Archives for February 2013

Communicating with your employees and colleagues

iStock_000020557146LargeThe team

All successful small businesses need to have their owners, management and employees work as a team. That means quite a degree of commitment from everyone and that has to be based on mutual respect.

When I was a manager in someone else’s small business, and indeed when I was in charge of a department in a larger firm, I always believed in a relatively hands-off approach. I didn’t tell people what to do, although I helped them if they asked. I tried to be approachable and friendly, and I always thought that I got the best response.

I found that way of managing because it worked for me. I think one’s charges respond better if they like their manager. That doesn’t mean that I am making out I am a wonderful guy. I did it because it was the easiest way and I knew it worked.

Everyone wants to feel included as part of the team and to help each other. I know I did when I was further down the ranks, and I also remember (confession coming up) not trying nearly so hard when I was getting blamed unreasonably for things going wrong which were entirely outside my control. The fact I was blamed was a communication failure in the managers not taking the trouble to get to the bottom of a problem. It was counter-productive of course.


Businesses do not always run smoothly and sometimes owners and managers will feel that there needs to be a change in working practices. If they do need to be implemented then it is far preferable if the employees are consulted properly and are on board. If they have specific issues they need to be met.

Communicating the need for change is not always easy. Gini Dietrich, writing here in her excellent blog, highlights how badly Yahoo! recently got it wrong and how they should have done better in asking their work-at-home people to work in the office in future.

It’s good to talk

A well-known telephone company if the UK used to have a strap-line “It’s good to talk” and it is, if you are talking with your employees on a level of respect and understanding. They need to appreciate why change is needed, and “management” needs to empathise and understand what problems their staff may have in making the change.

Do you agree it’s good to talk?

Related posts:

What the BBC can teach us about management and team work

Why managers and workers need to respect each other



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Being passionate about our business

DSC01441Do you love what you do in your business? I do. I find it exciting to help people and make them happy, or at least take a weight off their minds.

It is great to be fired with enthusiasm I would hate to be locked into work I didn’t enjoy. Of course we all have bad days when we don’t get much satisfaction, or days when we have to grind something out. As long as we are paid and don’t have too many of those days, we can live for the fun bits we usually have.

If our clients are happy with us then we should be happy too. Customer satisfaction is our fulfilment, our philosophy and our drive to increase our sales. In other words if we are passionate about our clients, they will be passionate about our service, because passion drives passion.

Isn’t being in business just great?

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How to make your business personal

TweetdeckThe uninitiated

I am active in social media as you know, and you probably would not have found this blog if you were not also active.

The other day I was explaining to some fellow tax practitioners how useful I find social media, and particularly in the course of business. I told them that on Twitter in particular the interaction with other businesses helps me build relationships and I have a bigger pool of people to whom I might refer work for my clients or for myself. I feel I know many of my Twitter contacts because I see them talking, or talk to them on a regular basis.

Twitter feeding

So Twitter is part of my referral networking strategy and so are Facebook and LinkedIn as are various other social sites. However Twitter is also one of my means of keeping up with the latest news in my business niche, good and bad. Many of my contacts (I follow them and they follow me) have their ears to the ground for the latest breaking stories via the newspapers, websites and professional magazines. Some of them are writers and journalists in the business. They know what is going on, and therefore I know what is going on. Sometimes I can even add to what they know, and so it all goes around.

Interacting with my on-line friends is therefore part of my marketing strategy, and also part of my professional development, because it helps me know what is going on in a business environment which is forever changing. Talking with these friends allows them to form their opinions of me as well as my having impressions of what they are like.

Making it personal

In the end it comes down to building and imprinting a personal brand on my business. People buy me, or choose not to sometimes, based on what they already know of me.

The tax people to whom I was trying to explain all this did not understand what I was saying. They all work for larger firms than mine. I guess none of them is responsible for marketing. They do what they do within their firms. They think that they don’t have the time to use social media because they believe it is a waste of time.

Maybe it is a waste of time for some, but more people know who you are and I am than know any of these partners and managers in bigger businesses. We also know more people who are valuable to us in our work, and we know all the latest news in our industry as it happens. We are less likely to be caught out by a customer, a client or a prospect.

