Feeling Unproductive and Employees Keep Calling in Sick (Podcast) | Ep. #029

Michael Kelly and Elizabeth Larkin

As small business owners, we all go through phases of being disenchanted with the day-to-day work of running our businesses. Join hosts Elizabeth Larkin and Gene Marks as they discuss how to get yourself out of a rut and how to keep your employees form calling in sick repeatedly.

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Show Notes


Elizabeth: Welcome back to another edition of the Small Biz Ahead podcast. We’re happy to have you back this week. Gene, I have a question about an article that you wrote about recently … Actually, I think you tweeted about it. If you want to follow Gene on Twitter, it’s @genemarks, and if you want to follow us on Twitter, it’s @smallbizahead. It’s about how Amazon is changing their return policy for Amazon Marketplace.

Gene: Yeah, and a lot of Amazon merchants are not thrilled about that. What it used to be with … If you’re in Amazon merchant, when you would sell something and somebody wanted to return it and get a refund, you were actually given some time to evaluate whether or not that refund … Remember you’re an independent merchant, you’re just selling through Amazon. I forget how many days you are allowed to determine whether or not the refund or the return was reasonable and then make that refund. Amazon’s policy, if you buy directly from Amazon and you want to return it, they just take it back no questions asked. Obviously, the merchants themselves, they were given the ability to ask questions and potentially not give …

Anyway, Amazon changed their policy and said, “Listen, if you’re going to be an Amazon merchant, you’re going to abide by our return policy which means that if somebody wants to return something, no questions asked, you just take it back.”

Elizabeth: Great for the consumer.

Gene: Great for consumer, and this is what Amazon does, but if you’re a small business, and Amazon has, as we know, many, many, many merchants that sell through their site. A lot of them are a little bit up in arms about that because it exposes them.

Elizabeth: It really does deter me from buying from Amazon if it’s something that I’m not sure about. I will buy something I’m not sure about from, let’s say, Nordstrom or Target because they just take everything back, and –

Gene: Well, it’s not just that. It’s also there’s not really a trend in that when you’re in retail. Zappos, they’re the great example. Zappos was insane enough to sell women shoes online, like who would want to do that, and deal with all of you crazy women buying these crazy shoes? No guys understand that. We have a pair of sneakers and Docksiders. The key to that policy is that any returns were return whatever you want.

When you think about in retail nowadays, which it’s really changed a lot since I was a kid. Years ago, God, to return something to a retailer or a department store was a big deal. Now, you never have any issues. You bring it back and they accept the returns unless it’s damaged or something. That’s what the world is now.

Elizabeth: I brought back a pair of boots last week to Nordstrom. They were in the box. I brought it back, I had the receipt and they did not even open the box.

Gene: They just took it right back as a return.

Elizabeth: They just took it right back …

Gene: Doesn’t surprise me.

Elizabeth: They didn’t look at it and especially with shoes or boots, usually you just have to … They’ll look at the heel and say, “You wore these outside. We’re not taking them back,” but I guess not even –

Gene: You think to yourself like jeez, that’s unbelievable. They did that. What it is that I’ve learned in business is everybody has a reserve. There’s always a reserve. There’s a reserve for bad debts. There’s a reserve for bad inventory. There’s always a reserve for returns and you build that into your cost structure and there for your pricing structure of your business and you learn over time, if you’re keeping good data, okay, if I sell X amount there’s always going to be a two percent return rate. What you do is, again, as long as you make sure you build that into your pricing, you just accept it back and say fine, return it and move it on because a lot of companies, particularly retailers realizing that, not only does it upset customers when you’re arguing back and forth over something …

Elizabeth: Yeah it’s ugly.

Gene: Horrible, but it’s costly because it’s taking up everybody’s time, so less costly just to take the thing back, shipping and …

Elizabeth: I’m more likely to shop at those stores. I mean, if i go shopping for clothes with my boyfriend and something sort of fits him he’s like ‘it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, let’s just check out, I don’t want to try this on, it’s fine’ but I’ll buy a bunch of items from like Nordstrom, have them shipped to my house, try them on with exactly the shoes I want to wear it with, and if something isn’t completely perfect, I return it.

Gene: Yep, that’s right.

Elizabeth: But I wouldn’t do that if … Amazon, if I knew I might not be able to return this.

