Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Archive for the ‘service’ Category

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 »

Beat Perfection Paralysis – Take it to the Happy Line

Posted by debrahelwig on July 26, 2010

To quote the immortal Hannibal Smith from A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

All right, I can’t believe I’m quoting the A-Team. But it’s true. Don’t you love it when your projects are spinning along just right? When your writing zen is on and you author the blog post of your life? When the marketing campaign you dreamed up lands ten times its projected leads? When your well-placed phone call makes the difference between keeping and losing the biggest client on your balance sheet?

Of course you do.  I do too.

When you’re aiming at perfection and actually hitting the mark, work is bliss. As the poem says, God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world.

But there’s a problem in this land of sunshine and glory, and I’m sure you already know what it is.

People. And circumstances. And you. Yes, you, on the days you have a cold, or didn’t get enough sleep, or had way too many jalapeno poppers at dinner the night before, or whatever other circumstance you can imagine. Stuff you can’t predict will always get in the way, darn it. And things get messed up.

Note, mind you, by “messed up” I don’t mean that your project is a train wreck, or even a moderate failure. By messed up, I mean that it doesn’t match up to what your inner perfectionist says it should be.

I’ve lived in this place. It’s not fun.

For the longest time, when things at work didn’t go exactly the way I thought they should (nevermind what anyone else thought), I would feel like a huge loser, because I knew I could do better. I had a vision of the perfect result I should have achieved, and my evil inner perfectionist would whisper, “What makes you think you know anything?” or, “If you keep this up you’re gonna get fired.” Then, I would react in one of two ways:

1. Overwork it. If the project didn’t feel perfect the first time, I’d keep at it. Rewrite for the thirtieth time. Take it back to design again – and again. Set up another focus group. Hold another group of employee meetings. Better to deliver the best possible job than let go something that’s less than perfect.

2. Avoid it. If I was afraid I couldn’t do a perfect job, then I’d push the project down to the bottom of the to-do list until I had the experience/skills/talent/contacts to do better. Or I’d ignore it until the need for it went away and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.

Bad, baaad.  The perfection paralysis became a never-ending, vicious cycle, with my self-esteem as the target.  It took a very wise boss to jerk me out of it.

One afternoon a number of years ago, this boss called me into his office and asked to see the status of a marketing campaign I was working on. I told him I wasn’t happy with it, that there was still work to be done, that I wanted to tweak it for a couple more days.

He looked at my work, tossed it on his desk, and said, “Send it.”

“But wait,” I protested, “It’s not ready.”

“Oh yes it is,” he replied. “You’re at the Happy Line. Get it out the door.”

As I was leaving, he called after me, “Quit trying to make everything so perfect. Get to 80% of perfect and 99% of people will be happy with it. And you’ll get a heck of a lot more done. Take it to the Happy Line.

His advice rocked my world.  And I still live by it today.  Because he’s right.

Sure, there are some professions (tax accounting is one of them) where 100% accuracy is required.  But in marketing and customer service, the truth is that 80% of perfect is always, always better than 100% of unfinished.

By applying the Happy Line principle in my job, I’ve discovered:

1. I get more done – and more quickly – than I ever did before.
2. My creativity opens up and I have fresher ideas.
3. I stop playing it safe and try new things – and those things sometimes turn out to be my most innovative and groundbreaking work.

If you try this, what you do won’t be perfect.  But your work will be finished (on time!) – and maybe even great. Probably even great.

Aim for the Happy Line and see how far it can take you.

At minimum, you won’t be driving yourself crazy anymore.

Photo by • • • annajarske.com (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Business Development, Leadership, Marketing, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Be Who You Are – Out Loud: Why Authenticity + Consistency Are Critical to Wooing and Keeping Clients

Posted by debrahelwig on February 25, 2010

I have a new crush.

A few weeks back, a friend of mine turned me on to a great company called Better World Books. This bunch sings to me on a lot of levels – I’m an avid reader, a bargain junkie, a believer in literacy programs, and “green” enough to be a good recycler. Win + win + win.

