Banking on your small business customer service

I had a letter from a bank telling me that I would no longer be able to withdraw money from a savings account at an ATM. No reason was given of course. It is just a withdrawal of service.

My wife had a letter from her bank saying that they were making changes to her savings account. What they meant when she read the detail was that they were reducing the already paltry interest rate she had been getting.

Often, large businesses will say that in order to improve their service they are making changes which actually amount to a withdrawal of service. My business bank is closing its branch in our village. They claim that our service will not be affected, but actually although there is an arrangement with the Post Office for personal banking, business cheques (checks if you prefer) cannot be paid in there.

Many of my clients are older and do not use internet banking. They prefer to write cheques even though I would rather they did not. I will have to drive to the next town to pay in business cheques, and the bank will charge me for each one as they do now.

I suppose this is an ingrained habit of banks to withdraw a service while pretending they are helping everyone. Back in the Eighties, when I was very young, my bank decided not to send back my cancelled cheques, or anyone else’s of course. We did not have the detail of payments we can now get on-line. This was very annoying, but saved them some postage I suppose.

This sort of thing, which amounts to a withdrawal of service by stealth, is what became known as Hutber’s Law. Patrick Hutber was the City Editor of the Sunday Telegraph way back. Hutber’s Law states “improvement means deterioration” and it certainly prevails as big business withdraws more services from small businesses and individuals. What Mr Hutber would have made of the current utilities, banks and railway companies and all their call centres, Heaven only knows. Heaven probably does know because Mr Hutber died young, crashing his sports car. I missed him when he went.

At least as small businesses we can make sure that we maintain our standards and improve them. I like to visit my clients regularly and know what concerns them and how I can help. I am certainly not going to visit less or be in touch less. We have a big advantage over many of our larger competitors and we can make it count.

Stow’s Law is “Improvement should mean exactly what it says”. What do you think?

Twitter? How do you find the time?

I was asked the above question over lunch at a meeting of tax practitioners. I was a bit surprised, but on reflection the guy asking is an employee. He is engaged to work on particular clients and tasks which are assigned to him. He does not understand what it is like to run a business. He keeps working at the coal face.

For those of us who work for ourselves, we not only work at the coal face and engage others to do so, but we have to sell the coal. Otherwise there is not much point in digging it out. We need customers.

I do not claim to be the greatest user of Twitter for business purposes. It is an important part of my marketing – not advertising because we do not use Twitter for that, do we? Interacting with my Twitter contacts means I can give business to others in order to receive. I can point people towards useful information. They might remember that information later, and remember me.

Marketing is one of the issues we manage in running a business, so we have to make time and also bill our customers enough to give them good value and make a profit.

Put like that, I think we all should be finding time to make a profit. Twitter is part of that, but try explaining that to an employee.

Don’t be afraid to ask

When I started out on my own in business, I thought I knew a lot and in fact I knew very little.

Why did I think I knew a lot? Well, for a good few years I had worked with small businesses as clients, and my employers had called themselves “accountants and business advisers”. So, yes, I understood the mechanics of being in business. I had advised clients about their tax issues, how much they owed in tax and how much they could save.

So what was the problem? Well, I had never tried to visualise myself in their shoes. I did not understand the day-to-day challenges of sales and cash flow. I did not appreciate the responsibilities to employees and workers engaged. I did not realise that everything a business owner does has an impact on family, both financially and time-wise, far more than for an employee.

It is difficult at the beginning of our business. We need a new mind-set. We need to understand about being found by customers, making sales, managing our finances without a guaranteed monthly or weekly income, and in organising our time.

We need to ask our friends in business when we don’t know something. We need to call in help from the outset.

Running a business is hard at the outset. It will be worth it and it will be very rewarding to succeed through our own efforts, knowledge and dedication. But don’t be afraid to ask.

Great sausages, but plan your business in advance

A long time ago when I was in my early twenties, my Mum thought she would like to run a pub, a free house which is one not tied to a brewery. This was following lunch at a very good one when I was driving her to the West Country. I remember the sausages were great and I liked her idea.

