Do not lie to your prospects

Being straight with your clients is essential as we all know. Being honest as to whether we can help new enquirers is also vital.

When we start in business there is a temptation to try to grab every customer who comes through the door or sign up every client who is interested ion our service. We have to be honest with ourselves. Can we deliver what they want, and can we make a good profit in doing so?

Experience tells us that some of our customers want too much for the money they are prepared to pay, or cost us too much to service them. Sometimes we know that we are not best suited to help and that another business we know would be a better fit for them. We should be honest and say so, and we will get greater respect from the prospect, who may praise us for our integrity and refer us to others.

On the other hand, sometimes a business owner will say they will help when they do not want to. Recently, my family has had two incidents where we were let down. My wife was quoted for some work on curtain tracks but the person who said she would fix them never came to see us despite several calls to her. Maybe the work was not worth doing or she was too busy, but we now think of her as unreliable and might say so if asked.

We also need some building work, but the person who quoted and whom we would have engaged then said he could not carry out the work for quite a long time as he was too busy. Why did he not say so? Again he will end up potentially damaging his reputation whereas he might have enhanced it by being honest and up-front and not wasting our time.

  • If you want the work and can deliver promptly, sign up and do it.
  • If you cannot deliver profitably or the task is not really in your niche, be honest and maybe refer a friend who can deliver.
  • Do not say you will do something and never turn up to do it.

Be honest when your new enquirer first gets in touch; can you deliver, and do you want to? If not say so, because your reputation is your most important asset.

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Promoting your start-up business – Part 4 – Your Website


Photo by Peter Hires Images

Photo by Peter Hires Images

I write this with trepidation as everyone has an opinion about websites, what they should include, and what they should look like.

There are plenty of choices. Of course a lot depends on your budget, what sort of business you have, and whom you consider your target customers to be.

If you are selling stuff I would always recommend you talk to a professional web designer familiar with shopping carts and all the other bells and whistles required to make an on-line shopping site run smoothly. Ask around and get recommendations.

If you are mainly selling your expertise, I would still recommend you ask a professional if you are not confident with the free and paid-for software available to build a website, or if you simply do not have the time to do it yourself. It comes back to that old adage that you should concentrate on working on your business (that is doing what you do best) and not working in your business just trying to do all the chores. If building a website is a chore, don’t do it. If it is fun and almost recreational, then go for it.

There is quite a lot of free software available and most of the hosting companies have an assortment which can be installed automatically as you wish. I will not say that it always goes to plan. Sometimes you will need a support ticket because your host ran the wrong routine, but generally it works.

I do not have experience of anything other than WordPress. There are plenty of free themes available, and quite a few firms have premium paid-for themes you can try, but if you need a WordPress tutorial there are better teachers than I. Email me if you need help finding someone.

What about the content of your website? If you trade in a particular niche product area or if you are sell particular services or knowledge, you should post articles showing your expertise. Some people worry that if visitors to the website learn how to do something from reading your articles they will not buy from you. Actually these will be people who would not buy from you anyway. They will go away and mess up in an amateur way because they did not realise you cannot write the entire manual of your expertise on a website.

You will get customers who buy from you because they have a particular problem and they have read your articles and know you are the person to solve their problem. That is called content marketing. Writing in a niche attracts people who use the search engines to ask questions. Believe me, I know it works.

Talking of search engines, in WordPress and other website software you can get tools to help your Search Engine Optimization (SEO); to get your website found. You do have the option to hire an SEO specialist if you wish. As always, if you do not know what you are doing, get specialist help.

I believe virtually all businesses should have websites. They are our on-line brochures, they help us be found and if our potential customers have already heard of us, they can learn more about us. Then, when they call, they will have qualified themselves to buy already.

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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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Never assume

Happy customers

Once upon a time, my first job was with an international and mainly Far-Eastern bank. I wrote a nice letter of application in my best handwriting and was placed in the “Income Tax Department”. We only dealt with personal tax. Most of the bank customers we looked after had share portfolios, which were a lot more popular then than they are now.

I was taught the basics of dividend listing for tax returns. I remember with one of the early cases I was given I had compiled my dividend list in part from a book called Moody’s Dividends because some of the customer’s dividend vouchers were missing. I was quite proud of my initiative in looking up these dividends, having been shown how by another junior; the one next up the pecking order from me. I had replaced her as the tea-maker.

When I thought I had finished my dividend list I took my work to be checked by one of the more experienced clerks (remember we worked for a bank). I had to sit next to him while he went through my work.

His first question was “Why have you put in the list dividends for which you haven’t got vouchers?”

I said “I assumed they must have been paid” to which he responded “Never assume!”

Of course he was right. The shares might have been sold. Perhaps they were and there was a possible capital gain to declare. I should have asked questions. Of course that was my inexperience showing, but “Never assume” really should be our motto in business and maybe in our personal lives too.

