Cancelling your goodwill credit

A while back we had the builders in and they threw away some fixings which they should have kept and put back up. I went into a local shop to enquire if they could sell me any replacements. They went further than that and gave me the fixings, which were a type of bracket, entirely free of charge.

What nice people, we thought. A year later, we gave them some business; actually quite a lot. The guys were working in our house, being a father and son, so it is a good family business.

I made the tea, and the father started complaining partly to me and partly to his son about another customer, whom he thought was a nuisance. It sounded to me as though she just wanted everything to be right.

Then another customer telephoned the son and was apparently complaining about a failure to deliver and fit the product up to now. Our man this end was giving reasons why they had not yet delivered, while the father, in asides to me, was saying “that’s not true”, “that’s a lie” and so on.

I hope we do not have any trouble with what we have been sold, but even if the products are perfect I would be less likely to refer these people because of their attitude to other customers.

We all gripe about customers sometimes after a difficult day, but surely only in the comfort of our own homes, with no one eavesdropping who could cause us damage?

Loose lips sink ships.

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

Blinding your clients with science

The other day I had a call from a lady who is running a small business. She wanted to hire me to explain the letters she received from her accountants, and translate the conversations she had with them. Clearly they were using technical terms all the time and not making any effort to ensure she understood what she was being told.

This poor business owner was embarrassed to tell her accountants that she did not understand. Plainly she was feeling intimidated by them and her relationship with them was poor.

Much as I would have liked to pick up some more fee-paying work, I just gave her some advice over the telephone. I suggested that she had two choices. Either she should insist on speaking to the partner at the firm responsible for her business to explain her discomfort so that she could have proper explanations of issues that she could understand, or she should change her accountant.

Not being an accountant (although often thought of as one) I could not act for her myself. I did advise the lady that I could suggest a couple of more helpful local accountants. I think she will go with one of them.

We can all adopt tech-speak and when talking to our colleagues, that is what we do. Some of us often forget that it is a foreign language to our clients. If we do not explain their issues simply they will not understand, and they may feel too embarrassed to tell us. As regards our future relationships, the clients may vote with their feet if we blind them with science.

Bully clients

Most of us hate bullies. One day I might write about my school days if I can bear to think about it. At school we were largely trapped and felt there was little we could do about bullying.

In business we come across bullies too but we really do not have to put up with bad behaviour. I remember when I was an employee telephoning a client, someone quite famous, to tell him one of his companies owed a lot of tax because he had done something without asking us, his advisers, first. He shouted and raged and swore. I told him I would speak to him later when he felt better, and put the telephone down. Fortunately when I told my boss, he agreed I had done the right thing, so I had his full support. That guy had a poor track record for abusing our staff. My boss should have dumped him but probably the fees were too important to him and his fellow partners.

In my own business I do not put up with such people as clients. Usually on first meeting someone I get a feeling whether we can work together, but if later I do have any unanticipated “aggravation” I do not put up with it. I ask the client to go elsewhere.

No one should have to put up with bad language and bad behaviour from a client. You don’t, do you?

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

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?

Mutual trust between client and provider

amateur radio transceiver Collins KWM-2A

amateur radio transceiver Collins KWM-2A (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a young chap I got my amateur (ham) radio license. I passed the exam and took and passed my Morse test at the Post Office Headquarters in London. I was very active while I was still living with my parents and had few responsibilities.

When those responsibilities kicked in and I was busy working in Town I did not have time for my hobby, so I stored away all my gear. Recently, I though I would make a come-back in radio. Of course the technology has moved on and I will embrace it. However, there is a particular old radio transceiver (“rig” as we hams call them) I really wanted working. It was not, and as I lacked all the equipment and probably the expertise to fix it, I arranged to send the radio to a professional service workshop.

After a couple of weeks, which seemed longer, the guy at the workshop telephoned to say the radio was fixed, and I should send a cheque (or check), which is what I did. After another week with no sign of my transceiver I telephoned him and was told that as my cheque had been cleared , which means processed by the bank, my radio was being sent back to me. It duly arrived and is working, but it has also been rather a long wait.

I think the workshop sent all the wrong signs. Firstly, to await the clearance of the cheque seems to show a lack of trust. Maybe once bitten but, with mixed metaphors, we are not all tarred with the same brush.

Secondly, part of any service is a reasonable turnaround, and this long wait to check payment added to the delay.

All this could have been avoided either by accepting payment by instant direct bank payments, or indeed why not use Paypal? Then there would be no suggestion of lack of trust since we are all used to paying this way, and there would be a quicker delivery of service.

The radio workshop’s old-fashioned ways must make the customers uncomfortable. I felt rather insulted. That is unnecessary as their work is good. Even if they do not trust the customers, they do not need to make it obvious if they accept modern methods of payment. What do you think?

