The best business advice, opinion, news and expertise in Greater Manchester and further afield.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Member Blog: If at first you don’t succeed, learn…..but focus on the process

By David Wright, BSA Marketing.
I was talking with one of our service partners the other day. They offer specialist creative/technical services – and they are good!
The business has become established and grown steadily (though unspectacularly) over the past few years. In the middle of last year, the owner decided he wanted to ‘go for it’.
He took on additional staff both in sales and technical/creative, he moved offices to central Manchester – and he went for it….
9 months later, things haven’t gone quite according to plan. The business did not take off like a rocket yet the overhead taken on to deliver the growth was still there month after month – something had to give. The decision was taken to restructure the business back to more like it was before. It was accepted that the plan hadn’t worked.
But that is business life. Things don’t always work – statistically they most commonly don’t work!
The important thing is that the business is still viable. Business is a process and it is important to try new things because this is how we learn. If a new plan succeeds, great. The business moves to the next level, ready for the next push.
If a new plan doesn’t succeed, it shouldn’t matter, it is just part of the ups and downs of business.
Remember Google Answers, Google Reader, iGoogle? All gone.
In the past 10 years, Google has closed or reintegrated over 100 different services

In business, we are always learning. It’s important to get something out of everything you do – even if it isn’t what you were hoping.
Don’t ignore the signs
In September 1989, BSA Marketing was going through a tough patch. Income wasn’t covering overheads and something needed to be done. That ‘something’  included redundancies but it was my job to make them and I tried to ignore it. I hung on for 3 months until I had to face up to things. I still had to make the redundancies and my procrastination cost me £30000 – over £50k in today’s money.
I’m glad to say we survived the experience, but I have never forgotten it.
I take my hat off to our service partner. They made a plan, implemented it, then took action when they saw things going off-track.
Have a written plan
Having your plan written down crystalizes your objectives. If you specify your expectations and what it is you are going to measure to control your plan, it is easier to avoid ‘specfication creep‘ where the plan adapts itself to fit the outcomes you achieve. If uncontrolled, this can be dangerous.
It doesn’t actually matter if you don’t match your targets. It does mean things aren’t going as planned and it is an opportunity to review your plan in the light of real experience. It could be that things are going better than expected though this can create it’s own problems! The important thing is that you learn and get better at what you do.
Stay realistic
The reality is that most plans don’t work out as expected (some work out better!) so if you over-commit resources and don’t see the anticipated results, you can find yourself digging a financial hole. Planned holes are fine – arguably they are at the heart of entrepreneurship and business – but be careful not to let a hole get too deep. It will be difficult to fill in! In both of my real-world examples above, we lost money, we dug a hole. In both cases the hole was manageable and that’s the important thing.
And remember, the opposite of digging a hole is making a pile. Even if you are only making a small pile, it’s still a pile.

…and you are in business, ready for the next step – whatever it is.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Member Blog: How Cultured Are You?

By Tom Short, Social Media Executive at Connections Recruitment

It’s easy to get bogged down in business jargon – empty buzzwords like ‘Corporate Competency’ and ‘Synergy’ are constantly being created. They’re also likely to turn off employees. In a survey conducted last year by Animal charity SPANA, 7/10 office workers indicated that they will simply switch off if a more senior colleague starts using them. There is one phrase which is worth paying attention to however.

Company Culture has been a favourite topic in the industry for some time now. Unsurprisingly, it’s a little hard to define. This is sort of the point: company culture may be defined in a mission statement, but it evolves organically, being as much a result of shared values among employees, and the unpredictable decisions that can arise from them.

For Linsday McGregor and Neel Doshi at Harvard Business Review, it’s ultimately about motivation. Creating cultures formed around play, purpose and potential, rather than emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia (purposeless working) has been identified as one of the keys to the success of modern giants like Twitter and Facebook.

Much of company culture could be summed up as identity. Having a vision or an unofficial motto gives employees an overall purpose for their work (Airbnb’s ‘Belong Anywhere’ is a brilliant, concise example). Narrative could be considered as an elaboration of this, often describing a journey (starting in a garage, offering the world affordable furniture) which creates an emotional connection with a company for staff and customers.

Rather than advocating a top-down message however, McGregor and Doshi recommend cultures based on transparency. Giving employees the opportunity to observe evidence of their work is essential to motivation, as are models of working which encourage collaboration. Innovators in this field include Salesforce, whose employees share ideas and analyse data in real time via an app called Chatter, avoiding the office cubicle-mentality which email can encourage. This relates to the idea of play in job design. Giving employees the opportunity to be creative with their time has well-documented benefits. Gmail and Google News both famously resulted from a policy of 20% time, in which engineers could spend a fifth of the working week on personal projects.

