The Fractional CFO Concept (Part 2)

Earlier this week I introduced what may have been a new concept for some small business owners and managers; the idea of fractional or part time CFO. A vacation timeshare is a useful analogy to understand how and why a part-time financial expert may be the perfect solution for your needs.

I conclude this topic with a few frequently asked questions.

  • What exactly does a CFO do, and how does that change if I use a fractional CFO?

The chief financial officer or CFO is the person primarily responsible for managing the overall financial operations of an organization. This position is responsible for planning, cash flow management, record keeping, financial reporting, etc. The only difference between a traditional CFO and a fractional CFO is the nature of their relationship to the business. While a CFO is full time officer and employee, a fractional CFO is a part-time, independent contractor. However, their duties and responsibilities are virtually identical.

  • Will I retain a fractional CFO for a one-time assignment, or will they continue to provide on-going services?

Occasionally, a client will request that that their fractional CFO provides services for a one-time, special project. The CFO will likely endeavor to accommodate all client needs. However, their primary focus will be on providing on-going fractional CFO services, including the development, implementation and monitoring of a long-term business plan. While the time allotted to this process can be adjusted and even reduced as initial objectives are met over time, it is a continuous process that typically requires some effort at least monthly and probably weekly.

  • How much should I expect to pay for my fractional CFO?

The cost of fractional CFO services are primarily determined by only two things, the number of hours spent on an account, and the billing rate of individual providing client services. Barring temporary or emergency situations, a reputable fractional CFO firm will endeavor to staff assignments using associates with skill sets and experience levels appropriate to your needs. Ultimately, they will provide the level of service you determine based on your needs and within a budget determined by you. Your schedule can vary from just a few hours per month to several days per week, and can be adjusted as future needs require. Typical clients should expect to spend from $500 to $10,000 per month, depending on the two factors.

  © 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

 

Curiosity was Framed, Ignorance Killed the Cat

My first job after public accounting was as Director of Internal Audit for a large regional insurance company. Given free range to determine my own assignments, I immediately launched a review of the claims processing operation. As Willie Sutton would say, “That’s where the money is.”

Back then, mainframe computers housed in cold rooms that took up an entire floor were the order of the day. Reports printed on large “green-bar” paper with perforated edges, bound together between heavy cardboard covers using bendable wires.

On my second day on the job, I was flipping through a report of claim payments. It listed basic information like policy and claim number, payee, amount, dates and so forth. The report probably had 50 to 60 claims per page, and was several hundred pages long.

I spotted something strange. About every 15 or 20 pages, a claim would show a negative payment. Based on my understanding of the system, there was no logical explanation for negative numbers. I started asking questions, lots of questions!

To make a long story short, I had stumbled across an internal control weakness that allowed certain claims to be paid twice. As best I can recall, I found about $125,000 of duplicates. That was not a lot of money to a billion dollar company, even in 1978 dollars. Still, with an annual salary of $22,000, I cost-justified my first five years’ compensation the second day on the job.

My point in recalling this story is not to take you with me on a boring stroll down memory lane. OK, that is part of it, but a very small part.

My point is that other people who had worked with the claim report every day had undoubtedly noticed negative amounts before, yet had failed to follow through with a few simple questions. If they had, they might have closed the control weakness years earlier. Why?

I offer two words: human nature.

People seem to have a natural tendency to accept most things as they are. Asking questions and challenging the status quo is actually considered rude in many cultures. Sadly, it is career limiting in many corporate environments. Relax and remember what happen to the mythical cat! I heard it was a mid-level manager in a Fortune 500 company somewhere on the east coast.

That is not to suggest people are by nature lazy, apathetic or any other negative adjective. It’s just how things are.

Contrast that to Thomas Edison, who said he rarely picked up an object without wondering how he could make it better. I call that the curiosity factor. Either you have the curiosity factor, or you don’t. It cannot be taught or learned, and is seldom spoken of. Yet in many professions (including internal auditing), it is probably the single best predictor of ultimate success.

Every business desperately needs someone who will leap headfirst into operations or finances with a dedication approaching a Pit bull on a pork chop. If that is not you, go hire someone with the curiosity factor.

You will be amazed at what valuable business opportunities are waiting to be discovered just below the surface.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Reducing Fear and Uncertainty, Part 3

This week, I have been talking about the important marketing topic of decreasing consumer fear and uncertainty to increase sales. I conclude the series today with a discussion of introductory offers and giving away free service.

