Twitter Brings Business – and Loses Business

Various people have written about how Twitter can benefit a business, myself included. As small business owners, we hear about reaching out to prospective clients, listening to feedback, and in general being aware of conversations about our business.

What worse than no policy on how Twitter can integrate with your business, though, is having a bad policy on how to integrate the micro-blogging site with your business plan.

A few weeks ago, I was trying to look into a particular business, and posted a comment on Twitter:

Anyone know the company “Anonymous” based out of Smith Falls?

Moments later, I got a response from someone indicating knowledge of the company, and I quickly responded asking if he worked for the company, or if he was outside the company. His response was:

@ekochman Not at all – They are our ‘competitor’ – DM me and we can talk ‘off air’

Great! I have someone whom I can ask about the company, and perhaps, if the original company doesn’t work out, his company will. I sent him my phone number and email address, and asked him to send me a message so that we could start a discussion.

Several days later, I still hadn’t heard back from him. While I was able to verify that he was online and using his Twitter account, I was not getting any contact from him. As I had to send out a Request for Quote that day, I scratched his company from the list, and eliminated his company from bidding on the project.

His company lost out on a project because he started communicating with me, but failed to follow through!

It was not a small project, and it had the potential for more projects afterward. We didn’t even get that far, though, because a representative of the company started talking to me, and then ignored me.

What does this mean to you?

If you’re planning on reaching out to your community of customers and prospects by interacting with them on Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere other than your home turf, make sure you have a policy for those platforms. Make sure that employees know that if they talk to customers on those sites, they are expected to act professionally, to treat the customers well.

Don’t leave it to chance, or you too may have opportunities slip through your grasp.

Great Customer Service

At the suggestion of my accountant, I went onto the Intuit website to purchase a copy of QuickBooks. I had been told that by mentioning my accounting firm, I would be eligible for a 10% discount. However, when it came time to place the order, I could not find a way to inform Intuit of the referral.

For $20, I might have just bought the program in any case, and forgo the discount. However, a box appeared on the screen asking if I wanted to talk to Customer Service. I figured it couldn’t hurt, and 30 seconds later I was talking to a sale representative.

After explaining what I was trying to do (namely, get a discount on the software), I was told that this could not be done through the website, but that a representative could call me who could handle the discount. He asked for a number at which I could be reached, as well as a convenient time (to which I responded I was available all afternoon).

A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was a sales representative who took my information, placed the order, applied a 20% discount when I gave him the accounting firm’s phone number, and emailed me a receipt.

I thought the process was over, but a couple minutes later, I got a second email, this one asking if I would be willing to complete a survey about my experience. Happy to oblige, I opened the survey to discover a total of 4 questions: language of preference, then the nature of the service call (in my case, to make a purchase), and two ranking questions. There was also a box to fill in comments if I so chose. The entire survey was done in under a minute.

There were many things about this experience that struck me as well handled.

First, someone was there to answer questions as soon as I needed the help. While he couldn’t deal with my issue, he was able to collect enough information to pass me over to someone who could.

Second, I was called at a convenient time, which the representative knew was convenient because I had already confirmed my availability.

Third, I ended up with a bigger discount than I expected because of my patience. When in doubt, they assumed that the amount of my discount was the maximum they give out, rather than asking me to clarify.

Fourth, the follow-up email came right away, and didn’t take me long to fill out. It got straight to the point, let me put in as much or as little information as I had time to deal with, and was over.

Full Disclosure

In recent discussions with several people, I’ve noticed a trend in certain small businesses. Since there is significant amounts of paperwork and filings associated with hiring an employee, some companies choose to hire their workers as contractors, thereby reducing the obligations between the two parties. Additionally, it allows for more fluctuation in workload, while achieving consistent work by working with the same people all the time.

One of the side effects of this, however, is slightly problematic. Because the contractors are in the same business as their clients, providing a similar set of services, the contractors will want to pursue their own clients. Normally, this would not be an issue, since a standard non-compete clause would protect the employer from losing their own clients to their workers. Here, however, that may not suffice.

Any time the contractor brings on another client, a question must be answered as to whose client that person is. Does is belong to the contractor, since they operate independently of the employer, or does it belong to the company to which they are contracted to?

The advice below is a suggestion, and is not intended to be taken as legal advice. Please consult a lawyer before implementing any of the suggestions below.

One strategy I’ve seen implemented successfully is to create a limit on the size of a client the contractor can take on, and request full disclosure. For example, a company that builds large websites might allow its employees to take on projects under $2000 because they would not pursue such clients in any case. Larger than that and there may be a conflict of interest in addition to creating a distraction while the contractor is supposed to be working for the company.

The catch here is the disclosure – by having employees report all business they are doing on the side, it creates a legitmacy to their side business. At the same time, however, many employees may be reluctant to hand over their project list like that.

