Born free, but life isn’t free

I get a lot of business through websites; both my own and others where I have a presence. The enquiries I receive as a consultant on somewhat technical matters fall into three categories:

  • Genuine requests for help from people who have evaluated my expertise or need confirmation that I can help them.
  • Requests from some who want answers, but do not appreciate what value those answers will have.
  • Requests for free information or queries that are designed to try to obtain free information in any proposal from me.

It is not always easy to tell the difference between the three, but I usually have some idea. I respond sometimes to ask more questions before quoting a fee, but if the requirements set out are pretty comprehensive then I quote straight away. I avoid giving free information for my own safety, but also for that of the foolish person who might act on it without having given me all relevant facts.

By the second email I will have proposed a fee based on the value of the information required, provided it is worth my while. Usually for those who understand that value in the context of their own circumstances, I will get a swift acceptance. These will prove to have been the genuine requests.

For the other two categories of requests, once having proposed a fee I will hear no more. Very occasionally, if a telephone number has been provided I will make a quick call to make sure that my “prospect” has understood what I have said. Mostly though and without a phone number, I know it is a waste of time following up.

Experience tells me when I am wasting my time. I may get business from around one-in-six to one-in-eight of the incoming emails seeking information. I am quick in dealing with them because it is not worth wasting time, and certainly not on follow-ups. One-in-six to one-in-eight is plenty enough too.

Not every business is the same. If I were selling goods I might follow up more.

Are you a consultant? Do you follow up when your enquirer goes quiet? How much?

Building towards delivery

Kodak EasyShare 30 Jan 14 002We have been having some building work done. Having no experience as a builder’s customer, I thought somewhat naively that once they started on the project they would keep going steadily until they had finished. Not so!

What happens is that one day some guys turn up and do some work. They may be present for one day or a couple of days and then they disappear and we hear nothing for a few days. It is so unsettling. Now we  ask each afternoon if the guys are coming the next day, just so we know. Otherwise they may just vanish for a period without telling us.

Imagine if most of us carried on like that. Suppose our clients did not hear from us for long periods and they did not know whether or not we were working on their project from one week to another. Soon we would have no customers at all. The word-of-mouth which brings us clients would soon lose us many prospects. We would be out of business.

Thank goodness most of us do not run our businesses like these builders. However, if I had needed a reminder about prompt delivery and keeping my clients in the loop, this was certainly it. Good grief!

Have a break!

Some young people I know starting out at work are expected to work long hours with only brief breaks. It is true that in our youth we can concentrate for longer. That is important with a skilled job whether in a factory or the dealing room. However most of us can use a break, and that is important because we work better when we go back to our tasks.

I have been lucky in that respect. I have never worked in an environment where I could not take a break. In my first job, we were allowed out for fifteen minutes to get a coffee at a café opposite our work. The break was written into our contracts. We had a proper lunch break and an afternoon tea break. We did work long hours, but nobody was looking over our shoulders and begrudging us our breaks.

These days I am my own boss, and I work from home. I could work all the hours in the day, but I would not get more done, nor would I be more efficient. I take quite a few breaks, and find myself refreshed when I get back in the office. I am more energetic, and get a lot done in shorter bursts.

I am flexible in my working hours and no evenings. If I feel the need to unwind I go out for a walk. I enjoy the exercise and relaxing my mind when I am out makes me more creative when I get back. I do my best thinking when I am not really trying.

Are you able to get out during the day? Here are some photos from my favourite thinking walks.

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The late show

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It could happen to any of us

I do believe in being on time for meetings. It gives a bad impression to be late. With new prospects and even with clients, they can be left feeling very unimpressed by a late show.

Sometimes we are late due to circumstances beyond our control. We are stuck on the road with a serious hold-up. There has been an accident. We might be let down by public transport. Our train has broken down. In those case we need to let the person we are meeting know in good time what has gone wrong and why we will not be there when we said we would.

Someone who does work for us at home was very late the other day. In fact we had almost given up on her, were noting her other inadequacies and talking about sacking her. Eventually she turned up just in time to save herself from getting the bullet, at least for now. However she failed to call to advise she was running late, even though her mobile (cell) is rarely neglected during her time with us; one of the little grouses we have about her. That is the point. Being late will be aggregated with other transgressions, real or imagined.

A late show can cut off future business. Be there, or at least apologise in advance if you can’t.

Do you like your clients?

I think we all want our clients to like us, and that means earning their trust from the outset. However, what if we do not like or trust our clients?

The other day I went to see a new prospect. I arrived at her flat and rang the bell. She opened the door but was on the telephone, to her father as it turned out. She interrupted her conversation briefly to ask me to take off my shoes or cover them with plastic slip-ons (no religious purpose here you understand) and then waved me up the steep flight of stairs to the hall. She then left me standing there while she went into another room to finish her telephone call several minutes later.

When she eventually reappeared, the first thing she said was “you look as though something is the matter” in a challenging way. If I was caught with the wrong expression it was not due to her rudeness, but because I was thinking about my Mum, who was in hospital.

When I was finally invited into the living room, the first thing this “prospect” asked me was my price. I said it depended on what she needed advice on, but when pressed I quoted a likely amount for a written note she could use as a reference or map. She pulled a face and then asked for a quote for the face-to-face consultation while I was there. That is an easier answer to give, so I quoted a figure. She said “It would be cheaper if I got the advice walking off the street in the City. I thought locally it would be a lot less”.

