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Ask SCORE

SCORE: How to accelerate business growth

Essentially every business needs to grow to better serve markets and to provide opportunity for key staff. Also to replace customers who move on. That means businesses need a steady supply of new customers to prosper. How can business owners find those customers?

Extra thought on how to connect with prospects, and keep existing customers loyal, will pay dividends. Think about:

• Why is your product or service better than the competition? Do you provide more selection? Do you provide “end to end” solutions? Differentiated products and services increase loyalty—and opportunity for margins.

• Who is an ideal customer? Be as specific as possible. Age, gender, income level, work location, home location all can be relevant.

• How can you best to connect with your ideal prospect? Envision your ideal customer to identify how to connect. Prospects under 40 (or 50?) get most of their information from digital sources. Traditional mediums will have lower yield.

• What can you provide to get their attention and loyalty? Give prospects something. A coupon, a short message (like this column) establishes a connection and makes an “ask” more acceptable.

• Are all customers very happy with their experience? Take care of everyone experiencing your product or service. Your reputation is critical. Especially in today’s world, people believe friends and reviewers more than anything that you can say about yourself does.

Getting professional help will move you more quickly and effectively in creating the essential messages and in using communication channels. Not all of us are creative writers or graphic artists. Not all of us are experts in Internet based communication tools. However, professionally produced messages and delivery is easily noted.

In addition, consider a mentor from SCORE. Our local Grand Rapids chapter has about 40 experienced volunteer mentors – more than 1200 years of business leadership in a variety of industries. In addition, we work together on behalf of you and your company.

All SCORE counseling is offered as a free and confidential community service. There are 389 SCORE chapters around the country assisting entrepreneurs. While counseling is always free of charge, local chapters also offer small business workshops and seminars for modest fees.

To learn more about SCORE and its counseling services, call 616.771.0305 or email your questions to score@grandrapids.org.

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Charity Ball raises record setting funds for hospitals

 

On Saturday, February 14, the Spectrum Health Foundation United & Kelsey Hospitals held its annual Charity Ball event at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Charity Ball 2015 hosted over 300 attendees, drawing guests from the Greenville area and surrounding communities. The event featured gourmet dining, big band entertainment and the presentation of the Fred & Lena Meijer Spirit of Caring Award.

Annually, Charity Ball plays a vital role in the hospital’s strategic plan for growth. Not only does it raise financial support for services and technology, it brings together members of the community around a common purpose—accessible and excellent health care that is close to home.

This year’s event set an all-time fundraising record. Charity Ball 2015 raised over $102,000 in net proceeds, representing a 5 percent increase over last year. Proceeds are designated for establishing a Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at United Hospital. An area of the hospital is currently under renovation for this program and is expected to open in summer 2015.

“The Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program will provide individualized, monitored exercise regimens, as well as education on managing heart and lung diseases. Thanks to the support of our communities, patients will have local access to a program that is often able to dramatically improve their quality of life,” said Brian Brasser, president, United and Kelsey Hospitals.

Spectrum Health Foundation United & Kelsey Hospitals would like to thank the supporters and volunteers of Charity Ball 2015. “Philanthropy is essential to this project and it is because of the support of many individuals and businesses that Charity Ball 2015 was a record-breaking success!” exclaims Shelly Westbrook, director, Spectrum Health Foundation United & Kelsey Hospitals. “Charitable donations make a vast difference in the lives of United and Kelsey Hospital patients and families and we thank you.”

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Company claims customers owe for magazines

 

But customers say they never agreed to purchase them

In the past two months the Better Business Bureau has received 13 complaints about sales and billing practices of American Readers Source (ARS), a magazine subscription sales organization that lists its address as a mail forwarding location in Grandville. BBB is attempting to determine the actual location of the business.

Typical complaints include demands from a collections company claiming consumer debts of $1,098 to ARS for magazines the consumers say they never agreed to. ARS claims to have recorded phone conversations verifying contracts. In some cases consumers point to deceptive practices to get billing and home address information, such as posing as an insurance company. In some cases ARS responds to complaints agreeing to consumer concerns and ending collection action. In others, ARS says they have pre-paid for the magazines to the publisher, and continue to demand the money through debt collectors.

