Making a meal of our managing duties

Full course dinner

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I am all for delegation of responsibility to staff. That is part of good management if you are confident your managers and employees are up to coping. Of course it is important that they ask for advice and they are properly trained. Sometimes things can go wrong when we are not in touch with our staff and we have not properly defined their roles.

Last weekend my wife and I were at a pub restaurant we had not tried before, It did not aspire to being a gastro-pub (up-market food) but it was unfortunately trying to cover all the bases rather than concentrating on a few things and doing them well.

We were guests so it was not our place to bring various problems to the management’s notice at the time.

On arrival we were greeted enthusiastically by the waiting staff. We were offered menus very quickly, someone took a drinks order, and two waiters fought over who should take our food order. We had to send them away to start with because the menu was very long and we were faced with too much choice.

I can’t speak for the lunches ordered by our companions. My wife and I both had the same starter which was very good. Though obviously made with bought-in products some thought had gone into its composition.

Our mixed grill main course was disappointing. Only our steaks had been freshly cooked to order, The rest had been sitting pre-cooked for a long while and was dried out. That is the fault of having a long menu. The poor chef cannot cook everything to order because she or he has no idea what diners will want, They have too much choice. The food wastage must also be considerable if a lot of the menu is pre-prepared. By having a long menu they end up not only with a smaller margin on the food due to the amount they throw away but also end up serving poorer quality dishes.

After the main course the service was not only less enthusiastic. It was impossible to find a waitress or waiter or indeed any member of staff for around twenty minutes. Eventually we saw someone in the distance and caught his eye. He called that he would be right over. He then disappeared. Around ten minutes after that we saw someone else and caught her attention. She appeared to be the manager and she did take an order for our companions desserts. These were delivered without too much delay, at which time, having perceived the problem the bill was requested. Over the next twenty minutes it had to be requested twice more.

Clearly like any other business, the restaurant should concentrate on some things it could do well. In its case this would be a shorter menu delivered by a chef who then has the time and is supported by properly trained staff. In other words:

  • Do what you are good at and can deliver.
  • Don’t try to do too much.
  • Avoid waste by using your resources properly and not buying in what you don’t need.
  • Make sure your staff are properly trained and know what is expected of them.
  • Keep an eye on them to make sure they are coping. If not, dive in to support them.

One final necessity: ask for feedback, because people will often refrain from complaining but just not come back. They will tell their friends about your failures so they won’t even try you out. It is easy to fix a problem if you know what it is. Otherwise the reason for your falling sales will escape you until you have no business. There’s something to chew over.


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Let another brain take the strain

Local businesses

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Are you good at everything? I’m not. I doubt many people are.

Do you like having to do everything in running your business: both the creative and the mundane?

Of course what is mundane to some is interesting grist to the mill for others. My business started very small and once upon a time I did everything myself. Now I only do the things I enjoy doing and which I find most rewarding, and the things I am best at.

It took me a while to realise that there were some tasks that were no fun at all, and that I wasn’t very good at some of the work my business was expected to produce. Also, I didn’t have time to do everything, so it seemed a good idea to concentrate on doing the fun stuff, the premium higher work. That didn’t mean that I stopped supplying the other services. It seemed logical to me to subcontract work to those who were better at it than me and who enjoyed doing what I didn’t.

Subcontracting has been great for my business. My subcontractors are good people, otherwise I wouldn’t use them. They deliver to me on time so that I can deliver to my clients, and I can negotiate a rate which gives them a steady income, but allows me to sell on a great service at a margin. That way everyone is happy and my business makes money without my having to do all the work.

You might ask why this system differs from having employees. Well, that would be a commitment, and in a small and growing business, I would not always have enough work to keep them on. They supply other businesses too and they have their own customers, so we are not tied to each other, but what we have between us is trust.

The business model I have suits a supplier of services. If my business made anything or was in retail, the concept wouldn’t work.

It is just no good trying to do everything yourself. I think all small businesses should use their networks (and build a network if they haven’t got one) because there is someone out there who can do for you what you think of as the boring bits, and you can profit from their expertise while concentrating on your favourite most profitable and valuable stuff. Your subcontractors can be your best referrers too.

Do you subcontract? If not, should you?


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Never mind the quality?

Eeyore being sad.
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I love being in business, and not being an employee and part of someone else’s business. Many of you have heard that from me before. Just the same it is not all plain sailing and that is partly because we are dealing with other human beings.


Over the years I have had many lovely people as clients and who have appreciated the service they have received. Happy clients are those who are prepared to pay for what they get because of the benefit they perceive. However, there are some who are not very often of a cheerful nature and no matter what they get, try to pay as little as possible for it. These are the glass-half-empty people, the pessimists and the generally grumpy who want to pay as little as possible and never want add-on services. They are the people who can get you down if you let them. This is the Eeyore view of life.


As we have said before, start-up businesses take on as many customers and clients they can get, and that’s only natural. As the business grows and develops, an owner, particularly of a service business, can afford to weed out the ungrateful and low coupon clients and concentrate on the higher value and generally more appreciative clients, and at the same time have more enjoyment in dealing with the higher coupon work which is generally more interesting.

