Friday, 28 August 2009

Is it really that time of the year already?

This article on Yahoo! News caught my eye. Campaigners in Leeds are threatening to superglue the locks of businesses which start selling Christmas cards before 1st November.

While I can't agree with the violent way these campaigners are expressing themselves, especially as the shops in question are charity shops, I have to sympathise with their aim to contain the annual retail sales mayhem that is Christmas.

It's only the end of August now and people are already starting to mention the number of shopping days to go... information leaflets are appearing for Christmas parties at hotels and restaurants... I haven't seen any cards or wrapping paper in shops yet, but if it doesn't appear before the beginning of October I'll eat my hiking boots.

Let nobody say Bah Humbug. I love Christmas. But it's getting silly now. I heard a song once that said "Christmas comes but once a year and goes on for 2 months". These days make that 3 or even 4 months.

It's just madness. The amount of expectation, planning, and the sheer amount of money spent on food, presents and cards is astonishing. And that's fuelled every year by retailers hoping to cash in on the bonanza.

Call me Mrs Scrooge if you will, but I would like to see the following not start until 1st December, or 1st November at the earliest:
  • Sales of Christmas cards / wrapping paper
  • Piped Christmas musak in shops (which drives the staff, if not the customers, round the twist as they have to listen to it all day for weeks on end)
  • Christmas decorations in towns, shops and house windows
  • Encouragements to stock up on Christmas food
  • Pester power adverts for children's Christmas presents
I know Christmas is the best time of the year in terms of sales volume for many businesses. But a business that started its Christmas campaign no earlier than November would get my vote as a customer.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Would you follow a recommendation from a cold caller?

Mark Lee has posted about whether the upsurge in the use of telemarketers by accountancy firms who are looking for new clients, will be successful in wheedling clients away from their existing accountants.

Personally I have to say that, as a small business owner, any telemarketers who call me, no matter what service they are offering, will, nearly always, be told very politely (after all, the poor devils are only trying to do their job), "No thank you".

If, exceptionally, they sound like the service is good, then I'll ask them to post me some more information. It's amazing how few of them will do that, particularly insurance salespeople. They want to get you signed up over the phone. No info by post = no sign up from M.

I would never use a telemarketing service to try and win more clients. Word of mouth and meeting people personally is proving to be far more effective. The personal and friendly touch can't be beaten.

Would you use telemarketers for your own business? How do you respond when a telemarketer calls you?

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Modern slavery, accounting style

Francine McKenna has posted about one of the Big 4 firms' policies of staff working hours as they move into their busiest season.

I'm absolutely appalled.

As Dennis Howlett says:
As I read through the (long) post, I couldn’t help but feeling increasingly sorry for those left to crank out those 50-hour BILLABLE weeks – as confirmed by many commenters – and the veiled threat for those who 'fail':

That veiled threat, as quoted by Francine (my emphasis added):

After considering the various legacy practices we have decided that during this period, each professional when assigned full-time to a client project is expected to work and charge 50-hour weeks. This is simply a consistent national implementation of what used to be multiple slightly different regional models with the objective of generating at least the same outcome on average across our practice this year as we have had in prior years. We realize that many of you will take some personal time off in Periods 7 and 8 and so our expectations for those weeks - typically 1 week in November and 1-2 weeks in December will be different.
If you schedule less than 50 hours a week your Talent Professional will contact you to understand your situation… begin consolidating your engagement resource needs as soon as possible taking the 50 hour week requirement into consideration
Yes, that does mean that staff at Deloitte are expected to consistently work an average of a 10-hour day.

That's terrible.

This shows why I never wanted to go into the Big 4. Despite the huge salaries and perks for staff, what good is a huge salary if you never have time to enjoy it, or when you do get time you're so brain-tired that all you want to do is sleep?

And that lays aside any consideration of whether the staff will produce anything like their best work under such conditions. When you're working that sort of long day (and let's not forget, that's 10 billable hours, not just 10 hours of being there of which 2 are admin), you'll be tired, you'll miss things, you'll make mistakes. What sort of service will that provide to clients?

I began my career in a blue-chip firm (not an accounting practice). I soon realised that working a 7-hour day was seen as skiving - and didn't last very long there. Because, quite simply, I wanted a life!

So I went to Cannon Moorcroft, a much smaller firm, run by friendly people, where the staff were looked after and treated like humans. My boss there caught me working late one evening on a non-urgent job, and shooed me off home.

When one of my colleagues went to join PwC, my mentor and I did our level best to dissuade her.

You can see why.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Polite customers lead to good service

No this is not the "let's talk about EasyJet" blog, but I do get a few good examples of customer service (good and bad) from watching Airline.

