School’s out

The last bell

When I was at school, back in the mists of time, even when the last bell rang we could not pack up and leave the classroom until we were dismissed by the teacher. It might be different now of course. However, a desperate rush for the door would not seem to indicate much enthusiasm for the subject we were being taught.

Not far down the road is the main office of a local vocational training centre. At 5pm there is a veritable stream of employees and possibly some students out of the door and down of the road, many lighting cigarettes or on their phones as soon as they step out of the door. I find that very surprising. I would guess that there is not much job satisfaction there if everyone is so eager to get away, but it seems these people are not alone. The Cabinet Office has apparently found that there is a huge variation in job satisfaction.

Getting satisfaction

Of course I am not surprised that those in authority have more satisfaction than those that do not, and clergy as top dogs work mainly at their discretion, helping people, which must be rewarding. However, farmers come pretty high despite lower incomes, and I suspect that is not so much because they are in charge of others, but because they are actually self-employed and more in control of their own destinies unless weather takes its toll.

We small business owners do have a considerable advantage in having job satisfaction, don’t we? We make our own decisions, do not have reason to resent the boss (unless we really hate ourselves), take time off when we decide to, and should anyway be running a business we enjoy.

I did not originally choose to start my own businesses, but I am so glad that it happened. After all, as referenced in the BBC article, while we should make good profits, our social well-being and life satisfaction are the main elements in being happy in our work. That stems from our independence rather than dependence on less considerate employers. Aren’t we lucky?

Here’s not looking at you

Even walking down the street, there are people with whom we have a connection. We exchange glances and we smile. We smile about the weather, their child, our dog, the shop window we peer through. We recognise those we pass as individuals and we even form a vague impression as to what sort of people they are, even if we cannot know.

Then there are other people with whom we cannot have a connection. They avoid our smile and look away. They may have headphones plugged into their ears. They may be looking at their phones, so risk bumping into us or the nearest lamppost or road sign. They hardly know we are there. They do not acknowledge our existence, even fleetingly, to avoid bumping into us.

Small business owners must realise that our clients and prospects are a bit like that. To me, clients are far more valuable if they engage with us and see us as welcome allies to be valued. We do not need to work for those who do not extend us a welcome or common courtesy. Have you ever visited a customer or prospect who does not even switch off the TV, or even mute the sound? I have, and I do not want that sort of client who is rude, does not know any better, does not see me as an individual and does not think of his guest.

Clients who engage with us and are prepared to have a proper business relationship are the clients I want. I will make sure my business does the very best for them, for they are our referrers and advocates, and therefore our unpaid marketers. If we like our clients that much, we will recommend them to others too.

You cannot beat having genuine relationships in the course of business, can you?

The hard sell and me

Playing hard ball

When I moved from employment to running my own businesses I did a few sales courses. The first one I was obliged to undertake as it went towards getting and accreditation with a membership organization. The technique they employed was the hard sell.

Being wet-behind-the-ears as an independent business person, and also intimidated by being overseen on my first sales appointments by a “mentor”, I thought this was the way to go. The plan was to make the “prospect” or victim feel really in pain and then offer a solution at a price. The “close” involved applying psychological pressure along the lines of “Imagine how disastrous your business future will be if you do not sign” and “This price is for today only. We are only taking on a few clients at this special price so you must sign now”.

Fortunately I was no good at this type of selling. I did not like my “prospects” to squirm because I tended to empathise with them rather than see them as prey. I did not have the stomach for the hard sell.

One could well imagine that if any of my “victims” had caved in, he or she would have regretted the decision all too soon. Had she paid too much? How could he work with someone who had scared the proverbial out of him?

I never made a sale that way, thank goodness. I would have had it on my conscience.

Buy from me!

Buy from me!

 

Softly, softly

I learned that customers do indeed seek comfort and reassurance. They know when they need help. They answer a familiar ad; one that they have seen many times. They come by referral from a friend or fellow networker. They qualify themselves because they seek a solution, and they want to buy that solution from someone they like.

The failed biter bit

Last week my wife and I agreed to see a “surveyor” about perhaps having solar panels fitted to our roof. We want to help the environment and of course we want to save money from our electricity bills. So we had this person round and he brought his “compliance manager” with him. They spent five minutes in the garden looking at the roof, but none in the house looking at our loft access or current wiring. It turned out that rather than being surveyors they were a two-handed hard sell operation.

