Why the personal touch is important in business


One of the patients

Small businesses have a huge advantage. They know their customers. Large businesses don’t. Small businesses which become large businesses forget their customers.

I wrote a while back about our extreme disappointment at our treatment by a veterinary practice.  Quite apart from the excessive charges levied in the face of my wife’s and my distress, there is another underlying problem with the practice and with many other veterinary practices in the UK. They have been acquired by large chains.

What is the effect for the customer of dealing with a large chain of vets? Well, we rarely get to see the same vet twice. There is often no continuity in the case of an ongoing treatment. The usually junior vets we get to see are still learning their profession but are not used to building relationships with the animals’ owners even if we do have any continuity in their dealing with a case.

Young vets have to learn their business. Our previous family veterinary surgeon, before he sold out to the chain, always had a young assistant vet. Most of them lasted two or three years before they naturally moved on in their career progression. That meant that they had a relationship with the owners of the pets brought in. Of course we had known the senior vet for a long time, so felt we could talk to him more easily than to a business-like trainee of the current vogue who probably has developed little in the way of people skills.

Small business owners can beat the big chains simply by being there, by talking to the clients and customers on a regular basis, by perhaps visiting their premises or homes and even inviting them to celebrations and networking events. We can make them feel they belong, which of course they do.

Customers who feel they have a relationship with a business owner or with the staff are less likely to move on and are more likely to value the service they get. They are more likely to be happy to pay more for the personal touch. Small businesses can compete very well with their larger competitors because although sometimes the big boys and girls will pile high and sell cheap, there is nothing like being able to pick up the phone and talk to your supplier as a person you know.

How often with large companies must we press the phone keys for multiple options just to get through to an offer of more multiple options? Hours of our lives can be wasted hanging on the telephone.

It will be no surprise to you that we have moved our cats’ healthcare issues to another veterinary practice where we can make an appointment with any one of several veterinary surgeons we know and like, and whom we can see are really caring. One in particular has given us great advice on dealing with a problem without even prescribing a medicine. There was huge value in the advice and it was well worth paying for.

Against big business, we generally have the upper hand if we have the facilities to provide the same basic service as they do, and then add to it our personal touches and ourselves. Remember we have the advantage, and make the most of it.

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The tools of our business – choice, discretion and honour

Back in January when visiting the local branch of my bank, I was whisked in by the customer relations manager and offered their premium service at a discounted rate. I weighed up the benefits and agreed to sign up. It looked like a good deal.

A couple of weeks ago I had a standard impersonal printed letter from the bank’s mass mail saying that the bank had looked at my banking practices and decided that I no longer qualify for their discounted rate because I do not satisfy the conditions, which they listed. Guess what? My account charges would be going up 43%.

Now, it is important to note that the bank’s customer manager told me that I qualified for the special rate. I examined the criteria set out in the impersonal letter I had received. I have to say that I never qualified for the discounted rate in their terms because the accounts I run for three different business entities and several income streams are not managed in a way that could satisfy the requirements.

I am not pleased. Because of the benefits I thought I was getting I cancelled some insurance I had elsewhere and my existing car breakdown cover amongst other things.

I called the bank and was told there was “nothing they could do” other than apologise and register my complaint. They cannot offer the service at a discounted rate.

Now, this is not supposed to be a whinge about large organisations in general. Of course, once upon a time, bank managers had discretion to change things and fit services and charges to individual customers.

It so happens that my first job was with a bank. I accepted a job offer at a salary which turned out to be higher than the amount normally offered to someone of my then age. My new employer, or at least the personnel manager, realised the mistake but told me the bank would honour their offer, and this was all before I started the job.

As small business owners we are in a different position. We have a choice as to what services to offer at what price, and to cement our relationship with our customer thereby. Our customers still have a choice to use us or not, but as long as we can offer a valued service at a valued price we should be able to keep them.

Should something go wrong we can use our discretion to put it right. We should keep our word, our self respect and our honour by honouring our commitments. We can even get a nice warm feeling in doing so. If we stick to our ethics we can grow our small business into a big one and instill our honourable approach into our staff by allowing them discretion.

