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Archive for the ‘Down to Business’ Category

Keeping Your Marketing Emails Out of the SPAM Folder

Keeping Your Marketing Emails Out of the SPAM Folder

Do you use email to advertise your business? If so, those messages are subject to rules established under the CAN-SPAM Act. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003, it applies to all commercial email messages that advertise or otherwise promote a commercial product or service.

Should the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) find you in violation of the CAN-SPAM law, your business could face a penalty of up to $16,000 per email sent. However, the FTC isn’t the only one looking at the emails you send. Many email and internet service providers (ISP) use SPAM filters to keep unwanted messages out of their customers’ inboxes. In fact, according to ReturnPath, an email data services provider, one out of every five legitimate emails never makes it to its destination. It’s either swept up by a SPAM filter or blocked by an ISP.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure you don’t catch the eye of the FTC as well as increase your marketing email deliverability.

  • Require subscribers to opt-in to marketing emails.Blacklists are used by email providers and ISPs to reduce delivery of malicious and SPAM emails. Your email address, IP or domain may end up on one or more blacklists if multiple parties report your emails as SPAM. These reports are most likely when you add customers to your email campaign without asking them to “opt-in” or give their permission. If you suspect you may be blacklisted, you can find out here. Getting yourself removed from a blacklist can be complicated and time consuming.
  • Don’t get clever with your subject lines. Under the CAN-SPAM law, your email subject line must accurately communicate the content of the message. SPAM filters also look for emails that use all caps or lots of exclamation points in their subject lines.
  • Make unsubscribing easy. It’s better to make it simple for your customers to unsubscribe from your marketing emails than to get lots of SPAM reports and wind up on blacklists. The easiest way to do this is to include a clearly labeled opt-out button or link at the bottom of all marketing correspondence.
  • Include a plaintext version. While most people are able to receive HTML emails these days, many SPAM filters will still send your messages directly to the trash if you don’t include a plaintext version. You can learn more about using multipurpose internet mail extensions (MIME) here. Avoid including video, Flash or JavaScript in your marketing emails as well.
  • Don’t use large images or images alone. Images take longer to load than text does. If you fail to balance your images used with text, your customers may get tired of waiting for the message to load and wind up reporting it as SPAM.
  • Avoid common SPAM filter trigger words. These include free, no-obligation, guaranteed, buy, order, limited time and more. HubSpot has put together an excellent, comprehensive list of common trigger words here.

Pros and Cons of Employee Feedback Surveys

Pros and Cons of Employee Feedback Surveys

Every business owner knows it’s important to give his or her employees feedback regularly. In fact, doing so can reduce turnover rates, increase engagement, improve productivity and motivate workers to do a better job. However, not all employers recognize the importance of soliciting feedback from their employees, even though the benefits of doing so are much the same.

Employee feedback surveys are probably the simplest way to get the lowdown on what your workers see as the good, bad and ugly aspects of their jobs and your workplace.  But before you sit down and put one together, consider their pros and cons.

Employee Feedback Survey Pros

A good feedback survey can have a positive impact on your company’s culture. When you give your employees the opportunity to voice their concerns, you may learn about issues of which you were previously unaware. You may also discover that known issues are having a bigger impact than you thought. Regardless, you can now address the situation/s causing the problem/s and find appropriate solutions.

Feedback surveys can increase your workplace’s transparency. Studies have shown that employees are happiest when they have the opportunity to communicate openly and honestly with their managers, supervisors and other company leaders. However, many are hesitant to do so face to face. A feedback survey—especially when submitted anonymously—allows them to speak their mind without worry that their comments will have negative results.

This opportunity to communicate how they feel about their jobs is important for employment engagement. Unhappy workers are less likely to be engaged, so addressing the issues that arise and increasing the general level of satisfaction in your workplace will naturally increase engagement.

