E-Cigarettes – Risks, Regulations, & How They Work

ecigaretteElectronic cigarettes – colloquially known as “e-cigarettes,” and initially introduced into the United States in 2007 – target smokers who are increasingly forbidden to indulge their habit in public places. Sales reached $500 million in 2012 and are expected to double to $1 billion in 2013, and double again in 2014.

Despite the growth year-to-year, total sales for e-cigarettes are just a fraction of the total tobacco product sales in the U.S., projected to reach more than $106 billion in 2015 with a total global market of almost $890 billion.

What Is an Electronic Cigarette?

An e-cigarette is a nicotine delivery device designed to resemble and mimic the visual appearance of an actual lit tobacco cigarette. The nicotine is delivered to the user in the form of a vapor, rather than in the smoke of combusted tobacco. As a consequence, an e-cigarette eliminates the harmful chemicals associated with cancer and heart disease. The same mechanism is used in nicotine replacement therapy inhalers.

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The National Debt Ceiling Deja Vu

debt ceiling aheadThe circus is coming back to town, seemingly an annual occurrence following the 2010 Congressional elections. Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives with the most House seats since 1938 (242 Republicans, 193 Democrats), while Democrats retained control of the Senate with 53 seats. And even though Democratic President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, Congress remains divided between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

It’s not just a divided Congress that contributes to the annual political circus. The 2010 elections also introduced an ultra-conservative movement into the Republican Party – a unique coalition of politicians combining anti-tax, reduced government spending, libertarian, social conservative, and anti-immigration groups centered in rural areas and the Deep South. Aided by years of gerrymandering by both political parties to create safe seats, 87 freshman House Republicans came to Washington committed to the tea party movement, reflecting the group’s influence on Congressional elections and party primaries, pushing the Republicans to the right and further embracing a “no compromise” stance.

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5 Financial Tips for Recent College Graduates

This article first appeared on the Beyond.com website on July 30, 2013.

girl with cashCollege graduation is one of the more memorable moments of a person’s life. Parents beam with pride, thrilled with the knowledge they can at last begin to save for retirement. Many graduates, those who have accomplished good grades and academic honors, see their futures as best expressed by Buzz Lightyear in the movie “Toy Story”: “To infinity and beyond!” Others console themselves with the words of our 43rd president, George W. Bush, in his 2001 commencement address at the Yale University: “And to the ‘C’ students, I say you too may one day be President of the United States.”

While graduation marks the end of one period of your life, it is also the beginning of a much longer period of achievements, failures, triumphs, and disappointments. What you make of your life and the path you choose are measures of your values and integrity; in the words commonly attributed to another president, Theodore Roosevelt, “A man who has never gone to school may steal a freight car, but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.” Con man or corporate mogul, the choice is up to you, but your decision will be easier if you understand and master the role that money will play in your future.

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5 Ways to Improve Customer Service

This article initially appeared on the Channelprosmb website July 18, 2013.

Number 5Starting a successful small business is hard, but keeping it going for a number of years is even harder. In a world of instant communication and constantly improving efficiencies, even the best ideas are quickly copied, improved, and re-branded by competitors.

According to Jerry Fritz, director of management institute at the University of Wisconsin, while speaking to a group of business executives, “You’ll never have a product or price advantage again. They can be easily duplicated, but a strong customer service culture can’t be copied.”

What Is Customer Service?

Simply stated, good customer service is giving your customers what they want, when they want it. Although likeability is an important asset for any business, customer service is not just about being nice – it is understanding the needs and wants of potential customers and meeting their expectations.

Walmart, for example, provides excellent customer service because it targets those customers who are primarily interested in low prices and variety. The company understands its customers’ priorities – what is important, and what isn’t. As a consequence, Walmart stores aren’t especially attractive, the lighting is often harsh, and there is no sales help, but customers get low prices and lots of choice.

