Infectious cheerfulness at work

I think you would agree that we should always enjoy our work, whether we have our own business or we work for someone else. Otherwise, we really should find something else to do.

If we have a good time at work, this will rub off on our customers naturally when we talk to them. They should feel very comfortable dealing with us and it will increase the likelihood that they will stay as customers for the long term.

Yesterday my wife Gloria and I met someone who obviously did enjoy her work. She was on the checkout at our local supermarket. In our three or four minutes with her she chatted non-stop (OK, some miseries might have been irritated) but as far as we were concerned she made the end of our shopping experience really fun. She brightened up our day. She is a credit to her employer.

If we do our work cheerfully, we may make someone else’s day better. It is worth thinking about.

Banking on personal service

A friendly place lost to us

A friendly place lost to us

The local branch of my bank has closed. Gone are the friendly cashiers (tellers), the greetings (“Good Morning, Mr. Stow”), the feeling of being valued as a customer.

The other day I had to pay in some money and went to the big main branch in the larger town. There was one cashier, and otherwise the tills had been replaced with machines. One is supposed to post into a slot any cheques received, together with a slip. There is no human being with whom to interact.

I pay a fee for my business banking, but I do not now feel I am getting any sort of service for my money. I am one very unhappy customer.

My own business is based entirely on real relationships with my clients. I value them, and I hope they value me. I try to be available to them at all reasonable times, and they know that I am there to help. If they value me, they will be happy to pay me a good fee for a service which they are entitled to expect.

Small business is all about personal service and great relationships. Big business has lost sight of that and, while we cannot all open our own banks, our flexibility and friendly approach is to our great advantage in competing where we can.

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

The value resold

A few months ago I advised a client on some potential tax issues he was concerned about. It took a while to research; well mainly to check as I had good knowledge of the issues. It is always important to check one’s memory against the latest legislation and case law as things can change.

What my client was looking for was not a tax scheme – I don’t do those – but the answers to a series of questions. It was a “what if?” sort of project.

When I was asked to quote in the first place, as always I thought about the value to the client. How valuable could it be to him in terms of money-saving in choosing the right path? How valuable was it in terms of peace-of-mind knowing what course of action he should take, and what to avoid doing?

I quoted a fee which he accepted. It was worth doing from my point of view because I could make a decent profit taking into account my overheads and time, but the determination of price was nevertheless the value to the client.

More recently I have been asked by another new client virtually the same set of questions and “what-ifs?”. Really, subject to a few minor tweaks, I can give pretty much the same advice. However, it will take much less time and other costs will be minimal.

Should I charge less? Of course not! I believe the value to the new client is much the same as to the previous client. I can bill him the same, and he will be happy paying for the money-saving and peace-of-mind. I know that because he has accepted my quotation.

Those of us who provide advice, knowledge, or if you like, our intellectual property, have studied hard for a long time, and have constantly to keep up-to-date with the latest happenings in order to give the correct current advice.

We have earned our value and deserve our reward. Why should we sell ourselves short and think in terms of labour costs? Never undervalue your own expertise when selling to clients.

If you are not special, you are not trying

Guarding the beach hut, Thorpe Bay

Be different (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

I have had my run-ins with telecoms companies in the past, and very frustrating it has been.

For the third month in a row, my business broadband provider, which is one of the smaller ones, failed to process my monthly payment and for the third month in a row I had a somewhat threatening email from their Credit Control Department. On each occasion I have logged into their website and paid on-line from the same account using the same method as they would had they succeeded in collecting my money. It is quite clear that the problem must be with them, so it is especially galling when all they can do is send me rude emails.

Following the last rude note from them and having paid the bill again, I telephoned to speak to the Credit Control people, and told them what I thought, but in very polite terms. I was advised that they could not check individual accounts. But, I said, one of the benefits of dealing with a smaller company was that I had in previous years received what seemed like a personal service. They had no response to that.

