More imagination in customer service

Having been frustrated with the lack of interest in new business exhibited by local event venues and hotels, I have to be fair and mention that one of them telephoned back after a week to say that they could meet my proposal for the amount per head for each of my breakfast group, but they would need to charge an extra amount (actually quite a lot) for our use of a room at their establishment. Quite why they thought this would be satisfactory when clearly I was looking for a particular budget, which they disregarded in adding the room cost, I just don’t know. It is not as though their room would normally be in use between seven and nine in the morning, and since my business group is not in the habit of trashing every room in which we have a meeting, I doubt whether there would be a significant cost even for cleaning beyond a brief run round with the vacuum cleaner.

Presumably they wanted the business; why come back with this when basically I had given them a take-it-or-leave-it proposal with a known outcome and no real downside when they would have had staff in anyway to prepare breakfast for hotel residents? There is a distinct lack of business nous frankly. Obviously I declined their offer.

I was feeling a bit disappointed, but driving back from a meeting on Thursday I heard an ad on the local radio station for a restaurant I had not considered; I had not been aware they were open except in the evenings; apparently they are under new management. The commercial said they served breakfast, lunch and dinner, and hosted events. Naturally when I got back to the office I gave them a call. The duty manager seemed very business-like, she thought they could accommodate the group and was happy on my price proposal, subject to the approval of the owner, which she got. As they do not normally open for breakfast until nine, they are going to get their chef in early or the owner might be in the kitchen, but we are giving it a trial on both sides.

It is refreshing to get a great attitude from someone prepared to give a try to something new in the way of business. Maybe they will decide breakfast events are not for them, but they have an open mind. That is how we in business should approach 2010 and in particular business in a downturn: with an open mind. Otherwise we will assume doors are closed which many just be open a little and only need a push from us. At least, that’s what I think. How about you?

© Jon Stow 2010

Disrespect – what you do not want from your colleagues and network

My last blog in this thread contained the word “respect” in the title. I did not plan to follow it up with one about disrespect (incidentally a word which can only be a noun, and not a verb, in my view) but something has happened to prompt me to write it.

I belong to an international network of business advisers, and we have regional monthly meetings for those who wish to turn up. It is useful networking at a nice country pub and we also have speakers, internal and external to update us on various topics which amount to good CPD.

At the most recent meeting we had a guest speaker, who happens to be a friend of mine through networking elsewhere and who is a thoroughly nice guy. He was speaking on a particular discipline which is a major issue in business, and he has a radical alternative and refreshing approach. I will not expand on the discipline; that is not the point of this piece and I do not want the players to be too easily identified.

Anyway our guest, I stress “guest”, gave a very enjoyable and interesting talk for about three quarters of an hour and received impressively lengthy applause at the end. Our group is not usually quite so evidently appreciative, so this was significant. He then took some questions, and the chairman of the meeting started to thank him when a newcomer to our group professing to practice the same discipline, whom none of us had met before the day, started to tear into the premise of our guest’s talk with a ten minute talk of his own. He derided the common sense approach of our guest and said that rules and regulations were there to be followed (I do not think our speaker said they were to be disregarded) but the premise of his long critical statement was that our guest was wrong in almost everything he said, and that the best approach was a by-rote following of the rules; that in itself is material for another blog.

Our guest came back and comfortably rebutted the critic’s arguments. As a professional speaker also, he can look after himself, but I was severely embarrassed at the turn of events, and I know that many other members of the group there were as well. Our speaker had given up his time to speak to us – we were not paying him. I also believe it is disrespectful to criticise a speaker too much whether you know the person or not. One might ask for amplification or clarification of a certain point, but if one really does not agree then it is best to bite one’s tongue and keep quiet, and perhaps try to get a date to address the same audience at another time.

Before the meeting we had welcomed the newcomer whilst some of us were enjoying our pub lunch. Presumably the new guy would like to work with us and be involved in members’ contracts or projects. I would rate his chances of getting future work from or through those present at nil. He had alienated the entire group, and of course people do not forget.