But the other thing I love about Better World Books is their style. Check out this follow up email:

If your order hasn’t blessed your mailbox just yet, heads are gonna roll in the Better World Books warehouse! Seriously though, if you haven’t received your order or are less than 108.8% satisfied, please reply to this message. Let us know what we can do to flabbergast you with service.

Fun, simple and service oriented, just like their site and blog. These guys will get my money, because from site to blog to email, they present a consistent voice that I relate to.

But there’s another part to this story.

You might not like Better World Books’ message, and that’s cool too. If you’d rather have a cup of Starbucks at Barnes & Noble and finger the pages of every book before you buy, go with their blessing. There are plenty of other people in the world, like me, who belong with them. It’s a matchmaker’s tale. Find a person / client / business that resonates with your needs and values, you’ll wind up together.

With all that in mind, here’s the lesson for our industry – and the $64K question for you:

Are you gutsy enough to take the Better World Books approach? To unapologetically be who you are, with an eye toward working only with clients who are a great fit for your firm?

In a down economy, it’s such a temptation to say that any work is good work. Believe me, it’s not.

Doing work you don’t like for clients whose worldview is a bad match to yours sucks the energy out of your culture. Over time, your office will become a giant revolving door – for work, for clients, for staff. Because the synergy, the passion, the “why we belong together” isn’t there.

Do you know your firm’s culture inside and out? If not, then get to know it now. This minute. Be able to put images and words around it. Show other people what you’re good at, what you like to do, and how you get it done. Then be authentic and consistent in sharing that special culture of yours everywhere you do business, online and off.

Because if your communications don’t reflect the culture of your firm, the disconnect is costing you business – both by saddling you with clients who are a bad fit based on misperception, and by missing clients who would be perfect but who don’t understand why you’re great for them.

It’s not about fitting into what “society” says is hip and cool, either. It’s 100% OK to be a buttoned-up, marble-column, three-piece-suit firm in today’s world. But clients who want a firm like that won’t find you if your Web site is full of edgy Madison Avenue imagery and your firm partners network at trendy cocktail parties.

On the other hand, if your firm is hip, fun, and youth-oriented, having a Web site with a five-year-out-of-date board room photo of the partners on the main page, a blue and grey color scheme, and a nonexistent social media presence won’t do a thing to win the clients you want.

The path to success lies in fluently expressing your firm’s culture in communications designed to reach your “right people” (as Havi Brooks would say), and not being concerned about clients who aren’t a good fit. If you stay consistent, the right people will find you. And because they are your right people, the likelihood that they’ll stick around for the long haul is a lot higher.

Be who you are – out loud. Because authenticity + consistency = clients that stay. Clients you like, because at least to some degree they think like you.

Getting there is worth the effort.

Photo by Roland (license).

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

Your New Busy Season Mantra: Just Take the Darn Call

Posted by debrahelwig on February 2, 2010

Have you met Sparky Firepants?

If not, you should.

Mr. Pants (aka David Billings) is a darn brilliant graphic designer and an equally brilliant wordsmith.  On his blog, he’s got a lot to say about the business of making art.  Which, by chance, happens to say a lot about the business of doing good business. Which, in turn, directly applies to all of us folks toiling away in the accounting and legal sphere.

This week, he’s penned two thoughtful (and very helpful) posts – Why I’ll Never Say I’m Booked, and Why I Said Not to Say “Booked”.  The gist – it’s never a great idea to just hang a sign on your (locked) door that says “Sorry, Can’t Help You Now,” no matter how busy you are.  No matter if tax returns are stacked in mountains threatening to collapse on your head. No matter if your email box passed overflowing two hours ago and your iPhone is starting to smoke.

Just. Take. The. Darn. Call.

I can’t think of a more important message for accounting folks to hear at the beginning of Busy Season. (And all you lawyers out there, you listen up too – sometime your case load will reach tilt-tilt-tilt overload and all of this will apply to you too.)

