Don’t be greedy

Don't eat them all!

Don’t eat them all!

I believe in value billing. That means that I bill my clients what my advice and service should be worth to them. They get something they are happy with, and I get rewarded properly for my efforts.

However, greed for business can trip us up. I get offered more than I accept. Some I turn it down because the value of the work is not high for the customer or client, and therefore the reward for me would not be enough. I will not charge a client a lot more for something as good she could get somewhere else. I direct her to the somewhere else.

The greater danger for some of us is in being tempted to accept business that is outside our normal area and which may be beyond our current experience; even beyond our expertise.

I pick and choose what work my business undertakes. I do not do everything “in-house” of course. If it is work I can give my colleagues and supporting workers who can do it well, of course I accept. It is that stuff which we do not know enough about which can trip us up badly.

We can certainly recommend others in our stead if we are not confident. We should never be afraid to say “no”.

Where we are now

Canary Wharf from Excel Centre

Canary Wharf from Excel Centre (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

We can all look back and regret decisions we have made. I could if I felt like it.

Should I have been more serious about that girl? Should I have had ambitions to be a Lloyd’s broker when I was a lad? Should I have accepted a posting in the Far East? Should I have taken that job? Should I have left that job?

We did not know then what we know now. We started our businesses based on what we knew then. We have learned along the way, and with hindsight we can see our mistakes. That is called experience. As long as we learn from it, we will be stronger.

We should be happy with what we have achieved, but never complacent. There is so much more we can do and look forward to.

Don’t look over your shoulder with regret, but only to check the lessons you have learned. Me? Non, je ne regrette rien.

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?”

Getting the sack

Are you ready?

Are you ready?

Getting the sack is what launched my “career” as an independent person. Yet as an employee, if you are “terminated” it is a terrible shock, the stuff of nightmares. I had a bad dream about it last night; being called in to the boss and taking only a few seconds to realise what was going on.

I must confess that when it did happen to me, I told my then boss exactly what I thought about him and the firm that was getting rid of me. I quite surprised myself, and even looking back, what I said was uncharacteristic even bearing in mind the provocation.

Immediately after being told I had to clear my desk and go that very evening I knew something very serious had happened in my life. I did not know quite how serious because I supposed that being at the top of my game I would find another post quite quickly.

How wrong I was! I was “over-qualified”, I did not have the right sort of education decades earlier, my skills did not quite fit. What no one said was that I was too old to get a new job, which was what most employers thought when they gave a reason not to employ me or to not even to grant me an interview.

Never mind. As you know I had to get myself a new income, and I started out to earn some money. Helped by my wife, we ended up with four businesses entities between us, and four distinct “flavours” or types of business. Of course not all of them are a roaring success. One business earns much of the money, but the others in different niches help potential customers decide what they want, and even the biggest earner comes in two “flavours” through separate websites and marketing.

Getting the sack, getting fired, being terminated or whatever you want to call it is not the end of the world. You have your brain and you have your experience, and if you cannot get another job or do not want to work for someone else, you can really succeed as an independent. “Living on your wits” is perhaps over-dramatic, but if you have become unemployed it really is a starting-point for the rest of your commercial life and not “game over”.

Be positive, think what you can do best and what you want to do, and get started on your whole new life as an independent business person.

Showing us the way with enthusiasms

 

English: Radio Caroline bus

English: Radio Caroline bus (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Courtesy of Sarah Darling

The long and winding road

Do you sometimes look over your shoulder and wonder how you got where you are? In terms of learning our personal and working lives become inter-twined. Always along the way there are people whose enthusiasms permeate our souls and set us in certain directions. We carry the knowledge and excitement and interest which they instil in us and even if we don’t do things their way, their influence is what sets us in the direction we have gone.

Of course the adults around us as children build the foundation of our morality and beliefs before we start to think for ourselves, but our interests are rubbed off from people we come across, whether they are famous, or colleagues, or acquaintances.

Reaching for the stars

I have always had an interest in astronomy; at least since I saw Patrick Moore in a black-and-white Sky at Night. His infectious enthusiasm rubbed off on me and turned on my awareness of the Universe out there. I started to read science fiction at a young age starting with Angus McVicar.  I read Fred Hoyle‘s book about the “steady state” theory of the Universe, now superseded by a very different model.

Then there was pirate radio. My hero disc jockey on Radio Caroline was Johnny Walker. I thought he was really cool, and yes, we did say “cool” even in those days. It inspired an interest in pirate radio to the extent I was a pirate myself. Later I became a legal radio “ham” because I acquired an interest in the science of radio.

