All our yesterdays today

As customers we all appreciate good service. Yet technology makes our interaction with many businesses so impersonal.

Bank branches are closing all around us. Yes, internet banking is very convenient and enables us to swap money around and pay bills at any time of the day and night. However, try speaking to a bank call centre and the agent may be polite but will not know you. Next time you telephone you will speak to one of a thousand others. All that assumes you will not have to speak to a robot or speech recognition software as some banks require.

I always liked to be addressed by name and recognised in my local bank branch when we had one. It was the bank where everyone (or the staff anyway) knew my name, so it was as comforting as that famous fictional bar in Boston.

Call centres are the bane of our lives. Many of us hark back to a time we remember when we could deal directly with a person on a consistent basis. Of course nostalgia can make us remember things as better when they were, particularly when we get frustrated by speaking to an anonymous agent. Those memories of supposedly better times can work to our advantage in our small businesses.

What our customers or clients still do remember is that quality personal service. They like a “go-to” person to whom they can always speak and with whom they can always deal. Depending on the size of your business, that will not always be you, the business owner, but if not, then make sure that every customer has a name as a point of contact in your office, who is a trusted employee. Give that employee the specific responsibility of managing each of their allocated customers. Not only will your customers really appreciate being able to speak to a person they know each time they need to, but the responsibility will help give your workers empowerment and satisfaction too.

The customers will recommend our services, and will stick with us for the long term. That is what we want, isn’t it?

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Banking on your small business customer service

I had a letter from a bank telling me that I would no longer be able to withdraw money from a savings account at an ATM. No reason was given of course. It is just a withdrawal of service.

My wife had a letter from her bank saying that they were making changes to her savings account. What they meant when she read the detail was that they were reducing the already paltry interest rate she had been getting.

Often, large businesses will say that in order to improve their service they are making changes which actually amount to a withdrawal of service. My business bank is closing its branch in our village. They claim that our service will not be affected, but actually although there is an arrangement with the Post Office for personal banking, business cheques (checks if you prefer) cannot be paid in there.

Many of my clients are older and do not use internet banking. They prefer to write cheques even though I would rather they did not. I will have to drive to the next town to pay in business cheques, and the bank will charge me for each one as they do now.

I suppose this is an ingrained habit of banks to withdraw a service while pretending they are helping everyone. Back in the Eighties, when I was very young, my bank decided not to send back my cancelled cheques, or anyone else’s of course. We did not have the detail of payments we can now get on-line. This was very annoying, but saved them some postage I suppose.

This sort of thing, which amounts to a withdrawal of service by stealth, is what became known as Hutber’s Law. Patrick Hutber was the City Editor of the Sunday Telegraph way back. Hutber’s Law states “improvement means deterioration” and it certainly prevails as big business withdraws more services from small businesses and individuals. What Mr Hutber would have made of the current utilities, banks and railway companies and all their call centres, Heaven only knows. Heaven probably does know because Mr Hutber died young, crashing his sports car. I missed him when he went.

At least as small businesses we can make sure that we maintain our standards and improve them. I like to visit my clients regularly and know what concerns them and how I can help. I am certainly not going to visit less or be in touch less. We have a big advantage over many of our larger competitors and we can make it count.

Stow’s Law is “Improvement should mean exactly what it says”. What do you think?

Your business safety net

Running a small business is engaging and enjoyable. We love the game, what we do, the people we meet and the buzz of being rewarded by our customers when they pay us.

It is so easy to forget that things can go wrong, and usually it won’t be our fault.

Suppose we might make a mistake which costs our client money. It does happen as no one is perfect, however much we guard against errors. Human nature being what it is, a customer might think we have made a mistake and cost them money, when we have not put a foot wrong. Either way, we need to be insured against action against us. Otherwise a vindictive client entirely in the wrong can cost us a lot of money and ruin our business. Professional indemnity insurance is essential and public liability insurance is important too.

Then again, how well are we insured against damage to our premises? Is our insurance up to date? Do we insure against loss by backing up all our data off-site?

Suppose our key staff have health issues and are off sick for a long time. What if we get sick and need to take time off? Are we insured to hire substitutes? Is our business income insured? Is our health insurance up-to-date?

Being insured for every eventuality sounds expensive, but when we think of the alternative of disaster and poverty we should grit our teeth and pay our premiums. Do you pay yours?

Small business and swimming out of your depth

 

English: The Beatles wave to fans after arrivi...

The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at Kennedy Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A week or so back I was watching an antiques and collectible show on the TV. It was one of those where people bring along some item in the hope that one of the dealers on the show will buy it for cash. These programmes are quite interesting and one can learn a lot about antiques sitting in one’s armchair.

On this particular episode a woman brought in what purported to be all four of the Beatles’ signatures. These were on a torn-out diary page which had a couple of entries for November 1968. When asked where she got these signatures, the seller said her aunt had worked at the Liverpool Empire when the Beatles were just starting out.

The dealer and the show presenter said that the fact they were on a diary page and that the aunt had worked at the theatre gave the signatures provenance, yet to me they gave them quite the opposite and the alarm-bells started ringing.