I’m aware that most of my examples have been from headline-grabbing tech companies. What about businesses in other industries? I’m not a Harvard Business researcher so I may not have the best data, but I can offer my own experience at Connections Recruitment. Having joined the agency recently, I’ve been impressed with the company narrative, built around its very real origins as a thirty-year old, family-owned business with a great deal of personality and respect for its employees and clients. I’ve been offered plenty of freedom in my role as social media executive to explore new ways of representing the company, and been listened to in meetings with the Director. These are all reasons why I’m still here. It’s easy to disregard the working practices of billion-dollar companies, but these cultural ideas are universal, and they work.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Member Blog: Customer service – without the complaints

By Howard Williams, Marketing Director at Parker Software

In the golden age of high street retail, one of the most common complaints from customers concerned disruptive in-store sales representatives. The phrase, “Would you like any help?” carried a sense of dread that a heavy sales pitch would follow. The rise of ecommerce and online retail mostly circumnavigates this. However, there is also the risk that effective customer service would be undermined without face-to-face interactions. Howard Williams, marketing director of digital engagement specialist Parker Software, explores how retailers can maintain strong relationships with their customers in the digital age – without being intrusive.

Online shopping is on the rise. A recent report from Ecommerce Europe has shown that ecommerce turnover in the UK was €157.1bn in 2015, demonstrating a rate of growth of 11%. This equates to an average spend of €3,625 per shopper – almost €200 higher than the previous year.

As more and more customers turn to the world wide web to do their purchasing, it is important that businesses are able to stay ahead of the curve to make the most of the rapidly expanding market. This means finding new ways to engage customers and ensure return business, something many companies struggle with in a post high street world.

The secret to success is in realising that ecommerce isn’t too different from the in store retail experience. Even the customer service and sales representatives have a part to play – albeit one that is less intrusive than accosting customers who simply wish to browse.

The availability of live chat software, for example, allows customers to converse with staff at a time that is convenient for them. By building valuable relationships without the risk of intruding on a customer’s browsing experience, businesses can harbour a positive public brand perception.

Of course, retailers can connect with their customers in many more ways than just live chat. Ecommerce Europe’s report also identified that mobile commerce is growing rapidly, with a €5bn increase in sales in 2015 alone. As live chat functionality may be limited by the confines of mobile apps, retailers should offer alternative means for customers to receive information quickly.

At Parker Software, for example, we’ve developed business automation software that allows retailers to set up dedicated customer SMS hotlines that mobile users can quickly send text their queries to. These hotlines can be automated to ensure messages are scored for urgency, and passed along to the most relevant member of staff. This means that appropriate action can be taken immediately, giving mobile users the information they need in a way that minimises disruption. 

While customers won’t be rid of retail representative input just yet, businesses can improve relationships by changing the dynamic of those interactions. With the help of automation software, retailers can change, “How can I help you?” to, “We’re ready to help how and when you need us.”

Friday, 22 July 2016

Member Blog: How to up your networking game and become a pro

By Dave Sunter, Business Development Manager at Stonebridge Offices

Networking. It’s the necessary evil we all love to hate. The thing is, whilst it may be the elephant in the room, it remains one of the most effective ways to take your business to the next level. In business people matter, so building relationships is key – put in thegroundwork and they will help you through the good and the bad times.

So, how can you overcome the networking dread, make it worthwhile and maximise networking opportunities? Well, it’s simple really, as with any new business approach, the key is to have a plan and to stick to it. Here are my top tips for those that want to make networking an effective business development tactic.

1.    Consider your audience – there are thousands of different networking events, from conferences with key note speakers to small meet ups and breakfast briefings… so how do you know which audience to tap into when there’s so much choice? The key is to consider your audience’s audience. You need to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and work out where they’ll be networking – that way, you can be sure you’re going to be rubbing shoulders with the right kind of contacts. If it’s a small-scale briefing but you get a couple of solid contacts of the back of it, it’s worthwhile. Sometimes the smaller the networking event the better. Just remember to keep it targeted.

2.     Remember the basics – this may be simple, but don’t turn up to a networking event without being prepared. Ensure you have plenty of business cards available, you have some supporting information to hand and you are able to speak with conviction about what you have to offer. First impressions are important and in this instance you’re setting the tone for your business.