  1. Customers want to know approximately how much they should expect to spend in advance, without having to keep an anxious eye on the clock. This is often an issue for lawyers, CPAs and other highly compensated professionals who generally charge hourly rates. If this situation applies to your business, structure an introductory offer. For example, as an attorney with a billing rate of $250 per hour, you might offer to incorporate a new business, obtain all required permits and tax identification numbers and organize their corporate records for $499 including an initial consultation. If the project is completed within two hours, you earned your standard rate. If not, the introductory offer still works if you provide subsequent services using your regular fee schedule. You may also land full-price referrals because of your introductory offer.
  • As you complete assignments, you will likely find ways to reduce time and costs, lowering your breakeven point in the process.
  • The introductory price is independent of who performs the work. You can further reduce your costs if you can delegate portions of the assignment to your staff or outsource to lower-cost vendors.
  • For example, if you are a personal wealth manager, offer a free analysis of a prospect’s retirement investments. That is an important part of your main service. Your hope is obviously that some prospects will be so impressed with your knowledge and advice (or so unhappy with their current manager) that they will retain you to manage their portfolio. Other examples of providing a free service include a carpet cleaner who offers to clean one room free of charge, or an alarm company conducting a free home security analysis.
  • Jewelry stores illustrate an example of attracting customers with auxiliary services. They often provide free ring cleanings or replacement batteries for watches. With the highest gross profit margins in retail, very few prospects have to make additional full-price purchases in order to make the free service a successful strategy.
  1. My final suggestion under the topic of reducing fear and uncertainty to increase sales is an extension of the previous one. It is admittedly controversial. The idea is to provide free service in the hope of gaining new customers for full-price services. However, what you are giving away is neither the “2-cent sample” variety of the previous idea, nor the deluxe version of your service. It is somewhere in-between, probably closer to the former than the latter. Your free offering should be either a limited version of your primary service, or a less expensive auxiliary service.

I conclude the discussion of reducing fear and uncertainty to increase sales by reminding you of Monday’s quote by Mr. Ziglar. The next time you deal with an unhappy customer, take it as an opportunity to learn more about their needs while reducing their perception of risk. Remember also that helping them address their needs and concerns is critical to the ultimate success of every business.

Reducing Fear and Uncertainty, Part 2

On Monday, I introduced the topic of reducing consumer fear and uncertainty, and the distrust that often accompanies those emotions. I suggested that building a reputation for post-sale customer service and offering free samples might help overcome these marketing obstacles.

Today I will discuss offering satisfaction guarantees.

3. A self-described marketing expert once insisted I needed to offer a “100% money-back guarantee” to win new clients. It gets worse! He also suggested I guarantee savings of at least 10 times my fee. I had two major issues with the suggestion. First, in a profession where it was actually illegal to advertise only a few years ago, it sounded too much like an old-fashioned “snake oil” marketing approach. Secondly, all I do is counsel and advise clients. The value of that advice is ultimately dependent on their success in implementing recommendations in a timely fashion. I cannot guarantee the actions of others. Neither can you!

With that said, the concept of a money-back or satisfaction guarantee might have value to service providers within some narrowly defined parameters. Carefully consider the following matters:

  • At the risk of sounding like a cynic, get paid up front. Clients will be less likely to take advantage of your guarantee if they have to look you in the eye and lie about their dissatisfaction while asking for a refund.
  • Place clear and reasonable boundaries on what customers must do to qualify for a refund. Assume for example that I promise to develop your website and have it running within 60 days. That commitment must be contingent upon you providing a list of items like graphics and content, and on your timely approval of my work at various stages of completion. If your failure to perform those obligations is the primary cause of me missing the deadline, forget the money-back guarantee.
  • Consider offering a money-back guarantee on only part of your services. For example, weight loss centers advertise you will lose 20 pounds in 10 weeks for $20, or you get your money back. Since these centers cannot guarantee customers will follow the program, they cannot guarantee anyone will lose weight. They do not seem to fret much over that minor annoyance. Part of the weight loss program is that you eat their food for the entire 10 weeks. That will cost another $75 or more a week. No one can reasonably expect a refund for food they consumed, no matter how little weight was lost. Furthermore, some customers will simply be too embarrassed to admit their failure and ask for a refund. More importantly, for every customer who has their $20 fee returned, others will be so pleased with the initial results they will decide to lose 50 pounds. The extra 30 pounds are not at $1 per pound, and you still buy food from the center. This money-back guarantee is pure marketing genius.
  • Be aware that guarantees sometimes carry negative marketing connotations that can reflect poorly on your brand. That is largely due to all-too-common marketing promotions that border on deceptive advertising. I once had a client who previously developed a product marketed exclusively on late-night infomercials. You are no doubt familiar with the type of promotions to which I am referring. Everything is a huge value (whatever that is), yours for only $19.95 plus shipping and handling charges. The product always comes with a satisfaction guarantee. My client explained the rules of the game. The key phrase is “plus shipping and handling,” a greatly inflated sum that includes the actual cost of the product. That explains why infomercials frequently offer a second item “free” if customers pay separate shipping and handling fees. The $19.95 is pure gross profit! If a disgruntled consumer wants a refund, they must first return the product at their expense. The shipping and handling is not refunded. Therefore, the seller’s “worst-case scenario” is that the customer paid the full cost of the product and is now allowing them to resell it. Meanwhile, the refunded $19.95 was an interest free loan. I trust this deceptive practice is incompatible with your mission statement and value system. Do not risk long-term customer relations and reputation for the sake of short-term gains.

I will conclude this series with a discussion of introductory offers and giving free service. I look forward to meeting you here bright and early Friday morning.

Let Me Think About It and Get Back To You…

Have you ever had a customer or prospect utter that dreaded phrase? If so, then you understand they were probably just trying to be polite. They wanted to avoid saying the single most hated word in all of business directly to your face. NO! And yet I see countless vendors and businesses practically inviting customers to say exactly that every month. Let me give you an example.

I have a monitored home security system. It costs $19.95 per month. The security company mails a bill every month. Several aspects of this practice amaze me. First, the vendor incurs the unnecessary expense of postage and paper. I waste a stamp, check and envelope every month. Do not get me started on the whole “go green” thing! Furthermore, I suspect being dependent on when customers remember to mail checks makes for less predictable cash flows.

However, there is a far more important and obvious marketing implication involved here. This billing procedure provides every customer with a monthly opportunity to reconsider whether he or she really wants to spend the money, to “get back to you” as it were! I am going to assume you have implemented the payment options discussed in previous blog posts. If so, and if your value proposition includes providing recurring services, this situation cries out for an auto-payment system.

Offer clients a discount to authorize an automatic credit card charge or bank draft on the first business day of every month. Your customer retention rate will likely improve as billing costs decrease and cash flow becomes far more predictable. Perhaps most important of all, you will make it easier for your clients to do business with you! It is a shining example of what Robert Allen might consider a “never-ending improvement” customer educational opportunity. Also keep the following in mind.

  • If customers need a monthly invoice, email it to save costs and a trip to the post office.
  • Maintaining sensitive financial information like credit card and bank account numbers imposes certain legal obligations and requires an increased level of internal controls to ensure customer security and privacy. Having to announce that your data systems have been compromised or that a laptop containing customer financial records has been stolen are public relations nightmares. I have had my credit card numbers stolen by someone at two different companies, neither of which I will ever use again.

Finally, as regular readers of this blog have figured out, I am both a history fan and a proud Northern transplant to Texas. Be sure and read CFO America’s Facebook page today for a historical anniversary that had a strong connection right here in my own back yard. You’ll find it at http://www.facebook.com/CFOAmerica.

I’ll talk with you again on Wednesday.

Internet Marketing for Small Business-Part 1

Businesses have long used the Internet as a one-way communication channel to inform and educate customers about their products, prices, locations and hours. One-way communication is no longer sufficient, even for small businesses.

Here are some ideas to expand the traditional and limited marketing role of the Internet for your business without exceeding your budget limitations.