The second part, therefore, is in regard to when the employee does in fact bring in a client. Since there is a referral here, it should be treated as such. There should be a known rate for referring a client – either a percentage of the project, or a flat fee on a schedule based on project size.

Whatever the case may be, if you find your employees working on side projects behind your back, beware. Make sure you have a known policy in place that’s fair to both you and the employees, and that it is documented and enforced.

Negotiating a Raise

Many employees, having put in their time working at a perceived discount rate, begin to mull the possibility of getting a raise. The thought process involved often involves self-justification in terms of what they deserve or are entitled to. The walk to the decision-maker and subsequent bursting of the balloon leaves them upset, perhaps to the point where they leave the company and find another job, only to repeat the cycle a short while later.

In response to that, this article is intended to provide food for thought when thinking about negotiating for your next raise.

Timing

When asking for a raise, try to time it so that the request coincides with a recent success for the company that you were critical in pulling off. While those thoughts are fresh in people’s minds, it’s easier to convince others of your value to the company. The success should be in proportion to the nature of your position and the amount of a raise you are trying to get.

Additionally, some companies have policies they follow when giving raises – they may only be granted at certain times of the year (often coinciding with an annual performance review). Make sure you are familiar with the policy, and work within it. If they are tied to performance reviews, you may want to negotiate for an early performance review instead of negotiating directly for the raise.

Last, don’t forget the person you are actually negotiating with. Book a time with them when you will be able to present your case for a raise. Make sure that you won’t be interrupted during your meeting, and that as far as you know, the other person has not been having a bad day. If you feel they are not in the mood for such a discussion, ask to reschedule your meeting for another day.

Value

If you’re asking for more money, it’s only right that you prove that you’re worth the additional cost. Remember, the boss is not in the business of supporting other people, they’re in the business of making money. As such, if the increase in profits is marginal as a result of your work, don’t expect more than possibly a marginal increase in pay.

One thing that is often difficult for people to understand is the inherent value of the position they hold in the company. An employee doing a certain type of work has a value that is measurable. At the end of the day, the maximum value of a given employee is a function of the cost to replace that employee with one or more other people. A job well-done is not enough to merit a pay increase, but a job done in a fraction the time budgeted is. The reason for this is that employees are paid to do their jobs well, but if they can increase their productivity without sacrificing quality, then they’re worth as much as the increase in productivity.

Entitlement

The only thing an employee is entitled to is what’s stipulated in their contract. In regard to pay, that amount is fixed. Any negotiation that starts with the words “deserve” or “entitled” or “fair” are unlikely to succeed. Present your case why you’ve earned a raise, and then let the boss decide to give you what you deserve, or what’s fair. At the end of the day, if you truly believe that you are not being treated fairly, you can choose to go elsewhere to find employment, somewhere where your value will be appreciated and rewarded.

Don’t Ride Along the Fence

I’m surprised to learn on a regular basis about yet another company that was caught doing something shady (or, in many cases, flat-out illegal), and is then somewhat perplexed that they got caught. Dubbed cynical by many people, I still find it surprising that more people have not learned to adapt to the fact that the truth will come out.

As I have continually advised people, it is wise to run your life as if everything you do is known by everyone. That is, assume you are completely unable to keep a secret, nor is anyone around you able to contain a secret. With such an attitude, you will rapidly discover that your choices, when it comes to ethics, become a lot clearer. In this age of information freedom, there is a strong likelihood that the above attitude is correct in any case.

This applies to all aspects of life – spouses having affairs, students cheating on tests or assignments, employees thinking about placing their hands in the till.

I don’t claim to be perfect. This way of thinking, however, has motivated my methods of working – keep it honest, play it straight, and don’t even think about bending the rules. With that backing, it’s much more difficult to find yourself in a situation where you may be embarrassed by having taken certain actions.

Growth, Expansion, and the First Hire

Perhaps the hardest decision made by the owner of a growing business is regarding the first hire. It’s at this point that the stakes in the business change, from being responsible for yourself to being responsible for employees. Where before a lack of business meant that you personally didn’t get paid, now there are other people relying on you to pay them.

The first part, though, in deciding to make a hire, is to determine whether it’s financially worthwhile to hire someone. In general, an employee must bring in about 3 times their salary in increased revenues. Not from the first day, of course, but over a relatively short period of time. As such, the decision to hire is often preceded by an increase in the amount of work to be done, coupled with an increase in the base amount of work available.

The second part is the creation of a buffer. A business that has an operating line of credit can often handle the buffer through that – if not, a reserve of funds for a rainy day must be put away. This can be quite difficult, since it requires adjustments to be made that affect cash flow.