So it seems I am no longer getting the value out of dealing with a smaller, more caring company, in which case why should I pay more than I would dealing with cheaper but larger competitors? I will pay for value, but not if I don’t get it.

I asked to be transferred to Customer Services with a view to discussing my account. I expressed my unhappiness with the treatment over payment and asked why, with no better service than from a telecoms giant, I was paying more each month and with a lower download limit than I could have elsewhere. The response was “we cannot compete on price with the others”.

I have “voted with my feet”. I have taken my account to a cheaper provider. Value of service is important to me, but I am not paying for what I don’t get.

My soon-to-be-former telecoms provider is going to struggle. If they cannot compete on price and they no longer compete on value they will go out of business.

Our small businesses need to be special and different and offer that extra attention to our clients and customers, otherwise we cannot compete with the Big Girls and Boys. We need to offer value and if our customers feel special, then we have established great relationships with them leading to ongoing business.

Don’t you like to feel special? I do.

Giving the customers what they want

 

English: Logo of Marks & Spencer displayed on ...

Logo of Marks & Spencer displayed on products and in stores since 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Taking a dip

The famous UK department store chain, Marks and Spencer, has reported falling sales in clothing and non-food items again.

It is sad to see a flagship high street name struggling. They always used to be so reliable for quality shirts and smart wear. I was never a big fan of their underwear though other people always swore by it.

Getting shirty

Someone (actually my Mum) was kind enough to give me some M & S gift vouchers and the other day I went to spend them in the store on (I hoped) a couple of smart cotton shirts. I browsed around the men’s department, and although I found a couple of shirts I quite liked, I thought they were expensive. To put it in context, these shirts were more expensive than I can get in the current sales of the “up-market” Jermyn Street shirt-makers. Of course they do not always have a sale, but my instinct is always to buy on value. I could not find it in M & S.

I was eager to buy. I had “free” money to spend in vouchers; yet I was not prepared to spend on what is not good value.

They can’t tell the bottom from the top

In the clothing market we have generally the “luxury” end and the cheap end. You can buy a poly-cotton shirt for £5.00 though its quality might not be great and it might not last so long or be so comfortable. However it will serve its purpose. You can buy Jermyn Street shirts in the sale or otherwise pay a lot but get quality. There does not seem to be a middle market, and M & S have not understood or adapted to that; certainly not enough for me to see value.

It is our client’s choice, but ours as well

In many businesses including mine, prospects are looking either for a cheap and reliable service, or they want to be cosseted. All too many accountants are simply too generic and undifferentiated. Clients do not feel they are getting much or any more than from the cheaper providers. Their clients want to pay less, because they do not perceive value, although perhaps some would pay a lot more to feel as though they were a firm’s only client and had their full attention at all times.

It is no good chugging along in business assuming that what you have always done will suffice for a client. The market is constantly changing. All of us have to keep selling our value to our clients according to what they actually want; otherwise they will kiss us goodbye, or leave us in a less polite fashion. And we have to choose which part of the market we want to be in, don’t we? That is not the boring middle bit, is it?

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Selling our services through others

Photoxpress_10909891 calculatorPart of my business is to facilitate services to other businesses which they may provide to their end-client. I am good at selling services to my own clients ( though I say it myself) because I know the value of what my business provides, and I can help my clients and prospects to see that value and buy into it. That will be because they receive great comfort and very likely substantial financial benefit from “buying me”.

Many of my potential clients are small firms of accountants who do not have the tax expertise that businesses like mine can provide. Of course we never steal other people’s clients, but just the same there is a reluctance as well as a lack of ability for the intermediary accountants to sell our services, and that means that their clients do not get the service and expertise they really need.

The blocking factors are:

  • Many accountants do not charge their clients enough for what they do.
  • Their clients expect to be only a low fixed fee whatever services they require each year.
  • Accountants are quite often hopeless at selling, and especially at selling value.
  • They join the race to the bottom in terms of fees for selling generic services such as accounts and tax returns and have no room for manoeuvre on fees.

