Archive for March, 2012
One of the things that has been playing on my mind for the last couple of years has been newsletters. I have read many books, read many blogs and heard many presenters talk about how a newsletter can keep you in a customers/prospects mind. Yes, it all sounds great, but why would anybody want to read a newsletter about my small insignificant company? I mean, ‘breaking news – we have a new pot plant’ just seemed so ridiculous. Yet people go on and on about having a newsletter.
Last week I had a breakthrough, thanks to a fellow freelancer who I met at a technical seminar. Over lunch we got chatting about freelancing, about the time drain that is ‘social media’ and then about newsletters. He said that newsletters had generated a lot of business for him – so I asked what he did.
Newsletters – Are not about News
The advice I received was that newsletters are not in fact about news. He agreed that nobody really cares about you, or your company or your products, or your services, or the new office pot plant. None of this does anything for them. In a word, it’s not useful.
What he did was to turn it into something which delivered value – but didn’t try to sell. Having your name. company name and company logo in front of people on a regular basis is enough to keep you in their mind. He let the constant contact keep his name in everybody’s in tray, but added value to make sure the emails were opened.
So what was his technique?
Share your knowledge on what you do
Its as simple as that. Don’t have a newsletter full of your latest projects – just have a newsletter full of your latest tips. Create from what you know and do.
If you create databases, have regular updates on new functions you have created, clever SQL scripts for doing calculations, or methods of moving databases. If you are a coder or web designer, have a newsletter with CSS examples, or useful subroutines or functions. Provide value to make sure your newsletter is opened every time – and maybe even shared with other people.
It’s a small piece of the Puzzle
Now it may seem that by having a newsletter with a subroutine or function or other bit of code may be giving stuff away for free – and your right, it is just that – free work. But, the bit you give away is a tiny, insignificant, but useful single part of the whole puzzle. That routine may be useful to an old customer or future prospect, but because it’s so small, they cannot complete the whole jigsaw with just that one piece – they still need somebody to create the whole thing and put it together.
A useful technique is to make sure that when you do send out useful stuff in your newsletters, you include comment lines in any example functions and procedures to show what it does, how it works, and make sure to include your name, company and contact details (web URL, email and phone number). That way, if it does add value, your details are always on hand should they look to expand their project and need your assistance (or your details are in the code at their office if they just cut and paste the code you send out).
After all, the whole point of a newsletter is to keep your name and contact details in front of your old contacts and future prospects.
How to get Four times the value
The other technique that I learned (from a 2nd freelancer who joined in our conversation) was to get multiple value from each entry – by reuse.
I have written in the past about my technique of storing useful new techniques and functions I create in Evernote so I can use them in future projects – well this reuse idea just expands for the newsletter.
When I am working on a customer project and I develop a new useful function (say a SQL function to turn a date into a financial month and/or year), I copy that to Evernote for future use. But now what I do is I also turn this into a quick newsletter for my contact list – it doesn’t have to be a long letter (in fact the shorter, the better) – I just explain what it is, how it works, and include the function. Another free newsletter is created.
Then what I do, is I take the exact same newsletter text, and post it on my company blog web site – so it adds value and search ability to my web site.
One bit of created script or function (for a customer project that I am already being paid for) is then used 4 times – on the project, into Evernote for future projects, into my newsletter, and then on my company blog. Maximum value for minimum effort. Perfect.
Next time, I am going to talk about how I get names on my newsletter list, and what software I use.
In my house, we have a wooden plaque with our coat of arms – a merged coat of arms created from my wife’s family crest and my own (with a few whimsical touches thrown in for good measure to make it “us”). On this plaque there are two phrases included which are our family mottos (me and my wife – not our historical family’s).
Every so often, my 10 year old daughter looks at the plaque, runs her fingers over the crest and words, and repeats the phrases to herself – fascinated by their meaning (which we explained when she was very little).
These phrases are not only our family mottos, not only the way we do business, but also the way we ‘do life’.
The phrases are:
“Te Dormio Te Amittere” – which is below our family crest. It’s Latin, and when translated to English, it means “you snooze, you lose” (in other words.. DO IT NOW)
And the other phrase is….
Ask for Nothing and you shall receive it in abundance – not sure where this quotation came from, but it’s very powerful (for us).
Both of these quotes are about the same thing – getting what you want by asking for what you want – and asking now!!!
The Power of Asking
Which leads me on to asking – or more importantly, the way you ask. This can make a huge difference is business and life.
When I was at university studying psychology, I remember this professor giving a series of lectures on the method of asking – and it has stuck with me today. He taught my class that a few choice words can be the difference between getting what you need/want, and not getting anything at all.
Let me give you an example….
Suppose tonight, you have a craving for a steak for your dinner – oh yes, a nice big fat juicy steak – with chips (or fries for my American friends) and all the works – now doesn’t that sound good?
Well you could go home and say “What’s for Dinner?” and hope that in a very unusual alignment of the stars, your partner just happens to want the exact same thing – its not going to happen.
Better would be to say “I fancy steak tonight. Can we have steak tonight?”- which says what you want. But hold on, this still gives lots of other options. You could get a response of “sure thing” (great), but you might also get “no”, or “were having fish” or a host of other replies. So the question is good, but not great.
So what about something more demanding, that says what is going to happen such as “I am going to have steak tonight – want to join me in a steak?” – which says that you are definitely getting your meal of choice – but what about your partner? Well they still have a multiple choice of options including “yes”, “no”, “I have fish here – were having fish” etc. So better, but still not there – you still may be feasting on Mr Fish tonight.
