Your Business Advisor

As I go about my life, I will sometimes meet the owner of a small to mid-size business who, when I say that I’m a Freelance business strategy and marketing consultant who works with companies that need a professional to solve problems and get the company on track to grow and become profitable, or achieve other important objectives, they tell me about a business goal or obstacle they’re wrestling with. They ask if we can grab a coffee and talk sometime soon?

The stories that the business owners share are familiar—marketing problems, especially social media and content marketing questions; cash-flow bottlenecks; how to best launch a new product or develop a niche market; branding; pricing; and how can we scale and grow the company? Maybe a consultant can help?

Hiring a Freelance consulting expert can be helpful. The right specialist will give business owners and leaders an unbiased “view from 30,000 feet” of the business, making it possible to pinpoint problem areas and recommend strategies that will guide the organization to growth and profit. A consulting specialist can be brought in to address nearly any business need, from accounting, management and marketing to selling skills, IT, operations and even telephone etiquette.

If you hire the right person, the consulting fee will more than pay for itself, and save or make money for the organization. Consulting specialists work only on specific, predetermined business needs and do not add to the company payroll.

“Consultant” is a generic term; there are at least four types. Business consultants have a specific area of expertise based on their work experience and educational background—strategy, marketing, branding, sales training and financial management are common specialties. Process consultants develop practical solutions to improve a company’s day-to-day operations and overall functioning. IT consultants solve problems for those who need help with technology, Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, cloud, cyber security and the Internet of Things. Executive coaches are counselors who guide clients through a wide variety of business or personal challenges. Increasingly, executive coaches do not have business expertise; many are psychologists (PhDs). Here’s a seven-point strategy to ensure you get the most from the consultant you’d like to hire.

Ask questions

Interview a prospective consultant before you hire. Questions to ask include: “What is your experience in my industry or field? Can you describe problems similar to mine that you’ve handled? Can you offer me full confidentiality and represent me without conflict of interest with your other clients?”

Also, confirm that the consultant will regularly communicate with the company contact person and prepare periodic progress reports. Request a written proposal that spells out how s/he plans to approach the organization’s problem, the approximate time needed and the fee you’ll be charged. If the business owner approves, that will serve as the contract.

As you evaluate a consultant’s experience and skills, consider your working relationship. Do you like and trust the person? Do you have a good rapport with him/her?

Expectations

A consultant is an advisor, not a miracle worker. If your marketing campaign hasn’t increased sales for the past six months, don’t expect a consultant to turn business around overnight. If someone promises to do so, be skeptical. You want a consultant who is knowledgeable in your industry or field and can recommend a workable solution, which is often not a quick fix.

Job specs

The business owner must decide what tasks to pursue and commit that to writing. The more specific, the better. There can be no confusion about the assignment. Asking for a strategy to increase sales by 10 % within 12 months, or increase social media followers by 25 % in a similar time frame, will ensure that the consultant understands the expectations.

On your end

The business owner should anticipate the information and resources that the consultant will likely need to do the job. Consider what documents, metrics, history are essential, along with any office equipment, office space, supplies, or team members that can make the job progress at a smooth and efficient clip.

The money talk

Some consultants charge flat rates or bill by the hour, the day, or the project. Others charge a contingency fee, in which the amount paid is based on the results. For instance, if a consultant reduces business operating expenses by $10,000, s/he might receive 10 % of the savings as the total fee or as a bonus in addition to the flat rate. I estimate that the average full-time consultant charges $75 to $150 per hour.

References

Ask the prospective hire for three recent references—and call them. You want to know if the consultant accomplished what was promised within the agreed-upon deadline, if s/he communicated regularly and if the company would hire the consultant again. Ideally, the consultant will have worked for at least one client who operates a businesses similar to yours.

Contract

Prepare a written agreement (the project proposal referenced above will usually suffice) that clearly spells out the terms of the arrangement. Define the services to be performed, the starting and ending dates, the fee schedule and how it will be paid, milestones, expenses that the business owner agrees to pa, and services the consultant will provide. For contracts $10,000 or more, the business owner is recommended to ask a business attorney to review and edit/ approve the agreement.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: © Paramount Pictures. Robert Duvall ([L]as attorney and advisor Tom Hagen) shares information with his only client, Marlon Brando (as family business CEO Vito Corleone) in the multi-Academy Award winning film The Godfather, Part I (1972).

7 Kinds of Business Financing

Is 2020 your year to launch a business, or is growth and expansion of your existing venture on this year’s must-do list? If so, congratulations and best of luck to you! I’m sure you’ve thought of the most advantageous way to obtain the required financing for your plans and we’ll look at some good options right now.

