Archive for May, 2011
Last week I found myself in an interesting discussion with a Marketing guru. This lady suggested to me that to sell more of my services, I needed to remember CP30 and R2D2 from Star Wars. Yeah, I know…. its an odd comparison. But stick with me.
The question she posed to me (and you should answer now) was as follows:
George Lucas phones you tonight to tell you that the star wars droids are real, and that you can have one for your home free of charge. He will arrange for one to be delivered to your house tomorrow – which do you want – R2D2 or C3PO?
This marketing guru said that when asked, over 90% of people would pick R2D2. There are many reasons for this – he is friendly (not sure how beeps and fart sounds can be friendly), he is cuter, he is more of a hero that C3PO, he is a lot less grumpy/stuck-up and he is a lot cooler than C3PO.
Great! So R2D2 gets delivered, and he trundles around the house for a while. But then what? Yeah, he may be cool, but can you communicate with him? Can he do the dishes? Can he wash your car, make your bed, make you a cup of tea or pop some toast in the toaster for you? No!
What you really NEED is C3PO. He can do all the things that R2D2 can do (which is effectively talk to wall interface ports to open blast shield doors), plus make you tea, toast, etc. He can even climb the stairs.
The point she (and now I) was making is that given a choice, peoples first choice is the cool, the trendy, the one that will get nods of approval from other people. But what people really NEED is the thing that can do the job.
The secret is of course, is to make you service or product offering as cute and cool as R2D2, but once the wow factor has passed, to be able to get on and do the job.
One of my own personal demons is that I am a bit of a perfectionist. Clearly this can be a bit of a problem with the creation of ‘things’ for customers – I can tinker and tweak and polish until the end of time. But where to draw the line? When is the right time to say ‘It’s Done’, deliver it and raise that invoice?
There are no hard and fast rules on how much polishing should be completed on a project, but some things to think about include:
- Do you have other work? If you have no other work scheduled, then there is less pressure to complete the work and move onto other things. Just bear in mind that if you do more work on a project, the customer may then expect the same extra polish for future work.
- How important is the customer? If the customer is really important to you in terms of recurring revenue, giving the project extra polish may help land future work. But that it may also be wasted effort.
- Your Gut Feeling? For me, my gut feeling on the completeness of a project just does not work. My own self-doubt kicks in with whispered internal voices taunting that it’s a rubbish delivery, there are things I have forgotten, it will not be what they want, maybe when they said “a” they actually meant “b”. Your gut may tell you what you need to know, but for me, I need to ignore my gut feeling.
- Have you created what they wanted? Does the delivery or project do what they asked for and will it deliver what they need. If the answer is yes, then maybe you’re done.
- Are you happy with the results? Are you happy with what you have done? Push all the tweaking to one side (it will never be 100% perfect) – are you happy delivering the project? If so, you’re done.
- Deliver as soon as possible? The customer may have their own cut off date they haven’t told you about. Don’t polish and tweak taking you to the line. Better to get it to them sooner so they can check your haven’t forgotten a big thing whilst being busy polishing the small stuff.
- Alpha and Beta Deliveries? A good technique is to provide the delivery in alpha and beta deliveries – then the customer can provide you with feedback and tell you what needs to be tweaked or polished before it is considered done. Just don’t give them the opportunity to use this for scope creep – there is a big difference between a minor tweak and a change of scope.
- What’s in the contract or work agreement? If in doubt, use the contract or work agreement to check against the delivery. Run through all the parts you said would be included, and check they are in the delivery – crossing them off as you go. When everything is crossed off, you are ready to ship.
- Using a To-Do or Project List? One of my own trusted techniques is to use a project management tool to control the work. As I work on a project, if there is something I am not completely happy with, I create a task in a ‘tidy and wrap up’ phase. Then at the end, I cross them off as I tidy. When the project do list is empty, I am done.
- Get the Invoice Out! At the end of the day, the most important thing is to get the project delivered as soon as possible and therefore get the invoice out the door. The customer can always talk about tweaks and changes after delivery – but if you have an invoice on the table, everybody knows where they stand.
The other day, I was a customer site working on a project, and the atmosphere there was tense. In the IT department, 2 contractors were about to be told that their services were no longer required. Letting people go is never nice, but in this situation it was a strange decision because the client still had work to be done, and had plenty of money to pay for external services.