If you haven’t got to the point of being really choosy who you work with, at least sack the miserable cheapskate customers because all you will get from them is grief; you certainly won’t get a decent profit.

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The tools of our business – choice, discretion and honour

Back in January when visiting the local branch of my bank, I was whisked in by the customer relations manager and offered their premium service at a discounted rate. I weighed up the benefits and agreed to sign up. It looked like a good deal.

A couple of weeks ago I had a standard impersonal printed letter from the bank’s mass mail saying that the bank had looked at my banking practices and decided that I no longer qualify for their discounted rate because I do not satisfy the conditions, which they listed. Guess what? My account charges would be going up 43%.

Now, it is important to note that the bank’s customer manager told me that I qualified for the special rate. I examined the criteria set out in the impersonal letter I had received. I have to say that I never qualified for the discounted rate in their terms because the accounts I run for three different business entities and several income streams are not managed in a way that could satisfy the requirements.

I am not pleased. Because of the benefits I thought I was getting I cancelled some insurance I had elsewhere and my existing car breakdown cover amongst other things.

I called the bank and was told there was “nothing they could do” other than apologise and register my complaint. They cannot offer the service at a discounted rate.

Now, this is not supposed to be a whinge about large organisations in general. Of course, once upon a time, bank managers had discretion to change things and fit services and charges to individual customers.

It so happens that my first job was with a bank. I accepted a job offer at a salary which turned out to be higher than the amount normally offered to someone of my then age. My new employer, or at least the personnel manager, realised the mistake but told me the bank would honour their offer, and this was all before I started the job.

As small business owners we are in a different position. We have a choice as to what services to offer at what price, and to cement our relationship with our customer thereby. Our customers still have a choice to use us or not, but as long as we can offer a valued service at a valued price we should be able to keep them.

Should something go wrong we can use our discretion to put it right. We should keep our word, our self respect and our honour by honouring our commitments. We can even get a nice warm feeling in doing so. If we stick to our ethics we can grow our small business into a big one and instill our honourable approach into our staff by allowing them discretion.

Large organisations such as banks have lost all connection with customer service through becoming remote from us in ivory towers known as call centres. They may say they need to be competitive in terms of cost, but I would not mind paying for a proper service from a bank which honoured its commitments. They should note that supermarket chains generally take customer complaints seriously and try to put things right. It is not about being too big: it is about having real customer-facing staff with discretion to act on their own initiative. Banks and mobile phone companies haven’t a clue about this.

As a small business owner I am happy that choice, discretion and honour liberate me from becoming like the banks, including mine which has just been voted the worst in the UK for customer service. Are you not pleased, but not complacent, that you are not as they are?

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Lasting impressions

I went to our local corner shop for some milk. The shop is what is known as a convenience store, but I don’t go there unless it is absolutely necessary because it is not generally a pleasant experience. Why? Because the owner-shopkeeper is such a sullen fellow.

On this occasion he ignored my “hello”, and when I took my purchase to the counter to pay he only told me how much I had to pay him, didn’t say “thank you”, looked annoyed when I asked for a receipt, and ignored my “goodbye”. I knew not to expect any conversation in between.

Going in that shop is not a pleasurable experience. How much would it cost to smile? I have never seen this guy smile in a couple of dozen visits over three or four years, but if I had seen a smile I would have been in the shop many more times; in other words if I had felt welcome. I can’t imagine I am the only person to be put off visiting the shop.

How much difference it makes to welcome a customer or client and make them feel valued. Even if we have had a rough day we should still make an effort to make our customers feel comfortable. Otherwise we won’t have so many and those we have won’t visit so often, because a bad attitude makes for a lasting impression.

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Cold calls, warm calls and reputation

Recently I was called on our home telephone by a female person who immediately launched into a script along the lines of “I am calling from “Anonymous” Windows to tell you about our current special promotion if you order from us within the next month any new windows or doors”. As it happens I was still in the midst of some work for a client, so I said “Excuse me. I gather this is a sales call. My wife and I prefer not to have these on our home line and we have registered not to receive cold calls.”

The indignant response to this was “Well, your wife did enquire about one of our products last May. You are very rude, Mr. Stow” and with that she put the phone down.

Now, it turns out that my wife did indeed enquire about a new window in the porch (far too expensive and not good value), so the company has us on their calling list. Fair enough. However I may have my faults but I am always polite as I was to this person on the telephone. If she had stayed on the line we might have sorted out the misunderstanding and ended the call on a friendly note.

What happened was that the caller ended up being really rude to me. Of course she may have had a bad day, but she has guaranteed that not only will we not be buying from her employer in the near future, we probably won’t be buying from the company in the longer term. For all she knows I will be telling everyone I meet about the call and naming the company, which certainly won’t help them. I thought better of naming the business in this post because it might have an unfair impact on her fellow employees.