A study conducted by the National Small Business Association found that 19% of small business owners cite a lack of available capital as the biggest challenge to plans for future growth and 82% of businesses outright fail because of cash flow management issues. In preparation for borrowing, I remind you that financial institutions will evaluate your credit score, so make paying off bills and boosting your savings immediate priorities.

According to the 2018 Small Business Lending Index, big (national) banks approve 25% of loan applications made by small business owners and smaller (community and regional) banks approve nearly 50% of loan applications made by small business owners. So whether it’s your food supply or your money supply, keeping it local is a good thing, am I right? https://www.biz2credit.com/small-business-lending-index/january-2018

Line of credit

A business line of credit functions like a credit card and it’s available to borrowers with either good or less than perfect credit. Borrowers can be approved for a potentially generous amount of funding that can be accessed immediately. The application process to obtain a line of credit is usually quick, and many businesses receive approval in a day or two. Interest rates range from 7% – 25% and repayment terms are usually between six months and one year, (meaning that one cannot run a balance ad infinitum) depending on the business’ revenue and credit score.

Short-term loan

Pursue this type of loan to, for example, bridge cash flow gaps, stock up on inventory that is available at an attractive price, or take advantage of a lucrative business opportunity. Surprisingly, borrowers often don’t need a great credit score to be approved for a short-term loan and that can be an advantage. In fact, the borrower could use the loan to pay off higher-interest debt and improve the credit score. Furthermore, short-term loans tend to involve less paperwork and processing is usually fast, making funds available quickly.

Short-term loans must be repaid in rather a short amount of time, often in just one year, and payments are usually due weekly, not monthly. They also generally come with a relatively high interest rate when compared to other types of loans and loan amounts are usually capped.

Secured loan

Secured business loans require a specific piece of collateral, such as a business vehicle or commercial property, that the lender can claim if the borrower fails to repay the loan. Unsecured loans, on the other hand, are not attached to collateral. Personal loans, student loans and credit cards are common examples of unsecured loans. Unsecured loans have higher interest rates and stringent approval requirements, to ensure that lenders gets their money back. Secured loans are often easier to obtain and may also have a lower interest rate, because the lender has a guaranteed way to recoup money lost to default by selling the borrower’s collateral.

Because of the increased risk an unsecured loan represents to the lender, borrowers may be asked to sign a personal guarantee in order to receive approval. If the borrower defaults on the loan, s/he will then be personally liable for repaying it. While a creditor can’t seize business property under a personal guarantee they can legally claim the borrower’s personal assets, including bank accounts, cars and real estate, until the loan is repaid.

Another common method used by institutions to mitigate the risk associated with secured loans is by reserving the right to file a blanket lien against the borrower’s business assets. Most business loan terms include a blanket lien clause that allows the lender to claim and resell business assets to collect the debt.

Term loan

Term loans, also known as long-term loans, are best for business owners with great credit and who are requesting a big loan. They may not be a good option for those who are launching a new business, however, since lenders usually want to see a track record of success (evidenced by 3- 5 years of business financials) before taking on the risk. 

The term loan application process is lengthy. If the application is accepted, borrowers must pay a principal amount plus interest each month until the debt is paid in full. Term loans are most often used to buy real estate, acquire another business, remodel or renovate a commercial space, or support long-term business expansion.

Equipment loan

Owners of businesses large and small often need to purchase, replace, repair, or upgrade various kinds of equipment to process, manufacture, or produce their products and equipment loans are essential to this process. These loans can be a great option for start-ups as well as established businesses, and they can be used to finance nearly every type of business equipment, including company vehicles. Owners of new businesses can take advantage of an equipment loan because the equipment secures the loan, regardless of the success or failure of the company. Interest rates are often reasonable and will reflect the individual’s or business’ credit rating and financial picture.

Be aware that excellent credit is required for most equipment loans. In general, borrowers will be able to finance 80% of the total purchase price of the equipment. A down payment of about 20% is typically required for most small business equipment loans.

Borrowers with less than stellar credit should investigate the terms of leasing the desired equipment. Leasing typically does not require a down payment and that especially benefits businesses that have little or no available working capital. When a down payment is required, it is typically relatively small compared to what a traditional loan down payment would be.

Purchase order financing

To qualify for purchase order financing, the company must sell finished goods (not raw materials or product components) to B2B or B2G customers with profit margins of at least 15%. Start-ups can qualify for PO financing because approval is based primarily on the creditworthiness of, and borrower history with, those customers and suppliers. The chances of being approved are even greater if customers and suppliers are well-established, reputable companies.