If we are to get on in business or indeed enjoy a full social life, it behoves us not to go round upsetting people. I have many friends with whose views on various subjects I would disagree, but there is no point in going there. It is better to enjoy their pleasant company and work with them if in a business environment. This is obvious to the un-blinkered networking community and to most in our society. This rude troublemaker was the equivalent of an online troll.

© Jon Stow 2009

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Taking responsibility

I wrote back in January about owning our mistakes and there seems to be considerable avoidance of blame in our culture. We know where the buck stops if we are running a business, and it is on our desks and no one else’s. Also, if we have customers or clients and employees, we have responsibility to both groups, the first to provide a good quality of product or service, and to the second to pay properly, treat with respect and not risk their futures, though of course accidents happen.

I find The Apprentice difficult to watch, because the participants are constantly blaming each other for team failures. I would respect those who say “I am sorry, Sir Alan, it is my fault” (a rarity) but blaming others is no way to go about life. Some people do not have the need to be liked and will tread roughshod over all others in their path, and Sir Alan Sugar probably pays hardball most of the time, but he knows the value of his workforce and of his brand name, so he has to take into account what other people think to command any respect.

Amongst business people we often hear the lament that modern politicians have no experience in business, many having started straight from university into political research work for some other politician. There are few who have graduated through business now, and also few who have come through the ranks of trade unions, so most have no idea what it is to be responsible for others or to others. It is all about ego and climbing the ladder.

This brings me to the political situation in Britain, though I am not playing politics in this piece. The head of the service provider, the Prime Minister, is treating his customers with total disregard. HM Revenue & Customs refers to taxpayers as customers and we are all users of Government services so we must all be customers. In many ways we are shareholders. He does not seem to care that he does not have the support of the electorate and that they (we) have no confidence in sorting out the mess the economy is in. What is worse in some respects is that he is sacrificing his immediate staff such as Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears. I am no supporter of Ms Blears, but she has been a most loyal supporter of Gordon Brown and he hung her out to dry by describing her behavior in the MPs expenses row as unacceptable. She had done nothing illegal or fraudulent as some other MPs may have done, even if she pushed her luck a bit with her capital gains tax property-flipping.

Mr. Brown’s ego prevents him from seeing that his customers or shareholders have no confidence in him and he is not the right man for the job. He has failed, and even if he had not, if he had been in business and lost the confidence of all surrounding him, he would still have to go, even if his name was Sugar or Branson. It is purely ego that prevents Mr. Brown from going to see the Queen to hand in his resignation, and whilst he staggers on we are all suffering. We all know this, because we understand how business should be, and Government is big business.

Business, red tape, regulation, the Nanny State and the Land of the Free

As most of we small business owners already know, in UK from 1st April 2009 all workers are entitled to 5.6 weeks paid holiday, which is 28 days for a worker on a five day week. Well, quite right too, you might say if you are not the business owner who has to grant all the employees this extra leave, with no compensation from the Government, so generous with all our money.

Now, please understand that I do acknowledge the value of having family time, and all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy (and Jill a dull girl, I suppose). However, with this latest addition to paid leave and the prospect of even longer maternity and (probably) paternity leave the small business owner is bound to come under great pressure, given that we are in a recession, profits are under the hammer and cash flow is tight. Indeed the employee-leave element is very likely to be what breaks the camel’s back, though it is hardly a straw, but an additional heavy burden.

I have recently been in the United States. Now, the recession is biting hard and there is news daily about jobs lost or expected to be lost throughout the US, property foreclosures and the rest. Americans work very hard in that they have far less paid leave than their European counterparts. As I understand it there is no statutory minimum for paid leave in the US, and most employers give between 10 and 20 days, and no doubt this depends on their jobs market. I am certainly not saying that in Europe there should be no statutory minimum; I am just wondering how the British Government, in collusion with the EU, has managed to get up to 28 days; a terrible millstone around the necks of small business in general.

