Operations

Survey results on "Has Ashford delivered the Boom?

Beginning March I asked the question "Has Ashford delivered the Boom?" here and on the LinkedIn Group East Kent Business Network.

In total (only) 7 businesses took part in the survey till now with the following result - all from East Kent Business Network members:

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The results of question 3 bags a few new questions for me personally (running a business Supplying high value products to domestic clients in the Ashford borough):
Does the East Kent Business Network group mainly contain B2B businesses?
Or are B2C business owners not very prone to take part in a survey?
Is On-line marketing a category on its own? (Don't mean this cynical, and hope the person who wrote this doesn't feels hurt).

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A significant majority says NO. (100% is very, very significant in my book.)

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Plenty of work to do for Ashford's committee "Ashford Best Placed in Britain" it seems or the borough's Economic Development department for that matter.

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Maidstone and Canterbury seem to be scoring highest in the perception to deliver more to/do more for businesses than Ashford does.
Hmm, moving?

Had really hoped the survey would have attracted some businesses in "the known" - estate agents come to mind. If there is an increase in commuters to London from other places moving to Ashford Borough now, they should be the first to know. Anyone?

Thanks to all who took part in this simple, short survey. Wonder if we should notify Ashford Borough Council of the results - or would they know already that according to most businesses they failed?

Access to the survey will be kept open till the end of this month - perhaps this Spring will bring more green shoots for Ashford? Feel free to enter you own thoughts - the survey can be found here.


Business plan, annual waste of time or essential for your business

The minute you mention "business plan" to anyone 9 times out of 10 the reply is a loud groan or a shake of the head. Many think it is "only" essential when you are trying to secure external funding, whatever type of external funding that comes to mind (from bank loan to venture capital).

Every business template I've come across (and there are many organisations/institutes that can provide you with a free template) has the same structure you are deemed to follow and the explanation of some parts confirms that a business plan is "only" essential when looking for funding:

1. Summary
(Enter your text here)

The summary is the last part of the plan that you write, but should be included at the beginning of the plan. This allows busy readers to quickly see what the plan is about without reading all the details.

(copied from a standard business plan template offered by one of the large banks).

Specially the part of "busy readers" shows it to be more an external focussed plan than for internal use. The biggest problem or even largest pitfall for this is writing to please/seduce that external source instead of being a honest presentation of past, present and planned future. Don't fool yourself, we've all done it. Even if you write such a plan only for your accountant or bank manager we tend to write it in the most optimistic way we think we can Businessplanstackget away with. So who's fooling who?

 No wonder then that so many (annual) business plans end up in the archives once written, stacked on top of the plans from last year, the year before and so on. Where in fact it should be an ongoing (rolling) report/assessment of where your business is now and where you want to take it.

This month's free download at the Director's Centre Business Club is all about "Where do you want to go?".

"If you are able to start to define where you want to be and what you want to be, then you are also starting to define what it is that you do not want to be. This process of defining the direction that you wish to move in makes it easier to decide what the steps on the way will need to be.

The more focus you have, the greater your clarity, then the easier it is for you to define the path. If you do not know where you want to go then any road will do!
While many consultants get very excited about the definitions of purpose, vision, mission, objectives and goals, what really counts is how you can use the process to define and determine the future development of your business."

It contains one of my all time favourite remarks: if you don't know where you want to go, any road will do.

You have to know/find out/discover where you want to take your business. You, not your bank manager, the venture capitalist or anyone else. You are in the driving seat and it all starts with focus. And focus is better "captured" and sustained when you write your goal/aim/plan down - in your own words, comprehensible for you and not just for your external sources - and once it is written down this way it becomes more real and achievable.

You can register for the Director's Centre Business Club still for free, just start here (the first page tells you it is indeed for free and no credit card details will be asked, then on page 2 you are asked to fill in your business details).

Once you've registered find this month special workbook. That's right: a WORKbook, not just something you should only download and read, but work on/with it to grow your business. Does this replace the annual business plan? Perhaps in more ways than one.

