Archives for September 2013

Standing out from the crowd in your business

Boring shopping

I was walking through the main shopping area of our county town the other day and I could not help thinking it looked just like the main drag of every other large town I have been to recently. Even if I did not know them, it would be possible to guess which stores lined the street because they are all parts of large chains and multi-nationals. That goes for both the retailers and the coffee shops.

There are of course certain chains we might rely on for particular products such as our underwear, but the reality is that there is no variety of choice. Without real diversity in the product or service there is far less attraction to the customer looking for specific features.

 

Selling the same old…

It is the same with professional firms such as accountants or solicitors. I would always go with a recommendation because how else does one distinguish between them when they all appear to be the same? How do we know in what areas of expertise they particularly excel?

If we go to many accountants’ websites they say things like “we specialise in audits, accounts production, self assessment tax return processing, and management accounts and cash flow management.”

Well, firstly, they do not specialise in the services offered since they offer many. They may have specialists in each area of course. Secondly, talking about “processing” does not sound like much of a personal or individual service, does it?

Nowhere do many say what they do for the client, and how much better the customer will feel having the weight taken off their shoulders.

Your brand is the difference

The accountants do not appear to have a distinguishable brand. We do not know what they stand for. The big stores have some sort of brand, but few large companies have a personal brand. There are exceptions. Richard Branson is the face of Virgin. Anita Roddick gave her personal brand to Body Shop through her own ethics and campaigning.

You can do that too, by creating an individual brand around yourself, with a reputation for the very best and most different service to others in the market. If you have a unique product, sell it. If you make the finest shortbreads which could not be confused with other people’s shortbreads, sell that feature and the satisfaction it will give the purchaser. If your offer is the very best bespoke service anyone could expect, sell that and your personality along with it.

Small businesses do best by being different and when they grow into Virgin they still do best by being different. Try it and see if I am not right. Don’t you agree?

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Should we buy really cheap services?

 

Professionally checked out?

Professionally checked out?

In the course of our business we are receive all sorts of offers. We get mail-shots through our letter boxes, we get emails and we receive telephone calls. Many of the offers sound very tempting, but do we know what we might get for the little money we are asked to pay?

Now some very professional businesses offer “cheap” services. What they mean by that is that they give a professional service provided by professional people within agreed fee levels, and clients know in advance what they are getting and paying for. If they decide they want more they can “upgrade”. That is fine. In fact it is an excellent business model.

However some business people look for what they think is the cheapest option without worrying whether those whom they might engage know what they are doing, and without considering their experience and qualifications.

The other day I was asked whether I knew anyone who could do property conveyancing very cheaply. Now many of us, myself included, are good at filling in forms, but only in our particular area of expertise. Would I know what I was doing if I had a go? No, I would not. But how would anyone know whether an unqualified cheap “bucket-shop” conveyancer was capable of asking the right questions and doing the job? Search me!

It reminds me of those people who buy a house or flat and do not have a proper survey, or they rely on the mortgage lender’s valuation survey report. The latter will not point out serious defects to the property which are in urgent need of repair; all it will say is whether the property is worth the money being lent to the applicant.

The point is that if you want a job done properly you must expect to pay a business suitably qualified professionally or by experience, and one that is properly insured as well. Do not be afraid to ask about their professional indemnity insurance.

After all, if you are let down, or something goes wrong, or maybe you buy a property that turns out to be falling down, you need proper recourse to recover your lost money. Better still, you need your work to be done properly in the first place, don’t you?

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Taking time off from your small business

Break-time walk

Break-time walk

We all need a break. We know that. Sometimes we let ourselves be tied to the mill.

In the early days when we started, we learned that businesses do not run themselves. It might have seemed that the more we worked, the more money we made, and the less we worked, the less money we made. So we might have got into the habit of working all hours of the day, six or seven days a week.