PO financing can present a great opportunity for start-ups that receive lots of orders but don’t have the cash to fulfill them. In these cases, similar to invoice financing, the purchase order secures the loan. Once the business receives a purchase order from a customer, the lender directly pays the supplier to manufacture and deliver the product to the customer. Once delivery is accepted, the customer pays the lender. The lender then deducts their fees from this amount and pays the remainder to the borrower, which can be counted as profits. 

PO financing is a great way to help your business grow without taking on bank debt or selling equity in your company. If sales outpace your incoming cash flow, then purchase order financing might be a good strategy to fulfill big orders.

Invoice financing

Also known as accounts receivable financing or factoring, this loan allows Freelance consultants to survive slow-paying clients. Small and medium- sized businesses will be able to manage the increasingly common practice of “net 90” receivables payment that large companies impose on smaller organizations, in exchange for big orders.

With invoice financing, lenders advance to borrowers the value of accounts receivable, less a fee of perhaps 15%. The borrower will pay a weekly fee while waiting for the customer to pay up. Invoice financing helps businesses improve cash flow, meet the employee payroll, pay vendors and suppliers and reinvest in operations and growth earlier than they could if they had to wait for clients and customers to pay their balances in full.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Money Lenders (1784) an etching by Thomas Rowland. The aspiring borrower (L) is George, Prince of Wales (George IV 1820 -1830).

Paying You: How to Pay Yourself When You’re the Business Owner

Freelance consultants and business owners dedicate a considerable chunk of mental bandwidth to thinking about how to generate business, because the top line matters. We think a lot about making money, but we may not devote much time to thinking through the mechanics of paying ourselves once the money arrives.

Sole Proprietors and single person LLC owners may consider the self-payment process a no-brainer—as invoices are paid, one simply deposits the money into the business bank account. But like so may actions that seem easy at first glance there is usually a right way, a smart way, to pay oneself as a self-employed person.

So—are you on your business’ payroll or do you take payments from your business in the form of owner draws? Do you and your business partners take guaranteed payments (salary)?  Are you paying yourself too much or not enough? How can you tell? Also, where in your business financials are the payments recorded?

Business type Payment Tax return Payroll Tax

Sole Proprietor Owner’s draw         1040/ Sched. C     Yes                                

Single LLC Member draw 1040/ Sched. C Yes

Multi LLC Member share 1040/ Sched. K-1 Yes

S Corporation Dividend/ wage 1040/ Sched. K-1 Yes

C Corporation Dividends 1040 dividends not on dividends

Sole Proprietor

Business owners and Freelancers who adopt this, the default business structure, pay themselves through an owner’s draw, i.e., the amount of money taken from business earnings, after expenses and taxes, by the owner for his/her personal use. The payment is called a draw because money is drawn out of the business.

Sole Proprietors usually take draws by writing a check to themselves from their business bank accounts. Smart Sole Proprietors will then deposit that check into a personal bank account and avoid co-mingling business and personal funds, a practice that inevitably leads to accounting and tax complications. The owner’s draw doesn’t affect business taxes because the net income has already been taxed. The draw is also not a business expense. From an accounting and tax perspective, the owner’s draw is income distribution. Owner draws are recorded on the Balance Sheet.

Limited Liability Company (LLC)

LLC owners, who are known as members, are not (always) considered employees of the entity and therefore they do not (always) take a salary as would an employee. LLC members, especially single member entities, usually pay themselves with a member’s draw, which is taken from the member’s capital account (business bank account). Multiple owner LLCs are considered to be partners in the business and pay themselves with a member’s share distribution, also taken from the member’s capital account. 

While members may periodically draw from their capital account, a draw is in reality an early withdrawal of anticipated year-end profits, a goal that is perhaps at top-of-mind at multi-member LLCs. Whenever a member receives a draw during the year, his/her capital account decreases, but if the business shows a profit at the end of the year, the member’s capital account will increase in accordance with the percentage of ownership. If a member owns 25 % of the LLC, then s/he can expect to receive 25 % of year-end profits. Single member LLCs own 100 % of the entity and are entitled to 100 % of the profits. Member draws are recorded on the Balance Sheet.

A working member in a multi-member LLC has the option of either receiving a guaranteed salary amount as an LLC employee, or paying oneself with a member’s share distribution, as will a single member LLC owner. Members who are strictly silent partner investors and do not work in the business are not entitled to period draws, but will receive their member’s distribution of profits in accordance with their ownership percentage at the end of the tax year. 

