Managing Support and Maintenance, A Crowdsourcing Post

Managing Support and Maintenance, A Crowdsourcing Post

Today I want to throw something out there to discuss, I’m hoping we can get some useful dialogue going around one of the most tricky subjects for business owners in tech businesses – that of maintenance and support. This is the first crowd-sourcing post I’ve tried so let’s see how it goes :)

In my industry (web design and online marketing) this is a particularly difficult topic to cover. Do you charge for bugs or problems that arise in websites a year after they were built? When Microsoft bring out a new browser and a site changes in appearance who covers that cost? If something isn’t picked up at testing stage, (because let’s face it you’re never going to be able to test something so extensively you can guarantee you’ve picked up everything) who pays then? Should web companies offer warranties? These are all questions businesses in the web game have to deal with. I’m sure that in any tech based industry where you provide a product you have to ponder similar issues.

Perhaps the easiest model to relate to is that of the car industry and how they deal with their new car sales. In talking with a number of business owners recently I’ve seen lots of other business models, all with slight nuances. It’s been fascinating and if I could share them all with you I would but many were offline conversations. So I thought the next best thing would be to build a useful post of advice and help from influential business owners around the globe who can add their two pennies worth on this topic.

If you’re not in a business that has to worry about this topic but have sat ‘the other side’ perhaps you’d like to give us your opinion on how you think business in these industries could deal with these issues – that would be just as valuable.

So let’s hear your ideas. Please share this post if you know others that might be able to add their advice and let’s discuss.

Photo courtesy of Em2me

5 traits successful business people have – do you have these?

5 traits successful business people have – do you have these?

Missed a week due to travel folks so firstly apologies for that – clearly my first trait should be the inability to keep an appointment with ones blog :)

OK so there are probably hundreds of things you need to be successful in business but I’ve been day dreaming this last week and working out my top 5 – I love a top 5 as you know :)

So here they are in no particular order

1). Passion – In bucketfuls. I spend an awful lot of my time with other businessmen and women. In my working life, networking constitutes at least half my time. It’s one of the key ways we build our brand and get our company noticed. From there, when people want a job done, we’re at least in with a chance. One trait of seriously successful businessmen and women I’ve met over the years is passion for what they do. Passion is catching; you know when you’ve met someone who is passionate about their business – you come away feeling good about yourself. Without this trait you’re going to start off on the back foot. If can’t get passionate about your business is it the right business for you? Think on that for a while.

2). Sales skills – Every start-up business needs to bring in sales. If you’re on your own then that’s you pal :) If you’re not and you don’t like selling you better hope you’re in partnership with someone that does. You could have the best product or service in the country but if no-one knows about it then you may as well give up now. Sale’s doesn’t need to be cheesy, it doesn’t need to be immoral, it doesn’t need to feel dirty! Much of good quality sales is about building relationships and making the customer want to buy (not be sold). I strongly suggest reading the book below (affiliate link) which will, without a doubt, help with your sales process. In fact, even if you’re not in sales or running a business, read it anyway because its awesome.

The Little Red Book of Selling: 12.5 Principles of Sales Greatness – You can buy it from Amazon here.

3). A good product or service – Not technically a trait, but the ability to either come up with or be involved in selling a good product or service is a trait that I see all the time in successful people. You make your own luck, you earn it. These people have a sixth sense for getting involved with projects that do well. They fail a lot as well but the difference is the ones that work, really work. I know there are an awful lot of people out there selling sub standard products and services in their business – forget that – it’s a short-term attitude if you ask me. It won’t be long before you’re found out and the churn rate on customers will be huge meaning you never build relationships with people, you continually need new prospects poured in the top of your sales funnel. If you ask me, without a good product or service that you truly believe in, just don’t bother. You need to believe that your customer is truly better off by choosing you over your competitors.

