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customer service

Plan for a better year ahead

This year has been a bad year for many companies – here is how to make sure 2017 is better

 

 

The past 12 months have not been a great time for many businesses. It started with the economy struggling to recover from the effects of the double change in finance ministers, was threatened by potential downgrades to sub investment grade by the rating agencies and characterised by shocks like Brexit, the Trump victory in America, local government elections, the #feesmustfall movement and the State Capture report. The serious drought saw food prices rocket and water restrictions added to the difficulty of doing business. All these issues make buyers nervous, and nervous buyers will delay all but essential purchases.

On top of all this the South African national pastime of sharing bad news brought a mood of pessimism and resignation. We know that water restrictions and high food prices will continue well into 2017 and the ruling party will have an elective conference which could be abrasive in the coming year. What, you may ask will make this year any better than the previous one? One of the answer to that question is you. There are many things you can do to shield your business from negative external events, and to seek the opportunities that any adverse event brings. Continue reading

Customer base or new business?


This article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in November 2015 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

How should you deploy limited resources for best returns?

 

 

Entrepreneurs know that they do not have unlimited sales and marketing resources. You face the question of how to get the maximum output from what you have. Should your energies be directed at more sales to customers, or more customers? Is it wise to split your resources between these?

A partial answer can be found in the nature of the business. If you sell things that customers buy very seldom like flooring or wedding facilities, your effort should go towards positioning your brand as one to consider and delivering beyond expectations to grow word-of-mouth and referral business. Similarly if your product set is applicable only to a small total market and you are the major supplier you want to ensure that all customers use as much as possible of your product range.

In cases where you offer highly differentiated products or have a unique market focus your priority should be new business before imitators become a problem. Where you have a ‘me too’ product set, very similar to that of your competitors your first priority should be to ensure loyalty of your customers and differentiate by excellent service.

Some new business is essential. Customer attrition will come through closures, relocation and competitive attack. Costs will increase and without new business you will have to cover this increase with price hikes, which make you less competitive. Continue reading

Your sales machine

2015-august

 

This article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in August 2015 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

Turn your whole company into an enthusiastic unit that aids and promotes your sales

 

 

 

It is in the interests of any employee to do anything they can to ensure the business makes sales, or at least not put sales at risk. Aside from loyalty to their employer, a healthy and growing business means everyone is better off and has improved prospects for promotion. Strangely there are employees, and some managers too, who damage the company through carelessness, incompetence or deliberate obstruction. They are hurting themselves as much as their employer.

Contrast that situation with companies where everyone is customer centric, and frequently attract praise from customers they have been in contact with. There are typically no unresolved complaints on consumer forums, and every employee seems to know why customers should buy.

Review yourself

To build a company like them, some introspection may be a good idea. Do you really deliver goods and services that meet customer expectations, or have customers had to lower their expectations to your standards? Think of the grudge purchases you make, or the times you have been distressed but did not change supplier after a bad experience. You cannot expect your employees to be champions if your company supplies shoddy products, uses untrained technicians and seldom delivers on its promises. Fix the real problems and you will be pleasantly surprised by the change in your staff. Continue reading

When you fight with customers

2015 July

 

This article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in July 2015 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

Sensible outcomes from disputes

 

 

“The customer is always right” was originally coined in 1909 as a way of differentiating Selfridges Department Store from competitors. It was revolutionary at the time, when misrepresentation by retailers was common and “caveat emptor’ (let the buyer beware) was the usual response to customer complaints.

Customer disputes happen in any business. Unresolved disputes may result in loss of customers or groups of customers, refusal to pay, widespread and often biased bad publicity, loss of repute, legal action, and even damage to property and public protest. Minor disputes can quickly escalate into anger, recriminations, threats and violence. Staff complaints about abusive and unreasonable customers is another source of dispute.

Where does it start?

Customer perceptions of broken promises or products not living up to expectations are at the heart of many disputes. Rude, uncaring or incompetent service from employees is another frequent cause. You may initiate a dispute relating to slow or non-payment, unreasonable or bullying customers or continual changes to requirements but unwillingness to pay for changes.

