Archive for the ‘Tips and Tricks’ Category
Today’s final post is a letter which I dearly wish I could send back in time to myself in the past; a younger me from ten years ago when I first made the leap from permanent employment status to Freelancer. I think it will be useful to other freelancers who are either just starting out, or are struggling.
Without any further delay or waffle…
Dear younger and more inexperienced me,
As you read this, you will be just starting out freelancing. It’s a scary experience. There is nobody to hold your hand, or guide you, or give you advice. At least, I know it seems this way. But I wanted to drop you a quick line to reassure you about a few things. Plus I wanted to include some really good advice, which will stop you making some silly and expensive mistakes.
It may seem that you are own your own, but there are a lot of great resources out there. The web is full of freelancers who have gone through what you are going through, and some people have been kind enough to write those experiences down in books or web blogs (such as this one) – all it takes is for you to take the effort to read them, understand them, and follow the advice. But remember, if you don’t bother looking, or take that advice, and you make the mistakes other are trying to help you avoid – then there is nobody to blame than yourself.
I am sorry to say that there will be hard times, and tough times, times full of worry when you wont be able to sleep at night, times of self doubt, and times where things seem very unfair. All freelancers and small business owners go through this, but at the end of the day, you will do OK. Anybody who makes the effort to rise above the average, who has put in the hard work, and uses the resources that are out there will do OK – better than OK in fact. In the end, choosing a freelance life will be one of the best decisions you will ever make.
But there are things that will help you on your way. Dear younger me, please listen to these, because these are nuggets of wisdom from years of experience. These tips will save you time, money, effort, and will make the whole thing so much more enjoyable. They will also allow you to rise above the troubling times.
My advice to you as you start out freelancing is:
- When times seem tough, don’t sweat the small stuff. If things seem unfair – that’s because they are – nobody ever said life was going to be a fair game. Either accept those things as unfair and move on, or change them. But don’t lose sleep about the small or unfair things
- Build up your list of supporters from the start. Have a good bank manager who you can contact whenever you want, an accountant who will explain things to you in detail, and make sure your partner (wife/husband) is included in everything you do
- Do not let the accountant run your finances. Keep everything close. Don’t let the accountant charge you too much or have your accounts vanish in to a black hole. Instead, use online accounting from day one (the accountant should be there to sign off the accounts and save your money). Having a clear picture of your accounts and cash flow every moment is key not only in making decisions, but allowing you to sleep at night.
- Know what you are doing it all for. Have a set of goals, and review them regularly. Get hold of a copy of the success principles, and read it – twice a year. It’s the best book on the planet! Trust me on that
- Do not waste effort trying to keep everybody up to date on project progress – you will end up stressing about projects and being overworked. Instead, invest in a cloud based project management system – the moment you do, your business world will change in leaps and bounds. You will never look back
- Don’t chase the money. Customers will try to take you in directions you are not prepared to go. It’s ok to say no if the work does not interest you, is not inline with what you want to do, or how you picture your small company. Be strong with customers.
- Don’t be scared to take on work involving skills you don’t have. Whilst you will be reluctant to do this initially, eventually you will come to realise that this will lead to you growing in skills and confidence, which will make your time more valuable.
- Invest in time management tools. Your time is money, so use tools like Evernote to keep track of everything you do and create, and re-use it over and over again. When you start doing this, you will see your worth grow.
- Get everything down on paper – simple terms, agreements and contracts – and get them signed. This will get you out of more problems than you could possibly imagine.
- And get a mentor. Approach your old bosses, or a local mentoring group, and become accountable. It’s also a great way to make new friends and stay in touch with what is happening ion the business world.
Younger me, its important to remember to enjoy the ride. Yes, times will be tough, customers nasty, and sometimes money will be tight – but nether the less, enjoy the ride. Getting where ever you are going is half the fun.
A more experienced Me
And that’s It!!
At the start of 2012, I said that this blog would finished at the end of 2012 – and as I type this, it’s December 2012. So that’s it – the blog is done. There is no more.
Dear reader, whoever you are, I really hope that you have found this blog useful. I have found it fun to create, and get my thoughts, systems, and processes down on (electronic) paper. I hope that you have gained something from reading my advice.
My advice does work. I am not perfect, I do not run the perfect company, I make as many mistakes as any other person out there, but my company has grown year in and year out using the tips I have written down. Most of my advice comes from people who are far more experienced and successful than me – so if any of my advice, or systems I describe feel right to you – give them a try – see if they will help you grow your own company.
As I sign off from my blog, I wish you dear reader well. I hope your company grows as you want it to, and I hope to meet you in the real world at some point.
