Being Radically Client-Focused

Be DifferentI like to practice what I preach, and one of the ideas I have been thinking a lot about lately is being radically client-focused. I recently recorded a half-hour talk on the art of the informational interview, which looks at how to learn what you don’t know you don’t know about your clients’ biggest information-related needs.

Marcy Phelps and I are regularly invited speakers at Kim Dority’s class at the University of Denver on alternative careers for librarians. Marcy and I usually plan out what we’ll cover during our two hours and how we will divide up the time and the topic. Sometimes we talk about what impelled us to launch our businesses, sometimes we talk about the lessons learned from entrepreneurship that translate to any employment situation, sometimes we talk about the pros and cons of self-employment. But Kim commented to us that this year’s students are different than recent years, so Marcy and I decided to give her class a true example of entrepreneurship in action.

This time, we are going to introduce ourselves and spend a couple of minutes talking about what we do. Then we are going to just start asking the students questions about what they most want to find out about infopreneurship. Marcy and I will each have a couple of thought-provoking grenades propositions to toss out if needed to get the conversation going, but otherwise, we are going to wing it.

How is this being radically client-focused? We realized that we really don’t know what this class wants to know. Do they want to hear advice about how to get their own businesses started? Do they think that entrepreneurship is for them? Do they want to hear day-in-the-life-of-an-infopreneur stories? First, I thought of doing a flash survey of the class to get a sense of what they would want. But I realized that, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know, a survey wouldn’t really help.

Just as it is important for us to listen to our clients during the reference interview instead of jumping to conclusions as to what they want, Marcy and I decided that we would be of best service by being open to whatever comes up.  We both have enough public speaking experience – one of the best ways to build word-of-mouth referrals – so the idea of speaking without notes or a structure doesn’t faze us.

More importantly, by taking this approach, we are showing the students an essential entrepreneurial skill – the ability to live slightly outside our comfort zone. We are willing to sound less polished, to have to stop for a moment to think something through, to get stumped by a question we hadn’t thought about before. And we leave ourselves open to the possibility of addressing concerns or worries we would not have imagined, of gaining an entirely fresh perspective on what we do, and seeing new ways to describe the value we bring to our clients.

As I describe in my blog post on why my clients are happy to tell me how much they want to spend on me, infopreneurs succeed when we tangibly demonstrate that our focus is on our client’s best interest and not just our own bottom line or comfort level. Marcy and I are putting that into practice in Kim’s class soon.

I’ll update this blog post to let you know how the class goes!

UPDATE: We had a great time! The class had lots of thoughtful questions, and we definitely would not have anticipated half of them. And, even more importantly, our “client” – Kim – was delighted. Win/win/win.

What do your clients REALLY want?

8-ballI don’t know about you, but I never found the Magic 8 Ball that would tell me what my clients value the most. Sure, I can make educated guesses. But what I have learned over time—and from talking with many coaching clients—is that generally we are way off when it comes to what our clients care the most about and are willing to pay us well for.

I wrote an article on what I called Reality-Check Interviews, with tips on how to have conversations with people who represent (what you think is) your market and get back in touch with reality instead of just your own thoughts. Based on the feedback from readers, I decided I needed to go into more detail about what’s involved.

Recently, I recorded a presentation on the Art of the Informational Interview. I go into more detail of what’s involved in an informational interview, and how you can gather the insights you need in 10 minutes or less.

If you’ve ever wondered why your marketing messages aren’t getting through, or why your clients always push back on your budget, it’s probably because you aren’t talking about what they need, value, and will pay you well for. Check out the recording and let me know if you have any questions or would like some help with your informational interviews.

How to make yourself competition-proof

unique-ccI was chatting with a friend the other day who, among other things, is a professional wallpaper installer. A local hotel had contacted her and asked for a bid to redo all the wall coverings in their halls. She knew that her price would be higher than others in town; in fact, she knew that her client was getting competing bids. But as we talked, she thought through what her client was actually paying for.

  • She has 25 years of local experience with other hotels in town, all of which can confirm that she is professional, prompt and pleasant to work with. They have seen her show up in the middle of a snow storm or work late at night in order to get a job done as promised. They can vouch for her reliability and commitment to her clients.
  • She is friendly, quiet and courteous to hotel guests. She minimizes disruption and treats the hotel’s customers as her own. She has never had a guest complain about noise or inconvenience during her projects.
  • She does not advertise; she gets all of her work through word of mouth, so her business model is built around a commitment to providing high-quality work at a fair price and treating all her clients as she would like to be treated. Her business succeeds when her clients are delighted with her work.