Possibilities

Then when I started working in tax, there was a guy whose first name was Tom. He had a very comprehensive knowledge of tax and was seen as the oracle. He showed me what was possible. Sadly our relationship somehow soured. I never really knew what put him off me. It was that way round. Yes, he became a block to my career, but the ball was in my court to move on. It wasn’t his problem and I was sad that I could not stay in touch. I am still grateful for my time with him.

After I left that firm, my career took off,which is what I had intended.

I went a few years without another major influence. I made some dear friends with the national firm I joined who are still my friends today.

The new dawn

Later, after my career in employment ceased in a rather unplanned fashion, I tried to reorientate myself for the self-employed world. I went on sales courses, but they always made me rather uncomfortable. Then someone said I should read Zig Ziglar. I saw how easy selling could be. I saw that selling was about giving comfort to the prospect at the same time as giving comfort to me. Previously I had always worried that the prospect would end up not wanting my services and would hold this against me. Zig’s way is to make sure your prospect has what she wants, and that is what you want. Later, I read Dale Carnegie and saw where so much of these ideas might have come from. Everyone should read Zig and Dale Carnegie if they want to get on in business.

Marketing was hard at the beginning. In 2003 I joined Ecademy. Within a couple of weeks I met Thomas Power. I am very glad I did. He may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but tea is a matter of taste. I met Penny Power too very soon, but Thomas’s knowledge of and enthusiasm about everything we should be doing on-line to market our businesses was hugely influential for me. I learned so much so quickly. 2003 was 1BF (Before Facebook). So thank you, Thomas and Penny, for the last nine years, and thank you Andrew Widgery for bringing us together.

Of course I met my wife in August 2000 and she is a lovely influence at home and keeps me calm and focussed and on the rails. I am very lucky.

Thank you Patrick and Johnny and Tom and Zig. Anyone would think I had won an Oscar with all this thanking. I would not have what I have without all those people though. I might have had something else, but I like what I have. Of course I have missed a few “thank yous”. I will catch up one day.

Who has influenced you to achieve, and excited you with their ideas?

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Learning from experience – the choices we make

Learning to ride the business bike

It is only natural to wonder about “what ifs?” which are the choices we might have made in our lives but didn’t. Mostly we will form a view when it is too late to change. That is because as time passes we have the benefit of experience and feel we might have made a better choice.

So my choices might have been:

  • Should I have gone to that college? – No idea.
  • Should I have proposed to that girl I was madly in love with? – Yes.
  • Should I have emigrated to Canada in my twenties – Maybe but at least now I am not far from my parents who are really getting on a bit.
  • Should I have bought that house thirty years ago? – Probably yes.
  • Should I have found out what problem my colleague seemed to have with me over twenty years ago? – Yes.
  • Should I have bought our current house -Yes.
  • Should I have taken that job? – No, bad decision but I learned I was darned good at what I do so took away positives.

So we do at least have some of the answers after we learn from experience. What is important is both to learn and also not to have any regrets, because they distract us. So if I should have proposed to that girl all those years ago, at least I did propose to my wife much more recently and I am very happy that I did and she accepted. 🙂

When we start out in business we do make mistakes. We waste money on directory listings, we get caught out by scams. We try to compete on price rather than value for services when that should not be our market. We don’t differentiate ourselves from the competition.

We should learn from our experience. I think I have learned a lot about running a business. When we get on our bikes for the first time we have to learn how to ride them. I am sure I don’t know all the answers in business, as no one does. I am still willing to learn. Have you learned any harsh lessons which helped you make a better business?

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Monitoring help from afar

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Image via Wikipedia

Recently I bought a couple of computer monitors for the office. I inserted the word “computer” in that last sentence to distinguish it from the other sort of monitor, which is someone who keeps an eye out. When I was ten I was the classroom door monitor, which meant I stood by to open and shut the classroom door and could also warn the other kids when teacher was coming for the next class.

Stupid message

Anyway, I digress. The first monitor I plugged into my main machine should have plugged and played, but it didn’t. I tried running the set-up CD, but set-up failed with a stupid message “incorrect parameters”. What was that supposed to mean? I couldn’t get the proper resolution satisfactorily by setting it myself. I called the vendor of the monitor and they referred me to the manufacturer, a Korean company. Their agent was not very polite, couldn’t offer an explanation, and issued a return number so that I could sent the monitor back to the retailer.

