Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Archive for March, 2009

The Buck Stops – Where?

Posted by debrahelwig on March 27, 2009

checkbook-photo1 Tax day is coming. And like a good little do-bee, I’ve been shuffling together all the paperwork I need to happily release my tax return dinero. I was so glad when I thought I’d gotten it all done!

But then, when I started to package everything up, I noticed that one of my charitable statements looked incomplete. I checked the checkbook again, and uh, oh. We’d missed donating for the past few months. Our mistake. I felt terrible. But it should be easy enough to straighten out. Right?

I wish.

I sent the charity a groveling apology email, basically saying, “I don’t remember receiving invoices like usual, and I forgot to pay. I’m so sorry – how can I make good and start getting regular donation invoices again?”

You see, I really believe in this charity and want to give them money. I was highly embarrassed to be behind on my pledge. I really wanted to fix it. A little positive intervention could have sealed my loyalty for life, and – knowing my guilty streak – would probably have earned an extra donation too.

Instead, I got a one line email from the finance department: “We do not send invoices. When you make a donation, the receipt has a tear-off for your next donation. Thanks.”

What a singularly unhelpful response! Evidently I had missed a donation, and they stopped mailing me. My mistake, I agree. But not only did this response make me feel worse about it, it didn’t tell me what to do next. So I emailed again, asking for more help.

The emailed response was – drum roll, please – the address to mail a check.

That’s it.

No “thank yous”, no offer to help, no acknowledgement that I was trying to do the right thing, not even a list of reasons why it’s important to remember to donate, or a mention that my money might actually be needed or useful. Nothing.

Now I felt really terrible – and not just about me, but about them.

Because I love this charity’s mission, I didn’t want to let it go. I called their executive office to relate my unhappy experience. The reply? “Oh, I’m so sorry, our relationship manager is on vacation, and you got sent directly to accounts receiveable.”

Whoa, Nellie.

Here’s what I told that company’s officer – and what I hope you already knew:

Every person in your organization is a relationship officer.

Every one of them.

When it comes to customer care, the buck doesn’t stop in the place you decide. No matter how you try to funnel communication, someone is going to go astray. Someone who needs help. And that means every person, from the mailroom guy to the Managing Director, should be steeped in the organization’s culture. Every employee must be taught to appreciate their clients and communicate that appreciation, in every transaction, no matter how small, every day.

This principle applies to your firm as well. Because that’s what builds relationships. It’s what keeps clients/customers/supporters coming back again and again, even in troubled economic times like ours.

Listening. Communicating. Making people feel like their activity with your firm or organization means something. That’s what will secure your future.

I did write another check to my charity, and the donation stubs are coming again. But I don’t feel as warm and fuzzy about them as I did before. If a similar charity approached me, I might – just might – be wooed away.

In a comparable situation, your clients might be too.

Don’t let it happen. Teach your folks to express their gratitude and care to every client they touch.

Photo by Oblivion9999 (license)

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Marketing, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Letting Go

Posted by debrahelwig on March 24, 2009

Yard Sale Sign

This past weekend, I saw my proof that Spring is finally here. No, not the pretty flowers and singing birds; those have been around for a couple of weeks now. I mean the incontrovertible, definitive proof that great weather is here to stay.

Yard Sale signs.

Practically every subdivision I passed last Saturday had a sign out. Homemade signs, big store bought signs, balloons, dancing children holding posterboards – pretty much any means the sellers could think of to entice folks to come and buy.

This got me thinking. With the economy so topsy-turvy, people are looking for deals. Maybe now is the time to make a little money from all that “stuff” lying around in my basement and the garage.

So I came home, rolled up my sleeves, and started rummaging. You wouldn’t believe the stuff I found – or maybe you would. Things like a 1983 Star Wars “Yoda” hand puppet in its original box. A handblown crystal chandelier that hung in my grandmother’s house. An absolute collector’s paradise at $5 and under. I could make a mint.

