Friday, October 30, 2009

Want Cheap Quality Photos - Try Flickr

Pictures tell stories. A smiling couple drinking coffee in their gleaming new kitchen talks about comfort, domesticity, security, affluence and more. A dandelion head says environment, growth, new life.

Businesses are hungry for new images. They want new, good quality photos for their websites or their brochures. Stock photography suppliers will tell you there's an insatiable demand for pictures of business people in poses that exude success.

These quality photos don't come cheap. Finding models who look and dress the part costs money, and creating that crisp commercial environment costs even more money.

Here's a suggested solution for small businesses who are willing to invest a little time in order to get hold of original photographic material of a quality good enough for websites. Take a look at Flickr.

If you're a photographer you've probably heard of it and might even have an account. Fundamentally it's a photo-sharing site. Created by enthusiasts and popular with professionals and amateurs alike, it's now part of the Yahoo! empire. But what's important, for business, is that it's packed with good quality photos.

Obviously you can't just help yourself to them - that's theft. But many of the photographers are amateurs who love to have their pictures used by others. I've been approached several times by people wanting to use my pictures, and I'm happy to say 'yes'. There's a simple pleasure to be had in seeing your own work being recognised and used by someone else.

Of course, if you're using someone's work for your own benefit it's only fair to offer them something in return. It doesn't have to be money - often a simple credit on your site is enough, or you could mail them something. Or drop a few pounds into their PayPal account.

The internet offers so many opportunities to break old business models. It allows you to buy photos from the world-wide public, and to tell your story in a new and cost-effective way.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance writer and amateur photographer.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why Your Business Needs to Blog

Sick of being told that your business should be on Twitter or Facebook? Or that it should have a blog? It's time to think of blogging in a new light.

Like many you probably think technology toys are all very well, but most of us just want to get on with business. Blogs and the like are so far down the to-do list that they're invisible, and they'll probably stay that way.

Perhaps you've already tried one, made a few entries, then forgotten to update it for months. What's the point? Who really wants to read about the minutia of my business? I'm kidding myself that 'Behind the scenes at PointlessPencils Ltd' is going to hold anyone's attention.

A Business Blog is Not a Diary

Take a different perspective on blogging. Don't see it as a virtual diary of minor triumphs and challenges. You're right - no one but you really cares about that £200 order yesterday.

Think of a blog as a stream of short, sharp articles about your business experience. Each article is independent and has a single theme. They're short, no more than 500 words. Ideally they give the reader an insight through something you've learned - perhaps about customer service, or marketing, or credit control.

The value of these articles is that people will find them through search engines, and as a result, they'll find your business. Ideally they need to be optimised for discovery by search engines (the dreaded SEO).

Over time they will form a new marketing channel. I've discovered businesses via their blogs, and perhaps you have to. The sooner you start, the sooner you'll build content that search engines, and potential customers, can discover.

If you don't have the time or inclination to update a blog at least once a week, why not employ a copywriter to do it for you? A weekly blog entry of 400 words might only cost a few pounds, especially if you put a writer on retainer. How does that fit into your marketing budget?

You're right about one thing - people won't come back to your blog on a regular basis to see how you're doing.

But people will come and some will go on to spend money with you. That's why your business needs to blog.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance copywriter.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Your Christmas Party is Essential

Don't cancel your office Christmas party this year. There are too many good reasons why it must go ahead.

A Christmas party is good for staff morale. Leaving aside the tales of bawdy behaviour, the majority of parties are successful celebrations of the year that's drawing to a close. If 2009 has been tough, you should celebrate that you're still in business.

Being miserly is one of the quickest ways to stamp out glimmers of optimism. Yes, any sort of Christmas party will cost money. But it doesn't have to be hugely expensive. Staff understand that budgets are tight and that any party won't be as lavish as it might once have been. But the only person who feels happier about not having one at all is... well, I can't think of anyone.

It's impossible to measure the positive contribution that a Christmas party has on business. But there is one. Happier staff are more productive and if the business is willing to give something to them, they're more inclined to want to give something back.

Another reason for holding a Christmas party is that it supports other businesses. The hospitality industry has been hit hard by the recession and they need a Christmas boost. And you're not just doing them a favour - they will in turn buy other business services, perhaps directly from you. Even if they're not your immediate customer, the complex economic web means that your unwillingness to spend with them will eventually impact you in some way.

