Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Archive for March, 2013

Size ‘Em Up

Posted by debrahelwig on March 25, 2013

platesIn the grand cosmology of chores at Casa Helwig, I am the goddess of dishwasher-emptying.

Luckily, I don’t mind. As far as I’m concerned, putting clean things away is infinitely more fun than scrubbing hours-old peanut butter and jelly off the inside of lunch containers. It’s a simple, mindless task that gives me brain space to develop writing ideas and plan upcoming work.

That is, until I get to THE PLATES.

Not just any plates. Not the good old china ones with the ivy on them, that we got at our wedding so my husband can say he always has something green on his plate. (No lie.)  No, no. Those I love, 20 years’ worth of chips and cracks and all.

You see the bane of my existence pictured here. I took this photo this morning, after they fell out of the cabinet for the FOURTH time.

I bought these lovelies at Disney World a couple of years ago when I was there on a business trip. I needed to bring something back for my kids, and these were cute, practical, and inexpensive.  Plus, they’d fit easily in my suitcase.  Perfection!  And yes, when I got home they made me into the heroine of the day. Lots of pleased giggles and hugs and “let’s use them right now!” Yay!
All was well until I had to figure out how to put them away.

Turns out the shapes that looked so cute on the store shelves DO. NOT. STACK.  No matter how I put them in the cabinet, they slide out. They cause things put on top of them to fall.

THEY DRIVE ME CRAZY.

And of course, because the kids ADORE them, they aren’t going anywhere.  I’m 100% stuck, probably until the youngest goes to college. 13 years from now.

The funny thing is, when they fell this morning and hit me in the head (yes, literally) – it jarred an idea loose. There’s a connection between my plate problem and professional services. And it’s this:

Choosing who your new clients will be is a more delicate proposition than you might realize.

As firms become more aggressive in pursuing niche development, it’s easy to get in a mindset of “let’s go after any lead we can, because we need a significant number of companies in that space to show how well we manage that specialty.”  Under that way of thinking, if your niche is construction, any company with ‘contractor’ in its name suddenly becomes a viable target; if it’s healthcare, the word “hospital” sets your heart going pitter-pat. And on and on.

This is dangerous.

Because if you don’t size potential clients up properly – and by that, I mean in ways besides financial solvency and revenue – you may find once you get them on board that they’re a very, very bad match.

If you’re not considering the more-difficult-to-measure aspects of a potential client – things like their employee satisfaction and turnover, their company culture and how it matches with your firm’s philosophy of doing business, how they prefer to communicate and how you do – you may find that once they’re on board, they’re a huge revenue source for the firm (yay) but that they also TOTALLY DRIVE YOU CRAZY.

Just like my plates – on the one hand, a raging success; on the other, the bane of your existence.

I bought my plates thinking they were practical. You know, plates, just like the other plates in my cabinet. I never, ever once considered that not all plates are alike – and they don’t all fit together. And they certainly don’t all fit me and the way I do my (dishwashery-goddess-type) work.

Your clients are just the same.

Trust me. Take the extra time to size ‘em up right, or you may be stuck with them – painfully – for a long, long time to come.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Professional Services, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

In Praise of Showing Up

Posted by debrahelwig on March 22, 2013

MailvEmail

A few days ago, this Internet cartoon drifted through my Facebook feed.

My reaction? Oh my God, YES.

So I shared it. And my friends and colleagues reacted the same way.

What is it about this that makes everybody I know react so strongly? I sat down to blog, and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it.  What is it that makes this idea important?

The answer struck like lightning at my kids’ PTA meeting last night.

Our school has a high overall level of parent involvement. The event was skillfully planned. Robust agenda. Thoroughly publicized. Food and childcare included. All this should be a recipe for a well-attended, highly successful meeting, right?

Exactly five parents showed up.

The result? Huge disappointment for the folks who worked so hard to make it happen. Big hard feelings of “does anybody really care anymore?” (This EVEN THOUGH the Facebook page for the PTA is quite active, and there were a ton of “So sorry I couldn’t make it, go PTA!” messages posted there.)

That crushing disappointment is the place where the meeting and the cartoon connect.

