Sunday 30 August 2015

When does a client cease be worth the effort?

Dealing with a difficult customer can be a challenging and frustrating problem and there is a very fine line between being firm, forthright and being rude to your client or appearing to be dismissive of their views. If you have been in and around business long enough you will have met a few awkward customers along the way and it will often have felt like you are banging your head against a brick wall.

My business is entered around giving clients business and marketing advice and I have a team of highly experienced and talented people around me to ensure that our clients benefit from a diverse range of skills, experience and opinion. We are not a cheap option for a business to engage with but we are very good at what we do and only ask our clients to pay if they are satisfied.

That said, it is of constant annoyance to me that I have clients who use our services only to then find a reason to disagree with every piece of advice we offer, to table a "better" marketing solution than our recommendation or to rewrite the copy of a press release we have sent for their approval. We are an open-minded business and love it when a client gets heavily involved with our work but there is no point in us working with a client who believes they can do the job better than we can and if they feel that then they really should never have engaged us in the first place!

The other annoyance is from clients who make repeated promises about what they will do for us to assist us to deliver on their brief but consistently fails to deliver anything. Typically they will not reply to calls or emails as they are too busy and then, when our project finally hits their radar they complain at the lack of progress - these clients are possibly the most difficult to deal with as they simply cannot ever see any fault in their own actions and look to appoint blame anywhere but with them.

There are some members of my team that will do anything to keep a client happy and will always be completely respectful of the client regardless of of how deserving the client is of that respect. I have a different opinion to most of my team - that no client will be allowed to continue to use our services if they are a pain in the ***! 

To me, it is simply not worth the hassle. Clients like this bring the morale of my team down, they take up a vast amount of time to keep vaguely happy and are never complimentary or remotely happy with anything we do. They will not pay their bills on time and when they finally pay they will look for discounts or reasons to reduce the amount billed. For me these are the clients that I will happily walk away from. 

It is with this approach that I can focus on the clients that want to get the very best from my team, that want to engage and that take an open-minded approach to new ideas and concepts. We are not always right, we will sometimes misunderstand a brief and a client will need to tell us our work is not in keeping with their expectations - and this is absolutely fine, in fact it is refreshing when it is communicated constructively and positively.

My team are positive, creative and passionate people and I have observed with interest how their talents become eroded when clients become unnecessarily difficult or obstructive and because of human nature that negativity can be carried into the work of other clients and that is what I simply cannot allow to occur.

So to all clients out there; be nice, be constructive and play fair because if you do then you will get the very best from my team, you will get their passion, their energy and they will share your pride when our work impacts on your bottom line and if you can't play nice or play fair then you will very soon be playing on your own!!

Saturday 1 August 2015

Hands up, who actually likes networking meetings?

Many of us attend networking sessions and an awful lot of us hate it but I have met a few over the years who have claimed to like it. In my experience those that enjoy networking gatherings do not do much networking but they chat to old friends and associates and generally use the event as a social occasion.

I'll admit that networking can be fun when you are familiar with some others in attendance but I do firmly think that to call this networking is being rather generous! I like a beer or a glass of wine with my business mates just like anyone does but we'll deride one of our crowd who dares to attempt to talk about work - let alone try to sell something.

Then there is the networking event that you agree to attend only because some random contact you last saw in a Travelodge three years ago managed to convince you over LinkedIn it would be a good idea. You arrive and know nobody, you have added your name to a card and slotted it into the plastic sleeve you then have to wear on a lanyard. As you walk into the main room there are a few too many shiny suits and an overpowering smell combination of aftershaves and perfumes. It is at this point that the "host" will come beaming up to you with a big fat smile and a metal name badge to display his significance over anyone else. With a chuckle he reads your name from your badge out loud and instantly becomes adhered to your side like a heavyweight limpet for the next ten minutes. "You must meet Marjorie" he will suggest enthusiastically (Marjorie will normally be free and talking to nobody because all those in the know already avoid her like the plague as she has all the charisma of a meatball) "Marjorie runs a VERY successful business selling egg cups made from recycled garden hose" exclaims the host with enough volume to ensure Marjorie has heard this compliment.

Marjorie is harmless enough, she looks like something between Hyacinth Bucket and Pat Butcher. She tells me how she came up with this "wonderful idea" after her husband Cedric died and she realised that he had far too much garden hose. Her very successful enterprise has online shops on eBay and Amazon but she has not yet reached double figure monthly sales - she just needs one of the big boys like John Lewis to stock her product and then she will be preparing for the call from the producers of Dragons Den.

Marjorie never asks about you or your business and the conversation inevitably falls into an uncomfortable silence. "Excuse me, I must just pop to the loo" gives you the break you need and Marjorie is left alone until the next newbie arrives.

