Never assume

When I started my first job, every bit of work I did was checked by a more experienced guy. I remember being asked why I had calculated a client’s dividends for his tax return without having evidence they had been paid. I said that I had assumed the shares relating to these dividends had not been sold, so the client must have had them. “Never assume” my colleague said. Although I was stung by his criticism, of course he was right and I was wrong. I should have checked with the client.

Assuming can get you into trouble. There is an accountancy joke “Why did the auditors cross the road?” “Because that’s what they did last year.” That is how mistakes are made, books are not checked properly, and those who are cooking them are not held to account.

In business generally, there are dangers in being comfortable and assuming all is right with our business practices. We need to check and check again we are being efficient. Perhaps above all, we should not assume that our customers are happy. Have we asked them? Everything may look fine from our side, but perhaps their expectations are different. It is too late to find out when they leave us. We should ask for feedback and talk to our clients regularly.

I try not to assume, but am only human after all. I have learned from my mistakes. What about you?

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Banking on personal service

A friendly place lost to us

A friendly place lost to us

The local branch of my bank has closed. Gone are the friendly cashiers (tellers), the greetings (“Good Morning, Mr. Stow”), the feeling of being valued as a customer.

The other day I had to pay in some money and went to the big main branch in the larger town. There was one cashier, and otherwise the tills had been replaced with machines. One is supposed to post into a slot any cheques received, together with a slip. There is no human being with whom to interact.

I pay a fee for my business banking, but I do not now feel I am getting any sort of service for my money. I am one very unhappy customer.

My own business is based entirely on real relationships with my clients. I value them, and I hope they value me. I try to be available to them at all reasonable times, and they know that I am there to help. If they value me, they will be happy to pay me a good fee for a service which they are entitled to expect.

Small business is all about personal service and great relationships. Big business has lost sight of that and, while we cannot all open our own banks, our flexibility and friendly approach is to our great advantage in competing where we can.

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

How do I compete?

“How do I compete?”

That was a question recently put by an accountant who has another 125 accountants within a five mile radius. The easy answer might be “don’t”. Give in and do something else.

Then again, there is a lot of demand for accountancy services, but clearly plenty of supply.

The answer might be here:

  • The other accountants are not competitors but colleagues.
  • Do you have specialist areas in which you are strong and others might not be?
  • Can you sell your services to the others and outsource some of the work you are not good at or don’t like to them?
  • Can you concentrate on marketing your strong specialist areas to the public, making it clear you are different from the rest?

I am a tax guy, but I do not work in all areas of taxation. I specialise in landlord tax, capital gains on property, non-residents and a couple of other niches. Anything I do not like and am not good at, I simply do not do.

Do you stick to what you are good at? It is more enjoyable and more profitable too.

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Rude and aggressive clients?

“Most clients and people in general I come across are just rude and aggressive.”

That is a statement I saw on an accounting website, posted by an accountant. I am surprised by the comment. Is everyone rude these days? Are they just rude to this accountant? What has he done (or not done) to deserve it? Has he got the wrong clients?

In my previous piece I mentioned a rather rude ex-client. I know it takes all sorts, but if I do not have a good relationship with a client, and feel comfortable working with her or him, I ask the client to go. Of course I find a good reason. “I know another business which would suit your type of work better.” “The profile of my business has changed and we cannot any longer offer you the service you deserve.” “I would need to double your fee”.

All these can end an unsatisfactory business relationship fairly amicably. Certainly I see no reason to put up with uncomfortable communication and rudeness. Why would anyone? You don’t, do you?

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.


Shooting the messenger

I had a client “sack” me last week. He did not have the grace to tell me in person. Actually he telephoned to check my email address, which he had used many times, and when I asked after him, he said that he had someone with him and could not talk. Two minutes later I had an email telling me my services were no longer required.

Having been in business for a fair time, I have quite a thick skin as far as rude and graceless behaviour is concerned. I did not know the client was unhappy with me, and I always courage feedback by talking. In this case, the client had got himself into a financial mess tax-wise, I was the one who told him he needed to find some money fast, and I assume he blamed me for this, rather than himself.