But here’s the kicker – I’m having to work really hard to make myself get rid of any of it. Though I aspire to the streamlined living of great people like Erin Doland at Unclutterer, I’m just not that great at letting go, even when the benefits (money, space) are obvious. Every time I pick up a piece, I put it back down again, strangely insecure about how I’ll feel if it goes away.

Many of us are like this in our business dealings too. I guarantee that if you look through your list of clients and focus on the relationships you’ve built, there are a handful that you’d be better off without. Not a “dump and run” of treasured folks just because their revenue stream isn’t high enough, mind you. I’m talking about relationships that were extremely valuable to you at one time, but who now have been relegated to your firm’s equivalent of the basement keepsake pile.

In this evaluation, size is irrelevant. What matters here is synchronicity. Do they match your current expertise and vision? Is it still the work that you are best suited to do? Maybe not. Maybe they came to you years ago, and your business has shifted its niches and focus since then. Maybe that client takes an inordinate amount of resources to service, compared to the return they bring. Maybe the relationship just isn’t humming along like it used to, and you find yourself dreading their phone calls. Referring clients like that to other firms who are a better match would be such a relief for everyone. And, in addition to being a true client service, it would open the door for you to pursue new opportunities.

But just like me with my grandmother’s chandelier, you haven’t let go yet.

Why? Because these clients are safe. And in this economy, where new business is hard to come by, making the effort to find different homes for them feels uncomfortable at best, suicidal at worst.

But it’s not.

Here’s why. By making great referrals for your clients who are no longer a good match, you strongly improve the possibility that inbound referrals of your ideal clients will increase as well. You make space for new business to happen. You remove the drag on your staff that comes from working with issues that no longer resonate.

Remember the movie Miracle on 34th Street? In that classic, Macy’s Santa sent people wherever they needed to go to buy the perfect toys, regardless of what it meant to Macy’s business. Customers quickly realized the company had their best interests at heart – so they shopped there more, not less, and referred their friends. Better yet, the other department stores, wanting to seem equally altruistic, sent plenty of business back to Macy’s.

Win – win – win. And win. And win some more.

It comes down to this: is it worth a lot of initial discomfort to gain the reputation for doing what’s right for every single one of your clients? Or will you be known for hoarding business that isn’t quite right for you, no matter how unhappy the relationship might become?

Maybe it’s time to sort through your client list, just like I’m sorting for my yard sale. Then, make a date to let the referrals begin.

My yard sale is April 24th. When will you let go of the relationships that are holding you (and them) back?

Photo by DaquellaManera (license)

Posted in Attitudes, Business Development, Leadership, Networking, Professional Services | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Sometimes It Ain’t About You

Posted by debrahelwig on March 20, 2009


Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Tuesday.

Tuesday Whitt.

Tuesday died not long ago of a devastating form of cancer called neuroblastoma. She was two years old.

Her mom, Jessica, blogged the family’s experience – and as the friend of a friend, with small kids of my own, I watched, prayed, waited, and hoped along with hundreds of others reading Tuesday’s story.

Then suddenly, too soon, she was gone.

Shocking. Devastating. For the family, for their friends, for every person touched by her mother’s phenomenal blogging journey.

Then, just yesterday, I got a call from my neighbor and dear friend Ruthie. She’s been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, another awful cancer with difficult treatment and a difficult prognosis. Now, instead of relaxing through retirement, Ruthie’s family and everyone who cares about her will be pulled into a world of doctor visits, ports, chemo drugs, bone marrow transplants, and more.

Mind altering.

Tuesday’s death, Ruthie’s illness – these are the kinds of situations that stop me short. For a time, they change my actions – and reactions – to everything around me.

And it’s not just me. Things like this are happening everywhere, not just in my little circle. Accidents. Cancer diagnoses. Failed careers. Failed marriages. Suicides. Things that completely take our breath – and our attention – away.

So why is it, when we reach out to clients with email, with invitations, with new products or services, and get no response, our first and only instinct is to blame the marketing plan?

Here’s a news flash: sometimes it just ain’t about you.

Your seminar might be the exact thing I need. Your service might save my business. Your product might be the answer to my dreams.

