Friday, October 31, 2008

5 Tips on Budgeting

1. Think of a budget as a useful tool—a written financial plan that helps you set goals and measure progress.

2. Start by coming up with a sales revenue target. Make it your best estimate.

3. Based on past experience, estimate your cost of goods sold (e.g., 70 percent of sales) and subtract it from the sales revenue to come up with your estimated gross margin.

4. Forecast variable expenses (items such as travel and commissions that vary according to the level of sales) and fixed expenses (items like taxes and rent that stay the same, regardless of sales). Subtract these expenses from your gross margin to arrive at your estimated net income (before federal taxes).

5. Break your annual budget into quarters and monitor your progress every three months to detect problems and make corrections.

(Source: SCORE "Counselors to America's Small Business." )

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cost-Conscious Consumers Responding to Restaurant Deals

"In the quarter ending August 2008, 23 percent of all visits to restaurants were prompted by consumer-perceived deals." Normally, I am not a huge believer in discounting. However, in the restaurant industry you do need to look at different ways to provide value. This could be as simple as a day with discounted or free pricing for children, or maybe a special partnership with local schools where you set a day and give a small portion of the profits to their PTA. Try to be creative with the consumer-perceived deals so that it doesn't hurt your restaurant's perceived quality.

Cost-Conscious Consumers Responding to Restaurant Deals

Restaurant industry's modest gain is driven by discount offers and deals

Discounted price, dollar menus, and other promotions are driving customer traffic and keeping the restaurant industry in the black, according to market research company The NPD Group. NPD reports total restaurant industry traffic is up 1 percent for the quarter ending August 2008, and the modest gain is driven entirely by deals.

As consumers look for ways to moderate their overall food budget without cooking more, restaurant operators have been offering more deals -- including value menus, coupons, discounted prices, and buy-one-get-one-free promotions -- to increase traffic, according to new data from NPD's CREST service, which tracks restaurant usage.

"More so than we've seen in many years, consumers are looking for savings and ways to stretch their dollar," says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD. "Restaurant operators are responding to economic concerns with enticing value offers and deals."

In the quarter ending August 2008, 23 percent of all visits to restaurants were prompted by consumer-perceived deals, which represented an increase of nine percent compared to the same quarter a year ago. Non-deal restaurant traffic was down by one percent. The quick-service segment accounts for 78 percent of all restaurant visits and is largely driving deal activity.

Quick-service deal traffic is up by 10 percent and is being driven by hamburger and other sandwich restaurants, according to NPD. Thirty percent of all visits to these outlets were prompted by deals, an increase of 20 percent over a year ago. Value menus and discounted price offers found the most favor with consumers.

Overall, while deal traffic is up at breakfast and dinner, consumers use deals most often at lunch. The latest NPD CREST data finds that 38 percent of all deal visits to quick service restaurants occurred at lunch. Dollar or value menus tend to drive lunch traffic, coupons are used most at dinner and discounted prices are used at both lunch and dinner. "

Deal offers are complex and risky for restaurant operators, and this is at the same time they are faced with rising food costs," says Riggs. "But operators understand that in order to get the customers in the door, they need to make them an offer they simply can't refuse."
(Source: The NPD Group, 10/28/08)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

CRM Systems Rapped for Lacking Personal Touch

While this article is specific to auto dealerships, the issue is one that touches many industries. CRM systems can be great tools and allow you the ability to keep track of information to build stronger relationships with your customers, IF used properly. They should never try to be used as a replacement for a good personal relationships. The further you take the personal relationship out of the business, the more transactional you become to the customer.

CRM Systems Rapped for Lacking Personal Touch

Customer-relationship management systems, designed to keep businesses close to their clientele, can have the opposite effect.

Some auto dealers fret the sophisticated and expensive software programs, for all their touted efficiencies, overshadow a key part of automotive retailing: "the personal touch."

"CRM systems have become a handicap by removing the one-on-one relationship with the customer," San Diego dealer Michael Baker says at the E.N.G. Automotive CRM conference here.

The systems are electronic equivalents of a Rolodex, but with much more customer information, ranging from data on buying preferences to the number of driver-age people in a household and when they last bought and serviced vehicles.

CRM offers an array of sales, marketing and management functions. Those include tracking the progress of a sale, following up with prospects, delivering timely service reminders and sending birthday wishes.

But a feared drawback is that dealership employees can rely too much on CRM and not enough on their own human skills to cultivate customer relationships. CRM defenders say the systems were designed, in part, because employees weren't doing enough on their own in the first place.

"I'd prefer that dealership people have relationships with customers, but we've established these fancy systems as a backstop because the employees are not establishing the relationships," says Todd Stainbrook, a digital-integration manager for Ford Motor Co.

Dealerships' high employee turnover rates often mean individual staffers don't maintain long-term customer relationships, he says. "That's why we've systemized and centralized it." But something such as a personal telephone reminder from a service advisor is more effective than a CRM-related recorded message, Baker says. "That's so impersonal," he says.