Because through technology, we’ve created a culture of convenience.   And, all over the place, our cyber-induced complacency is short-circuiting relationships that matter.

It’s true that sometimes for real reasons (the economy forcing people to work two jobs) and more often for fake reasons (spending time sucked into Facebook or online games or email), we seem to have less time than ever before.  It’s easy to connect with people via email and Facebook, in our own time, at our own schedule. It’s convenient and quick and we can do a lot more of it and feel very productive.  Look at all the connections I have!  Look at who I contacted today!

But at their heart, the very effortlessness of these connections devalues them.

In our deepest selves, we appreciate effort. It matters when we show up. When we connect in a physical way.

A virtual hug, however appreciated, can never hold the same value as feeling sheltered in the arms of a person who cares.

An email, however lovely, cannot substitute for the time and effort that goes into a card that is hand-chosen, handwritten, hand-stamped, hand-sent.

Online support and donations are valuable for a charity or service club or PTA. But they cannot replace the nurturing that comes from being present with people who need us.

In professional services, no amount of email, or newsletters, or excellent technical work, can substitute for face-to-face time with a client. Looking them in the eye. Hearing their concerns. Saying “You matter to me” in ways much louder than words.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Interwebs ever so slightly. Facebook, Twitter, email, and all the rest need to be a tool to augment personal interaction, not replace it. Don’t stop emailing or Facebooking. God no.

But sometimes, you just gotta show up.

In our hearts, we know this. It’s why this cartoon has been shared and shared and shared. Why we rejoice over cards in the mail and make a big deal when there’s a great turnout for the Food Bank workday.

If we want to make a lasting difference to the people around us – clients or friends or family – we must find a way to be physically, tangibly present when they need us.  We can’t wait for other folks to do this work. It’s up to us. Even when it’s inconvenient.

Maybe especially when it’s inconvenient.

Cartoon by Victor at http://www.poofytoo.com.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Marketing, Networking, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

End the Name Blame Game: Be a Hero

Posted by debrahelwig on March 19, 2013

SuperheroOver the years, I’ve wished over and over for a very specific superpower. And if it comes with spandex tights, mask, and cape, so be it.

It’s not flight. Not super strength. Not plasti-girl flexibility.

I want the superpower to remember people’s names.

I live a public life. I see people all the time at networking events, at conferences, at my kids’ school, at church. I know who they are. I know who they’re connected with. I know something about them.

But their names?  Far too often, they’ve blown away like smoke on a windy day.

Sometimes, the problem is contextual, like seeing an always-elegant work contact in their sweats and sneakers at the grocery. That sort of missed connection makes sense. But what I’m talking about here is more blatant. My best client’s business partner. The person who sat in the front row at two of my recent conferences and asked good questions. The mom of my kids’ classmate, who I see every weekday when I walk the kids to school. The person I see and speak to at church EVERY WEEK.

Faces I know. Names I should know.

Here’s a great example: I was volunteering at a church workday this past Saturday, polishing brass, and two other women came into my workspace to help. I know both of them.  I’ve been attending this church for SEVEN YEARS. I see them every Sunday.

Names?  Dang it, I couldn’t recall either of them.

Over the years, the primary tool I’ve used in covering this weakness has been my status as a woman of the American South.  Because I am a girl from Georgia, with an accent to match, people assume that it’s just normal for me to use “Honey,” “Sweetie,” “Sugar,” or “Darlin,” instead of a name.  I cover my lapses with whichever pleasantry comes to mind first.  But this day, I knew it wouldn’t work, not on two at once – especially since both were Southern women themselves. They’d know in a heartbeat what I was up to. There was nothing to do but suck up the embarrassment and admit my fault.

But it turns out that the way I did it sparked a whole new way of thinking about my name-centered memory lapses – one that benefited both me AND them – and that might benefit you too.

I did something far different than simply plead amnesia.  I prefaced my confession by telling them what I did remember.

To Gal One, I said, “I know you’re a dental hygienist, and you always wear the most beautiful jewel tones, but for the life of me I cannot remember your name.”

