Back to Business Basics

Hand drawing a conceptual diagram about the importance to find the shortest way to go from point A to point B, or a simple solution to a problem.It’s reassuring to remember that downturns are a normal part of the business cycle. And, just as there are strategies that help businesses thrive during profitable times, there are basic survival tactics that businesses can employ when the outlook is less than rosy.

Control Spending

Finances should be your fundamental concern when economic conditions are unsettled. When sales are slow, it’s time to preserve your cash. Look closely at how you can reduce overhead. Make certain that all your operating expenses are necessary. Even if you’ve recently made cuts, see if there are other measures you can take. Unless absolutely necessary, consider putting plans that call for capital investment on the back burner until conditions improve.

Maintain Customers

While containing costs is essential, maintaining your customer base is also crucial. So, when you’re deciding how to trim spending, make sure you don’t make cuts in areas that deliver real value to your customers. At the same time, watch your receivables. Make sure your customers’ accounts stay current.

Think Short Term

Plan purchases for the short term, keeping a minimum of cash tied up in inventory. At the same time, however, make sure you’ll be able to restock quickly. Your suppliers may be able to suggest ways you can cut costs (perhaps by using different materials or an alternative manufacturing process). See if you can negotiate better credit terms.

Plan for Contingencies

There’s a big difference between imagining that you might have to seriously scale back your business and having an action plan in place that you can quickly execute. To develop a realistic contingency plan, prepare a budget based on the impact you imagine an extended downturn would have on your business. Then outline the steps you would need to take to survive those conditions. For an added level of preparedness, draw up a second, “worst case scenario” budget and chart the cost-cutting steps you’d need to take to outlive those more dire circumstances.

Many businesses will survive challenging economic times by being informed about their financial condition and by planning ahead to succeed.

What Is Your Most Valuable Asset?

Middle Eastern Lady Using Laptop Working Online Wearing Eyewear Sitting At Workplace In Modern Office. Remote Job, Technology And Career Profession Concept. Side ViewYour most valuable asset isn’t your real estate or the tech stocks you bought in the 90s that have done well. It isn’t even your business per se. Your most valuable asset is you — specifically your ability to run a profitable company and make money.

Are you protecting that asset from the risk that a disabling illness or accident might prevent you from working? If you don’t have disability income insurance, you’re not protected.

What Are the Odds?

People generally think the odds of becoming disabled are low. But the numbers say otherwise: More than one in four 20-year-old workers become disabled before reaching retirement age. Here’s another reality check: Serious accidents are not the leading cause of long-term disability; chronic conditions are. Muscle and bone disorders (such as a back disorder or joint or muscle pain) are responsible for more than one in four disabilities.

How Long Could You Go Without an Income?

Even a short period of disability could be devastating. The average group long-term disability claim lasts 2.6 years. Even if you have reserves you 3 could tap, your personal finances would take a hit. If and when you were able to start earning an income again, you might have to start all over.

What Would Happen to Your Business?

Your involvement is vital to your company’s financial success. If you’re unable to work, you might have to hire someone to take your place and borrow money to pay the bills until you’re back on the job. Bottom line? If you’re sidelined by a long disability, it could jeopardize the success or even the survival of your business.

What Can You Do?

Call your financial professional to review and discuss this important issue.

Keeping It SIMPLE

SIMPLE IRA written on a piggy bank.A SIMPLE IRA is an option for small business owners who do not currently have a retirement plan in place but would like to have one. This particular type of retirement plan has several attractive features that deliver significant benefits to both employers and their employees.

What It Is

The Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) is a retirement savings plan targeted at employers with 100 or fewer employees who earn $5,000 or more in compensation. With fewer reporting and administrative requirements than other retirement plans, the SIMPLE plan is designed to appeal to employers with limited resources and personnel to handle benefit administration and compliance issues.

With a SIMPLE IRA, employees may make tax-deferred contributions through payroll deduction to traditional individual retirement accounts set up under the plan. In 2023, the contribution limit is $15,500 ($19,000 if age 50 or over). All account earnings are tax deferred until the plan participant begins withdrawals. Withdrawals from a SIMPLE IRA are taxed at regular income tax rates.

Employers appreciate the fact that a SIMPLE IRA is relatively easy to set up and operate. An annual report is not required, although certain documents must be distributed to inform employees about the plan.

