Verbal understandings are not contracts

 

coppersIn my business I think it is important to have agreements in writing with my clients so that they know exactly what I will be doing for them in conducting their affairs (and what I will not be doing). I have always said that verbal agreements are no use especially when the parties fall out or one side has a perceived issue.

Many of us look after family members or agree financial arrangements with them, and somehow it seems less comfortable to ask them to enter into a written agreement. Yet why should they be any different? They are people who may have ideas you have not fathomed.

So I confess. My wife and I entered into a financial and verbal understanding with a family member ten years ago, and when it came to the crunch last year, he reneged on the agreement. That has cost us a lot of money. That is the point: where money is involved, people may have an eye for the main chance when greed, and other motives unknown us, kick in.

If you are relying on a family member to repay you or at some stage meet certain financial obligations, have it all in writing no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. That is an insurance we all need.

As for us, we have again learned from experience. Trust no one where money is concerned, and get it in writing when you need to. Onwards and upwards!

 

Stress and the small business owner

origin_544510865 (2) head scratchStress is a major threat to the health of a small business, quite apart from being a threat to the owner suffering the stress. It affects productivity, it affects creativity, and it can affect the way we interact with our customers and our staff. It is generally bad news.

We have all had those times. I have had a very difficult few months myself, being involved in some litigation unrelated to my business. That is all over now, and although we have (very unjustly) lost our claim against the other parties, we can try to put it behind us.

How did I get through? I worked as hard as I could with my clients, but due partly to the stress itself but also the work involved in putting our case together, my creativity and the amount of my writing and blogging took a bit of a knock.

I coped by talking to sympathetic ears and both my wife and I are grateful for our friends and the support we have had. I have also used my walks and time off to relax a little, although being under pressure my normal “bright ideas” that I have when out in the fresh air have been somewhat eclipsed by the darkness of the court case.

It is all over now, and although we have lost and there are costs, at least we can move forward, and I can again enjoy the business game as I always have.

How do you cope with stress when it strikes your business and you?

Running your own business down

So often I meet earnest business people who work hard and are not making money. So often it is because they undervalue themselves and what they do. They offer a great service, and if you asked their customers they would say that the businesses really stand out in terms of service quality.

This is one of my favourite themes. You need to value yourself and your own business, and know that your extras and special care for your customers and clients warrant higher charges, and your clientele will not complain. You must not join the race to the bottom.

And if you don’t believe me, see that that Master of Marketing, Jim Connolly, thinks. Do you believe me now?

Religion, politics and small business

An amateur radio operator, Yvette Cendes, KB3H...

An amateur radio operator, Yvette Cendes, KB3HTS, at station W8EDU, Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in the Dark Ages when I studied for my amateur radio license we learned that we must not discuss politics and religion with our fellow hams. That was actually a condition of our licenses, but it is easy to understand why such talk was forbidden. We all have different views and these would lead to arguments and bad feeling.

When I was first licensed I used to talk to radio amateurs all over the place, but many were in what was then the Eastern Block. It was really nice to chat about everyday life as well as technical stuff, but it might have caused bad feeling if we had ever strayed into politics or even talked about how much better life was in the West.

I never had an argument with a fellow ham, but instead was able to build genuine relationships over the air. It was great.

Now in our on-line digital world we have social media and the noise of it all is deafening. Like most people, I share news stories on Twitter and Facebook, but I try to avoid being political. I look for interesting techie stuff, and tweet news relevant to my niche and followers. The closest I come to politics is passing on stories of communities in crisis due to war, but I do not speak in support of or against any faction or Government.

Of course I have my views, but I also have my network on-line, my colleagues and my potential clients, and those to whom I would look to refer business if they were the best fit for someone I know. The last thing I need to do is antagonise anyone with whom I might work.

I think I need to treat my business network in the same way as my radio contacts. I respect the fact they may have strong views and a right to those views. If I do not have any conversations concerning politics and religion there is hope we might work together in the future, which we will not do if we argue and end up hating each other.

Do you treat politics and religion as taboos never to be discussed on-line?

You are judged by your appearance

Now you can criticize...

Now you can criticize…

About a month ago, one of my clients asked for a special consultation. She wanted to discuss how her plans for the future and change of lifestyle would affect her tax position. I knew that she would also need some financial advice, which I am not qualified or allowed to give.

I printed off details from their websites of two very nice financial advisers whom I know well, and took them with me to my client. When she saw these and I spoke about both advisers, my client was immediately drawn to the lady who had obviously had her on-line photo taken professionally. It is a good photo, my friend looks sympathetic, which she is, and she obviously had her nose in front of the “other guy”.

The “other guy” I had thought of is as easy to talk to as is the lady, but did not have a photo. I said to my client that I wanted it to be a fair competition as to whom she chose, so I would find a photo of the male financial adviser. When I got back to the office I did manage to find a portrait, but it was self-evidently a “selfie” taken in the office, there was no smile and he looked rather stiff and self-conscious. I could find no better photos of him.