The member salary, known as a guaranteed payment, is not based on the percentage split agreed upon in the LLC operating agreement but based on the work the member performs in the business. Unlike member distributions, guaranteed payments are recorded on the Profit & Loss (Income) Statement and are taken from business profits.

The LLC must be diligent about filing the correct tax forms on behalf of members and maintain accurate accounting histories for everyone throughout the year, to reflect member payment choices. Members paid as LLC employees must file IRS Form W-4 to calculate the amount of payroll tax withholding taken from from each paycheck. The member is then treated as a W-2 employee of the LLC. If the member is paid as an Independent Contractor, then s/he must file IRS Form W-9 with the LLC and the LLC must file IRS Form 1099-MISC by the end of the year. All member draws or distributions are deducted from the amount of profits assigned to the capital accounts, based on ownership percentages.

Corporations

An S Corporation is in reality either an LLC or C Corporation that has elected for special tax treatment with the IRS. S Corp income, losses, deductions and credits pass through to its shareholders’ personal IRS Form 1040. Shareholders then report the business’s income and losses on form 1040 and are taxed at their individual income tax rates. C Corps are subject to double taxation—a separate corporation tax and when dividends are paid to shareholders, that amount is recorded on IRS 1040 (but there is no payroll tax).

S and C Corporation owners who work in the business pay themselves a regular “salary” and also distribution payments. S Corp owners are usually employees of the business. Owners who work as employees must be paid a “reasonable salary” before profits (dividend distributions) are paid and the salary is subject to payroll taxes. The IRS has guidelines that define a reasonable salary, based on job responsibilities. Salaries are generally taken from business profits.

Owners of C Corps can elect to pay its shareholders a cash dividend, which is a distribution of company profits. However, the C Corp board may choose to retain either the entirety or some portion of business net profits and decline to pay a dividend in a given quarter or year. If a dividend is paid, that amount is added to income reported on the shareholder’s personal IRS Form 1040. The company records dividend payments on the Balance Sheet.

S corporation owners have been known to request that their corporations pay them little or no salary, since salaries are taxed, and instead take payments as dividend distributions, which are not taxed. The IRS has stepped up enforcement on this issue and in 2000 audited thousands of S Corps whose owner the IRS concluded had received a suspiciously low salary and very generous dividend distribution, in an apparent attempt to evade payroll taxes by disguising their salary as corporate distributions.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Pay day on a U.S. Navy cruiser (1942)

Elevator Pitch: Master Class

Every Freelancer has an elevator pitch, but few of those pitches are as effective as they could be. My own could use some work, to be honest. Freelancers are hunters and we thrive only when we bring in clients who trust us with lucrative and/or long-term projects. Arguably, the most important facet of a Freelancer’s skill set is the ability to quickly assess whether that interesting someone we’ve just met might have the potential to green light our next payday.

Street smart Freelancers anticipate the opportunity inherent in every meeting by using our hunter’s instinct to take aim and expertly deliver an elevator pitch that gets bells ringing in the head of a listener. In the conversation that’s sure to follow, these Freelancers ask a handful of smart questions designed to quickly weed out window shoppers, tire kickers and those whose needs do not align with our skill set.

The hunt starts with the pitch and Freelancers must build it with precision and deliver it in 30 seconds. The biggest mistakes Freelancers make in elevator pitch content are: (1) merely stating their skill set or job title, rather than giving a brief description of the problems they solve for clients and (2) failing to communicate the value they provide, the practical application of their expertise, that makes a persuasive case for working with them.

Skills or functions?

“I’m Bob Rossi, a business lawyer who also edits a digital business management magazine.” The information is accurate but Freelancer Bob has not expressed what is uniquely worthwhile about his business, he has not presented a story or any information that might persuade a listener to take notice. Expecting his job title to interest the listener is unrealistic because that alone doesn’t necessarily help anyone understand why s/he should care who Freelancer Bob is and envision how his products or services might be useful.

Whatever your job title and skill set, there are most likely dozens, if not hundreds, of highly skilled professionals who do some version of the same thing. There are many types of lawyers and business writers in the world. The successful hunter-Freelancer knows how to present a tidy little narrative of an elevator pitch that puts the listener at its center. In this much more compelling version, the Freelancer succinctly (1) names his/her specialty— the kind of work that you do best or most often (or your most popular product)— and how you add value; (2) identifies the types of clients you usually work with; and (3) gives three or four examples of article topics that regularly appear in the magazine (marketing, sales, finance and tech, perhaps).

“Hello, I’m Bob Rossi. I help business start-ups solve their management and legal issues, including LLC, incorporation and partnership set-ups. I also edit a nationally known monthly digital business management magazine that addresses topics that are important to business owners, entrepreneurs and self-employed professionals, primarily finance, marketing, sales and tech.”