Arguments will escalate quickly if either party feels they are not being listened to by the other. A simple request can grow to a blazing row when either party ignores the other or scorns their view. Many serious disputes could have been resolved easily if they were attended to sensibly, courteously and early. Continue reading

Word of Mouth

word-of-mouth-marketingThe importance of getting people talking about your company

 

This article was published as the Sanlam Business Tips for Business Owners December 2014 edition. This publication is a great resource for entrepreneurs, well worth subscribing.

 

People telling others about their positive experiences with your company sends a far more powerful marketing message than any advertisement. Word of mouth is credible, personal and admiring. The best advertising cannot match that. Word of mouth is also free, so it is a great marketing medium and deserves more attention that it normally gets.

You cannot simply ask people to talk about your company. Larger organisations use ‘brand ambassadors’ to promote their products. The audience knows the brand ambassador is being paid to promote the products, so the message lacks credibility, it is not true word of mouth. Few of us will tell others about a reasonably good experience with a supplier, unless we are asked for a recommendation. How then can your company use this valuable marketing tool?

Good example

The best example I know comes from many years ago when I routinely bought lunch at a deli called The Shop Around the Corner in downtown Johannesburg. Their pizza slices came from large round pizzas, roughly cut into segments, and every time I bought one the counter hand would carefully select the biggest one on the tray for me. That felt great! I soon realised that every customer got the biggest available slice. When the slices ran low a fresh pizza was cut and the slices added; the process of serving the biggest slice first continued. I talked to many people about how wonderful their service was and I am sure many others did too I am still talking about it almost thirty years later. Total cost of this exercise – one pizza slice each lunchtime. The Shop Around the Corner is still there, through all the changes in central Johannesburg, under the same ownership. With that great customer service, good food and smart marketing I am not surprised. Learn from them. Continue reading

Don’t slow down

2014_NovemberThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in November 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

November and December offer many opportunities for alert entrepreneurs

 

 

You will all have experienced it – the dreaded November slowdown, with many anticipating the year-end holidays before South Africa shuts down sometime in December. Entrepreneurs complain that it is impossible to sell at this time of the year. Many can’t wait for the start of the holidays.

How much are you contributing to this business slowdown? Are you demotivated by decisions being deferred to next year? Have you gone into pre-holiday slowdown mode, and repeated that this is an impossible time of year for marketing or sales? If you have then you are part of the problem, and this is a self-inflicted limitation on doing business.

Can you really afford to have one quarter of the year, from the beginning on November to the end of January as a time of minimal sales? Is it really true that nobody buys at this time of the year? The truth is there is an enormous volume of business available at this time, but it will not come to you if you ignore the opportunity.

Opportunities

There is an old saying that “everything comes to him (or her) who hustles while they wait”. Many successful entrepreneurs have had great successes during the slowdown by catching competitors napping in preparation for the holiday, or being the only bidder for profitable business. Tenders are published now to limit the number of bidders – really awake entrepreneurs take advantage. To get a slice of the millions spent in the next couple of months you must be alert, work hard and look for opportunities. You should also plan and execute an assertive sales campaign. Continue reading

Selling to big business

2014_OctoberThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in October 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

Sales to huge organisations can be wonderful, but there are risks

 

 

Making a breakthrough into a giant corporate or a part of government is like finding the pot of gold for many entrepreneurs. If you have secured a contract rather than a single sale the excitement is even greater; the long-term profit generated allows the business to fund growth and regulates the cash flow. Beware though, this kind of business comes with some risks, and entrepreneurs should be aware that such contracts have destroyed businesses, and cost entrepreneurs everything they owned.

Making the sale

Large organisations, from government departments to mines are required to buy from small businesses, especially black empowered ones. We expect them to seek out entrepreneurial companies as suppliers, but it does not work that way. Little businesses have to fight hard to become suppliers. Large organisations are driven by budgets and the key performance objectives (KPIs) of the business unit which needs the product or service, so they will buy the products that fit the specification they prepared to suit those needs. This may not be the best product offered to them. Giants are risk averse and bureaucratic.

To win their trust you need to be aware of their style and needs and prepare your company and products to meet those. Pitch your sale in a way that will help the end users to do their job better. If there is ever a case of selling to the customer needs then this is it – you want to stand out from competitors and show why your company should become the supplier. Once you make the sale you must execute flawlessly all the time, and be instantly available to them at all hours. Continue reading

Customer information

2014_AprilThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in April 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

A seriously valuable marketing tool – and it is free

 

 

Good customer information held in a structured system will tell you whether customers are growing with you or reducing purchases. It will have a record of every meeting, sales order, complaint, compliment, reference given, products purchased, payment history, budget cycle, nature of their business, basic credit information and key contacts. All of these are stored somewhere in your company records anyway, but are they accessible in an effective customer information system?

