Networking breakdowns

I went to someone else’s breakfast networking event the other day. It is not a weekly event like my regular one, but takes place monthly. I guess there were about thirty people there and some of them were certainly present with the intention of talking to other business people and meeting new faces.

I have to say that unfortunately the event was a bit of a shambles. The organisers had booked a speaker who didn’t turn up. This was not their fault entirely although had I invited an outside speaker I would have given him or her a call the day before to make sure they were still up for it.

Still, the event would still have been a success in my book if, given we were only there for ninety minutes, the participators had each had a minute to introduce themselves. Then we would have had an opportunity to buttonhole those who might have been of particular interest on the day. As it was, we did not even have the chance to mingle with all present because a number of people in groups of three or four had sat themselves down around tables, probably with people they knew. That did not in my book amount to networking; they were closed off in their cliques from the rest of the gathering.

The meeting would have been much better if there had been a proper structure in view of the limited time available. I made the most of it by talking to as many of the open and receptive people there as I could fit in, but if you are organizing a short event like this, do give everyone there a chance to give their elevator pitch or just explain what they are looking for in terms of connections. Certainly do not let them sit down unless around one big table where they have to introduce themselves to the whole gathering.

© Jon Stow 2010

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Is networking not for everyone?

It is the strangest thing, but there must be a lot of small business owners who simply do not get out to networking meetings. People do not like to get out of their comfort zones, but it seems an awful waste.

I went to an event this morning. It was not too early, so no one had to get up at the crack of dawn. It was a pleasure to meet one or two people whom I had not met before; new people to me and new people to the local networks. The majority of those there I had met before and some of them are in my quite close trusted network. They would be people I would be happy to help or whom I already have helped, or people who have helped me. A couple have become very good friends and I would never have met them in the ordinary course of business or social events. I know them because we have all made the effort to get out and meet new people.

All this is fine and proves that networking works and we can all get great rewards. However, the puzzle is that in a digital age and with so many people working from home or running small businesses on our high streets or industrial or business parks, there are not more. I do not suppose that the “missing” potential networkers simply do not go to the events I go to. We networkers go to quite a cross-section and in fact at one time or another have been to most of the networking groups around, whether they be BNI, the local Chamber of Commerce or one of our home-grown groups of which I run one.

My conclusion is that there are many people whom we are somehow missing who would be valuable resources for us, in that we could refer our network friends to them; they could benefit so much. I remember that when I was in BNI, a fine organisation, I took a lot of trouble to try to find people to come along to our visitors’ day. It was such hard work though and so few could be persuaded to come along. Those who visit my own group and join do it on their own initiative, though they may originally learn about the group from current members. The visitors understand the deal from meeting the excellent networkers I am fortunate to have. However, there must be a huge number of people sitting on their own working in their business and hoping for their best without tapping into the huge resources that networking brings. They may fail on their own. There is strength in numbers.

Some admittedly somewhat out-of-date figures (2004) said that

• 2,200,000 businesses had no employees (about 61% of SMEs).
• 1,450,000 businesses had an annual turnover of less than £50,000.
• 1,350,000 businesses had less than £10,000 worth of assets.

I believe there may be about 10% fewer businesses now, but plenty to go round.

Where are all these business owners? I love meeting my “same old faces”, my trusted network, but I am sure that we would all like to meet new people, expand our networks and tap into them as a resource, from which they would benefit. How can we get the message over? What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

How I use Twitter

I love Twitter. Many people blog about it, but a networking friend of mine is struggling to understand how she may benefit, and this is what I have told her.

I use Twitter:

• to stay in touch with as many as possible of my on-line and off-line network with whom I had had contact already when I started a year and a half ago.
• to find new connections and interesting people.
• the above would include people in my own business or allied businesses in tax and accountancy, and across borders too.
• to keep up with the latest news, by which I mean news in general, social media news and news in my own business area
• to have a bit of fun with people I know or have met through Twitter.
• to follow the exploits of celebrities of interest to me
• to find blogs of interest from a professional point of view or of general interest including those related to social media
• to draw people to my own blogs and hope they find them interesting

I use tools to manage my contacts in groups and Twitter lists, because no one can do anything more than dip in now and again to the main “All Friends” Twitter stream. The main tools I use are TweetDeck which is desktop based and HootSuite, which is web browser based. That way I can see what my closer contacts are saying all the time and we can have conversations and help each other. In the beginning it does need a bit of work, but after that one can just dip in and out, a few minutes a day, or however long one wishes, and can use the various phone apps to stay in touch when out and about.

Twitter is the cement or glue which binds my larger network together. It has vastly increased the number of people I feel I know at least a little, and there are more people to whom I could give referrals. I have reconnected with people with whom I had lost contact.

