Small business and the baked bean test

HP beansSmalls

Shopping around for products and services, it is human nature to look for good value. Because an offering is cheap does not necessarily mean it is good value. It may be though, depending what you want, and if the seller has devised a particular method of delivery that suits a particular market at a cost which leaves a good profit margin.

I think we all like to buy quality. If we are careful we can sometimes find it at a very decent price. Once upon a time we could rely on Marks and Spencer (a UK department store) for quality underwear at an affordable price, but some years ago they lost their way. I have not checked recently whether they have got back their underwear mojo, but many of us have drifted off to find other suppliers.

Not quite what it says on the tin

Not every product or service can be delivered at what might be perceived at a very low price. Sometimes something can sound cheap, but what it delivers is poor quality even if its generic description is the same. The other day I saw a special offer of four cans of baked beans for £1. It was a brand I knew at what sounded like a very good price; better than a local supermarket’s cheap label beans, which frankly are not very good.

I bought the four cans of beans. They are very poor quality, with fewer beans in the can and watery tomato sauce, not even as good as the supermarket’s basic cans of beans.

Premium brand

Some goods and many services can simply not be delivered to a discerning purchaser cheaply. I deliver quality advice, but the cost of delivery is quite high in terms of purchasing technical information, attending courses, being properly briefed and giving proper attention to a client’s problems as well as meeting the office overheads. My fees to clients take this into account as well as the value to them in being advised by me.

If you buy fillet steak or red mullet, the cost of production and / or delivery in getting it to your fridge and table is high. The cost of production of baked beans is low, but exceptional cheapness may be reflected in the quality.

When we buy in services, we should be careful that what we get really suits us, because the better the value we get from it, the better service or product we can offer ourselves.

Have you been disappointed with a “bargain”?

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Social media gaming and business reputation

iStock_000005618867XSmallI care about my business reputation. Of course it is up to you what you think about my tweets and my Facebook posts, but I can assure you they are all authentic and deliberate. Everything everywhere which is under my name, out on the web, is something I have thought about, even if not much. :) There is no automation other than the odd feed from my blog posts, but they are of my original content.

I see other people who automate their tweets, presumably to help their Klout scores and to boost their SEO or whatever. I have no idea if it works, but if you are like me you unfollow people who just put out automated tweets of quotations from famous people. It really is lazy to tweet second-hand material nobody cares about.

What is even worse is those who tweet or post automated feeds for which they are not responsible at all. Some attach their feeds to news stations or business sites, but many of the stories they appear responsible for are inappropriate for their business, with more raunchy celebrity news or reports of kayaking or something. That’s fine if you are in show biz reporting or sports, but not if you are in invoice discounting or factoring. It makes you look ridiculous.

You have to be careful tweeting feeds from specialist forums too, especially if you don’t monitor your output. Public forums are going to be spammed, and I saw a tax practice tweet spam about Viagra as a result. No doubt the forum moderator deleted the post, but our Twitter friend still had a dodgy web-link out in the ether.

Not everything I tweet is about my business. I post what I find interesting. I have conversations. So do you, I expect.

None of us uses social media perfectly and certainly not I, but we all do have to be sensible and be able to stand by our posts. Don’t we?

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Lack of success and the blame game

English: A Dairy Crest ex-Unigate Wales & Edwa...

A Dairy Crest ex-Unigate Wales & Edwards Rangemaster Milk Float. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Excuses

It is easy to lay the blame for business failure at someone else’s door, but usually it is an excuse. Sometimes bystanders to a disaster blame other businesses.

It is not so long ago that from the early hours we were used to the sound of milk floats in our streets. When I was very small, our milk was delivered by a milkman with a horse-drawn float. You don’t see many milkmen or women delivering now. I think there are one or two customers in our area, but most people get their milk in the supermarket because it is convenient when doing the weekly shop. Some might debate whether that is progress, but it doesn’t matter. The world has changed.

I hear business owners complaining about Amazon who are apparently ruining the book trade, at least according to them. Of course they do sell a lot of books and e-readers, and many bookshops where people used to browse are struggling. However, Amazon does provide an outlet for independent booksellers to sell through.

Novelty

I am not “defending” Amazon. They are part of the new world in which we live. They were a novelty when I first bought books from them in 1995, which were not published in the UK. Now they sell books and almost everything else including cat food at good prices, and they are convenient. No one would wish to travel and to spend more to keep someone in business who cannot adapt.