Last night it was a lady who was taking her 2-year-old daughter, who had just recovered from a major operation at Great Ormond Street Hospital, to France to stay with her grandparents. Daughter, mother and grandparents were all flying to Nice together.

The snag was that the mother's passport had expired, because with all the worry over her daughter she'd forgotten to have it renewed.

The EasyJet customer service desk were extremely helpful. Believing that France doesn't permit travellers to arrive on expired passports, they tried to put all four passengers on a flight to a neighbouring country that did accept expired passports (Spain or Italy) from where they could travel to Nice.

The mother felt that this would mean too long a journey for her daughter, given the little girl's state of health.

So EasyJet rang the French immigration authorities and - with a little help on the French speaking front from the little girl's grandmother - the authorities agreed that, because of the special circumstances, and because the little girl had her own in-date passport, they would accept the mother on her expired passport.

The family - who had been very polite and apologetic to the EasyJet staff throughout - were almost tearful in their thanks.

I think this story highlights two areas.

The first is how important it is, as a customer, to be polite and respectful to customer service staff. Customer service team members are far more likely to go out of their way to help a friendly, apologetic customer who accepts they've made a mistake, than a bolshy, rude customer who expects staff to put right a mistake that wasn't theirs.

The second is the oft-made point that "going the extra mile" for a customer is what will get you remembered. That family will always be grateful to EasyJet for making the phone call and ensuring their much-needed holiday went ahead, and will tell the story to their friends.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Could reclaiming input VAT be simplified?

Driving over to visit mother-in-law yesterday, I was mulling over what makes bookkeeping frightening for small business owners.

I think it can pretty much be summed up in three letters: V. A. T.

Otherwise it's largely a case of putting things in the right box, which can be simple or complicated depending on the business and what software they're using for the bookkeeping.

But when you have to worry about what you can reclaim input VAT on, it starts getting scary.

For example, if you've got a receipt for petrol, a packet of crisps and a newspaper bought at a garage, there would be VAT on the petrol and the crisps, but not the newspaper.

If you're working the VAT fuel scale charge, you can claim the VAT on the petrol.

But, strictly speaking, you can't reclaim input VAT on the crisps because they're not an allowable business expense. (I think the strict rules are that you can only claim food as a business expense if you're away overnight on business. HMRC say you have to eat anyway whether you're working or not.)

So as well as dividing up the receipt between motor (petrol), drawings/DCA (crisps) and either business stationery or drawings/DCA depending on whether the newspaper was for business or personal reading, you've got to divide up the VAT into what can and can't be claimed.

And all that for a receipt of under £100. Ow.

The VAT flat rate scheme would be helpful in this case, because when you're using that scheme there's no reclaim of input VAT apart from on large assets. So you don't have to worry about what input VAT you can and can't claim.

But only businesses with an annual VAT taxable turnover of 150,000 pounds or less [apologies - my computer hasn't got a pound sign!] can join the VAT flat rate scheme.

So, is it time for HMRC to simplify the rules for larger businesses as well?

Perhaps if the VAT that can't be claimed is less than 5% of the total VAT on that bill (as it would be in the above example of a tankful of petrol and a packet of crisps), then the VAT on the whole bill could be claimed?

I would imagine the amount of VAT revenue lost would be negligible and it would make life easier for businesses, particularly those with lots of travelling staff.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Business survival tips from Xero

This set of slides from Xero: "Six Tips for your Business Survival and Success in 2009" contains a lot of useful material.

There's a couple of points I'd like to draw out of the slides.

Slide 4, "Spend every dollar like it's your last", has as its second point, "Spend, don't hoard". I agree with that up to a point - but saving is not the same as hoarding, and saving is very important. I think it's always a good idea to make sure you have enough cash in a readily accessible bank account to pay important bills like wages, VAT and corporation tax.

Also on slide 4 is "Don't carry dead wood, it costs you", and that dead wood can be products, clients, staff or services.

That's very true. A product or service that won't sell, or a bad customer, or an underperforming team member, can be a real rotten apple in the barrel.

Time spent trying to sell a product or service that nobody wants is time that could have been spent making or selling something that your customers do want.

When you've spent time trying to help a bad customer, you often feel aggrieved, upset and cross, and then when a good customer phones up you're still in a bad mood - and that could rub off on your good customer. Bad news.

And we've all seen or heard stories about team members who don't pull their weight. The rest of the team then don't have the same motivation to perform, because they say "Well, she isn't, and nobody's pulled her up about it, so why should I?"

Slide 6 of Xero's presentation, "Get help", makes the very important point that you shouldn't try and do everything yourself when you're in business.