To increase sales and improve service, businesses should offer interactive capabilities for customers to place orders, make inquiries, request bids, and download product catalogs and service manuals. Many businesses now use the Internet to allow patients and clients to book or change their own appointments. It can be a very useful tool to help reduce lost revenue by sending an email or text message to confirm scheduled appointments. Online customer access need not be a cost prohibitive luxury viable only for “big box” retailers and national catalog companies. Multiple studies confirm it is a necessity for many types of small businesses. For example:

  • In an October 18, 2010 article titled A Cheery Holiday Forecast, Thad Rueter of the Internet Retailer reported on the results of a survey by The National Retail Federation. The survey found 44% of consumers ages 18 and above planned to shop online during the 2010 Christmas season. Of consumers who earned at least $50,000, 55% would shop online. Perhaps more telling of emerging trends, 27% of U.S. consumers who own a smartphone were expected to use it to research and buy products.
  • An article titled 8 Ways Fullservice Operators Can Build Sales was published by the National Restaurant Association in their 2010 Restaurant Industry Outlook Forecast. It reported that 41% of consumers sur­veyed said they choose new restaurants because of e-mail promotions. Close to 30% said they would likely opt to receive e-mail notification of daily specials. Another 56% visit restaurant websites, 54% view restaurant menus, 54% use the Internet to learn about restaurants they have not patronized while 25% have made reservations online.

If your business uses or is considering using gift cards, look at Panera Bread and McAlister’s Deli websites. Both offer the ability to sell, recharge and check card balances online, a real customer convenience. Providing printable coupons online is an even easier customer benefit you can offer.

On Friday, I will discuss email marketing and surveys as a marketing tool for your business.

Word of Mouth Has Gone Global-Part 7

I conclude this seven-part discussion of social media marketing today with just a few closing thoughts. First, having gone through the effort to develop content, create a social media marketing program and build a following, do not fail to promote Twitter, Facebook etc. on outgoing email signatures, business cards, letterhead, websites, and promotional materials.

Every media platform should be used to promote all the others. For example, you should occasionally send a tweet inviting followers to “Like” your Facebook Fan page, and use Facebook and Twitter to announce new posts on your blog.

Provide a direct link to your blog and social media platforms whenever possible. For example, my outgoing email signature ends with, “Please click on the links below to read our blog or to follow us on Facebook & Twitter.”

This series presented many new challenges for the already overworked small businessperson. Let me end with one more. Future Vision Web Services made this observation: “Most of today’s market leaders are those companies who had the foresight to recognize the changing landscape in today’s modern business world. The new business battleground has been very cruel to those companies that have fallen behind the curve.”

Do not allow the rapidly evolving landscape of social media marketing keep you from realizing the full potential of your business.

See you again on Wednesday.

Word-of-Mouth Has Gone Global-Part 6

Even if you use outside assistance to design and develop your social media platforms, generating fresh content remains your responsibility. Quite simply, no one knows more about your business than you do. Demonstrate that fact by sharing the body of material you accumulated in becoming a recognized expert. However, resist the temptation to share it all at once. Building a following in cyberspace is a marathon, not a sprint. As with blogging, develop a consistent conversational style and reporting pattern.

Here are a few pointers to get the most social media mileage out of your content and maximize its effectiveness:

  • If you have a document with multiple bullet points, break each into a separate post.
  • End each post by briefly telling readers what to expect in your next entry, and when it will be published.
  • Most content can be reformatted and repurposed as appropriate. For example, press releases and articles can be posted on Facebook and other sites as well as your blog. A 1,200-word article can provide a lot of content at 140 characters per tweet. Facebook status update fields have a 420-character limit. LinkedIn has a 700-character limit. Other social networks each have similar limits. With a little practice, you will probably find, as I did, that communicating your message within those limits is usually quite easy to accomplish.
  • You can supplement your original content with relevant quotes and articles written by others, or simply pass along helpful advice and suggestions you come across in your daily business. Numerous websites provide extensive quotes on every business subject. One example is www.brainyquote.com.
  • Timely material can be re-circulated or retweeted periodically.
  • Unless supporting a particular point of view is a deliberate part of your branding and marketing strategy, avoid expressing religious and political opinions or supporting controversial agendas that might alienate potential customers.
  • Have several people proofread and review your content. Check your pride of authorship at the door. Do not be afraid to use someone who will look you in the eye and tell you if you have “an ugly baby.” My son’s unbridled desire to correct his father makes him an extremely effective proofreader. Another friend’s frank comments often bruise my ego. I typically stew about them for a day, and then incorporate most of his suggestions.
  • No one cares about trivial matters like what you ate for dinner unless of course you are a food critic or Kim Kardashian. Maintain an air of business decorum and professionalism in your social media platforms.
  • There are numerous social networking tools available free online to help you monitor and simultaneously update multiple sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Those tools currently include Tweetdeck, Hootsuite and Ping.fm. Most also provide upgraded versions for a fee. It is a truism of any free-market system that whenever a product or service becomes an undifferentiated commodity, those offering it can only compete on price. It is inevitable in the fast-paced world of social media that as soon as someone develops a new Internet-based service, someone else will figure out how to make money by offering it free. Therefore, periodically ask your social media active friends and network contacts whether they are aware of any new tools.
  • Finally, the ultimate purpose of social media marketing is to build business relationships. All relationships require two-way communication. Do not get so consumed in posting content that you neglect to respond to direct messages or DMs. Try to establish a dedicated time every day to answer your DMs.

