We Have Meet The Enemy & He Is Us, Dealing with Entrenched Policies & Procedures (Part 2)

On Monday, I introduced the topic of inefficient and outdated policies, processes and procedures using the cartoon character Pogo, and the mid-twentieth inventor and cartoonist Rube Goldberg.

After coining a new acronym (RGP3s) and describing some common characteristics, I ended with the obvious question, what is a manger to do about them?

First, be open to the possibility of their existence in your organization. Every company has some areas that need improvement. You cannot assume that something is “best practices” simply because it worked in the past. If a department is unable to keep up with current workloads, there are only two possible reasons. Either they are understaffed, or they are operating at less than peak efficiency. Adding staff adds costs. Improving efficiencies is likely a cheaper and perhaps faster alternative.

All successful organizations eventually reach a size where managers are not expected to be familiar with the application of every policy, process and procedure. Even if they are, RGP3s can be virtually invisible to the familiar (or complacent) eye. That suggests one of two possible approaches.

The first approach is to constantly challenge and encourage employees to identify efficiency improvement opportunities. Maintain an open and direct line of communication through brief but regular interaction. Actively solicit employee input and implement at least one idea every month. Publicly reward accepted suggestions in ways they value. That may mean an employee of the month plaque in the lobby, a front row parking spot or an AMEX gift card.

Unfortunately, relying solely on employees’ willingness to point out flaws has a major limitation, human nature! People seem to have a tendency to accept most things as they are. Furthermore, asking questions and challenging the status quo may be viewed as career limiting in some corporate cultures. That is not to suggest people are by nature lazy or apathetic. It’s just how things are.

The second approach is to bring in a fresh pair of eyes. A while back, I shared a story about an experience in a new job. On my second day, I was reviewing a lengthy payment report when I spotted something unexpected. About every 20 pages or so, there was an entry with a negative amount. Based on my still limited understanding, there was no reason for negative numbers. To make a long story short, I had stumbled across an internal control weakness that allowed certain items to be paid twice.

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

In closing, let me clarify what constitutes a “fresh pair of eyes”. It may mean a consultant. This outside resource could be an expert in your field, or someone well versed in common business practices and operations. An auditor or independant CPA with other clients in your industry may be a valuable resource, especially if the area of concern is one they review as part of their evaluation of internal controls.

In my example, a fresh pair of eyes merely meant introducing a new employee into the mix.

Either way, the path to improved efficiencies in your business may be as simple as finding someone unburdened by the “But we’ve always done it that way” mentality.

That mindset, Mr. Pogo, is the real enemy.

© 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

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

 

The Fractional CFO Concept

The idea of fractional or part time use of a valuable resource has been around for many years. A perfect example of this concept was pioneered by the vacation real estate industry. In the 1960s, a French ski resort owner recognized few people could afford, let alone needed a resort condominium for all 52 weeks of the year.

He addressed this challenge by dividing every room into 52 separate units of time. Using the slogan “stop renting a room, buy the hotel” he launched a worldwide marketing phenomenon we now know as the time-share industry. Units were sold to different owners, each of whom purchased the full use and enjoyment of the week that best suited their schedule, and at an affordable price. If a buyer needed more than one week a year, they bought as many units as they wanted.

Other “bells and whistles” have been added through the years. Today, over 4 million American families own at least one vacation timeshare.

The concept of a fractional CFO is no different.

Most business leaders recognize the need for trained, experienced financial expertise on their management team. Many simply do not need a full time CFO. Therefore, they cannot cost justify the investment of a full time salary. Even if an owner or manager has the required skill sets, a professional CFO can likely generate a superior work product in less time.

This in turn frees up the most valuable and scarcest resource of all, TIME!

No successful entrepreneur ever launched a business with the intent of spending all day analyzing balance sheets, determining marginal profit contribution, dealing with bankers and tax accountants or addressing regulatory inquires. They launch businesses to exploit competitive advantages in their chosen field by servicing customer needs. Any time spent “working on the books” is time away from their real mission and a costly distraction from their value proposition.

Retaining a fractional or part-time CFO presents a cost effective solution customized to a business’ exact needs, budget and life cycle. The key to a successful fractional CFO relationship is to design and staff that engagement with a professional who will understand your business and address your financial needs. They must also become an integral (if part-time) member of your management team. Your fractional CFO should meet with you to tailor an affordable program to address your specific business needs. Together, you will establish a regular schedule of dedicated time to service those needs. That schedule can vary from just a few hours per month to several days per week, and can be adjusted as future needs require. The client can typically terminate a fractional CFO at any time and for any reason without incurring additional costs, just as you would if you had hired a full time employee.

On Friday, I will conclude this subject with a few frequently asked questions. Until then, please enjoy a safe and joyous 4th of July, and let us all remember the true meaning of the holiday, and the sacrifices of those who made it possible.

© 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.

