Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Posts Tagged ‘clients’

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!

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

Planting Seeds

Posted by debrahelwig on April 11, 2013

planting seedsYesterday, I did a “career day” presentation at my kids’ school about working as a Marketing Director – you know, a “stand up and talk with PowerPoint slides and video in the background” kind of deal.

I speak fairly often as part of my job, and my platform skills are pretty darn good, so I wasn’t particularly nervous about it.  Bring some props, show some video, it will be fun.  Right? Right?

Ummmm, well….I gotta tell ya – those fifth graders were the toughest house EVER.

Eye-rolling. Fidgeting. Looking-at-anyone-but-the-speaker. Yawning. And when I asked questions, you could practically see the kids diving under the tables to keep me from calling on them.

The longer I went, the sicker to my tummy I got. “You’re not reaching them,” my cynical brain whispered. “You’re making yourself look stupid. You’re wasting their time. You’re wasting YOUR time!” By the end, I was feeling pretty crumpled – chewed up and spit out in a vortex of pre-teen apathy. I packed my laptop case in a funk, pretty much determined I would never do anything like THAT again.

So, imagine my surprise when the guidance counselor who’d invited me walked up and said, “THAT was GREAT!”

Whaaaaat? How in the Sam Hades could that spectacular display of “I don’t care one bit about what you’re saying” be GOOD?

“They might not have looked like they were listening,” she said. “But they heard more than you think. And for a handful of them, you said some things that will really impact them later on. You wouldn’t know it now – but you planted seeds. It was perfect.”

HUH!

And this morning, when I took my kids to school, that very smart counselor was proved 100% right. A kid stopped me in the hall. One of the ones whose eyes were rolling the WORST during my speech.  Her eyes were bright and she was grinning as she said, “Hey! Thanks for coming yesterday – I thought you were awesome. I didn’t know all that stuff you do was out there. Pretty cool.”

So… Lack of immediate positive reaction does NOT necessarily equal failure?  Wow.

When I got to my office a little while later, I understood exactly why I had felt so bad yesterday – and why the counselor’s version of “success” seemed so strange. That’s because I turned on my computer, and my first actions were:

1.    Check my firm’s Twitter feed to see how many retweets and mentions we’ve had since yesterday
2.    Check Facebook to see who liked and shared my stuff
3.    Check my blog to see how many people have visited and who’s reading
4.    Check email to see who’s responded to notes I sent earlier

ALL of it an exercise in immediate gratification. Who likes me RIGHT NOW? What are they saying TODAY? Now, now, now, now, now!  Show me the return on my investment! This minute!

How utterly short sighted.

And here’s what else I realized: a lot of professional services firms are doing this.

When we come back from a seminar, we don’t wonder how many people might remember us months or even years down the road. We count business cards to see who spoke to us and provided a lead we can follow up on TODAY.

When we post articles, we don’t think about someone stumbling across the piece in a Google search six months from now.  We want to know who read them right away so we can contact them immediately for “warming up” in our leads pipeline.

We don’t think about who might look at a year’s worth of our Facebook feed, or three weeks worth of Twitter, to get a sense of our company culture. We think about who we snared with THIS post, RIGHT NOW.

ROI, ROI, ROI – Google Analytics, multivariate testing, analysis, monitoring – all designed to tell us how our stuff is performing in the moment.  And sure, that’s important.

But maybe we shouldn’t forget that every time we put ourselves out there, every time we share good ideas and information and part of ourselves with the world, there is a strong possibility it will make a difference somewhere down the road (maybe far down the road).  And that’s true even if the reaction is muted or nonexistent at first.

You never know whose mind and heart you will touch – or how, or when.

So as we go to work each day, doing the business of business development, of course we should all keep an eye on the now – but perhaps we need to focus more clearly on taking every opportunity to share what we know, wherever we can, whenever we can.

Because the real work we’re doing is planting seeds – and we don’t control when they bloom.

Photo by London Permaculture. License.

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 7 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 »

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 »

Starting Over

Posted by debrahelwig on March 6, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?  Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do this.

Photo by Stevendepolo. License.

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

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 »

You Are Not a Loser if You Hate to Blog (or Tweet, or Facebook, or…)

Posted by debrahelwig on June 29, 2010

Wherever you go these days, there are people talking about how we have to get into social media. Blog now! Start a Facebook page! WHAT? You don’t have a LinkedIn profile??? The mantra, “You have to be ‘out there’ to be successful today” resounds from every corner of the business world.

But if you’ve given it a try, and every time you type a tweet your innards scream “I don’t WANNA!” Or if every time you sit down to write a Facebook status or blog post your guts cramp up, I have a wonderful, liberating piece of news for you.

