Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Archive for the ‘Strategic Planning’ Category

The Star You Are (A Salute to Supercat)

Posted by debrahelwig on May 8, 2013

Such excitement at C2013-05-08_17-04-32_357 (1)asa Helwig!! Today is Graduation Day!

Pre-K graduation, that is.

The ceremony this morning was an exercise in bottled cuteness from start to finish – 45 tiny children flying one at a time onto a stage to be handed certificates as “most helpful,” “most musical,” “most curious,” and so on, all giving huge hugs to the teacher and big smiles to mommy and daddy out in the audience. One little boy was wearing a seersucker suit, complete with bow tie. Every little girl was wearing her Sunday best dress and pretty shoes – except, of course, MINE, who had insisted on wearing her pink cat costume (complete with pink-eared hoodie, pastel pink jeans, and tennis shoes). Since she refers to herself most often as “Supercat”, at first blush it had seemed like SUCH a good idea. Watching all the kids on stage, though, I found myself fighting a giant “mommy fail” feeling because she didn’t look like anyone else.

My child was fine. Deliriously ecstatic, in fact. She loved being a cat! She was extremely proud of being named “Most Cheerful” and loved every second of the attention from the teacher and the audience.

So why on earth did *I* have an uncontrollable urge to apologize for not dressing her in Sunday-go-to-meeting gear?  I actually did it, too.  I cornered the teacher before the ceremony, confessing, “I feel rotten for not getting with the program and dressing her up today.”

Fortunately, our teacher is a very smart lady. Her response was dead on: “She will have a lot more fun memories of being a cat today than she would of being trussed up in a dress she doesn’t particularly like.” SO TRUE!

So Supercat received her graduation certificate, and all was well.  Hurrah for Supercat!

But this feeling was still bugging me. Why did I have an urge to apologize? I sifted it down to this:  EXPECTATIONS.

There are certain cultural norms that come with a graduation. A cat suit is NOT among them. So when it was obvious that we were the ONLY ones in the class who did not meet that norm, I became fearful of standing out in a negative way. I got worried, EVEN THOUGH the outfit my child chose totally reflected her interests and her personality. Deep down, I was much more interested in “fitting in” than “letting her be herself”. My reaction was protective. Born of love and parental concern.

And completely unnecessary, unhelpful, and misguided.

Marketing guru Seth Godin wrote a piece this week applying this very idea to business, called “Remind You of Anything? Simple Typography for Non-professionals.” He was talking specifically about typography, but his thoughts apply to companies and entrepreneurs in general:

Norms exist. People have expectations about how people and businesses behave and look. If you divert from those norms and are different, you will stand out. Choose carefully where you amplify those “differences” so that they work for you instead of against you.

What does this have to do with work? A LOT, actually. Every single marketing director and business developer in professional services can learn something from Seth and my little Supercat (and my outsized reaction). The lesson comes when we assess where we fall on the EXPECTATIONS scale – when we know:

  • The general norms in our marketplace about how firms like ours should behave
  • What our firm’s culture really is (how do we interact with each other and our clients? What matters to us as a company? How do we show that to the world?)
  • How the key individuals that represent the firm behave when they’re out in public
  • Where the gaps lie between those cultural norms and how we really operate

If our reaction as marketers is to be protective – to serve as the guardian of a reputation based in cultural norms (where the firm is “a valued partner” and “high quality”, etc. etc.), without pointing out places where we are unique, we are playing it safe. Dangerously safe. If we’re focused on being “the best accounting firm” or “the best law firm” instead of “the best ‘us’, who happens to do great accounting or law”, the truth we tell will be culturally appropriate – AND BORING. If we work hard to make sure our firm fits with the “accepted notion” of the industry by using the same language and concepts to describe ourselves, we will at the very best look like A GOOD VERSION OF EVERYONE ELSE. Not compelling.

Yes, highlighting differences may turn off some potential clients. But telling the truth about the firm and its culture will also attract people who will be much more likely to stay, because they are a good fit.

Expectations are just a starting point, so we can see where we are different than the norm. Everything comes together (in family, in business – heck, in LIFE) when we allow our differences from the expected to shine.  That’s the only way anyone will ever know just how much of a star we are.

Go Supercat go!

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Painful Lessons

Posted by debrahelwig on May 2, 2013

pain“Where does it hurt?”

When there’s pain, that’s always the first question, isn’t it?  It’s what I’m asked by my doctor when I present myself with weird Lupus symptom of the week; it’s what I ask my Pre-K child when she falls down and starts crying.  It’s what my boss asks when something goes wrong in the office.  Where is the pain?

