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Business Owners’ Never Ending To Do List

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Summer is quickly approaching and the kids will be out of school soon. I adore my work, but as the days get nicer I want to spend more time outside playing than inside working. As a business grows, there seems to be more to do leaving business owners less time to enjoy the “freedom” they envisioned when starting their business. I often hear business owners say they could sit at their desk all day and never get “it” all done. And they’re right. A business owner’s to do list is never ending.Business Owner To-Do

Before you throw up your hands in discouragement, walk through this exercise with me. Imagine completing that last item on your to-do list and feel the satisfaction of crossing it off the list. Revel in how good it feels to have an empty list. What would you do next? When I ask my clients this question, I hear “take a nap”, “read a book”, and the most frequent – “take a vacation”. Now imagine what you would do after your vacation, after you cleaned out the garage, and after you’ve worn out your golf partners. Then what? Sooner or later, you’d start a project. And that project would require a to-do list, even if it’s just in your head. That’s the nature of entrepreneurs: we don’t sit still. There is always something new and interesting to try, a subject that piques our interest. The truth is that when an entrepreneur is finally done all of their projects, well… they’re done, too. Lights out. Life is over.

The real solution is not to try and get it all done; the solution is a mind-shift. Accept that you will always have open projects – it means you are active and engaged. Be thankful that your business is engaging and provides you with mental stimulation. Focus on those tasks that matter most, on what will most move your business forward, on what will make your business (and life) run more smoothly and more successfully. Understand that the rest will be there tomorrow for you to tackle, or even the next. And that’s okay.

Writing this has reminded me of a book idea I need to add to my to do list. I may never get to it with everything else that’s on my list, but honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


– Helen Dutton, Business Coach

The Commencement of Your Small Business Success

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Graduation ceremonies mark the day that a high school student starts a great new adventure in their lives. They’re “commencing” adulthood, with all that’s exciting and challenging, with all their dreams, hopes and wishes before them. As business owners, we experience the same excitement every day that we step into our offices, so it’s appropriate to reflect on one of the best commencement speeches I’ve heard recently – whether it’s something you read to gear yourself up for work this morning, or you’re looking for inspired words of wisdom for that high school senior in your life.graduation

My weekends are filled with graduations and senior events, and I see words of wisdom quoted on Facebook and heard on the radio. If we’re honest, the commencement speeches are often boring and rarely offer anything insightful for the graduates. But Conan O’Brian’s Dartmouth speech from 2011 felt different to me; it caused me to laugh several times, he was open about his personal path, and frankly told the seniors that they will fail at some point in their careers. Let me share several phrases that apply equally to business ownership and business success:

Fogbound, with no compass, and adrift, I started trying things…. To this day I still don’t understand exactly what happened, but I have never had more fun, been more challenged, and this is important —- had more conviction about what I was doing.

It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique.  It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention.

But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come.  The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.

And there is no greater cliché in a commencement address than “follow your dream.”  Well I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change.  And that’s okay.

For business owners, that boils down to:

  1. Try new things.
  2. Be wiling to change your course. 
  3. Learn from your mistakes. 
  4. Follow your dream, as long as it is not cast in stone. 

O’Brian’s final words sounded a bit more like a traditional commencement address, and yet I still find them meaningful and germane to business. He wrapped up the Dartmouth speech in the same way that he concluded his NBC career by saying, “Work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen.”

– Helen Dutton, Business Coach

Price Increases in Small Business: Too Risky?

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As we slowly and hesitantly climb our way out of the recession, more and more business owners are wondering “Is it safe to increase my prices yet?” Many business owners are nervous about customer retention, about competitors’ reactions, and so decide to just keep prices status quo. I can’t tell you for sure if it’s time for you to increase your pricing, but I can give you thoughtful questions that will help you make the decision intentionally, rather than as a decision by no action.Eye on Money

  1. When was the last time you increased prices? If it’s been over a year, you need to consider a price increase (move to question 2 automatically). If there have been unusual industry changes within the past year, you may also need to increase pricing.
  2. Are eight or nine out of ten prospects saying ‘yes’ to your fees? If you’re having troublekeeping up with demand, it may be time to increase the entry level of doing business withyou. Increasing pricing because of demand is not necessarily being greedy; it is a question of attracting customers and clients that are ready to step up to your new level.
  3. Do you recognize that you are giving less than “your all” to your customers and clients? Charging too little for our products and services gives us an excuse to do less than our best. If you see your business stepping up its level of service by increasing your fees, you actually do your customers a dis-service by keeping pricing flat. Give your customers what they want and deserve; it may start with you increasing your fees.
  4. What reasons have kept you from increasing your fees? If the honest answer is “fear”, it’s time to take a hard look at increasing your pricing.
  5. Do you feel adequately rewarded for the effort you put forth in your business? Some of you may have trouble with the “feeling” of this question. If so, consider it as a simple algebraic equation: if energy expended times pricing is greater than the reward you feel, consider increasing prices. Even as a former CPA and Chief Financial Officer, I consider this question the most important for small business owners in knowing when it is time to increase fees.

