Thursday, November 26, 2009

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

Then we'll begin. By contemplating whatever it is that's supporting your weight right now.

Seating is an area where small businesses can cut corners - but at what price?

A good quality office chair might set you back a few hundred pounds. I remember buying my first office chair in the late 1980's - it cost £250 and I loved it so much I bought it from the business when it went into administration a few months after I left. It served me well for 20 years.

When times are hard no one wants to spend £250 on a seat. If you're a really small business, such as a home-based one-man-band (well, not literally a band; more likely a web-designer or writer) you might want to make use of a domestic dining chair. That's fine, if your job doesn't involve a lot of time on your behind.

I took the dining chair route for a while and I know of others who've done the same. We all reached the same conclusion very quickly - they're fine for a one or two hour meal but not for a five or six day working week.

Cheap furniture solutions are a short-term fix which may, in the long term, cost you more than you expect. Poor furniture, like poor decor, affects staff morale which in turn affects performance. Poor seating can also have a negative impact on health.

Fortunately there are cost-effective solutions to office furniture. Personally I've invested £65 in an office chair from Ikea. I took the time to try all their entire range and I attempted to replicate my normal working position at a desk. So far I've had no regrets about the decision I made - although it'll be interesting to see how long it lasts.

Another solution is to buy second hand. The chair which cost my employer £250 was sold to me for £20. The UK must be awash with good quality second-hand office furniture at the moment, the sad result of firms going out of business. But it gives you the opportunity for fitting out your office at a fraction of catalogue prices.

A search for second-hand office furniture on Google brings up a list of suppliers. One that caught me eye is Green Works, a registered charity committed to the re-use of office furniture and which works with physically and socially disadvantaged people. I haven't used them so can't comment on the quality of what they do or how their prices compare with commercial operations.

If your business needs some new chairs, or other office furniture, now is the time to invest in good quality, second-hand items. You'll probably be able to find a matching set for your entire office. If you've got some cash to hand it's an investment that will save you money in the long term.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Business Continuity Planning

How would your business cope with a six-hour powercut?

That's what we enjoyed yesterday. It was a relatively minor inconvenience when compared to the flooding in Cumbria and Scotland but it's reminded me of the importantance of business continuity planning.

BCP, or disaster recovery, is one of those subjects small businesses are consistently being badgered about and, in my experience, consistently ignore. Planning for problems is a good idea but it takes time, can cost money, and there's an element of "if something happens we'll manage".

Small businesses have enough to do at the moment just to survive, without worrying about what to do if the sky falls in on their heads.

But there are some basic steps you can take which don't take much time or cost much money, but will be invaluable when the unexpected happens. And don't think that disaster recovery is only about fire or flood, which are admittedly unlikely. It's also about losing one of your key staff unexpectedly, having a major customer go under or suffering a major IT failure. Most businesses face major challenges from time to time.

A simple and effective business continuity plan that I've seen one business implement comprised a small printed card which listed the phone numbers of key staff and other contacts such as the people who managed the website.  It also summarised the issues to consider in the event of an emergency of some sort.

These cards were reviewed every few months and updated if details had changed. They were kept in pockets, briefcases and glove compartments in cars. In the event of an issue staff could quickly get in touch with one another and with key suppliers. A message could quickly be posted on their website letting customers know there was problem and giving alternative contact details.

I'm writing this post on a netbook PC which forms part of my business continuity strategy.  It's a backup for my aging laptop should it fail. Other elements in my plan include a plug-in hard-drive and increased use of cloud computing - storing documents online.

My business continuity plan is not a strategy that's been formed through hours of planning. It's a loose collection of ideas and hardware that I'm confident will work for me.

Whatever approach you take to business continuity planning, I recommend you avoid making the mistake of doing nothing.

If your business is flooded and your stock ruined your options are probably limited. But if you lose power in your premises you may still be able to do business, if you've planned ahead.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Successful Marketing - Make it Really Easy To Get Through

Is it easy for customers to respond to your marketing material?

Marketing is about a call to action. You deliver a message that requires response. Order this widget now! Take advantage of this special offer today! Don't delay!

You must make it simple for the customer to act on the message. If you're selling a product then you want them to place an order immediately. If you're promoting an event or a concept you want them to inquire further.

Every obstacle you put in their way, however insignificant, will cut the response rate. It's a basic principle of sales - the longer it takes for the customer to commit, the more likely they'll walk away. There are precious few products which are so important that the customer will make every effort to secure them.