Here’s a short excerpt:

There’s a big difference between announcing to the world, “I’m booked” and turning down a project after you’ve heard the deadline. Saying, “I’m booked” is locking your door until August. Then what? You open the door, peer out and wonder aloud, “Where did everybody go? I’m ready now. Heeeeyyyyyyyyy!”

What does it cost to listen? How much time does it take to let someone in your shop (figuratively speaking) and ask you for help?

Yep, Mr. Pants nails it, 100%. You should read both posts this minute and take them to heart. Because here’s the bottom line: the thing that kills relationships – especially professional services relationships – is insufficient communication.

When I tweeted Mr. Pants’ post earlier today, I got a great response from Dennis Howlett (@dahowlett), a guy who knows whereof he speaks, with 10 years under his belt as an accounting firm partner and a long IT consulting career after that:

“The biggest source of ‘pissed offness’ is NOT to speak with clients, however busy you are. A 2-5 minute call does wonders.”

Hallelujah! You bet it does. Because it’s about respect. And decency. And the kindness to say, “I hear you, and what you need matters to me.”  Nothing elaborate. Not an hour long “how’s your great-grandmother’s butler-in-law these days?” coffee clatch. Just acknowledgement, and a promise to follow up or a helpful referral. Even if you say, “Sorry, my schedule is full, but here are some other options for you,” you will have acknowledged that client’s need. You’ll have shown that you care.

And “I care” does a heck of a lot more to build and cement relationships than (indifferent) silence.

So take your calls. Return your calls, every day. Especially when you’re busy.  Do it quickly and with all the empathy you can muster.

It’s the best way I can think of to ensure that your post-Busy Season will be, well….busy.

Photo by Mr. ATM (license).

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Busy Season, Law, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Need for Speed

Posted by debrahelwig on September 29, 2009

speed demonWow, what a week this has been – and it’s only Tuesday.

My “Debra blew it” factor over the past few days has been a lot higher than normal.  I’ve missed some important stuff. Doing the octopus eight-arm dance of panic, I dialed in late to a super important conference call. I then followed up that bit of brilliance with a typo in an important email. Ai yi yi.

None of this is like me.  And it feels pretty crummy. But I take a tiny bit of comfort in the fact I’m not alone.  The number of blog posts I’ve seen about “mistakes” and “saying sorry” from super smart folks like Chris Brogan and Dianna Huff and the folks at Twitter has been growing by leaps and bounds.

What the heck is going on here?

It’s insidious. It’s ugly. It’s the need for speed.

The darkest downside of the “always on” Internet/Social Media revolution is that we can do stuff a whole lot faster than ever.  We can communicate in nanoseconds. Who needs a well crafted letter to express pleasure (or ire)?  We can tell people exactly what we think in 140 characters, faster than we can even dial a phone.

And because we CAN, we think we HAVE TO. And because we think we HAVE TO, we DO, and then people EXPECT US TO. It’s a vicious cycle.

What happens when we go too fast?

We do dumb stuff. Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. Yes, they happen. But they happen a lot more when we’re playing whac-a-mole. A recent Stanford University research report showed that using multiple media tools at once resulted in “broad based incompetence…where people are worse at focusing their attention, worse at organizing information, and worse at quickly switching between tasks.” Yikes.

We are inadequately grateful. In the past, good manners taught us to respond to benefactors in a gracious way. No longer. Think about the number of times this week that you responded to the kindness of friends and colleagues with a hasty “gee thanks!” via email or Twitter – or didn’t respond at all, thinking you’d write a longer email when you had the time. The pressure of the clock is dumbing down our interactions; our days seem more fraught with crises and less full of graces.

We spill the beans.
Dianna Huff tells the story of a lawyer who lost a case because she was overheard talking about it on a cell phone in public. A snarky Facebook post or Tweet in the wrong place or at the wrong time can be a shot heard round the world.  If you’re moving too fast and not thinking hard enough about what you’re saying to whom, you can deep-six yourself as fast as you can type.

