Archives for March 2012

Contracts and common sense

Contract blues?

We all love to have new customers, clients or whatever we like to call them. It is good to sign up someone new and begin what we hope will be a great relationship.

Of course we do have to “sign up” our new business in a certain way. Our client (as we will call her) needs to know what we are going to do for her, what the process is and preferably what we will charge. What we might miss if we are not careful is to make it clear what we are not going to do for the price agreed or for the period of the contract. If that sounds a bit odd, let me explain.

Suppose you ask a painter and decorator to give a quote for painting the outside of your house; whitewashing the walls and painting the woodwork. He will give a written quotation and will list out the work you have specified. If you accept that quotation you will not expect the painter to clear out the gutters or replace a roof tile. That wasn’t in the quotation. If you want that extra work done and your painter is capable and willing to do it, you know that will cost extra.

So if you ask someone to host your new website which hasn’t been built yet, you cannot expect the host provider to design and build it for you for the cost of hosting. If that business provides those services, and you want them, you will have to pay a lot more. It will be in your agreement, which should be a written one even if it comes together in the form of an exchange of emails. There should be no ambiguity.

I provide services which involve money matters. I send an agreement to each new client to sign. It says exactly what I (my business) will do for the client, specifies a time frame if appropriate, and generally states the fee I require, and when it is payable. The agreement also says what is not included but could be added on at extra cost if required. That way no one is in any doubt about what work will be done and when. Of course I aim to provide the very best service and that is implicit in the agreement, but the best service does not include “freebies” unless I decide to give them at my discretion. And if I do, I make it clear at the time that it is not part of the agreement.

Only too often I hear of fee disputes across all sorts of trades and professions where businesses and their customers have fallen out and the customer is disputing the bills. This is usually because either the agreement was not clear or it was a verbal contact. Sam Goldwyn was right.  If it ain’t written down…

Social skills and small business marketing

I think we all know that social skills are important in our lives but not everyone has them. That is a problem for small business owners lacking in this area unless they are geeks with a must-have app. Most of us get business from talking to people, whether it is in our store or shop and perhaps at our counter, or maybe it is at face-to-face networking events or on-line.

The guy who tries to sell all the time by in-your-face tactics at the local breakfast networking meeting or who spams his on-line network on LinkedIn or elsewhere has no social skills. He doesn’t understand how other people feel when they are harassed about a product they are not interested in, or even unfortunately made a tentative enquiry about to their later regret. The woman who follows you relentlessly to sign up to her email marketing products is lacking in empathy with her potential market, which is ironic.

Despite all this I believe that if we know we are lacking in social skills we can adapt and learn them.

I have a sort of confession. I used to lack social skills, due to (I believe) having had a rough time at school. Even when I went out to work I was terribly shy and quiet as a church mouse, so although I was quite the opposite of “in your face” I found it hard to deal with people, which had a lasting effect on my life.

I learned to come out of my shell later and stand up for myself, and succeed in getting promoted at work, but it was a conscious effort to learn to deal with people; to listen to their needs and wants and to understand their perspectives. Listening is so important in our lives.

Later still in the big wide networking world I had to take another step and learn to speak in public without annoying anyone too severely. 🙂

It seems to me that a lot of people lose business because when we dislike their approach, we become prejudiced against their offering. Whether the more aggressive OTT marketers can be reformed in quite the same way as us church mice I don’t know, because they would need some insight and self-awareness, which in introverts is often a strong point.

I should hate to think that all the obnoxious pushy types networking out there are beyond redemption. Do you think that they can save themselves?

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Getting out of our depth in business

My sort of swimming pool

I am not a great swimmer. I can manage quite well in reasonably calm water, but I don’t like to get out of my depth unless in a swimming pool with a lifeguard watching on.

In business I try to stick to what I know. I know a lot about tax. I know a lot about running a business. After all I have been running several for quite a long time. I cannot claim to be a specialist in every business skill or indeed in very many. In business advice I am rather like the family doctor. I can make simple diagnoses and prescribe treatment, but anything complicated I refer to a specialist. That is what my business advisory offerings are about: understanding the needs of a business and finding the right person or people to satisfy that need and help the business grow.

We can’t do everything ourselves.  That is why I subcontract non-tax work out from my tax business because I cannot keep up with the latest requirements in the accountancy world, and it is not cost-effective to do bookkeeping. I specialise and am good at what I do. I don’t want to be a Jack of All Trades and Master of None.

It is a big risk to try to do something for which you lack the expertise. You can get things wrong as a financial adviser did recently doing the tax return of a client I have just acquired. The risk can be a quite serious financial one whether it is about money matters such as tax or driving a fork-lift truck you are not trained for. Worst of all, if something does go wrong you and even if you are insured for public or professional liability, your insurers might not pay up if the mishap occurred while you were doing something you shouldn’t have been doing. You might lose the business and even your house when you get sued.

