Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Where are you going?

I love Facebook.  I love how it enables me to stay up to date with my friends on a day to day basis even though some live too far away for me to see them as much as I would like.  I also think it is a great tool for small businesses, allowing easy networking opportunities for promotion, morale and advice – really important to alleviate the isolation of working alone.

I love how Facebook has enabled me to reconnect with old friends and colleagues with whom I had lost touch.  It’s great to see how people have moved on, what they’ve achieved and what they are doing now.  For some people, I could have predicted where they would be, but less so for others.

So the question is, are they happy with where they are?   Are they where they wanted to be?  I have one friend who has had her life planned out in her head for as long as I’ve known her – probably 15 years or so.  And her life has followed her plan. She’s qualified in the profession she sought after, has a lovely husband and the four children she wanted – it’s amazing really.  But to be fair to her, she has worked hard to achieve her goals and never lost sight of them.

Now I don’t know anyone else quite like her.  Certainly my life looks very differently than I imagined it would do 10 or 20 years ago.  But my aspirations have changed and my priorities with them, and my life reflects the choices I have made.  For the most part, I am happy with them.

So what about your business?  What will that look like in 5, 10 or 20 years time?  Do you have a clear long term plan that you  are working to achieve?  Or are you just drifting along hoping that success decides to land on your doorstep?  To be honest, with very few exceptions, success is something that you work at and you need a plan to get there.

Most businesses start out with a business plan.  A clear roadmap of what they hope to achieve and how they will go about it.  But how many business plans get shoved in a drawer and forgotten about?  And yet, how can anyone hope to achieve their goals without proper planning that is followed through?

The business plan is so often undervalued by businesses.  What it is, in fact, is a living document that can develop with your plans and ambitions.  Very few people can write a plan at the inception of their business which will see them through for the long term, but a good business plan will be adjusted as a business develops, changing with the benefit of hindsight and helping  you achieve your, possibly changing, long term goals. 

So why not get out your business plan today?  Have you achieved what you initially set out to do, or has your business taken a different direction?  Take some time now to plan how you can move your business forward and make sure that your long term goals always feature in your decision making process so that success, whatever that looks like to you, is where your business is going.

To find out more about how Pringle Accountants can help you, visit our website

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Anything for an easy life?

I know it’s an annual thing, but a bit like Christmas my insurance renewal seems to sneak up on me every year.  So with less than a week until my current policy expired I decided it was time to stop procrastinating and shop around for a new quote.  I had been informed by my current insurer that they no longer offer the product that I had last year and so it was with a sigh of foreboding that I started trawling insurance websites looking for what I needed at a good price.

One website that I visited asked me a few straightforward questions before returning a reasonable quote.  To be honest, this particular site was a welcome relief to their competitors, some of whom asked incomprehensible questions, some of whom had websites which took so long to load that they “timed out due to inactivity” and one even required a phone call to a call centre where I was very helpfully informed that “the computer says no”.  I don’t think I need to tell you which policy I bought!!
So how easy do you make it for your customers?  Is it easy to buy from your business, or are there unnecessary hurdles to overcome?  Now don’t get me wrong, there are businesses that need some hurdles to ensure that customers are being sold the right product for them or for the protection of both parties.  After all, I would feel a little suspicious of an insurance provider who didn’t ask any questions at all.  But even when the sales process isn’t straightforward, is there anything you could do to make it easier for your potential customers?
Another thing to consider is whether it is just the complexity of your sales process that prevents people from buying from you?  I would say not, even with the most customer friendly sales process no business will achieve a 100% conversion rate of enquiries into customers.  But if someone has taken the time to enquire about your business, walk into your shop or check out your website, they must have an interest in the product or service you sell.
Increasing this conversion rate is a great way of increasing the number of customers and growing your business.  Of course, some of the reasons potential customers don’t buy will be out of your control but if you can identify as many objections as you can, find sensible solutions and communicate these effectively to potential customers you may well see an increase in your conversion rate and real growth in your business.
So try walking through the process yourself and seeing what frustrations you find, it may even be a good question to ask on social media to get a conversation started with those who have previously enquired but not purchased – and maybe even convert them!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

How well is your business represented?

I was really quite annoyed earlier this week when, while shopping with my 2 year old, a van pulled into the last parent and child parking space at our local supermarket.  Of course, that would have been fine had there been a child in the van, but there was not.  This wasn’t just any van though, it was branded with the name of a local coffee shop (see my blog from a few weeks ago).

