Archives for August 2011

The Peter Principle and the newly unemployed

A rhino I met once

I recently asked a local government councillor if he could advise on a local issue. He was of no help whatever. Firstly he didn’t seem to understand the problem and secondly he wanted to pass the buck to someone else. Maybe he was having a bad day, though his emailed reply to me was barely coherent.

You know who this guy reminded me of? One of those people who work in large organizations and who have been promoted beyond their ability in accordance with the Peter Principle. This states that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. We can’t blame these people for their failures. They just can’t help it.

Of course undue promotion may not just place people beyond their technical ability. Often their actual technical ability may lead to promotion beyond their managerial ability. When I worked for a large firm of accountants there were managers and partners who were technically excellent but entirely incapable of looking after human beings. They didn’t understand at all how to relate to them, get the best out of them or manage their needs. They were insensitive or maybe had the skins of rhinoceroses.

Serious geeks like these people need to be left to get on with what they are good at and of course reward them properly. Not everyone is cut out to look after people or indeed to make management decisions; decisions which affect the future of a business.

I worry about those types who are coming out of employment rather sooner than they might have expected. Either they will be bored to death on their possibly reduced pensions with the current low annuity rates or they will feel impelled to go freelance but won’t actually have a clue how to talk to the people they need.

You cannot run a small business if you do not know how to deal with people. Will coaching help with this? Would someone who is not a people-person always realise their inadequacy in this area, or just blame everyone else for their failings? I don’t know the answer. Do you?

The blog post that never was

Since I started blogging in earnest (and do you realise that there are over 200 posts here at On Our Bikes?) I have found that in writing down my experiences I have helped my own business thinking. It has also often been good for me to let off a bit of steam. I was going to say it was therapeutic, but that is a bit of a grand word for a blog, isn’t it?

As I write this, over the last week certain on-line occurrences involving bloggers and social media people I like has got me going. I have seen spats and unpleasantness. I wrote a blog post about it because I was upset for certain parties and found myself believing other friends were wrong.

A sky to chill out under

The trouble was that after writing that post I realised that some who might read it would recognise themselves and would take offence. There has been quite enough pain already so I pulled the post before it was published. It has ended up “on the spike”.

Just the same, I do think that writing down my thoughts eased my stress and in rationalising the issues I have been able to put the upset behind me. I managed to chill out.

Do you write posts on your blog and then have second thoughts? Do you find that writing about an incident helps you, particularly when you have been upset? Have you ever published a post and then regretted it? What did you do?

What information should we share with our customers?

A lot of businesses are very secretive about how they work and how they deliver their product or service to the customer or client. I suppose they like to think they are protecting their expertise or intellectual property by not sharing the process. They must think that somehow the paying customer is going to steal their idea or their knowledge.

This mindset is bad for a couple of reasons. Firstly, sometimes what the customer says they want is not what they actually want, but they have not explained it very well. Secondly, customers, being people, change their minds about what they want and end up unhappy.

I believe that if we are open about what we do, there are many benefits, including:

  • People do get what they want and they understand what they are paying for.
  • They will be more willing to pay for more.
  • They will appreciate your expertise and be more likely to refer you to their friends.
  • They will not worry about delivery and the product during the time it takes for your business to do its work.

Because a customer understands your process doesn’t mean they are going to copy it and do the work for themselves. They probably wouldn’t have the skill. If what you are doing is that simple that they can do it, then it is likely to be of low value and you shouldn’t be doing it because it doesn’t make enough money. Concentrate on the higher value stuff and remember to sell on what it is worth to the customer, not on the cost of doing it to your business.

Having recently mentioned the fish and chip shop, I should now refer to one of our local Chinese takeaways. When you place an order in there, you can see the chefs cook the food. If you go on their slack day, which is Monday, they will immediately spring into action to cook whatever you have ordered. Seeing the food cooked gives you assurance that it is all freshly served, and indeed it provides entertainment far better than the obligatory TV screen. You know everything about the delivery of your product and feel engaged in the process.

I believe that is how we should all work. Our clients and customers are much happier if they know what we are doing for them, when we are doing it, and in certain businesses we should let them watch us in action. Do you appreciate an audience?

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Giving the bad news


Image by Jon Stow via Flickr

In my business one issue that crops up quite often is telling clients things they don’t want to hear. Not every business has that problem, but quite often I am called in to clear up other people’s mess. They have got themselves into the proverbial yukky stuff and I have to get them out and clean up.

Now cleaning up is what gives a great deal of value to my services, and of course I can charge accordingly. Often by doing this I am actually saving my clients a lot of money and like any cleaner or garbage collector I am doing work that others do not enjoy, even if it only involves metaphorical muck and not the real thing. Selling on value is not a problem.

The harder area of this issue is when clients come to me who do not realise quite what deep doo-doo they are in. I have to tell them what a mess they are in and get them into a mindset where they can understand it, or if you like, “smell” it. People don’t like being told they are in trouble because they can take it personally; even take it as an insult. That is a more difficult place from which to persuade them that they need to pay a fair fee to get out of it.

