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Christmas Present December 31, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Business Solutions, Efficient Technologies, Tools.
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Before I start I will have to warn you that this post is an idea ramble.  I decided to write down the thoughts that were stumbling through my head.  Enter at your own risk!

Christmas is a great time of year.  Everyone is festive (at least before Christmas) and for most the spirit of the season is in the air.  Also, you get to give/get presents.

My big gift this year was a Garmin GPS unit.  It is one that has traffic update technology built in.  Guess what else is built in to it?  Advertisements.  Very smart move on Garmin/the advertisers part.  Every so often a lit ad pops up on the screen (not too intrusive).

It got me thinking about a couple of things.  First, how long until companies will be able to broadcast coupons/ads when you near their stores?  Imagine your favorite restaurant being able to let you know what today’s special is as you near the corner.  Great advertisement.

The second thought I had was how many ways companies could use this type of technology to make them more efficient.

  • Couriers can use this technology to route their trucks.  That’s a simple one.
  • What about planning a stop at that client you haven’t seen for a while after your lunch meeting because you notice the icon on the GPS.
  • Maybe the tech support company who can know where all of their resources are at any time so when that client calls with a huge issue they can send the nearest technician.
  • Shipping companies who are able to see where loads exist and where they are headed and can give discounts so they don’t have to run half empty.

I think that there are probably a hundred different things that specifically tie to the GPS systems alone.  Think about integrating your phone with Internet access with the GPS in the phone to provide data.  This technology exists today.  You can get the lowest gas prices near you.  You can compare grocery prices on your phone.  These are the first wave of applications of the technologies.  What is coming for this?

How can you utilize the new phone, GPS, PDA, smartphone, etc technology to make your business better?  Can you provide your staff more accurate data?  Can you make your customer’s experience easier?  Give it a try!

Your Website Efficiency December 19, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Efficiency Process, Efficient Technologies, Payment.
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Stumbled on to this article.  It has some excellent tips on how to optimize your site for sales.  SEO is important but turning hits into sales is also very important.

http://www.conversationmarketing.com/2008/12/5-things-ecommerce-site.htm

The key is what I described a few articles ago.  Make things convieient and efficient and good things will happen!

Efficient Payments December 17, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Business Solutions, Efficiency Process, Efficient Technologies, Green Business, Payment.
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Getting Paid Quickly.  This is something that every company dreams of.  Like it or not getting paid for services is one of the most important things that companies have to deal with.  Even though it’s important, it is very difficult to most businesses.

An article that I recently ran across called “5 Ways to Get Paid Faster” discusses some excellent ways to get paid faster and more consistently.  He brings up a couple of points that I want to key on.

Electronic Transmission

First, he says “Forget regular mail”.  I think that this is an excellent point for two reasons. He outlines the a reason of loss of control.  I am not quite a sure about that because you can’t completely verify that an email is delivered any more than you can a letter.  I would outline a few of reasons of my own.

  1. Speed.  Email is delivered virtually instantaneously.  It’s a lot easier to verify that the email was received later in the day than to remember to verify that a letter was received a few days later.  Also, makes due on receipt mean more when they get it the same day the invoice is generated.
  2. Convenience.  You don’t have to run the letter to the mail box.  How often do you forget to grab the outgoing mail and just do it tomorrow?  This allows for delays in sending the invoices.  If they are electronically generated and sent it will be easier to do more often.
  3. Green.  It’s much more energy and resource efficient (thus green).    There is no paper used, no need for transportation, no need for gasoline, etc.  By utilizing, electronic means you have decreased the need for use of resources.  It is simple but if enough people use this method, it can make a difference.

Automated Follow-up

The second point to highlight is “Have a system to follow up”.  This is an excellent point.  As I described in the email point, how easy is it to forget to verify payments when you are busy with everything else.  Your day gets hectic and you forget to run the report of outstanding payments.  Before long, it’s been 30, 60, or 90 days.  On the other side, how easy would it be to forget sending the check.  You can probably multiply the ease by at least 5 compared to your ease of forgetting.  Also, most people don’t like to follow up so they don’t.  If you put the three problems together you can see the benefits to automation.

