2019 Tax Prep + Deductions

The Holidays are upon us and there is so much to do! Shopping (remember to buy gifts for special clients), holiday cards (everyone you’ve worked with over the past 5 years will receive one), parties and catching up with dear friends and colleagues. You may also find it advantageous to change your health insurance plan before open enrollment ends in your state, or make a retirement account contribution before January 1. It also makes sense to review the years’ invoices to calculate gross revenues and decide how to handle December billings.

Especially for invoices that are due on or after the 15th, should you keep those earnings in this year and invoice at the usual time, or invoice on January 2 and push earnings into next year? If you earned more than expected this year, consider pushing earnings forward, to limit taxable income. You could also make a retirement plan contribution, if you haven’t reached the year’s maximum amount (whether you bill clients in this year or the next). Here are a few more tax season preparation tactics to consider:

Find all invoices and confirm that they’ve been paid. Send a reminder to those clients who have not paid up. As noted above, calculate your revenues (i.e., income before deductions) and determine whether to invoice on time or later. Of course you can do other good things with your windfall, if you have one, such as registering for a class that will be held in the new year and paying for it now (and taking the deduction in this tax year).

Calculate your self-employment tax. In addition to our regular income tax, Freelancers are responsible for paying the 15.3 % self-employment tax levied on the first $132,900 of net income and 2.9% of net income beyond that amount. This tax represents the Social Security and Medicare taxes that traditional employees have taken out of their paychecks automatically. The amount includes as well the employer portion of those taxes, since Freelancers are considered both employer and employee.

Freelancers are able to write off business expenses for these categories:

Business-related travel, meals and lodging

Membership in business and professional associations

Office required equipment or materials

Home office. Most Freelancers work from home and are therefore eligible to take this deduction. The Internal Revenue Service allows independent workers to write off a corresponding percentage of rent/mortgage and utilities when our home is also our office. Get out your measuring tape and determine the dimensions of your workspace as a percentage of the square footage of your home to calculate the amount of your deduction. Be advised that office space must be used exclusively for self-employment work. One cannot, for example, “borrow” a child’s bedroom from 9:00 to 5:00 and consider that your home office.

Office equipment and supplies. One of the downsides of being a Freelancer is that we are unable to use an employer’s computer, scanner, printer, staples, or paper clips. We pay for that stuff out of our own budgets. But since we need certain resources to do client work, the IRS allows us to deduct their cost from gross sales revenues. To avoid IRS problems, keep your business and personal expenses separate. For example, check in with a smart accountant before you decide to deduct your cell phone or Internet service while using them only partly for work.

A real benefit for those who will buy office equipment is the Section 179 Deduction, which allows the business owner (or Freelancer) to write off the entire purchase price of qualifying equipment for the current tax year, up to $1,000,000. Qualifying items include office furniture, computers and software programs such as QuickBooks and InDesign.

Travel, meals, lodging. This category of deductions is the most confusing for Freelancers and business owners. We are allowed to deduct the costs of traveling to our work assignments, client meetings and conferences, including gasoline, tolls, parking, trains, planes, buses, or Uber/ Lyft. One cannot deduct costs associated with commuting to your separately leased or owned office space. Hotel/ airbnb/ B&B rooms are 100% deductible, except for personal expenses such as movie rentals or the mini-bar.

The cost of taking clients and prospects out for a meal are deductible at a 50% rate, while costs associated with company-wide parties, picnics and restaurant meals when at least half of your employees attend are 100% deductible. Keep all receipts —take a picture with your phone as back-up.

As with all Freelancing expenses, deductions must directly relate to one’s business. We cannot write off the tuition for a workshop on baking or flower arranging if one is a website developer, nor can we write off education that trains us for a new occupation. But if we take classes to earn certifications in our field or to enhance business knowledge, then we can typically write off all associated costs. The same is true for any licensing, registration, or certification costs that we incur.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Illustration: Henry Holiday The Tax Collector at Work, created for the Lewis Carroll poem The Hunting of the Snark (1876)

Google Says You Are What You EAT

Freelancers and business owners must do whatever is possible and practical to promote our ventures and one perennial item on our marketing to-do list is the matter of Search Engine Optimization. Basically, that means how does our website fare in the all-important Google page ranking? Just the other day, I received an email marketing notice that examined whether email marketing or blogging was more effective for increasing Google page ranking and the answer was blogging (so I guess these folks will no longer send marketing emails?)

Google’s ever-evolving algorithms are a source of OCD -level obsession for many Freelancers and business owners. Big-budget companies spend thousands of dollars annually to follow the formula that will keep their business in the top 10 (i.e., page one) of Google searches. In February of this year, Google actually released a white paper that addresses the ranking issue, framed as an explanation of how they fight disinformation. In short, Google claims that we are what we EAT.

E-A-T in Google-speak stands for Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. This concept is discussed is detailed in its Quality Raters’ Guidelines. Demonstrating good EAT both on your website and social media platforms can potentially improve your company’s ranking. An excerpt from the report says, Our ranking system does not identify the intent or factual accuracy of any given piece of content. However, it is specifically designed to identify sites with high indicia of expertise, authority and trustworthiness (EAT).”

At the heart of the ranking system is a category of businesses that Google defines as Your Money or Your Life (YMYL). Introduced in 2014, its purpose is to protect those searching for medical, legal, financial, or safety-related articles and websites, along with other information deemed vital. Attorneys, physicians, dentists, mortgage brokers, banks and eCommerce sites are placed in the YMYL category, since consumers often must divulge personal information and payment details on those websites.

But let’s get to the meat of this thing, i.e., what does Google suggest we do to elevate page ranking? See below:

  1. Quality content
    YMYL industries are monitored because they impact people’s health, happiness, or finances and Google wants to ensure that these websites give enough information to make an informed decision possible. If you’re in this category and motivated to re-do your website, take care to tell prospective customers what they need to know about your products or services, so that an informed decision can be made and be concise as you do.
  2. Optimize your ‘About us’ page. Google will likely use your About us page to assess your team’s EAT. Include in About us:
    – History of your business
    – Notable team members, their photos, bios, qualifications and awards
    – Business awards, nominations and other recognition
    – Positive press about the business
    – Company values
  3. Reputation management
    Third-party endorsements that appear to be unbiased are a must. You may be very active online, frequently posting updated content on your website and social media platforms in an effort to convince prospects that your business is reliable, but your claims will not be adequately persuasive unless they’re supported by customers who’ve done business successfully with your company. Case studies are an excellent way to describe the customer journey and give detailed insight into how your business provides solutions that work.

