Archive for the ‘Business Rants’ Category
The history and popularity of every company can be traced on the curve of a hill. At the start, nobody knows who the company is, they have very few customers and they struggle. Then the hill grows as the customer base grows, and soon they are at the top of the hill, looking at all their competition below them. They are popular, their products sell well, they are at the top of their game.
Sometimes the downward trend is brief, the company can turn things around and it turns into a bump in the hill rather than a descend onto the other side. But sooner or later, ALL companies will find themselves on the downward path.
For some companies, especially the smaller, newer, or one man bands, the hill can be very small indeed with almost no growth before they die. For some companies, the hill can be fairly flat, yet it can be years before they start to go downhill and die.
In the UK, we have seen many household names recently reach the other side of the hill; Jessops and HMV being headline news. But we have also had other companies vanishing without too much of a fanfare despite being big names – examples include companies such as Phillips (who no longer produces consumer electronics) and Kodak.
So let me give you a prediction for the demise of a MASSIVE company which is on the other side of the hill and is sliding down fast….
Microsoft have made massive announcements in the last 12 months of new products. We have Windows 8, Office 13 (or Office 365 if you prefer) and of course the Surface tablets.
Now putting the Surface aside (which I personally think is too expensive, too heavy and has a confusing OS), let us look at the business model of Microsoft in terms of Windows 8 and Office 2013.
I am going to suggest to you that in terms of functionality, reliability, cost, and ease of use – Windows XP and Office 2003 was as good as it needed to get. Windows 7 looks nicer, and Office 2007/2010 has some nice features – but in terms of actually doing anything you need to do, they really do not offer anything above and beyond XP and office 2003. I would agree that Windows 7 provides new features like widgets and taskbars, and office 2010 offers mini graphs in excel and online presentations – but are these worth the upgrade?
But now we have reached the crux of the matter. Windows 8 and Office 2013 are not upgrades – they are replacements. If you have office 2003, for the 20 or so new features in office 2013, you have to throw away your original investment and repurchase a completely brand new licence. Windows 8 did give a discounted upgrade path, but even now – that option is gone.
Or put it in money terms, if you are using Office 2003, 2007 or 2010, are you really going to spend another £700/$900 for a handful of new features which you may not ever use?
I would so dearly love to be a fly on the wall at an Office development team meeting and in the CEO offices – Microsoft must realise that the world has reached a point of ‘it’s good enough’ and despite all the glamour of the trade shows and press announcements, there must be panic in them there offices.
In a nutshell, asking people to pay the same again for something they already can do – is just not a sustainable business model.
What does this mean for your company?
So why am I talking about Microsoft and their inevitable doom? Well, first let me say I am not bashing Microsoft out of hate. I make my bread and butter using Microsoft products including office, SQL Server and the like – but I also recognise they are on the crest of the hill and are heading downwards. The same will be true of Apple in a few years – after all, how much of a higher resolution does anyone need before they say ‘that’s enough’ (unless Apple come along with a totally new product!)
The reason I wanted to talk about this today in relation to your own company was three fold:
- When working ON your business (rather than for your business), whatever technology you use, it is worth giving due thought to the fact that one day, that technology will no longer be around. When this happens, what will be your backup plan?
- Everybody demands value for money. If you are the size of Microsoft, you can get away with selling the same stuff over and over – but only for so long. What you need is innovation. And I am not talking about taking what somebody else has done and adding an extra widget or a bigger screen or a go-faster stripe – I am talking about something new.
- Nothing lasts forever – and all companies will eventually fit into the hill curve of growth and decline (including mine). Be smart enough to recognise where you are on the curve, wise enough to do something about it if you are on the wrong side, and brave enough to walk away and try something new if you have reached the bottom of the hill.
But when things go bad, how honest should you be with customers or financial backers?
Let me give you an example (from the real word)….
