New beginnings and old habits

Sunset for 2011

Tonight we will no doubt have some Saturday Night Fever to celebrate the coming New Year. Never can I remember so much doom and gloom in the media about the next twelve months.

There are two ways of looking at the New Year. Either we believe everything we read and give in to accept a poor trading year, or we get our heads down, use our brains and get ahead of the action. This is not just trite nonsense (at least I hope not) but a reminder that our future is in our own hands to make the best we can. That is not to pretend that the retail sector is not very weak and for those in the service sector that it isn’t hard to sell add-on services in addition to our normal offering even though that offering is better than everyone else’s.

We small business owners are different from the vast majority of those working. Most of the rest are employees. They are more at the mercy of fate, which, since small businesses constitute the majority of employers, means most of them might suffer from our failures. The rest might lose their jobs because of the failure of large corporates. But at least we can make a difference if we accept responsibility for our fate.

What might we do?

  • Review what has worked well in the past year and see if we can tweak it to make it better.
  • Drop anything which has performed poorly. That might mean dropping a product or a service altogether, even if we have done it for a long time and enjoy it. Of course we should enjoy our work but not if it costs us money.
  • Ask for help. Ask our friends who has helped them and how much benefit can be gained. An investment in help should have a return of several multiples of the cost of our help.
  • Be positive about the future. That means being happy, because happiness makes us better business owners with better ideas.

So I am not going to duck wishing you a Happy New Year because you can and should have achieve a great 2012 with the right approach.

All the very best for 2012.

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Why we need to be realistic about our business ambitions

Not quite Green Gables

“We pay a price for everything we get or take in this world; and although ambitions are well worth having, they are not to be cheaply won, but exact their dues of work and self-denial, anxiety and discouragement.”

LUCY MAUD MONTGOMERY, Anne of Green Gables

Or, as we might say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Realism

Lucy Maud’s comment really sounds like a bit of a downer, but it is always realistic to expect that our best-laid plans might not work out every time. However well we plan we are bound to have set backs now and again. They will be discouraging, but we can learn and adapt.

Many of us have a little free time at the moment, just before the New Year. Perhaps we have already made plans for our business for the coming year, and of course it is foolish not to plan ahead. I think it is worth looking back and remembering what did not work out in the last twelve months, and what we might have done differently. Was there anything which worked quite well but could be improved?

I cannot give you all the answers because I don’t know your business. If you asked me in help you, it would be for me to encourage you to answer your own questions. Of course I could connect you with some very good people to provide you with services you may require.

Do make those plans. If you need help, ask someone you can trust. Don’t just let it ride. You know the cliché.

Compassion

In my long business experience (does that make me sound old?) I have seen business owners ride rough-shod over their employees, exploiting them, not considering their feelings and disposing of them when they are no longer needed. One problem we have had in more recent years is where large businesses get permission to open stores such as “local” supermarkets in high streets and along the main drag. These stores damage small retailers badly and indeed can put them out of business. The large corporates do it because they can. Their overheads and stock costs are lower and they can employ part-time workers at low cost. You may have one of those businesses which is damaged or destroyed by this. If you do, you need to adapt, because there is no point in expecting compassion from big business.

However, one advantage we do have in running a small business is that we can be in tune with what our customers need. Perhaps compassion should not be our first thought, because we have to make a living. Just the same we can empathise.

I am not saying that compassion should not play a part in our lives. We should always try to help those in need, whether it be our employees who may be struggling, or our friends, or someone in the street, or those in lands far distant. Perhaps we can even do it without huge financial cost. Often it is our time which is valuable. Sometimes in helping others we help ourselves by boosting our creativity.

Grasping the nettle

The economy is really tough, whether you are reading this in Europe or in much of North America. We need more than usual to plan carefully for next year’s business. We need to have new projects and ideas. We need to be careful not to waste money on ploys that didn’t work last year. We need to remember to listen to our employees who are in this with us. We do need to consider those less fortunate than we, and to help them. We need to step outside our comfort zone. We need to be brave, don’t we?

 

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Why it is the season for bright ideas

Christmas sky

Christmas is upon us. Unless our business is a 365-day-a-year sort of business we do need to take a break for a few days. It will do us good. If you do have a 365-day-a-year business I am sure you delegate to others so that you can grab time off later.

