Archives for September 2011

And then the bad news

Southend Pier: expensive to park near

After the excitement of telling you about the good news of the revival of our local airport, I am afraid there are some amongst our local population who either resistant to change or just don’t understand the needs of local business.

I can of course understand the concerns of local residents that the airport might give rise to noisy aircraft overhead, but I think we can be confident that the larger planes will be relatively quiet (and I speak as a resident who lives under the “circuit” in the “downwind” area). It is likely and understandable that the retired population will wish for a peaceful time and I think they will continue to have it, with the advantage of getting to Malaga or Faro with their beach gear and golf clubs a whole lot more easily.

I do not like to carp about local authorities but Southend just about takes the biscuit in not helping its local shops and restaurants. Their parking tariffs brought in this year mean that in some car parks where one could have parked in the evenings and overnight for £1, one could now end up paying £10, a 900% increase. This is particularly unhelpful to the local caterers and will drive people away from entertainment in Southend. The daytime charges already encourage people to shop at out-of-town supermarkets and the big shopping centres at Lakeside and Bluewater so it is smaller businesses that suffer.

I am not writing this to beat local authorities over the head with a stick. It is just short-sighted thinking to try to stop a gap in their budget by increasing parking charges. Surely reducing them would encourage greater capacity and more revenue? This is the lesson we learn with all taxation (and parking charges are taxes); the lower the rate, the higher the take.

Southend Council is not directly responsible for the airport, which is actually in Rochford District. Give Rochford some credit. Rochford parking is cheaper but not cheap enough, but they seem to care more about local business and indeed encourage us to “shop local” with a positive campaign. Hooray for Rochford!

Local government needs to help small business, because small business gives back to the local community. We don’t expect business to be handed to us on a plate. There is no substitute for planning and getting our hands dirty. We just don’t need thoughtless outside interference, do we? Do you get similar problems where you live?


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First the good news!

aerial photo of runway at Southend Airport, lo...

Image via Wikipedia

I went to a very informative and enjoyable business breakfast meeting the other day. The purpose of the event was to update local business owners and other interested parties on the development of Southend Airport or London Southend Airport as the owners like to call it. I like to call it “The Airfield” but that is another story.

In past years the airport had declined considerably in use and had been badly neglected. In the Sixties it was actually the third busiest airport in the UK, incredible as it may seem, with frequent flights especially to Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. You could actually take your car on the aircraft with British Air Ferries even into the Seventies. I am not sure when all this stopped. Maybe a local historian could tell me. Anyway, the airfield did not move with the times, and certainly when I spent a lot of time hanging around there it was mostly the domain of the flying clubs. Therefore it was not making much money or contributing to the local economy to the extent it could have been.

Nearly three years ago, the airport was purchased by Stobart Group. They have embarked on extensive redevelopment, have built and staff a railway station on the line which passes along the airport perimeter, and which is a very short walk from the new airport terminal.

The airport managing director addressed our breakfast meeting and briefed us on the Company’s plans. EasyJet will base three aircraft at Southend from April 2012 (A319s if you are interested). They will have 70 flights a week (easyJet aircraft don’t sit on the ground for long) and we can fly to Barcelona, Malaga, Faro and seven other European destinations. There are also flights to Galway and Waterford already flown by Aer Arann.

The runway is being extended, environmental concerns in the immediate vicinity have been addressed, and the extra runway length means that although larger, the passenger aircraft that can now operate will be quieter than those that can use the present “one mile” runway. If you are interested, the runway as seen in the above photo is being extended towards the camera viewpoint so coming from where we are looking, aircraft will be able to land on “Zero-Six” fractionally earlier.

I cannot speak for all the local residents, but I think the new airport will be great for business in the Southend area. It will bring in more jobs, easyJet will need to base staff in the area, and there will be other services on-site such as catering, security and cleaning which will provide local employment.

One upside which the airport already had was the 1300 people employed in the aviation related businesses around the perimeter, which are involved in aircraft maintenance and refurbishment. In fact easyJet have been able to fly in unladen aircraft for some years to be re-fitted. When they acquired BA’s budget airline Go, much of the re-painting and branding was done at Southend. Now Southend will be welcoming their planes with full compliments of passengers.

Seventy per cent of passengers will arrive by rail. There will be no strain on existing roads and despite what Eddie Stobart is famous for, there will be little in the way of freight passing through Southend

So :

  • More jobs for the local population
  • More people coming in to spend their money
  • Far sighted outside investors and a local authority which shares the vision.