Gene: Right. I empathize with both parties. I get it. If you’re a small merchant and you’re like jeez, you’re making me having to give automatic returns now and refund the money, but then Amazon is doing what the people want and that’s where retail is nowadays. This is the kinds of policy. If you’re an Amazon … their lesson is this: if you want to sell online at Amazon, it could be a very profitable and great opportunity to do that, but remember that if people want to return something, you’re going to have to return it immediately. That’s the new policy. Track your data, figure out every year what percentage of your sales is going to be returned, just by normal whatever, and build that into your pricing so that you don’t have to worry about it.

Elizabeth: All right. Good advice.

We’ll be right back with our first question and it’s about a small business owner whose feeling super unproductive.

I feel like you’re going to go off on this person.

Gene: No no no.

QUESTION #1: Feeling Unproductive

Elizabeth: Okay, we’re back with question number 1. This is from Colette in Cape Coral, Florida.

Gene: Cape Coral, like what possible issues could Colette be having in a beautiful place like that?

Go ahead.

Elizabeth: She’s feeling super unproductive. She writes, lately I’ve been feeling super unproductive. I just can’t seem to concentrate. Is there a way to re-motivate myself to recommit to my business?

I actually do a lot of reading about productivity and one of the things that I did recently when I was feeling the same way, and I love my job, but I was just feeling like kind of stuck. When I went on vacation, I went to Costa Rica, I didn’t bring my cellphone with me. I did what you would call a digital detox and it worked. I came back 7 days later and I felt completely re-motivated.

Gene: I love that.

Elizabeth: It was so great. I think sometimes the way to motivate yourself is to actually take a break, like step away. I’ll also do that throughout the day. I try to take at least a 10 minute walk at lunch, I know I should probably do more than that, because I eat lunch at my desk everyday, and I try to take a break in the afternoon. I’ll go chat with a co-worker or something and whenever I come back I feel so much more focused. It’s just easier for me. I think you need to work in that break time.

It sounds like Colette might be feeling some ex-essential dread, maybe, about her business.

Gene: Yeah.

Elizabeth: So Gene, I’ll let you tackle that.

Gene: No, I actually, I hear what you were saying before this segment about I’m going to go on a rant about this, but I get it. Every one of us feels, we get in the dump sometimes and sometimes we become unproductive and we feel like we’re not getting anything done. All of us.

Elizabeth: Usually a phase I found.

Gene: It is a phase.

We all go through it and every individual has to figure out which way they best deal with it, and I get that. The detoxing type of thing, going on vacation, changing your pattern, changing your states … Tony Robbins talks a lot about that and he’s absolutely right. These are all really good tools that you can use to kind of get you out of it.

As long as you have a plan for getting back into it. My biggest issue is if I take too much time off, I find it 10 times as hard to get back to work again.

Elizabeth: That first day, that re-entry, I call it, is real rough.

Gene: Re-entry. That’s a good word. It’s really tough to do that. Even on a weekend I really try to chill out for a Saturday or Sunday, I still do a little mild work over the weekend, like respond to a few emails, and I always have a list of plan for when you’re hitting the ground running on Monday so I can get ready to do my thing. If you’re feeling unproductive, if you feel like your kind of spinning wheels, it is absolutely great to get away from the business and take some time off and do that. Another thing to consider is, sometimes grinding it out and pushing your way through that period of un-productivity, will make you productive again.

If you do set at least a few things … A lot of times a lot of us do work, we feel like we’re not getting anything done in the day. I will make a list for myself in my most un-productive days and I will say ‘this afternoon I’m at least going to get these 3 things done, I’ve got to make sure I get this finished, I got to make sure I get these 2 emails out the door and I got to make sure I talk to Cory about some issue we’re having’, I have to get those 3 things done. I’m like ugh, it’s almost like your trudging through cement to do it, but if you push forward and push ahead, you can at least look back and say ‘all right, I got that done. I’m moving forward, I’m feeling a little bit better’, that will also have an impact too.

Elizabeth: Two more things that I do, and I think Gene, we’ve talked about … I think you do this too. Sometimes when I’m feeling like this I will go to a coffee shop and work there, so I’m just changing my environment and the other thing is sometimes if I’m just like … I can’t. I edit articles and I work with writers and I cannot deal with giving one more writer an edit today, I’ll pick the most boring part of my job and just put my headphones on and do that. Once I feel like I’m actually getting something done there, it’s easier to get back into the stuff I really need to do. Basically, you can use procrastination, like I really don’t feel like doing that so I’m going to do this thing, to actually get something done.

