Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Recession Selling

My podcast guest this week, Randy Illig, strikes a JFK-esque theme: Instead of asking what your customers can buy from you, ask what you can do for your customers.

People always appreciate support and encouragement, but in tough times a friendly telephone call can cement your brand loyalty. Don't try to sell anything, just check in with your clients. Thank them for their business and ask how they're doing. If they're struggling, ask how you can help and then follow through.

If you're not sincere, people will smell a cheap ploy a mile away. But expressing true concern and gratitude can enhance your customer relationships for years to come.

Reaching out is a good feeling whether you're on the giving end or the receiving end. Brianna Sylver, president of Sylver Consulting, recently sent me kudos for my Smart Answers columns. No reason - she just wanted to say she appreciates my work.

Thank you, Brianna! All of us get criticized, reviewed or maybe even ignored day in and day out. An unexpected "attagirl" can really make someone's day.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Small Business Heroes

I wasn't exactly shocked by the results of the latest Rasmussen Report, which shows that corporate CEOs are the least-popular professionals in America these days. *

But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the heroes of the country are small business owners and entrepreneurs. The survey reports that small business owners are regarded favorably by 92% of survey respondents, while "those who start their own businesses" (i.e., entrepreneurs) get thumbs-up from 88%.

Heck, even "pastors and other local religious leaders" commanded less-favorable ratings; only 72% regard them favorably, according to the survey.

I'm glad that small business owners are still respected and admired, even as high-powered (and paid) execs running larger corporations are sinking in public opinion. It's small business owners who employ the vast majority of America's workforce, after all, and they're typically the individuals who work hardest, sacrifice the most and take the biggest personal risks when following their business dreams.

And when those risks don't pay off? Guess what: Small business owners don't get millions in bonuses. In fact, they take their lumps. Many lose their homes and their life savings when their companies go under.

Given the steep challenges of entrepreneurship, I'm always amazed how many Americans give it a go. But I'm sure glad that they do.

*On a personal note, I'm not thrilled that "journalists and reporters" only get a favorable rating from 38% of survey respondents. When I was in journalism school in the post-Watergate era, journalism was highly valued. Now, we're less popular even than lawyers (41% favorability) and bankers (44%).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Alternate lenders

My Los Angeles Times In Box column this week addresses some of the red flags associated with merchant cash advance firms. With credit drying up and small business loans tough to find, many small business owners may be considering alternate lenders, such as credit card factors.

Factoring originated in the apparel industry, where a soft goods inventory didn't qualify for loans like those granted to companies with hard inventory and equipment.

Although the details of these loans vary, factors typically advance cash up front to buy up the company's accounts receivable. The factor then collects payments due and returns the funds to the company - minus a percentage for their service. Some companies also charge fees on top of their cut.

The column tells you what to watch out for if you're considering a merchant cash advance contract. For instance, you want a fixed repayment percentage, so that in slow months you're not asked to fork over more of your income to the factor.

You should also compare offers from several firms before you sign up with a merchant cash advance company. Look for the best deal you can get, of course, but also check into the reliability of the factoring firm itself. Talk to some of their clients about how they view the relationship.

Factoring is costly and if you can find funding elsewhere, or bootstrap your operation, you should do that. But many small companies successfully use this method of boosting their cash flow.

Hey, I'm blogging!

It must have been close to 10 years ago when my friend and web guru Paula Johnson announced that I needed a website.

"A website?! Why on earth would I need to go to the time and expense of creating a website?" I replied.

Then about five years ago, Paula announced at a
professional writers' meeting that I—and all the other freelancers in the room—ought to be blogging.

"Blogging!? Please, woman. I make my living from writing. Why would I want to write anything for free?"


Well, here we are at my new, Paula-enhanced blog. You might think that I'd learned my lesson. But these days, Paula's on to crazy talk about Twitter and FaceBook and—you guessed it—I'm resisting.


It's not that I'm a Luddite. I do have a
LinkedIn profile. It's just that Paula's an early-adopter and I'm a…medium-adopter. (Don't tell me I'm a late adopter. I know people who've only recently gotten voicemail. Seriously.)

Anyway. Here we are. I will aggregate all my BusinessWeek.com columns and podcasts and my Los Angeles Times columns on this blog, plus feature additional thoughts on interesting interviews or questions that I'm not able to include in my columns.

I'll also offer up random thoughts on financial issues, politics, religion, pop culture and anything else that strikes my fancy. I hope you'll bookmark this blog, add it to your RSS reader, link it to your own blog and leave feedback for me in the comments section.


If you have questions about small business that I can answer in one of my columns, feel free to leave them in the comments or
email me.

The most interesting, complex questions have the best shot at getting addressed. (In other words, please don't ask how to get a business license in your town. That's why we have the Internet.)