A Community I Love

This is #4 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics list, and is part of the 100 Topics Challenge.

Alas, this post is a lament.

Way back when, there used to be a website called Askme.com. A friend of mine introduced me to Askme, which filled a niche similar to Yahoo! Answers today. Unlike Answers, people needed to specifically register to answer questions in a particular category, and in doing so indicate how they were expert in the topic. Users of the site rated answers in the standard manner, and experts were ranked both overall and in their categories of expertice.

The Askme community is probably the most vibrant of all of the online communities that I have been involved with over the years. In every category in which I was active, there were users who I truly got to know – both experts and people asking questions. People stuck around for years, and got involved in maintaining their categories.

Unfortunately the company decided that running a free website to showcase their technology was too expensive, so they shut it down in order to focus on selling their software to Fortune 500 companies instead. The hundreds of thousands of committed experts floated away along the internet’s pipes, and so far I have yet to find another site that I truly felt at home participating in to the same extent. From what I’ve heard, I’m not the only one.

Should My Town Use Social Media?

This is #3 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics list, and is part of the 100 Topics Challenge.

I’ve seen this a lot lately: some little flyspec place a million miles away from anything decides that they need to be bleeding edge. So they build a virtual world that duplicates the whole town and everything in it, and then try to provide municipal services through it.

My chief question is whether they have virtualized garbage collection and property taxes. I’d love to be able to pay my property taxes in Linden Dollars.

I don’t see anything wrong really with the notion that municipalities need to find more ways to connect to residents (as long as they do it right). I think the critical factor is that they need to realize that Social Media provides a different set of features and opportunities to other, older ways of “interfacing”. If their goal is to give their residents a way to contribute to the community then good for them. If they think that throwing up a 3d VR version of City Hall and then hoping that people will vote them in again next time around, then they should understand up front that they are wasting taxpayer’s money.

Ways I Embrace My Audience

This is #2 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics list, and is part of the 100 Topics Challenge.

The idea behind corporate blogging is to somehow build a more effective connection between a company and its customers. By allowing customers to have a say in how the company functions – giving them “ownership” in a certain sense – there is both opportunity and risk. The risk is more obvious: what if they say bad stuff about us? The opportunity has been well documented by people like Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki – there is something incredibly attractive about a company that is truly willing to open itself up and “embrace” its customer base.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t have too much first experience with this idea. Yes, I’ve blogged in the past, but it was always more of a personal thing to amuse myself and my friends. Yes, I’ve played around with social media for marketing previous companies that I’ve been part of, but again this was in some way a half-hearted effort; not much more than randomly broadcasting “here I am” to anyone who would listen.

When I started Lichtman Consulting, I wanted to do things better, in a way that I had always somehow felt attracted to, yet never quite did – often because I couldn’t get buyin from my stakeholders (and other times because it is hard and takes real work). My goal was to build the kind of company that I had always admired from the distance. A company that listen to its customers. A company that gave them a say in matters. A company that is committed to Open Source, to community give-back, to making the world a better place. Not just words, but for real.

When I think of embracing my audience, I think of:

  • let people comment on anything;
  • respond to their comments;
  • try to learn their needs;
  • make an effort to change what I do to fit their needs better (even when it hurts);
  • learn (and teach) constantly;
  • care about stuff

I’m not convinced that I’ve totally nailed it yet. I mean I’ve seen other people do it, and do it well. People you’ve heard of too. I know I’m still new at this game, and that there is a lot to learn if I’m going to be any darn good at it.

Have some good ideas on embracing your audience? I’d love to hear from you!

How I Use Facebook

This is #1 on Chris Brogan’s 100 Blog Topics list, and is part of the 100 Topics Challenge.

Facebook was the first social media site that I started using. I used to be stuck in the mindset that social media was a complete waste of time, and I actively avoided creating profiles online for years. These days, social media forms a critical part of how I market my company: a significant chunk of my business comes about via my interactions with people on sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others.

Initially I used Facebook primarily for looking up long lost friends – not an unusual purpose. The key site for networking purposes was always LinkedIn. I’ve come to realize though that every social media site has its own personality, and that the differences can be very useful once you recognize them.

Facebook places a higher priority than many other sites on connecting only to people that you know well. I don’t know too many “LIONS” (LinkedIn Open Networkers) on Facebook. Typically the vast majority of people in your Facebook friends list are people that you’ve met face to face. I get many requests from complete strangers on sites like MySpace, but seldom from Facebook.