I will conclude this series about social media marketing on Monday with some final thoughts. Enjoy your weekend.

Word of Mouth Has Gone Global-Part 5

I confess that I have yet to add YouTube to my social media marketing arsenal. That is probably to my detriment. Although you can post pictures and links to videos on most social media platforms, YouTube is specifically designed as a video sharing site. Many people therefore think of it primarily as a source of entertainment. However, YouTube is also the most popular search engine. The company was founded in 2005 and bought by Google in 2006. YouTube reported an excess of 2 billion downloads per day in May of 2010.

YouTube is free, and has many practical applications for small businesses. You can prepare and upload amateur videos with most cell phones and digital cameras. Here are four YouTube tips:

  • If you believe a picture is worth a thousand words, YouTube videos may be priceless. Your videos can be used to demonstrate your products in action, showcase samples of your work, record customer testimonials, address frequently asked questions and serve almost any customer educational purpose that arises. Videos can be made more user-friendly and accessible through the auto-caption feature added in early 2010. Captions can then be translated into other languages. This means the hearing-impaired and non-English speaking audiences will have access to the information and marketing messages contained in your videos.
  • YouTube allows users to set up personal channels or home pages. This affords the opportunity to present video messages in a customized environment consistent with your brand’s use of colors, logos, marketing taglines and so on. The channel can also display user data including contact information, web addresses and pictures. Finally, users can organize videos in logical groups or sequences through playlists.
  • Use your other social media outlets to cross-promote YouTube videos.
  • Again, study what your competition is doing on YouTube. Look at a few viral or most popular videos to see what characteristics make them popular. Adapt the lessons learned to your own situation.

On Friday, I will continue this series with some suggestions on getting the most social media mileage out of your content while maximizing its effectiveness.

Word of Mouth Has Gone Global-Part 3

This week, we are discussing social media marketing as a cost-effective marketing option for small businesses. Let’s pickup where we left off on Wednesday.

Evaluate social media marketing as a platform to build brand awareness and share content with your customers and target market. Use it as a vehicle to provide your customers with a voice. Encourage feedback. Social media marketing is all about consistent communication in channels selected by your markets. Avoid the trap of thinking it is about technology. Moreover, remember that ultimately you are connecting with individuals, not faceless companies and organizations. Consider these points:

  • Individuals all have birthdays, families, homes, hobbies and other personal characteristics and interests that they will occasionally mention online. Apply what Dale Carnegie said about making friends by being interested in other people rather than by trying to get people interested in you. Remember the personal stuff.
  • It is very likely that you will eventually attract hundreds and even thousands of followers on your social media platforms. It will not be possible (or even advisable) to attempt to develop relationships with all of your connections, especially since many will be in distant areas that effectively disqualify them as realistic prospects. However, for those online connections that are realistic customer prospects, cultivating an offline relationship greatly increases the prospect of a sale.
  • Try to exhibit a conversational style, but keep in mind that your conversations will be online and therefore accessible to virtually the entire planet.

Having decided to move forward with social media, the first crossroad you will come to in your analysis and evaluation of social media is whether to do everything yourself or hire experts. Make an informed decision. There are plenty of free or low cost resources available to you. Begin with an Internet search or by spending a few dollars on one of those 1,618 books and videos. Talk to your social media savvy friends and associates, perhaps starting with your “screenage” children. Having done my research, I decided that while I could muddle through the maze myself, the time saved and professionalism gained by hiring a consultant was worth the small investment. I should also mention that I met my social media consultants at a free seminar they sponsored. Look at what competitors and others in your area are doing. Make a list of what you like and dislike about each. Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In this situation, it may also be the cheapest.

We will continue with this subject next week. Until then, have a great weekend.

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