The Dog’s Business: Down Time

This time of year is, traditionally, a very quiet time for a lot of businesses.
While consumers reign in spending after Christmas, and as credit card bills land on door mats across the country, shops struggle to get people willingly parting with their cash, restaurants resemble ghost towns, and hotels slash their rates in order to keep going.
Panic often sets in.
Will it ever pick up again?
Dogs treat down time rather differently.
Down time is an opportunity to recuperate, to get ready for the next adventure. It’s an opportunity to go at a slightly different pace. Time to wash paws. Time to cuddle.
As a business our traditional down time is December. It becomes, comparatively, quiet. Clients don’t phone as much. There’s less work to do. The pace of work is quite quite different.
We use that time constructively. We tidy the office, sort out boring things like insurances and new photocopiers. We research (and implement) new tools and processes. We sort out the filing and set up the new files ready for the new year.
It’s a hugely productive time of year for us.
Of course, having client work to do is much more commercially productive. But we recognise that sometimes you have to grease the wheels and we make the most of that time.
Dogs do the same.
So the next time you experience the seasonal dip, don’t panic: plan.
Plan to get some important jobs done. Plan to have a good clear out and clean up. Plan to make the most of it.
It’s just as important as what comes next.

Are you being Served?

Retro TV CommercialI once wrote a blog about the remarkable challenges that can face consumers buying online, comparing the purchase of sausages (surprisingly easy) to the purchase of a PC (strangely not as easy) and suggesting that it should really have been the other way around.

Today I was reminded of these challenges when I tried to to do the exact same two things again, but this time in store. (Please be assured, I am not a prolific purchaser of either sausages, or PCs, this is merely a coincidence). I’m left wondering if, when it comes to retail, things have just got a little bit over-complicated for their own good?

You see, my laptop died. It was a fairly sudden death. I really haven’t had time to mourn its loss but the fact that, despite trying, I can’t even get into the BIOS probably means it will not be coming back to life any time soon. Having borrowed two laptops in the last week, I felt that replacing it quickly was actually a bit of a necessity. So I took to the internet, did a bit of research and promptly took myself to PC World at half past ten on a Saturday morning to buy what I needed.

In store, I waited 15 minutes before deducing that the elderly couple in front of me were not going to make a quick decision until they’d asked the sales assistant all sorts of probing questions and so, in the absence of any other sales staff on the floor, I thought I’d nip to the butcher’s, as well as do the weekly shop before popping back.

Quick over the counter sausage service ensued, giving me plenty time to pop into the supermarket and do the usual sweep of the aisles, before returning to my car and making my way back to PC World.

Standing beside the laptop I wanted to purchase, desperately scouring the shop for eye contact with a sales assistant, and making all the usual “This looks like something I want to buy” signs with my face, I eventually got someone’s attention. But he didn’t have time to spend with me, and suggested it would be a 10-15 minute wait before he, or another member of the team could get to me. I quickly explained I just wanted to buy the laptop, if he gave it to me I could be on my way to the till in seconds and happily on my way without taking up any of his (or my) time.

But “we’re busy” I was told. I, on the other hand, had all the time in the world as far as they were concerned.

Apparently I was not to be trusted with the laptop. In fact, I was told this in not so many words: “I’m not just going to give you the laptop” said the sales assistant condescendingly.

Well, no. I’m not asking you to give me it. I intend to give you £399 of my hard earned cash in return, just for the pleasure of you selling me the laptop. In fact, you don’t even need to sell, just let me buy it.

By this point a “queue” had formed around the laptop. Another gentleman wanted to buy it too…. but no-one was available to help him either.

Interestingly I could have reserved the laptop online and gone in store to pick it up but, the last time I did this I was subjected to a sit down “meeting” that lasted 40 minutes where they proceeded to go through all sorts of random questions in a bid to ensure I’d ordered the right thing, that I decided against selecting this approach to save time.

Why have we made the modern day retailing such an horrific experience for customers?

Why does every purchase have to be accompanied by a hefty dose of “expert” advice?

Whose idea was it to take a simple 5 minute transaction and turn into a theatrical 45 minute experience followed by a 5 minute transaction which, by the time you get to it, makes you feel as if you are buying a house, and not a piece of purple plastic surrounding some soldered electrical circuit boards? Did they really think this was the way to be helpful?

