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I recently wrote a white paper and gave a webinar on behalf of Factiva on The Accidental Intrapreneur: Becoming the Knowledge Center CEO. They both look at the different approaches necessary for those of us who are running our own enterprises, whether within or outside a larger organization. (You can get a copy of the white paper here and you can download the slide deck for my webinar here.)
In both, I focus on the need for constant, effective communication, and that applies to any reluctant entrepreneur. So here is the super-distilled version of effectively communicating your value.
Are you sure you really know what your clients value?
I hear it all the time — Oh, of course I know what my clients value. I’ve been doing work for them for years! The fact that clients use your services doesn’t mean you are providing them with the highest-value (and, if you’re a solopreneur, highest-priced) service. Clients only ask you to do what they think you can do; they have no idea what else you could be providing them unless you tell them.
And the only way you can find out what they would value most is to conduct some Reality-Check Interviews. Yes, they take some time, but what you learn from them will enable you to create a competition-proof product or service that is fine-tuned to providing the highest value possible.
Reality-check interview questions that I have found effective in discovering that unique something that can set me apart include:
- How do you prepare for a strategic decision?
- What’s keeping you from achieving your most important goals?
- What do you wish you knew about your stakeholders or competitors?
- What information/research/analysis services would support you strategically?
And, to find out how to most effectively describe your services to prospective clients, ask:
- Why do you use my services now?
- How would you describe my services to a colleague?
Pay attention to how they describe your value; I promise you you’ll hear something you didn’t expect.
Talk about WHY, not WHAT
When someone asks you what you do, it’s easy to talk about activity — what you do. But activity isn’t inherently valuable; what you do is important because it enables something else to happen next. Whenever entrepreneurs are asked what we do, we talk about our clients’ end results, not what specific things we did to enable those results.
Compare the focus and impact of these examples of answers to the question “What do you do?”:
I have access to unique online resources.
I provide insights from experts.
I provide research services.
I enable better decisions.
My expertise is in organizing information.
I make critical research findable.
Think about the reason behind what you do for your clients — what they will be able to do because of your services — and talk about that instead of the specific activity that gets those tremendous results.
“But they don’t listen!!!”
There are times when it seems like you and your prospective clients are speaking different languages. You think you are telling them about the tremendous services you provide, and they aren’t responding by beating a path to your door. Whenever this happens to me, I know that the problem probably lies in one of these areas:
Your audience—WHO you are talking to. Are you sure you are getting the attention of people who need and value (and, if you’re a solopreneur, will pay for) your services?
Message—WHAT you say. Are you sure you are using compelling language that resonates with your market? Are you incorporating the language you picked up from your reality-check interviews?
Method—HOW & WHERE you say it. Are you getting your message out on a medium that your prospective clients are watching? Do your clients read newsletters? monitor Facebook? watch webinars? attend conferences? Have you asked them lately?
Timing—WHEN & HOW OFTEN you talk with your market. Are you in front of your prospective clients when they are paying attention to your message? Are they hearing from or about you frequently enough that your name is familiar to them?
Reflect on each aspect of your communication strategies — who, what, how, where, when and how often — and start modifying them until you get the results you want.
I am a business researcher and analyst by training, and I’m always on the lookout for new and creative ways to find the more “hidden” information about companies and individuals. Here are a few of my latest favorites.
A recent webinar hosted by the Association of Independent Information Professionals gave me some great ideas on how to use patent information to glean business intelligence. Using ProQuest Dialog, presenter Darla Agard talked about various ways to find the unexpected and identify new opportunities using techniques I hadn’t thought of using. While her examples were from PQD, much of the data mining can be done in other professional online services as well. I particularly appreciated that most of these tips incurred no expenses.
Say you want to figure out where a company’s R&D centers are located. This is usually not something a company will disclose in its annual report or on its web site, but if the company holds patents a smart researcher can deduce the location of the centers by using PQD’s search filtering tools. As Darla explained it, use the INPADOC database to find all the patents held by the target company. In the search results page, scroll down along the right margin to “Narrow your search by” and expand the tab for “Patent assignee country”. This list shows the countries in which most of the patent assignees are located; this may indicate in which countries the company most likely has an R&D center. Likewise, the tab for “Patent publication country” is likely to indicate the manufacturing and distribution centers.