One advantage for me is that I have some of my best ideas when I am relaxing and not working. I expect you do too. Sometimes inspiration strikes when I am out for a walk, sometimes sitting at home. Now and again I have good ideas when taking a shower.

It is important to write down a good idea when you have one, or use a voice recorder. Otherwise those ideas can evaporate like the memories of many of our dreams. Getting out of the shower, of course we have to avoid getting water in our electronics or getting our notepaper soggy.

Grab those ideas, take care of those candles and have a Merry Christmas. I will be back after Christmas to wish you a Happy New Year.

Why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or a colleague or prospect either

First impressions

First impressions are important. When meeting someone in business for the first time I am sure we all do our best to present ourselves well. That is simple commercial sense. Sometimes if we get a poorer impression of someone else when we meet them we do not pursue the relationship. If we instinctively feel like that then it may be best to let it go.

However, if we are not sure how we feel or we can’t immediately work out what makes another person tick, maybe we should give it a bit longer.

The Story of a Simple Soul

British author H. G. Wells' 1895 novel The Tim...

H G Wells - Image via Wikipedia

This theme really does remind me of my attitude to a particular book when I was about fourteen. It was a set book for English literature and we spent ages dissecting it in class and being asked to analyse various parts of it for homework. I didn’t understand the value of that book during the Summer Term. It seemed very boring to have to take it to bits and write essays about it.

However, when school broke up we had one of those rather rainy changeable summers like several we have had recently in England. I was an avid reader of fiction (still am) and one day I had read all the books in the house and it was too wet to walk to the library a couple of miles away. I picked up the school set book and read it from the beginning to the end as one would normally read a book except at school. Do you know what? The book was brilliant and funny, and a really great read.

What was the book? Kipps (not an affiliate link) by H G Wells. It was the book upon which the musical “Half a Sixpence” was based. I really recommend it, but when I had approached it from the wrong angle I had thought I wouldn’t like it.

The wrong end of the stick

Several years ago I met someone who I thought was a bit of a “wide boy” which means someone a bit untrustworthy, doing dodgy deals. A ducker and diver as we say in in England. I used to see him rather a lot at various meetings but didn’t take him seriously.

Yet eventually I had to deal with this chap as we had joint responsibility via a committee for organising some events. I came to realise that he was hard working, capable, kind and generous. I would trust him to look after financial issues on my behalf, which means complete trust as far as I am concerned.

So my first impression was a little off target, wasn’t it?

Setting the filters

With prospects I cannot engage them as clients if I am not comfortable with them, which is why I always like to spend time with them; at least an hour or so. But if they mess me around in terms of our first appointment e.g. change it more than twice without a convincing reason, I assume they are time wasters or potential troublesome clients. I don’t take them on.

Just the same, it is mostly worth giving people a run to see how they are. Many might become very good clients or great business friends. Do you give people a good run for their money – or yours?

 

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Why managers and workers need to respect each other

Respect is our starting point

Respect is one of the most important qualities we can have in business. We need to respect our clients. We need to have their respect by delivering quality service; the very best we can do and strive to be better than the rest in our field. We all know this. I have written about it once or twice.

Great!

Respect is important in the workplace too. I am not talking about forelock touching by employees towards their bosses. I am talking about mutual respect between employees and their bosses. That means communication between them.

All my yesterdays

Going back a while in my working life, I was a manager in a small firm which was taken over by a larger firm. I had two bosses. Neither had any respect for me. In their eyes I was a worker whom they didn’t want. They made assumptions about me. They assumed that because I didn’t have a large firm background I was not a capable manager. Not only that but they assumed that I did not know as much as their “own” staff about the technical issues of a job I had been doing for a long time.

These bosses didn’t give me a good run out with any difficult work so they were not likely to find out how good I was. I began to believe their stories, and when one client I was responsible for had a really difficult issue I had that client taken away. It was humiliating at the time. As I said, I even thought they might have been right, and it was not until I left and got another job which was really challenging that I realised just how good I was. And that was really good, though I say it myself.

I received no respect from my bosses. I was not the only employee who had no respect.

All I heard from my bosses was complaints that I was not making them enough money, but actually that was because they allowed me no decent clients and no decent work. They didn’t listen to me. I tried to speak to them but all I got was sarcasm and abuse from one and total indifference from the other. The only respect I received was from my own team, the people whom I supervised as a manager. And we were a team even though they suffered because I had no respect from above.