  • Never assume our prospect knows what she wants
  • Never assume our prospect knows what we do and how we can help.
  • When we are working for our client, never assume any fact if there is any possibility we are wrong, for the job can then go wrong.
  • Never assume our client has told us everything. Ask those questions as I should gave done as a teenage junior.
  • Never assume our customer is happy with what we have done. Ask her if she is happy. Ask her if we could have done anything better.
  • Never assume our customer will keep coming back. Stay in touch with him. Make a telephone call if we have not heard from him for a while. Customer relationships are so important.
  • In fact, never assume.

That more experienced clerk who taught me a great lesson has been retired quite a while. I saw him at one of those staff reunions a few months back. Of course he doesn’t remember giving that lesson but I have never forgotten it. Facts are what we know. Everything else needs to be checked to ensure business runs smoothly, we make money, and customers keep coming back.

I try never to assume. Have you ever made an assumption which got you into trouble?

Why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or a colleague or prospect either

First impressions

First impressions are important. When meeting someone in business for the first time I am sure we all do our best to present ourselves well. That is simple commercial sense. Sometimes if we get a poorer impression of someone else when we meet them we do not pursue the relationship. If we instinctively feel like that then it may be best to let it go.

However, if we are not sure how we feel or we can’t immediately work out what makes another person tick, maybe we should give it a bit longer.

The Story of a Simple Soul

British author H. G. Wells' 1895 novel The Tim...

H G Wells - Image via Wikipedia

This theme really does remind me of my attitude to a particular book when I was about fourteen. It was a set book for English literature and we spent ages dissecting it in class and being asked to analyse various parts of it for homework. I didn’t understand the value of that book during the Summer Term. It seemed very boring to have to take it to bits and write essays about it.

However, when school broke up we had one of those rather rainy changeable summers like several we have had recently in England. I was an avid reader of fiction (still am) and one day I had read all the books in the house and it was too wet to walk to the library a couple of miles away. I picked up the school set book and read it from the beginning to the end as one would normally read a book except at school. Do you know what? The book was brilliant and funny, and a really great read.

What was the book? Kipps (not an affiliate link) by H G Wells. It was the book upon which the musical “Half a Sixpence” was based. I really recommend it, but when I had approached it from the wrong angle I had thought I wouldn’t like it.

The wrong end of the stick

Several years ago I met someone who I thought was a bit of a “wide boy” which means someone a bit untrustworthy, doing dodgy deals. A ducker and diver as we say in in England. I used to see him rather a lot at various meetings but didn’t take him seriously.

Yet eventually I had to deal with this chap as we had joint responsibility via a committee for organising some events. I came to realise that he was hard working, capable, kind and generous. I would trust him to look after financial issues on my behalf, which means complete trust as far as I am concerned.

So my first impression was a little off target, wasn’t it?

Setting the filters

With prospects I cannot engage them as clients if I am not comfortable with them, which is why I always like to spend time with them; at least an hour or so. But if they mess me around in terms of our first appointment e.g. change it more than twice without a convincing reason, I assume they are time wasters or potential troublesome clients. I don’t take them on.

Just the same, it is mostly worth giving people a run to see how they are. Many might become very good clients or great business friends. Do you give people a good run for their money – or yours?


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Verbal contracts and honour

Artist contract XYNN (excerpt)
Image via Wikipedia

In terms of gathering in new clients, I cannot call myself a hard-nosed salesman, but I do sell on the value of my business offerings. Generally my approach is soft-selling, letting the prospect lead herself to make the decision. I generally think of my “close” rate at better than 90%, but of course that is not boasting. All my prospects have already qualified themselves by finding me through on-line and old-fashioned media or by word-of-mouth. When I meet them they already know they want me and all we have to decide is the price. When we have agreed this that’s is the end of the sales process. The next stage is delivery and my delivery of peace of mind for the client. At least that’s the theory.

Having seen the client, it is necessary to send the client an engagement letter or contract. The purpose of this is to ensure that we are clear on our respective responsibilities, and the client knows what she is getting for the fee she has agreed, and what she is not getting; in other words, what services are extra. The letter has more general legal stuff but essentially it is all about what she is buying and how much it will cost her for her peace of mind.

Honour bound

When I started work in the City it was an important tenet that a gentleman’s word was his bond. So was a lady’s. If we shook hands on a deal it was sealed. The paperwork was a formality. That was the way it always was. Just recently I have noticed a trend to renege on verbal agreements, and often not always in a straightforward way; not delivering the papers, or just going missing.

What to do about this?

Sam Goldwyn said “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” In reality verbal contracts are seldom enforceable and certainly if we have not yet delivered we do not wish an unwilling client to pay up for services or goods he has decided he doesn’t want.