This is something I talk about on my other blog for home-based business owners, particularly in this article about legal contracts.

Remember Emma Jones's maxim - "Do what you do best, and outsource the rest!"

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Virgin; you get what you pay for

Virgin seem to have as their business motto, "You get what you pay for".

Put it this way.

I travelled from Carlisle to London and back yesterday on a Virgin Pendolino train. (That's the new whizzy high-speed tilting train.)

According to the on-train info posters, of the nine passenger carriages of a Pendolino, four are first class.

That means only five for standard class.

So although standard class on a Virgin train is actually quite comfortable (decent seating, not too squashed, plenty of tables, not too few loos), by the time a train's worth of standard class passengers have squeezed into five carriages, it's less comfortable, and heaven help you if you haven't booked a seat. (I had.)

That says to me that Virgin are trying to encourage me to pay a bit more and buy a first class ticket next time I need to travel on a Pendolino.

And as that would get me some rather nice extras at no additional cost, like food and drink, WiFi, a newspaper, and a wider seat, I'm seriously tempted.

Duane Jackson's blog
tells how he had to pay a lot more for Virgin to move his broadband than for BT - but with Virgin, he spoke to a human straight away and the arrangements were made within 5 minutes instead of 45.

Both these stories say to me that Virgin aren't looking for lots of cheap sales, otherwise they'd a) only have one first class carriage on a Pendolino, and b) use a push-button telephone system (yuck). They want fewer, more expensive sales, and they get them by boosting customer service.

Just a pity that Virgin had to take a lot longer to move Duane's broadband than BT do. That spoils their customer service a bit :-)

The hole in the donut

Just found my way to The Start Up Donut, a resource site for small businesses, thanks to a link from Phil Richards via Twitter.

The article that Phil linked to is called Bookkeeping for Beginners.

It's a useful article but I'd like to add a few points and make a few suggestions to it.

Firstly - not all businesses need to keep ledgers, certainly not a purchase ledger. A one-man or one-woman business, selling its owner's own service, will almost certainly not need a purchase ledger. Put it this way, neither my video-making company nor my accountancy practice has a purchase ledger. No need to make your bookkeeping more of a chore than it already is :-)

Secondly - under the heading "Electronic bookkeeping systems" is the following:
Basic accounting software is more affordable than ever (budget £100-£180 inc VAT) and many deals come with free support. You could even set up a few simple pages in popular spreadsheet software, such as Microsoft Excel.

Dedicated accounting packages are easy to use – even for those with limited know-how. Errors can be corrected quickly (which is more complicated when using manual systems), you get a snapshot of your cashflow at the click of a mouse (this is possible, although slower with a manual systems), as well as find out about money you owe and are owed. Handy financial reports can be gained at the touch of a button. You can also view sales patterns and costs, which can help with forecasting and budgeting.

Well, to me, there's a big hole in the donut there.

Why not recommend a few packages that small business owners can use?

Keeping your books on a spreadsheet can sometimes be a good idea, but why go to all the bother of setting up even "a few simple pages on Microsoft Excel" when there are purpose-built solutions that would do it for you?

I'll fill the hole with some recommendations for small business bookkeeping/accounting packages :-)

After the simplest and most user-friendly solution around for small service-based business that isn't planning to grow? Try FreeAgent.

Looking for a system that's suitable for most small businesses and has lots of features to turn on and off? Try KashFlow.

Starting small but planning to grow? Want something that not only does your books but helps you manage your contacts, customer relations, stock, website and lots of other things too? Have a look at Pearl.

Strawberry jam donut.

And while you're at it, donut folks, please don't make people register in order to post comments - that's just plain annoying :-)

Monday, 3 August 2009

Virgin wifi and Pret service

Greetings from Pret a Manger just outside Euston Station. I'm on my way home from a meeting with my old firm in High Wycombe.

Travelled down on the train from Carlisle, and was impressed to see at the station a poster saying that Virgin offers WiFi on all its Pendolino trains. Great, I thought, no need for the dongle.

That was until I got to my seat and tried to log on - and found that the WiFi was only free for first class customers. For those of us in standard class, it's pay by the hour. Grrr. Especially given that the ordinary mobile connectivity on the train was sufficiently weak that my dongle wouldn't connect. Still, I managed to do what I'd planned, thanks to OpenOffice which I'd downloaded.

About half an hour ago, a tired accountant staggered into Pret a Manger in search of supper.

The staff are so friendly and welcoming. Always big smiles, calling me "madam", running to pick up a napkin I'd dropped. They make me feel like they're really glad to have me as a customer. Much more so than Virgin who made me feel faintly like riff-raff :-)

OK, time to wrap up now and go and catch my train home.