I freely admit I once had entitlement to 28 days paid leave. It came after 30 years of employment and was earned through seniority and value to my employer. I started as the office junior on three weeks leave, and my parents started on two (and they worked Saturdays). I was not even allowed paid leave to take professional exams, in which my employers saw no value.

Few small business owners are able to award themselves 28 working days leave, Monday to Friday. Most work many more hours, though this time is not always productive. Talk to me about that or buy Clare Evans’ book. No, I am not on commission.

I felt a little downhearted returning to the over-taxed UK from the still free independent US where I saw no speed cameras and where everyone is carrying on regardless without too much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I know which economy will bounce back first, and it won’t be the over-taxed, over-regulated, social network monitoring (and probably steaming open our letters), paranoid Nanny-State UK.

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Being lucky!

As I have been telling everyone, notably on Twitter, I have had a lot of problems with IT over the last three weeks. I am pretty dependent on the technology working to keep my business running smoothly. I use many on-line services, paid-for and otherwise. In fact, the way I work as a quite small business would not have been possible fifteen years ago, and not too easy a decade ago. I started seven years ago as a fairly early adopter originally being on-line with 24-7 dial-up before broadband reached our area. Without the technology I would be a lone voice crying in the wilderness and never heard, and whilst the recent problems bring headaches, I have to be thankful that when the technology works (which is usually) it is magic. I am genuinely lucky that my business is facilitated (made easier – but the thesaurus isn’t that helpful) this way as a while back I would have been one of the unemployed with little prospect of getting work in a downturn.

Lots of people have similarly been unshackled by the technology and have genuinely a much greater chance of getting businesses off the ground to earn some money in hard times. I am not talking about dodgy MLM and “network marketing”; I mean real B2B and B2C business. Of course there may be a difficult market but there are opportunities to make a difference, to help struggling businesses and to be innovative too. For those who are computer-literate and can be flexible there should be a viable business (even if only providing a subsidiary income) using their talents or exploiting their knowledge in a hobby to go in a different direction. If you have experience in a market as a buyer, you can probably be a seller.

Today we have through technology the potential to gain knowledge my parents could never have dreamt of, and a much greater insight into what is going on in the world. Political and economics intelligence is available to us all and at little or no cost, so in a way there is no excuse for ignorance, though we should never be afraid to ask for help where it is needed.

I could get into trouble for this kind of article because many do not like the optimistic perceived coach-type pieces we see published so often. Some of my best friends are coaches. Chuck what you wish in terms of virtual brickbats. We ARE lucky in that we do not have to do as we are told and can go our own way, and all because of technology.

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Jam tomorrow?

A problem we get quite often in business, and which matters more to small businesses is when we see a prospect, or potential customer or client who makes a promise to you without actually signing a contract. He or she may say “yes, we will definitely need you in the Spring” or “I just need to get this rubber stamped by my co-director / wife / husband and we’ll start in a couple of months”. This creates a problem for us, and especially in trading in a weak economy. Do we plan to be ready for the work, do we look at getting any extra resources needed, and what about our marketing? If we got another major piece of business in addition to that promised, could we cope, or would we struggle in terms of resources?

The answer is, if we sit down and think about it, that it is no use preparing to work for a prospect if you have not got a contract in writing. The work may not come, the person may want to take you on but may be in such financial straits that he or she can’t, or it may not be solely that person’s decision. The client may never sign up; it might be always jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

Do not plan for work you do not have beyond knowing that you could do it, and never stop marketing to make space for work you do not have yet; in fact, never stop marketing. When you get more clients who have signed on the dotted line, then you can resource the work. Otherwise you will end up as Lewis Carroll envisaged in “Through the looking Glass”, waiting for something you will never get when you could be getting yourself something else.

