Archives for June 2013

Take a break!

Deckchair happinessWe know that work stress can burn us out  even when we are young.  One of my colleagues had a serious breakdown through stress when still in his twenties.

Of course it is important to get on in our working lives and do our best, but we are not at our best if we drive ourselves into the ground. Apparently “Generation Y” workers born between 1980 and 1993 are getting badly stressed in their jobs or when trying to get better jobs by climbing the employment ladder.

Working is important, because we all need money to get on. However, if we do not look after our health and fitness we will not be able to work. We all need to have a break during the day, and take time off for holidays to recharge.

The world will not fall apart if you are away from work for a short while. If you must check your email on a day off, make one time in the day to deal with it (no more than an hour) and then relax with a book, or go windsurfing, or whatever takes your fancy.

You will feel much better for it, and be a more effective worker when you get back. You know it makes sense, don’t you?

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Ethics, confidentiality and loyalty in business

 

Old-fashioned spy equipment

Old-fashioned spy equipment

Once upon a time

My first job was with a bank which operated mostly overseas. When I joined I signed an oath of secrecy and promised not to divulge any aspect of a customer’s affairs. Having done that, even as a junior person, theoretically I could look at the dealings of any of the customers with accounts in London. In practice, I could certainly look at their current account by helping myself to their ledger card which would be in a box in the next office by the desk of the person who typed the accounts up on an old NCR 32 Accounting Machine  I started work very young and the bank did not even have its first computer.

Incidentally the only ledger card I checked regularly was my own as not quite £12 a week did not go far even when I started work.

Secrets

I guess there was very sensitive information available to me. Certainly we looked after the affairs of an overseas Prime Minister to whom I was introduced at around the age of twenty. No one at work would have thought of revealing anything about a customer to a newspaper or anyone else. My Mum and Dad worked in banks and we did not even discuss our employers’ customers between ourselves.

I was working in tax way back then too. We would speak to and write to people in the Inland Revenue (as it was called). All the Revenue employees had signed the Official Secrets Act and were also bound not to reveal confidential information to anyone except the taxpayer concerned, or to us as the customers’ agents.

I am sure that the Revenue employees, like we in the bank, took their oath and responsibility seriously.

Trusted guardians

Coming back to the present, we in the tax profession still take our responsibilities as guardians of private information very seriously. If required by any agency to divulge sensitive information, we would ask the client for permission except in very specific areas relating to the Money Laundering Regulations where fraud might be suspected.

There is currently a fashion for so-called whistle-blowers to go public with sensitive information. In business or in the public sector, surely one would have to suspect serious wrongdoing; otherwise any malpractice ought to be pursued internally or directly with the police?

The clean kitchen

Quite why someone working for a government intelligence agency, whose business is spying, should actually find it necessary to explain to a newspaper how that agency is spying and what they are spying on is hard to understand. Surely one’s first responsibility is to one’s employer? If you do not approve of spying (or banking or tax planning) do not work for an organisation which does that thing.

We should all uphold the law in our work and should never be involved in any wrongdoing. Beyond that, our loyalty must be to our employer (including Government if that is whom we work for), our business and most of all to our clients. Otherwise, if we can’t stand the heat, we get out of the kitchen and keep our own counsel.

Do you agree?

 

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Do you supply your services 24/7?

Is Generation Y in front?

Is Generation Y in front?

As a professional person it is important to respond to clients’ questions promptly. Gone are the days when generally a client would write a letter and would be happy to have had a reply within a week. Now they mostly expect a reply to an email fairly promptly, by which I mean within hours. However I was surprised to see in an article that “Generation Y” accountants (born between 1980 and 1993) were best placed to deal with modern clients demands because “Greater use of mobile devices and online technologies is leading to clients expecting more support outside of the traditional nine-to-five working hours.”

Of course I am ancient compared with “Generation Y” people. In my early working life, people wanting an answer to an urgent query picked up the telephone.. Everyone had access to a telephone, even if they had to walk to their street corner and enter one of those strange red boxes with windows. Actually all our clients had a land-line in their house.

It is true that with a smartphone (I have one), a computer (I have several), a tablet (got one of those too) anyone can be in touch with their clients and answer a query at one in the morning. However, is that wise? Should anyone, ancient like me or in her twenties, be answering client queries at all hours? Even young people get tired, might have had a glass of something and would have a much higher risk of making a mistake.

Young people get stressed and ill from work pressures too. I have seen it all to often. A close and able colleague of mine of twenty-something had a complete breakdown over pressure of work.

