Ask Inc.

I have 13 wonderful employees that I do not want to lose -- but my revenue is down and my short-term outlook is not encouraging. I already have cut everywhere I can, including reducing my own pay to less than half of what some of my employees make. Now, I must make some choices that I have never had to make -- and I'm losing sleep over it.

Mike White
Multi-Media Solutions
Alcoa, Tenn.

That you feel badly at the prospect of dismissing people you respect means you're human. That you've pared your own salary to avoid laying them off means you're an unusually nice human -- and unfortunately, unusually nice humans are naturally prone to guilt. But look at it this way: If cutting a close-knit work force makes you feel bad, dragging your company deeper into debt will make you feel even worse. After all, nobody wins if your business goes under. It's time to have a serious heart-to-heart talk with your employees. Tell them how dire the situation is, including worst-case scenarios.

Should such a scenario come to pass, act quickly, advises Tom French, CEO of Global Wireless Data in Norcross, Ga. In November 2001, French dismissed six of his 22 employees. "We started to recognize the need for layoffs five or six months out, but we didn't go through with it," he says. That was a big mistake, one that prevented the company from making the changes it needed to make in order to survive. Fortunately, Global Wireless has since stemmed its losses and now boasts a higher profit on lower revenues. "The layoffs were the best thing we could have done," French says.

Easy for him to say. The fact is that under these circumstances, there's no way to achieve a happy outcome for everyone. What you can achieve is a happy outcome for some -- and, with any luck, some untroubled slumber for yourself.

I need to find an honest e-mail broker to help market my two websites. I recently paid a lot of money for 100,000 names, but only got about 2,000 hits.

A. Wilson Smith
Wilson Designers
Palm Desert, Calif.

We'll pause a moment while you chalk that one up to experience. Okay, now on to the question of how to find a broker whose lists have more cred than the voter rolls in Chicago. "The beautiful thing about e-mail is that it's easy to test," says John Heineman, managing partner at the LeadGen Group, a San Francisco marketing consultancy. Most e-mail brokers sell lists of 500 or 1,000 names -- put a few through their paces and see which produces the best return. A good list can generate a response rate of as much as 12%. You'll boost your odds by avoiding brokers with squirrely practices, such as not offering opt-in capabilities, not letting you track e-mails sent and opened, or updating their lists infrequently.