Tuesday 30 January 2007

Word of mouth marketing - not just about sitting back

Had a chat over a sandwich the other day with a chap who asked to pick my brains a bit about our marketing strategy. He runs a somewhat similar, but not competing, business, and is just starting out.

He had recently taken out a local ad campaign on the sides of buses. I told him that would almost certainly be a waste of money, above-the-line advertising is nearly always a waste of money in my book, word-of-mouth is where it's at.

He then said something that didn't really sink in at the time. Something like "so I should just sit back and wait for it to grow, rather than spend money on advertising?".

But it's not like that at all, is it? This word of mouth stuff? We rely massively on word-of-mouth to grow our business, but we don't just sit back and wait for it to happen. We work hard to first of all offer a good service that people will want to talk about, and then encourage, remind and sometimes cajoule (spelling?) them, at every turn, into telling people about it.

But there is so much more we could be doing. And this blog is part of that, I suppose.

Monday 29 January 2007

Hero handyman (2)

It gets better, just got Greg's written statement about what happened. Apparently there were 8 of them. And the intimidating stare wasn't quite enough. He had to lump two of them, then the rest scarpered. Reasonable force is a wonderful thing.


Greg, you are a hero.

Hero handyman sees off pesky scooter thieves

One of our London handymen was accosted over the weekend when pulled over on his scooter to check something. Four teenage thugs approached him and demanded he hand over his scooter, boasting that they had stolen 0800handyman scooters before, and were going to have his too.

The handyman in question, Gergely (aka Greg), is a big chap. He is originally from Hungary, and used to be a police officer there. He also traces his ancestry directly back to Attila the Hun (*). It seems that a simple intimidating stare (presumably a "my ancestors rode thousands of miles just to rape and pillage your Saxon forebears' villages, don't think about messing with me" type of stare) was enough to see off the pesky would-be scooter thieves.

Does it seem strange that a bunch of kids would have already stolen other 0800handyman scooters? Not really - this incident took place in Islington, where the Chief Constable uniquely encourages scooter theft by deliberately not pursuing scooter thieves (because "there are too many of them"). I tried a couple of years ago to persuade him to change this weak-willed, counter-productive policy (we have experienced about a dozen scooter thefts in Islington, and only one in another borough) but without success. I even persuaded the local MP (then Chris Smith) to write to the Chief Constable, who wrote back a patronising letter saying "yes, we have heard from Mr Greig on a number of occasions" [every time we had a bike stolen!] implying my bothering them about trivial matters like the repeated theft of thousands of pounds of our vital equipment was on a par with people that dial 999 when they see a UFO.

We now try and avoid sending scooters to Islington - the risk of theft is too high, so we generally send our Honda Deauville-riding handymen instead (more valuable, but harder to steal).

(*) I made up the bit about Greg being descended from Attila the Hun. But he is Hungarian, so might be. And I am not sure if the Huns made it as far as Saxony, but I think they did.

Sunday 28 January 2007

Firemen banned from climbing ladders?

Strange story in press last week about firemen being banned from installing smoke detectors in people's homes as it involves climbing stepladders.

Shock, horror, health & safety gone mad, Daily Mail up in arms, etc. etc. Except there is nothing at all in the Working at Height Regulations that would prevent a fireman climbing a stepladder to install a smoke alarm.

Yet Sean Starbuck, regional chairman of the FBU, is quoted saying:

"The use of stepladders to fit smoke alarms contravenes working-at-height regulations".

This is utter tripe. Was he misquoted? Or has he simply never bothered to find out what the Working at Height Regs actually say?

It wouldn't have taken him, or any of the journalists reporting this story, long to check. The Working at Height Regs have a short section all about ladders, and basically say they are fine as long as they are the most appropriate device for the task (e.g. if risk of fall is low; and task duration is very short). Fitting a smoke detector is certainly a short duration task; and a fireman, who climbs ladders for a living, is probably pretty good at not falling off them.

This sort of thing really gets my goat - and continues to portray the HSE as meddling fools trying to eliminate every possible risk from day-to-day activities, which on the whole they probably aren't. Why do they not rebut this sort of nonsense? Surely they must read the same story? Do they just sit in their offices fuming about how they have been misrepresented again?