Yes, people expect answers and quickly. Yes, we should do our best to respond promptly even if to ask for more time to think. But no, none of us should be available day and night because we need our time to relax and rest, our downtime and our sleep, otherwise we will never be at our best.

I see clients out of hours by arrangement and am open to talking to clients in New Zealand via Skype at crack of dawn if needed, and by appointment, but otherwise if someone messages me in the evening they really do not expect a reply within minutes, especially not a technical one.

It is down to time management and discipline and even Generation Y will have to ration themselves otherwise they will not get to be as old as I am. Even being on-line most of one’s waking hours should not mean working most of one’s waking hours.

Maybe I am old-fashioned. On the other hand, perhaps my experience has taught me better time management. I think the conclusion of that article was nonsense, but do you agree with it and think it was Sage advice?

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Losing an ungrateful customer

Dropping the Pilot (Sir John Tenniel)

Dropping the Pilot (Sir John Tenniel)

Usually we are not happy about losing a client. Sometimes it is our own decision of course when keeping them on is not cost-effective. They might be very demanding but will not reward us by agreeing a higher fee. It might be that we do not have a good relationship because we seem to have a clash of personalities. We are all human and have particular sensitivities. If I am no longer comfortable with a client I will gently suggest they find someone else.

Now and again, a client will drop us without telling us first. We may well have given them quite exceptional service (well, we should have done) and there is no explanation forthcoming. The first we hear of our lost relationship might be when we hear from our successor if we are told at all. I think that someone not telling us directly we are not required any more is very rude, especially when we have worked so hard to make sure we met their every requirement.

Of course we have to get over it even though we have “The quiet sense of something lost.” as Tennyson might have put it. If clients will not tell us why we are being dropped it might be because our replacement is a personal friend to whom they feel an obligation. It might be any sort of frivolous reason.

We just have to be dignified as Bismarck was portrayed in the famous Tenniel cartoon “The dropping of the pilot” and accept our fate. After all, we have other clients. We will get new ones too and there is no time to waste on regrets. We get over it.

Have you been shocked to be jilted by a customer for no reason you knew?

More haste, less speed, less money?

DSC01839-2It is a cliché to say that people are always in a rush these days, but unfortunately it is true. In business, generally, it does not pay to be in a rush. We may make poor decisions without considering all our options, or may miss them even if put in front of us.

I have noticed a couple of problems recently in dealing with clients and friends where they are replying “on the hoof” to emails from me, and using their smartphones. In making a business decision it is important to embrace the whole conversation with your supplier or adviser. However, I have found that some overlook earlier advice because they are in haste to reply, or they do not scroll down or they do not review previous messages before answering.

I try not to let my clients derail themselves by not considering all the options, but these emails from their iPhone or HTC etc. often waste time on all sides because I need to follow up and make sure we all understand what decision we are making, and that we are making it for the right reason.

It pays to slow down and think before making any business decision. A simple brief message telling our loved ones what time we will be home is all very well. A major purchase or a key decision require proper consideration and more than a brief email in a reflex response..

Do you know anyone who runs too fast?

The ignorant blunderbuss approach to sales and marketing

26 Feb 12 upload 024 (2)Knowing our abilities and our limits

My business is helping people with their tax issues, and finding help to support their businesses. I know a lot about how to do that, and that is down to hard work, training and experience. I am not an expert in health and safety or financial advice or insurance or carpet-laying. I would not dream of trying to advice on the first two or get on my knees on the floor to trim a carpet to size. There are people who are much better at doing that.

I am not an expert in social media (no such person) though I know a bit, read what I can about on-line engagement, and learn from people who know more. I pay those people who know more for their advice and for their knowledge. I am their client.

Blundering

So why is it that people blunder into an area, and think they can succeed without studying how it all works, and looking at what the more successful people do. Accountants make that mistake with social media, but so do web-designers and SEO specialists, and, heck, they must spend quite a lot of their lives on-line.

What do you make of a business which says in its Twitter profile: “We are one of the Most Reputed Online & Local Business Branding SEO  SMO Company” and then just tweets from a tech news feed it doesn’t own, with no personal interaction?

What about “Welcome to Prince and Draper’s Twitter page, we are Hertfordshire-based accountants and advisors”? (I changed the name and County). They hardly ever tweet, there is no actual person or photo of the very occasional poster / profile owner

How about a Twitter account in the name of a firm of solicitors “Proud to offer competitive fixed fees across our company / commercial and private client departments” again with no personal interaction.? As an aside, I hate to see “proud” to do anything in a website or marketing page. Why not say how they can help; ease the pain? I despair.

