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.

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!

The late show

l

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.

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.

With a little help from my friends

Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joe Cocker died recently, and although he was a prolific recording artist, he is best remembered for his cover of the Lennon-McCartney song “With A Little Help From My Friends”, which they wrote for Ringo Starr. Joe tailored the song to his style and made a very memorable song one so good that most of us will always remember his interpretation. He was friends with the Beatles and they did help each other more than we knew back then.

In a business context, most of us have not been fortunate enough to discover a product or service that is unique, and it is a question of putting our own personal touches into our offerings to make them special to our clients. We can do that by developing ideas from others in our business. In my line, I do not look on others with the same type of offering as competitors. They are colleagues with their own take and approach.

That said, we cannot work in isolation, and I rely on others for some of the services I offer to clients. I am very good on many technical issues, but not on a few, so I turn to paid-for technical support and to my sub-contractors, who also do the sort of work I do not take pleasure from doing, but they do. We all have our strong points and our weaker ones, but if we know and use the support we need, our clients will get the very best from us, which they are entitled to expect.

Our paid supporters are also very important when we need to take time off for holidays, and also, as I have needed recently, some personal time when someone close to us is very unwell. I am so very grateful that I have a social circle too including a lovely neighbour who was incredibly supportive quite literally in my hour of need.

So what am I saying? Small businesses need to have support in place to fill in the gaps in what they are good at, and also to be there in a crisis, whether internal or external. As business owners, we also need to have good business and social circles to help us out personally when the unexpected happens. Until it does, we must help others in crisis.

We all need a little help from our friends and it is a great comfort to know that we can get it.

The leaky tap – are your customers happy?

We all try to do the best for our customers, but do we know if they are happy? There might be something which they see as having gone wrong with our service, and we do not even know about it. We cannot put it right if we don’t know.

As someone who has many landlords as clients, I take an interest in the property rental market. Sooner or later, if a house or flat is being let, something will go wrong. Maybe the stair carpet is coming loose, maybe there is a damp patch, and perhaps there is a dripping tap which might not just be annoying but do damage.

Most tenants would tell the landlord or the letting agent, and the problem would be fixed. Strangely, some tenants never complain. They just give their notice and leave, and it is only then that the landlord finds out they were unhappy. Really, no one likes to lose a tenant and have a break in the rent.

It is the same with those of us who sell goods or services. Even if we believe we have done our best, there will be customers who have not been happy, but did not tell us. They just did not come back for more of our offering.

How do we avoid this problem? Well, we can’t altogether, because some people will not tell us even when we ask what they think about us. However, we must make sure that we always do ask, and with the right feedback, we can make amends and get even better at what we do.

Always ask all your customers and clients if they are happy or if there is anything you can do better. You can never keep them all for ever, but you can retain more for longer. Perhaps some of your “natural wastage” can be avoided.

 

Small business and swimming out of your depth

 

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arrivi...

The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A week or so back I was watching an antiques and collectible show on the TV. It was one of those where people bring along some item in the hope that one of the dealers on the show will buy it for cash. These programmes are quite interesting and one can learn a lot about antiques sitting in one’s armchair.

On this particular episode a woman brought in what purported to be all four of the Beatles’ signatures. These were on a torn-out diary page which had a couple of entries for November 1968. When asked where she got these signatures, the seller said her aunt had worked at the Liverpool Empire when the Beatles were just starting out.

The dealer and the show presenter said that the fact they were on a diary page and that the aunt had worked at the theatre gave the signatures provenance, yet to me they gave them quite the opposite and the alarm-bells started ringing.

Firstly, the Beatles were not just starting out in 1968. They made it big in 1963 and started out several years before then. Secondly, even without checking, I thought they had not performed live in 1968 anywhere, and certainly not in the UK. Having checked since, I think the last UK performance, apart from on the roof of Abbey Road Studios in 1969, was actually in 1966. As far as it is possible for me to check, the last performance at the Liverpool Empire was in December 1965; definitely not in 1968.

By 1968 the Beatles were not getting on as well. It would have been difficult to get their signatures all at once, and definitely not at the Liverpool Empire.

These are all simple clues to someone who even had some idea of their Sixties pop history.

Logically these signatures were fakes, yet the dealer bought them for a fair sum and sold them on via auction. Dare I suggest the woman who brought them in knew perfectly well they were not genuine?

I am not an expert on the Beatles. I am just quite old. I would not have touched the autographs with a bargepole and if anyone is liable to be sued for misrepresentation it might be the auction house, though I hope they were sold “as seen”.

The dealer on the show admitted he did not know much about autographs. In my view it would have been safer to pass up the opportunity to purchase them, although I think he was lucky to get away with buying and then selling them on.

In my line of business, I cannot take chances. If I do not think I have sufficient knowledge to advise a client, I will be honest. I will suggest someone who is much better in that particular area.

None of us can afford to get out of our depth. If we make mistakes, we could cost our clients a lot of money, and even if we are well insured, we can end up losing out as well as having much heartache and worry.

I would rather work in an area where I am comfortable and have good knowledge. I do not want projects in unfamiliar territory to come back and bite me. Would you?