Are you in a hurry?

iStock_000007991360XSmall cross businesswomanIt is easy to spot when someone else is in a hurry. We notice the window cleaner misses a bit or leaves a smear, or a cleaner misses a cobweb or so, or the vegetables in the restaurant are not cooked, or are cooked too much. That all indicates a lack of attention.

It is easy for us to judge, but we have to keep an eye on ourselves too. Have we rushed that report? Is it up to our usual standard? Have we made sure our client understood it? Have we remembered to follow up and speak to our customer to make sure they are happy?

Sometimes a dissatisfied customer will find a new window cleaner and complain to their neighbours and friends about the one who left the smears. We could be replaced as easily. Perhaps we need to slow down and think what we are doing, otherwise we will be in the same boat as the window cleaner.

Competition or attrition?

Blog pix 21 March 11 001I am in a service business. I have all the modern advantages. I can help people all around the world because we have email and the internet. I do not have to meet my clients, although it is great if I can. However, if they are in South Korea or Chile, they are a long way from the UK. If I can check exactly who they are and give them what they need, I am happy and I certainly hope they are happy.

There are people who have businesses on the High Street or in town, and their businesses look something like mine. I do not see them as competitors. I have working relationships with some of them. We can provide each other with skills the other does not have; rather symbiotic.

However, imagine having a business very near another the same where you are competing for the walk-in customer and where the footfall is limited. In the local village, there is a long-established men’s hairdresser, or barber if you prefer. There is the owner, who is the brother of a business acquaintance. He has two very competent assistants, one female and one male. I do not have so much hair these days, but I am quite happy to have such hair as I have cut by any one of the three. It was a good business, quite busy, and open Tuesday to Saturday.

And then…. A year ago another similar business opened directly opposite. That business takes quite a lot of the walk-in trade. Our village is not that big. I doubt there is enough work to go around. Both shops are now open seven days a week, desperately trying to out-do the other. It is a war of attrition as far as I can tell. One is bound to crack. I know the owner of the longer-established business feels under serious pressure, not just because of the new lengthy opening times, but because I see him looking across the road to see how many people are in the other premises.

If I formed a business relying on walk-in trade, I would not set up next to another. I would find a parade or street lacking my sort of business. We have only one greetings card shop. Why would anyone risk setting up another next door? We did have a florist come to our village to compete with a well-established one. They failed and have gone. Why would a men’s hairdresser risk a similar fight? Even if they “won” by putting my preferred place out of business, the fight must make life and cash flow very tough in the short term.

I do not have the answers, but it all seems crazy business planning.

Treating customers as doormats?

DSC02467I have had a problem with a company that was hosting four of my websites. The business makes a point of promoting that it provides for its customers to use WordPress. That encourages those who believe they can manage the WordPress interface to sign up. I was one of those people, though my “main” sites were already managed professionally elsewhere by a WordPress specialist.

I receive a message from the hosting company stating that my sites had been suspended because of a script which was not finishing, thereby overloading the server. The problem was a particular file. However, I could not remove it because my access was blocked. Eventually I was allowed to remove the file. I did not understand why it was a problem, but “Support” told me it would cure the problem.

A week or so later, the same thing happened again. I was very puzzled, and annoyed at the loss of my sites. After a few exchanges “Support” removed the file for me and reinstated the websites.

Guess what? Another repeat performance, but this time I was to be fined £80 before my sites could be released to me. I was being held to ransom. It was blackmail. I thought they must really hate me.

Of course I protested, and was given a lecture about security being my responsibility to prevent hacking. This was the first time anyone had suggested the sites had been hacked.

I sent a very angry email (but with moderate language) to “Support”. I then had a reply from a more senior person who said that they would release the sites without a fine and had removed the offending file.

“I have reviewed your previous suspensions which you’ve had for your WordPress backup scripts not finishing and causing high load on our shared servers, and it looks like you were also warned about the suspension fee last time if there were any future suspensions for this same issue.

