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It’s all in the numbers

by
01 September 2013, at 12:00am

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

MAYBE I’ll stop buying a Euromillions ticket every time I see that it’s rolled over again with prize money amounting to squillions of euros. Then again, maybe I won’t.

After all, what’s the investment of £2 if I were to win those squillions? The answer is £104 a year which would be far better spent placed into the hand of a homeless teenager or squirrelled away under the mattress for the next time the speed camera flashes as I pass it, probably while I’m thinking of all those squillions of euros.

Actuarily, I stand more chance of being mugged by the assembled Conclave of Cardinals in the Vatican than winning anything meaningful and, if I just get my head around that, the money saved for just a few years would enable me to get a short city break in Rome to recover from the disappointment or to give the Conclave a flying start, depending on your point of view.

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal and I find it difficult to reconcile missed opportunity on the Euromillions scale with a lifetime of self-reproach so, the chances are that the next time I’m in the Co-op buying a sandwich, I’ll do it all over again.

As deserving as the next

Clearly, there’s no science in my approach, no Rain Man calculation of the probability of any numbers appearing and nothing other than a gargantuan leap of faith in the capricious nature of Lady Luck and my earnest mutterings that I’m as deserving as the next man of a bit of good fortune.

Common sense doesn’t get an airing either; don’t I know that you never see a bookie on a bike or that the directors of Camelot all drive Jaguars? So, trusting to luck and the blatant rebuttal of common sense seem like unlikely weapons with which to fight incipient poverty.

That’s all an exaggeration clearly as, at the time of writing this, I’m still in employment and can expect NatWest to maintain a discreet distance a little longer but, for many, prospects are fairly bleak, particularly in places where unemployment remains high and the probability of securing work appears to be low.

For some of these people, Lady Luck may be the only hope they have of changing the colour of their future but every one of us reading this would be shouting from the rooftops that that would be the wrong way to approach the economics of securing one’s future.

Beauty in eye of beholder

Why then, do so many of us do this at work with the way we approach the presentation of our businesses? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but, in the main, the businesses we run are sound, based on well-earned but undervalued clinical skills derived from an arduous training course and several years of putting these ideas into practice.

Mostly, we have good teams around us, enough toys and tools to do the job well, warm, dry premises and, increasingly, a good smattering of smoked glass, arty pictures of animals and decent floor covering which can be wiped clean and shouldn’t smell.

If we took these assets into Dragons’ Den, most of the dragons would think we were at least half way there with material far more promising than half the hopefuls who do so. So what do we do with it?

The short answer is not very much. In the main, we might run to a block advertisement in Yellow Pages or we may have paid someone to put up a website for us and we ask Ethel to update it every now and then. Someone in the practice does Facebook or Twitter or both (what is Bebo by the way?) but secretly we think that Facebook is about seeing hilarious pictures of college friends and don’t really understand how it fits into business.

Acceding to demand

Then, someone at the last partners’ meeting explained that cash flow is tight so we’re not going to repeat the local newspaper advertising this year. That might sound familiar or it might sound positively dismal but it is a fairly accurate rendition of how most practices market themselves.

At the same time, we have acceded to consumer demand in so many other ways; we are open later during the evenings so that clients can get to us after a lengthy commute, we pay a swingeing fee to the credit card companies because no one uses cash any more and cheques have bounced out of our lives and we have done a deal with another practice/company/ competitor to look after our out-ofhours because we can’t get anyone to do it and, anyway, we like to know what time we’ll finish on a Friday.

I may have taken a slightly licentious liberty with these descriptions but, in truth, they are not far from being accurate for so many practices and, in today’s brave new world, that simply isn’t good enough if we want to succeed.

The nature of business is entirely dependent on building and maintaining relationships but far too often, someone from outside rocks up and tells you to do it differently. It seems to me that the rules are quite simple really: we don’t need smoked glass and shag pile carpet for consumers to like what we do.

We do need clean, tidy premises where it’s clear that someone (preferably everyone) takes a pride in the facilities we offer. We don’t need an HD-ready website with video newsfeed and stock market figures tracking across the bottom but we do need clients – both old and, as yet, undiscovered – to be able to find us and to find out why they should bother to do so.

We don’t need to spend next year’s bottom line on marketing but we do need to ask our clients what they like, what they dislike and what they would like us to offer them – and then actually take note of what they say.

Above all, we need to have a team which wants to engage with people because, contrary to everything we’ve been trained to believe, this is a people business and not an animal business – whether we deal in racehorses, Friesians or moggies – and it’s those people we have first to persuade to return.

Not sufficient to hope

So, leaving Lady Luck out of the equation, it will not be sufficient to simply open our doors in the future and hope that lots of people come in.

We will have to engineer the footfall if we want to be able to invest in the right team of people, and we will need a modest but easy to operate website and a supply of simple but vital questions to ask our clients in order to chart our progress in this increasingly choppy consumer sea.

We, collectively, have the right skill set: the smoked glass bit is optional but the relationship bit isn’t.