I have learned, and perhaps you have too, that working every hour God sends is not good for our health, and actually not good for our business because we become tired and jaded and less efficient. We may forget things and make mistakes. We have to go back and re-do tasks that should have been easy.

Most of us work to our own schedule. After all, it is our business so we can organize our own schedule. It is vital not only to manage our work time, but also our time off; our time to relax.

Actually it is important for everyone to have time off and not to work long hours for any period. When I worked for a large firm of accountants way back, there was a culture of getting in early and staying late. It was expected of everyone, whether they actually had anything to do while they sat at their desks. Latterly because of poor organization by my bosses I actually did not have enough to do and said so. Eventually I decided to leave the office when I had done my work and my contractual hours were fulfilled. I had much more satisfaction in the gym or at the cinema in the hours I was no longer wasting.

In one of those sorts of work cultures it is easy to be locked into a treadmill and be worn out and be far less effective. I was interested to read in Forbes an article advocating a four-day week for employees. Of course the employees would be expected to work longer hours as a price for getting an extra day off a week. However, both mentally and physically it seems to me the extra downtime could make a person much more effective at work when they were doing their four days on.

So it is with we who run our own businesses. Yes, we should be flexible in the way we run our affairs in order to suit our customers and clients. However I know that I work much better when I am making sure I do take time off, and that I make time for important family stuff. And as I have mentioned, when I am out for a walk, which is every day, I have my best ideas for my business and for my writing, because relaxing my mind makes those ideas pop into my head without any effort.

Four day weeks may not suit everyone. Sometimes I have a four-day working week. Sometimes I have a holiday and therefore a “no-day week”. Sometimes I just take an afternoon off. If our businesses are well-run and efficient we should all be able to do that. We are not slaves to our businesses or ourselves, because that would be no fun, and business should be fun, shouldn’t it?

Are you afraid to take time off? You shouldn’t be.

 

Customer service, flexibility and common sense

dishwasher disassembly for repair/replacement ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Flexibility

Customer service is a hobby-horse of mine, but in a small business or any business, it should have top priority. We can only meet the customer’s needs by being flexible and adopting an understanding approach to give them what they need.

My office is normally “closed” at weekends. Yes, I do run my businesses from home, but I do think that my wife and I need some privacy and personal time. However, I do appreciate that my clients are busy, so by pre-arrangement I will visit clients on a Saturday or have them come to me. It is only fair and makes sure that I am properly accessible.

Normal businesses who see customers or clients other than in retail premises make appointments in advance. Having an appointment means meeting at a certain time, doesn’t it? Well, I always thought so.

Uncaring large business

This brings me to the tale of our dishwasher breaking down, although unfortunately it is a typical story of a business being run for the convenience of its management and employees rather than its customers.

Our dishwasher repair man came on a Tuesday and we had a two hour slot at home which suited us. This was arranged through one of those domestic insurance companies where you pay for an extended guarantee. This arrangement may well be where we went wrong.

Unfortunately when he came the first time the guy did not have the parts to do the repair so said that another appointment would be made. I was sent a text to say when the new appointment would be, but unfortunately it was at a time when neither my wife nor I could be at home. There was a number to telephone on our guarantee documentation. We called, but every time we pressed the first button after getting through we got cut off. We had to give up.

Repair man put a card though the door when he called and we were out. Eventually the switchboard did work and we were give another appointment, again on the basis that was when he would call, and if we were not there again that was our hard luck. Fortunately, over two weeks without a working dishwasher, it did get repaired.

I had tried during the two weeks this nonsense went on to engage the company on Twitter. All I got was an apology but no action speeding up the repair process.

Suit yourselves!

The dishwasher company is not interested in customer service. All they are doing is running their business to suit themselves. It is a sure-fire way to get rid of their customers anyway as we will probably vote with our feet and find some other way of securing our dishwasher’s good state of repair.

Many of the very large companies are examples of how not to do business, but even small businesses sometimes forget how to treat people well, like the plumber who has been promising my parents for weeks that he will repair their hot water cylinder, but has yet to get around to doing it.

