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How to Drive More Word of Mouth and More Questions for February

Personal recommendations are more important than they’ve ever been before.

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We have equestrian games coming to town with 100,000 visitors expected in the area. How can I take advantage?

Lucky you! This gift horse trotting into town is possibly wearing golden hooves. “It’s fair to assume that visitors to equestrian events have the resources to spend — and studies show people are more likely to spend when they’re on vacation or doing things they enjoy,” notes Andy Malis, co-founder of MGH, a full-service ad agency in Owings Mills, MD. First thing to do is inquire of your sales reps if they will have booths or some other promotional events you can partner in? Retail store consultant Kate Peterson recommends you make a special effort to explore joint promotion opportunities, especially those that involve onsite events in your store. “Work with targeted vendors to set up a themed trunk show in the store,” she says. If there’s no corporate connection, Malis recommends going it alone. “I would contact the organizers of the event and find out every possible way to get in front of this audience. They may be offering sponsorship packages.” And if you can’t actually participate officially, think ‘outside-the-event’, he says. “Which hotels and restaurants will be involved? Can you create a ‘Welcome Package’ to be given to each attendee? Include some local foods/beverages plus info (do you offer emergency repairs or lens replacements?) and incentives to visit your store.” It goes without saying that this advice applies to any large sporting event that maybe coming to town…

How can I grow my business when only so many dollars are spent on eyewear in my rural market?

The first thing to test about any rural location are your assumptions, says retail trainer Bob Phibbs. Don’t think that just because you operate from a small town, everyone in that market knows your services. Second, don’t assume that because you’re the only optician in town, people won’t go elsewhere. “People probably drive from farther away to reach your store, so as a business owner, you have to give them a good reason to keep coming back,” he says. Phibbs recommends doing your own research, including walking around your area and knocking on doors to find out how many people are aware of your services. (And if there is an art walk or some other business community event that will put you in touch with new groups of customers, sign up!) Second, test your hours. “If your store is closed on Sundays, you may be missing out on two of the top four money-making times,” he says. Third, through interactions with customers and even studying the license plates in your parking lot, find out where your customers are coming from. With this information, you will able to tweak your marketing and other outreach activities. It’s possible you could run targeted Facebook ads or rent billboard space to catch traffic from a much wider area.

I suspect a rival is trying to poach one of my best sales associates. Should I try to pre-empt them with a pay rise?

Happy employees don’t leave for a small amount of additional money, so the first thing to do is sit down with your associate and see if there are things you can do to remove any frustrations from her current work life or if there are perks (more flex time?) or professional challenges (responsibility for a big marketing campaign?) that could tempt her to stay. Throwing money at them is unlikely to help if you don’t remove what’s unsettled them in the first place (and unless you’re prepared for everyone else to know — as HR experts like to say, compensation is confidential for about 11 seconds). Staff churn is a natural part of business life, especially in a strong economy, and non-compete agreements are a blunt tool that workers resent. A better approach is to foster a great culture. Check in with your team periodically to make sure employees feel challenged, engaged and appreciated.

We still seem to be running into a lot of resistance to blue-light filtering lenses even after the doctor prescribes them. Any ideas?

It sounds like you have to do a bit more work before the patient reaches your opticians. Education should start in your waiting room with a video loop running to provide general information about blue light (and, in particular, how it can affect children, who are spending more and more time exposed to digital screens). Next, the pretest room, your assistants should start the conversation about lifestyles and eye use. ZEISS’s marketing materials recommend a line like, “I bet your eyes feel very tired at the end of the day with so much computer work. I’ll have the doctor talk with you about BluTech lenses to make you feel more soothed and protect your eyes from the blue light that is emitted from the screen.” It is now the doctor’s role to provide the authority, explain the benefits (better sleep, less strain, improved light sensitivity, prevention of potential conditions like macular degeneration,) and make a specific recommendation, as needed. In the best cases, the optician can then simply fill the Rx, but as with any sale, it’s the reassurance provided at the close that is key to generating customer satisfaction. Blue light pens, demonstration aids from your vendors, computer apps and physical comparisons with untreated lenses can all help here (tap your vendors for help). With the overriding emphasis on vision health, your patient should leave protected and satisfied.

How can 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 you notes, and those random acts of generosity or goodwill that drive surprise 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!

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Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 21 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at editor@invisionmag.com.

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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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How to Get the Best Employees and More Questions for May

Plus, how to get that chatty, great employee to actually close the sale.

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What’s a good way to sell our company to prospective employees — particularly top salespeople?

Just about the most valuable skill a businessperson can have is the ability to recruit and retain good people and yes, it all starts with that job posting. “When the right people read your ad, their hearts will whisper, ‘These people are like me, and I am like them,’ says Roy H. Williams, author of the business bestseller The Wizard of Ads. Bullet point what the job entails, what kind of inventory they will be handling, and the benefits, but the core message should be about who you are as a company, your reputation and your goals. The best salespeople often don’t have a sales background so go easy on the requirements. Your message should be more about culture than qualifications.

Podcast: What the Heck is Marketing? And What Should ECPs Focus on to Attract New Clients?
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Is it legal for retailers to say they are selling at wholesale prices?

