Thank you for the music!

I have had a very enjoyable year writing this blog and my other ones. If the truth be known, I mainly write these days because I enjoy it and because I hope the odd nugget might be useful.

I suppose I started blogging partly to raise my profile, and for the Google effect; as a marketing tool. I soon found that I enjoyed writing, unexpectedly it was good for my ego to have a voice. I also find it useful in my general thought process and even relaxing. Although the marketing matters to me, a very welcome side effect is the therapeutic value is in crystallising my thought and getting new ideas. Seth Godin has written about this.

I have learned a huge amount from others and I am sure there is a lot more to discover. We can never know enough about anything which excites us. Apart from Seth, there are others who have helped me a great deal, whether they know it or not, although I know they all set out to help. That’s what good bloggers do; it is not about selling, though any business which comes along is very welcome. I hope I am helping too.

It is difficult knowing whom to thank because some deserving people will be left out. If you feel left out, don’t worry because I do appreciate you. So aside from thanking my wife, my family, my agent and our cats I wish to pay tribute to those from whom I have learned:

Chris Brogan, and I recommend this

Jim Connolly

Su Butcher

Andrew Lock whose video blog Help! My Business Sucks makes me laugh as well as having some useful reminders

Sarah Arrow who allowed me to guest post on Birds on the Blog

You would have been disappointed if with the title above I hadn’t given you this too so as it is so appropriate:

PS. Actually I don’t have an agent yet.

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Someone told me

HP Printer
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I heard those magic words while doing a little shopping the other day after running my breakfast networking meeting. “Some told me…”.

Of course that is all I heard as I walked by, but I do worry how damaging gossip can be in a business sense. I always think we need to do our own research. Often a bad customer experience may be very isolated in terms of a business’s overall delivery. It is when things go wrong that people talk about the problems much more than when they receive a great service. Ironically, very often a generally exemplary service will start to be taken for granted so that when there is a minor glitch people complain far more than they would if the general service were fairly average but in line with expectations. Hence people are less likely to complain about the mail service merely because our expectations have declined over the years. Our postman is a nice guy incidentally and I wouldn’t want him to be upset. I don’t blame him.

I like Dell computers. I have three. I have always had very good customer service and support from Dell. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do proper research because we have a responsibility to our business and ourselves.

I bought a Dell branded printer a year or so back. I hadn’t done my research. Someone told me he liked his. Maybe his usage of it was very light. The printer was a real dog and far too expensive to run, plus the fax facility never worked reliably. Yes, I know there are alternatives to a fax line but that’s another matter.

I should have found out the printer was made by Lexmark and if so I wouldn’t have bought it. I have now a new HP printer. I had always previously had HP printers. They have been reliable. When one went wrong shortly after I had it, HP replaced it in a couple of days.

If someone told us that someone told them, we need to check the credibility of the story and the context in which it has been passed on. We cannot rely on tittle-tattle re purchases we make because we may not make the best buying decision. We should do our own research and listen to those we trust for recommendations.

I got it wrong with the Dell printer. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend their computers. Have you made a buying mistake as I did through lack or research or because someone told you or you told yourself?

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Why starting a business is hard work for the brain

Holiday times are when we have space to think about the future, and for some it will be to seek new opportunities in starting a business.

When we go back to first principles to start a new business we need a business plan, and not just one for the bank. We need to think whether:

  • There is room in the marketplace for our business
  • We can stand out from the competition.
  • We have enough money to spend and to survive on before we get into profit.
  • If we borrow money we can pay it back
  • We know how to market and have done our research
  • We have support from our family and friends

We need to think hard about each of these things. We need to spend time going through each aspect. We need to think about lifestyle changes and the effect on our families and ourselves.

Getting on our bikes is never easy but it can be very fulfilling. It is not wrong to accept help along the way and even to hire someone else’s expertise or their bike of course. Just do it!

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Desperate networking

Two billion monarch butterflies (pictured) hib...
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As we know, networking butterflies are rarely successful. I wonder whether some of them are driven by desperation that their networking has never worked even when they started and took it more slowly.

We know that if our marketing isn’t working we have to change it. Networking is a sort of marketing in which we give without expectation of getting business from anyone in particular but in the knowledge that those we know may think of us when it counts and they think they know someone who needs us.

Of course networking is a long game, but sooner or later it should dawn that if no business is coming in, it’s not being done properly. Then perhaps a more measured approach is needed with regular attendance of fewer networking groups is called for.