Firstly, the Beatles were not just starting out in 1968. They made it big in 1963 and started out several years before then. Secondly, even without checking, I thought they had not performed live in 1968 anywhere, and certainly not in the UK. Having checked since, I think the last UK performance, apart from on the roof of Abbey Road Studios in 1969, was actually in 1966. As far as it is possible for me to check, the last performance at the Liverpool Empire was in December 1965; definitely not in 1968.

By 1968 the Beatles were not getting on as well. It would have been difficult to get their signatures all at once, and definitely not at the Liverpool Empire.

These are all simple clues to someone who even had some idea of their Sixties pop history.

Logically these signatures were fakes, yet the dealer bought them for a fair sum and sold them on via auction. Dare I suggest the woman who brought them in knew perfectly well they were not genuine?

I am not an expert on the Beatles. I am just quite old. I would not have touched the autographs with a bargepole and if anyone is liable to be sued for misrepresentation it might be the auction house, though I hope they were sold “as seen”.

The dealer on the show admitted he did not know much about autographs. In my view it would have been safer to pass up the opportunity to purchase them, although I think he was lucky to get away with buying and then selling them on.

In my line of business, I cannot take chances. If I do not think I have sufficient knowledge to advise a client, I will be honest. I will suggest someone who is much better in that particular area.

None of us can afford to get out of our depth. If we make mistakes, we could cost our clients a lot of money, and even if we are well insured, we can end up losing out as well as having much heartache and worry.

I would rather work in an area where I am comfortable and have good knowledge. I do not want projects in unfamiliar territory to come back and bite me. Would you?

 

School’s out

The last bell

When I was at school, back in the mists of time, even when the last bell rang we could not pack up and leave the classroom until we were dismissed by the teacher. It might be different now of course. However, a desperate rush for the door would not seem to indicate much enthusiasm for the subject we were being taught.

Not far down the road is the main office of a local vocational training centre. At 5pm there is a veritable stream of employees and possibly some students out of the door and down of the road, many lighting cigarettes or on their phones as soon as they step out of the door. I find that very surprising. I would guess that there is not much job satisfaction there if everyone is so eager to get away, but it seems these people are not alone. The Cabinet Office has apparently found that there is a huge variation in job satisfaction.

Getting satisfaction

Of course I am not surprised that those in authority have more satisfaction than those that do not, and clergy as top dogs work mainly at their discretion, helping people, which must be rewarding. However, farmers come pretty high despite lower incomes, and I suspect that is not so much because they are in charge of others, but because they are actually self-employed and more in control of their own destinies unless weather takes its toll.

We small business owners do have a considerable advantage in having job satisfaction, don’t we? We make our own decisions, do not have reason to resent the boss (unless we really hate ourselves), take time off when we decide to, and should anyway be running a business we enjoy.

I did not originally choose to start my own businesses, but I am so glad that it happened. After all, as referenced in the BBC article, while we should make good profits, our social well-being and life satisfaction are the main elements in being happy in our work. That stems from our independence rather than dependence on less considerate employers. Aren’t we lucky?

Falling down

 

Looking towards Shoeburyness

Looking towards Shoeburyness (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

I fell over the other day. I do not make a habit of it and I was rather surprised. My first reaction after finding myself on the ground was to check for damage. Because it was a cold windy day, I was wearing several layers of clothing. I reviewed my body and limbs and concluded I had got away with it, and without even a bruise. I was lucky.

The next stage in the process was to review why I had fallen down. In this case, it was because I was looking too far ahead (out to sea) and was not concentrating on what was in front of me. There were two steps down where I had been walking, and I missed them.

The third stage was to get up, which I did. The whole process took less than a minute. I noted to myself that I should be more careful.

All this got me to thinking about my business. Things have not always gone well. I do believe we should all have a dream as to how our business should be, and to remember it. That is looking far ahead, or perhaps not so far, but if we think only of that we will not see what is right in front of us.

Maybe our marketing stops working. Perhaps we have clients who pay us late and we are endangered by lack of cash flow. It might even be that we should have anticipated that our business client would become insolvent.

Perhaps we have allowed one customer to make up the lion’s share of our business, and now on a whim they go elsewhere. There are all sorts of accidents. If we do not look our businesses may fall down. Often we can get up and learn, but not always.

We have to keep our eye on the ball. We need to be aware what is going on around us. Our goal is there for us to aim and our dream is attainable. We just need to dodge those obstacles, avoid tripping and do our best not to fall down.

Have you stumbled? What did you do?

 

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Difficult people we work with

iStock_000007991360XSmall cross businesswomanEvery now and then we will come across difficult people in business. Fortunately I have generally got on well with my clients. Of course some leave me because their circumstances have changed, or because they have been lured by Sirens offering “cheap” services.

I always give great value, or believe I do, but when people leave with the prospect of a lower bill from someone else they may not realise that they will get less support. I do believe you get what you pay for.

Now and again clients expect that having agreed a fee for a certain service, they will have access to my attention on an unlimited basis. Some will grudgingly agree a further fee, but at times I have had to ask certain individuals to find someone else. It is the same if the attitude of some clients makes me uncomfortable. They need to find a new adviser, and I tell them that.

