative emotions (think Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own”… There’s No Crying in Baseball!). Since no business owner wants the reduced productivity (and tear-stained paperwork) that accompanies emotional outbursts, this basic concept still makes sense… to some degree.

While the stiff-upper-lip approach to emotion management may have been marginally effective at one time, now that millennials have joined the ranks, you need to recognize that at least some portion of your worker population was raised with an eye toward sensitivity. When they were kids, everyone won a trophy and as adults, they expect company management to treat them with concern, respect, and positivity.

The good news is that the more sensitive management style that millennials demand is really better for baby boomers, too. Here are four ways to channel your inner psychologist, engage all employees, and keep them around longer.

#1. Share the silver lining

Just one employee concern or error can instantly drive attitudes down a dark road and trigger a series of negative events. Your job is to step in quickly to deliver the bright side because, as Bill Gates once said, "It's fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure."

No matter what the concern may be, there is always a silver lining. Even when employees make serious errors, these are good times to illustrate how mistakes lead to positive results. Employees need to know that you recognize that lessons learned can ensure future success.

Don't forget that personal problems also find their way into the workplace and you seldom should become personally involved. You can, however, ease the stress. So, if an employee's loved one becomes seriously ill, you can provide great comfort just by expressing that you will understand if they need time off or other types of assistance.

#2. Offer an open-door policy and mean it

Workers do not always get along with each other and they may not always get along with all customers, either. Like any boss, you undoubtedly call employees into your office to discuss these issues when they escalate to a point where you notice them.

A better approach is to have employees who feel free to come to you to talk about conflicts or other issues long before they explode. This kind of freedom comes from managers who display sensitivity and understanding, regardless of the issue.

In some ways, this requires the techniques used by parents whose children know that they have a safe place to fall no matter how serious their issues are. Whatever happens during a meeting, employees should always walk out feeling better than they did when they walked in.

#3. Correct rather than scold

If you want employees to take advantage of your open door policy, they need to know that they can expect a rational discussion. Sure, they know they may face some form of correction, if appropriate. However, discussions will generate clear ideas of how to resolve issues before they reach fever pitch.

So, how do you accomplish this? Perhaps the most important approach involves engaging in a conversation rather than delivering a lecture. While the employee is talking, practice active listening, formulating a thoughtful response only after you hear everything that the employee has to say.

An employee who made an error may be a symptom of a different problem. After listening to their side of a story, you may recognize that their issues reflect improper training. While their misconceptions may need to be corrected, real solutions might require discussions with the person responsible for training before other workers are guided down the wrong path.

#4. Take a personal interest in your employees

There is a strict boundary between what kinds of personal questions you can ask your employees. Still, you don't need to know highly personal details to provide the type of guidance that leads to emotional satisfaction.

Through observation alone, an engaged manager can learn quite a bit about an employee's general interests, along with personal motivators. Use observations to set employees up for maximum on-the-job gratification without totally changing the jobs you need them to do. For example, employees who prefer working solo can still be happy team members if you show recognition for their individual roles within the teams. Or, detail-oriented line workers will not slow down the assembly line if you praise their high-quality work, while challenging them to look for shortcuts that accomplish the same quality in less time.

Manage by positive example

We may be creatures of habit, but even a baby boomer who has been in the work force for the last 40 years can easily learn to adjust (and thrive) when you make affirmative changes to the management style in your company. Changing from the "no tears" approach to a "we care" approach may require some management training. But, it's not impossible when you provide a positive role model for your entire team.

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5 Ways to Make Your Customer Relationships Even Better

By May 31, 2016 No Comments

5 Ways to Make Your Customer Relationships Even BetterAs a smart business owner, you already know that your customers are king. Whether you know them personally or serve them through an e-commerce store, you never take them for granted — and you always provide high-quality products or services.

No matter how well you care for your customers, there are always more steps that you can take to get closer to the elusive goal of perfection. If you want to keep your customers happy and loyal in a highly-competitive business environment, complacency is not an option. Here are five ways to help relationships continue to flourish and grow:

1. Try to give them what they ask for

When it comes to handling special customer requests, businesses run a fine line between dexterity and affordability. If you run a service business, dexterity often wins out. For example, it can be an easy matter for a PR firm to honor unusual client advertising specifications or even for a design company to switch from paintings to classic Monopoly boards on the walls of a client's office space.

On the other hand, what if a customer wants you to alter products specifically for them? If your company makes toy trucks for toy stores and a customer wants purple ones when there is no general demand for this color, you need to get out the Excel spreadsheet and figure out the costs to produce custom trucks. If you have the resources to offer a custom job at a price that is attractive to the customer, do it.

Never forget that dexterity and affordability are only two concerns. The third issue is whether the customer requests make sense for them. Your expert guidance might save customers from bad ideas.

How many months will those purple trucks gather dust on your customer's shelves before they blame you for not speaking up? Is the Monopoly-loving client going to start yearning for the more classic paintings of Van Gogh, Monet or even Jackson Pollock before the year is out? Don't be shy about judiciously offering valuable guidance when discussing special requests, even if you can't change their minds.

2. Collect customer needs and concerns

Customers are generally not reluctant about expressing their needs or concerns, and addressing their individual issues is certainly a vital part of customer service. But, what happens when you hang up the phone after you resolve a problem?

Never throw these experiences away. There are many customer complaint tracking systems available that provide low-effort, organized ways to handle and log customer issues. When you log complaints, you suddenly have reports and other tools to identify and analyze repeat events that you can prevent in the future — for all customers.

As a bonus, follow-up days, weeks or months later to see if the customer is still happy with the resolution you gave them. That level of care can really differentiate your business and create loyalty with customers.

3. Be accessible

Whether customers want to schedule an appointment for a new consulting job or if they have issues in need of resolution, don't make them wait. Provide ways that they can get in touch beyond normal business hours and find ways to accommodate their finicky appointment schedules.

Of course, accessibility is more than just making sure that someone is there to answer a call or respond to a text message. When issues require tough decisions, customers should never have to progress through countless layers of underlings before they get to the boss or to someone who is qualified and empowered to fully resolve the issue.

4. Teach them more about your products or services

Visit any law firm's website and you're likely to find blog pages that teach clients about how the law works. This helps to prepare clients on what to expect for their legal concerns, while also conveying an image of friendly, rather than scary lawyers. Any service business can easily do the same thing, but product providers can do it, too. Look at any As-Seen-on-TV website to see how effectively website videos convince customers that odd-sounding or complex products are must-haves for everyone. You might want to put your credit cards away first, though!

5. Take them to lunch

Customer lunches or other in-person events are not always feasible or affordable, but if you can show appreciation or obtain feedback in this way, it can be a great way to show customers that you care.

If you run a 100-percent online business, you aren't off the hook. Many small acts can invite customer suggestions and demonstrate your desire to meet their needs. Offer a next-order discount or a freebie in exchange for completion of a short survey. Prominently display an email link on your website or even on order confirmations to invite questions and comments.

Your customers' experiences can drive more ideas.

Every business has unique issues and its own set of customers. While the five ideas above can work for just about any business, do not allow this list to limit your creativity. If you really listen, every customer interaction can provide clues on new ways to retain and grow your customer base. Put yourself firmly in your customers' shoes, and you can meet and exceed the competition.

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