Effective Time Management

May 3, 2019 by Comerica Bank

As small-business professionals, your time is one of your most valuable assets. It’s essential that you use it effectively. Establishing goals and deadlines, prioritizing work and delegating tasks are some ways you can achieve this.

Track your time

Completing tasks within a specific time frame is a huge test for small-business owners. Important tasks can get overlooked with too much time spent doing odd jobs. Without tracking your time, you’ll have no way of identifying time wasting activities or tasks that could be delegated.

To work more efficiently, you need to track your time. Doing so can lead to increased productivity, as businesses will better understand where time is well-spent and where it's being wasted.

Begin by detailing what tasks you do each day and the time each task takes. This can be in the form of rough notes, although there are some free programs and apps available online to help you out.

Time-tracking programs record time spent working on each activity. They’re useful for small-business owners to:

  • Monitor Internet usage.
  • Allocate time for projects.
  • Record time sheets for employee wages.
  • Graph the effort spent on each task.

Toggl™, ClickTime™ and Replicon™  are just a few of the better time-tracking programs available online.

Set priorities

Identify tasks that will best assist your business to work toward maximum profitability. After recognizing the tasks that need to be done, make them a priority by completing them before any others.

Try not to waste time achieving perfection. It’s more important to just get each task done.

Establish deadlines

Deadlines are critical for completing all activities in a timely manner. Ensure you:

  • Set realistic deadlines for all your activities.
  • Schedule interim deadlines for long-term projects.
  • Allow time for contingencies, especially on longer tasks.
  • Decide whether your deadlines are flexible or fixed. If certain activities have fixed deadlines, don’t permit them to take longer than they should.

Reduce time wasting

Small-business owners deal with similar kinds of time-wasting activities, such as:

  • Changing between tasks.
  • Answering emails.
  • Being distracted by phone calls.
  • Excessively long meetings.

As a result, some small- business owners experience reduced productivity. This makes it more difficult to finish their to-do lists.

Make note of any time-wasting activities at your workplace and meet with staff to discuss and brainstorm solutions. Consider the following:

  • Scheduling times to check emails so they don’t distract you from your current task.
  • Assigning phone responsibilities to certain employees.
  • Ensuring a task is completed before moving on to the next one.

Employees work more efficiently when they know something needs to be done. Have clear guidelines and instructions for each staff member so they know exactly what needs to be completed and when.

Delegate responsibility effectively

As a small-business owner, you don’t have to undertake all the major tasks and responsibilities yourself. By effectively delegating tasks to your employees, you’ll free up valuable time to focus on growing your business. This can be a great way to get more organized and move your company forward.

List some tasks you could delegate to reliable employees whose skills are suited to particular activities. Many employees want to develop new skills or have added responsibility in their jobs. Learn to rely on them, and to trust them, to complete their designated tasks.

Can you delegate some of your urgent yet least important activities to someone else within your business? Doing so will allow you to give the highest priority to activities that are both urgent and important.

Improve work processes

Poor work processes can contribute to unhappy customers and stressed employees, as well as missed deadlines and increased costs through inefficiency. This is why it’s crucial to improve processes when they aren’t working well.

Get organized

Invest some time now in developing well-organized systems for your business. The savings will be apparent in the long term.

Most small businesses have tasks that need to be done daily. They’ll be easier to manage if you have established processes in place. Some steps you can take include:

  • Clarifying your processes during team meetings.
  • Keeping yourself focused with a list of tasks you need to accomplish and their deadlines.
  • Ranking tasks by priority to ensure the most important jobs get done first.
  • Staying motivated by ticking items off your to-do list as you complete them.

Identify redundant tasks

Work processes can be improved by recognizing any outdated or redundant tasks within your business environment. One example may be when a bottleneck occurs. You must assess the situation and determine if new technology could improve the situation.

Work to your personal productive times

Whether you’re a morning person or an afternoon person, it makes sense to undertake the big projects or arrange the most important meetings for the time of day you work best. Try scheduling more routine activities for your less productive times of day.

Make meetings productive

Endeavor to avoid meetings becoming social gatherings. Run them to a tight timetable so productive time isn’t wasted.

Start with a plan to set strict time frames on meeting agendas. Request only those employees who need to attend each specific meeting. A focused discussion is what you’re trying to achieve and establishing these parameters will support that.

