Making a Profit from Small Businesses Part 2

Another blog about a large business making money from my own little enterprise. This time, the subject is Internet Service Providers.

I’ve had some very poor experiences with ISPs over the years. In the early years of the Internet the problems were largely due to teething difficulties – providers and customers didn’t really know what our respective roles were. But now, the issue seems to be the commercialisation of the World Wide Web.

My needs from a service provider are quite simple – I want a basic website, which I can tailor to suit. I want an easy interface (I’ve done enough years of coding), a basic shop where people can order books direct from me and the ability to link to other websites. It’s important that the website is available all the time (or nearly so) and that I can setup multiple email addresses.

The two ISPs I’ve used in recent years both offered all of this for a reasonable fee. Or so they claimed.

One useful way for companies to make money from small business customers is to keep taking money, whether we still want the service or not. I cancelled one package, as a consolidation exercise – just redirecting the URL to a page on my main website. I cancelled the package and, for good measure, didn’t update my credit card details. So the ISP couldn’t “accidentally” debit my card for a renewal, as they’d done before. The catch-all redirection of my URL was included in my registration and I redirected it myself.

For several months, there were intermittent problems with my emails being unavailable – and the best answer I got was that they were taking securities and the email was only down “briefly” at quiet times of the day. (Over an hour one morning, starting about 3am, while I was trying to work.)

Then a few months later, I had to update my credit card, to make payment for my main website package.

The ISP also took payment for my cancelled service and reinstated a four-year-old version of the website without telling me. The first thing I knew was a friend contacting me to say a link was broken. Not surprising, as the website it pointed to had closed down years before. I queried this and was told my cancellation was invalid – I went to check the service tickets I’d raised on their website and found about two-thirds had vanished. I never did get an explanation for this.

At about this time, a folder in my main email suddenly emptied, losing me a lot of important emails. I raised another ticket, requesting that my email be restored to the latest backup – only to be told that they don’t take backups any more. Except for their “premium” customers. Something that used to be included in the cheapest package is now only available for an additional cost. Apparently they’d notified users of this change in an email – but I tend to delete their marketing mailshots without reading. Don’t we all?

Their premium service is also necessary for anyone wishing to sell anything from their website, or have a contact form that works. This isn’t clear until someone tries to do something and the transaction / contact forms just don’t do anything. No error message to the customer or myself.

Another handy way to increase your profit margin – downgrade the service you’re providing, hoping the customer is too stupid / busy / trusting to notice. I was all three.

Not surprisingly, I will be migrating my custom to a new ISP in a few months, when my contract expires.

Total cost to date: £60 plus wasted time plus income lost through unchaseable invoices.

And from now on, I will check that renewing my ISP each year is still a good deal. The price may stay the same, but I no longer trust that what it’s buying covers my simple requirements.

After all, I have nothing better to do with my time than check that companies are being honest with me.

One more blog to come on this subject – and it’s a doozy!

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Making a Profit from Small Businesses Part 1

First blog in a short series of how companies are increasing their profits from small businesses. Specifically me – an independent author.

Yes, times are hard and everyone’s trying to keep themselves in business, but I have my suspicions that some of the methods used are not entirely ethical. Possibly not even legal.

Firstly, I send a lot of parcels, mainly individual books, to lots of destinations, including International ones. I’ve been known to walk into a branch of the Post Office with more than a dozen packages to post. Royal Mail may not be the cheapest way to post a small parcel, but they have been more reliable than other courier companies and going into the physical High Street shop means I get a free certificate of posting. I even make it simple for the staff by printing my own table of addresses, so they can write in the price for each and stamp it. I’ve done this for several years and the staff are used to me handing over this form.

They’re also used to my always saying, “Cheapest possible, please” as I place the package on their scales.

So I was surprised to notice they’d charged me for first class post for a package when I’d got the correct (second class) payment ready in my pocket.

