Win-lose


I’m in dispute with my accountant at the moment over his latest bill, which seems exorbitant. I wrote explaining my concerns: that work had been completed that I hadn’t requested; that the time taken, with the associated cost, seemed far more than what the tasks demanded; and that a letter of engagement setting our their costs and conditions hadn’t been provided to me before the work commenced (apparently a no-no).

I’m not without blame in this. I should have been clearer in what I wanted them to do for me, and should have understood that having requested a company tax return, for example, it was natural for them to also complete the company accounts. The greater oversight on my part was not demanding the engagement letter. They’re at fault by not formally submitting it, but I’m a duffer for not asking for it before they started working.

My error is a common one for me. You would think I would know better, but my default attitude is one of trust. I’m one of those old-fashioned types who generally believes that people will do the right thing, and that my word is as good as my bond. Mostly that’s good enough too, but not always obviously. (Ironically when wearing my consultants hat I’m a stickler for getting everything ticked off as a matter of good governance).

I received a response yesterday to my email. I won’t bother going through all the blah, blah, blahs, but it’s the last line that caught my eye. He stated, my accountant, that normally he would be charging me for the time he took in responding to my email, but on this occasion he would waive it. To me that goes to the heart of a lot of things wrong in professional services these days.

I used to work in that environment. I still do occasionally. When I worked for one of the international firms it was gospel that we would charge our time out in 7 minute, or 11 minute (elsewhere), blocks. That was drilled into us.

It never sat comfortably with me. It made me feel mercenary. More particularly it made me feel that my purpose in meeting with clients was to rack up billable hours in 7 minute increments, rather than serve them with my expertise and experience. It reduced me to a commodity. I guess that’s the bottom line when you’re doing business, but when it’s such a blatant factor I think it corrupts the process, and undermines trust.

Trust should be the essential aspect of the relationship between client and consultant: faith that the job will get done as it has been contracted, and confidence that the trust between client and consultant will not be abused.

The fact of the matter is that consultants and professional services firms are held in poor regard by so many because that trust does not exist. There are bad apples out there who gold plate their contract, or drag the job out to maximise their income. More commonly professional service firms invoice their clients virtually down to the second. That may be in their charter, but it does nothing to build rapport with the client, who comes away thinking that in the consulting world greed is good.

I think it’s foolish. I’m a strong believer in partnering with my client. I’m in it with them, and I want them to know that. I find that goal is undermined if I then start charging them for everything. I provide my clients with a service agreement which details everything. I make it clear at the same time that I’m flexible and reasonable. I don’t start the meter any time they call me. Email is a part of business, and not something I will add to the invoice. In fact I tend to be generous and err on the side of conservatism when I bill them.

I think that’s good business practice. It engenders trust and it builds a relationship. I’m a straight-shooter, and they know it. Most importantly it makes for long-term relationships. I’d rather work with a client repeatedly over a number of years than milk him dry at the first opportunity and never see him again. What I’m about is creating goodwill.

That’s what my accountant has lost. He’s gone hard finding every angle to bill me – this is not the first time I’ve had reason to object. Well, he’s got some cash out of me, but he’s lost my business.

 

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Tribulations


Phew! What a week! Tough, tough, tough. It’s not surprising when the OECD report that a good 55% of the toughest days in poor old H’s life have occurred in the last 18 months. In fact, I’m inclined to think it might be greater than that, but I guess the pointy heads in the OECD know better.

Unfortunately the tough week has stretched into its second, but let me start at the start…

Tuesday night last week I’m having a reasonably pleasant few drinks with tapas in the city with a girl I know. We part sometime before 9 and I stroll towards Flinders Street station feeling reasonably content. Throughout the night I’ve been tracking business at the shop, and its been a bumper. Then, just as my train pulls into Hampton I get an SMS from one of my masseuse. She had the day off, and is due to work from 10am Wednesday. Instead she tells me she won’t be in, not then, not ever again. This is desperately inconvenient, to say the least. I’m not about to stop her – she is a pain in the arse – but I express the thought that more notice would be reasonable, and could she at least service her bookings. Well, you know the answer to that one.

So for the rest of the week I’m one masseuse down, with another due to finish on the weekend. It’s a good week, very busy, but unfortunately because I’m short of staff a lot of business walks out the door. Then the weekend comes and it’s still great, except that now one of other masseuse – an excellent therapist from France – finishes on Saturday to continue with her travels. So on Sunday I’m down to one masseuse and though she’s kept busy I manage less than half the business that I might.

By now I’m looking ahead to the coming week, concerned that I’m short of staff and that it will be critical. I’ve been advertising since I walked in the door, but it’s a tight, competitive market, doubly so for ‘good’ masseuse.