Her reaction? “Oh my gosh, it’s so sweet of you to remember all that about me! I’m Kathy.”

Wow.  I did not dissolve into a puddle of embarrassment.  The world did not explode.

I kept going to Gal Two: “And you sit in the front pew every week, and you always have a big smile for me.”

She said, “I’m Kenny, Debra. I’m glad you remember my smile.”

Holy Moley. It worked. No angst. No pain.  And in reflecting on it later, I figured out why it worked then and (more important!) why it will work in the future.

Saying what I do know makes all the difference. You see, one of the biggest perceived slights in forgetting a name is the feeling that You Forgot Me. ALL of me. By saying what I do remember, it honors the person and says, “I remember you, and you’re important; my brain just doesn’t work well on names.”

That’s a very different communication. One that speaks of value and caring. One that opens the door to a much more rich and interesting dialogue. A dialogue that builds a relationship.

In that case, a lost name isn’t a reason to beat ourselves up and feel bad.  Instead, it’s an opportunity to build someone else up.  A real, honest-to-goodness chance, if only for a moment, to allow them to see themselves as we see them.  To remind them of things that stand out, positively, from their encounters with us, even if the name didn’t stick.

Because the superpower isn’t remembering the names. The superpower is connecting with the people behind the names.

I had my superpower all along. Fellow name amnesiacs out there, you do too.  All we have to do is use it.

No cape required.

Photo by Kaptain Kobold. License.

Posted in Attitudes, Networking, Relationship Building, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Go, Make Something!

Posted by debrahelwig on March 14, 2013

MakeSomethingThis week, the stomach flu landed at my house.  On me.

Two days of evilness, followed by the sickest feeling I’ve ever had in my life: coming back to work to a list of 35 urgent “to do” items and an inbox with 150 actionable messages in it. It’s Busy Season in the accounting world and I was already crazy with work. Now…God help me.

And I had thought I was queasy before…

My immediate reaction was one of overwhelming inadequacy and stupidity.  Especially taking into account that there isn’t just WORK stuff. At home I have kids on spring break who are screaming “I’m bored!”; a house that hasn’t been cleaned, with puppy tumbleweeds flying across the den like we’re the last outpost on the lone prairie; bills to pay; a gratitude journal to write; a thank you note I haven’t sent; and OH MY GOD Easter is coming and I haven’t thought about cookies or egg hunts or any of that stuff….

It’s enough to send a person back to bed in a crumpled heap, never to emerge again.

It’s my guess that most of us have been in this place at some point – crushed by the feeling that “the world is falling on my head and I’ll never get out from under.” Frankly, considering it’s Busy Season, I’ll pretty much guarantee I’m not the only one feeling at least a little like this at the moment.

But, in the middle of all these feelings of “Oh My God, I will never be able to do all this,” and “I am suuuuuuch a miserable faaaaaailure!”, two independent pieces of wisdom floated into my inbox yesterday and combined in a way that stopped me in my tracks.

First, there was this post by Mike Figuolio called Quit Being a Critic and Go Create Something. Mike makes great points for anyone in a leadership role, saying:

What you must understand is your criticism carries weight.  It impacts the performance reviews of your people.  It determines whether a supplier wins a contract or gets booted.  It shapes the perspective on whether someone gets promoted or not.  You get the picture – your words change lives. I invite you to go a step beyond the simple criticism.  Help build something beyond your words. … change your mindset from one of critic to one of creator.  Instead of looking at your job responsibilities as only setting direction and judging the work of others, spend time with your team creating new ideas. 

From that came my first BIG THOUGHT:

I am the leader of Team Debra. And I am spending all my time criticizing me, instead of creating great work. I am a professional critic – of myself – and boy, am I a mean one!

Hmmmm.

Then, from my friend Michelle Golden, I received a link to a brilliant TED Talk from Elizabeth Gilbert called Your Elusive Creative Genius.

In this presentation, Gilbert presents the idea that we are not solely responsible for our own creativity. She explains that in ancient cultures, they believed there was an external source for creativity (called the Daemon, or the Genius) that helped the process along. That, in that context, our only responsibility is to show up and do the work, and the creative spark will come. That it’s not on us, as radically frail and freaky creatures, to be the source of making good stuff happen.