    To boost visibility in search engines, make connections with online news sites and industry blogs and ask if they’ll quote you or link to your company’s blog or white papers. Forget about buying backlinks. Only submit your URL to reputable sites that have earned good online results. Signing up with Help A Reporter Out (HARO), a free service where members receive invitations every day to give a quote to a media outlet, is a good idea. I’ve been quoted twice in 12 months.
  4. Website’s security
    Google absolutely must be assured that searcher information will be safe when they visit a website. Having an up-to-date SSL certificate is important to them. While an SSL certificate is not a legal requirement, if there is a data breach on your site and your company is sued, your LLC or incorporation status may not protect you, since not having the SSL certificate could be called negligence. Be advised that 86.73% of the top 20 websites in Google search results use https:// (have an SSL certificate) and not just http:// in their web address. The SSL protects all user information submitted to the site. For the user, credit card and personal informational are protected and for the website owner, user login details are protected. Not all SSL certificates are equal, meaning the free services found online aren’t necessarily trustworthy. Check your website security (accurately, for free) by entering the URL into an SSL checker will help pick up any potential problems. In fact, Google sees non-secure websites as irrelevant and even flags them in their algorithm system. The less relevant your website, the farther down you are on the results pages and the less your company is seen. If you’re considering saving money by creating a free website, you may want to think again. Unless an SSL certificate comes with your domain (if you’re registering one), you’re most likely not going to have an encrypted website. Penny wise, pound foolish. The best thing you can do is go with a trustworthy website developer who can provide everything you need, from (maybe) hosting to (definitely) website design and content all at once. If your site is up and running, check security at no charge https://www.ssllabs.com/ssltest/ or https://www.thesslstore.com/ssltools/ssl-checker.php

Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Roberto Bompiani (Rome 1821 – 1908) A Roman Feast (late 1800s) courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA

10 Qualities Leaders Need to Succeed

What makes a great leader? Possessing qualities such as confidence, vision, decisiveness, integrity and persistence are often cited. Pictured above is Shahjahan Begum (1838 – 1901), who was the popular and effective Nawab Begum of Bhopal, the princely state in central India, from 1868 – 1901. During her reign she achieved several noteworthy operational efficiencies, including conducting a census, modernizing the weaponry of her military troops, raising the salaries of her troops, improving the tax revenue system and issuing the first postage stamps of Bhopal. Listed below are 10 characteristics often attributed to great leaders.

Vision During the devastating 1974 famine that struck Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi economist, banker and social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus was inspired to make a small start-up loan ($27 U.S.) to a group of 42 families, so that they could purchase materials and make items to sell without borrowing from a bank and paying a predatory interest rate. He discovered that even a very small loan could make a tangible difference to poor people but unfortunately, banks refused to lend to them at a reasonable interest rate due to a perceived high risk of default.

 To confirm his initial observation about the power of micro loans, Yunus launched a research project at Chittagong University, where he was on the faculty of the Economics Department, to design and study a credit delivery system that would provide banking services to the rural poor. In October 1983 his project was authorized by Bangladeshi national legislation to operate as Grameen Bank. In 2006, Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance.

Authenticity Madam C.J. Walker, the orphaned daughter of freed slaves and a former laundress, in 1905 founded a hair care products company, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. That she was both female and African-American in a time of enormous discrimination and limitations placed on those of her gender and race was apparently beside the point. As all successful entrepreneurs do, Walker saw a problem, set about solving it and monetized the solution. She was not afraid to dream big and take action.

Initially, Walker made batches of hair care potions herself, in a washtub, and personally sold them door to door to friends and neighbors in Denver, CO, where she had moved to give herself a fresh start after marrying at age 14, becoming a mother at age 17 and widowed at 20 years old. To persuade women to try the products, she gave free demonstrations that created the necessary buzz.

By 1908, Walker had hired and trained a team of female sales representatives and by 1910 she employed 950 representatives who crisscrossed the country, making sales and creating loyal customers. The company expanded internationally, when her products became available in the Caribbean and South America. By 1917, Walker had become the nation’s first female self-made millionaire, founder and Chief Executive of the country’s most successful African-American and woman-owned business.

Integrity Honesty and integrity are foundational ingredients in developing trust and essential to establishing credibility. A leader’s credibility is central to his/her ability to influence others and provide strong leadership.

Warren Buffett, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the multinational holding company that wholly owns Duracell Batteries, Geico Insurance, Netjets, Dairy Queen and other well-known companies, pays very strong attention to integrity and honesty both when evaluating potential investments and when selecting managers for his businesses. “You’re looking for three things, generally, in a person,” says Buffett, “intelligence, energy and integrity. If they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two.”

Passion Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online shoe sales giant Zappos, has made customer satisfaction and company culture his mission and he is passionate about both. Hsieh regularly states that money shouldn’t be the most important company goal and that passion has been a key element in the enormous success of Zappos. Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose (2013) was written with the intention of spreading the message of using passion to both find one’s purpose and turn a profit.

Innovation In a July 2019 interview for the influential business-themed podcast Masters of Scale, host Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, interviewed Tory Burch, co-founder of her eponymous women’s wear company, to share key insights about how Burch so effectively scaled her company, which now has more than 250 boutiques on five continents and the collection is carried in more than 3,000 department stores and specialty shops around the world.

“I’ve always been a risk-taker,” Burch confessed as she detailed a strategic decision that in 2005 saw her launch an e-commerce website to make her merchandise available online, a practice that was nearly unimaginable in high-end retail at the time. Along the way, she “did trunk shows in different cities across the country and got a feel for where it would make sense to open more boutiques.”

