Archives for April 2010

Networking breakdowns

I went to someone else’s breakfast networking event the other day. It is not a weekly event like my regular one, but takes place monthly. I guess there were about thirty people there and some of them were certainly present with the intention of talking to other business people and meeting new faces.

I have to say that unfortunately the event was a bit of a shambles. The organisers had booked a speaker who didn’t turn up. This was not their fault entirely although had I invited an outside speaker I would have given him or her a call the day before to make sure they were still up for it.

Still, the event would still have been a success in my book if, given we were only there for ninety minutes, the participators had each had a minute to introduce themselves. Then we would have had an opportunity to buttonhole those who might have been of particular interest on the day. As it was, we did not even have the chance to mingle with all present because a number of people in groups of three or four had sat themselves down around tables, probably with people they knew. That did not in my book amount to networking; they were closed off in their cliques from the rest of the gathering.

The meeting would have been much better if there had been a proper structure in view of the limited time available. I made the most of it by talking to as many of the open and receptive people there as I could fit in, but if you are organizing a short event like this, do give everyone there a chance to give their elevator pitch or just explain what they are looking for in terms of connections. Certainly do not let them sit down unless around one big table where they have to introduce themselves to the whole gathering.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Have we bred a dependent society?

As part of the election coverage Sky News ran an interview with an IT manager who had been out of work for fifteen months, The angle was to ask what he was looking for amongst the policies of the various parties to encourage him to vote, given that he was apparently a floating voter.

If you have read my posts over the last year or so (and thank you if you have) you will know that I tend to be somewhat unimpressed by those who expect everything on a plate – the “what’s in it for me?” brigade.

It is not that I do not have sympathy for the unemployed. After all I was forced to try out unemployment for myself. After spending a month or so in the gym trying to deal with my angst, I realised that I had to make something happen.

I assume that an IT Manager has some IT skills and is not one of the school which believes that the art of management is telling other people what to do. Surely after fifteen months he has rustled up some activity to make a few pennies to supplement his state benefits? Even if having some earnings reduced his benefits, surely for his own self-esteem he should be doing something to keep his hand in? One thing is certain; few people after a significant period of unemployment can expect to walk back into a job just like the one they used to have. The longer the unemployed do nothing, the more difficult it is to find work.

I had to get my hands dirty doing some things I hadn’t done for years, and a couple of things I had never dreamed I would have to do to earn some money.

I do not claim any virtue. In some situations we act out of necessity. Life is hard for many now, especially on the job front and for the unskilled in terms of options. If we have skills we can adapt, even perhaps drastically, there is no excuse for waiting for the world to come to us. We have to get on our bikes and go out into the world to earn some money.

What do you think?

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How to avoid problem clients and customers

Have you ever wished that when you started your business you had known then what you know now? I certainly have, but sometimes we have to learn the hard way. However, if you are starting your business now or very shortly, and you are reading this then you have an advantage that I did not have when I started.

This week I went to see a new prospect. I knew that there might be something I would not like, but it is better so see for oneself rather than turn down what might have been a good opportunity. The prospect business-person told me over the telephone that he was afraid his accountant wasn’t claiming everything he should. In general this is unlikely, especially with a smaller business. After all, once you have prepared a proper set of accounts you know more or less what you should be claiming.

I have learned from experience that a gripe over a financial issue such as that, and especially when coupled with the next comment, “a friend told me I should be claiming for this and for that”, indicates a likely problem client. Firstly, they are no more likely to trust you than their previous adviser (and trust is important) and secondly they are going to be very fee-resistant and will not appreciate the excellent service you will deliver.

I looked at the “records”, a plastic tub of receipts, concluded that the unfortunate but adequate accountant had already been driven too low in the fees he charged, and decided not to offer to relieve him of his agony. It was an easy decision, based both on instinct and on logic. Neither of these qualities was as fine-tuned when I started out in business and when I was anxious to gain every new client I could. Now I knew I should walk away.

As it happens, I have a job which I grabbed in the very early days of my business and with twenty-twenty hindsight wish I had turned down. Far from responding to my advice on record keeping and on paying the right people at the right price for the things the client is not good at himself, he just seems to be getting worse. He is making it harder for me, and pushing up my fees which would not have happened if he had invested suitably in qualified help on the administration side. Given that he does not like spending money buying in help, he takes the same attitude with me too. Frankly we are getting to the point where it is not worth the headache for my firm to carry on.

Unless the client has a road-to-Damascus style revelation as to the error of his business ways I am afraid we will part company, and I am sorry also that I introduced a friend to help him who is getting the same resistance in terms of fees and attitude.

I now know that when we meet a prospect we have to ascertain that the person will pay a proper price for our offering, that they will accept our advice and act on it, and that they will not cause us to worry. Bad clients can endanger our business well-being and our health, and even if they pay whatever we ask for our service, sometimes it is just not worth it.

Trust your instinct with clients and with prospects. Actively think about how you feel about them, and if you are not comfortable, walk away. There are plenty of nice likeable people to have as clients, and they will trust and appreciate you more.

© Jon Stow 2010

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How I tailor my business purchases and strategies to my needs

An alternative title to this post might be “How I run an introverted business in an extroverted way” since the two are inter-linked.