As for me, I will continue on with growing my business, heading towards my goals, but now without the need to document it here. This blog will remain on the net until the end of 2013, at which time it will then be consigned to the great internet dustbin.
Goodbye and good luck.
Author of this Web site , Freelancer, Small Business Owner and passionate goal setter/achiever
December 20th, 2012.
In the penultimate entry in my Freelancing and Small Business Blog, I would like to return to the subject of quotations (or proposals). Having spent the last week sending out a dozen or so quotations, I have been reviewing my quotation template to make sure it is up to speed.
Quotation or proposal templates are great; they provide a base format for providing your prospects with estimates for your work, whilst reducing the amount of effort needed to put them together, and at the same time ensuring that no important element is forgotten (easily done when churning out multiple quotations).
My own template is in the form of two word documents – one called “Quotation Template – Basic” and “Quotation Template – Full Proposal”. The two versions carry almost the same elements, it’s just that the Basic version wording is cut down to a minimum whilst the full proposal has more details, more examples and provides more information.
As an example of the differences between the two versions, the “basic” version has a section called “How we work” which says (in a nutshell), “here is the quote, you order, we confirm order and delivery, we do work, we deliver, you pay”. The proposal has multiple paragraphs about all of this, but includes breaking the project into stages, use of my on-line project management system, staged payments, etc. In both formats, the text is pretty set, and very rarely do I need to amend these sorts of text blocks for a new quotation.
Which brings me to the subject of todays (almost last) post….
10 Things that your quotations may be missing
So as part of my review of my templates, I checked that my quotation templates covered in some way these important but often forgotten pieces of information that a client may need before raising an order:
- Currency – Let’s start with an obvious one, the currency of the quotation. It doesn’t matter if you use a £, $ or € symbol in the prices or state explicitly “All prices are in British Pounds”. A lot of companies are multinational, so prices can get confused as they move around.
- When can you start the work – Rather than putting in a specific date (and so making the quote invalid once the date is reached), it’s better to put something generic like “Generally work can be started within 4 weeks of an order/payment being received. But the exact date will be specified upon order confirmation”
- When the job should be complete – This will vary from quotation to quotation (unless you provide the exact same service each and every time), so you just need to check you have a heading or note for this area – and cover it when you put the quotation together in the format “…and will take approximately 7 weeks to complete”
- How long is the quote valid for – Your prices will change (I hope) from time to time so it’s no good your prospects trying to order a 4 year old quote expecting the same prices. My own templates state that “This quotation is valid up to the first day of September following the quotation date at which time we perform an annual price review. After the 1st September, the prices in the quotation may need review before an order can be accepted”
- Does it affect any support arrangements including cost – I have some customers who pay me a support and maintenance payment each year. For these customers, I have a clause (which I remove for non S&M customers) which says if/how it effects this years or next year’s support.
- Does it need any up front actions by the client- payment, hardware, specs, etc – Be clear as part of the quotation what is needed in addition to the order for work to start.
- Who owns the changes, code, designs – It saves the customer having to ask or make assumptions – if making designs, have template text which says who owns the changes, designs, code, files both before and after payment.
- When will you expect payment – In my quotation templates, I include a summary of my terms and conditions, which includes my payment terms, ownership, late payment penalties and other information. Don’t wait till the time of invoice to tell them what your payment terms will be.
- You have the right to reject the order – This may sound odd, but I have a sentence which states in a fluffy way, that I have the right to reject the order. Just because I quote and they raise an order, does not mean I always want to do the work. I may have fallen out with the customer (lots of bad payments), have more important work to do, or am no longer capable of doing the work (2 broken arms?!?).
- What you need to start work – The final thing worth adding to the very last part of your quotation template is the call to action – or what is the next action that you need in order for work to start. Be explicit, even if you have said it earlier in the quotation. Such as “Thank you for the opportunity to bid for this work. In order for me to get started, please send me a bundle of cash as soon as possible” (or whatever your next action is).
Now first off, we have to assume that you have provided an estimate based on a project cost (rather than a day cost). If the customer is paying by the day, then you have to let them know when you think you are going to take more time than agreed or budgeted, so that a higher than expected invoice will not come as a surprise. But if you are using a cloud based project management system, this is an easy task and they will be alerted by the system automatically as tasks slip.
But project based under estimations are a different ball game altogether. When such a project takes longer than you estimated, you could end up making a loss on the project – or cutting corners which means the customer will end up unhappy and unwilling to pay the bill.
Keeping Track to spot problems
First of all, its critical to both you and the customer that you keep track of the project progress in terms of the work agreed, the work you have completed, and if the work is on track. Again, project management software will allow you to do this, so everybody knows what is going on all the time.