Patience As Burch and Hoffman spoke more specifically about the episode’s theory of how a company might successfully scale, Hoffman observed, “It’s this combination of patient watchfulness and explosive speed that lets companies grow fast and go the distance.” Hoffman said of Burch, “You may have noticed as she spoke that she has clarity. You have to know what you’re building and what you’re waiting for.” Patience takes courage and confidence and demonstrates the leader’s faith that worthwhile results will be achieved when the time is right.

Decisiveness Strategic decisiveness is among the most vital success attributes for leaders in every position and every industry. Indecisiveness can severely cripple both your business and your life, potentially stunting growth, limiting financial success and diminishing personal satisfaction.

In a 2010 study, Psychologist Georges Potworowski at the University of Michigan found that certain personality traits (e.g., emotional stability, social boldness and feeling in control) predict why some people are more decisive than others. Decisively gifted leaders make it clear from the beginning that while they will carefully consider the opinions of others, they will ultimately choose what they judge to be best for their team. These leaders make the decision early on and move quickly to enlist all parties to implement that decision. Some members of the team may not be thrilled with the choice but in the end, most are quietly pleased to have clarity of direction.

Persistence Jewelry designer Tal Man, cofounder of Talia Jewelry, initially opened a small workshop where she designed and sold custom-made fine jewelry. As her customer list grew, she transitioned from operating a small custom jewelry house to becoming the creative director of a much larger enterprise that has customers on every continent.

Man faced the challenges associated with rapid growth and expansion boldly as her company scaled. She is happy to inspire fellow entrepreneurs, advising, “Never take no for an answer. I don’t even hear the word ‘no.’ When someone closed the door in my face, I went in through the window.” Additionally she says, “Know who you are seeking business advice from. Know what that person’s fear is. Is that person afraid of trying new things or going in a new direction? Or is the person’s fear about losing money? Don’t listen to the fears of others. Ask the right person for advice, ask someone who doesn’t have fear.”

Communication It’s a two-way street if you’re doing right. Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways and (now defunct) Virgin Records says, “Listening is one of the most important skills that anyone can have. That’s a very Virgin trait. Listening enables us to learn from each other, from the marketplace and from the mistakes that must be made in order to get anywhere that is original and disruptive. I learn so much from guests and employees that way.”

“Researching the competition has never been the Virgin way. Many of our products and services come about because we pay attention to what the market is missing or what’s not being done well. The commitment is about doing things differently.”

Accountability “The buck stops here” is a phrase that was popularized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. The phrase refers to the notion that a leader has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Nawab Shahjahan Begum (1838 – 1901) has been credited with the authorship of several books, written in Urdu. One book discussed socio-political conditions that existed during her reign and another examined the customs of purdah and the hijab followed by women in Asia and Egypt.

Guiding Light: Your Business Plan

Business plans and email marketing have something in common. The two stalwarts have often been declared dead by so-called experts, yet both continue to demonstrate value to current and aspiring business owners. Despite the naysayers, business plans are the foundation of business success, for the unavoidable reason that many new businesses fail.

Of the 400,000 companies started in 2014, 44% had failed by year four and just 18% of first-time Entrepreneurs were able to launch and sustain a successful entity. As the saying goes, “No one plans to fail. They just fail to plan.” Don’t let that be you, Dear.

The primary reason for aspiring Freelance consultants and Entrepreneurs to write a business plan is to test assumptions about the viability of the business idea against credible information that reveals the likely demand for the product or service and customer groups that have the money and possible motive to buy those products and services. The potential viability of a business is revealed in factors such as the size of the market (i.e., those with money and motive to buy), the founder’s access to potential customers (a big factor in B2B and B2G sales), competitors who sell an identical or similar product or service (are they thriving or just hanging on?) and the amount of money required to set up shop and start doing business.

A second compelling reason to write a business plan is to develop strategies that provide a roadmap, or blueprint, that will guide the founder as s/he builds and launches the venture. Confirming target customers, identifying possible niche markets, choosing the pricing strategy and the sales strategy; creating the financial plan, the operations plan, a realistic business model and selecting the most advantageous legal structure will also be thought through in advance of the company launch.

During the process, the founder will make discoveries that may persuade him/her to refine certain aspects of the products and services intended to be sold, or adjust perceptions of who the ideal customers will be. This information may have the power to substantively improve the venture’s chances of success and sustainability.

A third reason that motivates aspiring Freelance consultants and Entrepreneurs to write a business plan is the need to seek financing for their venture, whether the funds will be used to launch or scale the company. The financing source may be a bank or credit union, a micro financing organization, private investment (friends and family), or even self-financing. Those holding money will use the business plan to make funding decisions, so founders would be wise to develop a realistic financial blueprint that projects three years into the future, as well as a credible marketing plan that accurately defines target customer groups and identifies key competitors.

In sum, a powerful business plan needs to be three-dimensional, so it distills lessons from the real world and allows the founder(s) to test and when necessary revise assumptions. This ongoing process will give the business the highest chance of success while also increasing your credibility with investors, your team and most of all, yourself.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: © Ubisoft Entertainment SA, artist’s rendering of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. The lighthouse stood on the island of Pharos, guiding ships as they entered the harbors of Alexandria, Egypt on the Mediterranean coast. The structure was built during the reigns of Ptolemy I and II, c. 300 – 280 BC. With a height of over 330 feet, the lighthouse was so impressive that it was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Now lost, the lighthouse was a welcomed navigational aid for over 1600 years.

2020 Health Insurance Open Enrollment: The Facts

Hello Freelancer Friend, the enrollment period for health insurance is here, now through mid-December (in most states). Because health insurance is a vital topic, I decided to defer to an expert and pass along info compiled by Les Masterson for Insure.com. For more detailed information, please visit the site. https://www.insure.com/health-insurance/open-enrollment-for-individual-health-insurance.html

We have 6 weeks to make a decision on individual/ family health insurance or the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges plan (in most states). We can sign up for health insurance on our state’s health insurance exchange or individual marketplace only during the annual open enrollment period, unless one has a “qualifying life event.” Those events include getting married or having a baby.