Employee Feedback Survey Cons

You have to ask the right questions if you want to get the most from your survey efforts. In addition to the standard questions you’ll find in most survey templates online, you need to include queries tailored to your particular set of employees and their workplace issues. Of course, you also need to keep it short (more on that later), so you may want to focus on one area—from managers and communication to job duties and compensation—at a time.

Depending on how you decided to conduct your survey, it may require a monetary investment. While there are low-cost options available (like SurveyMonkey) it may be worth it to work with a company that specializes in employee feedback surveys—especially if you’ve never asked your workers for feedback before.

Creating a survey takes time. So does responding to it. You don’t want your employees to have to spend too much time away from their duties answering an endless list of questions. That means you need to keep your survey short. But it also means you might have to conduct more than one to cover all the bases.

Whether you decide to use a feedback survey to get your employees’ thoughts on the workplace or use an alternate tool such as casual conversations, a suggestion box, or a group meeting, it’s essential that you show your team you’re serious about their responses. Take action on what you learn as soon as possible and make sure your employees see that you’re making changes. This will encourage them to be even more honest the next time around.

Do You Need Employment Practices Liability Insurance?

Do You Need Employment Practices Liability Insurance

Also known as EPLI, employment practices liability insurance is designed to protect small businesses in the event an employee files a lawsuit claiming harassment, discrimination or another such wrongdoing. It’s a worthwhile investment; employment practice lawsuit settlements can cost businesses millions of dollars. Even cases that are unsuccessful result in expensive legal defense fees—and, more often than not, damage to your company’s reputation. As such, an EPLI policy should be part of every small business risk-management strategy.

Employment Practice Liability Insurance Basics

An EPLI policy will protect your business—including your directors, managers and employees—from lawsuits filed by prospective, current or former workers. This type of policy has fewer limitations than the typical directors’ or officers’ insurance policy. Covered claims generally include sexual harassment, slander and libel, invasion of privacy, emotional distress, discrimination, wrongful discipline or termination, negligent hiring, breach of employment contract, and mismanagement of employee benefit plans. Common exclusions include property damage, bodily injury and intentional/dishonest acts.

Your annual premium for an EPLI policy depends on a number of factors including your company’s size, the industry you’re in, your turnover rates and a risk profile. The insurer you choose may ask to review your written personnel policies before providing you with an EPLI quote.  If your company has been sued over employment practices in the past or has policies deemed to be risky, you will pay a higher premium for coverage.

Your employment practices liability insurance policy will include a deductible that you must pay out of pocket before the remainder of any claim is covered. Once you’ve met the deductible, the policy will reimburse your company for costs incurred defending a lawsuit in court as well as any judgements and settlements—up to the policy limit. EPLI policies generally do not cover punitive damages or civil or criminal fines. Depending on the policy you choose, you may have limited coverage during events such as mass layoffs, mergers or acquisitions.

Coverage will generally be limited to a predetermined amount between $1 million and $25 million depending on the amount of coverage you’ve chosen. Legal defense costs, judgements and settlements all contribute to the limit. Your insurance agent can help you determine how much EPLI coverage you need based on the particulars of your business.

Your policy may require you to allow your insurance company to choose the attorney you use should a claim ever be filed. If you prefer to work with an attorney of your own choosing, you must make sure such a clause is included in your EPLI policy.

Are you confident your current small business insurance package will protect you from employment practice claims? If not, give us a call to review the policies you have in place today.

Email Marketing Basics: Cleaning Up Your Mailing List For Success

Email Marketing Basics: Cleaning Up Your Mailing List For Success

Despite the rise of social media, email is still the marketing mainstay of many businesses—and the numbers show us why. According to the Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, worldwide email accounts will increase 27 percent between 2014 and 2018, from 4.1 billion to more than 5.2 billion. Additionally, the number of worldwide email users—both business and consumer—will increase 12 percent during the same period. Whatever your industry, chances are excellent that most of your customers are on email and willing to subscribe to communications from your company.