I am delighted the airport is going to be a hub for local small business and for residents to enjoy. All this has happened in very difficult times for the economy and we can once again see that success in business comes because people invest time, money and creativity. Doing nothing is not an option, because that is a recipe for failure, isn’t it?

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Customer service is what makes us different


More than just the figures


Our prospects need to differentiate between a huge number of offerings. How do they know to choose us? For small businesses it is often going to be through recommendation; referrals. How do we get those referrals? It can only be by delivering great service and by perceived as being that bit better than the rest. We need to give our customers a nice warm feeling inside.

The wrong way

Recently there has been a very amusing thread on an accountancy forum where the querist has apparently been reluctant to pick up the clients’ books and records or to deliver them back. He thinks it is an expensive exercise to do that and wants to charge the clients for doing it.

What a strange attitude! Surely a client would look forward to a visit? It would make her or him feel that they matter to the accountant and that the accountant is interested in them. They may have questions they wish to ask.

At the same time the accountant will gain more background to the business that may be relevant in understanding the client and preparing the accounts. There may be an opportunity to sell more services. If the client has that nice warm feeling they will be happy to pay for a good service. If they just get their accounts prepared on a production line they will get price sensitive and shop around for the cheapest option. Alternatively they will go to someone else who will give them that nice warm feeling. We need to have a relationship with those who matter to our businesses, and they are the people who provide our income.


Of course no matter what we do, things may go wrong, but it is how we then deal with them that makes all the difference. Accidents will happen. We may have to swallow our pride or suppress our emotions.

Play the ball, not the person

I do a little customer service work for one of my clients. Recently they had a complaint from a customer about something which had gone wrong, and really it was one of those accidents. My client could not have prevented it but it was within our power to fix it. By “our” I mean as in my client and me acting on my client’s behalf.

The strange thing was that I had been on the wrong end of some very bad customer service meted out by this individual on behalf of her large corporate employer. Nevertheless I was “all sweetness and light” and dealt with the problem. I wrote to her and advised her. I asked her to let me know if there was anything else I could do. She did not thank me or even reply, but I guess that was no surprise. We do have to stay professional and keep our emotions out of it.

What we do for our customers and clients should give them a warm and fuzzy feeling and give them reason to recommend us. The value of what we provide is our USP, isn’t it?

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Running your business the right way








Most of us are very serious about our businesses. Many people work very hard but do not use their time well. It is so easy to get involved in matters which don’t make money.

  • Some people try to do all the admin themselves; all that form filling on-line and off-line.
  • Some people using marketing methods which experience should tell them isn’t working, but other people still do it.
  • Some people offer the same product or service as everyone else in their line, and wonder why they never increase their market share.

It’s just like those people in the gym who waste their time or do exercises which address their fitness needs.

In a small business:

  • You have to be different.
  • You have to be memorable
  • You need to show your personality or personal brand because your customers buy you.
  • You have to stop wasting your time.

I am a business fitness trainer. It ‘s a great advantage to have someone from outside looking in. A mentor, an extra brain, someone who will get their hands dirty on what needs to be done and who can work alongside you when you need it.

Can you count on help and advice when you need it? It’s all very well ploughing your own furrow, but sometimes you need someone to tell you that you are on the straight and narrow. Who do you ask?

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Playing at business

I don’t think I am unique in believing that I should take seriously every activity which I undertake. This is whether I do it for fun or for money. I don’t pretend to be an expert in my hobbies. I am going back to photography, which was always one of my favourite activities, and I intend go “retro” too in using my old cameras with those things you put in them called films. Remember those? But I have to be serious about this otherwise I am not going to get results, or not the results I want.

Most people go to the gym to get fit or stay fit. Most people work hard too, whatever age or physical condition they are in. Some people don’t go to the gym to be fit, though. They go for the social aspect. That is a need for many of course, and it’s fine as long as they understand that is why they are going.

Some gym customers think they are going to the gym to be fit, but actually don’t do anything. They may look nice in their latest gear (there is a fashion aspect to gym-frequenting, at least for some) but if you spend most of the time lying on an exercise mat with your friend texting on your phone and sharing photos, you are not going to achieve much. You are going through the motions by going to the gym, but you aren’t doing anything to achieve your object if that object is fitness.

Some people play at business.  Being in business is serious, though. We need to make money. You need to make money. That’s the point. It’s not something you can pick up and drop.

It is not always easy to keep focus. To keep our eye to the ball. That is to be the most efficient in doing what we do in the best way we can.