‘I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!’ the Queen said. ‘Twopence a week, and jam every other day.’
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, ‘I don’t want you to hire ME – and I don’t care for jam.’
‘It’s very good jam,’ said the Queen.
‘Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.’
‘You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,’ the Queen said. ‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.’
‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.
‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

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Business card spammers

Like many small business owners I go to a fair number of networking meetings. I go to meet people with whom I may work in the future, and the purpose of attending is to build relationships and expand connections – in other words to get to know people, which can ideally be achieved by talking face to face.

Being a polite person who does not like to offend, I will if requested hand over a business card. Some meetings require that everyone has everyone else’s.

So, just to say that because you have obtained my business card, I do not expect to receive a sales or marketing email from you. If I have just met you, and especially if I have not even had a chance to have a conversation with you, I have certainly not given you permission to bombard me with sales messages, or even to send me just one. You may send me an email saying how nice it was to meet me and you look forward to talking further, or mentioning that you were sorry we did not get a chance to chat, and perhaps next time we can find out a little more about each other.

I want to be able to refer businesses, but only when I know them. I am not a lead in myself, so please have a little respect, and change the attitude you have when you meet new people, which should start with referring others, helping people, and building trust. If you look after relationships first, you will gain pleasure from that, and if you have a mindset of referring the businesses you trust, you will find business comes to you. Most of us know that, don’t we?

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Dispatches from the front – age discrimination

Some of you may have seen a Channel 4 Dispatches episode this week about age discrimination, mainly not in the workplace (which is covered by Government legislation) but discrimination preventing more mature workers from being taken on in the first place. The whole thing was pretty educational, but the first few minutes concentrated on a qualified accountant in his fifties and his trainee accountant daughter. They both applied to specialist recruitment agencies. Despite the chap in his fifties having vast experience the agencies just tended to lose his records and CV, and did not bother to interview him whilst his daughter was invited in for meetings and had emails from agencies with which she had not even registered. In putting older candidates off, they are told that the role is “dynamic”, that they would be bored because they have too much experience, or they would not be suitable for such a junior role.

None of this surprises me in the slightest, of course, as it reflects my experience, though I am now very happy to work for myself and have my own business. I was turned down for HMRC’s tax legislation re-write project a while back because I did not have a university degree. I was surprised as I would have been ideal. As an eleven year old I won a free place at a “posh” school where learning the strict rules of English Grammar was considered essential and I also have an ‘O’ Level in Latin to remind me of the importance of grammar and the origin and structure of our language. This may be a surprise to those of you who think I write in a quite casual way but I would have been an ideal candidate given my technical background too. I realise that this was only one of a number of possible excuses for not putting forward such a mature candidate.

However, I will mention that when I started work for the first time a good while ago I was eighteen. Most new recruits joined banks, insurance companies and accountants straight from school between thirty and forty years ago; some even joined their employers in these sectors at sixteen. That was the “baby boomer” way and to require a university degree is a pretty good age filter for those whose parents could not afford to put them through university. Not having a degree from thirty-five years ago is hardly an indication of unsuitability, especially with a long and respectable track record in between.

In these hard times it will be easier for employers to discriminate and use younger trainees in accountancy etc. to provide cheaper labour than that perhaps thought to be expected by more experienced job candidates. The tragedy is that the trainees will get older, qualify and have a few good years. Then their careers will founder on the “Rock of Ages” in the same way.

For the present, there will be more older candidates seeking positions due to the economic downturn and the huge losses to their pensions pots, and they will have to compete against much younger qualified people who have also lost their jobs.

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Realism, job seeking and cats

I heard a feature on BBC Radio Five Live this morning which related to the newly unemployed. There was a lady made redundant from the the Findus factory in Newcastle which closed down a few weeks ago, Christine Tinling, who was talking with Katja Hall of the CBI and Sarah Veal of the TUC.