It’s critical to wordsmith an elevator pitch that will convince the listener to pay attention and, if your timing is right, think of how s/he can use your know-how and imagine bringing you into a project that needs to get done in the near term. A money-making elevator pitch can convert a listener into a prospect who wants follow-up, who will say “take my card and shoot me an email, or call me at around 5:00 PM on a Tuesday.”

Finally, like the old joke says, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” Nothing sounds worse than clumsy delivery of an elevator pitch. You will be dead in the water and the VIP will never give you a second chance. Like an actor or an athlete, Freelancers must constantly rehearse and refine the elevator pitch, working it so that it slides off the tongue effortlessly. Because we never knows when a fortunate encounter with a VIP will occur, practice your elevator pitch often. Edit and edit again, until the wording is perfect and the cadence natural. Learn to step up to the plate on a moment’s notice with confidence, energy and enthusiasm and hit a home run every time.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: ©TV Guide. Deluca (Giacomo Gianniotti) delivers his elevator pitch to Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) in Season 15, Episode 9 of Grey’s Anatomy.

Keepin Up with Expectations

The question “What do my customers want?” is maybe even more confounding than the 3000 year old Riddle of the Sphinx. Guessing incorrectly in either case brings the same fate—death (of the business, if not the owner). I suppose we can lay it all at the feet of digital innovation, which has raised the bar on customer expectations. Customers now expect the same level of end-to-end prompt, seamless performance and service from the small and mid-size companies that they still (thankfully!) patronize as they receive from well-funded and staffed multinational corporations. The little people must now work smarter, be evermore creative and resourceful and OMG hustle if we want to be viable.

According to a 2018 Salesforce CX Report, where 6,700 B2B and B2C buyers answered survey questions on technology, trust and the customer experience, 80 % of responders feel that the buying experience a company provides is as important as the products and services it provides. The report also found that if customers are dissatisfied, they’re ready to jump ship—75 % agree that it’s easier than ever to take their business elsewhere. So just because your customers are cozying up to you now doesn’t mean that they won’t look over your shoulder to see who else is in the room. https://c1.sfdcstatic.com/content/dam/web/en_us/www/assets/pdf/datasheets/trends-in-integrated-customer-experience-salesforce-research.pdf

The State of the Connected Customer, a 2019 Salesforce survey of 8,000 B2B and B2C buyers, found that customers will switch brands for what they perceive as a better customer experience. The survey concludes that customers expect good-to-great experiences from companies they know or would like to try out. The report also shows that trust and company values are important building blocks of customer relationships. https://www.salesforce.com/content/dam/web/en_us/www/documents/infographics/2019-state-of-the-connected-customer-infographic.pdf

At the same time, customer expectations are continually shifting as a result of their ongoing interactions with the world around them. For business owners and leaders, this means that in order to get a handle on creating the most desirable customer experience it is necessary to reexamine / reevaluate the customer experience at our organizations, this time from the customer’s perspective.

By way of understatement, customer expectations are not always predictable. How a customer judges their experience will not always align with what business owners and leaders have assumed about the experience their company provides. According to a 2017 report compiled by the uber consulting firm Accenture, 73% of B2B buyers want the customer experience to resemble that of a B2C company. https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-60/Accenture-Strategy-B2B-Customer-Experience-PoV.pdf#zoom=50

We also know that the personal touch is highly valued. In 2015, The Harvard Business Review reported that companies that successfully master the art of personalization for their customers can reduce customer acquisition costs by as much as 50 %, increase revenue by as much as 15 % and increase the effectiveness of marketing dollars spent by up to 30 %. https://hbr.org/2015/11/how-marketers-can-personalize-at-scale

The fact is that the customer experience is impacted by customer expectations and those expectations play a significant role in how our customers perceive and judge our organization. Customers today expect the companies with which they do business to know their preferences and they want those preferences reflected in every interaction, whether online or face-2-face. 

What business leaders can do

First, recognize and define what the ideal customer experience in your organization looks like and take steps to ensure that the standard is consistently met. Remember to assume the viewpoint of the customer and guard against internal bias. Second, stay abreast of market research that reports on your industry to discover trends and evaluate what your organization can afford to do and what it can’t afford to not do, in response. Third, guarantee that all customer-facing staff understands the value of delivering a first-rate customer experience and empower staff to support the delivery of that first-rate customer experience. Training is often necessary to show organization leaders how to create an empowered culture for employees and teach customer-facing staff how to graciously and effectively meet (reasonable) customer expectations.