Above all, Twitter involves conversation and being part of the conversation, and it has brought me business too. Of course, depending on your current business and situation it may not be of benefit, but I would feel that spending just a little time on Twitter was an investment for the future,

Follow me on Twitter @JonStow

Why customer service is important even to those who are not customers yet

I am feeling a bit let down by the local commercial hospitality providers. I run a breakfast group which meets weekly at a hotel. Before our Christmas break I was careful to make sure we would have our normal booking on the first Tuesday morning in January. It was all carefully written down in the book. Imagine my surprise when we turned up before 7AM on a very cold morning this last week to find the hotel shut up and completely locked up. Not only was it an extreme inconvenience for the group having got up so early on a very chilly morning to no avail, but I felt very embarrassed. Despite the fact I had a booking and had confirmed it, it would only be natural for one or two to think that it was all my fault for not checking. Actually, I like to think that the members would be more understanding than that, but as the group director and organiser I felt responsible.

Eventually and getting on for lunchtime, someone finally answered the hotel telephone and told me they were closed for the week for refurbishment. It is a pity no one told me when I made what I thought was a booking, and it is a pity too that no one realised the error and telephoned me. I had assumed on the morning of the big lock-out and freeze-out that the hotel had gone out of business, which they will if they carry on treating their customers like this. All-in-all it was pretty poor customer service.

Being rather fed up and indeed before I had found out the truth about the hotel’s failure to welcome us last week, I telephoned two other local venues to see whether they could accommodate our weekly meetings and to quote a price for breakfast and use of one of their meeting rooms. I stressed this would be regular income every week. Both said that their manager / event organiser would be in touch. Guess what? Neither has.

I can understand that in both cases the venues might have thought it would not be profitable to accommodate us, or that they simply did not have the room or the staff available or whatever. That would be fair enough. However, not to return the calls and respond to my enquiries was very short-sighted. Since I do from their point of view organise local networking, I might still have considered them in the future if this time they had politely declined the business for a reason. Why would they want to give the wrong impression by being so rude as to not call me to explain? Do they not want to attract new business? Suppose I wanted to organise an event at some other time of the day, or for a much larger gathering than the breakfast club, which by the way has a healthy membership for groups of its type?

Our current provider failed badly on the issue of customer service. The two venues given the opportunity to quote also treated their potential customers very badly and pretty much ensured they would not be given the chance to bid for my business in the future.

Have you had similar experiences? How did you feel about it?

© Jon Stow 2010

Why we should deal with the present to look after the future of our business

We are coming to the end of another year, and of course all the predictions for 2010 and beyond are already upon us. As with the social media “experts’” forecasts, most of these will be wrong or else they will be stating the blindingly obvious. We really do not know what will happen in six months’ time or on a micro-management scale, even tomorrow. However the pundits earn their living doing this sort of thing and I have no more faith in them than I do in Mystic Meg (sorry, Meg!).

We hear forecasts that the economy will improve at the beginning / middle / end of 2010 or by 2011. One of these might be right, but it is akin to saying during a period of rainy weather that the sun will come out soon. Of course it will, but if you have a leaky roof or are under threat of flooding you should be prepared and take necessary measures.

In terms of your business, you may have a damaging cash flow problem. It needs to be dealt with now before you get swept away. Tighter and more forceful credit control (I don’t mean sending the boys round) may be the answer, or perhaps talk to your bank or a proper hands-on business adviser about short term help.

Marketing people will tell you that you should do just as much marketing or even more than you did when times were better. That is absolutely true, and they will also tell you to keep testing new ways of marketing and know what works and what doesn’t so that you do not waste your valuable time and worse, your money. Depending on your business, it may be online marketing, off line activities or networking. Take advice if you are not sure.

Make sure that your business is efficient as it can be. Cut your overheads including utility bills, and if you do not know anyone who can help you do this, then ask me or any business adviser with whom you feel comfortable.

The point of this piece is not to lecture about specific issues. You have enough on your plate, as we all do, to have to put up with someone going through the basics.

Relying on the economy improving is akin to Mr. Micawber saying “something will turn up ”. He went to debtors’ prison. We have to look after ourselves and our businesses now. The economic sunshine will come out, but we need to be there to enjoy it when it does.

© Jon Stow 2009

Social media experts

The word “expert” is not a word I am comfortable with. One of the sites to which I am contributor, and for which I am grateful because of the additional exposure does describe me as an expert author. Whilst this is a sort of compliment, I write about what I know through experience. After all, I write this blog about small business life because I have a small business of my own (well, three actually), I help other small businesses, and I have formal training in addition to my experience to assist me in finding resources which I cannot supply myself for the businesses I help. I am not a salesman, though I have learned a lot about marketing, I do not sell quality control marks or broker finance, and I do not provide support on health and safety (or risk and safety as I understand is more appropriate). However, I know people who can do this. So, I am not an expert on all aspects of running a small business, or indeed a big business.