Consumers respond by stating they did not order magazines in the first place.

BBB reminds you to be very careful with phone call solicitations of any type, no matter what they are offering. The Federal Trade Commission reports that debt collection and phone fraud are ranked at the top of the list of complaints by Michigan consumers.  Any information gathered by the caller might be used in a way you did not intend. Salespeople may offer benefits that are untrue or misleading. Always check out the company you are talking with before giving them any information or agreeing to do business with them. If you find yourself getting collection notices for services you did not agree to, contact the BBB and the Federal Trade Commission.

Be sure to always research any organization you are considering doing business with by visiting www.bbb.org/western-michigan.

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Taxes, ex-spouse benefits and you

 

By: Vonda VanTil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

April 14 is both Ex-Spouse Day and the eve of tax day. These two observances are doubly important if you are an ex-spouse, because Social Security pays benefits to eligible former spouses, and you may need to claim this income on your tax forms.

If you are age 62, unmarried, and divorced from someone entitled to Social Security retirement or disability benefits, you may be eligible to receive benefits based on his or her record. To be eligible, you must have been married to your ex-spouse for 10 years or more. If you have since remarried, you can’t collect benefits on your former spouse’s record unless your later marriage ended by annulment, divorce, or death. Also, if you’re entitled to benefits on your own record, your benefit amount must be less than you would receive based on your ex-spouse’s work. In other words, we’ll pay the higher of the two benefits for which you’re eligible, but not both.

You can apply for benefits on your former spouse’s record even if he or she hasn’t retired, as long as you divorced at least two years before applying. You can also elect to receive only the divorced spouse benefits and delay benefits on your own record after your full retirement age, which may translate to a higher monthly amount for you. If, however, you decide to wait until full retirement age to apply as a divorced spouse, your benefit will be equal to half of your ex-spouse’s full retirement amount or disability benefit. The same rules apply for a deceased former spouse.

The amount of benefits you get has no effect on the benefits of your ex-spouse’s and his or her current spouse. Visit “Retirement Planner: If You Are Divorced” at www.socialsecurity.gov/retire2/divspouse.htm to find all the eligibility requirements you must meet to apply as a divorced spouse.

Vonda VanTil is the public affairs specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp St NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov  

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Avoid These Common Tax Mistakes

 

Nobody’s perfect. Mistakes happen. But if you make a mistake on your tax return, it will likely take the IRS longer to process it. That could delay your refund. The best way to avoid errors is to use IRS e-file. Paper filers are about 20 times more likely to make a mistake than e-filers. IRS e-file is the most accurate way to file your tax return.

Here are eight common tax-filing errors to avoid:

1. Wrong or missing Social Security numbers.  Be sure you enter all SSNs on your tax return exactly as they are on the Social Security cards.

2. Wrong names.  Be sure you spell the names of everyone on your tax return exactly as they are on their Social Security cards.

3. Filing status errors.  Some people use the wrong filing status, such as Head of Household instead of Single. The Interactive Tax Assistant on IRS.gov can help you choose the right status. If you e-file, the tax software helps you choose.

4. Math mistakes.  Double-check your math. For example, be careful when you add or subtract or figure items on a form or worksheet. Tax preparation software does all the math for e-filers.

5. Errors in figuring credits or deductions.  Many filers make mistakes figuring their Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Credit, and the standard deduction. If you’re not e-filing, follow the instructions carefully when figuring credits and deductions. For example, if you’re age 65 or older or blind, be sure you claim the correct, higher standard deduction.

6. Wrong bank account numbers.  You should choose to get your refund by direct deposit. Be sure to use the right routing and account numbers on your return. The fastest and safest way to get your tax refund is to combine e-file with direct deposit.

7. Forms not signed.  An unsigned tax return is like an unsigned check – it’s not valid. Both spouses must sign a joint return.