But if I’m 100 percent focused elsewhere, riveted by news like Tuesday’s or Ruthie’s, I won’t pay attention to you. It doesn’t matter how well crafted you’ve made your content or how relevant you’ve made your nurturing campaign.

Business – every kind of business, especially professional services – is ultimately about relationships and personal needs. How you handle non-response, or a response of “not now, please,” is every bit as important as shaking hands over an enthusiastic “yes.”

Zappos shoes knows this. In 2007, I Heart Zappos was a social media shot heard round the world, a testimony to grace and commitment to the people behind business relationships. A story where a big mail order house had the open communication with its customers, the flexibility, the sympathy, and the heart, not only to take a late return from a woman whose mother had died, but to send flowers and a sympathy card as well. With no promise of return. With no tangible benefit from the exchange. And with no measurement of how well that woman had responded, or not, to their latest email campaign.

The success of Zappos – and the fact that Tuesdays and Ruthies exist – speaks loudly to the fact that ROI alone as a measure of marketing success is flawed. Measuring response rates doesn’t tell you why your message fell on deaf ears. It doesn’t give you a way forward with the folks you didn’t reach. It doesn’t build relationships.

If you want to be successful, then care deeply about the people behind your messages. Give them a way to share what they’re going through if they want to. And if they don’t respond, be patient. Don’t let an ROI spreadsheet or a marketing plan make you forget that every number represents a life, being lived in both good times and bad.

Sometimes it’s OK to forget the spreadsheet and just be responsive. To them.

Because sometimes it just ain’t about you.

To make a donation to the Tuesday Fiona Whitt Memorial Fund, or to donate to pediatric cancer research, visit

Posted in Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Professional Services | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Give ‘Em a Place to Park

Posted by debrahelwig on March 17, 2009


Every time I drive to my in-laws’ place for a visit, I pass a number of country houses. Some are wood, some brick. Most are old. There’s a lot of farm equipment on front yards and in driveways. Even a few goats and cows.

But one house in particular stands out, every time. The one that has this sign in the yard:

Rooster Livers for Sale.

Not being much of a country girl, the first time I saw this sign I thought it was really, really funny. Then, after a few trips by it, I got intrigued. What the heck is a rooster liver? Is it really from a rooster? How is it different from a chicken liver? What the devil do you use them for?

Finally, one day just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I just had to know. I was ready to get some rooster liver religion and part with real dollars and cents to find out what I’d been missing. I told the kids to hang on, put on my turn signal, and starting rummaging for my wallet.

It was only then I saw the huge flaw in this country salesman’s marketing plan: there was no place to park my car. And no posted hours to buy them, either.

Operation Rooster Livers aborted on launch.

Once I got over my disappointment, the whole silly affair actually got me thinking about the professional services firms I work with every day.

As accountants (and lawyers, this applies to you too) we work awfully hard trying to intrigue our prospects with the unique aspects of our services. We write white papers and articles. We send newsletters. We hold seminars and go to networking events. We spread our name and our niches all over town.

But think for just a minute. How good are you, really, at making people feel comfortable about contacting you at the precise moment when they’re ready to do business with you? Do you make it perfectly clear how to find the right person without navigating a phone tree or filling out online forms?

But our sales are complex, you say. They take a long time. We can control the process better than that.

Hmmm, maybe. But what if that prospect finally hits the tipping point and decides he has to do something about his company’s issue at 2:00 in the morning? Or what if he’s prodded to urgency by an article on or a tweet he just read, instead of something you sent to him? Can he remember who he talked to? And even if he can, do you make it easy for him to connect?

Let’s make the question even simpler. Wherever they are in the sales process, if prospects go to your Web site, can they easily locate the exact real live person at your firm who can give them the answers they need?

Do you give them a place to park?

I did eventually find out (thanks, Google) that Rooster Livers are really just chicken livers with high-velocity marketing spin. Folks use them for catfish bait, and though the people who sell Rooster Livers say they’re five times tougher, most old timers swear the only difference is their much higher price tag.