Services-roadmap Using the workbook you'll have to come clean for yourself, it makes you think hard and long if you are on the "right track" of what you set out to do when you started your business and how you want to proceed. Once you know/realise this, the road is clear to plot/plan your own and your business' future in sustainable steps. (And the same applies for when you are "only" just thinking of setting out to start your own business.)

And believe me, if you know deep down in your heart that the steps of this plan you write down are honest, of your own making and sustainable, it will become so much easier to convince external sources if in the event you are indeed looking for external funding. Now that's what I would call a plan to do/stay-in business, the only business plan worth your time.

(This article/pondering came about after a discussion on a DIY-forum - of all places!)


Mastercrafts - no short cuts

In my recent pre-review on Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us I pondered about master craftsmen. Why, when modern progress and all the inventions of the last century should have given us more free time, are craftsmen so far and few between?

Mastering takes time

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For some weeks now we've been watching Monty Don's Mastercrafts and yesterday's program in my opinion really told it all - why mastering takes time and although modern society seems to give us more time to spend the way we like ourselves, at the same time modern society is "guilty" of giving us the one thing that holds us back: short cuts.

In the weeks before we had watched as 3 hopefuls per program had set the first steps in mastering one of the "old crafts": Green Wood Craft, Thatching, Balcksmithing and Stained Glass and from the first program on we became hooked to it. The programs are sincerely made, showing you the history of the craft, the masterpieces preserved for posterity and the reason why it is so important these crafts are being kept alive (our heritage of masterpieces would "crumble" if we do not take care of them in the way we should.)

Yesterday Monty Don introduced three new hopefuls to the craft of weaving: Fashion designer Holly Berry, ex-City business annalist Tref Davies and craft-writer Momtaz Begum-Hossain. All three were left in the hands of mentor Margo Selby, one of UK's few craftsmen making a living from weaving.

Momtaz, a true spirit of modern times, told us she did not like to follow rules and would make up her own to create the products. And that "statement"/attitude would come to haunt her the rest of the 6 weeks of "boot-camp".
In mastering a craft there are no short-cuts - in order to become a master you have to master the technique first, relentlessly getting to grips with the technique. Once you master the technique of your craft, you can start to push against it boundaries and create your own craft - not the other way around.

The two others quickly "saw" the basics, the technique of setting the loom, why the correct winding of the yarn on the wraps and the correct schedule - or rather programming - of then threading the headles in the different shafts (which when used in different combinations during the weaving creates the pattern) forms the absolute essential foundation to the craft of weaving. No short cuts.

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Understanding the whole process of what makes a woven cloth, understanding the technique how, but more important, why it works the way it works is the first and only step to master a craft.
As Monty Don remarked: repetitive actions, extremely repetitive actions matters every time, starting with the correct winding of the yarns, setting up the loom and handling the shuttles - all equally important. No short cuts.

And that's where modern society, modern attitude fails us - we are so used to short-cuts we even believe we are entitled to cutting corners. Being "clever" -i.e. finding the short cuts - has in many ways become the new meaning of being creative, of "mastering" something. Being clever is using this or that trick to cut corners and get ahead of the game, we see it daily in many products and services. Get Rich Quick schemes aplenty.

Yes, you could get lucky and create a "master-piece" without the hard graft, but could you repeat your success when you have not taken the essential time to understand why and how it works? You can throw paints on a canvas and by chance a combination of two colours mixing together creates a most wonderful new colour. Could you reproduce this new wonderful colour again and again? No chance. No short cuts.

Momtaz tried to follow her own rules in creativity and messed up the first sample by not mastering the importance of the technique of the craft. At the end of the program - to give her her due - she persevered and created what the two judges (Michelle Bowen from the Arts Council and Angela Swan from the Worshipful Company of Weavers) considered as a very early stage development, but given time she would be able to master the craft.

