Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Posts Tagged ‘Accounting’

Inspiration

Posted by debrahelwig on May 17, 2013

GoneFishin“Take a damn vacation”.

I stared at the prescription paper in my hand. It was an official Rx pad, doctor’s name at the top, my date of birth, his signature its usual illegible scrawl. And that was all it said.  No pills, no creams, no shots, no treatment.

William O. Snell, D.O. Marietta, Georgia. Best doctor you’ll ever want to meet. I adored him. But that day I thought he’d taken leave of his senses.

“Very funny,” I wheezed.

“I’m serious, Deb,” he said. “All this” – he gestured generally toward my upper body and its autoimmune disease-laden, serially offending lungs and sinuses – “is getting worse because of stress. You have to break the cycle. Get out of here. Go away. Take a damn vacation. Let your body heal itself. Give your brain a chance to rest and set everything else in order.”

And you know what? He was right. He did prescribe some meds, but the thing that really, completely, totally got me well was not the antibiotic and the steroids (which I’d taken again and again and again, only for the infections to return). The real cure came after a week on Daytona Beach, alone with my husband and the sound of the ocean.

The thing I loved about Dr. Snell was his utter pragmatism and his way of treating the whole person that a lot of clinicians miss. He gave you shots when you needed ‘em and dosed you up with antibiotics when it was required, sure – but he also had a big sign in his office that said “For good health: pray daily and take two weeks of vacation every year.” Here’s what I learned from him:

Just like muscles need rest after exercise, and your tummy needs time to digest after eating a big meal, your brain needs space to rest. A person’s ability to manage stress and heal their body is impaired if they run from thing to thing to thing and never take a break.  Even if it can’t be a full vacation, some time away (a day, an hour, a breath) from routine and pressing work can make an enormous difference in attitude, in productivity, and in inspiration.

As professional services folks, we instinctively know this.  It’s what all the end-of-year Tax parties are about, and it’s why U.S. public accounting firms are ghost towns from April 16 to April 30 pretty much every year (and in Canada, from May 1 to May 15). To be productive, to be happy, to THINK, we have to break away.  But it needs to be more often than the blowout “we survived tax season” extravaganza!  Big breaks. Little breaks. Deep breaths. Making spaces, intentional and full of energy, to give us the inspiration that will carry us, healthy and focused, through the next thing we want or need to do.

Lookie here:

Inspiration – breathing in. Taking a breath. Taking a break. Getting ideas. Coming up with something new and exciting. Becoming energized.

Expiration – breathing out. Pushing through. Breaking down. Falling apart. Ending. Death.

I think I’d rather inspire than expire, wouldn’t you?

 

** To that end, I’m off on my annual vacation and will be back here on the blog in a couple of weeks. See you at the end of the month!

 Photo by atomicjeepLicense.

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Busy Season | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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 »

Run a Good Race

Posted by debrahelwig on April 4, 2013

runner downSpring has sprung!  Easter is past, warm weather is on its way, the flowers are beautiful…

…and for my friends in public accounting, the April 15 deadline is looming like a BIG LOOMING THING.

Every industry has something like this – the project deadline that can’t be moved, that comes with a workload so crushing it hurts just to breathe. Everyone is focused on URGENT and MOVE IT THROUGH and GET ‘ER DONE.

When the churn comes around, you’ll run into people who get hyperfocused on the work on their desks – and ignore everything (and everyone) else around them. If it doesn’t directly affect their projects, they don’t care. They can’t. They’re too busy. And God help you if you have a situation that affects your handoff to them! Watch them go from pleasant to surly to snarly in about 2 seconds flat.

It’s a constant litany of MY work. MY deadline. MY performance review. ME oh MY oh ME ME ME ME ME…it’s all about MEEEEE!

(Sounds pretty awful when you read it that way, doesn’t it?)

But it’s just that tendency which makes stories like these resonate so strongly when we read them:

Ivan Fernandez Anaya, Spanish Runner, Intentionally Loses Race So Opponent Can Win – a true story! Kenyan athlete Abel Mutai thought the finish line of a race was sooner than it actually was, so he stopped running. Anaya, who was a clear 2nd place, chose not to sprint to the finish and instead slowed down so Mutai could win.

Contestants in a Special Olympics Race Link Arms and Finish Together – a strong exaggeration of a true story, this tale of 9 Special Olympics race contestants who stop to help up a fallen companion and finish the race together is powerful, even if it’s not especially accurate.

‘Cause here’s the truth: as deadlines approach, work is like a race. Getting to the end as efficiently and effectively as possible is important. But paying attention to the people we’re running with, and helping where we can, has a much greater positive impact than just getting to deadline day with finished stacks of work on our desks.

I experienced this truth first-hand last Fall. And it changed my life.

Last September, we were in the critical stages of launching one of our association’s most important meetings, and I dropped the ball. Big time. Just as I should have been building and launching a complex marketing campaign, my father became critically ill.

I didn’t do the campaign. I couldn’t do it. My father died. I planned a funeral.

And my fabulous, awesome, amazing colleagues? They did my work for me and never said a cross word. They put in extra hours. They did things that aren’t in their comfort zone. In that race, they picked me up and carried me across the finish line.

And I will be grateful and loyal to them, and to my company, forever after.

Offices are full of people. Folks with lives that have nothing to do with work – folks with sick kids and sick parents and broken down cars and bills and snow to shovel and God knows what else. Sometimes those non-work commitments mess with deadlines. Sometimes they destroy those deadlines.

It’s up to us to pay attention. To see when our colleagues are struggling and help them across the finish line.