If you have a good system you can research target markets, make individualised tempting offers to customers, cross sell products and plan campaigns in target market niches with a high likelihood of success. What a great marketing tool, and its free.

Using the information

One way of using this information would be to list of all customers in a particular line of business, and list which products all or most of them are buying. Now you could do a survey among them to find out how they are using the products, their degree of satisfaction with those products, and any needs which are not being fully satisfied by the products. With this information you can: Continue reading

Lessons from the beginning

2014_OctoberThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in October 2013 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

Remember how fanatical you were when you opened your doors?

 

 

 

The plateau phase can happen when a business stabilises after the initial survival struggle, and growth becomes static. The company may be at break even or making a small profit; it falls short of its sales forecast and cash is tight. The entrepreneur is frustrated, customers pay late and suppliers are demanding. All of this has a bad effect on the staff.

If you are in this position or have been there you will know about searching for ways to solve the problem. How-to books, mentors, motivating speakers and training will be considered. Salespeople will come under pressure and some will succumb and leave. Some entrepreneurs will blame the economy, the government, the banks, trade unions or suppliers, and become helpless.

Simple answer

There is a simple answer to the problem. Cast your mind back to when the business launched, when making the next sale was a life and death issue for the business. You would have walked on hot coals to satisfy a potential customer, you would have tried desperately to anticipate their needs. Carelessness or laziness affecting a prospective customer would see the perpetrator in real trouble. A mistake in an order or a telephone that was not answered promptly would have been cause for a tantrum. You would celebrate with the entire company when you got orders that today seem trivial, and the enthusiasm would have spread. Continue reading

Why should they buy?

13 July CoverThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for the South African edition of Entrepreneur magazine, as the My Mentor column published in July 2013 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

What makes your business the supplier of choice for your customers?

 

 

I occasionally ask groups of entrepreneurs why they think their customers buy from them. After an awkward silence some in the group will give answers about product uniqueness, price advantage or better location, or easily copied ones like good quality and better service. At least some entrepreneurs in the group will really not know.

Entrepreneurs who do not know why customers buy take a huge risk of customers drifting away for unknown reasons. The question is even more important for start ups. Anyone who plans to open a business and does not identify clear reasons why customers would buy risks opening a business which will make no sales.

Why customers buy

There is a huge body of research about buyer motivations which is good to study. In my view the most important business differentiators are uniqueness or competitiveness

Uniqueness may mean innovative products or services, but can also be the uniqueness of the business principal. Products like trousers, perfumes, sporting equipment and coffee bars have thrived from being driven by a famous sports or entertainment star. For the average entrepreneur who is not famous or an inventor there are still options to be unique. Businesses which use a unique pricing model will rent when others sell, offer last minute sales at incredible discounts, or develop other pricing innovations. They will not simply sell at lower prices. Continue reading

Tough times

Image courtesy of Paul FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Paul FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How to negotiate difficult market conditions

“It’s tough out there” a veteran entrepreneur said to me recently, “this is the worst I have seen in 30 years of trading in this market”. Many businesses are really feeling the pinch as the long lasting effects of the global economic downturn slash budgets and postpone new developments. The phrase about tough conditions is heard frequently.

In the local marketplace labour unrest which often turns violent, energy cost and availability concerns, high inflation, increasing red tape and low labour productivity add to the problem. During the good times competition increased with more companies being launched or expanded. This means a shrunken market is being contested by too many suppliers with high and increasing costs. Buyers become more demanding because they can – there is always someone who will shave the margins to the bone just to keep the factory ticking over and some staff employed.

Effective action

Good entrepreneurs react to situations like this; they do not simply accept that times are tough and that their businesses will underperform. The business needs to win more of the scarce business, effectively denying this slice to competitors, and it needs to compensate for increased costs by increasing efficiencies. Continue reading

If you are an entrepreneur you are in sales

image courtesy of imageafter.com

Entrepreneurs are frequently great salespeople

It is rare to meet an entrepreneur who thinks they are a great salesperson or sales manager. Most times they will use language like “I just don’t have the gift of the gab” or ‘I know my products but…”. But usually at start up the entrepreneur has to be a salesperson – there is nobody else around!

