Budding entrepreneurs should take care of their redundancy payments

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With many firms downsizing there are many people, often in their late forties or into their fifties who find themselves unexpectedly with time on their hands and also a fat cheque as part of their compensation package. Some may have several tens of thousands in their bank accounts.

Few are happy to retire and put their feet up. Spending more time with the family may be a convenient euphemism for politicians who have been kicked out of office, but actually for people with active minds, boredom soon sets in. It is then that there is a danger of being lured into something which may eat some or all of that redundancy payment without any lasting benefit.

There may be an attractive offer for a franchise with “guaranteed income”. There may be an alluring advert in a weekend newspaper offering training as a “consultant”. There may be an offer of high returns from a property business. All should be viewed with perhaps not suspicion, but at least with healthy scepticism.

If you are looking at an opportunity to start a business:

  • Think whether it would suit your skills
  • Consider whether you can meet the demands on your time
  • Ask for references from other people who have gone down that road
  • Check that the income suggested in the blurb is being received by those other people (they may be embarrassed but if they are you have your answer).
  • Consider whether any turnover-based levy from “Head Office” will eliminate any profit unless you work 24/7.
  • Remember that if something seems too good to be true….

You may find just the right thing, but do be very careful and choosy. Keep your money until you are absolutely sure you are doing the right thing. Remember that very plausible scammers roam amongst us. Have you tripped over any?

(C) Jon Stow 2010

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Customer service and great customer experience

Setting off to my breakfast networking meeting this morning twenty minutes or so before dawn, I switched my car windscreen wipers on to clear the drizzle. Unfortunately one blade disintegrated and on arrival at my destination I noted that the other blade had seen better days too.

After the meeting I was plotting in my mind the best route to the usual motoring accessories superstore when I noticed a motor parts outlet I had not seen before only a short distance along my return journey. The sign said “open to the public” so I went in, expecting just to buy the blades and fit them myself. I remembered with trepidation what a performance it had been to do it the previous time.

Inside I was served by a young woman (by which I mean a bit younger than me) who looked up the blades required on her computer and fetched them from a shelf. She then said “I would like to measure your wipers to make sure I have found the right ones”, she produced a tape measure, and went out to my car. Having ensured she had the right blades to fit, we completed the transaction, she gave me my receipt, and then to my surprise (and relief) she said “I’ll put them on the car for you”.

Now, she did struggle to get the blades on, and I couldn’t be of much help. After three or four minutes she went into the adjacent service shop and fetched a mechanic, who succeeded in fitting my new wipers, though not without some difficulty. It might have taken me hours to work out how to do it.

Naturally I thanked both members of staff profusely and the young woman who had served me took the old blades off for disposal.

I really did think this was brilliant customer service. The main purpose of the place is to serve the trade who know what they are doing, though obviously non-trade people must go in quite often. The price was good value and one could not ask for a better customer experience. For that reason I recommend the chain, and especially the one in Southend. The company is called Motor Parts Direct.

They have guaranteed I will think of them first next time I need something for the car, and that I will recommend them. It was a great way to do business when often in the large retail motoring shops you have a job to find someone to help at all.

Have you had a really good customer service experience recently? Give the business a testimonial.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Networking and Chinese Walls

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When I worked in the City of London in the heady eighties there was always some big financial deal going on. Perhaps a takeover bid or an IPO could be on the cards. One of the ethical problems was that different parts of the same company could be working on a project in conflicting ways because they acted for different parties to a particular deal, or even opponents in a takeover battle. For that reason, confidentiality had to be preserved even within the firm one worked for, so one couldn’t afford a careless word over lunch in the canteen or on the park bench. These special arrangements where we could not talk about our work with members of staff on another team were and are called Chinese Walls.

A similar situation might arise at a personal level. Cousin Bill might not get on with Aunt Agatha. We would like to maintain good relations with both so we just don’t mention one to the other when talking. Much better to keep quiet and keep both happy. It is not dishonest; just diplomatic and in that way we could help either if need be without any acrimony.

In our on-line and off-line networking we can find ourselves in similar situations where we find that one good friend or business acquaintance has some animosity towards another. We can stumble unwittingly into a problematic situation if we are unaware, but once we do know then we have to treat them like Cousin Bill and Aunt Agatha and just avoid referring to one in the other’s company.