If buying health insurance on your own, there are several options for purchasing a policy:

  • Your state’s health insurance marketplace — see healthcare.gov https://www.healthcare.gov
  • Directly from a health insurance company
  • Sites like Insure.com that offers insurance quotes from multiple carriers
  • A health insurance agent
Open enrollment for 2020 individual and family health insurance plans
Begins Ends
November 1, 2019 December 15, 2019

The open enrollment period differs in these states: 

  • CA – Oct. 15, 2019 to Jan. 15, 2020
  • CO – Nov. 1, 2019 to Jan. 15, 2020
  • DC – Nov. 1 , 2019 to Jan. 31, 2020
  • MA – Nov. 1, 2019 to Jan. 23, 2020
  • MN – Nov. 1, 2019 to Dec. 23, 2019
  • NY – Nov. 1, 2019 to Jan. 31, 2020
  • RI – Nov. 1, 2019 to Dec. 23, 2019

If you buy after December 15 in the states that are extending the enrollment period, confirm when the coverage will start. Most states require you to obtain your plan by December 15 for a January 1 start date. If you buy late, your plan might not start until February 1 or March 1.

Those who qualify for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) can enroll at any time, because they are state/ federal programs created for people with limited incomes or disabilities.

Marketplace Open Enrollment is for health insurance only

The Open Enrollment period does not apply to life insurance, long-term care insurance, or Medicare. The fall open enrollment period for Medicare is October 15 to December 7, 2019. If you qualify for employer-sponsored health insurance, you will want to buy health insurance through your employer. Individual insurance usually costs more than employer-sponsored plans.

That said, if you qualify for subsidies based on your income, you may find an inexpensive plan on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Exchange. Many states offer financial help for people with income below 400% of the federal poverty limit. You can find out more about these subsidies at insure.com. 

Remember to enroll!

It is not possible to sign up for coverage if you miss open enrollment, unless one qualifies for one of the special enrollment periods. The following events may grant entrance into a special enrollment period:

  • Divorce
  • Marriage
  • Birth or adoption of a child
  • Death of a spouse or partner that leaves you without coverage
  • Your spouse or partner, who has you covered, loses his/her job and health insurance
  • You lose your job and with it your health insurance
  • Your hours are cut making you ineligible for your employer’s health insurance plan
  • You are in an HMO and move outside its coverage area

Update your plan during Open Enrollment only

What you can do during open enrollment:

  • Renew your current individual or family health insurance plan
  • Choose a new health insurance plan through the marketplace in your state or through private insurance

If currently enrolled in a marketplace health insurance plan, it will automatically renew. However, the plan may make changes to its provider network, co-pays, co-insurance and drug coverage. Your plan must send you a notice of any changes it will make for 2020.

Read the health insurance update notice to learn what it means for youConfirm that your doctors and preferred hospital are still in your network. Be aware that you may be able to use out-of-network doctors and hospitals if you’re willing to pay more. That’s an option in Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) plans. In some cases, such as Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) plans, you’re covered if you go out of network. That means you’ll have to pick up the costs. 

Prescription drug coverage also could change. The plan may no longer cover the drugs you take to manage your chronic conditions. Confirm your plan’s drug benefits for 2020 before you allow it to renew. You may need to find a different plan for your needs and now’s the time to do it. Health plans must provide an online link to the list of drugs they will cover, known as formularies.

ACA Premiums set to decrease for some plans

The premium you pay depends on several factors, including income, your state and the plan type. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the average ACA federal exchange plans premium costs dropped for the first time this year. However, because not all plans will be cheaper, it’s still important to shop around to find the right plan for you. 

Choose a level of health plan coverage

Plans in the health insurance marketplace are divided into 4 categories:

  • Bronze – highest out-of-pocket expenses for services (lower premiums)
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Platinum – least out-of-pocket expenses for services (higher premiums)

Each level indicates how much cost-sharing each requires. Cost-sharing includes deductibles, co-pays and co-insurance that we must pay until the annual out-of-pocket maximum limit is reached.

Bronze plans have the highest deductibles and other cost-sharing expenses. That means more out-of-pocket costs when one uses healthcare services. Silver plans have lower cost-sharing than Bronze and Gold plans even lower than Silver. Platinum plans have the lowest deductibles and co-pays. Once one signs up for a level of coverage, changes are not allowed during that year. If you choose a Bronze plan and discover you need surgery, you cannot change to a plan with a lower deductible.

Generally, the more you pay in premiums the lower your cost-sharing.

In a 2019 report, eHealth estimated that 2-person families paid more than $1,000 in premiums monthly for the first time in the individual market in 2019. Premiums for individual coverage for a single person was $448 in 2019. 

The average premiums for individual coverage according to eHealth:

  • Bronze — $440
  • Silver — $481
  • Gold — $596
  • Platinum — $706

The average premiums for family coverage according to ehealth:

  • Bronze — $1,080
  • Silver — $1,179
  • Gold — $1.426
  • Platinum — $1,460

The health plans, no matter the level, must provide some coverage for at least 10 essential benefits. They are:

  • Outpatient care including chronic disease management
  • Emergency care
  • Hospitalization
  • Pregnancy and newborn care
  • Mental health and substance abuse services
  • Prescription drugs
  • Rehabilitation services and devices
  • Lab tests
  • Preventive and wellness services
  • Dental and vision care for children

The level of coverage for these services can vary. All the plans in the marketplace must provide consumers with a brief, understandable description of what they cover and how their plan works. The Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) must be posted on the plan’s website. Check out the SBCs for the different plans you are considering. This is a good way to compare plans and benefits.

Not all states require health insurance

The ACA once required nearly all Americans to have health insurance. However, Congress decided in 2017 to eliminate the individual mandate penalty. Although the individual mandate is technically still on the books, the tax penalty is not. Still, a growing number of states have implemented their own individual mandate. Here are states that have an individual mandate in 2020:

  • California
  • District of Columbia
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey 
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont

I hope you found this information helpful.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Thomas Eakins (Philadelphia 1844-1916) The Agnew Clinic, 1899 courtesy of The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The painting was commissioned to honor the anatomist and surgeon David Hayes Agnew, on his retirement from teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.