As promised, I emailed my client the photo of the guy, but really, I knew it was “no contest” as my client was bound to choose the lady with the nice smile in the smart business suit, as opposed to the stiff chap with the open-neck shirt and the braces (= suspenders in the USA).

Now I admit that my non-business Google+ photo is a selfie, but that is non-business and I am smiling. My business portraits are professionally-taken and up-to-date. Without plastic surgery I cannot improve my look any more.

It really is not difficult too appear professional, smart and business-like on your website by using a good photo. People do choose based on appearance and if you look untidy or uncomfortably posed you fall at the first hurdle in getting a new client, and you will not even know!

This is one of those posts where we think about people who live in glass houses, but I am risking it anyway.

Do you think your photo costs you business and money?

Window shopping business services on-line

Comma butterfly June 2014

Comma butterfly (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

I don’t know about you, but I get a lot of new enquiries for my services via email. That is all very nice, but many of the potential new clients are located a long way from me. That does not matter in terms of the service they will get, which I aim to be the very best. The difficulty is that it is harder to establish a relationship to make the sale.

When someone contacts me via email, they can be somewhat vague about their requirements, which will lead me to ask for more information. I may or may not hear back from them, which leads me to the next point; I do not know how many other people or businesses they have contacted. Having got responses from a lot of people, they may only go back to a few, and those might be the businesses offering what appears to be the lowest price, without having qualified what they deliver for that price. I do not know if the person is seriously looking for help. Are they butterflies flitting from flower to flower?

In my case I am wary of quoting based on scant information. If others have quoted, that is fine, but I would rather not get the business than find that I am tied to an unprofitable quotation.

So how do I deal with the email enquiries? Well, I try to grade them. The best hopes for business and being genuine enquiries are the emails that start with my name. “Dear Jon”, “Dear Mr Stow” or just “Jon” are good signs, but not conclusive.

Looking at the content of the enquiry, does it have a lot of detail? Does it refer to a particular point or article on my website? Those would be good signs.

How is it signed off? Is there a “Kind regards”? Is it signed by first or given name only such as Sophie or Chris or Mohamed? More good signs.

On the other hand, does the email look like a copy-and-paste exercise? Does it not address me by name at all? Is it signed impersonally, e.g. Dr. F S Smith? Apologies to any Doctors F S Smith, incidentally.

The various pointers help me decide which of these enquirers are more likely to be interested in doing business because they are the ones with whom I can more easily establish a relationship. If I cannot meet new prospects face-to-face, it would certainly help to speak to them on the telephone, or ideally via Skype, because that normally is face-to-face.

The reality is that many on-line enquiries are a waste of time. My grading system saves me some of that time and I hope gains me more business. Wasn’t it so much easier when we gained nearly all our business through networking meetings and off-line relationships?

How do you weed out the window-shoppers, time-wasters and “copy-and-pasters” in your on-line sales enquiries?

Getting the sack

Are you ready?

Are you ready?

Getting the sack is what launched my “career” as an independent person. Yet as an employee, if you are “terminated” it is a terrible shock, the stuff of nightmares. I had a bad dream about it last night; being called in to the boss and taking only a few seconds to realise what was going on.

I must confess that when it did happen to me, I told my then boss exactly what I thought about him and the firm that was getting rid of me. I quite surprised myself, and even looking back, what I said was uncharacteristic even bearing in mind the provocation.

Immediately after being told I had to clear my desk and go that very evening I knew something very serious had happened in my life. I did not know quite how serious because I supposed that being at the top of my game I would find another post quite quickly.

How wrong I was! I was “over-qualified”, I did not have the right sort of education decades earlier, my skills did not quite fit. What no one said was that I was too old to get a new job, which was what most employers thought when they gave a reason not to employ me or to not even to grant me an interview.

Never mind. As you know I had to get myself a new income, and I started out to earn some money. Helped by my wife, we ended up with four businesses entities between us, and four distinct “flavours” or types of business. Of course not all of them are a roaring success. One business earns much of the money, but the others in different niches help potential customers decide what they want, and even the biggest earner comes in two “flavours” through separate websites and marketing.

Getting the sack, getting fired, being terminated or whatever you want to call it is not the end of the world. You have your brain and you have your experience, and if you cannot get another job or do not want to work for someone else, you can really succeed as an independent. “Living on your wits” is perhaps over-dramatic, but if you have become unemployed it really is a starting-point for the rest of your commercial life and not “game over”.

Be positive, think what you can do best and what you want to do, and get started on your whole new life as an independent business person.

The Success Shop?

Hairdresser and restaurantOpening a new shop is a daunting experience, and if you are going to do so then you must plan very carefully. I have already mentioned that the level of overheads is an important consideration. Property taxes and especially rents are a very large cost beyond which you must raise your turnover by a very substantial amount in order to have enough profit to live on.

