Six Resources to Help with Your Taxes

Irs
I know you hate to think about it, but April 15 is just 2 1/2 months away.  In spite of all the talk about tax relief, Americans still have to go through the annual ritual.  This year the big day falls on a Tuesday so we don’t get an extra day like we did in 2006 and 2007, when the 15th fell on the weekend.

To help make an unpleasant job just a little easier, Mine Your Own Business has put together a list of helpful links to tax preparation resources. 

First up is the site of the IRS itself.  Their small business section offers a number of publications and on-line forms for your tax-paying pleasure.

At Inc.com, you’ll find links to a number of "How to Guides".  One in particular, "Tax Strategies" might be just what you’re looking for.

DHL (yes, that DHL) has a "Business Resource Center" with helpful articles on lots of business topics.  Under "Financial Management", there are several links to articles that apply to the tax season, including one on 2007 changes.

A search of the Small Business Administration web site for "tax tips" will take you to more articles than you can possibly read, so chances are good that you’ll find something there that you can use.

Small Business Notes is a nice site with a lot of good links, both to articles on the site and to outside resources.  Check it out.

The Business Owner’s Toolkit covers the subject of taxes with a lot of links to specific tax issues.

Finally, if the idea of doing your own taxes makes you want to hide under the bed until April 16, Entrepreneur.com offers advice on how to select a good tax preparer.

If you know of any other good tax-paying resources, let us know.

Watch Out for Health Insurance Scams

Sales_pirate
Providing health insurance coverage for your staff is enough to send you home with a headache.  It’s way too expensive to buy good coverage, but you’ll never get the best employees if you don’t.  Shopping for it takes time away from running your business.  And to make matters worse, you have to be a genius to understand the difference between plans.

Sadly, there are unscrupulous people out there taking advantage of the situation.  According to the Department of Labor’s Elaine L. Chao, "we are seeing an increase in individuals marketing fraudulent health insurance plans. With the cost of health care rising, promoters of health insurance scams are aggressively targeting small businesses and their employees. Insurance scam artists frequently masquerade as a federally regulated employer trust, labor union, or a religious organization and claim to offer low premiums because they are exempt from state insurance regulation."

Here are some tips to help you avoid being victimized:

  • Compare plans and costs.  The insurance industry is very competitive.  If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.  Remember, free lunch.
  • Make sure the salesman is a licensed insurance agent.
  • If you’ve never heard of the company, check with your state insurance department.
  • Read the details of the policy.  If you don’t understand it, have your lawyer review it.
  • Ask for names of other businesses who have bought the plan.
  • Contact your Regional Office of the Employee Benefits Security Administration (U. S. Department of Labor) through its toll-free number at 1.866.444.EBSA (3272) or at www.askebsa.dol.gov to report problems.

Durable Goods Sales Up in December

Durable goods sales were up 5.2% in December, the biggest increase since last July according to the Commerce Department. The figure for November was 2.6%. 

From Bloomberg.com, "`This report is a relief,” said Ian Morris, chief U.S.
economist at HSBC Securities USA Inc. in New York. `The fear
was that capital spending could collapse, which could then see
jobs plunge.’" 

Contrast that with this opening sentence in an article in today’s St. Louis Post Dispatch
"This may be the
week when the nation finds out how bad a state the economy truly is in."   
The article was accompanied by a graphic showing a giant downward sloping red arrow.

Call me silly, but after ML King Day free fall in stocks in the rest of the world, and the Fed’s quick action to prevent the same from happening here at home, I’m even more convinced that we have little to fear.

Cool Site of the Month

Here it is, Monday morning, time to get all serious and charge into the work week.  It’s a day when you probably expect your favorite blog (that’s us) to give you some nugget of wisdom (nugget=MINE Your Own Business) that will help you improve your bottom line.  That was the plan for today.