3.    Get online – networking shouldn’t be reserved to on the ground events. LinkedIn and Twitter are excellent tools to utilise to grow your portfolio of relevant contacts. From engaging with your audience and peers in LinkedIn Groups to discussing industry developments on Twitter – make sure you are tapping into you’re customers both on and off line.

4.    Spread the love – it can be really tricky to move around a networking event. Sometimes you can get caught chatting to just one person that won’t be an awful lot of help to your business right now. If this is the case, don’t be afraid to politely let them know you’re going to continue to circulate the room. This is standard practice at a networking event.

5.    We’re all in the same boat – some people are people people and breeze into social situations with ease, others aren’t. Either way, everyone at a networking event is in the same position. Don’t feel nervous about approaching people and getting involved in other’s conversations.

6.    Follow up – if you’ve made a useful contact, make sure you follow up the lead. Drop them an email, connect on LinkedIn and follow them on Twitter. Make sure you keep the conversation alive by regularly engaging with their content. Even if your services aren’t required just at the moment, you’ll be at the forefront of their mind should they require your support in the future.

7.    Don’t over do it – networking events can be fantastic, but they can also be expensive if you choose to go to one every week. Take a couple of months to figure out which events are going to be most relevant to your business and invest your time in these. When these channels are exhausted, simply move onto the next.

8.    Make the most of your existing network – everyone already has a network of contacts, from the team on reception at your office, to your friends from school. Keep a keen eye out for opportunities to link up collaborate or simply swap a favour with your existing network – you’ll be surprised how fruitful you existing network can be.

For more top business tips or to enquire about meeting space and flexible office space, visit the Stonebridge Offices blog by visiting:

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Member Blog: Shape Perceptions, with a Brand Strategy

By Sammy Blindell - Co-Founder of How To Build A Brand
What is your brand? Is it your business name, your logo or your product? Is it the colours or the language you’ll use? Or is it the packaging that wraps it all up?

Your brand is supported by all of these things, but none of these things ARE your brand.

Your brand is the indescribable feeling that people get when they experience what your business has to offer. Your brand is how people define your product. It’s the perception of what you do, how you do it and most importantly, why you do it.

Notice I haven’t said that your brand is what you say it is. To the contrary, your brand will always be what others say it is.

That can be a little scary, right? Knowing that your brand is defined by what any number of random consumers say about it? Having little or no control over how your brand is perceived? Well, if you do it right, with a brand strategy, you can have more control than you might think.

Brand Strategy: What is it?

A brand strategy is a long-term plan that lists the goals for your brand, the traits of the consumers you’ll target, and tactics for not only reaching your ideal customers, but for shaping their perceptions of the brand.

Every brand strategy is different; however, there are some universal components that all the good ones have:

Promise: When you define what you’re promising to do, and stay true to that promise with every brand decision you make, you will establish a consistency that causes people to not only trust your brand, but to know what to expect (and therefore make reasonable assumptions and build perceptions that align with your goals).

Values: Every brand needs a set of corporate values. These are the standards that your brand operates under (e.g. integrity, excitement, accuracy), as well as the principles shared by your ideal customers.

Nut and Bolts: The colours, lines, shapes and fonts included in your visual brand will be the elements that cement your brand in the memories of your target audience…when they’re presented with the branded experiences you’ll create.

Touchpoints: Touchpoints are the places in which your ideal customers will encounter your brand. Customise these experiences to create the perceptions you want for your brand.

Data-Centred Flexibility: Markets will change. Your industry will, too. And so will consumer behaviours and preferences. Your brand should always be prepared to respond to these changes with both flexibility and commitment to the brand. Define and monitor KPIs and consumer trends for cues to make shifts within your brand parameters.

This is just the beginning of how to create a brand strategy that builds your brand—and perceptions of it. To learn more about how to make your brand more credible, visible and profitable, plan to attend the How to Build a Brand B.R.A.N.D. Building Bootcamp on 1st September at Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce’s Elliot House on Deansgate, Manchester.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Member Blog: Sport and exercise brings people together

Here, Brendan Fox, Head of Commercial at multi-sport and active holiday tour operator Sports Tours International gives us his top tips on how to promote healthier minds and lifestyles at work.

