“You’re charging WHAT?!?”

Shocked and surprised childYou’ve probably had this happen to you at least once… You have what seems like a perfectly normal conversation with a prospective client, you send what you think is a perfectly reasonable proposal, and your client responds with shock at how expensive you are.

It’s easy to react badly in this kind of situation; you know how much value you bring to any project and you know you’re worth what you are charging. (If you’re not sure that you’re worth that, go read the Harvard Business Review article, “Why You Should Charge Clients More Than You Think You’re Worth,” and Mary Ellen’s Amazing Hourly Rate Calculator.)

At the beginning of my career as an solopreneur, I took this kind of response badly; I assumed that either I had vastly overrated myself and my value or I had utterly failed because no one saw what I had to offer.

Fortunately, I’ve adjusted my attitude and now have a more positive approach. When I’m told that I am too expensive, I run the Internal Entrepreneurial Translator™ in my brain and hear them saying that they simply don’t currently have the budget or need for my expertise and level of service. I also remind myself that, while they aren’t hiring me now, situations change. People change jobs, and talk with their peers. Organizations suddenly find available funds. Priorities shift. All of these are reasons to treat any rejected proposal as simply not a good match at this time, for this client, in this situation. The bottom line may just be that their organization has different priorities for their resources at this time. That’s OK; the interaction can be respectful and positive. They’re just not at a place where they need your level of service.

And I use these experiences as opportunities to look at how I’m presenting myself and my skills. I ask myself if I’m focused entirely on outcome or if I’m talking about activity. Am I focused on what my client values the most and how I can help them achieve that goal, or am I talking about what I’ll do and what my hourly rate is.

I make sure I’m not talking about how I “need” to be paid $X because I have a mortgage/rent and other expenses to pay. Because, frankly, clients don’t care about what our expenses are. All they are about is receiving high-quality services that address their needs. I focus on making sure that my price reflects the outcome my clients will see.

Handling scope creep

Scope creep, the phrase that strikes fear in the heart of every consultant…

We have all had that experience, where we carefully plan out every aspect of a project, estimating the necessary time and resources and even adding in a safety margin, only to have our client ask for “just a little more” work or “just this little addition” to our deliverable halfway through the project. All of a sudden the expected work load has doubled, for no additional income.

It’s easy to react defensively when this happens — to feel that your client doesn’t respect your time or that he’s trying to get you to work at a significantly reduced fee. And it’s tempting to react angrily, to resent that the client is trying to change the agreement. (I am reminded of the immortal line in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in which Darth Vader snarls, “I am altering the deal; pray I don’t alter it any further.”)

Instead, reiterate your commitment to supporting your client, find something you can say yes to and then explain where you have to say no. If your client asks for analysis or conclusions you are not comfortable making, offer to highlight the perspectives of established experts your client can rely on instead. If your client’s new request means you will spend far more hours than you had anticipated, briefly explain that this would exceed the scope of the project and offer either to do just a portion of the extra work or to write up a supplemental agreement to cover the project expansion.

While these conversations often feel stressful to solopreneurs, we are actually providing a service to our clients—helping them understand how much time, judgment and expertise is involved in what we do. A friend and colleague recently told me about the response she got from a client whose request would have required far more work than she had negotiated. After she explained the situation and offered some alternatives, her client responded with a gratifying email:

I fully understood and that is fair. You have been very generous and we can see that you have already put more time into the work than we had agreed. Anything that you may be able to get back to us that can address any of the issues we discussed would be great. Whatever you can or can’t find will be fine.

Because of my friend’s ability to calmly and politely respond to the possibility of scope creep, she continues to have a client who values her work, her time and her commitment to his concerns. He knows that her budget is honest and realistic, and that additional work involves additional commitment. She turned what could have been an unpleasant discussion into an opportunity to strengthen her relationship with her client.

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 talk about price

man recoils in horrorOne of the scariest things a solopreneur has to do is start the discussion of how much a project will cost. You might be having a great conversation with your client, in which you learn everything your client needs and you figure out how you can delight your client with your deliverable. Then comes the big moment where one of you has to start talking about cost….

Do you choke?

I used to. I would stutter and ramble and eventually get around to saying “Well, I guess we had better talk about how much this is going to cost.” It would feel awkward, especially when the client would turn around and say “What do you think it should cost?” and I would have no idea what to say next.

