Staying in touch with our clients and customers

 

If you have a good relationship with your customers they just keep coming back

If you have a good relationship with your customers they just keep coming back

One way and another, this past year or so my family and I have seen a lot of doctors and nurses. On the whole we have been dealt with very well, but sometimes we have had to take the initiative in asking for help. That has been rather frustrating because we would all rather have our affairs managed by professionals rather than have to manage those professionals to have them provide their services to us.

If we are regular clients we expect our professional and many other service providers to be proactive and stay in touch, so that we do not have to ask. Not always, of course. For most people, a lawyer will be reactive because we go to her for help when we need it. That is the same as the local dry cleaner. If a suit needs cleaning we take it in. That’s it.

However, if we are accountants or opticians or dentists or business advisers, at the very least we need to check in with our clients regularly to see how they are doing and to remind them if they need to take action on something. I think we should make a point of speaking to them regularly. In other words, we need to maintain the relationship. Our clients and customers are our livelihood and they are people too, who like to feel wanted.

For other service providers it is worth making the effort to stay in touch with their customers. I appreciate even a Christmas card from the local curry house but I do not recommend just sending round-robin emails as a way of maintaining a relationship. Newsletters are useful but are no substitute for the personal touch.

In the same way that I would like our local doctors’ practice to invite us in for the regular health checks we are supposed to have but do not, surely we should all think regularly about all our clients’ needs and speak to them, whether visiting or on the phone?

Is not just being reactive a serious failing for so many in business? Are you proactive? How often to you call your clients or customers?

Should we buy really cheap services?

 

Professionally checked out?

Professionally checked out?

In the course of our business we are receive all sorts of offers. We get mail-shots through our letter boxes, we get emails and we receive telephone calls. Many of the offers sound very tempting, but do we know what we might get for the little money we are asked to pay?

Now some very professional businesses offer “cheap” services. What they mean by that is that they give a professional service provided by professional people within agreed fee levels, and clients know in advance what they are getting and paying for. If they decide they want more they can “upgrade”. That is fine. In fact it is an excellent business model.

However some business people look for what they think is the cheapest option without worrying whether those whom they might engage know what they are doing, and without considering their experience and qualifications.

The other day I was asked whether I knew anyone who could do property conveyancing very cheaply. Now many of us, myself included, are good at filling in forms, but only in our particular area of expertise. Would I know what I was doing if I had a go? No, I would not. But how would anyone know whether an unqualified cheap “bucket-shop” conveyancer was capable of asking the right questions and doing the job? Search me!

It reminds me of those people who buy a house or flat and do not have a proper survey, or they rely on the mortgage lender’s valuation survey report. The latter will not point out serious defects to the property which are in urgent need of repair; all it will say is whether the property is worth the money being lent to the applicant.

The point is that if you want a job done properly you must expect to pay a business suitably qualified professionally or by experience, and one that is properly insured as well. Do not be afraid to ask about their professional indemnity insurance.

After all, if you are let down, or something goes wrong, or maybe you buy a property that turns out to be falling down, you need proper recourse to recover your lost money. Better still, you need your work to be done properly in the first place, don’t you?

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Promoting your start-up business – Part 6 – Making business friends

 

Widen your market

Widen your market

Most start-up businesses start with one person – you. You might have one or two part-time staff or subcontractors. However there is a danger of feeling rather lonely. After all, you have to make all the decisions, and while you probably have experience of working in someone else’s business, the buck definitely stops with you now.

The good news is that you need not feel lonely. You should make some friends in your own line of work, preferably others running small businesses. Do not worry that they will try to take your clients away. There are plenty of fish in the sea. I have found that you can pick up ideas from others and perhaps you can help them too. Maybe they can help out with certain types of work you are not so keen on, do not enjoy or are simply not to skilled act. Perhaps you can help them out with their less favourite areas which you enjoy.

So that means you have a potential for getting business from your friends and acquaintances. How do you find those people?

Networking is the obvious answer, but a local trade association or professional group would serve well too. I can vouch for this. My monthly lunches with fellow professionals not only helped me feel part of the local community in my line of business, but we shared and still share problems that we come across. That sense of belonging to the group is a positive and valuable asset.

Another way of finding support from fellow-professionals and others in your business is through social media. I value greatly the friendship and camaraderie from people in my line of business with whom I have connected on Twitter. Sharing repartee and swapping business has been very valuable for me and Twitter is a great asset. Of course I have shared business from people in other lines of business through Twitter, and gained work from them as well as having subcontracted to them. Any way you can get known is useful marketing.

I talk to people through LinkedIn too and contribute to the discussions with specialist forums, but Twitter has built my on-line community rapidly, and I have added many to my LinkedIn contacts later. Twitter and LinkedIn have helped my businesses transform from local to national and beyond in terms of where my clients are located.

Consider having a Facebook page for your business and make sure you are active with a business page on Google+, not only to build your community but also because Google will help people to your website and your business once it knows where you are.

The more people you know, the better it is for support for your business and the more business will come your way. If you remember that as with face-to-face networking it is a matter of “give and take”, with perhaps more giving of referrals than taking, actually you will receive a great deal of business.

Get out there virtually as well as physically.

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Sales and marketing and the butcher’s apostrophe

It is always dangerous to write about grammar, spelling and punctuation. We all make the occasional mistake. In writing a blog post like this we’re all allowed the odd contraction (see?) to be more conversational than we might be in a professional article.

In our marketing and advertising copy we really have to look professional. That involves not making dreadful errors that others will pick up on, and think us unprofessional. The “butcher’s apostrophe” is a real clanger.

In our Tesco Extra yesterday I sauntered past the section where they have on display computers and accessories. Tesco sell everything these days, of course. There were a couple of large signs upon which were written “Laptop’s and Notebook’s”.

