“Experts” versus specialists

26 Feb 12 upload 024 (2)

The other day I tweeted in exasperation: “Hate the word “expert”. None of us knows everything. We specialists do know how to find out what we don’t know when asked to.”

I don’t know about you but many people who try to sell me their stuff try to impress me by telling me how good they are at what they do. That may be true, but I want to know how they are going to solve my problem and make me happy. I am not going to be swayed by how pleased they say another customer of theirs has been. If I knew that other customer and he or she had made a recommendation without pressure from the seller, I might take this person more seriously.

Of course the self-proclaimed “expert” does not know everything there is to know about a subject either. However if he believes his own hype he may not think too much about my problem and come up with the wrong answer or solution.

I had a difficult technical issue to do with my business recently. I “phoned a friend”, and she gave me an answer instantly, but actually I had less confidence in her answer than if she had paused and audibly thought the problem through. Sometimes we all need to think about a problem rather than assume straight away that we know the answer.

I specialise in a certain field, but I do not have an instant answer to every question posed. In my area of business I know how to find out the answer for my client, and when asked I might think I do have an instant solution. However, unless it is an issue with which I am totally familiar I would rather take a deep breath and think before responding, and my response might be “I will consider this and get back to you”.

Describing someone as an expert is misleading. Most of us know quite a lot about our area of business, but not everything. I think we specialists should stick together honestly against all those “experts”. Don’t you?

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Working from home constructively

Break-time walk

Break-time walk

I have been in business working from home for more than a decade. Of course working from home doesn’t mean working at home all the time. I do a lot of work at home, but I visit clients all over the place to help them with their businesses and their tax issues, and I go to networking meetings and training sessions.

Not being responsible to anyone else means I have to be responsible to myself. Working from home is not about using the technology. People have been doing it for a long time. It is about discipline.

Discipline is a word my Dad used to bark at us children when we had apprently misbehaved. In a sense it has a bad press, being associated with regimentation. Yet all we are really talking about is being sensible and organised.

It would be all to easy to lie in bed when we have work to do. We need to get up, have a set time of when we work, and broadly stick to it. If we don’t have work, i.e. business to service, or employees and subcontractors to organise to do it, then we should be at our desks, or on the sofa, or somewhere, marketing. Alternatively we should go to that early breakfast meeting.

It can be lonely working from home. Before the internet, we could have our “water-cooler” chats on the telephone, but now we can chat and interact on-line. We can use Twitter for conversations as well as for our marketing.

We have to have that discipline not to allow our social media interaction to get in the way of work. Yes, I like to see whatever everyone is up to by scrolling around Facebook, but there is a time and a place, and that certainly isn’t when we should be working for our clients and customers, or trying to find new ones.

  • Have particular times to work, whether normal office hours, or four in the morning start, but stick to it.
  • Limit the social media marketing time to an hour or so.
  • Set yourself break times and make sure you take them.
  • Try to do the on-line social stuff to the breaks.
  • Don’t work long hours, because if you feel you have to you must be doing something wrong.

What tips do you have?

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Why we need the assurance of business insurance

26 Feb 12 upload 011It seems obvious that we should insure our houses and our house contents. We have to insure our cars by law. Strangely many people do not believe in insurance for their businesses.

Of course it is true that many contractors under the control of other people or businesses (such as builders) have to have their own Public Liability Insurance. Many business owners, worried about the cost, skimp on this. Yet the insurance is not expensive. The consequence of not having it can be catastrophic if a customer has an accident and sues, because the cost of defending can be disastrous.

If a mistake in the work we do can result in a loss to a client, we need to be insured against that. Professional Indemnity Insurance covering being sued for at least a few hundred thousand seem sensible. I wouldn’t be without mine, though, touch wood and taking care, I have never had a claim. Again, even if we have done nothing wrong, the cost of defending an action can be terribly expensive and destroy a business, and maybe our wealth.

If we have a business with particular employees or of course ourselves as owners, we can insure against loss of their services in what is known as key-person insurance. It is intended to compensate for business losses in case the important person dies or is unable to work again due to illness.

I insure against loss of business income if I were to be ill and unable to run my practice. Shouldn’t everyone?