To get a rough idea of mergers or acquisitions a company has been involved in, search a business database such as Gale Group Trade & Industry for the company name, then limit the results to articles with the subject Company Acquisition/Merger. Scan the titles of the resulting set to see what companies are mentioned with the target company. It isn’t perfect, but it gives you a nice snapshot of recent activity.
To identify competitors in a small market, I sometimes use LinkedIn. I pull up the company page for any player I know of in the field. In that company’s LinkedIn page, I look at the box along the right margin for “People Also Viewed” — a list of the other companies that people looked at while they were looking at this company. While it’s not a comprehensive search, this gives you a start on identifying some of the other companies that share consumer mind-space.
Try Facebook Search Again
Facebook recently announced it was making all publicly-viewable posts searchable through what it calls “universal search”. It’s not quite universal; it doesn’t include any posts not marked as public, and only English-language posts are included in the archive. You can’t limit your search to phrases; Boolean operators like AND and OR don’t work; and you can’t filter or limit your search by date, nor can you sort the results by date. That said, if you are looking for topics that are narrowly focused or a small company, you may find useful pointers through Facebook’s newly-expanded search.
Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference. I have had two experiences recently that reminded me of how effective a small gesture is in conveying customer appreciation.
I have a paid account with MailChimp for my occasional e-newsletter, Thoughts From a Reluctant Entrepreneur. I was having trouble figuring something out and decided that I would rather send an email than wait through the delays of chat (where an agent is probably supporting at least two other customers while chatting with me). So I used the contact form and, once I hit send, I was sent to a page that said “Thank you! Your message has been sent, and you’ll hear back from our support team shortly.We’re moving your request to the front of the line. Thank you for being a paid MailChimp customer.” [emphasis added] This was an effective reminder of why I pay a modest $10/month for additional features and service. (And I got just the answer I needed within minutes of sending my query.)
Another company that understands the personal touch is HelloDirect, a valuable source for high-quality headsets, particularly for those of us who are hard of hearing. With every shipment, they include several wrapped candies, just because. And on the outside is a printed label, “Thanks for being a loyal customer since 2007”. Even though I don’t buy from them very often, I like being acknowledged as a repeat customer. These are small efforts that go a long way to personalize a business transaction.
How are you showing your customers you really appreciate them? How can you cultivate more client luv?
I often write about how to create a business that supports you financially and that you love. But I’m feeling contrary today, because I’m inspired to offer my best advice for solopreneurs who aren’t interested in succeeding. If you want a business that doesn’t attract new clients, clients who are overly price-sensitive, or if all your marketing efforts are failing and if you want more of the same, then here are some tips for you, with tongue held firmly in cheek.
Be “nice to have” rather than “must have NOW”. Very few people will buy your services if you are nice to have because, frankly, there are lots of services out there that are nice to have… even some that are really really nice to have. Unless you are addressing one of your clients’ most pressing and urgent needs, you are going to be at the bottom of their priority list when it comes to allocating funds for projects.
Don’t bother learning about your clients. Every solopreneur thinks she understands her clients — often solopreneurs used to work with the people they now believe will become their clients. But unless you have conducted 8 or 10 successful Reality-Check Interviews, in which you find out what your clients really care about, you are basing your business on what are most likely incorrect assumptions.
Don’t ever fail. If you aren’t failing occasionally, you aren’t trying. The Silicon Valley mantra, Fail Fast, Fail Often, applies to solopreneurs as well. Expect to always have several marketing projects going, with the expectation that at least one of them will, after a full-out six-month effort, will not pan out. As long as you give each approach the time and resources to succeed and clear metrics on what you want to accomplish, you can try a wide range of approaches and learn from each of them.
Don’t blog or write a newsletter. Having a web site or LinkedIn profile isn’t enough to establish a relationship with your clients. Make sure you reach out to your community regularly with blog posts, updates on social media and a newsletter that delivers value to your readers. You have to earn your clients’ attention with content they care about.
Facebook? Forget it! You may think that Facebook is just for friends, but you are missing a big opportunity if you aren’t participating in that space. I am often surprised by the number of professional colleagues who like and comment on my Facebook posts; they may not be posting updates themselves, but they are out there reading what you post.
