Never assume

When I started my first job, every bit of work I did was checked by a more experienced guy. I remember being asked why I had calculated a client’s dividends for his tax return without having evidence they had been paid. I said that I had assumed the shares relating to these dividends had not been sold, so the client must have had them. “Never assume” my colleague said. Although I was stung by his criticism, of course he was right and I was wrong. I should have checked with the client.

Assuming can get you into trouble. There is an accountancy joke “Why did the auditors cross the road?” “Because that’s what they did last year.” That is how mistakes are made, books are not checked properly, and those who are cooking them are not held to account.

In business generally, there are dangers in being comfortable and assuming all is right with our business practices. We need to check and check again we are being efficient. Perhaps above all, we should not assume that our customers are happy. Have we asked them? Everything may look fine from our side, but perhaps their expectations are different. It is too late to find out when they leave us. We should ask for feedback and talk to our clients regularly.

I try not to assume, but am only human after all. I have learned from my mistakes. What about you?

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Banking on personal service

A friendly place lost to us

A friendly place lost to us

The local branch of my bank has closed. Gone are the friendly cashiers (tellers), the greetings (“Good Morning, Mr. Stow”), the feeling of being valued as a customer.

The other day I had to pay in some money and went to the big main branch in the larger town. There was one cashier, and otherwise the tills had been replaced with machines. One is supposed to post into a slot any cheques received, together with a slip. There is no human being with whom to interact.

I pay a fee for my business banking, but I do not now feel I am getting any sort of service for my money. I am one very unhappy customer.

My own business is based entirely on real relationships with my clients. I value them, and I hope they value me. I try to be available to them at all reasonable times, and they know that I am there to help. If they value me, they will be happy to pay me a good fee for a service which they are entitled to expect.

Small business is all about personal service and great relationships. Big business has lost sight of that and, while we cannot all open our own banks, our flexibility and friendly approach is to our great advantage in competing where we can.

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Rude and aggressive clients?

“Most clients and people in general I come across are just rude and aggressive.”

That is a statement I saw on an accounting website, posted by an accountant. I am surprised by the comment. Is everyone rude these days? Are they just rude to this accountant? What has he done (or not done) to deserve it? Has he got the wrong clients?

In my previous piece I mentioned a rather rude ex-client. I know it takes all sorts, but if I do not have a good relationship with a client, and feel comfortable working with her or him, I ask the client to go. Of course I find a good reason. “I know another business which would suit your type of work better.” “The profile of my business has changed and we cannot any longer offer you the service you deserve.” “I would need to double your fee”.

All these can end an unsatisfactory business relationship fairly amicably. Certainly I see no reason to put up with uncomfortable communication and rudeness. Why would anyone? You don’t, do you?

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

 

Shooting the messenger

I had a client “sack” me last week. He did not have the grace to tell me in person. Actually he telephoned to check my email address, which he had used many times, and when I asked after him, he said that he had someone with him and could not talk. Two minutes later I had an email telling me my services were no longer required.

Having been in business for a fair time, I have quite a thick skin as far as rude and graceless behaviour is concerned. I did not know the client was unhappy with me, and I always courage feedback by talking. In this case, the client had got himself into a financial mess tax-wise, I was the one who told him he needed to find some money fast, and I assume he blamed me for this, rather than himself.

I would not be good at business if I did not try to make sure my clients are happy, but some will not talk back.

Have you been blamed by a customer for their own failures?

Do you have a tax issue I can help you with? Get in touch and I will guide you.

Self-inflicted damage

Some signs we ignore at our peril

Some signs we ignore at our peril

I have been doing business with someone introduced to me by a networking friend. I have been buying his services.

Networking sites being what they are, this week LinkedIn prompted me to connect with him and at the same time he was suggested as a friend on Facebook. The LinkedIn profile is professional if rather brief. The Facebook page (and his privacy settings are low) is really unpleasant; prejudiced and smutty and full of nasty innuendo. He may think himself clever and funny. I do not, and I would hardly class myself as a PC zealot.

I am really disappointed. I will not connect on either platform. I will now feel uncomfortable with the guy. I would not want my connections to see I was connected to him because they might judge me by what he posts on Facebook.

The guy’s services have been very satisfactory. I have no complaints. However, I still might be reluctant to refer him as I would not want to be associated with his on-line views.

If I were this guy I would delete my Facebook profile and start again. A lot of our stuff is out on the internet forever. Some material can be deleted, but it is best not to have anything out there which might damage our reputations. But we don’t, do we?

The simple things

Four of us went out for Sunday lunch. We chose an Inn which had changed ownership recently. We wanted to try it again as our last experience there had not been satisfactory.

The menu was a short one this time. There was not a great deal of choice, although enough for anyone seeking a Sunday lunch.

We all had three courses. They came in generous proportions and my “starter” was perhaps more than generous. Each dish was beautifully prepared and cooked, the service was prompt and courteous but not intrusive, and we all enjoyed our lunches very much. Definitely a ten-out-of-ten experience.

The short menu was a big advantage. From our point of view there was no confusion about what was on offer, and with such a menu, the service was likely to be good because the chef would be on top of all the different dishes. With a long menu, often the chef is over-stretched, which can result in diners having a long wait for food which may not have been cooked as well as it might.

This is a message we can take to all our businesses. We are not Amazon. We do not sell everything. I work with a few core offerings where I can deliver quality promptly and provide a really good service. I try to make sure my clients are not confused about what I offer and that they know exactly what they are getting.