So why were the contractors being released (let go, fired, whatever term you would like to use)? It wasn’t because they were not working hard or because their work was sub-standard, but because they were not doing the job they were brought in to do.
These two contractors were being helpful; too helpful. Whenever anybody had a question – they could answer it. Whenever anybody had a problem, they would help fix it. They were the original ‘go to’ pair – but this meant that the work they were tasked to do was not getting done.
Which leads me onto SEP. Its three letters I bear in mind when I am working with clients. SEP stands for Somebody Else’s Problem.
There have been many times when I have been on a customer site and I have overheard a conversation about IT problems of various kinds. My helpful bone twitches and I want to wade in to show my expertise with their problem – dive onto a keyboard and sort the problem out. But if it’s not related to what I am tasked to do, I will avoid it if it’s an SEP. It’s not my problem. It’s not what I am getting paid for. If the bill payer wants to know where 2 hours have gone in the day, I don’t have to tell them I was helping Bill or Ted out rather than generating their much needed system.
It doesn’t mean I am not helpful. I may suggest the solution, suggest the term to “Google”, suggest somebody to talk to who can help them. But if it’s an SEP and I am not being paid to sort it out, I avoid actively getting involved.
And if the two contractors had done the same, they would still be earning the money.
I am busy. Really busy. So much work, so little time – with more requests for work coming in, and work having to be stacked up. Oh, I am not complaining – far from it – it’s good to be busy. But even though I am so busy, today I reactivated my company marketing.
Three months ago, when the orders were coming in thick and fast, I put a stop to my marketing activity. But now, even though I am so very busy, I am advertising again.
Why am I advertising and marketing if I am so busy you may ask? Well, an enquiry takes me around 10 minutes to deal with (which isn’t much of an impact on a busy day), but from enquiry to an order takes me on average 2 months. In two months, I won’t be so busy – so I am planning ahead.
Advertising and Marketing are never (in my experience) something that will yield instant results (not unless you provide take-away meals). If you need instant work, you need to pick up work from agencies, friends ,work colleagues and existing customers.
Advertising and Marketing is a forward planning activity, which takes time to see results. If you need orders and work in the Summer, Autumn and Winter, now is the time to market your services.
When I am working on a project, if I perform a task which I need to do over again and again, I find nothing more rewarding than working out a better way of doing it. Be it a tool, a system or an automated way of carrying out the task, if I can save time by re-use or simplification, it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
But, this also causes a problem. A problem you also have. A problem that you may not even know you have.
You see, as you work, you gain experience (and tools and snippets and shortcuts and a million other ways of saving time). But, when you quote customers for work, what are you quoting for?
Take the version of you that existed 5 years ago. If you did some work on a project, I am sure that it would take much longer to complete than it does today. 5 years ago you were groping in the dark, feeling your way. Today, you can wiz through projects thanks to your accumulated knowledge, skills and shortcuts.
But what are you charging your customers for. Are you charging them for the time that it would take a reasonable person to complete the task, or the more experienced super-you?? What happens in another 5 years with even more efficiencies – do you charge them even less
Are you, essentially, cutting your own throat?!? Are you turning yourself into a busy cheap fool? Or are you factoring the old you into your proposal figures so in fact, you are generating more money through efficiency?
I read a lot of Business Books – normally around 1 or 2 a week. I find most are fairly so-so (with out of date ideas, or concepts which I don’t apply to me, or even no real content). If I get 100 pages into the book and I find there is nothing which applies to me, I will stop wasting my time, will bin the book and will move on. Clearly, I will never recommend those books.
But now and again, a book really strikes a cord with me. It gives me ideas. It takes me in new and interesting directions. The Creative Professionals Guide to Money by Ilise Benun is such a book. This book arrived yesterday evening, and once I picked it up, I didn’t put it down until I reached the last page.
Now let me start by saying that it’s not a big book. The text size is big with big spaces between the lines – so it’s a book which would just about fill less than 100 pages on a normal printed book. But, what it contains is a feast of useful information. Lots and lots of ideas and thoughts on Money for Freelancers, Contractors and Small Business.
