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?

Burying the bad news

iStock_000005618867XSmallGoogle is being required by the European Court to allow individuals to request that certain personal information about them will; not be found in a search. This does not mean that if you already know the web address where such information is to be found you cannot see it. It is just that Google cannot lead you there.

This is rather worrying and one wonders exactly whose rights are being protected here. This article states: “the BBC learned that more than half of the requests sent to Google from UK individuals involved convicted criminals.” Well, if I want to know whether my potential client has a criminal conviction, or to make a quick judgement as to whether I should see the person in the first place, I think I have the right to be forewarned.

On a non-business level, surely we should have the right to find out whether our new love is a criminal or dangerous? Fortunately I am not in the dating market, and we are very happy, thank you.

This brings us to consider how much information about ourselves we should share on the good old world wide web. I am very active on various social networking sites, particularly Twitter. I have a moderate number of friends on Facebook; not thousands, you understand. This is because I do like to have some idea who everyone is. Most of the hundreds I have met, and if not then either my friends I have met know these others, or they are quite famous bloggers who have allowed me the honour of being their friend.

Also on Facebook, I do not believe in sharing every personal detail as some do. Some things are private, although there is really nothing in my private life I am ashamed of (honest, guv).

I tweet a lot. It is mainly business-related content, though not salesy stuff. I do let slip some geeky and technology related material, but that is me. I do not usually tell anyone what is going on at home – not even what we are having for dinner.

I have several websites, all of which have some information about me, mainly business. The exception is the health issues I have blogged, and that is because I believe people, and especially men, need to be conscious that they are not invulnerable to becoming ill.

You will have gathered that if you type “Jon Stow” into Google or any other search engine, there will be a lot about me; more than about all the other Jon Stows. I have a high profile, and nearly everything you will find on the first few search engine pages will be fairly recent and probably no more than two or three years old. You will get tired after that. There is nothing I have to hide anyway, going back however far you wish.

Some people have had embarrassments in business though, or even worse. Someone I have worked with quite a few years ago is not at all active on-line. He has one business website and as far as I know is not at all active in social media. Consequently one frightful business mess which did not reflect well on him always comes up on a name search. This financial scandal, in which my ex-colleague may in reality have done nothing wrong, took place fifteen years ago. Because his name is not very common and because even that long ago newspapers and trade magazines published on-line, the stories will be on page one of any search.

I think it would be in the interest of this guy to be very active on social networking sites, at least for a year or so. The search engines like newer stuff. The old embarrassing stuff can be buried further down, and perhaps not come to light on a cursory search for this individual’s name.

I enjoy the positive benefits of my higher on-line profile, because they lift me up the scale of being noticed. It just occurs to me that negative stuff can be buried with a bit of work, while avoiding restricting our rights to know what we should about people, and without restricting our personal freedom.

What say you?

 

Not turning up

Pookie & pondMy wife and I have had problems recently with business people not turning up when they said they would. First it was the pond guy, who said he would come on the Saturday morning, but didn’t. Then it was going to be the following Saturday, and it was only on the third Saturday that he appeared.

He had been responsible for putting in the pond and when we have problems we expect support. The trouble for him is that if we get another pond person in to help, she or he will ask why we have not stayed with our first pond guy. If we are truthful, word will get out and a reputation will be damaged, even if it is what one might call self-harm.

We have had the same issue with a “tree surgeon” who failed to turn up to inspect the damage he caused on his first visit. He was obviously a “cowboy” as we can now see, and it is a pity his bad reputation did not go before him. It will certainly go after him.

Of course doing a bad job is going to affect anyone’s reputation. People who do a good job when they do turn up still damage their reputations badly if they fail to make meetings or assignments.

Going the extra mile will always help the standing of any business person. Turning up at the right time is the essential first step towards perfect service.

The End of Business Cards?

I checked my drawer the other day to see how many business cards I had left from the last print. To my surprise it was a lot more than I had thought.

This leaves me with a dilemma. In one sense, I need my cards updated. My business has evolved, and although the call to action on the reverse side is still relevant, it does not precisely chime with my favourite niche.

On the other hand, I am not handing out many cards these days. Once upon a time when I started with breakfast networking groups, we handed out loads of cards, gave other members a supply to give to their contacts, and generally hoped they would bring referrals. Now, I mostly give cards to people who actually ask me at networking meetings and elsewhere. I think that is because everyone is now aware they can find everyone else on-line, or at least they should be able to do so.

A deterrent to handing out many cards is the likelihood we will get on people’s email mailing lists. I guess we know if we go to a trade exhibition and get asked for our card that is because we will be put on the trader’s email marketing list. I do not feel guilty about unsubscribing from those, but when someone I meet while networking adds me to their email list, I feel worse about unsubscribing even though I did not give them permission to add me in the first place.

The reality is that there is much less call on my supply of business cards. I am more reluctant to hand them out and do not feel I am expected to. My contact information, my skills and my businesses’ niche services are on-line for everyone to see. Do we really need to order 1500 cards at a time as I did several years ago? In five years’ time, will I need any at all when there will be some app for each of us to pass our details and spread the word?

What do you think?

Is working in your business just a chore?

Look around!

Look around!

This morning I went out for a walk in the woods, as I often do. It has been a lovely day today. The birds were singing and the woods are lush and green. There were plenty of squirrels, babies and adults, going about their business. There were thrushes and spectacularly smart, colourful jays.

A woman came walking the other way, with her dog. She was oblivious to her surroundings. She had her earphones plugged in, listening to her music. She stared straight ahead. She did not look at her dog. She did not look at me. She did not see the wood or the trees or the wildlife, and certainly she did not hear it.

We do not have a dog now, but I was brought up in a house in which we always had dogs. The reason to have a dog is for the companionship and for the pleasure of taking it out for a walk. I know this.

Yet to this person, walking her dog was clearly boring; a chore. She took no pleasure in exercising the animal which probably thinks much more of her than she of it. What is the point of her having a dog?

I wonder about people who see running their businesses as a chore. If they are getting no pleasure from it, what is the point of allowing it to occupy their lives?

You might say that the point is that they need the money. My point is that if running the business is such a chore, they cannot be doing it right.

Are they working all hours? They need to cut down.

Could they be more efficient in delivery, thereby cutting the hours worked, cutting the cost of delivery and increasing their profits that way? They have to consider whether they are not charging enough for their product or service, or maybe it is the wrong product or service.

Perhaps they should change what they provide. Perhaps they should change everything because it is no good living a life of drudgery. It is no good seeing work as just a chore.

 

No regrets – but learn!

I guess we all have memories of matters we could have handed differently. Should I have gone to that college? Should I have tried harder with that girlfriend and might I have married her? Should I have chosen that career? Should I have taken that job?

The truth is that we will never know the answers to those questions, so there is no point in having regrets. We had an education, we may well be in a happy relationship now, we have made the best of our career and have probably been successful. What is there to regret? We must have learned lessons along the way.

Each time we chose a path, we did not know where it would lead, or where we would have ended up if we had gone the other way.

I have made many mistakes in business. I have wasted money on advertising. I was once scammed out of some money by a bogus “magazine publisher”. I did not accept offers of help when I should. I misjudged a client who never paid me all he owed, and it was quite a lot too.

We have to take our mistakes on the chin. As long as we learned a lesson each time, we have gained in experience and will know better next time.

It is no good beating ourselves up. Lessons learned are profitable and lead to more profits for our business by avoiding mistakes in future.

You don’t have any regrets, do you?