A fair fee is not just one which reflects the work involved, but also one which reflects the value in getting them out of it, which would be related firstly to the money I am saving them (which in my case is generally tax and penalties, or at the very least negotiation and a probable reduction in the penalties) and secondly the peace of mind  I am bringing them in removing the burden. They don’t know where to turn and I deal with the problem so that they don’t have to.

Whereas normal good selling reflects the satisfaction of a desire a customer has, often my clients really do need relief from the pain that many old-fashioned hard-sellers were out to persuade prospects they had. Unfortunately I often have to convince my prospects they have the symptoms before they will buy, and tell them the consequences if they don’t. I am quite good at that. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it.

Does your business have to deal with pain or are you a “blue sky” seller?

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Getting over telephone blues

Friendly telephone manner

You might have gathered from an earlier post that I had personal experience of running into trouble with an alleged rolling contract with the telecoms provider. I have now been advised that I have won my appeal to the OFTEL Ombudsman and the telephone company concerned has agreed to waive the penalty charge which they had sought to impose.

This just goes to show that persistence pays off if you stand up to these giants when they try to impose unfair charges, and especially when you have not agreed to their new contracts. You do have to put together your case well, though, and not to lose your temper when seemingly talking to people who are not listening.

In an act of generosity, I am not going to share with you the name of the telecoms company but will say that it is not BT.

Have you had this sort of trouble? What did you do?

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Poisonous cultures

A steel bedpan

Image via Wikipedia

I have already written about workplace cultures  and how they can lead to poor standards. These cultures are usually not management led, and management may not know. However if a culture is there for all to see, there is no excuse except cowardice (is that an excuse?) for not dealing with it.

I have elderly relatives, and sometimes they get sick or have accidents and end up in hospital. It depends which hospital they get taken to as to whether they are in good conditions or much worse conditions.

I am not going to rant about the British National Health Service, which is state funded from taxes and is mostly pretty good. I am mentioning this in case you are my reader in Madagascar and did not know this background. The point of this piece is going to be that you can have exactly the same resources and end up with a different result.

One relative ended up in a geriatric ward where summoning a member of staff by ringing a bell was almost futile. It was possible someone might turn up in fifteen minutes, which was rather too long for a senior person needing a bedpan or to be taken to the lavatory. The consequence of this delay was bound to be unfortunate.

My relation was left sitting in a chair in her hospital ward without her glasses, so she could not see what was going on, or read or do anything. She was left without her teeth so certainly couldn’t eat properly. The other patients seemed similarly abandoned.

Was this all due to staff shortages? There were plenty of nursing staff and support people hanging around near the desk when I visited, including the times when I went out to request a bedpan for my dear old lady. It still took another ten minutes for anyone to come. We have to conclude it was either staff indifference or “not my job”. Either way there seemed no excuse.

So, at another hospital thirty miles away as the crow flies, another older lady is in hospital after a fall. She is in a bright ward with cheerful attentive staff. She is very happy and says several times what good treatment she is having. She is asked if she is comfortable, whether she can reach her book, and whether she would like her individual TV on.

This elderly lady asks if she can go to the lavatory where she is taken instantly. The nurse asks her if she would like a wash while in the bathroom, and not only runs the water, but helps the lady to wash her back and other bits hard to reach. Yet here the staff are more bustling around. They seem more busy, but that is because they are doing their job, which is caring for people.

I don’t doubt that the clinical care in both hospitals is good. The support care is plainly very good in one hospital and downright poor in the other.

In such a situation the management on the failing hospital could not fail to be aware of the situation. It would be a simple question of observation when they turned up for an unscheduled or even scheduled visit to each ward. The only explanation is that they go along with the culture. They don’t want to make waves. They don’t want to upset the staff by suggesting they do better. The patients suffer when they are supposed to be getting well.

Imagine what would happen in a business like this. Of course it would fail. No management team could let this sort of culture go on, because it would cost them their jobs. The only reason such a situation could prevail in a hospital is because it is tax-funded. As long as they meet their budget there is no incentive to be better if the management and staff lack such compassion for their patients or any moral sense of responsibility.

I have seen businesses fail through lack of responsibility to the customers and ultimately it is through lack of responsibility for each other. We need to work together for the common good and not just go along with what we might get away with. How do you feel about this?

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Rare weekend off

Not so rare weekend off

Someone in my line of business tweeted the other day “I am having a rare weekend off. I hope the weather stays fine”. Well, I think the weather probably held up and delivered, but what a statement, or should I say admission?

Of course the world has changed. Because of technology, many people like me work partly or wholly from home, but we can work almost anywhere we can get on-line, which is actually really literally almost anywhere. Whether or not our work is that mobile, it doesn’t mean that we should work all the time. We need down-time with our families, and to pursue interests which put no pressure on us otherwise we are bound to get stale and perform less well. There are studies that support this and even that not taking a lunch break makes us less productive during the day.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and the same would apply to make Jill dull too.

