Archives for October 2011

Keeping up with the game – the fear factor

The best businesses adapt to change

The last figures I saw indicated that 80% of people in the UK had access to or used computers. That leaves 20% who don’t. The figures are pretty much the same in the US.

I guess that doesn’t mean that everyone is on-line all the time. It doesn’t mean that lots of people spend lots of time in front of a screen. Of course many use their smartphones, many spend hours a day on Facebook and many are gamers without another life.

I guess there are an awful lot who do not want to get under the skin of their technology and especially the social media side. Strangely in this category there are the moderate technophobes who use the interweb because they think that they have to, and the techno-geeks who are so paranoid about internet security that they never use social media at all. I guess both these categories are mainly over thirty now, because the kids are weaned on computer technology.

I meet quite a lot of people in business for themselves who do not embrace on-line stuff. They may have their email account with AOL because everyone else does, but that is far as it goes. I know firms of accountants who do not even have a website. Don’t they understand that if business is drying up, it is because they are not being found? It is not because they are less visible. It is because everyone else is more visible and they are lost in the noise.

The trouble is that the technophobes are probably afraid to try anything new in their businesses, whether it is marketing mailshots or networking. They are against change, but too often if businesses do not adapt to change they fail; even the oldest-established and that is because their customers and their potential market have changed.

We all need new ideas. If we haven’t thought of any good ones ourselves then we should ask for help.

It is just a question of getting over the fear of trying something new. If my Dad, in his late eighties, can do the supermarket shopping order on-line and get his Christmas shopping from other on-line stores, surely any business owner can try a new strategy? Don’t be afraid!

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Running your business in the dark

Too close to see the context?

There is a lot to be said for ploughing (plowing) your own furrow in business. Many great and successful business people have been famous for doing that, whether we are talking about Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett.

Do you think, though that they achieved greatness all on their own? Well of course they didn’t. They knew when they needed help. They bought in the support and services they needed, manufacturing bases in other countries and advisers who knew where to look. They wouldn’t have pretended to themselves that they knew everything.

Sometimes we need help. Often we know just what we want. At other times it is useful to have an outsider in to look at what we are doing and advise us because we are just too close to see our issues in context. Now and again we just need to get practical support and let someone else manage a part of the business on a temporary or even semi-permanent basis.

I help other businesses as you know. I also ask for help myself and currently have two people involved in projects quite apart from the work I sub-contract, so you see I do take my own advice.

Seeing the bigger picture

There is a natural tendency for some small business people to think they are saving money by doing everything themselves. Actually unless they are perfect all-rounders (and who is?) they will save money and make money by buying in the support they need. Sometimes it is easier to ask someone who is a few steps back from your business to tell you what they see.

Don’t you agree?

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Customer service – passing with flying colours


Gatwick South Terminal international arrivals ...

Photo by Dbx54

Good News Story 1

Last May we were flying back from Tampa to Gatwick. In the latter part of the flight my wife, Gloria, began to feel rather unwell and breathless. She was put on oxygen and looked after very well by the cabin crew for the remainder of the flight and whisked off by the paramedics to hospital in Redhill.

The airline’s care was exemplary, so well done and thanks to Vanessa Redman and her fellow cabin staff from British Airways. In fact, yes, well done, British Airways.

The paramedics crew was new to the airport. They left for the hospital so quickly that they quite forgot me and left me behind. What to do?

I was escorted from the plane initially by a British Airways representative and was handed over to a Gatwick staff person, a very nice lady. She led me quickly through immigration / Passport Control (well, it was about a three-quarter of a mile trip), and arranged with the airline that they should collect our luggage from the carousel and deliver it home. She then took me through Customs, explaining what had happened and then guided me to the taxi area. She made sure I was in the taxi I had already ordered, and that I was on my way to the hospital.

At the hospital my wife was feeling much better and was anxious to be discharged, which she was after a couple of hours. Credit due here to East Surrey Hospital. I am pleased to say Gloria has been thoroughly checked out and has not had any similar problems since.

So,what a great service both from British Airways and from the Gatwick ground staff!

Good News Story 2

Beauport Bay, Jersey, with St Brelade in the distance.