I have a tax practice too. I advise people on taxation issues; I advise both businesses and individuals. I am the first port of call for many who have problems with direct taxation or simply need compliance. I know my stuff, I do my CPD religiously and I enjoy it. However, ask me about customs duties, petroleum revenue tax, landfill tax or even some of the finer points of VAT, and I will find you a specialist. I am not a tax expert because that is too general a term. I am very strong on most day-to-day direct tax issues and I advise other tax practitioners and accountants, but I do not profess to know everything about taxation, and actually no one does. I am a facilitator or conduit for provisions of services outside my own area. You would not expect a biologist to be a whiz on particle physics or an astrophysicist to know all about plastics production, but the specialists in these areas are all scientists, aren’t they? Some of them may even have trained in the same basic disciplines once upon a time.

So, I am a tax specialist. If you had asked me twenty years ago where taxation in the UK or internationally would be today, how it would have been structured, and about inter-government cooperation against tax avoidance and evasion, I would not have had a clue and I doubt anyone else would. Ask me today where taxation will be in twenty years time and I will decline to answer, because I do not know.

Ask an economist where taxation or indeed the economy will be in twenty years time and you may get an answer, but I doubt it would prove very accurate. One of the reasons it would not be accurate is that such predictions are modelled on what has happened previously. In the current recession and following the banking crash, people tend to look at the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. That was a another time though. One of the knock-on effects of the poverty and difficulties in Europe coupled with events in the USA led to the rise of European dictators and eventually the Second World War.

The situation is different now, and part of what has changed the world is the media explosion of mass instant communication which started with the much greater availability of the telephone, through to the internet. It is more difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of the public even in modern totalitarian regimes. How many media “experts” of twenty years ago predicted the internet as it is today? Some might have forecast the real-time communication element but not the vast heaving chatter of Twitter or even that (nearly) every serious business should have a website.

We have specialists in media technology, those geeks and early adopters who try every new gizmo and gadget, and who are currently trialling Google Wave. I read their reviews avidly and and appreciate their technical knowledge and insight. They are specialists but do not know what will happen in twenty years time or even five. Twitter was founded only just over three years ago and even the guys who started it cannot have known where it would lead in so short a time.

So what about social media? Are there any experts? I think there are specialists, but nobody knows where we will go, inextricably linked with the technology. The most successful networkers are those who understand about people. That is nothing new. A few are trained in psychology, which is about understanding behaviour. Most are just natural networkers. They understand human nature and that giving should always come first, but that idea pre-dates all technology and was reinforced by Dale Carnegie and others in the thirties and since.

I am not knocking the leading social media networkers. There are several I would count as dear friends and many I know well enough to trust implicitly. However, they are not futurologists any more than I am, and those who write or make a living talking about social media or even just Twitter are advising from their own experience and knowledge as I do in my fields. Even then some social media environments are so new that we need to form a view based on a basket of opinions, because some may be wrong. In the end we are engaging with human beings on-line, and are acquainted with far more individuals than we could have dreamed about only a few years ago. As long as we remember they are people and treat them as we would our traditionally-acquired friends and good neighbours, we shouldn’t go far wrong.

© Jon Stow 2009

Exemplary Consulting for Business Support
Have you submitted your Tax Return yet?
Follow me on Twitter

Know your audience and do not rabbit

Last week my wife and I did something unusual for us – we went on what amounted to a coach tour. It was interesting and informative. Being a tour, we had a tour company representative or courier to accompany us, and naturally as we travelled on the bus she told us about what we were going to see and commented on the scenery and history. The lady was well meaning and herself quite well informed on most matters, but the trouble was she talked too much giving a vast amount of information, some of which was of questionable relevance.

Much of the historical detail we already knew because we and our fellow travellers were from the British Isles, and the tour was within the British Isles. Consequently we were all very familiar with most of the facts supplied, and the content of her talks would have been more suited to foreigners such as visitors from North America.

The second error the lady made was the the length of her presentations. It was as though she felt obliged to fill every moment of her and our time together talking to her captive audience. Much of what she said seemed unimportant, but if it had been important she would have bored us into paying little attention. I was not the only one who fell asleep during one of her lengthy discourses.

The third and most cardinal mistake our tour leader made was not to take into account the sensitivities and feelings of her listeners. Many of us had lived through quite a lot of history which would certainly not have left us untouched. Hence some of us including I on one occasion felt quite upset at some of the references made.

