Archive : March 2011

Becoming A Boss

Posted March 23, 2011

NOTE:  Here is a sneak peak at my In Business column in the next issue of Event Solutions Magazine.

@hgivner: Luv your ES column! My biz is jamming, am so busy I can’t handle all the work myself. Ready 2 hire my first employee.  Any advice? Candace, Independent Planner, LA

I got this Twitter message last month (though Candace asked me not to list her Twitter handle).  My first response is, how great is it that people are so busy again!  Now, hopefully Candace has read my previous columns on how to calculate her fee structure so she’s profitable, and not just busy (because we all know they ain’t the same thing.)

My second response is that hiring her first employee is not the only solution to being super busy.  Candace could instead use this as an opportunity to raise her rates, be more selective in the kinds of clients and events she takes on, etc.  The buzz she’d create by turning away clients because she’s so “in demand” will do wonders for her reputation.  Because make no mistake, hiring an employee will change the nature of her business in many ways, some of which she may not anticipate.  But if she still wants to move forward in becoming a boss, here are some tips to do it right.

1.     Hire Someone To Replace the Lowest Paying Part of Your Job. You know the phrase “chief cook and bottle washer” which describes how entrepreneurs often have to do everything?  Well, in this case you want to start by hiring someone to do the bottle washing part, which presumably is the lowest paying.  Make a list of the main jobs you do in your business (sales, marketing, event operations, administration, etc.) and next to each one list approximately how many hours a week you spend on it, and what you think the market salary or hourly rate is for someone to do that task.  Your first hire should be the lowest one, because that’s the cheapest way for you to free up some of your time.  Your goal is to then shift that time toward the highest paying part of your job, which presumably is working with your clients.

2.     Allocate Time to Manage Your Employee. Unfortunately, those low level hours your employee will take off your plate won’t all become available to you.  Why?  Because managing your employee takes time.  This is probably the biggest oversight people make when hiring someone.  You’ve got to factor in time to interview, train, coach and manage them.  And the more time you put in teaching someone how you want them to do something, the less time you’ll spend putting out fires if they mess it up later.

3.     Create A Detailed Job Description. List as many of the tasks & responsibilities this person will have as you can think of.  This will not only help with accurate recruiting and interviewing, but will also serve as an outline for your training and a benchmark for performance evaluation later. And when you begin your training, start with the phrase, “Here’s what I expect of you.”

4.     Document Your Training Process. When I ran my event company, I got a lot of things wrong, but one thing I got right fairly early on was to create written training materials.  This is an investment the first time around, but when you hire additional staff, it provides two great benefits: (a) It saves you a ton of time, and (b) it insures consistency in how your staff gets trained.  Here are some examples of the types of things I wrote down and would give to my new hires for us to review together:

a.     Info About the Company. This is a no-brainer that too many people miss.  I wrote a short script for people to learn on how to explain what we do and what key points I wanted them to convey.  Your employees are ambassadors for your company; empower them to properly represent you.   I’d even give them an oral test on this before allowing them to answer the phone.

This should include a list of Frequently Asked Questions by clients and suggested responses.

b.     Instructions on Repeatable Tasks. This includes step-by-step procedures for things like running reports, doing inventory, creating a timeline, etc.  (My personal favorite was how to download postage to our Pitney Bowes machine.  I had one admin create that instruction sheet, and it was literally passed from one admin to the next over a fifteen year span.  To this day I never learned how to download postage.)

c.      Info About Company Benefits & Policies. Candace probably isn’t thinking about this, but she can bet her new employee will.  How many vacation days do I get?  How many hours a week do I work?  What happens if I work all weekend on a job, do I get Monday off?  Is there health insurance?  What’s the travel reimbursement policy? It’s best to think these through and write them down.  They don’t have to be perfect; you can always change them.  (The first time an employee asked me this stuff 20 years ago I remember thinking:  “Benefits?  You mean working for me isn’t a joy unto itself?”)