Employers are required to contribute to the plan, either by matching employee contributions up to 3% of pay or by contributing 2% of each eligible employee’s compensation. The matching percentage may be lowered in some years.

Plan Benefits

  • Employee contributions are tax deferred
  • Employer contributions to employees’ SIMPLE IRAs are tax deductible
  • Account earnings are tax deferred
  • No annual filing requirement or discrimination testing

Potential Drawbacks

  • Employer contributions are required
  • No Roth contributions are permitted
  • Full immediate vesting (employee has ownership of all SIMPLE IRA money)
  • No loans permitted

Your financial and tax professionals can help you assess your retirement plan options

Five Steps to Keeping Employees Motivated

Businesswoman giving a high five to male colleague in meeting. Business professionals high five during a meeting in boardroom.Motivated employees typically perform at a higher level than employees who are disengaged from their work. They are willing to go beyond their job description to see a project through to completion. Very often, their enthusiasm inspires and pushes coworkers to excel.

Certain strategies can help foster a culture of motivation and enthusiasm within the workplace. When consistently applied, they can motivate previously disengaged employees while supporting employees who are already self-driven and motivated. Here are five such strategies.

Communicate Corporate Goals

Engaged employees work toward common goals. However, they need to see the big picture first, and it is up to you to paint that picture for them. You do so by communicating your expectations to them clearly and regularly. That involves spelling out the duties, responsibilities, and the objectives of each employee’s job, ideally when they first start working for you. You also need to explain how each employee’s efforts affect the company and its bottom line. The goals of your company must be aligned to the goals of the employees if all employees are to work together to make the company successful.

Identify What Motivates Employees

Try to understand the factors that drive each employee to excel and to deliver exceptional performance. You may find that some employees are motivated by external recognition or by a sense of personal achievement or satisfaction. Others may be motivated by money. Bonuses and other forms of incentive pay are effective monetary motivators. Non-monetary incentives, such “employee of the month” awards and special, reserved parking spots can appeal to employees who are motivated by external recognition.

Give Employees the Tools They Need

Follow through by ensuring that employees have the right tools and resources to do their jobs. In fact, ask them what they need to perform at the highest levels possible. Soliciting employees’ opinions empowers them.

Conduct Regular Performance Reviews

Performance reviews are an effective tool for tracking the progress of your employees in meeting their stated goals. They are also helpful in keeping employees motivated and productive. Consider scheduling performance reviews quarterly or even monthly instead of annually or biannually so that employees receive more consistent and regular feedback about their performance.

Provide Additional Training and Education

Give employees the opportunity to acquire additional skills related to their fields — sales, technical, mechanical, etc. Employees gain from the additional training by adding to their skill sets, and the business may gain from having a workforce with enhanced capabilities and a higher level of motivation.

Is the Price Right?

Strategy for company development concept. Employees conduct comparative analysis to improve their work. Competitiveness of business. Cartoon flat vector illustration isolated on blue backgroundPricing products or services to maximize profits is a challenge — often part art and part science. To do so effectively requires research, an understanding of your market, and an intuitive feel for what will work. Getting it right, however, is critical if your business is to be profitable. There are several important issues that you must factor into any decisions you make on setting prices for your goods or services.

Start by Identifying Your Costs

Whether you have an online business or operate out of a physical property, sell inexpensive or high-end goods, or provide professional services, you will still encounter numerous expenses each day. You will be unable to price your services or goods accurately if you do not understand what your total costs are. There are a variety of components that make up your total costs, which include:

  • The cost of materials and merchandise
  • Your labor costs, including salaries and benefits
  • Your overhead costs, including mortgage/rent, taxes, utilities, insurance, transportation, and marketing/advertising

Knowing how much you need to charge just to cover your total costs is a key step in setting prices. However, your costs do not remain fixed. They change, and when they do, you will have to reevaluate what you are charging your customers. That is an ongoing process.

Understand Your Customer Base

Customers are driven to buy by a variety of factors and emotions. Some customers are acutely price sensitive. They have limited spending power and always consider price. Other customers want convenience over anything else. For them, the availability of concierge services, home delivery, and in-store pickup are important considerations when choosing a vendor. And certain people focus on the implied exclusivity or the status attached to buying and experiencing a product or service. You can more easily refine your pricing structure once you identify what type of customer you are targeting.