Managing is satisfying

I always enjoyed my time as a manager, and it was for the most part very rewarding. Management is about communication, and communication involves listening. To listen to someone we have to respect their opinion, and not to receive a dismissive answer such as “I hear what you are saying”, which, translated, means “I am not listening, I don’t respect your opinion, and you are bound to be wrong”.

Of course no one is perfect; even me, but I have always tried to listen. When I forgot once I was pulled up by a business friend, even if he didn’t realise. He reminded me how to help other business owners listen too.

I don’t think there is any way to manage a business except by:

  • Valuing our workers
  • Listening to what they have to say about their work
  • Having an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Your workers may think of a better way of doing things which can improve your business and make it more efficient. They turn out to be much better than you could have hoped for if you gave them their head. They may make a great contribution to improving profitability if you listen to them.

They will deserve greater reward if they do help your profits go up. It also starts with listening. And respect.

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How to annoy me on-line

Česky: Logo Facebooku English: Facebook logo E...

Image via Wikipedia

Something we often forget is that we are all different, even on-line. There are tools that some people think are absolutely wonderful and think bring them success. Maybe they do! But a lot of those things others think are really annoying. I thought I would share some of those things that annoy me.

  • Tweeting links to the same blog posts over and over again. My limit is two tweets of my link on one day, and maybe one the following day. Then I might only refer to that link in another post if relevant. Then again I haven’t 40,000 followers so I may be the one who is wrong.
  • Pop-ups attempting to get me to sign up to blog posts and newsletters, even on sites where I am already signed up. These pop-ups are intrusive and if I am not already signed up then I won’t be and may not visit the blog again. I don’t mean to offend and they may work. I just don’t like them.
  • Selling in blogs. I want to be entertained and learn from someone’s expertise.
  • Selling in blog comments. Same as above.
  • Sending me sales emails every two minutes.
  • Signing me up to newsletters because I was persuaded to part with a business card.
  • Someone saying they are my friend on Facebook or LinkedIn when I have never heard of them. You might be my friend if you have made a non-spam comment on my blog of course. You can be my friend if you send me a nice note. But strictly no blagging.

What sort of thing annoys you? Apart, that is, from smug opinionated bloggers like me? :)

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Why we don’t need social media for business

Losing the plot?

Well, we tend to forget that social media is (are) a means to an end. Or maybe it was just me. I can’t speak for you.

Like lots of people I have embraced Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, signed up for newsletters and blogs of interesting people, and of course bought things from various people and businesses. The result is that my email inbox is being inundated with lots of stuff, most of which I never read.

In addition to subscribing to blogs via email I also collect new posts vis Google Reader. Do you know what? I almost never look at Google Reader so miss out on most of whatever I thought I might like. Sad, isn’t it?

Having a clear-out

So anyway I run a business; well I own three actually. I have got past doing everything myself of course, to free up time to run my business and spend my time more valuably. I still have to use the time though, so it is no good eating into it reading a lot of stuff that probably isn’t really useful.

What I am doing about this? Well, now each time I see a new post I think about whether I need it. If I don’t I unsubscribe. I have done a lot of that recently. That’s not to say that there is not content that I do value. However if I spend all day reading other people’s blogs and what might be useful information, I can’t take it all in and still have time for my serious business life.

What is easy to forget is that social media interaction, and blogs where we like to comment, involve people. It is the people we need to think about and not the game

I am not the only one who is cutting down, but he is not one I am going to unsubscribe from.

We can employ others to do our work or we can subcontract and either way manage our businesses. But we can’t do that when we are eating into our time reading stuff we might never need and using on-line networks in a less than efficient way.

People matter

I am staying with Twitter. I like Twitter and I have made valuable new contacts there. I have helped people. I have gained business via Twitter. I just don’t need to post 25+ times a day or worry about irrelevancies such as Klout scores. In networking I have always preferred quality over quantity and I think that includes my own output. People know who I am. Better still, I know who other people are whom I would turn to.

So it isn’t social media that we should worry about. It is the people we meet through participation.

Have you got too busy with the social media game, can you manage the fast pace, or are you cutting down too?

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Conversations make team work

As you may remember, I believe that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Listening is the bit where we actually take in what someone is saying rather than just appearing to be polite by giving them time.