People know us professionally; who we are, what we do and what we are like in business. That is personal branding, isn’t it? Doesn’t it make us so much more approachable?

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A successful small business owner learns by experience


Risk to cash-flow

Risk to cash-flow


I used to work for a large firm of accountants once. They actually called themselves “Accountants and Business Advisers”. The firm held itself out as specialist accountants for small businesses and “SMEs” (Small and Medium Enterprises”). Quite honestly. I am not sure we staff were much good as business advisers because we had never been in business. I doubt whether many of the hundreds of partners knew much about business either. They all specialised in something. Only a few partners actually managed the firm’s business; the Managing Partner of the whole firm and maybe one partner in each office. The others did what they did and shared the profits, but they did not run a business day-to-day.

When I left my employment, I spent a lot of money training as a “business adviser”. I learned how to call for specialist help if I found a small business needed it. Of course they needed to be convinced they needed help, and if they accepted they did, that they needed it from me. I was not initially at all successful in getting work. That was when I really learned what running a business was like.

Hard Lesson

It was a hard lesson too with no money coming in. Cash was very limited. I had to find something I could offer that businesses actually wanted. I also readjusted to think what I could offer the public as well. I had to get some money in.

I decided to combine my knowledge acquired over many years as a tax specialist, and look for opportunities to advise both on tax and business matters. I had acquired a much greater knowledge of what businesses need to work well. The most important is cash flow of course. I also had learned along the way how to market my own business. That helped me to see what marketing other businesses needed.

I am not an specialist marketer. I know a few people who are pretty good at that, so I could refer on my trusted clients. Over the years I have acquired more skills myself, but at the same time found others to help my clients.

Linked out

In the UK there used to be something called Business Link, which was a government initiative. It was partly staffed by various people retired from their jobs, such as ex-bank managers. I am sure they were all well-meaning, but they had never run a business. They made suggestions, but never saw any issue from the business owner’s perspective.

If you offer a solution to most small businesses the owner will say:

  • How much will it cost?
  • What is the value to my business (what’s in it for me)?
  • What is the risk (that it will not succeed or that I will lose money)?

Of course if we are offering a solution, we know that the way to get past the cost issue is to show the value. However, it is the risk that any business owner will worry about. Whether the “solution” will cost more than the benefit, and most importantly, what is the risk to cash-flow and profit. A bank manager would not understand that, and neither would most partners and staff at my old accountancy firm.

Practice makes perfect?

We learn from others in business and we should always look to do so. We should know when we need help and ask for it. However the only way you, I and everyone else can know what it is like to run a business is by doing it. That is the biggest lesson of all, don’t you think?

Taking responsibility for our work

iStock_000011891859XSmall bored womanA couple of weeks ago my Dad had to go to the local hospital for some tests; three of them in total. I took him in, and understood that it would all take around three hours. Dad assured me that he would let me know when it was all over and I should go back to my parents’ home and collect him later. I assumed he would be looked after properly.

Instead my Dad, who is ninety, had to dress after the second test and walk on his own to the other end of the hospital for the last test. That was hundreds of yards and he is really not very good at walking. Why did no one think to call a porter with a wheelchair? Why was there no joined up thinking by anyone? Why did no one take responsibility?

That is the trouble with many large organisations and businesses. They think only of process, and not about the needs and feelings of their customers and people in their care. It is down to poor management and not giving middle management and individual staff freedom to make their own decisions without running their ideas past many levels in the hierarchy.

In small businesses, we have the advantage of being close to our clients, but also taking care of their needs is part of keeping their business, quite apart from our not wanting to let them down or suffer any inconvenience.

We owe it to our customers to make sure they have the best possible experience. Wouldn’t it be great if we could impress this culture on our hospitals, telecoms providers and other large businesses in which customer service is an alien concept?