The advantage of creating a network of people that you actually know (i.e. separate from a loosely linked network of people that you have just interacted with online), is that many of those people will have some existing idea of the kinds of things that you do. This means that you don’t need to explain too much in order to start utilizing that network for finding leads. It also means that the people in your friend’s list are already “rooting” for you – they’re your friends after all. If your set of friends has anything in common at all withyou (and I assume that like most people you are friendly with people that are similar to you in interests), they’ll have the right kind of connections to be able to come up with targetted sales leads.

I’m not advocating using Facebook exclusely for this purpose, or ignoring the kinds of loose networks that you probably also have on other sites. Don’t spam your friends with sales requests, and make sure that you actively reciprocate with leads in return. They’re your friend after all! Do, however, make sure that your profile accurately reflects the kind of work that you do, that your status updates indicate what you are trying to accomplish, and that you obey the Golden Rule of Networking: always give the first lead.

The 100 Blog Topic Challenge

Back in 2007, Chris Brogan posted a list of 100 Blog Topics that he suggested people write about.

The list blew me away when I read it recently.

I immediately wrote a blog entry on one of them, but I’ve discovered that that just isn’t sufficiently satisfying.

I want to cover ALL of those topics.

So here’s the challenge (and I love a race): Let’s see who can be the first blogger to cover every single one of those topics. If you’re in, let me know so I can keep track.

Twitter Jaiku Pownce Facebook- And Then What

In my experience, build traffic to a site is easy – it just takes work. The same goes for building a following on social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. If you’re willing to dedicate the time to posting regularly, promoting diligently, and continually learning new tricks, eventually everything will come together.

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Business Handover Means Potential Windfall for IT Companies

The handover of family owned businesses to the next generation is likely to mean a big windfall for I.T. companies. I originally wrote this article while serving as the CTO at MIT Consulting.

By Jeremy Lichtman

A sales rep from my former company recently visited a family-run firm that has been in operating in Toronto for a number of decades. The company has annual revenues in the low tens of millions of dollars.

The current owners are from the baby-boom generation, and are in the process of handing over the business ownership to their adult children.

The result: one of the largest potential sales that they have had to date.

The existing owners had viewed information technology as a necessary evil, and had not invested in the company’s information technology infrastructure in more than ten years.

The most recent computer in the building dates from an era when networks required special software to operate (picture 14 inch monochrome monitors), the accounting package still runs on MS Dos, and they currently have no website or email. The network still operates on coaxial cable, and their phone system is a decades-old antique.

All this in an industry where many of their competitors use EDI and web-based technology to integrate with both suppliers and vendors.

The scenario above is actually an amalgam of a large, and increasing, number of clients that IT consultants are seeing these days.

There are approximately one million family owned businesses in Canada alone that are likely to change ownership in the next decade

I’ve heard the statistic kicked around that there are approximately one million family owned businesses in Canada alone that are likely to change ownership in the next decade.

Many of the current owners have been operating the business for many years, and are intimately familiar with their operations, meaning that they do not have many formal systems in place.

The business, as a result, may not require computers, network, or even accounting software. Who needs a computer when the accounting system is a paper ledger book? And who needs a website when you are on a first-name basis with all of your customers?

As these businesses change ownership, and a new, younger generation takes over, much of the knowledge base that was required to run the business – things like the first names and birthdays of all of the customers – will be lost.

The only way these businesses will be able to continue their operations will be to invest in the creation and maintenance of systems to capture critical business information.

Upgrades to computers, servers and accounting software are just the tip of the iceberg; CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software, often considered to be a static, tapped-out market, may see growth, particularly at the low end of the range. And the lowly web developer may be busier than they are accustomed to being in recent years.

How to Manage Your Collections

This was originally published in Enterprise Magazine in 2006.

“Accounts Receivable!”

By Jeremy Lichtman

If you are the CEO or manager of a small business, you’re probably already running, screaming at the top of your lungs, for the nearest available shelter. While you are hiding under the reception desk, consider this: accounts receivable, and the often difficult task of collecting them from your clients, can be one of the toughest tasks that small businesses face.

