Friday 10 May 2013

In praise of university for future business owners

Simon Dolan has put forward the case that a university degree is "a waste of time" for the "vast majority", and urges young people to start their own businesses instead of going to university.

As a graduate myself, I'm bound to be biased.  But here's why I feel university is a Good Idea for anyone interested in a business or professional career.

Learning work and life skills

Simon says (no pun intended) that university "robs people of learning how the real world works".  I learnt skills at university that stood me in excellent stead when I left.

I'm probably showing my age here, but it was at university that I first learnt to use e-mail and became confident with it.  Without e-mail skills today I would be a much less effective professional.

I also learned how to manage on a tight budget.  Most of my clothes and books came from charity shops.  I had a bike but no car.  The slow-cooker was my best friend.  This meant I wasn't hungry to be earning big money as soon as I left university.  I was happy to start on a low salary, train as an accountant and achieve a larger salary once I'd qualified.

The confidence to be yourself

In a small class at school, there's pressure to do what everyone else does.  In a large university, there are so many different personalities there that you can "be who you are" and have no contact with those who think you're "square" if you like folk music, tea instead of booze, and early nights.

When you run your own business it's vital that you choose a business you're passionate about.  Having time and freedom at university to "be who you are" can help you find and grow in your passion, whether it be sport, craft or music.

Making real friends

When you have the freedom to "be who you are", you are much more likely to make true friends.  I made wonderful friends at university and fifteen years later I'm still close to many of them.

And it was at university that I met the best friend of all - my husband.

Simon writes that "resilience and self-belief are an entrepreneur's most precious commodities".  He's absolutely right - but it's so much easier to be resilient and to believe in yourself when you have a strong, supportive network of friends.  Being at university helps you to build that network.

It takes time to learn

I'm a qualified accountant.  I only attained that qualification five years after I graduated.  And then it was another two years before the ICAEW would even contemplate letting me have my own business and my own clients.

Not every business can be started by a school-leaver.  Enthusiasm must be coupled with experience.

You can start your business at university!

When you're a student, if you have the entrepreneurial spirit, the right business idea and enough passion, you can start a business at university!  You have a captive audience of potential customers, time to develop your business, and often support available from the university itself.

It doesn't have to be one or the other, business or university.  Why not make it both?

Friday 19 April 2013

Where there's a will...

After nearly eight years married Matt and I have finally got round to making our wills.

We went back to the solicitor who helped us through buying our house - Cartmell Shepherd.  And what fantastic service they gave us.

Prompt, friendly and plain English replies to our e-mails, and a partner who came into the office to see us on a Saturday morning twice - the second time with her husband so that he could act as our second witness.

And because they charged us a fixed fee, quoted up front, we knew exactly what we were paying for their services.  No uncertainty.

Thank you from two very happy customers!

Friday 1 March 2013

A touch too much?

The BBC has posted a very interesting article about when physical contact with work colleagues is appropriate.

This highlights that there's a very definite spectrum of touch - ranging from the friendly squeeze of an arm when someone's unhappy, all the way through to an attempted grope by the watercooler, or worse.

One school of thought says that all touch between colleagues should be avoided.  I think that would be very sad indeed.

For example, when I heard that my much-loved old family cat had died, I was at my then-boss's house for dinner with him and his wife and kids.  I burst into tears and he promptly gave me a great big hug.  That comfort was just what I needed at the time. 

And another male colleague always says hello and goodbye to me - and his other lady colleagues - with a peck on each cheek.  He's a real English gentleman in other ways too (for example, he stands up when a lady comes into the room), so that touch comes across as courtly and charming - and endearing.

There's a very definite line that shouldn't be crossed.  Any overtly sexual touching would feel threatening.

But touch is often a key part of friendship, and why shouldn't colleagues of both sexes become friends?

Monday 11 February 2013

The right questions at the wrong time make customers cross

The radiator in my home office isn't working.  (Which means it's perishing cold in here.)  So I rang British Gas Homecare to book an appointment for an engineer to come and have a look at it.

Monday is my favoured day, but they couldn't book me in for Monday 18th because the engineers are fully booked.  "You could always ring up nearer the time and see if anyone has cancelled," said the friendly guy in the call centre.

Mmm, black mark.  I want YOU to offer to call ME if a slot comes free on Monday 18th.  As a customer I want YOU to go the extra mile.  I don't want to have to.

I booked the appointment for Monday 25th.

Then he started trying to sell me gas and electricity through British Gas as well.

Another black mark.  I want to book an engineer for my cold office, not be sold at.  I fairly quickly choked him off with the (true) comment that we're looking to move house and so a change of energy provider is not on the horizon.

And then he went on to ask me to go through an automated phone survey at the end of the call.

Now I know collecting feedback from customers is crucially important.  Heavens above, I just wrote about it.  But I'm not convinced that it's a good time to ask when you know a customer is feeling a bit cheesed off.  There's the risk that you will make them feel even more cheesed off.

I'm not blaming the poor guy in the call centre.  He's probably been told by his bosses that he HAS to try and upsell to every customer he talks to and that he HAS to put everyone through the survey.

