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A Few Facts on Small Business Loans and More of Your Questions for June

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Is it true that SBA loans take longer than regular bank loans to be approved? I’d expect as much from a government agency.

Actually, the Small Business Administration doesn’t extend loans, it just guarantees them. As for a protracted approval process, that’s another widely held misconception, says Kate Lister, author of Finding Money, The Small Business Guide To Financing. “The information an SBA lender requires, save for a few extra details, is the same as for regular loans,” she says. Keep in mind that if one SBA lender is not interested in doing business with you, that shouldn’t preclude you from visiting others. “Each lender has their own approval criteria,” Lister says. To find an authorized lender, visit sba.gov or visit your local SBA office.

At what point should I cut out of sales?

Working out the value of your time to the business is a fairly straightforward sum, and if your financial goals are bigger than any sales you could close in the dispensary, then you are right to be looking to spend more time strategizing, working on marketing campaigns, meeting with potential partners, taking advanced business courses or whatever. But it’s a mistake to think you can or should ever stop selling. Your staff needs to see you constantly looking to bring in new business. That can be with regular stints on the sales floor, playing a support role, making the odd old-fashioned sales call or by trying to sell the company at a higher level. Once it stops with you, it’s over (from the top to the bottom).

I’m about to promote a staff member to manager. What’s the best way of preparing her for the challenges she’ll face? 

Be sure to give her “The Talk” — the one about how it will be hard to maintain close friendships with her former peers and that while you don’t prohibit fraternizing (at least we hope you don’t) you do recommend she maintain some professional distance from the rest of the staff. Let her know your door is always open to discuss issues because there will be times she’ll need someone to talk to. INVISION’s Real Deal columns (the full archive is available at invmag.us/knowhow) are a great resource to show her the kinds of situations that she is likely to face. Another is George Fuller’s The First-Time Supervisor’s Survival Guide. 

I’m thinking of going open book with my finances as a way of getting staff to understand what’s involved in running a successful business. What do you think?

We’ve read about businesses that do this with great success. But this level of transparency is not for everyone, given the financial literacy required to understand whether a business is healthy. You may just want to reveal your sales figures, though profit margin is a much better indicator of performance. Tell your staff that if net profit margin is under 5 percent, the business is barely surviving. Otherwise, discretion may be wiser. “Know what numbers you can share and defend, or just keep your books closed,” says Greg Crabtree, a CPA and author of Simple Numbers, Straight Talk, Big Profits.

I’m moving my optical store to a new location about 25 miles away. What are some ways to get my customers to follow me? 

Have no fear — this is actually a great marketing opportunity because it gives you a valid reason to communicate with your existing clientele, as well as prospective customers. Start getting out the news months before the move. “It is important to communicate why you are moving — a better location, a bigger location, a more convenient location, you purchased a building,” says James Porte of the Porte Marketing Group. Place a notice in your existing store announcing the move. You can also mention it on your business cards, invoices, and via other media. A direct mail-out is critical, says Porte, adding the more memorable it is, the better. “I once saw a pack of cards imprinted with a business’ name that was packaged in a die-cut paper moving truck as a self-mailer. It was awesome!” Next, get in touch with the local newspaper and tell them about the move, and in particular what you’re bringing to the market. Finally, hit the phones to make personal contact with every one of your customers. Then start planning that grand opening party. 

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This article originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of INVISION.

This article is an online extra for INVISION Online.

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How to Get a Staff Member to Close a Sale and More Questions for September

And your return policy may not be as ironclad as you think when it comes to minors…

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I got really angry at a customer the other day and left a nasty message on their voicemail. So, OK, I’ve lost that client. But how can I keep this from happening again?

We fully recommend business author Tony Schwartz’s Golden Rule of Triggers, which is “Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.” Instead, he says, take a deep breath, and “feel your feet” — a distraction tactic that allows you to pull your head out of the red mist.

I have a no-return stipulation on all my eyewear. But somebody told me that if a minor buys, for example, a pair of fancy sunglasses from me, they have the right to return it for a full refund and I can’t do anything about it. Is this true?