And then, we treat the place where it hurts.

It’s a normal response to a very basic cry: “HELP me. Fix what’s wrong. Make the pain stop.” After all, it’s human nature to want things to be better – and as quickly as possible, thankyouverymuch. It’s awful to be in pain, to see someone in pain, to be part of an organization in pain. So we cut to the chase.  We deal with what hurts, RIGHT NOW. The doctor prescribes a medicine. I spray my daughter’s knee with Numbz-it. My boss throws out the software (or the person, or the process) that was causing the trouble. We treat what’s wrong, and it gets better.

Only, sometimes, it doesn’t.

I ran squarely into this problem just a couple of weeks ago, when I began a macabre dance with a series of raging, screaming, agonizing headaches. I’d wake up feeling bad and go to bed feeling worse. Just taking a deep breath sent my left temple into a series of angry neural expletives. My reaction? “Where does it hurt?  My head!”  So treat the headache and it will go away! But 10 days of ibuprophen, yoga, massage, hydration….none of it helped.  I was desperately sick with the pain. I thought about seeing a neurologist – maybe it’s Lupus related? I mused about brain tumors and all sorts of wacky stuff.

Then I got a happenstance call from my brilliant friend Brantley Moate. Brantley is a certified massage therapist, trained in Asia. He understands pain better than just about anybody I know. And he was just, by chance, calling to tell me about a fascinating book he’d been reading by a neuroscientist called Lorimer Moseley called Painful Yarns.  You can get the gist of Moseley’s ideas in this fabulous TEDx talk:

I listened, and I watched. What Moseley said hit my already aching head like a bomb blast:

Pain is an indicator that something is wrong. But pain in a particular part of the body doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong where it hurts; nor does intensity of pain necessarily equate with level of injury. Treating “where it hurts” and “how it hurts” may not fix the problem. You may need to look elsewhere to fix what’s really wrong.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  So I might need to look at something besides my head and its supporting muscles to fix my headache? YES. Yes, indeed.

Turns out, the reason my head was hurting had absolutely nothing to do with muscle fatigue or sitting at the computer too long, or brain tumors, or Lupus, or any of the stuff that had been racing through my head – or any of the stuff I’d been treating. My problem was I NEEDED SLEEP.

For a couple of weeks I’d been working late and getting up early, doing projects for the office and the kids – and as a woman of 44 with Lupus, my body evidently can’t take the “four hours a night and fake it til ya make it” I’ve been putting it through for most of my life.  When I started really thinking about what might have changed in the weeks leading up to the headaches, what might have impacted me and caused my body to say “something is wrong here!” it occurred to me I might need a little more rest.  So I did something very uncharacteristic for me: I changed one of my regular patterns. Instead of throwing medicine at my problem, I changed part of my normal routine.

And it worked. Three days of 8+ hours per night and BAM. Headaches gone. Completely gone like they’d never existed.

Wow.

My now-not-hurting brain started to really spin on this idea. Where else are people I know – especially me – mistreating pain? And the obvious answer came back: AT WORK.

We’ve just spun through another absolutely insane busy season, full of chances for things to go wrong. And, now we’re a couple of weeks past April 15 and done with the “thank God we made it” party, we’re about to sit down in our teams and dissect what went wrong. We’re about to identify our pain. To say “where did it hurt?”

That’s good. Whatever we find, that pain is real. No doubt. And treating it is necessary. Absolutely.

But Lorimer Moseley shows – heck, my headache shows! – that identifying pain is just a starting point, nothing more than an indicator that something is wrong. It doesn’t say what. Or where the problem actually started. Or how many “normal patterns” or people or projects may actually be involved.

Treating the precise pain points we identify will feel productive, because we’re doing something, by cracky!  But unless we’re all very, very careful, dealing with those pain points may actually fix nothing at all. And when the problem (and the pain) crops up again – and again, and again – then we’ll be 1. back where we started (or worse) and 2. demoralized and really in a mess.

So let’s take a vow this year to stop before we start. Take a breath. Recognize pain for what it is – for all it is – a warning to look deeper.

Photo by random_dave: film for sale. License.

Posted in Attitudes, Busy Season, Professional Services, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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 »

The Power of Space (or, Time to Stop Playing Whac-a-Mole)

Posted by debrahelwig on July 28, 2009

Wack a Mole photoThis past weekend, I got a great lesson in the power of space. And how space can affect your career (and sanity).