4). A head for numbers and in particular cashflow – Since I started this blog almost exactly a year ago I know for a fact the most blogged about topic has been cashflow. There is a good reason for this – because it’s so damn important :) Without cashflow you have no business. I’m not going to go over old ground again on this. I wrote quite a lengthy post about cashflow here and even gave a step by step guide on how to write a cash flow forecast – you have no excuse :)

5). The ability to accept help and support – Business is a lonely place sometimes, help and support is essential but how often have I seen business owners that think they know it all and therefore are not prepared to accept it fail – Too many is the answer!!! Friends and family without their own business may not understand quite what it takes to run a business and unless they ever do it themselves they may never understand. This doesn’t mean you don’t listen to these people or dismiss their input – it can be just as valuable. It’s important to build a network of support around you that you can bounce ideas off. I’m lucky to have a great business partner at Optix Solutions who I bounce ideas off and chat with about strategy regularly. We also have a couple of mentor figures who consult us on the business regularly and keep us on track. We also have supportive families and friends – all of which make the days when it’s not so fun, easier to deal with. The successful businessman or woman doesn’t know it all and is willing to listen to others…do you?

So what are your top 5? Maybe you just want to add in a couple? I’m keen to hear from you

Business Mentoring and its Importance

Apologies for the time its taken me to write this post. Moving house has been my priority this last couple of weeks and left me very little time to sit down and think about this important subject.

This post deals with the role business mentoring plays in successful businesses. It can be lonely at the top! :) OK so maybe that’s a bit dramatic but in all honesty when you are at the top of your business there is often no one to turn to, no one to ask whether you’re doing the right thing and if like me, you’ve not worked for anyone else (I started my business at University and am still running it 10 years later), no precedent has been set for most of the situations you come across. The learning curve is unbelievably steep, especially at the beginning and a big factor for why something like four out of five start-ups fail. This, in my opinion is why its so important to find yourself a business coach/mentor.

In Optix (my web design business), I’m lucky that I have my business partner James to bounce off. I’m sure that many of you reading this will not have anyone else because you’re running things yourself. If you’re in that position then I’d suggest a mentor is probably even more important for you.

James and I are extremely lucky that my father Jamie doubles up as our business mentor. Having run businesses with more that 150+ staff and now running his own consultancy in Essex, he is perfectly placed to offer advice to James and I as and when we need it. I’m big enough (well actually if you know me you’ll know I’m quite small!) to say that without Jamie’s help I don’t think James and I would be here today.

So what do you need to look to a mentor to help you with and why? When you find someone you get on with, trust and respect (this is critical), the sort of things you might want to talk to them about include:

  • Regularly looking at cash flow (the lifeblood of any business)
  • Profit and loss
  • Contracts (both ones you’ve been asked to sign and ones you need to draft for other companies)
  • Personnel issues
  • Financial decisions
  • Company strategy and Goal Planning

We have a regular monthly board meeting with Jamie and stick to a structured agenda with many of the points shown above discussed as a matter of course, even if there is nothing to note that month. It’s great practice to get into this routine so you always have a grasp on where the business is at that moment in time and where its going. It’s also a good time to report back to the board on issues that only you have been dealing with.

One thing I see a lot of is people who act as business coaches. Business coaching is a different kettle fish. Many coaches have developed their own models which can help you focus on your business goals and not get sidetracked by the day to day runnings of your business.

So if you’re reading this and saying to yourself, ‘yes but I don’t need a mentor/coach because I know my business and am successful in it’ then let me make a quick parallel for you:

Just think about sport at the top level – If you’re a premiership football club at the top of your game you have coaches, similarly if you’re a top ATP tennis player you will have a coach. Sportsmen and women all over the world have coaches and I believe in the business world its sensible to do the same.

Quite often as a director you’ll find yourself too ‘inside your business’. By this I mean you’re blinkered by the day to day goings on. Someone with experience of business outside can often break things down for you and help you make the best decisions for your business. A good mentor/coach in my opinion doesn’t make decisions for you, they merely pose the right questions that help you get to the right conclusions. You may find that these ‘answers’ often seem obvious but it’s this kind of mentoring which is fantastic for any business which wants to grow and go places.

I’ve met a lot of directors that have said they don’t need mentors/coaches and in my opinion some of these have let thier egos get in the way of good solid business sense.