These guys were in our house for two and a half hours. They were very pally and friendly. They filled in various forms and made estimated projections of savings. It was only on the last half hour that suddenly the offer was only for “today”, there was a credit agreement with a bank for us to sign, and we had to decide. Despite the fact my wife and I knew exactly what they were doing, there was that psychological pressure and we feel we had been ambushed.

I said I needed time to look at their figures, and I could not agree to sign anything until I could go through them. They tried for several minutes to persuade me I was passing up a great opportunity and they tried to play my wife and me against each other.

A sour taste

When it was obvious that they were not going to get signatures on any agreements, suddenly the palliness had gone and the “manager” said they had to get back. They departed and it was obvious from their demeanour that we were no longer their “friends”. They left no figures or other documentation with us either, which seemed very strange, and I still have no idea whether the offer was good.

I could not sell like that, even if I had the ability. It seems immoral these days that anyone should be selling in this way, particularly in the domestic market where vulnerable people could be exploited. After all, even if it is a great deal on offer, no one should feel obliged to sign up to something they do not understand.

Do you think I am soft and lack ambition to be very rich? I would rather be comfortable in my own skin. What about you?

Do keep up!

Has your business changed in the past few years? Mine has. In fact, since I first started working in my profession as a young lad, the entire nature of what people like me do has changed beyond recognition.

My first proper job involved using a pen all day. On my first day I was given a pile of dividend counterfoils relating to the income of a recently deceased gentleman, shown the format in which I had to list his dividends for the year, and left alone to get on with it. This chap had had maybe a hundred shareholdings. It actually took me more than a day to write them out and to do some of the sheets again because I had not got it quite right. When the dividend schedules were finished, they were copy-typed.

Nowadays, if I had dealt with a client last year, his dividend list this year would be automatically generated by my software, and my only task would be to check for changes in shareholdings. Except of course that in modern times, far fewer investor-taxpayers have large portfolios of shares, loan stock or gilts. How I miss “3½% War Stock 1952 or after”!

The point is that we have to invest in new technology and we have to give our market what it wants – or rather something that they want, as our market consists of people. In my case the value is still there for my clients and the costs are in the software and in my knowledge and training rather than in handwriting schedules to be typed out.

We have to adapt constantly and I take no pleasure from a business failing because it makes a product no one wants any more.

Very few people have milk deliveries these days, no one buys meat for their cats from a street seller as they did before the First World War, and sadly no one buys sheepskin coats, cosy as they were.

If we cannot adapt our businesses we must invest in new ones before the old ones fail. I try to keep my eye on the ball. Do you?

Getting advice for free

Last time I mentioned those time-wasters who call or email on the pretext of getting a quote, or sometimes even without the pretext, just to get free information. It is so annoying.

However, we can understand that not everyone wants to pay. Many do want a free ride. The downside for them is that even if they do get free information from one of us in an unguarded moment, it is probably of little value.

Think about it. No telephone call or brief interaction will entail a proper exchange of information for the free provider to give any useful advice. Vital facts will get left out, context will be missed and comments will be misunderstood.

If your free-loader has not paid for something, he has no comeback if the advice he got was wrong, whether based on a correct understanding or a wrong one. He has no one to turn to if there is a hitch, even if the free advice is correct. He is floundering in the darkness rather than having paid for advice, help and support which should be of real value. There is no friendly ear to listen to the problems and no helping hand to steady the ship.

Free advice is useless unless it is from a friend. Then it is paid for in another way and given by someone who cares and is committed. You give benefit through your friendship, and you get pleasure from giving too.

If you need free advice from a stranger, make sure you pay for it and have a proper agreement of the terms. Then you know you have something of value.

No time-wasters?

Blog pix 21 March 11 001I do not like having my time wasted. However time-wasters are hard to avoid when they telephone to try to elicit free information or professional advice, even though they should know that free advice is not worth the paper it is written on, as Sam Goldwyn might have said, but didn’t.

I well understand the sentiment of wishing to avoid such people who just want to use us, but quite often I see small ads selling an item or a product, with that “No time-wasters” prominent in the entry.

It just gives a bad impression of a grumpy person or business owner. The average would-be purchaser would want to avoid dealing with an angry seller, and time-wasters would be too thick-skinned to care and would turn up anyway.

