Monday, December 16, 2013

Time Management Seminar

One conversation I have with buyers and others is about how so many people no longer respond to email, phone calls, or faxes. This often includes both people in the conversation, which might start with something like, "Did you get the list I sent you last night?"
"Yes, did you get the order I sent you last week?"

Part of the problem is the caller ID effect. Back in the bronze age, before many of you were born, when telephones were connected to wires and cables, before "voice mail," before phones told you who was calling, or at least their number, we would all answer the phone whenever it rang, if we were in the vicinity. We would say "hello," and then conduct whatever business had to be conducted at that moment. The term "phone tag" had not yet been invented. It was a hyper-productive system compared to the current weirdness. Now, call just about anybody, and if they do not pick up (they usually don't) you can be be fairly sure they know you called, or at least they will when they look at their phone, if it's functioning properly, or they will get your message, if you leave one, which you most likely will not, and, hopefully, will remember to call you back later. Unless they were on another call, in which case they often don't know at all that you called since that's one of those glitchy parsecs in the dumb-phone universe. The reason you probably won't leave a message is that few people ever listen to their messages.

There was a buyer, retired a couple of years ago, who had as his greeting, "Feel free to leave a message, but I will never listen to it." He then spelled out his email address. His voice mailbox was always full, so leaving a message was not possible, but he did occasionally call back, especially after the 5th or 6th attempt. He almost never responded to email. He was a pin on the map for most sales reps, so one had to persist and he knew this.

Email is more impacted by the caller ID effect than phone calls. Maybe I should call it the email effect, except that the caller ID problem came first, back when email was still enough of a novelty that everybody answered every message, often at the expense of what they really had to do, such as pay bills and answer the phone. Back then you were not cool if you did not answer email, but you were kind of cool if you let your phone get chock full of voice mail and then return calls once a day, or week. That questionable practice was, and still occasionally is, in the lists of top ten time management tips tucked into the folders handed out at seminars. 

My email inbox grows by between 300 to 500 emails per day. It is not humanly possible to answer them all. If it does not fall into the "Customers," "Orders," or "Lists" filters, I may not see it. I am very sorry about this, it is one of my terrible faults, something I work on and struggle with. I do not mean to imply that others are as bad as I, or even close. It has lost me friends and business. But if I have just enough time to put out the fires, enter the orders, and reply to customer questions by the end of every day (you know... 11:59PM), I have no choice. I often chew on more than I can bite off, something else I need to work on, so some areas just plain suffer. Does this sound like you? I hope not, but I'm sure more than a few readers are sadly nodding their disheveled heads. I'm bald so at least I don't have that last problem.

It would be nice if we still lived in the world of assistants and phones with curly cables, not to mention profits, but here we are. When we (we being those of us not working for the biggest companies) had assistants and/or managers and/or support staff that would handle some part of what we had to do to get our jobs done, there was a fantasy promulgated by software engineers that technology would one day free us from those "constraints" and make us much more productive. Now that we have been so freed, very few people have any support at all. You're on your own. Every little facet of your work or anything having to do with your work is something you have to do yourself or it does not get done. As it turns out, we are less productive, but it's too late to reinvent the old world.

You might think this is an old book guy struggling with his lack of organizational, communication, and interpersonal skills, and you would be right. I am crazy bad in these areas, and therefore write with authority. Still, judging by the vast ocean of books, software, seminars, classes, consultants, departments, and companies devoted to time management, this is a major issue for lots of people in business. We are overloaded to the breaking point and it shows.

Most buyers don't have time for networking, reviewing their competition's web sites, experimenting with new products, or reading blogs... well, maybe they have time to read A blog. Lists come in all day from dozens of sources, sales reps visit, and you shop several sites, looking for new arrivals. In addition, you have hundreds of things you do every day that don't come close to adding to your bottom line, you just have to do them, they are part of your profession. 

Jack LaLanne was once asked for his secret to long life and good health. He said, "If it tastes good, spit it out." I think the best advice for managing time, which really means managing yourself, is: Whatever you're doing, stop it and go do what you're supposed to be doing. I hope that's buying books from ol' Ben.

(And here I am writing another blog post when I should be selling books.) 

(...and if you need me, just put the words "order attached" anywhere in your email... at least I'll know I have a reader)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Holiday Wrap

December can be a slow time for remainder wholesalers. Their customers have been buying for the holiday shopping season since July and most of the large orders are in by the end of October. November is somewhat busy with last minute rush orders and regular business. Most customers are too busy in December to spend time at their desks placing bargain orders. 

Those who have the time and staff to plan ahead are waiting to see the results from the first weeks of the official shopping season before they place their reorders or stock up in areas they did not get enough of. Most just wait for the last week of December or first week of January to start buying again. Those year-end or year-beginning orders can be substantial. For bargain wholesalers, January is often one of the best months, if not the best month, of the year.

December is a good time to go over the numbers, revise forecasts, see what the customers are doing, and think about the past year. 

I saw many of my customers expand their businesses in 2013, some adding locations and others moving into larger spaces. A few told me their businesses increased by over 100%. Others went quiet and when I called I discovered they were either out of business or going to close soon. Still, overall, this was a good year for bookstores selling bargain. If I had more internet-only customers I might have a better bead on that category, but the few I have were up a bit or flat.

It is glad tidings indeed that more bookstores are attracting more customers and thriving. After all the gloom and doom in the trade press over the last couple of years, as well as some laughable commentary coming from outside the trade, nothing beats talking to booksellers, smiling and nodding and wondering what that was all about. There are new bookstores opening in most markets. If you followed this blog over the last 3 years you know that I always doubted the doubters. People who love to read have a very long way to go before they give up on real books, and the younger the reader the greater the trend.

This is also the time of year I think most about what I could have done better, what I learned, what I hope to accomplish over the next 12 months, and how lucky I am to have my patient, kind customers who stick with me through thick and thin. If I had to pick one area where I need the most improvement it would be focus, and what I will focus on most over the next 12 months is bringing my customers the best books I can find.

Thank you to all of my customers for a great 2013. Here is to 2014, and an even better year of bookselling.