Why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or a colleague or prospect either

First impressions

First impressions are important. When meeting someone in business for the first time I am sure we all do our best to present ourselves well. That is simple commercial sense. Sometimes if we get a poorer impression of someone else when we meet them we do not pursue the relationship. If we instinctively feel like that then it may be best to let it go.

However, if we are not sure how we feel or we can’t immediately work out what makes another person tick, maybe we should give it a bit longer.

The Story of a Simple Soul

British author H. G. Wells' 1895 novel The Tim...

H G Wells - Image via Wikipedia

This theme really does remind me of my attitude to a particular book when I was about fourteen. It was a set book for English literature and we spent ages dissecting it in class and being asked to analyse various parts of it for homework. I didn’t understand the value of that book during the Summer Term. It seemed very boring to have to take it to bits and write essays about it.

However, when school broke up we had one of those rather rainy changeable summers like several we have had recently in England. I was an avid reader of fiction (still am) and one day I had read all the books in the house and it was too wet to walk to the library a couple of miles away. I picked up the school set book and read it from the beginning to the end as one would normally read a book except at school. Do you know what? The book was brilliant and funny, and a really great read.

What was the book? Kipps (not an affiliate link) by H G Wells. It was the book upon which the musical “Half a Sixpence” was based. I really recommend it, but when I had approached it from the wrong angle I had thought I wouldn’t like it.

The wrong end of the stick

Several years ago I met someone who I thought was a bit of a “wide boy” which means someone a bit untrustworthy, doing dodgy deals. A ducker and diver as we say in in England. I used to see him rather a lot at various meetings but didn’t take him seriously.

Yet eventually I had to deal with this chap as we had joint responsibility via a committee for organising some events. I came to realise that he was hard working, capable, kind and generous. I would trust him to look after financial issues on my behalf, which means complete trust as far as I am concerned.

So my first impression was a little off target, wasn’t it?

Setting the filters

With prospects I cannot engage them as clients if I am not comfortable with them, which is why I always like to spend time with them; at least an hour or so. But if they mess me around in terms of our first appointment e.g. change it more than twice without a convincing reason, I assume they are time wasters or potential troublesome clients. I don’t take them on.

Just the same, it is mostly worth giving people a run to see how they are. Many might become very good clients or great business friends. Do you give people a good run for their money – or yours?


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Stupid inconsiderate people

You come across people who don’t think about their fellow human beings all the time. There are those who play loud music in their gardens on sunny Sunday afternoons when their neighbours want to have a peaceful time and read. There are those who park their cars on double bends.

Sometimes people expect others to be considerate but make no attempt to consider others. The other day there was a young woman riding a horse nearby. She had a jacket with, written on the back “Young Horse. Please pass wide and slow”. Motorists were doing their best to be careful. Horses still have rights on our roads. Yet why was she riding a young inexperienced horse on a busy main road at eight in the morning? In the rush hour? With a queue of traffic backing up more than half a mile?

How many people was this young woman making late for work? How many work hours would be lost?

So we pick up customers or clients like this whom we end up not liking:

  • Those who want a great deal but don’t want to pay.
  • Those who agree a fee for a service or product but then ask for a lot more for nothing.
  • Those who don’t pay us promptly, like the one who told me she had been too busy to pay me.
  • Those who give us abuse; the worst sin.

We have to accept that most difficult clients need not remain clients. We need to ask them to leave us for our own peace of mind, for the good of our cash flow and so that we can earn more money giving a good service to our customers who appreciate us.

Never be afraid to sack a client. We deserve to be appreciated, don’t you think?


Never mind the quality?

Eeyore being sad.
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I love being in business, and not being an employee and part of someone else’s business. Many of you have heard that from me before. Just the same it is not all plain sailing and that is partly because we are dealing with other human beings.


Over the years I have had many lovely people as clients and who have appreciated the service they have received. Happy clients are those who are prepared to pay for what they get because of the benefit they perceive. However, there are some who are not very often of a cheerful nature and no matter what they get, try to pay as little as possible for it. These are the glass-half-empty people, the pessimists and the generally grumpy who want to pay as little as possible and never want add-on services. They are the people who can get you down if you let them. This is the Eeyore view of life.