I checked back through my paperwork and realised this has been going on for more than a year. During this time, I’d been served by various staff members so I suspect it’s standard practice in this Post Office. I can’t be sure when it started, as historical postage rates aren’t available in any way I can access them.

Now, this may sound petty. A “Large Letter Second Class” charge for one of my books should be £1.17 whilst the same parcel as “Large Letter First Class” is charged at £1.24. If it’s sent as a “Small Parcel”, this goes up to £2.80 and £3.20 for the respective classes of delivery and I’ve had to argue that my packages are small enough for the cheaper category. (All prices current in April 2014 and for UK delivery.)

Yes, it’s quite complicated, and I haven’t worked it out in detail – but I reckon a small amount has been added to the price of each book parcel I’ve posted for at least a year. (Most are small, single book orders, the price increase is more significant on the larger multi-book parcels.) Over the last year, I reckon I’ve been charged in excess of £10 more than I think I should have been. At a conservative estimate.

And that’s with me always requesting, “Cheapest possible, please”.

Not a lot of money perhaps, – but I’m trying to make a profit here, folks!

The sneaky thing is that I’ve been provided with the service I’ve paid for each time. It just happens to be more than I asked for.

The way the Post Office works, a label is printed out and affixed to each parcel after I’ve passed it across the screen-protected counter. I never get to see these labels – only the buyers see that I’ve sent them “First Class”.

I’m aware that the Post Office as a whole is going through hard times and that individual branches have to make a profit. But I feel this is the wrong way to go about it.

I now have different arrangements for posting my parcels.

And two more blogs to come on this subject.

Baked Apple Crumble

After a few grown-up type blog posts, I thought I’d share a fun recipe to lighten the mood a little.

I had this idea when I looked at what needed using up in the fridge. It’s one of those things that makes you wonder why you never thought of it before.

Very simple recipe for a lovely warming pud. And it’s healthy, too!

Baked Apples

Ingredients:
(6 portions)

6 eating apples
Bag of frozen blueberries (or other soft fruit)
3 dessert spoons sugar or runny honey
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ bag ready-made crumble topping

Method
Turn on oven at 180C/350F/Gas 4

Gently heat the blueberries in a saucepan with 2 tablespoons of water.

Wash apples, core them and slit the skin around the equator (the fattest part). Place them upright in an ovenproof dish.

Pour blueberries onto apples, making sure each apple has some berries in the chimney left by the core. The rest will flow into the dish between the apples, leaving them sticky.

Drizzle honey or pour sugar into the chimneys.

Sprinkle dish with cinnamon and then the ½ packet of crumble mix.

Place it in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes.

Serve hot or cold, with custard, cream or ice-cream.

You can vary this dish by using different soft fruit – it could be frozen, fresh or leftovers. The apples can be past their best, too. You could make your own favourite crumble topping (oats are good) or experiment with different spices. Even add a (very little) booze to the fruit if you wanted to.

Enjoy your pud – and remember to post pictures of your own variations.

Women’s Voices – Part 2

(Part 1 here: https://megkingston.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/womens-voices-part-1-small-talk/ )

So what did we learn from Mary Beard’s programme on the Public Voice of Women? A lot of examples from History and Art and Literature, a few from Geography and Entertainment but nothing really from Sports or Science and Nature. (Yes, I nicked the headings from Trivial Pursuit, what’s wrong with that?)

Mary Beard is a highly intelligent, articulate and well-read classics scholar. Hence her experience in and bias towards certain subjects, which made for a fascinating presentation about the historical records (factual and in the fiction of the times) that demonstrate ways in which the sound of a woman’s voice has been regarded. She tried to separate the issue of women’s voices from straightforward misogyny, which I’m not sure is possible. Yes, there are differences, but are these the reason for the discrimination we see today? Shakespeare regularly had women passing themselves off as men by changing their clothes in his plays (never the other way round, as far as I recall), which is even more amusing when you remember that all of his actors would have been male. So a man playing a woman pretending to be a man…

More recently, we know that Margaret Thatcher had training to lower her speaking voice – one way to be taken more seriously in the male-dominated political arena. As a matter of fact, some men in the public eye have had similar training – including actors who’ve been advised to take up smoking to give them gravelly tones. Not a price I’d be willing to pay for a sexier voice!

