Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Marketing Lessons From Gordon Brown

Soon to be ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just reminded us all of an important lesson in marketing.

Be very careful what you say in a forum that has the potential to become public. One negative message can undermine years of careful positive marketing.

In case you've missed the news, Brown was recorded making negative comments about a voter he'd just finished speaking to. He called her a 'bigoted woman' while still wearing a live microphone and his remark was captured on tape for posterity.

It's too early to tell what effect this mistake will have on the election or Brown's political career. But there's no mistaking the damage to his personal credibility and Labour's electoral campaign. 

Your business probably spends a lot of time sending out positive messages about itself. That's what marketing is all about - promoting brands and products to existing and potential customers. These upbeat messages are controlled and coordinated by whoever's in charge of your marketing.

What marketeers can't control, as Labour's again discovered, is the ill-judged off-the-cuff comment that creates bad feeling. Only recently I've witnessed a small business lose a valued customer because of an arrogant remark by one of its staff. All the goodwill that had been built over months was destroyed by the supplier's representative telling  the customer that they weren't valued.

Those weren't the words used, of course, but that was the message the customer heard. The supplier later phoned up to apologise but, as Gordon Brown has discovered, it didn't really resolve the situation.

The lesson for all of us is to be careful what words we allow to slip from our lips, or type on our keyboard, in a situation where there's the slightest possibility that they might be broadcast further afield. Politicians should have learned by now never, ever to say something unhelpful within five miles of television or radio recording equipment. Brown's exclamation should have been reserved for pillow talk with Sarah or a debrief with colleagues in the sanctuary of Number 10.

Similarly, all of us in business need to control our communication. A hasty email or an ill-judged comment on Twitter or Facebook can do serious commercial damage. An insensitive engagement with a customer or prospect can lose a deal or a contract.

Last year I wrote that you should market through every contact point with external organizations. You should also make sure that everyone at those contact points understands the implications of saying or doing the wrong thing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Travel Delays - Who Pays?

"But it wasn't my fault!"

I predict this is going to be a common cry in workplaces across the country as employees are told the cost of turning up late to work because of the travel crisis.

Employers pay their staff for working. Other benefits, such as paid holiday and sick leave, pension contributions and free coffee have become accepted conventions and, to some extent, prescribed by law. But the basic principle remains that people get paid for making things or doing stuff.

So if staff fail to turn up to do the work, for whatever reason, the employer is entitled not to pay them.

It may feel harsh, especially when you're also faced with the bill for several extra days accommodation abroad plus a two thousand pound taxi charge for bringing you home. You've made the effort to get yourself back to the UK and turned up at the office feeling thoroughly unrefreshed - so the least they could do is be grateful.

Instead, as you begin tearing into the backlog of work, your boss has the nerve to tell you that those extra days of absence are going to be unpaid, or at the very least taken from your dwindling and precious supply of holiday entitlement.

The employee can rightly claim: "But it wasn't my fault". They weren't responsible for either the volcanic eruption in Iceland or the grounding of almost the entire European airline fleet, and the ensuing chaos.

However, it wasn't the employer's fault either. In fact, it's hard to find someone who is to blame - even the people of Iceland can't control the geology or the weather that combined to fill European skies with invisible ash.

However much it pains them, employees will have to accept the consequences of their actions. No, it wasn't their fault that they were stranded overseas. But they chose to take that foreign trip. All travel involves risk and just because we've become used to a system that works most of the time, it doesn't mean problems won't occur. When they do, someone usually picks up a bill.

Some employers will choose to absorb some or all of the costs of staff absence. Some might be willing to work out a compromise. But many will insist on their entitlement to only pay for work done and they're quite within their rights to do so.

There is, of course, a bigger picture to all of this. Many employees have seen pay frozen, or cut, during the recession. Many have stuck with their current employer for longer than they would have liked, simply for job security. Some are in businesses that have been living on the edge and this crisis could be enough to push them over.

In a few days, we hope, the ash cloud will have blown over. Its impact on employees and employers will take longer to clear.

By Andrew Knowles - freelance writer.

