Customer Care.

Poor customer care can have a debilitating effect on a business.

Research suggests that the average person who has a bad experience with a business tells at least nine other people about it, and that 13% of dissatisfied companies relate their experience to more than 20 other people.

And while customers are increasingly sensitive to issues of speed and efficiency of service – and have no qualms about switching their patronage to another company – most are willing to stay loyal to the people they enjoy doing business with.

A priority for effective customer care, therefore, is to demonstrate a positive, efficient, and helpful outlook that acknowledges that the customer really does come first.

Empathy with the customer

Treat customers in the same way that you would want to be treated if you were paying for your products or services.

If a customer is aggressive, show humility rather than falling into the trap of reciprocating hostility.

Act on the basis of what can be done to improve relations.

Remarks that reassure the customer need to show a genuine intent to effect change – glib assurances are easily spotted and can infuriate. If necessary explain complications or faults if it serves to pacify the customer.

Avoid too many diversions

Don’t force customers to take a ‘journey around the houses’ before they can get the help they are seeking. If a member of staff is unavailable, take a message rather than keep the customer waiting while you search for someone who can help them.

Well briefed staff

Every employee should be able to answer customer enquiries outside their area of responsibility. Could every member of your team help a caller in the absence of the employee who normally deals with that subject?

Owning up

Customers want to know that someone is taking responsibility for errors, and will act accordingly to correct them. Where possible, inform the customer which members of staff will be working to resolve their problem satisfactorily.

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Business Plans – Do I really need one?

Any business, whether it is just starting out or is considering the next stage in its development, will need a business plan.

A business plan serves several important purposes.

Perhaps the most obvious is to help raise funding. A business plan is the document that banks or investors will use to judge whether an idea or a business is viable and whether to lend money to or invest in the enterprise.

However, a well thought out business plan has advantages besides persuading others to give their support. It can, for example, identify and anticipate possible business problems; it can introduce a realistic perspective to a project; it can provide an enterprise with a coherent financial structure; it can add definition to a strategy; and it can be used to gauge the progress that a business is making.

Although it should be as strong on detail as space will allow, a good business plan should also be flexible. That is, it should be open to amendments and shifts in emphasis as circumstances change, and the plan reshaped to accommodate them.

A business plan, therefore, is less a blueprint than a map by which a business charts its successes or setbacks.

Attracting capital

When reading a business plan, different audiences will be looking for different things.

A bank, for example, will wish to be reassured that any borrowings made by the business can be repaid. This reassurance is most likely to come from a plan that shows steady growth and a reliable, regular cashflow capable of maintaining the loan repayments.

An investor, on the other hand, will be looking for signs of strong, fast growth. This is because the return on an equity investment will depend on the value and profitability of the company rather than on the repayment of a sum of money.

Content

Most business plans follow a common structure, not least because there is a set, minimum amount of information that readers will require.

The overall narrative of a business plan should demonstrate how the enterprise is to develop, how its goals are to be achieved, how it is going to be managed and how its financial structures are to work.

While a plan should sound bullish about the enterprise’s prospects, it must also be realistic, cogent and unambiguous. No one is going to be convinced by over ambition or generalities. What’s more, in committing to an honest and detailed plan, the business will also be giving itself a sharp, focused picture of just how successful the enterprise is going to be.

A business plan should include an executive summary, and a number of sections that between them cover the nature of the business, the marketing strategy, the people involved in the business, the way the business is to be managed, and the finances.

Executive summary

The executive summary, which should preface the document, provides, as its name suggests, an overview of the business and synopsis of the whole plan.

Since it heads up the plan, the summary will be the first section to be read, although it should be the last section to be written. A good, succinct, compelling summary will cover the main points to be found in the document but not duplicate them in detail.

At the end of the summary, the reader should have a clear idea of the nature and aims of the business and the opportunities it offers. They should also feel interested enough in the proposition to want to know more details. For that reason, the summary must be involving, clear and persuasive, and no longer than two pages. On the other hand, it should not be an extended list of contents, or just a description of the business, or a series of over claims.

The business

The job of this section is to communicate precisely what the business is, what the business does, the nature of the product or service, and how viable the enterprise is. The people involved in the business should also be introduced here.

It should begin with a brief outline of the structure of the business – is it a partnership, for example, or a limited company – and who owns it. If the business is already trading, a brief history of its progress to date can be included.