You don’t have to.

Yes, social media is real and is here to stay. The blog, the Twitter account, the Facebook page – all that stuff will change the way some businesses work. But these things are TOOLS to help you do your business, which is accounting or law or whatever other great service it is that you provide. Contrary to what many, many consultants will tell you, it is permissible to read other people’s blogs and learn from them without having your own. You are not a gutter-trawling loser for limiting Facebook to just your friends and family.

Doing anything – social media or otherwise – because you’re afraid (of looking dumb? of being left out? of losing business or friends?) is a really bad idea. Fear is an incredible spur to action, but a terrible way to stay motivated and productive.  So don’t give in to fear.

If you have other offline ways you’re more comfortable working with people – you’re fabulous face-to-face or on the phone, but you’d rather eat uncooked tripe for lunch than write – then for goodness sake do what you do best. Work your magic your way and to hell with what anyone else thinks. Just realize that your clients may be looking for you in these social media spaces, and if you don’t want to be there, you’ll have to find other ways to keep them engaged. Or find clients who don’t care whether you have a social media presence or not. Both things can be done. You can do things your way and be successful.

This is not permission to quit with social media before you start. This is permission to say “No thanks, I really, truly tried that, and it doesn’t work for me.” That’s honest. And the people who work with you will know the difference.

Photo by jeannahmc (license).

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

Stifle Your Inner Wallflower

Posted by debrahelwig on March 26, 2010

Last week, I had the chance to attend a really cool session by MECLabs (parent to Marketing Experiments and MarketingSherpa) on Marketing ROI. The materials were great. Dr. Flint McGlaughlin had some truly eye-opening things to say. There was an entire room full of engaged, bright people there to share ideas with.

And I blew it.

I didn’t talk to anyone outside the two people sitting on either side of me at my table. I didn’t initiate conversations. I didn’t try to find out more about why people were there and what they’re dealing with and how I might learn from their pain.

That’s not like me, either. Usually, I’m full of advice and ideas and stories and — well, let’s just say I ain’t shy. And more to the point, when I’m up in front of professional services marketing directors talking about networking, my first advice regarding events is “Don’t hide in the corner.” I didn’t even take my own advice! Ai yi yi.

So what happened?

Bluntly, the topic was not in my comfort zone.

See, if you put me in a room of professional services people, or maybe even social media people or customer service people, I’m good to go. I know the lingo, and I have enough experience with the industry to know the general pain points and maybe even some solutions. I have stories to tell. I can gab. It’s fun. And I shine.

But at this meeting, I was the newbie. I’m not a numbers gal, and I’m not a huge believer in ROI. I attended the meeting to see what I might learn, what I might be missing – but I really felt unsure of my handle on the topic. My tongue tripped over phrases like “quantifying returns” and “multivariate test results”. Frankly, I felt a little dumb.

So I shut up. Did my best wallflower act. And I missed out on a great opportunity to connect with neat people.

I know for a fact I’m not the only one to do this. Great consultants in our industry coach on networking skills all the time. They talk about firm handshakes. About how to enter and exit gracefully from a conversation. About asking for the business card or the referral.

But probably the most important piece of advice I can think of is one that gets missed in many coaching sessions: you don’t have to be an expert on everything.

We all seem to have a touch of this animal fear when confronted with a subject that’s not our passion: I don’t know enough yet. I’m not good enough yet. I’m not enough of an expert yet. I can’t talk about that!

Maybe not. But here’s what I figured out, after a “try again” moment at an event this weekend where the topic was way outside my expertise: You can engage. You can listen. And you can learn.

At my weekend event, the hot topic was tax implications of the new healthcare bill – another area where I am definitely out of my depth – but because I jumped right in and asked good questions instead of playing the wallflower, I walked away with a handful of business cards and a whole lot of valuable information I can use both in my job and my personal life.

It was a magical sort of thing, really. When I asked questions, people got engaged. They liked it when I let them talk about what they know. I didn’t have to be the expert on their thing (taxes and healthcare). I could be the expert on my thing (service and relationships), and my questions helped us find common ground so we could talk about both. Hooray!

You can bet I’ll be taking these tools to my next session on Marketing ROI (and every other meeting, conference, and event I attend from now on.)

Take it from me: the next time you’re thrust outside your comfort zone, stifle your inner wallflower and tell the fear to go stuff itself. Dive in, introduce yourself, ask a few questions, and listen. You’ll end up smarter and more confident. You’ll make new connections with great people.

And you won’t look dumb in the process.

Photo by Bettina Tizzy (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 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 »

 
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