None of these things are on purpose. But expectations are high, and the economy is tight, and who can afford to say no to anything our clients or colleagues ask us to do?  So we cram our schedules overfull and assume that technology will help us get everything done in the right order.  We add more tools and pop-up reminders and leave messages for ourselves on our cell phones. We make a to do list to control our multiple to-do lists.

And none of it works.

Especially in professional services, where a single mistake can be the kiss of death. Auditors can’t screw up. Ever. Lawyers, blow it and your client lands in jail or a deal goes bad. Marketers, make a mistake in a firm’s brand campaign, and decades of client loyalty unravel.

Often, quicker just isn’t better.

I’ve done some serious thinking and research on this, and I think I’ve found a way to stop the madness. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits calls it single taskinggetting intentional.

This week, I’m going to take a diligent and critical look at who is making demands on my time. Who are the clients or supervisors who constantly send work in crisis mode? What are the triggers that ignite the firestorms in my workplace? How can I re-align people’s expectations? I plan to get real about urgent versus important versus habitual (we ask for it fast because we can, not because we need to), and prioritize accordingly.

I’m going to make space to do my work WELL, not just quickly.

Going against the public grain – shutting down the speed demons (both real and internal) who constantly up the ante – takes a lot of chutzpah. But making a considered effort to get off the fast track, concentrating on one thing at a time, and saying no to unreasonable demands may do more than aid my sanity. It may work wonders on my career. And I bet it could do yours some good as well.

Who wants to join me? What can you do to silence your inner speed demon?

Photo by nahkahousu (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Leadership, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Lingo Bingo: Why Being a Good Interpreter Matters More than Your Technical Skills

Posted by debrahelwig on September 17, 2009

Lingo Want a wake-up-call about how to attract great clients? Have I got a story for you.

Last year, when my husband’s birthday rolled around, I casually asked about what he needed for his beloved woodworking hobby. “A stacked dado, probably,” he replied.

Oh, boy. Stacked day-dough. What the heck is that? Since I was being sneaky, I couldn’t ask. No problem. I’d go to a woodworking place and they’d know.

I started at the most exclusive woodworking specialty store in our area – upscale, smelling of lemon oil and cedar, full of expensive toys. Conversations about things I didn’t understand buzzed around me. Intimidated, I sidled up to the counter between two customers debating arcane aspects of rotary sanders and asked, “I need to buy a … stacked day-dough?” The clerk waved me over to a wall of – stuff. To an experienced eye, it was probably a cinch to see what I needed. But to me, it was a giant wall of metal pointy things. The clerk didn’t notice. The air in the room was definitely, “If you have to ask, you don’t belong here.” I left.

My next stop was a big box store. The orange one. The huge racks and displays were even more intimidating. But this time, the clerk made all the difference. My questioning, “Day-dough?” was met by a smile. “Ma’am, you have absolutely no understanding of what you’re asking for, do you?” he said. “NO,” I replied in relief.

So, for the next 10 or 15 minutes, this kind man asked questions. LOTS of questions that I did understand. What kind of work my husband did. How often he did it. Who he did it for. And at the same time, I got a kick-in-the-pants introduction to table saws and saw blades (including stacked dadoes). I bought what I needed. But – the much more important thing is – I felt great about it. I felt like this man cared about what my husband needed. He cared about making me look good. He cared about helping me learn something.

And, on B-Day, not only was my husband delighted with the gift, he was thrilled that I could talk to him about it. Hooray, me. Double hooray, big orange sales clerk! Big Box Orange immediately became my home improvement store.

And from that experience, I learned something that applies TIMES TEN in the professional services world: It’s not your skills that set you apart. It’s your ability – and desire – to listen and interpret.

Every industry is full of acronyms and insider-speak that are gibberish to folks on the outside — and accounting and law are worse than most. To a non-accountant, hearing phrases peppered with IRS, A&A, SALT, PCAOB, AICPA, IFRS, and the like sounds like little more than Jabberwocky.