Creating a superior customer experience at your organization requires significant planning and flawless execution. Be aware that every facet of your organization has a contribution to make as you respond to your customer’s evolving expectations. As you prepare your organization to study and improve the customer experience provided, consider how customers and prospects might view your company’s website content and functionality, sales distribution methods, payment systems, content marketing, social media, sales distribution, business hours and other factors that directly or indirectly impact the buying and customer experience at your organization.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: © Richard Termine for The New York Times. Samantha Barks (center) in the Broadway musical Pretty Woman (2018).

Multiplication Table: Inclusive Interpretations of Business Growth

I’m not much of a gambler, but I’ll wager that at least 75% of those who aim to track the growth of their business or self-employment venture follow just two metrics—net profit and market share (or the length of the client list). The two are reliable indicators of business performance and so most will look no further. But if you think about it, limiting one’s assessment of a business to just two metrics is short-sighted and will not yield a comprehensive measurement of business performance. Furthermore, focusing exclusively on revenue means one is likely to overlook other metrics that demonstrate growth.

A business is a complex organism that consists of numerous variables that play a role in its success or failure. In order to thoroughly measure the performance of a venture, Freelancers and business owners would be wise to look beyond the usual suspects and broaden their view and understanding of what’s going on.

It’s a beautiful thing to regularly monitor Key Performance Indicators. It’s even better to know which KPIs, when considered together, will accurately reflect the state of the venture. Revenue and profit are the king and queen of KPIs, but forward-thinking business leaders also monitor less obvious but still powerful growth indicators.

Let’s consider two metrics that matter in every business, churn and referrals. Churn occurs when customers who could reasonably be expected to at least periodically do business with a company instead sever contact and take their business elsewhere, presumably to a competitor. The opposite of churn is customer retention. Referrals are recommendations of potential customers to a business, made by current customers of that business or those who are familiar with the business. A business leader should not only monitor referrals and the churn rate, but also create strategies to encourage the former and discourage the latter. Let’s talk about it.

Churn

A high churn rate indicates that the business is not retaining customers and this has an adverse effect on top line (and bottom line) revenue and profit. Now the type of business must be taken into consideration. Wedding planners, for example, can be expected to do business with a bride only once and repeat business is rare. But if customers are severing contact with a business and seeking out a competitor, it signals a big problem and an urgent need for corrective action.

Limiting churn has a positive impact on customer retention. It has been demonstrated by a number of researchers that it costs a business at least five times more to acquire a new client than it does to keep a client. Reducing churn is an indirect multiplier of revenue and profit and is therefore worth the effort.

A well-written customer survey that communicates the company’s commitment to meeting or exceeding expectations and creating a positive customer experience may yield a surprise or two and, most importantly, information that is actionable. Finding opportunities to have face-to-face conversations with customers who have remained may also surface information that will clue business leaders in on modifications that should be made.

Referrals

I am in business to help business leaders identify goals and strategies that will take their venture to the next level. I also frequently collaborate on the branding, marketing, content marketing and social media campaigns associated with that process. Reducing churn to increase customer retention, as well as bolstering referrals, supports both the top and bottom lines of a business.

A great way to pump up your referral numbers is to launch a campaign focused on referrals themselves. The simplest referral campaign is to just ask a customer to “tell your friends.” Another useful tactic that can motivate customers to make referrals is to offer a 10% – 15% discount off their next order, or a product or service upgrade, for every customer who is referred and makes a purchase.

The referral process can be taken online with an easy referral link in team members’ signature blocks. Offer incentives to existing customers, extra services that are valuable to those making referrals to you.

Referrals are a huge vote of confidence because they signal that the company is trustworthy, dependable and doing something right. Referrals are the warmest, most qualified leads a business will encounter and often little more than clarifying the choice of specific product or service features and confirming a delivery date and price are all that’s needed to close a sale. Yippee!

Happy Chanukkah, Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa! Enjoy your favorite holidays and thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: © The School Run

Getting Clients: The Reboot 2020

For us freelancers to find reliable, long-term clients is a job unto itself and not an easy one. We have no choice but to invest thought and time into showing prospective clients and those who might refer us to prospective clients why we could be the best choice for providing the solution(s) for their problem.

To get ourselves inspired and off to a running start in the New Year, let’s review how we might best package and promote ourselves and our services to prospects, potential strategic partners and referral sources and update how to stand out and appear highly competent, trustworthy and an overall good hire for the Next Big Project.