I am aware that many people are guilty of taking advantage of the proximity of these spaces to the shops, but most people are protected from consequences by their anonymity – unless of course a very harassed parent is up for a fight on a carpark (one should never entirely discount this possibility).
Now, most business owners I know are keen to present themselves well when put in front of potential customers.  After all, people buy from people or, more specifically, people buy from people they like, all other things being equal.
But when are you representing your business and when is it OK to behave in a less professional manner?  I am a member of various networking groups where everyone is on their best behaviour, but would I find people equally as courteous and professional if I ran into them in the pub after a tough day?  The truth is that you are always representing your business.  Even if no-one in the vicinity is ever likely to purchase your product or service, they may know someone else who is.  Or they may be a keen Facebook contributor whose friends are potential customers – I’m not sure that bad publicity is worse than no publicity at all. 
For every interaction you have, you have no idea where it will end up.  The number of times I have come across people in the course of my business who I have had a previous, completely unrelated, connection to is amazing.  It truly is a small world.  But the impression you made first time around still counts, and will influence a potential customer’s decision to buy from you.  This may be worth remembering next time someone cuts you up while driving – what image do you want to portray?
So it’s important to remember that you are always representing your business – in every photo on Facebook, while driving your car, in every social setting.  Make sure you represent your business well.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Always check the small print

I am a reader and I like to read everything that is put in front of me.  I’m a nightmare for reading notices and labels, but also an advertisers dream because if there are words written, I am drawn to them. 
So while out shopping recently I saw a sign on a shop and was amused at what it said.
If you’re wondering which bit caught my eye, it was the qualification on the price match guarantee.  A qualification which, in my view, makes it no guarantee at all.
Now in all fairness to this particular establishment, they are at least prepared to put their small print on the front of their shop for all to see, as opposed to hiding it at the back of a sales agreement in writing so small that requires a magnifying glass and which often can result in a customer buying a product very different from the product they believe they are purchasing. 
A number of banks have employed such practices in the past resulting in recent significant costs in the form of compensation for missold payment protection insurance.  But it’s not just the banks, have you ever approached your insurance provider hoping to make a claim, only to find that you weren’t as comprehensively covered as you had perhaps believed?
While working for an international conglomerate, I did some work with the Japanese arm of the company and was amazed at the levels of trust upon which business operates in Japan.  I found it fantastic that a gentleman’s word was his bond and that a handshake agreed the terms of a deal without any need for long legal processes.  But more that, the management of the Japanese business would not contemplate reneging on an agreement they had made as it would significantly impede their ability to work in their market in the future.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to just believe what people say, to be confident that you weren’t going to be ripped off and to know that the society in which you operate frowned upon misselling to the point where those guilty of it would be rejected by the market place?
So what about your customers?  Would they describe you as a stand up guy, someone who can be relied upon to deliver their promises?  Or is your inclination to look for a get out clause when things get difficult?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Christmas comes but once a year

I started my Christmas shopping last week, in October!! Only just in October, I grant you, but nonetheless in October.  Now this may be no big deal to some people, in fact I know one (smug) person who has already finished (and wrapped) her Christmas shopping, but I am usually panic buying the week before Christmas for those of my loved ones who are, at best, difficult to buy for (at worst, downright awkward) and for whom I have procrastinated the gift buying process until it can be put off no longer.
Now we all know that Christmas is on 25th December.  It has always been on 25th December and I have known that it was coming up on the 25th December this year since before 25th December last year.  So why is it always a last minute rush to get organised?  The truth is that with better planning, not only could I reduce my stress levels, but also quite possibly reduce my Christmas spending – after all, with the whole realm of internet shopping available I would be less likely to plump for an extravagant gift just so that I could go home, or at least be able to shop around for a better price on said extravagant gift.
The 31st January is the deadline for filing your tax return and paying any outstanding tax due.  It is the same deadline every year and yet, as an accountant, I can give testament to the fact that this deadline seems to come as a surprise to some people every year.
There is, in fact, nothing to be gained from leaving your tax return until the last minute – even if you submit your return in May, the tax due will not need to be paid any earlier, but by being well organised and having your books and records in order you can ensure that you claim all of the expenses and allowances available with plenty of time to peruse the HRMC website and watch their YouTube videos (which I can recommend) for any help needed thus saving accountancy fees. 
Those who leave it until the last minute, however, will often miss some expenses where unrecorded receipts have gone astray, may miss out on allowances without the time to properly investigate what is available to them and may even struggle to find an accountant to help them as many firms struggle to hit the deadlines for their existing last minute clients without adding to their already heavy workload with new ones.  Of course if you don’t manage to hit the deadline, there are late filing fees to pay which is just the start of the interest and penalties that HMRC can levy.
So when's the best time to do your tax return?  Well how about now, after all who wants to be doing their tax return over the festive period or adding to the hangover of January?  And just a note for your diary - next year's tax return deadline will also be 31st January.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

One size fits all?