Just occasionally I have been offered business which was potentially well within my expertise but the financial risk was to great simply because of the size of the businesses and the large amounts of money involved. It has pained me to do so but I have passed that business on to larger firms with bigger insurance policies and which I believe will do a good job, though perhaps for a commission.

It is easy to be tempted to get out of our depth by a large fee or just by a desire to be help. We don’t want to find ourselves drowning though, do we? Have you ever bitten off more than you can chew?

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The physics of getting expert help for your small business and for yourself

English: Schrödinger equation of quantum mecha...

Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics (1927) by Yassine Mrabet. Image via Wikipedia

I have a confession. I like to know how everything works. I like to know how my cameras work, ancient though several are. I like to know how the universe works so I buy and try to read the books about quantum physics and string theory. That is why I recently purchased, upon recommendation by a friend, How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog (not an affiliate link).

I have a general idea of how my car works. I have a manual for it. However, if anything goes wrong with it I wouldn’t have the first idea how to fix it other than changing a headlight bulb. Even that is really difficult with my car, just getting access past the air-con on one side and the water pump on the other.

So I have a guy who is a great mechanic. He knows how to fix cars. He has all the manuals. He has the computer and the software, and most of all he has the experience. That is worth a lot more than reading all the manuals. He is used to dealing with almost any problem and even if it is one he has never encountered in practice he will know where to look for guidance or who to talk to. He knows what he is doing whereas I couldn’t even start to fix my car.

Many of you may know I work with tax issues for businesses and in other areas as well as helping businesses with other problems they may have. Recently I was contacted via email by someone who had converted his private house into two flats or apartments he was selling and he was building two other flats in the garden, also to sell on. He wanted to know his tax situation.

In UK terms, this sounds a lot like property-developing liable to income tax on the profits, and I told him so, and offered my services.

He replied “What a load of old tosh! I can deal with HMRC myself thanx, thought you might know the answer.

By your account anyone who improves their own property could be treated as self-employed
property developers, what planet are you on? (Well, yes, if they do it with a view to short term profit)

I’ve worked out the answer for my self from the gov (Government) web site.”

I was polite in the face of this and suggested that even if he did not want to engage my services he needed to do some more research. He responded by suggesting that I was only after his money and was out to mislead him. He ended by calling me “Jonny Boy” which was no doubt supposed to be a put-down, though it was not an effective one to someone who was used to being called Jon-Boy in his youth after John-Boy in The Waltons.

If I started to take my car apart to find a problem I would soon get into trouble. If I tried to design a new brochure for my business I would make a mess of it because I haven’t the skill, the experience or the knowledge. If I tried to write my own tax compliance software or build my own website from scratch without having the right tools I would fail.

At a certain point there is no substitute for paid professional advice. We could read all the manuals in the world but without hands-on experience and good tutoring we will make a mess of things. Reading A Brief History of Time didn’t make me a cosmologist or astrophysicist and much of what I read in that book was very difficult to grasp.

I am still working on learning quantum physics as I mentioned. In the meantime I will leave the difficult stuff in my business that I can’t do for the specialists I bring in. Do you know when it is time to “phone a friend”?

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Small businesses making the difference

Chinese puzzles

Is your business just like the one down the road? If it is that might be why you are struggling to keep afloat. In the good times you might get away with surviving. In the harder times we are in now, if you are not different, if you are not standing out from the crowd and if you are not engaging your customers then you will not make money.

I have referred before to our local Chinese takeaway restaurants, carry outs or food to go; whatever you will. One has the usual front desk and the TV set that no one watches. It has one guy behind that desk taking orders over the counter and on the telephone. Except there are not many orders.

The other has an open kitchen where everyone can watch their food being cooked, and many stand up while they are waiting to have a good view. They offer a spectator sport. We customers can watch the team at work. We get entertainment while we wait. People love watching cooking in progress which is no doubt why MasterChef is so popular on TV.

I happen to believe that the food in the second restaurant is better, but that may of course be my perception because of the whole experience of going to the shop, and yes, the feeling of belonging, of loyalty.

I don’t like to see a business on the slide as one of the restaurants apparently is. They could make it so much different by engaging with their customers and making them feel part of the experience. It is not just the food. It is about the people, what they do and the value the customers perceive. That is a valuable lesson, don’t you think?

Referral networks and joint ventures need teamwork

The whole team should be on their bikes

Over the last ten years I have belonged to several breakfast groups and even run one. I have also belonged to networks meeting at other times of the day. Some of these groups produced great relationships and also business. One produced really a lot of business for which I will always be grateful.

