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5 Ways to Make Service Part of Your Business DNA

Customer service expert Ron Kaufman has a radical notion that great service shouldn’t be as hard as it seems to be for so many businesses to deliver. “Service is everywhere,” says Kaufman, author of the new book Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else you Meet. “But there’s a disconnect between the volume of service we need and the quality of service we are giving and receiving. Businesses have turned a simple concept into a catastrophic cliché. They remain blind to the fact that true service comes not from demands and dashboards, but from a basic desire to take care of other people.”

Here are five keys to making exceptional customer service part of your business DNA:

1) Start by instilling a service orientation in your business.

Unfortunately, when most small businesses hire someone new, the part of new orientation that relates to customer service is often nonexistent. “This is your desk; this is your password; those are your colleagues; these are the tools we use. Welcome to the organization. Now get to work.”

“Service orientation goes far beyond induction,” says Kaufman. “Zappos is an example of one company that really gets this. Its four-week cross-department process is an example of new-hire orientation at its finest—deeply embedding and delivering on the company’s brand and core value, ‘Deliver WOW Through Service.’ Zappos understands that new team members should feel informed, inspired, and encouraged to contribute to the culture.”

2. Establish an engaging service vision.

A clear and engaging service vision will unify and energize everyone in your business to aim high for customer service. It doesn’t matter whether you call this building block your service vision, mission, core value, guiding principle, credo, motto, slogan, saying, or tagline. What matters is that your engaging service vision is actually engaging.

3. Communicate your service goals.

A company’s service communications can be as big and bold as signs in the front of the store proclaiming your commitment to customer satisfaction, or as simple as including employees’ hobbies or passions on their nametags. Service communications are used to educate and inform, to connect people, and to encourage collaboration, motivate, congratulate, and inspire.

“They’re essential because they can be used to promote your service vision, showcase your new hires, announce your latest contest, explain have you measure good service, and give voice to your customers’ compliments and complaints,” says Kaufman. Service communications keep your people up-to-date with what’s happening, what’s changing, what’s coming next, and most of all what’s needed now.

4. Offer service recognition and rewards.

Service recognition and rewards are vital building blocks of a service culture. They are a way of saying “thank you,” “job well done,” and “please do it again” all at the same time. Recognition is a human performance accelerator and one of the fastest ways to encourage repeat service behavior.

“While money may seem like the most obvious reward for employees, it isn’t always the most effective,” says Kaufman. “An auto dealership I know of learned this lesson the hard way. It paid its sales team a special bonus for achieving high levels of customer satisfaction. But when bonus payments were curtailed during a sales slump, customer satisfaction levels also fell.”

Genuine appreciation makes a more lasting impact on any employee. And there are tons of great ways to reward and recognize. You can do it in public, in private, in person, in writing, for individuals, or for teams. You can do it with a handwritten note, a standing ovation, tickets to a concert or ball game, an extra day off, dinner for the family or many other ways.

5. Create a common service language.

The whole domain of service suffers from weak clichés, poor distinctions, and inaccurate common sense. “Oh, you want service?” an employee asks. “Well, you’ll have to talk to our service department.” Or, “You want something else or something different? That’s not our policy.”

“We create meaning with language, and we can change our world by inventing or adopting new language. Your common service language should be meaningful and attractive—a shared vocabulary to focus the attention and the actions of your team. It should clarify meaning, promote purpose, and align everyone’s intentions and objectives,” says Kaufman.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

How Return-on-Relationship (ROR) Trumps ROI

Small business owners traditionally view customer relationships this way: You produce a product or service, and customers pay you money, some of which you re-invest in finding more customers.

But Bill Lee, author of a new book called The Hidden Wealth of Customers (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012) has a different notion.  Wouldn’t it be far more effective if you let the customers you already have help drive your sales and marketing efforts and fuel your growth? Makes sense, right?  No matter how much you spend on marketing and advertising through outside channels, they are still at least one layer removed from actual buyers. Existing customers have the best handle on understanding your potential customers, hands down.

