Hard times and worse horrors

Castries Harbour, St Lucia, whence Fair Trade bananas and cocoa are exported

Small businesses are under the cosh in the UK. Our markets are very difficult. People don’t want to buy even when we can help them save money. I don’t sell answers which are not worth a lot more than they cost, but prospective clients still take a lot of convincing.

All of Europe is struggling in business. Germany is the strongest, but needs its markets, and the uncertainty of the fate of the Euro is hampering ambition. We are told that countries such as India are booming and riding the crest of the wave. Those in the Cities are apparently doing well, yet we are told that the poor in especially those in rural areas are being abandoned, even being prevented from using agricultural machinery.   No, I don’t understand it

Sky News ran this report about the bottom having dropped out of the cotton market, leading to the ruin of Indian cotton farmers. It is really harrowing and puts in perspective our own troubles. Of course if growing cotton is not making any money, we would say in our Western way that they should grow something else, because if something we have always done isn’t working, we should change our ways. I don’t have the knowledge as to whether these farmers could grow something else such as maize or sweet potatoes, but it would need new finance and education which the Indian farmers can’t get.

If something isn’t working, it needs changing. It needs a new approach to business. We in the West have the capacity to change because we have the technology to do the research and we can easily find out, if we don’t know, the right people to help. That’s what we have to do.

None of us has all the answers, especially when it comes to business and agriculture in another land. Let us change our businesses to do what we need to make more money, and let us see how we can help subsistence farmers like those in India by donating to appropriate charities and buying Fair Trade products.

We can help, even if in a small way, even just by changing our shopping habits.  Don’t you agree we really must make the effort to help?

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Mud-slinging and reputations

Treacherous waters by Jon Stow

Muddy waters

Two people I am acquainted with (and you will find no clue here as to who they are) have had really bad things posted about them on other people’s websites. One has suffered mainly innuendo about his business activities. The other has had an outright accusation that he is dishonest and a liar.

The guy who is a victim of innuendo has an unusual name. He looked much worse when Googled a few years ago because he had no other on-line representation as a distraction. Now he has had positive things written about him and some of the really unpleasant stuff is behind a requirement to register as a user of the website, so Google cannot see his name directly in connection with the negative comments any more.

So in the innuendo case, we have someone who has built or had built for him a really positive on-line reputation and at the same time a lot of the nasty material has been hidden from Google, luckily for him.

The other person, yes, another guy, has a common name. He has no on-line presence other than a direct and easily-found accusation when his name is entered in a search engine together with that of the company of which he is a serving director. The comment about him would certainly be actionable if untrue. As he has not had it removed, the casual researcher might assume it was true, but of course litigation is expensive and maybe he cannot afford it or has chosen to take a view that not many people will check on him. That would be an incorrect assumption I would have thought. I don’t know the truth and would think twice about doing business with him.

How can all this be fixed if not through the courts?

Reputations on-line have to be built or re-built. Reputations off-line will follow. My acquaintance with the common name needs to be much more active.

  • He needs to be active on LinkedIn.
  • He needs to adopt and be active on a couple of other social networking sites.
  • He needs to post on Google+.
  • He needs a personal or business website where he is active in producing good content. A static site will not do.
  • He needs to get involved with positive initiatives in business so that the “Joe Bloggs” associated with the possible libellous comments towards his company are drowned out in the positive noise he generates elsewhere.

If he does all that then someone such as myself could take it into account in doing the proper due diligence before business.

Activity!

Yes, the key is activity. Being proactive.

Reputations are so precious. I haven’t had to deal with such a nasty problem, but if I did I would use the law early (and we should have insurance for this), and then I would drown out the bad stuff with lots of positive on-line output and demonstrate my value in deeds as well as words. That is what we strive for anyway, but we need to manage our reputations all the more carefully if there is someone or some people who are bearing a grudge.

Have you had mud slung at you professionally? What did you do?

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Business is so simple – no science involved.

Get to the point!

I meet lots of business owners. They may be highly gifted, but in one sense they are simple souls. They are in business to make money. That means profit.

We who are business owners but who advise other businesses need to remember this. I always try to remember that I am in business to make money too. I am one of those simple souls.

When I had some additional training a few years ago I remember that there was a great deal of jargon involved in understanding how to be a management consultant and especially someone like me coming from an accountancy firm background. My training talked about such things as ROI, lead generation, cash accounting, conversion rates, list brokerage, pull marketing, push marketing, audit trail, conceptual thinking, risk management, thinking outside of the box, accrual based accounting and Sarbanes-Oxley. Gosh, what a list!

The average person running a small business is not interested in hearing jargon from me or anyone else. She will not know what many of these words mean. Heck, there are a few I have to think about myself, and I never understood what “thinking outside the box” meant if it was anything different from “lateral thinking” (I never really knew what that meant either). Actually I think using the words “thinking outside the box” should be an arrestable offence punishable by a jail sentence of not less than two years; it is so annoying and meaningless.

Improving a business is about increasing profit, which means more sales, and managing expenses so as to have more money with which to enjoy life and to save or spend on useful things. We may know the jargon labels, but let’s not blind our customers with science (there’s another cliché). Let us concentrate on keeping it simple so that our business customers are not distracted by our language. They need our help, not an earful of buzzwords.

