Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Posts Tagged ‘service’

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.

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

Your New Busy Season Mantra: Just Take the Darn Call

Posted by debrahelwig on February 2, 2010

Have you met Sparky Firepants?

If not, you should.

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

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

Just. Take. The. Darn. Call.

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

Here’s a short excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Mr. ATM (license).

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

The Need for Speed

Posted by debrahelwig on September 29, 2009

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

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

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

What the heck is going on here?

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

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

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

What happens when we go too fast?

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

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

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

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

And none of it works.

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

Often, quicker just isn’t better.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by nahkahousu (license).

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

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

Posted by debrahelwig on August 20, 2009

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

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

Unfortunately, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Dude Crush (license).

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

How Flexible is Your Menu?

Posted by debrahelwig on April 3, 2009

cheeseburgerI love Mexican food. Especially with jalapeños. LOTS of jalapeños.

In fact, I find it hard to believe that there are people out there who wouldn’t like to gluttonously drown themselves in cheese dip. But there are – a few. And one of them is my friend, the amazing-marketing-insights-person Barbara Price.

Last year Barbara treated us to a wonderful story on her blog called “Every Cheeseburger Begins Life as a Hamburger,” which shares the story of Barb’s non-Mexican-loving taste buds’ journey with friends to a local Mexican restaurant.

Barb ordered a hamburger, and they wouldn’t give it to her, because there were only cheeseburgers on the menu. Barb’s retort? “Every cheeseburger begins life as a hamburger.”

Her blog used this story to make an incredibly important point: Sometimes what we have written down – our policies, our offerings, our way of doing business – blinds us to opportunity.

That story stuck with me. I’ve thought about it over and over during the past year.

Because she’s right. And more now than ever before.

Think about your own firm for a minute. As the recession took off, I’d bet your clients started to worry. To ask questions about price. About cutting services. About streamlining and doing less. How did you react?

So many of us, when examining these requests in the light of our standard “menu” of offerings and hourly rates, just freaked out. In Barb’s parlance, we saw our offerings as “the cheeseburger for $3.99,” and couldn’t see that underneath the piece of cheese was a less expensive hamburger waiting to be sold. Instead of getting flexible and learning how to recombine and revitalize our services to meet the market’s needs (without changing the base structure of the menu, mind you!), too many of us have said, “We can’t do that!”

Yes, you can.

Because every cheeseburger begins life as a hamburger. Everything you do at your firm can be stripped to its bare bones and recombined in ways that make sense to your clients – for now. And then you can adjust your menu again as the market improves.

In the current economic climate, rigidity could be the kiss of death. How can you make your firm more adaptable to the requests and needs of your client base?

Keep it flexible. Give ’em the hamburger if that’s what they want.

Thanks, Barbara.

Photo by foodinmouth. (license)

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

 
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