Telephone numbers are a great way to get a quick reaction. 0800 numbers are ideal as the caller knows it will cost them nothing but time. But people are becoming wary of other non-geographic numbers such as 0845, because the true cost of calling is often unclear.

However, you need to make sure that the caller gets more than an automated message telling them your office is closed, or a menu system they can't immediately comprehend.

If your marketing material is online, such as a website or email, you have more choice over instant response paths. Some people prefer to use the phone so keep that option open where possible. Embedded links are another great way of making access really easy.

I've lost count of the number of times I've seen statements saying 'if you want to do this get in touch with us' on a website or email, without the words being used as a link to a contact form. Instead the reader is expected to hunt down contact information from elsewhere on the page, or worse, find it somewhere else altogether. That's a guaranteed way to lose some customers, if not all of them.

When you're putting together your marketing campaign and materials put yourself in the customer's shoes. Think about where they will be when they hear your message and what communication tools they will have available to respond. How easy can you make it for them to get through?

Andrew Knowles is a freelance copywriter and small business supporter.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Talk to a Customer Every Day

People buy from people.

It's one of those sayings that bounces around in sales training workshops, along with 'sell the benefits not the features'. A truth we all know but too often forget.

Like most pearls of wisdom it's not entirely accurate. I buy quite a lot of stuff from and other online retailers but I've never knowingly spoken to an Amazon employee in my life.

On the other hand I go out of my way to speak with my customers on a fairly regular basis. Why? Because I believe in the general principle - people will often choose to buy from someone they know. And you only get to know someone by communicating with them.

It's too easy for businesses, particularly in the B2B space, to take their customers for granted. But take a look at the list of accounts on your sales ledger. How many of them have been inactive for more than a year? Do you know why? How many have gone away because someone else built a better relationship with them?

When I ran a training business, as part of a global software company, I made a point of speaking to a customer daily. Okay, it didn't actually happen every single day, but it was a principle I applied as often as I could.

Can I prove that it generated more business? No I can't. But the people I called kept sending people on courses. They came to a web-based training workshop I ran and bought into online education before it was mainstream. They listened when I offered new education consulting services.

My challenge to everyone who runs a business is this: find ten minutes a day to call a customer and have a chat. How's business? Was the last delivery okay? I heard you've had cutbacks - are you alright?

Be a human, not a salesman. People buy from people.

This article expands on one of the 10 Marketing Tips for Small Business.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance writer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Searching for the Silver Lining

According to a recent CBI survey 50% of UK firms are NOT planning to give pay rises in the near future.

You might not think that's a big deal when inflation is nearer zero than it's been for a long, long time. The RPI in September was actually negative, at -1.5%, while the CPI, or Consumer Price Index, was at 1.1%. A crude average of them both puts inflation at more or less nil.

Of the 50% of firms indicating they might give pay rises, over 90% don't plan on giving a rise above inflation. Which means any increase they do give is going to be minute. Really, really small. Around 1% or less.

If you're an employee and the above is already more bad news than you want to hear in one day, look away now. Because it only gets worse.

Today saw the announcement of the October inflation figures - and the bad news is that they've moved upwards for the first time in months. Not by a lot - the RPI is still negative at -0.8% (but it's the biggest one month jump since 1990) and CPI is 1.5%.

But isn't that good news? Doesn't higher inflation means a higher potential pay rise? At least in the 50% of firms who may give one?

Remember - over 90% of businesses are planning pay rises of zero or less than inflation. The vast majority of employees are going to be worse off in the coming months.

The Bank of England expects inflation to keep rising. If rising costs, particularly fuel, are squeezing you now, just wait until 2010. And don't forget VAT is back up to 17.5% on 1 January.

As the grey clouds continue to thicken it's hard to see the silver lining. But if you're an employer and you want to motivate your staff, why not buck the trend and give your people an inflation-busting pay rise in the near future? Or at least restore some of the cuts you may have made.

This isn't just an opportunity to buy some cheap goodwill (1.75% will beat inflation comfortably) because most of your staff will see through that. It's an opportunity to show commitment to hard-working employees who've put up with a lot in the last 12 months, and who don't have much to look forward to at the moment.

Only you know whether you can afford to increase your salary bill. But I encourage you to put investing in your people at the top of your agenda in the coming weeks and months.

Friday, November 13, 2009

10 Fuel Saving Tips

The price of oil is going up again.