Of course, any email subscriber list you use—whether prospects you’ve purchased from a vendor or generated from your current customers—is only as good as the data it contains. If it’s outdated—leading to repeated emails sent to bad or non-existent email addresses—it’s more than a waste of time; it can potentially damage your reputation with email service providers. Fortunately, a few simple steps can help you keep your email subscriber list in great condition. Consider these three ways to clean it up today.

1. Eliminate any distribution email addresses. These are generic addresses that distribute received emails to multiple parties within an organization. They often begin with “sales,” “support” or “questions” and are rarely beneficial from a marketing standpoint because they distribute your message to individuals who did not ask for it and who may report it as SPAM.

2. Review your bounce reports. Emails may “bounce” for numerous reasons. A “non-existent” bounce may be due to an email address that no longer exists or has a typo within it. Go through the emails with this designation in the report and see if there are any you can correct. If not, discard them.

An “undeliverable” bounce means that the server that houses the email address is either temporarily down or not found. A “blocked” bounce means that the server that houses the email address is not allowing the email to enter. Review your bounce report for emails with undeliverable and blocked designations. If the report repeatedly labels them as such, discard them.

3. Look at your email “opens” and “clicks.” If you’re sending communications through an email marketing service, you should be able to review a list of the prospects or customers who opened your latest missive as well as those who clicked on links within it. If you notice individuals in your list who consistently fail to open or click links within your marketing emails, consider reaching out to them with a special offer to encourage re-engagement.

You might extend a special discount, a free eBook or anything else that’s of value to the reader of this “We Miss You” message. Make sure your unsubscribe link is prominently displayed so those who are truly no longer interested in your product or service are prompted to opt out.

Before you abandon your email marketing efforts in favor of social media, try cleaning up your subscriber list. The minimal time spent is likely to be well worth the results—according to McKinsey & Company, a global management-consulting firm, email is almost 40 times better at acquiring new customers than Facebook or Twitter.

 

 

Start Blogging in 2016

Blogging 2016

January is a great month to start new habits, especially habits that can grow your business. According to HubSpot, an inbound marketing software company, nearly 40 percent of U.S. businesses have a blog for marketing purposes. If you’re not among them, it’s time to think about joining the ranks of business bloggers. Not only will it provide a vehicle for sharing engaging stories about your business, products and services, a well-maintained blog can also improve your search engine ranking and ultimately lead to more customers in the form of inbound leads. Consider the following steps to get started:

1. Identify your business blog goal and purpose.

While your ultimate goal will be to promote your business, you need to do so subtly. The best blogs are not overtly promotional but instead provide readers (customers and potential customers) with articles and tips they will find helpful. The purpose of your blog should be to present your company as the best source of information in your industry. This purpose will drive your content creation strategy.

2. Choose your blogging platform

There are many platform options available for building and publishing your business blog—from free programs to fee for service platforms. WordPressBloggerTumblrSvbtle and HubSpot frequently appear on lists of the best. To maximize your results, experts recommend choosing one that you can install on your domain and integrate with your website.

3. Commit to blogging regularly.

You should fill your blog with relevant content, updating it with new posts regularly. Once you’ve brainstormed a list of suitable topics, create an editorial calendar that includes who on your team will write each blog post, the date the content is due, and the date you intend to publish it.

In Marketing Benchmark’s study, HubSpot found that companies that blog 15 or more times each month got five times more traffic to their website than those that don’t blog at all. Companies that increased their blog frequency from three to five times a month to six to eight times a month almost doubled their leads.

4. Create a plan for generating blog traffic.

Your blog will be of little use if your customers and potential customers don’t know about it or cannot find it. Great ways to generate blog traffic include:

  • Search engine optimized blog posts.
  • Promotion on your company’s social media pages (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+).
  • Weekly email blasts to your database with excerpts from recent posts.
  • Eye-catching links to the blog from your company’s home page.
  • Including links to your blog in your staffs’ email signatures.