Lee’s research has revealed this: Businesses that achieve rapid growth are the ones that don’t just think of customers as “people or businesses that buy stuff” but rather as advocates, influencers and contributors.

That’s a key mindset that can work magic for small and local businesses of all kinds, no matter where they are or what they sell. Instead of thinking only about a return of investment (ROI) on your marketing dollars spent, start thinking also about a “return on relationship” (ROR) with your customers.

The truth is, says Lee, your customers are incredibly well equipped to market, sell and even help develop your products and services.

Here are six ways that customers can help grow your business better than you can:

1) Attract high-value information from and about other customers and prospects.

Existing customers have inside knowledge of their peers that can be super valuable. For example, they know what movies they watch, which restaurants they visit, where they like to travel and so on. Consider a company called Westlaw, which provides research services for law firms. It realized that its clients were interested in how they and the markets they served stacked up to other firms and markets. So Westlaw created something called Peer Monitor, which collects and aggregates client information (anonymously, with their permission) and turned it into a lucrative new business.

2) Believably promote your product or service.

No matter how hard you try, you can never be as believable in promoting your own business as one of your customers can. It’s this simple: You’re trying to sell something. Your customer isn’t. That fact alone makes them far more credible to other potential customers than outside agencies or internal employees.

3) Close the sale.

Yes, customers also make better salespeople than you do. They can honestly say, “This product or service worked for me and it can work for you too.” Look for ways to connect existing customers with prospects.  Many business owners find that prospects are far more interested in talking to other customers than to you or others at your firm.

4) Connect with their peers (your prospects).

Prospects are much more open to opportunities of connecting with friends and peers than they are with getting close to companies. That’s human nature. But too often when companies try to form “communities” around their business or brand they put the focus on the business logos and a company spokesperson. Instead, look for ways to creatively foster dialog between customers and their peers that touches on issues related to your products or services.

5) Energize your online and social media marketing.

Try as they might, many small businesses get nowhere with their social media marketing efforts. Often that’s because they try to force traditional ways of communicating into the social sphere.  Try other creative ways, such as video and mobile to engage customers in social media.

6) Help you enter new markets.

Typically, a small business hoping to enter a new market will hire and agency or use employees to help with research. How about using local customers in those areas?  Find and engage local VIP players to play a central role in your effort. Use them for product testing and feedback and to communicate your message.

Too many small businesses say, “customers are our best assets” but never leverage those assets. By using social media and other methods to harvest those assets, you can spark a new source of growth for your business.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

8 Ways to Deftly Handle Customer Complaints

When a small business receives a customer complaint it has two basic choices: Treat the complaining customer like a pain in the neck, or use the complaint as an opportunity to improve.

Business owners who are adept at handling and learning from complaints know all too well that one complaining customer might represent many others with the same problem who did not speak up. They’re the ones who tell others, complain about you online, and take their business elsewhere. Here are eight ways to deftly handle customer complaints, suggested by Ron Kaufman, author of “Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers” (Evolve Publishing, 2012).