  1. Convenience.  You don’t have to remember, it happens automatically.
  2. Consistent.  Because it happens on schedule the reminders always go out on time.  This will also act as a prod to your customers.  They may have forgotten but when the reminder comes in they will have to remember.
  3. You don’t have to do it.  The system does the dirty work.  It is set on specific rules.  The reminder will go out.  You don’t want to follow up, it will.

I would extend on his idea.  You should really consider utilizing automated systems to send invoices and follow ups.  This allows all of your payment systems to be consistent.  This will reap benefits.  Many of the times, consistency in billing will lead to consistency in payments.  If the systems are automated, it will not require that you intervene.  So if you are busy, the roads are bad, you’re on vacation, etc the invoices and reminders will still go out.

Electronic Payment

I would add one other bullet point to his list.  Allow electronic payment.  This allows your customers to deal with the payment conveniently.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Allow payment via your website (credit card and check)
  2. Setup recurring payment options for recurring billing arrangements
  3. Accept credit cards or ACH via telephone
  4. Consider utilizing E-Check options to speed check processing

Grand Total

You provide a service to the customer.  You want to be paid for your services.  Your employees want to be paid.  If you can make your billing fast and consistent and the payment very convienent you will see faster and more consistent payments.

Being More Productive December 16, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Efficiency Process.
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Great article about being more productive. It discusses simplifying your life. Good read.

http://blogs.openforum.com/2008/12/16/double-your-productivity-tough-economic-times

Outsourcing of resources December 16, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Business Focus, Business Solutions, Efficiency Process, Green Business, Resourcing.
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Many people really have problems with the outsourcing of resources.  That is especially prevalent in the IT arena.  Many people feel that they can hire some IT resources and get a project done faster and cheaper.  Yet, in many places we don’t even consider that as an option.

First, I have to give a clarification that many people make a mistake about. Outsourcing and offshoring are NOT the same thing.  I am discussing outsourcing in this article Here is my general definition of the two terms:

Outsourcing – Hiring a external specialist to complete a task

Offshoring – Outsourcing that occurs overseas

Ran across an article that discusses this concept on ZDNet called “Why are you managing your own power plant?“.  In this article Mr. Frome discusses how many businesses automatically think about managing their own IT resources and in many cases it might have been a better decision to outsource the work.  He asks five questions that I think are very important to consider:

1. Does it give me a competitive advantage?
2. Are there companies out there who have already created what I need?
3. Are there vendors who have more expertise in this area and stronger alliances with retail partners than me?
4. Does it take up much of my internal resources?
5. Could I benefit from the economies of scale of a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model?

The questions are key to consider.  Unless businesses have a huge IT shop with a bunch of resources who are just waiting for the next initiative it will be extremely hard to justify in house development of many of the systems.

One of the main reasons is question #3.  In most cases, there are businesses out there who have more expertise in creating solutions than most business’s IT shops will have.  When that is all that development shops do they have a significant skillset in that realm.  In addition, many times they will have utilized that skillset to create a team that can handle most requests that they receive with ease.  This is very difficult for other businesses to acheive.

Another huge point that the article discusses is question #5.  It is pretty hard to answer no to that question unless you are the only customer in the world who uses your specific software.  Because the vendor can share the cost of the system over many clients the cost will be lower than if you build it yourself or even have it developed specifically for you.  This also means that you benefit from the ideas that other customers come up with.  As features are requested and added by all businesses you benefit.

As Mr. Frome points out in his article it is technically feasible for each of us to generate our own power but we don’t because of the expense and hassle.  Many companies do the same thing with legal, marketing, accounting, printing, and many other resources.  IT is something that needs to be considered in a similar fashion to those specialties because in many cases IT outsourcing makes a lot of sense.

Minneapolis Airport to Use Paperless Boarding Passes December 11, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Efficient Technologies, Green Business.
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This seems like a great idea as long as it’s implemented well. Travelers can download boarding passes to cell phones or PDAs. Will be interesting to watch.

http://www.bizjournals.com/twincities/stories/2008/12/08/daily43.html

Some thoughts about Social Media December 11, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Efficiency Process, Efficient Technologies, Green Business, Social Networking, Virtual Office.
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Recently, I signed up for a Twitter account.  It was a research project for me.  It was hard for me to understand the concept of micro-blogging but I thought I would try it and see.  It is kind of a neat tool that gives you the ability to think “out loud”.  Really I have a long way to go in order to understand the benefits and uses of it but I at least have a little better appreciation.