I’m having lunch with Fong down at the wasteland otherwise known as the Docklands when once more my phone trills to announce another message received. This is from V, my best and most reliable masseuse. She’s Thai and is quietly professional, opening up most days, making sure the shop is spic and span, and working tirelessly without complaint. She’s great. Now she informs me that she can’t work Monday because she has some problems with her uterus.

That doesn’t sound good. Immediately I’m figuring that it might be a while until she returns. And it means that I can’t open.

Now that’s the worst possible outcome. You can’t run a massage shop without massage therapists. Regardless though, costs mount, and the potential damage to the brand increases with each day out of operation. What am I to do though? V works 5 days a week, 2 of those days 12 hours straight. That’s a lot of time to fill with less than 24 hours notice. And the other two who might normally have been there are now gone.

The result of this is that Monday and Tuesday I’m closed. Calls come through to me as people try to book, and I explain trying to put a positive spin on it. But I feel the dollars leak through my fingers.

I go back, refresh my job ads, seek other avenues, but it’s hard work. It’s frustrating, most particularly as I feel relatively powerless. Short of doing massage myself – which I can’t – there seems little I can do.

On Wednesday I do open. Last week I engaged as receptionist a Vietnamese girl who also has great experience as a masseuse. She’s great. I have a lot of time for the Vietnamese, I find them industrious and enterprising, and she is precisely that. I had spoken to her ahead of Wednesday telling her of the situation and she had gone off on her own initiative to place job ads for the shop. Yesterday she came in and did massage while I sat on receptionist. In between times we sat together and mapped out all the things that need doing. She’s very generous with her time and effort, very willing to get involved as too few are. She appreciates the predicament I’m in, but reassures me that it will be okay. She believes in the potential of the place, and is excited by the challenge – a feeling familiar to me.

Today I’m closed again. Tomorrow I’ll open for half a day. The weekend, where I really make my money, will have a shoestring staff. Next week should be better, but a long way from great. And tomorrow the rent is due.

I’ve been in the shop most days this week open or closed. I’ve interviewed a bunch of candidates, engaged two and possibly another. I have another interview Sunday. None of them can replace V as so far they’re only a day here or there, or a shift. I need that anchor masseuse.

Of course I’m worried. After doing well last week I’m going to lose big this week, and probably next as well. The unknown is the damage to the brand – not terminal as yet, but need to get on top of it soon. I have a bunch of necessary costs coming up – besides the rent, $1,500 worth of brochures, vouchers and business cards. As it stands I’m paying for that out of my capital, which daily diminishes as I have no time to go out and earn money elsewhere.

All this has been responsible for a few pointed moments. Deal with it though, that’s all I can do. And take it as it comes.

So it goes. Perhaps there’s a book in it some day, or at least an interesting case study. Right now all it’s good for is a few grey hairs and possibly an ulcer.

Tonight I’m out for drinks with the African. May as well. Close my eyes and just enjoy.

Out of step


I was up much earlier than usual this morning to attend a BNI meeting in South Yarra. I was in the car before 7 and parked just before the rain hit, then entered into this very different world for me.

All sorts of things formerly strange to me have become normal in the last 18 months. Being your own boss necessitates a whole new order of thinking, and of activities, if you wish to be successful. I’ve undertaken a variety of marketing campaigns, with mixed results, have become a regular on the networking circuit, and become quite proficient at glad-handing strangers, exchanging business cards, and rattling off my reason for being in catchy 30 second grabs. BNI really is the natural outcome of all of that.

I’d heard all about BNI over the months, and had more than one person recommend it to me. Until today I’d resisted, knowing it was not really my thing. It was a lame excuse though and I knew it. There’s a lot of things foreign that you must do whether it fits in with your worldview or not. And if you’re serious about being successful then you really should be doing all that you can to make it so.

In this case it took a direct invitation to get me along. A very recent contact I’m hoping to do business with urged me to come along, already having laid the groundwork for me. The promise was a couple of good contacts and the potential for much more. Feeling obliged I roused myself from bed about the time the sun began its ascent and off I went.

I can confirm that BNI isn’t really my thing, though there were aspects of it I enjoyed. Obviously the lure of qualified referrals is tempting for any small businessman, and the support available in groups like this is similarly interesting. It can be a lonely business doing your own thing. Not only do you often miss out on the casual interaction with other people, there’s no-one often to turn to. At BNI most are small business owners, and so sympathetic to the challenges you face because they know them themselves. There’s support, understanding, people to bounce things off, and potentially help. I appreciate the great benefits of what amounts to a support network around you. In this case a very convivial, friendly bunch who have their fun along the way. Ok, pretty good then, but there’s more to it than that.