The owner should also set out their vision for the future development of the business.

Next, there should be a description of the product or service. This will need to cover not only the nature of the product or service, but also how it is different to the competition, how it will benefit customers, why customers will buy it, how it will make money and how it will develop and evolve.

Although it is understandable, nobody putting a business plan together should assume the reader knows as much about the product or service as they do. Concise, accessible explanation is, therefore, vital.

The market

Almost as important as the product or service is the marketplace in which it is competing. The plan will need to define the market, look at the competition and mark the position of the business. Readers will expect an intelligent, properly researched understanding of the current status of the marketplace and of any trends that are likely to influence its development in the future.

The plan should describe the size and history of the market, and should show why customers within it will want to buy the business’s product or service. Rivals should be identified and assessed for their share of the market, as well as for their comparative strengths and weaknesses. It is also helpful to set out ways in which the market may change and how the business intends to handle or exploit those future developments.

Marketing

Many plans tend to treat marketing as peripheral, but they should not. No matter how good or how innovative the product or service, readers will want to be told exactly how the business intends reaching its customers.

This section, therefore, needs to demonstrate a well-considered strategy for promoting the product or service in a way that targets the greatest number of the right sort of customer.

Here it is necessary to indicate how the product or service is to be positioned in the market (that is, how it is to achieve a distinct identity).

A customer profile will help show who will be interested in buying the product or service and why. (This, in turn, will allow the business to produce an accurate, realistic pricing policy.)

The next step is to include the outline of a promotional campaign, and the methods of communication – direct marketing, above the line advertising, PR, telemarketing, emails – to be used. This needs to be complemented by a sales strategy that describes where and how the product or service will be sold (retail, online, etc).

The people

Obviously, the role and calibre of the managers and employees will have a significant bearing on the operation and the running of a business. As well as outlining the structure of the business team, the plan should also detail the talents, experience and strengths of the people who make up the team. If there are any weaknesses or gaps in the collective skill set of the business, there should be an indication of how this might be remedied.

A quick biography of the management team should include background information on qualifications and past experience and how these suit the person for their role in the enterprise. The broader the range of skills, from product development to financial expertise to marketing know-how, the better equipped to succeed the business will appear.

Any professional advisers that have been consulted should also be mentioned.

Proof of commitment can be just as persuasive to would-be funders as expertise or qualifications. So it is useful to make clear how much time various members of the management team will be devoting to the business.

If there are plans to recruit additional employees, then readers need to be told how many, the level of salaries and benefits that are to be offered, and, if possible, the intended productivity rates for each employee. Any staff training schemes also need to be outlined.

Business operation

This is the part of the plan that describes how the business is going to be run and managed.

Depending on the nature of the enterprise, this may mean detailing the location of the business (and any advantages this may bring), the sort of premises that are to be used (are they owned or rented?) and the duration of any lease.

Any plant or equipment should be itemised and assessed for its capacity to cope with the production process. Some businesses will have to offer reassurances about such ongoing measures as quality control and such daily practices as stock management.

The ability of the enterprise to make effective use of the latest information technology should be mentioned here too.

Finance

The purpose of the financial section is to buttress the plans and strategies with hard economics.

If the business has already been trading, then it will be necessary to provide information about existing sets of accounts and about any debts or assets.

The plan should make clear exactly how much funding the business is seeking and should make how it intends to repay any loans equally clear.

Financial forecasts should provide estimates for revenue and expenditure covering at least the next three and possibly the next five years. It will be expected that the first year will be the most detailed. The numbers should be accompanied with an explanation of the thinking behind them.

The forecasts need to include: a cashflow statement that charts the amount of money in the business on a month by month basis (a viable business requires enough working capital to meet regular costs such as wages); a profit and loss forecast that establishes the amount of profit the business expects to make, calculated on the balance between sales on one hand and costs on the other; and a sales forecast that shows the sort of income that sales are going to generate.

Presenting the plan

One of the biggest mistakes is to include too much detail in a business plan. The most effective plans are those that are concise and relevant. If it is too long, it will run the risk of going unread; if it is too caught up in minutiae, it will run the risk of snowing all the salient, persuasive facts and ideas under an avalanche of peripheral detail.