Holly and Tref both mastered the technique where Holly produced a commercial worthy double woven cloth. Tref turned out to be a real novelty, even a genius, and already managed to push at the boundaries of the technique, creating a very complicated pattern extremely well executed - even though he had been very unwell the last week. His "master-piece" earned him a 6 months apprenticeship at Margo Selby's studio.

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Monty's last remark, quoting Momtaz, brought the message truly home: there is such a difference between amateurism and professionalism, it has such a high standard.

No short cuts.

(The program is filled with precious moments, if you have 60 minutes to spare do yourself a favour and watch the broadcast here)


Has Ashford delivered the “boom”? Or is it still to come? If so, when?

Your opinions, thoughts and experience are appreciated.

Ashfordboroughbadge 10 years ago (07.05.2000) we “landed” in Kent to live and work in the Ashford Borough. Main reason to settle in this area: the future was bright here according to Ashford Borough council:

  • Ashford had the International Station with the Euro-star providing fast connections to mainland Europe, which would attract more businesses and therefore more affluent people.
  • Ashford centre would be revamped to make it more attractive as “shopping centre”, again attracting more businesses and therefore more affluent people
  • The high-speed rail link to London – ETA 2007, officially launched end 2009 – would attract more affluent commuters from London.
  • All the above factors would contribute to Ashford Borough becoming THE place to be, the place to live and if so required to work – combining the “rural” feeling and community spirit with fast and convenient travel links to both the capital and mainland Europe.
Has this “boom” materialised? Have you, as colleague business owner, noticed the effect – if any - of this boom in your own business growth/results?

After 10 years we would like to hear your views/thoughts/opinions and experiences and kindly ask you to contribute to our research by taking part in the following short survey here.

(Even if your business is not located in the Ashford Borough your thoughts would be appreciated, especially from those in Kent/Sussex/Surrey.)

Many thanks in advance!

Ashfordareamap


ScreenSteps for instant personalised leaflets

Saturday we had the pleasure of welcoming returning clients in our showroom - we, like every business no doubt, love returning clients - specially when you sell high value goods like wooden flooring.

We installed a natural wooden floor for them 6 years ago - they were one of our first Wood You Like clients so we remembered many details - but one year later they had sold-up and moved to another town in Kent. They were kept in the picture of our business through our monthly newsletter and when the time came to finally get rid of the existing carpet in their "new" home they didn't go anywhere else but back to Charing.

In our showroom we display many large sample boards because wood comes in plenty of options in species, finishes, colours and floor-types (from veneer to design parquet). It happens frequently the floor area is covered with 3 to even 7 large sample boards so all can show off their own characteristics perfectly. Our main manufacturer/supplier provides us with product information leaflets, but a printed sample doesn't always give the right impression in regards of the true colour. So seeing a "live" large sample works best, specially when our prospect/client is in dubio of what would suit his/her design style best.

In our cupboard we keep a stack of small off-cuts from floors installed, but there is a small problem with this: it only shows part of all the characteristics a floor can have. It is in fact almost an "art" to make a correct sample board - it should really display most of the things you will find in the whole floor, warts and all! (Or in this case: knots, filler and variation in colours).

Our returning clients couldn't really make up their minds on the three most preferred floors. Did we have samples of all three so they could compare the colours etc with their existing furniture and design. I came up with a better idea, or so I hoped.
Why didn't I take high resolution pictures of the sample boards and email them together with our written specified quote on all three floor types? That idea was appreciated and after they took their farewells I took to work - only to discover the battery of our camera was empty! Waiting for the re-charge to complete I pondered on the format I would email the images - I had to make sure the images were named correctly and all of a sudden I realised the best way to do this - including adding important information - was to create a document using ScreenSteps.

So I took the overview picture and all individual close-ups of the sample boards, downloaded them into my pc and viewed them in the standard viewer (large). Normally I would crop and reduce seize of the "raw" images to make the file smaller - especially when you do not know if the prospect can receive large files without problems or might have problems opening the format in which I turn the images. But almost everyone can open a PDF file without any problems!