It is also rare for entrepreneurs to take steps to develop selling or sales management skills, which is odd. They will frequently take financial courses, read marketing ‘how-to’ books and study HR and staff management. The business is totally dependent on sales being made, and yet it is the one art that entrepreneurs seem to shy away from.

Let’s back up a bit. At the time the business launches, the entrepreneur talks to prospective customers, defends the price, negotiates terms, enthuses about the qualities of the products or services and spends lots of effort to think of ways he can make initial sales. Contrary to the usually-expressed belief by entrepreneurs that they cannot sell, they are often really good salespeople. They work really hard and are determined to make sales because they have to. Their product knowledge is awesome; they have the ability to shave a price and the knowledge of when cutting further will hurt the business. They make very sure that what was promised gets delivered, and attend to any customer complaint with vigour and immediacy. Continue reading

A test of customer relations

This article was first published as a Sanlam Cobalt Business Tips article. Sanlam great resources for entrepreneurs – I suggest you subscribe.

Take this light-hearted, but important test to see how your business is doing in providing great customer care.

 

 

  1. Do you have a written customer relations statement in any form – pledge, values, mission statement, incentive scheme, policy document or any other format?
    1. If yes, progress to question 2.
    2. If not, write down your understanding of the values and actions that your organisation believes in, or should believe in, then progress to question 2.
    3. Approach five random staff members or managers and ask them to tell you what is on the written document or in your notes. They do not need to be word perfect.
      1. If all of them get all or most of it right – full marks.
      2. If more than two of them get most of it right – half marks.
      3. If two or less of them get less than half of it right – fail.  You may have failed the grade. Go back  and start instilling a common culture of customer service in your organisation. Continue reading

Competing with giants

This article was written by Ed Hatton for the column the Start up Coach and published by the South African edition of Entrepreneur magazine in July 2011 and is posted here by their kind permission.

Start ups must respond to aggressive and bullying tactics to survive
By Ed Hatton

The challenge
A small concrete pipe manufacturer with great customer service opened a factory in East London to support the local demand from local contractors and government. This reduced the cost and delays in transporting pipes and was an immediate success; turnover increased rapidly. The large and powerful manufacturers in this industry lost market share and reacted by slashing prices dramatically, absorbing reduced or negative margins with their substantial resources to attack the upstart. The new factory cannot match these prices and there is no product differentiation. Their question: how do they compete?

The Solution
Voltaire wrote that “God is on the side of the big battalions”, but I wonder if the Almighty would want to be associated with some competitive practices of large and predatory organisations. Entrepreneurs starting new ventures in competition with powerful organisation often face the kind of threats experienced by this questioner. The competition may be price based as in this case or it could be massive increases in marketing spend, cornering the raw materials supply, buying key staff from the start up and others. Many believe that free competition and entrepreneurship are the best routes to more employment, but sadly practices on the ground are often very different.

How can this entrepreneur compete? Continue reading

The Somali lessons

image courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk

Humble shopkeepers can give lessons in marketing strategy

I recently read an article about the lives of Somali shop owners operating in a Cape Town township. They lived a very stressful life, with the continual fear of xenophobic attacks from community members, and the criminals who used the simmering xenophobia to provoke attacks and loot their stores. Insurance is not an option for them.

They described how they chose their location in the poorest sections of the communities. Residents have almost no income, and so travelling to a distant shop consumed too much of their discretionary spend, and they wanted the lowest prices for staples. Unit sales were small values, and at times a shopper would appear with a single coin. All he could buy with that would be one cigarette or a sweet. And he made the most of his purchase – choosing a sweet then changing his mind for a cigarette then rejecting the cigarette and choosing some gum.

The Somali shopkeepers treated him with dignity and patience, knowing that shopping was a rare treat for him. Many local shopowners would have chased him away. Going to a supermarket was simply not possible for this customer.

Lesson 1

They chose their target market location carefully, selecting areas which put them in considerable danger and not very pleasant circumstances, but free of competition, and better able to service their customers. And then they gave wonderful customer service to even the least significant customer, treating him like a millionaire. How many entrepreneurs have been as visionary, and how many can say hand on heart that they treat all customers with equal respect and service? Continue reading