  1. Thank the customer for bringing it to your attention. “Show appreciation for the complaining customer’s time, effort, communication, feedback, and suggestions,” says Kaufman. “Always keep in mind that the customer didn’t have to come to you at all. They could have simply taken their business elsewhere.”
  2. Don’t be defensive. It’s easy to get defensive when an angry customer is on the other end of the line or in your face. Just remember that customers with complaints tend to exaggerate situations, so getting defensive will only make it worse. When a customer complains, they’re doing so because they feel wronged in some way. You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying. But you do have to hear them out. That’s how you move the conversation in a positive direction.
  3. Acknowledge what’s important to the customer. Even if you think the customer’s complaint is unfair, there is something they value that your business didn’t deliver on. Embrace that value. “What the customer wants is to feel right,” says Kaufman. “When you agree with their value dimension, you’re telling them they are right to value this specific thing.” For example, if a customer says your service was slow, then that customer values speed. You might then acknowledge that they deserve quick, efficient service.
  4. Apologize once, upfront. Every service provider knows that the customer is not always right. But the customer is always the customer. You don’t have to admit you were wrong, but you should apologize for the inconvenience. When you do that, you’re showing understanding and empathy.
  5. Express your desire to improve. When you understand what the customer values, show them things your business does that helps you perform well in that area. Calmly explain what happened. “Show you are sincere about your commitment to do well in the areas the customer values,” says Kaufman. “At the very least, you can say you’re going to make sure everyone at your business knows about the problem so it won’t happen again.
  6. Offer helpful information. Part of hearing the customer out is answering any questions they have about the specific situation. Provide additional, useful information as much as you can. If they ask a question that you don’t know the answer to, tell them you’ll find out.  And then actually follow through. These are additional opportunities for you to say through your actions that you value their business.
  7. Contain the problem. Let’s say a family is at a crowded theme park on a hot day. The youngest child in the group starts to have an all-out meltdown. Suddenly, a theme park staff member sweeps onto the scene and whisks the family into a special room. Inside, they find an air conditioned room with water and other beverages, an ice cream machine, a bathroom, a comfortable sitting area, etc. The only thing missing in the room is any connection to the theme park’s brand. That’s because this room is used to isolate customers from the brand until they’re all — parents and children —having a more pleasurable experience.  “That’s how you contain a problem,” says Kaufman.
  8. Recover. Show the customer you care about them, even if you feel your business did everything right. Businesses worry that they’ll get taken advantage of if they offer vouchers, discounts, or freebies as part of their service recovery. But in reality that rarely happens. “Offer the customer something and then explain that you’re doing so as a gesture of goodwill or a token of your appreciation,” says Kaufman. Businesses do this because they know that a successfully recovered customer can become their most loyal advocate.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

9 Ways to Make your Contacts Really Count

Small business owners and start–up entrepreneurs are often advised to relentlessly network in order to build connections that can help grow the business. But while networking is indeed a valuable endeavor, many business owners connect with the wrong people – or the right people in the wrong way.

According to Vickie Milazzo, a bestselling author and successful entrepreneur, it pays to carefully plan your networking, be selective about the people you network with, and build meaningful relationships once you do connect with the right people.  Here are some of Milazzo’s top tips for transforming traditional networking into something that works harder for you and your business:

1)    Build connections selectively

Don’t confuse networking with simply being friendly or socializing. They are very different. For example, you shouldn’t expect a neighborhood block party to change your business. Instead, research the people you need to connect with and identify the sources and methods that will help you reach them.

2)    Make sure your groups make sense

Even within your own industry or profession, it pays to be selective in how you spend your networking time. Create your own customized network of colleagues, clients, consultants, vendors and acquaintances on whom you can depend to give you everything from information to referrals. Don’t join groups randomly. Get an idea of who the members are and whether or not they can help you or your business.

3)    Go outside your immediate comfort zone

We all tend to gravitate toward people with similar interests. But this doesn’t help expand your connections. Make an effort to connect with people in higher level positions, larger businesses or who simply seem more successful than you.

4)    Organize and track your efforts

This is a tough one for most business owners but can produce a big payoff. Just think back on the number of times you’ve attended a tradeshow or conference, met a bunch of people and then went back to work without cultivating any of those relationships further. Put the information you gather to work. Take notes on what you learned, names you were given or other details and refer back to them so you can make a stronger impression the next time you connect.

5)    Create value for the other person

Following up is great, but how you follow-up is also critical to success.  Too many people simply “check in” with their contacts.  That’s not likely to generate much response or enthusiasm. Instead, find ways to create or add value to the relationship.  For example, you might send a link to an interesting article, or suggest a contact that can help the other person. Ask what you can do for them.

6)    Build relationships before you actually need them

This is a lot like getting a line of credit from the bank.  You need to establish it ahead of time so that it’s in place when your business really needs it. Avoid constantly reaching out to people asking for this or that.