Identify Your Competitors

You will be more successful in positioning your business in the marketplace once you determine what your competitors are charging for similar services and goods. Do competitors emphasize low prices or superior service? Do they promote their knowledgeable staffers or the exclusivity of the goods they offer? Once you understand where you stand in relation to your competitors, you may be better able to leverage service, for example, as a value proposition that can permit you to charge higher prices than your competitors.

Explore Other Opportunities to Generate Revenue

Look beyond a single sale or service to see if there are additional ways to drive revenue. Consider making it beneficial for customers to buy larger quantities of a product by dangling discounts based on the quantity ordered. Are there opportunities to sell service contracts, options, and add-ons to a basic service or product, perhaps by offering several packages at different prices?

Pay Attention to Macro and Micro Issues

Small business owners always face factors that may threaten the viability of their businesses. The reality is that what happens in the larger world will affect your business in multiple ways. Significant hikes in your costs for labor, gasoline, and materials as well as the costs associated with supply chain issues will mean that you have to revisit your current pricing. You’ll want to continuously monitor your prices and your profitability. Understanding which products and services are profitable and which ones are not allows you to make data-driven decisions about pricing.

An experienced financial professional can assist you with your business strategy and planning.

The Pluses and Minuses of Business Borrowing

Human hand giving money to other hand. Holding banknotes. Isolated on blue background. Vector illustrationThere are distinct pluses and minuses that small business owners should consider when looking for a loan.

New small business owners typically enter the marketplace with high expectations — they want to build sales and increase profits quarter to quarter. More often than not, they hope to add employees and, perhaps, open up additional locations. To help turn their dreams of growth into reality, they often seek out financing.

The big question is when to borrow money and on what terms. The decision isn’t always clear-cut, as there are distinct pluses and minuses that small business owners should consider.

The Pluses of Business Borrowing…

Seeking financing can make sense from a business perspective if the loan is intended to help the business expand and grow. For example, using debt to add to or introduce a new line of products, acquire additional property, or take other actions that are expected to boost revenues is an appropriate business strategy. A loan can also make sense when it is used to repay the owner of the business some of what he or she put into the business using personal funds.

…And the Minuses

A business loan impacts cash flow as it is being repaid, often in monthly installments. The interest cost may be an important consideration, depending on the interest rate environment. Business borrowers should understand that their tax deduction for interest expense may be limited to 30% of the business’s adjusted taxable income. However, smaller businesses may be permitted to deduct more. A tax professional can provide details on these rules.

Excessive Debt

Business owners also need to consider other possible negative ramifications from taking on excessive debt. For example, the owner of a small business is typically required to personally guarantee loans to the business. If the business defaults on the loan, then the owner is personally liable for repaying the loan balance. It is possible that in such a situation, the lender would take steps to seize the owner’s auto, home, and other assets in order to settle the debt. Moreover, if the business ended up with more liabilities than assets and was unable to repay what it owed, then the business might be forced to file for bankruptcy.

Seek Professional Input

Before taking on debt, small business owners may want to consult with an experienced financial professional. A professional analysis of the business’s financial health, cash flow, and prospects can help the owner determine whether a business loan at this stage makes sense and how much debt the business can afford to take on.

Facing Off Against a Big Competitor

Business people run on the arrows. Concept business competition vector illustration. Flat business cartoon, Speed, Togetherness, Office Team, Back view.

Running a small business isn’t easy. You probably wouldn’t have it any other way. The ability to survive and thrive is a source of great pride for small business owners. So when a competitor moves in, especially a big one, it can feel like battle lines have been drawn.

Sharpen Your Edge

Before you do anything, accept the fact that you can’t compete on the same level as a large national chain. But that doesn’t mean you can’t win the battle. Study what the competition does and how they do it. Then use that information to define — and sharpen — your company’s competitive edge.

A large competitor will almost certainly have lower prices and a deeper inventory. But you can connect with customers in ways the competition can’t. You can add value to every customer interaction by being attentive and providing expertise and personalized service.

Perhaps your biggest edge is your size. Being small means you can respond to market trends and customer requests more quickly. You can also change and adapt policies and procedures faster.

Rally the Troops

You have another big advantage: You have an established customer base and you know what they need. Establish a timeline to reach out to your customers directly via snail mail or e-mail (or both) with special offers. If you have a loyalty program, consider doubling rewards for a period of time that overlaps with the competition’s opening.

