Minding your Ps and Qs

English: Compositors working in the case depar...

English: Compositors working in the case department of Svenska Dagbladet in 1904. Svenska: Arbetare på Svenska Dagbladets sätteri 1904. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are various theories as to the origin of the expression but old-fashioned print compositors claim it for their own. A lower-case p the wrong way round is a q.

Print compositors had to pay attention to detail, and so do we in running our small businesses. I was looking at my routine expenses the other day while doing my quarterly VAT (sales tax) return. I noticed that there were a few small monthly charges for services I never use, almost never use, or which are completely unnecessary if I am paying two providers for the same thing.

Like many people, I like a good idea and am willing to sign up for something useful, perhaps on the spur of the moment. However, I might sometimes forget that I am actually duplicating or purchasing two services which are fairly alike. Do I need two on-line directories? How much blogging coaching do I need to pay for when half of it I do not have time to do, or it is essentially what I am already paying for elsewhere.

I am stopping a lot of payments of mainly very small amounts but they all add up to quite a saving.

Are you paying for stuff you do not need or do not use? Have a look. You may get a surprise, plus more money to play with.

Mutual trust between client and provider

amateur radio transceiver Collins KWM-2A

amateur radio transceiver Collins KWM-2A (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a young chap I got my amateur (ham) radio license. I passed the exam and took and passed my Morse test at the Post Office Headquarters in London. I was very active while I was still living with my parents and had few responsibilities.

When those responsibilities kicked in and I was busy working in Town I did not have time for my hobby, so I stored away all my gear. Recently, I though I would make a come-back in radio. Of course the technology has moved on and I will embrace it. However, there is a particular old radio transceiver (“rig” as we hams call them) I really wanted working. It was not, and as I lacked all the equipment and probably the expertise to fix it, I arranged to send the radio to a professional service workshop.

After a couple of weeks, which seemed longer, the guy at the workshop telephoned to say the radio was fixed, and I should send a cheque (or check), which is what I did. After another week with no sign of my transceiver I telephoned him and was told that as my cheque had been cleared , which means processed by the bank, my radio was being sent back to me. It duly arrived and is working, but it has also been rather a long wait.

I think the workshop sent all the wrong signs. Firstly, to await the clearance of the cheque seems to show a lack of trust. Maybe once bitten but, with mixed metaphors, we are not all tarred with the same brush.

Secondly, part of any service is a reasonable turnaround, and this long wait to check payment added to the delay.

All this could have been avoided either by accepting payment by instant direct bank payments, or indeed why not use Paypal? Then there would be no suggestion of lack of trust since we are all used to paying this way, and there would be a quicker delivery of service.

The radio workshop’s old-fashioned ways must make the customers uncomfortable. I felt rather insulted. That is unnecessary as their work is good. Even if they do not trust the customers, they do not need to make it obvious if they accept modern methods of payment. What do you think?

 

Solving the problem. Or not?

The Plumber

The Plumber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We who provide services are paid to solve problems. aren’t we? If a client comes to me worried about an issue she has, it would not help for me to just say “Oh dear, you are in a mess”. She wants to hear how I am going to fix it, relieve her stress and generally help her feel better. Of course that is what I do, if possible. If I cannot fix it, I will just be honest, and if I am able, help mitigate the pain.

Recently we had an issue at home with our heating. It was a minor problem which could be fixed, although we already had another problem of a more serious nature which had been diagnosed by a plumber who had now gone abroad to work.

We had to choose a new plumber, who came to fix the more minor issue, which was done satisfactorily. We paid his bill.

We told him about our other problem. He seemed to think that the diagnosis we had been given was not correct. We wanted the problem fixed, so we agreed he could try. He sent two of his colleagues who fiddled around for a couple of hours before agreeing with the original opinion. They could not sort out the problem without the major work we had already been told was necessary.

We were then presented with a bill for not fixing the heating. Understandably, I think, we said that we had told the plumber what the problem was, and his men had spent two hours not sorting it out before agreeing with the original opinion. Would you have paid for that? I think not?

We all have to deliver a solution, or be honest if we cannot. We certainly cannot charge for our failures.

Don’t be shy. Be positive.

I met a very go-ahead sort of guy recently, who needed my immediate help. In the longer term I felt that one of my business friend’s offerings would be a better fit. I told my client of my recommendation, spoke to my friend, and introduced them by email, giving them each the other’s contact details.

My business friend then sent my client an email listing his businesses generic services. “We can offer… etc.”