It's risen by 77% in 2009. This week the International Energy Agency announced that this increase "risks derailing the recovery".

Higher fuel prices aren't good news for the thousands of businesses in the UK who run vehicles, or the millions of commuters who fill up weekly. For employees enduring pay freezes or pay cuts a hefty increase in travel costs is unwelcome. But it's happening right now.

There's no easy answer to the problem of increasing fuel costs. But here are some fuel saving tips:

  1. Drive more slowly - yes, it'll take longer to get there. But drive at 65mph rather than 75mph on the motorway and you'll save 40p per 10 miles, according to the RAC. It'll add up during the week.
  2. Gentle foot action - on the accelerator and the brake. Sudden braking or acceleration pushes up consumption and increases wear and tear.
  3. Close the windows - it will improve the aerodynamics and improve fuel efficiency. You'll stay warmer as well.
  4. Keep air-con off - it's another fuel-gobbler you can live without during the winter.
  5. Lighten the load - the heavier your car, the more fuel you use. How much stuff are you paying to transport from home to work and back again, without using it?
  6. Get the pressure right - the RAC say that using tyres at the correct pressure could improve your fuel efficiency by 2%. Not a lot, but look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves, as they say.
  7. Don't be idle - if you're stationary and the engine's running for more than a minute you're wasting fuel.
  8. Avoid the queues - easier said than done for many commuters, but it's a way to cut costs. Is there a way to flex your day so you can travel when others aren't?
  9. Regular servicing - keep the engine running at optimum efficiency.
  10. Use money-off tokens wisely - the supermarkets often give token to customers, valid for a week or two. Plan your fill-ups to get the best value. Find friends with spare tokens, or share yours.
If you come across any more fuel saving tips please leave a comment or get in touch.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

When Will VAT Return to 17.5%?

On 1 December 2008 the UK VAT rate reduced from 17.5% to 15%.

This change, instituted at one week's notice, was intended to boost consumer spending at Christmas, and was scheduled to last for 13 months. Which means that it will end on 31 December 2009. But will it?

Changing the VAT rate at short notice was a major headache for many organisations, large and small. Returning it to 17.5% should, in theory, be easier. It's simply a reversal of the process that took place last December. Businesses also have the advantage of being able to plan; they have 13 months notice rather than the seven days of last year.

However, there's scope for uncertainty over when the VAT rate will change. Officially it's still scheduled for 31 December. HMRC have just issued guidance for businesses still trading at midnight on 31 December - many pubs, clubs and hotels will be full of New Year revellers intending to party into in the small hours of January 1st.

Last year's announcement of a VAT rate reduction was made as part of the Pre-Budget Report. The Chancellor opened his report with the words "these are extraordinary, challenging times for the global economy". What's changed since then?

A year later we're allowing ourselves some optimism. There's talk of rising house prices once more, something of a barometer of the UK economy. Retail sales are picking up and, according to consultants Mercer, employers are talking about pay increases next year.

There's a train of  'almost good news'. Yesterday saw the Governor of the Bank of England deliver a quarterly inflation report with guarded optimism; tough times ahead but the worst is behind us. At the same time the latest unemployment figures revealed the rate of increase had declined, something economists weren't expecting to happen so soon.

That said, there have been plenty of announcements of job cuts this week from various organisations including Lloyds Bank. Behind the statistics real people are still fearful of losing their jobs.

So will the Chancellor keep VAT at 15% a little longer than planned? He's now announced this year's pre-budget report will be released on Wednesday 9th December; so that's when we'll know for sure.

The signs are that that the rate change will happen as scheduled. But you can be fairly certain that decision is not yet cast in stone and there's still scope for it to change. It all depends on what shape the economy is judged to be in at the end of this month.

There's one more factor to take into account. Politicians love positive headlines, particularly when there's an election looming. This will be the last Pre-Budget Report before the country goes to the polls. I'm confident that Alistair Darling will be looking to grab some attention with his announcements on 9th December - so be prepared for some surprises. Will a change to the date of the VAT rate increase be one of them?

Andrew Knowles is a freelance copywriter.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Know Why People Will Buy Your Product

Too often we confuse features with benefits. We sell the features when what people really want are the benefits.

If you're not sure what the difference is between features and benefits, think of Microsoft Word. What do most people use it for? Typing up documents. Simple documents like homework essays, reports, letters, and that sort of thing. It's a word-processing system.