Then again, even “management consultant” which I once trained to be is one of those words. Consultants are seen to be people who take your money to increase their profit at the expense of your own.

Definitions of consultants:

  • A know-all charlatan from outside your organisation
  • Someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and then keeps your watch
  • Someone who comes in to solve a problem and stays around long enough to become part of it.

Practical hand on help is what business owners need from service providers. They don’t want to hear jargon. They don’t want to be told they have a problem they already know about. They don’t want to be told what to do. They may need some practical training.

I fix tax problems. I tackle wasteful spending in client’s businesses. I know other people to bring in to deal practically with increasing sales, or meeting ‘Elf and Safety requirements or whatever.

What everyone wants is more money. Let’s help them get it. It’s not rocket science. But there’s another expression which should bring a prison sentence of at least eighteen months. How do you feel?

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Working for Godzilla

A couple of weeks ago I saw an interview on a news channel with a client of one of my former employers, which was a very large firm. This ex-client of mine who I believe is also an ex-client of the firm I used to work for was one of the most difficult people I have known in my working career. There are always fireworks around this man because not only does he not suffer fools gladly; he doesn’t suffer anyone gladly.

The interviewer, whom I like, innocently asked about his subject’s company performance in the current economic conditions (which is good considering everything) and about big business directors’ salaries. I was waiting for the explosion and it duly came. I am afraid if anyone watching was waiting to be impressed by the response, she or he would have been severely disappointed. The journalist asking the questions was quite taken aback. Maybe he hadn’t been warned.

This ex-client of my former employer is not someone who follows Dale Carnegie. He gets his way by being a big bully and imposes a reign of terror wherever he goes. The sad thing is that it works for him and he is for that reason a bad-boy darling of the financial press.

When I had to deal with this guy I was an employee some way down the pecking order. When I was permitted to speak to him on the telephone he used to shout at me over any reasonable question I asked and would use a series of expletives. I put up with this because I had to, although one one occasion I did tell him I would speak to him when he was feeling better, and put the phone down.

Of course I and my peers took the flack as a cushion between the client and our principals, who of course only really saw the client on social occasions when he was obliged to try and be nice. Our bosses knew what we had to put up with, though.

When we start out in business on our own account it is tempting to take any work we can get, no matter from whom we are getting it. That might on occasion mean taking on as clients some people whom we find very unpleasant. That would be a mistake.

There is a great deal to think about in running a business and we need as little stress as possible both for our health and well-being and to allow us to think clearly. We don’t need to take on clients who are monsters and who will swear at us and be ungrateful when we are delivering the best service any business could offer.

Once I was cannon fodder for my employer. Acting for myself, I don’t need to be in a war at all and neither do you. That is no way to run a business, is it?

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Banking on being individual

In a discussion I was having with my bank’s call centre the other day I was complaining about an unreasonable charge for a payment made to my account. When I said I had been charged for something which had not cost the bank anything to do, I was told that apparently their right to take the charge was explained in my Terms and Conditions.

Of course I did not have the T and Cs in front of me to argue, but I asked if my call centre lady did not have some discretion over the charges. She said that it wouldn’t be fair to the other customers if I had special treatment.

That really summed up the situation when small customers are dealing with large corporates. I had enough trouble with the telecoms company which simply didn’t care about my business or me or our contract.

Do you treat all your customers or clients the same? We don’t have to! What we must do is treat them all fairly. Small business customers all have different needs. It is our job to meet those needs and over-deliver because that’s what makes us different. And that’s what brings us recommendations and more business. When did you last hear someone recommending one of the big banks?

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Getting on the customer’s wavelength

Poor reception

One of the most difficult obstacles I had when starting in business on my own was in persuading my prospects to listen to what I had to offer. Often they were just not tuned in to listen to me, and I guess what was worse was that I was not tuned in to listen to them first.

I thought that in my “brave new world” of being a business owner I should at least get some idea about selling. Unfortunately all the courses I went on at the outset were for the hard sell. The training was to pressure the prospect into realizing the pain they would suffer if they did not buy from me. There were structured scripts and I was expected to “close” the prospect within an hour and not come away before two hours had passed if I had not actually had the unfortunate person sign on the dotted line. I often got thrown out long before.

I didn’t get a single sale that way, and looking back I am not surprised. Firstly, most prospects (if we must call them that):

  • do not necessarily think they have a problem, or
  • think they have a problem but reckon they can solve it themselves or
  • think that some outsider wouldn’t understand the problem.

None of these mindsets will lead them to listen to someone such as myself, or you or anyone unless we have listened to the prospect first and got in tune with their way of thinking.

Interference

Our potential clients, who will very likely be business owners themselves, often feel insulted by anyone who gives them unsolicited advice and suggests how they might do things better; or in my case would offer hand-on help when they don’t think they need it. When we think about it, most people feel insulted when they get any sort of unsolicited advice concerning who they should go out with or what colour best suits them.

My sister, who never reads this blog, as a teenager took any sort of advice as a personal insult even if she had asked for it in the first place. She is not unique.