I do not mean to be unkind, but there is not a lot of call for basket-weavers except for specialist craft fairs and that is because there is not a lot of demand for wicker baskets. We have to offer what people actually want, give them value and allow to have their product or service with the least effort and the most comfort.

When I were a lad…

When I first worked in tax, we completed all the Tax Returns by hand. Two or three decades ago software allowed these to be prepared on computers and of course, saved, potentially altered and amended all without crossings out or Tippex.

Some older tax preparers retired rather than adapt to use computers. Even in the last ten years, “professionals” really did fill in Tax Returns by hand. Even without the earlier deadlines for submission of paper returns, the businesses of these old-fashioned people ceased to be cost-effective.

Why are people not prepared to adapt rather than lose their businesses? My father is over ninety and orders his shopping on-line and browses the website of his favourtite football team? Technology can be mastered by most people.

Keeping our eyes peeled

I think it unlikely that businesses are still failing because they are anti-computers and anti-technology, I do know that we all have to keep an eye out for trends, follow where our businesses are going, and sometimes realise that we are in a dying sector and get out or move to ride the wave.

Businesses must adapt or they will wither away. We all need to anticipate change and be ready, don’t you agree?

 

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Shouldn’t you part from your ungrateful customers?

List of titles of works based on Shakespearean...

Giving thanks

We should always thank those who give us good service. It oils the wheels, makes them feel good towards us, and it is only polite. It is a question of respect, and most of us know this.

Unfortunately not everyone understands. We know thanking people is the right thing to do because we like our hard work and attentive service appreciated. As Shakespeare wrote:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;

Now and again there are customers and clients who take advantage of our excellent service to make continuous demands, taking advantage of our attentiveness. They call and ask for extra advice they do not wish to pay for. They resist an increase in our charges even at less than the rate of inflation. They never thank us and they are brusque in their letters and emails.

I do hope that any clients you have who are like that do not represent a substantial part of your business, because if they do, you are their employee rather than their service provider. As long as you are not beholden in that way, then it is time for you to ask that client to find someone else.

I like good relationships with all my clients and from my side do my very best to look after their business needs to their satisfaction, but all relationships are two-sided. If a client is gruff, demanding, unappreciative and fee-resistant then they regard what your business provides as a commodity with a price. They do not see the value in what they get. They do not value what they get from you. They do not deserve to have you.

As you like it

There are always times when we have to ask our clients to find someone else because they must be unhappy whatever we do, but mostly because they make us unhappy. I like my business to be fun. Do not be afraid to weed out the unhappiness in the nicest possible way.

Have you parted with an ungrateful customer recently?

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The On Our Bikes guide to Windows 8 for small businesses

Strictly for illustration, not for a profile pic

My desktop

Windows 8 is here and still on a special introductory price that we didn’t see with Windows 7. There are all sorts of wizard devices that run Windows 8  and if you want to play with it and see what suits you than you have a huge choice.

I come from the angle of a small office-based business running certain specialist applications,. I do not have touch screen facilities in the office, and nor do most people who are not in art or design (but do correct me if I am wrong).

I have installed Windows 8 on a machine about five years old which had 3Gb memory and which was running XP, 2.7 GHz AMD LE 1640 processor and 250 GB drive, only 20% full. This XP machine has no unusual specialist applications.

The plus side

  • Windows 8 looks very pretty.
  • I think the tiles are fun (you can look elsewhere to see what it looks like)
  • There is something very satisfying about the desktop which feels modern, but then so does my android tablet.
  • The machine boots in 10 to 15 seconds as opposed to a couple of minutes to settle down in XP.
  • It shuts down in less than 10 seconds; about the same as my older machine running Ubuntu.
  • There is a lovely modern feel and you can whip into any program (or App as we are being trained to say) very quickly because…
  • …the old machine is much faster than it was under XP

The minus side

  • You can take your programs with you from Windows 7 but you cannot from Vista or XP. You would have to reinstall them. That would take a lot of time. You can only carry over your personal files.
  • A lot of office programs are not currently compatible with Windows 8, for example any version of QuickBooks below QB 2013, and even that might be trouble.
  • So you would have to buy a lot of new software if you wanted to upgrade any system to Windows 8.
  • Having reinstalled your programs from disk you would then have to get new license keys from the software providers like if you had bought a new hard disk.
  • The touch screen would suit the artistic among us but most designers will be using Mac anyway.
  • There is no start button. You can use the tiles to start a program but have to wave your mouse cursor / pointer in the corner of the screen to get tiles if you are in desktop mode which you will be most of the time.
  • There is more waving of the cursor on the other side of the screen to get to the settings or even to shut the machine down.