But, sometimes something comes along that’s just too good to pass up.  Thanks to Ralph Garcia for passing along the link to this web site.  He writes:

"HEMA is a Dutch department store. The first store opened on November 4, 1926, in Amsterdam. Now there are 150 stores all over the Netherlands.  HEMA also has stores in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.

"In June of this year, HEMA was sold to British investment company Lion Capital.  Take a look at their web: HEMA’s product page. You can’t order anything and it’s in Dutch, but just wait and watch what happens.  Turn up your sound."

You’ve got to check this out.

Bonus fun fact:  The Dutch word for "blender" is "blender".

Tell Seven People

Viral_marketing
Face it.  An independent retailer is never going to be able to compete with a national chain when it comes to traditional advertising.  The Marts and Depots can afford to run multiple page fliers every week.  They can afford to run slickly produced TV spots, pretty much at will.    So, how do you compete?

David Meerman Scott has written an e-book called "The New Rules of Viral Marketing–How Word of Mouse Spreads Your Ideas for Free."  Living up to his title, Scott is spreading his ideas for free.  Click on the link to download the book.

He begins with the story of Cindy Gordon, a VP at Universal Orlando Resort.   The park will open a new Harry Potter themed section in 2009.  Rather than spend millions of dollars marketing the new attraction, Gordon decided to focus on seven people with popular Harry Potter fan sites.  These seven people were invited to a top-secret midnight Webcast.

To follow up, an email was sent to the park’s email list of guests.  A micro web site provided information for bloggers and the media.  Traditional media picked up the story and Gordon estimates that 350 million people have now heard about the new attraction.  All from an in-house attraction that cost just pennies compared to a traditional media campaign.

You don’t have to reach 350 million people and you don’t have the power of the Harry Potter name.  But suppose you want to reach 100 people who have an interest in what you sell.  Do you run an expensive print or TV ad that reaches 100,000 people (paying for each and every one of those impressions) to reach the 100 who actually might buy from you?  Or,do you use the power of the Internet to reach them?  Your newspaper ad guy (or gal) doesn’t want to hear this, but I’d go with the Internet.

Scott’s e-book goes on to give some very good ideas for getting the most out of your promotional dollar.  He even tells us about his own on-line successes.  His latest hardcover book, The New Rules of Marketing & PR,  has sold more than 30,000 copies just from what he calls "word-of-mouse". Obviously this free e-book is another way of promoting his dead-tree books.

This has got to be the most exciting time in history for marketers.  The Web has made the playing field more level than every.  You can create an on-line presence for nearly zero cost.  All you need is a computer and an Internet connection.  Throw in some imagination and a good customer database, and the sky’s the limit.

Download Scott’s e-book and check it out.  It’s only 34 pages but it contains a lot of good information.

Blog Carnivals–1/24/08

Ferris_wheel
Once again, one of our posts has been picked up by a couple of blog carnivals. If you’re new to MYOB,  blog carnivals are collections of posts from various blogs that have been chosen by the carnival host as having some merit.  We’re always grateful to have our content included. 

Our post, Doing Well by Doing Good is featured this week at the Carnival of Business and Entrepreneurship, hosted by Bootstrapper and at the granddaddy of all the carnivals, Carnival of the Vanities, hosted by Dodgeblogium.  Hopefully you’ve already read our post, but there are some other excellent items in both carnivals.  Check ’em out.

Delivering the Promise

Frozen_entree
There was an interesting feature this week on AOL about frozen entrees.  The article compares the picture on the box with the contents of the box of twenty different frozen dinners.  I’m not sure anyone really expects the "Savory Beef with Cheesy Broccoli" to look as good as it is on the box, but some items scored better than others.

Most of us baby boomers remember the first frozen "TV Dinners".  They were pretty awful.  The mashed potatoes had a consistency that’s hard to describe, kind of like hot salty pudding.  The meat was usually rubbery.  And the peas were a color that doesn’t actually occur in nature.  It always seemed like the "desert" would escape from its cubicle and ooze all over the rest of the meal.  Maybe the younger generation has higher expectations.