I have been trying to do a bit of online shopping recently in an attempt to spruce up my wardrobe somewhat as getting dressed in the morning is becoming a bit like Ground Hog day.  While I’m a real fan of being able to trawl so many high street names from the comfort of my sofa, while watching Strictly, I would really like to know what the clothes on offer look like on a, shall we say, fuller figure.

For anyone who is not au fait with on-line clothes shopping, the big high street brands present their clothing collections, each item displayed at its best on a beautiful model.  Now I’m sure that the size 6 waif like forms show off the clothes at their most beautiful, but that doesn’t tell me what they will do for me.  So I guess I am going to have to brave the hordes of shoppers and deal with the premature Christmas decorations festooning the shopping centres in order to avoid a mountain of returns of ill fitting clothes.

Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be true just for the clothing sector.  In fact many businesses, particularly when starting up, attempt the broad brush approach hoping that by casting the net wide they will “catch” more customers – but is this a wise tactic or, by trying to please everybody, will they succeed in pleasing nobody?

Often, the most successful businesses, particularly small businesses, aim themselves at a niche market.   If there was a website selling size 12 clothes for 30 somethings I would be there hammering the credit card.  So maybe a better tactic is to tell your potential customers exactly what it is that you can do for them, in their circumstances – the more specific the better.  Because people are much more likely to buy a product that they feel was made for them than a “one size fits all” offering.

So look at what your business is good at, what are its strengths?  Then aim to trade on those strengths to offer a superior product to customers you can make a real difference to.  This is a much better approach than trying to cover over areas of weakness in order to offer a mediocre product with a wider appeal.  Because, with very few exceptions, one size does not fit all.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Decisions, decisions, decisions ...

I went to my eldest daughter’s school PTA meeting last night, an organisation which is truly run by committee just like many other voluntary organisations that I have been involved with over the years .  Now this may be the most politically correct way to make decisions, but certainly is not the most efficient.

In the interests of trying to please all the people, all variations of all options are considered.  The eventual outcome then being the option that pleases most of the group members, which is not always the same as the option that best achieves the objectives of the group. 
Now this is fine for a PTA, after all what a PTA needs more than anything else is volunteers to run it and so keeping them happy has to be high on the list of priorities.  But a commercial business cannot run successfully in the same way. 
It is vital for the survival of any small business that it is able to quickly adapt to changes in the market in which it is operating.  Many start-ups are competing against well established businesses and as a new entrant into a market there is a need to be able to beat competition when it comes to fulfilling ever changing customer needs.
Over the course of my career I have worked in businesses of many different sizes and, in my experience, the size of an organisation seems to be directly proportional to the level of bureaucracy.  This means that the biggest player in the market will probably be the slowest to react to unexpected changes in the market and this gives the little guy a chance to get a foot in the door.

The little guy also has the advantage of being closer to the customer.  For a one man band, the distance from the front line to the top is very short indeed allowing customer feedback to translate directly into innovation in a very short time scale.
But not all decisions relate to market changes, there can be strategic or budget decisions to be made or difficult decisions to cut costs or streamline processes.  It is never advantages for a business to remain in a state of uncertainty whilst unnecessary deliberations are made, the recent US shutdown is evidence enough of that. 

So good decision making is vital, as is innovation and a clear awareness of market changes.  And remember, you can’t please all the people all the time.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The importance of Customer Service

While out and about this week I treated myself to a cup of coffee.  I ordered a large, skinny coffee but, had I not intervened, I would have been given a medium, full fat coffee.  The problem was that the barista was rather more interested in gossiping with her colleague than she was about making the cup of coffee that I had asked and paid for.  To be fair, the gossip was probably more interesting, but it did not feature on my list of priorities.

I left the coffee shop a disgruntled customer.  Although I had a perfectly good cup of coffee (made to my reiterated specifications) for which I had paid a reasonable price, I had not had a good experience.

