Cool Tech Tools: Customer Portals

Cool Tech Tools:  Customer Portals

If you have a business where you have to send documents of any kind to your customers, then you may benefit from a portal.  You can save time on customer service and possibly postage and labor.  You will also look most professional while increasing service delivery.

What Is a Portal?

A portal is software in the cloud that allows users to upload and download files from a secure space that only they have access to.   For each client you have, you can set up a private virtual filing cabinet where only you and the client will have the key.  Your client will have their own user ID and password into their area of the portal.  There, they can upload and download documents.  Some portals also have secure signature capability to help you take the paperwork out of obtaining signatures.

How Can I Use a Portal?

Think of all the paperwork that occurs between you and your customer, and that will give you several ideas about how to use a portal.  If your business is data-intensive, you will definitely benefit from a portal; imagine moving all of those documents out of email and into a clean, private filing folder in the cloud.

Businesses that would benefit the most include:

  • Any small business with remote employees: a portal can be where they pick up and drop off work.
  • Mortgage companies where the loan officers are collecting a great deal of information for the underwriters.
  • Construction companies: each subcontractor could access the schedule, estimates, material details, invoices, and certificates of insurance.
  • Real estate agents to collect the details of home purchases and sales
  • Accountants, attorneys, consultants, coaches, and other professionals who deal with private customer information.
  • Web design, ad agency, and marketing companies

Types of documents and files you can upload and download from portals include:

  • Contracts, estimates, and legal documents
  • Invoices and credit card authorizations
  • Instructions and training materials and aids
  • Company policies and procedures
  • Brochures and marketing materials
  • Reports and spreadsheets
  • Forms and applications, blank and completed
  • Graphics, drawings, and photos

You don’t necessarily have to set up a portal for every client; perhaps it’s cost-effective to use a portal on your largest customers or vendors.

Where Can I Find a Portal?

One of the leading vendors in the portal space is Citrix Sharefile.  You can find them here:  http://www.sharefile.com/.  Your industry may have specific solutions for you as well, especially if you have regulations such as HIPAA that you need to follow.

You may also have heard of DropBox and Box.net.  These companies offer file transfer and don’t have a dedicated user area, so they are useful, but a bit different than a portal.

Look for software that provides each user with their own unique login, and that will distinguish the software as a true portal.

If you decide to implement portals for your business, you can private-label them with your logo and place a direct link to your portal login page for easy client access.

Using portals will keep your inbox cleaner, save time looking for lost emails and documents, and help you look professional in the eyes of your clients.

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Ten Excuses to Have a Sale

If you need cash fast, there’s nothing like having a sale to increase your bank account quickly.  Here are ten excuses you can use to tell your customers you’re having a sale.

1-      It’s Your Birthday (or Your Business’s Birthday)

We all feel generous on our birthday, so why not have a sale on your special day.  You can even tie to discount amount to your day of birth.  For example, if you were born on the 14th, then you can offer customers 14% off.

Similarly, you can hold an anniversary sale on your business’s anniversary date.  It’s a good way to let customers know how long you’ve been in business.

2-      Your Partner Is on Vacation

If you have a business partner, you can use the excuse, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”  You can pretend that your partner knows nothing about the sale, but has left you in charge and you’re going to have this sale.  The customers will enjoy the reason and feel like they are getting away with something fun.

3-      Holidays

Most stores have holiday sales, and you can too.  There are so many unusual holidays that you can tap into just in case the holidays are at an inconvenient time.  Here’s a website that will give you a list of special days, weeks, and holidays: http://www.holidayinsights.com/moreholidays/

4-      The Full Moon

Why not?  It might be the best sale you’ve ever had.  The next full moon is July 2, 2015, and you’re in luck because July has a blue moon (when two full moons occur on one month) on July 31, 2015.

5-      Small Business Saturday

November 28, 2015 is Small Business Saturday.  It’s one day after Black Friday and the Saturday before Cyber Monday.  Small Business Saturday is relatively new, but has been gaining momentum in the past few years.