Double hmmmmm…

SO – this was my internal conversation that pulled all these thoughts together:

I am a tremendously horrible critic – mostly of myself. When my workload gets too deep, I immediately go to that place of “I’m a horrible failure and it will never get better.”

          This is not helpful. Instead of being a critic, what if you become a creator?  Create, don’t berate.

But I’m too BUSY to create anything! There’s this awful to-do list of mechanical stuff that just Has. To. Be Done. And it’s not creative work! It’s spreadsheets and database files and uploads and….

          Who says that stuff can’t be creative? You’re making something.

Um…

          Even if you have some stuff that isn’t “creative”, so what? Not everything has to be. Just make something every day and you’ll feel more energized for other stuff you have to do.
Maybe just make ONE thing. Make dinner. Write a blog post. Clean up something (make a clean space!). Tell the kids a story.

But I’m soooo tiiiiiired and overwhelllllllmeeeeeddd, I can’t be creative!

          Oooh, but if Elizabeth Gilbert is right, YOU don’t have to be creative. That external THING has to be creative (call it what you will, the genius, the divine, God) – but YOU
don’t have to do it. You just have to show up.

And then I do stuff?

          Right.

And work gets done? I make things?

          Right.

And I feel good about it?

          YES.

But there will still be this huge list of stuff that I didn’t do!

          But it won’t feel the same, if you’re paying attention to what you ARE doing and what you made today. Things will move faster and feel better.

In so many ways, this internal shift doesn’t change a thing. My to-do list is still a morass of electronic insanity. I’m still eating toast and bananas and wishing I felt good enough for a cup of coffee.

But this morning, thanks to Mike and Elizabeth, I’m deciding that the place where I begin my day is not with the idea that “I can’t do all this” and “I am the worst employee ever”.

Instead of being scared of my list, now I’m curious. I can’t wait to find out what my Genius (the Divine, God, the Muse) is going to bring – and what I’m going to get done.

Anticipation, not fear.

Today, I am going to make something great. I wonder what it will be?


Photo by jessica wilson {jek in the box}. License.

Posted in Attitudes, Busy Season, Leadership, Professional Services | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Looking for Spring

Posted by debrahelwig on March 11, 2013

tulips_in_snowBack last summer, I finally got around to picking up the red-hot series by George R.R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire – a set of books most popularly known by the name used in its HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones.

Martin is a brilliant writer. For a person like me, who loves words and a rich character tapestry, the first books in the series were almost narcotic. I had picked the first one up casually, as a beachtime “well, it’s something to do.” Then, just a few chapters in, I became obsessed. It was one of those “read while you brush your teeth, read while you take out the trash, read while you should be cooking dinner” sorts of love affairs. I bought the second and drained it dry in a matter of days. Then the third. SLURP. Gone.

The fourth, I had to slow down. What had started as a bleak sort of story had gotten positively deadly. Everyone was betraying everyone else. Not a shred of hope in sight. My favorite characters, all expired. The hopeful plot threads? Extinguished.  The main character’s family motto – Winter is Coming – well, YEAH. Holy hell. Winter is HERE, dude. Landed on your head.

I bought book five (in hardback, mind you!), because I hate giving up on a good writer. But I had to give it up completely only about 40 pages in. I realized I was sad and exhausted by what I was reading. The reading high I was getting before had turned into nothing but bad smack.

Welcome to dystopia.

Not familiar with the term?  Dystopia is the opposite of utopia – a society characterized by human misery, where everything is as bad as it can be.

And George R. R. Martin isn’t the only guy presenting us with this stuff. Over the past 10 years, pretty much the entire culture of science fiction and fantasy has turned itself away from a positive future to a horrific, dystopic one – and that focus has begun bleeding into popular culture. Besides Game of Thrones, witness the popularity of The Hunger Games. I bet you can think of a dozen more books, shows, or movies you’ve seen in recent times that had a dark beginning and a darker ending, that left you feeling sad or scared or – dirtier – than when you started watching or reading them.

