One of the questions I have had for a long time has to do with how businesses choose to identify themselves to the public. We all know that keeping customers is much easier and much cheaper than getting new ones – so they say – which makes the next example even that much more puzzling to me.
Storefronts, in particular, have very limited space to let potential customers / clients know a whole lot about what they do, so that you will use their goods and services, yet many businesses continue to put their brand name on the store, or use an unreadable font which limits their ability to get new customers who are not walking by the store and who have the time to look in the window and walk in.
As I question this, I think back to one of the more complex collections cases that I handled while working at Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and how after years of being unable to get a cent out of this establishment, I had much different results. This case had to do with a very large restaurant just North of Toronto which had fantastic food, very positive reviews, incredible decor, and $3,000,000.00 owing in taxes, without a single payment made to arrears in years.
The owners of this restaurant were perplexed at the spiralling debt and their bleak prospects for operating in the future because what started off as a very profitable business venture went south, quickly and at massive costs – both personal and professional. When their debt grew, they started to cut costs, but it was the wrong costs – like having fresh food on the premises daily, reducing the variety and portion size on their menu and by running out of options at meal time.
Regular patrons became frustrated with the frozen additions or the cutting out of their favourite meal choices and as their clientele dwindled to handfuls of patrons during the day and at night, it only made matters worse.
With their personal assets fully leveraged to keep the business running, they were steps away from bankruptcy and losing everything. They also were not paying their tax debts, but they were staying current on their filing obligations, and between the threats from previous collectors and their power being turned off all the time, they knew the end was near. After hearing this, I thought I would need to see it myself, so I took my newly earned MBA and headed out to have a conversation with them about what they had intended to do with these debts.
But I could not find the restaurant.
It was supposed to be 15,000 square feet, and I knew the intersection quite well, but could not for the life of me find their establishment. I called the owner and while I was circling the plaza on the corner he was frazzled about how I could not see their fantastic place, which I found to be very bizarre.
I ended up parking on the plaza on the corner and walked past a couple of stores before finally seeing what I had been circling for the better part of 20 minutes. Their restaurant.
The outside of the building looked run-down and there was no name on the building. I could not even tell where the front door was, and once I got to the door, I didn’t even know if it was open. There was no sign that even said “Restaurant” or specified the type of food that was in there. There was some very hard to read script writing near the top of the building and near the door, but it looked more like graffiti than it did, a brand name.
Having been there a couple of years, locals knew about them, ate there but to an onlooker, there was no way of knowing there was a restaurant there. I started to see a pattern emerge.
Upon sitting down with the owners I immediately suggested they perform a search on the business on the Internet (Alta Vista, I believe) and there right in front of their eyes, were people commenting about how they had made reservations but could not find the building, so did not go, or that they arrived but could not tell if the place was open, or where the front door was. There was obvious frustration.
To me, it was common sense, that this building needed a sign that read “Italian Restaurant”, so at least people would know where they were going, or people who drove by or walked in the plaza would know there was something there. On a more obvious scale a giant arrow pointing at the building would have been better but this was a very classy place, and that would cheapen the brand, they felt.
Needless to say, I spent 3-4 hours there, we talked about everything relating to their business, their debts – business and personal, and at the end of the day I decided to give them a couple of months to sort things out, reduce some costs, and try to attract more business which they knew they needed.
All of this effort was rewarded when they sent in a cheque for $250,000 at the end of the following month to the CRA. By the end of the year, they had paid off $1.8 million dollars of their debt, and by the end of the next year, they were fully paid up (including penalties and interest) and business was booming.
Is it 100% a result of something I said? Probably not. Did I afford them the time to make money and pay off the debt, yes I did, but I also went through their options should they have chosen bankruptcy, a proposal, or to ignore the CRA completely and wait for their assets to seized and the directors assessed.
With all that information they were able to make an informed decision, the most obvious to me being that they improved their signage, cleaned up the outside, and put a neon sign which flashed “OPEN” on a very visible spot near the sign and near the door (with a classy arrow pointing towards the door).
But how does this apply to you and to me?
I recently took part in a challenge on LinkedIn to say what I do for a living in one sentence. I thought how hard could it be, and I wanted to check out what others had written before me. With over 300 respondents, I would have plenty of samples to review before taking the plunge, but I was shocked by what I saw.
I saw people – people I do not know – in businesses I did not know who wrote things like this;
“I solve all of your problems.”
“I get you want you need at the price you want.”
“I’m what you need.”
Even, “We’ve got you covered.”
I looked further at their business profile to see if I could tell what they did, however their business name, or description was equally as vague.
I read and read and read, almost 100 of them by now, and when I came to a comment by a lawyer, I was dumbfounded when I saw this; “I practice law.”
I immediately thought about what I would do if I came to this networking group for a professional to hire in a very specific area and I saw “I practice law” as someone’s description… Would I contact them to find out what kind of law? Or would I go to the next person.
I went to the next person.
Then the next and the next and the next.
Then I posted challenging people to go back and edit their posts. Be proud of who you are and the services you offer. Tell everyone what you do, be clear, but be brief, and if someone has more questions or wants information, they will reach out to you.
So what about my post?
Now I had a lot to live up to, because I called out the patrons of the group and if my post sucked, boy would I be the biggest hypocrite in the world.
So I posted this;
“My expertise is with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), and their Collections / Enforcement division and I use this knowledge to help people and business understand taxes and pay only what they owe, on their terms.
Then I said, “please read this and if you do not know what I do, or if there is feedback – positive and negative – please provide it. I too would love the perfect pitch and I appreciate any input from this fantastic group.
So next time you are looking for a restaurant to take your family and you drive by one which only has a name and not a type of food, think about how much business they could be losing by placing their focus on themselves and not on the service or product their offer.