Just goes to show you, you can build a great niche if you position it right. But if people can’t get to you when they’re ready (not when you’re ready, when they are), all the marketing in the world won’t do you a darn bit of good.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Networking, Professional Services | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »


Posted by debrahelwig on March 13, 2009

Spring fever is in the air. In my hometown, the trees are budding. Flowers are blooming. The weather is gorgeous.

And the ducks are amorous.

Last night during my family picnic at the park, two ducks waddled up to our table, squawking and flapping, and — well — proceeded to make more baby ducks. Right under the nose of my loudly curious five year old.


How awkward. There are just some things in life meant to be enjoyed without lots and lots of extra details. Baby ducks are one of them.

Sausage is another. Most of my life I’ve heard the phrase “It’s like making sausage; enjoy the results but you don’t wanna know how it’s made.” There’s a reason for that one too.

Then there’s you and your firm.

You may be talking too much. About you. Too Much Information.


Now, hang with me here – I am not trying to confuse issues of honesty and disclosure. Always tell the truth. Say the stuff that has to be said. That makes you more valuable, not less.

But there’s a bunch of stuff going on with you that really doesn’t need to be said. The “behind the curtain” part of things. The “I’m stressed out and overworked and it’s busy season and aren’t you sorry for me?” part of things.

It’s just about one month out from the end of tax season. The economy stinks. I know you’re under tons of pressure. The stress is mounting. You ARE under the gun. That’s real.

Your clients don’t need to hear about it.

They don’t need to know how time crunched you are. Or that you’ve worked every Saturday since the dawn of time and some Sundays too. Or that Bill dropped his coffee all over your laptop. Or that three people on your team have stomach flu. Or that your blood pressure is starting to spike.

It’s become a badge of honor in this country to respond to the question, “How are you?” with the answer “I’m soooooo BUSY,” with the word “busy” punctuated by a gust-of-wind-style heavy sigh.

But it doesn’t sound so great when you’re the one who has to listen to it.

Remember, your clients are under a heck of a lot of pressure too. The “Where are my customers?” kind of pressure. The “I could lose my business” kind of pressure. The “I had to lay people off” kind of pressure. All they want to know from you is that they’re a valued client and their needs are being met. They don’t want to know about your problems, or heaven forfend, infer that they are the cause of your anxiety. That’s a relationship killer.

In these stressful economic times, it’s up to you to be their calm in the storm, not an additional cause for concern.

Show them the baby ducks. Help them welcome Spring.

But, for goodness sake, don’t tell them how you got them there.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Leadership | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Avoid the Perilous BIG

Posted by debrahelwig on March 10, 2009

Yesterday I was planning my five year old’s birthday party. So I called Jeff the Balloon Guy.

Jeff comes to the party in his clown costume with a dozen balloons. He makes balloon animals, does face paint, and plays games. He’s awesome. Having Jeff at my daughter’s party will rock her little world.

But then I start arguing with myself. “One dozen balloons isn’t enough,” I waver. “We need mylar fairytopia. Two balloons per kid. Three. It’s got to be big to make her happy.”

Uh, no. Hold the phone. My girl would be happy with a homemade cake, two balloons total, and a cheap piñata.

The problem is me. I’ve been sucked into the cult of the perilous BIG.

So have a lot of people. I see it on signs all over town. HUGE sale. BIG markdowns! GIGANTIC savings. It’s like trying to shout the loudest in a noisy room. The more people are talking, the louder it gets, and the more you have to shout. Be bigger. More huge. The Gigantic-est.

We’ve absorbed this concept and it ceases to amaze us. On some visceral level, Americans have internalized the idea that BIG thinking, shouting the loudest, is what gets you eyeballs/profit/fame/success, both at home and at work.

But I have news for you.

You don’t need the 75” all singing, all dancing plasma TV, not even for the big (AH, there’s that BIG again) game. You don’t need 25,000 followers on Twitter to reach the people that care about your message. You don’t need to bring in dozens of new clients from every seminar you hold or every networking event you attend. And you don’t need 20 percent growth year over year for your firm to succeed.