7)    Move beyond social media

Sure, networking through social media such as LinkedIn is a great way to stay in touch in the digital world. But don’t leave it at that. You will need to leverage your social media connections offline as well in order to build those relationships.  You might even try picking up the phone once in a while.

8)    Balance the ledger

This is another way of saying that you should count on giving at least as much as you get from your contacts. Avoid the urge to only ask for advice and help. “No matter how successful you become, do whatever you can to help those who have helped you,” says Milazzo. “If you are there for someone in your network, they will probably be there for you in the future.”

9)    Know when to move on

Avoid giving any group or individual all of your time if you aren’t seeing results or getting good advice. Networking is about business, not pleasure, so move on if it’s not working.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

How Rock Star Customers can Help You Grow

In an age of digital discovery and social media, here’s something that more and more local business are learning:  Existing customers can be one of the most powerful growth engines ever.  One way to put this engine to work is to identify and harness the hidden marketing potential in your “Rock Star” customers.

But watch out: they might not be the ones you think. For example, they aren’t necessarily the biggest spenders or most loyal. Loyal customers don’t always promote you (in fact, it’s likely they’re not), while big spending customers may not be profitable or have a good story to tell.

So who are your Rock Stars?

Bill Lee, CEO of an educational organization called the Customer Reference Forum, says your Rock Stars are simply the ones with the biggest potential to promote your business and influence others. “First, they’re loyal—that’s the price of admission,” says Lee. “They have a good story to tell about how your product or service helps them. Second, they’re eager to tell it. Third, they have access—and want to gain more access—to influential networks that contain more buyers like them. And fourth, they want to build their reputation and influence in such networks.”

But as much as they might love you, these Rock Star customers won’t help grow your business on their own. Even customers who identify themselves as “promoters” in customer surveys—saying they’d be highly likely to refer you to a colleague or friend—aren’t actually doing so. Studies have shown that only about 10 percent of self-described promoters actually refer profitable new customers. The key is this: You have to take the initiative and make it easy for them to do so.

Make it About Them

To make it work, it has to be all about them – not about you, says Lee, who is also author of a book called “The Hidden Wealth of Customers” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).

One tactic that works with Rock Stars is community marketing that recognizes how people buy things locally, from a refrigerator or flat screen TV, to a new roof or a doctor’s services. In that context, most people aren’t likely to seek out a salesperson or collect brochures. Instead, they’ll talk to friends, neighbors, colleagues or other peers to find out what or whom they’re using.

Some big companies have caught on to this. For example, Microsoft has brilliantly deployed “customer advocates” to leverage this natural approach to buying, particularly overseas. Microsoft will find local “MVP” customers who are well-connected in their local communities and want to increase their status, and help them do so by providing access to early releases and “insider knowledge.”

Getting known through established locals is faster—as well as more affordable—than trying to get locals to know a business through advertising, PR, big splash events, and other traditional marketing. Small businesses can use this same approach.

Make Yourself an Influencer

But instead of relying on your Rock Stars to carry the ball completely, the trick is to enlist their help in making you more of a “thought leader” in your own industry or community. Many business owners fall into the rut of seeking influencers—such as bloggers with large followings, or prominent personalities in their markets or communities.  But it’s usually better to be the influencer yourself – enlisting your Rock Stars to help you do it.

A good local business providing exceptional solutions to a community or market has two things that no outside influencer can match, says Lee. You have actual customers who are happy, plus you have your own “subject matter experts” (you and your employees) who work with these customers all the time. That alone gives you far more valuable knowledge than the usual outside influencer.

Perhaps the best thing about Rock Star customers is that they already exist, quietly thriving under the radar, waiting for you to discover them and put them to work. Failing to do so is a little like being a homeowner who knows a stash of gold is hidden in the wall but never uses a metal detector to find it.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

The 6 Vital First Steps for any New Business Idea

You’ve just come up with a killer business idea. What now? Glad you asked, because this is where millions of would-be entrepreneurs stumble without ever getting started. Before you create your product or service, try to raise money, file for a patent or write a business plan, heed these words: That’s not what you need to do!