The important thing is to spot slippage or extra work as soon as possible. There may be elements that you thought the customer would supply but you are now being asked to deliver, or a misunderstanding of requirements, or a delay from unavailable resources (either on your side or on the customers side). But again, the important thing is, the moment you spot a problem; that is the time to take action.
I have seen too many projects where the project manager thought things could be made up towards the end of the project, either in cutting corners elsewhere or everybody ‘working harder’ to make up the lost time. Yes, this could work – but generally this is just making a situation worse or delaying the pain. Much better to start having a conversation and coming up with a solution sooner rather than later.
Control scope creep or customer based delays
One of the major problems with projects for paying customers is scope creep. This is where the scope of the project is agreed up front, work is started, and then the customer will want more than agreed. This can come about from comments such as ‘But I thought it would do this as well….’, or ‘When you said A, I thought you meant A, B, C and D’. Then there is the external customer influence factor, where your main contact will say things like ‘Just got word from Joe in Marketing, who insists it should do this….’.. Good project scope documents should have a good limitations clause to avoid such problems, but lets assume its too late for that now.
In this situation, it’s important to control the creep. Say “That’s a great idea, but why don’t we deliver what we agreed on, and then we can look at B, C and D after the initial delivery“. This is called change control – and the beauty of change control is that you can then create mini-sub-projects after the main delivery, all of which are chargeable (or at least have the changeability discussion after the customer has paid for the main part of the project).
Customer delays can also come about when they promised to deliver something (data, specifications, resources, hardware, whatever), and fail to do so – or at least, they deliver it late. Once again, having the customer based tasks on a cloud based project management system will stop this from happening. Their responsibilities are scheduled, they are informed of the upcoming requirements, and automatically nagged when it goes overdue.
When customers are late, you have every right to ask for more money if it means delays or additional work for you. I would phrase it along the lines of “The project agreement was that you would provide a widget by the start of November. Unfortunately, the failure to deliver has impacted the project delivery and has resulted in xx lost days which are outside of the original estimate. We are therefore in the unfortunate position of having to bill for these additional lost days at the end of the project”. Again, do this as soon as possible, as this will mean fewer delays in the future (they will not want to get caught out again).
They may of course object to the extra charges, but now you have turned the discussion into a haggle or negotiation. You could of course be the good guy and agree that “Ok, we wont charge you THIS TIME, but will have to in the case of any more delays.”
How I would tell them about under estimation
So now we come down to the tricky business of what to do when you have agreed work and you find that your estimate is nowhere near the amount of work that will actually be required.
Of course, the first option is just to bite the bullet, accept you have made a mistake, learn from the mistake and continue with the project to completion. Deciding to take the hit will need to be based on how much money you will lose, and how much future work is likely from the customer. Generally speaking, I personally side on the rule of “bird in the hand is better than 2 in the bush” and never assume that the customer will provide future work (even if they promise it). If the lose is acceptable, then I will just stay quiet, but if it’s a major hit, then the difficult conversation has to be had.
I would recommend that the conversation never be held either by email or on the phone. When going cap in hand to the customer, a face to face meeting is really the only option that will work. If that is not possible, try to get a face conversation with Skype, otherwise a phone call. An email is going to be last route you should try.
The conversation with them needs to be honest, lay it on the line, and start a negotiation. Try and find an additional payment which works for both you and the customer. They will of course be deeply unhappy, and may force you to complete the project at the agreed price – in which case your only option would be to walk away and make a total loss (with the possibility of legal action against you, subject to whatever legal document you drew up prior to starting work).
I would always try to get a balanced agreement – you are in a bad situation, so your aim would actually be an ‘everybody looses’ balance (e.g., you pay me more, and I will throw in free training and support). The agreement will vary depending on your situation, your project, the customer and your own charisma. But, I would start the conversation with something like:
Here is the situation. I produced the estimate for delivery of the project based on my understanding of the requirement. I am sorry to say that as we worked on the project, my knowledge grew clearer and as a result, I have realised that I have underestimated the effort required to deliver this. We need to talk about reshaping the project, either by re-estimating the effort and cost required to deliver to the agreed scope, or by shrinking the scope of delivery to fit with the agreed budget.
Then, stop talking, and listen to what they have to say. Negotiate!
One thing I can guarantee is that yours will not be the first project that the customer will have ordered that will have gone over budget, and I can also guarantee, yours will not be the last.
In a previous post, I talked about how I occasionally like to mix up my freelance working practices by working as an IT contractor on a customer site. The reason for doing this (if you don’t want to read the original entry) is to keep up to date with what is happening in the real world in terms of customer expectations, technologies and environments.