To my mind, good advice has a value whether it is given in the Big City or in the boondocks. The value is in the savings for the client. It is not like buying a sandwich produced at higher cost in town or at lower cost in the sticks, and to be fair, ingredients have to be paid for wherever.

Of course this person was being fanciful if she really thought her City advice would have been cheaper, but that is immaterial. The meeting was clearly over within ten minutes, at least as far as I was concerned. As News of the World reporters used to say, I made my excuses and left.

I could not work with this person because

  • She did not value me or my work
  • She was downright rude from the outset of our meeting
  • I really did not like her

This woman cost me an hour of my valuable time in travel, though, but with every bad experience we learn a little more.

I have to be comfortable to work with a client, and to be confident of a good relationship and mutual respect.

Do you like all your customers?

 

Contract essentials

It is worth reminding ourselves of the most important parts of our agreements with clients and customers, the details we must put in writing:

  • The work we will do and have been asked to do.
  • What we have not agreed to do and would charge extra for if asked.
  • The amount of our fee and
  • When we expect to be paid.

We might put plenty more into our contracts, but it is vital that our clients know what we are doing for them and that they do not have unreasonable expectations beyond excellent customer service. Being paid promptly is paramount too, so if everyone knows when the bill is to be paid, there will be no bad feeling on either side.

 

Values and work-time

Enjoy the fresh air

Enjoy the fresh air

This past year has been very challenging due to family illness. Despite this it has been a successful year on the business front from my point of view. I have worked less due to the non-business commitments, but have still found time to enjoy the fresh air on my walks, and with my wife.

How was this possible? Well, it has helped that the economy is improving. I have a lot of consultancy, and while I always bill this on the basis of value to the clients in what I do for them, my services have increased in value and people are prepared to pay for that value having less perceived constraints on cash-flow.

I should mention that my regular clients, although they value what they get, have not seen a big price hike They provide a regular basic income into my business.

So with the higher value work I can afford more free time and can pick and choose clients even more than I did. I also gain extra time by outsourcing the low value services with which I am less comfortable and which are, frankly, boring.

None of this is earth-shattering magic, but having a higher income but with more free time cannot be bad, can it? Do you value yourself enough?

 

What works for us

 

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Remember what works

When I started my businesses I took an ad in local monthly pamphlets which go out to probably about 20,000 homes. It worked quite well, but although I was at one time advertising in four of these booklets going to different areas, over the years I have found that two local towns did not want to buy from me. I do not understand why, but I stopped my ad in those particular pamphlets. I still have ads in the other two booklets because they do work and they reinforce my local presence.

I used to do a lot of breakfast networking. You may remember I even ran a breakfast group for a while. That helped my business locally. However, for family health reasons I backed away from that scene, and I cannot say that my business has suffered to any degree. Maybe that networking had stopped working for me, so I do not feel a great need to re-engage.  I do network face-to-face at meetings later in the day.

What works for me now in getting business is my on-line presence both through my own websites and through that of an alliance where I pay for my profile via commission when I close business received through that “external” website.

I have tried to recognise where marketing does not work or has ceased to work, and close it out. I will always try new methods too. We have to test and see what works, and notice what has stopped working, otherwise we end up wasting money and our valuable time.

Do not be lazy with your marketing because it can be expensive. I know myself it can be easy to let it slip.

 

Politics, religion and social media for business

Some signs we ignore at our perilHere in the UK we have had an election. In the run-up, many people in my business circles have shared their opinions on the parties’ policies, and post-election they are sharing their views on those who have a different opinion from them.

We all have political opinions, and unfortunately when they are attacked we cannot help taking it personally. It seems they are taking pot shots at us. Yet in a business environment we may like those who differ from us, but it is inevitable their politics colour our opinion of them. In other words, their opinions damage our relationship because we see them in a different light.

Generally online, via Twitter or Facebook amongst other places, I do not see small business people spouting their religious views, which is a great relief. Religion is a cause of conflict when people do not see eye-to-eye.

When I became a radio amateur (ham) as a young chap, passing the exam, I knew that it was rule that we did not discuss on-air either politics or religion. That way we avoided bad feeling. To me, using social media to maintain my business circles, it should be a rule that we avoid politics.

Of course that is just my opinion.  I am human and can be offended by others’ beliefs if their outspoken opinions seem directed at my friends or at me.

How do you feel about mixing politics with business?

Your business safety net

Running a small business is engaging and enjoyable. We love the game, what we do, the people we meet and the buzz of being rewarded by our customers when they pay us.

It is so easy to forget that things can go wrong, and usually it won’t be our fault.

Suppose we might make a mistake which costs our client money. It does happen as no one is perfect, however much we guard against errors. Human nature being what it is, a customer might think we have made a mistake and cost them money, when we have not put a foot wrong. Either way, we need to be insured against action against us. Otherwise a vindictive client entirely in the wrong can cost us a lot of money and ruin our business. Professional indemnity insurance is essential and public liability insurance is important too.

Then again, how well are we insured against damage to our premises? Is our insurance up to date? Do we insure against loss by backing up all our data off-site?

Suppose our key staff have health issues and are off sick for a long time. What if we get sick and need to take time off? Are we insured to hire substitutes? Is our business income insured? Is our health insurance up-to-date?

Being insured for every eventuality sounds expensive, but when we think of the alternative of disaster and poverty we should grit our teeth and pay our premiums. Do you pay yours?