Noise

I learned a lesson about selling by telling people they are wrong quite a long time ago, but the other day had a sharp reminder when I made the mistake of offering a new Twitter follower some advice on basic strategy. He didn’t take it well, and although what I said was sound advice he insists he knows better. I should have shut up but if I had not being trying to help I would probably have not followed him back as I do not like his approach to Twitter.

I guess that I could be quite insulted too in certain circumstances. I entirely understand Nancy feeling hurt with the unsolicited advice she received. I might have taken it the same way. (Nancy is a good read so why not subscribe?).

Tune in

It had been said so often that we should listen. We should listen to our family and we should listen to our networking friends, and we should certainly listen to our potential customers before opening our big mouths. Otherwise they may hear us when we speak but they won’t listen. That is because if we haven’t listened then what we say will not be of value to them. Hearing is not listening.

In order to help anyone whether they are our potential client or our on-line or off-line friend we need to know how they feel and what they believe they need. Then we will have something to offer whether it is a business proposition, practical help or a shoulder to cry on. Any of those offerings will go towards building relationships and will help those in need.

From the sales point of view it is always worth re-reading How to Win Friends…  and checking in with Zig Ziglar (not affiliate links) but I expect you have these books already. I have both on my bedside table or night stand. Always listen!

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Telling your customers they are stupid

Marx Brothers, head-and-shoulders portrait, fa...

The Marx Brothers: Top to bottom: Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo (1931)

The other day my Mother-in-Law’s TV went wrong. It was only about four years old and was a well-known brand. It wasn’t cheap. I know because I was there when she bought it.

The lady is not able to get out of her flat any more. My wife and I needed a quick solution because being housebound and getting on a bit Mum relies on her TV quite a lot. We went to Britain’s largest supermarket and selected a TV off the shelf, having done a little on-line research first.

We took the TV to Mum’s flat and started installing it. We couldn’t get the stand on the fitting on the base of the TV. We read the instructions. Always RTFM if in doubt of course. There was plainly something the matter with the plastic moulding. It wouldn’t fit.

We telephoned the number on the receipt for technical help and were told to take the TV back to the store. This was a nuisance as we are busy people, but that’s what we did.

We arrived at the customer service help desk for electrical equipment. We explained our problem to a young gentleman at the desk and he took the TV into the back room. In the next five minutes, another four people asked if we were being helped. I thought that was a good sign of proper attention to customer service.

The woman who had been second to ask us if we were being helped emerged from the back room. She said that the plastic moulding on the stand was damaged. We said we knew that, and she then said that we were not covered for accidental damage. We naturally inferred that she thought it was all our fault, which of course was her intention.

At that point we were into the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup”. I thought “I didn’t come here to be insulted”.

My wife and I were insulted. I have been assembling gadgets since I was at school. My wife is good at DIY and can assemble flat-pack furniture very capably. Unlike me she does not have an IKEA phobia. If we couldn’t put this base on the TV there was something wrong with it.

We were left fuming for another five minutes after which the original young male assistant and the woman who had insulted us emerged from the back room. The latter said “part of the fitting was bent”. Yes, we knew that. She then produced the TV complete with fitted stand and said they had managed to fix it.

Well, of course we all had what we wanted. The supermarket had not suffered the cost of replacing the item or refunding our money. However we had been accused of vandalism and, effectively, dishonesty as if we had broken the item and tried to get a replacement by underhand means.

This is not the way to run customer service. The training should go beyond making sure that customers don’t have to wait and that they are being “helped”. It should make sure that customers are comfortable throughout the whole process.

The customer is not always right but, even when she or he is wrong, should not be told that. Customers should be treated with courtesy throughout. Don’t you think so?

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Business gym cracker

Business on the treadmill?

Recently I have been getting back into the routine of going to the gym. I am quite an “old hand” at the gym, but having been “injured” a while back I got out of the habit. Still, I am going well now and I am pleased how my fitness has returned quite rapidly.

What has this got to do with business? Well, it has a bit in that it got me thinking.

There is this guy I see quite often and you get to chat to familiar faces. He is pleasant and because he has coached me helpfully with the odd suggestion I am even prepared to overlook the Tottenham Hotspur shirt he quite often wears.

The other day he said to me after staggering off the treadmill “it never gets any easier does it?” Well, I suppose it doesn’t in terms of getting maximum fitness because for the hour or so we are in the gym we need to push ourselves. Otherwise either we never get as fit as we should be or we lose the best level of fitness we can attain.

A lot of people running small businesses work themselves full-tilt 100% all the time. I am all for commitment, but it strikes me that we train in the gym so that we can cope with any activity we have to do and we want to feel better. Maybe we want to stay lean or get lean. It is not because we live life at a constant high speed when we are not in the gym. We need time to ourselves to take stock and plan.

In business, if we work our fingers to the bone and it never gets any easier, we are not doing it right. We need to train ourselves to be more efficient and to delegate. Or we need to ask someone to train us so that we get better results without working so hard.

It’s not difficult. It just needs a bit of commitment to help ourselves and to put aside a little time to be better. Just like going to the gym.

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