Now whilst selling freelance and small business services means putting on a sales hat and talking benefits and features, landing a contract is all down to the interview.
Throughout my freelancing career, I have done four contracts, and attended around twenty two contract role interviews. In all of those interviews, there has only ever been one occurrence where I was not offered the role. In most cases, I have 3 or 4 offers on the table, and it comes down to selecting the role I prefer.
I believe the reason why I was offered so many roles comes down to one important interview tip:
Give a Killer Answer to the Trick Question
I am sure that the people who have hired me have other candidates with similar or better technical skills, similar or better experience, and similar office/interpersonal skills. If they are any thing like me when I am interviewing for candidates (which I am often asked to do when freelancing for companies) the stream of people I am interviewing soon becomes a blur.
So I make sure I stand out with my Killer Answer to their Trick Question.
All interviewers at some point will ask what they think is a trick question. It may be in the form of “Whats your biggest weakness” or “Whats the number one thing you would bring to this role” or even “Why should we give the contract to you?”. I have found generally, all interviews will consist of such a question in different forms.
And my killer answer to any such question is always “Oh, Its because I am lazy!!”.
Yep – I know. It sounds mad. Why would I say such a thing? Why would I say I am lazy?
Simple – its an answer they wont expect. It’s a surprise. It will shock them awake. They will take notice. I will be remembered.
But clearly, if that was my whole answer, then its unlikely I would land any contracts. So I continue after a brief pause to let the answer soak in and have an impact!
“Oh, its because I am lazy!!!!” Pause (count to three)….”Sorry – that’s not quite right. Lazy is the wrong word. What I mean is that I avoid doing more work than is required. If a task needs something put together, I will look at what I have done in the past, or what is already in place, to reuse it as much as possible, which of course will save time and effort and build on what already works. Yes, sorry, lazy is the wrong word. Efficient – that’s a better word.”
That is a great answer as it shocks them to take notice, gets them thinking, then reassures them that they are going to get the biggest bang for their buck by hiring you.
Again, I know it sounds mad, but I make a point of using this killer answer to their tricky questions, and only once has it ever let me down.
And I have been interviewing people myself for over 20 years – I know what interviewers are expecting and what they want to hear in an answer.
Give it a try yourself.
Now and again I like to talk about systems that work for me. I am not talking about Cloud or Computer based systems, but work productivity techniques which allow me to stay productive and on the ball.
A year ago, I talked about my Bath Time technique for getting ideas and inspiration. Today is another one of those ‘out there’ ideas – about a technique I use when I am just too busy.
Working on One Project or Task
For the vast majority of my time, I am working on one major task. For Business, it may be one major customer project, or at home, it may be one major home project like a home repair or maintenance project.
In these situations – it’s easy just to get your head down and get on with it. Just cut out the distractions, come up now and again for a break (air and tea), start in the morning, finish in the evening – get the job done. Easy stuff.
But, then there are times when I am forced to juggle more than one ball. Sometimes I will have multiple projects which I’m working on, with some sales thrown into the mix, responding to urgent mails, doing customer support. Very soon, I can have five or six task balls in the air.
In this situation, spending all your time on just the one task will work for that specific project, but everything else gets no attention, so problems start to stack up. Soon, panic can set in, or problems can occur as tasks fall off the radar.
If you spend all of your time just working on customer work, when the project is over, you may find your accounts have gotten into a mess or your lack of sales activity means you have no future work.
My System for Juggling too many tasks
So the moment I see I have too many projects on the go, I resort to my paper based system. It’s a system I have used for many many years.
I take a piece of A4 paper, and fold it in half, then half again (so it becomes an A6 size of paper, or the size of a filing card). Then I create a grid with a wide column on the left. In this wide column, I write all my ‘needs attention’ projects – all the things I need to be doing.
What we have running down the side are my juggled projects:
- DWH & Paxar – Two customer projects I am working on
- TSL Market – Time I need to allocate to my own company marketing
- ToDo – Time allocated to my never ending general task to do list
- Emails – Responding and keeping up to date with emails
- Money – Doing money management – both personal and business – cash flow, reducing expenses, and other frugal activities
- MP3s – Another customer project I am working on
- Blog – Time allocated to this blog (trying to get ahead of myself with future posts, ready for my next big holiday in a few weeks)
So what I do is this; I work through the list, doing either one major task per item (such as knocking an item off of my do list, or clearing one email from my inbox) or working 40 minutes on that project. For customer projects, I generally do the 40 minutes stretch of work, and set an alarm to tell me when 35 minutes are up. When the alarm goes off, I then have 5 minutes to wrap up what I am doing – and then it’s onto the next task down the list. When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top, and start from the beginning.