Christmas is time for celebration, for lots of reasons. So don't play the part of Scrooge this year.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Customer Service - Setting Expectations is Vital

Setting your customers' expectations correctly is essential to good customer service.

This aspect of customer service is so simple, yet so often overlooked. Imagine a bus company that operated a schedule without telling people when its services would depart or arrive. That's ludicrous, of course - no one would ever set up a bus company without publishing a timetable.

Why is the timetable so important? Because it sets the customers' expectations. They know the no. 31 to Notting Hill Gate will depart at 8.11am, because the timetable tells them it will. Okay, in reality it might be a little late. But it's also a benchmark against which the bus company's performance can be measured.

Exactly the same principle applies to every other aspect of business. My voice-mail does not say "Leave a message because I'll get back to you as soon as possible." Why? Because that message sets an incorrect expectation. I don't always call someone back as soon as I get their message because I don't want to, although it might be perfectly possible for me to do so.

What sort of expectations does your business or organization set for your customers? Are they realistic? Or just words that you hope to be able to deliver against?

Here are some areas where customer expectations should be set correctly:
  • Delivery date for goods and services.
  • What will happen next after they've made a complaint.
  • How long they might have to wait before someone gets back to them.
  • What guarantees they have about the product or service.
  • What other services you might be able to offer them.
Customers come back to businesses they know that they can trust. That's why you don't always have to be the cheapest to succeed - you also have to offer great customer service.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Measuring Your Success

It's Friday morning. What have you achieved this week?

On Monday I blogged about the importance of setting targets and goals. Now, at the end of the week, it's time to see how you got on.

Succeeders set goals. Yesterday's headline on the Sports pages of the London Evening Standard was "Wenger: we'll win a trophy this year". The manager of Arsenal football club has set a goal for himself and his team.

How often do top sports men and women say "I'll do my best and see what happens"? Not often. The successful tell you what they're going to achieve. They claim the prize even before they've won it.

Not all of them make it. If Arsenal don't win a trophy will people say to Wenger "You were wrong again"? No, they'll admire his ambition and his determination to go for the biggest prizes that his sport offers.

Your office is probably a million miles away from the glamour of professional sport. But the same principles apply - you choose your own goals. If you aim low enough you'll probably succeed every time, but is that good enough for the long-term? Aim too high and you'll be permanently disheartened.

If you beat your target for the week - that's great. Celebrate with a doughnut or a chocolate biscuit.

If you didn't beat your target - well done for trying. You should still find time to celebrate your efforts.

Was your target a real stretch? Or was it too comfortable? And what sort of target will you set yourself and your team next week?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Start Marketing Through Everything You Do

To successfully build the right image you need to start marketing at every contact point with external organizations.

No, this does not mean having your company logo tattooed on your forehead or greeting everyone with: "Hi, I'm Sue from SmileyPeople Company and we're currently offering awesome discounts on teeth whitening products."
*wide cheesy grin*

To start marketing at every opportunity you just need to make sure you and your team focus on creating and maintaining the image that you want people to have of your business.

Please don't think that "image" is out of fashion. How do you feel about the big banks today? The Governor of the Bank of England has just told that they know they can't be allowed to fail; we know they're being underwritten with tax-payers money; and today we hear they're paying bonuses 50% higher than last year. What is your image of your bank?

We all have a mental picture of an organization, even if we're not conscious of it. The picture can be expressed in a handful of words. What's your word picture of Tesco? Compare it to M&S food halls. Would you use different words to describe them?

Now think of the picture that your customers have of your business, your department or just you. That's harder, because we can't see through their eyes. But there are ways of finding out.

That's why it's vital that you start marketing through everything you do. Every contact, whether it's an invoice, a credit control phone call or a casual enquiry, has the potential to change someone's perception of your business.

Marketing is not directly about selling. It's about building an image that's attractive and which will draw in business. Successful businesses create positive images through everything that they do. Is that what you do?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Build Strong Foundations With an Online Business Network

When you're running a small startup business your time is stretched very thin.