Be well prepared to ask good questions, which elicit quality feedback from staff, to get the most out of meetings. Good questions will cause people to think about their responses and not simply reply with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

Set realistic goals for improvement

Setting specific goals that are realistic will keep motivation high while encouraging employees to go that extra mile.

Bigger goals should be broken down into attainable sums with set milestones to help make them achievable. For example, when expanding to another location, you may look at acquiring staff as a first milestone, followed by finding the right location and eventually setting up your new premises.

Goal-setting gives you both direction and a destination. Assess which tasks will help you achieve your goals then allocate your time accordingly. It’s imperative to focus on priorities so you spend most of your time on activities that help you achieve your goals.

Business goals are vital to your success as they let you take control of your business’s direction, instead of allowing events to control it.

Proper time management is essential for running a business smoothly. Applying the time management guidelines above will help your business operate more efficiently.

Next Steps

  • List any time wasting activities and any outdated or redundant tasks.
  • Meet with staff to discuss these activities and to consider ways of increasing efficiency.
  • Look into using a time-tracking program. 

This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. While the information contained within has been compiled from source[s] which are believed to be reliable and accurate, Comerica Bank does not guarantee its accuracy. Consequently, it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter nor be relied upon as such.

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Balancing Your Business and Home Life

May 2, 2019 by Comerica Bank

Trying to manage the demands of your business and your home life can be an ongoing challenge. But achieving ideal work-life balance doesn't have to be an impossible goal. There are many ways by which you can improve your current situation.

Balancing work and home life without guilt

To find your work-life balance, first consider all the daily tasks that compete for your time. Then, determine which ones to retain and which to cast aside.

The right work-life balance for you will most likely change over time. For example, if you created your business when you were single but are now married with children, you’ll be looking to achieve a different balance from your younger days.

Utilize technology to your advantage

So many of your organizational tasks as a business owner can now be achieved more efficiently, in less time, and with less stress. Whether it’s:

  • Keeping your accounts.
  • Storing documents and files.
  • Managing inventory.

The technology is there, so find out which software or applications suit your business best and utilize them.

As Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson once explained, “I find that technology is a great help – I use phone calendars, email reminders and mobile reminders to maneuver my way to each meeting, event and party. You can also use these things to make sure you have time to eat regularly and that you can get a good [night's] sleep.”*

Use your smartphone wisely

It has been said that smartphones are the entrepreneur’s biggest blessing and biggest curse. Because of your intelligent mobile device, you can work from anywhere at anytime as a business owner – essentially breaking up the boundaries between work and home life.

Aim to get the most out of your business smartphone to make your working life easier (and home life more relaxing). For instance, you could:

  • Create a virtual filing cabinet. Record and store your essential documents electronically, whether they’re invoices, receipts, documents or business cards. An app like Evernote® can easily record these.
  • Digitize your printed marketing material. Use the Camscanner® app to transform your business’s brochures into PDF documents that you can email to your customers.
  • Produce instant testimonials. If you’re talking to one of your satisfied customers, ask to take a short video of them giving your business feedback – then upload it to your website as a testimonial.
  • Schedule video conferences while on the move. Your time is precious so employ the services of an app like Google Hangouts® to virtually meet with your staff while traveling to work, or while making your way to meet an important customer.

Finding out how to integrate and connect a successful business and a happy home life has to be one of your goals – and your smartphone can help you achieve it.

Remove that guilty feeling

As a business owner, you might be having trouble overcoming the guilt of working long hours while accepting that you need personal time for yourself and your family.

Put some measures in place to mitigate this issue:

  • Creating one calendar for both work and home life. Sync your calendar with the smart devices of your staff and family so they’re all aware of how you’re allocating your time.
  • Sticking to a daily routine. Ensure you don’t miss that phone call with your partner (or the weekly baseball practice with your son) by adding these home life routines to your daily schedule.
  • Adopting a positive mindset. Optimistic people are able to stay motivated, manage stress effectively and be ready for the unexpected in ways pessimists often can't match.

Allow for some 'me time'

Plan time to completely disconnect from your business. This is where having trustworthy staff on whom you can depend on can help prevent you from burning out.

Build up trust in your employees by increasingly delegating more challenging tasks or roles to them. As you begin to understand how much workload they can manage and what they do exceptionally well, you’ll start feeling more relaxed about entrusting your business to them.

As a result, you’ll be more comfortable about taking time out to refresh, revitalize and to enjoy family time.

