How to be a better listener

listenToday’s Wall Street Journal has a great piece on how to be a better listener. While it’s useful in any conversational setting, it is particularly valuable when you are approaching a negotiation with a client.

Before a negotiation, for example, you should:

  • do a brain dump of pending work so you can pick it up later (so your mind is clear)
  • make a list of questions and topics you want to cover (This enables you to fully listen to the other person, rather than constantly thinking of what you want to say next.)
  • set an intention to talk 25% and listen 75% (yes, really!)
  • drop your assumptions of what the other person will say and just listen

 

Burn your business plan

Burning paperI’ve never been a big fan of formal business plans. Often, they don’t embed enough flexibility for the entrepreneur to pivot, based on new experience and a changing competitive environment. (Marketing plans, on the other hand, are essential tools in managing and prioritizing an entrepreneur’s valuable time.)

What I have found to be more useful for people who are just starting their business is to ask themselves the questions. Note that there are no right or wrong answers; what’s important is getting a clear picture of who your clients are and how you amaze and astound them.

* Why are you starting a business? What appeals to you the most about being an entrepreneur? What the least?

* Describe what gives you enormous satisfaction professionally. Is it passing along a great insight to a client? Writing a report that you’re really proud of? Having a client tell you how you saved their butt? Describe the most gratifying source of professional satisfaction for you.

* Describe how you picture an ideal day in your new business. What kind of work will you be doing? Imagine the ideal client to work with and describe that client.

* What 3 things scare you the most about starting and running a successful business?

* What 3 things do you dread the most about starting or running a business?

* How are you going to fund your first 6 months of business? (This includes your start-up expenses and overhead.) Are you planning to pay yourself a salary for your first 6 months in business? If so, how soon do you expect to be bringing in enough revenue to start paying yourself a salary?

* How do you plan on creating word of mouth marketing? How will you tangibly demonstrate to prospective clients that you are the person they desperately need?

* Describe one of your client groups.
o What are their job titles?
o How will they initially hear about you?
o What services or products will you provide to them?
o Why will they highly value these products or services, and be willing to pay your regular hourly rate?
o How often do you expect them to use your services?
o How much do you expect an average project to cost? [and how did you arrive at this number?]
o How much does this client group overlap with your other client groups?

* Describe another of your client groups.
o What are their job titles?
o How will they initially hear about you?
o What services or products will you provide to them?
o Why will they highly value these products or services, and be willing to pay your regular hourly rate?
o How often do you expect them to use your services?
o How much do you expect an average project to cost? [and how did you arrive at this number?]
o How much does this client group overlap with your other client groups?

* Describe one more of your client groups.
o What are their job titles?
o How will they initially hear about you?
o What services or products will you provide to them?
o Why will they highly value these products or services, and be willing to pay your regular hourly rate?
o How often do you expect them to use your services?
o How much do you expect an average project to cost? [and how did you arrive at this number?]
o How much does this client group overlap with your other client groups?

* What is your official launch date? This is when you officially consider yourself running a business. On this day, you will send out all your personal letters to your contacts, telling them about your new business. You will announce your business on social media. You will send out a press release. You will officially be In Business. What’s the date?

* How will you decide whether this is a going business or not? Fill in these blanks:

If, by {this date} I have not {started paying myself a salary/have X clients/whatever your criteria are}, then I will {close my business? conduct an all-day retreat to re-think all aspects of my business? revise my business and marketing plans and set a new course?}.

If, by _____________________ I have not _________________________, then I will ________________________.

Talking about prices with clients

Red Cash TagI am a big proponent of pricing by the project rather than by the hour; to me, it’s a no-brainer that both my client and I are better off if we focus on outcome rather than the amount of activity required. But what do you do if a prospective client insists on talking about your hourly rate at the beginning of a conversation?

Here’s where I pause and take a deeeeep breath. I never want to talk about the price of anything until I have already demonstrated in my conversation that my goal is to enable my client to accomplish his/her goal. If I lead with a money discussion, I will always be thought of in terms of expense rather than value.If, instead, I guide the conversation back to what my client’s ultimate goals are, then I am seen as an ally who is focused on outcome.

When I get a persistent prospect who wants to talk about prices right away, my response directs the conversation back to the client: “My rule is to never talk about a budget until I understand what your end goal is. Can you tell me a little more about this project?” And if I’m really pushed, I will fall back on “My projects range in price from $500 to $50,000; where do most of your similar projects fall in that spectrum?”

Note that it’s very difficult to have this kind of conversation in email and I recommend against it, even if that means waking up at 3am to call a client half way around the world so that you can talk live. You cannot have a conversation that demonstrates your commitment to your client’s outcome if (1) you can’t make yourself available at your client’s convenience or (2) your client is not willing to engage you in a conversation.

When your clients see you as their partner rather than just an invoice waiting to happen, you are able to explore how you can solve your clients’ problems even more fully, creatively and effectively.

Following up on Nimble Info-Entrepreneur webinar

Businesswoman archI recently gave a webinar for AIIP on The Radically Nimble Info-Entrepreneur: remaining relevant and maintaining value. (If you’re an AIIP member, you can watch the webinar recording in the members-only area of the web site. If you’re not, you can download the slide deck at BatesInfo.com/extras.) We had more questions than I had time to answer, so I have answered the rest of the questions here.

