Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Twitter For Service Firms – You Cannot Be Serious!

The world is full of independent firms that deliver some form of service to their clients. 

Service Firms (SFs) or Professional Service Firms (PSFs) provide professional services to other companies or to the public – essentially they sell time, either on a project-by-project basis, on a one-off basis or on some form of monthly contract and/or retainer - the focus is on people interacting with people and serving the customer rather than transforming physical goods.

The array of SFs is enormous. Everything from an accountant, a copywriter, a solicitor, an advertising consultant through to a Zen Buddhism teacher or an independent zoo inspector. The list is endless.

For me, the term Service Firm or Professional Service Firm loosely describes these businesses. 

While each industry is fiercely defensive about its uniqueness, the extraordinary thing is that the similarities are huge. You can deliver or write a piece for accountants or solicitors or web designers and it can be identical and will be well received as long as you cut and paste the right profession name throughout the piece.

Typically, the independent Professional Service Firm has some common characteristics that give the PSF some unique qualities. The ‘product’ is a service and is intangible which means that…
·         It cannot be stored
·         It gets consumed at the time that it is delivered so it cannot be re-used
·         It is almost instantly perishable.

Having banged on endlessly about service firms in my book, Grow Your Service Firm, it is great to see that they do share common qualities.

Orange Business reports that the public is increasingly turning to Twitter specifically in search of professional services – from accountants to architects. Over the past two years there has been a six-fold increase in people using Twitter to ask for business recommendations around common professional services such as legal, financial and technical.

The top five of professional services searched for on Twitter are:

1. Web Designer
2. Solicitor
3. Accountant
4. Architect
5. Copywriter.

Top of the list and most in demand are web designers. However, their popularity must surely be skewed by the fact that tech-savvy individuals are more likely to be on Twitter.

Despite the web designer bias, second on the list are solicitors. In my experience most are not aware of the fees they could be missing out on by not engaging via Twitter.

This list is also the exact target market for the Grow Your Service Firm ‘ology’ which focuses on developing an ‘expert’ focus’. What all these businesses often have in common is a common set of problems, usually exacerbated by being great at their job (technically) but not so good at knowing how to run or grow a business.

Being accessible, being where your potential clients are, seems like a no-brainer to me. The ones that are ‘online’ have a great advantage over the rest. And the ones that are not online… 

Do I need to spell this one out?

Monday, 27 January 2014

Is This The Secret To Growing Your Business?

So here’s the lowdown, the straightforward truth about growing your business.

This may seem like a bit of a wild goose chase but if you follow the line of argument then you will discover what you need to put in place to make it happen in your business

It is all about making the right decisions. Making the right decisions appropriate for the specific business that you are running. To be honest, at least 70% of business owners fall over at this stage.

But actually it is all about taking action, rolling out the action plan. Taking massive action. No half-hearted attempts here but properly ‘going for it’. No holds barred. Full on. 100% commitment. As they say, ‘actions talk louder than words’. And precious few businesses get to this stage.

But actually it is all about results. It is all about the results. It really doesn’t matter how great the actions were, how original or innovative, how awe-inspiring or pushing the envelope they were unless you got the results you were chasing. So actually, it is all about results. And precious few businesses actually deliver on this one.

So, how can you drastically improve your ability to deliver the results? How can you make this less of a lottery? How can you reduce the odds of failure and get closer to making the delivery of results into something that is almost inevitable?

Having shown you the formula from the start (you need to make the right decisions... so that you can take the right actions... so that you can get the right results), it is now time to reflect.

Why don’t people succeed in putting together the simple equation, ‘right decisions + right actions = right results’? The answer is in one simple word, accountability, specifically for the results.

As owners of our own businesses we are rarely (if ever) accountable to anyone. We can make all kinds of promises and commitments and then we can turn our back on the great action plans as if we had never signed up to them in the first place. Most of the time there is no-one there to manage us and so we get away with murder. Our self-talk and our subsequent conversations with partners and colleagues rationalise and justify what is essentially our failure to deliver. As an employee we would be sacked for failing to perform. But when it is your own business you get away with it.

So, what is to be done?

You need to be held to account. You need to put in place some kind of device, process or system so that you are held accountable to deliver, to perform. So, how do you do that?