Blunderbuss or scatter-gun?

I was at a business exhibition the other day. I spoke to many people on the various stands and gave my business card to some. Both at the exhibition and since, over the telephone, I have been subjected to sales talk re various products. No one has asked how their product might suit my business. All have been eager to state what discount I would be getting and giving me the whole script. I appreciate they have to make a living, but they won’t if they do not think about the customer.

Why not study the potential customer and think how they might meet the customer’s requirements?

You and I know that we need to give our customers what they want, and that involves listening, not broadcasting a message. It is no good setting up a Twitter page and misusing it, or not using it. It is no good spouting a sales pitch to a business owner you don’t know and have not bothered to find out about.

These poor people are wasting their time. The trouble is they waste ours too, don’t they?

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Dealing with time-wasters and tyre-kickers

Question mark

Many of us who offer professional services get enquiries from people who do not really want to buy. The problem has been the subject of a debate among several of my colleagues and friends, and we have different ways of dealing with the email and telephone enquiries we get.

Some people may have a simple query which they may think they can answer in a couple of minutes and generously charge no fee for doing so. I do not think that is a very good approach because I like to be paid for my expertise even if I am asked what seems a simple question.

A second issue is that if we do not have an in-depth discussion we might not find out important information which the querist has incorrectly discounted as unimportant. That puts us at risk of a negligence claim even if we have not been paid, and at the very least means that we will be wrongly bad-mouthed to other people.

I will always respond by asking a few question, quoting a fee at the start, or in the second contact if I thought I needed to know more before quoting. This filters out those who are trying to get that free information, and establishes whether our prospects are really serious about solving their problem properly and understanding the value of our advice.

Recently I was asked a question which involved both capital gains and inheritance tax issues. I quoted a fee and asked a number of questions about finances involved and time-line etc. I had a reply by email back saying “Thanks, Jon, but we were only looking for general advice. If we need more detailed advice in due course we will be in touch.” In other words they were looking for free advice; otherwise why send a fairly detailed query in the first place?

You and I have worked and studied hard to gain the knowledge to run our businesses. We cannot afford to give it away for free except perhaps to the needy at the lower end of the income scale as otherwise we will also be at that lower end.

How do you deal with the free-loader types?

 

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Tailoring your offering to suit the client

Package deals

In many businesses, including my general area, it is customary to quote package prices. For example, there might be a price for a tax return, and then a price for self-employed accounts and a tax return, one for lettings accounts and tax return, and one for company accounts and tax return.

Clients and prospects know what they are getting, and the businesses offering think in terms of value and profit per package on an average basis, knowing that on some they will make a very good margin, and now and again they will make a loss. It is the overall net profit on the portfolio of compliance clients which counts.

Think about the customer's needs!

Think about the customer’s needs!

 

À la carte

My approach is not quite like that, because although my firm does some of that sort of work, I prefer not to be too tied in to fixed prices. I like the flexibility to tailor my fees according to the value the client actually receives, so that allows me to charge more according to their particular needs, or sometimes less if they really do not want the Full Monty. That aside, a lot of my business is not compliance anyway, and that work has a value which the client and I determine between us in the sales process. The fee will suit both of us if we agree on one, and it is down to me to sell the value.

I think that initial fixed price packages have to be flexible sometimes because not every client with broadly the same description of requirements actually needs the same service. The “one size fits all” approach does not always work. If sellers of services stick to the “fixed” formula they will lose business because their prospective purchasers cannot fit themselves into the packages offered.

How not to do business

A small accountancy or tax practice will have particular requirements for tax software. For example they might have a hundred personal tax clients, but only five partnerships and eight company clients (but their client portfolio might be disproportionate the other way round).

My old software provider charged per module for personal tax, partnerships and company tax. That added up to a lot, especially when they put their prices up. I no longer had value for money, compared with competitors who offered all-in-one packages for those who had client proportions skewed as in my example. I would have paid a high price for services I mostly did not use.

You might say that the old provider did not want my business, but that is not what they said when I tried to negotiate a better deal, and their website purports to attract smaller practices. Anyway, they did not have the common sense to make a deal with me. I wanted something which had real value and not want to pay for what I did not want.

Bespoke suits me!

I took my business to a software house who gave me an all-in deal which was exactly what I wanted. It is good value for me and it works, so I am no trouble to them as a client either.

It is always important to listen to our clients and our prospects to know what they need, and to ensure that they buy on the value of what we give them. If they are happy with us they are happy to pay.

Do you know businesses that have a limited selling policy of “that’s what we offer, so take it or leave it”?