I put a cross to mark when I have gotten up to in my list – if you look carefully, you will see the next box to be crossed off (going down in rows, then across in columns) is for the blog, hence my typing this now. You will also notice that some of the boxes have a small hand written note in them – this was my ‘next action’ on these particular projects – when I get back to the task set, I know what I should be doing.
When the tasks completed are big, or I have worked 40 minutes on a customer project (and the alarm has gone off), I then force myself to take a break, get another cup of tea, and have 5 minutes away from a computer screen.
This system allows me to rotate my work, and make sure everything gets attention, nothing falls of the radar, and everything moves along. When the urgency of particular items falls away (such as all my urgent emails are answered or top priority ToDo items are done) I can cross off the entire project row and I can start to relax. Once the number of projects falls below a panic level, I then switch back to my concentrated project work (one project at a time).
Combining proven techniques
This system may not be for everybody. Some people will find the constant switching between work types a distraction, but for me, the switching actually means I have time to think about what I am doing, and come back to projects with a clearer mind.
After having used this system for a few years, I came across a system that other people use called the Pomodoro technique – which is very similar in terms of having a timer to chunk up the day and taking breaks in-between time slots – although I think my system came along first
However, I have to say that where possible – running multiple projects should be avoided. Other people have reported switching between tasks and projects like this can result in either a 40% reduction in productivity, or you going mad. I have to say, I somewhat agree with both suggestions – which is why I only use this system when I have too many projects to juggle and I only use if for a day or so to get me over the too much work craziness.
Once the calm has returned, I can then get back to my concentrated method of working.
If you find yourself drowning in different work, give this system a try and chunk up your day. Let me know if it works out for you.
Suspending projects, leaving customers unsupported, jetting off to somewhere warm, sunny and relaxing may be how holidays are supposed to be – but I always panic that as I fly off to the middle of nowhere, servers will crash, bugs will be uncovered and customers will need assistance which I am unable to provide.
Of course, disaster can be averted, and vacations can be turned into a more relaxing experience through some simple preparation.
Whilst this preparation will vary depending on the type of freelancing work you do, the number of existing customers you have, or number of projects on the go, some preparation activities will work for all freelancers.
My own check list of top twelve pre-vacation activities for restful and stress free holidays are as follows:
- Holidays over public holidays and weekends – Let’s start with the simple ones. Scheduling your vacations to include as many non-working days as possible not only means you are not wasting potential money earning working days, but also reduces the number of days when customers will need supporting. Of course, vacations over public holidays will cost a little more.
- Cut off of Work – I have a two week window before any overseas travel where I will not install software changes of any kind on any customer’s site. In the past, I have found that the bad-luck demons will happily sit back and watch that typo turn into a nasty data corruption bug, which of course will only be discovered 20 seconds after your plane takes off. Leaving a settle in period means any problems should have been discovered by customers before you leave.
- Have an Email Filter - You know all those emails you get with small business tips, blog posts, LinkedIn updates and the like, you don’t need them on holiday. Create a filter which automatically moves them to a holiday folder which you can review on your return. Also worth noting that the rules need to be in your core email store (such as exchange) rather than your email client (outlook) as otherwise the rules will not be applied.
- Have a email Check schedule – and agree this with your partner and friends that are traveling with you. Nothing will annoy your husband or wife more than them feeling like there are on holiday on their own as you always have your phone in your hands checking emails. Two email checks a day is a good compromise, and schedule those times based on the time difference between your holiday destination and your customers.
- Tell the customers – If your customers know you are a one-man-band freelancer, tell them when you are going to be away. Tell them as soon as you book your vacation, so everybody has plenty of time to prepare for the window of ‘no support activity’. Of course, if you are ‘pretending’ to be bigger than you are, tell them anyway, and direct them to a generic support or issues email address.
- Check you can get to the Internet – Don’t leave it to the last minute to check that you can get on the internet at your selected holiday location. Can you access internet via hotel WiFi, via your mobile phone operator – and what will be the speeds and costs involved? Most hotels have a web site these days, and most will indicate what ‘business’ facilities are available. If there are problems, have a backup plan ready before you fly.
- Arrange external support? – If you are supporting important projects or customers, it is always worth speaking to other friendly freelancers to see if they will help support your customers whilst you are away getting a tan. This will need some serious preparation time in terms of technical knowledge transfer, setting up access to the project files, access to the customer files, and of course contracts between you and them. Such agreements do not necessarily need to be for money (you can arrange a situation where they cover you, and in return you cover them), but generally, paying them for their time can be money well spent if it means you can relax on holiday.