Got Power? 6 Types You Should Recognize

“Nearly all men can stand adversity but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Robert G. Ingersoll (1833 – 1899, NY), orator and author of Some Mistakes of Moses (1879) and known as The Great Agnostic

“Power tends to get to people’s heads. We’re not really trained to handle power well.” Nicole Lipkin, Ph.D., psychologist and author of What Keeps Leaders Up At Night (2013)

Power is sexy, seductive and sometimes addictive. Power is heady, power is magnetic, power brings perks—money and sex, fast cars and prime real estate, fame, prestige and respect. Perhaps it is evolutionary imperatives that drive certain personality types to seek out power more than others: males, alpha personalities and extroverts.

Powerful people, whether they obtained power through achievement, birthright, marriage, or fortunate friendships are favorably positioned to acquire leadership positions, through which they acquire still more power. Yet not everyone knows what to do with power once they have it. In 1959, psychologists John R.P. French and Bertram Raven identified sources of power that leaders commonly gain.

Formal Power

This power is derived from holding a leadership position in a hierarchical organization, e.g., Admiral or General in the military, Mayor or Senator in the political sector, CEO, Executive Director, or President in for-profit or not-for-profit sectors. Individuals who wield Formal Power have considerable control over the lives of others.

However, Formal Power is in reality transferred to the individual. Formal Power resides in the title and such power will be lost when the title is relinquished, whether by choice or by force. Only the organization’s founder(s) truly hold power (of the Expertise variety) because they’ve earned it by inventing or launching a significant, long-lasting product, service, or organization that has impact and influence. Earned power cannot be completely taken away by force, even if the organization ceases operations or is the target of a hostile takeover. The founder(s) will forever own the achievement.

Kingmaker Power

Powerful people who desire to prolong or amplify their power by installing allies into positions of power are known as Kingmakers. These individuals are power brokers who sponsor and groom favored candidates for leadership positions, through which they will ascend to Formal Power. Kingmakers arrange for their protoges to receive training, high-profile assignments and other types of support that enable the chosen ones to receive credientials, experience, visibility and ultimately, inevitability.

The Kingmaker’s goal is to persuade both key influencers and rank-and-file members of the organization that their preferred candidate is deserving of a top leadership position. Developing trust and confidence in the candidate is essential, so that decision-makers will accept and nominate him/her for leadership and power.

Oftentimes, Kingmakers are themselves unable to ascend to the highest rungs of leadership, but they wield enough power and respect to influence decision-makers when future leaders are chosen.

Expert Power

In the 1970s, western societies entered the Information Age and in the 1990s entered the Knowledge Economy, both fueled by expertise and information. Expert Power is derived from the belief that others, especially thought leaders and powerful people, have about the superiority of a person’s capabilities. If enough of the right people feel that an individual has clearly superior knowledge and proficiency in a subject that society has decided is high-value, that person is considered an expert and s/he earns power.

Expert Power is held by architect Frank Gehry, whose talent for creating distinctive designs, in particular museum designs, has enabled institutions to become world-renowned attractions that have had game-changing impact on the communities, local and regional, in which they were built (see the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain). Bill Gates and the late Paul Allen, co-founders of Microsoft, are another example of Expert Power. Their development of Windows software helped spark the microcomputer revolution and Microsoft became the largest personal computer software company in the world.

Expert Power is the easiest power to acquire and because it is earned, it cannot be taken away. Study hard and it may be yours! However, its holders must continually study, do research, make process improvements, or operational efficiencies in order to stay ahead of the curve and maintain their power.

Charismatic Power

Here we have the cult of personality, rock star appeal. Their supporters are sometimes more akin to fans, if not disciples. Integrity, discipline, talent, trust and likability are its pillars. “People with high Referent (Charismatic) Power can highly influence anyone who admires and respects them,” Lipkin says.

Their associates/ followers are very loyal and happy to do their bidding. People believe in those with Charismatic Power and will strive, and sometimes compete, to please them, in order to win favor and approval. Charismatic Power holders are tremendously persuasive and they excel at rallying supporters around a cause. Mohandas K. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Ho Chi Minh used their Charismatic Power to launch successful civil rights movements on behalf of those who were systematically disenfranchised and abused (by those who held Formal Power that descended into Coercive Power).

Charismatic Power is self-generated and cannot be given, but the discovery of unethical behavior will break the spell and power will be lost forever.

Relationship Power

This person derives power from whom s/he knows and to whom s/he has access. Relationship Power can be acquired from the powerful family into which one was born, marriage, or a fortunate friendship. Those with Relationship Power are wise to carefully nurture the relationship, to ensure that the gravy train continues.

The holders of Relationship Power are positioned to receive many benefits through their relationship(s). They glide through doors that lead to coveted business or employment opportunities. Proprietary information helps them find the house of their dreams or make the right investments. Introductions to still more powerful people amplify their benefits. They may use their Relationship Power to leapfrog into a position that gives them Formal Power.

Coercive Power

This individual may have acquired power by any means, but s/he abuses that power. Unfortunately, we’ve all witnessed this type of scenario and it is enormously stressful for those who must live or labor in proximity to its toxic presence. Coercive power is harmful according to any metric. Abusive parenting is the most tragic example of Coercive Power.

This power is enforced and maintained with threats, intimidation, lies, manipulation and sometimes actual physical or sexual violence. Shockingly, those who elect to wield power in this fashion can become enormously successful and even admired by their peers (who sometimes know of their transgressions but find it convenient to ignore the problem).

A recent example of the long-term and highly rewarding use of Coercive Power can be found in reports about the now-disgraced and unemployed co-founder of Miramax Entertainment Harvey Weinstein, who became the prime focus of the #metoo movement. For 20 years Weinstein basked in the fawning favor of two U.S. Presidents, dozens of members of Congress, Hollywood and television stars and leaders of Fortune 500 companies, the result of sky-high box office grosses and robust profits earned by films and television programs produced by Miramax.