Is this a turn of our cultural psyche, in tandem with the tough period we’ve all been going through with our businesses and our jobs? Maybe. Heck, the guys in Congress can’t even pretend to be friends anymore. It feels like we’re all going to Hell in that metaphoric handbasket, only now we’ve got Game of Thrones and Hunger Games and fights on Reality TV as preview entertainment to show us the way. Whoopee!

What’s even worse – and what I only started realizing the other day – is this dystopic miasma is creeping into our personal and business language as well. It’s changing how we think about and talk to each other. And it’s negatively impacting the way we keep ourselves motivated, our families together, our staffs happy, and our clients satisfied.

When we talk about work, we say words like busy and stressed and overwhelmed. When we get together with our friends and clients, we talk about the disasters on the news (North Korea! Gas prices! Sequester!), the disasters on the sports field (did you SEE that awful NASCAR wreck?), and the disasters in our lives (dead car, dead dog, not enough money, and God knows what other crazy bad thing that happened this week). We Tweet and Facebook with righteous anger about the bad stuff going on all around us and mourn the devolution of our society. Then we go home and pop popcorn and watch the devolution of other fictional societies as if it’s supposed to make us all feel better about the one we’re living in.

This. Is. Not. Working.

Now, you and I are not going to fix the whole social order by refusing to buy into a dystopic worldview. There will still be plenty of people to watch and read and buy whatever the hot new “end of the world” saga may be. Congress is still going to fight, people are still going to do the wrong thing, and gas may be $10 per gallon by the end of the summer. I get it. And I fully admit that being a Pollyanna and pretending stuff ISN’T going wrong won’t work either.

But I CAN make some small changes to my thinking that will directly impact my outlook, and you can too. Maybe even more important, we can make changes that impact our ability to reach and help the people we live and work with every day.

While everyone else is focused on the fact that Winter is Coming, we can be Looking for Spring.

My friend Melinda Guillemette touched on this idea in her recent post The Upside of Self Centeredness. She’s 100% right. If we evaluate the media we’re taking into our psyches, the conversations we’re having, and frame them through the lens of “is this making me better? Is this making my relationships better? Is this elevating the people around me in any way?” we may stop a lot of trash thinking/trash talking before we even start.

There are some other things we can do, too, that I’ve seen work very effectively in recent days. Join me in trying one or all:

  • Write a gratitude journal. Every day, at the end of the day, jot down five things/people/happenings in your life that you are grateful for.
  • Write a gratitude journal at work. Before you shut off that PC for the day, write down five meaningful projects/interactions with clients/interactions with colleagues. Because it’s a narrower slice of our lives, this is harder. But it can also be intensely rewarding.
  • Focus on the positive in conversations, especially with colleagues and clients. Sometimes the most positive you can be is “I hear you. We’re in this together.” But just that little statement in place of commiserating (creating co-misery!) can elevate a situation in surprising ways.
  • Spread cheer. Just once a week, think of someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Send a note or a card (or an email, if it’s all you can manage) telling them they matter to you. In today’s raft of busy-ness, getting a card like that in the mail can be stunningly meaningful.
  • Clean up. Your language, your work space, your car, your house. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and miserable in a messy space. And that includes your head space.

Little changes. Incremental progress. That’s all it takes to change us – and it might be the start of changing the world.

Image by SimonWhitaker. License.

Posted in Attitudes, Leadership, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Starting Over

Posted by debrahelwig on March 6, 2013

StartTwo years, five months, 14 days. That’s how long it’s been since I posted on this blog.

So long, in fact, that I forgot the login credentials for WordPress. So long, my design template is officially obsolete. So long, I almost quit.  Forever.

You see, I got busy. Super busy. My company merged, tripled its international reach, and completely renamed and rebranded. There were three different bosses – with three utterly different management styles – in less than a year. As lead on the branding project, I worked 18 months straight of 18+ hour days, full of multi-lingual, multi-cultural insights and difficulties.

Blog? What blog? I made the excuse that I was too overextended to worry about it – though occasionally I would remember and be sad that I’d left it behind.