"Ladies and gentleman, please gather around" booms a voice. It's the host again and he is about to launch proceedings. You gather into a crowd in front of him and avoid going anywhere near the front. He waffles on for five minutes or so about how nice it is to see everyone and then it comes...the words we all dread..."can we all now form a circle and tell everybody a little about you and what you do." Everybody shuffles around, those that hang back hoping to escape this ritual are ushered in like a queuing pig at the abattoir. "Who would like to start?" Silence. Everybody is avoiding eye contact and waiting for some poor sod to be volunteered to kick things off. Norman eventually starts, he is an Accountant from Norman & Borem Partners, next up is Kylie, she is a spray tan specialist from Southend. Now it's Deano's turn; he is the International Business Development Director for Plat'num Motors behind the B&Q in Billericay - they deal in "Beemers, Merks and Owdeez but can get 'old of anyfing." 

Now it's your turn, you attempt to recite the same spiel you used at the last 49 of these events and you just about pull it off - not that anyone listened or can remember your name ten seconds after it was said.

Now onto the mini Scotch Eggs and cocktail sausages from a paper plate with someone's homemade relish that tastes like feet.

Why do we keep doing this to ourselves? It could all be so much easier! Have two big tables; one for the boys and one for the girls. Put some booze on the table and let things happen naturally. As the session progresses people will swap tables and mix with those they feel an infinity too - that is how business is done. None of you buy anything of someone you don't like or think is an idiot so why on earth do we think there is a great business opportunity to be had by forcing a group of people upon each other in such an unnatural and uncomfortable way?

If you put people together they will find the like-minded others, they will connect and they may do some business. We do not need handholding or to be forced into these embarrassing circles of hell so please stop bloody doing it!!!

Tuesday 31 March 2015

It's people that matter!!

It never ceases to amaze me the number of small business owners that want to project an image of being a much bigger entity than they are. Do they really believe that being a small business is a bad thing? Does it make them less committed? Does it make them less reliable or trustworthy?  Of course not, quite the opposite I would say.

A small business owner is much more likely to care, much more likely to need you to pass his details on to others and will be much more grateful when you do. Running a small business can be a tough job, money can often be tight as prices get squeezed by the big boys and there are certainly not thousands or millions of pounds set aside for expensive marketing campaigns. 

So the small business needs are support. No big deal, we've known that for years and many of us try to support the small business when we make buying decisions which can only be a positive. I'm certainly happy to spend more to give my business to small independent businesses.

So why oh why are so many of these businesses launching glossy websites claiming to be a sizeable business offering an extensive range of services, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week??? If I need a tradesman I'm going to look for a small business so please don't hide behind a big frontage as I'm much less likely to call you!

If you're a plumber called Bob Smith who's been in the trade for twenty years then you are the guy for me. If you as Bob Smith call yourself Delta European Plumbing Solutions "plumbing and water flow engineering specialists" I really am not going to call.

Keep it small, keep it honest and keep it local, it really is what so many of us want.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Suited and booted

The chosen attire of a salesperson has been a contentious point of discussion for years. It seems to typically come down to one key issue - should salespeople only wear formal business clothing such as suits?

It is certainly the case with the majority of sales roles that the suit is the popular choice but there are a number of cases when there are valid arguments for not wearing the standard salesperson uniform. Indeed there have been numerous occasions when I have decided against looking too formal and have gone for a more casual look.

Arriving on a building site in an expensive suit will often leave you open to ridicule and covered in mud - here there is certainly an argument for dressing in clothing that will allow the customer to relate to you and also navigate the obstacles on a site in development. It can be a very uncomfortable experience sitting in a Portacabin in a suit whilst surrounded by tradesmen. I have always found it much easier to arrive in a pair of jeans and join them in a mug of tea with three spoons of sugar!

Back in 2000 I attended a sales conference in Phoenix, Arizona where there were over 500 salespeople from the telecoms and IT industry. Not one of the American salespeople wore a suit during their working day - it was very much branded polo shirts and chino's and they introduced themselves as Sales Engineers. For them, they would never consider walking into a customer meeting wearing a suit as they felt that instantly devalued their experience and technical ability.

I have generally left salespeople to choose their own attire and make their own judgements. There will of course be times when they get it wrong but that is how they learn best. The most common time this is an issue is when there are two people from a business attending a meeting together in different clothing choices - this presents a very contradictory message.

These days I never wear a suit. I am sometimes smart, sometimes smart casual and sometimes casual and it has had nothing but a positive effect on the way I'm perceived. Whilst it may seem presumptuous of me, I expect my clients to judge me based on what I deliver and not my attire choice of the day. In most instances it seems to relax my clients who see me as more of a person than a businessman and it is actually extremely rare for any client of mine to wear a suit.

In reality there is no right or wrong. Some people will expect polished shoes, a well-tailored suit and will refuse to accept anyone who does not meet their expectations and others will really not mind. 

Personally I'm not sure it matters!

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Sales Meetings - High Fives or One-on-One's?

The sales meeting. Loved by some, hated by many.

Making a success of a meeting with often many different characters is a challenge at the best of times for a Sales Manager but like it or not, sales meetings are an essential part of the working life of a sales team.

I have seen every method of scheduling possible from the MD who considered it vital to have a meeting at 9am each day with the sales team to "get them set up for the day" through to business owners that considered a chat over a cigarette next to the trash at the back of the building as being a meeting!