Now, I have a better way to handle the discussion of price – I own it. During my conversation with a client, I focus on what her goals are and how she is going to measure success in this project. I listen for opportunities to offer something she didn’t think to ask for that would really enhance the outcome. I focus entirely on what my client is trying to accomplish, not on what specifically I’ll do. (The description of the deliverable will be in my proposal.) After I have a really good sense of my client’s biggest needs in this situation and how I can amaze her with what I provide, then I just ask the next question.

“So, what kind of budget do you have in mind for this?”

Just like that. Then I shut up. Virtually every time, clients share with me what they expect to spend for this project; one recent client told me his entire marketing budget for the year and said he just wanted to have a little left over after my engagement for one other expense.

If a client hesitates, my response is along the lines of “Knowing how much priority this has in your overall budget helps me understand what level and depth of work is appropriate. Rather than my trying to guess a number and then design a deliverable around it, I can know exactly what this is worth to you and I’ll show you how much value I can pack into that budget.”

In my experience, after I have proven that my focus is on my client’s best interest and not just my own bottom line, clients are more than willing to share with me what they plan on spending. Every once in a while, they truly have no idea what a project will cost. In those cases, I am happy to spend the time required to scope out several options. But in most cases, when I write up a proposal, I already know how much my client values the solution to this problem and I can design something that they can’t turn down.

Even the Death Star is client-focused

deathstarIf you are a true Star Wars fan, you know who Colin Cantwell is. For the rest of us, let me introduce you to a concept designer whose ability to be entirely client-focused landed him a really awesome gig.

George Lucas discovered Colin Cantwell after seeing his special-effects work on “2001: A Space Odyssey”. They met and, according to a recent interview with Cantwell, he and Lucas discussed a project that turned out to be the first “Star Wars” movie. Yes, this is the man responsible for designing the Death Star, the X-wing starfighter and lots of other amazing vehicles and ships.

How did Cantwell land this plum assignment? As he was sketching out ideas, he kept asking Lucas what needed to happen, what needed to be the audience experience. He didn’t talk about how great his work was on “2001”; he didn’t try to talk Lucas into anything. He just showed that his priority was to make sure his client achieved his goal.

You may not be designing the next Death Star and your next client may not be George Lucas, but you can maintain that same lightsaber-like focus on your clients’ key goals. May the Force be with you.

When clients want sample deliverables

“Well, what you do sounds interesting, but could you send me a sample project?”

This is one of the most-feared questions a solopreneur encounters. You might freeze, not having a portfolio of the best, sufficiently-anonymized examples of what you do. A much better approach is to turn the question around and find out what your prospective client is most concerned about. What is he really worried about — that you can’t do the work? that your deliverable will be a piece of junk? something else?

Instead of getting that deer-in-the-headlights look, take one or more of these approaches to reassure your clients that you know what you are doing and that you are confident that you will meet their specific needs.

The most straightforward answer is to refocus your client on his specific need:

“As you can imagine, each of my deliverables is a custom product developed for that client’s specific needs. Each project is custom designed, so what I develop for you will look different from anything I have done for any other client. Rather than show you something that addressed a different need, what if I sketch out what I am imagining the end result to look like?” (Note: you’re not providing the end result, just formatting something so your client can see you are committed to providing a decision-ready deliverable.)

Another approach, particularly if you are just starting your business, is to anticipate these requests and prepare an example of what you want to be known for. Find a non-profit organization or other group for whom you could provide a strategic service.  Conduct a few reality-check interviews with the leaders of the organization and identify a strategic need they have that you could address, at least in part. You don’t want to give away all your services for free, but you do want a meaningful opportunity to shine and demonstrate what you want to be known for. Once you know what you could do for the organization, write up a proposal, spelling out your request that you be able to share some version of the deliverable to prospective clients.

And finally, listen to your gut. If you get the feeling that this prospective client doesn’t have confidence in your ability, or is skeptical about the value of your deliverable, you may want to walk away from the job. Taking a job with a client who doesn’t already believe that you are the right person often results in an unsatisfied client and a frustrated solopreneur.

Making customers feel special

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?

Top Tips For Killing Your Business

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!

Just a dog-walker, or “compassionate companion-animal care”

couple of boxer breed dogs walking outside on the green grassRecently, 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.