You and I may never have a loss of someone’s services or be sued, but you never know. Most of us keep an umbrella handy, don’t we? Why should we leave our businesses and our income open to the elements?

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What the BBC can teach us about management and team work

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the ...

BBC Broadcasting House, Portland Place at the head of Regent Street, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Head Man (Director General) at the BBC, George Entwhistle, resigned not because he made an error of judgement but because his management or his employees did not keep him informed about a major mistake they had made. He then looked foolish because he had not seen what was reported through other media including both the press and Twitter. A man who seems not in control has to go. He might very well be able to take control, but he has lost the confidence of the customers and his staff.

These sorts of disasters can happen in small businesses too. It is so important if you are the person at the top that you are approachable. For that to be so, your employees have to feel part of a team and to belong. They have to know you and to like you. Then it will be easier for them to tell you what you need to know, which will include the bad things as well as the good things. They need to be able to tell you anything, without fear that you will be angry.

As long as there is communication between you and your workers, and as long as you keep them informed as well as they keep you informed, there should be no disasters and no problems that can’t be managed. Of course that requires mutual respect, and from your side that requires you to be fair and to listen to their feedback, critical and general.

Do you manage a successful team?

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How not to run a business

 

English: NHS logo

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Patience is a virtue?

This week I have witnessed some very poor business management, or more to the point, no management at all. As it was in a hospital I have also come to understand how the word “patient” has become the word used for those “customers” who are in hospital, because you have to be exceedingly patient when you are in there.

This is not a piece bashing the UK National Health Service. The NHS is great when you have an acute problem. Emergencies are usually dealt with very well. Our local plaster room has always seemed very efficient, but the key there is that the staff in there take responsibility for their own work. They are skilled and they move things along.

A good start

We had to go to a surgical assessment unit. We were told that the patient would be there five or six hours while she was being assessed and the tests were done. She was checked in quickly and efficiently. They took blood fairly early on and the patient was examined a couple of times soon after arrival in the morning.

All downhill

The ward was not especially busy. In the afternoon several patients were taken down for X-rays. Our patient was left to her own devices, and it was just as well she had a good book to read. However at around 7 in the evening when clearly nothing had happened for hours, she asked to be collected as she thought they must have finished with her and she had been told she was fit to go home.

Comedy time

When I arrived, the patient told me she was now supposed to be going to have an X-ray. A porter duly arrived and wheeled her off. Fifteen minutes later they were back. The lady had been rejected by the X-ray department because she was still in her day clothes. She offered to put on one of their gown there and then, but was told she would have to return to the ward to get one.

Now be-gowned she was wheeled off again. Fortunately the porter managed to keep her place in the queue from the previous visit, which was the only initiative shown by anyone all day.

Breaking out

We escaped from the hospital at 9 in the evening. I was starving and while I had been waiting I had sought food in the canteens and hospital coffee shops, all of which had closed. The patient had been fed a rather disgusting shepherds pie in the hospital.

Blaming the management

I found the hospital nursing staff and admin people to whom I spoke very pleasant. I am sure they are good people. It was no good complaining anyway. Clearly there was no organization or management. Many of them were sitting or standing around most of the time, and it did seem that they were over-resourced when we hear so often that the NHS suffers from staff shortages.

It seemed to me that the staff were in the wrong places. Also, in the absence of hands-on management and being told what to do at each stage (often not a good idea as it damages self-esteem), workers do need to be allowed to use their initiative and take responsibility as in the plaster room. Empowerment of the workers to think for themselves within certain constraints leads to greater efficiency and, very importantly, they will be happier and more confident.

Empowerment

I have always believed in largely hands-off management but not in no management at all. Managers should be friendly with their charges because that encourages loyalty, which again promotes good work. You really can’t beat giving your employees responsibility for their own domain in an atmosphere which encourages them to report problems without any fear of criticism. Then you have a really efficient productivity model.

It is a shame when good people are not allowed to be at their best in the workplace. It is a terrible waste of their abilities and a dreadful waste of money.

We wouldn’t run a business like that would we?