- Make key files accessible – Just in case you do end up getting dragged into a support or question-answering situation, it is well worth making sure key files for key customers are to hand and in a format that is usable. For making files accessible, nothing beats cloud storage such as dropbox (which allows access via browser or mobile phone). Just remember that you need them in a format that you can view without a full computer (unless you are taking your laptop). It is no good having your SQL server database backed up to dropbox if you don’t have a server to load the data onto – better to have the table formats and scripts exported into a text file that you can read on a text viewer (same goes for application source files, graphics files (you wont have photoshop available), etc). Also, if in doubt – push all customer files to the cloud as it’s the ones you don’t have access to that you will undoubtedly need.
- Look for common problems – Another good exercise prior to leaving for vacation is to review your old customer support issues and look for common problems. For my customers, the same problems crop up over and over again (forgotten passwords, query on the movements of data through a data system, etc). A lot of pain can be eased by creating a quick ‘how to overcome or answer your most common questions’ crib sheet which you send out before you fly.
- Remote Project Management – For me, there is no better feeling than having a project start off as I fly out to holiday – and knowing that some poor freelancer I have subcontracted to is working hard whilst I drink frozen cocktails by the pool. If you have a cloud based project management system (see below), this can make staying up to speed a breeze.
- Remote issue logging system – As discussed, having a central support email address for incoming issues is good, but having a cloud based issue logging and resolution system is so much better. Your customers will feel more in control, and you (or your friendly supporting freelancer friend) can respond to and resolve issues via an internet connection.
- Possible Remote solutions – The final option is to see if you can organise a remote support situation. I give more details on my particular solution below.
Remote Project Management
One of the cloud based tools that I have been using for the past couple of years has been the TeamworkPM project management system. Having a project system which controls work flow, and that myself, my customers and (in some cases) my outsourced developers can see has been a gods-send.
I am even happier now that I have found that Teamwork PM have mobile phone based applications which run on both Android and iOS based mobile phones. A great tool is now even better – allowing me to track progress on projects, update statuses, chase for progress and keep track of projects whilst I am traveling or enjoying a break with the minimum of fuss and the minimum of data bandwidth (which saves a lot of time and cost when on a roaming data plan).
Using Teamwork and the mobile based client, I am able to keep working whilst sipping a drink, and the project continues along without me – keeping all my customers very happy.
My own Remote Support Solution
In terms of my own remote support system, I recognised that for me, a lot of my support questions came about regarding the data that is held on my customer databases (generally Oracle or SQL Server). Therefore, to aid in remote support, I invested a day and developed myself a remote support system.
The system comprises of two parts:
1) I developed a web form on my own internet server (where I host my business web site) which presents me with a text entry window and a drop down list of my customers. In this window, I can type some freehand SQL script (or pick from a set of 12 common queries), and select a customer. The customer code and the SQL script is then written to a file on my web server
2) I also developed a customer end service, which runs on each customer site (in the background) once an hour, and reads the text file from my web site. If the customer code is the code of the site, and the save time is within the last hour (to stop duplicate runs) it connects to the product database, runs the script, gets the results into an HTML grid table, and emails me the results
It’s crude, quick and nasty – but is very effective.
When a customer logs a support call saying that they need to know why something has happened, I can bring up my web form on my phone, and type in my SQL command (“select * from audit where data = ‘the problem code”). Then I go off and get a drink. One or Two hours later, I get a response email back from the customers database server with an HTML formatted set of the results, as if I was dialed into their computer.
In my leisure, I can look at the data on my phone display, and using my cloud based customer support form, quickly type a response. If needed, the SQL script that I send to be run can be an update (to sort out data), a select on a database object (to view a stored procedure) or can even reboot a server. All from my sandy beach location on holiday.
Whilst my solution is designed to work on client databases, maybe a similar solution will work for you to get web details, page files, documents, or whatever else your freelance business deals with for customers?
This scene appears in a wide range of movies (pick from Brazil, the Fifth Element, Hudsucker Proxy, Secret of My Success or a dozen more).
The scene it shows is of alpha-boss type character walking down a (normally grey and dim) corridor. Running behind them, trying to keep up are 3 to 12 YES MEN – all waving pieces of paper. Whatever the boss wants, whatever the question, whatever the need – the answer is YES. (The photo shown as an illustration is Rudy Rhods ‘yes men’ waiting for Korban Dallas to give an answer from the movie, the Fifth Element).
So what’s the point of this movie scene, and how does it relate to freelancing?
Permies are Afraid to Give Bad News
When you are a permanent employee, the perception is that the boss is asking for confirmation. They are asking for you to confirm their decision, agree with their strategies, underline their thinking. In a nutshell, they are asking you to say Yes. After all, the boss is the person who can grant you pay rises or can turn your working day into a living hell.