Some features in Word are useful. But of all those buttons and options at the top of the page, how many do you use? Not many, I'd guess.

Word is packed with fancy features. Mail-merge, document review, styles, research options and loads more that I don't even know about. You can bet the new Word 2010, when it comes out, will have heaps more.

But if a good salesperson was trying to sell Word to you, they wouldn't start by listing all the wonderful things it can do. They'd start by understanding why you're looking for a word-processing system.

They would encourage you to do most of the talking, telling them what problems you hoped a word-processor would solve. You might explain, say, that writing 20 letters a day by hand was time-consuming and pained your wrist. You might be frustrated that having started a document on paper, you could not easily change the order of the word to re-phrase sentences.

The good salesperson would then explain how Word could solve those problems for you. They might mention the spell-checker and mail-merge in passing, as extra benefits that might come in useful, but most of Word's capabilities wouldn't get a mention. Their focus would be on showing how the product could solve real problems you face on a regular basis.

Of course, there's more to selling than just providing solutions to problems. There's price, quality, after-sales support, delivery times and more.

But I'm still amazed how often people say: "look, here's a cool widget, buy one!" without addressing the main issue - do I NEED the widget?

When customers are cautious, as they are now, it's more important than ever to understand why people would want your products. Until you've grasped that, selling will be an uphill struggle.

This article expands on one of the 10 Marketing Tips for Small Business.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance writer.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Give Healthy Employees Time Off

Reward your healthiest employees with extra time off.

Isn't it time that employers recognized and rewarded 100% attendance by staff?

A survey by consultants Mercer has discovered that the average employee took a half-day sick leave in one month, January 2008. That could be extrapolated to six days of sickness per year.

There's no such thing as the 'average' employee. Some staff are sick more often and some turn up to work every day without fail.

When I was in full-time employment I rarely took time off for sickness; I had years of 100% attendance. Some schools now reward pupils who turn up for classes every day; I'd like to suggest employers do the same thing.

Mercer discovered that on January 3rd and 4th 2008, a Thursday and Friday, nearly 5% of the workforce were off sick. There was no flu pandemic; would an extended New Year hang-over be a more likely explanation?

I remember feeling just a little frustrated that my colleagues claimed the occasional day in bed while I consistently made it to office. When I sensed a lurking sore throat I cherished the prospect of an enforced rest, but it never came to that.

At a time when employee benefits have been frozen or even cut back, granting someone an extra day off for a year of 100% attendance doesn't seem unreasonable.

Yes, there may be an invisible cost to your business. Or will there? Employee rewards can create motivation. It's quite possible that recognizing attendance will be a further boost to productivity. It's one of those things that's difficult to measure. But why don't you give it a try?

Link to the BBC news item about the Mercer survey.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance writer.

Friday, November 6, 2009

10 Marketing Tips for Small Business

Take a moment to skim through these 10 thoughts about marketing.

You'll probably forget 9 of them immediately. But one of them will stick with you; it'll strike a chord. You'll say "yes, I've been meaning to do that". Make a point of converting a good idea into action as soon as possible.

Every business wants to do marketing better, but there's always something 'more urgent' that needs attention first. Step outside of that cycle for minute.
Enough! Here are the 10 marketing tips:
  1. Keep to budget - it's too easy for marketing expenditure to get out of control.
  2. Know why people will buy your product - be clear about why people will come to you; what benefit does your product give them? Read more about the importance of understanding why people would buy your product.
  3. Know who your customers are - target your marketing at people who'll buy from you.
  4. Make a special offer to someone who's just bought from you - it's an opportunity to strengthen your relationship.
  5. Offer a deal to all your existing customers - make them feel special by reminding them that their relationship with you has value.
  6. Talk to a customer every day - it only takes a few minutes to telephone and take an interest in what they're doing. Read more about why you should talk to a customer every day.
  7. Partner with other businesses - create a reciprocal agreement; you'll promote them to your customers if they'll do the same for you.
  8. Issue Press Releases - your local newspaper will love them. Anniversaries, changes in key staff, new products - get creative in making news. The worst they can do is say "no", but I guarantee they'll often say "yes".
  9. Use testimonials - a customer recommending your product carries much more weight than you recommending yourself.
  10. Don't give up - marketing is about communicating a message. Stop doing it and people will start listening to the message from someone else.
I could write an entire post about each of those points, and perhaps at some point I will. These are all based on my own experience of marketing with various organisations, from a global IT company to a local start-up.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance copywriter.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Does Your Business Blog? does it. Laithwaites, who manage the Sunday Times Wine Club, do it. O2, who brought the iPhone to the UK, do it. They all blog.