Well done to the restaurant for their service and congratulations to their very friendly staff who made us very happy. They provided an example for us all.

Banking on your small business customer service

I had a letter from a bank telling me that I would no longer be able to withdraw money from a savings account at an ATM. No reason was given of course. It is just a withdrawal of service.

My wife had a letter from her bank saying that they were making changes to her savings account. What they meant when she read the detail was that they were reducing the already paltry interest rate she had been getting.

Often, large businesses will say that in order to improve their service they are making changes which actually amount to a withdrawal of service. My business bank is closing its branch in our village. They claim that our service will not be affected, but actually although there is an arrangement with the Post Office for personal banking, business cheques (checks if you prefer) cannot be paid in there.

Many of my clients are older and do not use internet banking. They prefer to write cheques even though I would rather they did not. I will have to drive to the next town to pay in business cheques, and the bank will charge me for each one as they do now.

I suppose this is an ingrained habit of banks to withdraw a service while pretending they are helping everyone. Back in the Eighties, when I was very young, my bank decided not to send back my cancelled cheques, or anyone else’s of course. We did not have the detail of payments we can now get on-line. This was very annoying, but saved them some postage I suppose.

This sort of thing, which amounts to a withdrawal of service by stealth, is what became known as Hutber’s Law. Patrick Hutber was the City Editor of the Sunday Telegraph way back. Hutber’s Law states “improvement means deterioration” and it certainly prevails as big business withdraws more services from small businesses and individuals. What Mr Hutber would have made of the current utilities, banks and railway companies and all their call centres, Heaven only knows. Heaven probably does know because Mr Hutber died young, crashing his sports car. I missed him when he went.

At least as small businesses we can make sure that we maintain our standards and improve them. I like to visit my clients regularly and know what concerns them and how I can help. I am certainly not going to visit less or be in touch less. We have a big advantage over many of our larger competitors and we can make it count.

Stow’s Law is “Improvement should mean exactly what it says”. What do you think?

Building towards delivery

Kodak EasyShare 30 Jan 14 002We have been having some building work done. Having no experience as a builder’s customer, I thought somewhat naively that once they started on the project they would keep going steadily until they had finished. Not so!

What happens is that one day some guys turn up and do some work. They may be present for one day or a couple of days and then they disappear and we hear nothing for a few days. It is so unsettling. Now we  ask each afternoon if the guys are coming the next day, just so we know. Otherwise they may just vanish for a period without telling us.

Imagine if most of us carried on like that. Suppose our clients did not hear from us for long periods and they did not know whether or not we were working on their project from one week to another. Soon we would have no customers at all. The word-of-mouth which brings us clients would soon lose us many prospects. We would be out of business.

Thank goodness most of us do not run our businesses like these builders. However, if I had needed a reminder about prompt delivery and keeping my clients in the loop, this was certainly it. Good grief!

The late show

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It could happen to any of us

I do believe in being on time for meetings. It gives a bad impression to be late. With new prospects and even with clients, they can be left feeling very unimpressed by a late show.

Sometimes we are late due to circumstances beyond our control. We are stuck on the road with a serious hold-up. There has been an accident. We might be let down by public transport. Our train has broken down. In those case we need to let the person we are meeting know in good time what has gone wrong and why we will not be there when we said we would.

Someone who does work for us at home was very late the other day. In fact we had almost given up on her, were noting her other inadequacies and talking about sacking her. Eventually she turned up just in time to save herself from getting the bullet, at least for now. However she failed to call to advise she was running late, even though her mobile (cell) is rarely neglected during her time with us; one of the little grouses we have about her. That is the point. Being late will be aggregated with other transgressions, real or imagined.

A late show can cut off future business. Be there, or at least apologise in advance if you can’t.

Do you like your clients?

I think we all want our clients to like us, and that means earning their trust from the outset. However, what if we do not like or trust our clients?

The other day I went to see a new prospect. I arrived at her flat and rang the bell. She opened the door but was on the telephone, to her father as it turned out. She interrupted her conversation briefly to ask me to take off my shoes or cover them with plastic slip-ons (no religious purpose here you understand) and then waved me up the steep flight of stairs to the hall. She then left me standing there while she went into another room to finish her telephone call several minutes later.

When she eventually reappeared, the first thing she said was “you look as though something is the matter” in a challenging way. If I was caught with the wrong expression it was not due to her rudeness, but because I was thinking about my Mum, who was in hospital.

When I was finally invited into the living room, the first thing this “prospect” asked me was my price. I said it depended on what she needed advice on, but when pressed I quoted a likely amount for a written note she could use as a reference or map. She pulled a face and then asked for a quote for the face-to-face consultation while I was there. That is an easier answer to give, so I quoted a figure. She said “It would be cheaper if I got the advice walking off the street in the City. I thought locally it would be a lot less”.

To my mind, good advice has a value whether it is given in the Big City or in the boondocks. The value is in the savings for the client. It is not like buying a sandwich produced at higher cost in town or at lower cost in the sticks, and to be fair, ingredients have to be paid for wherever.

Of course this person was being fanciful if she really thought her City advice would have been cheaper, but that is immaterial. The meeting was clearly over within ten minutes, at least as far as I was concerned. As News of the World reporters used to say, I made my excuses and left.

I could not work with this person because

  • She did not value me or my work
  • She was downright rude from the outset of our meeting
  • I really did not like her

This woman cost me an hour of my valuable time in travel, though, but with every bad experience we learn a little more.

I have to be comfortable to work with a client, and to be confident of a good relationship and mutual respect.

Do you like all your customers?