Here are the six things you must know in order to even justify writing a business plan, let alone investing money:

Step 1: Road Test Your  Idea

This critical but often-skipped step has saved many an entrepreneur from certain failure. Before you write one word of a business plan, or spend a single dollar, you need to honestly – and I emphasize honestly – assess the validity of your idea, or the promise of your product. Think of it as a sanity check on whether your idea is really the basis for a successful business, or more wishful thinking than you first thought.

A business plan won’t tell you this. That comes later once you’ve proven your concept. But that plan is guaranteed to be vastly more effective with the road test behind you. The steps that follow here will help you with your “road test.”

Step 2: Find the Fatal Flaw

Every business that flops has a fatal flaw of some kind; or perhaps many. Your mission is to find that flaw before it finds you. And banish the thought that your idea is perfect. It’s not. One mark of a smart entrepreneur is a willingness to constantly question his or her own ideas.

Ask yourself: What am I missing? What possible pitfalls am I not seeing? How might competitors respond? What on Earth makes me think that my business or product idea will work when the great majority of others don’t?

Now you’re starting to get it. But don’t stop there. You’re not just looking for things that might go wrong, you should also ask yourself how you might be able to fix them once you find them.

Step 3: Shed These Common Myths and Misconceptions

  • Here’s a big one: Nobody thought of this before. Really? Such ideas are rarer than rare. Odds are many have thought of it – and punted.
  • There’s no competition, and that’s a good thing. Not necessarily. If it’s really such a good idea, others should see that and be in there with you. If not, you’ve got to wonder.
  • The concept is great, so the business opportunity must be great, too.  “Concept” and “opportunity” are two vastly different things. In short, there’s a huge chasm that stands between a good concept and turning it into a viable business.
  • I need to be on the market first in order to win. The business landscape is littered with defunct “firsts.” Watching the mistakes that others make, and then fixing them with your idea, is often a better strategy.

Step #4: Assess Your Range of Risks — Realistically

There may be more risks than you think.  For example, bringing a product to market involves many risks. Can you make it on a large enough scale to pay off? Does your product require users to change their behavior in any way (consumers don’t like to do that). Will it last?

You must also assess risks related to the market, existing or potential competitors, money (do you have enough?) and your own management abilities.

Step #5: Analyze the Market in Detail

Ask the fundamental question: Is this really a good market?  But in doing that, you must also understand that a “market” means buyers, not products or an industry. Your business or product will have to offer those buyers some clearly visible benefit in order for them to choose you over someone else.

Step #6: Define Your Team

Are you planning to go it alone, or will you need others involved in building your business and executing on your idea? This can mean working with outside advisors, or bringing in partners and employees. In any case, your “team” will be critical to your success.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

10 Ways to Build a Can-Do Culture in Your Business

Does your business have “drainers” – people whose negativity drains everyone else’s energy and drags your business down? Or, worse yet, are you a “drainer” yourself?

“Nobody sets out to be a drainer,” notes Jon Gordon, a business “attitude” consultant who works with businesses, professional sports teams, universities and other organizations. “It’s just that some people regularly, and inadvertently, exhibit energy-draining behaviors.” Many business owners allow it to continue, or are themselves guilty of the same behavior. And over time, the entire culture of the business becomes poisoned.

Here are 10 ways you can help build a can-do culture that also motivates your employees:

1)    Squelch negativity

There’s nothing more draining than boss, business owner or employee who’s constantly negative. Don’t let negativity be your go-to response. Respond constructively when others offer ideas.  Even if the suggestions are off the mark, hear them out. An encouraging attitude keeps creative juices flowing. Remember, as pessimism rises, performance drops.

2)    Halt the complain train

The temptation to whine can be powerful, but whining is infectious and before you know it, everyone is complaining about something. Instead, push for solutions. When you hear a complaint, ask the complainer how it should be fixed. Turn your employees into problem solvers instead of problem sharers.