But there are plenty of businesses who don't. I first wrote about this last week, in my post Why Your Business Needs to Blog.

The subject appealed to me, both as a writer and as someone running a small business. I wrote an article on the subject for, which generated some positive feedback from their editors and a request for a follow-up.

So I'm digging deeper into the subject and I want to hear from businesses who blog. I want to know why they do it and whether it's meeting any expectations they might have from it. Is it part of a marketing strategy, or just a form of self-expression?

I'd love to hear from businesses that have tried blogging and stopped. Why? Lack of enthusiasm, pressure of time, or absence of tangible results?

I'll also talk to businesses who don't blog, either because they've decided not to, or because it hasn't made its way onto their agenda.

I've use the word 'business' a good deal here. However, the same principles apply to any organization, or even sub-set of an organization. Everyone has customers - the people they serve - and a blog is one way to engage with them. So whatever line of work you are in, if you've got a view on business blogs, please send me your contact details via email.

I believe that the value of blogs has been misunderstood by many in business. They haven't spotted the potential for creating high value content relatively easily in a way that will attract the search engines. I think it's a great way, particularly for small businesses, to increase their visibility to the online audience.

But perhaps I'm wrong. There are lots of stats out there about the number of blogs and how many people read them. But I want to hear real stories from real people.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance writer.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Freelance Workers Offer Resource Solution

Do you have an occasional need to hire a freelance specialist for a short project?

Such as tweaking your website or writing some sharp marketing blurb?

When I say 'short project' I mean tiny- something that might cost a couple of hundred pounds or less because it can be completed in under than a day.

It used to be tricky to hire people for such tiny pieces of work. You might have been able to call on a freelance worker you knew, but even then getting someone in for less than a day's work was awkward, and they were unlikely to be available immediately.

The internet has changed all this. There's a growing pool of freelance workers based across the UK, and across the world, who are keen for work. They're very happy to pick up these tiny projects and they deliver results within days, sometimes hours.

The internet has made it easy to find these freelancers. Sites such as Freelancer (formerly GetAFreelancer) or UK-based PeoplePerHour let you post your project, receive bids from freelancers, and make your choice of who to use. The sites charge small fees, but once you've made contact with someone reliable you can continue to work with them directly.

The variety of skills and services available on these sites is enormous. Beyond web development and copywriting you can also hire sales specialists, bookkeepers, photographers, administrators, trainers and more. PeoplePerHour claims to have nearly 34,000 freelancers registered, most of whom work on short projects valued around a couple of hundred pounds.

So next time you need some specialist help consider using one of these sites to find a freelance worker. You may discover it's a cost-effective solution that delivers exactly what you need.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance copywriter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why Should People Buy From You?

Your business does not offer a unique service. There are loads of other people out there doing what you do. So why should anyone buy from you rather than from them?

Learn some lessons from Swedish success story, Ikea. I was in their new Southampton store the other day and it got me thinking - why do I travel over 20 miles to come here? There are other household furnishing stores much nearer to where I live so why choose Ikea?

Here are some reasons I identified:

  • They make access easy - there's a big multi-storey car park with lots of walkways and lifts.
  • They offer competitive prices which are clearly advertised.
  • They make the buying process as easy as possible.
  • It has a contemporary feel so I feel 'good' about being there.
  • It's clean and tidy.

What do people think of your business?

Some of my reasons for liking Ikea are embarrassingly subjective. I don't pay any attention to trends in furniture design and my home is inhabited by a mix of cast-offs, Billy bookcases, and hand-me-downs from other people. So I've no idea why their store and products feel contemporary, but to me they do.

Their products are not always the cheapest. But they're clearly priced, easily accessible to view and handle, and they've usually plenty in stock.

Ikea have created an image that's attractive to me. What sort of image does your business have? Even if you're not selling to the general public, you're still selling to people.

Take a moment to think about the businesses that you buy from - what makes them attractive to you? Try to identify what it is they do well. Then compare them with your own business. Make an effort to find out what others think of you.

Once you've done that you'll have some new ideas for how to improve what you do. The service you offer still won't be unique, but that doesn't stop you from creating a business that stands out.

Andrew Knowles is a freelance writer

Image at the top of this entry courtesy of Ikea.