My business is for the most part involved in dealing with tax issues. There is some flair required, but no artistic ability. That means that in terms of hardware, I have what I need, and invest in the literal sense in what is required. In my case that means a Windows-based network to run the specialist software I need to buy. There is no equivalent for say Mac or indeed for a Linux system, so I use Windows and on the whole it is reliable. Yes, I could use a Windows emulator but it would be an additional risk to data.

I do like gadgets. If I had the resources and I thought it made sense I would have a Mac, an iPhone, and iPad, an iPod and every new toy possible, but maybe I am a bit conservative. Though I could claim most of them for business expense purposes, in reality it would not wash with my conscience. I content myself with having loaded Ubuntu on two old machines both over eight years old which are not worth a bean now but are much happier with the lighter requirements of Linux. They can still function well though they would not manage with their old Windows systems in the modern world.

My point is that I do not invest more money than I think I need to to take the business forward. I try not to invest too little either.

However, I do think it well worth targeting on-line presence with some investment, both financially and in terms of time. My websites and indeed my blogs will be undergoing a makeover very soon which is where the financial investment is coming in. I need to be noticed as we all do.

So I am active in social media,and of course it is fun interacting with people who were already friends, who have become friends on-line, and in looking for more amongst those whom I am following and who are following me. I invest a few hours a week, and it is after all no chore talking to friends as well as commenting on their blogs and mentioning my own.

It is important not to try to do too much. Just as in off-line networking one can go to too many events organized by too many different people and end up not having time to follow-up so it is with on-line networking. You can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Ecademy and FriendFeed. If you want to you can find me on Facebook. I think any more would spread my attention too thin to have conversations with people, and that is what it is about, even for an introvert like me with a necessary but not very showy business.

I am registered on foursquare because I was invited, but I do not have a clever phone yet, not being convinced I need one. Convince me, and I will join you all there.

In the meantime I will continue my on-line stuff as it is and will attempt anything else I think will be useful, as social media evolves and never stays still. I will keep blogging and picking up blogging tips. Chris Brogan recommended Technorati for helping blog reading figures – thank you Chris – and here is a code for the Technorati people : G4W22KBUX42W

We have to be out there talking and being seen, and for some of us it was a skill we had to learn. However, just as we need to preserve our cash flow and tailor our expenses to our needs, we have to follow the same philosophy with our social media too. That way it will be fun and will not overwhelm us.

What do you think? Do you see things differently, and why? I would love to know.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Why we should give ownership of their jobs to our employees

Although I have touched on the subject before, two recent incidents have brought me back. An event I organize was severely disrupted by failures in catering at the venue, and I gave up queueing in a branch of a well-known pharmacy chain because only one assistant was serving as opposed to four or five who were having a nice chat in the corner.

The catering problem was in part to do with lack of supervision. There was no one available to tell the waiting staff what to do and how to deliver a buffet on time. Presumably they were told to report to the kitchen and were handed the food when it was ready, which was at least twenty minutes after it was supposed to have been. They then carried what they were given into the room where the event was taking place (incidentally a room too small for the number of attendees advised in advance to the venue).

Our venue employees also failed to note that the equipment to keep the food warm was not switched on, there were insufficient plates and hardly any cutlery, and the fruit salad should have been delivered before the main course (it was breakfast).

There were other issues, but I have given enough details to demonstrate what was wrong, which was that the staff had not been properly trained if they were trained at all; they were not asked to think for themselves or did not feel that they had sufficient authority to act on their own initiative in the face of obvious problems. The manager was not in, but if the staff had been able to respond quickly to the large number of requests for additional items of food, cutlery and appliances, it would have meant less disruption. If someone had looked at the whole picture and dealt with it, our problems would have been minor.

I do not suppose that the venue employees are well-paid. However, everyone has to start somewhere, and in addition to essential training there needs to be the sort of management that encourages initiative and through that, progression to greater things. I started as the office boy, but I accepted my lot because I knew that if I got the simple things right it would lead to more responsibility. I made the tea (or coffee), remembered who took sugar and who didn’t, did everyone’s filing, and bought chocolates and ordered flowers for the boss’s wife. I could use my initiative to help people out, including choosing the chocolates and the flowers.

It is not good enough to have our staff just follow orders. They need to know what is expected of them and that should include using their common sense and asking for anything extra they need to do their job. Of course that means that they must feel comfortable in being able to talk to their bosses and that they will have a friendly ear, and even if their suggestion is not immediately considered they should know that their having asked a question will not counted against them. It should be accepted as being motivated by good intentions.

At the end of my event the manager did finally arrive. He apologised and blamed the staff for being stupid and ignorant. However, the blame was his in my book. He wasn’t there when needed, and he had not given his staff authority or motivation to deal with any problems in his absence.

In a factory or a closed office environment one might get away with a one-off failure if it is rectified quickly. In providing a service to the public, mistakes can be very costly for the reputation of a business. This is why I believe managers must take ownership of their responsibilities, but also why employees should be given ownership and responsibility too, with the carrot of reward and recognition for stepping in when needed.

Have you seen similar situations? Do you agree?

© Jon Stow 2010