The book tries to cover most subjects to do with Money – other than direct money management and accounting. Topics include working out your rates, how to charge (day, hour, project etc), budgeting, talking about money as part of a sales process, prospecting, proposals, getting paid, discounting, negotiating and the difference between spending and investing. Whilst none of the topics are covered in a lot of detail, it is covered in a way which points you in the right direction to take positive steps.
Now there are parts of the books I don’t agree with. For instance, it says when producing a proposal to round up the figure (10,000 instead of 9,955), which to me would appear as a ‘made up’ number, but on the whole, it provides very useful advice.
The book includes some exercise pages to step you through some tasks (such as work out money goals, questions to ask prospective clients, work out when is the best time to broach the subject of money, working out your net worth), and links to external web resources for completing some tasks.
As I say, the book will not give you all the answers, but what it will do is make you think more about your business money as a whole, and point you in a direction to start working out some answers. If you are looking for a book with lots of details about Money, this is not the book you need (instead look at the 30 day MBA). But if you want a new perspective on Money within your business, this book is a good read.
Recently, I decided to buy myself a new car. Actually, truth be told, my wife decided to buy a new car, and after spending a day shopping for her car, I decided that my old car was no longer good enough (funny how that happens ).
Anyway, in the process of shopping my car, I was taught two interesting business lessons that I thought I would share:
You are What you appear to be
I started looking at all the usual brands you would expect for a business car – BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Volvo. I really (really!) liked the Mercedes – it looked flash, it looked expensive (it was), it looked sporty, it looked…. like the car I wanted.
But my wife took me aside in the Mercedes showroom and asked me a question… “If somebody you were doing business with turned up in that car, what would be your first thought before they stepped out?”. That was easy – that they had too much money that we would be overpaying them! And the penny dropped.
Yes, I could go for a really nice car, but what would that say to my customers. Yes, appearances can be deceptive, but they can also be telling. So in the end, I went for a sensible Volvo.
Be Responsive and Have What They Want
So after agreeing that a flash Mercedes was over the top, I then narrowed it down to 2 or 3 ‘sensible’ cars, and went around to the showrooms. None of them had the models I was interested in.
Now I am a reasonable man, I don’t expect them to have every model available in a showroom. But I would expect them to make some form of effort. For instance, if I wanted a convertible 3-series BMW, they may not have one, but what they may be able to do is either (a) find one from another dealer for me or (b) show me 3 alternative cars where this car is a 3 series but not convertible, but you can see the styling, and that car is a convertible but is a series 5 but you can see how the top works, and this other car has the same finish as the one I was interested in.
But nope, very few of the ‘dealers’ were interested. Most promised to call me when they had found cars to show me. 2 weeks on, only 1 did, with a demo car he had pulled in from another dealer. Guess who just made a sale?!?
The point being, if somebody emails or calls with a business enquiry, don’t delay – call or email them back, find out what they need and find some way of showing it to them. You may not have everything they want available to show them, but can it be pieced together?
After all, they will have contacted other people, and if you don’t help them, somebody else will.
One of the people who I communicate with on a regular basis is Gerard Burke who runs the Your Business Your Future program. I have been to a couple of his excellent events, and we discuss various topics through social media including LinkedIn.
One of the passions that we both share is small business process improvement, and efficiencies that can be gained. I love using processes and automated tools as they help me run my business. I want to progress this in the future to automate my business as much as possible, so that the business can (as much as possible) runs itself. Some of this will be through people automation (have others do the easy, cheap and non-productive stuff) and tools (much of this now cloud based). For me, this means that my business is more profitable.
But as Gerard says:
As someone who automates processes for a living, I’m sure that you don’t mean just automate what’s there – there’s no point automating a creaky process, it just makes it creak faster! I’m sure that you seek to improve the process first. Years and years ago, a friend and colleague of mine who was in operations management described the concept of making processes ESIA
- E for Eliminate non-value adding steps and duplicated activities
- S for Simplify wherever possible
- I for Integrate so that people share the same data (what you’ve done with your clients is an example of integrating)
- and only then A for Automate.
Which for me is spot on. The last part I would add to the mix is the “R” for
- Realise what you can hand over, and delegate
So there you have it, ESIAR, the steps to making more profit, having more fun and being more productive.
Call me an email dinosaur, but I am still a fond user of Microsoft Outlook for dealing with work emails, contacts ,discussions and Do list (with a sync to ToodleDo). It may not be perfect, but it works for me, its fast to use, and gets the job done with the minimum of effort.
