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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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Personality Clashes and More Questions for This Month

Read the answers to some of your holiday questions.

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Our holiday events are approaching. What are the best finger foods for an in-store event?

Balancing what tastes good — usually greasy or gooey food — with what looks sophisticated and doesn’t leave crumbs around the store or sticky fingerprints over your eyewear or frame boards is a tough balancing act. But store trainer Kate Peterson thinks she’s seen the answer: small, clear plastic drink glasses. “One presentation had a small amount (about three-quarters of an inch) of ranch dressing in the bottom of the cups, along with a variety of veggie sticks (carrots, celery, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash). The glasses were all arranged on a tray, so instead of having to pick up the veggies and scoop dip onto a plate, guests simply picked up an easy-to-handle, pre-made serving, which could then be dropped into a trash bin when they were done. Peterson adds that she saw a similar but more “savory” twist on this treatment with cocktail sauce and jumbo shrimp (tails removed). Don’t want ranch dressing in your store? Try cubed cheese and seedless grapes, which are always a crowd favorite, and easy to prepare.

I need ideas on how to give my optical a quick, cheap facelift before the holiday season starts.

The problem with quick, cheap facelifts is that they look exactly that — quick and cheap. Take a hard look at your store and if you find worn fixtures splash out and get them refinished. Then focus on creating a killer (but easy-on-the-pocket) winter-themed display. Bare branches, lots of white, big candles, spray-on snow… Be bold about moving your merchandise to new locations. Try them in higher or lower positions, with new props or with more space than usual. And if you’ve got a boring wall you just don’t know what to do with, throw up another mirror. People are endlessly fascinated with themselves.

I’m thinking of opening a new retail optical outlet in what’s possibly the most crowded market in the country; there are over three dozen optical retailers here in a college town of 400,000. I feel I know this market but should I look elsewhere?

A crowded marketplace isn’t necessarily a bad sign; conversely, it may be an indicator of the huge demand for a product or service. The secret to business success isn’t finding an empty field, it’s filling a need, and that generally means a niche. Sometimes niches are created because everyone is chasing the big-ticket-buying crowd or the youth market or there are changes in fashion or technology that the existing players may have missed. The real question is whether you can do something better or differently. “Just don’t think you can do it by being the cheapest,” says marketing expert Brad Sugars. “You’re the little guy; you don’t have economies of scale. The big guys can make up in volume what they lack in margin. You can’t.”

I’m a junior member of a front office team of eight. They’re all good people but one of the older girls bugs the hell out of me. It’s purely a personality thing. What do I do?

Focus on the positives. Remind yourself of the contributions she makes. If that’s too hard then at least don’t fall into the trap of recruiting allies to your cause. Sure, it feels good to have someone confirm she’s annoying but it also makes her presence a bigger issue. Try to minimize contact and ask yourself, does she irk everyone or is there something about you that has you grimacing like this?

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Pulling Off a Successful Event and More Questions for October

Your questions answered by our experts.

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Where can I find good local art to decorate our walls?

This is one of those areas where the reward will reflect the effort. Eisenbrei Plaza Optical in Canton, OH, was facing a similar challenge and decided to confront it with a clever campaign they called #EyesOnArt. “The talent pool of local artists in Canton is deep and our team sought them out by visiting local galleries and by reaching out to some on social media,” explained owner Mark Eisenbrei.​ The store currently has the work of four artists on display, many of which draw inspiration from the local area. The works, says Eisenbrei, have breathed fresh life into the 55-year-old business, while also underscoring its local credentials. All proceeds from any art sold go to the artist.

Re-dos have surged at our practice and it’s mostly because of doctor error. It seems like in today’s world of automation and insurance, docs have little incentive to take their time. I appreciate refractions have become more complicated but what can we do to cut down on re-dos? 

You have good cause to be worried. The typical American practice is losing nearly $10,000 in labor costs due to lab re-dos (based on 2,000 exams per year). And then there is the impact on the patient’s confidence in your practice and the morale of staff when a patient complains. These figures from Hoya show doctors account for about half the issues (slightly higher in an ophthalmology practice due to post-operative situations) with the rest generally due to fit, patient satisfaction, the lab and AR warrantees. Take-away? Yes, docs make errors, but so does everyone in this part of the business. That means everyone has to work better together to lower the rate of remakes. A good system includes checklists, increased training, and doing the proper homework (does the patient, for example, have a history of making complaints? Is this their first pair of multifocals? How big an adjustment to an RX is an old patient going to be able to adapt to?) Hoya provides a handy list of its “Top 10 Things to Do to Avoid Remakes,” find it here: invmag.us/10180.

