I recently went on vacation and used a tour company.  The trip started in Paris, the first time I have ever been there and I wanted to make the most of it.  According to the brochure the hotels were, “handpicked” and in central locations.  Paris has 20 different neighborhoods which are called arrondissements.  The tourist locations which are ideal are between one through eight.

My hotel was in arrondissement 19, which means I was in the middle of nowhere.  It would take more than 2 changes on the metro to get into Paris proper and over 30 minutes.  The distance was not the only issue.  Two words: powdered eggs.

In a country that is home to the omlette, breakfast was a continental one with breads and meats and scrambled eggs. The scrambled eggs were suspiciously runny. It was then that someone in our group identified them as being powdered eggs.

Sure, I understand that the hotel is trying to make a profit and a way to save money is to buy powdered eggs and add water. Voila! Let’s fool the travelers.  (I am not going to talk about the dirty sheets.)

In the end, the tour company stressed completing the feedback form because, “we do listen.”

I have not heard from the tour company.  Actually, I did. They sent me a brochure.

If you are going to ask for feedback or ask for a completion of a survey, then you need to do something with that information.

1)    What are the questions you are asking and why?  For example are you looking for age information, what are your popular products or the value you provide?

2)    What are you going to use to gather information?  There is survey monkey online, but there is also social media or you can provide a mailing.

3)    How will you collect the statistical information?  Once you have the info then you need to set up interpreting the information.

You have collected this information so now what? Are you willing to change? Are you going to put this in your best practices? Will you reply?  Surveys and feedbacks can be great as they can bring to light legal issues and management issues along with marketing opportunities.   However, this can only happen if you do something with the feedback. Bonne chance!

I am a fan of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO.  I find myself laughing frequently.  I also find the subject matter something that applies to businesses many times.  This last report on credit reporting was of a particular interest, not just because it was about credit reporting, but because it shed light on dispute resolution. You can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRrDsbUdY_k.

The credit reporting agencies have been mandated to create a dispute resolution process for consumers in case their credit reports are incorrect.   In fact all companies should create a dispute resolution process.

Today there are many ways for a consumer to complain— Twitter, Facebook and social media sites, then add in conventional methods of email, letters and phone calls.  With all the biggest issue is reputation.

Companies need to consider what their complaint process will be.  Is there a form to complete?  How many days will the process last? Is there one person or a few assigned to the task?  What does the negotiation look like and what guarantees do you want to live up to?

If direct negotiation does not work, then what?  Will you use an intermediary?  Is this process solely online with a chat?

As you can see you do need a methodology in place.  A form is a good place to start with name, contact information and nature of the issue and how the consumer would like a response.  A time period should be in place to resolve the issue- up to fourteen days may be needed if you need further information.   Negotiation training may be useful, too.

This also gives opportunity to make a list of the common complaints.  The one complaint for lawyers is their inability to get back to clients quickly. I am constantly working on methods to provide quick and efficient service.

At what point, and this may be a price point, do you want to involve mediation?  You may feel confident with issues below $10,000, but anything greater may bring too much pressure to resolve.

True North Business Consulting can help you create your organization dispute resolution police and help with negotiation training.

My friend called me wanting my opinion. She had booked a trip with her family, and purchased insurance through the tour provider. They had been repeatedly told the insurance provided cancellation for any reason and could be used up until the flight.

 
The Paris Attacks happened, and they were worried so my friend confirmed again. Same answer, “You have cancellation coverage for any reason.”

 
Well, her sister had to cancel on the day of the trip. Guess what? The insurance was misrepresented. To cancel she would need a doctor’s letter and it would not be for the cost of the trip. The insurance would provide a voucher for the cost of the trip to be used in one year.

If you believed this is uncommon, then I can say it is the norm now.

I booked a trip, and purchased insurance. I was told the same that the insurance would cover the trip fully. I then made a change in regards to airlines, and this was where I was informed that the insurance only provides a voucher to be used in one year.

Is this misrepresentation?

“A practice may be deceptive if it reasonably could be found to have caused the plaintiff to act differently than he otherwise would have acted,” that is according to a Massachusetts case.

Would my friend have acted differently? Yes. She would have purchased the right type of insurance that provided a cash refund.

So now what?

Well, in Massachusetts there is ample consumer protection available. The first step is to write a demand letter that requires the company to reply within 30 days or face potential triple damages in court. This will usually lead to some sort of settlement. Other states have their own consumer protection laws, which can be found here: https://www.usa.gov/state-consumer

 
You may need to speak to a lawyer about a consumer issue to discover if your act was deceptive, but before that ask questions so you can make good decisions.

