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.

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?

Don’t be afraid to ask

When I started out on my own in business, I thought I knew a lot and in fact I knew very little.

Why did I think I knew a lot? Well, for a good few years I had worked with small businesses as clients, and my employers had called themselves “accountants and business advisers”. So, yes, I understood the mechanics of being in business. I had advised clients about their tax issues, how much they owed in tax and how much they could save.

So what was the problem? Well, I had never tried to visualise myself in their shoes. I did not understand the day-to-day challenges of sales and cash flow. I did not appreciate the responsibilities to employees and workers engaged. I did not realise that everything a business owner does has an impact on family, both financially and time-wise, far more than for an employee.

It is difficult at the beginning of our business. We need a new mind-set. We need to understand about being found by customers, making sales, managing our finances without a guaranteed monthly or weekly income, and in organising our time.

We need to ask our friends in business when we don’t know something. We need to call in help from the outset.

Running a business is hard at the outset. It will be worth it and it will be very rewarding to succeed through our own efforts, knowledge and dedication. But don’t be afraid to ask.

Politics, religion and social media for business

Some signs we ignore at our perilHere in the UK we have had an election. In the run-up, many people in my business circles have shared their opinions on the parties’ policies, and post-election they are sharing their views on those who have a different opinion from them.

We all have political opinions, and unfortunately when they are attacked we cannot help taking it personally. It seems they are taking pot shots at us. Yet in a business environment we may like those who differ from us, but it is inevitable their politics colour our opinion of them. In other words, their opinions damage our relationship because we see them in a different light.

Generally online, via Twitter or Facebook amongst other places, I do not see small business people spouting their religious views, which is a great relief. Religion is a cause of conflict when people do not see eye-to-eye.

When I became a radio amateur (ham) as a young chap, passing the exam, I knew that it was rule that we did not discuss on-air either politics or religion. That way we avoided bad feeling. To me, using social media to maintain my business circles, it should be a rule that we avoid politics.

Of course that is just my opinion.  I am human and can be offended by others’ beliefs if their outspoken opinions seem directed at my friends or at me.

How do you feel about mixing politics with business?

Having a sense of direction

It is no good starting in business if you don’t have a plan and ambition, or you are doing so for the wrong reasons. It is no good going for a job working for someone else if you don’t really know what you want to do.

I well remember, when I first started my business, meeting someone who had started his to undermine and destroy the guy whom he thought had destroyed his father’s business. Having left his father’s rival in the smoking ruins of his business he had no further purpose for continuing. That is no way to go about business or life.

A young person I know wants to leave home and get a job without knowing what she wants to do. She needs a plan, and just wanting to leave home is not a plan without something positive to build her independence in the way of a career.

If you want to start a business or get a job, just think what you would enjoy doing, and work out how you can achieve it. Running away without direction will have you ending up where you do not want to be.

Was it small business or the internet that changed my life?

Seafront bikes

Seafront bikes

It is no secret that I started my own business after the world of employment left me, and I could not get another job. There was no grand plan. I just got “on my bike” to get some money coming in.

Back then, 2002, the main way of getting business (I thought) was advertising. I have written before about the money spent on directories such as Yellow Pages and Thomson Local. They were a waste of time and that was because they really said nothing about my business apart from listing it under a category, but also because customers were actually talking to each other, exchanging information on-line, and yes, getting out of the door and networking.

I did not have much idea about social media in those days, but they were early days. I wonder how much I would have become involved if it had not been for business needs. Would I ever have “done” Twitter and Facebook? I suppose it was the other way round as Facebook was first, but I “do” Twitter a lot more.

It is not as though I ever was exactly afraid of computers. I am a techy sort of guy. I had a Sinclair ZX81, a BBC computer and an IBM AT PC running DOS. I programmed in Sinclair BASIC and in MS BASIC, not very well, but I had the enthusiasm. I frequented bulletin boards. It did not make me social.

In 2003 I had realised that face-to-face networking might be a good idea. I had a business coach who thought it was, though he had not tried it. I went to the local Ecademy group, and three days later met Thomas Power at a seminar in London. He and Ecademy taught me so much about networking, on-line and off-line that it is hard to imagine a business or personal life without it.

I have become a very social person, and social media and on-line marketing are how I get most of my business. Of course the biggest benefit is in making so many new friends; real friends who have helped me as I hope I might now and again have helped them.

