Sep 30

Although it isn’t new, I wanted to stress that this “commemorative month” is, in fact, recognized by the U.S. government; it isn’t just made up by activist groups. National Disability Employment Awareness Month was established by Congress in 1988 in an effort “to increase the public’s awareness of the contributions and skills of American workers with disabilities.”  The Department of Labor’s website says that “various programs carried out throughout the month also highlight the specific employment barriers that still need to be addressed and removed.”

Before you walk away—because I know this doesn’t apply to everyone right now—I want to point out some things I’d come across within recent months that may surprise you.  There are major advantages to employing people with disabilities, as I’ve found, and a clip by ABC delves into the deep-rooted issues with stigmatization and speaking up that still exist.

Employing disabled people has hidden benefits.

  1. Creativity – thinking ‘outside the box’

Creativity and innovation—the ability to think “outside the box”—are principle forces for businesses of all sizes. The business that can overcome obstacles and build upon its foundation in new ways is the one that sees the greatest and fastest gains. A hidden benefit of employing people with disabilities, their ability to think outside the box is seen but not understood. Books and company profiles that illustrate the astounding benefits of creative people are published by the week, so employees who utilize their creativity on a daily basis can be extra valuable to your business and your bottom line.

  1. Possible tax deductions

Given that I’m not a tax expert, I can’t say much on this, but since I’m a pro at finding information, I can provide you with this handy link from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  It details the Disabled Access Tax Credit, which may be of great interest to any small business owner, as well as two other tax credits.

  1. More loyalty – lower turnover, absenteeism and tardiness

Many case studies have been quoted, and I see this as something that makes sense but is easy to overlook.  People with disabilities tend to be more genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to work, whereas sixteen-year-olds will balk at parents’ demands for getting a job and plenty of people complain about their jobs everyday.  Not only do disabled people show more company loyalty, but that dedication flows through their fellow employees before long. One of my favorite case studies (Carolina Fine Snacks) shows a 75% drop in turnover, a 15% drop in absenteeism, and a 30% drop in tardiness (from 30% to zero, if you can imagine).  The company also saw a rise in productivity of about 35%.

  1. More productivity and possibly fewer sick days

Along with less financial burden of issues like turnover, absenteeism and tardiness, businesses employing people with disabilities see increased productivity.  Even more, a major consulting firm that works with disabled people reports that some of their staff—85% of whom are disabled—haven’t taken any sick days in five years.

  1. Better attitudes of employees and customers

You may be inspired by the disabled people you know because they’ve overcome a lot in life.  Many people are inspired to do more, if only because they’d feel guilty for taking life for granted.  On a Roll Sandwich Shop has seen mostly positive interaction between customers and employees since employing disabled people.

How would you respond?

Check out this video clip by ABC in which a rude customer is set up with a disabled bagger at a grocery store.  Both of them are actors, but the session was designed to look at how others would react.  As has been explained through the case study of On a Roll, customers won’t likely respond to your employees this way, but it’s disheartening to know that plenty of people still will not stand up for others.  The cashier risks losing her job if she speaks up, but the other customers can certainly bring attention to this kind of behavior.  And they’ll be heralded for it:  Watch the clip.

There is surely more that can be said on the topic, but keep these basic resources and heartwarming stories around to remind you that there really is no reason for inequality in your workplace.  For some light reading, be sure to check out the two revisions to the Americans with Disabilities Act that were just published earlier this month.  Of course it isn’t light reading, but that so much information is available and ignored is something to think about.

I’m sure I’ll have more comments to make on this topic as time goes on, but what are your thoughts? Do you have disabled people on your team, and if so, in what ways have you noticed them making a positive difference? Do these positives outweigh the potential barriers or costs involved in making your workplace accessible?

Sep 16

What’s the most ridiculous complaint you’ve recently heard?  How did the customer service representative fielding the complaint handle it?  With a sympathetic nod, followed by eye rolling and mimicking behind the customer’s back?

What if I told you that a customer’s complaint no longer falls on deaf ears by decision of the company receiving the complaint? With consumer advocacy groups growing stronger by the day and outlets for complaints popping up by the minute, the complaint you try to ignore will probably come back to haunt you. I subscribe to a number of magazines, both online and in print, and one of them is Money magazine, which has an article in its most recent issue on getting complaints resolved. So why is this relevant?

Handling customer complaints the right way

Suppose sales decrease dramatically one week, and you haven’t heard about any recent events or competition—it just seems random, but it’s really starting to hurt your bottom line. Finally, something tips you off to what is showing up about your company on Twitter. One customer had an unusually bad experience while working with your employees, and they’re so livid that they’ve taken to making nonsensical accusations about how your company operates. What is a business owner to do? For starters, you can’t get away with ignoring it anymore.  Send over a simple tweet that says, “Sorry about your rough experience; please understand that this is very atypical for our company.  We strive for excellent customer service, so I’d like to personally offer you a free ______.” It’s quite likely that the customer will feel satisfied and won’t even take you up on your offer.