In my humble opinion you do have a number of options to make yourself accountable. Whichever option you go for you need to figure out what will get you to perform. Carrot or stick? Public humiliation or private anguish? Movement towards a goal or away from pain?

You could use your own colleagues in the business to commit to. Your board would be the obvious people to report to. Yes, I said ‘report to’. Whatever it takes to get you delivering.

Or, you could employ a business coach, a consultant, or your bank manager to whom you need to commit your goals and then get help to work towards them and maybe put in place a simple reward/penalty system for success/failure, something that motivates you, eg a week’s ski trip with your friends for success and pay £1,000 to charity for failure. You decide whatever you think will get you more motivated. The pressure of an outsider assisting in an objective yet supportive manner has tremendous power.

Another possible solution would be a slightly larger group, some kind of mastermind group that meets regularly and to whom you have to report. There are many different forms of boardroom hot-seats available. Here the power is that you are not just responsible to one outsider but to a whole number (who are also going through a similar process as yourself). Again you have the objective, supportive outsider working with you but now you get the wrath or congratulations of your professional peers. For many they feel able to lie to their fellow board directors but cannot bear to admit their incompetence to what is, relatively, a room full of strangers. Professional humiliation is avoided at all costs.

This whole accountability piece is very much horses for courses. You need to find what best suits you.

However, unless you are accountable to deliver then I see no obligation, on your part, to deliver on the results. And without the desired results, the right decisions and right actions are worth nothing.

Time to get your act together.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Work smarter not longer when running your own business

See this article in the Guardian

Work smarter not longer when running your own business

Could you work more efficiently as a business owner and cut down your working hours?
Keeping a detailed diary can be a good way of identifying where time is spent. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian
If you want to work fewer hours, running your own business probably isn't the wisest option. According to a survey by call-handling service provider Penelope, micro-business owners work an average of 52 hours a week – significantly more than the UK average of 37.
But it seems that an inefficient use of time could be partly responsible for owners working longer hours. "Whether unintentionally or not, many of us don't work as efficiently as possible some or even most of the time," observes Robert Craven, business development consultant, author and founder of The Directors' Centre in Bath. "Some owners mistakenly believe that working long hours is the key to success, when they should be working smarter not longer."

Business needs

Business owners have always been faced with distractions, but modern communications technology means that potentially there are more of them and they're more frequent, says Craven. "It's easy for small business owners to get distracted, especially as there are so many things vying for their attention.
"Many owners don't realise they could be making much better use of their time. They get bogged down in menial admin tasks or spend their time doing what they want to do, rather than what the business needs them to do – usually sell.
"Social media addiction has become a bigger problem – and being active on such sites is not the same as being busy. Much time can also be taken up unnecessarily with products and suppliers, often at the expense of selling – the most important task."

Control issues

Procrastination also leads some owners to waste time, says Craven, while others just aren't good at prioritising tasks, or remaining disciplined and organised. "Trying to juggle too many things at once creates inefficiencies, too," he warns. "Some owners are reluctant to outsource because of cost or to delegate responsibility to staff, but delegating doesn't mean abdicating responsibility. If your staff must have the necessary knowledge and ability, it can free up more of your time."
Micro-managing employees is another common drain on time. As Craven explains: "People who build up a business from scratch often find it hard to let go, but they risk not contributing as much value as they could – as well as working in the business rather than on it. They need time to step back, consider the big picture and plan the best way forward. Introducing better systems and processes, as well as making full use of technology and other people can free up a lot of time for owners."
Many hours can also be devoted to customers, too. "If that brings your business healthy returns and other duties don't suffer, fine, but some customers are more trouble than they're worth," Craven says. "Concentrating your efforts on higher-value customers can generate more revenue and save you lots of time."

Time management

"If you're not sure how you're wasting time, try keeping a detailed diary for a week," advises efficiency and time-management expert Cory Cook. "But you must be honest, because perception is often different from reality. You might think you're looking at social media sites for a few minutes each day, when in truth it's five hours a week."
Once you have identified how you are wasting time, you can decide what changes are required, she says. "It's not always about personal distractions, your day would be taken up with time-consuming tasks when others would contribute much more value to your business, for example, accounting, when it's more cost-efficient to outsource. Delegating more responsibility to others could also enable you to contribute more value – and do more enjoyable things."
If outsourcing or delegating tasks isn't an option, better time management could make a major difference to your bottom line and work-life balance. "It begins with structuring your working day," Cook explains. "Knowing what needs to be done and how long you've got for each task encourages focus. And the more focused you are, the more productive you'll be."