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Taking our business network leaders for granted

A Breakfast venue

A Breakfast venue

Getting the boot

I belong to a monthly networking group that has recently been unceremoniously ousted by the venue which has hosted us for a couple of years. It was not that we were a rowdy bunch. They just didn’t think they were making enough money out of us for the room we hired. No doubt they conveniently overlooked the amount we were spending in their pricey bar and café.

Our chairman had to find a new venue at rather short notice. His first attempt (and where we had our February meeting) was not a huge success. Not his fault. It turned out that other visitors made a considerable noise next door so that we were hardly able to hear each other. This is the sort of venue issue which only comes to light when you actually try it out rather than visit in the middle of a quiet morning.

Anyway, apparently we have a new venue for March and our leader thinks it will be a success. Let us hope so, but remember that he has spent a considerable amount of time researching and visiting potential meeting places. We owe him a vote of thanks.

Not a sausage

I have until recently been a long-time member of business breakfast clubs. I led one for a couple of years. The first venue went out of business and didn’t tell me or anyone else in the group. We turned up at 7 one Tuesday morning with the temperature at -4 Celsius (not a detail one forgets) and waited in the cold for about half an hour while we tried to find out what was going on.

In the glasshouse

I then had to find a new venue who would let us meet, serve breakfast and leave us alone for our meeting. It was difficult and I spent a lot of time on the telephone and then visiting possible meeting places. We stayed at the first place I chose for about three months.

We got great personal service but the room was noisy due to being rather open to other people coming in and out, and also because when it rained on the glass roof, no one could have much conversation without shouting. It seemed we would have to move again.

Out of the frying pan

I moved, partly at the request of a couple of members, to a posh new hotel on the seafront. The environment was better, but the service was corporate and therefore less personal except when one particular young lady was on duty, and who took the meaning of customer service seriously. We soldiered on until circumstances meant I had to quit as leader.

It would have been great to be thanked by everyone for all the hard work I put in in dealing with the venues, collecting the money and paying them, leading the meetings, thinking what was topical and canvassing members, keeping the records and generally contributing much more time than the weekly hour and a half. Yet when I stopped, only a couple of members took the time, and I had absolutely no thanks whatever from the group brand owners.

I did my best. I could not have done better in the circumstances, I don’t think. I made no real money from my efforts but that was never my intention. I am not complaining. It was an interesting experience. I would have just liked a bit more appreciation.

Do remember to thank your network group leaders for their efforts. They deserve it. They do it for you so that you can get more business. They are certainly not in it for the money that you pay each week, nearly all of which goes to pay for the meeting room and catering.

You would not want to deny someone that nice warm feeling one gets from being appreciated and thanked, would you?

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Penny-pinching in small businesses can be very expensive

What shall I do?

Do you try to do everything in your business or do you confine yourself to the sharp end – your expertise?

Most of my work is to do with tax; that is advising people on it or writing about it. I am comfortable within my area. I have a lot of experience. I know how and where to do research to find the right answer.

I did not always know how to find the answer, though. I remember as a junior trainee being tasked with finding the answer to an unusual problem. I did not want to show my ignorance on the subject, and I had difficulty understanding the technical books in the library. After all, I was very wet behind the ears. So I relied on a book published by a well-known bank and aimed at the layperson – in other words, the amateur.

When I took my answer to my manager he told me that the issue was more complicated than I had thought, but not only that; the book’s author had actually got it all wrong! I was sent way with my tail between my legs to try again. I asked a more experienced colleague and she explained the difficult bits from the technical publication. I had my answer, which was different from the previous one because it was right.

Of course I hadn’t known what I was doing, because one of the worst mistakes we can make is in forgetting that we don’t know what we don’t know, or in other words if we are not strong on a subject our incomplete knowledge can cost us dear.

I am not great at sales and marketing. I look to others for advice because otherwise I would waste a lot of time and money. I subcontract quite a lot of work that I do not enjoy or that is not profitable to be done within my office. I have someone to help me with my business websites, though I like learning playing with others which will not cost me money commercially.

If we are inexperienced or simply do not have the time to do something to support, promote or oil the wheels of our business, it will cost us a lot more in sales than if we pay a specialist to help us.

What do you think?