Running our businesses is for our financial benefit, but we only get that benefit if we help our customers get what they want, and at a time when they want it.

What do you think?

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Keeping your customers’ faith

iStock_000011891859XSmall bored womanWhy do our customers buy from us and go on buying.? It is because they trust us to deliver what we say we will, and we make them feel safe in our hands. Their trust is essential as Seth Godin  explained recently.

The only way we can maintain the trust is by being consistent and reliable, and offer the best service we can, considering and meeting the customers’ needs.

Of course sometimes things do go wrong, and we must try our best to rectify any mistake or mishap. Life is such that sometimes we cannot. I had a client who asked me to send her papers back by courier. The courier lost the documents and they were never seen again. Understandably the client blamed me rather than the courier and since she could not replace the documents, I lost her trust irretrievably. Some things you cannot put right.

The courier company lost my trust. I would never use them again. They were so unhelpful when I asked them to try to find the package. They were difficult to contact, only accepting email and having no telephone number for customer services.

So that is two suppliers who lost someone’s trust for ever. I feel I did not deserve it, but, hey, life goes on.

I work hard to make sure my business delivers what we are good at. I keep an eye on my suppliers’ performance. I want to trust them as I need to be trusted. Trust is the foundation of all our businesses, isn’t it?

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Business software magic in the Cloud?

Looking to the Cloud

Looking to the Cloud

Soothsayers

Predicting the future is a fool’s pastime, especially when discussing technology of any sort. Yet we all have to try to anticipate our hardware and software needs in running a small business because we do not want to buy anything which will be obsolete the day after tomorrow.

Ten years ago, or even five, it would have been hard to predict the devices we use today to stay in touch and on-line. If you like gadgets, and I do, there are tablets from the iPad to a huge choice of Android devices, and items that we thought really cool three or four years ago, such as netbooks, are really old hat. I bought a netbook which frankly was seriously underpowered but gimmicky and that was my mistake; it has been saved from the scrap heap by installing extra memory and had to practically be dismantled to do it. That is an example of the price of getting it wrong.

Magic wands

Today I have three desktops, an older laptop and the netbook. Do I use these exclusively to stay in touch? Well, no, I have a smart phone and I have a cheap Android tablet on which I can do all sorts of clever or magic things. Yet what will be in vogue in terms of hardware in another five years? I do not know, and if I did, I would be a billionaire within the five years.

Of course what makes all these different devices almost interchangeable in accessing our stuff is that nearly everything happens in the Cloud, and probably soon everything else which is not in the Cloud will be available up there too.  Those who are paranoid about security, and I know some, will have to be provided for or satisfied that their data really is as safe up there as down here.

Past wizard

If it is difficult for us to predict the technology market, how much more difficult is it for the software companies? Some of the giants have not reacted as quickly as they might

The large players in accounting payroll and general business software, certainly for the UK domestic market, such as Sage and Intuit / QuickBooks, have historically filled in for Microsoft’s failure ever to produce decent accounting software for Windows. Very effective and popular these packages have been.

Apple has never seemed interested in producing decent accounting software, especially not country-specific, so there has been comparatively little choice but for Apple fans to go with the suppliers who dominated the Windows market, and either using Windows emulation or outsourcing.

The point about accounting and payroll software is that every business needs it or otherwise has to outsource, which incurs a certain additional cost. Many small businesses in the UK need accounting software which will handle VAT. A simple generic package will not do. There are really no short cuts. In the past so many small businesses have relied on the big independent software suppliers, the aforementioned Sage and Intuit. While they have served us all well, there has been a distinct lack of choice.

Sunny outlook with Clouds

The Cloud brings us so many choices. Because there are more devices available for getting on-line, we have more operating systems too. There are Windows and Mac, there are the most popular Linux OS choices, Ubuntu and Mint, and those are just for the “big” devices, the desktops and laptops etc.. Then there are the iPad and Android tablets, small Windows tablets, and we expect soon for tablets and phones both Ubuntu (maybe) and the Firefox OS from the open source Mozilla Foundation.