5. Provide Frequent & Clear Feedback. Most new bosses are reluctant to criticize their hires, and instead let things go.  They eventually either learn to tolerate mistakes, or it builds up and the only criticism that comes out is “you’re fired.”  This helps no one.  Employees need your feedback.  If they’re doing something wrong, tell them immediately.  Likewise, if they’re doing it right, give them a pat on the back acknowledging it.

6. Be Their Boss, Not Their Friend. I’m sure this will be the one area I get the most hate mail on, but 8 out of 10 bosses in this industry I polled for this column are just that; they’re bosses.  The other two like to be buddy-buddy with their staff and like to think they’re all one big happy family.  I’m not saying you need to be a mean-ass boss, but rather that if you become too friendly with your staff it eventually compromises your ability (& backbone) to give disciplinary feedback and to push them to achieve superior results.

It’s far more important that your employees respect you than like you.  It may make your stomach turn to see them clam up when you approach them at the water cooler, knowing that its you they were gossiping about, but in the end its what’s best for your business.

*In my next column, I’ll talk about how to handle an employee that’s not working out.

Confessions of A First Class Wannabe

Posted March 20, 2011

Many people who cannot normally afford to fly first class, like myself, sometimes get an opportunity to do so, courtesy of those great frequent flyer miles or the occasional corporate perk.  However, while I relish those rare occasions when I do fly first, it’s now virtually impossible to tolerate having to fly coach the rest of the time.  I’ve tasted the good life and I don’t want to go back.  I am a first class wanna-be.

The first time I used miles to upgrade to first class was on a trip to Europe.  My wife and I got to the airport late, but it was no problem because first class passengers have their own check in line.  Mind you, there’s maybe 20 people in the whole section, which certainly did not justify a dedicated attendant.  But the airlines’ motto to first class passengers is ‘spoil ya rotten’ and that experience begins with check in.

You also board the plane before anyone else, save perhaps small kids flying alone or people with wheelchairs.  We were given champagne and hot towels when we sat down.

Then, in a clear fit of sadism, the airline attendants forced the coach passengers to board the plane by walking through the first class section.  I’ve done that walk, and it’s a cruel one.  It’s bad enough sitting in coach, merely knowing about the existence of a first class section.  But to have to walk through it, and see the Barca-loungers they sit in compared to the anatomically challenged seats in coach, that’s tough stuff.

Here I experienced a brief identity crisis, for I used to be the one who resented the first class passengers.  But now I was on the other end, and, despite my humble coach roots, I was surprised at how easily I slipped into the mentality of a lifelong first classer.  I couldn’t wait for the endless parade of lowlifes to walk by so that the genteel calm of our section could return.

And then there are those adorable little amenities kits they gave us.  Like giddy children we showed each other the razor with shaving cream in the handle, the blindfolds for sleeping, the mints, the moisturizer.  We glanced around and realized we were dead giveaways for upgraders.  The real first class passengers, the ones who pay for their tickets and fly first all the time, looked over at us with disdain.  We were given a free pass into an exclusive club, their club, and we had to get with the program.

I won’t go into the vastly improved passenger-to-bathroom and passenger-to-flight attendant ratios, or the fact that the flight attendants in first are much nicer because they have fewer passengers to serve.  Or the wines offered with dinner.  We all know the night and day differences.  But whereas ‘upgraders’ marvel at every little pleasantry, true denizens of first class seem to barely notice them.  And that’s how you must behave if you want to pass yourself off as someone who truly belongs in first class.

For starters, you must accept all the privileges of first class as though you are entitled to them, and under no circumstances can you widen your eyes in astonishment when your meal comes with real cutlery.  When, for example, the attendant takes the liberty of giving your drink a refill without your having asked for it, you may nod thanks, but should not look up from your newspaper.