This last month was a rough one for us. We had a former disgruntled partner that was unhappy about where we were going with Trigger Happy. Taking matters into his own hands, this employee physically wounded other employees and threatened to sell out our intellectual property. It’s a sore subject for us, so we won’t elaborate, but this former partner left us in a disastrous mess. He obscured all our shipping records so we had to rebuild our shipping lists one customer at a time. As you can guess, we have been very preoccupied rebuilding our records. The effect has caused a delay in application development and product delivery. Luckily, the storm has calmed, and everybody at Trigger Happy is smiling again. We’re back on track. We are shocked and saddened for what has happened, but we are more motivated than ever!
The above update was a long overdue update from the founder of a recent Kickstarter company/project called Trigger Happy (a way of controlling DSLR cameras from mobile phones). I am one of the backers.
After a month of people screaming on the kick-starter forum asking why the project was so overdue (3 months and counting) and with the few items that were shipped not working, the above project update was posted by the project founder.
I have a couple of problems with the above update (which can be read in full here):
- Its way too honest and gives too much information. Look, companies have problems, but no customer or backer wants to be told the details because….. they don’t care. What they care about is how it affects them. Where is the service they ordered, their product, the refund? Does the situation cause them any risk or pain?? If you are in a restaurant and you have been waiting an hour for your food to arrive, you don’t want to know there is a delay because water has flooded the kitchen or they have run out of chicken or the chief has sliced his or her finger off – they want to know if they should be leaving to get food elsewhere – i.e., just give me an ETA for my steak. In the above communication, I would have just said “We had technical issues with our customer database, but the issue is now resolved, and we apologise for the delay”.
- In this situation, after around 100 or so complaint posts on the forum (“where is my TriggerHappy?”, “I want a refund!”, “Why are you not keeping us informed?”), it took a month to post the update. When there are problems, constant communication is a MUST. It only takes 5 minutes to send an update.
I have said it before, and I will say it again – communication is King!!!! You can never communicate too much – keep everybody informed and they wont start guessing what is (or is not) going on and imagining the worst.
But as I say, you can be too honest (as in this example). Yes, tell them there was a problem (and it has been resolved), but really, people don’t care about the details – they just care what the effect will be for them, and that everything is back on track.
I am sure that in the last 12 months, you will have received many emails offering web design or SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) services. I am sure that like me, you deleted the majority of them as soon as you spotted the term SEO in the header or text. But did you ever see one or two that made you stop and think if you should be doing more on with your web site?
I don’t want to take about SEO companies today. But I am using them as an example of companies that don’t eat their own cat food – a term given to companies that are ridiculously bad at the services they are trying to offer to you.
Take these SEO specialist companies. If they are so great at getting web sites to the top of Google or Bing, why do they have to spam you? If you Google “SEO companies” – why are they not on the number 1 spot of Google?
What about accountants? Would you trust an accountant who has final demand letters on their door mat when you visit? Or what about marketing companies that are trying and failing to gain customers? What about cleaning companies which are based in the dirtiest office imaginable?
A copywriter to improve my own site
The reason I talk about this, is that I have started looking for copywriters to improve the content of my own company web site. I was recommended and visited a couple of sites of copywriters, who talked a good talk.
But their web sites were shocking. Some examples of problems I spotted when visiting including:
- Missing any calls to action on their site (where are the “call or email me” buttons?)
- Very basic Typos (and if I can spot them, they must be bad)
- Mixed quality of graphics all over their site (some photos, some graphics, some line art, some appear to be scanned)
- Examples of text inviting me that if I am “Interested? Sign up on the right.” – When there is nothing on the right.
- Spaces missing in their text, so words merge together (and become a jumble)
- Lots of uses of “We”, “Us” and “I” when they all say a web site should use “You” or “Your” (the very things I am trying to correct)
I could go on. But the point is, they are advertising a service to improve web sites and web site copy (words), but their own sites are in a terrible state.