Gene: You want to choose low hanging fruit and try …

Elizabeth: Low hanging fruit, that’s what it is.

Gene: And get some quick wins, something that you’re like, okay I got that done … and you’re right I think that’s a really good idea.

Sometimes you’re right. I will have certain things that I know, like I’ve got to clean up this spreadsheet and it’s like mundane stupid stuff I shouldn’t even be doing as a business owner, but it’s just something that I do and I’m like, I’ve been putting it off and putting off, I’m going to get that done today. You look back and you’re like okay, I’m moving forward a little bit, even in my most un-productive moments I can still be productive. That helps psychologically.

Elizabeth: Going back to the kind of ex-essential dread. She’s saying she’s having … she has to re-motivate herself to recommit to her business.

Gene: Right.

Elizabeth: That to me says it’s less of a day to day drudgery and more of an overall drudgery.

Gene: Businesses get boring. We can’t all be professional baseball players or movie starts, you go through the excitement and the interest of starting up a coffee shop and then at some point it’s like pretty much on auto pilot. You’re doing what you can do to run it and it’s running itself and you’re making coffee every day and cleaning up after customers, it’s the same thing day in and day out. Businesses are not sexy or exciting, they are drudge. If you are at that stage where you’re running a business and it’s not doing it … but if it’s making you money, you have to balance it and say to yourself, listen, life is short. I don’t want to sit there and something drastic, maybe you promote somebody or bring somebody in that can run that business for you and you do something else business wise that will make you open up a second coffee shop, if that’s what turns you on.

Whatever it is that kind of gets your revved up. It’s just a sign, if you’re not looking forward to coming to work every day, that’s a sign you’re definitely in auto pilot.

Elizabeth: Definitely. Okay. We’ll be back with our second question about an employee who keeps calling in sick and what to do about it, after this.

QUESTION #2: Employees Keep Calling in Sick

Elizabeth: Okay, we’re back with our second question about an employee who keeps calling in sick. This is written by Anthony C. In Caspar, Wyoming.

Anthony writes one of my employees keeps calling in sick once every couple of weeks. I know he’s not sick, but he does have the days. Can I say something to him or is it his right to use his days as he sees fit?

My answer to this is you should do what all large companies are doing at this point; you combine vacation days with sick days.

Gene: And you call it paid time off.

Elizabeth: Paid time off, PTO.

Gene: Yep.

Elizabeth: The issue with this, if you let this continue, is that you’re allowing him to lie to you and he knows he’s lying to you, and he knows you know. That’s just not a good relationship. Just say you can have, whatever your PTO policy is, like 10 business days, he can decide am I going to take this as a vacation day or a sick day. You should say to people, if you need to take a vacation day I need to know that 2 weeks in advance. What do you do with your people?

Gene: Whatever your policy is … I like to know a few weeks in advance is somebody is going to take some time off. You nailed it. The trend is paid time off. This whole thing between vacation and sick days, those kind of policies, those are going away and companies, both big and small, are just putting together paid time off policies. By the time this podcast gets published, you might have a national paid time off policy. That’s where the trend is going. If you give your employees 10 paid time off days a year, who cares whether their sick, whether their not …

Elizabeth: It’s not your business.

Gene: It’s not your business, you don’t care if they’re taking … yeah you will care if that person exceeds the number of days obviously, then it becomes unpaid days time off of course.

Some companies are developing a maximum of unpaid days time off before it becomes potential termination. You have an employee there that’s … even when an employee is getting an unpaid day time off, Elizabeth, say you exceeded your days off like you were saying … listen I need to take an unpaid day time off for whatever, just don’t pay me for the day. Well you are being paid, because even though you might not get your salary for the day, what about your health benefits? What about your accrued vacation or your retirement or … Even unpaid days off, it’s still costing an employer and employees need to know that. You limit those and then that could be subject to potential termination if there are too many.

Getting back to it, change your policy. Have a paid time off policy, combine both sick days and vacation days. You don’t care that this guy is taking time off, you don’t care why. You only care if he exceeds the paid time off policy, then it becomes an issue.