I have found myself in an embarrassing position not being aware of a problem between a couple of acquaintances, but once I realised, brought down the Chinese Wall between them. Have you found yourself caught between two adversaries? What did you do?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Knowing when not to apologise

We all know that when something goes wrong in our business and a client or customer has not received the service he or she expects, the first thing we should do is apologise. Generally if we pay attention to our business this will be a rare occurrence; it might never happen. Still, the principle must be do apologise and move on when something goes wrong.

If we say we are sorry for things which are beyond our control or indeed for non-existent failures, we can sow seeds in the minds of our clientele that something has gone wrong when actually it hasn’t. Then they might tell their friends about some supposed problem and we will suffer.

I was put in mind of this the other day when waiting at the check out desk of our local aquatics store. The assistant at the till kept saying to each customer “Sorry for the wait”, yet no one had to wait more than a minute as far as I could tell. I only even thought about the length of the wait because I heard her apologise to the customer in front of me. I had the same apology but there really was nothing to apologise for, we could watch the fish during our brief pause; yet she might have people think that the till service was really slow.

In my business I could apologise for a client’s high tax bill, but as I don’t “miss a trick” in claiming allowances and available reliefs, I just tell people what they owe. If I apologise they might think it is my fault they have to pay so much to the Government.

Next time you think about telling your customer you are sorry, consider whether you have anything to be sorry for. Otherwise just give the facts, keep the customer in the loop, and don’t apologise.

(C) Jon Stow 2010

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Networking and raining on my parade

We have to accept that some networkers are very insecure. That would be because some people in general are insecure.

There can be a problem at some events which allow more than one of the same type of business to be represented. I do not feel threatened by other people in my general area of business. Actually I like to get to know them. I regard them as colleagues. I may be able to refer them if they and their businesses have strengths in areas which I and my business do not find profitable and interesting. At the same time we have the opportunity to share ideas and experiences. I have a rule never to try to tempt away a client from another business I know (known as tapping up). Actually I never ever criticise the work of someone else in my field. It would be very rude and unprofessional.

I was an an event a few weeks ago. I had the opportunity to mention my business briefly and in passing while giving a talk about something else. Later, an attendee representing a business in a similar field spoke at length about what their company could provide. It simply seemed that this person was trying to out-sell me and rather stridently too, even though I wasn’t there to sell and indeed had made no effort to do so.

My advice is that if you meet someone in a similar field, make sure you have a good chat with her or him to see if you might work together or co-operate. There is much more benefit from walking the same road in partnership than in trying to push the other person off.

Just don’t rain on someone else’s parade. That other person could be your key to more success.

© Jon Stow 2010

Customer service? What’s that?

Mother’s TV breaks down. Her daughter telephones the local store of an electrical chain to ask them to send someone to collect it and mend it. She asks that they move the TV from the bedroom and set it up so that Mother can still view in the living room. They say they probably can’t.

Non-technical daughter moves bedroom TV to living room herself and leaves note asking chain store person to connect it when collecting the other one. They come, two of them, disconnect and take defective TV without speaking to Mother. They ignore note and leave other TV unconnected. Mother, who no longer reads much due to short attention span and memory loss, is left with nothing to occupy her.

The following day daughter and son-in-law visit to find unconnected TV. More technical son-in-law plugs in aerial lead, connects to mains, depresses switch and television works perfectly. Time taken? About a minute.

Why did our chain store visitors not connect the TV? It could not have been ‘Elf and Safety surely because they must connect and disconnect equipment in people’s homes all the time. I cannot understand why a simple act of kindness was beyond these men, even if they are not instructed in customer service.

The chain will have no future business from us. It is another example of employees damaging the reputation of their business. What is going on?

Cold calls, warm calls and reputation

Recently I was called on our home telephone by a female person who immediately launched into a script along the lines of “I am calling from “Anonymous” Windows to tell you about our current special promotion if you order from us within the next month any new windows or doors”. As it happens I was still in the midst of some work for a client, so I said “Excuse me. I gather this is a sales call. My wife and I prefer not to have these on our home line and we have registered not to receive cold calls.”