It is natural that some people will work well in a team and thrive from competition and some will have no interest in being part of a team and will simply be interested in earning money and having to do with any of their colleagues. Some Sales Managers like the big energy, high-fives and I even experienced one who literally through a leather gauntlet onto the meeting table and shouted "which of you is brave enough to pick that up?" he was met with silence.

I often found that the geographical location of the team made a big difference to the effectiveness of a meeting. If people needed to drive 200 miles to get to the meeting then it was never a good thing to ask for their attendance at 8am. With national sales teams I have always insisted that we rotated around the home towns of all attendees and they would then be responsible for selecting a venue for lunch.

With such a strong mix of characters and ego's there will never be a perfect meeting, what appeals to some will bore others and this is why a mix is good and the meetings should not be too long. I have learned over the years that the strongest teams are built through socialising together and not sitting around a meeting table discussing targets.

There is of course a need to talk about business but this can be fitted in during the course of the time together. I always used to meet with my teams once a month and never on a Monday or Friday. We would meet at around 10am for a meeting and there would always be a plentiful supply of pastries and hot drinks on arrival and then I would allow the first half hour or so to let the team catch up with each other and enjoy a chat together. When we would get down to business I would start with a very quick review of the previous months performance as a team with attention only focused on the top performers and not the people that didn't meet their targets.

After talking for around an hour about other issues and new products etc I would take the team out for lunch and I would then use this time for chats around the table about new business and problems that the team were facing. It is much easier to get the true feelings of the team when they are in a relaxed environment and not singled out at a meeting. 

The venue was very important as it needed to have a large table for us all to eat together but I also always made sure there was a standing area nearby as this is where I could talk to people on a one-on-one basis and typically everyone likes to get up from the table and stretch their legs after eating.

Overall I wanted Sales Meetings to be booked only when necessary and to be as relaxed as possible - salespeople need to have their ego's massaged and this should be done both at the meeting in front of their peers and also during a one-on-one chat afterwards.

I would love to know your thoughts or experiences on this topic so please let me know in the comments below.

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Friday 6 June 2014

What is the working day for a field salesperson?

This question can be very challenging for a business to answer as the reality is that most businesses cannot be sure of where their salespeople are at any exact time.

I am a great believer in having no set working hours and having trust in the self-management skills of salespeople. If a salesperson finds it acceptable to go missing or "skive off" then their problems will generally be much more wide ranging than a few missed hours.

I have always encouraged my sales teams to ensure that when they work they work at 100% and if they need a break, even for a game of golf or a lie in, then they take it. As long as the targets were met and the customers were happy then I have always given huge amounts of flexibility to my staff. I am fully aware that the life of the field salesperson is very demanding. They don't get noticed when they leave home at 4am for an appointment 400 miles away or if they do not get home until 10pm because the motorway was closed. They do get noticed though if they dare to have no appointments after 1pm on a Friday!

Good salespeople want to perform, want to be out in front of customers and they will almost certainly be awake in the small hours at times catching up with correspondence. I don't think salespeople respond well to the "where are you now?" phone calls. If the balance is right then there should be little need to ask this question and your salespeople should always feel at ease to tell you when they are not working. If a good performer tells you at 1pm on a Thursday that they are going for a beer with some friends then that should be great news for you as they will feel they have earned it and are comfortable with their performance.

In addition, I have always tried to keep meetings with the teams to a minimum. Salespeople are impatient and often bloody-minded and sitting at a meeting room table for more than an hour listening to me congratulating their colleagues and offering high-fives is a sure fire way to bore them! 

A good salesperson will make sure their clients and prospects are well served. They will generally keep their mobile telephone switched on around the clock and will take the calls that really matter outside hours. It was rare for my salespeople to need to work at weekends and I was firm in avoiding all but vital contact with them between 5pm on Friday at 9am on Monday - I would not even send emails to my team during these times. An email received from the boss at 8pm on Saturday night discussing new targets etc is so demoralising and will receive much more interest if simply sent on the following Monday. By allowing my teams time to escape work completely they performed so much better when they were at work and this method was respected by all and rarely abused.

However, as a boss, I will ALWAYS be available for my team - if they call me with a problem at 4am on a Sunday I will answer their call and they will get my complete attention.

I have never insisted on holiday allocations for my sales staff either. They know and I know when they are in need of a holiday and with performing salespeople I have never been bothered if they take three or four holidays a year - the principle is always the same; deliver the targets set and what you do outside of that is up to you. There is little to be gained by setting levels of twenty days per year etc - some will need to take more and some will want to take less - go with the flow and all will generally be good.

Whilst these methods will not suit all and will probably even prompt anger with some business owners they have always worked for me and created a very close-knitted team of dedicated professionals who consistently perform. The only problems I have ever experienced with this method have been with non-performers who have invariably promised more than they have the skills to deliver.

Salespeople are easy to criticise and find fault with. Unless you have actually been selling in the field for a few years it is really hard to understand what is involved and the levels of concentration required to be successful. Make sure you are the boss who supports your team and sets them free to be achievers. A salesperson that performs constantly and gets the job done will likely be the type of character to be best left alone to get on with the job - I have never found a great salesperson who likes being micro-managed. 

Set them free, let them sell and just watch the results....

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