Unless you run a lakeside resort or sell ice cream bars on the boardwalk, summer is a great time to dig out, clean up, and think about why you are in business.
Here are some simple things to do while the days are long and spirits are generally high:
-Hire summer help. If you can't round up a high school or college student, put your kids to work. You can put your children on your payroll and book their salary as a legitimate business expense, up to a certain limit. Ask your accountant or CPA for the details.
Even a 12-year-old kid can open the mail, deliver it, paste address labels on postcards or clean out the office supply closet. Find a computer-savvy student who can de-fragment your hard drive, install new software, network your computers or do online research. If you can't find a young person, advertise or ask around for a retired person who is looking for something to do.
When I first started my communications company, I had my grandparents folding, stapling and stamping flyers, and responding to requests for information. They also read and drafted responses to story ideas and fan mail. When they went back home, I recruited my great aunt.
-Update your database. First, make all the changes you can based on the new business cards you've collected or by reviewing change-of-address notices you've received. Ask your employees to go through the list and delete people they know have changed jobs or those they haven't heard from in awhile.
Another way to clean up your list is to send out postcards with a special offer or discount to everyone on your list. Stamp "address correction requested" on the front so the postal service will return the undeliverable mail. You'll pay the return postage, but you'll end up with the information you need to keep your list current.
If you don't have a database, start one. Buy contact management software and a card scanner if you collect a lot of business cards. When things are slow, get on the phone and call customers or clients you haven't heard from in awhile. One Midwestern paving contractor I know called former customers on a slow day in July and ended up with a $63,000 contract.
-Meet face to face with your best customers. When things are going well, we tend to take our customers for granted. Big mistake. Set up a series of individual or group breakfasts with the people who keep your cash flowing.
For local folks, breakfast seems to be the ideal time, especially if you pick a restaurant near their office, not yours. If you have to fly across the country to meet with them do it.
This meeting has several purposes to catch up on the news, thank them for their support, and to find out firsthand what they like and don't like about doing business with your company.
It's human nature to avoid confrontation, so most people would rather take their business elsewhere than complain. Point out that you want to hear their complaints in order to keep them happy. In the small-business world, we often become friends with our customers. That means, if something goes wrong, it's even tougher to discuss it.
In the process, ask your customers to suggest new products or services they would like you to offer. We started helping clients plan educational events after I complained about the poor quality of food, sound, lighting and organization of the events I was keynoting.
-Take a break. Even if you can't spend two weeks rounding up cattle on a Wyoming dude ranch or being pampered at an exclusive spa, force yourself to get away.
Take a few long weekends. With gas prices rising and airline service worsening, leave your car at home and take the train. Amtrak has really gotten its act together. The trains run on time. They are clean and bright, and business class has electrical outlets if you really have to work on your personal computer.
It's tough, but promise to detach yourself from the office. Designate a trusted employee to take responsibility for the day-to-day operations. Instruct them to call you only if it's a real emergency, and specify what you consider a real emergency.
Call the office once a day at a specific time. Don't check your voice mail or e-mail. It's amazing but true to realize the world will not stop turning just because you are taking a vacation. Try not to worry about your business. Clear your mind to think about new directions and things you'd like to change when you get back.
-This summer, take action to eliminate toxic employees and customers from your life. I've met or interviewed thousands of entrepreneurs in the past 12 years, and the super-successful ones have one thing in common: They don't work with people who make them sick. They surround themselves with people who are smart, funny and considerate.
They refuse to do business with people who make unreasonable demands, or folks who are never happy with their product or service, no matter what they do.
They also move quickly to get the "storm clouds" off the payroll. No one can afford to pay someone who is a drag to be around. If someone isn't working out, and documenting the problems, counseling and formal probation hasn't helped, it's time to terminate the relationship. Offer some sort of severance package; even a few hundred dollars will take the sting out of being fired and end the relationship on a positive note.
-Sit on the beach or in the park, and complete my new "Business Owner's Check Up." This popular workbook, first published in 1996, has been totally revised for the new century. It leads you through a series of quick and painless questions about your goals, your product mix, your management team and the relationships you have with your advisers.
It's free, and we'll send you a copy if you send a postcard or letter with your name, address, e-mail address and other contact information to: Jane Applegate's Check Up, P.O. Box 768, Pelham, N.Y. 10803. You can also e-mail a request to: email@example.com.
Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is founder of ApplegateWay.com, a multimedia Web site for busy entrepreneurs. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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