 

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?

 

Unreliability, sickies and trust

Rayleigh Market Photo credit: Jon Stow

Rayleigh Market – Photo credit: Jon Stow

A long time ago, when I worked in London, I had a female colleague who called in sick on a Thursday every four weeks. No one thought too much of it and if we are honest, we supposed there might be a biological reason for her absence and she had our sympathy. At least she had our sympathy until one day one of my work-mates who lived in the same town saw her on a “sickie Thursday” selling on a market stall. Obviously she was rostered by the family to work the stall every four weeks on market day.

I am not sure who actually “grassed up” my fellow worker, but she was called in by the boss and her monthly absences on a Thursday stopped. She had been rather dishonest since she was paid when on sick leave as well as presumably being paid for working on the stall. She definitely suffered a loss of trust.

Strangely, some self-employed people seem to have the habit of taking dishonest sickies even though they won’t be paid. Having had to put up with this, I find it harder to trust people who do not turn up and email or text at the last moment to say they are cancelling. Once upon a time they would have had to telephone and tell the lie, but now electronic media mean they only have to type their apology with their thumbs. That makes it all the easier.

I am sure we have all had days when we did not feel like working. However, really it is no excuse not to get out of bed if someone is relying on us, and a hangover is not an excuse in my book. Take the painkiller pills and turn up.

Being unreliable as some of the no-shows are means they are seen as untrustworthy by their customers. They are damaging themselves by losing earnings when they do not turn up, and more money when they are dropped by the customers they let down.

Why do they do it and ruin their reputations, when we all know that being there for our customers is the most important part of maintaining a relationship?

Verbal understandings are not contracts

 

coppersIn my business I think it is important to have agreements in writing with my clients so that they know exactly what I will be doing for them in conducting their affairs (and what I will not be doing). I have always said that verbal agreements are no use especially when the parties fall out or one side has a perceived issue.

Many of us look after family members or agree financial arrangements with them, and somehow it seems less comfortable to ask them to enter into a written agreement. Yet why should they be any different? They are people who may have ideas you have not fathomed.

So I confess. My wife and I entered into a financial and verbal understanding with a family member ten years ago, and when it came to the crunch last year, he reneged on the agreement. That has cost us a lot of money. That is the point: where money is involved, people may have an eye for the main chance when greed, and other motives unknown us, kick in.

If you are relying on a family member to repay you or at some stage meet certain financial obligations, have it all in writing no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. That is an insurance we all need.

As for us, we have again learned from experience. Trust no one where money is concerned, and get it in writing when you need to. Onwards and upwards!

 

Window shopping business services on-line

Comma butterfly June 2014

Comma butterfly (Photo credit: Jon Stow)

I don’t know about you, but I get a lot of new enquiries for my services via email. That is all very nice, but many of the potential new clients are located a long way from me. That does not matter in terms of the service they will get, which I aim to be the very best. The difficulty is that it is harder to establish a relationship to make the sale.

When someone contacts me via email, they can be somewhat vague about their requirements, which will lead me to ask for more information. I may or may not hear back from them, which leads me to the next point; I do not know how many other people or businesses they have contacted. Having got responses from a lot of people, they may only go back to a few, and those might be the businesses offering what appears to be the lowest price, without having qualified what they deliver for that price. I do not know if the person is seriously looking for help. Are they butterflies flitting from flower to flower?

In my case I am wary of quoting based on scant information. If others have quoted, that is fine, but I would rather not get the business than find that I am tied to an unprofitable quotation.

So how do I deal with the email enquiries? Well, I try to grade them. The best hopes for business and being genuine enquiries are the emails that start with my name. “Dear Jon”, “Dear Mr Stow” or just “Jon” are good signs, but not conclusive.

Looking at the content of the enquiry, does it have a lot of detail? Does it refer to a particular point or article on my website? Those would be good signs.

How is it signed off? Is there a “Kind regards”? Is it signed by first or given name only such as Sophie or Chris or Mohamed? More good signs.

On the other hand, does the email look like a copy-and-paste exercise? Does it not address me by name at all? Is it signed impersonally, e.g. Dr. F S Smith? Apologies to any Doctors F S Smith, incidentally.

The various pointers help me decide which of these enquirers are more likely to be interested in doing business because they are the ones with whom I can more easily establish a relationship. If I cannot meet new prospects face-to-face, it would certainly help to speak to them on the telephone, or ideally via Skype, because that normally is face-to-face.

The reality is that many on-line enquiries are a waste of time. My grading system saves me some of that time and I hope gains me more business. Wasn’t it so much easier when we gained nearly all our business through networking meetings and off-line relationships?

How do you weed out the window-shoppers, time-wasters and “copy-and-pasters” in your on-line sales enquiries?