If you’re wondering now how you can find a mentor, I’d suggest networking your local area and asking around – make sure you get recommendations for the person you’re thinking of getting in and of course, it goes without saying that if you’d like to talk to my father Jamie about what he can offer your business (anywhere in the UK), please contact me and I will happily put you in touch. I can put my hand on my heart and say that he is one of the biggest reasons that Optix is still around now, ten years after our incorporation and doing so well. :) Thanks Jamie!

Building Relationships with Suppliers

Howdy folks, another post and this time I want to deal with suppliers.

Much is written about building relationships with clients and customers but in my opinion not enough is said about the importance of relationships with suppliers. This surprises me because more often than not, your suppliers are propping up your business with their services and products. In many cases, businesses are selling on those services to others. If your relationship with a supplier breaks down it can lead to all sorts of problems.

I class suppliers into two categories – ‘essentials’ and ‘nice to haves’. An example of an ‘essential’ supplier for my business (web design) might be my Internet service provider or perhaps the company we use to run our customers online payment solutions. A ‘nice to have’ could be the water cooler company or coffee supplier. I focus primarily on essential suppliers in this post because they have the biggest effect on your business.

Some people try and drive cost down at every opportunity. In my opinion it’s important to pay the right price for goods and services. If you drive down a supplier to the point where there is no margin in a job for them they are less likely to provide as good a service to you as others might. Although you might get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve got their lowest cost, the knock on implications later may come back to haunt you. When you’re talking about a physical product, clearly it’s important to make sure you aren’t paying over the odds for it – if someone else provides the same product then shop around but be very careful to make sure you are getting like for like. This is even more true when it’s a service you’re buying – something intangible is far harder to judge on a like for like basis (this is a problem we suffer with in the web industry a lot). I have made a conscious decision as a business to make sure suppliers are paid on or as near to their terms as possible. If a supplier is in your ‘network sphere’, ie. they mix in the same business circles as you then be careful as word travels fast and you don’t want others not wishing to supply you due to your late payments or treatment of other suppliers.

If I can sum up my view on relationships with essential suppliers in one sentence it would be: “look after those that look after you”. I make it my business in these relationships to build up a rapport with as many members of staff through all areas of these supplier’s businesses. Make it your goal to know everyone from the person on first line support (these guys could become your most important friends in business) through to the management, through to accounts department. Let’s break that down a bit more:

Support Department - If you need help with the service or product you’re being supplied then you are probably going to talk to someone in the support department on the phone/email as the first port of call. Make it your business to show an interest in these people, find out about their personal lives/their interests etc…These are the guys that if something goes wrong, you want on your side. If this happens, then you want to know that these folk are going to look after you and prioritise you over perhaps other people suffering from the same issues. I want to know that if i need help I’m going to get it. Another thing I truly believe and recommend to any business owners out there is to reward these people when a good job is done and at certain times of the year (Christmas etc..). If they go out of their way to help you then make sure you thank them, even if it’s just a card or box of chocolates. We always send our main suppliers drinks and chocolates at Christmas and if they do a good job for us. Do you thank your suppliers enough?

Management - Sometimes you don’t get to meet your supplier’s management teams but where possible make it your business to do so. If you need something done at a high level then these are the people who will hopefully be able to make it happen for you. They are generally the guys that will be setting prices and deciding who to deal with and where their business is going – as a main supplier this all has a knock on effect on you and your business.

Accounts - The person that raises invoices to your company is well worth spending some time on. If you need a few extra days to pay you need to have a good relationship with this person/team. If you get on well with them they are more likely to be good to your business and let you have some leniency on payments. In my start-up days this was especially important.

OK, for fear of boring you too much, I’m keeping my ‘Banksy’s top tips’ short and sweet on this one:

1). Find out the first names of your suppliers and use them where possible in conversation (works well on the phone)
2). People will move jobs so make sure you try and get to know as many people doing the same job as possible
3). Don’t drive price down so much your suppliers can’t give you their complete attention
4). Pay your suppliers regularly and preferably before they have to chase you for payment
5). Send suppliers gifts at key times of the year and when they go beyond the call of duty for you

As a small business owner, think carefully about how you treat your suppliers because you never know when you’ll need them…oh and if I ever become a supplier to you then please treat me well too :)