Banking on personal service

A friendly place lost to us

A friendly place lost to us

The local branch of my bank has closed. Gone are the friendly cashiers (tellers), the greetings (“Good Morning, Mr. Stow”), the feeling of being valued as a customer.

The other day I had to pay in some money and went to the big main branch in the larger town. There was one cashier, and otherwise the tills had been replaced with machines. One is supposed to post into a slot any cheques received, together with a slip. There is no human being with whom to interact.

I pay a fee for my business banking, but I do not now feel I am getting any sort of service for my money. I am one very unhappy customer.

My own business is based entirely on real relationships with my clients. I value them, and I hope they value me. I try to be available to them at all reasonable times, and they know that I am there to help. If they value me, they will be happy to pay me a good fee for a service which they are entitled to expect.

Small business is all about personal service and great relationships. Big business has lost sight of that and, while we cannot all open our own banks, our flexibility and friendly approach is to our great advantage in competing where we can.

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

The simple things

Four of us went out for Sunday lunch. We chose an Inn which had changed ownership recently. We wanted to try it again as our last experience there had not been satisfactory.

The menu was a short one this time. There was not a great deal of choice, although enough for anyone seeking a Sunday lunch.

We all had three courses. They came in generous proportions and my “starter” was perhaps more than generous. Each dish was beautifully prepared and cooked, the service was prompt and courteous but not intrusive, and we all enjoyed our lunches very much. Definitely a ten-out-of-ten experience.

The short menu was a big advantage. From our point of view there was no confusion about what was on offer, and with such a menu, the service was likely to be good because the chef would be on top of all the different dishes. With a long menu, often the chef is over-stretched, which can result in diners having a long wait for food which may not have been cooked as well as it might.

This is a message we can take to all our businesses. We are not Amazon. We do not sell everything. I work with a few core offerings where I can deliver quality promptly and provide a really good service. I try to make sure my clients are not confused about what I offer and that they know exactly what they are getting.

Well done to the restaurant for their service and congratulations to their very friendly staff who made us very happy. They provided an example for us all.

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?

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!

Mutual trust between client and provider

amateur radio transceiver Collins KWM-2A

amateur radio transceiver Collins KWM-2A (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a young chap I got my amateur (ham) radio license. I passed the exam and took and passed my Morse test at the Post Office Headquarters in London. I was very active while I was still living with my parents and had few responsibilities.

When those responsibilities kicked in and I was busy working in Town I did not have time for my hobby, so I stored away all my gear. Recently, I though I would make a come-back in radio. Of course the technology has moved on and I will embrace it. However, there is a particular old radio transceiver (“rig” as we hams call them) I really wanted working. It was not, and as I lacked all the equipment and probably the expertise to fix it, I arranged to send the radio to a professional service workshop.

After a couple of weeks, which seemed longer, the guy at the workshop telephoned to say the radio was fixed, and I should send a cheque (or check), which is what I did. After another week with no sign of my transceiver I telephoned him and was told that as my cheque had been cleared , which means processed by the bank, my radio was being sent back to me. It duly arrived and is working, but it has also been rather a long wait.

I think the workshop sent all the wrong signs. Firstly, to await the clearance of the cheque seems to show a lack of trust. Maybe once bitten but, with mixed metaphors, we are not all tarred with the same brush.

Secondly, part of any service is a reasonable turnaround, and this long wait to check payment added to the delay.

All this could have been avoided either by accepting payment by instant direct bank payments, or indeed why not use Paypal? Then there would be no suggestion of lack of trust since we are all used to paying this way, and there would be a quicker delivery of service.

The radio workshop’s old-fashioned ways must make the customers uncomfortable. I felt rather insulted. That is unnecessary as their work is good. Even if they do not trust the customers, they do not need to make it obvious if they accept modern methods of payment. What do you think?

 

Solving the problem. Or not?

The Plumber

The Plumber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We who provide services are paid to solve problems. aren’t we? If a client comes to me worried about an issue she has, it would not help for me to just say “Oh dear, you are in a mess”. She wants to hear how I am going to fix it, relieve her stress and generally help her feel better. Of course that is what I do, if possible. If I cannot fix it, I will just be honest, and if I am able, help mitigate the pain.

Recently we had an issue at home with our heating. It was a minor problem which could be fixed, although we already had another problem of a more serious nature which had been diagnosed by a plumber who had now gone abroad to work.

We had to choose a new plumber, who came to fix the more minor issue, which was done satisfactorily. We paid his bill.

We told him about our other problem. He seemed to think that the diagnosis we had been given was not correct. We wanted the problem fixed, so we agreed he could try. He sent two of his colleagues who fiddled around for a couple of hours before agreeing with the original opinion. They could not sort out the problem without the major work we had already been told was necessary.

We were then presented with a bill for not fixing the heating. Understandably, I think, we said that we had told the plumber what the problem was, and his men had spent two hours not sorting it out before agreeing with the original opinion. Would you have paid for that? I think not?

We all have to deliver a solution, or be honest if we cannot. We certainly cannot charge for our failures.

How to lose a customer in one easy lesson

Vostro 1000 with Windows 8A couple of weeks ago I needed to buy some software and found a company that seemed to offer what I wanted: a single license for a one-off project. I chose them because although I am very happy with my current supplier (this is for tax compliance) I needed a program for a back year which they could not supply to me.

I downloaded the program, found the license key, emailed for an activation key, and waited… several hours when I wanted to get the job done.

Eventually I had the email in reply, copied and pasted the key, and Hey Presto, the program worked.