The whole idea of customers’ expectations certainly applies to retailing.  Most consumers are smart enough to know that when they shop at one of the "Marts" or "Depots" they’re going to get little, if any, service.  But they go there anyway.

But what does the customer expect when she shops at an independent retailer?  The expectations are definitely higher.  The question is, Does the experience of shopping in your store exceed her expectations?  If it doesn’t, there’s a chance she may not come back.  If she’s expecting Salisbury steak and you’re delivering rubber meat, you’re disappointing her and cheating yourself.

If she knows that she can return an item to Wal*Mart and get her money back and your store has a gigantic sign that says "NO REFUNDS!!!", you’re not delivering the promise.  If she expects knowledgeable sales assistance and your best salesperson is talking on the phone and ignoring her, you’re not delivering the promise.  If your display models are dirty and don’t work properly, you’re not delivering the promise.  If you don’t take checks, or if you won’t accept her credit or debit card, you’re not delivering the promise.  If you don’t deliver the best shopping experience the customer has ever had, you’re not using your competitive advantage.

Let’s be honest.  You can’t compete with the box stores on price, but you can kill them with service.   They can’t deliver the level of service and quality that you can.  Even if they could, their employees aren’t motivated or trained to do it.  You’re the expert.  You have a stake in the business.  You have to deliver the promise every single time to every single customer.

What steps do you take in your store to ensure that you deliver the promise?

That Question Again

A while back in a post called "Can I Help You?" we wrote about eliminating that dreaded question from our sales people’s vocabulary.  Doug Fleener and Matt Norcia offer their take on the subject at Retail Contrarian.  They suggest that "quality engagement" is what’s missing from most retail interactions.  We couldn’t agree more.

Here’s an idea.  Think of your customers as guests.  After all, that’s what they are.  They’re not just guests, they’re VIP’s.  Treat them the way you would like to be treated.  That doesn’t mean you ignore them and it doesn’t mean you treat them like potential thieves.

Some folks like to browse. Give them some space but be close enough to help them when they need it.  Some want to get in and out quickly.  Give them too much space and they’ll think you’re ignoring them.  Your experience and their body language will tell you which is which.

Check out Doug and Matt’s blog for some good ideas.

What’s a Customer Worth?

Sometimes you just have to shake your head and wonder what people are thinking.  About a year ago, my daughter bought her first new car, a Mazda Miata Convertible.  As you might imagine, she was very excited.  Who doesn’t have fond memories of their first new car?

The dealership and the salesman did all the right new-customer stuff.  They sent thank you notes.  They took good care of her when she came in for service.  Everything was going nicely.  Then, a few months ago, her convertible top started coming apart.  The seams just started to fail.  So, back to the dealer she goes.

Of course, no one had ever heard of such a thing happening, but they replaced the top under warranty.  It only took a day and the dealer furnished my daughter with a car to drive, so while she was slightly inconvenienced, things were still OK.

Now it’s January.  The car is close to a year old and the top is coming apart again.  This defect which no one at the Mazda dealer had ever heard of before is happening a second time.  Back to the dealer.

This time, they’re not so nice.  In fact, they won’t even look at the car unless she makes an appointment.  The earliest she can get in is next week.  That’s not an appointment to fix the car.  It’s just an appointment to look at it.  If things go as they did before, the dealer will have to order the top, which takes a few days and she’ll have to go back again.

I don’t know about where you are, but here in St. Louis it’s winter!  It’s cold.  It snowed last night.  My daughter has a hole in the top of her car.  Best case, she’s going to have a hole in the roof for another ten days.

Her take on this whole situation.  "I’ll never buy another Mazda!"  Of course, while the defective top is a Mazda problem, the poor customer service is a dealer problem.  But, it doesn’t matter.  Bommarito Mazda and Mazda Motors both have an unhappy customer.