If you are not sure what sort of business you want, have a look at a franchise. You have to make sure that there will be enough profit for you after paying the franchisor, but the advantage is that you will have a tried and tested business model. Talk to current franchisees in the sort of business that interests you.

Decide whether there is a need for your shop in the local community.

For a new shop you need footfall. Unless you are very specialist then you should try to be on a busy street on or near the main drag. Of course that will put up the rent.

You need a marketing strategy both before you open and ongoing. Get someone experienced to send a press release about your Grand Opening. A feature in the local paper will help you hit e ground running. Have some special offers in your first week and mention these in the press release.

Have flyers with special discounts sent round to households with the local newspapers, but make sure you are still making money and leave yourself a decent profit margin.

Many shop owners say they have not time to go networking and they need to be in the shop behind the counter early in the morning. I would suggest breakfast networking. We can all get up extra-early one day a week, can’t we? Friends in the business community will refer business to you, and of course you must reciprocate or get your referrals in first to build your relationships and your income stream.

Remember to consider:

  • Tried-and-tested – a franchise?
  • Footfall and passing pedestrians.
  • Local parking.
  • Publicity
  • Pre-start-up and ongoing marketing.
  • Networking with the local business community.

We can achieve most things with a great plan. You must do your homework before rushing in, but how exciting to be making a difference in an independent business!

The Failure Shop

Photo by Jon Stow

Photo by Jon Stow

There is a new business in our urban village and I really hope they are successful. The owners have taken a shop at the end of the “main drag” and we have a new florist. It is quite a good position for passing trade. I bought a pot plant from them which was on display outside the shop, and perhaps the position will suit a florist more than the other businesses that have occupied that shop. Oh, yes, there have been quite a few.

It is important for any new business owner to do their “homework”. How much is the rent? Will the turnover sufficiently exceed the running costs to make a good enough profit for a “living wage” for the owners? How well connected are they to encourage visitors from outside the village to pick up the telephone and order from them? Have they thought about networking? Can they crack the corporate market and supply flowers to office reception areas? Any long-term contract can be very lucrative for a florist.

Being specific, the shop now occupied by the new florist has previously been occupied by two different estate agents and by a bookseller, all within the past five years. One would have thought that passing customers or “footfall” might have been quite good, but those businesses have gone.

I can see one big obstacle for our newcomers. There is already a very well established florist in the village by the entrance to the main shopping car park. That florist is very good, and my wife and I have bought from them on many occasions. Our customer loyalty tends to be towards them, naturally enough.

I do hope there is enough custom locally to support two florists well, so that “The Failure Shop” no longer has that title in my mind. The owners seem like nice people, and I wish them well. They will have to go several extra miles, but maybe they can.

Was it small business or the internet that changed my life?

Seafront bikes

Seafront bikes

It is no secret that I started my own business after the world of employment left me, and I could not get another job. There was no grand plan. I just got “on my bike” to get some money coming in.

Back then, 2002, the main way of getting business (I thought) was advertising. I have written before about the money spent on directories such as Yellow Pages and Thomson Local. They were a waste of time and that was because they really said nothing about my business apart from listing it under a category, but also because customers were actually talking to each other, exchanging information on-line, and yes, getting out of the door and networking.

I did not have much idea about social media in those days, but they were early days. I wonder how much I would have become involved if it had not been for business needs. Would I ever have “done” Twitter and Facebook? I suppose it was the other way round as Facebook was first, but I “do” Twitter a lot more.

It is not as though I ever was exactly afraid of computers. I am a techy sort of guy. I had a Sinclair ZX81, a BBC computer and an IBM AT PC running DOS. I programmed in Sinclair BASIC and in MS BASIC, not very well, but I had the enthusiasm. I frequented bulletin boards. It did not make me social.

In 2003 I had realised that face-to-face networking might be a good idea. I had a business coach who thought it was, though he had not tried it. I went to the local Ecademy group, and three days later met Thomas Power at a seminar in London. He and Ecademy taught me so much about networking, on-line and off-line that it is hard to imagine a business or personal life without it.

I have become a very social person, and social media and on-line marketing are how I get most of my business. Of course the biggest benefit is in making so many new friends; real friends who have helped me as I hope I might now and again have helped them.

I know a lot of employee techies who do not really “get” social media. They may mess around on Facebook but I wonder if they have really made new friends as I have, or whether they just interact with the old ones. Some techies view all social media with disdain and are paranoid about personal security and identity theft. They know how everything works, but they cannot see the purpose or the potential, only the low-risk threat.

For myself and my business there is a great world out there, I have made a lot of real friends I could not have found in any other way, and I am grateful. I think I am a totally different person from the one I would have been, stuck in a job in town. I feel I am happier and more at ease with myself as an independent player, and have been set free by the tools I first found through Ecademy. Being in business brought me to social and business networking. Would the second have happened without the first? I don’t know.

Has your life been changed in the same way?