It is, in most states. And it’s something many merchants are unaware of. Basically, it comes down to what the law regards as “capacity to contract,” something minors are considered to lack but which is an essential element of any valid commercial agreement. The law doesn’t state, however, you must return the money immediately. You can insist Mom or Dad enforce the big-spending youngster’s right to disaffirmance in a court of law. Faced with such a prospect, the child or his parents are likely to come to an arrangement.

My store is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Am I leaving sales on the table by not being open?

Not necessarily. In fact, you may actually be improving business by giving your team some regular time off. Roger Beahm, professor of marketing at Wake Forest University School of Business, told radio station WFDD that you should first consider the “personal values” of your business. “We know that there’s a lot of businesses, for personal reasons, that like to keep their doors closed on Sunday, give their employees a day off for family, to go to church, and those kinds of things.” Employee happiness can translate into “efficiency, a high-quality product, and a loyal customer who keeps coming back.” Beahm says that work/life balance should lead to profit. “While they may be leaving money on the table in the short run, it’s probably assured that in the long run, they’re continuing to generate revenue because of the satisfaction level of both their employees and their customers.”

I’ve got a woman on staff who adores eyewear and never fails to engage a customer in a lively discussion, but for the life of me I can’t teach her how to close the sale! Help!

Failure to close is most often a combination of lack of basic skill and fear of being ‘pushy,’” says Kate Peterson of retail consultancy Performance Concepts. You can’t effectively teach ‘closing’ as a separate and disassociated thing, she says, but if your associate is good at engaging the customer, focus on teaching her how to make emotional connections between what they want and what the merchandise provides and to listen for signals that indicate it’s time to close. When it comes to more expensive fashion wear, remind her that most customers are often looking for permission to buy. “Providing good service means giving it to them by asking for the sale,” says Peterson. Finally, consider your commission structures. A motivated staff will use their time in the store as efficiently as they can, because it’s in their interest to make as many sales as possible.

When people look in your window displays, how do you approach them without scaring them off?

Open the conversation by asking their opinion on the display itself, says selling expert Dave Richardson. From there, you should be able to find out what they are specifically looking at and extend an invitation for them to come in and see it more closely (as well as a business card). Such boldness is well worth your effort, says Richardson. “Best-case scenario, you make a sale … worst-case scenario, someone new has your card.”

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The Art of Closing the Sale and More Questions for July and August

Don’t miss: How to set attainable goals and offload older merchandise.

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I keep hearing contradictory advice: Set goals or don’t set them. What’s your take?

There are three main arguments against setting goals: One, they lead people to focus on the wrong things or cut ethical corners; two, they demotivate when it appears they can’t be reached; and three, they emphasize the future at the expense of the present. The secret is to set goals in a way that addresses these problem areas. That means:

1. Set challenging goals but don’t make a big deal of it if you fall short.
2. Set goals that focus on behaviors, so your people are learning and improving rather than wildly chasing a financial goal.
3. Be specific. Setting vague goals can produce higher rates of success with motivated staff, but if your employees are normal human beings, being specific will prevent procrastination.
4. Make the first couple of milestones easy so that people can build momentum toward the major goal.
5. It’s not a death march; make it fun.

Podcast: Why Optical (and Especially Optical Retail) Is Lagging Behind Other Industries
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How can I get my salespeople to sell the older merchandise in the store?

Start by appealing to their belief in the possible, something all good salespeople should possess. And remind them there’s no accounting for taste. “Remember that somebody at the manufacturer was inspired enough by the idea of the product to create it. And somebody else in your company liked it enough to buy it,” says sales trainer Harry Friedman. That makes at least two professionals who believe in this particular product, he says. It also means that even though this piece may make them shake their heads, there’s a reasonable chance there’s a customer out there who will like it too. If that doesn’t do the trick, opt for an aggressive commission, says David Geller. “The commission many stores pay usually isn’t enough to get people excited,” he says. “If you normally pay a salary plus 3 percent, pay 9 percent on old items. It won’t cost that much, relatively speaking!”

What’s the best way to tell a customer you’d rather not take their AMEX?

There are reasons to wish they just would leave home without it. AMEX’s extra charges and reputation for slow payment are annoying but once you make it clear through store signage that you accept all major cards you don’t have much choice. “Don’t ever, ever, ever, ask ‘Oh, do you have another card?’ In terms of customer service, that’s just plain lame,” says Rick Segel, author of Customer Service For Dummies. Remember, your customer might be saving up points for a reward, or be close to their limit on their other card, and your hesitancy to take their AMEX puts them in an awkward position, he says. Try to take comfort in the fact that American Express targets a wealthier clientele.

