The perils of under-resourcing

One of my family members who is now rather frail but insistent on staying in her own home has carers to visit her four times a day, to get her in and out of bed and to prepare meals and attend to other needs as necessary.

Obviously we have to deal with the agencies providing the carers and it may surprise you to know that we are now employing the third agency in about four months.

The first two agencies were a disaster. Their visiting times were erratic and sometimes they failed to come at all, leaving the poor lady in bed until lunchtime as we only later found out. They failed in many other irritating and occasionally unfortunate ways, but I will spare you the details.

Some of those agency employees were indeed caring. They explained that things went wrong because they were understaffed and trying to cover too many clients. They had no back up if one had a major problem with a client and could not send a relief person to deal with the next client on the list, which was why our relative was left to lie in bed until lunchtime on that occasion.

Finally we were referred to another agency, who it has to be said are a bit more expensive. They have a smaller staff and fewer clients, but even so they have more than enough employees to cover all their clients’ requirements. Our invalid is very happy. She doesn’t worry about when the next visit will be. We don’t worry because we know that she is at last in good hands and we will not get that telephone call to go to the rescue at whatever time of the day or night.

There is a business lesson here, it seems to me. The first two agencies were chasing every bit of business they could and accepting everything flung at them by the local authority. They were never honest and said “we are at full capacity and we haven’t the resources to meet your or the clients’ needs.” That means that they will continue to fail and they will always lose clients as quickly as they get them. Even though it is a narrow sector they have a high client churn rate and lose what should be long-term business.

The current agency charges more. They provide a great service, which is why they get referrals rather than have to fight to stay afloat. They have the staff to cope. They do not have to tout for business; it finds them. They take away the clients’ pain and they take away our pain in terms of worry.

Most of us are in business to take away our clients’ and customers’ pain. If we can provide a great service we will get more referrals and we will be able to charge more too, because relief from stress is what everyone wants, and the price is worth paying. Don’t you agree?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Saying “Thank you”

I guess I would not like to work in a large chain store. I imagine that at busy times, especially at the check-out it can be a pretty relentless slog, and at other times rather boring. I expect that any little gesture of appreciation gives a lift in mood to a bored or overworked shop assistant.

This morning I went into a well-known motor accessories chain to buy a packet of “dust caps” for the tyre valves on my car as some person who had lost theirs has helped themselves to mine. These dust caps were difficult to find, but luckily the place was quiet and asking for directions twice from helpful assistants (but it is a big store) I found what I wanted. Obviously I thanked both people and had a nice chat with the lady on the check-out, and I thanked her for the helpful service.

This seems a trivial matter to relate, but I do always make a point of showing my gratitude even to the bored and busy in shops. Why? I like to be thanked too. I also thank the suppliers of goods and services I receive, whether it is the owner of a business or the delivery driver; whoever is the person I am dealing with. It never does any harm, there is no downside, and I might get even better service.

There is another way of thanking our suppliers and contractors and that is by making sure they are paid promptly. It is insulting to make people wait for their money after they have delivered their service or product. Late payment makes people feel less valued or respected. Actually, quite apart from getting ourselves a bad reputation by paying late, our suppliers may decide not to refer us and refer another customer instead for that juicy contract. We do ourselves damage by not showing our gratitude with thanks and with prompt payment.

How do you feel when someone takes ages to pay you or your business for a product or service you have delivered? Do you feel, as I do, that the client or customer is disrespectful and doesn’t value you? Do you also like to be thanked properly? I know I do. What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Flirting with prospects and with clients and customers

I talk to many different business people, whether it is when I am out networking, on-line, or in dealing with my clients and prospects, or indeed when I am someone else’s client. From a consumer point of view generally I get a good service, but that is partly because I seek it out in getting recommendations before I engage a business to do something for me.

Occasionally, though, I hear of stories or experience myself a very disorganized business. It does seem that there are those who take on too much, promise loads and have not worked out when they have time to deliver. Of course if demand is there, it is sensible to take on an employee or two, or if the need is anticipated to be short term then the answer is to take on a recommended contractor for the duration. Some people do not have the courage to grasp the nettle and delegate, or do not know when they do not have the ability or skill to deliver what is required.

There are those in business like moths flying from one light to another. They flutter round one project, and before they have seen it done they fly off to another. They never get anything finished, they never respond to customers’ questions about progress and they never organize themselves to make serious money. In the end they will get a poor reputation and their business will fail.

We all like the bright lights, but instead of spending our time fluttering around them we need to keep our feet on the ground and use our heads rather than our imaginary wings. The wings are great for dreaming but first we need to be successful to realise our dreams.

Have you met a business fluttering aimlessly, trying to please everyone but failing to deliver?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Answer the telephone!

Why don’t businesses realise it is so important to answer the telephone or at least have someone answer it for them? This was brought to mind the other night when we tried to place an order for a meal to be delivered. The telephone rang and rang.

