Sunday, September 25, 2011

Protecting Your Business From Identity Fraud

"To build may have to be the slow and laborious task of years. To destroy can be the thoughtless act of a single day." ~Sir Winston Churchill

So many business owners think that identity fraud only happens with individuals. Unfortunately, this is just not the case. The incidence of identity fraud involving businesses is increasing, and to complicate matters even further, state laws against stealing an individual’s identity are much more rigorous than those against stealing a business’s.

I see identity theft occur most often with businesses when employees are given a company credit card. It is so easy for a thief to get your card number and use it to make unauthorized purchases. This is why it is so critical that you go over your credit card statements regularly to ensure there are no fraudulent charges. Obviously, you do not want to leave that responsibility with the cardholder as it would be too easy to hide any abuse. It is always a good idea to have some checks and balances in place.

Where identity theft is concerned, prevention is key. One essential piece of avoiding theft and misuse of your information is changing your passwords every 45 to 90 days. You should always make sure the passwords you choose are complex by using a phrase to remember them. Changing passwords often can be a pain, but it is so important to protecting your financial information against unauthorized access.

Another good rule of thumb is to never send any identifying information at your bank’s request. There are numerous scams out there that do a very good job of disguising themselves as your financial institution. No matter how valid they seem, you must always verify with your bank that the information is legitimate.

Be so careful about how you use your wireless network. If your network is not protected, your information can be stolen so easily. You should never transfer sensitive information on a wireless or any other network without encrypting it first.

Free public wireless networks are one of the biggest potential dangers. Should a staff member use one of these public networks to either send or receive sensitive data, it could leave your company open to identity theft. This can happen so easily since most of these wireless hubs have no security. Before you can access them, you have to sign off that you understand the risks of using the network and agree not to hold the provider responsible in the event of a breach.

As an additional layer of protection, business owners should establish a call-back procedure with their financial institution. The bank will call the account owner to verify the transaction before any transfers are made, especially in the case of wires.

Another important practice is always shredding documents that contain your financial information. It is so easy for thieves to go through the trash and find your financial records. For me, shredding is kind of therapeutic. I like to hear that shredder going because I know that no one else will be able to access these documents. You should make sure you have a shredding policy in place, and it is not a bad idea to start moving toward a policy that prohibits hard copies of these records.

Another easy, but effective practice is turning off your PCs when you leave at night. Many businesses leave their machines on, which gives a hacker a lot of time to run password-breaking programs against their financial applications.

Finally, make sure that your virus checker and firewall are up to date and that all downloaded documents are checked for viruses or any other malware.

Now go and make sure you have a policy in place to ensure your business identity remains secure. These steps are absolutely critical if you want your business to continue to operate safely without falling victim to identity theft.

You can do this.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Not Saying No is So Important for Customer Service

"Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong." ~Donald Porter, V.P. British Airways

Customer service is so important to each and every business. If the service is great, your customers will keep coming back. If it is poor, they simply will not.

One important thing to remember is that the quality of the customer service you provide is not judged by you or your company. It is entirely about the customer’s perception. You must do everything in your power to ensure that the service rendered matches up with what the customer desires.

There probably is no better way to kill a service experience than using the word “no.” Sometimes “no” is disguised in phrases such as, “against company policy,” “we just cannot do that,” or “that is not permissible.”

Disguised or otherwise, “no” words destroy your business’ relationship with its customers because they stop the conversation and leave the customer with no choice but to walk out upset, vowing never to come back. Taking choice away from your customers is the death knell for repeat business.

If a customer comes in wanting to return an item and the clerk says the only way to accept the return is with a receipt, which the customer does not have, they will leave the store unhappy and probably not return. While intended to protect the business, this tightly framed return policy creates service experiences that customers perceive as negative and undermines the business’ ability to generate repeat sales.

Ironically, so many companies implement these rigid policies to keep from being taken advantage of to the detriment of their business. These “no” policies repel good, even great, customers who have simply lost their receipts. Where generating repeat business is a priority, a policy that undermines your ability to be successful is just not good business.

I recently bought a shirt at a store, and once I got it home, I found that it did not fit. Of course, when I went to return it, I had lost the receipt indicating how I had paid for it. Obviously, the store did not want to give me cash, but they offered me store credit instead.

The store credit alternative was absolutely fine with me. The key piece to note here is that the clerk did not say the store could not accept my return because of company policy. Rather, the clerk said they were delighted to accept my return and give me store credit to use on a future purchase of my choice.

Another person walked into a store and wanted to make an offer for an item rather than pay the printed price. The clerk told the customer that he could not take anything below the listed price. Ultimately, that may have been the appropriate response, but saying “no” should have been the absolute last resort.