Of course, when a customer needs the advice, the store should absolutely be able to provide it. The elderly couple this morning had questions to ask and, no doubt, will have fully appreciated the time and advice they were getting from the sales assistant. But to incorporate this “informed sale” approach, so awkwardly, into your standard service when not every customer needs it is just downright annoying.

There’s a need to go back to basics in retail. Modern day retailers complain viciously about the impact of “showrooming” on their businesses, but the response should not be a unilateral shift in the opposite direction, burdening customers with unnecessary advice and stealing their free time from them in a bid to make them feel special.

Buying sausages, over the counter, was swift and chirpy by comparison. The butcher didn’t see fit to question my choice of steak, and offer me another option. Nor did he check that my choice of beef sausages was the right one, when they had at least 12 other variations of sausages available. He took it on trust that I knew what I wanted and served me.

So, I ask you, fellow shoppers – are you being served?

The Dog’s Business: Never Give Up

Tenacity is one quality which I firmly believe both dogs and entrepreneurs share in abundance.

I’m lucky enough to have two rescue dogs, both with very different (and slightly mysterious) starts in life.

Molly was found starved and abandoned in a local park and (luckily) taken into kennels to be given a second chance. That’s where we found her, a skinny quivering wreck of a dog. Scared, hungry and timid.

Toby was rescued twice. His first rescue team split up and ask their friend to dump him back at the pound. Facing death row for a second time in his life, he was extremely lucky to be picked out by a charity rescue team, passed into an assessment foster home, before coming to live with us. Depressed, deflated and, quite understandably, suspicious of people.

But now it’s a different story. Molly is the centre of everyone’s universe (or so she likes to think). Confident, caring and sociable, she’s got her own little office routine going on, moving from desk to desk, ensuring everyone keeps in line.

Toby has come out of his shell enormously. Less suspicious, less likely to keep his own counsel and his personality continues to develop daily. He’s a cheeky wee chappy.

So what’s my point? And how does this relate in any way to business?

Well, in simple terms: they never gave up.

Sure, they had a few people and organisations who helped both of them along the way, but both dogs have determined not to let their past blight their future.

Both dogs work hard for our love and praise. They are prepared to put in the effort, they know they will get the rewards.

But just because they’ve failed before does not mean that they are not afraid to try again.

How many entrepreneurs give up? Far too many.

Doubt ourselves? Undeniably.

Worry about the future? Wouldn’t be human otherwise.

But the successful ones NEVER give up. Even when the going gets tough. Even when it seems ridiculous to carry on. Even when hope is all but lost.

They believe and they never give up.

Because, just when you think it can’t get any worse, something always comes along.

Always

If you don’t believe me, ask Toby and Molly.

The Dog’s Business: A Different Direction

We decided to walk the same way, a different way, today.

You’d think we’d re-discovered the world.

All we did was go on the walk backwards (not literally, technically speaking: in reverse) but it was a whole new game.

Trees look different from the “other” side. The scenery has changed. The people we meet has shifted. And it all smells so interesting.

We can sometimes get stuck in a rut in business, doing the same things day in, day out, going the same way, talking to the same people.

Just by varying the approach, even slightly (same route, different direction) we can get a new perspective on things and make our lives so much more interesting.

When was the last time you got stuck trying to solve a problem? Why not come at it from another angle?

When was the last time you varied your route to work? I try to change mine every few days – just for fun.

When was the last time you sat down and re-planned your week?

Cancelled meetings that you don’t need?

Set up meetings that you never have time for?

Put some time aside just for thinking and exploring ideas?

Coming at things from a different direction is an essential business skill. It makes things more interesting, gives a fuller understanding of your competitive environment, opens up opportunities you’d never noticed before and, generally, keeps things fresh.

So go on, get your nose to the ground and change direction.

The Dog’s Business: Get There First

Our dogs get along nicely, but there’s no mistaking their competitive instinct when it comes to one important thing: sticks.