And if they don’t understand in their own context what you’re doing, or why it’s valuable, they’ll go somewhere else.

It’s the same story as my quest for a stacked dado. Most of your potential clients aren’t sure what they need, and they definitely don’t know the ins and outs of how to get it done. Your value as a trusted advisor is greatest when you clearly explain what they need and why, in a language they can understand. A few folks will be impressed if you throw around acronym-laden insider speak, but most will just quietly take their business elsewhere.

At the end of the day, trust is worth more than talent. When you can meet a potential client where they are, understanding their needs and using their lingo to explain what you can do for them, you’re well on the way to a perfect meeting of the minds. And a highly fruitful client experience.

** For a fun (and scary long) list of accounting acronyms, visit http://www.all-acronyms.com/tag/accounting. For law, see http://www.all-acronyms.com/tag/legal.
Photo by zinjixmaggir (license).

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

A Rock Star Ain’t a Rock Star if the Backup Band Stinks

Posted by debrahelwig on August 20, 2009

rockstarLately, I’ve been having some medical issues. Never fun. Ick, in fact.

So you can imagine how tickled I was when I got a referral to one of the top doctors in the US in my needed specialty. Less than an hour’s drive from home, no less! I thought all my problems were solved. Great care from a brilliant physician, conveniently located. All would be well.

Unfortunately, no.

It’s true, Doctor X is fabulous. She’s brilliant. Top of her game. Amazing diagnostic skills, and even more, a compassionate beside manner. I love her, absolutely I do.

When I can get to her, that is. And there’s the problem.

Surrounding Doctor X is a vortex of apathy and bureaucratic red tape masquerading as an office staff.

It’s simple stuff, too. Things that just don’t happen in a well managed office. Things like:

When I go for an appointment, I sit in an exam room for three to four hours after my scheduled time, waiting to be seen. Inquiries are met with the response, “She’s worth the wait.”

An urgent call to request records is met with a flippant, “We don’t fax records. You have to wait until next Friday and we’ll mail them.” When I ask for other options, the clerk tells me, “I’m sorry, there are no other options.”

Emails sent to the doctor’s listed email address are not acknowledged nor is any response given.

Calls to speak with the nurse often result in a hold time of 30 to 45 minutes – before being put into voice mail. With no apology from the receptionist.

So far, I’ve put up with this insanity because the doctor IS a rock star. Genius in heels and a lab coat, with answers to a lot of my issues. But after my most recent (frustrating) visit, I’ve had just about enough and am starting to look for a new provider.

Because a rock star ain’t a rock star if the backup band stinks.

And there’s the lesson for all of us in professional services. Just like my medical practice has its rock star doctor, you’ve got rock stars in your firm. Truly brilliant minds with real answers for client questions and a passion for helping people.

But if your gatekeepers aren’t doing their jobs, you’re headed for trouble. Not as quickly as you would if your brilliant partners and staff weren’t so incredibly good at what they do. But eventually there will be a breaking point, where the pain of getting to the great provider is greater than the benefit derived from their counsel.

The brilliance of a few great minds simply isn’t enough to keep clients for the long haul.

The true differentiator of a great firm – the thing that keeps clients coming back again and again and referring over and over – is the honest care and sweat equity of a brilliant support staff for your geniuses. A great backup band for your rock stars, helping your clients get the information they need day after day.

With that in mind, how long has it been since you did a top-to-bottom diagnostic on your firm’s client support?

If it’s been a while, I strongly recommend you make a thorough evaluation of all the entry points into your firm. See how easy it is (or isn’t) for your clients to access the people they want to reach. Learn firsthand how happy, genuine, and willing your gatekeepers are to open the way for clients to get what they need.

If everyone in the firm performs brilliantly, from top to bottom, the firm can’t help but succeed.

But it’s up to you to make sure. BEFORE you lose clients who love your work, but hate getting the runaround.

Photo by Dude Crush (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, service | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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