Gloria and I were married in Jersey and 12th October is our wedding anniversary. This year it was our tenth, and we had decided to return to the scene of the happy event (no, definitely not the scene of the crime). This meant another visit to Gatwick and this time a budget airline, Flybe. When we arrived we found that they had caught us out with one of their rules about baggage and we ended up paying them more. I was annoyed, mostly with myself, for not managing to stay within Flybe’s rules.

I am not rude to staff, but seeing that I was a bit cross, I have to say that the Flybe lady on the desk handled herself very well and in a friendly manner. I am sure that she has experience of very irate customers, but she came out with full credit as well as with our money of course.

My wife needed assistance to get to the gate for the flight and was wheeled by a Gatwick staff lady, who was very pleasant and chatty.

The Flybe cabin crew were very helpful throughout.

Upon our return to Gatwick after a very pleasant interlude in Jersey, we again requested assistance for my wife. We were both taken on an electric buggy from the arrival gate through to the baggage hall, where our airport escort / driver grabbed our case. He then drove us through Customs and all the way to the Long Stay Car Park bus stop, and all in about fifteen minutes from getting off the plane.

In fact the service by the Gatwick staff once again could not have been bettered.

Happy Endings

Mostly when you see articles and posts about customer service on-line, it will be about things that have gone wrong; about failures, rudeness and rip-offs. It is human nature to complain and find fault. I can be guilty of it myself and I could talk about a little local difficulty with car hire in Jersey. But I won’t.

Really I want to celebrate that airlines such as British Airways and Flybe are capable of great service with properly trained and thoroughly nice staff, and that a vast airport such as Gatwick can be so supportive in getting us to and from our destinations safe and sound.

Good customer service is not so interesting as the poor sort of service we can grumble about because we should expect good service. Great customer service deserves to be shouted from the roof tops.

Customer service done properly can get our names in lights and get us great referrals. You won’t find me criticising the airlines or the airport any time soon. Rather I would recommend using them. Do you have good stories to tell about airports and airlines?

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Franchising, redundancy money and elephant traps

The offerings

Elephant avoiding the trap. Photo by Jon Stow

If we have endured the shock of redundancy there is often a feeling that we must move on as soon as we can. Many older people in that position, by which I mean thirty-five upwards, may well have a decent pay-off of cash. I am not talking hundreds of thousands, but maybe £30 or 40K. That is often the amount of money asked to buy into a franchise.

There are some great franchises about, whether we are talking about fast food or unblocking drains. There are established brands and there are tried and tested formulae. If a model works well in one area, it may well work well in another similar location. If we buy in, we know exactly what we are getting.

The top view

I have advised clients on setting up franchises. Especially in the good times they are a great way of expanding a business without a great deal of capital outlay. You allow people to borrow your great business model and branding and you take a commission as a percentage of sales after the franchisee has bought into the idea and paid a capital sum for the privilege. Everybody can win.

Testing the strength

Not all franchises are great investments in the bad times, though. I have looked at them from both ends. Firstly if you buy in you must be absolutely sure that the business model is robust and sells a product or service for which there will continue to be a demand. That may mean that a “luxury” franchise such as jewellery or children’s dance classes may suffer when people do not have the money to spend in more difficult times.

Moving the goal posts

Some existing franchisees in the recession are coming under pressure from the franchisors too who are wanting to vary their terms; move the goal posts. The franchisors’ sales commissions may well have dropped in the poorer trading conditions. They will be looking to cut their costs by providing less support to their franchisees and maybe looking for a bigger share of a smaller pot from those who are selling their brand.

Detective work

If you are looking to start a business and are considering a franchise, ask to talk to existing franchisees and not just those nominated by the main business owner. Do your own independent research and ask around. Think about whether there is enough profit for you after paying the percentage turnover due under the franchise agreement.

Some franchise models are absolutely terrific. However, if you have cash to invest in a business whether from redundancy or otherwise, do your research thoroughly. Be a detective and find out everything you can, and enlist someone like me to help if you wish. Don’t just rely on the sales literature. Think whether you have the right skills to run your chosen franchise.

