ZhivadanAdam Davidson (NPR Planet Money co-host) mused about innovation in a piece in the Nov. 16th issue of the New York Times, Welcome to the Failure Age. What I found most intriguing were his thoughts about the impact of information technology on usually risk-averse professions such as lawyers and accountants. As they see much of their low-value, routine work disappear to Nolo and Quicken respectively, these professions are finding new ways to surface the unique value they provide, using tools that once threatened their business. As Donaldson put it:

[S]ome enterprising accountants are learning how to use some of their
biggest assets — the trust of their clients and access to financial data — to
provide deep insights into a company’s business. They’re identifying which
activities are most profitable, which ones are wasteful and when the former
become the latter. […]

[Lawyers] use data-sniffing programs and their own legal expertise to cull through millions of patent applications or contracts to build never-before-seen complex models of the business landscape and sell it to their clients.

I have to smile when I remember that I was hired to work in the library of a law firm back in 1979 to work on a database of the firm’s internal legal memoranda for later re-use. Bleeding edge back then, complete with keypunch cards. Then I started Bates Information Services back in 1991, when gopher was a powerful discovery tool and Mark Zuckerberg was entering grade school.

Over the years, my business has had to shift dramatically in order to stay competition-proof. My deliverables have changed radically over the years, and my research projects are more complex and strategic than they used to be. I find it comforting to remember that I am in the company of so many other professionals whose are facing similar challenges. If CPAs can be seen as strategic business partners, so can many other reluctant entrepreneurs.

The absolutely best reason to call a client

Antique telephoneI was chatting with a colleague the other day, who was concerned that she had not heard from a client in a while and she was starting to imagine all the worst possible outcomes. “The client hates me. He’s found someone else with lower rates. I made a horrible mistake and he hasn’t told me.” Blah blah blah… I know; we have all been down that road.

She decided that she would focus her attention on updating her web site to reflect a new aspect of her business. I suggested she call a few clients and ask them to tell her how they describe her to their colleagues, on the assumption that those would be effective words and phrases to use in her web site.

Then the lightbulb went on — what a great reason to call the Silent Client! She called him and left a message that she was updating her web site and would like to chat for a few minutes to find out how he has described her to his business partners. He was happy to talk, and she got some compelling phrases she will work into her marketing material.

But the real payoff was that the client then mentioned the delay in sending her the expected project, explained that they were in the process of landing a big contract themselves  and would be back to needing her services by the end of the month. Now she knew she could expect more work from this client soon, and she had some new ideas on how to describe her value to prospective clients.

This Call Waitingis a great reason to reach out to a client you have not heard from in a while, a prospect you think could be ready to use your services, or a colleague with whom you expect to share referrals and subcontracting. And yes, it requires that you pick up the phone; email completely misses the point of the contact, which is to engage the person in a conversation and find out their current situation and concerns. You will probably get sent to voice mail, so write out a short, friendly message like this:

I’m reviewing my marketing material and reaching out to some of my clients/colleagues to find out how they describe me to a colleague. I would love to chat with you for a few minutes to get your thoughts. I’ll be around all day today; feel free to give me a call at …”

Every conversation you have will give you useful information, and you get a great reason to invite someone to think about when to call you. It also helps you self-correct if you hear people describing you in ways that do not highlight your value. If the feedback you hear does not reflect how you would like to be seen, this is a good opportunity to update (not correct or argue with!) your contact on the additional ways you have worked with similar clients. Be sure to remove descriptions from your marketing material and web content that downplay the value of what you do, based on the feedback you get.

You may also learn that your clients and colleagues see you more expansively than you do. If your stomach clenches when you realize how you are seen, you know you are on to something useful. Check out my thoughts on the Imposter Syndrome, extracted from The Reluctant Entrepreneur: Making a Living Doing What You Love.

How CEOs negotiate – with a hug

coupleToday’s Wall Street Journal had a thought-provoking article about “How Steve Ballmer Became a Rookie Basketball Mogul” in which we learn that even CEOs get nervous when they are preparing to meet NBA superstar players for dinner. (And they binge-watch to relieve stress just like the rest of us.)

More interesting is how he negotiated the purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers from Shelly Sterling after her odious estranged husband was forced to sell the team. Rather than have his people call her people, he arranged for mutual friend and former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner to call Ms. Sterling to vouch for him. During their meeting a couple of days later, Ballmer dropped his prepared pitch and instead focused on reassuring Sterling that he wouldn’t move the team to Seattle and that he was committed to seeing the Clippers win a championship. Ballmer knew that this negotiation was between two people, not two faceless corporations. He was competing against Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen and Larry Ellison, so clearly Shelly Sterling’s decision would come down to more than just money.

And the best part of the story is how he handled Ms. Sterling’s counterproposal to his $1.75 billion offer for the team. She raised the price to $2 billion, and asked for courtside seats, parking spaces and the title of “owner emeritus.” Mr. Ballmer agreed and threw in the title of “Clippers #1 Fan.” This man is brilliant. He understood what the other party wanted and valued, and he knew how important it was to respect, address and meet the other party’s underlying concerns. And when they signed the deal, Steve Ballmer and Shelly Sterling hugged.

You may not actually hug the person you’re negotiating with, but can you find where you can add a “Clippers #1 Fan” title?

What does authentic marketing look like?

shoutingAsk 10 entrepreneurs for the least favorite aspect of their job, and 9.5 of them will say “marketing.” We’re one-person businesses, so it can feel like shameless self-promotion when we talk about who we are and what we offer. I recently ran across several items that discuss ways to show your stuff in ways that feel authentic.

First is a post in LinkedIn, How to Respond to a HARO Query (HARO = Help A Reporter Out, a tremendous, free online tool that enables reporters and media outlets to post requests for experts in anything from trends in the natural foods industry to advice for new parents of triplets) HARO is an effective way to pitch your unique story to a reporter, but remember that you’re probably one of many responses a reporter receives. This post, written by a reporter who uses HARO, has tips for ensuring that your pitch will be as reporter-friendly as possible. I love HARO because it’s really the antithesis of marketing–I am just helping a reporter gather information and insights.

Next is a post from the always-useful LifeHacker blog, Five Things I Learned About Self-Promotion (Without Being a Spambot). The author shares most reluctant entrepreneurs’ feeling about marketing–“it feels gross and shameful”. Her advice resonates with me, as her focus is on being authentic, sharing rather than selling, and facing the ever-present Imposter Syndrome.

Another LifeHacker blog post from 2012, How to Promote Yourself (Without Being Sleazy), describes the approach of developing relationships rather than just prospects, with tips that I don’t usually see, such as know when to give up and stop pestering a contact. None of the tips are rocket surgery, but the post is clear and concise, and focused on showing your passion and talent.

And finally, a recent blog post from LexisNexis’ Business of Law blog, Get New Clients Without Being Pushy. IMO, most lawyers are reluctant entrepreneurs, and the legal industry is just now acknowledging that law firms must market themselves and their value. This blog post offers a simple way of crafting your elevator pitch by focusing on your value rather than on what you do. (Hmmmm, that sounds familiar…)


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