I'm sure I read somewhere that a happy customer will tell 2-3 people while an unhappy customer will tell 8-10.  Well in this social networking society, those numbers increase substantially - I only need update my Facebook status and I've told hundreds of people about my grievance with minimal effort, a couple of likes or comments from friends and the number increase exponentially.

Now, with word of mouth being such an effective marketing tool, the value of customer experience is ignored by any business at their peril, see Ryanair's recent headlines if you're not convinced.  And in fact it is true to say that there are many circumstances where a business can charge a premium if they have a reputation for good customer service.

With apparent customer loyalty from discounted prices lasting only as long as the discount, which is usually unsustainable, investment in customer service can offer a low cost and effective way for a small business to really shine.  And as the small business proprietor is so close to the customers, customer satisfaction surveys and mystery shoppers aren't necessarily a requirement.

So what's the down side?  Choosing to invest in customer service may be the long game as results (in terms of increased customers) will not be instant.  But if you are in business for the long term, then surely the long game is the game to be playing.

So, what about the coffee shop?  I would love to be able to tell you that I won't be giving them any repeat custom, but the truth is that there isn't a convenient alternative.  So, due to lack of competition (see last week's blog), I will be back there again playing coffee roulette!


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Healthy Competition

Last week I visited our local soft play area with my youngest daughter and her best friend.  This is not our usual haunt as we usually meet with a group of friends at another soft play centre 7 miles away and after my latest visit to our local I remember why.

Not wanting to bore you with the details but it was, in my opinion, over-priced and showing a few too many signs of wear and tear.   It used to be a lovely centre which, as I recall, was reasonable value for money but it would seem that those days are gone as they look for every opportunity to squeeze more money out of the customers coming through the door.

The falling standards and rising prices annoyed me somewhat which seems a little unreasonable when no-one forced me in there, it was my choice and I could have chosen to drive to our usual centre with two toddlers had I felt strongly enough.  But it was too far to go and so I paid the money and accepted the service being offered. 

And therein lies the problem with a lack of competition.  Why would our local centre charge a lower price or choose to invest in their equipment if they don’t need to?  They are safe in the knowledge that their nearest rival is a good car ride away providing something of a captive audience.  Surely it’s just good business sense to maximise profits by charging the highest price and keeping costs to a minimum.   After all, this is a business not a charity.

But, what if a new centre was to open just around the corner?  Suddenly there would be a need for innovation in order to stay in the game.  If you lose your unique selling point (in this case being the only supplier in the area) then you need to find a new one in order to hold onto market share.  So what will it be?  Customer loyalty won’t be enough, particularly if you’ve been ripping people off for years.  So you’re looking at falling profits as you slash prices and plough investment into your product to appeal to the customers who once had no choice.

This is great news for customers who now get much more for their pound, but maybe a warning to the supplier not to become too complacent while enjoying their monopoly position.  After all, nothing is forever.   This could be a lesson for anyone who runs a business to make sure that there are contingency plans in place for every eventuality including the entry of new competition into the market.

So then, in my humble parental opinion every town should have a soft play centre – they are brilliant places.  But maybe, in the interests of innovation and customer experience every town needs two.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Tax breaks for married couples

There has been a lot of discussion in the news this week about David Cameron’s proposed tax breaks for married couples, but in today’s day and age is it appropriate to show preference to this group of society over other, maybe less conventional, families?

I suppose your point of view on this issue will depend very much on your opinion of this long established institution.  However, it is worth noting that there are already many tax advantages to having a valid marriage certificate.

Sharing assets

One of my clients owns a small property letting business which he runs alongside his full time (and some would say very well paid) job.  As a higher rate tax payer he must pay tax on any profits from his property business at 40% while his (up until recently) girlfriend pays basic rate tax on income from her employment.  I say “up until recently” as they were married a few weeks ago and now are able to pass the property assets between them without any Capital Gains Tax implications allowing them to pay tax at 20% on the property business profits.

What if your partner dies?

On the other rather more sombre side of the coin, a friend of a friend of mine lost her partner of 15 years a few months back.  Although they were “life partners” with two children they were not married and so, in addition to all the stress of losing her partner and the father of her children, she must also pay inheritance tax on the portion of their house and assets that belonged to him.  This is a massive amount of money to find to be able to keep herself and her children in their family home.  But the issues don’t stop there.  Although she will receive a lump sum from his death in service insurance, there is no widow’s pension as, by the letter of the law, she is not a widow.

So maybe Mr Cameron’s current tax breaks for married couples proposals are just the tip of the iceberg.