Scamming small businesses and individuals

On two successive working days, I have experienced attempts to obtain bank details via cold calls.

The first call purported to relate to a renewal of insurance for an appliance. We did have such insurance but I thought it was up to date. I was suspicious and thought that if it needed to be renewed we would have received a paper schedule via the post. The caller assured me they were trying to save trees. I told them they could send an email, but they were not interested in my email address and rang off.

The second call was from someone claiming to represent the “Call Prevention Service”. They would prevent cold calls from abroad for a fee of £1.99 per month on a four year contract. Again I was suspicious. I asked “Surely my telephone provider would offer such a service if available?” I was told they worked with all telephone providers.

I asked for a number to call back and was provided with one before they rang off. My research on this number led me to this link, so it seems the police are aware. Whether they do anything about it is another matter, but do be careful with these callers. If anyone else in your business is authorised to deal with purchasing, banking and payment matters, do make sure they are aware too.

Purchasing mistakes for small businesses

Vostro 1000 with Windows 8My salad days, when I was green in judgement

Remember when you started your business, whether it was a few months ago of a few years? You wanted to buy computers, tools and gadgets. You needed to buy in services. There was so much choice, but what did you need?

When I started my business more than a decade back, the web was not quite what it is now. It seemed logical to advertise in paper form. Not long after I started up I had calls from Yellow Pages and Thomson Directory. I signed up at quite considerable cost, by which I mean £1,000. I thought it was bound to work.

Of course just being in a directory does not work for every business. I wish I had known that. It does work for a plumbing business for people in urgent need of help, and probably for the local electrician, but in professional services potential clients look for recommendations. I might have had one engagement in my three wasted years with Yellow Pages. I had no business at all through Thomson. I had the wrong sort of business to succeed this way.

Out with the old, be careful with the new

Now paper directories have gone out of fashion and have shrunk to small booklets., but still general directories do not work. We are all in Yell.com for free, and having your business listed in Google Places probably helps your SEO, but in themselves they do not help service businesses much. It is certainly not worth paying anyone for a big ad on Yell. AdWords may get you more clicks on a search, but you just cannot beat a recommendation, so don’t spend your money unless you are a plumber etc..

Shiny jewels

Our other big temptation is in buying office equipment. What do we actually need, as opposed to what we really fancy to polish our egos? I run a “professional office” from home. I would love one of those wonderful big touch screens as a client of mine had even a couple of years ago. She paid about three times what she needed to to have a functional machine running bookkeeping software and spreadsheets. Paying for that really cut into her cash-flow as a start-up, at a time when she needed to purchase stock to sell.

I have a couple of Windows desktops in my office and an old ex-Windows one running Ubuntu and which I did not fork out a bean for. I am tied to Windows by specialist software, at least for now. I have a laptop which I take when I am out of the office. I need all these.

I also have a netbook which was an impulse buy a couple of years ago. I didn’t need it. With hindsight I should not have bought it, but I liked the one my granddaughter had. I use it for business purposes because it has no other use for me, but I could well have done without it.

Taking the tablet or swallowing a bitter pill?

I am not the only one to make these mistakes. I might have bought a redundant iPad. And yes, I have an Android tablet which, fortunately, was a freebie. I could write letters, work on spreadsheets, emails and all sorts of things, but without a proper keyboard it is not nearly as convenient as a laptop. I sometimes check my email when I am out, but can just as easily use my phone. I don’t need a tablet at all. I use it only on Twitter and Facebook and then only during leisure time. Paying for one would have been a waste of money.

All new purchasing needs thinking about carefully. Do we need the product and will it serve us well? Is it cost-effective? Have we read the reviews or asked a business friend?

I have made expensive mistakes in the past. Have you?

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Drilling down the detail of our purchases

Buy from me!

I’m taking notes.

 

Feelings

When we are selling our services, many of our prospects will buy the feeling and the comfort of having someone else take care of things. That is usually my initial approach, and most people do not care about the detail. They just want things taken care of. I feel the same when we are having a new carpet laid. I am not interested in how it is done. My wife and I look forward to the end result.

In business and in life, sometimes the process is important and we need when selling to be open to questions about how we do things. I know I do.

The detail

I have a current health issue (don’t worry) and I have apparently three equally good ways of fixing it. It has been hard to decide which, so I have seen three different consultants to talk through my options. Only after seeing the third and getting some vital information which I had not got from the second guy was I able to choose the second guy’s option. With a complicated issue we really do need to drill down to the detail.