3)    Ban critical email and voice mail

Nine times out of ten, the critical email you send ends of sounding harsher to the other person than you ever intended. Such it up and conduct your toughest talks in person. You’ll be able to ensure that your tone is not misinterpreted and have a constructive dialog with the other person.

4)    Avoid the Monday morning load-up

Don’t overwhelm your employees with a mountain of emails or lengthy to-do lists before the week is even underway.  Boil down and bundle your orders, and parse them out in steps. Flag the ones you consider most important so others know where to start first.

5)    Spot the busy bee bamboozle

Don’t confuse activity with progress.  And that applies to you as well as your employees. Just getting through daily routines can make anyone appear busy. But that’s not progress. Set goals and hold yourself and your employees accountable for results.  Make sure these are results that matter and that are visible to others and valuable to your business.

6)    Seek complete communication clarity

It’s amazing how the simple condition of “clarity” contributes to a positive vibe.   When people are clear on where the business is going, and what they need to do, they are free to be positive and productive. When employees are stuck trying to track you down for clarification, productivity and creativity suffer.

7)    Get your organization act together

Being disorganized is a drag for everyone. Sure, some things fall through the cracks when you’re busy, but chronic disorganization is a disease that drains others who have to cover your tracks.

8)    Don’t sacrifice quality for expediency

When there’s a lot of work to do, there’s a tendency to hastily clear your plate, either by cutting corners or passing the buck to others. Taking the time you need to do the job right sets up your employees and the rest of your business for success, and encourages others to take on projects with confidence and energy.

9)    Recognize real-time success

Don’t get so caught up in what’s to come later than you forget to acknowledge what’s happening now. Employees don’t need applause at every turn, but they do need to know that you can be satisfied, and that they aren’t just hamsters running in a wheel.

10) Set zero tolerance for Low performance

“Simply put,” says Jon Gordon, “low performers drag the rest of your team down. They create resentment and generate more work for everyone else. And if you let them linger for too long, your best employees will move on. Hold everyone accountable for achieving their goals and meeting performance standards. If someone constantly misses the bar, take action.”  But be careful. You still want to encourage risk taking and allow people to fail. The key is that they’re out there trying different things and innovating.

Copyright © 2000-2011 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

Why You Should Have a LinkedIn Business Page

Although LinkedIn is the world’s largest social media network for business people and professionals, most small business owners still don’t have it on their marketing radar. But that’s changing as LinkedIn itself ads more features aimed at helping businesses market to its 160 million registered users, and more small businesses start taking advantage of this powerful platform for generating leads and making business connections.

Your first step is to create a free LinkedIn “Company Page.”  It’s similar to a Facebook business page but easier to set up, better looking and with more ways to feature your products and services. And LinkedIn recently introduced an improved look for company pages that offers new ways to tell your business story, share news or updates and drive word of mouth.

Unlike Facebook, which was originally built for college students, LinkedIn was created from the ground up with the needs of business and professionals in mind. That shows through in the capabilities it offers to create awareness of your products and services. What’s more, millions of people conduct searches from within LinkedIn every day and if you and your company aren’t there, you can’t be found.

Posting updates to your LinkedIn company page gives you a powerful way to generate leads by including links back to your own website. The LinkedIn company page lets you post large images, create your own calls to action and include testimonials or recommendations from your connections. This is all free if you’re willing to spend a little time to learn how it works and get your company page operational.

But you don’t have to get everything done at once. As with LinkedIn personal profile pages, you can start with the basics and add features and sections as you get more proficient. Here’s how to get started along with a rundown of key sections of a LinkedIn company page:

Getting Started: You can set up a LinkedIn company page in minutes with just a few steps. You must first go to the “Add a Company” page to confirm your connection to the business and be authorized to create your page. Go to www.linkedin.com/company/add/show and enter the company name and your business email address. You’ll receive an automated email asking you to confirm your request. Once that’s done, you’re ready to start creating your page.

