Archives for January 2011

Uncomfortable market positioning

The Waitrose store in Peterborough, Cambridges...
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Price wars

Writing the other day about supermarkets and what one in particular can teach us about comfort reminded me that our up-market supermarket in the UK, Waitrose, is now competing on price, or at any rate telling us that they are no more expensive than Tesco on a range of products. I think this is a big mistake though understandable in a time of austerity and a depressed economy.

Perceived quality

As many would know, Waitrose is the supermarket offshoot of the John Lewis Partnership, which is a chain of stores renowned for the quality of its goods and the quality of its services. I know a few people who swear by John Lewis and wouldn’t do their birthday or Christmas shopping anywhere else, or indeed buy their TV or dishwasher or pashmina scarf from any other shop.

Waitrose has always carried this ethos through to the supermarket environment. The Waitrose image is of quality and while customers always understood that they might pay more, that cachet of comfort has always ensured loyalty of customers who like to feel different. I hope the chain management doesn’t lose sight of this in their desire to compete with the big players in food retail. After all, a lot of people buy into image when they are shopping, otherwise Gucci wouldn’t be such a successful brand, and IPhones and Macs would be less popular given that there are cheaper quality smart phones and computers on the market which deliver the same services. Of course the loyal Apple following might see this as controversial, but I am complimenting Apple on their image, market positioning and closed exclusivity of software and apps management.

Know our minds

I believe we in business all need to know where our place is in the market, and indeed to work at our positioning. If we are providing a service we need to make sure it is distinct from and better than everyone else’s and in my view the last thing we want to do is be cheap.  We just need to be different and high quality as Waitrose has always been, and if they have any sense, will continue to be.

What do you think?

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Southern Comfort is what I’m selling

A view down the beer and wine aisle of a super...
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We are constantly assailed in the TV ad breaks by supermarkets essentially arguing and bickering with each other. “We are the cheapest on 500 products”, “we have these special deals on essential products”, “we will beat any other supermarket’s price” and so on.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. If we go to one or other of the supermarkets, aside from the different signage and logos they mostly seem much the same. We are bathed in bright fluorescent lighting, and while in the bigger shops the aisles are wider, we still seem crowded in by piles of food and goods stacked high. The experience is pretty much the same and not the best either.

Being different

Well, it’s nearly always the same anyway. We have a new Co-Op which has taken over many Somerfield stores including ours. They have refurbished the shop and have done a great job. Given there is no more space and they have wider aisles, they probably carry less variety of stock. They have more diffused less harsh lighting and even the signage seems less in our faces.

Our new shop gives more of a feeling of comfort and peace. It may be a supermarket version of feng shui for all I know, but it works. It is almost a pleasure to go shopping for our essentials.

Comfort zone

In my business, I believe what I sell is peace of mind, and I try to deliver it in the most comfortable way. I add-on little extras that don’t cost me anything but show that I care, which I do. I don’t give away what my business could charge for, and no business should. Mostly the extras comprise making suggestions about how my clients might source services I do not provide, such as web hosting or printing. I get to refer my friends but at the same time I am providing added value. People appreciate the thought and they will remember to refer business to those that help them.

Whatever the business we are in, whether selling groceries like the local Co-op or providing a service of any sort, that comfortable experience provides added value. Do you deliver Southern or even Northern Comfort?

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Verbal contracts and honour

Artist contract XYNN (excerpt)
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In terms of gathering in new clients, I cannot call myself a hard-nosed salesman, but I do sell on the value of my business offerings. Generally my approach is soft-selling, letting the prospect lead herself to make the decision. I generally think of my “close” rate at better than 90%, but of course that is not boasting. All my prospects have already qualified themselves by finding me through on-line and old-fashioned media or by word-of-mouth. When I meet them they already know they want me and all we have to decide is the price. When we have agreed this that’s is the end of the sales process. The next stage is delivery and my delivery of peace of mind for the client. At least that’s the theory.

Having seen the client, it is necessary to send the client an engagement letter or contract. The purpose of this is to ensure that we are clear on our respective responsibilities, and the client knows what she is getting for the fee she has agreed, and what she is not getting; in other words, what services are extra. The letter has more general legal stuff but essentially it is all about what she is buying and how much it will cost her for her peace of mind.

Honour bound

When I started work in the City it was an important tenet that a gentleman’s word was his bond. So was a lady’s. If we shook hands on a deal it was sealed. The paperwork was a formality. That was the way it always was. Just recently I have noticed a trend to renege on verbal agreements, and often not always in a straightforward way; not delivering the papers, or just going missing.