I enjoy helping clients see past the distractions to making their businesses work better and improving their profits.

Do you get distracted, or are you the fittest person in the business gym? How do you stay focussed?

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Don’t compare

No one can have missed the incessant TV adverts for car insurance and car insurance comparison websites. They are nearly all very annoying and I think insult my intelligence (no snide comments, please).

Discounting the one-in-twelve of British motorists who go uninsured and therefore have no interest in any car insurance, the advertisers are all competing just for market share. Apart from the occasional special offer for new customers, none of them claims to be cheaper. All they are really offering is a tool or means to find cheaper insurance, but essentially they are all offering the same service. It is not about being better or giving the customer more satisfaction. They are trying to get an idea stuck in the viewer’s mind. That idea is not insurance but a ghastly confused cartoon character or an irritating unfunny faux-opera singer or Russian immigrant animal from the Kalahari. The latter is the only theme I ever liked and that has palled by now.

The same premise of just advertising to get a share of a fixed or static market also applies to feminine hygiene products and it used to apply to cigarette advertising when that was allowed. In other words such things are either needed by a section of the population or in the case of cigarettes the target was those who didn’t need them but couldn’t give up.

I accept that there is a measure of personal choice in a way of doing things in the same way that I prefer a particular type of toothbrush. Others might make a different choice. In the end, though, all that is on offer is a mass of relatively indistinguishable products.

Small business owners cannot compete with large suppliers. Why should we? Large suppliers cannot give personal service. They cannot go the extra mile. They cannot think about individual customers or cater for their needs. They cannot tailor the service to the customer.

You and I don’t need to compete with our large competitors. We don’t need to compete with each other because what we are doing is selling ourselves with personal branding. My clients buy me. They don’t buy a cheaper service. That is not what I am selling.

I sell an individual service specific to my clients or customers. That’s what you do too. Insurance comparison websites are really all the same. We are really all different. That’s our advantage, isn’t it?


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Commuting a life sentence Part 2

All our yesterdays

Empty Rails - Jon Stow

It is almost ten years since I was an employee with a large firm, and at the time they were just thinking about the concept of hot-desking. I must admit I did not like the thought of not having my own space in the office, and having to scramble for one when I got to work.

I believe that we do need our own little workspace or territory and it needs to be a certain size. In my last job, the desks were so crammed together we could hardly move, and they had tried to alleviate the problem by having partitions around four feet high. I felt really hemmed in and uncomfortable in that environment. I was adequately compensated in financial terms up to the point I was included in their indiscriminate staff cuts, but I cannot say that the office environment was pleasant or conducive to allowing concentration on quite technical matters.

Behind the times

Hot-desking twenty years after the concept was thought of seems out-dated, but some of the big City corporates seem to think it is a really good idea, even for their senior staff. I would think it would be a real downer for morale because people are by nature territorial. Of course the idea is to save office space since not all office workers will be in at the same time. I think it could be costly in terms of production due to disaffection of the employees.

Well, you might argue, in the modern age we can work anywhere we wish. That is true in a sense. I take my netbook out and about and I have worked in cafes and hospital waiting rooms in the last few months. It is fine to work on the fly, but I have my own office back at base. Hot-desker employees do not have that refuge or nest to return to.

There is a problem in thinking with senior management, and especially those worried about security. We know that hackers can get into most systems eventually, but surely security could be good enough to allow most office-types to operate from their homes? That way they could have their own territory, feel less oppressed when they did need to go into the office to hot-desk, and they could save on their commuting costs. Need a meeting? We have VOIP and video conferencing. Have they seen the adverts?

Fat controllers

The problem is in management-think. There are many who do not trust even their most senior staff and best workers to apply themselves when out of sight of their boss. This reminds me of the old Bristow cartoons by Frank Dickens which ran for many years in the London Evening Standard. Bristow the buying clerk had a fearsome boss called Fudge who used to tower over Bristow and yell “Get on with your work”. It is precisely that attitude of control-freakery which still seems to reign and which is holding big business back, and requiring unnecessary commuting.

Employees work better when they are trusted and respect their managers. As long as there is good communication there should be no problem. I would have thought that providing more facilities for employees to work from home would more than satisfy the cost-cutting requirements without making the employees uncomfortable as they will be with a daily fight for a “nice” desk in the office.

Goodbye to All That

It might take ten or twenty years, but I believe the days of the daily commute for the majority of office workers are numbered. It is time that big corporates realized what we small business people already know: working from home or from your own chosen office or workspace makes you a lot happier, and also more efficient. How do you see this?