  1. Having a water cooler and keeping cupboards stocked with fruit and healthy snacks will help to promote a healthy diet in the office.
  2.  Organise exercise classes on site for employees to attend.
  3.  Enter a company team into a public run. This builds relationships within the workplace, encourages employees to get fitter and is a great way to fundraise for charity.
  4. Sports Tours International hosts a series of 10k runs across the North West such as:  UKFast ‘We Love Mcr 10k’, the UKFast City of Salford 10k and the Matalan Merseyside 10k. There is also the opportunity to compete in the ‘corporate challenge’ and take a trophy back to the office!
  5.  Use match funding incentives, such as matching the fundraising efforts of employees. This is a great way of encouraging staff and giving something back to the community.
  6.  Create an internal corporate challenge. Like a school sports day but for employees! These social events help people bond with others on the team who they perhaps wouldn’t normally interact with on a daily basis and builds a better sense of community within your organisation.
  7. Conduct a survey on what employees value as healthy wellbeing at work. By getting a response off employees, it helps to get a better understanding of the people you work with.
  8. The cycle to work scheme is becoming more popular and is also environmentally friendly. It also serves as a catalyst for taking part in cycling events.
  9. Create a physical toolkit. Outlining a plan for employees on suggesting how to get fitter from how to get to work to making use of your lunch break reflects positively on the company’s image.

Experts at Sports Tours International are available to visit companies and create employee fitness schemes.

For more details please contact us on +44 161 703 8161 or email

Member Blog: What to Do When No-One Asks Questions During Your Q&A

By Richard Barnes, Founder and Creative Director at Buffalo7

You reach the end of your presentation and ask, ‘does anyone have any questions?’, expecting several hands to shoot up. Instead, you’re met with blank stares and awkward silence.

It’s an uncomfortable picture, but one that presenters are exposed to on a regular basis. It can be embarrassing when no-one asks questions in your Q&A and it isn’t great for your credibility, but there are techniques you can use to recover control or prevent such a scenario entirely. The presentation designers at Buffalo7 have pulled together the best tips for rescuing your talk from Q&A radio silence.

1. Don’t Panic

It’s always disappointing when you’ve put time and effort into creating a quality presentation, only to have no-one pose questions on your topic. But understand that this doesn’t mean that you flopped.

Audiences might just need some more time to absorb your information fully, but often you just need to break the ice; a certain dynamic is set when you’re presenting, and being able to transition to a less formal back-and-forth is a valuable skill.

Don’t let an initial lack of questions throw you off. Stay cool and have a plan.

2. Bring Your Own Questions

A good way to lead off on a quiet Q&A session is to prepare some of your own ‘common questions’. These can be a great way of reinforcing your messaging with meaningful real-world context.

Say something like ‘a question I’m often asked about X is…’, then proceed to answer in a way that gives your audience the opportunity to acknowledge the value in what you’re saying. Speaking to real-world concerns is a great way of prompting responses.

3. Reiterate Your Message

When you’re faced with a lack of questions, there’s a temptation to end your presentation right there with a weak ‘thank you’. But hold your nerve to protect your professional cachet.

Another good option is to succinctly summarise your main points so that desired takeaways are properly connected and fresh in your audience’s minds.

Also, you should have some next steps prepared for your audience to take. Let them know what you want them to do with the information you’ve given them by delivering a strong call to action.

4. Frame the Conversation a Different Way

You’ll probably be able to anticipate what the hot-button topics will be ahead of delivering your presentation, so use them to your advantage. If no-one asks a question, be proactive in sparking audience discussions around the issues that matter to them most.

Pick some people sitting in the first few rows and ask them about their situations and the challenges they face, linking their responses back to your main topic. Show them how your message relates directly to their goals and fears.

5. Take Questions as You Present

Another route you can take is responding to questions as you move through your presentation. Doing so makes it more of a collaborative discussion and actually eliminates the need for a formal Q&A session.

Audience members can field questions as soon as they think of them and the speaker can make sure the everyone fully understands before moving onto their next point. But this approach isn’t without risk: pausing to take questions can fracture your presentation’s natural flow of information, while irrelevant queries threaten to drag you off-topic.

6. Collect During and Address After

Whether you should respond to questions during your presentation or dedicate time for them after really depends on your message, topic and audience. It’s up to you to weigh the risks and make an informed decision on what’s best.

That said, thanks of the proliferation of mobile devices, there are ways you can easily collect questions while you speak – without needing stop.

Buffalo7’s PowerPoint Design experts recommend creating your own Twitter hashtag and asking people to submit their queries using it, or taking advantage of a Q&A app like to crowdsource the best ones from your audience. This way, by the time the Q&A comes around, you’ll have a stack of questions ready to get the ball rolling.