In most situations, web sites are the initial introduction to the world – if a copywriter can’t get that write, why would I even think about paying them to change mine?
So I ask again, are you eating your own cat food for the service you provide?
Closing the store is the brave thing to do. …You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life. Oh, I know it doesn’t feel like that. You feel like a big fat failure. But you’re not. You’re marching into the unknown, armed with … nothing. Have a sandwich.
~ Birdie Conrad, from the film You’ve Got Mail, Warner Brothers , 1998
One of the things I find most annoying about the Internet is that it’s constantly changing. Resources come, resources go, Google changes its rules, new social media appears, web services are created, and just as fast – things disappear. I have lost count of the number of blogs, feeds, twitter uses I have subscribed to which have just…. faded away.
In 2011 I made some big decisions. I decided to end the development of two software products I had developed, I fired three customers (I tried to fire five but two gave me reason to reconsider) and I called it a day on two or three personal projects (which were not going anywhere).
As Birdie Conrad says (from the quote above), closure of anything can be a tough call, but sometimes it’s the brave (and right thing to do).
As freelancers and business owners, we are told we need to expand all of the time – more clients, better clients, more work, more projects. Growth (we are told) is good.
But, sometimes all that is really needed is to call it time on the things that are holding us back – the bad customers, the waste of time projects, the pet activities which are distracting us. When I have taken the difficult decision to make the brave move and cut these things off, I have always found that it creates a vacuum of time and effort which is quickly filled by new customers and new work.
So what are the things that are holding you back, that you need to cut off and close, in order to move forward?
It’s also useful to plan ahead, and know things that will also come to a conclusion at a future date. This helps us know when we will have spare time and resource in the future which aids in planning.
As an example of this, this blog will end on the last day of December this year (2012) – that’s the date when I will make a final goodbye entry. There is plenty of time between now and then, but I don’t want it to just fade… it will conclude. Which will allow me more time to move forward on other things. But plenty of advice from me between now and then.
And what about you. Any brave moves you can make this year?
Today, I had a run in with another small company. I know the company name and I know that they sell items via Amazon – but that’s all I really know about them. I don’t know how big they are, how high their turnover is, or even where they are based.
When I recently purchased an electronic device from Amazon, this company was recommended as the supplier. The Amazon supplier page gave me an automated delivery date range – fair enough. The order was placed, and I received a nice order confirmation from the company confirming the delivery date originally presented – all good stuff.
Except the item didn’t arrive. In fact, by the due date, it had not even been despatched.
It needed me to chase the company for them to provide another date. Now not only did they fail to give a reason for it not being despatched, but they also failed to offer an apology. They don’t know what the item is for – it could be for me, or for somebody’s birthday or for a work project – they don’t know what impact a late delivery will have.
So I did what I always do, went back onto Amazon and gave them a negative review. Nothing too harsh, just a “Missed the promised delivery date”.
The request for credit where credit was not due
My negative remark triggered an email from them saying (and I cut and paste here)… “We would like to plead with you regarding your feedback. We are a small business and would like to politely request that you consider changing this to a positive review as a negative feedback will adversely affect our small family business should you decide not to”.
So despite them missing their target, they actually want a good review? They want me to lie? You note that they don’t ask me to remove the negative comment – no, they want me to replace with a positive.
Price Verses Quality
So this takes us to the point of this transaction conflict and what I did wrong. I went for somebody cheap, and what I should have done is find a balance of cheap(ish) and reliable.
This if the difference between consumer spending and business spending. Consumers are swayed a great deal by price, whereas businesses buy on risk, reliability and then price. If we do business to business work, being Mr or Mrs Cheap and reducing the quality may put us at risk.
All businesses are at risk of having negative reviews placed against us. Ebay, Amazon and business review sites makes it very easy for anybody to vent their anger about us. Even for small shops or companies who think they are too small for such rants, anybody can vent their wrath on a blog site.