Listening involves thinking about what we are hearing. It involves being aware of our surroundings. At work it involves knowing what is happening around us. It involves actual communication – a two-way process – rather than just hearing instructions. Listening is about joined-up teamwork, about getting things done.

Not listening and not communicating is when things go wrong. Not listening amounts to poor management. I see it in large companies who fail their customers. I see it in the public sector to do with planning, and in the UK National Health Service. If people don’t listen, or if workers don’t expect to be heard so they stay silent, things go wrong. Customers suffer. Patients in hospital and outside quite literally suffer. Yet the workers who are supposed to serve them have collectively all the knowledge they need to deliver the right service. They don’t talk, they don’t ask, and they DON’T LISTEN.

You and I know that we need to listen to each other. We need to listen to the people who work for us. Mostly we need to listen to our customers. I am sure you are listening, aren’t you?

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Your customers are not a process

English: Kent's Department Store in Bathurst, ...

Old-fashioned shopping

Most of us here provide a personal service to our customers, whether that is as in my case providing help and support with my clients’ businesses and taxes, or for you perhaps web design or delivery of packages. In a small business every individual customer gets a service and we cater for their individual needs.

It should be like that for big businesses too. I guess that if we are in a large department store queuing to pay, or at the supermarket checkout we are part of a process. Even then, a chatty and helpful assistant when it is our turn to part with our money helps the day go better. Sharing a little conversation or a brief joke along the way through makes everyone feel better.

Old-fashioned department stores would have floor-walkers to chat to customers and help them find what they want, and buy. In our local gym the staff are friendly and chatty. In a social atmosphere our customer process is more pleasurable.

Still, cheeriness doesn’t help in some larger organisations because they are too distant and anonymous, a bit like my former telephone provider.

It is easy to forget when we have a rush on that our customers are people. In my business the next two months may be a bit of a rush though I plan it to go smoothly. All my clients will get what they need and more, and individual needs will vary.

Do you treat each customer according to, and beyond, their own expectations? Don’t you find you get great feedback and more referrals?

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Smile!

 

A patient having his blood pressure taken by a...

Hospital soap

If you have read this blog for a while you will know that I feel very much that lazy management can result in poorly run hospital wards, especially geriatric wards.  Currently my wife and I are visiting a much better hospital ward. It is still for the elderly, but it is a “rehab” ward, where the object is to get the patients back on their feet, and preferably back to their own homes.

Brightening up?

What is the secret of this part of the hospital? Well, it helps that the place is bright and at least seems airy. But the main ingredient of this new magic formula is a smile. Well, lots of smiles. The staff seem very cheery and upbeat, and everyone joins in the mood.

Of course not everything that happens in a hospital is a reason to be cheery, but if people are upbeat and approach their work happily it affects everyone around them, and especially the patients, or customers if you will.

The great thing about this ward is that the happy attitude is not artificial. It is not put on. The staff really are happy, and the patients and of course the visitors are caught up in it.

I commented to one of the nurses going off duty how happy everyone in the ward seemed to be. She said that it was a happy place. She said that any disagreement among the staff was soon forgotten, and she enjoyed working there.

I am sure a happy patient will be helped to get better more quickly, being supported at every step. I sneaked a look at “our” patient’s notes, and could see how attentively she was checked at least every hour, and that she was seen to be eating properly. They are clearly going beyond what everybody would normally expect.

Service with a smile

I always found in my former employments that everything seemed to run better when everyone was happy. There were less mistakes and less mishaps. The clients were looked after to the best of everyone’s ability.

I believe that service with a smile helps a great deal. In face to face meetings whether business meetings or just in a shop, I find a nice smile relaxes whoever I am talking to. It is easier to do business.

Smiling can be virtual too. That means being cheery on the telephone, and writing letters and emails in a friendly fashion while of course being careful that the written word is not misunderstood in the absence of an actual smile.

Just making our customer of client happy at very stage will make them more comfortable, more likely to come back to us and more likely to refer us.

Even after a client has paid a bill, I like to follow up to check they really received everything they expected. Just occasionally they may have had a different expectation through something they misunderstood, but we still have the opportunity to smooth the edges and keep them as our big supporters. That is a virtual or figurative smile, but it is still in the vein of keeping our customers happy.

Who have you smiled at today? It is great to get one back, isn’t it? It gives you a nice warm feeling, doesn’t it?

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