It is human nature if you call to enquire about a product or service from someone you have not tried before to hang up rather than talk to a machine. It doesn’t matter if the voice mail message says “your business is really important to us”. If anything it makes it worse because either it seems insulting, implying “but not so important we can take your call”. Unless you have had a really strong recommendation, you are going to move on to enquire of the next business on your list or in the local directory.

If a business is that busy or so small that the person who could take the call is engaged on a vital task, why not engage an answering service? They are relatively inexpensive especially when one considers the extra business that can be won.

That way any enquirer can leave a message with a human being. He or she then will be most likely to wait to be called back rather than go on to the next one on the list. It also helps the business owner in concentrating on a task without interruptions in the knowledge that all messages will be written down or emailed ready to be followed up.

In short, if we answer the telephone we maximize the business that comes to us that way. If we leave our prospects to a recording they will probably give up on us as we did the restaurant who didn’t pick up.

© Jon Stow 2010

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Do you know where they are?

If you are a regular visitor to On our bikes you will know that I believe in management with a light touch. In other words, I hope that employees will work hard out of a sense of loyalty and because there is mutual respect between them and their managers and they wish to please and feel valued as part of the team. That involves two-way conversations so that good ideas are put into practice whether they come from the owners and managers, or from the rest of the workforce.

However, human nature being what it is, sometimes people who work for us get distracted. They may have personal or domestic problems. These are often easy to spot when we see out employees on a daily basis but for some businesses whose workers are out in the field and working partly or wholly on their own there may be problems that are not so easily spotted.

Many businesses have sales representatives on the road or area managers who spend a lot of their time travelling between customers. Some agencies supply workers out in the field as required. Trust is all very well, but often if something does go wrong, the first time the business owners or senior managers hear about a problem is when the customer takes their business elsewhere.

Of course a sales representative’s figures may show that he or she is not visiting customers and prospects when supposed to, but by the time the numbers filter through the business may be lost. It is the same with area managers looking after customer’s needs. If they don’t do their job, the business may be lost.

There are two ways of making sure that the workers in the field are doing their jobs and turning up, and neither is intrusive or heavy-handed.

The first is to ask every “out-worker” to call in when they set off for their first call. Of course, there could be a degree of deception, but actually lying is hard for most. That way, especially if a customer is expecting the visit, we can be sure that they will not be disappointed.

The second way is for every customer to be called at least monthly to ensure that they are happy with the service, and to ask if there is any way it could be better. If the out-worker knows that this will happen from the main base, that will be an incentive to get things right, but should not make them feel uncomfortable, especially as the customer service function of any business should be the number one priority.

A recent example of a failure in service I have seen is where a care agency supposed to ensure four visits a day to an elderly infirm person failed to send anyone to get her out of bed. She would have been there until the lunch time carer arrived had not the family arrived to find her in bed and without having had breakfast. The excuse of the agency was that the first carer had gone off sick and had not telephoned in. Surely a properly run agency should have every worker call in at 7 AM or whenever they are booked to start and if they do not call in they should be telephoned? If they cannot be contacted, then there should be a relief person to go to the first client as soon as possible. It should be a pretty obvious procedure for a care agency.

In the care agency case, it is not just a question of their losing the business. It is essential for safety reasons that their workers are there at the appointed times for their clients and that they should have proper procedures in place to ensure that this happens.

So, do you know where all your workers are? They shouldn’t mind your asking. How do you deal with this and what is your experience?

© Jon Stow 2010

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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

Being in business is not a game

I hope you enjoy running your business. I know I enjoy running mine. Business should be fun and give pleasure and a sense of achievement, as well, of course, as making money.

It might come as a surprise to some of you that there are people who just play at business. They enjoy what they do and may have a special talent. However, somehow they are easily diverted and want to do too much. They may want to dabble in some other activity which means they do not have the time to devote to their main business, which is of course their main source of income. They may decide to go on an extended holiday or take a sabbatical. Now that is OK if they have other good people to “look after the shop” while they are away, but often a small service business is about the person, and clients buy the business owner as much as the service they provide.

Customers or clients of a business like that need to feel special, to talk to the owner. Indeed the owner should keep in touch, check how they are if they have been quiet and generally give them a feeling of security. If the business owner is not always available or even goes away for a couple of months or half a year, the customers or clients will find someone else. What’s more, they won’t come running back when the owner returns.

So if you have a business which is all about you, your personality and your talents, you need to take care of your business and be there when needed. That applies whether you offer commercial photography, graphic design, Swedish massage or hairdressing. Look after your clients and give them continuity, because if you don’t they will feel neglected. You will lose their trust and probably won’t get them back again.

We are all entitled to have fun, but business is not a game; it is deadly serious.

(C) Jon Stow 2010

Benefit from being the best

It is a great philosophy in business to strive to the be the best in our field, to go that bit further in what we do, and provide the best quality. That way we can stand out in drawing new business because our clients will, we hope, recommend us.

However, our clients can get used to our great service, and even though they remain very happy with what we do, they become complacent. They start to take us for granted in the way that they would do their shopping at Waitrose, or buy from a specialist baker or delicatessen. They expect top quality and get it, but forget that not every shop provides the same great service.