If that doesn’t work then maybe as with marketing failure, our failed networker is simply in the wrong business selling a product or service nobody wants. Or, if what she offers is normally popular, her demeanour doesn’t convince anyone she can deliver it and she should re-think her strategy from the ground up.

Related posts:

Networking butterflies

Networking, hunting and butterflies

Networking really is a long game

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Choices

Our first businesses are generally based on our familiar environments. We tend to work in familiar areas. That is understandable, but we can corral ourselves into a particular mindset in which we can believe that we are only good at one discipline. That can be a mistake and potentially very limiting.

What else would we enjoy? What ambitions did we used to have? What do some of our friends do which we think would be satisfying and fun?

Our marketing friends tell us we should always keep testing our marketing campaigns. See what works and what doesn’t, but give each idea a fair run. Why not adopt that method with our new enterprises? Why not market and sell our new service or product and just see if we are successful and we have fun doing it?

Why not?

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Mutual envy

Local businesses
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Many of us in business for ourselves feel we would be unemployable if we were asked to go to work for someone else. We enjoy the freedom of making our own decisions and being in charge. We make our own hours of work of course, rather than abide by someone else’s rule, though it is easy to work too much rather than too little. We always want to maximise our income potential and we do need a certain discipline to avoid becoming our own slaves.

We do know we would rather not be wage slaves and have come away from that mindset. That is why if we sell our businesses to someone else with an agreement to work on for a year or so, that situation can soon become very uncomfortable. It is not nice to be looking over one’s shoulder at the person watching us.

At the same time, there was a comfort in the relative certainty we had as employees that we would have a known income at the end of each week or month. If we are doing well in our business we do have that still, but it is down to our own efforts and managing ourselves.

Those still with jobs would mostly be frightened to have the responsibility we have for our own financial survival, but at the same time they envy us being our own bosses, as they see it awarding ourselves holidays and bonuses and time off in the summer for picnics. Of course our lives are not always about picnics, but there is some truth about the freedom if we are doing it right. What do you think?

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Shopping habits and the High Street

Instant gratification is the name of the game, and no, I am not talking about anything sleazy. Just as I was saying recently that the advertising tradition of two hundred years is outdated, so is the traditional High Street specialist shop. When I was a child we had in our village a draper, two ladies’ dress shops, and one that sold table linen and curtains.

The local shops that do well in most places are those which sell something we need right then, such as my favourite baker (because he is good), perhaps the newsagent though supermarkets are encroaching on their territory, and the fast food shops – the instant gratification shops. Those that struggle are those who do not sell things we need frequently (I nearly said every day but you would then think I lived on takeaways). Having a local gift shop or a china shop is OK if you are selling on-line, building a reputation and need a hands-on show case for some clientele. Having a gift shop with no on-line business is pretty hopeless.

We have an independent retailer with a shop full of  TVs, sound systems, gadgets and radios in our village. How do they compete against the big shopping park chains? Well, they don’t. They have a nice shop but the vast majority of the sales are mail order on-line or over the telephone and they have carved out their own niches.

Sadly those who always wanted to run a toy shop will have to make it a niche shop with a major on-line retail capacity. Of course the lack of real shops in any community lessens the sense of belonging, and means we are less likely to bump into our friends and neighbours than we used to. We did see our plumber in the village today, but there are far fewer shoppers than there used to be.

We have so much choice now so we should not knock progress even in the retail world, but gone are the days when my Mum could say “I’m going to the village and I’ll pop into Miss Shelley’s to see if she has a summer frock I like in my size”. That’s the price for a loss of innocence.

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Do not speak ill of the dead or the living

A black and white icon of a teacher in front o...
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My Old Boys’ Magazine for my school, which is now also an Old Girls’ magazine, recently asked for memories of a former teacher who spent his entire working life there. Apparently his daughter had asked for some reminiscences as she did not know much about what her father had done at work. Recently the magazine has published various stories and anecdotes which are generally pretty favourable.

I have nothing but bad memories of my interactions with this man, who died a long time ago. He was very unkind to me and quite a few others, and had a sharp tongue. He also beat me a couple of times for absolutely no reason other than not performing well in his class; it was not for misbehaviour.

I could have sent in my rather chilling memories but what good would it have served? I would have been seen as mean-spirited by the family and probably anyone who did not know the man personally. Even those who were never treated badly by him would have seen his cruel streak exhibited, but they must already have remembered those occasions and kept quiet as I did. The point is that anyone telling all the truth would have damaged his own reputation (I don’t think the teacher or master would have ever taught girls) much more than the departed. I am sure the guy had many good points even if I never saw them.

