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You should never have “a customer from hell”

“This is one of those customers from hell.”

That’s what a small business owner said to me during one of my road trips across the country to check on how things are going out on Main Street.

“Ann” was responding to my query about her business. Her full quote was closer to, “Business is good. But right now I’ve got to spend most of the day dealing with this customer from hell.”

Photo courtesy of Blue Wolf Consulting

When I was a pup commission salesman right out of high school working in big ticket retail, I quickly realized all customers aren’t created equal; there are cool ones, high maintenance ones and impossible ones, like the one Ann was fuming about. My initial reaction was I didn’t like the latter two types and would try to avoid them. But upon more mature reflection I realized that if I was going to be successful selling on commission, I would have to do business with all kinds of customers, not just the easy ones. Honing this perspective over time, I developed the twin pillars of Blasingame’s Difficult Customer Strategy.

Pillar One: Make an extra effort to understand what troubles and/or motivates difficult customers and serve them within an inch of their lives. Most difficult customers will give you points for the effort and very likely their business in the bargain. And here’s an extra effort bonus: When a difficult customer likes you, you’ll have a customer for life, and the most valuable referral source.

Pillar Two: The hellish behavior of some customers typically manifests as excessive demands. When dealing with such people, charge them for their behavior. As I told Ann, charge difficult customers enough so that regardless of their level of maintenance, you hope they come back and ask for everything again. The key is to ask enough questions about their expectations before you set your price. Or at least remember the next time.

One former consulting client of mine could be difficult. Whenever we were face-to-face and he showed me his hellish side, I would exaggerate making a mark on my note pad, which he knew was to remind me to add a difficulty factor fee on his next invoice (he had a different name for it that can’t be used here). Eventually we joked about it, but he knew his behavior impacted his bill. He was a client for years and, difficult or not, I always liked his business.

Write this on a rock … You should never have a customer from hell.

Small business owners tackle risks

A friend of mine with a good job once observed, “It must be frightening being a small business owner. You know, not having a guaranteed paycheck, benefits, and all.”

I told him, “You’re right. It scares the hell out of me.” And then, remembering being downsized twice in 18 months, I hit him with, “It’s almost as frightening as when I was an employee.”
In that spirit, here’s a jewel I came across by John A. Shedd, American author and professor, from his 1928 book
Salt from My Attic.
“A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.”
Were you built for the safe harbor of employment? If so, God bless you. The world needs lots of loyal, productive employees.
Or were you made to sail the entrepreneurial open seas? If so, God be with you. You’re not part of a large fleet, you navigate by the stars of the marketplace, and the storms, reefs, and pirates of the marketplace take no prisoners.
If you’re made to sail and not to lie at anchor, you’ll not only know storms, reefs, and pirates, but you’ll also know what your ship is made of. Perspectives not possible at anchor and voyages of which others can only dream.
All of life is a risk. Raising anchor and setting sail merely introduces you to different kinds of risks from those found in a safe harbor.

Small business: The best boots on the ground

Small business owners are worried about world affairs.

In a recent online poll we asked our audience about that and almost three-fourths are either very or extremely concerned about the state of the world.

Photo courtesy of AGV Study Abroad

Photo Courtesy of AGV Study Abroad

In recent years terrorists have inverted this reality by employing to murderous advantage two icons of the very society they claim to hate: technology and markets. But just as these icons are ironic levers for terrorists who place no value on life, they become benevolent tools in the hands of those who do.

Indeed, when tolerant humans use technology and markets they do three very good and peaceful things: communicate, conduct business and share values. The 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat observed that when goods cross borders, armies don’t. He couldn’t have imagined that today, thanks to technology, goods — and values — cross borders at the speed of light.

Traveling abroad I’ve learned when small business owners in different countries know each other they discover more in common than not. I submit that a small company in Kankakee, Illinois, connecting with an e-commerce customer in Kabul, Afghanistan can, over time, neutralize impediments to peace. And when a Main Street business in Bangor, Maine, shares a best practice with a peer in Baghdad, Iraq, ugly hatred morphs into the beauty of shared values.

The 18th century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Regarding the current debate about “boots on the ground,” there is no greater army of good men and women than small business owners around the globe leveraging technology to do business and share values across borders.