In a sense this is elementary stuff, but a useful reminder. I give presentations to several different groups. Some are in my own profession, some are fellow professionals in other disciplines, and others are potential customers or people whom I have met through networking. What we say and the information we give must depend on our audience. There is no point in my “blinding people with science” if they are not in my business or one allied to it. On the other hand, if I am talking to a business peer group, they will expect content of a higher technical level and perhaps very specific to their needs. One has to keep people interested and help them with the sort and level of information for which they are looking. Also, it is important not to go on too long, but to conclude when one has said just enough, and to still have the audience’s interest to ask questions. If they are snoring as I probably was in the coach, the speaker has failed, and even worse, has gained a reputation as a bore.

Much of this also applies when seeing clients or prospects. Of course, listening is then more important than talking, but when we do speak, it must be at the right level to give any information in a form which can be understood, and to make the person comfortable with us. Know your audience and don’t rabbit on!

© Jon Stow 2009

Exemplary Consulting for Business Support
Have you submitted your Tax Return yet?
Follow me on Twitter

Mass unfollowing on Twitter

I do not pretend to be the greatest expert on on-line social media, but I do have quite a lot of experience and I am a keen student. Twitter is a phenomenon I had not thought too much about a year ago, but it is an incredible experience in real time conversation as far as I am concerned. Of course I post some small ads and links to my websites and blogs, but there is a lot of chit-chat and banter; as I said, conversation going on.

The latest fashion seems to be seems to be mass unfollowing though, and I am completely mystified by the way some have gone about this. I understand why some mass unfollow spammers, those who add no value and some of those whom they have auto followed. I do it myself. However there are people who have been following significant numbers with similar numbers following who have simply dumped nearly all those they follow, down to only double figures. Where does that leave someone who has say twelve thousand followers and is following fifty or so? That is not a conversation, it is broadcasting, The only exchanges that will ensue will have to be with the faithful followers who will have to initiate the conversation and hope that the Great One will deign to reply. The followers cannot even use direct messages any more but have to depend on “@” comments.

Well, I have been unfollowed in this way by a few. That’s life. However I have to say that if a self-styled Twitter expert does this it causes confusion. I am not into humouring such eccentricities or into reading broadcasting material. I unfollow back. I might now and again choose to read the relevant blog which is broadcasting I have selected, but I will take the person as much less of an expert than I used to, because Twitter is about people and social intercourse. It is about networking and maintaining contacts. It is not about faith or following the Master; at least not for me.

© Jon Stow 2009

Enterprise and risk

I have been talking about risk recently in another context. I was a little dumbfounded yesterday when my Mum said she was told by a family member that she should not sign up to Facebook because there was a risk of identity fraud. Of course there is a small risk. I am indebted to @royatkinson for this link and it could be said that I and all of us who are active with profiles on-line run some risk, but what is life without risk?

The reality is that most small businesses which offer services of any kind and very many who are making and / or selling a product need an on-line presence, and what is more, need to engage with their network. In fact, you need to be on-line to get a network beyond a comparatively small number of friends, which is not enough people to refer you. I was just trying to list how many websites where I have a profile. In terms of business and social networks I have at least ten, and must have more I cannot think of at the moment. I have four blogs: two for business and two personal.

The point is that we have to give some of ourselves in order to be noticed. There are then several steps until we get to business. We need to enhance our reputations (or hope to) and be helpful and give useful information to others, but we need a public presence on-line to get known to further our businesses.

I think the contrast between me and our relative telling my mother not to sign up to Facebook is that I am in business on my own account. The relation has been in a large, safe, cocooned corporate environment for thirty years and is involved in IT security, and she clearly cannot see beyond the small risk to her employer (“more than my job’s worth to access Facebook at work”) to allowing my Mum to have a bit of fun making friends and signing up to her favourite jockey’s fan appreciation society.

There is no success in business without risk. If we are in the front line with our own businesses then we assess the risks and take them if necessary, looking at the likely though seldom certain outcome. It will be hard for those coming out of large corporates in the recession job losses, because they may be too risk-averse to start well in the freelance world. Those of us who have been round the block have learned to live with the risks, which reminds me that I will help my Mum sign up to Facebook next time I drop in.

© Jon Stow 2009

Social networking and a testimonial

I had been going to write another piece about the person who insulted a guest and embarrassed his potential project colleagues, but it occurred to me that I could not do better than refer to my friend Penny Power’s excellent recent article Why Your Social Networking may not be working which shows how we need to move away from a closed and selfish attitude in a social networking environment and to be open and giving. It is a change which many coming out of a corporate environment are unable to make without adopting a completely different mindset. Some never do.

I was lucky enough to first meet Penny five or six years ago and whilst I am far from perfect I got a head start in better understanding the fundamentals of networking, coming on top of my initial BNI training of course. Get to know Penny. You will be pleased you have!

Read the article and enjoy.