I would not be good at business if I did not try to make sure my clients are happy, but some will not talk back.

Have you been blamed by a customer for their own failures?

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Call me old-fashioned?

Well, you can call me old-fashioned, but I do not spend all day and all night fiddling with my smartphone. I have a business to run.

OK, a phone is invaluable for keeping up with what is going on. I can access my email and message people if I want to. What I cannot do with is being interrupted constantly.

My work is technical. I need to concentrate. I can set aside times to look at my email whether I am out or in front of my computer. If I am with a client I cannot answer my mobile / cell, and even if I did, I could not answer a question from a client purely from memory. I would need to have their virtual or physical file in front of me. I might be able to look at a file in the Cloud, but not easily when I am out.

I do not really use my smartphone for business at all because of the way I work, so I do not even claim the cost of my contract as a business expense.

People who know me will say I am quite a techie. I am. I love gadgets, but I do not let them get in the way of my work and my business. How about you?

Politics, social media and small business. Yikes!

Here in the UK we have had a steamy time, and I do not mean the weather. There have been huge political debates adding heat to a very poor summer. All that is fine in news programmes, documentaries and in the newspapers which I read avidly on-line.

What I do not need is political opinions on my Facebook pages. Many of my FB friends, probably most, are people I know through business. If I had not had respect for them they would not be my friends. Yet more and more on my Home Page I see political opinions and diatribe. You might gather I do not agree with a lot of it, or in fact most of it that gets served up there. They will not get referred by me or I suspect other people too.

Of course I find certain opinions annoying as will many others. That is not why I would not refer the politicals. The reason is that I believe it disrespectful to foist one’s political views on my friends. I would not want to go to dinner with people who spent the whole time criticising my views and beliefs. Why should I put up with it on Facebook or any other social media site?

On Twitter I can choose who to follow and it makes it more selective. On Facebook I can “unfollow” someone while remaining their friend. That way I will not see their political output in my Home stream. But then why should I bother to be their friend?

Politics? Just leave me alone, please.

Self-inflicted damage

Some signs we ignore at our peril

Some signs we ignore at our peril

I have been doing business with someone introduced to me by a networking friend. I have been buying his services.

Networking sites being what they are, this week LinkedIn prompted me to connect with him and at the same time he was suggested as a friend on Facebook. The LinkedIn profile is professional if rather brief. The Facebook page (and his privacy settings are low) is really unpleasant; prejudiced and smutty and full of nasty innuendo. He may think himself clever and funny. I do not, and I would hardly class myself as a PC zealot.

I am really disappointed. I will not connect on either platform. I will now feel uncomfortable with the guy. I would not want my connections to see I was connected to him because they might judge me by what he posts on Facebook.

The guy’s services have been very satisfactory. I have no complaints. However, I still might be reluctant to refer him as I would not want to be associated with his on-line views.

If I were this guy I would delete my Facebook profile and start again. A lot of our stuff is out on the internet forever. Some material can be deleted, but it is best not to have anything out there which might damage our reputations. But we don’t, do we?

The simple things

Four of us went out for Sunday lunch. We chose an Inn which had changed ownership recently. We wanted to try it again as our last experience there had not been satisfactory.

The menu was a short one this time. There was not a great deal of choice, although enough for anyone seeking a Sunday lunch.

We all had three courses. They came in generous proportions and my “starter” was perhaps more than generous. Each dish was beautifully prepared and cooked, the service was prompt and courteous but not intrusive, and we all enjoyed our lunches very much. Definitely a ten-out-of-ten experience.

The short menu was a big advantage. From our point of view there was no confusion about what was on offer, and with such a menu, the service was likely to be good because the chef would be on top of all the different dishes. With a long menu, often the chef is over-stretched, which can result in diners having a long wait for food which may not have been cooked as well as it might.

This is a message we can take to all our businesses. We are not Amazon. We do not sell everything. I work with a few core offerings where I can deliver quality promptly and provide a really good service. I try to make sure my clients are not confused about what I offer and that they know exactly what they are getting.

Well done to the restaurant for their service and congratulations to their very friendly staff who made us very happy. They provided an example for us all.

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?