Look for Advantages

Having a big competitor move in may have some unexpected benefits. The new company validates the need for what your business offers and may do a fair amount of advertising. If your marketing budget allows, this could be a good time to do some strategic advertising of your own.

The competition also may create some unexpected opportunities in the future. The new company will change the dynamics of the marketplace, which may lead you to steer your business in a new direction.

Managing Remote and Hybrid Workers

Hybrid work, remotely work from home virtually or work in office onsite, flexible for employee benefit concept, businessman and his colleague virtually get into the computer laptop conference meeting.Whether or not the number of people working from office buildings returns to pre-COVID levels, one thing appears certain: Remote and hybrid work models are here to stay. Business owners and other managers who rely on individuals who are working remotely full- or part-time are refining and elevating their management skills so that they get the best out of their employees.

While managing remote and hybrid workers bears many similarities to managing fixed-base teams, it also has some unique aspects. Here are several best practices you may want to consider and apply to your own situation, no matter your level of experience in prior management of remote workers.

Make Your Expectations Clear and Simple

Clarify the hours when employees should be available and accessible. Give employees performance goals and metrics that define success in meeting those goals. Lay out clear guidelines when it comes to after-hours work-related emails and text messages. You want employees to maintain a healthy work-life balance, one that prevents burnout, and ultimately, keeps them working at peak capacity for your business.

Communicate Regularly

Employees want to know how they are performing and whether they are on track to meet the goals you set for them. Check in regularly with them and communicate your satisfaction or your concerns about how they are doing. Regular check-ins are important; just be aware that you can overdo it, since too much oversight may be resented by employees who feel they are not trusted. It’s important to keep them in the loop about any changes in company policy when it comes to wages, benefits, job openings, promotion opportunities, and other changes that may impact them.

Depending on the demographic makeup of your remote employees, you may have to refine your communication style. Talk with your employees and solicit their opinions on what works best for them — texts, Zoom calls, or other forms of instant messaging.

Listen Attentively

Closely related to good communication skills is the ability to listen carefully and attentively to what your employees are saying. You want to give them the opportunity to express what they think about their workloads and talk about any stresses or frustrations they may be feeling. When you listen carefully to what your employees are saying, you are communicating trust and respect.

Build a Sense of Community

Some workers thrive in environments where they can interact and engage with fellow workers face-to-face. That engagement is less important to other workers. One of your goals managing a remote workforce should be to build connections to workers who feel isolated and out of the loop. Employees who feel this way typically do not perform at their highest level. By staying in touch and by organizing the occasional virtual — or in-person — get together in which you build connections and a shared sense of purpose with employees, you can create a sense of community that can have a positive impact on employees and their level of engagement.

Embrace Flexibility

A rigid approach to managing your remote employees may be limiting and not as effective as a more flexible approach. For example, once you determine that the work is being completed on time and is of a high quality, you may want to give employees some leeway as to the specific times they are working.

The work world has changed in numerous ways over the past couple of years. Your management approach has to stay ahead of these changes, especially when it comes to remote work, if your business is to continue to grow and thrive.

Can Your Company Survive a Disaster?

Incident management, root cause analysis or solving problem, identify risk or critical failure concept, businessman with magnifier monitor and investigate incident with exclamation attention sign.Fire, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes. When they happen, they can destroy buildings, equipment, and hard-to-replace data, and even injure or kill employees. It can take a business weeks, sometimes months, to resume operations after a disaster. Some businesses never recover. You can’t pin down the time or day when a disaster may strike your business. However, you can certainly prepare for one. Preparing for a disaster can minimize the potential damage and may protect you and your employees from harm.

Knowing what to do if a disaster strikes your business is half the battle. Savvy business owners draw up a disaster plan and update it regularly. They consult with experts and draw on lessons learned from the past. Moreover, they designate alternate business sites, emphasize data preservation, and ensure that the business’ insurance coverage is sufficient.

Drawing Up a Disaster Plan

If your business does not already have a disaster plan, now may be a very good time to develop one. Consider forming a disaster planning committee and assign it the task of crafting and implementing a disaster plan for your business. Give committee members the opportunity to attend seminars, meet with experts, and take training courses related to disaster planning.

If your disaster plan is to have any value at all, it must, at a minimum, outline in detail all of the steps managers and employees need to take if disaster hits your business. An effective and workable disaster plan should cover personnel safety and management succession.