Last weekend was my husband’s 30th highschool reunion. And, since he had the civility to graduate in Daytona Beach, Florida, that meant a weekend at the beach. Without the kids. No pressure. No priorities.

Hooray, right? Sign me up!

Or so you’d think.

Instead, I started finding every excuse in the world not to go. The babysitter can’t handle the kids. The dog threw up. I have too much to do at the office. There are dishes and laundry and emails and OH MY GOD I haven’t blogged in 10 days and what about the Web site project and…

I was too overwhelmed to even consider time away.

I’m not unusual, either. Professional services folks everywhere are overburdened. A survey this summer by the Institute of Management Accountants found that “When asked what they need most to be effective leaders, most accountants [29%] said more time.”

I feel your pain. But here’s a truth for you: busy-ness begets busy-ness. And not all busy-ness is good.

Today, it’s easy for professional services work to become what I call a Cosmic Game of Whac-a-Mole. Remember the 1980s arcade game? You had a big mallet and a board full of holes in front of you. As the moles popped out of the holes, you hit them back down. And the faster you were, the faster they got. Never stopping, just hitting and hitting until the game was over.

Does your project list operate that way? How often do you get to work, sit down at your desk, and immediately get buried in mountains of email? Start with meetings at 8 a.m. and never make it to your desk? Take one client file off the pile only to have 10 more added to it? Is the pressure driving you crazy?

That was me. And if it’s you… survey responses aside, you don’t need more time. Or more staff.

You need space. A reflection zone.

I was lucky. When I started down my list of all the reasons I couldn’t take a weekend away, my husband told me to shut up, turned off my PC, and stuffed me in the car. And guess what? I came back energized – with thoughts about how to handle a crisis at the office, blog post ideas, and plans to kill a few projects, start a new one, and move others down the priority list.

Busy-ness begets busy-ness. Space begets sanity.

Even if you can’t find an entire weekend like I had, taking a few minutes daily to reflect can make a difference in your outlook.

Try this: schedule 10 minutes a day on your calendar as a “meeting”. Shut your door, or if you’re in a cubicle, find a private space. Turn off the PC, the iPhone, the BlackBerry, the cell phone. This is think time. Use these moments to ask yourself basic questions about your work, like:

• What are my most important projects right now? Why are they important? Do I really need to be doing all of them, or can I delegate or reprioritize some of them?
• What am I doing that is urgent but not important? How can I reduce or eliminate that kind of work?
• What are the top three things I want to accomplish today? This week? This month?
• What am I doing to engage other people right now, both for business and personal development? Do I like what I’m doing? Could I try something else?
• What meetings do I have this week? How can I reduce the meeting time? If I am meeting too much, is it my colleagues or is it me? And if it’s me, what am I avoiding?

You may not find answers, at least not at first. But making space to ask the questions every day can be transformative all on its own.

If you stop playing Whac-a-Mole – if you give yourself permission not to be busy every moment of the day – you’ll get more done. And you’ll be a lot saner, more effective, and just plain happier in the process.

Where can you create some space in your day?

Photo by jrubinic (license).

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Leadership, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Swine Flu and Pandemic Panic: A Wake Up Call for Your Business Continuity Plan (And Five Steps to Get You Going)

Posted by debrahelwig on May 4, 2009

swineflu This past week’s outbreak of swine flu (H1N1 virus) has set the world afire. You can’t turn your head, in public or online, without tripping over someone talking about outbreaks and closings and the potential for disaster if this nasty little bug really takes off.

And though (thank goodness) the spread of the illness so far isn’t living up to its media hype, the fact that there’s a panic about it makes sense. Not just because many, many people might get sick, but because a true pandemic could cripple operations for every kind of business imaginable.

Including yours.

Many firms already know this. The tragedy of 9/11, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, wildfires in California, SARS and more – all of these events sparked waves of business continuity planning throughout our industry.

BUT (and this is a big but) – it’s been a while since the last awfulness. How up to date is your plan? Does it cover all the new ways you’re doing business? What about your completely remote workforce, who might be put out of commission by storms in their area while all is perfect weatherwise at the headquarters location? What if everything is fine in your company, but the factory you’re set up to audit next week is shut down because half the staff has swine flu?

You might want to dust off that old plan (if you ever had one) and think through these eventualities.

And here’s a twist you might not have considered – what are your top clients‘ business contingency plans? If there’s a pandemic or a disaster, how are they going to continue operating, and how might it affect the way you work with them? That’s a level of detail most firms skip – but if you don’t take the steps to find out, you may find yourself in a world of hurt when crisis hits.