Don't give in to the temptation to go all out for sales or to get stuck into the day-to-day stuff. Remember to make time for laying strong foundations for the future.

There is just so much for a small new business to do. You need to start selling, because that generates income. You need to start marketing, because that generates sales. You need to put some basic processes in place to keep track of what's going on.

On top of that the owner of a small new business needs to keep accounts, deal with HMRC, build relationships with suppliers, research products, and, of course, network.

If you run a small new business, as I do, then you need all the help you can get. Preferably at no or low cost. That's where networking comes in. The problems you face are unlikely to be unique, so why take the time to solve them when you can get advice from someone who already has?

Because time is precious I recommend looking to the internet for networking opportunities. An online business network isn't the same as a networking breakfast - for one thing there's no bacon and eggs. But it's a quick and easy way to start communicating with people and to start sharing ideas and problems.

I've just signed up to ukbusinessforums, where I've already made some useful contacts. My creative juices have been sparked by reading about what others are doing. I'm encouraged that I'm not alone in making what some consider a risky move by going freelance.

Today I was interested to see, from the forum, that one of the concerns I raised in my blog about the postal strike is being borne out. Businesses are losing customers because they're using the strike as an excuse for slow delivery, rather than an opportunity to exceed expectations and build customer goodwill.

An online business network might not work for everyone. I have a friend who owns a car repair workshop and who doesn't have or want a website, nor does he use a computer very often. An online business network would not do much for him. But I'm confident it will help me and if you've not yet found time for it, I suggest you give it a go.

I'm making a point of taking time out from the day-to-day to network daily, and I'm expecting to start seeing the benefits soon.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Setting Sales Targets and Business Goals

It's Monday morning. What are you going to achieve this week?

Have you set yourself or your team some targets or goals?

You might think it's enough that you're still in business on Friday. Simply surviving is a goal in its own right, particularly in the current economic climate. Worthy though it might be, it's not going to help your business to grow.

Don't wait for the economy to pick up before you start planning for growth. Another economic think tank - this time the Ernst & Young Item Club - has given its view on the near future. They're predicting another difficult year in 2010, as tax rises, including VAT returning to 17.5%, kick in. So if you're waiting for the economy to pick up before planning for growth, you'll be waiting a long time.

Start planning how your business will prosper, rather than just survive, in this climate. If your business is still in survival mode it's time to start accepting the current conditions as the norm for the next few years.

Setting targets is a great place to start. Successful sales managers motivate their staff with targets. That's because goals motivate people to try harder, and achieving them becomes a reward in itself.

If, on Friday lunchtime, you're one deal short of your target for the week, you'll make one last push to bring it in by 5pm. But if your goal is simply 'do as many as possible' it's easy to stop at lunch and say "that's enough".

The principle applies to more than just sales managers. Credit controllers can target bringing in a certain amount of money, and every job can be given some sort of target.

So make it your priority, on Monday, to set some goals for the week. And on Friday, look back and see what you've achieved. You'll be surprised at the difference it makes.

Here's the BBC news article about the Item Club report.

Friday, October 16, 2009

How to Minimise the Impact of the Postal Strike

How will your business deal with the looming UK postal strike? Have you started planning for it? If not, you need to. Hoping it won't happen is not a plan.

The strike threatens to be bad news for business. Despite the wealth of electronic communication a lot of material is still sent by post. Companies who still receive a lot of payments by cheque will see a further squeeze on cashflow - the "cheque's in the post" will mean it's stuck in mailbag. On the flip side, those paying by cheque will reap some cashflow benefits.

While the volume of documents sent by post has fallen in the last decade, the amount of material purchased via mail order from web sites has increased dramatically. Simple essentials such as replacement ink cartridges, samples and books are all going to be delayed.

The strike is due to start on Thursday 22 October. It is staged over 2 days, so expect severe disruption on Thursday/Friday, but it will take a few days to clear the backlog.