In short, no — unless they really are. Many states including Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, California, New York, and Michigan have strict laws prohibiting the use of the word “wholesale” in retail advertisements. In some states, this is a criminal offense, due to the word’s ability to mislead consumers. Basically, if you advertise you are selling at wholesale prices it must be “the real wholesale price.” Some states define this as the price paid for the item from the supplier. Other states and the federal government say the price must be lower than the average price retailers would pay in the area.

We have a small store that is growing quite nicely. In fact, juggling rosters to avoid paying overtime is increasingly becoming an issue. I understand it can be tricky, but can we just move several employees to salaried positions? No more messy rosters. No more overtime. Right?

Likely very wrong. This is a strategy that “has been used so often to avoid paying rightful overtime, that it is written into the law through the Fair Labor Standards Act,” says Scott Clark, a lawyer and founder of the HTC Group. Yes, there are salaried positions for which there are exemptions from overtime rules, but they tend to be “true” management roles and jobs that require a college degree or technical training. They must also pay more than a minimum of $455 per week, and the salary must be the same every week (so if your employee wants time off to see the doctor you still have to pay his full weekly salary — no more docking wages for hours not worked). If it seems that the government is uncharacteristically protective of lower-income workers in this instance, never fear, it really isn’t. On the contrary, the government is very particular about all the taxes and Social Security that get paid on overtime. We’d say a better approach is to view your employees as an asset who make you money, not as an expense. Invest in your employees to make them more efficient, and they’ll make you even more money. Or hire the staff you actually need.

Where can I get hold of a good employee evaluation form?

As you’ve no doubt discovered, there are scores you can download to use as a model or template. Some, like those from educational institutions, are really quite detailed and cover every possible aspect of a job, while others are very basic. Our only advice when it comes to employee evaluations is that you not spend too much time on the whole process. While you may want the paper trail to protect yourself against lawsuits from former employees, there’s a growing view that reviews don’t really achieve much. Mary Jenkins, a co-author of Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead, advocates designing a system in which employees can seek feedback from people they work with, then draw up a skills-development plan with their manager — or you.

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How to Attract Top Salespeople and More Questions for April

Also, how to structure their compensation to remain competitive.

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We have a very young-looking salesperson who worries people don’t take her seriously. We’ve styled her in planos but what more can we do to make her look more professional?

“Professionalism is really about projecting confidence,” says Anne Sowden, managing director of image consultancy Here’s Looking at You. “And confidence is reflected in clothing and body language. As a general guideline, dark colors — black, navy and charcoal — convey authority.

A jacket automatically makes someone appear more professional. Pair it with a light-colored blouse (conservative neckline), knee-length skirt and she’ll look professional but approachable. And ensure the clothing fits properly, is not wrinkled and she will feel comfortable in it.

“If you’re comfortable, you’ll automatically be more confident,” Sowden notes.

When it comes to greeting customers, remind her of Mom’s dictum: Stand up straight and don’t slouch. “This will indicate that confidence and approachability. Add to that eye contact and most importantly, a smile and she’ll make a dynamite first impression,” Sowden says.

I have an employee at my high-end eyewear store who makes $16 an hour and commission based on gross profit. She earns close to $60,000 a year but feels underpaid and that paying commission on gross profit is contrary to the industry standard. How can I convince her she has it pretty good?

She does indeed have it pretty good, says industry consultant Andrea Hill, owner of Hill Management Group, noting that her hourly rate is almost 50 percent higher than the average for retail sales people of $11.50 and even more than the average of $15 paid by very high-end luxury retailers.

As for the commission, Hill says you are very much on the right track and your employee will probably have to get used to it wherever she decides to work; “wise” businesses are increasingly moving away from a commission based on the retail price to a portion of the gross margin. “In this way, sales professionals are challenged to balance the need to get the highest price possible with the need to close the sale,” Hill says.

“When commissions are paid out on total sales only, then it becomes very easy for the salesperson to sacrifice profits for the easy close,” she says.

While exposure to such numbers should mollify your associate, what you really want to do is excite her about the potential of earning as much as $100,000 a year — which is what top luxury salespeople make — although that requires building a “strong book” of customers through active networking, clienteling and prospecting work.

Keep in mind, however, that even the most generous commission rate won’t help if you’re not on top of your game, meaning advertising intelligently, keeping up with changing retail trends, providing the right technology for how consumers today want to shop, and maintaining an exciting inventory that reflects current tastes, says Hill.

“If the retail business owner does not ensure that they are running a strong merchandising and marketing operation, then even the best sales person in the world will not be able to turn the promise of commission into actual earnings.”

I still can’t get my head around kelvins and color temperatures. Can you help?

It probably helps to think of the original theoretical model that underlies the index — that of a black metal radiator, whose color changes as it is heated, from black to orange to red to blue to white hot.

Similar to Celsius and Fahrenheit, the Kelvin scale marks different degrees of thermodynamic temperature, but it is the association with color change that makes it useful as a way to designate light bulbs.

Where it gets confusing is how at the lower end of the scale, from 2000K to 3000K, the light produced is called “warm white” and ranges from orange to yellow-white in appearance. Meanwhile, color temperatures further up the scale, between 3100K and 4500K, are referred to as “cool white” but the bulbs are emitting a brighter, hotter light.

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