According to Social Media Today, an independent online community for professionals in public relations, marketing and advertising, small businesses with blogs generate 126 percent more leads than those without. Why is this so? The answer may lie in the popularity of blogs with U.S. consumers. In fact, surveys have found that 81 percent of them trust the advice and information they find on blogs. Sixty-one percent have purchased a product or service based on a blog post. Starting your business blog will require a time investment; however, the new customers you gain will be well worth the effort.

Maintaining a Psychopath-Free Workplace

Maintaining a Psychopath-Free Workplace

When you think about psychopaths, individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and Dexter likely spring to mind. However, most employees who fit the psychopath profile are not serial killers, mass murderers or notorious criminals—though they share a number of similar characteristics, all of which can make them nightmares to work with.

 

What is a Psychopath?

Simply put, a psychopath is someone who is unable to feel guilt, remorse or empathy. Experts estimate one in 100 men and one in 300 women have this personality disorder, though spotting them can be a challenge. Most tend to blend into society without attracting undo attention. Many mask their antisocial nature with superficial charm and gregariousness, while others are almost inhumanely calm. Still, psychopaths can’t hide all their unsavory traits. Warning signs such as unreliability, dishonesty, insincerity, arrogance and egocentricity eventually give them away.

 

Digging Deeper

The best way to maintain a psychopath-free workplace is to avoid hiring them in the first place. Pre-employment screening—including a criminal background check and credit check—is essential, as always. However, not all psychopaths have criminal records or a history of credit mismanagement. Digging deeper into each candidate’s past is necessary for due diligence.

Consider the following tips:

  • Start with the interview. Behavioral interview questions may cause even the most charismatic psychopath to stumble. Try, “Tell me about a mistake you made at your last job” and “How did that mistake impact your coworkers?” A reluctance to admit errors and an inability to address the feelings of others could indicate you’re dealing with a psychopath. Other warning signs include describing ordinary duties as amazing achievements and inconsistencies between information given verbally and that contained in the resume.
  • Never skip the reference check. If the candidate worked for another company for any length of time, it’s likely someone there noticed his or her psychopathic tendencies. Speak with every former supervisor and—for good measure—call the main company number instead of the one listed on the resume. This will eliminate any chance of subterfuge. While most employers are limited in what they can say—confirming dates of employment and salary, for example—a simple question like “Would you hire this employee again?” can reveal volumes.
  • Check out military history as well. If your candidate was in the military, ask to see his or her DD-214—also known as a certificate of release or discharge from active duty. A separation code of E4 is normal for non-officers. If you find an E1, consider it a red flag. Experts advise that this indication of bad behavior while in service is a good predictor of future behavior in the workplace. Similarly, an RE-4 re-entry code indicates the veteran is ineligible for enlistment in any military body—another possible warning sign.

The Danger of First-Impression Bias

As humans, we form first impressions of others quickly. For example, within the first minute or two of a job interview, most hiring managers have already decided whether they like a candidate or not—and psychopaths can be very likeable. First-impression bias comes about when we’re resistant to changing our opinion of a person once we’ve received additional information. Give in to this bias and you may hire that charismatic jobseeker regardless of the negative details revealed during the screening process. Share the facts presented with another manager who has not met the candidate. If they’re enough to cause alarm, move on to your next candidate.

Small Businesses: Don’t Put Your Data at Risk

 

Small Businesses: Don't Put Your Data at Risk

Cyber criminals love a good holiday spree! In the midst of 2013’s holiday shopping season, they stole the personal data of more than 70 million Target customers. Around the same time, a data breach at Neiman Marcus compromised the credit and debit card information of more than 1 million customers.

These particular crimes involved large retailers and a website that reportedly earns more than $14 million in profits each year, but if you think your company is too small to be an attractive target, you’re wrong. A 2012 investigative study into data breaches found that 71 percent occur in businesses with 100 or fewer employees. And according to cyber security company McAfee, almost 90 percent of small and medium-sized U.S. businesses don’t use any form of data protection.

Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to prevent the theft of your small business data—and much of it won’t cost you a dime. Consider the following suggestions:

  • Protect every computer with appropriate software – Install an antivirus and antispyware program on every computer connected to the Internet or your internal network. This includes any laptops you allow to connect wirelessly.
  • Install software updates promptly – When software vendors discover vulnerabilities in their products, they release updates with fixes that prevent cyber criminals from exploiting them. Configure each computer to download and install such updates automatically.
  • Secure your Wi-Fi network – Require a password for Wi-Fi access. For even more protection, hide your Wi-Fi network by configuring the wireless access point or router to prevent broadcasting of the network name.
  • Secure computers and network components – Require passwords for login on all office computers, and change those passwords regularly. Keep your network server in a locked location, and lock up any laptop computers when not in use.
  • Establish cyber security rules – Teach your employees what they need to do to protect your small business data. Create and document clear guidelines for computer, network, database, email and Internet usage as well as penalties for violating those guidelines.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cybercrime costs our nation $100 billion each year. Implement the suggestions above and minimize your chances of contributing to that statistic. For additional financial protection, talk to your insurance professional about a comprehensive coverage package that includes cybercrime.

 

 

Don’t Skip This Critical Part of Your Business Plan

Don't Skip This Critical Part of Your Business Plan

You’ve poured your heart and soul into your business—shouldn’t you protect it? Evaluating your insurance needs is a critical part of business planning, one that will help you protect your investment by minimizing risks, liabilities and losses. Of course, it’s also a difficult road to navigate alone. Whether you’re just starting up, hiring your first employee, or planning for future growth, enlist the assistance of a reputable insurance advisor. He or she will help you review a number of factors to select the right insurance for your company structures, activities and locale.

 

Business Profile

The types of commercial business policies you need depend on your unique business profile. Your insurance advisor will consider factors like whether you rent or own your office space, your number of employees, whether you ever use temp workers or contractors, whether you produce goods or provide services, if your company leases or owns vehicles, if your business involves large quantities of cash, and how quickly you could resume business if your office were destroyed in a fire or flood.

Some types of insurance are required by law (such as employer insurance), while other policies are just a good idea.

 

Employer Insurance

If you have employees, state laws require you to pay for certain types of insurance. These include workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance and disability insurance (depending on your location).

 

Commercial Business Insurance

While structuring your business as a corporation or LLC will protect your personal assets in the event of business liabilities, it will not cover losses your business may incur in the event of a lawsuit, natural disaster or other unfortunate event. Commercial business insurance policies include general liability insurance, product liability insurance, professional liability insurance, commercial property insurance, errors and omissions insurance, key executive insurance, business continuation insurance and home-based business insurance.

 

Unexpected Events

You and your insurance advisor should discuss your business risks in regards to unexpected events including the death of a business partner, an injured employee, a customer lawsuit or a natural disaster. Any of these misfortunes can destroy an uninsured business. The amount of commercial insurance your company needs depends, at least in part, on how aggressively you want to manage those risks.

 

Reassessing Coverage

As your business evolves, your liabilities change. Meet with your insurance advisor annually to ensure disaster does not strike while you are underinsured. If you hire additional employees, invest in new equipment or expand your operations, contact your advisor as soon as possible to discuss the implications for your insurance coverage.

While you need to include insurance premiums in your budget when planning your business, many policies are actually quite affordable, especially when you consider the potential losses your business may incur if you choose to operate unprotected.

 

 

Could Your Temp Really Be an Employee?

Could Your Temp Really Be an Employee?

Increasingly, despite the economy, businesses are turning to temporary workers as a way of getting the job done. In fact, by 2020, more than 40% of the US workforce will be free-lancing. That’s nearly 60 million people and it’s pretty easy to see why. Not only is it easy to hire temps as needed, or as revenue allows, they are also typically exempt from benefits and payroll tax withholdings, costing an employer less than a full or part-time permanent worker.