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Commuting a life sentence?

The Daily Commute - Jon Stow

Here in the UK there was news recently that commuter rail fares may rise by 8% in January 2012 at a time when the economy is struggling and fuel (petrol / gas) prices are very high. We are told that more people have been travelling by rail, and no doubt that is in part because of the cost of motoring, but we all know there are consequences when no one bothers about joined up planning. You really have to plan ahead.

I commuted into London for quite a few years and never enjoyed the experience. There was a feeling of uncertainty because the service was unreliable. Unfortunately it still is, with equipment failures always liable to cause chaos. It only takes one breakdown to have serious knock-on effects. If you have to be in a certain place at a certain time, you do not need the stress of worrying whether you will get there, especially if you have arranged a meeting.

Price hikes and value

My feeling is that actually such a sharp rise will be costly to the rail network. The extra money will not go into rail investment but to reduce the Government subsidy. Customers will need to pay more and way above inflation but out of a smaller amount of disposable income. And they will get no better service for their money.

The big advantage of rail over road is that it is an extremely energy-efficient way of moving people around; vastly better than having them drive. Another big plus is that if enough seats are provided, travellers are able to use the time either for reading their newspaper, book or Kindle, but yes, actually to work. None of that is available to a car driver.

Just the same, people always look at price over value unless positively persuaded otherwise. As we who sell know, prospects have to think about the experience to buy value, and no one is selling that value to commuters.


Another problem is that with the advance of technology, there really is no logic to squeeze customers who may in the next decade no longer needed to commute. We on-line business people already use conference facilities which don’t involve our leaving our offices or homes in order to talk to our colleagues, business friends and customers. Even for big business it won’t be necessary to have all the workers on-site in service and financial industries, which are the ones who have the majority of rail commuters. Rail customers will have choices and they may stop choosing rail.

Short-term thinking is costly

The short-term short-sighted policy of squeezing a market which is likely to go away as a result doesn’t make sense. Railways will remain a very efficient way of moving goods, but they are currently also a very efficient way of moving people. As in the tax world, the more people have to pay, the more the revenue will fall and the rail companies will not be paying tax if they have no profit. It all seems rather counter-productive and rather damaging. It doesn’t send a good message about saving energy which is necessary with dwindling carbon fuel resources.

Delivering value

You and I know that we need to deliver value to our customers or clients. We have to convince them that they are getting great value and we have to deliver that value. We can’t just put up our prices blaming the costs of our overheads. I wish the Civil Service advisers to Government understood that, but they have never been in business, have they?

Do you rely on the rail network? How do you feel about this? Is it a life sentence despite the cost?


The Frank Sinatra guide to running a small business

Frank Sinatra 1973

Image via Wikipedia

The local councillor who couldn’t help me might have been a local version of one of those politicians who think it is sufficient to reach high office and do not have a vision or a plan to do anything when they get there.

Perhaps I am being unkind, but I could list you three British Prime Ministers in office in the last fifty years who thought being Prime Minister was in itself sufficient for their egos, and another three who really thought they could change things for the better. I am not going to list these PMs because I do not wish for a political debate, but they are not all on the same side of the political fence. We have had some who just liked being PM, and others who tried to get on with what they believed they should be doing.

I have been working with small businesses in one way or another throughout what one might grandly call my career, and until the last recession it was probably only the seriously entrepreneurial types who started new businesses. There were others who inherited the family business of course.

Going back a few years, I came across people who had built vast empires from nothing or from cheekily borrowing large amounts of money on a promise or on conviction which they had conveyed to the lender. So I knew people who started engineering businesses with almost no money, and aristocrats who had inherited money but really knew how to run a hands-on business themselves. There is a certain talent needed whatever your background, which is to think on your feet and to know about people. It is not easily taught, but can be learned.

People these days often try to start businesses because they cannot get a job and need some income, but it takes a bit more than that to make it work.

So, going back to the Prime Ministers, it is not sufficient to be in charge of a business. Just having one is not enough, because unless it is actively managed, it will fail as the three PMs failed their country. To be in business is to do because if you don’t do, you won’t be in business. It’s the truth, and many who think it is enough to put up a sign (or a website) will fail.

Kurt Vonnegut (great for good quotes) joked

“To be is to do”–Socrates.
“To do is to be”– Sartre.
“Do be do be do”–Frank Sinatra.

To be in business we need to do and keep doing it. Don’t we?


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