Be part of a team

Start-ups are exciting. Franchises can be great if you want to be part of a successful team. Just avoid the elephant-traps which might relieve you of your hard-earned cash and you can find true business happiness.

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The Other Man Who Fell to Earth

Street of Buenos Aires, Argentina

Street of Buenos Aires, Argentina by Martin St-Amant. My home in a parallel universe?

I have been in a contemplative mood recently. I am another year older, and it might be tempting to wonder whether I could have made different choices in my working life which would have resulted in my being in a different place both literally and figuratively.

I am not tempted, though. I wouldn’t be anywhere but where I am now.

It would be so easy to dwell on past mistakes. Easy to wonder whether I had chosen the right career. Should I have started work with an insurance broker or a merchant bank? I wouldn’t have worked in tax then, and I could have made loads of money. On the other hand I might not have done. Actually I didn’t have the right and posh enough background to get a nice job like that in the first place coming from a family of bank clerks. Education was less important than ancestry. It’s no use worrying about that.

Should I have taken a junior role with an institution that might have sent me to Hong Kong or Buenos Aires?

Should I not have taken the job which led to my final exit from employment when they got rid of me after thirteen months? Last in, first out, an expression which used to matter in tax as well as employment, or rather in unemployment. That was a very hard fall to Earth.

Well, in some terms the financial losses as a result of certain decisions, or not being aware of what were the right decisions, have been costly. I am not sorry I have my business independence and of owning three businesses and helping in another.

I might as well say that maybe I should have married that girl I was in love with when I was twenty-one. I think she would have married me. Perhaps I let her down. Well, maybe I should have married her, but that would have meant I wouldn’t have been married to the lovely woman who is my wife now. I like what I have. In fact that’s rather understating it.

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!”

I think that is a good philosophy for having no regrets. That doesn’t mean any of us should be without ambition in our business lives . Of course we should want more in terms of business and to be more successful. We should plan to the best of our ability what we believe can control.

We should always think of the future. Accidents will happen but the more our destiny is in our own hand the safer we are, because employment makes so many hostages to fortune.

Do you have regrets? Is there any point?

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The sands of time

I believe in making the most of my time. Especially I like to have some time off when I don’t think about work. I might have some of my best ideas when I am not working, but that’s another story.

I have already mentioned that I subcontract some of the business that comes my way. It still has the care and attention it should because I manage it. My reputation is at stake, and I value my clients. It is just that I am expected to be able to provide services which are not profitable for me to do myself, or I am not very good at, or I just don’t like. So I ask trusted people to help me where we can all make a decent turn and deliver value for money. The work is done by people better at it than I, and by people who like doing it.

This leaves me with the stuff I like doing. Great! The trouble is that a lot of the stuff I like doing also doesn’t pay me well.

I was thinking about this reading a piece about solving a WordPress problem.  Now I love WordPress! I am not the best at it yet. I do try hard, but sometimes I can’t solve a problem if I don’t know what the problem is.

Hours can drift pass with software issues. I both know this from dealing with tax software issues waiting for “Support” and from my days years ago when I used to fiddle about with BASIC and DOS. It could be the middle of the night or even dawn before I surfaced. All a bit silly. I was good at DOS, though, when it used to matter.

Nowadays I not only do myself that which is really profitable and requires my high level of expertise and I enjoy. I discipline myself not to do the stuff I really enjoy but takes up too much time I haven’t got and which has a poor return.

So I defer to those who are good at WordPress and leave the difficult stuff to my expert.

But I am still learning, have my sandbox WordPress sites to play with in my leisure time, and when I am good enough, I won’t be wasting valuable time actually when doing more of it myself. I know my current limitations in this area. How do you stop yourself doing things someone else should be doing for you? Do you know what those things are?


Well, maybe next year?

A typical clown getup

Image by Rick Dikeman via Wikipedia

The title of this post reminded me when I just typed it of the song, “Send in the Clowns” from the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music”. Yet sending in the clowns is what you might as well do if you don’t look to the future. You may end up being one of the clowns yourself.