Unfortunately, many business owners don’t really understand the legal difference between a temp and an employee. According to one Department of Labor (DOL) study, 30 percent of employers misclassify workers. It can be a costly mistake, especially as the IRS, DOL ,and state governments are increasingly sharing information to crack down on the problem.

While you should always consult a professional when determining the status of any employee, consider the following basic differences between temporary workers/independent contractors and regular staff.

  • If you control how, where or when the individual performs assigned tasks, he or she is an employee, not a temp worker.
  • If you provide the tools needed to perform assigned tasks (including office space, computer or software) the workers is an employee, not a temp.
  • If you prohibit the individual from performing the same tasks for other businesses, he or she is an employee, not a temp worker.
  • If the assigned tasks completed by the individual are key aspects of your business, the IRS may consider him or her an employee rather than a temp worker.

In the event that a classification dispute goes to court, many take the following considerations into account:

  • What degree of control does the worker have over assigned tasks?
  • What is the worker’s risk of loss?
  • Who pays for supplies and equipment?
  • What types of skills are required to perform the work?
  • Is the work temporary in nature or indefinite?
  • Is the worker an integral part of the business?

While a written contract doesn’t provide guaranteed protection if you’ve misclassified an employee as a temp worker, it is better than an oral agreement should the IRS or courts get involved in a dispute. Make sure you include a description of the services to be performed, payment arrangements, who is responsible for expenses, who will provide materials, a statement that this is an independent contractor/temporary worker relationship, a statement that the worker is responsible for his or her own state and federal income taxes, the length of the project, any circumstances under which you may terminate the agreement, and how you will resolve disputes.

 

 

 

Compliance is Essential in Pre-Employment Screening

Compliance is Essential in Pre-Employment Screening

From a worker who is unqualified for the job to an employee who steals from the office, bad hires are potentially costly. How much so? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the price tag on the average bad hiring decision is equivalent to 30 percent of the individual’s first-year earnings. Fortunately, careful pre-employment screening can go a long way towards ensuring only quality professionals join your team—but the process has to be compliant. Consider the following background check mistakes that can take a big bite out of your business bottom line.

Failure to Request Permission to Run a Credit or Background Check

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), employers must obtain jobseeker approval before accessing credit, criminal or other records as part of a background check. Titled “A Summary of Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act,” a new version of this document was released by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in early 2013. Some employers have already been subjected to multi-million dollar lawsuits for using the old version of the document. Failure to obtain written permission at all carries a penalty of $2,500 per violation.

Failure to Send Adverse Action Notices

The FCRA also requires employers to notify jobseekers in writing if they intend to take “adverse action” due to the information a credit or background check reveals. In the case of a job application, adverse action means employment disqualification. The employer must provide jobseekers with both pre-adverse action and post-adverse action notices that include the contact information for the credit or background check company and advises them of their rights to dispute the accuracy or completeness of the information. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission took action against two freight services companies that rejected applicants based on background checks without informing them of their FCRA rights. The companies paid $77,000 in fines.

Rejecting All Convicts and Felons

In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidelines to employers for use of the information obtained through criminal background checks. To avoid potentially discriminatory hiring practices, the guidelines encouraged businesses to consider factors such as type of crime, whether it was an arrest or conviction, and how long ago it occurred before denying an applicant employment. Earlier this year, Pepsi Beverages agreed to pay $3.13 million after an EEOC investigation revealed the company’s criminal background check policy discriminated against African Americans.

Failure to Conduct a Thorough Background Check

Conducting an incomplete background check—or failing to verify a jobseeker’s background at all—can expose your business to a negligent hiring lawsuit should the new employee endanger or injure another worker. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, assaults and violent acts accounted for 18 percent of business fatalities in 2009. Should an employee, client or vendor sue your organization as a result, the National Institute for Prevention of Workplace Violence reports verdicts in favor of the plaintiff have been as large as $40 million.

If you’re concerned that your pre-employment screening policies may not comply with current state and federal laws, consult your legal advisor or a human resource professional.