Bull Horns in Cyberspace, Part 1

Last Friday CFO America’s blog began with the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise?” It concluded by assuring readers that falling tress always make noise. That got me thinking about things we can do to make noise, or rather what we can do to attract attention to our blogs. It also caused me to reflect on some of the mistakes I have made over the past six months (listen to me, the battle-hardened veteran) as a blogger.

Today I will present Part 1 of a two-part article on this topic. Here are my thoughts for today:

1. Pick a schedule and stick to it! The correct blogging frequency is whatever best helps you connect with your target audience. For some blogs that may be daily, for others once a month. Unfortunately, this is not a variable that invites experimentation. Fortunately, it is not so much a question of having the optimal blogging frequency. Simply commit to a schedule and tell your readers when to expect new posts. While most bloggers enjoy writing, too great a frequency can be grueling. I blog every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, something I have done faithfully except for a handful of holidays. As you gain followers, do not confuse or disappoint them by not keeping your commitment. Here are a few thoughts to help ease the burden of your commitment.

  • Consider using guest writers periodically. That way your readers are treated to different areas of expertise and points of view. It is also a great way to support your friends and network contacts. Hopefully, they will reciprocate and share some of your articles on their website, further extending your reach through cyberspace.
  • Instead of your usual topics or content, occasionally supplement your original writing by sharing (with appropriate attribution) relevant quotes, historical notes, articles and tips written by others. You might also ask readers to suggest topics.
  • Do not give up too quickly. As I said on Friday, Fred Campos of FunCitySocialMedia believes it takes about 100 posts before you begin to build a following. Many bloggers become discouraged and give up before reaching that milestone.

2. Keep posts short, preferably under 600 words. I say this for three reasons.

  • First, readers are looking for “McNuggets” of actionable information, not the English translation of War and Peace.
  • Secondly, the average American adult reads 250 to 300 words per minute. Numerous studies suggest that over 65% of visitors spend less than 2 minutes on a website. Therefore, an entry longer than 600 words will not be read in its entirety, if at all. I should add that the average time spent on CFO America’s blog is three minutes and nine seconds, an unusually long time, but one for which I am grateful!
  • I began blogging by posting excerpts from my book, Highly Visible Marketing, 115 Low-cost Ways to Avoid Market Obscurity. By making blog entries too long, I undoubtedly lost readers before the end of long articles. More importantly, I also ran through my previously written material too quickly. Save some your creative material for another day! A better alternative to lengthy articles is to split them into multiple parts, posting them in consecutive entries. I begin with a brief review of what was discussed in the previous blog, and end by telling readers what to expect in the next entry.

Let me now practice what I preach by ending for today. On Friday, I will present Part 2 of On Bull Horns in Cyberspace. It will discuss suggestions for defining your style and promoting your blog through other social media tools.

Until Friday, please continue to provide valuable feedback and share this information with your friends, coworkers and other associates. Why not add a comment below before leaving today?

 

 

Improving Those Email Statistics

I am in the process of completing and preparing for a series of free seminars called “What’s Your Story”? It deals with ways of communicating a consistent marketing message and brand to multiple audiences at little or no out-of-pocket cost. In the presentation, I use email marketing to illustrate why you need to use multiple communication channels to reach your entire target market.

Email has at least one major advantage over many other channels. It is very easy to study statistics and trends in things like open rates and click through rates. One of the major vendors tracks open rates by about 30 industry categories. The highest is only 27%. That means that an average email campaign can expect that fewer than three out of every 10 people who receive the email are going to open it. More importantly, recognize that the largest part of your target market will never make it on to your distribution list.

Your email needs to be above average! It is critically important to squeeze the best possible results out of your email marketing efforts. Experiment with things like how the timing and subject line of your email effects the statistics. I read an interesting post called The 4 Words That Will Get Your Email Opened by Sean Platt of the copyblogger.com. It said that in his experience, the most effective subject line for virtually any type of email marketing distribution was simply “You Are Not Alone.” Platt’s theory is this headline appeals to a universal human need to know there is someone who shares our common experiences and is willing to help solve our problems. Interesting theory Sean. I may experiment with that one myself!

There is another theory (unproven in my mind) that people will work harder to maintain what they already have than to gain something they need. You can test this hypothesis by tailoring your subject lines accordingly. For example, a marketing newsletter might be promoted from the perspective of how to maintain existing customers. A human resources discussion could be presented in terms of how to motivate and retain valuable employees. The same thought applies to event marketing.

As email has matured as a communications media, people have become more discerning not only in what they open but also in giving out email addresses. Do not abuse or waste an engraved invitation to their inbox. Allow me a simple analogy to illustrate the point. Whatever subject line you choose, remember that it is only an invitation to your electronic party. Like a real party, you still need to deliver “the goods” that your guests are expecting when they arrive. The expected goods are either valuable information or a chance to save money on your products and services. If you fail to deliver, they are unlikely to attend another party.

As you are writing copy for an email newsletter, article marketing, blogging, and so on, also keep in mind that the average reader is very busy and perhaps somewhat impatient. They are not searching for an online English translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. They are looking for interesting, concise articles and information that provide relevant content in a reader-friendly format. Tailor your writing style to match that profile for maximum opens. Again, this also applies to event marketing.