Q: Can you learn and push the comfort zone while volunteering? Are those skills transferable?

A: During my talk, I mentioned the importance of learning to push our comfort zones, and the value of volunteering as a way to stretch ourselves and learn new skills. Yes, volunteering to lead a committee is a great way to push your comfort zone. Offering to serve on a committee, on the other hand, isn’t. Frankly, if you’re not the one accountable for the outcome, then you don’t have skin in the game. If you really want to push your comfort zone, step up and offer to lead, and invite real accountability; don’t just be part of a group.

Q: Could you talk about balancing the goal of being responsible/changing quickly with the fears of choosing a ‘wrong direction’?

A: I talked about taking risks and always growing (even if you’re a bonsai business), which brought up this question. First, I am always taking several new approaches to my strategic marketing, with the assumption that at least one of them won’t work. If I became immobilized by the fear of making a mistake, I’ld never do anything. So, I decide what approaches I want to take, how much time I will invest in each approach, and what my metrics for success are. Then I put in the energy needed to give this approach every chance of success.

For example, one of my approaches might be to focus on a new market, based on my reality-check interviews. I might decide to identify three MeetUp groups my prospective clients are likely to be at, actively participate in at least three meetings for each group over the next two months, and evaluate at the end of that time how many leads I have of people who have the interest, need and budget for my services. I know that at least one of those groups won’t be appropriate for me; I just don’t know which one until I put in the legwork. So, the bottom line is that I assume that I will select at least one “wrong” direction. So what?

Q: How do you deal with services you are ‘tired’ of offering? Do you just walk away? Wait until the clients for that go away, and then drop the service? Do you have some creative examples of how you changed your services?

A: One of the biggest benefits of being self-employed, IMO, is being able to not do stuff I don’t want to do. Say, for example, I have offered basic literature searches to clients, and I realize that not only is this kind of boring, but I’m also not adding a lot of value to what I provide. My first step is to look at what I’m doing and figure out what I could do that would add more value, even if my current clients might not be willing to pay for the additional value. Could I also offer an analysis of the key thought-leaders in the field? Could I add a review of social media? What else could I do with the results of my research to make my deliverable more valuable? Then I look at what clients would be willing to pay for this additional value (yeah, read my article on reality-check interviews to find out who’s willing to pay for it) and I focus on those clients.

Q:  How do you measure how much fun you’re having? ;-)

A: One of the questions that nimble entrepreneurs ask themselves is “How can I have more fun?” As a long-time entrepreneur, I’ve seen lots of people try out self-employment while still watching the job listings for anything that looks appealing. My measurement of fun centers around how tempting a full-time job sounds, and I can say that, in almost 25 years, I have thought about becoming an employee for a total of about 4 minutes. As long as being self-employed is still way more appealing than being an employee, I know that I’m having plenty of fun. And thanks for asking!

Moving up the value chain

Do you think of yourself as a freelancer? self-employed? a consultant?

  • Freelancers see themselves as a set of hired hands, handling the overflow work or filling in for someone else. Their value is in being a substitute for a full-time employee.
  • Self-employed people see themselves as a one-person business, looking for ways they can help their clients.
  • Consultants and business owners view themselves as partners with their clients and focus on learning what their clients’ critical needs are and exploring ways to help their clients achieve their goals.

Your success is tied to how you see yourself in relation to your clients. The more focused you are on the client’s outcome—what happens after the project is done or the product is delivered—the more your clients value you and the more valueable you are to them.

For example, someone who sees himself as a self-employed transcriptionist describes his business as listening to a recording, typing up what he hears, and sending it to his client. If, on the other hand, he finds out that the transcription will be used as the basis of a speech and creates the transcript in a specialized format, he’s thinking like a consultant. He identifies a need and works with his client to find out how he can make his work more useful to his client and more directly targeted to his client’s need.

Being an entrepreneur means looking at yourself in a different way. If you try building a business by being the therapist with the lowest rates in town, you’ll find that your clientele will leave you for the next therapist who’s just starting her practice and pricing herself low. Instead, you can focus on what problem or desire your clients have that you can meet in a way no one else can. Sure, there are lots of financial planners out there, but who else brings your 15 years of experience working with families with special-needs kids?

Clients value and pay you based on how much value you provide, not just how much time or effort you put into the job. For the same amount of time, you can increase your value exponentially by focusing on how you, as your client’s partner, can contribute to your client’s goals.

 

Are you frictionless?

ball-bearingsHaving the mind of an entrepreneur means always looking at yourself from your client’s perspective.

  • How easy is it to find your contact information (not just a form to fill out)?
  • How easy is it to get you on the phone?
  • Are you nice to work with or do you have a reputation for being prickly?
  • How clear are you about your prices and services?
  • How confident do you sound?
  • How demonstrably committed are you to each client’s project?

When is the last time you sat back and looked at how frictionless you are for your clients? In a time when freelancers will work for $5 (fiverr.com), we need to distinguish ourselves by demonstrating our responsiveness and high value. Are you acting like the high-end professional that you are? Do your clients see that?