As well as manageable, the plan needs to be well written and logically ordered. It should have a correctly numbered contents page and an appendix where data or balance sheets can be referred to. Before it is bound, it should be exhaustively edited; read and checked by people who have not been involved in writing it (nothing works so well at spotting the vague, ambiguous or plain incomprehensible than a cold, objective eye); and scrutinised by any expert consultants such as an accountant or financial adviser.

Above all, however, the document must ring true to expectations and experience. Enthusiastic optimism, though admirable, is finally no substitute for hard-headed realism.

If a business plan receives knock backs, it always pays to find out why it was rejected. The cause may not necessarily be fundamental but remedial; a matter of a financial or marketing adjustment here, a tempering of ambition there.

Which raises the last important point about a business plan. It is organic, not written in stone. It should have the flexibility to adapt as business circumstances change. Indeed, re-visiting and updating a business plan is one of the more worthwhile exercises an enterprise can perform. Many hard-working business plans are never intended for an external audience at all, but are used by the owners to help them guide their business through its growth and development.

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2016 – Start as you mean to go on.

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2016 – Start as you mean to go on.
For a sales and marketing strategy to be effective, whatever the size of the business, it is important to work to a plan.
The purpose of a sales plan is to match the particular strengths of a business – price, quality of service, reliability, innovation – with the requirements of its customers and to use those strengths to set the business apart from its competitors.
A good plan – broad in its scope but specific in its ambitions – should cover, therefore, a number of areas.
It should assess, honestly and realistically, the strengths and weaknesses of the business, and measure how those strengths and weaknesses play in the marketplace and are perceived by existing and potential customers.
It should map out the general contours of the marketplace, identifying areas of change (price, technical innovation, new competitors, new customer purchasing trends), and detailing how those changes may affect the business and how any opportunities may be exploited.
Also part of the plan should be a detailed profile of the customers the business already has and those it is looking to attract, setting out what they require and how the business may best meet those requirements.
Other elements of the plan may involve separating out the requirements of various sorts or groups of customer, and pinpointing any gaps or niches in the market that the business could fill.
Use the plan to establish ways of identifying potential customers and the means of reaching them (advertising, direct mail, trade shows, the web).
Examine, too, the level of customer service the business provides – retaining existing customers can be as important as winning new ones, if not more so. And investigate ways of developing a closer business relationship with those customers that provide the business with its largest profits.
A plan provides the opportunity to appraise the services or products the business is offering, comparing them to those of competitors and judging whether they are performing well or whether they need to be improved or completely overhauled.
Similarly, scrutinise pricing policy to determine whether products or services are priced competitively or whether price is secondary to other considerations such as quality or innovation.
The plan should set meaningful, realisable goals, along with the amount of time and money the business is prepared to invest in achieving those goals, and it should include a means of measuring how successful any activities have been.
Most importantly of all, it is vital that any sales and marketing plan be updated and reviewed on a regular basis.
Please feel free to contact us for more information.
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Understanding your Customers

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With the customer increasingly becoming the driving force in all areas of business, companies must make sure they understand their customers and what they want.

Most commentators agree that the principal purchasing factor for customers is ‘best value for the price’. They are not looking for the lowest price for any particular product, but for the best value.

Of course, what the business owner perceives to be the best value for money and what the customer perceives it to be are not necessarily the same thing. So, to remain at the competitive edge you need to develop strategies around what customers really value, and you need to increase your customer’s perceptions of the value of your products.

How well do you know your customers?

Before you can develop these strategies however, you need to understand the wants of your customers. For example, are you focusing all your energy and resources on making the sales team more responsive, when actually your customers want a more knowledgeable sales force? Perhaps you are attempting to minimise delivery times when all along your customers would prefer regular but consistent deliveries. Or you might believe that your product line is ideal, when actually your customers are buying items from other suppliers that they would rather buy from you, if you offered them.

Few businesses have a formal programme for measuring the wants, needs and satisfaction of customers. This kind of information is usually collated piecemeal from the sales, delivery, accounts or customer service departments.

Creating customer databases

You need to be able to gather and store this kind of customer information in a useful manner. One effective way of doing this is to establish a central database or file that can be accessed by all departments. Implementing this requires three steps:

  • Identifying and gathering      the relevant information
  • Converting the information      to a useful knowledge base
  • Distributing the knowledge      throughout the company

Training benefits

Gathering and documenting information about your customers can also benefit employee training. New employees need to have an understanding of the customers they will be dealing with. When staff turnover occurs, much accumulated knowledge can be lost. By using a central database, the fragmented information gathered by various departments can be amalgamated and kept in a useful format. Delivery staff will know who your ‘A’ list clients are. New salespeople will be able to take over a territory with ease.