Personnel Safety and Management Succession

An effective disaster plan should clearly identify safety areas for employees as well as an evacuation route. Specific individuals should be responsible for confirming that all employees have reached the safety area. The plan should outline a chain of command, indicating the responsibilities and duties assigned to each manager or employee during a disaster.

A list of emergency phone numbers — hospitals, doctors’ offices, and the company’s lawyers and accountants — is an important part of the plan. Be sure to include the home phone numbers of employees and the names of family members who can be contacted in an emergency.

Ensuring management continuity after a disaster should also be a top priority. That requires establishing procedures that detail the responsibilities and duties of each member of the management team in the days and weeks after a disaster. The procedures should clearly define a line of succession and give instructions on how to communicate any changes or information to employees, customers, vendors, and professional advisors. Creating and implementing these procedures helps keep your business operational during a difficult time.

Alternate Business Sites

Getting your business up and running after a disaster is much easier if you have an off-site facility for storing backed-up data vital to your operations. You’ll need to be able to access customer and vendor lists, accounts receivable records, and other critical records if you are to resume operations quickly. Make sure you identify and classify corporate data according to its importance and begin to back it up as soon as possible.

It may be worthwhile to look into alternate business sites, essentially office complexes with computers, work areas, and phones. When disaster strikes, you would move your personnel to the alternate site.

Insurance Coverage

Review your business insurance policies to identify any potential shortcomings in your coverage. Business interruption insurance, which compensates a business for the loss of all or a portion of operating income when normal operations are disrupted by disaster, is a key element in business insurance planning. Take the time to periodically reexamine your business’ umbrella liability, fire, vehicle, and property insurance. Keep several copies of all your policies at different locations.

Don’t Let Your Plan Gather Dust

Make sure key employees receive a copy of the disaster plan. Keep it updated. Practice emergency drills. A proactive approach can potentially minimize the impact of a disaster.

Prioritizing Customer Service

We not only remember outstanding customer service, we talk about it. We tell family, friends, and people we work with about how someone working for a business made us feel special. It could have been a smile, a kind word, a discount, an offer of free delivery, or something totally unexpected. Whatever it was, it made us want to buy again from the business and talk the business up.

Research has consistently shown that the businesses that thrive and prosper are the businesses that emphasize giving customers a consistently superior experience. While satisfied customers are likely to relate their positive experience with a company to an average of nine other people, customers who have had a negative experience are likely to tell 16 people about it.

Given the impact that great customer service can have on a business’s bottom line, what should you be doing to ensure your customers are truly impressed by their experiences with your firm?

Focus on Your Employees

The fact is that the customer experience depends on the employee experience. Valued, trusted employees who are fairly compensated can make or break a business. Employees who feel empowered and valued will take the extra steps to ensure that customers get what they want — and then some. Think about what procedures or systems you can create that can help you identify your customer-focused employees early on and what measures you need to take to keep them motivated and enthusiastic. Pay and benefits matter, of course, but many people are motivated by respect, trust, encouragement, and increasing on-the-job responsibilities.

Offer Convenience

Look closely at how your business operates. Review your delivery, billing, and dispute-resolution processes to determine if they give your customers a seamless, trouble-free experience. Customers want convenience and will do business with companies that are easy to work with.

Provide a Customized Experience

How well do you know your customers? There are numerous tools available that can help you analyze the buying patterns of your customers and use that data to craft special offers and special pricing for them. You can segment customers into groups so that you can provide a highly personalized experience to each of them. Doing so makes your business stand out from the crowd and leaves your customers feeling special.

Make Your Business Accessible Through All Channels

If you are not using every communications channel available, you are probably not being as effective as you could be in reaching your customer base. Social channels, messaging apps, and online chat rooms all encourage customers to connect to your business. Your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for customers to buy what they need. Making your business accessible through every channel is just one other way of delivering memorable customer service.

Emphasize the Human Connection

Let your staff know that personal interaction is still critically important even in the digital age. Customers should be greeted as soon as they show up in person or contact the business. Follow-up calls to ensure that customers are satisfied with their purchase and their overall experience can help identify issues before they escalate into problems. They also serve to reinforce your business’s commitment to outstanding customer service.

Delivering superior customer service consistently is just one of the many challenges that businesses face. Other challenges — financial, strategic, and logistical — are always present. The input of an experienced financial professional can help business owners navigate these challenges.