To-do list

Cook recommends working with to-do lists – as long as they are not too long. "This can make them seem intimidating, so it's better to prioritise six or so key tasks and work through them one by one. Things will crop up which will change things, sure, but aim to start off each day with a structured to-do list. Focus on the task in hand and be realistic about how much time is required, otherwise you risk putting yourself under more pressure, while possibly doing a second-rate job because you've rushed."
You must also consider your energy levels, she says. "Planning to do difficult or boring tasks when you lack energy is usually counterproductive. Get them out of the way during peak energy times, usually earlier in the day, and leave easier or more enjoyable tasks for when your energy is lower."
Business owners also need to know when it's time to go home, she adds. "At the end of a tiring day, when your focus and energy has diminished, tasks take longer to complete, especially those we dislike. Better to come back refreshed the next day, when you'll probably get the job done quicker. Whatever the task, ask yourself what contribution it makes to taking your business forward. If the answer is 'not much', ask yourself why you're doing it."

Better habits

Successful time management also requires self-discipline and being prepared to politely saying no to non-essential time-sapping requests. "Get into better habits too, for example, checking your email less frequently, because chopping and changing inevitably wastes time. Let others know when you're not to be interrupted unless absolutely necessary, have your calls screened and tell others not to copy you into emails you don't need to read. Avoid unnecessary meetings, and hold them at your premises if possible, that way you'll waste less time travelling."
Cook says even seemingly small changes like this can make a big difference. "If better time management enables you to get just 10 per cent more work done each day, that can make a big difference to your business – and perhaps mean you don't need to work so many hours too."

See the original article here

Monday, 13 January 2014

How to Grow a Sustainable Business

How to Grow a Sustainable Business
“How do you do it?” we keep being asked. 

With a history of over a thousand happy and profitable clients, sound bites have developed into what can only be called a manifesto: an outline of how sustainable profitability can be created in businesses like yours.

Believe in how good you really are

How do you know how good you are? Survey and understand your clients and what they say.

Put your prices up - and your best clients won’t leave.

Most companies shy away from “boasting”, but if you are good – say so – loudly and repeatedly.

Adopt a market-leading positioning that is credible – “a leading” rather than “the leading”, but in the Premier league all the same.

So, how good is your business? And how good does it appear to be from the website? Is there a difference?

Run the business for profit

Sounds silly, but many owner-directors don’t – does your business do so – really?

You do the operations side brilliantly, and are as busy as hell.

So, how profitable are some jobs? The bigger the job, often the less profitable it is.

And how do you know unless you really monitor it?

Many businesses reckon if they are busy, they are profitable, or as profitable as possible.

Nonsense. That’s working so the client can be profitable - and your business unprofitable.

Transform the product offering

What worked when you started the business doesn’t necessarily work now – is this true for your business?

The recession means it’s a new world with new priorities, new demands.

So, how much has your product offering, your packaging of services, changed in the last 2-3 years?

When did you last really survey your competitors? Not just what they offer and their prices, but how they present their services. What they emphasise. What they miss out.

Improve your products, and you improve your chances of successfully winning more and better business.

Think: what do clients really want? And how can you best offer that?

Transform the perception of the brand

You think everybody knows what your business does, what it stands for – but they don’t. Many don’t know you at all.

At best, they know some of what you do – but have pigeon-holed you. They don’t consider you for other work you could be doing for them.

You need to consider what your proposition is to them – why should they use you rather than a competitor?

You need them to know what you stand for – your values, and not just your services and prices.

In a beauty parade of websites, your home page needs to make you look and say the things the clients you are targeting want to see and hear.

Getting the brand right wins you more and better business. It’s not about marketing. It’s about sales and profits.

Get better revenues from existing clients

Key clients may well pay more – you’d be surprised. Satisfied clients don’t walk away.

A lot of our clients have put their prices up nervously, but have had no adverse reaction. They were selling too cheap.


• Could clients be buying more frequently from you? Have you got all their business? What would you need to do to get it?
• What else might they buy from you? Have you presented all the services you offer? Have you offered trials of services they haven’t tried?
• How could you package prices and products so as to upsell them?