Oh dear! Had no one checked these notices before they went out, or is there no one who knows any better? It doesn’t look good from Tesco with such amateur mistakes.

Yet recently I saw similar mistakes on the website of a firm of accountants. We do need to keep our marketing copy looking professional. If we are not confident in getting it right there are plenty of good professional copywriters and editors to help us.

There is no excuse for making ghastly errors in the place where our prospects’ eyes will come to rest first when seeking us out.

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Amateur emails addresses and unbusinesslike appearance

Not “fredsglass&glazing@hotmail.com”

Starting in business we are eager to get our telephone number found and to have all lines of communication open. After all, what we need is customers, and if no one can contact us we will not get any.

Right at the start we will put our email address in the local magazine or newspaper. At the beginning it may well be a personal email address. We all have one of those. However if after the first few weeks and months we still only have our personal email address available for potential customers, it starts to look as though we are not serious. People are used to businesses having a domain on that internet-web thingy. Having a domain makes the business look more serious.

I happen to believe fervently that all businesses should have a website, but that is probably another blog post. Even if a business does not have one though, it should still have a domain so that it can have a serious-sounding email address.

I own a number of domains, each of which is special to one of my business ventures, and each of which does actually relate to one of my websites. However, each email address I have says something about my business without anyone going to look at the sites; each one says I am serious about what my businesses do.

The other day I saw an accountant on LinkedIn using an email address along the lines of beezeraccountants@live.com. No, it doesn’t go anywhere so don’t try clicking it. There is another professional firm not far from me that uses a private email address something like taxchap@aol.com. That firm doesn’t have a website.

Even some businesses with websites don’t utilise the domain for email. An example would be www.reallywhizzyflorists.com advertising an email address such as reallywhizzyflorists@yahoo.com. It doesn’t sit right. To quote John McEnroe “You cannot be serious”.

You always get one email address with a website package, and you may get hundreds you don’t need. But for the price of less than $20 a year, you can probably own a domain and get all the email you need through a professional email address even if you haven’t got round to building the website.

To be serious about a business you have to look serious in the right way. Not unprofessional. Don’t you agree?

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Alliances and team players

Photo by LordNikon

 

I am a great believer in getting out and talking to other people in business. I go to networking meetings, I go to seminars and I am a member of several business groups where we may have an outside speaker. I am always willing to learn.

I also like to cooperate with others in marketing, which may be through networking or it may be through a particular initiative. One of the biggest frustrations in getting cooperative projects off the ground may be a lack of commitment from the start and down the line from people who say they want to be part of an exciting new idea. Either these people think that paying their money is enough, and it is up to other team members to do or the work, or they have a problem with paying to commit and be there when it counts.

I don’t know the answer to this. Part of the pleasure of running a business for me is having the money flow in, not just because money is a handy thing to have, but because it is an indication of success and achievement. Success is good for our egos and well-being. Are the uncommitted crowd people who have a lot money and are playing at running their businesses? Are they lazy? Should they be in business at all? Would they be better off having a job and being told what to do?

I believe in putting my money where my mouth is and being committed, because it is rewarding being a sometime team player; running one’s own business can sometimes be lonely. Should we not all be doers rather than just talking the talk?

© Jon Stow 2010

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False economies and part-timers

Following on from my last piece, at Christmas those with jobs may well be off work for a week or so, and students are home for the holidays. They may have some time on their hands and be thinking about earning extra money, which is when some of us might be tempted to ask them to help with a project, thinking that they will charge less than if we hired a full time professional. Oh the temptation to think we could gain whilst at the same time helping someone with a little pocket money!

Of course I am not against a bit of charity, but what happens when our part-time bookkeeper goes back to work in January having left a job half done with a well-intended promise to find a few evenings to finish off? What about our student web-designer or graphic artist disappearing for ten weeks or so back to college or Uni with real study to do plus the social distractions of student life? Will our project get finished and will it be satisfactory?

Let employees at a loose end help out with something which doesn’t need them to finish it, and give the kids pocket money, but employ a full time business with recommendations and a track record for anything important to your business.

One of my friends once recommended a young student to design a logo for me. He didn’t have a clue and could not come up with a design that was even web-friendly, let alone good for a corporate image. I wasted my money. Do you have any tales to tell, or have you been too sensible or lucky enough to learn from the mistakes of others, rather than your own?

© Jon Stow 2009

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

Why we SHOULD reinvent the wheel – business agreements and contracts

One of the most irritating cliches I hear is “I don’t want to reinvent the wheel”.

It is a favourite refrain amongst many well-meaning business owners and business advisers who will typically ask for a template for a sale agreement, partnership agreement, shareholders’ agreement or some such thing. One of the worst which gets me upset is a request for a template share option agreement.

Why am I concerned? Well, all of these documents are legal agreements. They are contracts. People fall out and resort to lawyers. An amateur document may not mean what it is supposed to mean or may not fulfil its desired purpose. Indeed it may not be fit for purpose at all and will give lawyers a field day, and an expensive one at that.

Something that is also not considered is that these documents which are legal agreements do not travel well internationally. The law is not the same everywhere. There are different laws of succession, different family laws,and of course different commercial laws and different tax laws The last is why share option agreements which are tax-efficient and beneficial in one jurisdiction may be disastrous in tax terms in another.

I guess this is returning to one of my favourite recurring themes which is that there is no substitute for paid advice from qualified professionals. Some people might think this would be expensive for their clients or themselves, but professional advice up front has great value in being cheaper by far than expensive litigation. Do not be tempted to re-hash someone else’s document for your own purpose. Invest in a bespoke agreement from a specialist backed by someone else’s professional indemnity insurance rather than yours. Sleep easily at night.

© Jon Stow 2009