So men and women alike have realised that we judge people by their speaking tone. Deeper voices are more serious, mature, trustworthy, sexy and therefore something to be aspired to. As a young man, my Dad tried to push his singing voice into the bass register – until he gave up and learned to make the most of his lovely tenor range later in life.

While we’re so close to home, my own voice is deep for a woman – a low alto for any singers reading this. I’ve had people mistake me for a man on the phone. Even one person (Receptionist at the dental surgery I used to attend) who behaved very oddly, asking if the appointment was for me and my “wife” – and once referred to me as “him” to another member of staff. I was amused to realise she must have thought I was cross-dressing or transgender or something. I never bothered to put her right – if she hasn’t learnt after working in that sort of job, then she’s never going to learn that women’s voices aren’t all high, soprano or strident.

I’ve been a member of various writers’ groups over the years and I’ve noticed that the majority of members tend to be women. Yet any men who attend seem to be more likely to get the opportunity to read their work to the group. At a series of meetings in a local group, the men who attended all got to read at every meeting, whilst I was refused the opportunity for four meetings in a row. One man in particular would read long, waffly chapters every week. Now, it could be that my writing wasn’t liked, or any number of reasons, but I believe a gender bias is in operation here. The nominal chairperson at the time was a woman, but she never really took control and the pro-men reading bias steered the meetings.

So, I propose that there’s more at work here than the simple fact that women’s voices are (on average) higher than men’s. That seems to be more a symptom than the cause and the way we’re disregarded goes beyond that. Men with high-pitched voices are regarded as frivolous in the entertainment industry – but in business, they’re still taken more seriously than women, even ones with a lower voice range. I won’t cite personal examples, because I’d risk embarrassing the men in question, but there have been a few. In the working world, I found that men could easily talk over a woman and no-one would blame him for it. The Miss Triggs cartoon cited by Mary Beard is only too true.

In the 20th Century that bastion of UK tradition, the BBC, were responsible for the chocolaty tones of news readers giving out news, both good and bad, in deep, reassuring tones. Nowadays, the “BBC Voice” is something of a joke, but it echoes through our society. They didn’t create it, just gave us a convenient label for the way some men speak. And thinking about the battles that women fought to be allowed to read “serious news” to the nation, media broadcasters haven’t been exactly willing to confront the issue.

So how should we try to rectify the imbalance? How can we tilt ourselves towards a more level playing field?

I don’t have a simple answer. Anything a woman says will be seen as further evidence that she doesn’t have anything useful to contribute, that she should not be listened to. “Oh, you’re always whining about men ignoring you.” I would ask that men start noticing the phenomenon – look out for a woman being shouted over in a meeting, etc. Even if you (a “he”) don’t intervene, it may make you more aware of how often it happens. Women, stand up and be counted when you hear someone complain she’s being ignored. (At least think about supporting her or maybe speaking up for yourself next time.)

This isn’t a trivial matter and it won’t be resolved in a hurry, whatever we do. The examples I’ve cited above all happened, but I’m not saying everyone thinks in a particular way, or that all men will shout down any woman who speaks. But even once would be too often – and I’ve seen it happen many more times than that.

I did suggest at the writers’ group I mentioned earlier, that we should have a time limit on each person’s reading. I even offered to bring an egg timer. This didn’t go down well. But I would propose that idea if I were chairing meetings where a few voices dominated in this way. Feel free to borrow the idea!

Like Mary Beard, I don’t advocate voice training as a solution. I’m sure it does some good for a few individuals, but that isn’t really the problem. The only way this will change is if all of us, men and women, realise we’re more inclined to listen to men, and make a point of hearing women when they do speak.

