OF ALL THE PROMISES MADE TO CONVINCE US TO SPEND LONG HOURS AT A KEYBOARD WHILE LOOKING INTO A small, fuzzy screen, e-mail has delivered best. It has permanently benched us from the unproductive game of phone tag and saved the lives of countless trees. It has also played a significant role in our somewhat successful attempt to dam the flood of information coming at us. We, like millions of e-mail users, have come to rely on it. The relationship remains quite rosy, until we have to change our e-mail service provider.
Maybe you need to change providers because you live outside of a major metropolitan area and the monthly long-distance fees or toll calls to a local node for America Online or CompuServe are killing you. Maybe your Internet service provider (ISP) went out of business, or you’ve moved to an area where it doesn’t have a local number. Maybe you’ve finally become too frustrated with your provider’s service. Whatever the mason, you’ll suffer even more disappointment trying to make the switch. We’ve got some ideas to ease the pain that we’ll tell you about, but they’re far from perfect.
Two entrepreneurs who’ve experienced much frustration are Daniel and Dennis Murphree, who build custom computers in Tilton, New Hampshire. The father and son spend about 100 hours a month using e-mail and browsing the Web to order parts for their company, Agape Computers, and to stay in touch with customers.
Their original provider, America Online, was a long-distance call away. They decided to try a local ISP to cut costs and saw huge savings in their monthly bills. Unfortunately, the Murphrees had problems with the service’s reliability from the outset. They left the ISP when it suddenly hiked its fees. They didn’t see an improvement with their new ISP, and after a few more months of lost communications, they switched again. The two are understandably cautious about whether their new ISP will meet their needs. Changing providers four times in one year cost their business dearly. They’ve no idea how many customers didn’t get through to them with all the switches.
In a Perfect World The Murphrees, and you, shouldn’t have to suffer. After all, it is electronic mall so it should be simple for e-mail providers to add a few lines of code and forward mail from your old address at firstname.lastname@example.org to your new one at email@example.com. It should be, but it isn’t.
The problem is that your old service provider has to initiate the forwarding. Neither the major online services nor most ISPs offer this option. Although CompuServe leaves your mailbox open for 60 days after you cancel your account, it won’t forward your mail. You’ll still have to go back in and grab it. One ISP we spoke with said it might forward a subscriber’s e-mall if he left on amicable terms, such as moving or being transferred. But if a subscriber left because of unhappiness with the service, forwarding would not even be considered.
Since there is no forwarding, you’re looking at dumping all of your business cards, stationery, and collateral materials, as well as changing any ads or listings you’ve painstakingly selected for reaching your target markets. You’ll also have to worry about what clients will think when their e-mails to you come back with the online version of “Return to Sender: Address Unknown.”
Keep Two Accounts If you have to change your e-mail provider or are just fed up with its service, you need to take some temporary measures to keep from losing communications with valuable contacts. First, send a message to all your contacts with your new e-mail address. Then, keep both your old e-mail account and your new one for three months. This ploy should pay for itself with the first piece of new business that you would have otherwise missed.
E-mail software such as ConnectSoft’s E-Mail Connection and Global Village’s FocalPoint can access more than one account and collect all your messages in a single in-box. You simply inform all the users who are still sending messages to your old account that you now have a new address.
All of your messages may have to begin with the line, “Please send all replies or correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.” This can be tedious, but some programs such as the Macintosh application Claris Em@ailer will automatically send a canned response to any messages coming from your old e-mailbox.
Never Again No matter what ISPs may wish, you should be able to change providers without losing your client correspondence. If you’re ready to switch, there are two options that will prevent you from losing e-mail in the future.
Tags: email changes, id horror shows, tech problems
When translator Benno Groeneveld first struck out on his own, he didn’t bother to invoice clients for business calls. Why not? He didn’t have the time to sort through every call he made when his statement-arrived. But within no time, Groeneveld’s monthly phone bill skyrocketed to $200 (of which $150 was client-related). So when the St. Paul, Minnesota, businessman discovered his long-distance carrier offered call coding–which automatically categorizes client calls by account–he signed up. “For me, it makes a difference in what I charge,” he says.
Tracking out-of-pocket costs is a blight everyone faces–whether you have to document expenses for individuals or the IRS. But it’s a necessity: Overlooked financial outlays and lost receipts add up to mega-dollars down the drain, and late-paid expenses cause cash flow catastrophes. Take Joe Ely, an agricultural debt adviser in Indiana whose out-of-state client visits average $250 apiece. If he were to misplace only one set of receipts a month, he’d lose $3,000 a year.
Thanks to new products, software, and services (and some old-fashioned organizational systems), staying on top of expenses doesn’t have to be a nightmare. By choosing the right solutions, you can claim everything you’re entitled to–without wasting hours wading through receipts. The trick is to find the method that works best for you during each of the three expense steps: collecting receipts, entering amounts, and invoicing.