When the periodic brave passenger from coach boldly slinks through the curtain to use the first class bathroom, you must feel indignation.  You show the flight attendant a puzzled look, then glance back at the coach section.  Is somebody not manning their post?  Invariably the attendant will go back and firmly close the curtain as soon as the person returns to her seat, sending a message to all other would-be bathroom poachers: you are not welcome here.  Stay in your section; two toilets for the three hundred of you should be just fine

When you sporadically stand to stretch your legs and can catch a peak into coach, you can come to no other conclusion than that it looks so . . . so . . . crowded!  And you realize that next time it could be you.  You could be the one without enough miles, the one in the cattle car.

And therein lies the root of the problem: relativity.  Coach would be fine if there were no first class to compare it to.  In fact, if the people in coach only had a curtain behind them, a section even worse, even more cramped, in which passengers had to stand and hold onto railings like in a subway car, then they’d think coach was pretty darned good!  But alas, we know there’s nothing worse, and we also know that there’s a select few living the good life up front.

By the same token, I was once inside a private corporate jet, not as a passenger mind you, but to pick up a client at the airport.  (Not the same airport the rest of us fly out of; they have their own airports, which you don’t know about).  And if you think first class is impressive, this was like a living room with wings.  Fortunately, there’s pretty much no chance in hell I’ll ever travel on one, so I don’t have to worry about comparing it to first class.  But there’s definitely a group of people who normally fly this way who view first class as steerage.

The truth is, those few passengers paying exorbitant fees to fly first class pretty much underwrite the cost of coach for the rest of us; we just don’t realize it.  If the whole plane were coach, the cost of a ticket would at least double in price.  So what the airlines should do is simply offer passengers a choice.  You can fly coach from NY to LA for $900 on a plane with no first class section at all, or you can fly virtually the same flight for $450, but there’s going to be a small section of the plane in which people will be treated better than you.

Far, far better than you.

The Meeting Attendee’s Bill of Rights

Posted March 5, 2011

At the end of my last post I said I’d start putting together a Meeting Attendee’s Bill of Rights.  Having just finished speaking at several conferences, a handful of thoughts are fresh in my head.  Here are my first 5 Rights.  I invite you to submit your ideas to me as we compile this long overdue list.

You, the meeting attendee, have the right to:

1.    Blurt out “let’s move on” if one person in the audience engages the speaker in a back and forth discussion following their question.  The question asker is allowed only one rebuttal comment after the speaker answers their question, after which the speaker may add their final reply.  Yes, the speaker gets the last word, because that’s who the audience came to hear.  That’s just the way it goes.


QUESTION ASKER:    “I disagree with your point because I don’t get it.  And besides, I don’t care if I learn anything here, I just like to hear myself talk in front of everyone.”

SPEAKER:   “I’m sorry you don’t get what I’m saying.  Let me try again to explain it, but this time I’ll use smaller words.”

QUESTION ASKER:   “Thanks for using smaller words, but I still don’t get it.  Plus, I’m enjoying this little time we’re having together at the expense of the rest of the audience.”

SPEAKER:   “Hey, if you had it all figured out you’d be giving this class.  But you’re not, are you?  See this thing I’m standing on?  That’s called the stage.”

GOOD SAMARITAN:   “Let’s move on.”

2.    Hear an Overview of the session at the beginning, so you’ll know what will be covered when, and won’t ask a question that the speaker will get to eventually.

3.    If the speaker is being ridiculously self-promotional about their company, stand up and say, “I’m concerned you won’t have enough sales brochures for the whole audience.  I hope we won’t have to share.”  Hey, if we don’t stand up to this, pretty soon all exit doors of meeting rooms will lead through the gift shop.

4.    Walk out if you are not enjoying the session.  However, if you think the session is good, but have to leave for other reasons (to catch a flight, run to an appointment, donate a kidney, etc.) put your phone to your ear as you’re getting up, and put a finger in your other ear, as if to muffle the noise, the better to hear your fictitious call.  Speakers assume everyone who walks out of their class is doing so because they don’t like the session, so your fake phone call tells the speaker he/she is doing great, but you’ve got an urgent call.