Recently, I was introduced to a FREE 3rd party add on called Xobni. As with most bolt on products, it’s actually available in a Freemium version. Xobni, sits on the side of outlook and adds lots of contact information and tools for most actions in outlook. The web site for Xobni says that it makes outlook more “contact centric” – I am not sure it goes that far, but it does make it a lot more powerful.
In a nutshell, whenever you work on an item (email, discussion, todo or contact) that is linked to a contact, a panel is displayed in outlook which shows the contact information. This is not the standard Outlook contact information, but a new contact form which is built from your activity with the contact.
Default Contact Options
The default Xobni information is picked up by scanning and indexing your emails, both sent and received. Using things like your contacts email signature bar and linked outlook contact entry, it generates the contact name, job title, phone numbers, email addresses, web sites etc. But beyond this, other useful information is pulled together for the contact such as:
- A graph of when you communicate – in and out sent dates and times (its meant to indicate the best times to communicate with the contact – not sure how useful this really is)
- Conversations – a list of recent emails to or from the contact, files exchanged (with links to the files), people in their network (people who your contact has emailed (via CC emails), etc
- Appointments scheduled in the past or future with the contact (from your outlook diary)
- URL Links shared between you – Premium content only
All of the above can be quickly re-viewed and actioned (replied to, changed, printed, etc) from the Xobni side window meaning that you don’t have to loose what is in the main screen of outlook. It is all pulled together very well, and is very useful.
Actions and Bolt Ons
Whilst the above summary information is very useful, the real power comes from the bolt-on actions. You can download widgets which connect Xobni with other services such as Dropbox, Evernote, Huddle, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and a whole host more.
Want to send your contact an Evernote note? Click the note and it will compose an email (for you to check and edit) with the note attached. See your contacts last comments on twitter or facebook? They are right there. See your contacts linkedin profile and who they are connected to? Not a problem. What about sharing a large file – click the file in dropbox and the file is copied to your public dropbox area for you and a link is added to an email. There is even a ‘lets meet’ button which will compose an email to your contact with your free diary slots over the next few days.
Xobni is not perfect. If you stick to the FREE version, the really useful buttons (create a contact, update the contact information with this information, etc) produces a pop-up purchase window. It also takes up 1/6th of the screen in outlook. However, it provides a lot of useful information regarding your contacts. If you use outlook and are working on building relationships with clients, it’s a must-have.
So here’s one for you – business travel – do you charge for it? I am not talking about business mileage, trains and planes – I am talking about billable time. Yes, we all prefer to work from our homes or offices – but sometimes business travel is required, and can’t be avoided – but should you charge for it? Let me give you two situations, see what you think!
Situation 1 : A customer wants an hour long ‘sort out disagreements’ meeting – face to face. It’s to sort out problems, and they insist on a real meeting – skype just won’t do. But the problem is that they are a 3 hour drive away – each way? So you will be out for 7 hours for a 1 hour meeting! Do you charge 1 hour or a day?
Situation 2 : The customer says they want you to install the product at one of their European offices. They want 1 day of training, but it will take a day of travel each way to get there with connections, travel to and from airports etc. Do you charge for 1 day or 3?
It’s tricky – there is no real right or wrong decision. But I think as small business owners we should have a line in the sand where everybody knows what to expect. I am used to early starts and late finishes, so generally travelling a fair distance to customers is not personally a problem for me. But, I still need cover for those ‘extended trips’. So, after a chat with a few people, I have drawn my line in the sand at 4 hours. If a journey either direction takes more that 4 hours, I charge for it.
And to reflect this, on the off chance that one of my customers wants me to travel; I have added an additional clause in my companies Terms and Conditions to reflect this. This clause is fairly complex (as it needs to cover what the rate will be), but reads as follows:
Extended Travel Provision
Where travel is required to or from an agreed location where the travel in either direction takes longer than 4 hours (including connections), the Company shall reserve the right to charge for travel time where travel is required during normal working hours on scheduled working days. Travel time will be billed at the published day rate of the service being carried out by the individual(s) effected, and is rounded up to the nearest half day. This travel provision will be notified to the Client prior to travel being commenced.
But what about you? What do you charge?