The files and scripts contained in your account are entirely your responsibility, and it is also your responsibility to comply with our terms of use. The only reason that we charge a fee is for continued negligence with regards to this, such as this case where there have been multiple suspensions on your account for the same reason. (NB “multiple” meant three.)

Normally however, we do have our 2nd line technicians review the account after the second suspension to help you in making sure that this doesn’t happen a third time, but it looks like that wasn’t done in this case.

So for this instance we will unsuspend your account without collecting the fee, and our 2nd line technician will help you make sure this gets taken care of.”

I was also informed that the issue was related to a WordPress backup plugin. They had not mentioned this before. The site had not been hacked. I deactivated the plugin immediately. If “Support” had told me what the actual problem was at the time of the first incident the whole saga could have been avoided.

The Company has two problems. The first is that their junior staff (“2nd line technicians”) are too inexperienced to deal with some technical problems because they do not understand the issues themselves. The second is an inflexible policy designed as a deterrent to supposedly errant users, and not one intended to help those customers who had run into trouble.

Can you imagine having a business which tries to impose punishments on its customers? Very large service providers are able to do that because they are able to distance themselves from their customers and because they are hard to contact other than by email.

We try to help our customers; not abuse and fine them.

I have moved my websites to the care of a professional manager whom I trust. That makes it more personal. I believe that as small business owners our own purchases of goods and services should be from people we know and whom we can contact when we have questions or (Heaven forbid) when things go wrong. And sometimes we just need to be able to ask for help and know that we will get it.

Don’t think too hard

Sometimes when we are really busy, it is hard to plan our next move, because there is always something there to distract us. Even if we try to plan, racking our brains under constant work pressure is rarely productive.

That is why the most important matter to plan is to schedule our time off and take it. That includes time during our day not in front of our screen or on the phone or hammering away at something.

I get my best ideas when I am not trying to think about business. I enjoy walking in the countryside, and while looking at butterflies, some bright idea can pop into my head quite spontaneously. Of course I always note it down straight away. Actually I carry a small dictaphone, but a mobile or cell phone or a notebook will do just fine.

Always be ready for an idea or a solution when not at work. I made an important decision only this morning while shaving. Ten seconds earlier I was thinking more about the foam than the email I decided to send, but that is how it works for me.

So do not think too hard, and thinking will be easier. Don’t pressurise yourself. Relax and let the ideas in.

 

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Freebie folly

I had an email from an accountancy firm asking if I would give free tax advice in half-hour sessions over the telephone. I thought the guy must mean free to the client, but his firm would be paying my business.

It turned out he really did mean “free” and that I would be giving this free advice in the hope of picking up start-up businesses as clients as a result of their gratitude.

Things I have learned about free advice:

  • If you give it, you will never be asked for more advice for which you get paid.
  • Your insurance position is questionable if someone thinks they had the wrong advice.
  • Someone who wants it has no respect for all the experience, study and learning you have put in.
  • You could be being paid for the work you would be doing instead, rather than giving time away free.

Yes, I sometimes do give free advice, but that is on behalf of a registered charity. Never, never, never sell your work short, and never, never, never, never work for nothing except for a cause you hold dear.

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Cancelling your goodwill credit

A while back we had the builders in and they threw away some fixings which they should have kept and put back up. I went into a local shop to enquire if they could sell me any replacements. They went further than that and gave me the fixings, which were a type of bracket, entirely free of charge.

What nice people, we thought. A year later, we gave them some business; actually quite a lot. The guys were working in our house, being a father and son, so it is a good family business.

I made the tea, and the father started complaining partly to me and partly to his son about another customer, whom he thought was a nuisance. It sounded to me as though she just wanted everything to be right.

Then another customer telephoned the son and was apparently complaining about a failure to deliver and fit the product up to now. Our man this end was giving reasons why they had not yet delivered, while the father, in asides to me, was saying “that’s not true”, “that’s a lie” and so on.

I hope we do not have any trouble with what we have been sold, but even if the products are perfect I would be less likely to refer these people because of their attitude to other customers.