In the end we do not have to do business with anyone we do not get on with.

Monday, Monday, so good to me

iStock_000011891859XSmall bored womanThe Mamas and The Papas sang:

“Monday Monday, so good to me,
Monday Monday, it was all I hoped it would be”

It seems the rest of their Monday did not work out so well, but I look forward to Monday mornings because I have my own businesses and I am in control of my destiny.

Like many I remember when I was an employee, perhaps with a long commute, to a job I did not enjoy. Sometimes the work was not satisfying, or it was boring, or I simply did not have enough to do.

When I was under-worked I was under pressure to deliver to the firm more fees when I had spare time and no money made available to do my own marketing. There were several people in the same position and I went to find a more challenging position.

Sometimes I had an unsympathetic boss. When I was with a firm that had been taken over, the new partner in charge felt lumbered with staff he did not want. He gave the quality clients to his own people. I was then supposed to report to someone who had no confidence in me and also had that same problem of not enough work.

Then there was the bully boss, the rude man who shouted and swore at his staff. Come to think of it, I had two of those a dozen years apart.

In the end I started my own businesses because I had to in the absence of employment, but if everyone knew what I know now, no one would want to report to someone else if they had any go in them.

Isn’t being in business on your own account so satisfying, and yes, so much fun?

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Ethics, confidentiality and loyalty in business

 

Old-fashioned spy equipment

Old-fashioned spy equipment

Once upon a time

My first job was with a bank which operated mostly overseas. When I joined I signed an oath of secrecy and promised not to divulge any aspect of a customer’s affairs. Having done that, even as a junior person, theoretically I could look at the dealings of any of the customers with accounts in London. In practice, I could certainly look at their current account by helping myself to their ledger card which would be in a box in the next office by the desk of the person who typed the accounts up on an old NCR 32 Accounting Machine  I started work very young and the bank did not even have its first computer.

Incidentally the only ledger card I checked regularly was my own as not quite £12 a week did not go far even when I started work.

Secrets

I guess there was very sensitive information available to me. Certainly we looked after the affairs of an overseas Prime Minister to whom I was introduced at around the age of twenty. No one at work would have thought of revealing anything about a customer to a newspaper or anyone else. My Mum and Dad worked in banks and we did not even discuss our employers’ customers between ourselves.

I was working in tax way back then too. We would speak to and write to people in the Inland Revenue (as it was called). All the Revenue employees had signed the Official Secrets Act and were also bound not to reveal confidential information to anyone except the taxpayer concerned, or to us as the customers’ agents.

I am sure that the Revenue employees, like we in the bank, took their oath and responsibility seriously.

Trusted guardians

Coming back to the present, we in the tax profession still take our responsibilities as guardians of private information very seriously. If required by any agency to divulge sensitive information, we would ask the client for permission except in very specific areas relating to the Money Laundering Regulations where fraud might be suspected.

There is currently a fashion for so-called whistle-blowers to go public with sensitive information. In business or in the public sector, surely one would have to suspect serious wrongdoing; otherwise any malpractice ought to be pursued internally or directly with the police?

The clean kitchen

Quite why someone working for a government intelligence agency, whose business is spying, should actually find it necessary to explain to a newspaper how that agency is spying and what they are spying on is hard to understand. Surely one’s first responsibility is to one’s employer? If you do not approve of spying (or banking or tax planning) do not work for an organisation which does that thing.

We should all uphold the law in our work and should never be involved in any wrongdoing. Beyond that, our loyalty must be to our employer (including Government if that is whom we work for), our business and most of all to our clients. Otherwise, if we can’t stand the heat, we get out of the kitchen and keep our own counsel.

Do you agree?

 

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Living up to our business philosophy

English: US postal stamp from 1902 for special...

English: US postal stamp from 1902 for special delivery service, depicting a bicycle courier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was expecting a parcel. I was told that I would receive from the courier a text on the day of delivery giving me a time slot. I duly waited in. No one showed up, but I then got a text saying my parcel had been delayed because no one was in to sign for the order.

I was given an automated telephone service number to “rearrange” my delivery. I called. The automated lady said I had to keep the card put through my door by the delivery person, although I didn’t have one because no one had called. I pressed buttons to arrange for the delivery the following day.

In the morning I had a text giving me a delivery slot of 1215 to 1315. At 1241 I had a text saying my parcel had been delayed because no one was here to sign for the order. Actually there were two people here, and yes, the door bell is working and so is the knocker. Again, no card was put through the door, because of course no one had called.

Imagine if we were as unreliable in our small businesses as some of these giant logistics companies are (and I have had experience here).  We have to deliver our services when we say we will, and we have to go the extra mile to look after our customers, because that is how we keep them loyal, and anyway we want to go the extra mile.

The joke is that the strap-line of this dreadful courier company is “Performing with Integrity.  Living our Values.” That is something to aspire to provided our values are commendable. The multinational parcel delivery company has failed. We won’t, will we?

Have you had a bad experience similar to this?

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