Comfort zone

I use some very specialised software. A year back I had become disillusioned with the inflexible package I was being offered by my then provider, which meant I was paying for stuff I did not need. Nevertheless I was afraid to change because I liked the way the software worked and I was comfortable with it.

Asking questions

I tried several trial versions of software from other providers. I wanted more details from several of these software houses, and some were helpful and others were not. Some had FAQs which they did not answer in a way I understood. The unhelpful companies did not get my business.

The most helpful people were the ones I bought from. Their package is great, and after a year I can say I am very happy. Surprisingly, although I was not hung up on getting the best price, the cost is fairly modest. I expect they sell more because they are so helpful. Good luck to them.

If your prospect wants the detail of what you are selling rather than just looking forward to being pleased with the end result, do indulge them.

If you are buying, sometimes you will put your faith in a person you know. Otherwise, do not be afraid to ask for the detail, particularly if the process is vital to your business.

Do you ask enough questions? Don’t be afraid to.

 

Small business and the baked bean test

HP beansSmalls

Shopping around for products and services, it is human nature to look for good value. Because an offering is cheap does not necessarily mean it is good value. It may be though, depending what you want, and if the seller has devised a particular method of delivery that suits a particular market at a cost which leaves a good profit margin.

I think we all like to buy quality. If we are careful we can sometimes find it at a very decent price. Once upon a time we could rely on Marks and Spencer (a UK department store) for quality underwear at an affordable price, but some years ago they lost their way. I have not checked recently whether they have got back their underwear mojo, but many of us have drifted off to find other suppliers.

Not quite what it says on the tin

Not every product or service can be delivered at what might be perceived at a very low price. Sometimes something can sound cheap, but what it delivers is poor quality even if its generic description is the same. The other day I saw a special offer of four cans of baked beans for £1. It was a brand I knew at what sounded like a very good price; better than a local supermarket’s cheap label beans, which frankly are not very good.

I bought the four cans of beans. They are very poor quality, with fewer beans in the can and watery tomato sauce, not even as good as the supermarket’s basic cans of beans.

Premium brand

Some goods and many services can simply not be delivered to a discerning purchaser cheaply. I deliver quality advice, but the cost of delivery is quite high in terms of purchasing technical information, attending courses, being properly briefed and giving proper attention to a client’s problems as well as meeting the office overheads. My fees to clients take this into account as well as the value to them in being advised by me.

If you buy fillet steak or red mullet, the cost of production and / or delivery in getting it to your fridge and table is high. The cost of production of baked beans is low, but exceptional cheapness may be reflected in the quality.

When we buy in services, we should be careful that what we get really suits us, because the better the value we get from it, the better service or product we can offer ourselves.

Have you been disappointed with a “bargain”?

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Should we worry about our purchasing ethics?

 

Marigot Bay, St. Lucia (pronounced Saint Loo-sha)

A year or so back my wife and I were lucky enough to visit St. Lucia. It is a beautiful island, and if you get the chance to go there, I do recommend it.  It is a place where we from the developed world can enjoy great luxury in the sun, buy cheap goods in the market, and generally have a good time.

 

And yet…

Yes, and yet… And yet the one thought that struck us as soon as we got out of town was the extreme poverty. We had seen appalling poverty before in South Africa, but that didn’t make it any easier in St. Lucia. How can we Westerners imagine living in a wooden shack with no washing or toilet facilities, and perhaps relying on a spring or a stand pipe outside or some hundreds of yards away? How can we imagine having inadequate protection from the weather? It may seem like paradise to us, but when it rains in St. Lucia it really rains, and the winds during the storms are tremendous.

In some ways it took a while for the full reality of life there to sink in. We might have felt condescending in the first place to those in the street who would create an animal out of a palm leaf for one US dollar. Our Western sensitivities were upset along the country roads by men who had captive boa constrictors they wanted to show us for money. “How cruel” was our first reaction!

Bananas

Yet, how are these people to get by? We learned that J Sainsbury, the UK supermarket bought most of the year round banana crops from the plantations, which at least shows that someone cares. Fresh local bananas are delicious. St. Lucia bananas are sold under the Fair Trade scheme in the UK, and since our visit to St. Lucia, my wife and I have always bought Fair Trade bananas. If they are from the Windward Islands we hope sometimes they are from St. Lucia. Of course they are often more expensive than other bananas but we allow ourselves to think we are doing our bit. Are we really, though?

