Wednesday, December 27

Free Professional Career Advice

The newsletter that Union-based career coach Don Saturia E-mails every month is one of the few mass mailing Internet pieces that I actually read — and invariably enjoy. His advice is solid, and always far enough out of the box to be thought-provoking. Early in the fall U.S. 1’s Survival Guide ran a substantial excerpt from a newsletter on how to use wedding announcements as job hunting tools.

Now, just in time for the new year, Saturia, whose website is www.careerquestcentral.com, is offering a free coaching marathon. On Wednesday, December 27, from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. he will give all callers five minutes of career counseling. There is no registration. Just call 908-686-8400, and, he asks, wait your turn patiently.

Five minutes isn’t a great deal of time, but if used wisely it can be time enough to get some advice that could make a difference. Saturia says that it’s a good idea to plan ahead for the call, and to ask just one question. “Limit your career-related single question to one topic,” he suggests.

Here are some topics on which he is prepared to give succinct, personal advice:

Career assessment and identifying “Best Fit” careers.

Job search strategies/networking/Internet.

Changing careers/fields.

Resumes and cover letters.

Interviewing techniques.

Salary negotiations.

Comparing job offers.

Performance coaching.

Handling a layoff.

Life/work balance.

Self employment.

Age/gender/race/disability issues.

Re-entering the workforce.

Starting a new job.

After choosing a topic, prepare a question that you can ask in 30 to 60 seconds. Then take a deep breath, and prepare to listen — really listen — to the answer. “Listen to the answer very carefully, without interruptions,” says Saturia. This phase of the call will take two to three minutes.

It is rare that the answer to any question, no matter how sharply targeted it is, will completely clear up an issue. But often, whether at home, at work, or on a speed-coaching call, just one follow-up question will really bring the advice home. So, after listening to Saturia’s answer, ask for clarification, if necessary. This should take about 30 seconds. Then go into careful listening mode again to hear his reply.

This is Saturia’s blueprint for a productive five-minute telephone coaching session.

Examples of good questions, he says, include “I am well qualified and get interviews but no job offers. How do I correct this situation?” and “I have spent a lot of time on the Internet for job hunting, but have nothing to show. What am I doing wrong?”

Maybe nothing, maybe you just need to have patience — like the patience you practice while waiting for your five-minute slot over-the-phone coaching slot. But maybe there are Internet strategies that you haven’t thought of, but that Saturia knows, and is happy to divulge. Give him a ring during his free coaching marathon, and find out.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring

Tuesday, January 2

Borough Merchants: Working Together

It’s a great time of the year to be a Princeton merchant, says Kathy Morolda, president of the Borough Merchants for Princeton. The annual tree-lighting ceremony attracted record numbers of people, and the holiday season is off to a great start.

The borough merchants hold a board meeting on Tuesday, January 2, at 8:30 a.m. at the Nassau Inn. The public is welcome to attend. In addition, the group holds a general membership meeting every other month. The next general meeting is scheduled for February.

The Borough Merchants are a group of over 40 businesses and other organizations. The group is not just for retail merchants, Morolda says. The organization is open to any Princeton Borough business, whether retail, service, or restaurants — independently owned or a chain or franchise. The all-volunteer organization’s mission “is to provide services and opportunities for Princeton Borough business owners and their employees,” says Morolda, owner of Cranbury Station Gallery at Palmer Square.

This is Morolda’s 23rd year in business, and her 12th in Princeton. She owns a second art gallery, with the same name, in Monroe Township. While she “has always taken art lessons,” in college she pursued a degree in business. “My father was in advertising. He told me that every time they needed to hire an artist the line was wrapped around the block. I needed to have some way to support myself.”

Morolda’s galleries feature not only her own work but that of other artists. Her current exhibit is “From Paris to Princeton.” It features her work and the work of artist Sidney Neuwirth. Her galleries also handle custom framing orders. “The framing is my bread and butter,” she says.

Princeton is part of a “resurgence of downtown areas throughout New Jersey,” says Morolda. She is enthusiastic about the recent sale of the old Woolworth Building on Nassau Street to Princeton University. In the fall of 2007 Labyrinth Books, a small independent scholarly book company, will open in the Foot Locker location at 116 Nassau Street. The Princeton University Store will open a satellite apparel and insignia store in the space currently occupied by Micawber Books and the Children’s Place, at 112-114 Nassau Street.