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We who hesitate

B&W reproduction of an imaginary portrait of H...

B&W reproduction of an imaginary portrait of Horace. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The art of procrastination

I was amused by this good piece by Rowan Pelling, about procrastination. Mind you, four years tax returns outstanding? I am sure we can help.

Horace is described as a self-help writer in the BBC piece. If he had lived a couple of millennia later, would he be selling e-books? There would be a business opportunity, and his poetry might go quite well too. It seems a couple of millennia since my school days flirting with his works, though.

Carpe diem

It is so easy to put off decisions, let alone making the wrong one. We usually know when we should make a decision because there will be problem staring us in the face, or with any luck a great opportunity if only we have the courage to decide.

Take advice, perhaps, but seize the day. Make a decision sooner rather than later.

 

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Plumbing the depths and ruining a business reputation

 

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Vice Pres...

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Vice President George H. W. Bush – Don’t talk about them! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Less than professional

While I am talking about reputations, which I was the other day, have you noticed the comment threads on some of the professional websites? Often one can have a perfectly well-chosen and appropriate piece ultimately damaged by some very stupid comments.

What seems to happen is that initially there will be useful intelligent responses but a certain point someone will latch on to a throwaway remark in an otherwise considered response and then it is all downhill.

The silliest comments usually start after the first twenty more reasoned ones.

Quite often we will get into kitchen sink politics involving prejudices about Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan or George Bush the elder or the younger, which is bound to get some peoples’ backs up, depending on their own views. Fortunately, on professional websites (and I include accountants’ websites) we do not generally descend as far as invoking Godwin’s Law  but there is no guarantee. Once a thread has gone into decline it deters others from commenting who would have had something of value to add.

Anonymity is not what it used to be

It is of course true that many of the most unconsidered comments are from those who suppose they are anonymous, but they are bound to be known to some through their style or from clues they give. For example in my professional (accounting and tax) area, the world is not that large. Most people know someone who will know someone else and identities are not so hard to guess.

Then again there are there are those who actually get into ridiculous debates using their own names.

If you see someone making intemperate comments about another, arguing ignorantly over ancient politics or re-writing history, would you engage them to act for you on a professional basis ? No, I thought not.

Avoiding Radio Ga Ga

Apart from politics, the only more sure-fire way of getting someone’s back up is to invoke religion. Some of you may know that I am a licensed radio amateur (ham) though not very active these days. The one big rule we always had was to avoid talking about politics and religion. That is because discussing either is a guarantee of trouble.

Don’t become some background noise. You wouldn’t want to lose the respect of your fellow professionals or drive away a prospect with a silly prejudiced remark. Then again, perhaps these out-of-control comment threads are a useful filter for all of us when deciding with whom to do business. What do you think?

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Accident recovery in business

Feelings

Business life is not always perfect. Sometimes things go wrong. A client has a bad experience. It may well not be your fault, but the client may not share that perception. You have to work out what you can do to make things better.

In my tax world, I might get a client coming to me who has made a mess of their financial affairs. Maybe that mess goes back a number of years. They expect help to get out of their mess. I may be able to make things less bad. If they need a deal with the tax authorities I can very likely do better than they could. What I cannot do is make the past go away. I can’t change history. That is not my fault. I have to explain that the client is getting the best outcome I can manage ( and often they can be remarkably good) but it still involves writing a cheque for a lot of money.

Perception

If I want to keep the client, that client has to have a feel-good feeling, and that feeling comes from their perception. I will help them understand that they are in a better place than they might have been. They have been fortunate. That will help their confidence and themselves and it will boost their confidence in me if I want to keep them as a client. They need a full explanation of everything that has happened since they came to me.

Accidents

Sometimes a business can get something really wrong. Complementary therapy practitioners rely very much on giving the feel-good factor to their clients. Imagine if a therapist accidentally physically hurts a client but not so seriously as to be sued, with a little inattention, or the client just has a bad experience. It could happen to any service-providing person in a metaphorical sense, of course.

So the client is unhappy. He is likely to tell his friends, including some who may already see the same complementary practitioner. The business is likely not only to lose the client, but several others as well.