You can be walking along nicely, enjoying the scenery when WHAM! a stick appears.
Not just any stick. THE stick. The MUST HAVE stick.
And they’ll both lunge for it, prepared to fight for it if necessary.
The moral of this story: if it’s important, get there first.
So many business people become complacent in their hunt for the proverbial stick. Complacency sets in gradually. There are sometimes sticks everywhere. Often enough to go around. So we don’t fight for the stick. We’re certainly not prepared to lunge for it. We let go of that competitive instinct, and it’s not good for business.
But dogs know that competition is healthy. That’s why, in a crowded woodland literally full of sticks, they instinctively pick ONE and go for it, pitting themselves against each other.
One wins, the other doesn’t. But one thing’s for sure, they’ll never lose that instinct.
When was the last time you lunged for a stick?
Go on, try it.

The Dog’s Business: Inspiration from Man’s Best Friend

It’s a new year and I felt like a bit of a new writing challenge. So here it is.

I have two dogs and a small business based in Perth, Scotland.

Running a business is hard. There’s no doubt about that. And nowadays it’s harder than ever. Finding entrepreneurial inspiration is a continual challenge.

Like many entrepreneurs, over the years I’ve had professional coaches, business advisers, life coaches, business mentors, friendships with fellow business owners, read countless business books and business blogs – the list goes on.

But despite extensive engagement with some of the country’s most successful people, I still get some of my greatest insights into running a successful business, unusually, from my two furry friends: Molly & Toby!

So I felt it was time to pass this canine wisdom on to others. And thank you for taking the time to read this. All posts in this series are precided by the subtitle “The Dog’s Business” so you can find them on our site easily.

7 Habits of Highly Successful Marketers

It’s the season for resolve. In fact it’s all around us. But the odds of these resolutions becoming nothing but pipe dreams by the time we reach the end of January, let alone the end of the year, are high. The reason? Fairly simple, it takes time to change your habits.

We’ve been following the business media and it’s full of resolutions too. Top ten trend prediction lists litter my incoming news streams, followed closely by things you absolutely must do in business this year. Because this year is going to be oh so different from any other year running a business. Well, surely it is?

Let’s buck the trend, shall we? Let’s talk about the past. Why? Well past behaviour is one of the best predictors of future behaviour (hate to say it, it’s those pesky habits that play a part). But it’s also the key to success. Shelve the trend articles (for now) and forget the “must do’s” and let’s take a look at what really may make a difference.

Here’s our take on the 7 habits of what makes some companies highly successful marketers.

1. We know it’s not the strategy behind the plan that counts, it’s the planning behind the strategy

A lot is currently being said about having goals, having a clear strategy. That’s all very well, but most successful marketers know that – although the strategy may be important – it’s the planning behind the strategy that ultimately counts. In other words: We don’t just think. We do.

If your strategy is to have 1 million customers over the course of the year, it’ll be nothing but a pipe dream if you don’t know how you’re going to get them and, most importantly, what you need to do to make it happen.

So do yourself a favour, simplify the strategy and focus on the plan. The what, where, when and who of it all is ultimately what makes the difference.

Want an  example? Then take a look at the strategy for fashion retailer Next – an on and offline retailer experiencing growth in all facets of its business. It’s directories arrive like clockwork, you can set your watch to the date and timing of their annual sale, and their email marketing strategy is gentle but firmly in your face throughout the year. None of this happened by accident or because they suddenly found themselves with some clothes to sell. It was elegantly implemented, a feat of exceptional planning and efficiency.

2. We believe consistent branding is not up for discussion

Really, it’s not. If you are not proactively investing in your brand then you are letting it stagnate. Your brand needs to be at the centre of absolutely everything that you do. Any marketing media that is not adding value to your brand needs to be updated or removed. There truly is no middle ground. Don’t just leave it there, festering. Invest in quality design, maintain and develop your visual presence and don’t cut corners – it costs just as much to print a bad design as it does a good one.

Successful marketers brand everything. From the pens to the soap. If it can be branded, it will be.

So who’s leading the way? You can’t beat an overnight stay at a Citizen M hotel for a prime example of how you can be steeped in a branded experience without it, necessarily, taking over your life. From booking, to check in, even the signage is gloriously branded, leaving you filled with a joy that very few other hotel chains can achieve. All that, and at a reasonable price too.

3. We evaluate our performance as we go along

Data is key. We all have it. Some of us have it in bucket loads, others in just a smattering. Successful marketers pull it together, make sense of it and track their performance. If the data is deviating from the pattern, there’s a reason. Look for it. The stats don’t lie, they tell a story. That story can sometimes help you direct your business out of the way of danger. It may even indicate there’s choppy waters ahead. Either way, there’s a pure army of tools out there to help you evaluate what’s working and what’s not.