8. Electronic filing PIN errors.  When you e-file, you sign your return electronically with a Personal Identification Number. If you know last year’s e-file PIN, you can use that. If you don’t know it, enter the Adjusted Gross Income from the 2013 tax return that you originally filed with the IRS. Do not use the AGI amount from an amended return or a return that the IRS corrected.

If you found this Tax Tip helpful, please share it through your social media platforms. A great way to get tax information is to use IRS Social Media. You can also subscribe to IRS Tax Tips or any of our e-news subscriptions.

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Six tips about employee business expenses

 

If you paid for work-related expenses out of your own pocket, you may be able to deduct those costs. In most cases, you claim allowable expenses on Schedule A, Itemized Deductions. Here are six tax tips that you should know about this deduction.

1. Ordinary and Necessary.  You can only deduct unreimbursed expenses that are ordinary and necessary to your work as an employee. An ordinary expense is one that is common and accepted in your industry. A necessary expense is one that is appropriate and helpful to your business.

2. Expense Examples.  Some costs that you may be able to deduct include:

• Required work clothes or uniforms that are not appropriate for everyday use.

• Supplies and tools you use on the job.

• Business use of your car.

• Business meals and entertainment.

• Business travel away from home.

• Business use of your home.

• Work-related education.

This list is not all-inclusive. Special rules apply if your employer reimbursed you for your expenses. To learn more, check out Publication 529, Miscellaneous Deductions. You should also refer to Publication 463, Travel, Entertainment, Gift, and Car Expenses.

3. Forms to Use.  In most cases you report your expenses on Form 2106 or Form 2106-EZ. After you figure your allowable expenses, you then list the total on Schedule A as a miscellaneous deduction. You can deduct the amount that is more than two percent of your adjusted gross income.

4. Educator Expenses.  If you are a K through 12 teacher or educator, you may be able to deduct up to $250 of certain expenses you paid for in 2014. These may include books, supplies, equipment, and other materials used in the classroom. You claim this deduction as an adjustment on your tax return, rather than as an itemized deduction. This deduction had expired at the end of 2013. A recent tax law extended it for one year, through Dec. 31, 2014. For more on this topic see Publication 529.

5. Keep Records.  You must keep records to prove the expenses you deduct. For what records to keep, see Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax.

6. IRS Free File.  Most people qualify to use free, brand-name software to prepare and e-file their federal tax returns. IRS Free File is the easiest way to file. These rules can be complex, and Free File software will help you determine if you can deduct your expenses. It will do the math, fill out the forms and e-file your return – all for free. Check your other e-file options if you can’t use Free File.

Visit IRS.gov/forms to view, download or print IRS tax products anytime.

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Brewery to begin site work

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Residents who have anxiously waited for construction to begin on the new brewery and restaurant at the corner of Main and Maple Streets will soon have something to cheer about.

According to David Ringler, owner of the Cedar Springs Brewing Company, site work will begin at 94 N. Main in the next two to three weeks. “We have a very tight, efficient construction schedule so things should happen fast once we get started,” explained Ringler. “We are on schedule for a late summer opening, barring something unforeseen, and in time for Red Flannel Festival. We’re excited to get this thing going, too!”

The brewery had a ground-breaking last fall, and then had to wait for additional testing by the state DEQ regarding a fuel oil tank that had been on site.

The 8,000 square-foot brewery and full-service restaurant will seat 150 inside, and 100 outside in its outdoor biergarten.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation announced last month that it had awarded the Cedar Springs Brewing Company LLC and 95 North Main LLC a Michigan Community Revitalization Program performance-based grant of $285,614. The project is expected to generate a total capital investment of more than $1.5 million and create 15 full-time equivalent jobs.

In addition, the City of Cedar Springs Brownfield Redevelopment Authority received approval for local and school tax capture in the amount of $56,800 to alleviate brownfield conditions at the site. The City of Cedar Springs is supporting the project with a PA 198 Industrial Facilities Tax Exemption valued at $130,000 and contributing $31,178 in local funds toward the brownfield redevelopment plan.

Because of the three-month delay in construction work, the microbrewery is extending its brick program for the outdoor patio. People can purchase them online at www.csbrew.com. They also have other items in their gift shop online.