How do I get better at verbal comebacks? 

We have a lot of fun collecting such imagined retorts for our Woulda Coulda column but there’s a reason we call it Woulda instead of Whatdya — there’s not a lot to be gained from liberally dispensing withering put-downs. As one of our Brain Squad regulars puts it, “Don’t spend a lot of time trying to think of one-liner comebacks to zing your customers with. That kinda stuff just makes you bitter.” Too true.

I still struggle with finding ways to do in-store events that will make a difference in our community. We partnered with organizations, but it just hasn’t caught the spark I wanted. Suggestions?

Events are your chance to roll out new lines, educate, and move old stock. They drive traffic and energy and get consumers in a buying mood. They make you relevant. But, of course, they are none of those things if they don’t get people excited. Kate Peterson, CEO of Performance Concepts, says first and foremost, events have to be unique and interesting. “Look for ideas that are innovative and that have not been done a hundred times by your business or others in the area.” Second step, she says, is to be sure to sort your client list carefully with a focus on the people who are most likely to have an interest in the product you’ll be promoting. “Most importantly, make it personal. The greatest successes will come from personal outreach — phone calls, emails and follow up — not from mass mailing,” she says. Note that events tied to charities or organizations only work if the store owners, management and staff are completely committed to the cause, and if the people at the head of the charity are committed to the event. “You can’t fake it or take it half way!” she warns.

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What Impression is Your Email Address Giving and More Questions for September

Get a real email address, eyeexpert@hotmail.com.

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How do I drive more word-of-mouth marketing?

Personal recommendations have always been the lifeblood of small business, but in the era of Facebook, Yelp and Google reviews, word of mouth (WOM) has taken on a different meaning and is now even more important to attract new customers and patients (studies show prospective customers attach as much credibility to an anonymous star rating as to a friend’s suggestion). It also requires a new, more tech-savvy response. Start by looking into an online review platform like Podium, Yotpo or Grade.us that centralizes the process and reaches out to customers via text messages to encourage them to leave reviews (search the phrase “online reputation management”). Of course, a larger megaphone won’t do you much good if the message is less than complimentary, so there’s still no getting away from the bedrock of WOM — excellent service. You can juice people’s experiences with your brand via community events, customer appreciation events, personal follow-ups, handwritten thank yous, and other random acts of generosity and goodwill that create delight and referrals. Keep in mind that WOM is so fluid it requires constant testing and experimenting: What stories to tell people about your store, what offers, what inside incentives will work? For example, a “Thank you for the referral” card that includes a voucher for $25 off the next purchase might work in one market. In another, giving an existing customer the opportunity to pass on the discount to a friend — or share it — may yield better results. Keep testing!

I’ve used my free email address for years and don’t really want to change it but I worry it looks unprofessional. Thoughts?

True, a lot of people don’t care, but a not insignificant portion of your customers will make a judgment of some sort. And these aren’t completely unfounded. Numerous marketing studies have found Gmail users to be predominantly younger city dwellers with more liberal views. Hotmail and AOL users are more likely to be found in the suburbs, while rural inhabitants are more likely to use Yahoo! Recently, The Times newspaper in Britain reported that a major insurer, Admiral, was quoting a higher rate to car owners who provided a Hotmail address. The firm argued some domain names were “associated with more accidents” than others, raising applicants’ risk profile. Given the way people make irrational assessments, and how important it is for an ECP to be viewed as professional and trustworthy, we’d recommend you make the change. It doesn’t cost much. For $3 a month, Gmail, for example, allows you to upgrade your account to get your own domain name.

I carry two competing sports frame brands. Now one is implying I should drop the other slightly less popular brand or it will cut off supply? Is this legal?

There are some instances when you could take such a case to court — such as when an unreasonable restraint of trade or similar antitrust violation can be established, or when a store’s ability to conduct business is damaged. But these are exceptions; the law allows a miffed vendor to cut you off cold. “In general, companies in the U.S. are free to decide when to do business and when to stop doing business with another company,” says attorney Barbara Mandell, a member of Dykema Gossett PLLC, which focuses on antitrust law.

If an employee is consistently late (usually 30 minutes), can I dock his pay? Are there legal ramifications?

From a legal standpoint, it depends on whether he is a salaried or hourly employee. If the latter, he should be punching a clock, which will automatically deduct his time. If he is salaried, you have to pay him, late or not, says Suzanne DeVries, president of Diamond Staffing Solutions, adding that you should have the issue — and the consequences — covered in your employee manual. “You may need to make some tough and important decisions,” DeVries says. “It is never a good idea to let an employee get away with such behavior. It sets a bad example for those who are always on time.”

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