For big multi nationals, a few negative posts will get lost in the PR positive noise that they create so will have minimum impact. But for us small businesses, one negative review can really hurt us.
So is it better to be cheap and let people down, or price for quality and deliver what you promise? Or as a wise business coach once told me; Quality will be remembered long after Price has been forgotten.
Health and Safety, Human Rights, Data Protection, Pounds verses Kilos, Gallons verses Litres and of course the Euro – all of these pitiful excuses for ‘making our lives better’ are brought to us by the fools that sit and pass laws for the whole of Europe in Brussels.
Clearly life is still too easy for us in the UK, especially if you run a small business, so the EU ministers have been at it again. You may be aware that there is now in force, a revision of the EU’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive that was introduced to protect users privacy by requiring explicit consent before (most)* cookies can be placed on a computer or mobile device by a web site.
Making the Web Unusable
If you operate a web site within the European Union (including the UK), you now have 4 options to get your house in order:
1. Do nothing (which can leave you open to possible fines for non compliance)
2. Don’t accept cookies (remove all the analytics, order processing and any other cookie code)
3. Ask for permission (which is what the EU wants you to do)
4. Move your company outside of the EU
Reasonably, only the 3rd is a viable option for any serious business which means working towards compliance. The problem is, most EU nations have no law in place yet, and there are no clear guidelines for which cookies are acceptable and not. Some fuzzy guidelines have been provided by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office – the UK’s information privacy cheerleader. The ICO has put together a downloadable document that serves as a “starting point for getting compliant,” rather than a definitive guide.
This will make the web a much more annoying place for all concerned.
You have until May 21st, 2012
If you were not aware, the law is actually already in place – you should be complying with the ‘guidelines’ now. However, the EU has granted a 1 year ‘settle in’ period, which means your changes do not have to be in place until 21st May 2012. This date will soon come around, so maybe it’s worth thinking about your options now.
What I am doing about it
I am fortunate that the only cookies I need on my web site is the ones used by Google Analytics and Google Optimisation. At a push, it would not be the end of the word to disable or remove them. For other businesses, removing cookies could be more serious.
I have decided not to produce pop-ups on my web site or my blog – simply because this is a law I really don’t agree with. However, at the same time I don’t want to leave myself open to possible business fines.
So my middle ground solution is, I am going to put a line at the bottom of all effected pages stating:
Clearly this is fairly long, so I imagine the text will need to be fairly small to make it fit. To this, I will like to another page that talks about the directive, what it means and why I use analytics. After all, one of the items detailed in the ICO’s document states “If the ICO were to receive a complaint about a website, we would expect an organisation’s response to set out how they have considered the points above and that they have a realistic plan to achieve compliance. We would handle this sort of response very differently to one from an organisation which decides to avoid making any change to current practice.”
So the simple statement means I have made a start, which means in the unlikely event somebody does have a word about my business, I am not avoiding the problem, which means I get a warning rather than a fine.
Have you ever been on a web site looking for information, and the first thing they present is a “Will you take a survey” pop-up? What about where you order something, and they demand your phone number – it’s a mandatory option – you must give them a number – so you make one up. Or how about a web site which demands you select your STATE from a drop down list, but you live in the UK, Germany or South America – so you end up picking Alaska because it’s the first on the list?
Now don’t get me wrong, all of this can provide useful information – but there is a time, and a place, and a question of is it relevant. I would suspect that the pop-up surveys would only be used by people with an axe to grind (or those who are really, really bored). I would also suspect that all the phone numbers held in peoples databases are wrong – if you FORCE me to provide a phone number to order a pair of socks on your web site, you can bet your going to get a “99999999” phone number.
There are some exceptions. Based on advice from blogs of master marketers that I read, pop-up ‘follow me on twitter’ or pop-up/side bar ‘join my mailing list’ have a value – but to ask for a survey for a first time visitor – just seems like a bad idea.