Damage limitation

What should the practitioner do? Well, firstly, be very apologetic and take responsibility. Offer some free less risky sessions. Send some flowers. Limit the damage, because if the client still mentions the incident to friends he well also say that our therapist has been very kind and caring in the aftermath. Business may not be lost. The client may regain the feel-good factor and continue to visit for further sessions.

Save the day

Whether we have an unhappy client because something has really gone wrong, or because they simply do not appreciate our service, if we know about it we must work on our relationship. Provide as much information as we can. Give something extra, something to make them feel special, even flowers or chocolates can do the trick. We must not just stand by and shrug our shoulders. That can cost far more than giving that little bit extra.

No Hiding Place

If you Google “No Hiding Place” you will find that it was the title of a police drama series in the UK way back in the black-and-white days.  I rather think my parents were quite keen on it. They used to talk about it when there was so much less TV to discuss than the hundreds of channels many of us have now and apparently it did try to add realism which had not been seen in police drama previously.

The expression sticks in my mind though. There is simply nothing we can’t find out within a very short time and we don’t have to own Encyclopaedia Britannica to find out anything we need to know.

The other day my wife and I had a concern that one of our cats was behaving oddly, but a quick on-line search established that there wouldn’t be a serious problem when we took her to the vet. Then I had a problem with my Android phone, but soon found the answer and restored it to full function with a few keystrokes (well they would have been keystrokes if it had actual keys). Instant questions get immediate answers.

Back in the days when No Hiding Place was popular on the TV small business owners had no support from Government and the only advisers they generally employed were their accountants who offered mostly a compliance process. There was no on-line resource, and if they wanted to know something they probably had to go to the library and hope their local one had books which were up to date. In other words, small business owners were largely on their own though they might have had some help from the local chamber of commerce members or known people in Round Table etc.. That was networking before it was called networking, but it was still limited just to the people they knew in the town or village. If their businesses failed they could make out they had an alibi that they didn’t know any better.

Now we have no such excuse. We have huge on-line search resources, but beyond that we have our networks on-line. We can find whatever help we need, or we are bound to be connected with someone who knows the person we need to help with our business. There are no more excuses, there is no lack of help, there are no alibis and no hiding place. Failure is much more avoidable. We must take responsibility to be successful because we alone are responsible. Aren’t we lucky?

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Why we need to give our colleagues and clients a lifeboat

Swanage lifeboat by Mark Murphy

Here’s a funny thing

The other day I wrote about leaving our clients and prospects in the air by not getting back to them at holiday times. I had intended to follow this with a piece about longer periods of absence, such as those due to sickness or the one thing worse than sickness which would result in a permanent absence. The funny thing is that yesterday a friend of mine spoke at a meeting about just such an occurrence.

That really is the only funny thing about it, but have you thought what would happen to your business if suddenly you were not there to run it? It really does matter unless your business is based purely on your knowledge and skill and you have no repeat clients or customers.

So what happens in the event of your temporary or permanent absence?

Have you:

  • Staff who can keep your clients happy by maintaining your business?
  • Someone to take charge and run the business? This can be a business partner, an existing staff member or a friend in the same business who can step in.
  • Insurance to pay out when you can’t be there due to sickness or that other worse thing?

Why does it matter if you aren’t there any more?

  • If you have staff you need to think of their security and well-being.
  • If you have family you need to make sure they still have an income and a business to sell if they so wish.
  • If you have one or more business partner you have a duty to make sure they can carry on.
  • You have a moral duty to your clients to give them certainty of a service.

Lifeboat

My friend, who lost his business partner in tragic circumstances, was able to carry on the business because jointly they had a lifeboat for the survivor. The business carried on.

I have recently taken on clients whose previous accountants / tax advisers had died. Their advisers’ businesses had died with them. I had to start from scratch being unable to contact anyone who could hand over the records. The families of the deceased practitioners must have been left with no business to sell, and thus less money to help them through probable difficult retirements.

It is not morbid to think about what would happen to your business if you were not there to run it. Putting procedures in place is just prudent. It is like insurance for something that will probably never happen. You do it just in case, and because you care for your family, your staff and your clients. You do care, don’t you?

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