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Using professional services: I had sucker written on my forehead

Finding good quality advice is a huge problem for SMEs. There are huge numbers of unregulated (not to mention the “supposedly” regulated) service industries charging SMEs phenomenal amounts for little, and even detrimental, advice.
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Of course, there are good professional services out there in all the sectors I am about to mention. But I seemed to have sucker written all over my forehead, and attracted some of the worst advice.

When choosing professional services firms, accountants and solicitors are very hard to select. The bigger the reputation, the swankier the firm, the higher the fees.  But not necessarily the better service or advice.

To these, a small company is the minnow in the big pond, the customer they really do not care about.  Which feels harsh if you are rupturing yourself to pay for the very best.

Over the years, I tried both large and small accountants. One of my biggest horrors was when I failed to notice one who massively depreciated all our plant and stock, wiping tens of thousands off our book value.

It was at a moment we needed the value, so why I still do not understand, but stupidly, I only registered after the accounts had been filed.

The other issue accountants have is that when the tough gets going, it is hard for them to forget they are a creditor. Equally, it is hard for the business owner to relax and chat when they cannot afford the bill for it.

Wages suppliers can be hazardous. I have had some fantastic one-man bands keeping (as one might assume they would) records on all aspects of PAYE and employment, and therefore equally dealing successfully with PAYE inspections.

Equally a much larger company I used, failed totally to keep any proper records and merely generated pay slips – a lesson on the small print.

As for other professional services, HR companies must be the right cultural fit otherwise you get a lot of unsuitable advice.

But there are also some shockers about who do not know even the basic rudiments of employment law. I remember one telling me they would need to “look up” the length of time for potential unfair dismissal times.

Even I knew what it was at that time. Somewhat basic and relevant information for an HR company!

Computer companies are terribly mixed. We were hit appallingly by a company supposedly giving us off-site back-up. When most of our data was obliterated by a virus, the off-site back up emerged to be only for a week at a time, as they had limited space themselves. All a lesson to take care of the small print in agreements.

I certainly have not always had the right support or advice from business coaches. Again, this is an extremely competitive world so necessarily coaches need to sell themselves and their services.

Fair enough, but I have had a couple who literally spent nine tenths of their “coaching” time in hard selling higher priced additional services they could offer.

What I also learned the hard way, is that business coaches are sometimes on the lookout for potential investments for themselves. Some work with VCs, ready to tip them off a potential owner wanting to offload and ripe for easy pickings.

So, in the latter years in business, I found myself being approached and offered help by a surprising number of businessmen, entrepreneurs, coaches – even someone I vaguely started dating.

These men would appear under the guide of giving advice as a “concerned friend” who wanted to help. Some would continue to give their time for free, while others sigh and mention that they would nobly just take a minimum fee to cover their expenses, as it was all from the goodness of their hearts.

They would get to know the figures, the problems, the staff, the suppliers, the customers. Always with their eyes on an advantageous deal.

In some cases, it was the whole company they were after, while one was simply aiming to poach the staff they needed and put us out of business as a bonus. All the while, purporting friendship.

I stupidly listened to five of these in the last few years. So, desperate was I for a lifeline when it came to professional services, I fell for it time and time again. Some were open in their intentions, most less so.

All assured me if I only did what they said, my troubles would be over. And proving sexism to be alive and well at every level, several cited my being female and trying to run a manufacturing shop floor as the obvious problem.

Looking back, I wonder how I could have been so idiotic as to let any of them in the door. But when you are in unhappy and in trouble, you are a sitting duck for a good sales pitch and the supposed hand of friendship.

It took me a long while to finally wise up and see through these approaches for what they were, and to be able to turn a situation to my own advantage.

Have a look at some of Jan Cavelle’s other columns:

I hope you find my insolvency columns useful in your business journey – a little honesty and perspective never hurt anyone. I’m touching on exit planning, succession, forming a management team, problems of a supply chain and the compensation culture. If you’d like to read my previous entries, please click here.

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About Author

Jan Cavelle

Jan Cavelle started an entrepreneurial career at school telling fortunes, progressed to making and selling sandwiches round offices and by chance ended up starting a furniture manufacturing business which she ran for over 20 years. She is currently resting up and planning a new and gentler future which she hopes will include writing, a bit of sales and general business help for startups and SMEs.

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