Windows 8 has revived my old XP machine brilliantly, but it wasn’t running any specialist applications. In terms of functionality Windows 8 without touch screen is no better (because it is the same) as Windows 7, so if you have Windows 7, stick with it.

Let’s not forget that more and more specialist applications run in the cloud, which might be less of an obstacle to installing Windows 8, but then the cloud offers the choice of many operating systems.

If you have any specialist applications on your Vista or XP machines, you might also have to stick with what you have. I have two machines running Vista. One desktop with QuickBooks and tax programs and all those other programs needing to be reinstalled will stay with Vista. I might change over my Vista laptop eventually but not any time soon.

I guess Microsoft are trying to please too many people across too many devices, many of which are tablets or phones. You cannot have something which is all things to all women and men, because somewhere you are going to fall short. Windows 8 does fall short in the typical office, but is worth a punt for an XP machine with a bog-standard set of applications at the introductory price.

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Job-seekers need to mind their Ps & Qs

Nederlands: Linked In icon

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like LinkedIn. We can connect with all sorts of useful people with whom we can do business, and it is a very good reference for those seeking jobs. Life is tough in the job markets in North America and in Europe, so those looking for employment need all the help they can get.

Of course job-seekers need to give themselves the best chance, which means they should take care putting together their profile and also appearing to be sensible and employable. In that light it was surprising to see an older ex-Civil Servant (over thirty years working for the Government) having a serious virtually troll-like rant in a professional group on LinkedIn, and then arguing vehemently with those who were suggesting that his extreme views were ill-chosen, or at least ill-expressed. Fortunately for him, the Group Leader has apparently decided she or he had had enough and removed the thread, thus removing the embarrassing content.

I hope the perpetrator of this job-seeking faux pas, whose headline is along the lines of “looking for new challenges” learns that it does not pay to be offensive (ever) and engages in proper and sensible dialogue so that those of us who may have been shocked by the outbursts, and those who did not see them can see the value in this guy’s abilities.

Otherwise, everything we say in a public forum remains out there for everyone to see and make a judgement, right or wrong.

Shouldn’t we always add value in our on-line content, and manage our reputations?

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Kindness in business

Blog pix 21 March 11 006It is part of some businesses to be kind, such as when you have lost a loved one. This is the last time I will talk about it, but everyone was so kind in guiding and helping is when we were under such emotional pressure. Although it didn’t make everything right because nothing could, kindness made the situation less painful than it could have been.

Kindness and consideration are so important in business anyway. When we are service providers, we can make our customers so much happier by being kind and considerate than if we just deliver a process. It is best to hold our client’s hand and lead them through, and make sure they are happy when we have finished our task.

Although a very much briefer process, service with a smile over a shop counter makes us want to go back again and again, and a sullen begrudging service makes us as customers shy away from a business.

Being kind never did any harm, and it provides pleasure to the givers. They would be us, wouldn’t they?

Is your business funny?

Joking apart

So, is your business funny? Mine isn’t. It isn’t funny to clients whose businesses are struggling, and people do not like paying tax, so while clients might appreciate my help in reducing it they don’t fall about laughing over their tax bill.

Some businesses are funny but that is because funny is what they do.

Within all our businesses we should be enjoying ourselves and seeing the funny side because we do not work so well if we are not happy. However unless we are in the business of entertainment we do need to be suitably serious when talking to our clients because they expect our proper attention and would rather we didn’t see them as figures of fun and objects of mirth. We have to remain professional.

A time and a place

Recently in our family we have had a rather sad time and lost a loved one. Being thoroughly modern and removed from the location the funeral would take place, we checked out funeral directors (funeral homes to you North Americans) via their websites as well as listening to recommendations. Sensibly, none of the sites were too gloomy, but one featured “amusing” incidents and photos of their employees having a good laugh, including one where a female worker was having difficulty climbing onto a horse-drawn hearse.

What was our reaction to this apparently hilarious business? We moved on. They would have been the most convenient firm for us to use, but we were put off by their website and marketing, and I think so many people would have been. We were in no mood to share the humour.

Don’t frighten the horses

In any business there will be moments of hilarity amongst colleagues. Doctors often have a “gallows humour”. That helps them deal with some of the things they have to deal with. Just the same our clients and customers expect to be treated with respect. They want to be taken seriously. They want to feel they are our most important clients when they are dealing with us. With proper attention that feeling of importance is easy to deliver and essential for customer loyalty.

Don’t you agree there are times we should be serious and try not to frighten the horses?

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