I think it does no harm to remind our clients and customers what a great service they get, and ask them to tell their friends. If we take a great pride in our service, we should be comfortable in asking for referrals and testimonials from our own patrons.

Do you ask for referrals? What do you think?

© Jon Stow 2010

Manage yourself, manage your clients

In running our own businesses it is very easy to not allow ourselves enough recreation time, or time not just working. Of course we do not just keep regular working hours. Most of us attend to our tasks at odd hours, but part of the advantage of working for ourselves is that we can, now and again, take some personal time during the working week, either when we wish to or sometimes when it is thrust upon us, such as (in my case recently) helping elderly relatives.

We do need to stop ourselves from being at our clients’ or customers’ beck and call at all times. I have a quite technical business anyway, but I do not give out my mobile (cell) number unless absolutely necessary. The number is not on my business card. Usually if I am not available in the office during normal working hours it is because I am with a client or out and about seeing clients or at networking events. It is not convenient for me to take calls and probably I could not answer with confidence without my file any questions that might be asked. My assistant will take messages and I can call back when convenient.

Generally I do not do client work at weekends, except at the height of our tax season, and even then not the last weekend because I organise my clients to spare me the last-minute rush. I do write articles and blog posts at weekends because I enjoy doing it, and it is great when a sort of recreation has a useful marketing function (there, I admit it: I market; actually quite a lot).

So if my client calls on a Friday afternoon at 4.30 and asks if I can produce a document needed by first thing Monday morning, I may look askance at the request.

Firstly, I may have plans for the weekend. Secondly, I have to ask myself whether I should modify or abandon those plans and whether I have time anyway.

Thirdly, I ask myself whether this is a really good client, who has become a friend and who would not ask unless it was desperate. Alternatively is this an inconsiderate nuisance client who apparently thinks they are my only client, but does not go as far as paying me on time? This is where I manage their expectation and their presumption in deciding what to do. Of course, that is not to say that I won’t help with something I would have time to do on Monday morning. I am not cussed.

I look after all my clients well, but they do not own me or my leisure time. I will do a special favour based on its merits, but at weekends, home and family comes first.

Do you have this trouble from clients or customers? How do you deal with it?

© Jon Stow 2010

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Why we should give ownership of their jobs to our employees

Although I have touched on the subject before, two recent incidents have brought me back. An event I organize was severely disrupted by failures in catering at the venue, and I gave up queueing in a branch of a well-known pharmacy chain because only one assistant was serving as opposed to four or five who were having a nice chat in the corner.

The catering problem was in part to do with lack of supervision. There was no one available to tell the waiting staff what to do and how to deliver a buffet on time. Presumably they were told to report to the kitchen and were handed the food when it was ready, which was at least twenty minutes after it was supposed to have been. They then carried what they were given into the room where the event was taking place (incidentally a room too small for the number of attendees advised in advance to the venue).

Our venue employees also failed to note that the equipment to keep the food warm was not switched on, there were insufficient plates and hardly any cutlery, and the fruit salad should have been delivered before the main course (it was breakfast).

There were other issues, but I have given enough details to demonstrate what was wrong, which was that the staff had not been properly trained if they were trained at all; they were not asked to think for themselves or did not feel that they had sufficient authority to act on their own initiative in the face of obvious problems. The manager was not in, but if the staff had been able to respond quickly to the large number of requests for additional items of food, cutlery and appliances, it would have meant less disruption. If someone had looked at the whole picture and dealt with it, our problems would have been minor.

I do not suppose that the venue employees are well-paid. However, everyone has to start somewhere, and in addition to essential training there needs to be the sort of management that encourages initiative and through that, progression to greater things. I started as the office boy, but I accepted my lot because I knew that if I got the simple things right it would lead to more responsibility. I made the tea (or coffee), remembered who took sugar and who didn’t, did everyone’s filing, and bought chocolates and ordered flowers for the boss’s wife. I could use my initiative to help people out, including choosing the chocolates and the flowers.

It is not good enough to have our staff just follow orders. They need to know what is expected of them and that should include using their common sense and asking for anything extra they need to do their job. Of course that means that they must feel comfortable in being able to talk to their bosses and that they will have a friendly ear, and even if their suggestion is not immediately considered they should know that their having asked a question will not counted against them. It should be accepted as being motivated by good intentions.

At the end of my event the manager did finally arrive. He apologised and blamed the staff for being stupid and ignorant. However, the blame was his in my book. He wasn’t there when needed, and he had not given his staff authority or motivation to deal with any problems in his absence.

In a factory or a closed office environment one might get away with a one-off failure if it is rectified quickly. In providing a service to the public, mistakes can be very costly for the reputation of a business. This is why I believe managers must take ownership of their responsibilities, but also why employees should be given ownership and responsibility too, with the carrot of reward and recognition for stepping in when needed.

Have you seen similar situations? Do you agree?

© Jon Stow 2010