But if I were in the boss's shoes I'd allow staff to use their own initiative and ask for the upsale and the feedback only when they think it's what the customer actually wants.  Otherwise the customers are going to go away feeling cross rather than feeling happy, and that's never good news.

Show me an honest review!

Customer feedback is one of the most crucial tools in any business's box.  After all, if your customers don't tell it like it is, how do you know if your product or service is actually making them happy?  And genuine testimonials from existing customers are a very powerful tool to encourage new customers through your front door.

The key word there is "genuine".

The Guardian published a very insightful article recently about the problem of fake customer feedback.  Businesses have been found paying third parties to leave bogus top-quality reviews - and it's often all too easy for a competitor to leave a fake negative review on an open site.

Take TripAdvisor for example.  Hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfasts can collect feedback from genuine customers there - but it's an open-access site, which means it's perfectly possible to leave a bad review for somewhere you've never even stayed.  That means it's far too easy for competitors to anonymously take pot-shots and try to bring the competition down.

So, as a business owner, how do you ensure that you're collecting only honest feedback from genuine customers?

That's one beauty of the Feefo model, which collects feedback by only e-mailing customers who have actually bought from a particular business, and then that feedback, good and bad, is shared with the supplier.  Even that isn't completely secure because a researcher - or a competitor - could still buy a cheap product and leave a fake review, but it's a good start.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Virgin Trains quiet coach a damp squib

I, like several of my contacts, was pleased when Virgin did not after all lose the West Coast Main Line franchise, because their trains are a lot more comfortable than First TransPennine's alternatives - and their customer service is better.

At least that's what I thought.

Yesterday evening I was travelling home from Edinburgh by train as I often do.  I sat in the quiet coach, again as usual.  And someone behind me in the carriage was playing their music so loudly that I could hear it even when the train was going fast.

You're really not supposed to do that in the quiet coach.

I wondered whether to say something to the person concerned, but decided to keep quiet and let the train manager see to it.  Which I would have thought was part of what he is there for.

He came in to check tickets - and didn't say anything to the culprit about turning their music down.

Then he came through the carriage again - and still didn't say anything.

By now fuming, I tweeted:
What is the point @VirginTrains of having a quiet coach if you are not going to police it?!
Virgin replied:
Hi Emily, we do have signs, and sometimes the Train Manager will make announcements.
I fired off several tweets in quick succession:
@VirginTrains If someone is playing really loud music and the train manager TWICE walks past them without saying anything... Poor do!
@VirginTrains Signs and announcements are not always adequate, they need to be reinforced and enforced individually!
@VirginTrains That is your cue to ask me which train I'm on and send the Train Manager to the quiet coach to sort the problem... come on...
(Emphasis added for the blog.)

I really did hope the last one might spur them into action, given that I'd actually spelt out how I thought they should resolve the problem, instead of just expecting them to think of something to do and do it.

No such luck.  Their reply was:
sounds like there are some very naughty people in your coach :( but yes we do rely a lot on the public to follow
By now I was spitting teeth.  As my final tweet to them said:
@VirginTrains That is not good enough. There is no point YOU nominating a coach as quiet if YOU are not going to enforce it!
To which they made no answer!

People will not always obey signs.  And it shouldn't be up to fellow passengers to challenge those who break the rules of the quiet coach.  I'm a woman who's often travelling alone, and I don't want to - and shouldn't have to - go and challenge some hulking teenage lad who's got his iPod on too loud.  It's surely the train company's and train manager's job to make sure that passengers keep to the rules.  Otherwise there's no point putting up signs to make a coach quiet.

So Virgin Trains, on this occasion you have won a Damp Squib award for poor customer service!

UPDATE: I posted a link to this blog on Virgin's Facebook page.  They've had over 24 hours to respond but so far they've ignored it completely!  That's a double damp squib!

Friday 9 November 2012

Brilliant service from a brilliant team!

Michael Heppell's team answer the phone, "Hello, it's a brilliant day at Michael Heppell, [person's name] speaking, how can I help you today?"

That greeting, spoken in a sincere, friendly voice as if the person at the other end of the phone is really happy to be talking to you and genuinely cares about helping you, was all it took this morning to cheer me up.

Why did I need cheering up?

I'd been struggling to book on Michael's seminar in Gateshead next month.  First the (third party) site had the wrong date for public booking, then it said I had to register and give my boss's details as well as mine (why?!), and then it said I couldn't book at the moment.  The lady at Gateshead tried to resolve the problem by referring it to their design team, but I hadn't heard from her in a few hours.  And when I tried to phone to book, the phone wasn't answered.

In a state of some frustration I rang my contact at Michael's office, Ruth.  She had been very helpful in advising me of the seminar in the first place, and then in advising me how to book.  And her friendly voice coming down the phone made me feel better straight away.

Ruth understood immediately the trouble I'd been having, and she personally rang the Gateshead office to try and book.  She had no luck either - and she rang me back to tell me so and that she would keep trying.  Now that is top service because she kept me in the picture.  She really did care whether I booked on the course or not.

Eventually, my contact at Gateshead said she would book me on the course herself if I would give her an address for the invoice.  That was good service too.

Thanks to both those ladies but especially to Ruth, who made me feel valued and appreciated as a customer and delivered brilliant service.