We launched the PrimeGlobal brand in July last year (hooray!) and I turned back to my regularly scheduled life. I thought about starting to write again.  But it had been SOOOOOOOO LONG.  “Who would care anymore?” whispered my inner demons. I had started something good and let it die. I was embarrassed, so I pretended it didn’t matter anymore. But it still tied my guts in knots every time I thought about it.

Then my dear friend John Hill died at the age of 44. Thirty days later my beloved father died suddenly. Then 45 days after that, my friend Spencer Cox. Then, my great-aunt Ruby. Mom’s cancer became terminal. My not-quite-so-toddler-anymore started Pre-K. My 9 year old acquired her first boyfriend – and her first breakup. Holidays set up and fell like dominoes, one set of decorations down, another up. For a control freak like me, this much uncontrolled life left me spinning, deliberately unengaged for fear that if I connected, just ONE MORE THING would happen. I didn’t want any ONE MORE THINGS. And this blog was just that. One more thing.

The internal dialogue went like this: “How could I start again? Real writers, they write.  Real bloggers, they have something to say all the time and post like mad. They are witty, insightful, and most of all, timely. That can’t be me.  It’s been two years. No way. Just do your day job. Take care of your kids. This writing thing, that was just a fun little dream anyway. Forget it.”

But the day I went to hit “delete”, I didn’t remember my WordPress login. And before I could find it, I had a chance conversation with my friend Melinda Guillemette. Melinda is a woman with thoughts like spun gold. She is 100% witty, insightful, and one of those folks who on my better days I wish I could be like. And she, this person I admire so much, said pointedly, “Darn it, I want you to start writing again. The world needs your voice.”

Really?  Me?

Then just a few days later, another extremely smart friend, Michelle Golden, posted a statement to Facebook that hit me in the face:

“Just declined doing the wrong work at the wrong time at the wrong price. Always hard to do but feels good once it’s done.  Also about ready to walk away from the wrong work at the right price. Even harder to do.”

Wow. So, don’t just work. Do what you love. And let the work figure itself out from there.

That idea really made me think. And I stopped feeling sorry for myself long enough to start looking around. This is what I saw:

Heather Kreiter, launching a line of cute-as-heck plush toys via Kickstarter.
Ashley Garrett, officially the Baddest Mother Ever, launching a blog because the world needed to hear her voice (and believe me, it does.)
Michelle Golden, not staying pat in the social media space, but sharing brilliant insights on Value Pricing.
Tracy Crevar-Warren, who blew up her life as a professional services consultant to be SuddenlySwiss (and remain one of the brightest minds in professional services at the same time).
And, to take the tale back to professional services, Grossman St. Amour CPAs, who just launched a fabulous niche in equestrian accounting.

These folks naturally GOT something I missed, in my busy-ness and malaise of the past couple of years.

It’s never too late to start – or start over.

This applies to my whole life, and maybe to yours too. Do you have a friend, or maybe a client, that you’ve neglected because you got too busy with other things, then never called because it had been “too long” and would be “embarrassing”?  Do you have a hobby at home, or a niche or a certification at work, that you always wanted to pursue, but stopped yourself because “it’s too late, I’m doing other things now?” or  “I don’t have time, and who would care anyway?” A type of work you want but haven’t pursued because “someone else is already doing it?” or “no-one will like me doing this?”

Let me tell you what Melinda said to me: “Honey, they aren’t doing it like you. Because they aren’t you. The world needs YOU doing this, even if everyone else is doing it too. Because your way will be different – and it will be something that people need.”

If it’s true for me, it’s true for you too.  Both in your personal life and in your professional career.

What have you been neglecting out of embarrassment or fear? What dream or idea keeps running around in the back of your mind, unwilling to be laid aside? And what step can you take today to say “to hell with what anyone thinks, I’m doing it anyway?” and see where it takes you?

Me, I’m taking a stand. I choose to be brave like Ashley and Heather and Michelle and Tracy. I’m going to write. Right here.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride – and that you’ll share your dreams and plans in the comments as well.

Let’s do this.

Photo by Stevendepolo. License.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Professional Services | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

 
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