It is all a kind of evolution. All these devices will be able to access the Cloud through their browsers. Is the Cloud the driver for the diversification of devices and operating systems, or is it the other way round? It does not matter; the Cloud is the future, at least for the next few years.

The home patch

I use the Cloud for storing non-confidential files and personal stuff, and it has become a habit. I use Evernote plus Dropbox and Google Drive. We have Microsoft’s Sky Drive, and Ubuntu One. I have recently heard of Cubby so we are overwhelmed with mostly free document storage. I get one terabyte of space on Flickr for my photos. Good grief!

Like everyone else, I have now been conditioned to regarding Cloud software as normal.

Therefore it is hardly surprising that far-sighted geek-entrepreneurs have seized the Cloud-based accounting and business software opportunities rather quicker than some of the major players. The upstarts in on-line accounts include Kashflow, Xero, FreeAgent etc.

Of course Sage and their historical competitors are there too. They have their fans from their desk-top and server-based packages, and if those packages look familiar to their long-term customers and historical data can easily be uploaded to ensure continuity, those customers will remain loyal. The big difference from the past is that on-line software can be accessed from any browser running in any OS. It is inevitable that the market will be fragmented, which means that the customers have more choice, and also the actual subscription costs will be kept down because of the competition.

The future is bright

To me, the future in business software is:

  • In the Cloud
  • More choice in market players and packages
  • Low costs
  • Accessible from more devices
  • Freedom from our desks

So I have stuck my neck out and predicted at least the near future in business software, which is a risky thing to do. If I get carried away and next try to predict the future in social media, shoot me. Well, not literally; just shoot me down on-line.

Do you have your head in the clouds concerning business software, or do you run your business systems in the Cloud?

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Promoting your start-up business – Part 6 – Making business friends

 

Widen your market

Widen your market

Most start-up businesses start with one person – you. You might have one or two part-time staff or subcontractors. However there is a danger of feeling rather lonely. After all, you have to make all the decisions, and while you probably have experience of working in someone else’s business, the buck definitely stops with you now.

The good news is that you need not feel lonely. You should make some friends in your own line of work, preferably others running small businesses. Do not worry that they will try to take your clients away. There are plenty of fish in the sea. I have found that you can pick up ideas from others and perhaps you can help them too. Maybe they can help out with certain types of work you are not so keen on, do not enjoy or are simply not to skilled act. Perhaps you can help them out with their less favourite areas which you enjoy.

So that means you have a potential for getting business from your friends and acquaintances. How do you find those people?

Networking is the obvious answer, but a local trade association or professional group would serve well too. I can vouch for this. My monthly lunches with fellow professionals not only helped me feel part of the local community in my line of business, but we shared and still share problems that we come across. That sense of belonging to the group is a positive and valuable asset.

Another way of finding support from fellow-professionals and others in your business is through social media. I value greatly the friendship and camaraderie from people in my line of business with whom I have connected on Twitter. Sharing repartee and swapping business has been very valuable for me and Twitter is a great asset. Of course I have shared business from people in other lines of business through Twitter, and gained work from them as well as having subcontracted to them. Any way you can get known is useful marketing.

I talk to people through LinkedIn too and contribute to the discussions with specialist forums, but Twitter has built my on-line community rapidly, and I have added many to my LinkedIn contacts later. Twitter and LinkedIn have helped my businesses transform from local to national and beyond in terms of where my clients are located.

Consider having a Facebook page for your business and make sure you are active with a business page on Google+, not only to build your community but also because Google will help people to your website and your business once it knows where you are.

The more people you know, the better it is for support for your business and the more business will come your way. If you remember that as with face-to-face networking it is a matter of “give and take”, with perhaps more giving of referrals than taking, actually you will receive a great deal of business.

Get out there virtually as well as physically.

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