How do we get round this, and sell more through those other businesses who themselves should be “making a turn” on the fees we charge them?

  • Firstly, we need to convince the intermediary business of the value of what we offer.
  • We should ask to draft any proposal they send to their client, emphasising the value if we honestly think we can deliver the value for that client, or
  • We should ask to speak to the client direct, reassuring the intermediary that we will not steal their business.

Of course this is not just a problem in my profession, but in so many where we need our services to be sold through others.

Do you get frustrated when someone else ends up selling you short to their customer?

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Penny-pinching in small businesses can be very expensive

What shall I do?

Do you try to do everything in your business or do you confine yourself to the sharp end – your expertise?

Most of my work is to do with tax; that is advising people on it or writing about it. I am comfortable within my area. I have a lot of experience. I know how and where to do research to find the right answer.

I did not always know how to find the answer, though. I remember as a junior trainee being tasked with finding the answer to an unusual problem. I did not want to show my ignorance on the subject, and I had difficulty understanding the technical books in the library. After all, I was very wet behind the ears. So I relied on a book published by a well-known bank and aimed at the layperson – in other words, the amateur.

When I took my answer to my manager he told me that the issue was more complicated than I had thought, but not only that; the book’s author had actually got it all wrong! I was sent way with my tail between my legs to try again. I asked a more experienced colleague and she explained the difficult bits from the technical publication. I had my answer, which was different from the previous one because it was right.

Of course I hadn’t known what I was doing, because one of the worst mistakes we can make is in forgetting that we don’t know what we don’t know, or in other words if we are not strong on a subject our incomplete knowledge can cost us dear.

I am not great at sales and marketing. I look to others for advice because otherwise I would waste a lot of time and money. I subcontract quite a lot of work that I do not enjoy or that is not profitable to be done within my office. I have someone to help me with my business websites, though I like learning playing with others which will not cost me money commercially.

If we are inexperienced or simply do not have the time to do something to support, promote or oil the wheels of our business, it will cost us a lot more in sales than if we pay a specialist to help us.

What do you think?

Lack of success and the blame game

English: A Dairy Crest ex-Unigate Wales & Edwa...

A Dairy Crest ex-Unigate Wales & Edwards Rangemaster Milk Float. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Excuses

It is easy to lay the blame for business failure at someone else’s door, but usually it is an excuse. Sometimes bystanders to a disaster blame other businesses.

It is not so long ago that from the early hours we were used to the sound of milk floats in our streets. When I was very small, our milk was delivered by a milkman with a horse-drawn float. You don’t see many milkmen or women delivering now. I think there are one or two customers in our area, but most people get their milk in the supermarket because it is convenient when doing the weekly shop. Some might debate whether that is progress, but it doesn’t matter. The world has changed.

I hear business owners complaining about Amazon who are apparently ruining the book trade, at least according to them. Of course they do sell a lot of books and e-readers, and many bookshops where people used to browse are struggling. However, Amazon does provide an outlet for independent booksellers to sell through.

Novelty

I am not “defending” Amazon. They are part of the new world in which we live. They were a novelty when I first bought books from them in 1995, which were not published in the UK. Now they sell books and almost everything else including cat food at good prices, and they are convenient. No one would wish to travel and to spend more to keep someone in business who cannot adapt.

I do not mean to be unkind, but there is not a lot of call for basket-weavers except for specialist craft fairs and that is because there is not a lot of demand for wicker baskets. We have to offer what people actually want, give them value and allow to have their product or service with the least effort and the most comfort.

When I were a lad…

When I first worked in tax, we completed all the Tax Returns by hand. Two or three decades ago software allowed these to be prepared on computers and of course, saved, potentially altered and amended all without crossings out or Tippex.