Be where your customers are

Set up a search within Tweetdeck or your preferred Twitter module to consistently check for your company’s name to pop up. Be the first to comment on tweets about your company, whether good or bad, to show your commitment and garner new fans. Set up a Facebook business page and open the discussion board for fielding questions and complaints; try to catch questions before they become complaints. Be sure that you have up-to-date information on well-known sites like The Consumerist, and consistently check the other consumer sites mentioned in the Money article: complaint.com, complaintsboard.com, consumeraffairs.com, my3cents.com, pissedconsumer.com, and ripoffreport.com. You can also open up communication via a service like Get Satisfaction, which gives your company a full online customer service department for a small monthly fee. Don’t try to hide your mistakes. Just make sure your solutions out-shine the complaints and you’ll be loved all the more.

Bear in mind what it’s like to be on BOTH sides

This concept is too easy to overlook, and it applies to every person, business owner or not. When dealing with customers or training your employees to deal with customers, remember what it’s like to be on the other end, feeling unimportant, ignored or tired of arguing with customer service reps. Yes, it’s downright painful to be nice to someone who has not the decency to approach you or your employees civilly, but you’d be surprised by how quickly they’ll calm down if you don’t lash back. Often enough, the customer is confused or frustrated, and they’re just looking for answers or help; that’s what customer service is for. Of course, on the flip side, we should remember what it’s like to be faced with a rude customer who can’t seem to make his/her point without an assortment of profanities. Don’t be “that guy/girl” and you’ll get more cooperation with other service people.

Jul 22

Small Business Trends has an article by Kare Anderson that explains how to see your store through your customers’ eyes to improve sales.  It’s a fairly lengthy article, but it’s a good read, as it seems to be an all-inclusive list of things to think about when working with your employees to better serve your customers.

I’ve worked for two stores in my life: one national clothing retailer that makes millions in profit and one two-store, local supermarket that pulls in a fraction of what the other makes.  Guess which one maintains a strict plan that closely parallels Anderson’s plan for welcoming and handling customers?  This isn’t a trick question; indeed, the national chain follows Anderson’s points almost perfectly.

Knowing how your customers view your store or your business is half the battle.  Making it looking even better is up to you...

Realizing that this isn’t the ideal comparison, the focus of my article isn’t the comparison, but rather the customer service aspect of running a store of any kind.

While it may seem unnecessary or even silly to care about the smile or the phone greeting—or perhaps some of these tips seem too pushy—remember that the titans have already learned these simple tricks, and they’re better off for it.

Specifically, this national chain that I had worked for drilled into the brains of new employees the “HOOOT” method of engaging customers (and encouraging customers to buy more).

  • H = Hello: Greet the customer with a smile, even if you’re folding t-shirts or talking with another customer.
  • O = Observe: Pay attention to what the customer is wearing and carrying when s/he comes into the store, for two reasons.
  1. Sales:  You might easily figure out what colors, styles, brands, activities or people interest the customer, allowing you to target your sales in a less pushy way.  You already know they’ll be interested!
  2. Loss Prevention:  Pay attention to any bags or baggy garments, as well as how full the bags appear to be.  By the time the customer passes the registers to leave the store, make an effort to gauge any change in the fullness of bags or clothes.  Be aware that you’ll run into trouble with the law for false accusations of theft, but you may be able to strike up conversation before they leave as a last effort to check on the bags or clothes.
  • O = Open the conversation: As the customer is browsing, feel free to engage them in friendly conversation to learn more about them and what they’re looking to buy.
  • O = Open-ended questions: Ask open-ended questions to keep the conversation rolling and pay attention to the answers.  ”Yes-or-no” questions make it difficult for you to glean ideas on complementary items.
  • T = Thank you: Whether the customer has bought anything or not, take the time to thank them, if just for stopping in.  It’ll be the last thing they remember about your store and may lead them to think of you when they’re looking to shop elsewhere.

A few other customer-friendly tips I had picked up from the retail store:

Knowing how your customers view your store or your business is half the battle.  Making it looking even better is up to you...

  • Remember the 80/10/10 Rule:

    80% percent of customers will steal if given the chance, 10% will never steal, and 10% will always steal.  Eighty percent is a huge bracket, so don’t give them the reason or chance to steal!  Get them talking, laughing or (if you sell food items) eating.  They’ll like you too much.  Just being greeted by an employee triggers the sense that someone is watching, so a would-be thief may think twice.

  • Talk to your coworkers when customers can be involved:

    There’s a strange sense of satisfaction that comes from being allowed into others’ conversations.  We would often start (purposefully loud) conversations about the items sold in the store or related music, movies and games.  Making eye contact with or even shifting the conversation’s attention to the customers makes the them feel at home.  Who knows – maybe they’ll be inclined to stick around and spend more money ;)

The supermarket wasn’t struggling to stay open – they made their share of money – but since they never invested the time into fully preparing their employees for “coddling” customers, as Anderson puts it, they may never know just how much they could grow.  Likewise, it’s a topic you may want to visit.