While Micawber Books has been a fixture in Princeton for 25 years, and will be missed, Morolda says that the addition of the two new stores will continue the tradition. “Princeton University has been a member of the Borough Merchants for years,” she says. “Now they’ll join us physically, as well.” She hopes that the university-affiliated store “will give Princeton students a reason to cross Nassau Street” and to visit other merchants at the same time.

The university is one factor that has helped Princeton’s downtown to thrive, but there are others:

Create a great experience. The biggest competition for Princeton merchants is not the local malls, but the Internet. “People don’t have a lot of time and shopping on the Internet is easy,” says Morolda. There is no way around that, but she says bricks-and-mortar shops can still compete if they enhance the shopping experience. Services such as gift wrapping and delivery add to customer loyalty and make shopping more convenient.

Greeting customers by name and getting to know what they like can also offer on-the-ground stores an advantage.

Up to wow factor. Making sure the town looks inviting, particularly in the post-Thanksgiving shopping season, is another way to make shopping a fun experience. The “Old Fashioned Holiday” program includes decorations in many of the stores, a strolling Santa Claus, horse and carriage rides, a window decorating contest for the merchants, and strolling musicians.

A tree-lighting ceremony and other special activities, such as the Festival of Trees at Morven Museum and Garden, bring more people into town.

“There were record crowds at the tree lighting on the Friday after Thanksgiving,” says Morolda. “The weather was phenomenal, the people stayed late, the restaurants were packed.” Many of the merchants also planned special activities to draw the people into the stores that day.

“A lot of my regular customers come in that day, but they have their families with them — the baby carriages, the in-laws. They’ll give me a wink to tell me they’ll be back to purchase something a family member has pointed out.”

At other times of the year, the downtown merchants benefit from a growing calendar of special events, including Bastille Day celebrations, a jazz festival, and a fashion show. This activity draws regulars as well as first-time visitors, and helps to build a customer base.

Cooperate with other organizations. Not only the merchants, but the borough officials, the university, the Princeton Public Library and the various arts organizations in Princeton have a long history of cooperation that has helped Princeton to thrive, says Morolda.

“The borough has held seminars for us on credit card fraud and shoplifting, the organizations cooperate with us on events.” Palmer Square, “a shopping center within the downtown area,” also cooperates with the other downtown merchants, rather than viewing them as competition.

Have a mix of businesses. Great restaurants attract lots of people, says Morolda, and after dinner a good number of them will stroll into nearby stores. “The restaurants in Princeton are thriving,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve ever had so many restaurants here.”

A diversity of businesses creates cross-pollination. Visitors who make a special trip to shop for art and antiques might browse in clothing stores. Shoppers drawn to one-of-a-kind stores might drop into the familiar chain stores, the coffee houses, or the bookstores.

“A healthy and vital downtown needs a variety of businesses,” says Morolda. It also thrives on a mix of the old and the new. The addition of the new bookstore and the university’s insignia merchandise store will undoubtedly bring an influx of people eager to check out the newcomers. It is a good bet that most will pop into a least a few other stores during those visits. The downtown keeps changing, but the change is fueled by the certainty that so many of the best features of the Princeton downtown remain the same.

— Karen Hodges Miller

Don’t Let Holidays Shut You Down

It has almost become conventional wisdom: You can’t do business during the holidays. “Bah humbug,” say three Princeton area business people. No matter what the season, if you are creative, plan ahead, and forget the fact that “you just can’t do business during the holidays,” the next few weeks can still be successful and enjoyable — at work as well as at home.

Lose the Guilt. “The first thing I learned — but haven’t yet mastered — is to lose the guilt,” says Amanda Puppo, founder and president of MarketReach. Puppo has a job most businesspeople don’t want to do at any time of the year — telemarketing. Her Hightstown-based company specializes in “relieving business owners of the grunt work of cold calling.”

“There’s so much pressure to be everything to everybody. I’ve learned if you have to leave work, just do it. Go home. Do what you’ve got to do.”

Puppo began MarketReach five years ago after only a few years in the business world. “I’d lived all my life in New York. I had graduated from the State University of New York at Albany and I was headed for law school, then I decided I just wasn’t ready.” She took a corporate position in New Jersey and quickly discovered several things: She didn’t want to go to law school. She didn’t like corporate America, and she had a specific, and most unusual, talent. She could easily “build rapport with people over the telephone.”

She took this skill and started her company by making calls at her kitchen table. She now has seven employees she has trained in her method of cold calling.