We all gripe about customers sometimes after a difficult day, but surely only in the comfort of our own homes, with no one eavesdropping who could cause us damage?

Loose lips sink ships.

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

All our yesterdays today

As customers we all appreciate good service. Yet technology makes our interaction with many businesses so impersonal.

Bank branches are closing all around us. Yes, internet banking is very convenient and enables us to swap money around and pay bills at any time of the day and night. However, try speaking to a bank call centre and the agent may be polite but will not know you. Next time you telephone you will speak to one of a thousand others. All that assumes you will not have to speak to a robot or speech recognition software as some banks require.

I always liked to be addressed by name and recognised in my local bank branch when we had one. It was the bank where everyone (or the staff anyway) knew my name, so it was as comforting as that famous fictional bar in Boston.

Call centres are the bane of our lives. Many of us hark back to a time we remember when we could deal directly with a person on a consistent basis. Of course nostalgia can make us remember things as better when they were, particularly when we get frustrated by speaking to an anonymous agent. Those memories of supposedly better times can work to our advantage in our small businesses.

What our customers or clients still do remember is that quality personal service. They like a “go-to” person to whom they can always speak and with whom they can always deal. Depending on the size of your business, that will not always be you, the business owner, but if not, then make sure that every customer has a name as a point of contact in your office, who is a trusted employee. Give that employee the specific responsibility of managing each of their allocated customers. Not only will your customers really appreciate being able to speak to a person they know each time they need to, but the responsibility will help give your workers empowerment and satisfaction too.

The customers will recommend our services, and will stick with us for the long term. That is what we want, isn’t it?

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Wasting your free time?

We are never short of advice in our daily on-line lives. We are bombarded with newsletters, links to blogs and articles. Many of them tell us what we should be doing when we are not actually working.

Should we be told what we should do with our free time? Is it wrong to watch television as some say? If we do, should we only watch the news, current affairs programmes or documentaries? If we read, should it only be non-fiction, biographies of successful business people, books by present or past masters of marketing?

I think we need time to relax. We need to take our minds of work from time to time no matter how much we enjoy running our businesses. I think my best ideas come when I am not thinking about work, when I am out and about, and perhaps walking in the local countryside.

I read non-fiction, but I also enjoy novels, and particularly detective fiction. Recently I have been reading that old master of the genre, Raymond Chandler. His writing is wonderful; the way he almost paints pictures in words of his characters, of their surroundings, and the often seedy atmosphere. I wish I could write as well as he did. We can learn from the masters though, and I am sure for my part it can help when I am working to be aware that good writing is a great asset.

You may think it strange that I am saying that I do not agree with the advice of others in how to use our free time, and yet I appear to be giving advice with which many might not agree. My point is that we all need free time, but how we use it is personal to us. Our free time must not feel like work; doing something we have to do.

After all, we are all different. What do you think?

Making a meal of it

And so to last Sunday’s lunch… Booked for 1:30 we had ordered within ten minutes. So far so good. From there we waited half an hour for our “starters”. Three fine. Mine not so good.

An hour later our main course had not shown up. We were told our food was just being plated up. Another ten minutes and it arrived. Mine had actually been plated within the last couple of minutes, because my fish was just out of the pan, perfectly cooked and absolutely lovely. But it was so late.

We never had dessert because the two hours we had allowed for lunch were up and one of our party needed to be home.

I really enjoyed my fish, but clearly the kitchen cannot cope. I do not like to rush when eating out but we cannot risk having lunch at this restaurant again unless we are prepared to spend pretty much the rest of the day there.

The lesson? It is no good having a great product if you cannot deliver on time. People remember.

A clear business message?

The other day I had a connection request on LinkedIn. When I looked at the person’s profile, I was none the wiser as to what he did for a living. There were two paragraphs of jargon. I did not understand a word.

I did try some research and believe he might build websites or maybe write software for building environment systems, but I am not really sure. He probably thinks that a search on LinkedIn for his specific skills will have him found by a recruiter. However if I knew what he did I might remember when someone was looking for a person like him… if I knew what a person like him did.