Using the CapturePalette of ScreenSteps Desktop very quickly all four images were automagically transferred into one document where I only needed to write the extra information and could now also use the annotation option to number the boards to correspond with the specific information.

Floor Options

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When this was done I exported the document as PDF file, attached it to my email and away it was! (If you're interested you can download/view it here to see exactly how effective it shows the sample boards in their full glory.)

In 5 minutes time I had created an instant, personal and relevant product information leaflet, showing our clients exactly what they had seen in our showroom to assist in their decision making.

Their reply after receiving the quotations and the personal leaflet:

"Thank you that is really helpful as we could put them against the floor boards in the hall, and our decor in the room to get some idea what they will look like."

Our next follow up is an on-site survey to check measurements and discuss further installation matters.

This must be the 7th possibility I can use ScreenSteps Desktop for (one of the other possibilities is writing this article in it and uploading it automagically into my blog), such a multifunctional simple program. It makes effective and relevant communication with our prospects and clients so much easier and quicker without compromising on quality.


When shipping oversea begins to feel like a voyage around the world in 30 days - we hope

From UK to neighbouring island = definitely overseas To travel to the UK from mainland Europe you'll have to cross the Strait of Dover (English Channel) or the North Sea, depending of your starting point. To travel from the UK to the neighbouring island you have to cross the Irish Sea.

This neighbouring island is divided in two: Northern Ireland and Ireland (Republic) but no matter which one you want to go to, you'll have to cross the Irish Sea.

Beginning August we received a phone order for maintenance product from Belfast area: two bottles of polish and a polish applicator please. No problem for us when the village we live and work in has its own Post Office. Standard parcel delivered within 48 hours, even over the Irish Sea.

In the last week of August we received a phone order from the Dublin area: two bottles of polish and a polish applicator please. I went to the Post Office again where James told me the astonish news it had to go "Overseas". The Irish Sea I said, I know my geography.

That was not what he meant. "Overseas" = International standard parcels

A) that costs 160% more!
B) takes between 3 - 5 delivery days to Ireland (Republic) according to Parcel Force's website

However, yesterday my Dublin area client called: where was the parcel? Trying to check the parcel online with the tracking number gave the following message: not available for this service (International Standard Parcel).
On the phone then to Customer Service (select 1 for.. 2 for... 6 for all other enquires = 6. Select 1 for.... 2 for.... 6 for all other enquires = 6. Select 1 for... 2 for.... 4 for all other enquires = 4) where I finally managed to explain the situation to a real person: shipped on 27th of August, 1.5 week later still no sign of the parcel - where it should "only" take 3 - 5 working days to cross the Irish Sea.

A very bored sounding customer service employee then told me it can take up to 30 days (that is a whole month!). When I asked why their own website stated 3 - 5 working days for Ireland (Republic) with International Standard Parcel I was told that was "only" an indication and should not be taken face-value!

Don't take me wrong, but does the Irish Sea stretch to enormous proportions when you ship something with the International Standard Parcel service?

(The best part of Parcel Force webpage on Ireland was the first sentence:
"We are in the process of rolling out our new improved international products to all customers."
About time too!)

Let's just hope this parcel is not on its way to turn into a Phileas Fogg adventure.

Update 18.08.09: received a phone call from our Dublin area client yesterday early evening - yes, our clients can even call us after normal working hours: parcel had arrived! (Turned out it was delivered 4 doors further down the road but no notification card was left behind at clients address.)
So, all's well that ends well, it seems.


Economics?

UpdownarrowsAs you might know, Sunday mornings are for reading the Saturday Times in our home. In the business section my eye caught two little articles underneath the recap news headline: Economics.

 1) Factory Gate Prices UP - 0.6 % in April, rose more sharply than expected. (Factory gate prices = goods going out of a factory.)

2) Manufacturers Costs Down - 1% in April to 5% lower than a year ago, in the steepest annual decline for 7 years. (Manufacturers Costs = goods going in a factory.)