So, last night I was bouncing around some ideas of how you can use these types of communication tools to bridge the communications gap in business and also in the virtual office world.  The ideas were very high level and formative so I jotted them down and figured I would think through them a little more.

While reading through some of my reader feeds this morning I noticed a post by John Jantsch about how businesses should view these products as tools instead of religions.  What a great point.  From a social perspective many people do view the tools as a sort of religion.  John makes a comment in that article that got me thinking:

Use them in smart ways, not necessarily the ways you see other using them.

What a simple yet effective point.  Utilize the tools to fit your needs.  Be creative in employing the tools.  If you see great ideas incorporate them but be willing to be innovative as well.  When reading this post it made me start thinking through some of the ideas I was working on.   Here is a very high level description of some of the ideas and I will probably explore some further in the future.

Potential Twitter Virtual Office Solutions

From a virtual office perspective these tools may be great ideas to help with the communication gap.  In my earlier post about virtual office, I made the statement that “Virtual offices require communication”.  This is so important to the success of that type of structure.  What do social media networks provide?  Communication.

Here’s the dilemma: how do you allow for collaboration/brainstorming of ideas when your team is virtual and works at different times in diverse locations?  Voice or text chat/conference might work but you have to coordinate time between all the players.  Email could be a solution but there is some level of overhead and headache to utilizing this tool.  One potential solution may be a Twitter or Twitter-type tool.

Twitter or a Twitter-type tool allows project teams to think out loud in a collaborative fashion.  The teams would have the ability to brainstorm ideas, work through problems, provide statuses, and help one another by utilizing a medium like this.  A tool like this would allow a resource to throw out an issue or idea and then have the rest of the team to provide simple feedback to the thought.  Once the idea has been thrown out there it can spur thought and allow it to grow.  One big advantage is that it is stored in a persisted manner.  This means that whenever the other teams members are available they would see it.  They could then provide feedback.  This allows for disconnected brainstorming sessions.

It’s still a very high level idea and would need to be solidified and structure provided (maybe I’ll twitter the idea) but I think that it could work to allow idea collaboration.

Marketing uses

Another great article that I read this morning about social media caught my attention as well.  Ivana Taylor wrote a post on the OPEN forum called “Getting Customers on the Cheap Using Social Media“.  Her main focus is utilizing social networks/media to generate buzz for your company.  This is an extremely powerful use for the tools.  She gives the example of  “On the go with Amy”:

Best Western’s “On the Go with Amy” Blog: Best Western hired Amy, an avid traveler who started a blog that discusses her travel experiences.

This type of concept is fantastic because people are interested in reading about the person’s experiences so they subscribe and then they tell others.  This generates buzz and word of mouth advertising.  You must utilize the tools correctly and not simply spam people as that will have the opposite effect but if utilized correctly it can be powerful.

Take a look at some of Ivana’s other examples as well.  She outlines how people have utilized many of the social tools on the Internet to create buzz.  Great ideas.

Post Game Summary

While I am learning how some of the tools work, I do think that they can be utilized to really make your business more efficient and effective.  Whether you are going to utilize them to help your marketing efforts, streamline your teams, educate your virtual resources, inform customers, or whatever else you come up with you should consider them as an option.  My recommendation would be to learn how the tools work and their benefits and then weigh the value of using them.  Don’t simply create a Facebook site because everyone else has one.  In this media you have to find a way to be authentic and potentially unique if you want to succeed.  Also, you have to find ways to use the tools so it benefits you not just so it copies someone else.

Be creative and be aggressive in building efficiency!

If you are interested my Twitter is: http://www.twitter.com/jeremylattimore

Outsourcing/Flexible Office Space December 9, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Efficiency Process, Green Business, Virtual Office.
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Virtual offices are going to rewrite the way business is done.  One of the things that is going to occur is a significant switch to use outsourced resources (such as virtual assistants, developers, designers, etc.) and also to move to flexible office space arrangements.

I found a great post by John Jantsch (author of Duct Tape Marketing) on the American Express OPEN network discussing the topics.  In this article John discusses the ideas and the benefits for utilizing them.  It is really a giant efficiency gain if you can find the right resources to fit your needs.