If you are selling a product or a service and are writing any sort of copy, you want it to be attractive and to sound inviting, and more genuine than someone else’s offering in the same market. That is why you need to explain what your offering will do to make the buyer feel better.

Comfort is what most people want. They do not wish to be scared away by someone’s list of qualifications which most of us have, because they think such a list sounds pompous and expensive. They do not wish to read about a business’s prestigious premises on the High Street because that sounds expensive as well.

Customers want to feel welcome and hope to get that nice warm feeling inside, and we all need to remember that when presenting ourselves and our businesses. Don’t you agree?

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Turning the business around

Sometimes business declines because there is a lack of demand for the product or service and no amount of clever marketing is ever going to increase sales.

Recently I saw a feature on a news programme about a firm making sheepskin coats that would have to close if a buyer for the business was not found. Apparently sales had been in decline for a couple of decades.

I would have thought twenty years was long enough for the owner to see that diversification or a complete change was what was needed to save the business, and the jobs of the skilled workers who surely could adapt to tailoring another product. Also, while everyone wanted a sheepskin coat thirty years ago (yes, I had one) hardly anyone can afford to spend £800 or US $1,340 for a premium coat to keep warm.

I sympathise with those who wish to carry on the tradition of a company a century-and-a-half old but in the end all business owners have to think about preserving their income and that of their loyal employees.

If our business is not working we have to accept that there is something the matter. We must make the change. If we are stumped as to what to do, we must get help.

We all need help at times, otherwise we might be out on our uppers. That would be a real shame, wouldn’t it?

Picking good clients is like appreciating fine wine

This image shows a red wine glass.

(Photo credit: André Karwath via Wikipedia)

As you know, I do like to be appreciated by my clients and do not like being seen as a commodity.

I am not a wine snob. I do not know all that much about wine. However I do appreciate a decent claret. That is why I would rather give a good bottle of wine to someone who would savour it and appreciate the drinking of it, as opposed to someone who saw a bottle of wine as a means to an end; to get tipsy or worse.

So it is that I would rather have clients who appreciate my business services and with whom I can have that friendly relationship. Small business needs to be personal and should be enjoyed by both business owner and client, don’t you think?

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Are you making up the numbers?

Not just a number

Not just a number

Just because I do not like to be seen as a commodity does not mean that I can influence the thoughts of everyone who sees my business offerings in that light. Unfortunately there will always be people, whom we may regard as prospects who will waste our time.

Recently I gave up an evening to visit someone who clearly needed my help. I was able to give him some reassurance that matters were not as bad as he thought, and we agreed a fee. All well and good, I thought, and we seemed to get on very well.

A few days later, after I had sent my engagement letter stating the terms and my fee which we had agreed, I received a letter from the prospect saying that he had changed his mind. He did not have the grace to pick up the telephone to tell me.

I could not be bothered to try to call him because the only reason he would have gone back on his agreement with me (we had shaken hands) was that he had found another firm who was more than £5 cheaper than me.

I should be grateful that I did not waste any more time with someone who saw me as a commodity rather than a person who would hold his hand and keep him out of trouble with the authorities.

It is important for small business owners to establish a personal relationship with their clients; to have an understanding and expectation of what will be delivered, and when. It does not matter whether you are a baker, an accountant or a car mechanic. Your friendly face and your service are your greatest business tools.

Remember you are not just a number amongst many.

You are allowed to make a profit

English: PROFIT systemI have had my share of run-ins with very large service and utility providers, but we do have to recognise that like all businesses they need to make a profit for their owners and shareholders, and to have money to reinvest into their trade. In the course of some more energy company bashing we hear that their newly announced annual profits represent 5% of turnover. That seems quite modest really.

In a small business and especially in a professional environment, only 5% profit on turnover is not going to be enough unless we have a huge turnover. That is going to be difficult unless we have had a brilliant new idea in the way of say a product for drop-shipping. However, in the real world we have to sell on the value of what we provide and have our customer buy in to what we are giving them.

Do not let your prospects drive you down. Get them to commit to you as much as you commit to them to provide a great service. We all have to live and if we are not making a good profit out of each client we are wasting time and resources which could be used to make a much more profitable customer very happy.

Do not under-sell yourself and your business and never be afraid to turn a poor prospect away. You are allowed to make a good profit.

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