6-      Tax Holidays

In some states the sales tax authority provides exemptions for a few days on selected categories of items.  For example, in August, Texas allows one weekend where sales tax does not have to be paid or collected on school supplies.  You may not even have to mark down your items to generate a crowd for sales tax holidays.  Here’s a Wikipedia page on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_holiday

7-      Old Inventory Items or Overstock Conditions

A great reason to have a sale is when you have old inventory items you need to clear out.  Similarly, if you’re overstocked on certain items, a sale will help them move.

8-      Your Kid’s College Tuition Is Due

You can have a lot of fun by advertising that you simply need to make your tuition payments.  Customers will get a smile out of helping you out and relating to a familiar need.

9-      The Stock Market

If the stock market goes up or down, you can have a sale based on its performance.

10-  Seasonal Dates

Dates such as the first day of summer, Spring Equinox, or even April 15th, tax day (in the U.S.) can be potential sales days for your business.  Think about seasonal dates related to your industry.

Try these ten ideas to get your sale noticed.

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Understanding How Teams Grow

Do you have employees who need to work together as a team?  Or perhaps you need to work as a team with your customers and vendors.  When people of different backgrounds get together for a common goal, there are often four stages they go through before they become a true team or family.

Four Stages of Teams

In 1965, Bruce Tuckman noted that there are four stages in which teams evolve:  forming, storming, norming, and performing.  Two goals are crucial for teams:

  1. To reach the optimal stage, performing.
  2. To build trust, respect, and open communication during all four stages of the process.

Forming

In the forming stage, team members begin to get to know each other and what their goals are.  This is a good time for the team to set ground rules that cover how often the team should meet, how they should communicate, and what their objectives will be.  This is an ideal time for the team to assess their strengths and challenges.

Storming: Team Conflict

In the storming stage, conflict begins.  The diverse points of view of each team member present as team conflict.  Team members need some tools in this stage to avoid clashing egos and turf wars.  Have team members actively listen to other team members’ viewpoints to better negotiate through the problem-solving the group needs to perform in order to get their goals met.

Don’t let a team get stuck in this stage because emotions that simmer under the surface will blow up.

Both active listening and assertiveness training are great tools to help teams learn how to manage the conflict and work through the issues that come up during the storming stage.  Employees also need to learn how to deliver feedback and bad news in an effective, non-threatening way.

Norming: Becoming Complacent

The third stage of teambuilding is norming.  In this stage, team members can become complacent and agree with the group to avoid conflict.  The leader must challenge the group not to fall into this type of groupthink, which results in terrible decisions.

Performing: The Optimal Stage

In the final stage of teambuilding, performing, the group has found their synergy.  They perform at their highest productivity and quality.  They have built trust among team members to get the job done constructively and without personal conflict.

Which stage is your team in?  Knowing the natural stages will help you move your team to the optimal stage, performing.

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The Best Payment Terms for Faster Cash Flow

A great way to speed up your cash flow is to get paid faster by customers who owe you money.  One way to do that is to examine your payment terms to see if you can accelerate them.  First let’s talk about what payment terms are common.  Then I’ll share a study that showed which payment terms generate the fastest payments.

English, Please

Traditional payment terms are spoken in the following format:

Percentage discount/(Days due from invoice date), “Net” (Days due before payment is past due)

An example is 2/10, Net 30.  It means to the customer that if they pay within ten days, they can take two percent off of the invoice due amount.  If they don’t want to do that, they need to pay the full invoice within 30 days of the invoice date.

You could write “2/10, Net 30” on your invoice, but you will get paid faster if you write it out in plain English.

Industry Standard

If your industry “has always done it that way,” I encourage you to challenge the status quo.  Getting your cash faster is important to all small businesses, so don’t let your industry hold you back.

Discounts

Most corporations are required to take discounts if they are offered, so offering an early pay discount might help you get paid faster.

Insights

There are several studies on how to get paid the fastest.  Of course they all have different conclusions!  FreshBooks advises that “due upon receipt” terms can work against you as most people decide that that can mean anything.  They suggest using wording that says “Please pay this invoice within 21 days of receiving it.”  Here is their blog post on the topic:

http://www.freshbooks.com/blog/the-best-invoice-payment-terms-to-help-you-get-paid-faster-and-more-often

Xero produced a page on the topic as well. Their research suggests that debtors pay bills 2 weeks late on average.  They also suggest using terms of net 13 or less in order to get paid within 30 days.  Here is their page on the topic:

https://www.xero.com/us/small-business-guides/invoicing/invoice-payment-terms/

Feel free to contact us if you’d like help deciding on payment terms for your business.