It’s all over now, though. Dr.Lipkin cautions, “There is not a time of day when you should use it. Ultimately, you can’t build credibility with coercive influence—you can think of it like bullying in the workplace.”

Happy Halloween and thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: “Off with her head!” The Queen of Hearts, here confronting Alice, embodies Coercive Power. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel (1820 – 1914, UK) for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)

Defining and Delivering Good Customer Service

Superior customer service is a cornerstone of the customer experience and the customer experience is a foundational element of the sales journey. I see the customer experience as governing everything that leads up to the sale and customer service as governing what happens after the sale. Along with designing a confidence-building customer experience that persuades prospects to become customers once the need for your products or services is established, to remain viable, every business must develop customer service protocols that support customer retention and encourage referrals.

As reported in Forbes Magazine in May 2018, American businesses lose $75 billion annually due to poor customer service and the U.S. Small Business https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2018/05/17/businesses-lose-75-billion-due-to-poor-customer-service/#5777314e16f9 Association reported in 2018 that 68% of customers stopped doing business with a company due to poor customer service. It is worthwhile to review your company’s customer service from time to time. Below are suggestions that might guide a refresh of your company’s approach to customer service:

  1. Answer the phone.  When a prospective customer calls for information, s/he does not want to leave a voicemail message and wait for an answer. The prospect wants to speak with a live person now who can answer questions quickly and correctly, in a friendly and professional manner. Hiring the optimal number of front-line staff is the antidote. Freelancers who work alone and receive a fair amount of incoming calls can hire a telephone answering service to take calls when you cannot.

2. Take the extra step. When the intention is to help a prospective customer, understand that doing the minimum is not enough. For example, when speaking with a prospect who has questions about your products or services, merely directing him/her to the company website to obtain more information does not exemplify good customer service. Instead, ask the customer about the problem that must be solved, inquire as to what s/he would like to achieve and then discuss how your product or service can (or cannot) provide the desired solution.

3. Be helpful. If it is discovered while speaking with a prospect that your product or service cannot provide the necessary solution, do not be afraid to refer the prospect to a competitor or another company that can meet his/her needs. Your generosity will be remembered and may be returned with future business and referrals.

4. Listen. Let the customer talk. Allow the customer to ask questions or describe a problem. You (or front-line staff) ask clarifying questions along the way, to demonstrate that you are listening and evaluating how your products or services might be useful (or not) to the customer. The more front-line staff know about your customers and their needs, the more of an asset they will be to your company and customers. Prospects and customers will appreciate the empathy and product knowledge and that will almost certainly increase customer retention, new business and referrals.

5. Resolve problems quickly. No business owner enjoys receiving complaints, but those complaints reveal product or process breakdowns that you have the opportunity to fix. Customers gain confidence when a business quickly responds to and resolves complaints. Apologize profusely and throw in something extra (an upgrade or gift certificate, based on the price of the item purchased) to demonstrate that you value the customer and regret the inconvenience that you’ve caused. If handled correctly, you will win repeat business and a source of referrals (instead of bad-mouthing on Yelp).

6. Train staff. Make training a key element of front-line staff on-boarding. Conduct a product boot camp for new hires, plus an annual refresh for all staff, to ensure that employees are familiar with your product and service lines (bring in a Freelance colleague with sales training experience to conduct the annual training session). Give front-line staff the tools and information they need to support customers as efficiently as possible. Empower them to make those small customer-pleasing decisions, so they’ll rarely have to say, “I don’t know, but the owner will be back at…”

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Date night at the malt shoppe 1930s USA

Bad Decisions: Or, Why We Screw Up

Research has shown that every day, we make 2000 decisions, i.e. choices, by another name. Most of our decisions are minor and we make them quickly, almost without thinking. We decide what to wear to work in the morning, we choose whether to eat lunch now or in 30 minutes.

But a select few of our decisions have serious consequences and for that reason they demand serious thought, if not actual research. The choices we make affect our health, safety, finances, relationships, our time and our reputation. Ultimately, our decisions define our lives. Consistently making good decisions can be considered among the best things we can do for ourselves, in both our personal and professional lives. 

Now when we make a decision, we do not always have all of the information that we’d like to have. Sometimes, what one could reasonably expect to be a sound decision turns out to be less than positive because of factors that were unknown when the decision was made.

According to Michael Erwin, CEO of the not-for-profit organization The Character & Leadership Center, U.S. Army Reserves Lt. Colonel, Asst. Professor in Leadership and Psychology at the U.S. Military Academy /West Point and author of Lead Yourself First (2006), those faced with an important decision should be mindful of the following conditions, which are capable of undermining good decision-making:

Decision fatigue

With so many decisions to make, especially those that will have a big impact on our own lives or the lives of others, it’s almost inevitable to avoid decision fatigue. To counter it, identify the most important decisions you need to make and arrange to make them when your energy levels are highest.

Social Psychologist Roy Bauminster studied mental discipline at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH and at Florida State University in Tallahassee.  His work indicates that it’s best to make important decisions in the morning after eating a light, nutritious breakfast. Our brains derive energy from healthy food and that helps us to comprehend and value long-term prospects and bolsters decision-making ability.  In the morning we have enough willpower to exercise the self-control needed for making important strategic or financial decisions.

Bauminster advises that we tackle big decisions first, before we have to make numerous smaller decisions that will sap energy and lead to decision fatigue.  So do your best to schedule client meetings for early in the day, before late afternoon, whenever possible. Write and pitch proposals early in the day as well.

According to the researcher Martin Hilbert, Professor of Communication at the University of California at Davis and instructor of the seminar Information and Communication Technology: A Venture into Applied Data Science, our brains process about five times the amount of information today as we processed in 1986. Consequently, many of us live in a continuous state of distraction and we struggle to focus. Ongoing distractions are detrimental to sleep, productivity, concentration and, yes, decision-making.

To counter this, schedule time each day to go offline and step away from email, social media, news and the onslaught of the Information Age. It’s easier said than done, but do-able if you make it a priority.