In my Twitter feed yesterday, leadership guru Ken Blanchard said “Life, leadership, and business are all about giving people opportunities to be the best they can be.” Sometimes that means stepping outside of ourselves to carry our friends and colleagues when they can’t manage on their own.

Especially when the deadlines are looming.

Photo by chucka_nc. License.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Busy Season, Leadership, Professional Services | Tagged: , , , , | 2 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 »

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 »

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 »

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Posted by debrahelwig on January 13, 2010

Did you miss me?

No, really, did you?

Hurrah if you did (you make me blush)….but my bet is you’re so busy you never even noticed that I’d stopped posting to this blog for the last two months.

The stopping part wasn’t on purpose, mind you. A freakish set of health issues and work crises conspired to make every second of my available time disappear from November to now. But I’m grateful to say things are better, and I’m back on station to to share and discuss ideas with you.

SO – now you know where I’ve been, back to the question at hand.

Did you miss me?

The answer isn’t about my ego. It’s important because your reaction to my absence proves a point that’s applicable for your professional services career.

When you lose regular contact with the people you do business with, EVEN PEOPLE WHO LIKE AND CARE ABOUT YOU, you very well may drop out of their scope.

People like important clients. Referral sources. Heck, even good friends.

The old saw “Out of sight, out of mind” is a very real thing.

It’s not that people don’t care. They’re busy. According to studies, busier than ever before. And stressed to boot.

If we don’t make the effort to stay in touch, even (maybe especially) when we’re busy and overcome with crises, the likelihood is the important people in our lives won’t remember to either.

And when the moment arrives when it would be beneficial to reconnect….well, it’s awkward. Difficult. Easy to postpone. So we don’t.

And if we don’t – the potential for lost opportunities is infinite.

In my case, I’d have been much better off if I’d written a quick post every couple of weeks. Nothing earth-shattering, just a little placeholder note to the blogosphere to keep the connection open. For you, it might be sending a greeting card with a quick two-line note to a favorite client. A three word email (“Thinking of you!”) to a friend you haven’t talked with in a while. A forwarded article, or maybe a five minute phone call with a referral source you’ve neglected.

Even the smallest gesture can make a difference.

Sure, there are times when life happens. When we lose contact with important people. When we stop blogging, or emailing, or calling for real, honest reasons. And it’s hard to get started up again. Reconnecting is awkward. What do you say? How do you explain why you didn’t call or write or blog? It feels icky – at first. But, trust me, the benefits from the connections we reforge infinitely outweigh the discomfort of our avoidance.

For all you accountants out there, Busy Season is coming. Getting intentional now and making a firm commitment to stay in touch with the important people in your life and career, before your schedule swerves out of control, will go a long way toward keeping you TOP of mind, instead of OUT of mind, when April 15th rolls around.

As for me, watch this space. I’ll be hanging around here regularly from now on.

Photo by helgasms! (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Busy Season, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Teaching Moment: Relationship Builder or Dealbreaker?

Posted by debrahelwig on November 9, 2009

peach jamOne of my guilty pleasures in life is making homemade jam.

Few things make me happier than spending hours chopping and dicing peaches or strawberries, then stirring and stirring that boiling pot of fruit and sugar until the smell fills the whole house. Oh, the simple beauty of those little gemlike jars of goodness lined up in perfect order on the countertop. Bliss. Unadulterated, yummy, creative bliss.

But teaching a group of my friends how to do it, one summer a while back? Um. Wow. Huge lack of bliss there.

Important point – it wasn’t their fault. All my friends are plenty smart. And they showed up on time that day, with the right equipment, ready to learn. But when I worked with them, my usual bliss experiment wasn’t so blissful. It was work. Hard work. None of us had any fun at all. I was so disappointed – but at that moment, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why things went wrong.

Then, just recently, I read these two beautiful little tweets from @carl_ingalls:

When you teach or advise, let people discover things. Don’t tell them all the answers.

and

When people discover an answer, the knowledge becomes theirs.

AHHHHHH.

Reading those tweets made me think about my jam problem on that afternoon so long ago. And I realized something pretty embarrassing.

That fateful day, from the minute my friends set their bags of peaches on the counter, I’d told every single one of them exactly what to do without telling them why. I’d said super lofty (and, dangit, super stupid) things like “No! What are you doing?,” usually followed by snatching the spoon out of someone’s hand and completing the task myself.

How utterly asenine of me.

So WHAT if there had been a lot of questions, a lot of false starts, a lot of mistakes? We could have laughed about them. It might have made us closer, a real “remember when” event. We might still have been laughing about it – over a jar of  THEIR homemade jam – 20 years from now.

But nooooo. I was a lot more worried about looking smart and being the expert than having fun and building on my relationships. And I lost an opportunity. A big one.  You can bet none of them wanted me to teach them anything for quite a while after that. Fortunately, they’ve forgiven me since. But they’re good friends and I’m a lucky gal.

Now, my question to you:

Are you making my “jam” mistake in your business relationships?

Are you more concerned with showing off your impressive credentials and sharing your hard-earned expertise than understanding what your clients and potential clients want to know?

Every time you come into contact with a client or potential client, you have the opportunity to help them grow. To build a relationship. To lead them to new knowledge without preaching at them. To be helpful without needing to look smart. Are you taking advantage of those opportunities? Or are you wasting your time just snatching the spoon away, so you can show them what an expert you are?

Your clients might not be as gracious as my friends are. There’s no promising they’ll give you a second chance.

These days, I’m a lot more mindful about how I share what I know. And the difference in all my relationships – both professional and personal – is astounding.

How can you use your knowledge to build and strengthen relationships with the people who need your advice?

Photo by Kfergos (license)

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Law, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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