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Five Modern Marketing Methods You May Not Know About

Older marketing methods like direct mail and cold calling just don’t work as effectively as they did a few decades ago.  There are two reasons for that:

  1. The trust level between people has dropped more than 20 percentage points in the last few years; people are more skeptical and untrusting of each other than ever before.
  2. The amount of marketing messages we receive on a daily basis has increased exponentially, to the point where most everything is simply treated as white noise.

What is there to do if you still need more clients?  Sharpen your marketing skills and try out these newer ideas from the 21st century:

Website Landing Pages

A landing page is a web page that is not listed in your website menu.   It’s a hidden page that advertises something very specific, such as a free report, a service, a niche, or a sale item. The landing page includes a description of an offer and a call to action, such as a Buy Now button, or a signup form where you enter your name, email, and possibly phone numbers.

You can drive traffic to your landing page through social media, online ads, or email notices.  Once someone has taken action, a sale team often follows up with a phone call or an email to encourage further action.

Free Trials or Samples

Although there is nothing new about free trials, they are certainly popular and they still work very well.  You might think they are only for magazines and software companies, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

You can offer free food samples or free servings if you own a restaurant, catering or other food service company.  If you own a training or consulting company, you can offer a free course or a free consulting hour.  Physicians often offer free pharmaceuticals, and dentists offer free toothbrushes.  Think about how free trials or samples can be used in your business to attract new clients.

Webinars

The online equivalent of a class or lecture is a webinar.  If your company sells a product or service that requires a lot of client education, you can deliver this information via a webinar.  The benefits to offering a webinar are that people do not have to get dressed up to go anywhere, you can have people from all over the world attend, and people will be able to get to know you and how you think so they can make a decision about whether they want to do business with you.

To offer webinars, you’ll need webinar software such as Citrix GoToWebinar or WebEx.  You could also use Google Hangouts for free, but the number of people attending is limited.  Invite people you know via email announcements or social media.  You can make a sales offer during the webinar as well.

Email

Email is a great way to make sales offers to people, especially if you have a list of people who have given you permission to send emails to them.  If you send out a monthly newsletter, include a Product of the Month or a Deal of the Month.  It’s much less expensive than direct mail, and often there is a much better response rate.

Online Ads

If placing ads in newspapers and magazines is not working in your industry any more, then try placing online ads.  There are lots of choices.  You can go with Google AdWords and Facebook Ads.  Twitter and LinkedIn have ads as well.

You can also try banner ads.  There is a special type of banner ad called retargeting.  Have you ever been on a company’s website, then left it and started seeing advertisements for that company on the websites you visited later?  That’s called retargeting and it’s very popular.

Before you create your marketing plans for next quarter, give these ideas some consideration.  You may get more bang for your marketing dollar.

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Cool Tech Tools: Google Drive

Google Drive, which used to be called Google Docs, is a great way to collaborate with team members and stakeholders that are in a different location than you are. Here’s a quick introduction (or refresher) on how to use this powerful collaboration tool.

Google Drive is a browser-based application that allows you to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and other documents that reside in the cloud. They can easily be shared with others, and both of you can see and edit the document at the same time.

Using Google Drive

To get started, you’ll need to have (or set up) a Google account. If you have a gmail account, you can use it. Log in to your gmail or Google account, and at the top right corner of your screen, you will see a square made up of nine small squares. You can click on it and select Google Drive.   Alternately, you can go to drive.google.com.

Time to Create

Once you’re on the Google Drive main page, you’ll see a large red CREATE button on the top left. Click it to create your first Google document. Select among the choices of spreadsheet, document, presentation, and more. Give the document a title, and start editing. The commands are very similar to Microsoft Office®, so there’s no learning curve.

Time to Share

When you are viewing a document, you’ll see a blue SHARE button on the top right side of your screen. Click it to enter the email address of a person you’d like to have see and/or edit the document.

You can tell who else is viewing the document at the same time you are because you’ll see a colored box and perhaps their picture on the top right side. You can also tell where their cursor is in the document; it will show up in another color.