The concepts are going to really run against the traditional thinking though.  Virtual resourcing is a very difficult things for many managers and business owners to accept.  This is because they are putting certain aspects of their business in the hands of outside resources.  This can definitely be a scary prospect at first.  As long as you are able to find the right person it can be an excellent arrangement.

I was recently discussing this topic with a long-term client of mine.  We discussed the benefits of an outsourced arrangement over hiring a full time resource.  The main points that I brought up were the fact that many companies don’t have enough work to support someone full-time year round in the capacity.  Also, many times it is too cost prohibitive to find someone with the experience and skillset desired if you are going to hire a full time resource.   Unfortunately, in many cases, if the company decides that they want to hire a full time employee they end up having to settle for someone who may not be able to complete the tasks as efficiently as they wish.  So, basically they end up having to settle on skillset to meet budget requirements due to salary + benefits scenario.

My point to her was if they had work they needed to get completed outsourcing probably made more sense.  That way they could budget the expense to fit their needs and the resource wouldn’t be there billing when they weren’t needed.  They also would be able to afford a higher priced resource because they wouldn’t paying for the resource over the entire year.  Lastly, if they didn’t have things to do they wouldn’t have to find busy work for the resource.

To me, this arrangement makes a lot more sense in a scenario where you need an expert to do a job.  You don’t have the pay the higher costs all year long.  Also, many experts really aren’t interested in doing busy work.  They want to do what they are experts at.

I think that future is going to bring much more flexible work arrangements for many fields.  Because of expense reductions and a keen focus on profitability efficient processing will be required.

Can you make your business more efficient through efficient arranagements?  Let me know if I can help you.

How can a virtual office work?? December 5, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Green Business, Resourcing, Virtual Office.
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I am a very adament proponent of the virtual office/remote employee/telecommuting model of business.  I think that it is the next logical office environment for many businesses and business people.  In today’s environment where expense reductions are a huge priority, energy costs are high (or will be high again), the green movement is charging, and technology is vastly improving the virtual office has not only become feasible but even sensible.  I believe that soon for many people it will become a no brainer and then it will become a standard.  Now, those days are still a little ways away and some businesses won’t work in that model.

Problems

Now, I have heard many positives and from other people many negatives.  I think that the biggest thing that has to change to support the virtual environment is management style.  In today’s environment many managers manage using presence.  Their presence is supposed to be the reason that you are responsible and get your work done.  That is where the adage “The cat’s away the mice will play” came from.  The manager is there and he’ll be looking over your shoulder so you better get things done. 

As an offshoot of that many managers believe that they have to be able to walk out to your desk and sit down and watch you work in order to portray a sense of urgency.  Those same managers are usually the micromanagers that want to watch what time you “clock in” and “clock out”, how long your lunch was, your phone records, your internet logs, your conversations, your meetings, your bathroom breaks, how much coffee you drank, etc.  In this way they can not be as worried about the quality of the hire, they can just lord over you.

Now, I will say those models will not work in a virtual world.  They can’t.  You can’t be present in a virtual office.  You can’t stop by my desk if you’re in New York and I’m in Jackson Wyoming.  It will not work.  Many managers are very scared by this concept.  They don’t see how they can manage without having these “tools”. 

I have also heard that it’s too easy to just not do your work.  Also, it’s too easy for the workers to get distracted.  I agree to some extent and for some people.  That is why hiring the right people and proper management is so important.

Change in management

I just read an article in Entrepreneur magazine that describes some of the techniques that will work well in that environment.   The underlying concept was quite simple … Proper Communication.  Virtual offices require communication.

In the IT development world we have a concept that is called Agile Development.  Within that school of thought there is model called the Scrum model.   Scrum has a few concepts that would help in a virtual environment: sprints, burn down sheets, and Scrum meetings.

First, the sprint.  What is a sprint?  It is a timeframe (typically a month) in which a pre-designated and agreed to amount of work will get done by the team.  This sets the timeframe and amount of work and it is agreed to by all parties.  It is NOT allowed to be extended.

Second, burn down charts.  This is the list of items that will be completed during the sprint.  This list is updated on a daily basis as a running tally of what is left.  If an issue arises, items are removed from the burn down but the sprint is not extended.