He adds: "Training needs to reinforce personal relationships. I can't emphasize that enough. It's about having good relationships with customers. It's not all electronic."

Experts say dealership personnel can be trained to use CRM systems and still offer the human touch in consumer interactions. Dealers need not conduct the training themselves, but they're advised to give their blessings to it.

"If the dealer is not involved, there's a problem," Stainbrook says. "It starts at the top. Dealers are getting it, as CRM evolves. I've seen a whole new perspective from them."

"But it's still about people, still about listening to customers," says Scott Waldron, president of Experian Automotive, an information services division. "Too many CRM programs focus on talking rather than listening."

Another potential drawback of CRM systems is that their information capacity can be overwhelming. "

Our biggest challenge is not a lack of data but figuring out which is useful," says Grant Paullo, BMW of North America's manager-after sales marketing and communications. "We need to make sure we have the right data in place."

Adds Stainbrook: "There is a proliferation of information. What do we do with all of it? I notice with the generation coming up that their expectations are high; they're focused on themselves; and they are shocked if they get something that is not relevant to them.

"They've grown up with modern technology, and it's our job to make sure we get to them and are relevant to them."

An Accenture study cites a gap between what today's consumers expect and what they get.

Modern technology is partly to blame for that, says Michael Keranen, American Honda Motor Corp.'s assistant vice president-dealer communications, training and customer relationship management. "We've done it ourselves by replacing a real human on phone calls to customers."

The true meaning of "personalization" can be questioned when businesses use computer systems to massage customers. Says Keranen: "A personalized email is not personalization."
(Source: Ward's Dealer Business, 10/28/08)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Staying Healthy in a Sick Economy interesting article from the New York Times that discusses not only how to stay healthy in our current economy, but also looks at what some in the fitness industry are doing to be creative, be thinking of thier customer's needs and remain competitive.

Staying Healthy in a Sick Economy

ON Wall Street, when the going gets tough, will the tough get yoga mats?

Adding classes in yoga, meditation and other so-called mind-body regimens is just one way fitness professionals in the financial district are responding to recent economic uncertainties roiling their corporate clientele. Some are also offering shorter, cheaper personal training sessions and, in at least one health club, quiet discounts for members who lose their jobs.

Amid layoffs, concerns about staying buff could seem trivial. (Imagine the headline “World Markets Near Collapse: Muscle Tone Under Threat.”) Yet, businesspeople themselves wonder how a perilous financial climate will affect their physical fitness — and if exercise could help them weather hard times.

Some struggle to squeeze in any workouts at all. But others, like Amy Sturtevant, an investment director for Oppenheimer & Company in Washington, find themselves doubling down on conditioning for relief. “Professionals are doing their best not to panic, but I know a lot of professionals who are panicking” about the markets, she said. “The only way to get away from it is to have some kind of outlet.”

Ms. Sturtevant, a mother of four, is training for her fourth marathon. With brokerage clients needing more hand-holding, she said, she stints on sleep rather than skip her 5 a.m. daily boot camp and 20-mile weekend runs.

But one of Ms. Sturtevant’s training partners, a portfolio manager, said in an e-mail message that she had not been as diligent as Ms. Sturtevant and had been “scarce” at their workouts. The portfolio manager said she had weathered some tough financial cycles, “but this one has been uniquely disabling.”

“Forget the 5 o’clock wake-up to run,” she wrote. “Who is sleeping?”

One business owner, Sheri David, is backsliding for business reasons. As chief executive of Impressions on Hold, a company based in New York that sells corporate voicemail systems, a tougher sales environment has meant Ms. David sees more of her customers and less of her personal trainer. Over the summer, she dropped from five sessions a week to three; by mid-September, she said, “it turned into one day for one hour.”

Her trainer, Chris Hall, chides Ms. David to make time and, when she does, to tune out her BlackBerry, she reported. “But I say, ‘You don’t understand — there’s 27,000 reasons I have to pay attention,’ ” referring to her accounts.

For his part, Mr. Hall — whose clients have included Catherine Zeta-Jones — is now offering 30-minute, “high-core, high-intensity” sessions and shared workouts, he said, “because people don’t necessarily have as much time as they used to, and they don’t want to spend as much money.”

About a third of the 42 million Americans who exercise join fitness centers (a number that’s been flat for several years), according to American Sports Data. To keep them on the roster, clubs may be willing to bargain. Most customers who quit the Telos Fitness Center in Dallas, for example, must pay to rejoin. But, for suddenly strapped longtime members, “I’ll put a note in their file and we’ll let them pick up their membership without any fees,” said Clarisa Duran, the center’s sales and marketing director.

For Plus One, which operates in-house fitness centers, corporate accounts are the issue; until recently, its major accounts included the investment banks Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Though still operating in all of those except Bear Stearns (which closed in March), the company now must look to its recent expansion in other regions and industries for growth, said Tom Maraday, the senior vice president. (Google is one new client.)