I duly entered the required information, sent off to my client the work I had done, and everything was fine. When the client said he was happy, I went to start the program again, but was told my activation key had expired. I had paid my money. What was the matter?

I sent an email to the software company and asked for help, since they did not answer the telephone. Hours later I had an emailed reply, disbelieving my story. I sent a screenshot of my error message.

More hours passed. I was sent another email with a new activation key. I tried to copy and paste this, but a new error message said this was incorrect. I emailed back.

The next day (yes a whole day without resolving the problem) I had another reply suggesting I did not know how to copy and paste properly (yes, really). I tried to telephone again, but there was still no reply, only a recorded message stating their office was closed and their hours were 9 to 5 (but it was 11 in the morning).

I sent another email. I received another activation key after an hour or so. I copied and pasted, and worked this time it worked and the program ran. At least I had got the work finished!

At no time did I have any proper responsive or helpful contact with anyone in the company. The dialogue was from their side pre-programmed and unimaginative. I still do not know whether they ever answer the telephone, but it does not matter now because i will not be calling them.

Oh, and I will not be buying any more of their products.

The most important part of our relationships with our clients and customers is communication. We must keep them in the loop concerning the work we are doing for them, and we must be accessible at reasonable times if they need us or have questions. It is obvious.

I learned from this company how to lose a new customer, but I will not be putting it into practice.  Nor should anyone.

Gym crackers

Young adults doing exercises at the fitness clubOur local leisure centre has had a change of provider. One well-known company has taken over the running of it from another. However, they do seem to have management problems under the new regime.

In recent weeks, my wife and her friends have been messed around with their exercise class in the swimming pool. One week they were telephoned at home to be advised that the class had been cancelled because there was no instructor to run it. Later, it transpired that the instructor was actually unavailable for the following week. She had turned up to find there was no one there for her class, so it was cancelled anyway, and also obviously for the following week when she really wasn’t there. That seems like poor management and a lack of communication.

Now I hear that several ladies who have a studio class found their latest instructor poor, and apparently she is not qualified. They asked to see the manager, who had recently been promoted from swimming pool duties as a number of staff had left with the old management company.

The ladies expressed their concern about the quality of their exercise class. I do not know how strongly they made their point, but apparently this manager said “I am not talking to a lynch mob” and walked away. The problem was not resolved.

Of course this guy has possibly been promoted beyond his ability (the Peter Principle), and certainly lacks training which he should have been given. What has resulted is a very poor example of customer relations, and of customer service since he should have been offering compensation, even if it had been vouchers for free coffee in the café.

Word gets around. Reputations are damaged. If you asked me privately which leisure centre we are talking about, I would probably tell you.

Of course we can have difficult customers. Sometimes, if things have gone wrong, we must take responsibility. What we must not do is alienate those who provide our livelihoods.

How simple it is to ask “how can I make it up to you?”

If you are not special, you are not trying

Guarding the beach hut, Thorpe Bay

Be different (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

I have had my run-ins with telecoms companies in the past, and very frustrating it has been.

For the third month in a row, my business broadband provider, which is one of the smaller ones, failed to process my monthly payment and for the third month in a row I had a somewhat threatening email from their Credit Control Department. On each occasion I have logged into their website and paid on-line from the same account using the same method as they would had they succeeded in collecting my money. It is quite clear that the problem must be with them, so it is especially galling when all they can do is send me rude emails.

Following the last rude note from them and having paid the bill again, I telephoned to speak to the Credit Control people, and told them what I thought, but in very polite terms. I was advised that they could not check individual accounts. But, I said, one of the benefits of dealing with a smaller company was that I had in previous years received what seemed like a personal service. They had no response to that.

So it seems I am no longer getting the value out of dealing with a smaller, more caring company, in which case why should I pay more than I would dealing with cheaper but larger competitors? I will pay for value, but not if I don’t get it.

I asked to be transferred to Customer Services with a view to discussing my account. I expressed my unhappiness with the treatment over payment and asked why, with no better service than from a telecoms giant, I was paying more each month and with a lower download limit than I could have elsewhere. The response was “we cannot compete on price with the others”.

I have “voted with my feet”. I have taken my account to a cheaper provider. Value of service is important to me, but I am not paying for what I don’t get.

My soon-to-be-former telecoms provider is going to struggle. If they cannot compete on price and they no longer compete on value they will go out of business.

Our small businesses need to be special and different and offer that extra attention to our clients and customers, otherwise we cannot compete with the Big Girls and Boys. We need to offer value and if our customers feel special, then we have established great relationships with them leading to ongoing business.

Don’t you like to feel special? I do.

Admitting our mistakes

Sheepish?

Sheepish? (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

We all make mistakes in our businesses. Usually they are not serious, and should normally mean an apology to our customers or clients. Recently I forgot a client had given me a document and I asked for it again. When she put me right, I apologised, and I am sure that our business relationship has not been harmed. It is best to own up straight away.

The other day, I went to collect an order from a local shop. The business owner, who is someone I like and respect, denied he had received the order, even though it had been ordered in person. I suppose he simply forgot to write it down, or mislaid his note.

He has fulfilled the order now, but has been a little “off” with both my wife and me when we have seen him since the incident. As there was no real harm done, I am not sure why he would not have apologised, even if he genuinely thought we were mistaken rather than him. It would have smoothed the waters after all.

It is a terrible cliché to say that the customer is always right, and sometimes customers are wrong even if we don’t say so. However, if we want to continue doing business together, quiet diplomacy is the way forward even if our feathers are ruffled.

What do you think?