Ringler said they are moving their current office out of the old Red Flannel Festival building, and into a new one, so don’t currently have regular office hours. People can schedule a time to meet if needed at team@csbrew.com or by calling 696-BEER. You can also check them out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cedarspringsbrew.

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Amish Warehouse to close

 

The Amish Warehouse Furniture and Gifts, 141 South Main, in Cedar Springs, will be going out of business. Bob and Betty Truesdale, owners of the business for 24 years, have decided to retire and sell their shop and home at the corner of Main and Church Street.

The Truesdales began their business 24 years ago, out of their previous home on 14 Mile, east of Cedar Springs, then moved to a location in the Cedar Rock strip mall, where they did business for 8 years.  After that, they bought the property at 141 South Main and had their business and home built there.

Bob said that whoever buys the property doesn’t have to use it as a furniture store, but they could if they wanted to. “It could be anything,” he said.

Bob noted that the closing has nothing to do with the issues he’s faced on City Council. “I just decided I didn’t want to die in a furniture store,” the 81-year-old explained with a chuckle. “We plan to spend time with our great-grandchildren in Ohio, Indiana and Florida.”

The Truesdales are grateful for customers who visit their shop, and hope they will continue to visit as the stock dwindles. “We are very thankful to the clientele that we’ve had,” said Bob.

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Library name change

 

According to the Kent District Library, the branch located at 88 Eighth Street, in Sand Lake, will now be known as the Nelson Township/Sand Lake Branch of the Kent District Library, instead of the Sand Lake/Nelson Township branch.

Craig Buno, Branch Manager for the Nelson Township/Sand Lake branch, said that the name change is to create consistency. “When I first started here in June, I noticed that the sign outside says Nelson Township / Sand Lake Branch, along with several other signs throughout the building that were purchased when the building was built,” explained Buno. “In order to create consistency, KDL had to update many of its publications and notices.”

They also have new hours: Monday and Wednesday 12-8 p.m.; Tuesday and Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Friday 1 to 5 p.m.

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Ask Score

 

By Ernie Birge, SCORE Counselor

SCORE: Your Gateway to Business Success

SCORE is here to help entrepreneurs, and owners of small to medium-sized businesses be more successful.  SCORE provides free business mentoring through more than 40 experienced individuals in our Grand Rapids Chapter. These volunteers offer more than 400 years of business management experience in many different areas.

If you have a vision of a new business you want to start, contact us and let us mentor you through the process of establishing a formal plan for your business. We’ll show you how to plan your startup. We’ll help you analyze the competition you will face and learn how to show your potential customers why they should do business with you. Your SCORE mentor will help you determine the financial resources you will need to have available, as you get ready to open your doors for business.

If you have an established business and you feel “challenged” in these challenging times, contact us and let one or more SCORE mentors review your business to help you shape a plan to grow your business.  Your mentors will help you form a financial plan, look at your marketing activities, or simply listen to you and serve as a sounding board to give you a support system that helps you lead your business. SCORE advisors can assemble a mentoring team with experts from different specialty areas to help you get advice in areas such as finance, marketing, human resources and management.

You can meet with SCORE just once or on a long-term basis. If you have a simple business question or just want an explanation of how a cash flow statement works, SCORE can provide you with answers. However, you really get the best value from SCORE if you set up a series of confidential meetings to talk about a business problem or opportunity.

There are many factors that support your success in your business: a focused business plan, hard work, quality products and services—just to name a few.

Another contributing factor to small business success is good advice. I encourage every entrepreneur that I talk with to seek out advisors. Note that I say mentors, not necessarily a single mentor. Small business owners benefit from having access to numerous perspectives. The effective leader then takes these insights and distills the ideas and advice into what is right for his or her business.

Small businesses represent economic prosperity in America and here in Western Michigan. The success of small business is important to you as a business owner, to your employees and to this community.

Get free and confidential counseling with SCORE, 111 Pearl Street NW, Grand Rapids, MI 49503. Call (616) 771-0305. Visit www.scoregr.org or email score@grandrapids.org.

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