So, with that in mind, here are a few items you should take care of right away. This week. Now.

1. Identify your top 10 clients (could be less or many more, depending on the size of your firm and the relative value of the clients’ activity)
2. Contact those clients and ask them about their business continuity plans. Use the swine flu (H1N1) outbreak as the opportunity to begin dialogue.
3. If their plans are insufficient, direct them to resources to help them consider their position, both relative to you and to their suppliers and clients as well. A few resource options are below to give you a start.
4. Using the client’s plan (or lack of plan) as a guideline, build a strategy for how your firm would continue to provide them with service in the event of a disaster or emergency. Ensure that every member of the client service team, from partner to staff, is aware of the parameters of the plan and prepared to implement if necessary.
5. File the plans in an easily accessible place or place(s) – (not just on a PC – what if there is a power outage with no computer access?) and hope you never have to use them.

If you need help putting together a business continuity plan, check out the following links:

http://www.ready.gov/business/plan/index.html
http://www.ready.gov/business/plan/planning.html
http://www2.agilityrecovery.com/resources/events/2/Webinars
http://www.yourwindow.to/business-continuity/contents.htm
http://www.fema.gov/business/bc.shtm
http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/pdf/nfpa1600.pdf
http://nonprofitrisk.org/tools/business-continuity/intro/1.htm
http://en.bcmpedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

And if you want to track or prepare specifically for swine flu, check out:

http://hbsp.ed10.net/r/GS4D/00YIN/RNJZBB/OHOZ2/D99V5/6C/h

http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/index.htm
http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/04/30/ep.swine.flu.questions.answers/index.html

Even if H1N1 swine flu doesn’t live up to the hype, there will be other emergencies. So get ready.

Being prepared for any eventuality is just smart business.

Photo by Archie McPhee Seattle (license).

Posted in Accounting, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Past is Prologue

Posted by debrahelwig on April 23, 2009

grandmahandsIn my family, we’re lucky to have a matriarch – an honest-to-God “wise old woman” named Ruby. She’s 92 this year, with a razor sharp wit and a perspective on life few can match.

One year ago today, Ruby gripped my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You mark my words. Start planting your victory garden now. There’s rough times coming. Just like back when. I can feel it.”

That startled me. What? Bad times? Not really! Really?

After all, in April of 2008, the perfect storm in the financial markets was months away from its apex. The Dow was still trading high. Job losses weren’t dominating the news. Gas prices were painful, but most of us were blissfully unaware that the problems in our economy were systemic or far-reaching.

Except Ruby, who had seen it all before.

She didn’t just warn us that day, either. She told us what to do about it. After all, she’d been through the Great Depression and knew exactly what to do to make the best of bad times. Step-by-step on that sunny Florida afternoon, she gave us a road map of how our family could manage if the worst did happen.

Of course, five months later, we saw just how right Ruby was. And because we’d benefited from her perspective, we were far more prepared for the downturn than we might have been.

Today, in April 2009, we’re all continuing to find our way through the “new economic reality,” and many professional services firms are struggling to figure out what to do next. Cut staff? Reduce benefits? Change service offerings? Cut niches? The tension across industries is palpable. Maybe it’s that way at your firm too.

But what if you had a “Ruby” in your corner? Someone who could tell you what steps to take, ideas to try, things that might work, things you might not have thought of on your own?

Here’s the great news: You probably already do.

As you and your firm plan a path through the current economic downturn, your first questions should be:

Who in our circle remembers what has gone before – who has their fingers on the pulse of history?

After all, this is not the world’s first economic downturn. In the USA alone, there have been eight recessions of varying magnitude in the past 80 years, four of them in the last 40.

Translate: Our country’s last four recessions happened during the working lifetime of people you know. And that period includes a major crisis in 1973 that lambasted every sector of the economy.

During those times, firms had to cut back, make changes in salaries and staff, and “get lean” to make it through, just like we’re doing now. How did they do it then? What mistakes did they make? What can you learn and adapt and apply that will make your firm’s journey through the crisis that much easier?

Someone you know may have the answers to those questions.

The help you need to be successful in the face of hard times literally may be sitting at the desk right next to yours. Or it may be just a phone call or email away. That voice of experience might be among your coworkers. Your firm’s retired partners. Clients. Family members. Friends. The possibilities are endless.

Rethink your connections. A valuable new (old) perspective may be easily within reach.

Photo by Jamelah (license)

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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