As you create documents, you will see your list growing under My Drive. If someone else created the document and shared it with you, you’ll see it under Shared With Me.

So Many Uses

Here are a couple of ideas on how you can use Google Drive.

  • As a bulletin board for your employees or customers
  • For status reports on projects
  • As a to-do list when multiple team members are involved – they can check off the items as they go
  • As a collaborative note-taker when you’re brainstorming with another person
  • With a client when you need to explain part of a document – you can copy and paste from Word or Excel to Google Drive (but check to make sure everything came over)

Google Drive is great for productivity and makes communications easier. Try it and let us know how you use it.


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Does Your Accounting Department Have Holes in It?

Does Your Accounting Department Have Holes in It?

You’ve got someone to do your federal and state income tax returns, and you have a bookkeeper. So that’s all that a small business needs when it comes to having an accounting department, right?

Wrong.

Large companies have many functions in their accounting departments, and small and mid-sized businesses need many of the same functions as well. They just won’t need as many staff to handle them. Many of these functions will fall on the CEO, but a smart CEO will find a way to delegate some of the accounting duties to free their time up.

Here are just a few of the things you’ll want to make sure that you have covered in your small business accounting department:

Accounting Software Expertise

Who do you have on your team that can identify opportunities for making your accounting function run more efficiently? The solutions could include training on your current system or could be more comprehensive such as identifying a new accounting system that will save a tremendous amount of time and money.

Let your accountant get to know your processes because they may know of some software applications that can do what you need faster, better, and cheaper. Manual data entry is a hot spot of potential; today, you can find software, scanners, and even smartphones and tablets that can automate the data entry, even if all you have is paperwork to enter.

Business Performance Advice

Are you getting accounting reports that tie to the areas where you have challenges and issues? If not, let your accountant know where those areas are. They may be able to suggest some reports that will provide you with insight and enlightenment.

If you are receiving reports with lots of numbers that you’re not quite sure how to interpret, ask your accountant for help. They can not only help you interpret the numbers, but they can also put the report into a graphical format so that it’s more visual for you.

It’s All About the Revenue

The number one challenge of most small businesses is to attract more business and generate more revenue. Your accountant can help you study your revenue patterns by presenting “what if” tools that can help you see what happens when you change price, impact mix, or adjust volume.

Keeping the Cash Flowing

If your business seems to stampede through cash, you’re not alone. A cash flow forecasting report is in order so you can plan ahead and be ready for the valleys and hills.

Beyond Compliance

If your accounting department focuses on compliance work alone, such as taxes and recordkeeping, you’ll miss out on allowing it to become a profit center of sorts. With these added functions, you’ll discover new actions to take in your business to drive profitability. You’ll have clarity about decisions like price changes, and you’ll know your accounting function is efficient and not wasting time and money.

Take a look at your accounting department, and let us know if we can help you plug any of the holes.


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The Short and the Long of It

The balance sheet is one of the main financial reports for any business. Among other things, it shows what a company owns, what they owe, and how much they and others have invested in the business. One of the characteristics of a balance sheet is how it separates what you own and what you owe into two categories based on timeframe.

Current and Long-Term

You may have seen the Assets section of your balance sheet divided into two sections: Current Assets and a list of long-term assets that might include Property, Plant, and Equipment, Intangibles, Long-Term Investments, and Other Assets.

Current Assets

Current Assets include all of the items the business owns that are liquid and can easily be converted to cash within a year’s time.   The most common types of current assets include the balances in the checking and savings accounts, receivables due from clients that haven’t paid their invoices, and inventory for sale.

Long-Term Assets

The remaining assets are long-term, or assets that cannot easily be converted to cash within a year. Property, Plant, and Equipment, also termed Fixed Assets, includes buildings, automobiles, and machinery that the business owns. You might also see an account called Accumulated Depreciation; it reflects the fact that fixed assets lose their value over time and adjusts the balance accordingly.

Intangible assets are assets that have value but no physical presence. The most common intangible assets are trademarks, patents, and Goodwill. Goodwill arises out of a company purchase. Investments that are not easily liquidated will also be listed under Long-Term Assets.