Recruit higher-revenue new clients

This is what most people want to do, but it is easier to earn more from existing clients. Optimise that revenue first.

To win bigger, better business you need to look and act like a bigger, better business. So you need to get the products, packaging and branding right first.

To win new clients, you need to take business off their existing suppliers – so you need to be better than them. Are you? How could you offer a better service at a better price – and still make money?

Winning new business starts with getting to know someone. It begins with their awareness of you and what you offer. Then conversations. Finally, business opportunities.

Don’t dive in! You build new business brick by brick on solid foundations.

So, winning new, bigger business is first a matter of getting everything to do with the business at its best.

That will increase your confidence, and the warmth of response you will get.

There are strategies – for example, using research techniques to find out about what prospects want. There is low-cost marketing you can do to get closer to them – using PR to get editorial coverage, for example.

But in the end it is about investment of time, energy and commitment, more than money, in new business growth. Making the tough decisions and then taking action (clearly, decisively, and quickly) is key. Speed is of the essence. And being accountable – someone needs to hold your feet to the fire to check that you have followed through on your plans.

This not a nice academic treatise based on some nice books we have read. This is based on what we have seen to work with growing businesses before and throughout the recession. This stuff works.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Recession Case Study – Can You Rescue A Drowning Estate Agent?

Estate agents as businesses must be proverbial basket cases. If houses are not selling and people can’t get mortgages, what can they do other than go bust – which, of course, many are.

Here are four key actions to improve business performance, and we put them to the test with our estate agent client:-

1.  Don’t Drop A Ball

Managements have to juggle with FiMO – Finance, Marketing and Operations. Most managements focus on what they do best – making their products, providing their services – so Operations always gets lots of attention. Marketing for many is a necessary evil that is never as predictable in its results as the books and MBAs suggest. And Finance? Well, in the good times it looks after itself, and in the bad times it becomes the absolute focus of attention – often to the detriment of Marketing.

Our estate agent was doing just that: but they had their “backs against the wall”.

2.  Put Your Prices Up

Easy to say, and the statistics are utterly compelling: if a company has a 30% gross margin and reduces its prices by 10%, it has to sell 50% more to make the same income: put the prices up by 10%, and it can sell 25% less - and still make the same income. But very hard to do when all your competitors are cutting commission rates just to get houses to sell: surely you’d simply lose business by being less competitive? Absolutely – if that’s all you did.

3.  The 80:20 Rule

What other estate agents are doing is packing their windows and what advertising they can still afford with properties, in the hope that something will sell.

What our estate agent was doing – but didn’t realise – was being picky. They knew the local market, they knew what would sell and at what price. Wrong property, wrong price, no thank you, let our competitors have it. We turned that into a strategy – and a marketing proposition. We’ll only take on the 20% of properties that will appeal to 80% of buyers.

So, when prospective vendors did their “beauty parades” of agents to sell their house, our agent stood out like a sore thumb: no, we’re not desperate for your house. No, we won’t take it on if we don’t think it will sell – or you can’t agree with our valuation. And yes, we do have a higher commission rate than our competitors.

BUT the difference is this: if we take on your house we will sell it.

“Trust me. I’m an Estate Agent” “Yeah, right! As if”.

That’s the brand pillar that we recommended: Trust.

It is contrary to what people think of estate agents – and that’s the point!

4.  Grow Your Sales

Two facts shone out: people buy people (who came round to value their home meant more than the agency itself), and “nobody” visits the agent’s office or considers it important. There we had the basis for the Virtual Agents Strategy: a cunning, 21st Century way of “owning” a sales territory.

Recruit a redundant agent who really knows “her/his” area, who has lots of contacts and a good reputation, locate him at the main office (overheads are decimated to a desk, a PC and extra phone calls) – and pay commission at very generous rates (but not salary). Add a new territory to your advertising, add web pages presenting the person and his/her knowledge of the territory, and have a dedicated phone number and email address.

Now you’ve added a whole new territory at minimal cost, minimal overhead, and with maximum chance to at least tootle along in the recession – then really accelerate out of it.

There, as they say, we have it. Four theory tenets not just put into practice, but applied so as to make a real, short and long term difference to a “basket case” business without significant risk, without significant up front expenditure, and with a bright new future to look forward to – even in a recession!