KNOW YOUR NICHE

It can be so tempting to not want to limit ourselves to a specific niche, but the truth is, “If you’re talkin’ to everybody, you’re talkin’ to nobody.”
The biggest mistake that Freelancers make when going out on our own is that we try to be all things to all people. But when we create a niche, we can more effectively express what we do for our clients and how those clients benefit. That helps those who know and trust us to make referrals on our behalf. A clearly defined and easily described niche service or product is also easier to market to potential clients, because the message is easy to articulate and understand.

GETTING CLEAR ON CLIENTS

Getting clear on your niche and how we serve our clients is only step one. The real magic happens when we learn to consistently communicate in a way that resonates with target client groups. Speaking their language makes all the difference. Do you want to stand out to prospects? Know your ideal client!

It is to our advantage to be clear and concise about whom we can help and why. Tell (don’t sell) the story and talk just like you’d talk to a colleague. Embody the tone and attitude of one who cares, who understands their pain and can help them. Paint the “after” picture, i.e., the picture of their future after working with you. Offer credentials and tell client success stories that speak to their unique needs and concerns. In short, be all about your client.

INSIDE THE CLIENT VIEWPOINT
Christy Geiger, founder of Synergy Strategies Coaching and Training in Austin, TX https://synergystrategies.com/, says that one of the most difficult challenges in marketing is to identify and articulate one’s unique value and then sell that value to prospective clients.

Christy recommends that we flip the message and describe our service fromthe client’s perspective. Rather than presenting a list of self-promoting attributes that paint you as Mr. or Ms. Wonderful, discuss instead how your expertise ensures that clients are able do what they need to do and achieve goals and objectives.

MARKETING CREDIBILITY

As a Freelancer, the best way to stand out from competitors is to build your marketing around our credibility. Content marketing is very useful for this mission. Produce content that will help both bring visibility to your products and services and it help to establish you as an expert in your industry.

KNOW YOUR COMPETITION

Research others who provide products and/or services similar to your organization. What do they offer, what do they charge (if you can determine that)and how do they differentiate themselves in the marketplace? Then, ask yourself what could be realistically portrayed as valuable differences between your operation and those of your closest competitors? How might you be able to successfully distinguish yourself, your business practices, your qualifications, your products and/or your services and how might you persuade clients that these attributes make you the preferred provider?

CASE STUDIES

When clients hire us Freelancers, we expect that there will be a “discovery phase,” when they check us out—visiting our LinkedIn profile and social media presence, finding and reading articles we may have written and media quotes or features, for example. They’ll visit our websites and peruse our client list to find out who (else) they know who’s worked with us. To verify our work ethic, they may have a good talk with the referring party, if that was how the parties were introduced, or they may just call one (or more) of the clients on our list and discuss the quality of the results of the deliverable.

Freelancers can help both ourselves and our prospective clients reduce by sharing two or three well-written and descriptive case studies that demonstrate what we do, how we do it and the (exceptional!) results that we produce.

EASY TO DO BUSINESS

We Freelancers wear many hats. We’re the Chief Marketing Officer, the Vice President of Product Development, the Director of Sales, the Comptroller and company President. Our products and services may be excellent, but we would be advised to employ business practices and customer service protocols that make it is easy for customers to access what we have to offer. Setting up online purchasing or appointment booking, returning inquiries promptly and following-up as promised make a big difference. If customers have to jump through hoops to work with us, they will go elsewhere.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Steve McQueen (1930 – 1980), the “King of Cool,” in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

10 Great Client Gifts for Under $25.00

Hello all, have you bought your holiday client gifts yet? What are you waiting for? The clock is ticking. I bought mine yesterday afternoon (whew!).

Any and all clients for whom you do ongoing work, regardless of how small the billable hours, deserve an acknowledgement from you at this time of year. A client who gifted you with a big invoice this year definitely deserves a gift. Everyone with whom you’ve done business for the past five years deserves a holiday greeting card.

Devising client outreach tactics that skirt the appearance of a sales pitch is one of the indications of a well-designed marketing strategy. The best thing about the holidays is that we don’t have to dream up an occasion and fret over how to deliver the message—the occasion is self-evident. I invite you to browse these 10 practical, business appropriate and inexpensive gift options, which I hope will quickly solve your search.