5.   Some kind of free gift if you registered for the conference before the Early Bird cutoff date, only to find that date suddenly extended two weeks.

There you go, the first 5 of the Meeting Attendee’s Bill of Rights.  Pass around, share, and send me your best additions.

Commissions vs. Kickbacks

Posted March 1, 2011

Pop Quiz:  What’s the fastest way to make a fight break out in a room full of event planners?

Answer:  Start a debate about whether commissions are good or bad.

Yesterday I delivered a rousing seminar at the Event Solutions Idea Factory / CaterSource conference in Las Vegas.  The topic was “Show Me the Money: How & How Much to Charge for Event Planning Services”.  Everything was going great.  Of the three tracks being offered during my time slot, I was given the big i-Room, and we had a packed crowd.

Even better, the i-Room had a confidence monitor!  A real confidence monitor!  How cool is that?!  [For those of you that don’t know, this is a flat screen tv placed at the foot of the stage, facing the speaker.  It displays whatever is on the screens behind you, so when you’re speaking you don’t have to keep turning around to see what slide is being shown.]  I’ve spoken quite a bit, and though I’d arranged for tons of clients to have these at their events, this was my first time using one, and I was like a kid in a candy store.

Anyway, I’m cruising through my presentation.  We’d covered flat fees, hourly fees, markups, % of budget fees, the whole transparency/value thing, and had arrived at the commission section.  As with all the other pricing models, I went through the pros, cons and pieces of advice on commissions, and was about to get into the section on how to calculate your rates.

Here’s the last thing I said before the audience put their gloves on and went at it: “The difference between a commission and a kickback is one word: disclosure.”  It’s almost as if you could have heard the presentation skid to a halt.  Then hands flew up with questions and comments.  Really most were comments, very passionate comments.

“I will not take commissions because I don’t want that to influence who I recommend!” one woman says.  You can bet that went over well with the commission-takers in the crowd.  A Jerry Springer episode was about to break out.

I reiterate a key tenet I’d mentioned earlier: “Integrity has nothing to do with it.  If someone discloses that they take commissions to their client and the client is ok with it, that’s all that matters.”

And I believe that.  It’s my ‘consenting adults’ theory.  If your client wants to be paid with a weekly supply of Shake Shack burgers (feel free to substitute whatever local food item people will wait on endless lines for), and you agree, what’s wrong with that?

Mind you, nobody seemed to have an issue with markups, which, like commissions, are part of what I call non-itemized fee structures.  There’s something about the commission topic that elicits strong feelings on both sides, like nothing I’ve ever seen.  I spoke the day before on Prospecting: Where to Find New Business & How to Land It, and there wasn’t anything even close to this kind of divisive issue that came up.

Again, my biggest takeaway was that people should disclose whatever pricing model they use, and if you don’t disclose a commission, then it’s a kickback.  And make no mistake, a kickback has negative connotations.  It’s money you’re getting for something you’re not supposed to.  Money you don’t want people to know about.  Images of folded manila envelopes slipped into newspapers, being passed from one passersby to another at a train station come to mind.

And if you’re not disclosing it, chances are it’s because you don’t think you can justify it to your client.  The same applies to markups.  The cure for this is to work on your value proposition, and get to a point where you can openly defend the full amount of money you need to make for a project.  That’s the holy grail, to be able to tell a client, “This event is worth X dollars for me to produce it.  I can be paid for it in a number of different ways.”  And then the client’s choice of paying you a fee, or a % of budget or whatever, is no different than a store asking if you’ll pay with cash or a credit card.

FYI, if you’d like a deeper dive into this area, take a look at the White Paper I produced.

Postscript:  After about five minutes of back and forth comments from the audience, someone blurted out “lets move on”, which snapped me out of my umpiring stupor.  So let me say here, if you’re in the audience of a class somewhere and the conversation threatens to go off-topic, you have the right to yell exactly that.  It’s your time and money.  This will be Rule # 1 of my Audience Bill of Rights (coming soon).