Accept a level of sacrifice

When you decided to launch your business, you were probably aware that your life would be slightly out of balance at the expense of family, friends and personal time.

You may not be able to reach your level of perfect life-work balance, but you can get as close to that level as possible (and remove any guilty feelings in the process). Accepting a level of sacrifice to meet all your work and home life demands is ‘par for the course’ for most entrepreneurs.

Next steps

Appendix

* Richard Branson: ‘Reap the rewards of workplace flexibility’

This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. While the information contained within has been compiled from source[s] which are believed to be reliable and accurate, Comerica Bank does not guarantee its accuracy. Consequently, it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter nor be relied upon as such.

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How to Collect Debts Effectively

April 24, 2019 by Comerica Bank

Debt collection is a problem that most businesses have to contend with. Recovering money that customers owe your business is a challenge that requires a systematic approach and careful judgment.

Effective debtor management is the best way to keep debt problems to a minimum. But despite all your best efforts, there will always be customers who don’t pay on time.

Identify potential bad debtors and act quickly

Set up your accounting system to flag overdue accounts. The sooner you take action, the more likely you are to get paid.

Conversely, inaction or procrastination will diminish your chances of getting any money. As with all debt collection tactics, wise judgment is essential. You don’t want to annoy important customers, but you also don’t want other customers (and there will always be some) to take advantage by treating your business as an interest-free source of money.

Handling overdue payments

There are no hard-and-fast rules on how to handle late payers. Your approach will likely need to depend on your history with each customer and their reasons for being overdue.

Take the initiative and find out why payments are late

Don’t expect customers to always contact you first about their payment issues – take the initiative yourself. Start by resolving or eliminating any obvious causes, such as:

  • Your customer never received your bill, or the goods were sent to the wrong address. This may be an excuse or a genuine reason for non-payment. For bigger firms, the invoice may well have been sent to the wrong department where it was simply ignored. Make a point of sending a copy of your invoices within a day or two of a bill being overdue. You can also follow up with a call (if necessary) to ensure the right person received the bill.
  • Your invoice or statement didn’t comply with the customer’s requirements. This can be a problem for larger corporations, as it can send your bill to the bottom of the pile or lead to it being ignored completely. Check the customer’s original order and compare any requirements to your invoice records. Make sure you included all the required details, such as the customer’s order number or account number, along with the name of the person or department who made the order.
  • The invoice was unclear. Your bill may not have correctly detailed what goods or services were delivered. Also, make sure your payment details are clear and comply with the customer’s preferred payment method. For example, if your customer prefers online payment, be sure to include your account details.
  • Your customer has a problem with your invoice or with the quality of your goods and services. If so, resolve any issues as soon as possible to reach an acceptable solution. This eliminates any further excuses for not paying.
  • Your customer has a glitch with their accounting or payment systems. This can usually be resolved quickly − as long as it’s not an excuse for something more serious.
  • Your customer has a cash flow problem. If you can negotiate a solution, get the customer to sign an agreed repayment schedule and make it clear that any partial payments will not be considered settlement in full.

Make contact with your customer

Once you’ve resolved any barriers to payment, make direct contact with your customer. Start with a polite reminder or enquiry about the bill, as overdue payment may not be any fault of the customer, and then follow up as necessary.

Try one or more of the follow-up tactics below:

  • Personal visit – a face-to-face encounter can often solve the issue or ensure you get priority treatment. It’s also an opportunity to negotiate payment solutions. Perhaps the customer can pay by credit card instead of cash or through agreed installments, but make sure to obtain clear, written understanding that no partial payment will be regarded as a full or final settlement.
  • Call your customer – your voice doesn’t have the immediacy of a face-to-face visit, as a simple call can make it easier for your customer to be evasive or offer the classic ‘the check is in the mail’ excuse.
  • Email – this is the most distant tactic and is, therefore, the easiest for customers to ignore or evade.

Promptness and persistence are the two keys to getting paid. A single visit, call or email can be fruitless, but persistent follow-ups may very well do the trick - once the customer realizes you aren’t going to give up easily, they may prioritize your invoice.

Employ debt collectors or lawyers

If all else fails, consider debt collection agencies or a lawyer.

Try contacting your customer one last time to let them know you plan to pass the matter over to a lawyer or debt collector – you can always blame your ‘accountant’ for pressuring you.