Take some time to physically go through your store (too many managers are out-of-sight and only think they know what’s going on by what they see in security cameras) and pay attention to how employees are handling customers.  Most importantly, as one of the biggest complaints is lack of attention, notice whether your employees are giving your customers the attention they deserve!

In what ways is your store or company striving in making a difference to its customers?  What things have you noticed other companies doing wrong or doing right when it comes to customer focus?

Jul 15

Glance at this article from Entrepreneur.com by George Cloutier about why he thinks the ruthless dictator wins in the small business world. Raises your blood pressure, doesn’t it? It raises mine, but mostly in outrage, knowing that there are people out there who are, in my opinion, misled into this kind of extreme thinking.

I do agree with some of Cloutier’s points:

  • - Your opinion, as the business owner, counts most and employees’ opinions should be welcomed (although Cloutier doesn’t necessarily say “welcomed”).
  • - Plans should be executed as flawlessly as possible.
  • - Employees should be rewarded based on performance and held accountable for what they do.
  • - Employees should absolutely know that you’re there, in the trenches with them.

Make sure your employees know that you're in the trenches with them, but don't be a ruthless dictator

But notice that these are all points that fit in with the opposite line of thinking, as well: They all encourage teamwork and healthy respect.

Companies that “do it right” in making their employees a major part of their business—treating them well, respecting their ideas and taking the time to listen to them—are constantly doted upon in business publications as “the best places to work.”  Baltimore Magazine featured the “Best Places To Work 2010” and CNN Money wrote about the “100 Best Companies to Work for [2010].” With the likes of Johns Hopkins, McCormick, Google and DreamWorks presented on lists of companies that cater to their employees, why would Cloutier argue?

Indeed, there is no room in a company for a wishy-washy pseudo-leader, but with the right set of skills and personal traits, it isn’t difficult to find the right balance of no-nonsense and compassion toward your employees.

Fear does not equal respect. It may be a good motivator, but it isn’t always the best. We as people want to feel guided and led, but we will almost instinctively fight back if we feel threatened or overwhelmed.

Innovation is key to today's success because it drives tomorrow; rarely does such great innovation come from one mind alone.The kicker is Cloutier’s suggestion to tell your employees to obey, not think. How many of today’s biggest companies (especially in technology) do you think would have survived if their employees weren’t allowed to think? You are one person. You simply cannot think of everything, but your employees can probably help. The wisest leader utilizes others’ ideas and transforms them collectively into “the next big thing.”

I do feel that Cloutier’s ‘tough love’ approach is necessary to an extent, but this article crosses a line. What do you think? If you’ve read it, what do you think of his book, Profits Aren’t Everything, They’re the Only Thing?

Jul 8

The laws surrounding unpaid internship may seem vague, but they’re actually so specific that it could almost feel intimidating. One part of this law to focus on is that “unpaid interns cannot do any work that contributes to a company’s operations,” according to business.gov. “This includes any tasks that help you run your business, like documenting inventory, filing papers, answering emails, etc.”

And the government doesn’t care if training is to the company’s detriment, either ;)

A bakery, as depicted in the example provided by business.gov, can have an unpaid intern decorate a sheet of cookies that will not be sold. Yep, the government is very specific on this one. Moreover, many states allow for any employee—not just the intern—to bring attention to authorities if the company fails to abide by this law.

There are six parts to the law covering unpaid internships (#4 emphasized by me, as it’s the tricky one):

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

This isn’t to say that unpaid interns are worthless, but it does mean that you’re better off paying them. It’s still cheap labor, and it’s also a chance to check out potential employees.

Read the article from Entrepreneur, “Summer Interns: Are Small Businesses Flirting with Disaster?” as well as business.gov’s bit on unpaid internship laws.

Have you brought in an unpaid intern?  What were your experiences?  Were you completely informed about the laws surrounding the internship?

Mar 13

Absolut Vodka was predicted by market researchers to be a flop but it came out on topThe author of Blink, Malcolm Gladwell, and the president of a Cleveland advertising firm, Steve McKee, are both going against the grain – and have a very good point to make, collectively. Reading an article by McKee about why market research can lead a company down the wrong path reminded me of a presentation I heard about, given by Gladwell.  While the former is about minivans and Apple, the latter is about spaghetti sauce and Grey Poupon (and will probably leave you feeling quite hungry).  The former is to-the-point and interesting, the latter more humorous, though long, as it will cut through about 17 minutes of your day.

Personally, I found that points 3 – 5 made by McKee in this article are the most impactive and most relevant.  That Absolut Vodka would flop because it’s Swedish and people were only drawn to Russian Vodka.  That the minivan wouldn’t be a big seller because no one had ever asked for a minivan before it existed.  That New Coke would be a gold mine, discounting the possibility that people wouldn’t take well to the change in its formula.  It has been proven time and again that people simply do not know what they want, and they especially can’t tell you what they want to have or see until they’ve gotten a taste of it.  As is clearly pointed out in McKee’s intriguing article, no amount of market research can be so blindly followed; likewise, he says that “[the] best research is the real world,” which honestly means you’ll watch at least one of your ideas flop.  The good thing is that it happens to all companies, and the giants aren’t exempt from this one.
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