Step 1: Gathering Proof of Payment
No client will reimburse your expenses without validating that you’ve spent the money. Whether you purchase an airline ticket to San Francisco or buy a salami sandwich, you need to show that you shelled out money. Credit card purchases are naturally easier to duplicate and keep track of each month because you get a statement (although many companies now require cash-register receipts as well), but cash expenses are most often overlooked. “Start expensing as soon as you take money out of your wallet,” insists Cincinnati organizer Stephanie Denton.
To account for cash, she suggests keeping a pen on hand to note the client name and project on the back of, say, each taxicab receipt that’s handed to you. Or tuck a notepad or personal digital assistant (PDA) in your briefcase to log such small costs as magazines, food, or other essentials. For road warriors, Denton recommends securing a mileage book on the dashboard, along with a pencil (pens freeze in cold weather). Then, as soon you get back to your office, immediately file your paperwork. Indiana adviser Ely, for instance, keeps an envelope with the name of the month on the comer of his desk.
For telephone costs, take a tip from translator Groeneveld and enlist your phone company to collect your expense information by subscribing to call coding. Offered by the big three carriers, call coding requires only that you punch in a two- or three-number code with each long-distance call. Sprint (800-877-4646), for instance, sells call coding for $5 per month for an unlimited number of long-distance calls. And, for no extra charge, you can add the service to your calling card (if you travel internationally, however, you have to ask for operator assistance). And AT&T’s Call Manager (800-566-2464) plan is free.
Although your monthly phone statement will be arranged with calls broken out and subtotaled by code–saving you countless hours of mindless work–call coding doesn’t yet import information into your PC. You still have to enter the subtotals yourself.
Step 2: Expense Entry
Even if you’re an expense receipt pack rat, you may skip this vital step–inputting your money outlays into your accounting system. The key to saving time, however, is to let suppliers and technology systems do most of your legwork, so all you have to do is download data to your desktop.
If you’re often on the go, PDAs with Pocket Quicken, such as the Apple Newton MessagePad 130 (800-538-9696, www. apple.com; $799), help tally your expenses immediately. Unlike old-fashioned paper logbook entries, which have to be re-entered back at the office, certain PDAs import data directly to your desktop Quicken. Who wants to waste time with double data entry when you can grow a business?
To shave even more hours off your accounting paperwork, consider banking electronically. If you use Quicken 5.0 or higher, for example, you can download your expense information from more than 41 banks, American Express, or Quicken’s own credit card, and print out your costs receipts with each client invoice. Other financial institutions that offer electronic services include Wells Fargo and Security First Network Bank, Neither requires you to call a special phone number or buy additional software to tap your account.
Step 3: Streamline invoicing With Software
Once you’ve entered your expense information into your computer, simplify the process by using programs that are designed to track payment. For instance, ExpensAble 2.0 from Intuit (800-816-8025; Win 95, Win; $49.95) is created for people who travel and have an expense account. It’s an intuitive invoicing program that prompts you for expenses you might have forgotten. It’s even able to sort out complex hotel bills in seconds. What’s more, it imports information from a PDA and offers an assortment of invoice styles for different types of companies. Unfortunately, business owners who bill for expenses that fall outside ExpensAble’s preset categories may find the program doesn’t meet all their needs.
For those who bill by the hour, Timeslips Deluxe 7.0 helps tally your time–and expenses. But if all you need is a simple expense program, Timeslips is too complicated to master for the occasional out-of-pocket cost. If that’s the case, check out Xpense-Pro from Lumtron Technologies (815-568-2602; Win 95, Win; $40).
Cincinnati consultant Denton swears by Quicken to help monitor her costs. For $39, the personal finance program can sort your expenses by both category (type of expense) and class (your client). Then, with all expenses coded by client, Quicken’s report function will produce an itemized list in seconds. Although the program doesn’t include invoice forms, you can import client reports into your word processor. But, adds Denton, many clients accept a Quicken report (perhaps with a brief cover sheet) as an invoice.
On the other hand, West Los Angeles small-business owner Donna McMillan prefers to use QuickBooks. Once you’ve entered your expense data, the program automatically imports it into one of several invoice forms, and then tracks it as accounts receivable.
Even better, QuickBooks helps speed up your payment process–the whole reason you’re expensing in the first place. “A reminder screen will list your outstanding accounts receivables,” McMillan says. “And it’ll sit there until you tell the program you’ve deposited the check.”
Tags: accounting tips, invoicing, manage your expenses
Everybody knew Wait, the neighborhood butcher when I was growing up. Walt, in turn, knew everybody. He knew that my mother ordered a pot roast for Sundays. He knew that Mr. Schlampp wanted fish on Fridays, and that Mrs. Levine bought kosher food. He knew our addresses and phone numbers, when the grandkids were coming home to visit, our birthdays and our paydays, and whose charge accounts were in arrears. Walt’s customer database was in his head.