Insufficient information

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, IL found that in a typical meeting, an average of three people do 70% of the talking. As author Susan Cain describes in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts (2012), many introverts are reluctant to speak up in meetings until they know precisely what they want to say. Unfortunately, introverts fairly often feel blocked by overly expressive extroverts and they keep their insights to themselves. As a result, decision-makers might ignore or gloss over certain possible answers or options, perhaps due to the bias of habit (“we’ve never done that before”).

Meeting conveners can temper this inclination by sending out a meeting agenda 24 hours in advance, to give everyone time to think about their questions and suggestions regarding the agenda items. Furthermore, it is incumbent upon the convener to create an environment that encourages all attendees (whether they participate physically or virtually) to contribute— i.e., speak up and share information and when necessary, persuade others to examine and question their assumptions.

Introverts often ask the right questions, or contribute great ideas and relevant information to their teams, because while the extroverts are busy talking over one another and doing whatever possible to monopolize the conversation, introverts are quietly listening and thinking, questioning and analyzing. Decision-makers can greatly benefit from input supplied by the quiet members of their team.

Multi-tasking

There are few jobs left in the world today that don’t require at least some multi-tasking. While that’s the reality, research pioneered in 2009 by Earl Miller, Professor of Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that performance, including productivity and effective decision-making, can be diminished by as much as 40% when we attempt to focus on two (or more) cognitive tasks simultaneously. When called to make an important decision, set aside a block of time so that you can devote the required thought and focus to the question (or task).

Analysis Paralysis

The Information Age has deluged us with an abundance of information—Big Data, algorithms and a vast array of metrics— and there’s almost no end to the amount of information one can access. However, more information doesn’t necessarily lead to the best result.

Information overload can hinder the decision-making process; the more information there is to consider, the longer it takes to make the decision. Which data thread should we follow? Analysis-Paralysis, which is an expression of confusion and fear, can set in.

Because time is often a factor in big decisions, knowing when to draw the line on data gathering and move forward to finalizing your decision is a valuable leadership skill. While the decision-making process should be thorough, the best way to make good decisions is not to continually search for more information but instead to understand what information will be useful, review the selected data, set a decision-making deadline and adhere to it.

Emotions

Strong emotions have the power to impair one’s ability to make sound decisions and it is advisable to delay important decisions when one is angry, frustrated, excited, or even very happy. May I also include fatigue, inebriation, illness, pain and hunger in this category?

During those times, one’s ability to reason and take a measured and balanced view of an important question or unfolding events usually disappears. When blood sugar drops, a trip to the grocery store often results in a shopping basket filled with the wrong foods. Sending an email when angry or frustrated can present a danger to one’s career or business, since the temptation to use provocative or even harsh language could be strong and the ability to self-censor may be low. Likewise, inebriation, fatigue, illness and pain may potentially diminish one’s ability to think clearly and reach a rational decision about anything of importance.

When faced with an important decision while in the grip of strong emotions or similar feelings, honor your emotional state and focus on self-control. Give yourself time to calm down and gain perspective on what is happening. Forgive yourself, postpone your response, breathe and take a time-out. Have a cup of tea. If possible, you might also take a nap or a shower. Resist the temptation to respond to people or make decisions while you’re flustered or agitated.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Belgium, June 1577 – May 1640) The Fall of Man, Adam and Eve 1628-1629, courtesy of The Prado Museum, Madrid

5 Genius Questions for Your Customer Survey

Every business owner or leader must study his/her customers (or potential customers for those in start-up or new product launch mode) and gather as much potentially useful information about them as possible. The first and greatest commandment of business is “know thy customer” and the research must continue for the life of the business. We can never stop learning.

The important matter of measuring customer satisfaction and customer loyalty became the life’s work of Frederick F. Reichheld, now an Emeritus Director of the Boston, MA consulting firm Bain and Company, also the founder of its Loyalty practice and author of The Ultimate Question: Driving Good Profits and True Growth (2006). Reichheld reported that it took two years of studying customer satisfaction and customer loyalty survey responses and correlating those responses to actual customer behavior—i.e., purchases and referrals made and then linking customer behavior to growth—to discover that a single survey question can reliably predict sales revenue growth.

The big reveal question does not directly address either customer satisfaction or customer loyalty. Rather, it simply inquires about customers’ willingness to recommend a product or service to someone else. While other factors besides customer loyalty play a role in driving a company’s growth—economic or industry expansion, a product or service line that reflects the needs and tastes of current and prospective customers, good financial management and so on—repeat business and good word of mouth are indisputably two of the most important drivers of sales revenue growth and in general, no company can be profitable without them.

Loyal customers talk up a company to friends, family and colleagues. Their recommendations are among the truest demonstrations of loyalty because the customer puts his/her own reputation on the line when making them. Customers will risk their reputations only if they feel intense loyalty.

The customer experience is, I am certain, another significant factor in a customer’s willingness to recommend a business and many actions contribute to that experience. Marketing Departments point survey questions toward metrics they control, such as brand image, pricing and product features and benefits. But a customer’s willingness to recommend a business is also connected to how well the customer is treated by the front line employees—are they friendly (but not intrusive)? Are they helpful?

According to Reichheld’s findings, customer loyalty differs subtly but substantively from customer satisfaction. Gauging loyalty by way of the usual customer-satisfaction survey questions is not helpful. His research indicates that customer satisfaction lacks a consistently demonstrable connection to customer behavior and growth. Reichheld says it is difficult to identify a sufficiently strong correlation between high customer satisfaction scores and outstanding sales growth. “The question ‘How satisfied are you with (company X’s) overall performance?’ is a relatively weak predictor of growth,” he says.

One of the main takeaways from Reichheld’s research is that companies can keep customer surveys simple. The most basic surveys, providing that the right questions are asked, can allow companies to obtain timely data that is actionable. Reichheld goes so far to assert that a customer feedback program should be viewed not as “market research” but as an operating management tool. Below are five of Reichheld’s survey questions.

  • How likely is it that you would recommend (company X) to a friend or colleague?
  • How likely is it that you will continue to purchase products/services from (company X)?
  • How strongly do you agree that (company X) makes it easy for you to do business with it?
  • If you were selecting a similar provider for the first time, how likely is it that you would you choose (company X)?
  • How satisfied are you with (company X) overall performance?