The carcinogens that metastasize into terrorism are ideology, ignorance and intolerance. But since centuries of politics and wars haven’t solved the conflict riddle, is it ignorance or ideology when western leaders don’t include in their peace strategy a potentially powerful and abundant force: small business trade?

Many organizations that have members who are Main Street business leaders can be used to promote business boots on the ground virtually anywhere in the world. The first two President Blasingame would deploy are local Chambers of Commerce and Rotary International.

Write this on a rock … Fight ideology, ignorance and intolerance with small business trade and shared values.

Jim Blasingame is the author of the award-winning book, “The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.”

Be a professional business owner, not an amateur

Professionals are people who can do their job even when they don’t feel like it.  Amateurs are people who can’t do their job even when they do feel like it.

I like this anonymous quote because it helps me ask this question: What kind of owner are you: a professional or an amateur?

If your driving motivation to be a small business owner is status and control, you’re probably never going to be a professional.

But if you love what you do so much that you don’t want to be anywhere else but in your business, you’ll probably become a professional. You’ll become the kind of owner who shows up even when you don’t feel like it. When the chips are down. When the challenges are so great that they would crush the spirit of a lesser person.

Professional business owners know they own more than just what’s on the balance sheet - they also own their business’s challenges. And when they turn one of those challenges into an opportunity, they know that also belongs to them, which is exciting.

Amateur don’t want the work, they just want the result. Professionals love the entire process, alpha to omega, warts and all.

If you’re going to be in business, you must be in your business.

Professionals know this. Amateurs don’t.

RESULTS: How is the economy looking for your business as we enter the last trimester of 2014?

The Question:
How is the economy looking for your business as we enter the last trimester of 2014?

36% - This year has been great and we plan to finish strong.
29% - This hasn’t been a great year, but it looks like we’ll finish strong
14% -  We started out well, but the rest of the year doesn’t look so good.
21% - We’re not going to have a good year, first half or last half.

Jim’s Comments:
Comparing our poll this week to similar results over the past couple of years, it actually looks like small business owners are finally feeling more confident about the economy. In previous polls we’ve barely gotten half of our audience to say they were optimistic about the next few months. But this week almost two-thirds like what they see for the last third of the year.

As you know, I now consider Main Street, not Wall Street, to be the leading indicator of the economy. If I’m right, this poll response is good news we can count on–at least unless Wall Street and/or Washington does something stupid to derail all of our hard work.

Small business impact on November mid-term elections

Regardless of political party, history informs that the mid-term election in a second term has rarely been fun for any president. Consequently, President Obama’s party isn’t supposed to do well this November.

But with a Republicans House majority and Democrat control of the Senate now in jeopardy, this election cycle is producing a pitch battle with daggers drawn on every front. And not just because control of Congress is at stake for the next two years, but also six years of Democrat policies must be protected or reversed, depending upon to whom you talk.

In a recent online poll we asked our small business audience how they’re leaning in the November election. GOP responses came in at 63%, with Democrat allegiance at only 3%. The independent “I vote for the individual” got 29% and 5% said they “probably won’t vote.” Even if you give half the independents to the Dems, they still don’t rise to one-in-five among our group.

Republicans leading our sample tracks with other polls of the public. But besides the historic second term curse, there are other reasons small business sentiment skews heavily for the out-of-power party this year:

1.  Small business owners do something that’s at once special and difficult: they make between one and four payrolls every month. As a result, this group typically leans toward the GOP as a more business-friendly party. But it should be noted that the spread usually isn’t this great.

2.  Small business owners consider many Democrat policies anti-business. For example:

a.  Obama’s “America needs a raise” campaign to increase minimum wage is unpopular with small business owners.

b.  Recent tax increases have resulted in federal tax revenues at a 40-year record tax pace this year and next. Higher taxes depletes precious small business working capital.

c.  Essentially a stealth tax, regulatory compliance has increased significantly since 2009, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

d.  And the mother of all policy offenses: Obamacare. As a class, small business owners DO NOT like Obamacare.

There isn’t room to list all of the things troubling small business owners this year. But these leaders believe Washington policies have contributed to and prolonged the worst post-recession recovery since the Great Depression. And justified or not, President Obama is the face of the Democrat party, which right now is not good news for many incumbent Democrats needing support from their small business constituents.

Write this on a rock … Counting employees, Small Business USA is the largest voting bloc.