The indignant response to this was “Well, your wife did enquire about one of our products last May. You are very rude, Mr. Stow” and with that she put the phone down.

Now, it turns out that my wife did indeed enquire about a new window in the porch (far too expensive and not good value), so the company has us on their calling list. Fair enough. However I may have my faults but I am always polite as I was to this person on the telephone. If she had stayed on the line we might have sorted out the misunderstanding and ended the call on a friendly note.

What happened was that the caller ended up being really rude to me. Of course she may have had a bad day, but she has guaranteed that not only will we not be buying from her employer in the near future, we probably won’t be buying from the company in the longer term. For all she knows I will be telling everyone I meet about the call and naming the company, which certainly won’t help them. I thought better of naming the business in this post because it might have an unfair impact on her fellow employees.

A few ill-chosen words can do so much damage to a business reputation.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Trust, networking and the black hole

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When we refer someone to a friend or colleague or fellow-networker, we do need to be able to trust the person we have recommended. That is obvious and should go without saying. Part of the way we can feel comfortable to refer someone is simply by being acquainted with them for a length of time.

Taking this further, that means we have to see the person we may refer regularly. We may have had a one-to-one (I hope we would have), but at least we need to see the person often at networking events. Turning up is very important because being there establishes reliability. Not being there indicates quite the opposite.

I like to refer the best person for the job. The best person is usually the one who turns up; not always of course because working with someone is a matter of comfort too for the person who needs the service or product. Mostly though we need to refer the person whom we know better than the others.

I cannot refer someone whom I don’t see very often even if we both belong to the same club or group. If I simply haven’t see a business owner for a year or several years, he hasn’t got a hope of getting business through my suggestion. If I haven’t seen the person in the last three years since she would have been the obvious choice, she might as well have fallen into a black hole as far as I am concerned. Of course I care about her well-being but I cannot stake my own reputation on her work even if I can find out how to track her down.

Did you know someone who had disappeared just when you thought of him or her?

© Jon Stow 2010

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The right market for a business start-up

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When we are starting a business it is easy to take on every prospect who comes to our door and every project we may be asked to do. It is easy for me to say that it is important to be selective, but I have been around long enough to know that we do need to be choosy.

Whatever business we are in we need to decide what our market is. It is very tempting to take on a lot of small value bits of business, but they tend to be fairly routine and unlikely to lead to bigger things and bigger fees later. Large volumes of small customers or clients also tend to be very labour-intensive. We are likely to create a treadmill for ourselves, especially if we offer a service which will be called upon over and over again. Repeat business is worth seeking out, but repeat business which occupies all our time tends to keep our income down.

If we are choosy we can look for clients and customers who appreciate the individual touch and a customised service. We can charge higher fees because we know our clients value us and value the service. Value is what a good client wants and appreciates. Value business is what allows us more time for seeking new and valuable business and even more importantly allows us some leisure.

Knowing what our market is, offering value especially in a niche area not only sets us out from the crowd; it allows us to leave the crowds behind when we need a little downtime.

Don’t you agree?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Using our window of opportunity in business

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I have a favourite walk just round the corner from home, where the footpath leads around a farmer’s field ( and past an ancient hornbeam wood, but that’s another story). In early August after a lot of sunshine and only moderate rain, it struck me that wheat which had been sown this year was just right for harvesting. I walked a couple more times around this field in the next few days and wondered why the corn had not been cut. Of course it might have been for waiting a turn with hired machinery, but everything seemed perfect; the condition of the wheat and the dry weather in particular.

Then August showed her fickle ways. It rained and it rained. When I took my next walk, a lot of the wheat was bent over or laid, and even the upright ears and stalks were turning black. The chance was gone, the hard work wasted and the money for that work all gone.

There are times when we need to release our inhibitions and just go for the opportunity. Usually we step back from taking action when we have the chance by giving ourselves small alibis for inaction. Sometimes rather than wait we must force the issue because otherwise our great plans and our hard work will come to nothing. As well as inspiration and enjoyment it takes courage to run a small business We must take our opportunities while we can.

Don’t you agree?

© Jon Stow 2010

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