What to do about this?

Sam Goldwyn said “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” In reality verbal contracts are seldom enforceable and certainly if we have not yet delivered we do not wish an unwilling client to pay up for services or goods he has decided he doesn’t want.

We are familiar with the expression “caveat emptor”: let the buyer beware. In a difficult environment we must also think “caveat venditor”, let the seller beware. We must be absolutely certain the prospect has signed on the dotted line and is happy about the deal. It will save a lot of heartache.

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Measuring web influence?

Twitter logo initial
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When some people talk about their personal relationships, we want to cry out “Too much information” but when on-line that’s what we get. It is so difficult to filter out the noise. We are constantly being urged by various web pundits and bloggers to follow certain paths. Many of these opinions may be the right ones. We have to be selective because otherwise the noise will drown out all the information we could use.


It is the same with different web tools and social media sites. There are just too many to give the time to all at once. I avoid most of the invitations I get to join new social networks and try to ascertain those that are most likely to be useful. I will dive properly into Quora and BranchOut when I have time, which for a tax practitioner certainly is not in January, no matter how I manage my time and outsource.

However, of all the tools we do use, how do we know how much on-line influence we have? We can use sites which purport to measure influence, such as Klout, but they are very crude. My Klout score as I write is 46, which according to Klout is pretty decent. “Jon Stow is a Specialist

You may not be a celebrity, but within your area of expertise your opinion is second to none. Your content is likely focused around a specific topic or industry with a focused, highly-engaged audience.”

All well and good, but I think a site such as Klout simply measures how much noise one makes. I have been very active on Twitter and Facebook in particular the last couple of weeks (as I write) but noise isn’t influence. Some people might be covering their ears as far as my noise is concerned.

How does it feel?

The only real measure of influence as far as I am concerned is the number of website and blog hits I see, the comments on the blogs and the number of conversations or (more critically) responses I have to initiate conversations on other people’s blogs, my blogs and Twitter. These are climbing steadily while my Klout score has varied between 18 and 51.

In the end social media influence must be not how other people measure it but how it feels. Pain and pleasure are subjective feelings influenced usually by multiple factors. One’s on-line influence may be measured by clinical factors such as website and blog hits, but the manifestation is the number of sales we are making through our internet influence. I am pleased to say that these are climbing well from almost nothing a couple of years ago, but on this receiving end, subjective personal measuring of new business is really the only way I can truly know. It’s as subjective as just knowing whether or not we are happy. I certainly am, but definitely not complacent. What do you think?

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How can we hang on to a dream?

How can we hang on to a dream
How can it be the way it seems
How can we hang on to a dream

Musical themes

Songs help me relax and think and sometimes a line or a couplet will set me thinking more as you may have noticed recently. To have dreams in the sense of hopes and plans is something we all have and especially in business. We have objectives and targets and aspirations as to where we want to be in a year’s time, or five years or ten years.

The fact is that none of these things will happen if we do not have a detailed road map as to how to achieve it. Just working hard doesn’t necessarily do it. In fact the harder we work with our heads down, the less we plan, because we don’t have time. We need to work hard with clear vision and to have people or systems working for us so that we have time to think. Those people and systems are part of how we get what we want.

Our people

Of course the people who do work for us, whether employees or subcontractors also have their aspirations so we need to help them with theirs and they will help us with ours too. The more they like us, the more they will want to help us. That is the easiest way of managing people, the most-laid back, and as I have always found, the most effective. We will have a united team without having thought in terms of assembling one.


A new year is when people traditionally think about turning over new leaves and having new plans. I think we should always be reviewing and adjusting our strategies to meet our objectives, and of course having fun so that we can hang onto our dreams.

Oh, yes, here’s the song which is actually about lost love.


Don’t make promises that you can’t keep

Tim Hardin sang:

“It seems the songs we’re singing
Are all about tomorrow
Tunes of promises you can’t keep”

“You promised me things that I need
But then the things behind it took away the chance forever
You’re telling me lies in your sleep “

It’s easy to promise

In our rush to please our clients we must be careful not to over-promise. We all want to do our best but sometimes time scales cannot be met. Clients will push but if we fail the consequences will be far worse than if we deliver in our own best time. Mistakes will be made. Things will go wrong. Our reputation will be damaged.

Of course if ours is not the best business to undertake an assignment because we do not have the skill, resources or staff then we need to have the courage to pass the work on by making a suitable recommendation of another supplier.


In business it is no good being a shrinking violet, and we must have the courage to say what we cannot do as well as what we can. We will gain respect by connecting the clients we cannot handle with those who can. We will often get business back from those referred. Over-promising is dangerous and shows disrespect to our clients. Do you not agree?