Wait used his database for marketing. He called us if he had a particularly nice roast. He did not call Mr. Schlampp to offer him meat on Fridays, nor did he offer pork chops to Mrs. Levine. He cheerfully acknowledged his customers’ new cars, new dresses, and new hairdos and, as a result, probably got more business.
Because he was a friend and neighbor, we didn’t mind Walt using some of the details of our lives to better his business. Although Mrs. Brown next door suspected him of having a heavy thumb on the scale, for the most part we trusted Walt.
Consumers have no such trust in the companies that collect, sell, and trade their personal information today. Nor do they trust the automated robots that vacuum up the electronic crumbs from the “cookies” (files that keep track of all they see and do online on a hard disk).
As operators of small businesses in the computer age, we capture a lot of information about our customers in our own computer databases. We can also buy information about potential customers, whether our businesses operate locally, across the country, or even overseas. The lists can be as broad as every household in a certain city or as focused as all the credit cardholders who live in the three most affluent zip codes in a town, have teenaged children, and have charged at least $1,000 in Colorado between November and February.
If I were a travel agent, I’d want to send a brochure or two to the folks in that latter group. If I were the recipient of the travel brochure, perhaps I would think, “At last! A piece of interesting and potentially useful junk mail.” At least, that would be my first thought. But as with so many things in the computer age, second thoughts are sure to follow. Junk mail, the direct marketing industry is fond of saying, is simply mail that is sent to the wrong person. Someone, somewhere, would find the same piece of mail to be valuable. The problem is matching the right piece of mail with the right recipient.
In the discussion of junk mail that appeared in this space last month, the focus was on unscrupulous business operators who flood the Internet or U.S. Postal Service with messages, hoping that, out of the thousands that are sent, a few will land in receptive hands. This shotgun approach, known on the Internet as spamming, is widely reviled. But the opposite tactic–the laser4ike targeting of specific messages for specific individuals–is as appealing to businesses as it is troublesome on privacy grounds.
Database marketing is based on the increasing availability of information about individuals, made possible by computer records. There are now more than 1,500 commercially maintained mailing lists in the United States, ranging from relatively simple lists containing just a few snippets of data, similar to the information found in a phone book, to massive lists of tens of millions of consumers, including detailed records on health, finances, and spending habits.
Each of us has been captured in a computer file somewhere. The files grow when we enter school, sign up for a birthday party at the ice cream store, enter a contest, send off for a magic kit, get a Social Security number and a driver’s license, apply for a credit card, join the army, make a phone call, fill out a warranty card, register to vote, buy a house, order a sweater from a catalog, and so on. The lists are getting ever more detailed, and the latest trend is to consolidate multiple lists into a giant master file.
The Internet and the World Wide Web hold the promise of gathering even more finely detailed information on users, keeping track of what Web pages they view, how long they tarry over specific advertisements, and whether they purchase anything online. Most of the big database companies now use sophisticated software to analyze these lists, fine-tuning them to sift out those households most likely to respond favorably to certain products.
Viewed in a positive light, the precision of database marketing is appealing to any business that wants to gain new customers and make the most effective use of marketing budgets. It’s also a benefit to consumers who are more likely to receive useful mail.
Viewed in a negative light, these precision-targeted lists are cause for concern on privacy grounds. These unseen computers know far more about us than Walt the butcher ever did–or wanted to.
If you’re considering the use of such targeted marketing pitches, whether gleaned from your own customer database or taken from lists purchased from brokers or other companies, you have an obligation to use the information responsibly (for more on this subject, see “Direct Your Pitch” in this issue”). Businesses that gather consumer information from Web-browser cookie files need to set clear policies on the use–and protection–of that consumer data. Many states have laws restricting the uses of public databases, but even the big database companies say the rules are confusing.
In fairness to the direct marketing industry, abuses of consumer databases are rare compared with the vast amount of data being traded among companies. But database abuses are growing, and one of these days consumers, and perhaps the government, are likely to demand greater controls over the information being gathered and sold.
Those of us who run home-based businesses should be even more sensitive to the concerns over targeted direct marketing. Let’s face it: A lot of us work from home because we don’t want anyone looking over our shoulders. As business owners, we need to make effective use of the latest technologies, but we also need to stand up for the right to privacy, to use the available information responsibly, and to safeguard the data we gather from customers. If a business intends to sell or trade its customer databases, it has an obligation to inform customers and give them the right to opt out of the list.
Tags: database foolishness, die spammer
Nearly every profession has been transformed in some way by technology, and graphic design is no exception. The drafting table has been replaced by the desktop computer, which performs some of the most exacting-and formerly messy–tasks. In addition, where light-filled workspaces used to be considered a necessity, that same light now tends to drown out images displayed on a large-screen monitor–the graphic designer’s most important tool.