Networking groups succeed when the members work together and help each other. After all it is not reasonable just to keep taking and not giving. Giving is what we should do first, and keep on doing it. Referral groups can only succeed where the members respect each other and work together.

Not all the groups to which I have belonged have been successful though. Those that have foundered on the rocks have suffered because not all the members were “on board” in spirit and working to support the group. Some people think all they need to do is to pay their subscriptions. They don’t turn up at the meetings often enough. They don’t look for referrals for others. They are passengers. We cannot carry passive people.

One or two of the groups to which I have belonged have worked together on major marketing efforts for the network and for its members. These sorts of joint ventures can also be very successful, but only if everyone participates by actually doing some work. You have to DO THE WORK as Chris Brogan would say.

I don’t know about you, but I need my valuable time to run my business which includes doing my marketing. I am happy to help others with theirs in joint initiatives if they really are that; not if I am doing all their marketing as well as mine (unless they are paying me suitably for doing it).

Have you come across these “hangers-on” who expect the world to come to them? Isn’t it so much better when you have all your networkers working with you rather than just coming along for the ride?

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Doorstep selling in the twenty-first century

A book worth reading

These days I mainly work from home though obviously I go out to visit clients and those who are providing me with support services to help me run my business. One of the hazards of being home-based is being “doorstepped” by people selling products and religion. I am not sure how well either tactic will have worked in the past, but it certainly doesn’t work with me. I probably haven’t given much thought as to whether I need whatever is being sold and even if I had I would want to shop around for the most suitable deal which might not necessarily be the cheapest.

When I started my own business for the first time I went on sales courses which involved learning the techniques of hard selling, getting prospects to sign up for business advice or whatever on the basis of a visit arranged by an appointment maker. I wasn’t very good at the hard sell, or maybe it was never going to work anyway because people are naturally resistant, as I would be when faced by a double-glazing salesperson I didn’t really want to see.

Whether or not the hard sell worked or still works for the sort of thing I do, I am very uncomfortable with it. I don’t like getting people out of their comfort-zone because that involves me getting out of my comfort-zone. And I only want to get out of my comfort-zone when doing something positive for my business by making a difficult but necessary choice which I can recognise. That might be buying-in marketing from an expert, or setting the legal dogs on a non-payer (fortunately rare).

I am not an expert in selling, but that is all right because my marketing brings me warm leads and referrals which are even better. Of course the referral business is a two-way street, but isn’t it great when you put together two people who need each other?

As we know that is the basis of selling really; having our prospects recognise that they have a need. I learned that partly for experience, but also from reading Zig Ziglar right after I found that the hard sell didn’t work for me. His folk wisdom of selling resonated much more with me.

In face-to-face meetings I rarely fail to close new business if I decide I want it and it is the right deal for the client. My new clients have identified their own needs and invited me to visit.

I have bought double glazing after seeing salespeople from three or four different companies. I had identified my own need and chose what I thought was the best product, which was not the cheapest deal offered.

I don’t think doorstep selling is very effective, whether physically on the doorstep or from other unsolicited calls. In difficult economic times I would have thought it of very little value. My concern is that it is only likely to succeed with those who are vulnerable such as the some elderly people and some more unsophisticated individuals. That makes it a rather unethical process. What do you think?

Being aware of our surroundings

I always like to think I am a fairly tolerant kind of guy, but I guess we all have our Achilles Heels. Even on-line I am irritated by people who constantly sell rather than engage. Of course we all have the ability to un-follow or block or simply ignore, depending through which medium we encounter them.

It is not always quite so easy with face-to-face networking. There is this chap I bump into now and again who goes on his merry way leaving in his wake rather bruised networkers he has battered with his sales talk and confused by his various business offerings. He doesn’t listen for a moment to what others have to say, and he doesn’t seem interested in what they have to offer or whether he could help them.

In fact this “networker” seems oblivious to other people feelings and to his surroundings. If he read this piece he wouldn’t recognise himself because he doesn’t stop to think. Of course he won’t read it anyway because he wouldn’t think it was about him, which it is. Yes, he is his favourite subject.

This gentleman (a term used loosely) is not even stupid in intellectual terms. He purports to offer complex legal services. One of his websites is well up the rankings in keywords which interest me. He may have a clever SEO person but I expect he does it himself. But being clever doesn’t mean he is sensitive to other people’s feelings or that he even cares. He seems to have no empathy.

I guess this serial networker (or even “cereal networker” since he likes breakfast meetings) doesn’t actually get much business from networking. That will be because he puts himself ahead of others as well as in front of them when they would dearly like to escape.

Have you met someone like this? How do we get him to reform when he doesn’t listen, or is it a lost cause? Shouldn’t we all show our fellow networkers a fair degree of respect?