Here are some steps you ought to take today, in order to plan for the strike.
  1. Identify what it is that you send out by mail, and what you receive. Consider what effect the delays will have on your business.
  2. If you send or receive cheques, analyse your cashflow in detail. Assume a worst case scenario - some customers might use the excuse to delay payment for another few days. Put plans in place to deal with any cash shortfall.
  3. If you receive parts or documents via Royal Mail on a daily basis from other businesses, talk to your suppliers about how they're planning to deal with the strike. You may be able to find a mutually convenient solution.
  4. Plan for how to handle the backlog when it arrives in the week commencing 26th October. You want to turn round customer orders asap - don't allow the strike to give you an excuse for slower service. Step up a gear and wow your customers.
  5. The strike might cause you to find new ways of doing things which are more efficient and cost effective, and which help protect against further strikes.
It's a cliché to see a problem as an opportunity. But like most clichés, there's a kernel of truth. If your business has survived this far through the recession, it can weather a postal strike. And it might come out even stronger. Don't let this strike become bad news for your business.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Complete Retirement Could be Bad for You

According to new research from the US, complete retirement is bad for you. In a way that's good news for those of us who've already accepted that we'll be working long past our 65th birthdays.

Continuing to work, at least part-time, is good for mental health, which in turn impacts physical health. Interestingly, the research shows that this only benefits retirees who continue to work in jobs related to their previous career. Those finding work in a different speciality after retirement fare no better than those who retire completely.

This is further support for the idea that we should not cease work completely at a somewhat arbitrary point in our lives - such as a 65th birthday. But instead we should wind our careers down, reducing the hours we work and the jobs we undertake, in line with our capacity.

I think this is a solution to a range of issues. It keeps an ageing population productive. It will allow people to continue to earn, addressing some of the issues around the falling value of pension schemes. It allows skills to be retained in the workplace and gives more time for them to be passed to another generation.

Retirement and pensions are two big issues that are lurking in the near future. They're largely ignored at the moment because of our focus on the more immediate problem of recession. But they're not going away, and they're going to be another challenge for businesses of all sizes.

I'll return to this subject again in the future. For the moment it's enough to note that there are a growing number of reasons why people should not be expected to down tools when they reach a certain age.

Link to the BBC article about the US research.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cheap Training in Popular Business Software

It's easy for small businesses to get a bad deal from software training.

The other day my wife went on a half-day computer training course in Microsoft Excel. An accountant for a local firm, she was tempted by the opportunity to learn some additional features of the software.

"So you'll be doing some 'hands-on' stuff," I said, as a former IT trainer.

"Er, no," she replied. The course details made it clear the training was not hands-on. I immediately expressed my doubt about its value - it would be akin to having a driving lesson without getting your hands on the wheel. What's the point in that?

Her course cost £50 but the real cost to her business was more than double once salary and mileage were included. She agreed it had been largely a waste of time and money.

"I picked up a couple of things I might be able to use," was the most positive result of attending what was a lecture about some of Excel's more advanced features, such as macros and pivot tables.

Money and time are precious resources for small businesses. It's hard to release people and cash for training, and it's disappointing when the investment appears to have been wasted.

So where do small businesses go for good value software training?

Okay - this is where my blog starts to sound like an advertisement! So if you don't want to be sold to, turn away now. But if you want to hear about a possible cheap solution to your training needs in basic Office products, such as Excel, read on.

Richard Rost runs which supplies basic IT training courses for $5.99 a shot (yes, he's based in the USA so the charges are in dollars). It's computer-based training that is delivered on a CD or is available online. Samples are available for free and he gives generous quantity discounts.

I'll confess to an interest - I've written some of the handbooks that go with the courses.

But that said, I'm genuinely impressed by the quality and professionalism he offers. The courses are easy-to-follow bite-size chunks that clearly demonstrate what to do to achieve an objective, and make it easy for the user to have a go themselves.

As a former trainer, and as a current champion of solutions that work for small businesses, I thoroughly recommend as a training solution. It won't work for everyone, but I suggest you take a quick look.

That's it - advert over!

Take a look at s

Outlook for Small Business UK is Still Mixed

The British Chambers of Commerce have announced that the 'UK is on the brink of leaving recession'. A survey of over 5,000 companies has seen confidence growing and employment in services has risen to the same level as a year ago.

The all important cashflow indicator, while still negative, is less negative than it was. Which is, I suppose, a positive result under the circumstances. But it confirms that my concerns of yesterday, about cashflow, are still valid.