Third is the locating of the third employee. This is where your network can come into play. Pushing out a message to your network clearly indicating the nature of the work, the type of person you’re looking for, can help generate some leads, while there is always the option of using a paid service. This will rapidly be followed by the selection process for an interview, the interview itself, and making a choice. The task here may seem daunting, and the unwary business owner may choose to take some shortcuts and just hire someone quickly.

This has the potential to create problems later on, as the choice made is quickly realized to be faulty for some reason. Without careful preparation for the legalities of hiring someone, this can prove to be extremely costly. Additionally, there are decisions to be made – hire a contractor, or an employee? What are the legal and tax ramifications of each route? What will the costs be?

The only sure thing here is to first, make sure you can afford to hire someone, second, make sure you know what type of employee you need to hire, and third, make sure you speak to your lawyer and accountant to be sure you do it right.

Managing Multiple Projects

In recent weeks, the number of projects I’ve been involved with has rapidly grown, from the few constants and a couple small projects, to several large projects, a few smaller projects, and a constant turn-over of hourly projects. When I sat down one day to work, and realized that I had 8 active projects to work on personally that day, I spent a few minutes thinking about how to approach all those projects, and keep all my clients happy.

The problem is actually one that many small businesses that grow face at some point in their transitionary period – where the word becomes more than one person can handle, and yet there is not quite enough work, or enough regular work, to justify employing another person to help out. A typical work-work goes from 40 hours to 60 hours to 80 hours – and there is still a reluctance to hire someone, despite the fact that there’s enough work for two. I digress, though, as this is the topic of another article regarding growth, expansion, and the first hire.

The first thing I did when I realized that I had more demands on my time than I was able to track was that I wrote down a detailed list of all the projects I was working on. For each project, I wrote down what the next few tasks were, and if there was a real deadline involved.

Each morning, I would clear the list of all completed tasks, and add in the next set of tasks for each project. I would then figure out which tasks were most important, and therefore had to be done immediately, which projects I hadn’t worked on in the last few days, and therefore deserve attention, and which were waiting for some other input out of my control.

I found that merely creating and looking at this list increased my productivity, for a few reasons.

First, it gave me the ability to clearly see where I stood on each project.

Second, it reduced the likelihood of me forgetting a project, thereby impacting relationships with my clients.

Third, it helped me by providing satisfaction at marking another item as complete, limiting the number of items I would start one day and leave hanging, incomplete, until the next day.

A piece of advice given to me by Jeremy Lichtman of Lichtman Consulting was as follows. Make sure you work every day on every project, even for a few minutes. The reasoning is that by putting in some effort every day, even the low priority projects will get worked on, as well as the projects that have become irritants. Otherwise, you run the risk of having low priority projects never get completed until they become high priorities, which is usually at the expense of a client relationship.

Do you have any other suggestions to share? Please comment, I would love to hear from you.

The Ideal Management Team

Working with several businesses at various stages of development, as well as many projects that are to become the basis for future businesses, I’ve discovered something interesting about management teams. Every business or project has one, even if the entire company consists of a single individual. However, what I’ve discovered is that there is a consistent pattern in the management team that correlates to the success of the business as a whole.

The first thing I noticed was that businesses with only a single person involved in the decisions tended to limit their own potential. The reason for this seems to be a function of egocentricity, in that the manager of the business does not have someone to bounce ideas against, nor are they forced to recognize their own fallibility in their decision-making processes. With multiple people involved in making decisions, more thought is generally required of any decision made, thereby preventing certain errors from being made.

The second thing I noticed, which I found to be more interesting, had to do with the division of the management team. In a business with longevity in mind, a part of the management team must concern itself with the long-term plans for the business, while another part of the team must concern itself with the short term planning. The way I’ve come to look at it is the strategic and the tactical divisions of the management team.

In the tactical team, the key components of a perfect team include the ability to complete given tasks, to look for rapid feedback, and to execute plans of one to two years in length. The tactical team is not concerned with what happens to their work in the long-run, rather, that in the short-term, they prove to be as useful as possible. This may be in the form of becoming cash-flow positive as quickly as possible, the completion of short-term projects, or getting feedback as effectively as possible.

On the strategic team, the key component is vision. The management team here must look to the future of the company, five or ten years in the future, and where they would like to position the company in that time frame. They can then break that down to a sequence of short-term goals, which would be given to the tactical management team to execute. The strategic team would place controls over expenditures in the short-term, they would set goals and milestones for the company to ensure it will reach their vision.

On occasion, a company will have only two or three people managing the company. While this is perfectly normal, what they must be aware of is whether the members of the team have a tendency to focus on the short-term or the long-term. If the answer is the former, they should be made part of the tactical team, if the answer is the latter, they should be made part of the strategic team. Certainly, some people will cross both teams, which is important, but each person should have a primary area which they treat as their home-turf.