I know a lot of employee techies who do not really “get” social media. They may mess around on Facebook but I wonder if they have really made new friends as I have, or whether they just interact with the old ones. Some techies view all social media with disdain and are paranoid about personal security and identity theft. They know how everything works, but they cannot see the purpose or the potential, only the low-risk threat.

For myself and my business there is a great world out there, I have made a lot of real friends I could not have found in any other way, and I am grateful. I think I am a totally different person from the one I would have been, stuck in a job in town. I feel I am happier and more at ease with myself as an independent player, and have been set free by the tools I first found through Ecademy. Being in business brought me to social and business networking. Would the second have happened without the first? I don’t know.

Has your life been changed in the same way?

Burying the bad news

iStock_000005618867XSmallGoogle is being required by the European Court to allow individuals to request that certain personal information about them will; not be found in a search. This does not mean that if you already know the web address where such information is to be found you cannot see it. It is just that Google cannot lead you there.

This is rather worrying and one wonders exactly whose rights are being protected here. This article states: “the BBC learned that more than half of the requests sent to Google from UK individuals involved convicted criminals.” Well, if I want to know whether my potential client has a criminal conviction, or to make a quick judgement as to whether I should see the person in the first place, I think I have the right to be forewarned.

On a non-business level, surely we should have the right to find out whether our new love is a criminal or dangerous? Fortunately I am not in the dating market, and we are very happy, thank you.

This brings us to consider how much information about ourselves we should share on the good old world wide web. I am very active on various social networking sites, particularly Twitter. I have a moderate number of friends on Facebook; not thousands, you understand. This is because I do like to have some idea who everyone is. Most of the hundreds I have met, and if not then either my friends I have met know these others, or they are quite famous bloggers who have allowed me the honour of being their friend.

Also on Facebook, I do not believe in sharing every personal detail as some do. Some things are private, although there is really nothing in my private life I am ashamed of (honest, guv).

I tweet a lot. It is mainly business-related content, though not salesy stuff. I do let slip some geeky and technology related material, but that is me. I do not usually tell anyone what is going on at home – not even what we are having for dinner.

I have several websites, all of which have some information about me, mainly business. The exception is the health issues I have blogged, and that is because I believe people, and especially men, need to be conscious that they are not invulnerable to becoming ill.

You will have gathered that if you type “Jon Stow” into Google or any other search engine, there will be a lot about me; more than about all the other Jon Stows. I have a high profile, and nearly everything you will find on the first few search engine pages will be fairly recent and probably no more than two or three years old. You will get tired after that. There is nothing I have to hide anyway, going back however far you wish.

Some people have had embarrassments in business though, or even worse. Someone I have worked with quite a few years ago is not at all active on-line. He has one business website and as far as I know is not at all active in social media. Consequently one frightful business mess which did not reflect well on him always comes up on a name search. This financial scandal, in which my ex-colleague may in reality have done nothing wrong, took place fifteen years ago. Because his name is not very common and because even that long ago newspapers and trade magazines published on-line, the stories will be on page one of any search.

I think it would be in the interest of this guy to be very active on social networking sites, at least for a year or so. The search engines like newer stuff. The old embarrassing stuff can be buried further down, and perhaps not come to light on a cursory search for this individual’s name.

I enjoy the positive benefits of my higher on-line profile, because they lift me up the scale of being noticed. It just occurs to me that negative stuff can be buried with a bit of work, while avoiding restricting our rights to know what we should about people, and without restricting our personal freedom.

What say 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?

Small business and stress

It does not matter where it comes from. Stress is bad for you. Whether you do not organise your business so that you do not have to work all hours of the day, or whether you have family problems or people are simply being nasty to you, stress will cause you trouble.

If you are stressed

  • You tire more easily
  • You probably cannot sleep well without taking pills
  • You have difficulty concentrating on business
  • You are liable to make bad decisions or you cannot make decisions at all

So how should you deal with your stress?

  • Perhaps you should ask a business friend to suggest how you should use your work time in a better way.
  • Go out for a walk for up to an hour every day – I do, come rain or shine.
  • Get a hobby or a distraction from thinking about work for your spare time – I am photography mad.
  • Read a good book.

No, I know it is not easy. I cannot make out that life is that simple. Just the same, useful relaxing distractions combined with a little help from your friends can help relieve your stress and show your path more clearly.

How do you cope with stress?

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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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