So, back to the original question:  "What are they thinking?"  Let’s do the math.  My daughter’s twenty-one years old.  You can assume that she may buy another twenty more cars in her lifetime.  Even without inflation, that’s somewhere north of a half a million dollars worth of cars.  None of them will be Mazdas.

I’m going to take it a step further and say that her three brothers will probably also never buy a Mazda.  That’s another million and a half dollars worth of cars, a total potential loss of two million dollars.  That’s not to mention all of her friends and others who will hear her story (including the millions of readers of this blog).

In this day and age, with instant communications via the social media, no company, large or small, can afford to alienate a customer, especially when a problem can easily be resolved.  Someone at the Mazda dealership could have taken five minutes to look at the car, apologize for the problem, and order a new top.  Problem solved.  Customer happy.  No negative word-of-mouth.

Instead, the dealer is still going to have to replace the top but now the customer relationship is damaged.  The relationship will be much harder to repair than the car, if it can be repaired at all.

So, before you blow off a customer’s problem, no matter how small it may be, think about the lifetime value of that customer.  You may not be selling $20,000 cars, but you could still be losing thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential business from that customer, her friends, and relatives. 

Love Your Computer–Hate Your Computer

Writing for Marketing Profs Daily Fix, Elaine Fogel writes about her love/hate relationship with technology.  I read her comments with more than a little sympathy, especially since I’m sitting in my office, using my laptop.  I’m on the laptop because my PC is having a brain freeze. 

It started innocently enough.  I was running a report for someone when the software that connects me with the company’s main computer crashed.  Oh oh.  That’s never good.  So I tried all the usual tricks, but no luck.  The thing is that the software was working just fine Friday afternoon when I left for the weekend.  What gremlins had gotten inside the metal box while I was gone?  Could it be the same ones that brought down the Green Bay Packers?   So I went to plan "b", call the IT department.

I know.  You probably don’t have an IT department.  I should quit whining.  Really, I’m not whining.  I consider myself lucky to have an IT department and a second computer to work with.  Without the laptop, I’d be cleaning my office or some other equally unpleasant chore.  The only people suffering from my PC’s current illness are the two people waiting for reports I promised them.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the right software on the laptop to get those particular jobs done.

No, the only reason I even bring this up is because I read Elaine’s post while my PC is just sitting there taunting me and I don’t know of anyone who uses a computer that doesn’t have war stories to tell.  It makes me wonder how an entire industry, especially one that we all depend on so much, can position itself as a supplier of products that are almost sure to fail–not once, but on a fairly regular basis.  Yet we keep coming back.

Imagine yourself in the same position.  "Yes, Ms. Customer, I know you’ll be happy with your new (Insert your product here).  It’s the state-of-the-art and probably won’t fail for at least a few months, although it’s not unheard of for it to fail almost immediately.  But, not to worry.  If you spend a few hours on it you should be able to figure out how to fix it yourself.  You can always refer to the instruction manual, but I doubt if you’ll be able to understand it."

"If you’re really stuck, you can call our customer service hot line.  You’ll be connected to our Midwest service center (or maybe it’s our Middle Eastern service center).  Anyway,  someone who almost speaks English will be glad to help you.  Hopefully you can get understand each other well enough to find a solution.  Chances are you’ll be told that your problem is the fault of some other product that you’ve connected to our product.  Then you can call the other company and try to get help.  But don’t be surprised if they try to blame our product.  You just can’t trust some people.  Oh, by the way, you’ll be paying for the call."

You have to give the computer guys credit.  They’ve put together a brilliant business plan–sell undependable products, force the customer to repair them himself, build in a fail-safe method for denying responsibility ("Sir, the problem must be with your printer, not with our computer."), then charge the customer for help delivered by someone in a third world country who works for two dollars per day.)

Of course there’s an alternative model, the one I hope you use.  Sell a quality product.  Educate the customer on its use.  Then stand behind it if something goes wrong.  You may have to work a little harder, maybe make a little less profit on each sale, but being able to sleep at night is well worth it.

But before you turn in, be sure you run a backup.