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?

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?