A few ill-chosen words can do so much damage to a business reputation.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Using our window of opportunity in business

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I have a favourite walk just round the corner from home, where the footpath leads around a farmer’s field ( and past an ancient hornbeam wood, but that’s another story). In early August after a lot of sunshine and only moderate rain, it struck me that wheat which had been sown this year was just right for harvesting. I walked a couple more times around this field in the next few days and wondered why the corn had not been cut. Of course it might have been for waiting a turn with hired machinery, but everything seemed perfect; the condition of the wheat and the dry weather in particular.

Then August showed her fickle ways. It rained and it rained. When I took my next walk, a lot of the wheat was bent over or laid, and even the upright ears and stalks were turning black. The chance was gone, the hard work wasted and the money for that work all gone.

There are times when we need to release our inhibitions and just go for the opportunity. Usually we step back from taking action when we have the chance by giving ourselves small alibis for inaction. Sometimes rather than wait we must force the issue because otherwise our great plans and our hard work will come to nothing. As well as inspiration and enjoyment it takes courage to run a small business We must take our opportunities while we can.

Don’t you agree?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Telephone service and talking to clients

Wonderful though email and on-line digital services are there really is no substitute for speaking to a real person. I am sure we all get frustrated at having our time wasted by large organizations where we have difficulty getting through to the right person (or even find out who the right person is) to deal with a problem or even give them a sale. What is worse in my view is where we cannot even find a telephone number and find we have to raise a “support ticket” on some company’s website.

I believe in talking to my clients on the telephone if I cannot talk to them face to face. With many I could just bang out an email and sometimes I do as clarification of a point raised in a conversation, but there is no substitute for the personal touch.

Sometimes a client will call at a time which is inconvenient. There are times when we can do without interruptions in the midst of particular projects. That is why we should have someone else answer the telephone and take a message, whether that is in actually in our office or in the office of our virtual PA. The point is that the client knows that they matter and we will talk to them as soon as we can.

When we do speak to the client, we should have made time to do so and to be helpful. It is no good just calling back to say we have the matter in hand. At the end of any call, our client should feel that their immediate need is being dealt with.

In a small business we have so much more opportunity to demonstrate that we care, both in word and deed, and I believe the telephone is a good starting point. What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Answer the telephone!

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Play to your strengths

Slices of French Bread
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Especially when we start out in business we try to please every client or customer who comes along. I know because I have been in that position. However I have learned that we should concentrate on what we are best and most comfortable at doing, and on what is most profitable for us.

In our local village we have a very good baker. His bread has a considerable reputation. He knows pretty well how much bread his customers will buy each day. He opens at 7.30 and closes at 2.30. If you want the best choice of bread you need to get there earlier. Near closing-time nearly all the bread will be gone and sometimes he has sold out. There can be very little waste and therefore he must maximize his profit based on his resources.

He buys in a few things to sell on, notably sausages which he cooks. He produces some sausage rolls and Cornish pasties for the lunch market, but always sells out.

What doesn’t our baker sell? Fancy cakes! The reason is that although these would be high-cost, they are also labour-intensive. He or one of his staff would have to put in a lot of time on each cake. A lot of local baker-patisseries do make that error. They reduce their profit.

Bread is easy. It requires a lot of skill to get it just right and our baker has the skill. However he can produce a lot without spending much time on each individual loaf. He knows his business. He has got it right.

Like the baker I now do what is most profitable. There are some services which people ask me for which are not profitable. I buy them in through using sub-contractors. Those sub-contractors may even work directly with my clients. That is fine with me given we all have a good relationship. Sometimes my clients ask me for something totally out of my sphere, akin to the fancy cakes issue for the baker. I ensure I know just the right trusted business person to whom to give a referral. In that way I deliver everything a client wants without having to do it all myself and without having to do things which are difficult for my business, being too time-consuming and not profitable.

Do you subcontract or know when to pass on work? Doesn’t it give great piece of mind and allow you to make the best use of your time and effort?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Flirting with prospects and with clients and customers

I talk to many different business people, whether it is when I am out networking, on-line, or in dealing with my clients and prospects, or indeed when I am someone else’s client. From a consumer point of view generally I get a good service, but that is partly because I seek it out in getting recommendations before I engage a business to do something for me.

Occasionally, though, I hear of stories or experience myself a very disorganized business. It does seem that there are those who take on too much, promise loads and have not worked out when they have time to deliver. Of course if demand is there, it is sensible to take on an employee or two, or if the need is anticipated to be short term then the answer is to take on a recommended contractor for the duration. Some people do not have the courage to grasp the nettle and delegate, or do not know when they do not have the ability or skill to deliver what is required.

There are those in business like moths flying from one light to another. They flutter round one project, and before they have seen it done they fly off to another. They never get anything finished, they never respond to customers’ questions about progress and they never organize themselves to make serious money. In the end they will get a poor reputation and their business will fail.

We all like the bright lights, but instead of spending our time fluttering around them we need to keep our feet on the ground and use our heads rather than our imaginary wings. The wings are great for dreaming but first we need to be successful to realise our dreams.

Have you met a business fluttering aimlessly, trying to please everyone but failing to deliver?

© Jon Stow 2010

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