Goodness me! I give my friend a new client “on a plate” and instead of taking the initiative, telephoning and introducing himself, and proposing a meeting, he gives a rather dusty impression, writes a boring email and sounds like everyone else.

I telephoned my friend and asked “Have you spoken yet?” The reply? “No, but I will later in the week”. That is probably too late

I made the introduction because I know my friend is good and well up to looking after this client. However, the only way to make an impression is by introducing oneself confidently and quickly after getting the referral, and by explaining to the hot but rapidly cooling prospect how much better she or he will be by engaging us and allowing us to take the stress.

First impressions really do count. We must not make a mess of them.

With a little help from my friends

Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joe Cocker died recently, and although he was a prolific recording artist, he is best remembered for his cover of the Lennon-McCartney song “With A Little Help From My Friends”, which they wrote for Ringo Starr. Joe tailored the song to his style and made a very memorable song one so good that most of us will always remember his interpretation. He was friends with the Beatles and they did help each other more than we knew back then.

In a business context, most of us have not been fortunate enough to discover a product or service that is unique, and it is a question of putting our own personal touches into our offerings to make them special to our clients. We can do that by developing ideas from others in our business. In my line, I do not look on others with the same type of offering as competitors. They are colleagues with their own take and approach.

That said, we cannot work in isolation, and I rely on others for some of the services I offer to clients. I am very good on many technical issues, but not on a few, so I turn to paid-for technical support and to my sub-contractors, who also do the sort of work I do not take pleasure from doing, but they do. We all have our strong points and our weaker ones, but if we know and use the support we need, our clients will get the very best from us, which they are entitled to expect.

Our paid supporters are also very important when we need to take time off for holidays, and also, as I have needed recently, some personal time when someone close to us is very unwell. I am so very grateful that I have a social circle too including a lovely neighbour who was incredibly supportive quite literally in my hour of need.

So what am I saying? Small businesses need to have support in place to fill in the gaps in what they are good at, and also to be there in a crisis, whether internal or external. As business owners, we also need to have good business and social circles to help us out personally when the unexpected happens. Until it does, we must help others in crisis.

We all need a little help from our friends and it is a great comfort to know that we can get it.

The leaky tap – are your customers happy?

We all try to do the best for our customers, but do we know if they are happy? There might be something which they see as having gone wrong with our service, and we do not even know about it. We cannot put it right if we don’t know.

As someone who has many landlords as clients, I take an interest in the property rental market. Sooner or later, if a house or flat is being let, something will go wrong. Maybe the stair carpet is coming loose, maybe there is a damp patch, and perhaps there is a dripping tap which might not just be annoying but do damage.

Most tenants would tell the landlord or the letting agent, and the problem would be fixed. Strangely, some tenants never complain. They just give their notice and leave, and it is only then that the landlord finds out they were unhappy. Really, no one likes to lose a tenant and have a break in the rent.

It is the same with those of us who sell goods or services. Even if we believe we have done our best, there will be customers who have not been happy, but did not tell us. They just did not come back for more of our offering.

How do we avoid this problem? Well, we can’t altogether, because some people will not tell us even when we ask what they think about us. However, we must make sure that we always do ask, and with the right feedback, we can make amends and get even better at what we do.

Always ask all your customers and clients if they are happy or if there is anything you can do better. You can never keep them all for ever, but you can retain more for longer. Perhaps some of your “natural wastage” can be avoided.

 

Small business and swimming out of your depth

 

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arrivi...

The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A week or so back I was watching an antiques and collectible show on the TV. It was one of those where people bring along some item in the hope that one of the dealers on the show will buy it for cash. These programmes are quite interesting and one can learn a lot about antiques sitting in one’s armchair.

On this particular episode a woman brought in what purported to be all four of the Beatles’ signatures. These were on a torn-out diary page which had a couple of entries for November 1968. When asked where she got these signatures, the seller said her aunt had worked at the Liverpool Empire when the Beatles were just starting out.

The dealer and the show presenter said that the fact they were on a diary page and that the aunt had worked at the theatre gave the signatures provenance, yet to me they gave them quite the opposite and the alarm-bells started ringing.

Firstly, the Beatles were not just starting out in 1968. They made it big in 1963 and started out several years before then. Secondly, even without checking, I thought they had not performed live in 1968 anywhere, and certainly not in the UK. Having checked since, I think the last UK performance, apart from on the roof of Abbey Road Studios in 1969, was actually in 1966. As far as it is possible for me to check, the last performance at the Liverpool Empire was in December 1965; definitely not in 1968.