She and I reflected that as we become (ahem) chronologically gifted, our value to our clients increases. We know that our most important asset is our reputation, which we have built over decades. Sure, our clients may be able to find someone who does what we do for a lower price, but they can’t find anyone with our track record and personal investment in delighting every client.

What are you doing to build and strengthen your professional reputation in ways your clients value?

[photo “Unique” by Jiří Zralý is licensed under CC BY 2.0]

Speaking Effectively About Your True Value

I recently gave two presentations on key survival skills of solopreneurs and intrapreneurs. While both were from the perspective of information professionals, many of the concepts I covered apply to any solopreneur.

While we know the impact info pros can have on their clients’ success, being seen as indispensable takes work. This means finding out how your clients see you, what they don’t even know you can do, and what their biggest unmet needs are that you can address. Then it takes communicating that value in a way that people hear and understand.

 

Successful entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs share certain characteristics. They ask “why?” a lot; they ask “why not?” even more. They focus on the future rather than the past, and seek out opportunities to improve and enhance their services. They are results-oriented rather than process-focused; they ask forgiveness rather than permission. In an info world where everyone sees themselves as expert researchers and the reaction to a page of text is TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), info-intrapreneurs must think creatively to get and keep the attention of their clients and prospective clients.

In addition, check out the recent white papers I wrote for Dow Jones on The Accidental Intrapreneur, at is.gd/bates_intrapreneur, and The True ROI of Digital Content, at is.gd/bates_ROI.

Marketing Through Vignettes

Antique Greek OratorHave you ever struggled to describe what you do so your prospective clients really hear you? Do they look at your web site and say “Oh, that’s nice” or do they immediately recognize you as the person who can help solve their most important problem?

One way to talk about your services memorably is by telling a story. My 10-Vignettes Exercise, which takes no more than an hour or two to complete, helps clarify how you describe who you are and what you do for your clients. And if you don’t have any clients yet, use this as an exercise to picture your prospective clients.

Here’s how it works:
Write 10 stories, each of no more than three sentences or about 100 words. Each story will describe a situation a client is in, what the client got from you at the end, and how the client benefited. You don’t discuss how you did the work, what resources you used, or even what kind of work you did. The truth is that your clients don’t care what you do or how you do it. They just want you to solve their problem.

These vignettes don’t have to describe actual client situations; in fact, they should be sufficiently anonymized that a client would not recognize her own project. Provide examples of what happens after your clients engage you. And while you’re at it, include the budget you think represents the value you offer your clients for this kind of work.

Here’s what a vignette might look like.

[describe your client’s situation] My client was considering moving into the organic personal care market.

[describe what your client gets from you] I provided my client with a customized analysis of the market, with the key issues and strongest competitors highlighted.

[describe what the client does as a result of your work] My client decided to focus on organic baby care products, realizing this was the one area in which they had a clear advantage.

[describe the budget] My client paid $6,000 for this report. (Don’t include this last item in your marketing material; just use it to stay focused on how you can provide the highest value to your clients.)

The virtue of this exercise is that it takes the focus away from you and your services and puts the attention to where it belongs – what your client values. An additional benefit is that you can put these vignettes up on your web site; they are a far more effective way to showcase your value than just listing your services.

The Anti-Elevator Speech

elevatorWhen someone asks you what you do, do you freeze up or start stammering? You need a concise, memorable response prepared for all the times when you’re asked about your work. This is sometimes called your “elevator speech.” Why? Imagine stepping into an elevator with your biggest prospect. She turns to you and asks, “So, what exactly do you do?” You have 30 seconds—the time it takes for the elevator to get to her destination on the 25th floor—to describe yourself in such a way that she immediately understands why you are the solution to her problems.

Unfortunately, most people see their elevator speech as an opportunity to tell their life story and rattle off a laundry list of services they provide to their clients. All this does is serve to notify the victim, er, the listener that this person is more interested in talking about himself than about what he can do for his clients. Instead, create an anti-elevator speech that focuses on results instead of activity. Three alternatives I recommend include Elevator Q&A, Elevator Ping Pong, and Elevator Story-Telling.

Elevator Q&A
Paul and Sarah Edwards, the authors of a number of books about home-based businesses, describe a useful formula for developing your 15- to 30-second introduction. The template they use is this:“You know how [describe typical clients’ problem]? Well, I [solve problem] by [doing this].” For example, “You know how frustrating it is when you have to make a strategic decision without all the information you need? Well, my company helps you make better decisions by providing you with insight on your competitors.” Or, “You know how hard it is to care for elderly parents when you don’t live nearby? Well, I coordinate local care for my clients’ loved ones throughout the Puget Sound area, and consider each one to be part of my family.”