As we have said before, start-up businesses take on as many customers and clients they can get, and that’s only natural. As the business grows and develops, an owner, particularly of a service business, can afford to weed out the ungrateful and low coupon clients and concentrate on the higher value and generally more appreciative clients, and at the same time have more enjoyment in dealing with the higher coupon work which is generally more interesting.

If you haven’t got to the point of being really choosy who you work with, at least sack the miserable cheapskate customers because all you will get from them is grief; you certainly won’t get a decent profit.

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Telephone service and talking to clients

Wonderful though email and on-line digital services are there really is no substitute for speaking to a real person. I am sure we all get frustrated at having our time wasted by large organizations where we have difficulty getting through to the right person (or even find out who the right person is) to deal with a problem or even give them a sale. What is worse in my view is where we cannot even find a telephone number and find we have to raise a “support ticket” on some company’s website.

I believe in talking to my clients on the telephone if I cannot talk to them face to face. With many I could just bang out an email and sometimes I do as clarification of a point raised in a conversation, but there is no substitute for the personal touch.

Sometimes a client will call at a time which is inconvenient. There are times when we can do without interruptions in the midst of particular projects. That is why we should have someone else answer the telephone and take a message, whether that is in actually in our office or in the office of our virtual PA. The point is that the client knows that they matter and we will talk to them as soon as we can.

When we do speak to the client, we should have made time to do so and to be helpful. It is no good just calling back to say we have the matter in hand. At the end of any call, our client should feel that their immediate need is being dealt with.

In a small business we have so much more opportunity to demonstrate that we care, both in word and deed, and I believe the telephone is a good starting point. What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Answer the telephone!

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Letting clients go

Quite a few years ago I worked for a very large firm of accountants. One of the less pleasurable aspects was in dealing with difficult clients. There were clients who paid their bills late of course, there were clients who didn’t take advice, clients who let their affairs get into a mess, and, worst of all, clients who were downright rude.

In a large firm of accountants, each client is allocated to a partner or director. Some of these clients will have been won by the partner etc. and some will have been inherited. Either way, beyond the annual Christmas card, the contact between our bosses and their clients was generally fairly minimal. It was the staff who had to take all the flak, the bad behaviour and the rudeness.

I believe there comes a point with some clients when one really has to review whether they are worth having both in terms of fee recovery and the stress of having to watch the clients’ backs with frankly no gratitude or any form of appreciation, as the clients go their own sweet way. This is true of large firms such as my own former employer, though of course the partner may not protect the staff or even the firm when there is a theoretical loss of revenue no matter how difficult or unpleasant the client.

With smaller businesses though, it is really within our control. If we have had enough of the client in terms of stress, because all the other sorts of bad behaviour cause stress, it is best to tell the client to find someone else.

Dropping the Pilot by Sir John Tenniel, from Punch, March 1890, showing Chancellor Bismarck leaving the German ship of state, watched by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

At certain times we need to be strong and insist the client finds another adviser. There are often protestations and we may be told “things will change”, but sometimes enough is enough. Be polite as possible but get the message over. Let the client sail on into the sunset on his or her own. With less to worry about we can concentrate better on our marketing to find new, better and more appreciative clients.

© Jon Stow 2010

How to avoid problem clients and customers

Have you ever wished that when you started your business you had known then what you know now? I certainly have, but sometimes we have to learn the hard way. However, if you are starting your business now or very shortly, and you are reading this then you have an advantage that I did not have when I started.

This week I went to see a new prospect. I knew that there might be something I would not like, but it is better so see for oneself rather than turn down what might have been a good opportunity. The prospect business-person told me over the telephone that he was afraid his accountant wasn’t claiming everything he should. In general this is unlikely, especially with a smaller business. After all, once you have prepared a proper set of accounts you know more or less what you should be claiming.

I have learned from experience that a gripe over a financial issue such as that, and especially when coupled with the next comment, “a friend told me I should be claiming for this and for that”, indicates a likely problem client. Firstly, they are no more likely to trust you than their previous adviser (and trust is important) and secondly they are going to be very fee-resistant and will not appreciate the excellent service you will deliver.