When I was a kid I got called a loner once or twice, and that was despite having a good bunch of friends around me. As an adult most people consider me very social, and many shake their heads at the people I know and the places I get to. The irony of it is that I consider myself basically shy. Like a lot of shy people I’ve overcome that by pushing myself out there; out there I’ve discovered I have a gift for words, some empathy, and, occasionally, some charm. That makes it easier, but it doesn’t alter the essential fact that I have to do it all again time after time. I may have confidence and a robust nature, which go hand in hand and quite naturally, but they exist outside or beyond my shyness. Being both shy and assertive is perfectly possible.

I don’t know whether it’s a subset of my shyness, or something separate to it, but I still see myself as a bit of a lone wolf. I’m social, but I must be independent. I delight in the warmth of other people, but need time to myself. I read once how there are two kinds of people, those who draw strength from other people, and those who take it from within. I’m definitely the latter, and if I don’t get enough me time then I’m in trouble. I like going my own way. I’ve never been a ‘joiner’, just the opposite really – my natural inclination is to go against the crowd, rather than with it. If I had to describe myself in that regard I would call myself socially independent.

Naturally then there is a huge resistance to joining something like BNI. I just feel uncomfortable with being a part of something like that, even though I know I should, and despite the fact that everyone is so friendly and supportive.

There were about half a dozen of us visitors there today. At a certain point, after the main business of the morning was out of the way, we visitors were invited to give our impressions of the event. I kept it simple, explaining how I enjoyed the convivial and supportive atmosphere. Others said something similar. Then one guy in a suit got up and explained how he really enjoyed the structure of the event. They have a lot of business to get through in 90 minutes, and they tick it off with almost military precision, and with a distinct bureaucratic hierarchy managing it. I understand why it must be so, but unlike the guy in the suit it’s not something I could ever warm to. I appreciate precision, I respect order, but I hate being regimented. That’s one of the key reasons I work for myself. I don’t want to be herded. I’d rather lead the pack than run with it. More precisely, I’m happiest to go my own way, whether the pack follows or not.

There in a nutshell I think is my issue with BNI and other groups like it. I’m unreconstructed, and I don’t think I’ll ever change. I appreciate the morning, and I’ll probably attend another meeting sooner or later, but I can’t ever see myself becoming a member. It seems stupid really, why wouldn’t you given the potential benefits of it? I’ve got no other answer except to say it’s not who I am. And sure, the dollar/time commitment is pretty steep to. Ultimately, like most things, I don’t like to be locked-in, and prefer to be free to go my own way, in my own way.

If I do return however, it’ll because the red hot girl I met there. Different story, but hope to catch up with her before too long. Happy to join her.

Fingers crossed


I had an important meeting last week with a potential new client. I met with him in his office in the middle of an industrial estate out in the suburbs. There I was, dressed in my suit met with the MD of this company, a shortish guy with a paunch wearing a company logo polo shirt. Coffee? he asked me first thing. I pondered the correct answer to that question before going with what I felt, yeah sure, I said.

We made small talk in the small kitchen while he fixed me a mug of nescafe. Then up the stairs we went.

I didn't know what, if anything, this company wanted from me, but I had done my homework in the preceding days and had been impressed. The man in front of me was actually one of the shareholders having bought out the US parent 15 years ago and taken the company since to new heights. He was obviously a smart cookie.

I introduced myself, my company, explained what we do and the philosophy behind it. I asked him a few questions about things I had read in the press, then delved deeper to find how we could him him.

Turns out we – that's the royal we (though I never admit the company is simply me) – happened by at the right time. He explained they were looking to upgrade their accounting system, which was now 10 years old. They had grown significantly in that time and were now wanting to implement a system that would grow with them into this next period and had the additional functionality they wanted. Well then, I thought…

I left after about 45 minutes promising to forward a proposal to them shortly. That's what I have been working on in the last week off and on. I did a bit more research and then composed what was a brief and high level proposal of about 3 pages. I'm careful not to give away too much without having signed on the bottom line, and it's hard to be definitive after such a brief meeting. Still, I was happy with what I came up with.

This would be a good project to get. Till now it has largely been bits and pieces, with nothing substantial enough to hang my hat on and to build around. This is different. I'm proposing to manage the process for them from evaluation through implementation to the post project review. With a bit of luck I'll even manage an ongoing relationship with retainer to assist with business issues as they arise. It's a good chunk of work worth somewhere between 30-50k over the next 3-4 months working part-time on it – much more if they choose to get me on board and managing everything full-time.

What are my chances? About 50-50 I reckon, which are fair odds for a project of this nature. Ideally I would get another one or two like this to work on concurrently, and to engage some of the people I have identified as associates to assist with this. That's the thing, it's a tough road but when it clicks it will be very lucrative. 

Time will tell. No decisions will be made until a board meeting later in the month.

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