But as a Freelancer or Contractor, we are brought in to give expert advice. Sometimes, this means saying No. Sometimes it means giving bad news.
The Art of Giving Bad News
But, there is an art to giving bad news. Even when somebody is paying you to review a system or help make an executive decision, bad news and No is not an answer that they will want to hear. At least, not only bad news.
I have years of experience of delivering bad news to customers and senior managers. For whatever reason, the last 2 or 3 months for me has seen a major increase of review projects, where the news was not going to make the manager a happy person.
So I present my suggested steps for delivering bad news to anyone who is paying you to deliver good news:
- Nobody likes surprises. Before delivering the No or bad news, hint in a side chat that the news may not be so good (but you need some more time to review). Allow them some time to adjust to the idea.
- Be specific on your reasons. Don’t just deliver the bad news – say why you have come to your decision – but don’t go overboard either. One or two strong reasons will be sufficient
- Don’t deliver a problem – nobody likes the bearer of bad news. Give the bad news, but follow up immediately with suggestions to change the situation (“I have reviewed your processes and they don’t work. BUT, we can turn this around by…..”)
- When you make suggestions – give 2 or 3 options, and make a recommendation on which you would select. Don’t go overboard on the number of suggestions, this will just add confusion.
- If possible, deliver the bad news in person, but have a supporting document with the recommendations to leave behind for them to think about.
- Don’t be afraid to charge to make the suggested improvements. If you were being paid for a review, it’s just the review and suggestions you are being paid to deliver. Give them ways out with a price tag.
- Don’t go overboard on the selling of the turn-around options – otherwise it could appear as you are delivering bad news just to up-sell. Sometimes, it is prudent to deliver possible solutions on the basis that “Anybody could make these improvements – but if you would like, I would be happy to quote for them, or you could make the changes yourself”
- If it’s down to an individual in the company, don’t name names or point fingers (unless explicitly asked to do so). Normally, just highlighting the problem allows managers to see the department or person responsible.
- Keep to the facts, and don’t turn into a doom sayer. Using big disaster type words (catastrophe, calamity, cataclysm, disaster, worthless, etc) will just make people throw up defences.
- If it’s your fault (something you have done in the past), admit it. Don’t try to hide the fact or blame others. Offer to make the suggested corrections or improvements at your own cost.
You want your freelance or small business to grow, right? You want an easy life, and happy customers or staff, yes? And you don’t want people complaining to or about you, do you?
If so, then can I recommend the following five rules of business communication (which were handed down to me by one of my old business mentors)? He taught me that if you follow these rules in all communication (with prospects, staff, customers and even in personal matters), it will make things run a lot easier and will head off a lot of problems before they occur.
I have these rules on a small card pinned next to my computer screen – just so I don’t forget them, and I try to follow them in all my communication.
Anyway – on with the rules…
Rule 1 – Keep people up-to-speed
One of the worst things in business is not knowing what is going on. It’s an easy situation for people to find themselves in. They ask you to do something, and the response is silence – they can only guess whether you are working on their request, they are number 100 in your queue of actions, or if you are ignoring them. So remember to communicate whenever anything significant changes, or just send them a regular status email to keep them informed.
Rule 2 – Be explicit in what you are saying and asking
Miss-communication is bad. But what is worse, is expecting somebody else to read your mind, or in-between the lines. If you want something, say exactly what it is you want. As an example, don’t say fuzzy things such as “well, your support ends next month, so what do you want to do about it?” – Say what you want – “your support ends next month, so I need you to raise a new purchase order for £5,000 which needs to be with me by Friday because without this….”.
Rule 3 – Make it easy, simple and obvious
Keep the communication short, use simple words, and keep it obvious in terms of subject and content. Think of each communication as costing you money – every word you can cut out saves you a pound, and every word that isn’t used on a day to day basis (the extra long padding words such as ‘conceptualize’, ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘leverage’) costs you £2.
Rule 4 – If in doubt, pick up the phone
Some things are better said than typed. If emails or letters have turned into a multi-bouncing discussion or too many people have been copied in, pick up the phone and have the discussion. If its bad news, pick up the phone and take the heat rather than taking the cowards way out with a text or email.
Rule 5 – Automate the communication
Where possible – automate the communication. This doesn’t mean adopting a spam generating system which will churn out useless sales rubbish, but use a system that either allows people to find the information themselves (such as using a really good online project portal allowing customers to keep track of their projects when they want), or create manual processes where you keep people up to date with the current situation.
We put a lot of effort into starting projects; from nurturing prospects through to agreeing terms and requirements. But what about when projects are completed – how do you wrap up and complete projects?