Elizabeth: We do have an article, very very popular on Small Biz Ahead, which I’m going to link to, it has that tip combining sick and vacation time and also how to keep people from calling out randomly when you know their not sick.

Gene: Yeah.

Elizabeth: So I’m going to link to that. The other thing I want to say is, one of the downsides to PTO is that a lot of people come to work sick because they don’t want to use their PTO for sick days, they want to use them for planned vacation days. That is my … aside from having an open floor plan, one of my number one new economy issues that pops up in offices. I hate open floor plans and I can’t stand when people come in sick to the office.

Gene: That’s a really good point.

Elizabeth: Stay home.

Gene: That’s a really really good point. That does have to be addressed. I’ll tell you another big trend that we can write about as well, there are a number of companies, mostly larger companies, that are giving unlimited paid time off, like Linkedin, for example.

Elizabeth: People don’t use it. They only use 2 weeks.

Gene: People don’t use it. That’s exactly right. The data is just it’s early days, but a lot of companies are finding that, their employees are taking less time off than when they had paid time off policies because when you have a use or lose policy, well you use it because you don’t want to lose it. Now their saying if you leave it up to the employee they’ll …

Elizabeth: Take less time.

Gene: That’s another conversation for another day but that will be a fascinating talk to have.

Elizabeth: We should talk about that. We actually have an article on SPA on that too and how that affects businesses.

Okay, we’ll be right back with Gene’s Word of Brilliance.


Elizabeth: And we’re back and we’re waiting for Gene’s Word of Brilliance.

Gene: So my word today Elizabeth, is Checks. Not Chex Mix, but checks. Actual paper checks.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: There was a recent report that came out, you can Google it or we can include a link to it by … it’s called the payments.com SMB Technology Adoption Index.

Elizabeth: Oh God.

Gene: Where they surveyed thousands of business owners around the country and guess what? 97% of them still use checks in their business, paper checks. What makes me laugh about the results of that survey is, I know that. I see it all the time. When you talk to me on the phone … San Francisco or New York, oh my gosh aren’t we doing everything online and everything is just wire transfers or online payments or whatever? The answer is no. There are still 97% of small businesses are still using checks. The number of checks are going down over time and that is where the trend is going, meaning that even though people are cutting checks they are doing it less often and doing more online payments, that’s where the trend it.

The bottom line is this, if you’re still using checks in your business, you’re not alone. Most small businesses are still using checks. Just be aware that the trend is moving more towards online payment services, banks using your accounting systems to pay your bills, that’s what the trend is doing. Will I ever see a world where less than 50% of small businesses are not using checks? I don’t know if that will ever happen because I think there’s still a role for checks in this world. They’ll be around for awhile but keep a brush to the change, we’re moving towards a world where things are moving more towards online payments and your business should be doing the same.

Elizabeth: Where do you see a place for checks?

Gene: Perfect example, I have clients that are a distributor, they’re a typical client of mine located in an industrial park outside of Philadelphia and they do check runs every other week.

Elizabeth: Really?

Gene: Yeah… it’s funny you’re like really? That’s amazing. They really do. They actually cut, they print out the checks, they sign the checks and they send it out. These are companies that are being run by guys and men and women that are that generation that always the checks, they keep control of it, they don’t want to spend the time or they don’t want to pay their banks the extra fees that a bank would charge to do any type of online bill payments services, so they prefer to do it themselves. It’s what their use to doing, that’s how they do it. That’s what they are.

Again, things are changing and as younger people are starting to run businesses, more of them are relying more on their banks to make online payments. It’s a trend that’s moving, but it’s moving pretty slow.

Elizabeth: I wonder how that jives with the actual public continuing to use checks.

Gene: You think about yourself personally. You don’t write checks, right? Because we don’t. We pay all of our bills online.

Elizabeth: Yeah. No, I don’t write checks. If I go to a charity event or something, I might bring a check.

Gene: We still have checkbooks.

Elizabeth: Yeah.

Gene: I think that’s what the surveys showing is that many businesses, like us, we still write the occasional check. Most businesses are doing it more than occasionally. The trend is towards online payments but checks have not disappeared from this world. They’re still out there and they’re still being used.

Elizabeth: All right. Well, that’s going to wrap it up for another week of the Small Biz Ahead podcast. Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you next week.

Gene: Talk to you soon.

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