Third, scrum meetings.  Scrum meetings are sometimes called the daily standup.  They are standup meetings that happen everyday but are limited in timeframe.  They have very specific guidelines.  They start on time, they are limited to 15 minutes, only stakeholders can speak, and the meetings are the same time and place every day.

So now you have a list of todo’s, a timeframe, and a daily checkpoint.  You have built an accountability structure.  It is very quick to see parts that are sliding.  You have limited your exposure by using daily checkpoints and monthly sprints.  You have a designated amount of work so you have a defined goal.

The Scrum concept is a development concept that was designed based on samples and principles from the manufacturing world.  So the core ideas can be utilized anywhere.  The basic model of accountability seems to be an excellent model for virtual offices.

Accountability

The one other huge issue that has to be corrected is to encourage managers to hold their staff accountable.  In an office it’s easier to get away with underperforming employees because they can be micromanaged.  In a virtual world, you can’t do that.  You need to be quick and decisive.  You need to setup a quick method to reprimand.  There needs to be a distinct set of criteria and a equally distinct set of steps for accountability.  Companies can not afford to allow dead weight in a virtual office.  They need to be decisive when someone is not pulling their weight.

As part of the accountability process, the manager has to hire the right people.  You must hire people who can do the job and can follow the rules of the road.  They need to understand the rules and how the team accountability works.  The resource will need to be open to that.  Also, you are going to look for people who strive for success.

This process is eased by using the Scrum-type structure.  It sets measurable goals.  The resources agree to the goals.  It measures the goals.  All you have to add is an accountability process. 

The Wrapping

Well this became a long post.  I am very passionate about this topic.  I believe that the key to the transition to a virtual office is the change of mindset in management.  It must be structured better and more decisive.  If those things are put in place, the virtual world can be very successful.  It is where the world is headed.  We need to embrace it.  In the global economy luddites are not going to succeed.

What are your thoughts?

Employees are company’s most important asset December 4, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Resourcing.
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Okay, so I am not sure that this completely fits in the realm of efficiency, green, technology, or many of the other things I talk about but I think it is very important.  I think it is of key importance to any business.  I truly believe that employees are a business’s most important asset.  I know that isn’t the idea that many businesses run under but I am a firm believer in that concept.  If you treat people well they will treat you and your customers well and in return your business will do well.  Vice versa is also true.

I just found an interesting post on American Express’s OPEN site.  It is titled “As the Economy Declines Should We Expect Service to Increase?“.  In it the author describes an event that shows what happens when companies don’t encourage this type of attitude with their employees.  An excerpt of the scenario is:

“I was listening in to a customer call,” she said (you know, “this call may be monitored for training purposes.”) “And the customer was explaining a problem with the product. It wasn’t an area of expertise for the employee and so I expected her to say something like, “I’ll have to transfer you to the right department.” However what the employee said was shocking:

“I really don’t care.”

Now does this necessarily mean that the company was the problem and the employee didn’t have a bad attitude?  Of course not, you can always get a bad apple but there are questions the business should be asking. 

First of all, how do I increase morale in my business?  This is important.  And… no it isn’t a “Beatings will continue until morale improves” scenario.  Many times employees are put in scenarios where the customers are unhappy and no one is listening to the employee’s ideas so they feel powerless to help.  This can be a huge drain on morale.  There are many things can lend to decreased morale.

Second question, are my employees a high priority in my business and do I demonstrate that?  When the economy slowed what was the businesses reaction to compensate?  Did it pull back on benefits?  Did you freeze wages?  Did the perks stay the same?  Have people been laid off and others asked to pick up the load?  Many of these things are understandable but remember what these decisions portray to your employees.

Third question, do I empower my employees?  Do ask for your employee’s ideas on projects?  Do you listen to feedback?  Do you delegate big projects to employees?  If employees feel like they are trusted and valued to handle tasks they will take on an ownership mindset.  They will focus on the benefit of the organization. 

Obviously, there are many other issues that should be considered.  There are many times where layoffs are the right decision and where you can’t delegate to every employee but I would say you need to consider how those items are handled.  Also, they shouldn’t be every day occurrances.  Many morale issues are fairly easy to solve if they are handled early but will quickly snowball if not dealt with.  As simple as it is with employees the old Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would want done to you” can be a very valid technique to keep morale up.  Value your employees just as you would want to be valued.  If you don’t they may not value your customers.