Build relationships. December may not be the greatest month for closing sales, but it is a wonderful time to work on building your relationships with clients and prospects, says Dan Porcher of Team Nimbus. The Hopewell company “helps business owners and sales professionals get off the treadmill,” by coaching them in better business methods — how to do business more productively and to enjoy it while they are working, he says.

Porcher, a self-described “recovering shy person,” says he has learned that taking the time to get to know your clients is one of the best ways to do business. December is an excellent time to “do fun things with your clients and prospects. Improve your relationships for future business.”

Sending a thank you note or holiday card should be “basic business practice. “It is so matter of fact people almost don’t pay attention to it,” he says. Be creative instead, he urges. Plan a fun event to bring clients and prospects together. If you have a favorite charity, involve your clients in it in some way. One group of Team Nimbus clients got together last year to donate time at a gift-wrapping table in one of the malls. The event was a great way for everyone to get to know each other better and to build deeper relationships.

Porcher didn’t plan on a career as a business coach. He received a bachelor’s degree in social science from Bennington College in Vermont, then followed in his father’s footsteps and became a newspaper reporter. But it didn’t work out for him. “I was much too shy to enjoy it,” he says. He moved into information technology instead. After 20 years behind a computer, “it was time to try something different,” he says. His wife, Megan Oltman, had recently opened a Team Nimbus franchise, and after spending several months helping her with her business, and he decided to join her.

Make good lists. “There’s a big correlation between stress and procrastination,” says Puppo. Her suggestion is to prepare early and “make good lists.” Think about who you need to shop for — family, friends and employees, and try to get a little shopping done in between seeing clients.

Educate and motivate. December is traditionally a slow season in the real estate market. Brenda Probasco, a real estate agent with Re/Max Premiere Properties in Pennington, takes advantage of the fact that things are “less crazy” by attending the New Jersey Association of Realtors Conference in Atlantic City this month.

“There are great educational sessions and motivational speakers and you can just talk with other real estate agents and share tips and techniques,” she says. “It’s great for both education and motivation.” If your industry doesn’t offer a convention or traditional continuing education courses in December, Probasco suggests finding an online course that you can work on at times that are most convenient to your schedule.

Losing the lookers. While at first glance it may seem that there is less business in December, Probasco says it can actually be a very productive month. “You lose the lookers, the people who think they may want to buy if they can just find that perfect house. But the people who really need to buy are still out there.”

Probasco appreciates when a client “is up front with me and tells me they just don’t want to look this month. It frees my time for personal things and for the clients who are really serious. I appreciate their being real with me about what they want.”

While many people won’t list a house during the holidays, or even take their house off the market during the month of December, Probasco suggests that her sellers continue to list throughout the month. Probasco has held her real estate license since 2002, and had her first million dollar sales year this year. She received her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and began her career working for American Cyanamid. Then she got an associate’s degree in computer science and worked in software sales. But after three layoffs in three years, she decided “not to keep doing the same old thing and expecting different results.” She had rehabbed and sold homes for several years, and had always had an interest in real estate, so she jumped careers and found her niche in real estate.

Get ready for January. All three businesspeople agree that December is the time to get ready for the new year. “If you want to start January on a roll, you need to plan now,” says Porcher. “Planning is just as important part of any business as closing a sale or actual work for a client.”

“Don’t hold off on marketing,” says Puppo. Set up appointments now for January. If you hear, “call me after the holidays,” try to get the prospect to set that January appointment now. “Ask them to set something up tentatively. Tentative is a good word. They don’t feel there is as much commitment,” she says. “I like to say, ‘My calendar gets booked quickly. Can we set a tentative appointment now? Do you have your calendar in front of you?” Asking a prospect to take out a calendar makes it more likely that he will agree to an appointment, she says.

Remember to give service. “Regardless of what you are selling or when you are selling it, don’t forget personal service,” says Probasco. Yes, everyone is busy. Everyone is rushed. But this is no time to forget the basics that will set the stage for a successful 2007. Says Probasco: “Always listen to people, to what they need.”

— Karen Hodges Miller

Year End Tax Tips

Whether you are winterizing your home, buying a new car, or preparing for the holidays, the Internal Revenue Service offers tax tips for you to consider. Some tax breaks and a review of your current tax situation may result in a bigger refund or less taxes to be paid come tax time.

Telephone excise tax refund. The Internal Revenue Service announces the standard amounts that most long-distance customers can use to figure their telephone tax refund. These amounts, which range from $30 to $60, will enable millions of individual taxpayers to request the telephone tax refund without having to dig through old phone bills.