OK, I did just find this buried on the HSE's website:


So they did try and rebut it, but clearly without effect. I just Googled a couple of sentences from that rebuttal, and it appears nowhere other than HSE's own site, so I guess no paper bothered to print it. And if they did, would just be on the letters page, not in the news where the original misleading story appeared.

The HSE makes their job so much harder by not effectively challenging this sort of stuff. It's like the "Cry wolf" fable: if you think the HSE is constantly wittering about trivial risks, you won't believe them when they warn you about something that genuinely is dangerous.

Elf n' Safety

I mentioned elf n' safety in my previous post (about how we re-jigged our H&S paperwork with the assistance of the HSE through their "Workplace Health Connect" programme).

The upshot of the re-drafting was that we turned our 100+ page A4 H&S manual into an 11 page filofax insert to issue to all our handymen.

Why did we previously have such a huge H&S manual? Because we had written a risk assessment and "method statement" for pretty much every conceivable situation. We thought we had to do that, but I had for a long time thought that such thoroughness was counterproductive: if you give an employee a 100 page document to read, he probably won't read it, or if he does he is unlikely to remember much about it.

And if you issue to people a document about which they are generally dismissive (which they would be if it told them how to safely change a lightbulb), you risk making them generally dismissive about all safety issues, which is bad.

In reality (we think) there are a small handful of potentially dangerous situations that our handymen are exposed to. And our new H&S material focusses purely on those situations, with a simple one-page risk assessment about each one, plus real-life examples of where our own handymen have incurred injuries doing those tasks.

A graphic description of Patrick's hand after he sliced it with a Stanley knife is a lot more effective than burying a warning about sharp implements somewhere amongst hundreds of pages of waffle about elf n' safety.

Every additional bit of information you add to a document inevitably reduces the impact of existing bits of information. So if you add a risk assessment about a lightbulb, you reduce the impact of the (more important) risk assessment about working at the top of a ladder. And if you add dozens and dozens of risk assessments about relatively trivial risks, the really important stuff is completely drowned out by the noise.

Why am I blogging about this?

Because, this week, our National Britannia Safecontractor accreditation renewal was delayed because their assessors didn't like our new (shorter, focussed, safer) risk assessments. They gave us an example of what they think a risk assessment should say (several hundred words, small print, lots of superfluous and redundant wording); and I think they think we should have more than the half-a-dozen or so that we have.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out: there is no way that I am going to revert back to our previous H&S manual. But of course National Britannia will want to cover their backs: as far as they are concerned the more paperwork we show them the better, I would imagine. So will they listen to what I (and HSE) say? Will I persuade them that our new H&S manual is a million times more effective (=safer) than the reams of waffle they would probably rather we produced?

Monday 22 January 2007

Customer feedback - should we include negative comments on the website?

Seem to have ironed out most teething problems on the website. Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed we have improved the display (and number) of customer comments on the "What our customers say" page. This page is slightly controversial, as we deliberately include some mildly critical comments here. Some people think I am mad to do this - but I prefer to credit our customers (and potential customers) with a modicum of intelligence. While a long list of glowing comments does look good, I think it looks even better when we include some negative comments. It shows that we (and our handymen) are human and do make mistakes sometimes. And I think it adds credibility to the positive comments. Someone taking the time to read the website in this much detail (you have to look quite hard to find the critical comments, there aren't many of them) is smart enough to understand that a company can't be perfect every time (although we do try).

For me, hearing the negative comments about a product helps enormously when deciding whether or not to purchase the service or product. If I saw, for example, a review on Amazon about a blogging book saying something like "I really didn't like this book, it was much too simplistic, really only suitable for those that know nothing about blogging" I'd probably buy it, as that is exactly the sort of book that I need at the moment! That review gives me a brief insight from a slightly different point of view, and that is very valuable.