The clerk could have been trained to explain the item’s value, what comparable prices are, and encourage the customer to pay retail. If that approach failed, the clerk should have been instructed to call in a manager.

I am certainly not saying that you should take less than retail if a customer comes in one day with a similar request. Rather, I am suggesting that the response should avoid using the word “no.” “No” stops all dialogue, and you want to keep the conversation with your customers going.

Now go out and make sure that your staff is trained to avoid using “no” and all its variations. The benefits will be huge and the cost minimal.

You can do this!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Capacity Is So Important When Considering Expansion

"The first requisite for success is the ability to apply your physical and mental energies to one problem incessantly without growing weary." ~Thomas Alva Edison

In today’s economy, so many businesses are looking into new markets and new products as a means of maintaining sales and profits. I have seen many businesses expand outside their geographical market or offer an entirely new product to their existing customer base.

While expansion is great, you must make sure that you have the capacity to deliver the new services or products. This may seem like a simple concept, but in reality, it is a very involved process.

We are working with a medical services business that wanted to expand their services to children. The market had very little competition and a very high profit potential, so on the surface, it appeared to be a wonderful opportunity.

Once we dove into the details, however, we discovered that the service could only be provided two hours of every business day because of school. With such a limited window of time, the firm would need a high volume of part-time help, which they were unable to find. Obviously, once this information came to light, they abandoned the proposition and began evaluating other areas where support resources were more readily available.

Another firm we are assisting wanted to begin offering a new product to its existing customer base. It was a product their customers needed and something they could easily provide.

Preliminary research showed their clients really liked the product and thought it was reasonably priced. Upon further research, we found that the firm’s sales would increase by $300,000 once they added the new product. So far, everything sounded great, and the firm was chomping at the bit to move forward.

However, the expansion did have some serious problems that we did not see when we were initially considering the proposal. First, in order to expand by $300,000, the firm’s accounts payable would have to increase by $50,000, and they would have to pay the manufacturer for the products before it could have them available for sale. Secondly, once they made a sale, it would be nearly 30 days before they would be able to collect payment from the customer.

The firm needed almost $100,000 to build up their inventory and support the accounts receivable increase. This was a problem for the firm since they were not going to be able to raise the equity, and financial institutions were not going to approve a loan. The firm quickly realized that, while the expansion seemed viable initially, the scheme just would not be feasible in implementation.

Each and every business needs to go out and look for expansion possibilities, but with any venture, you must make sure you have the capacity and resources necessary to ensure it will be viable and profitable.

You can do this!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Small Things You Can Do To Be A Better Manager!

"The productivity of work is not the responsibility of the worker but of the manager." ~Peter Drucker

Being a manager is tough, and every manager can use all the help they can get in this area. As is often the case, it is the little things that make the biggest difference in how your staff responds to you.

Effective communication with your staff is such a tenuous process and you want to make sure there are no obstructions. When talking with your employees, it is important that you do not sit behind your desk. A desk is a gigantic barrier that is both intimidating and nearly impossible to overcome.

A much better policy when communicating with staff is to come out from behind your desk and sit in chairs in front of it. By doing so, you remove the barrier between you so you can communicate without obstruction. It is a subtle gesture, but it goes a long way to improving your staff interactions. Some managers will have a table that they hold meetings around apart from their desk but I just like to sit face to face without any furniture in the way.

Another small adjustment to the way you communicate can help you become a better manager. Instead of just saying, “Jane, I would like to talk to you tomorrow at 10,” you should say, “Jane, can I talk to you at 10 about the status of project x?” Reason being, when you do not share the purpose of the meeting, the natural tendency of your staff is to assume it will be bad news, causing unnecessary anxiety.

That has certainly been my personal experience. In all my years in the workforce, meetings without a known agenda always caused me grief. I kept trying to figure out what my boss wanted to talk about, and I usually assumed I had screwed up in some way.

Just a simple statement about the meeting purpose alleviates the employee’s apprehension and makes a big difference in how they approach the meeting. In the short term, you will probably have a more productive meeting, and in the long term, you will strengthen your relationship with them.

I realize, however, there are times that you may not want to share the purpose of the meeting—if you have to let someone go, for instance. For great managers, these exceptions are limited in number.

The final relatively small thing you can do to improve your management skills and foster trust among your staff is to ask them regularly what you can do to be a better manager. Whether your staff responds to this or not—they most likely will not—asking the question tells them that you care about their concerns and are open to their suggestions.

I can personally attest to how effective this practice can be. When I have asked my staff, I rarely received any suggestions, but they frequently talked with their colleagues about how impressed they were with my sincerity and how they appreciated my asking for their input.

Now go out and look for the little things you can do to make you a better manager. Not talking to staff across a desk, sharing the purpose of meetings and asking how you can be a better manager are just a few simple ways to get started.

You can do this!