The more we thought about it, the more we realised that the commitment and the long hours, the organisation and the large amount of money made the dream unattainable. At least it was for us, with no previous experience in catering.

On the main road through our village someone opened a restaurant. This would be around three or four years ago. I think that since then, the business has changed hands twice, or the tenants have changed.

I have not tried the restaurant although I have not heard bad things about the food. However, it has never seemed very busy. They do not seem to get enough customers.

Why would this be? Well, there is no parking outside except for a lay-by for four cars to serve four businesses. It is on a very busy road and the noise must be a deterrent. Sitting at the two tables outside would not be a pleasant experience, and I have never seen anyone trying it.

This is no place to have a restaurant . Surely there is no hope of having a viable catering business on this site other than for fast food, and even that would be restricted by the parking issue?

Any business needs to sell the right product in the right place. It does not take a genius to know where is the wrong place, and we should all ask our business friends before committing a lot of money to start a new venture.

I feel sorry for business owners who fail, but do look before you leap.

Marketing, networking and evolution

A dozen or so years ago when I set up my own businesses, they were local. I joined various networking groups and met a lot of people. I belonged to on-line business networking sites and went to off-line meetings facilitated by those sites and their owners. In those days, I gained business from doing this, in return for doing my bit in referral networking. I recommended those businesses and their owners whom I felt could help my clients and contacts. That was the way it worked, and possibly still works for some.

Recent local networking has really not brought me any business. Of course I have had referrals from happy local clients, but I cannot remember the last local network referral I have had, and that is despite having referred many of my contacts to other people.

It does not matter in the sense that I get business from all over the world through marketing on-line, and advertising still works for me locally. I just wonder if local breakfast and lunch groups have had their day except maybe for start-ups. What do you think?

Born free, but life isn’t free

I get a lot of business through websites; both my own and others where I have a presence. The enquiries I receive as a consultant on somewhat technical matters fall into three categories:

  • Genuine requests for help from people who have evaluated my expertise or need confirmation that I can help them.
  • Requests from some who want answers, but do not appreciate what value those answers will have.
  • Requests for free information or queries that are designed to try to obtain free information in any proposal from me.

It is not always easy to tell the difference between the three, but I usually have some idea. I respond sometimes to ask more questions before quoting a fee, but if the requirements set out are pretty comprehensive then I quote straight away. I avoid giving free information for my own safety, but also for that of the foolish person who might act on it without having given me all relevant facts.

By the second email I will have proposed a fee based on the value of the information required, provided it is worth my while. Usually for those who understand that value in the context of their own circumstances, I will get a swift acceptance. These will prove to have been the genuine requests.

For the other two categories of requests, once having proposed a fee I will hear no more. Very occasionally, if a telephone number has been provided I will make a quick call to make sure that my “prospect” has understood what I have said. Mostly though and without a phone number, I know it is a waste of time following up.

Experience tells me when I am wasting my time. I may get business from around one-in-six to one-in-eight of the incoming emails seeking information. I am quick in dealing with them because it is not worth wasting time, and certainly not on follow-ups. One-in-six to one-in-eight is plenty enough too.

Not every business is the same. If I were selling goods I might follow up more.

Are you a consultant? Do you follow up when your enquirer goes quiet? How much?

Building towards delivery

Kodak EasyShare 30 Jan 14 002We have been having some building work done. Having no experience as a builder’s customer, I thought somewhat naively that once they started on the project they would keep going steadily until they had finished. Not so!

What happens is that one day some guys turn up and do some work. They may be present for one day or a couple of days and then they disappear and we hear nothing for a few days. It is so unsettling. Now we  ask each afternoon if the guys are coming the next day, just so we know. Otherwise they may just vanish for a period without telling us.

Imagine if most of us carried on like that. Suppose our clients did not hear from us for long periods and they did not know whether or not we were working on their project from one week to another. Soon we would have no customers at all. The word-of-mouth which brings us clients would soon lose us many prospects. We would be out of business.