The best way to get what you want is to ask with the assumption already made. “I’m in the mood for steak – yeah, steak is what I am going to have tonight. Now, what time shall we eat our steaks? You hungry now?”. It says your having steak – and it assumes your partner is going to have steak – but it still gives them control about what time to eat – so everybody feels that they have a say. Of course they can still go down the “I don’t want steak” or “Looks, here’s fish” option – but it’s a better conversation to have than the “What’s for dinner?” question.
You have set your position – the rest is down to negotiation.
All of this applies to business questions and more importantly, to selling. You just need to check your customer for feedback to make sure you haven’t crossed the line (in which case, pass it off as humour and take a selling step backwards). But isn’t a conversation which starts with something like “Well here’s the quote – now that we have gone through it, when would you like to schedule the project setup meeting and order the hardware?” a good conversation to be having?
Time rules over us without mercy. Not caring if we’re healthy or ill. Hungry or drunk. Russian, American, beings from Mars. It’s like a fire, it could either destroy us or it could keep us warm. That’s why every FedEx office has a clock, because we live or we die by the clock,. We never turn our back on it and we never ever allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time.
~ Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), from the Movie Cast Away, by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2000
Time is a strange thing. Its said that it’s the only thing that cannot be bought, that we all have the same quantity of, and that is only valued when we run out of it. For freelancers, it may also be the one thing that we can easy forget to control.
I am sure as a freelancer and/or small business owner, you have everything buttoned down in terms of your rates, your price lists and your product prices. But what about time? Have you set your limits regarding time?
Or let me put it this way. I am a customer of yours – I have purchased your products in the past, and have paid you some decent money in the past, but we have no active projects ongoing at the moment. Now I phone you up (or email you) and ask you for a favour – can you quickly describe how I do something. It will only take 5 minutes of your time. So do you charge me for it?
As a customer I would probably not expect to have to pay for a quick answer – and you want to keep me happy in case there is the chance of more work, and its too much hassle to raise an invoice for 5 minutes of work – so its done as a freebie. But what about if the answer took more than 5 minutes? What about if it took ten or fifteen – do you charge me now? What about 20, or 30, or 40? How about an hour, two, or six hours?
The point is, you need a line – a point in time when a favour turns into a chargeable task. And you need to know what that line is before the line is reached. One of the things that will annoy customers are ‘rules’ which are made up on the fly – because you feel like it. Suddenly deciding that a task is going to take too long or they have called you x many times this month and so you are going to charge them is just going to annoy the customer – especially when you didn’t charge them last month.
The other thing to consider with time is – what is your minimum time period for changeability.
When you call out a plumber, they charge by the hour. They come out for ten minutes, you are paying them for an hour of their time. The same is generally true of solicitors. So what about you?
For me – I have a line of 2 hours (or a quarter of a day). If somebody wants me to do something which is going to take more than 5 minutes (and is not related to an ongoing project or support contract), my minimum time which I charge for is ¼ of a day. Of course, I am happy to do quick tasks for free if they really are 5 minutes, but if they are longer or a person calls lots of times and the time adds up to over 2 hours in a month, I will stop and say its time to pay. I also make it clear to my customer that my time is measured in quarter of a day slots, and if they want my time, a quarter of a day is the minimum that they will be charged.
Of course, this is a minimum. It more than likely will be a whole day or a week or month – but my minimum is quarter of a day.
So what about you?
Something strange is going on this year. I have been asked to provide either guidance or estimations for taking over more ‘failed’ projects from other freelancers or companies than any other year. This week alone, I have been contacted by no less than six companies asking for estimations for taking over projects.
Now don’t get me wrong, gaining work from other peoples mistakes or failed efforts is just as good as winning new work. But what makes any of us believe that we can do a better job than the last freelancer or company?
Generally, when I have finished discussing the project with the prospect on the phone or in a briefing meeting, I come away thinking ‘this is an easy project, I could do this with my eyes shut’. Well guess what – the guy or gal you are being asked to replace most likely had the exact same thoughts at the end of their briefing. If it was that easy, why are they being replaced?
Here are 10 things to watch out for or give thought to when taking over a failing project:
- We all think that our companies are the best, that we as individuals are more talented, and we have better methods and processes. I can guarantee that the freelancer or company that you are being asked to replace had the same view. Are you really so different? Bear this in mind when considering your responses.
- If the last freelancer or company negotiated any money in advance, bear in mind that the project may not have the funds left to complete the work – get the money issue sorted as soon as possible
- The project will undoubtedly be behind schedule by the time you get involved. Make sure you can extend the deadlines already set otherwise you will be in the same position as the last freelancer
- You need to check how much freedom you have in terms of ‘starting again’ or if they want you to just take over – sometimes there is nothing worse than taking over a project and having to build on somebody else’s failing code, designs or other foundations
- On the basis that the previous freelancer was as equally skilled as you, there is a reason they have failed with this project and customer. What is the customer not telling you? Why did the last freelancer or company fail? Ask those difficult and probing questions.
- When you come into a failing project, the customer will already have the project tagged as doomed. Establish what are the ‘quick wins’ that will be needed to turn the project around and restore faith.
- Check the legal situation. If you are asked to take over a project, don’t take the customers word that you can use the other freelancer’s code/designs/ideas. If they have in their contract that the technology belongs to them until it is paid for, you may be building on a foundation which may get pulled without warning
- If the project has failed once, it is more likely that the project would fail again for the same reason that you have not yet been made aware of (maybe the customer keeps changing their mind during the development). Make sure that your agreements, money payments and rights are even tighter and stricter than they normally would be
- If the previous freelancer or company knows they are being replaced and are happy about the situation, see if you can arrange a conversation to get their side of the story. They may have information that would benefit either you working on the project, or you deciding to walk away.
- At the end of the day, taking over a failing project is always more dangerous than working in a green field. If your heart, your mind or you gut are telling you that the project is too easy, the grass too green, or its too good to be true – then it is. Walk away.