Small-Business Answer Book

Cash Flow and Company Image

Q: My business has some financial leaks. How do I improve my cash-flow management?

A: Top-line sales growth can conceal a lot of problems-sometimes too well. When you are managing a growing company, you have to watch expenses carefully. Don't be lulled into complacency by expanding sales. Any time and place you see expenses growing faster than sales, examine costs closely to find places to cut or control them. The key to managing cash shortfalls is to become fully aware of the problem as early as possible. Here are some tips for using cash wisely.

Take full advantage of creditor payment terms. If a payment is due in 30 days, don't pay it in 15.

Use electronic funds transfer to make payments on the due date. You will remain current with suppliers while retaining use of your funds as long as possible.

Communicate with suppliers so they know your financial situation. If you ever need to delay a payment, you'll need their trust and understanding.

Carefully consider vendors' offers of discounts for earlier payments. These can amount to expensive loans to your suppliers, or they may provide you with a chance to reduce overall costs. The devil is in the details.

Don't always focus on the lowest price when choosing suppliers. Sometimes flexible payment terms can improve your cash flow more than a bargain-basement price.

Prepare cash-flow projections for next year, next quarter and, if you're on shaky ground, next week. An accurate cash-flow projection can alert you to trouble well before it strikes.

Q:My business could use a new look. How do I build a great company image?

A: Establishing a new image starts with a few major moves that need to be replicated throughout your company. They range from the really monumental, such as changing your company's name, to the less significant, such as adopting a new corporate slogan or motto.

If you're in business, your company name is probably one of your most valuable assets. An effective name establishes a strong identity and describes the type of business you're conducting. Name changes can reflect a change in the focus of your company or a change in the market. But you shouldn't change your name on a whim. A name change can cause, at least temporarily, confusion among customers, vendors and suppliers.

To build an image for your business, your company name should become a visual symbol. A logo is a symbol that expresses the company's image and identity. A trademark, on the other hand, is a symbol that's used to stamp the company's identity on its products.

A trademark is a corporate symbol that contributes to the image the company is trying to build. Like a logo, a trademark can be a combination of color, type style and shape, or it can just be shape and color, like the McDonald's golden arches.

There is also a legal side to the term trademark. In the legal sense, a trademark is a form of protection of your corporate symbols from use by unauthorized parties and is filed through the United States Patent and Trademark Office, part of the Department of Commerce.

Using corporate slogans to spur growth is common among America's giant companies. When carefully crafted, they can effectively convey a company's key characteristics to a variety of audiences, from investors and customers to suppliers and job applicants.

The bottom line: Your company's image should be simple and straightforward. Making these basic decisions about your new image and then implementing them carefully in everything you do will go a long way toward establishing a new image for a growing company.

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This article was originally published in the October 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Small-Business Answer Book.

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