It doesn’t much help to criticise the living either, especially in print or on-line. I guess we all have a duty to warn our friends about a bad or disastrous customer experience, such as ours a few years ago when we had a new bathroom fitted.

Generally in business, unless we are dealing with our immediate network and can have a quiet word, we should not advise as to whether someone should do business with someone else. I believe we should mind our own business in view of libel laws and our own reputation unless we have knowledge or strong suspicion of dishonesty. In the latter case it is then our duty to go to the appropriate authorities. Otherwise we should keep quiet, hope that the “caveat emptor” rule is being applied, and mind our own business and reputation.

Do you agree? Should we speak up or keep quiet?

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Unconditional giving

We are approaching the season for giving but while it is good to give and receive presents, the most precious thing we have to give is our time. It is precious because we all have only a limited amount of it, but in terms of value to the recipient it speaks much more than a shiny present unless that present is something they need desperately.

Back in the mid nineties before I met my wife I was rather ill and had to have a quite major operation in hospital. I lived on my own at the time and one of my neighbours collected me from the hospital in London when I was discharged and took me home, which would have been an eighty mile round trip. He then made sure I was comfortable. Over the next few weeks he let himself in my house, got me out of bed one morning when I couldn’t physically manage it myself, and did all my shopping. He drove me back to the hospital for my follow-ups with the consultant.

I couldn’t have managed without my friend. I do not know who could have helped me if he hadn’t, but he did so it wasn’t a concern. My neighbour is an example to us all. He is getting on a bit now and helping is the other way round, though because he is so kind he has no shortage of offers of help for himself.

He got me through a difficult time and helped me to recover. From my point of view the operation was a big success and I was fixed up to be, I hope, useful to others.

We should do our best to give our time, which is what my neighbour did for me, but that which we can spare, because if we are penniless we cannot help others as we should. What’s more, as my grandfather used to say, giving is a selfish act because we get pleasure out of giving.

So, what can I do for you? Am I managing to do it for you already? What would you like me to write about which would be useful to you?

The tools of our business – choice, discretion and honour

Back in January when visiting the local branch of my bank, I was whisked in by the customer relations manager and offered their premium service at a discounted rate. I weighed up the benefits and agreed to sign up. It looked like a good deal.

A couple of weeks ago I had a standard impersonal printed letter from the bank’s mass mail saying that the bank had looked at my banking practices and decided that I no longer qualify for their discounted rate because I do not satisfy the conditions, which they listed. Guess what? My account charges would be going up 43%.

Now, it is important to note that the bank’s customer manager told me that I qualified for the special rate. I examined the criteria set out in the impersonal letter I had received. I have to say that I never qualified for the discounted rate in their terms because the accounts I run for three different business entities and several income streams are not managed in a way that could satisfy the requirements.

I am not pleased. Because of the benefits I thought I was getting I cancelled some insurance I had elsewhere and my existing car breakdown cover amongst other things.

I called the bank and was told there was “nothing they could do” other than apologise and register my complaint. They cannot offer the service at a discounted rate.

Now, this is not supposed to be a whinge about large organisations in general. Of course, once upon a time, bank managers had discretion to change things and fit services and charges to individual customers.

It so happens that my first job was with a bank. I accepted a job offer at a salary which turned out to be higher than the amount normally offered to someone of my then age. My new employer, or at least the personnel manager, realised the mistake but told me the bank would honour their offer, and this was all before I started the job.

As small business owners we are in a different position. We have a choice as to what services to offer at what price, and to cement our relationship with our customer thereby. Our customers still have a choice to use us or not, but as long as we can offer a valued service at a valued price we should be able to keep them.

Should something go wrong we can use our discretion to put it right. We should keep our word, our self respect and our honour by honouring our commitments. We can even get a nice warm feeling in doing so. If we stick to our ethics we can grow our small business into a big one and instill our honourable approach into our staff by allowing them discretion.

Large organisations such as banks have lost all connection with customer service through becoming remote from us in ivory towers known as call centres. They may say they need to be competitive in terms of cost, but I would not mind paying for a proper service from a bank which honoured its commitments. They should note that supermarket chains generally take customer complaints seriously and try to put things right. It is not about being too big: it is about having real customer-facing staff with discretion to act on their own initiative. Banks and mobile phone companies haven’t a clue about this.

As a small business owner I am happy that choice, discretion and honour liberate me from becoming like the banks, including mine which has just been voted the worst in the UK for customer service. Are you not pleased, but not complacent, that you are not as they are?

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