Now that's what I call proper economics: increase your profit at both ends.

(Side-note: also in the Times this morning I read an article about poor customer care, big retailer blames manufacturer for poor serivce. Because it concerned flooring I turned it into a promotion post on Wood You Like's FAQ & News blog, see here. We're proud to be a small and independent retailer who takes customer care very serious!)


1 program - (at least) 5 methods to publish your content

As small business in a niche market and followers of the Givers Gain principle I write a lot/create content about:

  • our products,
  • our services,
  • our solutions,
  • our preferred methods of installing and/or maintaining your wood floor,
  • what to be aware of when you have underfloor heating
  • etc etc

We use our FAQ blog, our website, PDF files, AWeber autoresponder and printed reports to 'publish' this content. And then I'm not even talking about my 'second career' over at "1 Plus 1 Makes 3", where I write about Web marketing tools for Small Businesses.

The programs I used before to create this content varied from MS Word to writing 'live' online in the blog platforms or autoresponder software. Copy/pasting directly from Word can create havoc with formatting, so frequently when I have existing content in one program I have to copy/paste it to notepad, then into the other software and 're-format'. Not so handy.

SsexportSince last year August I've been increasingly using ScreenSteps Pro (aff) from Blue Mango Learning Systems. In this single program I create that specific content I need for various methods of publishing: blog posts and PDF-files mainly. (Our growing list of wood-guides are created with it, and so are various short 'how to...lessons' for my blog-workshop students.)

The real beauty of ScreenSteps Pro (desktop) is that you only have to create your content once and are given at least 3 options to publish your content: PDF, blog-post (all main blog platforms covered) and HTML-pages. For instance one 'lesson' in a manual can be exported as blog-post where the whole manual can also be 'exported' as PDF file.

If for one reason or the other your content needs editing, the changed document/blog-post/html-page will be 'exported' to your selected medium again, overwriting the 'old' one.

The snapshot (right) of the export function in ScreenSteps Pro shows a 4 method - ScreenSteps Live.

ScreenSteps Live is an additional product with the Desktop that allows you to host your content in "manuals" on the ScreenSteps Live server. And a manual contain 'lessons'.

Now, "lessons" can be interpreted in many ways. For small businesses who answer questions from prospect/clients - the customer service or technical department comes to mind - it can be 'instructions of use', how to.. documentation, up to a whole list of FAQs. For training businesses - software training up to English grammar training - a lesson can be just that: a lesson in the study.

Imagine your customer service department having to answer the same question over and over again. Wouldn't it be nice, practical, effective, efficient and evidence of good customer care to simply direct the client to that specific lesson online? It is proven that correct and accurate documentation available to clients reduces the number of times your customer service department is called again by the same client still struggling with the same question.

The beauty of ScreenStepd Pro (desktop) and Live is that new lessons are created in no time at all and as soon as the lesson is ready it is uploaded and added to the index - with one simple click on a button: Export to...

Last week I've taken the step to add ScreenSteps Live to my SS Desktop, and today Blue Mango launched the ScreenSteps 2.5 Candidate - with more features, benefits and ease of use. Over at 1 Plus 1 Makes 3 I'm in the process of creating the Best AWeber Strategies and Tactics for Small Businesses and a pre-view of some of the tactics can be viewed on ScreenSteps Live by those who registered for my pre-launch news.

Both ScreenSteps Pro and ScreenSteps Live receive my very own K.i.S.S. award - it makes my live as 'web marketing toolbox maker' so much easier!