If you believe that you do, you’ve fallen prey to the perilous BIG. And you’re in trouble.

Why is BIG so bad? Because in economic times like ours today, it’s not sustainable.

Clients are getting slower to pay. They’re scaling back on projects. It’s looking like it might be a little lean around the clubhouse after April 15. If you’re a believer in BIG, this turn of events appears to be utter disaster. A quarter, or horrors, a year of flat or incremental growth will be the death of the firm.

But will it? Really? Really?

Or is it an addiction to the supersize fry when a regular size will do? Three dozen balloons for a kid’s party when a dozen would suffice?

Think about it. Because your answer to that question will drive your firm’s business development for the forseeable future.

If BIG is the goal, then you’ve just entered an “eat what you kill” world. You’ll have to seek new markets and new clients at an unprecedented pace. Go for the huge one-time projects and then on to new clients who will give you a big cash infusion. At that point, you’re chasing dollars, not winning hearts and minds. And when the downturn becomes the upturn, these folks won’t have reasons to stay with you. You’ve become strictly a commodity player.

Uh oh.

My advice? Ignore what our society tells you is good related to growth and success. Don’t buy into BIG for BIG’s sake.

Figure out what you really have to have to sustain through the downturn. Be flexible enough to measure success by something other than growth alone. Invest your energy in caring for the (hurting) clients you have and help them with their needs. Build relationships with new clients in a nurturing way for the long term. Understand that tiny growth is still growth – and perfectly acceptable, no matter what your television tells you.

It’s a tough patch now, but it won’t be forever. Until things bounce back, you need Mr. Jeff and a dozen balloons for the party, not a truckful.

Reestablish your firm’s expectations.

Avoid the perilous BIG.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Leadership, Marketing, Professional Services | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Wash Your Woobie

Posted by debrahelwig on March 5, 2009

True confessions time: I sleep with a security blanket.

All right, it’s not really a Linus Van Pelt-style security blanket. That down-filled sofa throw is actually my insurance in the “I-like-to-sleep-hot, he-likes-to-sleep-cold” thermostat wars. It’s toasty. It’s soft. And I like it a lot, especially when it’s cold outside. I like it so much, in fact, that my husband nicknamed it “the Woobie,” just like the security blanket the kid had in the movie Mr. Mom.

About a week ago, my eight-month-old did what babies do best and burped up all over it. Off to the laundry pile went the Woobie.

I should have washed it right away.

But my older child needed her karate ghi cleaned. Baby needed bibs. Husband needed that shirt and a pair of jeans for a trip out of town. And on and on. So, dutiful mommy, I did that stuff first. Woobie stayed at the bottom of the laundry basket —

Exactly where it remained when a freak snowstorm landed on my hometown Sunday and socked us in with no power for three whole days. Not enough wood for the fire.  Not enough blankets.  Cold, cold, cold. And no clean Woobie.

Unhappy me.

So what does my unhappy, dirty Woobie have to do with leadership and marketing?  Just this:

On your to-do list, there are items you know you need to accomplish to make you more efficient, an effective leader, more productive — just plain better at what you do.

Stuff like a career plan. Training (for you, not your staff). If you’re a marketer, maybe a full overview of your Web site and collateral. Research into a new potential niche. Launching a blog or Twitter account.

You know, stuff you’ve been meaning to do, but that keep getting shoved to the bottom of the pile by urgent requests from your peers, bosses, and friends.

Stop ignoring that stuff. Learn a lesson from my Woobie.

The “snowstorm” in your job is coming. Whether it’s good or bad – a hit from the economy, a new business opportunity, a key employee who quits suddenly, a new client coming on board who needs your skills – something is coming that will make you wish you’d taken care of yourself as well as handling all the other crises going on at your firm.

So today, figure out just one thing you’ve been putting off to the benefit of everyone else. And do it. Wash your Woobie.

Take care of your own future as well as everyone else’s. That way you’re ready for whatever happens next.

Posted in Attitudes, Business Development, Leadership, Marketing, Networking | 1 Comment »

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