Focus on selling, not listening. Establishing a relationship with a client requires two-way communication, and that means more listening and less talking on your part. If your prospective client’s experience is only of you talking about your background and what you can do, the impression is that you are more interested in your own success than your client’s outcome.
Don’t have tangible metrics or goals. One of the dangers of being a one-person business is that it is easy to drift along, mistaking activity for results. Establish clear annual goals for your business that translate into success — revenue, number of new clients, percentage of repeat business, or whatever measurements help you gauge whether your business is on the right path.
Don’t push your comfort zone. For solopreneurs to succeed, we have to set ourselves apart from whatever solution our clients currently have, remembering that we are always competing with “good enough.” That means we need to discover what we can offer that no one else is doing in quite the same way, constantly updating our services to always meeting our clients’ most important needs today. That means constantly updating our services and developing new skills based on what our clients value most.
So, either follow these “tips” for failure, or consider how you can shift your approach to your business so that you are attracting clients who sustain you and with whom you enjoy working. And get your hands off that teddy bear!
After having my Happy Hour Headshot, I thought back on what made it such a good experience, despite having arrived home from Australia less than 24 hours earlier and being someone who doesn’t enjoy getting her picture taken.
Let’s face it – some of us don’t naturally warm up and smile when a camera is pointed at us. That doesn’t mean we can’t take good headshots; we just have to approach the experience with a fresh attitude.
- Look at the photographer and imagine she is a long-lost friend. You can’t help but smile – you are so happy to see her again.
- Engage the photographer in conversation. Ask him or her what got them started in photography, or what their biggest challenge has been this year, or how they hope to change their business next year. Once you start chatting, you can relax.
- Take a break after 15 minutes. Very few people can stay “on” for longer than that, and you need a few minutes to let yourself relax and go limp before starting another round of shooting.
- When reviewing your shots, let the photographer make the first cut. It’s hard to look at lots of photos of yourself without obsessing about small imperfections, and a professional photographer can quickly identify the shots that best captured your genuine look.
You can see the shots I selected from my HappyHourHeadshot session here.
photo from https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewrennie/4689273816
I recently saw a blurb for a Denver photographer, Jennifer Buhl, who had an unusual pitch. If you need a professional, hip, affordable headshot in a convenient, urban location with a former paparazza, check out HappyHourHeadshot.com. Now making Coloradoans look like celebrities!
Sure, I get new headshots every 5 or 6 years, and they generally look pretty standard – me in business attire against a neutral background. But I have come to realize that many consultants’ web sites now have multiple photos of the principals. Now I see shots of the person in action – teaching a workshop, inspiring a group of people, or just looking a little less formal and posed.
The premise behind Happy Hour Headshot is that you meet Jennifer at a downtown restaurant, she spends 15 minutes shooting you outdoors, then you two sit down with a drink, review your photos, and select the one(s) you want. She does light editing and you get your shots in a couple of weeks. The cost is $85 for the shoot and one photo; additional photos are available at a discounted rate. It’s an unusual model, and the session had a very different vibe from the usual headshot experience – fast-paced, fun and relaxed, rather than an hour of “Now turn your head an inch to the right. Now smile. OK, and again…”
So I signed up for a headshot (great experience, and I wound up with five photos I really like!) and also had a chance to chat with Jennifer to find out more about her approach to her business.
One of her challenges, of course, is that anyone with a camera can call herself a photographer, regardless of their actual skill in capturing a subject’s essence. Jennifer’s bread-and-butter work had been creating baby and family portraits at Jennifer Buhl Photography, but after five years she found that she was getting push-back on her professional rates when families would compare her price to part-timers and hobbyists who just want to make enough money to pay for their avocation. She also missed the fast pace of a paparazza, and was looking for a way to expand her business into other areas.
She launched Happy Hour Headshot earlier this year, and enjoys the accelerated pace of taking just 15 minutes to catch people looking their best. As she was talking with her clients, she found that many are solopreneurs and small business owners, and she realized that they were likely to need to improve the visual content on their web sites and social media pages. She launched Buhl Business Photography to provide the more in-depth photography required by companies beyond headshots of their employees.