The good news is that it really doesn’t have to be that way. It turns out that the key to collections is simply being organized. My company, MIT Consulting, has had its fair share of collections issues over the years, and we’ve come up with the following list of tips and tricks for keeping our AR as low as possible:

1. Set rules up front with your clients

Many business owners are (strangely) reluctant to talk about money. They’d rather discuss their products and services and how they meet their client’s needs.

It is very important, however, to write down a list of rules for how you expect to be paid, and make sure that they are in the contract (you do have a contract with your client, don’t you?), and that you have discussed them before any work has started.

The rules could include things like terms of payment (i.e. 30 days after the invoice date), or a complete payment schedule, with specific dates for each payment due.

2. Get money up front

Depending on your business, this may vary in difficulty. At the very minimum, you should insist on a substantial deposit prior to starting work on a project. The deposit amount will obviously depend on the kind of work you are doing, as well as the total size and timeline of the project.

If you will incur large outlays (i.e. you have to buy equipment for your client), it may make sense to get the client’s credit card number and make sure that you have received payment before you even place the order! After all, if your client wants to buy a computer from Dell, they have to pay before the computer is even built. Why should you have to run after your client for the bill afterwards? “Financing” our clients was a mistake that we used to make in our business, and the resulting cash flow issues caused us major grief.

3. Offer discounts for early payment

This trick was suggested to us by our accountant a few years back. It won’t work for all clients, but for those who are actively watching their bottom line, a discount of 1 or 2 percent for early payment (i.e. less than 10 days after the invoice date) might be sufficient to make them pay up.

3. Keep track of your AR

Hopefully you have a proper accounting package in place. My company runs Business Vision, and there are a number of useful reports that can help keep track of collections. I print up the current AR report on a weekly basis, as well as the cash receipts report for the previous few weeks. This means that I have a good idea of who owes us money, and how much.

4. Make weekly collections lists

Every week, we sit down with whoever is going to be making calls and put together a list of who to focus on for that week. One week we may target the clients who are most overdue with payments. Another week we may focus on those with the largest outstanding amounts.

5. Set weekly collections targets

After we have set a list of who we are going to call, we put the list (along with the amounts for each client) on a whiteboard, with a goal at the bottom. As we successfully collect money, we update the whiteboard. That way we know how close we are to meeting our weekly goal. If you don’t set goals, it is hard to track your progress!

6. Keep notes of your calls

It is extremely important to keep a list of who was called, when they were called, and what was said. We often find that collection calls can result in other, useful information about our own level of customer service. Sometimes clients may discover errors on an invoice that slipped through our checking process, or they may have a complaint about the level of service they have been given. If that information isn’t recorded, it is lost. So write it down!

7. Set time aside daily time for calling

Calling clients for money is such a painful process for many people that it is easy to let it slide. It is important to set aside specific times of the day during which you will be calling. Make sure you stick to your schedule.

8. Consider hiring somebody to just do calling

The job has to be done. If you can’t do it, hire somebody who can! Make sure that they have a realistic “script” to follow with clients, and give them clear instructions on how to handle problem situations. Listen in on a few of their calls, at least at the beginning, so that you have a feel for how they are doing.

9. Be nice but firm!

There is nothing that is guaranteed to lose your clients than a rude, obnoxious bill collector. Yes, they may get results, but if you lose the client as a customer afterwards, that doesn’t help your cause.

On the other hand, if the collector appears weak-willed, they are unlikely to be able to collect, particularly from tough customers.

The key is to be firm but polite. If the customer says that they can’t pay now, ask them when would be a good time to call back. If they have an issue with something on the bill, listen to their concerns and take detailed notes. Then follow up.

This approach often results in a better, more up-front relationship with the client over time, and may help your business in other ways.

10. What do to if the client won’t (or can’t) pay

There are always going to be a few clients who can’t or won’t pay their bills. In our experience in the service industry, a few percent of the total invoices that we send out turn out to be uncollectible for various reasons.

When this happens, our rule of thumb is to determine whether we are likely to ever do business with the client in the future, and also whether sending the bill to collections or suing the client is likely to have other repercussions. It is a good idea to discuss the specifics of each case with your lawyer as well (you do have a lawyer, don’t you?).

Bear in mind that if you send the bill to collections, or sue the client, you will likely only collect a portion of the total amount, since the collections agency or lawyer will want their “cut”. It might be worthwhile to talk things through with the client instead (if this is possible), and see if it is possible to collect a portion of the bill at the very minimum.