Large organisations such as banks have lost all connection with customer service through becoming remote from us in ivory towers known as call centres. They may say they need to be competitive in terms of cost, but I would not mind paying for a proper service from a bank which honoured its commitments. They should note that supermarket chains generally take customer complaints seriously and try to put things right. It is not about being too big: it is about having real customer-facing staff with discretion to act on their own initiative. Banks and mobile phone companies haven’t a clue about this.

As a small business owner I am happy that choice, discretion and honour liberate me from becoming like the banks, including mine which has just been voted the worst in the UK for customer service. Are you not pleased, but not complacent, that you are not as they are?

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Don’t repeat costly business mistakes

Mistakes. We all make them. In the early years of a business, inexperience may lead us to make quite a few. Don’t worry about that. It is important to learn from mistakes and move on.

Starting out we are going to be telephoned by the business directories such as Yellow Pages and Thomson. If we have a plumbing business or a car repair shop that may be just the way to get business in the early years before our good reputation gets to spread around. What we don’t need to do is persist with paying large amounts of money for directory listings which don’t work. A couple of years is quite enough and if there is no result, move on.

There are people who keep trying things in the hope that somehow things will change and something will start working. This reminds me of one of my colleagues who had once been my boss. He tried hard with his IT which was to his credit, but I remember over about a week he was trying to do something in Word 97 or with Windows 2000 and it didn’t work. Of course that was because he was making the same error over and over again. The software didn’t know what he was trying to do, so it just didn’t work. My colleague should have asked someone what he was doing wrong, but he was just too proud to until a staff member just happened to notice his predicament. Yes, it was comical, but demonstrated the need to get help, and how stubbornly some people resist asking for it.

We must not beat ourselves up over our mistakes. We must learn and move on and know when we need help, and the value of that for which we pay.

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Management should not involve dictatorship

HM Revenue and Customs seen from Parliament Sq...
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I have had my difficulties recently dealing with a Government department, HMRC. A current trend in an era of cuts is to sweep away those employees who are regarded as expensive, which means the loss of many middle-management jobs. Now, I would not argue that there can be a problem in having lots of people overseeing rather than doing, but an efficient management structure requires communication; that is the cornerstone of an efficient business.

If there is just an elite of senior management that means that those at the coal face doing the work, whether it is in manufacturing or services, have to just follow instructions to the letter. There will be no conduit to report problems and to suggest better ways of doing things.

At one time it seemed we had moved away from the feudalist “them and us” environment which existed into the seventies, and even in very large businesses there did seem to be an era of listening to the grass roots in a business, feeding information up and making changes. Now many of the cuts we are seeing in the Civil Service and in the Banks for example are again sweeping away the middle management and the good communicators along with the dead wood. These changes are not just those coming in the era of a new Government; the process has been going on for several years. It seems to be the theory that the human communicators can be replaced by technology. However, unless the middle management can be entirely substituted with sentient androids it is a strategy which will lead to failure.

In small business we understand better that we should give ownership of their jobs to our employees because in that way our businesses will be more successful as well as encouraging loyalty of our employees in particular, all the staff to each other, and of course and most importantly, the loyalty of our clients and customers to our business and our brand. We are all in it together. To me, responsibility plus loyalty equals efficiency and success, and success equals prosperity. It is all rooted in our relationships within the business.

What do you think?


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Choosing a name for a small business

Banking District
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What’s in a name? I like to be able to relate to a business. I like to get a feeling for what it stands for and for the person behind it. I like any business to which I might give my custom to have a name which is easily remembered and which will slip of the tongue easily.

Now, please don’t think I am getting at anybody, but names such as VXI Tree Surgeons or JKT Property Services I am unlikely to remember. Initials which stand for an established brand are easier to recall, but that is because we know what they stand for. Love it or hate it we know what to expect from KFC.

I think big companies do get this wrong too. There is a very large bank called HSBC. It used not to be its name of course, but it started using those initials when it bought the Midland Bank and moved into domestic banking in the UK. I started my working life with HSBC, but in those days it was called the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Of course for internal memos we used the initials HSBC, but we introduced ourselves as working for the Hongkong Bank. Incidentally, please note that Hongkong was always one word for the Bank, whereas spelling the dependency and now Chinese province was always two words. People might have been put off banking with an organisation from a a place which used to be known for making cheap plastic toys, of course, so I think something like Great Eastern Bank would have rolled off the tongue a lot better. Both Hong Kong and the bank have a far more illustrious history than cheap toys and I guess it was association that put them off, but a trick was missed I think. Still the holding company could still have been called Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.