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And what about the title of this post? It mentions (at least) 5 methods. The 5th method I discovered this morning: adding AWeber to the 'publishing' options of ScreenSteps Pro. But that, as they say, is a completely different story I will come back to later (and if you subscribe to the pre-launch news for the Best AWeber Strategies and Tactics for Small Businesses you will have a excellent chance to hear it sooner ;-))

Learn more about ScreenSteps

Blue Mango Learning System will hold an 'early' webinar (early for the US, just after noon over here, thanks Greg) on ScreenSteps Desktop for new Users:

Tuesday 28 April 9am Eastern = 2pm BST


The principle of IST

Most of yesterday I was 'free-wheeling', reading blogpost and comments (here and there). Two remarks got connected: I re-read a principle Liz Strauss mentioned - oh must be almost a year ago, and I followed a link from a comment Ricardo Bueno left here - oh must be almost a year ago - and landed on his latest post about what you do if a blogger doesn't reply to your comment.

The principle: IST = It's So Tiny.

So tiny, so small a thing to do:

  • replying to someone's comment on your own blog - after they have taken the time and effort to read and respond to your thoughts or asked you a question, how long does it really take to acknowledge their presence, answer their question and start a conversation?
  • returning that missed call left on your answering machine - after someone took the time and effort to contact your business with an enquiry, how long does it really take to acknowledge and appreciate the interest they might have in your product or service?
  • creating that special webpage (or fixed page on a blog) where new subscribers to your tips, newsletter or free leaflet end up on instead of AWeber's default page - after your website visitor, blog reader has given you his/her name and email address out of trust, how hard is it to make that simple effort so they can read in your own words what is going to happen next and start the conversation right there?
  • typing out a specified quote for a prospect that visited our showroom - after they drove all that way to see our products and already are on our newsletter list so we have their email address, how long does it take to fill that template in our CRM system with all materials needed specified so they don't have to guess what those handwritten scibbles on our "on-the-spot-quote" form really mean? - even I can't encipher my own handwriting after a day, let alone my prospects!

IST: It's so tiny.
A tiny effort which adds great value to the interaction, conversation, business building.

(So I spent the first hours of this sunny Sunday writing out those quotes and emailing them. Smiley2 )


Stress Facts

StresscartoonThis month's topic of my good friend Robert Hruzek over at Middle Zone Musings' group-writing project is "What I learned from.... Stress"

Now we all know that stress is not good, it's mostly associated as a negative state of being - something to avoid. I know very well, 'cos 10 years ago I suffered a burn-out, work-related. And let me tell you: that's not very, eh, pleasant.
(image courtesy of www.ghchealth.com)

But.... stress has many other meanings. My favourite online dictionary lists 14 of them, the first one being - coincidently? - the meaning I wanted to stress here.

  1. importance or significance attached to a thing; emphasis

When you are in business, be it selling products or services, you have almost expert knowledge of the matter - at least I hope you do because your prospects/clients expect nothing less. And being the expert you know what your product/service can and cannot do.

Your prospect/client has certain expectations, certain pre-conceived ideas of the features and benefits of your product/service. It is down to you - the expert - to stress the true facts of your product:

  • In our business, supplying and installing the natural product wooden floors, we have to stress the fact that wood works, always. It will react to the changes in the 'climate' conditions in your home during the 4 different seasons.
  • We have to stress the fact that wooden floors do need regular maintenance to keep its dirt-repellent character (and at the same time we stress the fact that regular maintenance enhances the beauty of the floor)
  • We stress the fact that a new wood floor needs to acclimatise inside the house; storing it in a cold garage or damp shed is definitely not the ideal place for it.

But there is more in running a factual, based on honest information, successful business. As business owner you have to stress the fact that it is not just the sales person's responsibility to create the long-lasting relationship with your clients. You have to stress the fact that the attitude of the receptionists, the dedicated attention of the dispatch department to every single shipment, the accuracy of the invoicing by the admin department is as essential to the long-lasting relationship as the sales messages.

Teamwork250w And boy, does that also count for a one man/woman band! You don't need to have 10, 50 or a 1000 employees to stress the fact that consistency in every dealing, every snippet of information or interaction to or with your client is one of the biggest factors of a successful, sustainable business.

That's what I learned from stressing facts
(I learned a lot too during the 6 months burn-out period I experienced all those years ago: the fact was that I received different messages from different managers all stressing different points of importance - and in the end that stressed me out ;-))