Finally, you might be tempted to save the cost of an email service and simply send a mass distribution to all your contacts in Microsoft Outlook. A reason not to do that is that email services offer spam-checking software that will identify potential problems in your wording and structure. Make corrections accordingly and avoid being trapped in recipients’ spam filters. Instead of sending emails with Outlook, visit MailChimp.com. They allow you to send emails to 2,000 recipients free.

Have a safe weekend. I want you back here bright and early Monday morning.

Showing Appreciation Without Spending Money

John Willard Marriott, the late founder of the hospitality chain that bears his name, summarized the ultimate reason why every business must energize their work force. He said, “Motivate them, train them, care about them, and make winners out of them. They’ll treat the customers right. And if customers are treated right, they’ll come back.” Given Marriott International’s $11.7 billion of revenue and 34% return on equity in 2010, I must assume Marriott employees are still treating customers right, 25 years after his passing.

One of the traditional motivational tools employers use is an employee benefits package. Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that most businesses cannot afford to compensate valuable employees as much as they would like to. Providing a competitive benefits package is even more difficult for small and mid-sized businesses. In a challenging economy, many do well just to be able to offer continued employment. I previously wrote about the value of offering discounts to employees. This is especially applicable in retail businesses that sell consumer products like clothing and jewelry.

Here is a variation of that idea that may help employers in your area while generating significant sales for you. Offer discounts or special services to someone else’s employees. I once worked for a 400-employee company that arranged (at my suggestion) a pickup and delivery service by a local dry cleaner. Another employer provided a weekly car cleaning service. Since employees paid for either service as they used them, both examples created a cost-free benefit from the employers’ perspective. The services created value since they allowed employees to complete personal errands they would otherwise have to address on their own time. More to the point, these examples also presented a large one-stop customer base for the service providers.

This strategy may work especially well as a means of extending a business-to-business relationship to your customers’ employees. For example, if you repair their employer’s computers, employees will already be familiar with your service and reputation. Offer them a discount for home computer service, especially if they can save you a trip by bringing personal computers to work.

Finally, if you have employees (almost 80% of American businesses do not), try to arrange similar on-site services and discounts from businesses used by your workforce.

Nine Things I learned about YouTube-Part 2

Wednesday’s blog post discussed the first four things I learned about creating YouTube videos. It covered hardware and software requirements, and their cost. I hope you were as surprised as I was to learn you don’t have to spend a lot of money, and may already have everything you need.

Today, I will complete the list. Here are items 5 through 9:

5. Windows Live Movie maker or WLMM allows you to import entire PowerPoint presentations or individual slides. This is useful if your video subject matter is technical and requires visual aids. It is far more professional than writing on a flipchart with your back to the camera. The trick is to save documents as png or tif files, rather than in PowerPoint. The software also imports pictures. You can then narrate off-screen, or just use them to spice up your video.

6. Whether you import videos, slides or pictures, MLMM presents a plethora of editing options. I found the ability to end videos before that awkward moment when I walk off-screen to stop the camera is especially helpful. For that reason, stand motionless and silent for one or two seconds before you end a video or slide. It will make for a cleaner break as you transition into the next slide. The standard length of a slide will be 7 seconds, but that is easily changed to accommodate your need. There are also countless video and animation special effects, which I have yet to explore. One feature that I do plan to incorporate into my next video is captions. I might, as an example, include my web address or contact information in the presentation.

7. You can record narrations with Sound Recorder, and match them with the appropriate slide. If you are a type-A person as I am, concentrate on speaking at a moderate pace. Again, you can edit the duration, adjust the volume and fade in and out of the audio. You can also import music.

8. One feature of WLMM did surprise and disappoint me. Perhaps I missed something, but my computer saved the videos into something called a wlmp file format. YouTube supports a wide variety of formats, but wlmp is not among them. After a little research and experimentation, I discovered some good news. You can upload directly from WLMM to YouTube by simply clicking the appropriate “Share Button” in the upper right Toolbar. I found a technical explanation of why this works, but who cares? Problem solved!

9. Finally, once you have successfully uploaded your finished video, keep in mind that YouTube allows you to do some basic Search Engine Optimization or SEO. It allows a description and tags. As always, make them keyword rich. Fred Campos, the founder of FunCitySocialMedia, suggests you include your company’s name in video titles. Since the end game is to have people locate and watch you videos, do not over-look this important step.

Well, that’s my list. I hope you will find something of use here, and more importantly that it will encourage you to pursue more of the low-cost marketing experimentation I talked so much about in my book. If you would like to see CFO America ShiningStar Studio’s (a wholly owned subsidiary of just plain old CFO America) premiere video, please visit http://bit.ly/lx8ard.

Have a great weekend, and thanks to all the faithful readers who have so kindly posted comments and words of encouragement on this blog. Please continue to spread the word!

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