“That’s the way I’ve always done it!”

My usual response is an internal groan.

An example is a small condo association with three units that does not keep official meeting minutes, and does not do proper voting. Problems arise when there are new unit owners with questions in regards to past events. There is no record and this can result in a liability issue.

There is a reason why there are condominium bylaws. They need to be followed, and if they are too difficult to follow then either a) hire a management company or b) change the bylaws.

What about sending out contracts, and starting the work before they are signed. This is very common, but it becomes an issue when the work being done is questioned. A signature is very important.

An easy fix is to use Hello Sign or DocuSign. These are valid ways to have signatures signed, and courts recognize them per state and federal law.

There always needs to be follow through so make that follow through easier.

Just because a contract is “standard” does not mean that it cannot be changed. Most contracts are the result of a negotiation. You want the contract to reflect the discussions, and to understand what is being stated because you will be signing it along with the other party.

The adage does not just extend to legal matters. Marketing and networking may also require some change.

Sure, most people think of January as the beginning of the new year, but I always see September as a time to make new business plans and look at some disturbing legal trends that will be effecting small businesses. There are ethical issues, then there is privacy and regulations that have an uneven impact on small businesses.

The ethical issues that have arisen are in regards to equality based on gender and sexual orientation. The implication does trickle into business. What do to when there are allegations of employee discrimination? How can you protect your business and your clients? Even the smallest of companies should consider an employee handbook that should include the ethical standards your business wishes to emulate. These ideals should permeate the whole business- website, retail level and statements. I had a great experience at my local Lens Crafters where they fixed my sunglasses for free and suggested I make a donation to Gifts of Sight, a charity they support.

Privacy and protection of information is paramount. This is a topic that should be addressed in an employee handbook. Some thoughts are –what type of security do you have on your computers? Are doors locked? Are passwords changed from time to time? Is there a list of who has access to what? What happens if there is a breach? It is important to have a plan in case the worst happens. Something to consider is an application like Last Pass https://lastpass.com/enterprise_overview.php which provides password management with encryption software.

Being the LITTLE GUY is difficult with federal regulations and with legal matters. If you have a business that has connections with federal oversight- like the EPA for example, then you want to make sure you are aware of upcoming regulations that can affect you. Watch the Federal Register: https://www.federalregister.gov/. Since I do some landlord/tenant work, I am keenly watching a state bill that may have an impact on my clients. It is easy to join association or have online membership to different groups that can provide information that will help or hurt your business. Following on social media can also be a great source.

Lastly, law suits are expensive, and the cost only increasing. Think about conflict management and less expensive ways to handle your disputes. Using mediation and referencing it in your contracts and employee handbook can be an easy way to avoid costly litigation. Contact True North Business Consulting about employee handbooks and mediation today.

I had the opportunity to learn about the Office of Advocacy recently and wanted to share my experience. The Office of Advocacy is part of the Small Business Administration, a federal agency. From their website: https://www.sba.gov/advocacy

Advocacy is an independent voice for small business within the federal government, the watchdog for the Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA) and the source of small business statistics. Advocacy advances the views and concerns of small business before Congress, the White House, the federal agencies, the federal courts and state policy makers.

What this means is that on a daily basis the federal government changes regulations, before those regulations are changed there is a time when the government asks for input. Unfortunately, most small businesses are not aware of changing regulations and their impact.

Let me give you an example:

What if there is a change to manufacturing regulations that if you are a jewelry manufacturer, a federal regulation requires lead testing. This means that if you sell jewelry on a site such as Etsy that you would have to get your necklaces, rings and bracelets to a lab.

The Office of the Advocacy would reach out to small business and ask for the law’s impact. But, what if it is too late, and you, a small time jewelry maker get a fine from the federal government?

In this case, with fines, then within the Office of the Advocacy is an Ombudsman office. The ombudsman, although an employee of the federal government is an official appointed to investigate individuals’ complaints against maladministration. The ombudsman can intervene in regards to the fine that is issues.

This is a little known office with a big impact! I suggest signing up for their email newsletter to stay informed. If you have time http://www.regulations.gov lists all of the changes in regulations- you can see if there will be an impact to your business

I enjoy being a mediator. Mediation is when a third party neutral helps the disputing parties by facilitating their dispute. It is the last opportunity the parties will have to be a party in the decision making process, because if mediation fails then there will be litigation or arbitration. This means a judge, jury or arbitrator will be making the decision.