I looked at the “records”, a plastic tub of receipts, concluded that the unfortunate but adequate accountant had already been driven too low in the fees he charged, and decided not to offer to relieve him of his agony. It was an easy decision, based both on instinct and on logic. Neither of these qualities was as fine-tuned when I started out in business and when I was anxious to gain every new client I could. Now I knew I should walk away.

As it happens, I have a job which I grabbed in the very early days of my business and with twenty-twenty hindsight wish I had turned down. Far from responding to my advice on record keeping and on paying the right people at the right price for the things the client is not good at himself, he just seems to be getting worse. He is making it harder for me, and pushing up my fees which would not have happened if he had invested suitably in qualified help on the administration side. Given that he does not like spending money buying in help, he takes the same attitude with me too. Frankly we are getting to the point where it is not worth the headache for my firm to carry on.

Unless the client has a road-to-Damascus style revelation as to the error of his business ways I am afraid we will part company, and I am sorry also that I introduced a friend to help him who is getting the same resistance in terms of fees and attitude.

I now know that when we meet a prospect we have to ascertain that the person will pay a proper price for our offering, that they will accept our advice and act on it, and that they will not cause us to worry. Bad clients can endanger our business well-being and our health, and even if they pay whatever we ask for our service, sometimes it is just not worth it.

Trust your instinct with clients and with prospects. Actively think about how you feel about them, and if you are not comfortable, walk away. There are plenty of nice likeable people to have as clients, and they will trust and appreciate you more.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Why we should not always take the easy way in business

If you are as lucky as I am, you will enjoy your work and running your own business. We have at least some control of our destiny even given the trials and tribulations of the economic downturn. However, I was reminded the other day by a non-business story I heard that because we are happy with something we do or want to do, that does not mean that we have the right approach.

A couple I know have a perceived issue with the husband’s elderly parents who live in a rural village a couple of hundred miles from our friends. The son and daughter-in-law both work full-time in the Big City and live during the working week in their apartment in town. They have a house in the country which they use at weekends. They do not often manage to make time to visit the needy pensioners; maybe only three or four times a year.

Because the senior citizens have slight mobility problems and poor health, our busy pair suggested that they sell up and move to somewhere near their own country home so that they could be “on call” in case they were needed. Of course they would only be able to visit for an hour or so at weekends because work commitments in the City would keep them away from Monday to Friday.

The whole problem with this plan is that it is not a solution. What the old couple need is to have proper support provided at home through the social services or “meals on wheels” and at least someone dropping in every day to see they were all right. They need to feel they still have their independence. They do not need to be uprooted from the village they have lived in for so many years and taken away from their friends and neighbours. The plan is just to make the slightly younger generation feel better in that they have done something, but it would be the wrong thing and inadequate in terms of support even if the seniors agreed to the move.

There is a risk in business that we take what seems the easy way out in a similar vein. We avoid some marketing which makes us uncomfortable, some allow their fears of networking to prevent them from getting out, and many of us keep picking up and servicing the same sort of unprofitable clients and customers because we are used to doing it and we do not have to get out of our comfort zone. We may even be tempted by these “Get Rich Quick” schemes with which we are assailed via email and the post.

Well, sometimes what may make us feel better in the short-term is simply not good for us. By gritting our teeth now and maybe doing something which goes against the grain (as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else) we can be happier in the longer term. If we make the changes we have feared to make our business better, we will be happier down the line.

When I was a small boy (this dates me) the doctor sometimes prescribed some horrible pink medicine which came in a bottle with a cork. It tasted nasty but it made me better. Have you got that pink stuff in a bottle on your business shelf? Find a spoon and take the medicine. You won’t regret it.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Why arrogance has no place in business

I have been reflecting recently about the danger of arrogance in our business lives. I think it can come to some people through complacency. They feel that they know what they are doing, they have been doing it a fair time, and they know best. An attitude like that may lead to bullying too.