After all, we might have something worth saying.

Women’s Voices – Part 1 (Small Talk)

We’ve all heard, “Children should be seen and not heard”, but an awful lot of men seem to think the same should be applied to women.

From Les Dawson’s jokes about his Mother-in-Law talking too much to Family Guy’s catchphrase, “Shut up, Meg” (Yes, I know. If you want to berate me, come up with something original, can’t you?), it’s a deep-rooted cliché that women should talk less.

Now, after a recent discussion online, I happened to spot this programme coming up on Sunday:

And I’m really looking forward to it. From my earliest years, I’ve been aware that females are judged to be not worth listening to when we express our opinions – my parents used to joke about it, in front of me and presumably when I wasn’t listening, too. (“We used to wish she’d start talking. Now we just wish she’d shut up.”)

The strange thing is that women are expected to be able and willing to make “small talk”. This derogatory term is never used to refer to men talking, however trivial the subject matter. Only women’s conversation is considered small. (Sometimes it’s even small when there are men involved, but there has to be a woman in the equation.)

We use different words to describe the behaviour of people according to their gender, from a very young age. For example:

Male………….Female
Assertive……..Bossy
Confident……..Pushy
Self-assured….Domineering
Emphatic………Aggressive
Forceful………Strident

A woman who raises any issue like this will find herself described as whining, whinging, grumpy, belligerent, difficult and (only too often) hormonal. The nearest a man ever comes to being described by that last term is if someone says “he’s a bit of a lad”. In the office environment, male hormones result in laddish, but accepted behaviour – female hormones are a weakness, something to be ashamed of.

I have direct experience of this. In the days when I worked in an office, an email was sent by a male colleague, complaining that people were not routing their desk phones to their mobiles, so phones in the office would ring and he objected to answering them. He was thanked for being proactive at the next team meeting and staff were all asked to ensure their phones were correctly routed.

A couple of weeks later, I was alone in the office and fed up of phones ringing unanswered, so I sent a copy of the same email to the same people, asking they route their desk phones to their mobiles.

Bear in mind, I copied and pasted his email. I sent exactly the same words to the same people.

I was reprimanded by the manager who’d thanked my male colleague, saying I was “being bossy” and “pretending to be a manager”.

On a disability note, I’ve been on the receiving end of comments like, “If you used your body for what it’s meant to do” far too many times. Male doctors who make it clear they feel they can dismiss many MS symptoms as “female problems”. It doesn’t help that the condition affects more women than men.

Back at the forthcoming programme. Mary Beard is a respected classicist historian, so I’m sure she will incorporate some excellent examples of “Oh Do Shut Up, Dear” from ancient sources as well as her own recent experiences on social media and in the populist press. I wonder if any of her detractors could rebuff her comments with one-tenth of her eloquence?

There is a lot of low-level sex discrimination in the UK, and one definite issue is the way that girls and women are criticised for expressing ourselves.

(It’s not just a gender issue – the same criticism is levelled at all sorts of minorities for daring to speak out. Drawing on my own experience, I’ve heard:

“What do you know about hillwalking?” (With a gesture towards my wheelchair.)

“You don’t know anything about sport!”

“How would you know how long it takes to walk there?”

And many other comments that my opinion is irrelevant, specifically due to a physical impairment.

And I’ve frequently been shouted down when I dared to express an opinion – often without my even saying enough for my views to be clear. I’ve been female all my life but visibly disabled only for the last 20 years, so I have a good perspective on the difference between gender bias and disability discrimination. I’m not saying one is worse than the other, and I know that other forms exist – but I can tell the difference between the two in many cases.)

I like to measure the ####-ism of a statement by reversing the polarity, or translating it to apply to a different flavour of discrimination. So – how would it sound if I made a similar joke, but made the subject my Father-in-Law? It wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t be funny because we don’t have the same cliché about men.