1. Tech Compatible Gloves $24.00 A meaningful gift for those who live in a cold climate! Now your client can maximize efficiency and work on his/her devices wherever and whenever, whatever the weather, thanks to the knit-in touch-screen capability on the thumbs and index fingers of the gloves. Wear them alone when it’s not too cold and slip them into another pair of gloves on colder days. https://www.rei.com/product/873158/smartwool-liner-tech-compatible-gloves?cm_mmc=aff_AL--40661--55097-_-NA&avad=55097_c180e7139

2. Vinluxe Pro Wine Aerator $23.50 For those who like wine, a wine aerator is used to expand the wine’s surface area, allowing air to mingle with the wine. An aerator forces air to be circulated through the wine, resulting in a wine with more of an aromatic profile and softer tannins. It’s an alternative to swirling the wine. An Andre Lorent product, the Vinluxe was rated one of the top seven wine aerators in 2019 by the California Wine Advisor. https://www.andrelorent.com/

3. Hamilton Beach Electric Kettle $24.99
The kettle holds 1-liter (almost 34 ounces) and it’s stainless steel. It will heat water even faster than a microwave! For safety, the kettle has auto shut-off with boil dry protection features and for convenience, a water-level window. There is also a removable mesh filter and the heating element is concealed. https://www.hamiltonbeach.com/1-liter-stainless-steel-electric-kettle-40998

4. Anker Wireless Power Station  $16.99 
If you know someone who is constantly watching something on their phone, give them this stand that also doubles as a wireless charger. It works at 10W for Samsung phones and 5W for iPhones. sleek and practical, the Anker wireless charger will look great on your client’s desk. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DBXZZN3/ref=as_li_ss_tl?SubscriptionId=AKIAJO7E5OLQ67NVPFZA&ascsubtag=991011980-2-1278882471.1575921784&tag=shopperz_origin1-20

5. Southern Sampler Gift Box   $23.95
This sampler includes our most popular items: a World Famous Praline, Milk Chocolate Bear Claw, White Chocolate Bear Claw, Glazed Pecans and Peanut Brittle. Yummy! https://www.riverstreetsweets.com/product/Southern-Sampler/Gourmet-Gift-Boxes-and-Assortments

6. Business Card Holder/Desk $20.75 Here’s a nice desk item that is practical, versatile and unique—a business card holder with picture frame, to serve a dual purpose in a way that your client will appreciate. Available in rosewood or cherry wood finish. You Personalize your gift by laser engraving the card holder with the client’s company logo. Dimensions: 4″ x 2 3/4″ x 3 3/4″ https://www.e-corporategifts.com/Pop-Up-Business-Card-Holder-and-Frame.html

7. Cheese Board $19.95 This slate cheese board is the perfect size for your client’s office. The board features natural edges and velvet mounting to protect counter tops. It comes with food safe soapstone chalk to note the type of cheese, or write a message for your guests. An innovative take on a staple product for your home. Food-safe. Natural slate. Soapstone chalk. Dimensions: 8″ x 16″ https://www.greatgatherings.com/entertaining-essentials/barware-serveware/slate-cheese-board

8. Sponge Holder $24.00 Challenge: how to add flair to storing a mundane cleaning tool? This cheeky yet practical kitchen or bathroom accessory is made of decorative beach stones and a base cut from salvaged granite, connected by three aluminum posts that hold your sponge in style. The durable rubber bottom pad protects surfaces from scratches. This elegant holder also makes a great wallet valet, inviting cocktail napkin holder, or artful mail caddy. Handmade by Arra David and Anne Johnson in Windham, NH. https://www.uncommongoods.com/product/sea-stone-splash-sponge-holder

9. The Bullet Pen $22.95 Writes at any angle, even in Zero Gravity. Simply the most versatile pen ever made. This amazing pen is constructed of raw, unfinished brass. Over time, each pen will develop an unique patina as it responds to its environment, the owner’s body chemistry and the way s/he handles the instrument. Writes at any angle, even in Zero Gravity. It is simply the most versatile pen ever made. The pen also will write in extreme temperatures from -30F to 250F. Each Fisher Space Pen is precision assembled, hand tested in the USA and carries an unconditional lifetime guarantee. http://www.mypilotstore.com/MyPilotStore/sep/4551?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIlOSu—h5gIVRNyGCh14PQPlEAQYASABEgJNPfD_BwE

10. MagLite Pro Mini Flashlight $25.73 We’re over budget here (sorry!) but this is a great little gift—introducing the all new Mini MagLite Pro LED Flashlight. MagLite is based in California and makes its entire product line in the U.S.A (all right!). The Mini has the latest generation LED that makes its beam super bright. Turn on and focus the light by simply twisting its head. A black polypropylene belt holster and 2AA alkaline batteries are included. https://www.homedepot.com/p/Maglite-Black-2AA-Pro-Mini-LED-Flashlight-SP2P01H/203457057

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: © Houston Ballet. A 2015 performance of The Nutcracker by The Houston Ballet Company

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