Overview: This is your big chance to make a powerful first impression. The overview section, or “tab,” is the place to start spreading your message and open a conversation about your business.  You can include a high-level description of your business along with company announcements, product releases or news from your industry. It’s also a great place to feature employees and other people who are connected to your business.

If your business is already creating updates or other content for a Facebook page, this is another place you can put it to good use. But remember that LinkedIn’s membership is much more “white collar,” so be sure to put your best professional foot forward.

Products and Services: This is the place to showcase what you offer.  Setting up a Products & Services section requires just a few steps and can be done in a few minutes.  Click “Add a product or service” under the Products & Services tab and fill in the information about category, product or service name and description. Be sure to include your business photos and videos to bring the section to life. And don’t forget to add your business URL and other web links back to the product, service or order form pages on your own website. This helps with SEO and can send traffic and leads back to your site.

To add more products and services, simply repeat the steps above. When all of your information is complete, click “Publish” to go live.  You’ll then be accessible to millions of LinkedIn members who can view, recommend and share your information within their own networks. It’s word-of-mouth power on steroids.

Company Updates: LinkedIn suggests using this section to share articles, ask questions or post special offers. It also offers the ability to target your updates and offers to specific groups of your connections or followers, as well as to “all followers.”

For more information on how to use company pages visit:  learn.linkedin.com/company-pages.

Copyright © 2000-2012 BizBest® Media Corp.  All Rights Reserved.

4 Rules for Fostering Innovation in Your Business

Innovation is one of today’s most popular business buzzwords.  Most small and growing businesses – and especially startups – say they want to innovate. But most never get there because they are focused only on cost and efficiency, and not creativity, leaving little room for fresh ideas. In fact, many businesses today are actually anti-innovation without even knowing it, says Ed Hess, a business professor at University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business.

In today’s “do-more-with-less” environment, innovation can be too messy and inefficient to take root. Many business owners seek stability through structure and predictability rather than less-predictable innovation. But the mechanisms that help grow a business are much different from those that simply keep it from falling apart. In order to grow and innovate, you have to be willing to explore a little and put up with some uncertainty and ambiguity.

To instill a mindset of innovation at your business, you’ll need to adopt some different ways of thinking. Here are four “rules” for fostering innovation in your business:

1. Efficiency and scale don’t always rule the day: Typical business management practices in companies of all sizes favor efficiency and avoiding risks.  But being innovative requires taking some risks and trying lots of different things. And that, of course, means that some won’t work out. But those “failures” are like down payments on the things that do work and that will help your business grow.

2. Not everything needs to be certain: The fundamental nature of innovation is that nothing is certain.  Businesses that are best at innovating are dominated by ambiguity and change.  You just have to get used to it and create an environment that allows for experimentation, invention and exploration. It might be nice to talk about achieving near “perfect” performance, but growth experimentation often produces much the opposite. Variance – the enemy of efficient, cost-effective operations – is the norm when it comes to innovation.

If you want an innovative business, be careful about how strongly you insist on efficient, waste-free execution. You can easily end up killing any and all inventive ideas, as the path to innovation is not a straight line.

3. Innovation does NOT have to be revolutionary:  Sometimes, thinking smaller is the best way to foster innovation. All too often, entrepreneurs think that innovations – and just about any goals for that matter – must be big and audacious. They don’t. Get over it.  Setting – and achieving – small, proximate goals and innovations is a better way to keep the ball rolling.  In fact, most innovations are small, incremental things that are close to the core activities of your business – be they products, services, processes or all of the above.

Innovations can and should build on things that have already been done – they don’t have to be revolutionary. Says Hess, “The kind of ideas businesses should want to generate are all about creating new value for customers.”  We shouldn’t care if it’s already been tried, looks like something old in a new package or is borrowed from another industry. What’s most important is that it creates value for your customers that no one else has yet offered them.

Remember:  The best innovators learn how to combine existing things differently or transfer concepts from different industries or domains.