We have been moved to buy other Fair Trade products such as tea, but how much responsibility should we take in our shopping, and do we always know whether we are doing the right thing?

Business aspects

The same applies to business purchasing of course. There are some who boycott products from certain countries and I have done this in the past too, but someone somewhere may suffer from a boycott. Many workers in poor countries may be exploited dreadfully, but as Chris Brogan reminded me (see the comments) that may be the only job they can get to feed their families. It may be that someone has to do the job even if in much worse conditions than Chris’s thoroughly Western mayonnaise factory and unless we are really sure that boycotting or supposed ethical purchasing doesn’t hurt anyone, maybe we should avoid it.

That doesn’t get us off the hook of course. We need to press Governments and NGOs to encourage or persuade poorer nations to tackle exploitation. The main way will be through education and cracking down on criminals who may be involved in the effective slavery of men, women and tragically, children.

Where now?

My take is that Fair Trade is helpful, that we must think very carefully before boycotting products (probably mostly electronic and computer gear in business), that we should press Government and help charities working in the relevant areas.

My, what a thorny issue. What do you think?

In the market in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia

 

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Someone told me

HP Printer
Image via Wikipedia

I heard those magic words while doing a little shopping the other day after running my breakfast networking meeting. “Some told me…”.

Of course that is all I heard as I walked by, but I do worry how damaging gossip can be in a business sense. I always think we need to do our own research. Often a bad customer experience may be very isolated in terms of a business’s overall delivery. It is when things go wrong that people talk about the problems much more than when they receive a great service. Ironically, very often a generally exemplary service will start to be taken for granted so that when there is a minor glitch people complain far more than they would if the general service were fairly average but in line with expectations. Hence people are less likely to complain about the mail service merely because our expectations have declined over the years. Our postman is a nice guy incidentally and I wouldn’t want him to be upset. I don’t blame him.

I like Dell computers. I have three. I have always had very good customer service and support from Dell. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do proper research because we have a responsibility to our business and ourselves.

I bought a Dell branded printer a year or so back. I hadn’t done my research. Someone told me he liked his. Maybe his usage of it was very light. The printer was a real dog and far too expensive to run, plus the fax facility never worked reliably. Yes, I know there are alternatives to a fax line but that’s another matter.

I should have found out the printer was made by Lexmark and if so I wouldn’t have bought it. I have now a new HP printer. I had always previously had HP printers. They have been reliable. When one went wrong shortly after I had it, HP replaced it in a couple of days.

If someone told us that someone told them, we need to check the credibility of the story and the context in which it has been passed on. We cannot rely on tittle-tattle re purchases we make because we may not make the best buying decision. We should do our own research and listen to those we trust for recommendations.

I got it wrong with the Dell printer. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend their computers. Have you made a buying mistake as I did through lack or research or because someone told you or you told yourself?

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Practicing what we preach – seeing value over cost

When we are selling our product or service, what many of us aim to do is to persuade our customer or client of the value of our offering. That way we get a proper reward, and of course we have to live up to our promises in delivering the quality to fulfill our customers’ expectations. I work hard to maintain the quality of the service I provide and to ensure that my clients have peace of mind, because as someone effectively offering business support services in tax compliance and other areas, peace of mind is what I am selling. My clients are then able to concentrate on their core businesses whilst knowing that most of the red tape compliance is being taken care of.

This is all well and good, but sometimes in business we are guilty of not seeing the value of the products and services for which we ourselves are customers. I see people including some of my own clients finding value in one service but penny-pinching over another. We may think that we know what we are doing, but I have resolved to find help in marketing through my websites in the New Year. I am a specialist in one area and pretty nifty in at least one other but I have to admit that I do not know all the tricks of internet marketing whereas someone else will. For that reason, this very blog may look a little different in a month or so, though I will still be writing it of course.

It is no good being a cheapskate as a purchaser of goods or services. Generally, a better product or service makes life easier all round, so do not skimp on buying in website design or bookkeeping or whatever it is you need. Check the track record of anyone you engage, look at their work or get a decent reliable reference for any contractor whose services you buy in. Quality will cost money but should deliver greater value and help you make a lot more money. Unfortunately it really is true that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. What you don’t get is satisfaction in delivery and you may be no better off and end up having to spend a lot more to have things put right.

© Jon Stow 2009