Current Liabilities

Similarly, liabilities are broken out into the two categories, current and long-term.

Current liabilities is made up of credit card balances, unpaid invoices due to vendors (also called accounts payable), and any unpaid wages and payroll taxes. If you have borrowed money from a bank or mortgage broker, the loan will show up in two places. The amount due within one year will show up in current liabilities and the amount due after one year will show up in long-term liabilities.

Long-Term Liabilities

The most common types of long-term liabilities are notes payable that are due after one year, lease obligations, mortgages, bonds payable, and pension obligations.

Why All the Fuss Over Current vs. Long Term?

Bankers and investors want to know how liquid a company is. Comparing current assets to current liabilities is a good indicator of that. Some small businesses have loan covenants requiring that they maintain a certain current ratio or their loan will be called. The current ratio of your business is equal to current assets divided by current liabilities. Bankers like this amount to meet or exceed 1.2 : 1, although this can vary by industry.

Next time you receive a balance sheet from your accountant, check out your current and long-term sections so that you’ll gain a better understanding of this report.


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Influencing Your Word-of-Mouth Results

Just about every business relies on “word-of-mouth” marketing to get the vast majority of its clients. If this is true for your business, then it just makes sense to figure out how to boost your referrals from all sources. Referrals are almost always easier to sell and they keep your marketing costs low. But how can you do that?

The first step is to make sure that you know who your best current referral sources are. If you’re not already asking the question to new clients “How did you find out about us?” then I’d recommend you implement that right away.

If you do know the answer to that question for each customer, then you can make a list of your referral sources. Take a look at the list, and see what these referral sources have in common. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Are they all customers?
  • Do they all have a profession in common? For example, are they all lawyers, massage therapists, plumbers, or pediatricians?
  • Have you properly thanked each of these individuals? If not, you can send out a thank you card or take them to lunch with no other agenda.

The last question to ask yourself is “where can you find more of the same type of people that are referring you?” If you discovered that you get a lot of business from dog groomers, then you may want to consider visiting every grooming salon in your zip code. You may also want to present a speech to a dog groomers Meetup group that you find.

You really can be proactive about your referrals so that business comes to you more easily. Try these tips to boost your referral sources in your business.


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Are Your Workers Contractors or Employees?

If you have workers in your business, you likely made a decision when you hired them as to whether they should be an employee or a contractor. If all you hire are employees, then you have nothing to worry about. But if you hire contractors, there may be some financial risk you may be taking that you may not know about.

Any person that runs a business as a sole proprietor that you pay money to for services rendered is considered a contractor. One difference between an employee and a contractor is that an employee receives a W-2 and a contractor that you have paid more than $600 per year by check receives a 1099. There are many other paperwork differences, but that’s the major one.

One of the biggest mistakes when a business owner hires a worker is thinking that they can decide to classify the worker as a contractor if they simply want to. Unfortunately, it’s the IRS that decides on the classification, not the worker or the business owner.

What’s the Risk?

There is no risk from an IRS standpoint to classify a worker as an employee instead of a contractor. There is significant financial risk if you incorrectly classify a worker as a contractor when they should be classified as an employee. You may be liable for back employment taxes if the IRS re-classifies a worker from contractor to employee, and this can go back many years.

To calculate your risk, take roughly 20 percent of the payments you made to contractors. This amount plus late fees and penalties can add up to what you could owe the IRS if you are mis-classifying workers and the IRS finds out.

IRS’s Employee vs. Contractor Rules

The IRS focuses on three factors to determine whether a worker should be a contractor or an employee: behavioral control, financial control, and type of relationship.

If you control both what and how a task is to be done, you should probably classify your worker as an employee. If you can control only the results you want, you may be able to classify the worker as a contractor.

There are many other rules about this classification, so be sure to check with your tax accountant for more information. Also, for those of you that love tax research, here’s a link that gives the full details of the IRS rules: http://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/Independent-Contractor-Self-Employed-or-Employee

Having a successful business is all about taking calculated risks; however, you may not have known the risk you’ve been taking with contractors that you’ve employed. For the IRS, misclassifying workers is a “red flag” area, meaning they are paying extra attention to it. If you feel like you might be taking a risk that you don’t want to, please reach out and let us know how we can help you with this.


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