Do not overestimate what individual employees really know about your customers. Remember, they don’t have your cross-department perspective.

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Can’t get the staff !

Can’t get the staff?

Research has shown that many small and medium-sized businesses are finding they cannot recruit the managers they need. The two most common reasons given are lack of suitable skills and inability to match the remuneration packages offered by larger businesses.

Internal recruitment

One obvious solution to both problems is for small and medium-sized businesses to develop strategies for recruiting managers from within. This approach has obvious advantages:

  • Candidates will already be      familiar with the business, its products or services, and its internal      procedures, thus reducing the costs of induction and training
  • Employee morale, and      therefore productivity as a whole, will improve if there is seen to be a      real prospect of career progression within the firm

Of course, appropriate training will still be needed, but if potential high fliers were identified at an early stage they could be given the necessary training in stages as part of a recognition and reward process.

Experience shows that employees acknowledged in this way tend to go the extra mile to prove themselves – and often develop a positive and loyal relationship with the firm.

Incentive schemes

There is also scope for smaller businesses to improve their incentive schemes. The same research shows that in smaller firms there is a much greater tendency for managers’ and directors’ bonuses to be linked to the overall performance of the business rather than their own individual performance. Businesses wishing to retain or recruit good managers might take note and consider restructuring their bonus schemes accordingly.

These days, even smaller businesses can be quite creative in the remuneration packages they offer. A ‘cafeteria plan’ that combines salary, bonuses, and other financial incentives with pension provision, insurance schemes, child-care facilities and/or flexible working patterns might prove to be just the formula to retain your star performers and encourage them to grow with the business.

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Talk to your Staff

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Your staff are your key business asset. They know your business, and can highlight practical issues that arise on a day-to-day basis, helping systems to become more efficient and cost-effective, and identifying opportunities for generating new business.
Involving them in the business strategy will also encourage team ownership of projects, and enables all parties to understand their role in achieving the firm’s key goals, creating a profit culture throughout the business.
Increasing productivity
Group consultation assists internal communication, and allows employees to feel more informed about issues affecting them. These factors in turn have a positive effect on motivation and productivity.
Here are five ideas for encouraging your employees to give their input:
1. Run a brainstorming session – Brainstorming sessions encourage creative thinking and can be an effective way of finding solutions to existing problems and generating fresh ideas.
2. Install an ‘ideas box’ – Providing a suggestions box in the office will allow staff to raise points as and when they arise, and also gives them the option to remain anonymous.
3. Request updates – Ask each department to submit a monthly progress report, which includes details of their achievements, frustrations, and future goals. This will ensure that staff remain focused and forward-looking while also allowing them to highlight any obstacles they may be facing.
4. Hold regular strategy meetings – Bring staff in on the game by holding monthly strategy meetings. Set a clear agenda which involves everyone, and make sure that the relevant people follow up the points raised. (Remember that this is a forum for offering ideas and suggestions, rather than negotiating issues, and management must retain the ultimate decision-making powers).
5. Have a group ‘away day’ – Holding an away day at a local venue can be an extremely productive exercise. Staff can take part in team-building activities in a relaxed environment, and the risk of interruptions is minimised.
Finally…
Remember to tell staff when you have acted on their ideas. Employees will appreciate the fact that you are actively seeking their opinions, and will be encouraged to continue looking for ways in which the business can become more profitable.

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New Staff Induction

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Recruiting new staff takes up precious time and resources, so once you have found the right person for the job make sure you allocate sufficient time and resources to induct them properly. If you do not, you risk losing the new recruit and having to go through the whole process again.

Often, induction is simply a matter of holding hands for the first few days and then for an hour or two a day in the following weeks. Set a target for when the new recruit should be able to work on his or her own and make them aware of it so they have something to aim for.

During the trial period assess their competence and ability. If someone else is doing the inducting (which is likely to be the case if you employ more than four or five staff) make sure they know what is involved and adjust their working time accordingly.

Do not underestimate the time it takes to do it properly and give the inductor the support he or she needs to look after the newcomer while staying on top of their own work.

Investing time to plan and organise the induction of new recruits delivers long-term benefits of increased morale and productivity. These far outweigh the loss of a few hours of the inductors’ time.

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