Ruth Takes a Steady Approach to Success

This is another article in our series about student entrepreneurs.

Ruth Amos was just 16 when, in 2006, she invented a simple device that helps people to go up and down stairs when age or disability makes movement difficult. Her GSCE teacher, inspired by his own father's mobility problems, challenged students to find a cheap alternative to a stairlift.

Drawing on simple technology from a old child's toy, Ruth constructed a prototype that was shown to a local inventor and businessman who was in partnership with the school. He recognised the potential of the device, encouraged Ruth to patent the idea and has helped her to develop her own business - StairSteady.

Having created a new product and found an engineering firm willing to make it for her, Ruth's next challenge was marketing. Being young, she benefited from substantial free publicity, winning a number of awards as a young inventor, young entrepreneur and young businesswoman. She was the Young Engineer for Britain in 2006 and  more recently was named the youngest-ever woman in Management Today's "35 women under 35".

All this recognition has won Ruth free column inches and she's chosen not to invest heavily in additional marketing. She has  put over £2,000 into the business to cover running costs but she's unwilling to borrow money to finance faster growth. She wants to avoid debt and sees her business as a learning opportunity rather than a short-term income generator.

Orders for the StairSteady began slowly and have now reached an average of 5-10 per week. Ruth works with business partners - the device is made by Advanced Engineering Techniques Ltd and fitted by specialists from Minivator. The StairSteady is exhibited at Naidex, the UK's largest event for homecare, disability and rehabilitation.

As a young woman in business Ruth has faced her fair share of challenges. She sometimes finds it hard to be taken seriously and was refused business banking facilities because of her age. But she admits that youth also offers plenty of advantages - she was able to get away with asking lots naive questions and it made her achievements more newsworthy.

Ruth's advice to anyone thinking of starting their own business is that you're never too young. Now in her early 20's she encourages young people to use their fresh, vibrant approach to get themselves noticed.

Why not visit Ruth's StairSteady website to find out more about her invention?

Are you a student with your own business? Have you got a story to share? Drop us a line via email.

Read more business start up stories like this one.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Spin Your Staff For A Change

Have you rotated your staff recently?

No, I don't mean set them all spinning on their office chairs - tempting though that might be.

I'm talking about rotating their roles. Getting them to do one another's jobs for a while. Or even better, having a policy of switching every six months or year so that over time everyone gets to do all the jobs in the office.

If you're a typical manager, as I am, you'll already be listing the problems this would bring. Productivity would drop. Some would struggle to get to grips with new tasks. Skills built over months or years would be wasted. Why put your business at risk in this way?

As a freelancer one of the services I offer is CV writing. In 2009 I wrote over a hundred Curriculum Vitaes for professionals. Some that stand out are the successful managers who achieved recognition and promotion by creating effective teams, and one way they did it was through staff rotation.

As I said, you've probably already listed the negatives, so let's look at the positives. By changing their job people get a deeper appreciation of what's involved in different roles. They discover that Sam in marketing isn't just surfing the internet all day or that Jo isn't as slow as they thought because it really can take all morning to input a pile of invoices

This new knowledge sparks creativity and better ways of doing things, as people realise how one job impacts on another and they begin to find ways to making the office work more effectively. It also means it's easier to find sickness or holiday cover for a specific task.

Another benefit is the cut in the risk of fraud. People in positions of trust can be tempted to take advantage of gaps in the system and help themselves - it happens at all levels. Suspicious activity may only be uncovered when they leave or take an extended break. Rotation of roles reduces the opportunities and temptation, and prevention is always better than fixing the problem.

Of course there are some jobs that can't be shared across the office. You can't ask Sam who does marketing to take over from Jo the bookkeeper, or vice versa. But not all organisations have roles with such sharply defined skills, and it's possible that Jo has some great ideas about marketing. In turn, Sam may bring a useful perspective to managing the finances, if given the opportunity to get involved in some way.

What would happen if you were to spin everyone on their chairs, at least metaphorically? Would it create disruption to long-established working patterns and practices? Would it allow you and your staff to see things in a different way?

Perhaps you should give it a go to see what happens. You might be surprised at the benefits that it brings.