Monday, 6 January 2014

Your marketing isn't working. Here's what to do

system failure

Traditional marketing techniques deliver ever-decreasing results. It's time for a review of how to connect and reach customers, says Robert Craven.

Most marketing doesn't work. 

It is progressively more expensive and results seem to be harder to come by. 

Meanwhile most marketing is dull, unremarkable, unfocused and doesn’t focus on benefits. There is no great commitment, no great customer engagement and cost of client acquisition is rising. 

It just doesn’t work like it used to. And that is a fact.

I would like to construct an argument.
  1. It is clear that most 'traditional' marketing does not work. Despite what they tell you!
  2. Despite what they tell you, most firms are falling short of customer expectations especially in terms of customer service.
  3. Only 10% of any market actually buys on price despite what people tell you.
  4. Customers leave you because you don’t appear to care about them.
  5. Customers choose you because of your engagement with them.
  6. You can get away with murder!

I am more than happy to provide evidence for all of the above but let's just take these points as read. The marketing landscape is looking pretty fragile.

So, what is stand-out marketing?

For me, 'stand-out' is about challenging and shaking the industry (and not simply about gimmicks) and 'marketing' is about revenue generating (which it should be). So, 'stand-out marketing' is inventing (new) methods to disrupt the normal way your industry conducts business.

We can now map out how to make your marketing stand out.

How to start creating some stand-out, disruptive marketing

To improve your whole approach to marketing you need to ask five questions of your customers and your business. This can be a quick’n’dirty exercise (grab a room with a flipchart and some of the key people in the business) or it can be constructed in a more methodical manner incorporating some research.

Ask the following five questions:
  1. What really hacks off your customers?
  2. Why can't you sell more stuff? A clue: lazy marketing. Another: you look/sound/talk/sell identical to your competitors. Another: the adverts no longer work; word-of-mouth is what matters. Another: shouting louder doesn’t attract attention any more.
  3. What is your job from the customer’s point of view? A clue: it is almost certainly NOT what you do. People do not buy what you do; they buy what you do does for them. They buy the afters, what is left after you've 'delivered'.
  4. What is the usual way of doing things? A clue: the usual way is almost certainly boring, dull and predictable.
  5. What could/should you be doing?

A few more clues might be required here.

You could sell on low price, high price, no price, payment by results, by being the best/slowest/fastest/first... I am sure you get the idea.

When everyone goes zig, you could go zag.

After all, why should people bother to buy from you when they can buy from the competition, especially when the competition might well be cheaper or faster or friendlier? To blindly follow the pack is a mug’s game; in a team of husky dogs pulling a sledge, the only ones with a good view are the ones at the front!

What I refer to as stand-out or disruptive marketing is an alternative to the way you do things now. In your heart of hearts you know that you could be doing so much more. To quote Jerry Garcia: "You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do."

It works for Innocent, Tom's shoes, Happy Computers, Ben and Jerry's, TED talks, Hobbs House Bakery, Dans Le Noir and Dorset Cereals. These are all businesses with strong ethical motivations who are really well-connected to their customers. Maybe it will work for you? 

Published at

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Accountancy Age Interview with Robert Craven about...

Here's a podcast with Accountancy Age click here (24 minutes)

  • 75% of business owners say their accountant is crucial to the smooth running of their business
  • 1 in 3 admit that their accountant has had a direct influence on their growth
  • the role is changing
  • they need to offer less compliance and more advice
And over to the interview:

Some salient points:

  • The love/hate relationship clients have with accountants
  • What's wrong so often?
  • Are there few good ones?
  • How do you find a great one?
  • Too many rest on their laurels thinking it is enough to have a professional qualification and the long gone reputation of the profession
  • A business run by a business person is not the same as 'an accountant'
  • See things from the client's point of view - it is about how you look after me
  • It is not a battle for the product but a battle for the mind of the customer
  • Think through the customer experience from their point of view
  • Why should I bother to buy from you if you are the same as the competition?
  • Talk about hurts, benefits, afters - what does the client want? Benefits not features...
  • Are accountants equipped/qualified to be business advisors?
  • Most people go into accounting to do accounting (and not to do marketing and strategy)
  • Entrepreneurs have pre-conceptions about accountants
  • Accountants can be more guerrilla in your approach
  • Accountants must add real value
  • Why don't more people love their accountant?
  • How do you expect your accountant to work with you?
Boom! Boom!