That’s what Washington, D.C.-based graphic designer Lloyd Greenberg discovered when he moved his home office from upstairs to downstairs to make room for his new baby. Thanks to some creative lighting design, Greenberg was able to move comfortably from a large room with a nine-foot ceiling and seven-foot windows with southern exposure to a dark unfinished basement with a seven-foot, eight-inch ceiling.
To make the space work, Greenberg had to move the furnace and radiators, take out a column, add a beam, and erect plasterboard walls. But it was the halogen and fluorescent lighting Greenberg installed that made the most difference. Greenberg used long-lasting, low-wattage fluorescent bulbs in 20 standard recessed light cans (fixtures that also can burn incandescent bulbs) throughout the studio and a bank of color-correcting fluorescent lights.
Several high-intensity halogen lights provide task lighting at two workstations. Feeling the need to compensate for his subterranean setting, Greenberg installed 150-watt floods, which warmed up the studio even before the repositioned furnace was vented. But in the end Greenberg discovered that he needed much less, not more, light than he had been used to having in his upstairs studio.
Indeed, the degree of illumination is perhaps the most important change from the studios of five or 10 years ago, when artists craved great expanses of natural sunlight as well as total darkness for photostat-making and other darkroom activities. Now, studio lighting is subdued so as not to interfere with monitor brightness, and darkroom activities are performed with such computer photo applications as Adobe Photoshop.
Only a stray shaft of afternoon daylight now enters Greenberg’s studio through front and rear doors and windows. Ambient lighting in the studio is on dimmer switches, complementing the art- and book-lined walls and the faint strands of classical music Greenberg listens to while he works.
Greenberg, who has been doing all of his work on computers since 1992, says his office now requires not only less light but less space. “When I started as a graphic designer,” Greenberg explains, “we needed space with a lot of light and room to spread out. But since I made the switch to working on computers, I probably use a quarter of the space I did before.”
Tags: furninshing an office, windowless life
Instead of making hotel rooms feel like luxurious versions of home, innkeepers today are trying to make rooms more like your office. “Historically, hotels have [offered] business centers,” explains Gary Hamilton, professor of law and operations at the School of Hotel & Restaurant Management at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. “But now everybody has laptops, so the nature of business has fundamentally changed again.” Hamilton explains that to survive, hotels now have to provide accommodations that offer the very technology that would otherwise cut into the hotel’s business by keeping potential travelers in their offices.
The new Cyber Suite in the Los Angeles Westin Century Plaza represents the high end of hotel high-tech. The Cyber Suite features plasma-screen TVs with high-speed Internet access, real-time videoconferencing, a multimedia computer with wireless mouse, a CD stereo system to blow any hi-fi nut’s mind, a videodisc player, cell phone service on and off ‘ hotel property, and a voice-activated “butler in a box” to work lights, doors, and more– all for a hefty $2,000 a night.
That’s a little rich for most travelers’ pocketbooks. But moderately priced hotels are accommodating business guests with increased in-room technology offerings as well. Radisson’s Business Class program offers free phone access, no fax surcharges, a computer workstation, and computer hookup. At Hilton Garden Inns, a middle-marker hotel group with 25 hotels and 100 planned by the year 2000, rooms feature desk space for portable computers, electrical outlets and phone jacks at desk height instead of at baseboard level, and two telephones with dataports. “Midpriced hotels currently offer the greatest development opportunity for Hilton,” says James Abrahamson, senior vice president of franchising. “Our research shows there’s increased demand by travelers for [in-room technology].”
High-speed Internet access is also gaining in hotel rooms. The Fourth Communications Network of San Jose, California, is currently installing high-speed Internet access through hotel room PCs and TVs in more than a dozen chains, including Holiday Inns, Embassy Suites, and Hiltons.
Finally, look for hotel rooms featuring standalone, fully dedicated, high-speed Internet access systems–similar to ATMs–which are debuting nationwide from Atcom/ Info in partnership with Microsoft. Oakland, California’s Claremont Hotel and,Washington, D.C.’s Renaissance hotels are up to ISDN speed with this system, and “many major hotel companies are talking to Atcom about testing installations,” reports Michael Mahoney, director of hospitality consulting services at Coopers & Lybrand LLP in Los Angeles.
Trying to juggle work and family is especially hard when your home is your workplace. In Hew to Raise e Family and a Career Under One Reef (Bookhaven Press; $15.95), author Lisa Roberts combines real-life experience with practical advice on what it takes to launch and nurture a business and family at the same time, in the same place. Roberts explores the impact of working at home on children, marriage, the household, and the individual. To help you cope, she provides exercises and suggested readings, and lists outlets where you can seek support in your quest for the perfect balance of a combined work and family life.
Tags: business, connected life, smart hotels