Anyway, rather than initials, proper names are important because they make businesses seem less faceless. Caspers Accountants is much better than C & S Accountants (I don’t know a Caspers who are accountants; I made it up) and it is easier to say Caspers than C & S when giving a recommendation. It is highly likely someone will forget a couple of initials within thirty seconds so any recommendation might be in vain.

Another pitfall in a business name is using a town or district. A name like Assington Plumbing (Assington is a village in Suffolk) might suggest to a prospective customer that they don’t travel and are not worth phoning. It’s just bad psychology in my view.

I think a small business should have a person’s name in it if it is a service business, and a shop should either have a name or a title which says exactly what it does, such as Smith’s Ironmongers. Only have a place or area if that is exactly the area you service. So Southend Logistics is a less good name for a transport company than East Anglian Logistics.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Although I go along with Juliet in that a badly named company might provide as good a service or product as one that is easily remembered, it might just be a rose we would never smell. What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Knowing when not to apologise

We all know that when something goes wrong in our business and a client or customer has not received the service he or she expects, the first thing we should do is apologise. Generally if we pay attention to our business this will be a rare occurrence; it might never happen. Still, the principle must be do apologise and move on when something goes wrong.

If we say we are sorry for things which are beyond our control or indeed for non-existent failures, we can sow seeds in the minds of our clientele that something has gone wrong when actually it hasn’t. Then they might tell their friends about some supposed problem and we will suffer.

I was put in mind of this the other day when waiting at the check out desk of our local aquatics store. The assistant at the till kept saying to each customer “Sorry for the wait”, yet no one had to wait more than a minute as far as I could tell. I only even thought about the length of the wait because I heard her apologise to the customer in front of me. I had the same apology but there really was nothing to apologise for, we could watch the fish during our brief pause; yet she might have people think that the till service was really slow.

In my business I could apologise for a client’s high tax bill, but as I don’t “miss a trick” in claiming allowances and available reliefs, I just tell people what they owe. If I apologise they might think it is my fault they have to pay so much to the Government.

Next time you think about telling your customer you are sorry, consider whether you have anything to be sorry for. Otherwise just give the facts, keep the customer in the loop, and don’t apologise.

(C) Jon Stow 2010

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Cold calls, warm calls and reputation

Recently I was called on our home telephone by a female person who immediately launched into a script along the lines of “I am calling from “Anonymous” Windows to tell you about our current special promotion if you order from us within the next month any new windows or doors”. As it happens I was still in the midst of some work for a client, so I said “Excuse me. I gather this is a sales call. My wife and I prefer not to have these on our home line and we have registered not to receive cold calls.”

The indignant response to this was “Well, your wife did enquire about one of our products last May. You are very rude, Mr. Stow” and with that she put the phone down.

Now, it turns out that my wife did indeed enquire about a new window in the porch (far too expensive and not good value), so the company has us on their calling list. Fair enough. However I may have my faults but I am always polite as I was to this person on the telephone. If she had stayed on the line we might have sorted out the misunderstanding and ended the call on a friendly note.

What happened was that the caller ended up being really rude to me. Of course she may have had a bad day, but she has guaranteed that not only will we not be buying from her employer in the near future, we probably won’t be buying from the company in the longer term. For all she knows I will be telling everyone I meet about the call and naming the company, which certainly won’t help them. I thought better of naming the business in this post because it might have an unfair impact on her fellow employees.

A few ill-chosen words can do so much damage to a business reputation.

© Jon Stow 2010

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The right market for a business start-up

CHENGDU, CHINA - DECEMBER 31:  A shop assistan...
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When we are starting a business it is easy to take on every prospect who comes to our door and every project we may be asked to do. It is easy for me to say that it is important to be selective, but I have been around long enough to know that we do need to be choosy.

Whatever business we are in we need to decide what our market is. It is very tempting to take on a lot of small value bits of business, but they tend to be fairly routine and unlikely to lead to bigger things and bigger fees later. Large volumes of small customers or clients also tend to be very labour-intensive. We are likely to create a treadmill for ourselves, especially if we offer a service which will be called upon over and over again. Repeat business is worth seeking out, but repeat business which occupies all our time tends to keep our income down.