Or what if I made it a racist joke? I’d be (rightly) pilloried for saying it.

And yet we accept this sexist view of women (and a similar one about disabled people) without questioning it.

Rather than duplicate effort, I will watch the programme on Sunday and post another comment afterwards.

Let’s hear what the good lady has to say before we offer our opinions on her.

Vanilla Reviews

Reviews are wonderful, reviews are trustworthy, reviews are how you find out what real people think. But is it that simple?

There’s an arms race over reviews. On the one hand, sellers seek ever subtler ways to convince buyers that people think this is the greatest product since someone worked out how rubbing sticks together made fire, and buyers are trying to spot the paid-for reviews in the hope of finding a genuine one.

It’s a complicated world.

There’s been controversy about Julie Burchill’s review in the current issue of Mslexia (Issue 61, Page 55 http://mslexia.co.uk/ ) because she criticises Belle de Jour. I don’t care whether I agree with her comments or not – I just think there’s something wrong with her being criticised for expressing herself. We have free speech in this country and anyone who wishes to disagree can publish their own contrary opinion. Now am I going to get flamed for daring to say that? I moderate this blog, mainly to filter out spam and people trying to promote themselves, but I suspect I’d delete anything nasty, too. So am I guilty of suppressing free speech on here? I don’t think so, but you’re entitled to your own view of my actions.

I’ve been reviewing books for magazines and publishers for more than a decade. Most of the time, the recipient accepts whatever I’ve said about their book (or whatever), but occasionally I’ve been challenged over my opinion. One e-publisher emailed to say, “Why did you give this book four stars?” I was tempted to point out that I was being generous – I had been torn between awarding three or four stars. Presumably I was meant to give it five stars, regardless of the fact it wasn’t that good – so I haven’t reviewed any more for that publisher.

I used to agree to review-swaps with other writers, but I’ve stopped doing that after it became clear that these were expected to be sycophantic rather than honest.

It may be heresy, but I don’t see any point in reviews if they are always meant to be vanilla, give five-stars and only say nice things.

One major retailer emails me to review everything I purchase from them online, and won’t allow me to disable this on their website (yes, I tried). I reviewed an item of furniture I bought from them, saying how good it was but also commenting on the appalling delivery service and customer support. The review never appeared and they sent me an email saying my comments had “breached the terms” of their website. I queried this and got an admission (in writing) that I hadn’t breached anything, but they were “unable” to post my opinion online. Reviews for the same product say what a wonderful delivery experience other customers had – so I presume the only thing they objected to was my being negative. Even though it was true and provable.

So what is the point of posting a review where comments will be “moderated”?

As a writer, I’ve been contacted by companies who claim to offer review services. I followed one advert to its website to see what they were offering. Apparently, I could choose the number of reviews, the period over which they would be posted and the “proportionality” of the reviews. The example they showed was for 100 reviews, 80% five stars, over a one-month period. And they made a big deal of the fact I didn’t even have to provide a copy of the book. I couldn’t find out any more unless I gave them my contact and payment details, so I left their website.

Bearing in mind there’s been controversy about people writing bad reviews for their competition, I wonder if any of them have paid for 100 bad reviews for someone else’s book? Or twenty negative comments about a competing hotel?

Reviews have become a commodity, to be bought and sold like anything else. Maybe I’m being naïve to only seek reviews from people who’ve actually read my books – I’ve supplied review copies to various interested parties, but that’s the nearest I’ve ever been to paying for a review. (I generally make a comment like, “If you’re giving me less than three stars, please let me know what I did wrong”. But I never try to suppress a review.)

Meanwhile, I read reviews before purchasing something and try to guess whether they’re genuine.

Like I said, it’s an arms race.

Recently, I was asked for my opinion on honesty in the reviewing world for BBC Radio Wales – I think the Presenter was a little surprised how negative I was about the situation. But it’s hard to be upbeat when you’ve seen too much of the way the review system works.