The BCC's tone is upbeat. The words 'encouraging' and 'strengthened' are prominent. However, they're quick to point out that the recovery is 'frail' and business confidence must be 'nurtured'.

The BBC's (not to be confused with the BCC!) take on this news is slightly different. Their headline is the less uplifting "Recession in UK 'still not over'". They make a link with the British Retail Consortium's report of retail sales rising 2.8% in September being tempered with the words 'we mustn't get carried away'.

Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way of describing it. Egg-shell treading cautious.

My own, entirely unscientific, approach to the state of small business was to wander around a couple of new trading estates yesterday. I saw lots of vacant offices and plenty of signage trying to persuade me they wouldn't stay that way for long. I wasn't convinced.

For those of us running a small business the outlook might be mixed but the message is clear. Head down, work hard and don't expect things to get any easier for some time to come.

Link to BBC news item.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Low Interest Rates Help Small Business Cashflow, but...

Hemlines are predicted to remain low on Threadneedle Street. That’s according to the CEBR (Centre of Economics and Business Research) who predict the Bank of England will keep interest rates where they are until 2011.

If this forecast converts into reality that’s good news for UK business, particularly smaller organisations struggling with cash flow. The last thing they need is the extra pressure of increased interest payments.

We all know that cash is king, and the rule is far from benevolent at the moment. As customers, particularly the big corporates, take longer and longer to settle up and suppliers are quicker to cut off supply for late payment, smaller businesses are caught in the middle. They’re under pressure from all sides and the spectre of increased interest rates is hard to ignore.

The other shadowy figure menacing small business is HMRC. It’s nearly a year now since they relaxed their attitude to payment of VAT, through the new Business Payment Support Service. I found it easy to phase a VAT bill of over £10k across three months, for minimal penalty, which was a huge benefit at the time. But I have to wonder how long this flexibility will last.

I understand that many businesses are getting used to a relaxed VAT payment regime. My concern is that as the government begins to tighten its grip of public finances the flexibility of the Business Payment Support Service will be an obvious target.

If you’re currently enjoying the benefits of the HMRC’s longer payment leash, I suggest you start planning ahead for when they tighten it again. And keep hoping that the Bank of England maintains her low hemlines for a good while to come.

Link to BBC news item about this report.

Do Social Media and Small Business Mix?

Do you think of Facebook or Twitter as potential business tools? No? Stay with me for a moment – I’m not going to tell you why you should. That would be far too patronising.

If your answer was ‘no’ you’re far from alone. Apparently 76% of the 500 small businesses surveyed by the Pacific Business News said they don’t use social media tools.

Okay – so you’re probably not in the Pacific region. But my guess is that this percentage is even higher in other parts of the world. (Possibly 100% in outer Mongolia – but if that’s where you’re reading this and you disagree – let me know!)

This raises the question ‘why don't you use social networking?’. But for you busy souls trying to keep business afloat in the turbulent economy the more pertinent question is ‘why should I?’ Is there a compelling reason for investing precious time in yet another technology?

There are plenty of other people using Twitter to spread messages about how successful it’s been for them. I’m always curious why the guy making £250k a year from Twitter, or Google, or whatever, is so keen to share his secrets. Why create competition?

So leaving these hollow promises aside, what real benefits does social media offer? And I mean real benefits, not the intangible and glib ‘networking’. Yes, I know networking is important. But at least a networking breakfast gets me a plate of bacon and egg – I can’t even get a slice of toast from Twitter.

Some of us like our information spiced up with research. Apparently a professor of marketing in San Diego University surveyed 1,600 executives and discovered that social networking made a big difference when it came to radical innovation. It’s not entirely clear what that means – but I think it’s that people using these online networks have a better quality of ideas. How that translates into profit I’m not sure, but this bnet blog then quotes four actual examples, which are much more useful.

Finally – what’s my experience? I’m yet to work out how to use Facebook for business – I’ve no desire to promote my products to my friends. But I have found two pieces of paid work via Twitter. Both were entirely by chance – somehow I spotted two unrelated offers of work and I responded. The result was pennies (well, pounds) in the bank. That’s better than toast.

So I’m in the 24% of small businesses that do use social media, because it works for me. If you’ve got a story of how social media worked for you, let me know. It would be great to share it.