Elevator Ping Pong
Instead of developing a speech, remember that you just want to get a conversation going. So, when someone asks you what you do, give an answer that invites further interaction. A business researcher might say “I keep my clients from making big mistakes” or “I help my clients look brilliant”.  (I learned this approach from a man who sold automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and would tell people that he was in the human jumper-cable business. If that doesn’t invite at least a “what?” from the listener, nothing will…) Think of a way to describe yourself that is intriguing, thought-provoking, or even startling.

Elevator Story-Telling
We humans are innate storytellers. An effective way of describing yourself so that you are memorable is to tell your listener a story in just three sentences. The first sentence describes the client’s situation; the second sentence tells what your client got; the last sentence says what your clients were able to do next. An example from my own experience is, “A product director was considering a move into the organic personal care market. I provided an overview of the market, with the key issues summarized. My client decided to focus on organic baby care products, an area in which they had a clear advantage.”

Keep the following in mind as you work on your personalized version of the answer to, “So, what do you do?”
•    Avoid industry jargon or buzzwords such as “solutions.” Word of mouth travels a lot farther if people outside your field understand and can describe to others what you do.
•    Keep it short. They’re asking you for a reason to use your services, not your life story or a laundry list of services.
•    Make yourself recession-proof. What are your clients’ critical needs—things they view as essential, not just nice to have? (Don’t know? Conduct some reality-check interviews and find out!)
•    Focus on benefits that provide clear added value. Talk about services that your clients can’t or won’t do for themselves and that solve a problem or help them achieve their goals.
•    Make sure you can deliver your introduction with enthusiasm. If you’re excited about your business, others will be as well.

Practice your 15-second introduction with everyone you encounter and watch their responses. If you get a blank stare, well, you just learned one way not to describe yourself. Keep at it until you’ve found a few intros that feel genuine, you can say with passion, and that the other person understands. Everyone can be part of your word-of-mouth network if you learn how to effectively convey why people love your product or services so much.

Introvert’s Tips for Great Headshots

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

Happy Hour Headshot – solopreneur profile

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

 

Earning word-of-mouth referrals

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.

Why nerdy passion matters

I’m often asked by people who are just starting their business whether they need to specialize and how they can differentiate themselves. I recently had a great opportunity to see from the buyer’s point of view what really matters when buying a professional service.

I am in the process of developing a fabulous course to help reluctant entrepreneurs figure out how to best price their services and I realized that I need a customized PowerPoint template. There are tons of graphic designers out there – how was I going to choose someone who could capture my essence, create something I will like, and be fun to work with? I went to the discussion list of a local group of women writers, knowing that they have similar needs for high quality, professional service and reasonable cost.

After looking at the portfolios of a number of designers, I had narrowed my choice down to a couple of people who sounded good, so I had short conversations with both of them. One of the designers sounded fine; she listened to my description of what I was looking for, she tossed a few ideas my way, and said she would send me a proposal. Ho hum. The other designer got my business, though. Why? In a word, passion.

As we were chatting about the font I was currently using for my template, the second designer commented that she had seen that font around town. “Whole Foods used it in one of their in-store banners, and you know that coffee shop at Main Street and Walnut? They have that font on their storefront. I like how it conveys a mix of informality and excitement.” I was entranced; I had found someone who loves her job so much that she can’t help herself from noticing graphic design as she makes her way in the world. This is someone who isn’t just doing graphic design because it’s a way to make a living; she is doing this because she can’t help herself. She is, among other things, a font nerd.

I want to hire people who are passionate about what they do… whatever it is that they do. My chimney sweep loves what he does and we often wind up chatting about stoves and firewood after he finishes his annual cleaning. My therapist is one of those people whom even the grocery clerks confide in. My housekeeper reorganizes my linen closet just because tidy linen closets make the world a slightly better place.

The professionals I hire all get nerdy about what they do, and they love their work. They are solopreneurs who all have strong client bases and lots of word-of-mouth referrals. They may not be the only person in their field, but they are the ones who get real satisfaction from their work, who care about their clients, and who bring inspiration to their job.

When prospective clients call you, do they come away with a sense that you are a passionate nerd about what you do, too? How effectively do you convey the joy you bring to every client’s project? How else can you show that you are in business because you love what you do?