Once you hand the debt over, there’s a strong possibility that the customer will realize you’re serious about chasing the debt. They’ll often pay up right away, either in full or in agreed installments. A letter from a lawyer or agency can go a long way.

Check the cost of various debt collectors

Ask your business contacts to recommend a few debt collectors or lawyers who specialize in debt collection, then compare their costs and services.

Costs are likely to include a flat fee or a percentage of the debt recovered – or a combination of both. Find out exactly what the fees cover and check if there are any additional charges.

Consider how much you’re owed

Is it worth chasing $500 when it’s going to cost more to collect the debt? Sometimes it’s better to write off small amounts to preserve an important business relationship.

Writing off late payment penalties could also be in your best interests if you’re chasing a large order from a customer.

This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. While the information contained within has been compiled from source[s] which are believed to be reliable and accurate, Comerica Bank does not guarantee its accuracy. Consequently, it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter nor be relied upon as such.

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Creating a Cash Flow Budget

April 17, 2019 by Comerica Bank

While most companies are focused on generating revenue, and rightfully so, it's important to remember that money doesn't only flow into a business, but out. Profits are just one part of the equation, as businesses have monthly expenses and debt obligations they must meet. This means owners have to pay strict attention to their reserves to ensure they always have enough cash on hand. This is called cash flow budgeting, and it's an important process for any business.

How to create a cash flow budget

Cash flow budgeting is the practice of tracking all cash inflows and outflows. Inflows are your cash receipts: any accounts receivable expected within a certain time period, immediate payments made to a business or income from other services. Outflows refer to the fixed and variable costs that operations incur, including electricity and gas payments, insurance premiums, building rent, equipment fees and employee wages. Creating a cash flow budget is a matter of adding up your inflows and subtracting your outflows. What you're left with is the remaining cash balance you'll have on hand, or cash flow. If it's a positive number, great; if negative, there are issues.

Creating a cash flow budget for any given month is as easy as:

  • Using a basic spreadsheet application or software, like those available from Microsoft®️ or Google®️.

  • Tally up what you expect to receive from accounts payable, recurring revenue and carry-over surpluses.

  • Add together your expenses; estimate your variable expenses to the best you can, even overestimate slightly to leave wiggle room. 

What's left is your cash reserve, a sum from which you can draw for ad hoc costs, reinvestment in your business and other reasons. A cash flow statement is the document itself depicting your inflows and outflows. It's required for publicly traded companies to file such statements with regulatory authorities. While small businesses may not be required to provide statements, there are benefits to keeping records. For one, visualizing cash flow can help you to better manage it; also, potential investors will usually demand that level of insight into operations before extending financing.

Cash flow forecasting

The reason a cash flow budget is so critical is that profitability on paper doesn't always translate to cash on hand. For instance, if your clients typically pay a month or two after services were rendered (which is common), an apparent windfall from a large project may actually be leaving you in a lurch in the meantime when expected profits don't make up for bare-thin cash flow margins. Sometimes you might still be in a good place, but an emergency expense or natural disaster wrecks everything.

For these reasons, it's essential to use cash flow forecasting. This process is basically the same as crafting a short-term cash flow budget, but with cash flow forecasting you're looking ahead at months, quarters or years to come. 

Projecting cash flow variables ahead of time can help businesses better track and allocate assets, as well as protect their solvency and ability to meet obligations. For instance, adjusting cash flow expectations to account for upcoming seasonal changes could prevent a harsh winter and high energy costs from creating balance sheet problems. It's also a good idea to construct forecasts for when large debts or loans come to bear. If unexpectedly slow revenue or late payments should affect cash flow, the ability to make those debt payments could be threatened.

All told, cash flow budgeting is a must for businesses. It provides valuable insight into operations and financial management. Yet it can be a complex process with all the different factors that must be considered. If interested in improving your cash flow management, talk to Comerica Bank today about services and products that can assist.

 

This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

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Ways to Build Value in Your Business

April 12, 2019 by Comerica Bank

Pretend you’re the buyer

The key to building value in your business is to plan the process in a systematic way, whether you are aiming to grow the business or groom it to get a better price from a buyer.

Whether you just want to build a stronger business or you are looking ahead to the day when you might want to sell it, it helps to think of your business through the eyes of a buyer:

  • Identify any weaknesses they might see in your business and what you can do about them.
  • Think about the strengths that may attract them and how you can reinforce these strengths.