Increasing your prices, or not, can be a difficult decision. All too often, business owners choose to keep pricing flat by ignoring the issue altogether. If two or more of the above questions point to potentially increasing your fees, it’s time to pull out your data and consider your pricing thoughtfully. Ignoring the questions may provide short term relief, but may also lead to you resenting your business and your customers. Do everyone a favor and ask the questions.

If you’d like an independent third-party to help with your pricing questions, consider my one-hour laser focused coaching session.

– Helen Dutton, Business Coach

Customer Expectations: How to Meet Them Every Time

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I was two for two today. First, I ordered an unsweetened ice tea with lemon to go. As I drove away I took a sip and almost spit it out; sweetened, and I mean sweet! I then picked up a custom order for my niece’s graduation. I was so excited to see it but waited until I got home because I didn’t want the gift to get damaged. I opened it up and…it was all wrong. To make it even worse when I called, the owner referred to what “she” did – placing blame on an employee.error

Both retailers corrected their mistake and neither was critical in the grand scheme of life, but they were critical to my desires. The iced tea was not just a drink; it was a treat for me, a refreshing drink during a busy day. The custom order was not just a book; it was obviously a gift for someone I loved very much. Both retailers had enough goodwill built with me that I forgave the error and will visit them again, but I did tell my husband about the custom gift error immediately. You never know who your customers tell about your errors, and you may not have enough goodwill to withstand an error. Enough errors made, and you will lose customers guaranteed.

Humans make errors, but how do you limit them as a business? There are three must-haves:

  1. Understand what your customers are really after – the emotion they want to experience as a result of your product or service. In the case of the custom gift for my niece, I wanted myniece to feel my love for her. Tough to do when the gift is made incorrectly. The iced tea was refreshment. A pet-sitting business client o fmine, Common Bonds Pet Services, understands that they don’t just walk animals, they are in the business of Trust.
  2. Build systems to prevent errors; make sure the systems are built around your customers’ core wants and needs. For Common Bonds, a cardinal rule of the pet-sitting business is that a client’s door hasn’t been checked until its security has been checked three times. A final comparison of my custom gift template compared to the final product would have prevented the error at a cost of 1-2 minutes.
  3. Take ownership of errors. If an employee makes an error, it stinks. But it is your responsibility to hire and train, instill your company’s core values, and to have systems in place to prevent errors.

How do you prevent errors? I’d love to hear what systems you have in place to insure you deliver exactly what your customers want, or more, every time.

 – Helen Dutton, Business Coach

Small Business Holiday Strategies; increase customer traffic

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Mother’s Day is right around the corner. A radio ad the other day went something like this:  “If you have a mom, know a mom, or are a mom, come on down…” Seriously? Just a little more creativity, thought and insight could yield this business credibility, recognition, and increase customer traffic. Consumer spending is up generally this spring, and small businesses can benefit at the same time as doing  a good turn for moms and those buying for mom.Mothers Day

Whether it’s Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, back-to-school time, or Hanukah, the key to reaching potential customers is the same: know your strengths and know your customer. Here is how you can increase customer traffic now, and any month of the year.

  1. Know your business’s strengths. What makes you unique? What attributes cause you to stand out from your competitors? Be specific – “great customer service” does not make you unique; it allows your doors to remain open. Consider advanced training, personal experience of the owners, or a specialized niche for which you are known.  For holiday purchasing, expanded hours and proximity can be considered strengths and also be key decision factors.
  2. Know your customer. Understand why your customers come to you and look for behavior patterns or demographics that drive their purchases.
    1. Use keyword research to understand what potential customers are searching for; use their language in your marketing. A common search this week might be “unique gifts for Mother’s Day in New Hampshire”. If you have that language on your page or in your social media campaign, not only do search engines like you but, personally, I will feel understood by you and that your offerings are a perfect match.
    2. Use your internal systems to sort customers by seasonality. If they purchased from you before the holidays or the weeks just before Easter, chances are they will be gift shopping for Mother’s Day.

Knowing your strengths and understanding your customers are critical whether you are placing a local print advertisement, Facebook ads, or developing other social media campaigns. Spend focused time creating clarity around your market and you can increase customer traffic by developing credible marketing for any season or holiday.


 – Helen Dutton, Business Coach

Helen Dutton, A Vision of Your Own, has provided business and personal coaching for small business owners since 2000, providing online and face to face coaching for entrepreneurs, small business owners, start-up businesses as well as established businesses across the country. Clients come from New Hampshire, her home state, but she has also acted as a mentor to business owners in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, the Denver area, and closer to home in the Boston area. Helen helps her clients develop their small business ideas, create marketing plans, improve operation efficiency, build customer service systems, build management and leadership skills, and develop confidence as a business owner. Helen provides business tips and resources through her blog and her newsletter, where you can also find business templates to help your business prosper.