It is just as important, if not more so, for a small business to identify a specific customer demographic, understand their wants and needs, and deliver a product or services perfectly aligned with that understanding. Fortunately, technology levels the playing field so that small companies can compete on local, regional, national, and international levels with companies that are vastly larger.

Improving Customer Service in Your Business

Working hard is not enough to ensure success – you must work smart. As the often bombastic entrepreneur and “Shark Tank” venture capitalist Mark Cuban said, “The battle for our hearts, minds and money is a war being fought on new fronts every day.”

To win that battle and improve your company’s customer service, you must do the following:

1. Analyze, Analyze, Analyze

Every product and service should be designed to meet the needs of a specific theoretical customer. As results are achieved, data regarding actual customers can be collected and analyzed so that pre-conceived ideas or assumptions can be confirmed or disproved, and corrective action can be taken.

This approach – the use of customer analytics – can be used to segment customers based upon actual behaviors, track them as their needs change, and project how they are likely to behave in the future. Once the province of large companies, customer analytics software is widely available from companies like SAS, IBM, Birst, and PivotLink for small and mid-sized businesses.

2. Design Customer Service Jobs Properly

Most companies, small and large, fail to deliver consistent superior customer service because of poor system design. According to Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei, coauthor of “Uncommon Service: How to win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business,” customer service jobs should be “designed for the employees you actually have, not the employees you wish you had.” And companies frequently fail to consider the customer’s role in the service equation. Technology allows many functions to be transferred easily from employee to customer with lower costs and more satisfaction of the customer.

For example, E la Carte’s Presto tablet allows customers to self-checkout without their credit card leaving their possession. It also cuts seven minutes off the average diner’s stay, an important factor where the number of table “turns” directly affect revenue and profits.

3. Communicate Clearly, Relevantly, and Often

The ubiquity of electronic and communication devices means that every company operates 24/7, 365 days per year. Websites, email, blogs, social media, customer forums, and chat are avenues to connect directly with customers efficiently and cost-effectively. Companies like Hubspot, Marketo, and SilverPop provide effective marketing solutions and training; software like Sales Cloud from Salesforce assists in managing and coordinating large and small sales efforts; and suppliers including Novo Solutions and Kayako facilitate customer service and help desk operations.

An online community, where customers answer each others’ questions, can be effective and less expensive than a fully staffed customer help unit. Customers often respond to each other faster than customer service reps can, and the answers customers give each other may be better than answers from company staff.

4. Observe and Innovate

Gordon Moore, co-founder and chairman of Intel, is credited with the principle that computer hardware performance doubles every two years. As a consequence, any competitive advantage gained from the use of any technology is temporary.

Patrick Cox, co-editor of investment research service Technology Profits Confidential, asserts, “There has been more technological improvement in the last 50 years than in the previous 5,000.” Furthermore, customers are notoriously fickle, constantly changing their habits, preferences, and needs. An astute business owner keeps his eye on his customers, as well as new technology.

5. Outsource Where Possible

In February 2010, an article on the Channelpro Network pointed out that companies, small and large, were shifting work previously done in-house to outside providers for a variety of reasons:

  • To adapt quickly to sudden industry or marketplace changes
  • To eliminate the costs of recruiting, hiring, firing, and training personnel
  • To expand their options and flexibility in such areas as advertising and public relations
  • To expand their expertise with access to specialized knowledge

Other advantages include lower fixed costs, particularly for those capabilities that are likely to soon become obsolete, and an independent perspective regarding the market, customers, technology, and competition. Small companies with limited budgets may find that outsourcing can allow them to provide better customer to their customers at a lower cost.

Final Thoughts

Superior customer service is a competitive advantage available to every small- and medium-sized business. Businesses fail not because their services and products are no longer needed , but because a competitor has discovered a way to deliver the same service less expensively, quicker, more conveniently, and better tailored to each customer’s individual requirements.

Technology is both a great disrupter and a great equalizer. Use it to your advantage and ensure your business remains relevant and desirable to your customers.

What other ways can you suggest to improve customer service?