In order to keep a good relationship and possibly win future business with the customer, doing a project hand over is just as important as the project start.
What to include in the hand over
Depending on the type of work that you do and the size of the project, a face to face hand over meeting may be required. If this is the case, it should normally be agreed from the start and factored in your initial work assessment and quotations.
Regardless of whether the project hand over is a face to face meeting, or is performed by email, some of the hand over aspects which you may want to factor in include:
- Training – Depending on the skill level of your customer, some degree of hand over training may be required. This of course could be factored into the initial quotation, or could be offered as an after-service when the project is completed (with an additional fee). Just remember that if you train them *too well*, they may not need your services in the future.
- Support and Maintenance – The flip side of training is support and maintenance (for me, the icing on the freelance cake). If you can charge your customer a regular yearly amount in advance for fixing problems and answer questions, well, that’s how companies grow and big profits are made. If support and maintenance is a consideration, you will need to think about what form the support will take and what the limits are.
- Problem Resolution and Warranty – As part of a hand over, your customer will want to know what to do if they hit a problem. Let them know how long you will support them for (if at all), what to do if they need changes, and how to contact you (you may want them to use a separate support email address for instance). This then ties them in to the support and maintenance agreements. Be clear about what will be free corrections, and what will be chargeable.
- Suggested Next Steps – Without being too pushy, it is worth providing them with a suggested set of next steps (how their product, web site, documents, etc could be expanded for more value). This is one of my key ways of generating future business.
- Passwords and source code – If you have provided them with a product (software product, documents, art work or web site), they will most likely expect to receive the source code. If there are associated web domains, passwords, or accounts, don’t forget to document these. It will save a lot of problems in the future.
- Time Periods – For most projects, you will have copies of their designs/source/art work on your computers and their projects on your project management systems (you do use a project management system to save time and money, right?). It is well worth stating clearly how long you will retain these copies for before you delete them. This is important as you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where they delete their copy by mistake, and expect to come back to you in 5 years time for another copy (which you no longer can provide).
Thank you – Don’t forget to say a big thank you for their business. You don’t need to go over the top, but in today’s climate, a simple thank you will go a long way.
- Survey and Referral – The end of the project is a perfect time to arrange an end of contract customer survey which covers all your dealings with the customer (from quotation to invoice), and also to ask if they would be happy to provide either a reference or a referral.
- Contact Branding – And don’t forget to brand everything with your company. It should be clearly stamped with your company logo, name, address, web site URL, phone number and email address. It may be that your main customer contact may leave in the future, but your documentation will remain on file for others to get in contact for future work.
Get it right, repeat and evolve
This may all seem like a lot of effort, but the secret is to create a generic project hand-over document (or set of documents), which can be used and tweaked for each project. Once you have a template, the updating of a hand over document becomes part of the project closure, and takes a lot less effort in the future.
As with all other documents your company produces (such as the quotation templates, questions list, etc), this can be a living document, that evolves (and improves) over time.
Preparation and submission of the handover document soon becomes a natural part of your project delivery structure.
Maybe now is not the right time to sell
One thing to bear in mind is that the project handover process and documents are there to present subtle messages of next actions, professionalism, and to keep your company name in front of your customer. However, I have found in the past that coming out and asking for more work directly as part of the project handover very rarely works.
The customer will be too wrapped up in getting to grips with the product or service you have just delivered.
It is far better to present the hand over, and at the end, agree a scheduled call or meeting as a ‘follow up’ (to check everything is still ok) in a month or so’s time. That is then the perfect time to raise the ‘next steps’ you have suggested and to look at fishing for the next project.
So you have a web site, and the web site has a nice Contact Us page, and maybe you have even done some extensive A/B version testing to see what layout will get the most enquiries. That’s all great, but….
Maybe you have a contact form, and you clearly display your contact details. Of course, this includes your contact phone number. All these are the right things to do, but….
And your contact form, you have it going to an email address you monitor, right? When an email comes in, it will go to your in tray on your PC/Mac, your phone and maybe even your dog gets a copy. You’re ready to respond.
What happens if something has gone wrong?
What happens if the script that runs your contact form is now incompatible with the software your hosting provider runs? What happens if the email address you send enquiry emails to has become lost via an ISP tweak? What happens if the emails are now caught in your anti-spam filter because of new rules?
In short, how do you know your contact form and email address is not dumping precious enquiries into the recycle bin of another parallel-dimension (or wherever bounced enquiries go to die)?
Why not put a reoccurring task in your calendar or To Do list to send yourself an enquiry once a week, or an enquiry email, and check it gets through?
Better safe than sorry-about-the-lost-enquiries.