Work on stability

The longer your business has been operating, the easier it could be to sell, provided it has a solid track record. So it’s important to:

  • Keep well-documented business performance and tax records.
  • Document business history and projects completed or customers gained.

Develop reliable markets

A strong history is reassuring, but buyers will be more interested in the future. Make sure you can:

  • Show evidence that your main market(s) are growing or at least stable rather than declining.
  • Demonstrate you’ve taken steps to change your market position, if necessary. For example, a motel may be able to grow by making steady improvements to its facilities, moving up market and, as a result, increasing its prices.

Nurture a stable customer base

A well-managed customer database is one of the most valuable assets as it can be used in many ways for marketing and gaining referrals. Some steps you can take include:

  • Improving and updating your customer database.
  • Measuring customer retention rates and customer referral rates.
  • Implementing a customer loyalty program and referral incentives. Buyers will want to know that key customers won’t leave if you do.

Secure your cash flows

Stable future cash flows are critical to the value of a business. Buyers will want evidence of reliable revenue streams. You can make sure of this by:

  • Building more diversity – therefore, resilience – into your customer base if you are too reliant on a few major customers.
  • Looking for ways to develop more revenue streams by adding extra services or products and lock in stable revenues through customer loyalty programs and contracts.

Refine marketing tactics that work

Review the marketing tactics that have been particularly successful. That way you aren’t only refining them, you are demonstrating them to potential buyers. Here are some strategies you might consider:

  • Documenting your marketing strategy and your promotion plan tactics for the next 12 months.
  • Demonstrating how you measure all marketing to identify the best and eliminate what is not working.
  • Identifying what you are doing to expand your markets and distribution channels.
  • Listing some still unexplored areas that could offer potential, such as a better website or social media marketing. 

Maintain tight financial control

Excellent financial management will show up in your credit history – something you can be sure a buyer will check out. Make sure you:

  • Keep improving your money management skills through cash flow and profit forecasts and budget reports.
  • Show you understand and monitor the key performance drivers in your business.
  • Demonstrate that you have credit management under control and that your average debt collection time is at least as good as the industry average.

Develop great business systems

Good business systems add considerable value to any business because they allow you to spend more time working on your business rather than in it. They also make the transition to new ownership much easier.

  • Prepare your business as if you are planning to franchise it.
  • Start building an operating manual that documents all processes in simple, easy-to-understand steps.
  • Show how good systems enable faster training and enable staff to cover for absent employees.

Grow your brand

A buyer will see significant value in an established and respected brand that differentiates your business from competitors.

  • Work on developing a brand that captures the essence and unique selling points of your business.
  • Take any necessary steps to enhance or reinvent your branding.

Protect your intellectual property (IP)

The IP your business owns can add considerable value to your business, but only if it is well protected.

  • Review the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website. You should make sure to protect your logo and brand as a trademark.
  • Consult a patent attorney or IP expert about protecting any designs, inventions, copyright material or other IP that will add value.

Build strategic alliances

Strategic alliances can be an important source of growth and added value.

  • Consider what extra skills and resources you lack to exploit opportunities you are missing.
  • List and approach businesses that could help you gain work your business couldn’t normally deliver on its own.
  • Contact businesses that have more extensive distribution and sales channels.

Lock-in key employees

Dedicated and experienced staff can be a key asset in the eyes of a buyer, especially if they’ve helped you create a valuable business.

  • Ensure you provide opportunities for career progression and use incentives to align pay with the value that your staff create.
  • Make your business an attractive place to work. Good working conditions and competitive wages will help to retain skilled staff.
  • Look for people who can create value for your business, and managers with transferable skills who can help you build growth.

Summary

Successful business owners are those who are always looking for ways to build value in their business. Even if sales and profits are good, it’s not wise to rest on your laurels. Continually look for ways to make improvements, and when you do, always try to consider them from the point of view of someone who might want to buy your business. Using this technique will not only ensure continual improvement in your business, but it will prepare you if a good opportunity to sell it does arise.

Next steps

  • Talk to us about cash flow management and how we can help maintain tighter control on your finances.
  • Use our cash flow forecast guide and template to determine your financial position.

This information is provided for general awareness purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal or compliance advice for your business.

This article is provided for informational purposes only. While the information contained within has been compiled from source[s] which are believed to be reliable and accurate, Comerica Bank does not guarantee its accuracy. Consequently, it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter nor be relied upon as such. 

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