Now I can understand that Ms. Tinling is still in shock, so she was resistant to being put forward for jobs worth £13-14K per annum when she was earning a lot more prior to losing her job. However, she was advised by Ms. Veal that she was quite right to hold out for more because employers would be looking to get labour on the cheap. So on the one side, Ms. Veal was overlooking the fact that cash-strapped employers might be having difficulty in keeping their businesses afloat and on the other hand she was encouraging someone to scrape along on benefit, which she had said she could not afford to do, in the hope of getting something else. At the same time she contradicted herself in a way by saying what we all know: that the longer you are out of a job the lower your prospects of getting another one, let alone a decent one.

The discussion was not taken a great deal forward by Ms. Hall suggesting that Job Seeker’s allowance of £60.50 per week was enough for basic living whilst one is looking for work. Living on another planet?

I have been along the path. I found myself unemployed with no warning whatever. It takes a while to realise that the ideal job is hard to come by when you do not already have one.

This blog is not called “On Our Bikes” for nothing. There comes a point quite soon where you have to have some earnings coming in even if you had some savings, and believe me they evaporate quite quickly with a mortgage, council tax, utilities and food to pay for. So my wife and I did things we would not have considered. We were prepared to do anything, and did. We started a cat-sitting business to allow people to leave their cats at home whilst they were on holiday. The money wasn’t great, but it was a help whilst we were getting on our feet with other businesses, and we were so appreciated that my wife and I still have loyal customers so the business still lives and is seen as a valuable service. If you live locally to us and need your cats cared for in their own home, you know where to come.

Everyone newly unemployed might all have plans to get back into “their” sort of work or build a business, but in the interim and to keep active and committed, take or do anything you can get. Anyway, if you are out and about meeting people that is natural networking which might lead to more rewarding work. Don’t just sit at home and think this or that job is beneath you. You will be more admired for making the effort.

Bankers, untimely schadenfreude, and how to avoid their fate

I felt a little sorry for the ex-banking chiefs being quizzed by the Treasury Select Committee yesterday. They are genuinely bemused by the state in which their former employers, the banks, find themselves. We are talking specifically about the two Scottish banks, RBS and HBOS though others took risks and have made considerable write-downs of assets.

The reason I feel a small amount of sympathy is that they are akin to drivers who have been careless in the maintenance of their vehicles. There have been annoying rattles, and maybe the car has not been serviced. If there is a major failure in an important component (and in this case the wheels came off) then one should not be surprised that there is a nasty crash. Just the same, the actual event is shocking to the drivers and these guys are not over the smash, which has been very traumatic.

While it is easy to be wise after the event and we as spectators might have indulged in a little schadenfreude had we not been so badly hurt as passengers in the car, it is a lesson to everyone to make sure that we know every part of our business, and what is working well and what isn’t. The bankers took their eye off the ball. Northern Rock was by no means the first bank to fail. We had the grisly spectacle in 1995 of an old traditional bank, Barings, being brought down by the reckless actions of one man, Nick Leeson, the famous rogue trader.

The recent banking debacle was more of a cultural accident in that they were doing what everyone else was doing in the sub-prime market in the US. At the same time no one apparently thought of the risk, or what would happen if the US economy had a downturn and the domino effect on the market. Those of us in small business knew months before the initial crash in 2007 that the UK economy was struggling too, and we commented on it.

Anyway, we should all look at what we are doing in our own businesses; what works and what doesn’t, and what we should change now because it is going to stop working very soon and need to be replaced. I have stopped using Yellow Pages and Thomson’s because directories do not work for me. They work for other people but not for my businesses. Don’t do things just because other people do them. I am constantly reviewing my marketing, and need to think about whether other people getting on their bikes in the light of the large job losses which actually give my business more competition.

What about you? Do you take a step back and look at your business? Are there areas of risk you should try to eliminate? Is your marketing for purpose in the current climate?

I am taking my own advice anyway. If you need another perspective on your business ask an outsider; even ask me!