Then again, consider the treadmill of having to work most weekends. What is likely to be wrong here? Probably the Tweeter likes to do everything himself. I guess that makes him truly self-employed in that he works like an employee rather than someone who runs a business. Anyway, he can’t be good at everything. He can’t enjoy all the work he does. Why can’t he subcontract the work he doesn’t like or isn’t good at and still make money on it?

Running a small independent business I can choose to work when I like, though I try to be accessible to clients at reasonable times, which do not include evenings and weekends except by prior arrangement. I can take time off when family members need to be taken for medical appointments. I can go on a midweek picnic, though not in mid-December. I have people to answer my telephone.

I have most weekends off. I take time off during the week. I work when it suits me, often early in the morning. I spend time with my wife. I go for walks. My business doesn’t run me. I run it and I have help. I don’t have all the answers, but I have some of them.

Do you have help, or are you a slave to yourself 24/7?


Our fish and chip shop

While we know that planning ahead is what we all should do, the reality is that many people don’t like thinking beyond the here and now. If they are having a good time, the future doesn’t matter – except it does.

I was in the queue at the fish and chip shop the other day (no lectures, please; we are allowed the occasional treat) when a young male drove his car down the street with his music system blaring so loudly the shop window shook. A fellow customer remarked “My wife is a nurse dealing with deaf people and she will be looking after him in twenty years time”.

We know that if we don’t market all the time, our business will run out of work, yet some only do it when business slacks off. There is an even worse sin…

I read in the local paper this week that a bus and coach company has gone out of business because their main customer (for which I read “only customer”) a local education authority has not renewed its contract and has gone elsewhere. The owner did not look old enough to retire, whatever age that might be, but was naturally feeling sorry for himself. Yet it seemed to me the business failure was all his fault.

  • The consequence of playing very loud music in your car and at home is that you WILL go deaf.
  • The consequence of relying on one customer or having a customer who comprises a large part of your business is that one day you will lose that customer and your business will very likely fail.
  • The consequence of not planning for the future of your business is that it WILL fail.

It’s quite simple. Why do so many people just not get it?

No Hiding Place

If you Google “No Hiding Place” you will find that it was the title of a police drama series in the UK way back in the black-and-white days.  I rather think my parents were quite keen on it. They used to talk about it when there was so much less TV to discuss than the hundreds of channels many of us have now and apparently it did try to add realism which had not been seen in police drama previously.

The expression sticks in my mind though. There is simply nothing we can’t find out within a very short time and we don’t have to own Encyclopaedia Britannica to find out anything we need to know.

The other day my wife and I had a concern that one of our cats was behaving oddly, but a quick on-line search established that there wouldn’t be a serious problem when we took her to the vet. Then I had a problem with my Android phone, but soon found the answer and restored it to full function with a few keystrokes (well they would have been keystrokes if it had actual keys). Instant questions get immediate answers.

Back in the days when No Hiding Place was popular on the TV small business owners had no support from Government and the only advisers they generally employed were their accountants who offered mostly a compliance process. There was no on-line resource, and if they wanted to know something they probably had to go to the library and hope their local one had books which were up to date. In other words, small business owners were largely on their own though they might have had some help from the local chamber of commerce members or known people in Round Table etc.. That was networking before it was called networking, but it was still limited just to the people they knew in the town or village. If their businesses failed they could make out they had an alibi that they didn’t know any better.

Now we have no such excuse. We have huge on-line search resources, but beyond that we have our networks on-line. We can find whatever help we need, or we are bound to be connected with someone who knows the person we need to help with our business. There are no more excuses, there is no lack of help, there are no alibis and no hiding place. Failure is much more avoidable. We must take responsibility to be successful because we alone are responsible. Aren’t we lucky?

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Stupid inconsiderate people

You come across people who don’t think about their fellow human beings all the time. There are those who play loud music in their gardens on sunny Sunday afternoons when their neighbours want to have a peaceful time and read. There are those who park their cars on double bends.

Sometimes people expect others to be considerate but make no attempt to consider others. The other day there was a young woman riding a horse nearby. She had a jacket with, written on the back “Young Horse. Please pass wide and slow”. Motorists were doing their best to be careful. Horses still have rights on our roads. Yet why was she riding a young inexperienced horse on a busy main road at eight in the morning? In the rush hour? With a queue of traffic backing up more than half a mile?

How many people was this young woman making late for work? How many work hours would be lost?

So we pick up customers or clients like this whom we end up not liking:

  • Those who want a great deal but don’t want to pay.
  • Those who agree a fee for a service or product but then ask for a lot more for nothing.
  • Those who don’t pay us promptly, like the one who told me she had been too busy to pay me.
  • Those who give us abuse; the worst sin.

We have to accept that most difficult clients need not remain clients. We need to ask them to leave us for our own peace of mind, for the good of our cash flow and so that we can earn more money giving a good service to our customers who appreciate us.

Never be afraid to sack a client. We deserve to be appreciated, don’t you think?