To get the standard amount, eligible taxpayers only need to fill out one additional line on their regular 2006 return. The IRS is creating a special short form (Form 1040EZ-T) for those who don’t need to file a regular return.

The standard amounts are based on the total number of exemptions claimed on the 2006 federal income tax return. The standard amounts are $30 for a person filing a return with one exemption, $40 for two exemptions, $50 for three exemptions, and $60 for four or more exemptions. Those who paid the long-distance tax on service billed after February 28, 2003, and before August 1, 2006, are eligible for a refund.

Homeowners energy tax credits. During 2006 individuals can make energy-conscious purchases that will provide tax benefits when filling out their tax returns next year. The new law provides tax credits for making your principal residence, which must be in the United States, more energy efficient and for buying certain energy efficient items.

“Consumers who purchase and install specific products, such as energy-efficient windows, insulation, doors, roofs, and heating and cooling equipment in the home can receive a tax credit of up to $500,” said IRS spokesperson Gregg Semanick in a prepared statement.

For more information go to the IRS website, www.irs.gov , or the U.S. Department of Energy website, www.energy.gov , and use the term “Energy Policy Act Tax Credits” in the keyword search feature.

Hybrid vehicles generate tax credits. The tax credit for hybrid vehicles may be as much as $3,400 for those who purchase the most fuel-efficient passenger automobiles and light trucks. The tax credit for hybrid vehicles applies to vehicles purchased on or after January 1, 2006.

Consumers seeking the credit may want to buy early since the full credit is only available for a limited time. Taxpayers may claim the full amount of the allowable credit up to the end of the first calendar quarter after the quarter in which the manufacturer records its sale of the 60,000th vehicle. For the second and third calendar quarters after the quarter in which the 60,000th vehicle is sold, taxpayers may claim 50 percent of the credit. For the fourth and fifth calendar quarters, taxpayers may claim 25 percent of the credit. No credit is allowed after the fifth quarter.

For more information and a complete listing of all qualified hybrid vehicles as they become available, visit IRS.gov.

Recordkeeping. With the current tax year winding down, the Internal Revenue Service is encouraging taxpayers to take the time now to gather and organize their tax records to reduce stress at tax time.

In most cases the IRS does not require you to keep records in any special manner. Generally speaking, however, you should keep any and all documents that may have an impact on your federal tax return. Such items would include bills, receipts, invoices, mileage logs, canceled checks, or any other proof of payment, and any other records to support deductions or credits you claim on your tax return.

Generally, tax records should be kept for three years, but some documents, for example, records relating to a home purchase or sale, stock transactions, IRAs and business or rental property, should be kept longer. For more information on what types of records to keep, see IRS Publication 552, Recordkeeping for Individuals.

Choosing a tax preparer. It’s not too early to start thinking about the tax season and whether you plan to prepare your own tax return or use the services of a tax professional. If you decide the latter, then the Internal Revenue Services offers some advice for choosing a tax preparer.

Now is a good time to start planning ahead and doing your homework in selecting a tax preparer. During the tax season about 65 percent of New Jersey filers will use a paid tax professional to prepare their tax returns. Before doing so, ask about service fees. Avoid preparers who claim they can obtain larger refunds than other preparers, or those who guarantee results or base fees on a percentage of the amount of the refund.

Make sure that the preparer you choose is established and will be around after the return is filed. One of the best ways to ensure that this will be the case is to get references from people who have used the tax preparer you are considering. Were they satisfied with the service received?

Another way to evaluate a tax preparer is to check him out with the Better Business Bureau, the state’s board of accountancy for CPAs, or the state’s bar association for attorneys. Find out if the preparer belongs to a professional organization that requires its members to pursue continuing education and also holds them accountable to a code of ethics.

Determine if the preparer’s credentials meet your needs. Is he an enrolled agent, Certified Public Accountant, tax attorney, or public accountant? Only attorneys, CPAs, enrolled agents, and public accountants can represent taxpayers before the IRS in all matters including audits, collection actions and appeals. Other return preparers may represent taxpayers only in audits regarding a return they signed as a preparer.

Assistance. For more information or to access IRS forms and publications, visit the IRS Web site at www.irs.gov . Forms and publications can also be ordered by calling toll-free 800-TAX-FORM. Telephone assistance is available at 1-800-TAX-1040.

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