We are familiar with the expression “caveat emptor”: let the buyer beware. In a difficult environment we must also think “caveat venditor”, let the seller beware. We must be absolutely certain the prospect has signed on the dotted line and is happy about the deal. It will save a lot of heartache.

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How to avoid problem clients and customers

Have you ever wished that when you started your business you had known then what you know now? I certainly have, but sometimes we have to learn the hard way. However, if you are starting your business now or very shortly, and you are reading this then you have an advantage that I did not have when I started.

This week I went to see a new prospect. I knew that there might be something I would not like, but it is better so see for oneself rather than turn down what might have been a good opportunity. The prospect business-person told me over the telephone that he was afraid his accountant wasn’t claiming everything he should. In general this is unlikely, especially with a smaller business. After all, once you have prepared a proper set of accounts you know more or less what you should be claiming.

I have learned from experience that a gripe over a financial issue such as that, and especially when coupled with the next comment, “a friend told me I should be claiming for this and for that”, indicates a likely problem client. Firstly, they are no more likely to trust you than their previous adviser (and trust is important) and secondly they are going to be very fee-resistant and will not appreciate the excellent service you will deliver.

I looked at the “records”, a plastic tub of receipts, concluded that the unfortunate but adequate accountant had already been driven too low in the fees he charged, and decided not to offer to relieve him of his agony. It was an easy decision, based both on instinct and on logic. Neither of these qualities was as fine-tuned when I started out in business and when I was anxious to gain every new client I could. Now I knew I should walk away.

As it happens, I have a job which I grabbed in the very early days of my business and with twenty-twenty hindsight wish I had turned down. Far from responding to my advice on record keeping and on paying the right people at the right price for the things the client is not good at himself, he just seems to be getting worse. He is making it harder for me, and pushing up my fees which would not have happened if he had invested suitably in qualified help on the administration side. Given that he does not like spending money buying in help, he takes the same attitude with me too. Frankly we are getting to the point where it is not worth the headache for my firm to carry on.

Unless the client has a road-to-Damascus style revelation as to the error of his business ways I am afraid we will part company, and I am sorry also that I introduced a friend to help him who is getting the same resistance in terms of fees and attitude.

I now know that when we meet a prospect we have to ascertain that the person will pay a proper price for our offering, that they will accept our advice and act on it, and that they will not cause us to worry. Bad clients can endanger our business well-being and our health, and even if they pay whatever we ask for our service, sometimes it is just not worth it.

Trust your instinct with clients and with prospects. Actively think about how you feel about them, and if you are not comfortable, walk away. There are plenty of nice likeable people to have as clients, and they will trust and appreciate you more.

© Jon Stow 2010

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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

Quasi prospects, time-wasters and an experiment in human nature

This piece could have been in either of two blogs but I put it in my Taxing Times thread. Please feel free to visit!

Why your brand and your USP are important

Have you ever been confused by a marketing message or an advertisement that seemed out of place with the product? My on-line and sometimes off-line friend Rod Sloane quite rightly described McDonalds’ current TV ad in the UK as “bonkers” which was exactly the word that had come to my mind.


Possibly McDonalds feel that their burgers have to be portrayed as a wholesome product made with 100% British beef but the ad does not even show the product, only pulling us back at the end with the familiar McDonalds banner. Otherwise it is along the line of some of those car adverts where we think “what on earth was all that about?” Of course I understand that the healthy option food police have suggested that burgers are dangerous with all that cholesterol, but let’s be sensible. Healthy sports can be dangerous. As a fit though not talented skier I did myself a lot of damage once. I do not think we should ban skiing and I do not think we should ban Big Macs or that McDonalds should almost pretend they do not sell them.

I have more than one business, and perhaps I should not tell you so as not to confuse you. I think if you are here then you are more likely to buy into me and my personal brand (this is not a selling blog of course). However, my businesses are marketed separately and distinctly, and I hope people are not confused between them. We need to keep our propositions simple. If someone is a landscape gardener who also knows a lot about keeping coy carp and goldfish, and excavates and sets up ponds, it is probably better to keep the propositions separate. Otherwise potential clients will say “is he / she a gardening expert or a pond expert?” They might think that they are looking at a gardener who dabbles figuratively and otherwise in ponds, and it blurs the offering. Of course a person can be very good at more than one thing, as I think I am, but for someone who does not know the business owner, it can be very confusing and that person may go to whom he or she considers the “expert” rather than to a supposed dabbler.

So I believe that when we market our business by whatever means, we need to keep our product or service clear and distinct, and whilst we may talk about the problems we solve, we do not need to get involved in the fluffy stuff such as McDonalds’ pastoral scenes and bucolic frolics. McDonalds are selling fast food, aren’t they? They should stick with their USP.

© Jon Stow 2009