Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ironic, Ain't It?

The word irony - nay, the concept itself - must be one of the most misunderstood and misused in the English language.

I was watching cable news the night of the recent NYC bomb attempt, and the breathless reporter-on-scene kept going on about how "ironic" it was to see normally bustling Times Square silent and empty on a Saturday night.


That sight may well have been eerie, unsettling and improbable. But it was not ironic.

You want irony? Every so often I interview someone whose whole schtick is the importance of listening in business and in life.

And he's going on about it, and going on and on and on. So much fast and furious verbiage is spilling out of my telephone receiver, in fact, that I have a hard time politely breaking in for a question or clarification. I find myself having to rudely speak over this kind of person, finally, to get a word in edgewise or redirect the conversation.

As important as my source claims it is to listen to others, he's definitely not listening to me. (And yes, there usually tends to be a "he" involved.) In fact, by the end of the interview, I'm usually feeling distinctly un-listened-to.

Now that's ironic. Not to mention damned obnoxious.

What ironies have you experienced lately?

Friday, May 21, 2010

I'm Lovin' It

What makes someone love your small business - or hate it?

There's a rather mysterious pull about companies that inspire strong feelings from their customers, but most agree that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

I interviewed brand marketing guru B.J. Bueno about encouraging brand fanatics and managing brand detractors (he pointed out that some people even become brand terrorists, which I've actually seen) in a recent Smart Answers column.

It's much easier for entertainment brands to spawn love/hate relationships, mostly because we are hardwired to respond to stories. Check out these examples of fan-atic love for ABC TV's Lost, which ends its six-season run of sci-fi mega-madness this weekend.

Think that only TV shows and rock bands can inspire such loyalty? Think again and check out this shopper-produced YouTube anthem to Trader Joe's.

Now the only question is, how can your small business connect so strongly with customers that it inspires spontaneous poems and videos?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Helping Hand

What motivates people to help small business? Sometimes there's a monetary reward, or an investment opportunity involved.

But during this recession, a number of seasoned business people have stepped forward to become small business advisers.

They tend to be retired, financially set and motivated more by the challenge than by the promise of a pay out.

Read about a few of them in this week's Smart Answers column.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Calling All Snopes

"Talk about Big Brother!" said the woman working next to me at a volunteer event on Saturday.

We were unloading and sorting bags, boxes and cans of food donated last Saturday through the annual Stamp Out Hunger food drive.

She wasn't upset about the efforts of the letter carriers, who picked up donations along with outgoing mail. No, she was furious about some pending federal legislation that would require individuals to spend $2,500 to $10,000 weatherizing their homes before they could sell them.

"Nah ... I don't believe that," I said gently, trying to smile rather than grit my teeth. "I follow legislation pretty closely and I've never heard about that. And it would cause quite an uproar if that was included in legislation for private homes."

This lovely woman - who was sporting 20 carats of diamonds on her wedding ring, no joke - was pretty sure of her information, gleaned from a "friend of a friend."

What I should have done was refer her to, which I turned to when I got home. Within 30 seconds, I found this thorough debunking of the climate change legislation rumor.

Next time someone credulously repeats a factoid that sounds completely nutty, remember that it probably is. And check it out at Snopes.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Undercover Customer

Most small business owners would need a full-on disguise to go on reality TV's new hit show, "Undercover Boss." And even then, the phony beard or wig would only fool their staffers for about five minutes.

In fact, the entire premise of a corporate CEO needing to eavesdrop on employees to figure out what's really going on doesn't fit the small biz model, where the boss is usually right down in the trenches.

But entrepreneurs could benefit from becoming Undercover Customers, as I outline in this week's Smart Answers column.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Backup Plan

I'm no expert, but I've written several columns about risk management for small business.

In case of a natural or man-made disaster, companies are encouraged to put emergency systems in place. For instance, have files stored on remote servers with automatic backups. Have both print and electronic customer and employee files stored in several places on- and off-site. Arrange for an alternate location where work can get done if your facility is shut down by a fire, leak or what-have-you.

What continues to amaze me about the BP Gulf Oil spill is what seems to be the absolute lack of adequate risk management. There's apparently a blow-out valve on the well that has failed and so far can't be activated.

So, what do you do when there's a problem and your blow-out valve fails? There is no plan.

BP is brainstorming with the military and with other deep water drilling and oil companies to improvise a solution. One might be drilling another well, something with a three-month timeline. Another is fabricating containment chambers that might be placed over the leaks so that the leaking oil can be pumped up to ships instead of pouring into the ocean.

Let me emphasize that these ideas have rarely - or never - even been tried before. It's really hard for me to believe that this incredibly risky, monumentally expensive technology has been permitted without proven backup techniques in place. To my mind, rescue operations should have been designed and tested before oil drilling leases were ever granted.

I imagine that many of my insurance sources would agree with me. Here's what a worker on the rig told an attorney working on the case:

Another worker familiar with the rig told the lawyers that the company had chosen not to install a deep-water valve that would have been placed about 200 feet under the sea floor. Much like blowout preventers, devices that are meant to seal leaks, this valve could have served as a cutoff of last resort in explosions, the lawyers said.

“The company took their chances in not having the valve so they could save money,” said Mike Papantonio, one of the lawyers representing the shrimpers and fishermen.

How much more irresponsible can this whole situation get?