4. Innovation and effective execution can co-exist: Sure, innovation is often a messy process that is prone to failure. But don’t try to isolate it within certain places or people in your business. In other words, don’t feel like you need to segregate innovation from the rest of your business, where you have people who “execute” and others who “innovate.” They can go hand in hand, and the bridge that helps connect them is learning, according to Hess, who is co-author along with Jeanne Liedtka of The Physics of Business Growth (Stanford University Press, 2012). When you encourage employees – and yourself – to learn about new things and avoid “my way or the highway” type thinking, you will foster innovation in your business.

Finally, says Hess, understand that “growth experimentation” is a game of probabilities and the sooner you get customers actively engaged in your experimentation game, the more likely you will be to win.

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A Foolproof Framework for Hiring Perfect People

Here’s a motto every business should live buy:  Hasty hiring brings frequent firing.  Unfortunately, however, the hiring “process” for many firms still consists of little more than posting a job opening, sorting resumes and hiring the first person who makes a good impression and survives the gauntlet of interviews.

But the consequences of poor choices can be severe. If you keep an unproductive person on, you’re damaging your business.  But when you fire someone you face administrative costs, possible severance pay and maybe unemployment compensation. Then you’ll have to pay to attract and train a new candidate. Meanwhile, you pay others more to take up the slack.

Toughen Up Your Interviews

“It’s better to take your time and temporarily be short-staffed than to lower your standards,” says hiring expert Dave Anderson, who’s given over a thousand leadership presentations in 13 countries.  Anderson’s key advice? Become a better interviewer! And use the interview process in new ways to eliminate weak candidates and find the perfect fit.

For example, many interviewers throw softball questions at job candidates. You should toughen up that process and use it to eliminate or “knock out” candidates through smart, rigorous, values-shaped questioning.   This turns hiring around.  Instead of it being an inclusive process, it becomes an elimination event.   “The knockout interview begins before you ever meet a candidate,” says Anderson. “In fact, your goal is to avoid face time as much as possible. From the very first resume, start looking for reasons to cut individuals from consideration.”

It’s About Quality, Not Quantity

Stop believing you have to see large numbers of applicants to find the best one.  You don’t.  It’s exhausting and unproductive to interview lots of the wrong people. Make as many cuts as you can with an initial phone interview. Here are five tactics that will save you time and help you find perfect hires more quickly:

1.            Look for an ability to be faithful in the little things. When it comes to making great hiring choices, no detail is too small. How well a person performs on little things is indicative of how well they’ll perform on big ones.  Start evaluating this capability when the first résumés arrive. As you read them, look for reasons to put some in the “reject” pile, keeping in mind that you want to uphold your organization’s standards of excellence.

2.            Make sure the candidate has the basic ability to do the job.  In addition to making sure that candidates communicate clearly and respectfully, your task is to ensure they can fulfill the core, non-negotiable requirements of the position. For example, you may want to ask applicants if they’re available to work certain days or hours, or if they’re comfortable performing specific tasks.

3.            Let them do the talking:  It’s an interview, not a monologue.  Many business owners try to put job candidates at ease by doing most of the talking and spending much of the interview telling the candidate about the company. Your job as leader, however, is to assess an applicant’s character and competency. Don’t be intimidating or overbearing, but keep in mind that your goal is to evaluate the prospect’s accomplishments, because past performance is far more telling than past experience.

4.            Consider their journey, not just their current location:  Don’t judge applicants strictly by the career “level” they’ve reached.  Dig deeper to determine how they got to where they are. You may be surprised at what you find.  Some people are given a generous head start in life, while others have been forced to navigate many obstacles. These candidates may have faced the kinds of challenges that can forge greater strength of character and persistence.

5.            Share your core values before hiring. The objective of the knockout interview formula is to find a reason to say “no” to a job candidate. By sharing your core values with applicants, you may find that some knock themselves out for you. Describe your organization’s core values and behavioral expectations before extending an offer. Let applicants know that you have non-negotiable standards for integrity, teamwork, attitude and attention to detail. Then describe what these behaviors look like in practice.

This formula works because it forces candidates to show through their actions that they have initiative, really want the job, and can be an asset to your business.

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