There is a danger in this sort of blog journal of stating the obvious and being trite. I try not to be obvious, but one thing we all know is that many of the clichés are actually true. Let ‘s indulge ourselves with three:

  • If you keep doing what you always do you will get what you always get.
  • You need to start working on your business, not in your business.
  • If you fail to plan you plan to fail.

Is anyone still awake?

The way our working years are structured generally in the western world mean that may of us are likely to take our business eyes off the ball in the last six weeks of the year, thinking about Christmas. Then there is the New Year. A lot of our clients and customers go missing for a couple of months. If we are in retail we hope that they have bought from us as Christmas approaches, but otherwise, we cannot track anyone down.

The same issue arises with our suppliers, especially of services. If we urgently need to do that course or have someone in to look at the way our business works or look at our marketing, we may have difficulty getting anyone in to make a start or to give us even that one vital bit of advice or help we need.

Now we are into October, we cannot now put off any new idea, project or business makeover until about February because we will have lost about four months in planning.

So, if you have any bright ideas, work on them now. If you need anyone in for an opinion or hands-on-help, contact them (or me) now. You don’t want to be a clown, do you?

Postscript: I really don’t like clowns at all!

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Being just like everyone else

The standard package won't get you anywhere

Especially when starting out in business and thinking about our tariffs there is a temptation to look at what everyone else is charging their clients and then charge the same.

Recently I have been working with friends looking at forthcoming business shows with a view to taking a stand. There seems to be a fashion for many of these show organizers to start the show at around midday, run it for around five hours until tea time and charge £299 for a stand. They are all doing what everyone else is doing, down to the price of the stand itself.

This is a really lazy approach to running an event and it is a lazy approach to business. I suppose the organizers must be in business. How do they manage if they have so little imagination? They themselves are supposed to be part of the business package.

If I were running a regional business show I would provide something extra. I might run it for longer. I might run an extra attraction such as a good and popular keynote speaker. I would look to add value, make my show the one to go to; the best show of the year. And because I was having the best show in the entire region if not in the entire country I would charge a proper fee and make sure my exhibitors got real value with a brilliant turnout of visitors so that they could do more business.

It really is no good being just like the others when you have an owner-managed business, which may be small or growing due to your hard work. You need to be different and better and the more different and better you are the more your clients will appreciate you and the more your prospects will want to buy; and of course the more they will feel happy to pay you.

It is a good feeling getting value and having the best. Your clients need to have that good feeling, don’t they?

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A sorry tale about crayfish and salmon

A meal of crawdads, Spring Break in New Orleans

Image via Wikipedia

Have you ever got excited about a purchase and then been disappointed by the delivery of the goods or service?

A little while ago on one of my now infrequent visits to the Big City I purchased on the fly a lunch from a sandwich bar in a mainline station. I was excited by the prospect of my crayfish and salmon bap which I had spotted in the display cabinet. I duly purchased it and requested a jam doughnut too (I know, but I intended compensating with extra exercise) and scurried to get on my train.

When I opened my food bag I found that I had been given a blueberry muffin instead of my doughnut, and when I checked my change more carefully I found I had paid for it too. That was despite the counter assistant having repeated after me “jam doughnut” when I requested it.

Anyway, I had the crayfish and salmon bap to eat. It was quite disgusting. It must have been sitting in the cabinet for hours. The bread was so soggy it put me off the very idea of the rest of it, the contents were rather icy and the whole thing was a complete disaster in terms of my lunch. I felt very let down.

In business, sometimes we can be very anxious to close a deal. What is important is not to promise more than we can deliver, and at the same time provide the very best we can, going the extra mile. By doing more than is expected of us we can stand out from the crowd. What we must not do is offer more than is expected of us and fail to deliver, because we stand and fall by our reputations.

A crayfish and salmon bap would have been more than I expected, thinking as I had been in terms of cheese and tomato. The outcome left me wishing I had stuck to a safe option, which is a pity as I enjoy helping businesses deliver much more than the safe option.

Actually the blueberry muffin was very nice, but it was not what I ordered.

Have you had high expectations from one of your providers and suppliers and felt let down by the delivery? You and I have to avoid delivering our equivalent of my seafood lunch, don’t we?

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