If you are going to ask for surveys, send them out to people you know and make sure they are relevant. And if you’re going to ask for phone numbers or other personal information, make them optional and remember that not everybody lives in the same country as you.
I have spent this weekend in Paris to celebrate my wife’s 40th Birthday. As part of this trip, we visited a fabulous restaurant called Le Fermette Marbeuf. The restaurant is very pricey, but the food is very good and the decoration is exquisite. But in spite of spending an awful lot of money with them, the service was nothing short of shocking.
We both ordered starters, main courses and deserts. My wife received her starter and I got. . . an empty plate. Yes, they actually brought me a plate with nothing on. We explained that I had ordered a starter, but they didn’t seem at all fussed – they disappeared to check on the starter. About 30 minutes later, two more plates arrived – with our main courses. When I explained I was missing a starter, the waiter just shrugged, and wandered away.
So OK, they had made a mistake – they had goofed. They were very busy, and maybe they didn’t have enough staff. They had somehow lost an order for a starter (or turned my order into an order for “Starter La Empty-Plate”). But, we all make mistakes in business. It’s how you handle them that makes the difference.
The head waiter could have come over to apologise – but no. They could have offered me something in return, but no. Instead, when I was presented with the bill, they said because of their mistake, they had not charged me for the starter I hadn’t received. Well shucks – that’s good of them.
Business Mistakes are an inconvenience. They will always be an inconvenience to somebody – the question is – who? If you make a mistake – you deliver late, you miss something off, you forget something, is it good enough to just say “sorry” and expect your customers to deal with the inconvenience? If this is the case, would you expect repeat business, quick and easy payment, and recommendations? Or would you expect complaints, bad reviews (that internet is a powerful place for people with axes to grind) and problems in the future?
I for one want a simple life – a stress free life. Which is why whenever I do make mistakes (it happens), I make sure my customers are not inconvenienced.
What about you?
Yesterday afternoon I attended a short workshop on gaining more Freelance business. They had two freelance leaders who talked for 20 minutes each, and both of them told the same story – to gain more business you have to be #1 in your sector.
In a lot of small business and freelance books, I have read the same thing; Be number one, be the industry expert, be the go-to company, be the market leader. Really?!? I mean…. Really?!?!?
That idea may work for big companies in niche areas – where you can throw more money, more staff, more advertising and more service to be number one. I suspect for the VAST majority of small businesses (including consultants, contractors and freelancers), you have tens of thousands of people up and down the country who do the same as you – how can you ever hope to be number one?
And if you can’t, why are the ‘experts’ telling you to try? It’s a hopeless, thankless, impossible task.
Which is why I am happy to be number two, or number 10, or number 501. I really don’t care what number I am.
What I care about is being real, being approachable, having a clear message, having clear and reasonable prices, and being there when somebody is looking for me (or a company like me).
So you be number One if that works for you. Me, I am too busy being what my customers need.
When I am working on a project, if I perform a task which I need to do over again and again, I find nothing more rewarding than working out a better way of doing it. Be it a tool, a system or an automated way of carrying out the task, if I can save time by re-use or simplification, it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
But, this also causes a problem. A problem you also have. A problem that you may not even know you have.
You see, as you work, you gain experience (and tools and snippets and shortcuts and a million other ways of saving time). But, when you quote customers for work, what are you quoting for?
Take the version of you that existed 5 years ago. If you did some work on a project, I am sure that it would take much longer to complete than it does today. 5 years ago you were groping in the dark, feeling your way. Today, you can wiz through projects thanks to your accumulated knowledge, skills and shortcuts.
But what are you charging your customers for. Are you charging them for the time that it would take a reasonable person to complete the task, or the more experienced super-you?? What happens in another 5 years with even more efficiencies – do you charge them even less
Are you, essentially, cutting your own throat?!? Are you turning yourself into a busy cheap fool? Or are you factoring the old you into your proposal figures so in fact, you are generating more money through efficiency?