As Jennifer told me during our shoot, “Everything is visual now. People realize that their workplace has to look genuine on their web site; their work product or process has to look good. My job is to visually convey what it’s like to work with the company, to reflect who the business is. If you’re a small business, you need to look solid in your collateral, but you don’t have a $100,000 budget for commercial photography. That’s where I come in. I really enjoy going into, say, an orthodontist’s office, see how it’s run, talk with the staff, then photograph them doing their jobs. The end result is a set of photos that show the authentic company.”
I was struck by the evolution in Jennifer’s business, in a profession in which she is competing with many others who charge far less for a different level of service. She could have continued spending her time trying to convince families that a great shoot was worth $900, or she could expand her business into new areas that played to her strengths and interests.
She gets to do what she likes and finds stimulating, she has a more flexible schedule, and she is working with clients who see her as a business expense rather than a luxury purchase, so she is able to price her services fairly. Her experience as a paparazza taught her how to get high-quality images in a short period of time, so she can set herself apart as offering a very different headshot experience.
Her biggest challenge right now is efficiently getting the word out about Happy Hour Headshot. I heard about her through her participation in a Boulder-based network of media women, and we met for our shot at Galvanize, a local co-working office full of start-ups, both settings in which she successfully promotes her service. She is also considering marketing through LivingSocial and through local Meetups.
What ideas do you have for Jennifer to get the word out about her Happy Hour Headshot business? Post in the comments section below.
Short ‘n’ Sweet SWOT
Happy Hour Headshot
Strengths: fast-paced experience, unique photos, modest price, work she enjoys, business is word-of-mouth-friendly
Weaknesses: clients want to linger over the photo selection process, managing client expectations regarding editing
Opportunities: connect with local groups for efficient marketing, expansion of business photography
Threats: difficult to scale while retaining Jennifer’s unique style
I’m one of those people who still reads newspapers. Even worse, I still get the print newspaper delivered to my doorstep every day. I could wax eloquent about the tactile pleasure and serendipitous delight of paging through a print newspaper, but I’ll spare you.
Often, I find an article thought-provoking enough that I want to share it and my thoughts to the world. Easy – I pop online, find the digital version of the article, and no one needs to know I saw the article first on a dead tree.
However, I ran into problems recently when I looked up the online version of a Wall Street Journal article and couldn’t retrieve it by searching for the title. Eventually, I found it; my problem had been that the digital version had an entirely different title than the print. Curious, I compared a week’s worth of print and digital headlines of WSJ articles and found that fewer than a quarter of the headlines were the same. While some of the titles were similar (“Boeing Scrambles to Get Key Part” and “Boeing, Supplier Wrestle to Produce Key Component”), others were entirely different (“Bye, Boss, Let’s Stay Friends Forever” and “How to Leave Your Job Gracefully”).
When I asked Dow Jones about the discrepancy between print and digital headlines, I got the following not-entirely-satisfying response:
At the Journal we are constantly refining our approach to headlines to ensure that our readers are automatically drawn to our work, whether printed on a page or comprised of pixels. We often fine-tune headlines in order to reflect developing news and improve SEO, but at the end of the day we are always looking for the best blend of digital optimization and smart journalism.
HERE is a table of the headlines from my one-week sample. Lesson: to find the digital equivalent of a print article quickly, search for a few unusual or distinctive words in the text rather than for words in the headline.
In preparing for one of my presentations at Web Search University, I was asked whether social media could actually be used for “real” research… that is, to support strategic decisions and better outcomes. And what about the concerns of some researchers about privacy in social media?
My response was that yes, I used to be somewhat skeptical about the value of information found on social media, probably because it looks so different from what we info pros get through traditional information sources. But I was curious, and started seeing what I could user social media for. While there is a fair amount of noise in the social sphere, I can find information in LinkedIn or Twitter that I would never have been able to find using our more traditional online resources. And the data-mining I can do in social media gives me new ways to create insights for my clients. Granted, regardless of the kind of research you are doing, you have to think like a competitive intelligence professional. It’s all in knowing what you are looking at and recognizing warning signs or clues in amongst the likes, shares and retweets.