Solution

I had purchased a second monitor from another South Korean company, which worked with my other machine. I transferred it over to the main machine, and this didn’t plug and play either. Their set up routine also failed. If I were a real computer geek I suppose I might have started to think, but having failed to find a useful helpline to phone I contacted the customer agent through the chat facility on their website. After being interrogated for five minutes by the agent I was told that the problem was with Intel’s graphics driver, which was faulty. I was directed to the updated driver, and Hey Presto, the monitor plugged and played upon a reboot. Magic indeed!

Satisfaction

So, the larger South Korean company rather let me down with their attitude when surely they could have diagnosed the problem. The smaller one (though not that small) actually came up trumps. I will probably buy my next bit of computer gear from them and not from the first lot. They found a problem which wasn’t their fault and helped me out. I didn’t even need to send back the other company’s monitor.

We will probably purchase our next fridge from LG because Life’s Good and they won out on customer service. There is a lesson and we know what it is.

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Confidence in our business strategy

 

Photo by Peter Hires Images

 

I have been writing recently about making assumptions about our business and our clients which may be unwarranted. In the business process, whether we are selling goods or services, we do need to understand those who may buy from us, and what they are looking for when they do buy, whether from us or our competitors. That means that research is essential to ensure that we do know what we are talking about. Of course we will still not know what we don’t know, but the more we do know by asking the right questions, the better position we will be in to meet the expectations of our market, or to be specific, our customers and prospects, because they all have their individual needs.

So as long as we are prepared to keep testing our marketing strategy and our business approach, then we are probably doing our best, but no complacency is allowed! We should always listen to our peers and colleagues of course; it is essential. They have a collective knowledge which is a huge resource.

Of course, we may not always get the right advice, though, and sometimes our own experience may tell us more than what we hear from our friends and colleagues. Recently, someone said that blogging was not very effective in marketing. Well, I wouldn’t say that blogging should be the only marketing we do, but I know from personal experience that it works for me; it does bring in significant new business and that is a big plus for me because at the same time I really enjoy the writing.

We should always listen to advice freely offered, and often we should take paid-for professional advice on marketing and other strategies. However, if we already know that something works for us we should stick to our guns; if someone thinks it shouldn’t work they may not understand our niche. I believe in always listening but being confident in what we believe works for us. Every business is unique and needs its own strategies to take it forward.

What are your thoughts?

© Jon Stow 2010

Choosing a name for a small business

Banking District
Image by bsterling via Flickr

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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Why we need to assess the risk in our business assignments and projects

In my last piece I talked about the danger of adapting business agreements and contracts when we do not have the specialist knowledge as lawyers, or indeed as (in my case) a tax practitioner. I suspect that those who are driven to do this are either out to impress their clients or are motivated by the prospect of getting a larger fee than if the work is shared with a professional in the relevant field.

However, even for those who may be very well qualified in terms of understanding what is required in an agreement or contract or other project of any description, the risk in undertaking some assignments may simply be too great. It is sometimes best to pass on a project, and, I believe, take a commission as long as we are up front with our client as to what we are doing.

Let me give you an example. When I was in the larger corporate world the sort of work I did included devising share plans for companies to reward their staff. The idea was that the employees would receive bonuses in the form of shares in their employer, and at the same time the company would save a great deal of money, particularly in terms of tax, in doing so. One project I did took me about three weeks working exclusively, and I remember that my employer’s fee was about £50,000. During the period I was developing the share plan, whilst I knew what I was doing, I had the benefit of peer review and also checked with lawyers that I was on the right lines and that the plan was “watertight” and that it would work.

The client company was looking to save millions, so their Financial Director was not worried about the fee they were paying, and my employer stood to make a tidy profit.

Now I am a principal of a small business. I still have the expertise to do a similar project. What I lack is the opportunity for sufficient peer review and the backing of a large corporate employer. I would not undertake such an assignment and would pass it on to a bigger player, of whom I know a few. After all, it is not just when we mess up that we might get sued. If other things outside our control go wrong it is human nature (and all businesses are run by humans) to look for someone to blame, and even being on the wrong end of misdirected litigation can be very expensive and very worrying. We are also unlikely to have a sufficiently large professional indemnity policy to save ourselves or our company and reputation from ruin.

My message is that not only should we not undertake business activities outside our professional competency, even if we believe that we can rise to the challenge intellectually, we cannot afford to take the risk if there is a lot of money at stake. With a small business it is better to refer on to a larger provider with a more considerable financial clout and be happy with a commission. Our clients will respect us more for our professional approach and we do not need to let our pride line us up for a fall.

© Jon Stow 2009