If we are choosy we can look for clients and customers who appreciate the individual touch and a customised service. We can charge higher fees because we know our clients value us and value the service. Value is what a good client wants and appreciates. Value business is what allows us more time for seeking new and valuable business and even more importantly allows us some leisure.

Knowing what our market is, offering value especially in a niche area not only sets us out from the crowd; it allows us to leave the crowds behind when we need a little downtime.

Don’t you agree?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Telephone service and talking to clients

Wonderful though email and on-line digital services are there really is no substitute for speaking to a real person. I am sure we all get frustrated at having our time wasted by large organizations where we have difficulty getting through to the right person (or even find out who the right person is) to deal with a problem or even give them a sale. What is worse in my view is where we cannot even find a telephone number and find we have to raise a “support ticket” on some company’s website.

I believe in talking to my clients on the telephone if I cannot talk to them face to face. With many I could just bang out an email and sometimes I do as clarification of a point raised in a conversation, but there is no substitute for the personal touch.

Sometimes a client will call at a time which is inconvenient. There are times when we can do without interruptions in the midst of particular projects. That is why we should have someone else answer the telephone and take a message, whether that is in actually in our office or in the office of our virtual PA. The point is that the client knows that they matter and we will talk to them as soon as we can.

When we do speak to the client, we should have made time to do so and to be helpful. It is no good just calling back to say we have the matter in hand. At the end of any call, our client should feel that their immediate need is being dealt with.

In a small business we have so much more opportunity to demonstrate that we care, both in word and deed, and I believe the telephone is a good starting point. What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Answer the telephone!

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It is all about getting in the cash

We have had some gloomy forecasts about the British economy recently with the Bank of England downgrading its own for growth in the immediate future. It says that growth in 2011 will be less than 3% compared with the previous forecast of 3.5%. Many independent forecasters think that is still over-optimistic. At the same time Germany’s GDP has leaped in the last quarter, so that might help to pull the UK up, but there may be some disadvantage on this side of the water in that the UK is weak in manufacturing and we may expect a further climb in unemployment, so fewer people will be buying.

The cuts to Government spending will account for the further losses of jobs and not only in the public sector, but also in the private sector as the State buys less products and services. There is also a trend towards higher unemployment in the US, partly seasonal, and although the administration has tried spending more and cutting less. My kitchen-sink economics cannot tell you who is right, but despite the personal debt figures in the UK rising my instinct tells me that it is more natural for the Government to be cutting its coat according to its cloth, which is deeply ingrained in the British psyche from Victorian days.

I keep hearing that people do not have money to spend and there is talk all the time of cash-flow problems for small business owners. I read the other day an article telling us that employees do not apparently go out so often for a drink with their colleagues after work on a Friday night or indeed any night. Much as I would like to think that is because the population is becoming more responsible over the imbibing of alcohol I suspect it is because they simply have less money to spend on alcohol or anything else. Alcohol is anyway cheaper in the supermarkets and perhaps there is more drinking at home.

One in ten pubs has closed in the last five years. There are no doubt several reasons for this, including the duty on alcohol, the competition from the shops, the recession and the easy answer, the ban on smoking.

I think the ban on smoking has helped drive the adaptability of the other pubs who are doing their best to survive. The magazine, The Publican, has published a survey stating that 52% of pub sales are now of food though there seems to be some dispute over the method of calculation. Certainly pub food sales are much higher.

We have seen a rise in gastro-pubs and there is excellent value to be had. The stale cheese sandwich and the chicken-in-a-basket are thankfully long gone as is the smoky atmosphere. A good pub meal is something to look forward to, no one feels obliged to buy loads of alcohol any more, and Sunday lunch at a pub is a pleasurable experience without the anticipated terror of an enormous bill. We can estimate and budget the cost.

What does this mean for the rest of us? I think the lesson for us and certainly for me is that we must adapt to what our clients and customers want. We must be prepared to do things differently, to do new things and stop trying to sell the old products and services that people may no longer want. Above all we must think about maximising profit not by raising our prices en bloc but by delivering value that people will pay for because we are giving them what they want.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010