Thank goodness most of us do not run our businesses like these builders. However, if I had needed a reminder about prompt delivery and keeping my clients in the loop, this was certainly it. Good grief!

Have a break!

Some young people I know starting out at work are expected to work long hours with only brief breaks. It is true that in our youth we can concentrate for longer. That is important with a skilled job whether in a factory or the dealing room. However most of us can use a break, and that is important because we work better when we go back to our tasks.

I have been lucky in that respect. I have never worked in an environment where I could not take a break. In my first job, we were allowed out for fifteen minutes to get a coffee at a café opposite our work. The break was written into our contracts. We had a proper lunch break and an afternoon tea break. We did work long hours, but nobody was looking over our shoulders and begrudging us our breaks.

These days I am my own boss, and I work from home. I could work all the hours in the day, but I would not get more done, nor would I be more efficient. I take quite a few breaks, and find myself refreshed when I get back in the office. I am more energetic, and get a lot done in shorter bursts.

I am flexible in my working hours and no evenings. If I feel the need to unwind I go out for a walk. I enjoy the exercise and relaxing my mind when I am out makes me more creative when I get back. I do my best thinking when I am not really trying.

Are you able to get out during the day? Here are some photos from my favourite thinking walks.

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The late show

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It could happen to any of us

I do believe in being on time for meetings. It gives a bad impression to be late. With new prospects and even with clients, they can be left feeling very unimpressed by a late show.

Sometimes we are late due to circumstances beyond our control. We are stuck on the road with a serious hold-up. There has been an accident. We might be let down by public transport. Our train has broken down. In those case we need to let the person we are meeting know in good time what has gone wrong and why we will not be there when we said we would.

Someone who does work for us at home was very late the other day. In fact we had almost given up on her, were noting her other inadequacies and talking about sacking her. Eventually she turned up just in time to save herself from getting the bullet, at least for now. However she failed to call to advise she was running late, even though her mobile (cell) is rarely neglected during her time with us; one of the little grouses we have about her. That is the point. Being late will be aggregated with other transgressions, real or imagined.

A late show can cut off future business. Be there, or at least apologise in advance if you can’t.

Do you like your clients?

I think we all want our clients to like us, and that means earning their trust from the outset. However, what if we do not like or trust our clients?

The other day I went to see a new prospect. I arrived at her flat and rang the bell. She opened the door but was on the telephone, to her father as it turned out. She interrupted her conversation briefly to ask me to take off my shoes or cover them with plastic slip-ons (no religious purpose here you understand) and then waved me up the steep flight of stairs to the hall. She then left me standing there while she went into another room to finish her telephone call several minutes later.

When she eventually reappeared, the first thing she said was “you look as though something is the matter” in a challenging way. If I was caught with the wrong expression it was not due to her rudeness, but because I was thinking about my Mum, who was in hospital.

When I was finally invited into the living room, the first thing this “prospect” asked me was my price. I said it depended on what she needed advice on, but when pressed I quoted a likely amount for a written note she could use as a reference or map. She pulled a face and then asked for a quote for the face-to-face consultation while I was there. That is an easier answer to give, so I quoted a figure. She said “It would be cheaper if I got the advice walking off the street in the City. I thought locally it would be a lot less”.

To my mind, good advice has a value whether it is given in the Big City or in the boondocks. The value is in the savings for the client. It is not like buying a sandwich produced at higher cost in town or at lower cost in the sticks, and to be fair, ingredients have to be paid for wherever.

Of course this person was being fanciful if she really thought her City advice would have been cheaper, but that is immaterial. The meeting was clearly over within ten minutes, at least as far as I was concerned. As News of the World reporters used to say, I made my excuses and left.

I could not work with this person because

  • She did not value me or my work
  • She was downright rude from the outset of our meeting
  • I really did not like her

This woman cost me an hour of my valuable time in travel, though, but with every bad experience we learn a little more.

I have to be comfortable to work with a client, and to be confident of a good relationship and mutual respect.

Do you like all your customers?