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: (l-r) Phyllis Povah, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford in The Women (1939). Sales girl Crawford is showing her customers the fictitious fragrance “Summer Rain.”

Prediction: Emerging Social Media Platforms 2019 – 2020

Which new social media platforms are lining up to become The Next Big Thing for B2B marketers? Take a look at these four up-and-comers and figure out which might appeal to your customers and be a good forum for your products or services. Jumping in early can provide big benefits for your business, keeping you a step ahead of the competition. As they say, fortune favors the bold.

Lasso

Here is yet another video-based social media site, but it could be worth your time, especially when you consider how popular this form of content has become. Plus, Lasso is owned by Facebook and as such cannot be ignored. It’s being pitched as an alternative to TikTok (see below). Videos have a 15 second limit and users can add their favorite songs to play in the background. You can create and share videos with fun filters and effects. Users can also log in with a Facebook or Instagram account and cross-post videos to Facebook Stories. Posting Lasso videos to Instagram Stories is soon to come.

Why You Should Consider Using It: While Lasso isn’t as popular as TikTok now, it could rival its top competitor soon. If your target audience is using TikTok, Lasso is a platform you’ll want to keep an eye on. 

Steemit

Steemit is a blockchain-based blogging and social media site that rewards content creators and curators with the cryptocurrency named STEEM. Creators whose content gets up-voted are paid with STEEM, as are those who write useful comments on others’ content. Recipients of STEEM currency can take their digital tokens and exchange them for real money.

This Reddit alternative is about more than cryptocurrency and technology topics, however. Users are invited to create content on a wide range of subjects, including travel, photography, food, music and sports. Besides the Steemit platform, the service aims to compete with other social media platforms as well. To challenge Instagram, Steem created Photosteem and SteemQ is a video sharing platform built on the Steem blockchain that will chase Youtube’s market.

SteemQ and PhotoSteem will employ the same model as Steemit. Since Steem is open source and they have announced that they will support new applications, we’re likely to see more Steem platforms pop up in the future. As of March 15, 2019, the service had 1.2 million registered users.

Why You Should Consider Using It: While Steemit has a relatively small user-base so far, smart marketers can use the platform as an additional channel to share content, grow their audience and pick up some cryptocurrency along the way.

TikTok

In 2017, the lip-synching app Musical.ly merged with a similar, newer app called TikTok. The newly configured company has enjoyed explosive growth: as of 2019, TikTok has 500 million+ active monthly users worldwide and 800 million + downloads. TikTok is now more popular in app stores than Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The service is a huge hit with younger audiences. According to the research firm Sensor Tower, TikTok was the fourth-most downloaded app in 2018.

TikTok’s short-form videos play on a loop, similar to the now-defunct Vine. Users can easily create and share content, but what sets TikTok apart from other video-creation platforms is the simplicity of adding musical overlays, fun effects, AR filters and more. Once you make a video, you can optimize by adding hashtags that can make it easier to find via search.

Why You Should Consider Using It: If your target audience is age 16-24 years, then TikTok is a great place to promote your business. I predict its popularity is poised to expand into the 25 – 39 year old cohort, based on a TikTok video of a service designed for parents of infants that was shown to me as I taught a business plan writing course yesterday evening. That TikTok is also potentially effective for fashion and e-commerce purveyors who want to work with influencers reinforces my confidence in the prediction.

The Cambridge, MA marketing firm Hubspot recently reported that The Washington Post is on TikTok and has already marked 54,000+ followers. Heads up, the Post’s TikTok content typically features relaxed and personal behind-the-scenes looks into its newsroom.

Vero

Vero is an Instagram alternative that boasts about having no ads, no data mining and no algorithms. Vero labels itself “more social, less media” and focused on providing a natural and ad-free experience. Users share photos, music, TV shows, movies, books, links and more. You can decide who can see each post by choosing between four categories: Close Friend, Friend, Acquaintance, or Follower.

Vero does not accept advertisements, a real plus for many users, but brands are able to work with influencers on the platform and pay to add a “Buy Now” button for their posts. Brands can create a Vero account and those brands whom Vero determines are capable of selling and fulfilling orders may share posts directly with their followers, i.e., those who opt-in to view posts that contain items for sale and a “buy” button to facilitate purchases.

Vero calls itself a subscription service but so far, the service is free. Registration for Vero can only be done on the app. There is no option to sign up on the website. Mashable reports that 50% of users are 21 – 40 years old and 68% male. As of March 1, 2019, there were 5 million subscribers.

Why you should consider using it: Without ads and algorithms, Vero is touted as the more “authentic” social media platform. It’s perfect for companies that want to build stronger, more meaningful relationships with their audience. Plus, because users can share such a wide range of content, it’s great for learning more about your target audience.

When evaluating which platforms are worth watching or experimenting with, here are four questions you should ask :

1. How many active users? Big numbers could mean that the platform is gaining momentum and your brand will have more opportunities to get in front of a large pool of users.
2. Are publications or thought leaders talking about it? If a platform doesn’t specify exact numbers, but marketing industry thought leaders or even news publications are discussing it, then it might be promising.
3. Will audiences be interested in the platform? While a tech novice might not enjoy TikTok, a teenager might get bored on Facebook. Younger people prefer visual apps like TikTok and Instagram. While you want to pay attention to the level of adaptability, you also pay attention to how your audience wants to interact with social media.
4. What type of content should we use to promote our brand on the platform? Always draft an action plan when introducing your brand on a new platform. If you can’t come up with any interesting ways to market your specific product on a really niche platform, you might want to postpone engaging. On the other hand, experimenting with different posting strategies could allow your brand to look creative and cool to your audience.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Hipparchus (c.190 – c.120 BC), Ancient Greek astronomer, at the Alexandria Observatory in Egypt. At left is the armillary sphere he invented. Hipparchus is considered one of the greatest astronomers of antiquity, who calculated the length of the year. It is thought that the later work of Ptolemy was based on the work done by Hipparchus. Engraving from Vies des Savants Illustres (1877).