Archives for August 2015

Banking on your small business customer service

I had a letter from a bank telling me that I would no longer be able to withdraw money from a savings account at an ATM. No reason was given of course. It is just a withdrawal of service.

My wife had a letter from her bank saying that they were making changes to her savings account. What they meant when she read the detail was that they were reducing the already paltry interest rate she had been getting.

Often, large businesses will say that in order to improve their service they are making changes which actually amount to a withdrawal of service. My business bank is closing its branch in our village. They claim that our service will not be affected, but actually although there is an arrangement with the Post Office for personal banking, business cheques (checks if you prefer) cannot be paid in there.

Many of my clients are older and do not use internet banking. They prefer to write cheques even though I would rather they did not. I will have to drive to the next town to pay in business cheques, and the bank will charge me for each one as they do now.

I suppose this is an ingrained habit of banks to withdraw a service while pretending they are helping everyone. Back in the Eighties, when I was very young, my bank decided not to send back my cancelled cheques, or anyone else’s of course. We did not have the detail of payments we can now get on-line. This was very annoying, but saved them some postage I suppose.

This sort of thing, which amounts to a withdrawal of service by stealth, is what became known as Hutber’s Law. Patrick Hutber was the City Editor of the Sunday Telegraph way back. Hutber’s Law states “improvement means deterioration” and it certainly prevails as big business withdraws more services from small businesses and individuals. What Mr Hutber would have made of the current utilities, banks and railway companies and all their call centres, Heaven only knows. Heaven probably does know because Mr Hutber died young, crashing his sports car. I missed him when he went.

At least as small businesses we can make sure that we maintain our standards and improve them. I like to visit my clients regularly and know what concerns them and how I can help. I am certainly not going to visit less or be in touch less. We have a big advantage over many of our larger competitors and we can make it count.

Stow’s Law is “Improvement should mean exactly what it says”. What do you think?

Twitter? How do you find the time?

I was asked the above question over lunch at a meeting of tax practitioners. I was a bit surprised, but on reflection the guy asking is an employee. He is engaged to work on particular clients and tasks which are assigned to him. He does not understand what it is like to run a business. He keeps working at the coal face.

For those of us who work for ourselves, we not only work at the coal face and engage others to do so, but we have to sell the coal. Otherwise there is not much point in digging it out. We need customers.

I do not claim to be the greatest user of Twitter for business purposes. It is an important part of my marketing – not advertising because we do not use Twitter for that, do we? Interacting with my Twitter contacts means I can give business to others in order to receive. I can point people towards useful information. They might remember that information later, and remember me.

Marketing is one of the issues we manage in running a business, so we have to make time and also bill our customers enough to give them good value and make a profit.

Put like that, I think we all should be finding time to make a profit. Twitter is part of that, but try explaining that to an employee.

Don’t be afraid to ask

When I started out on my own in business, I thought I knew a lot and in fact I knew very little.

Why did I think I knew a lot? Well, for a good few years I had worked with small businesses as clients, and my employers had called themselves “accountants and business advisers”. So, yes, I understood the mechanics of being in business. I had advised clients about their tax issues, how much they owed in tax and how much they could save.

So what was the problem? Well, I had never tried to visualise myself in their shoes. I did not understand the day-to-day challenges of sales and cash flow. I did not appreciate the responsibilities to employees and workers engaged. I did not realise that everything a business owner does has an impact on family, both financially and time-wise, far more than for an employee.

It is difficult at the beginning of our business. We need a new mind-set. We need to understand about being found by customers, making sales, managing our finances without a guaranteed monthly or weekly income, and in organising our time.

We need to ask our friends in business when we don’t know something. We need to call in help from the outset.

Running a business is hard at the outset. It will be worth it and it will be very rewarding to succeed through our own efforts, knowledge and dedication. But don’t be afraid to ask.

Great sausages, but plan your business in advance

A long time ago when I was in my early twenties, my Mum thought she would like to run a pub, a free house which is one not tied to a brewery. This was following lunch at a very good one when I was driving her to the West Country. I remember the sausages were great and I liked her idea.

The more we thought about it, the more we realised that the commitment and the long hours, the organisation and the large amount of money made the dream unattainable. At least it was for us, with no previous experience in catering.

On the main road through our village someone opened a restaurant. This would be around three or four years ago. I think that since then, the business has changed hands twice, or the tenants have changed.

I have not tried the restaurant although I have not heard bad things about the food. However, it has never seemed very busy. They do not seem to get enough customers.

Why would this be? Well, there is no parking outside except for a lay-by for four cars to serve four businesses. It is on a very busy road and the noise must be a deterrent. Sitting at the two tables outside would not be a pleasant experience, and I have never seen anyone trying it.

This is no place to have a restaurant . Surely there is no hope of having a viable catering business on this site other than for fast food, and even that would be restricted by the parking issue?

Any business needs to sell the right product in the right place. It does not take a genius to know where is the wrong place, and we should all ask our business friends before committing a lot of money to start a new venture.

I feel sorry for business owners who fail, but do look before you leap.