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Professional arrogance

Good customer experience

Having recently been on the wrong end of a less-than-helpful experience dealing with a professional in another field, it made me think about the traps we can all fall into when dealing with our clients and customers.

Keeping our eyes on the ball

We all have our particular areas of expertise. We have worked hard to know what we do and to be in able to provide the service our customers look for. Sometimes it may be that their expectation is not met, even though we think we have done what we were asked. There is sometimes a difference between giving people what we understood they asked for and what they were expecting in terms of a customer experience. There may be a danger that they will pay us what we asked because they cannot deny we delivered something. That something may not quite be what they were expecting and they will not come to us again when they have a need. Did we play the ball they bowled or some other ball we saw in our mind’s eye?

I may have been guilty in my long-gone corporate days. Did we deliver what the client wanted of our team or was I too eager to sell what we had which appeared to fit their need?. Did I ask if they were happy? Was I so arrogant as to assume that they were without asking?

Listen before, and listen afterwards

More than ever, and even if we are running a successful business in this difficult market, we need to listen to our customer. Do we understand what they want? Can we deliver it? After we have done what we thought they asked for, have we asked them if they are happy. Do they need an extra tweak to what they have bought from us? Is it what they wanted?

Many Happy Returns

It is only by listening to our customers from start to finish that we can be sure they are happy and will come back to us. With any luck they will give us an unsolicited testimonial, and they are the best sort. What do you think?


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Time wasting and fog

Front fog lights of Ford Focus Mk I.
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I believe we should always be at least fine-tuning our business models and especially our marketing of course. Whether the New Year is the time for a good clear-out or the business should have a good spring-clean it is necessary sometimes to think about what we are doing and especially what works for us.

Misty Nights

As I write this I am thinking about misty nights which have encouraged many car drivers to switch on their fog lamps. A few wisps should be hardly enough to make the fog lights necessary. Indeed they are no help at all unless the weather is very foggy, and actually can be dangerous to others dazzled by the unnecessary brightness. They are at best a distraction. I can’t remember when I last deemed it necessary to switch on my fog lights in anger.

Of course there are some drivers who think that they need fog lights on crystal-clear nights on the basis that they can say “Hey, I’m brighter than you”. We all know that they are not so bright as they think they are.


Many people allow themselves similar distractions from the real purpose of their business. They advertise in Yellow Pages even though there is no evidence that they get any return on investment. They may pay for expensive premises they don’t need. These are mere fripperies in business terms. They may not have reviewed their utilities or their telephone contracts and be paying more than they could. They may be paying for a whole raft of services which add nothing to their business offering and detract from the most important aspect; the bottom line. They may offer some products or services which are not much in demand so have a higher underlying cost and therefore a lower profit margin.

The road is clear

It is not failure to regroup, to review costs, or to stop selling something that makes no money. It is a positive step to look at what can be done to increase profit and be more successful.

If your business fog lights are on and you don’t need them, you know where the switch is, don’t you? You will be able to concentrate better on the important stuff and see better where you are going.

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Guarding our precious reputations

I guess we can all think we know better than to say unwise things which can get us into trouble, but whether we are on-line or out in company, or even on the telephone we have to be so careful what we say.

Before Christmas we had the Vince Cable affair known on Twitter as #cablegate. Actually, without getting political, I quite like the man from the general impression he gives and his knowledge on a number of important issues, plus of course the way he is able to put his case. (For the sake of balance I could name a number of people from all three main political parties for whom I have respect).

Mr Cable made some very unguarded comments to some undercover reporters and whether you think he was duped by their pretending to be constituents of his, nevertheless, genuine constituents could have reported his remarks to the press. Had the Coalition not been so fragile I feel he would have had to resign rather than suffer the humiliation of having responsibilities taken from him. To suggest to the reporters that he had prejudged a matter on which he was the final arbiter without listening to recommendations gave an impression (no doubt a wrong one) of a distinct lack of integrity.

In the end when we speak in a public arena we must guard our words carefully. We must be careful what we say to our fellow networkers. We must be careful what we say to our colleagues. We must be careful what we say on-line. A careless word can give a totally wrong impression of what we are like, especially if it is just bravado and vanity, and few would realise it is not what we really believe. A clumsy retort can damage our businesses and our reputations very badly.

I feel sorry for Mr Cable. Do you? I think that there but for fortune go you or I. Which last sentence reminds me of a song…


Related posts:

Online reputations again

Do not speak ill of the dead or the living

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