Some older tax preparers retired rather than adapt to use computers. Even in the last ten years, “professionals” really did fill in Tax Returns by hand. Even without the earlier deadlines for submission of paper returns, the businesses of these old-fashioned people ceased to be cost-effective.

Why are people not prepared to adapt rather than lose their businesses? My father is over ninety and orders his shopping on-line and browses the website of his favourtite football team? Technology can be mastered by most people.

Keeping our eyes peeled

I think it unlikely that businesses are still failing because they are anti-computers and anti-technology, I do know that we all have to keep an eye out for trends, follow where our businesses are going, and sometimes realise that we are in a dying sector and get out or move to ride the wave.

Businesses must adapt or they will wither away. We all need to anticipate change and be ready, don’t you agree?

 

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Running your business in the dark

Too close to see the context?

There is a lot to be said for ploughing (plowing) your own furrow in business. Many great and successful business people have been famous for doing that, whether we are talking about Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.

Do you think, though that they achieved greatness all on their own? Well of course they didn’t. They knew when they needed help. They bought in the support and services they needed, manufacturing bases in other countries and advisers who knew where to look. They wouldn’t have pretended to themselves that they knew everything.

Sometimes we need help. Often we know just what we want. At other times it is useful to have an outsider in to look at what we are doing and advise us because we are just too close to see our issues in context. Now and again we just need to get practical support and let someone else manage a part of the business on a temporary or even semi-permanent basis.

I help other businesses as you know. I also ask for help myself and currently have two people involved in projects quite apart from the work I sub-contract, so you see I do take my own advice.

Seeing the bigger picture

There is a natural tendency for some small business people to think they are saving money by doing everything themselves. Actually unless they are perfect all-rounders (and who is?) they will save money and make money by buying in the support they need. Sometimes it is easier to ask someone who is a few steps back from your business to tell you what they see.

Don’t you agree?

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Customer service is what makes us different

 

More than just the figures

Choices

Our prospects need to differentiate between a huge number of offerings. How do they know to choose us? For small businesses it is often going to be through recommendation; referrals. How do we get those referrals? It can only be by delivering great service and by perceived as being that bit better than the rest. We need to give our customers a nice warm feeling inside.

The wrong way

Recently there has been a very amusing thread on an accountancy forum where the querist has apparently been reluctant to pick up the clients’ books and records or to deliver them back. He thinks it is an expensive exercise to do that and wants to charge the clients for doing it.

What a strange attitude! Surely a client would look forward to a visit? It would make her or him feel that they matter to the accountant and that the accountant is interested in them. They may have questions they wish to ask.

At the same time the accountant will gain more background to the business that may be relevant in understanding the client and preparing the accounts. There may be an opportunity to sell more services. If the client has that nice warm feeling they will be happy to pay for a good service. If they just get their accounts prepared on a production line they will get price sensitive and shop around for the cheapest option. Alternatively they will go to someone else who will give them that nice warm feeling. We need to have a relationship with those who matter to our businesses, and they are the people who provide our income.

Accidents

Of course no matter what we do, things may go wrong, but it is how we then deal with them that makes all the difference. Accidents will happen. We may have to swallow our pride or suppress our emotions.

Play the ball, not the person

I do a little customer service work for one of my clients. Recently they had a complaint from a customer about something which had gone wrong, and really it was one of those accidents. My client could not have prevented it but it was within our power to fix it. By “our” I mean as in my client and me acting on my client’s behalf.

The strange thing was that I had been on the wrong end of some very bad customer service meted out by this individual on behalf of her large corporate employer. Nevertheless I was “all sweetness and light” and dealt with the problem. I wrote to her and advised her. I asked her to let me know if there was anything else I could do. She did not thank me or even reply, but I guess that was no surprise. We do have to stay professional and keep our emotions out of it.

What we do for our customers and clients should give them a warm and fuzzy feeling and give them reason to recommend us. The value of what we provide is our USP, isn’t it?

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