In a similar vein, about a year ago, we were offered some quite expensive Health & Safety consultancy advice. I was very taken with the service on offer: it would have allowed us to devolve all day-to-day H&S legwork to an outside firm of experts, and seemed to be very good value. The salesman was very keen to emphasise that a large proportion of their customers renewed the service after the initial 3-year contract. But while the renewal rate was high, it was not actually 100%, and I was very interested to find out why some people didn't renew. It seemed such a good service that I couldn't believe that companies wouldn't renew once they had experienced it.

So I asked the salesman if he could give me contact details of a few people who had not renewed. I could then find out if any of their reasons might be relevant to us (I was hoping they wouldn't be.). But the sales guy wouldn't do this: he was happy to give me contact details of people who were obviously big fans, but they probably wouldn't be able to tell me much I hadn't already found out. I already knew lots of reasons why the service was good. I wanted to know what I was missing - what was it that stopped people renewing.

Had I been able to speak to some of those non-renewing customers, I probably would have bought the service. But I didn't - I was worried that I was missing something (if the service was as good as the sales guy claimed, *everyone* would renew) so we looked for another solution to improving our H&S management. In the end we got the Health & Safety Executive themselves involved through their Workplace Health Connect programme, which was excellent and free, and allowed us to completely overhaul our H&S manual and other paperwork. But that's another story. We probably would have just gone for the consultancy service, and not bothered looking any further, had I been able to get a full 360-degree view of their business from talking to a full range of their customers.

So that's what I am trying to do with our customer comments page: allowing potential customers to get a rounded picture of what our service offers.

I'd like to take this one step further, but I am not sure I am brave enough: I'd like to publish, in full, the handful of written complaints we have received (together with our responses and further correspondance). This is a bit trickier, as any situation which has gone so pear-shaped as to prompt the customer to actually write to us is inevitably a very complex situation, and there is a risk that we couldn't effectively communciate the full detail of what happened / didn't happen which led to the problem and triggered the complaint.

But I'd still like to do it: it's a bit like EasyJet publishing their weekly punctuality stats. Sure, it shows that some planes are late, but everyone knows that really. Even just the act of publishing the stats implies that their punctuality must be good, otherwise (you presume) they wouldn't dare publish it. And it reassures the customer that the company is honest and open. That TV series which featured EasyJet, (was it called "Airline"?), is the same sort of thing. Would a traditional, "corporate" business like BA have allowed such unfettered access to its day-to-day life? That programme showed all sorts of things going wrong, but it also showed what caused those problems and (most importantly) how the staff dealt with them.

(Just checked EasyJet's website: no sign of punctuality stats anywhere! Curious. Have they stopped publishing them? If anyone knows when or why, please do let me know)

So, I still need a bit of persuading on this, but I do think some potential customers, those who are really researching in depth, would value seeing even detailed complaints on the website, so they can see how we handle things when things don't go exactly to plan.

Tuesday 16 January 2007

New website live

Well, new website is now live at www.0800handyman.co.uk, with a prominent link to this blog, so I'd better make sure it makes interesting reading.

Friday 12 January 2007

Good, solid week in the end. Teeny bit below pre-Christmas average, but probably better than same week last year (haven't actually checked, but Jan always a bit quiet).

Mild panic from large letting agent customer this afternoon: they had promised their landlord that his property would be ready for tenants to move in on Monday, and had got us in to do a few bits and bobs. But letting agent forgot to include the most important job on their work order to us (shower tray leaking, needs half-a-day work to fix properly), landlord discovered today that it wasn't done, panic, panic. Landlord threatening to sue letting agent for loss of rent as tenants can't move in. Anyway, we managed to free up some time on Monday to do it, so everyone happy (not least letting agent, who works in the sort of environment where people probably get fired for that sort of mistake).

Monday 8 January 2007

Today feels like a slightly more normal day, after seeming very quiet last week (although actually last week only 7% below 30-day average in terms of bookings taken per day). 26 London bookings so far, would be good to get to 60 by end of day.

Friday 5 January 2007

New blog

Was reading (yet another) book on word-of-mouth marketing ( here on Amazon) on train this morning, and it said I should have a blog. So here it is! Doesn't look very pretty - our website currently being redesigned and I have slapped in some elements of our new site into blogger.com's standard template. Will get Henrik to make it look nice later.