“We’re a little experienced with stress because we went through 9/11 down here,” said Grace DeSimone, Plus One’s national director of group fitness. When disaster strikes, she noted, demand for yoga goes up, and onsite gyms exert a special pull: “People come and they want someone to talk to — it’s like Cheers.”

And, as in a bar, the televisions stay on. “In the banks, we have to keep the news on,” Mr. Maraday said. But at Cadence Cycling and Multisport Centers, TV’s show training videos rather than CNBC, because “we want this to be an escape,” said Mikael Hanson, director of performance for Cadence in New York.

During the Bear Stearns collapse, as becalmed financiers sought their escape, midday classes at the in-house gym grew crowded, according to a former Bear Stearns trader who declined to be named. When the final ax fell, they lost not just jobs but access to a club offering “everything,” she recalled, a hint of longing in her voice.

“They even gave you the shirts and shorts so you didn’t have to worry about laundry.” Now she can no longer get in her daily 5:30 a.m. workout. Her new employer has no gym and, with the markets erupting, her workday starts even earlier. “I wish there was a gym that opened at 5 in midtown,” the trader said, “but there isn’t.”

Stephanie Shemin Feingold misses a cushy fitness center, too. Since leaving a Midtown law firm in June to work at a nonprofit in Harlem, she’s been using her apartment building’s spartan fitness room. “When there are only three treadmills, it can get crowded pretty quickly,” she said.

“I’m lucky if I get in 20 minutes instead of the hour I used to do,” Ms. Shemin Feingold said. “My pants are getting tight. I’m going to have to figure out a new routine, because I can’t afford a new wardrobe.”

Fitness matters more than ever if you’re laid off, career counselors advise, not just for health, but to network and stay positive. “The last thing you want is to gain 20 pounds during a job search, ” said Dr. Jan Cannon, author of “Finding a Job in a Slow Economy.” “That just compounds that sense of, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ ”

Exercise, she added, can also spur creativity. “You know how we always have those ‘aha’ moments in the shower?” Dr. Cannon said. In the same way, “a good brisk walk can be very helpful.”

Jenny Herring, a Des Moines financial writer, usually walks or bikes for respite from the fulltime job search she began in June, after being downsized as part of the subprime mortgage fallout. But one day last month, feeling frustrated when her phone refused to ring, she varied the routine: “I said, I’m going to get outside, and I mowed the front and back yards” for exercise.
For a motivated few, extra time for conditioning actually proves a rare upside of unemployment. “A lot of people who are between jobs are using this downtime to go after a goal,” like a triathlon, said Mr. Hanson of Cadence Cycling.

Dr. Cannon recalled a client whose workouts last spring “got more frequent as time went on” — to block out the disappointment, and to give her something to get up and do every day.
“She lost 40 pounds.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

It Will All Get Better When The Election Is Over

“It will all get better when the election is over.” I have heard this stated in many different ways over the past month, and while I agree that I will hear less Approved Messages by someone that has just…or is about to…sling some mud, the fundamentals of what will make businesses stronger will not change.

I can assure you that on November 5th, your business is not going to magically improve by 10%. What will help businesses continue profitability in this evolving economic climate are sound fundamentals. Don’t wait for the election, now is the time to take a few minutes AWAY from your business to work ON your business. Take a long hard look at the following:

YOUR STAFF: In my opinion, this is the single most important aspect of your business that will help you achieve continued rising profits or a painful spiral into bankruptcy. Do you have the right people on the bus? Is your staff committed to working a bit harder, being a bit more creative, changing the way they approach their jobs? If their work becomes a bit harder or they need to assume additional responsibilities, are they going to be surfing the web for their next home? If you have any concerns about your team, now is the time to retrain, reassign duties or replace. Now is not the time to keep dead weight, they will only bring down your other committed employees and be a wasted labor expense.

YOUR MARKETING PLAN: Are you effectively getting the word out about your exclusive competitive advantage? Do you have a marketing plan? For fun, Google “Advertising In A Down Economy” and read a few of the articles. Now is more important than ever to have a strong marketing plan. Don’t spread your limited marketing budget too thin by trying to be everywhere. Pick one media and dominate that. If you can’t afford to dominate one media, pick one particular radio station / TV station / publication and dominate that. If you can’t afford to do that, then pick one aspect of the advertising entity’s audience and dominate that. In this business climate, a good marketing consultant is worth their weight in gold – find one and listen.

YOUR P&L STATEMENT: When is the last time you really reviewed this? Are there line items that are out of whack? If there are, research, understand and then fix them. Now isn’t necessarily the time to be thinking you need to cut expenses everywhere, just make sure everything is right sized.

YOUR CUSTOMER SERVICE: If it is not at the highest level, fix it fast or be prepared to watch your revenue decline quickly!

YOUR COMMITMENT LEVEL: Are you in this for the long haul? Do you still love what you do? If not, maybe now is the time to reevaluate. Maybe it is time to delegate more to those who do have the passion, or to sell completely. If you are committed then have fun with the challenge and celebrate every little win, no matter how small.