By 1968 the Beatles were not getting on as well. It would have been difficult to get their signatures all at once, and definitely not at the Liverpool Empire.

These are all simple clues to someone who even had some idea of their Sixties pop history.

Logically these signatures were fakes, yet the dealer bought them for a fair sum and sold them on via auction. Dare I suggest the woman who brought them in knew perfectly well they were not genuine?

I am not an expert on the Beatles. I am just quite old. I would not have touched the autographs with a bargepole and if anyone is liable to be sued for misrepresentation it might be the auction house, though I hope they were sold “as seen”.

The dealer on the show admitted he did not know much about autographs. In my view it would have been safer to pass up the opportunity to purchase them, although I think he was lucky to get away with buying and then selling them on.

In my line of business, I cannot take chances. If I do not think I have sufficient knowledge to advise a client, I will be honest. I will suggest someone who is much better in that particular area.

None of us can afford to get out of our depth. If we make mistakes, we could cost our clients a lot of money, and even if we are well insured, we can end up losing out as well as having much heartache and worry.

I would rather work in an area where I am comfortable and have good knowledge. I do not want projects in unfamiliar territory to come back and bite me. Would you?

 

The value resold

A few months ago I advised a client on some potential tax issues he was concerned about. It took a while to research; well mainly to check as I had good knowledge of the issues. It is always important to check one’s memory against the latest legislation and case law as things can change.

What my client was looking for was not a tax scheme – I don’t do those – but the answers to a series of questions. It was a “what if?” sort of project.

When I was asked to quote in the first place, as always I thought about the value to the client. How valuable could it be to him in terms of money-saving in choosing the right path? How valuable was it in terms of peace-of-mind knowing what course of action he should take, and what to avoid doing?

I quoted a fee which he accepted. It was worth doing from my point of view because I could make a decent profit taking into account my overheads and time, but the determination of price was nevertheless the value to the client.

More recently I have been asked by another new client virtually the same set of questions and “what-ifs?”. Really, subject to a few minor tweaks, I can give pretty much the same advice. However, it will take much less time and other costs will be minimal.

Should I charge less? Of course not! I believe the value to the new client is much the same as to the previous client. I can bill him the same, and he will be happy paying for the money-saving and peace-of-mind. I know that because he has accepted my quotation.

Those of us who provide advice, knowledge, or if you like, our intellectual property, have studied hard for a long time, and have constantly to keep up-to-date with the latest happenings in order to give the correct current advice.

We have earned our value and deserve our reward. Why should we sell ourselves short and think in terms of labour costs? Never undervalue your own expertise when selling to clients.

Ignoring the signs

Some signs people ignore

Some signs people ignore

It is great when our businesses are running smoothly. It is easy to take our eye off the ball, and not think about the future.

It might be that there is plenty of income coming in, but are we relying too much on too few customers? We do not know how fickle those customers might be, no matter how hard we work on their accounts.

Are our suppliers creeping their prices up faster than they deserve, and can we sustain those higher costs? Should we be shopping around?

Is our admin work becoming too much of a burden? Should we get assistance before it gets in the way of our production and our marketing time?

Some signs we ignore at our peril

Some signs we ignore at our peril

Is our marketing working, or are there signs we should make a change? Should we make a change anyway before it gets too stale?

When our business is failing we may not notice the signs, or we may ignore them. If we look around us we may realise when we are in trouble and take action, and ask for help.

There is no shame in asking for help.

Seth Godin and the Time Machine

British author H. G. Wells' 1895 novel The Tim...

British author H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel The Time Machine is an early example of time travel in modern fiction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seth Godin said recently that we need the drive to want more and to be better. Our businesses and indeed our lives would be no fun if we knew we had achieved all we could, and that there was nothing more.

The will to win, the excitement of the game, and the reward of getting things done are what give me satisfaction, and I guess you feel the same.

What if we thought that we had achieved all we could? It would be so depressing having to have to sit on our hands, having no new ideas. That would be the decline and fall of our businesses, and if everyone caught the mood, the end of the world as we know it.

Have you read The Time Machine, published by H G Wells way back in 1895? In his story, in the far distant future everyone felt that they and technology had got as far as was possible, and there was no more incentive to be creative. Civilisation was apparently in terminal decline.

The moral is that fulfilment is in our work, or if you prefer, the game. It is not about achieving some ultimate goal, but in our journey getting there.