Schedules? Boring but important

26 Feb 12 upload 024 (2)“I don’t want to be hemmed in by my diary”

I am not a business coach, and have no ambition to be one. I do know a lot of business people and one who is in complementary therapy claims she has not enough work. Now I know she is good, because she has laid hands on a lot of people including me. Why does she not have enough work?

In her case, it is because she is not available consistently. She has been unlucky with premises issues, but she could get around these if she had fixed days for her therapy.

The trouble is she is too easily distracted. Therapy clients like to come once a week or once a fortnight, perhaps. They think of, say, Tuesday morning as their chill-out hour or so with their therapist. They don’t like to be messed around.  They do not like to come on different days of the week at different times. They have schedules too. They have people and events in their own diaries.

All of us who provide a service need to be there for our clients when needed. If it is a hands-on service, we need to be there at appointed hours, not Wednesday afternoon one week, and Thursday morning the next week, and Monday evening the week after. Our lives should have a pattern our clients can fit around.

Being there is what matters, and that means being there when needed.

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.

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.

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.

Value, price and knocks

I lost a client recently. I wondered why. She said to me that my service had been great over the last eight years, and she could not have been happier. It was just that someone else was cheaper.

I had always had good feedback from this client. I visited her at her home at least once a year and spoke to her often. It is not as though she could have felt neglected. In effect she praised the value of what she had without ultimately appreciating it enough to stay with me.

There is no lesson to be learned here other than that we will get knocked now and again. We just have to move forward with confidence.

If you build it, will they come?

I have mentioned before that my local village has largely become a collection of cafes and fast-food outlets. Within a couple of hundred yards we have two Indian takeaways, a Chinese takeaway, two pizza places and three cafes. One of the cafes is more upmarket and has an alcohol license, but I suspect they are popular because of their good coffee.

With all this competition I was surprised when I heard that one of the famous coffee shop franchises was opening up in the village. This was on two fronts. Firstly I thought they would struggle against the established probably cheaper establishments, and secondly I supposed that our village was not the kind of place that the typical coffee franchise customer might live.

Of course I was wrong. I think people are prepared to travel and pay more for a guaranteed good quality standard, once word gets around. The new place is doing OK as far as I can tell.

What about the other places serving coffee, other beverages and food? Well, I think they have their regulars, although the one not on the main drag is never packed with customers.  What they have to do is give outstanding quality and service to succeed against a well-known tried-and-tested formula as exhibited by the franchise. That does not mean they have to spend more to do it. Service and quality is about attention to detail. Then word-of-mouth will do the trick in terms of getting customers in.

I would wish all the café owners luck, but it is not about luck. It is about getting things exactly right to succeed.

It’s worth the pain

iStock_000005618867XSmallMy aim for each client is to give them a valuable service, and I charge a fee to match that service; one that reflects that value and rewards me well for their use of my brain-power. As I normally charge a fixed fee agreed in advance I hope not to end up spending more time than budgeted for.

Sometimes life is not quite like that. A while back I had a client to whom I gave very detailed advice. I expected him to come back with questions. That is fair enough. I expanded on points where necessary. However, he seemed to want to pin me down in my opinions when I thought I had already been pretty clear and explicit. I was patient and polite but, to be honest, secretly irritated.

Although eventually the client declared himself satisfied and paid my bill after a few weeks, I thought he might be unhappy. I decided not to press him on this, although I felt disappointed that I had not come up to expectations, notwithstanding that actually I thought I had done really well. I put it out of my mind; onwards and upwards.

Just recently, I find that this client has given me a really great referral. I am delighted. Obviously my client was very happy after all and his gruff, questioning manner belied this.

My patience and effort has paid off. I shall remember that not all people express their satisfaction with our work in the same way, and that it is always worth going beyond expectations because our clients remember, and mention this to their friends.

Phew!

 

Blinding your clients with science

The other day I had a call from a lady who is running a small business. She wanted to hire me to explain the letters she received from her accountants, and translate the conversations she had with them. Clearly they were using technical terms all the time and not making any effort to ensure she understood what she was being told.

This poor business owner was embarrassed to tell her accountants that she did not understand. Plainly she was feeling intimidated by them and her relationship with them was poor.

Much as I would have liked to pick up some more fee-paying work, I just gave her some advice over the telephone. I suggested that she had two choices. Either she should insist on speaking to the partner at the firm responsible for her business to explain her discomfort so that she could have proper explanations of issues that she could understand, or she should change her accountant.

Not being an accountant (although often thought of as one) I could not act for her myself. I did advise the lady that I could suggest a couple of more helpful local accountants. I think she will go with one of them.

We can all adopt tech-speak and when talking to our colleagues, that is what we do. Some of us often forget that it is a foreign language to our clients. If we do not explain their issues simply they will not understand, and they may feel too embarrassed to tell us. As regards our future relationships, the clients may vote with their feet if we blind them with science.

Turning down work – really?

One of the mistakes many start-up businesses make is taking every project or job, no matter what. I made it myself.  It is very tempting to accept anything which comes along, but the new business owner needs to consider:

  • Is it within our expertise?
  • Will it be profitable?
  • Have we the capacity to do it?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, then we should decline politely.

Sometimes even more experienced business people can get this wrong too, and accept work which cannot be delivered satisfactorily. That may lead to damage to reputations. Never be afraid to say no. Feel able to refer another business for the work if you think they will be able to do it. That will make more friends too.

What does not make for a good reputation is a business owner saying “I will get back to you with an estimate or a quote” and then not doing that because they do not fancy doing the job. That is a good way of losing friends and again damaging reputation.

Never leave a prospect hanging. They will think more of you if you decline and tell them why.

Never assume

When I started my first job, every bit of work I did was checked by a more experienced guy. I remember being asked why I had calculated a client’s dividends for his tax return without having evidence they had been paid. I said that I had assumed the shares relating to these dividends had not been sold, so the client must have had them. “Never assume” my colleague said. Although I was stung by his criticism, of course he was right and I was wrong. I should have checked with the client.

Assuming can get you into trouble. There is an accountancy joke “Why did the auditors cross the road?” “Because that’s what they did last year.” That is how mistakes are made, books are not checked properly, and those who are cooking them are not held to account.

In business generally, there are dangers in being comfortable and assuming all is right with our business practices. We need to check and check again we are being efficient. Perhaps above all, we should not assume that our customers are happy. Have we asked them? Everything may look fine from our side, but perhaps their expectations are different. It is too late to find out when they leave us. We should ask for feedback and talk to our clients regularly.

I try not to assume, but am only human after all. I have learned from my mistakes. What about you?

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