An arrogant person may indeed know his or her subject very well, and be very good at teasing out the finer points in their analysis of problems they seek to solve, but an arrogant person is also someone who does not communicate properly with the people who most need their help. An arrogant person ultimately is someone facing the risk of failure, because without being able to talk to or persuade people, any solution proposed will not be heeded.

Some of you may be familiar with the TV series “House” starring Hugh Laurie as a brilliant doctor and diagnostician. The premise of this very good programme originating from Fox in the US is that Dr House hardly ever sees patients because he in not interested in them, only in the diagnosis of their illness. He is very self-centred and very rude to almost everyone, but he is protected by his team of doctors who deal with and talk to the patients as well as carrying out any necessary tests. Dr House is also a bully, though he always thinks that his bullying is for the victim’s own good. Of course this is entertainment, and one needs to see a few episodes to enjoy the in-jokes and characters, and like many beers the series is an acquired taste.

In fact the premise of the progamme is not so absurd. I understand many doctors do become very arrogant, though perhaps not usually quite to the degree of the Dr. House character.

I am sure most of us have known arrogant but clever people in our working lives, including some who were bullies too. Imagine if we small business owners and employees adopted this attitude with our clients and customers. We cannot rely on our team to protect us. Imagine we believed we knew everything there is to know, and our clients were wrong and did not know what was good for them. Suppose we did not listen to them. We might understand their problem and make a diagnosis, and we may know how to fix it and provide a solution, but if we just told them – barked it out – they would feel intimidated and shy away. We would lose business that we should have gained and our clients would not get their solution unless they found someone more amenable who was as capable as we of delivering it.

Arrogance can be the price of experience and of knowledge but a little humility can go a long way in engaging our clients both in the formal way and in helping to solve their problems.

© Jon Stow 2009


Respect – being what our clients look for.

I don’t know what other people do, but I do try to match my manner and behaviour according to the client I am seeing, especially when visiting them in their own environment. My clients come from a lot of different backgrounds and vary in age from their early twenties to late eighties.

So how I deal with them depends on their expectations, and I try to keep them comfortable with me. Of course, if I am seeing a prospect for the first time I have to make a judgement based on experience, but if I know a client I already know what suits him or her.

What am I going on about? Well, I do not wish anyone to feel uncomfortable with me, so I think about my general demeanour, the manner in which I speak and the way I dress. I expect others do the same, whether consciously or otherwise.

Twenty-five years ago (it scarcely seems possible) I worked with a guy who provided bookkeeping services to a rock group and often worked in the office run by the band. My friend always wore his suit and tie when in our accountants’ office, but when he was at the band’s establishment he dressed down to very casual attire, because the staff were very laid back and living in the rock life environment. They would have been uncomfortable with a stuffed shirt and my colleague would have felt uncomfortable too.

It is all about managing expectations. My rule is (and you may laugh if you wish) that if I visit a business office I wear a suit and a tie, and of course a shirt as well. If I see a client who is younger who does not work in an office, so anyone from a drama teacher to a brickie, then maybe a jacket but definitely no tie. You get the picture. Then again these are the people with whom I am on first name terms; I have known them for a while.

There is then the older group, the over-seventies. They expect a tax practitioner not only to where a suit, shirt and tie, but to stay away from familiarity because that is the way they were taught to deal with their elders; they feel entitled to the same treatment and etiquette and that is what they get. I stick to “Mr. Smith” and “Mrs. Brown” etc. unless given permission to use their first names, though I do not get out of my own comfort zone by addressing anyone as Sir or Madam. I am a professional, not a servant!

I have cringed when visiting older people in hospital or seeing on television the elderly spoken to by medical staff using first names. People are stripped of a great deal of dignity by being in hospital or in having difficulty looking after themselves. They deserve to be treated with proper respect as it is better for their morale.

I guess the way I deal with each client is to make me feel more comfortable too; there is a selfish element. I learned from my rock band colleague how to make clients feel at ease with dress code and manner, but he also left a lesson not to get too much into character. I heard he died a sad rock star death at an early age and never had the fame to go with it. That was a hard lesson.

© Jon Stow 2009

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