And regarding privacy concerns, I think the issue is overblown, particularly for us information professionals. We know how to modify our privacy settings to ensure that we are not leaving footsteps behind. We know what and how much to share on social media. And we have the information-evlauation skills to assess the value and reliability of what we find. Info pros can see beyond the hype and can see social media resources as the valuable tools they are, while remaining mindful of privacy and security concerns.
Watch my Speaking Extras page for the slide deck to this presentation, and check out the materials from some of my other recent presentations.
Maybe it’s because I was getting ready for my webinar, From Zero to Clients: Starting (or Re-starting) Your Word-of-Mouth Referral Machine, but I reached out to my network several times last week, asking for referrals for various jobs I needed done. What I experienced showed me just how critical these referrals are for solopreneurs and how important it is to excel if you have been referred to someone.
I needed to find a copy writer to help me promote my online courses. I asked a colleague who was active in the local chapter of the Business Marketing Association, who asked the chapter’s executive director. The person they both thought of came with glowing recommendations. He is great at calls to action, great at copy writing, always delivers when promised. Another colleague gave me the name of a consultant who had done work for her start-up and by all accounts had been great to work with. I had a brief conversation with each person and was struck by the difference in the two conversations. The one recommended by his peers in BMA was direct and to the point. He followed up with samples of his work and a proposal that focused on specifically the job I needed done. I spent half an hour with the other consultant, talking about my business and where it was going. I emphasized that I really just had a straightforward assignment for a landing page; she sent me an in-depth proposal to address all my marketing communication needs for the next six months. While it was a great proposal, it didn’t address my needs, and I went with the one recognized by his peers as being right for the job.
Lesson learned? Referrals from peers and colleagues are sometimes better than referrals from clients (whose needs may differ from mine). As a solopreneur, I want to make sure all my colleagues know who I am and see me as someone worth referring others to.
I had two less-satisfying experiences with other referrals. I was looking for a WordPress consultant to migrate this very blog over to my server. It’s a small job, but one for which I don’t want to invest the time for my learning curve. A colleague gave me the name of her tech consultant with a glowing referral. Not once but twice, we agreed on a time for a Skype call and he didn’t show up, didn’t explain, didn’t apologize. My colleague was embarrassed and I was disappointed.
I had a similar experience with finding someone to clean out the crawl space under my house, where a critter had set up residence. I asked a friend who owns an environmental consulting firm for a recommendation, and she pointed me to one of her regular contractors. As with the tech consultant, my critter consultant arranged twice to meet me at my home, and twice failed to show up. My friend was so annoyed that she decided not to stop doing business with the consultant; his lack of attention to a prospect meant that he lost a long-time client. My friend called another consultant and made him promise to come over to my house and take care of the problem before giving me his contact information. (He worked out great, but his specialty is meth house clean-ups, so I hope to never have to use him again! But if you have a meth lab problem in Colorado, I’ve got your man.)
Lesson learned? When people refer you to others, their reputation is on the line. If you let them down, they remember not to use or refer you again. As a solopreneur, I know I have to be extra-responsive if someone has been referred to me.
Recently, a friend told me about her dream of leaving her corporate job and finding a way to make a living doing what she loves — in her case, caring for people’s pets. She already had a name picked out, “Caring Hearts Dog-Walking” and was thinking about how many of her elderly neighbors might want her to walk their dogs.
After we chatted for a while, she realized that she wouldn’t be able to make much of a living if all she did was get paid to walk dogs. Sure, she would be more reliable than the kid down the block, but her neighbors won’t be willing to pay more than $15/hour for her services.
I reminded her that she had just completed her certificate in dog massage and had experience with special-needs pets, and encouraged her to think of herself as a trained professional who brought a range of skills to each companion animal. She isn’t just a dog walker; she provides services that support the pets her clients love.
She decided she would have an informational interview with a friend of hers who is a veterinarian, to find out how she could best support people whose pets were recovering from an illness or injury, medically frail or just old and in need of special TLC. How could she enable people to keep their pets who otherwise would have not been able to provide the support their pets need?
By focusing on where she can offer the most value, she builds a business on clients who would never consider using anyone else for their pet care. She becomes competition-proof, because she offers a level of service that people who see themselves merely as dog walkers never think to provide.