What’s an appropriate policy for funeral leave?

A funeral leave policy should cover which employees are entitled to it, which family relationships qualify, how much time is permitted, and what provisions exist for extending time, with or without pay, says Suzanne DeVries, president of Diamond Staffing Solutions Inc. She suggests these guidelines: full-time employees should be entitled to at least three days’ absence with pay in the event of death in the immediate family (spouse, children, parents and siblings). For part-time employees, leave should be based on scheduled workdays, while funeral leave pay should not be granted to employees attending a funeral during periods when they are not at work for other reasons, such as vacation or illness. According to Devries, leaves to attend funerals of other relatives or friends should be granted at the discretion of the employee’s supervisor, and this condition should be stated in the handbook. You can also state that supervisors may ask for proof of a death, i.e., a funeral card or a death notice. This is rarely necessary, but including it will keep your policy from being abused. “Be sure to send a card and flowers, and express condolences,” says Devries. “These gestures assure employees of the good will your policy has put in place, and their loyalty is worth your effort.”

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How Much Community Work is Too Much Community Work and and More Questions for June

Also how to deal with (or with being) a helicopter manager.

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I appreciate giving back is a smart way to run a business, and it feels good personally, but community work can also be a distraction. Are there guidelines for ensuring we get the balance right?

In terms of the personal benefits, different studies done in the U.S. and Australia over the last two decades have concluded that about 100 hours of volunteering a year, or two hours a week, yields the optimum return in terms of happiness, satisfaction and self-esteem. The studies found there were no benefits — for the volunteer at least — of doing more than that. As for your business, coming up with a similarly strict “cut-off point” is prudent. The Internet software provider Salesforce.com, for example, uses what it calls its “one percent” formula: one percent of company profits, one percent of company equity, and one percent of employee hours all go to the communities it serves. The clarity of such a cap not only provides a guideline for this expenditure of energy, but makes it easier for you to deal with requests from your community for your time or money: “We wish we could help but for now we are concentrating all our community efforts through …XYZ.” When it comes to helping others, a soft heart and a hard head are often the best combination.

I’ll admit I’m a helicopter manager, but if I didn’t keep a close eye on everything and intervene constantly nothing would get done properly. How can I get my staff to show more initiative and responsibility?

It sounds as if you’ve micromanaged your staff into drones. Basically, you’ve got two options: Go big picture, where you give them ownership of their responsibilities on a day-to-day basis, or go small, where every procedure and system is mapped out in detail. The first requires employees with the right personality and experience who will know what do when you say, “OK, our goal is to wow every person who comes in the store. Go to it!” The second requires a lot of work from you in putting systems in place and providing the necessary training. In such cases, one approach is to imagine that you’re planning to open another business 3,000 miles away and putting in writing everything you’d want the remote employees to know about managing the practice, from how to run the point-of-sale system to how to make deposits to who to call if there’s a problem with the building. With such a reference, you’d be able to step aside and in theory, be confident your staff would be equipped to tackle most situations. Keep in mind though that these situations often reflect as much about the manager as the staff. Taking action is how micromanagers deal with anxiety – just as surrendering control is how under-functioning staff deal with challenges. Breaking the pattern is tough, because the manager needs to step back and do less, which means potentially letting bad things happen and tolerating the resulting anxiety. Can you handle that?

I know I should focus on my business, but I get a warped glee out of competing with the unethical rival up the road. There’s nothing wrong with having such an enemy, is there?

Research testifies to the fact that humans partly enjoy having enemies; they clarify the world for us and bolster our sense of righteousness. So, sure, why not channel this sometimes less-than-admirable truth to good ends? And it’s certainly easier to keep an eye on what your rivals are up to in the Internet era. The only thing we’d say is that you don’t lose sight of who your real enemy is. Is it the guy so bad at business he’s cutting legal corners, or is it Amazon, or something else — like your own complacency, inertia, or fear of change that poses an existential threat to your business? Enjoy your day-to-day skirmishes with the schmuck around the corner, use it to motivate yourself, but channel your energies into evolving and growing your business.

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