We insist on tracking the performance of all our client’s digital activity using sophisticated reporting tools that have been invaluable in tweaking and honing their business strategies to greater impact. But, at the risk of sounding a little like Stephen Hawking, beware of hasty interpretations, the law of unintended consequences in data analysis can be high indeed. Always step back and ask yourself if your knee jerk response is strategic. If it’s not, ditch it and move on.

So who’s doing it well? Not many companies hit the mark when it comes to data driven marketing implementation. Amazon, love ’em or loathe ’em, seem to be one of the very few that a) know what I’ve looked at online; b) know what I’ve bought before; and c) try to sell it all to me by email – in a personalised sort of way. To be fair, they probably have the technology to support this level of personalised marketing. But, even at a very basic level, most companies have the data to address customers by their first name. They just choose not to.

4. We communicate daily, not just when there is a campaign

Too many agencies are focused solely on campaign marketing tactics. The Christmas campaign. The Spring campaign. The Autumn campaign. Very few are engaged in the (much less flashy, but oh so important) day to day communications. But let’s be serious here: marketing is not something that neatly fits into a 6 week campaign. Communicating with your customers is actually something you do daily. By social media, by email, online, by phone, by letter, in media releases, by old adverts, with new ones.

It’s an ongoing thing. As such it needs to be treated as an ongoing conversation, not a rare public performance of some carefully chose lyrics that suit the message. The clarity of your brand voice is just as critical as it’s visual presentation. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t go quiet. Say something.

John Lewis is probably one of the most consistent communicators out there with ongoing quality and thorough on and offline communications underpinning a series of exceptionally executed creative campaigns.

5. We accept there is such a thing a “hygiene” media and don’t always try to be flashy and new

Successful marketing is not all about the next big thing, but a lot more to do with delivering the hygiene factors. Not of the keeping clean variety, but the basic “must haves” that customers expect to find when they look for you. Some of these differ from industry to industry, but there are universals that transcend all. They should not be up for debate with regards to inclusion in your annual marketing plan – they form the foundations of any controlled marketing communications. Basically, if you don’t have all of the following forms of media in your business, get them now:

  • Company Website
  • Facebook page
  • Twitter Account
  • Yellow Pages/Yell.com Listing (Free)

As for industry specific must haves these can vary but to identify if it’s a “hygiene” media for your industry, ask yourself the question: Do customers expect us to provide this?

Consider an online retailer without a website. A mail order company without a brochure. A visitor attraction without an information leaflet. A business consultant without business cards.

6. We repeat ourselves. All the time. 

It’s true. We repeat ourselves. All the time. Believe it or not, not everyone is listening when you deign to speak the first time round. Despite what some experts tell you, it really is OK to repeat yourself: on social media, on advertising, on print media, on billboards.

You’ll probably find your use of media more effective if you do.

Some of the best campaigns are those that are repeated. In fact, traditional advertising works solely on the premise that it must be repeated to have impact. A single advert, however well placed, is just not going to cut it.

Somehow, in our transition to digital, we seem to have got ourselves caught up in a trap that everything we say must be an original piece of literary art. Stop it. Decide on your message, consider several different ways of saying it and then roll that message out – at different times of the day, on different days, to different audiences.

7. We’re obsessed with systems

Dull, we know. But marketing is (should be) a well oiled machine. It should be constantly rotating, like machinery, to drive your business forward, to drive sales, to drive growth. The key word here is drive. It’s a forward motion, it’s a mechanical process, it’s an effective method of transportation.

We will always look at all “new” ideas with a view to whether they can be systematised. Why? It’s the doing that counts, right? We don’t like it when someone sticks a spoke in our wheel. Things stop turning. It’s not ideal. Similarly, if we’re diverted from driving perpetual motion, it usually leads to, well, stagnation or – worse – ever decreasing circles.

But when the wheels are turning, and the sales are rolling in, and the customers are happy, then – well then, we have time to be creative and really build on our successes.

The most successful companies out there are the ones who got the basics right first, then built up their exceptional creative brands around those systems and processes which underpin the business.