Being a mediator allows me to be a guide and organizer to attempt to bring a resolution to the disagreement. What I believe is the most important though is that mediation allows people to make agreement that are legal, but that a court could never create.

For example, partners want to split the business, but it is not a simple 50/50 division. There were debts neither party wanted, client agreements for future events and the name of business. With mediation each issue could be dealt with, rather than a costly trial which leaves most people feeling the results were unsatisfactory, let alone the antagonistic behavior.

If you have a small claims court action in Massachusetts, and most other states, then expect that you will be mediating that dispute first. If you entering a contractual agreement with another party consider a dispute resolution clause with mediation as a choice before court proceedings.

In a two week time span the same thing happened.
I was asked about creating a business entity. I would love to create the entity for them, but the truth is that insurance is more important and you are better off by putting the money you will pay to create a business entity towards insurance.
Don’t believe me?
I will share one of the experiences. A dog walker contacted me and I listed three companies that provide insurance. Where money is an issue, insurance is a better investment unless you plan on selling your business in the very near future or have the extra money to put towards a business entity.
Did the dog walker listen?
No.

What happened?

A dog got away from one of the handlers and was hit by a car, but scampered off and has not been seen as of yet.

The result?

If the dog is never found then sorry dog lovers, a dog is considered personal property and the dog walker will be liable for the cost of the dog only. If the dog is found and is injured, this could be a problem with the cost of the veterinarian bills which may exceed the value of the dog.

Would a contract have helped?

Possibly as it would have given the amount to which the dog walkers are liable, limiting exposure.

Would the business entity have helped?

Not at all. The idea is that a business entity protects personal assets, but the business entity or the individuals involved will have to make some sort of payout, and had there been insurance, then the insurance company would have made payment.

Remember, insurance and business law go hand in hand.

 

It is that time of year again when shopping becomes important on a personal level.  Black Friday heralds the time period that retail stores run in the black instead of the red.  If you are a service business how does this affect you?

If you do not offer gift certificates, then if you offer a wellness service, coaching service or consulting service you may want to consider doing so. Send out an email to your clients to remind them there is still time for them to make the purchase.  For the gift certificate itself, think about cardstock for a nice presentation with an envelope to match.  In addition, keep track of what you sell and respect Massachusetts laws that allow for a 7 year expiration date.

You may be thinking how you have gotten great deals on Groupon and Living Social.  Offering discounts with these companies can help your business, but remember you are entering a contract. This should be reviewed by an attorney so you understand your responsibilities.  You want to make sure there is a shorter expiration date on any of your offerings and if it is not used, then the amount can be applied to another service (just not at a discounted rate).  With Groupon the hope is that you will keep the client, but there is a low retention rate since many Groupon and Living Social shoppers are looking for the next, best deal.  

True North Business Consulting does not offer gift certificates, but we do have books for Health & Wellness Professionals and Contractors along with a DVD program that make great gifts!

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For those unfamiliar with Alternative Dispute Resolution, or ADR and want to know more about it so that you can use it in your business, then I have created a course with Udemy (an academy of you).  The first 50 people receive $10 off, that is half price, but it is only for a limited time so take advantage NOW to learn about using  the processes negotiation, mediation and arbitration in an hour. Use code 10OFFADR at UDEMY.

 

Many small business owners have a home office.  This can be very convenient, limiting travel and expenses like rent.  When it comes to accounting, I am sure there are ways where a portion of the space is a possible expense to your business, but there are legal ramifications that you should consider.

First, if you are working from your apartment where you are a tenant, then you need to make sure that having a business on the premises is allowed.  Many leases do not allow you to work from home.  From the landlord’s point of view this may be due to the increase in traffic or that you may be storing goods on the premises.  Plus, you may be need services like additional cable lines that the landlord was not planning on.

What about if you own a condo?  This time is may be the condominium association that could have rules about a business on the premises.  But, what if your business is just online and you do not have people coming by? It may not make a difference according to your condo documents and the board. 

If you are a homeowner, then your concern is advertising and keeping your liability at a minimum.  If you want to place a sign outside, then you need to make sure with the city or town that you are allowed to do so.  In addition, if you have anyone visit your residence please make sure that it is safe-especially clean walkways.

In all of these cases, you do need to register with the town to tell them you are doing business there.  Think about buying insurance for your protection plus reviewing leases and condo documents.