So – how can a potential buyer judge the reviews of an item, be it book or anything else? There’s a clue in the sales pitch from the reviews-for-cash company I mentioned above. They obviously think it’s important to give a few four- and three-star reviews and spread them over a period of time, so they’re aware that buyers look out for a mass of five-star reviews appearing all on one day. These are flags to watch out for. Beware of reviews that are largely posted over a short period, and anything with a lot of reviews with no negative comments!

At the moment, I find it useful to spot reviews that all use the same phrases (I wonder if they ask for a list of stock phrases about a book?) and also reviews written by people who aren’t very fluent in English – I wonder how they could possibly read the book they’re commenting on. But my suspicion is that the next stage of the arms race will render this advice as useless as a chocolate sun lounger.

Some retailers try to improve things by highlighting reviewers who’ve bought that item through the retailer, or who write “popular” reviews – but do either of these criteria mean they’re producing an honest review?

Frankly, I think the best form of review is still one from someone you know and whose opinion you respect, whether that’s a mate down the pub or a newspaper columnist. Possibly not very helpful, but that’s the only way to be sure you’re not being duped by someone who’s being paid to be nice (or nasty).

But don’t let this dissuade you from posting your own reviews. If you have an honest opinion, share it online – especially if it’s about a product from a small business or Indie Artist of some description. If you’ve stayed in a small B&B or read a book by a largely-unknown author, share your opinion with the world. Most retail websites won’t even insist you booked / bought it through them before you post your review.

The review system may not be perfect, but it is the best we’ve got at the moment.

A Sobering Thought on World Book Day

“You’re an author – you must be raking it in.”

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who hears this comment or variations on the theme. It follows the one about how preferable writing is to actually working for a living.

In some ways, writing at home is easier than going in to the office for eight hours every day. You don’t have to get up at a certain time; you can stay in your pyjamas all day; you can take things easy when you want to.

But the reality is that the books still have to get written, magazine editors must be satisfied and products have to be sold. There may not be anyone checking that I’m actually working – but if I don’t, nothing will happen and there will be no books, no articles and no sales.

This is the reality of the self-employed.

There has been a lot of research lately into writers’ incomes. There’s an interesting article here:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/02/bestseller-novel-to-bust-author-life?commentpage=1

And it’s becoming clear that most of us don’t make the vast sums of money people assume we do.

There’s a steady stream of people after freebies from authors. From the book blogger who emailed me (with an obviously form email) to promise she’d give me lots of publicity for my new book if I gave her an electronic copy (obviously forgetting she had a free copy of a previous book and never even reviewed it), to the person who thinks the way to get a free book is to try and get my husband to bully me into it. (It doesn’t work with strong women – that’s a definition of the term!) Not to mention the people who assume I’ve had promo goods made so that they can help themselves to as many as they want. If you really want something from an author, why won’t you pay?

I’ve just been emailed by a large supplier who appears to have increased my order and charged me an additional 30% for doing so. I suspect any publisher would flinch at that difference – it’s potentially disastrous for a small business. I don’t think they’ll worry about me taking my business elsewhere in the future, I know I’m a very small fish in a large ocean. But the loss of goodwill is something that doesn’t appear on any balance sheet.

Read Same

Yes this is a rant, but there’s a reason for it. Today is World Book Day. If you’re inclined to celebrate by buying a book, think about supporting an Independent Author. There are many of us, struggling to survive in a business world that’s constantly trying to squeeze every last penny out of our bank accounts. Every sale is worth something to us. And you may discover a new writer you really like.

The mercenary bit – Chrystal Heart has been out for one whole year! Reduced on Kindle to celebrate this and World Book Day- £1.99 / $3.49 or equivalent. You can read the first few chapters for free via Amazon, if you’re unsure whether it’s for you!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Chrystal-Heart-Meg-Kingston-ebook/dp/B00BT09GS2/