Managing and making the most of your software

Let’s face it, our businesses probably wouldn’t function without a computer or two, yet we do things every day that leave us vulnerable should things go wrong. So let’s assume your software is broken, or you can’t do something and you need help — well here’s how to make the most of your software and solve those problems.

Finding the right software resources

First up, I’m not going to explain how to use this or that piece of software. What I am going to do is explain how to ask the right question to the right people in the right places.

Bookmarks and Favourites

So you’ve bought some new software. Good for you! Now go to the website of the company you just bought it from and bookmark their:

  • home page for your country;
  • their blog, perhaps subscribing to their feed;
  • their support section, and;
  • their support forums.

I’m using Apple’s Safari as my main web browser to manage all of my bookmarks, which I’ve organized into folders. I use Safari because I can synchronize all of my important data with my iPhone, so I’m always connected.

Important data — that’d be like passwords, right? Here’s my 7 security tips for your computer and the web.

So instead of groping around, wondering what the hell to do, you have instant access to the web resources you’re going to need to solve those problems.

All good software vendors will be as connected as possible, not just hiding behind a premium rate telephone number, or some Byzantine and labyrinth-like support structure, to wear you out before you’ve found the help you need. And those vendors that are really connected will be socially networked…

Twitter and Facebook

While hooking up with your software vendors via a social network might not smack of support, it is in so far as paying attention to their messages, which are often hints, tips and notifications of security patches and upgrades. Also, with Twitter, you get to message them directly and stand a good chance of getting a reply to your question.

If they have a Page on Facebook, then you’ll see much the same as you will on Twitter, but more in depth, with comments from other users and what their thoughts are.

Sometimes, you might get more help from the user comments than from the vendor themselves; especially if you’re considering an upgrade but it turns out to be problematic for some.

Why not read my beginner’s guide to social networking?

When software goes wrong

First of all, don’t panic! Write down your problem, try to re-create that problem and then make some notes. Sometimes, major problems can result in a loss of data, so get into the habit of saving; make that thumb and forefinger save shortcut an instinctive reflex!

Urgent problems

Once you’ve got your notes, write them out as a series of 1, 2, 3 style steps, explaining what you did, right up to (and perhaps beyond) the problem you encountered.

Next, go to the support section for the vendor of the software and look for a support contact form, where you get to add your details and your notes. This is urgent, so follow up with a call.

Why bother with the support contact form if this is urgent? Because this will be the basis of your support query, which they will then work from. Also, this offers you some redress, should they have problems dealing with your support query.

The next steps are crucial, because we can’t assume you’re dealing with the right people first off. Most support calls will lead you to the front line of support, often called level one, which are people who’re often reading from scripts and might not be technically familiar with the software. If you know you have a genuine problem and it is urgent, ask to speak to someone senior to them.

Next, make more notes! Seriously, take names, mark down the time and make complete notes of what they’re telling you. Because if things go wrong here, you’re going to need those notes.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced problems with support personnel and used my notes because they simply haven’t even bothered following their own support tickets, or even making any support tickets in the first place.

Dazed and confused?

Well, you may be as well posting your problem into their support forums, for other users to help you with. In most cases, you’ll need to create an account before you can post (unless you’ve not already done so as part of the registration / sign-up process), but it’ll be worth the effort, believe me.

Some of the people you’ll meet on their are as or more knowledgeable about the software than the people who wrote it. Also, the people who maintain the forums — the moderators — will often assist, too. These people are the ones you’re really going to benefit from most.

But, before you post anything, use their search engine first, to see if anyone else as had the same problem as you. Sometimes, you’ll find a whole stream of similar problems, with solutions already provided.

Sometimes, their search tool isn’t the best, so what do you do? Why, use Google, of course! Google is often much better at finding things on forums than the forums themselves.

Software Q&A

So your problem is small, mildly annoying, but otherwise not a show stopper. Try messaging them on Twitter to get an answer. Or, you can just Tweet a message with their @name in it, to get their attention.

Some people confuse being rude with asking for support, by posting borderline abusive messages with their @name in them, for effect more than anything else. I suppose it goes without saying that you shouldn’t do this!

And finally…

Aside from the vendors themselves, there are plenty of unofficial resources out there, many of which are well maintained and very, very popular. Mostly run by fans, these places can be abuzz with tips, tricks and solutions. So be on the look out!

If you can’t explain what happened, don’t expect much more than a fake frown and a shrug of the shoulders from the support people. So there are no software tricks and keyboard shortcuts when it comes to getting the help you need — you have to be calm, methodical and have the right resources just a few clicks away.


Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Why. Now there’s a thing to ask. I often can’t ask enough questions. If I didn’t ask questions, projects simply wouldn’t get off the ground.

OK, first of all, sorry about the long absence; I’ve been very, very busy over the last several months. Right now, I’m working on several large projects (more about those some other time, perhaps) that are soaking up a good measure of my time. However, I was aware of the time between now and the last article, so here I am, with some thoughts of mine from the front line.

A question of taking the lead

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working on a lead that came through the Octane website from a freight company in London. They want a system to manage consignments and customer payments that their staff can use both here and abroad, where their customers’ consignments are being shipped to. After having sent something like 25 emails to them, we were finally edging closer to something resembling what they wanted, as a brief, and here’s what they had to say:

“Thanks for your input. Really appreciated. I must say you are the second person that we would consider if we do go ahead with the system development. I really like the way you broken down things and you are also detailed and have so many question which I think is the only way to understand what we really want. Others have come up with estimates without asking a fraction of the questions which you have asked.”

You see, I can’t do my job properly (or perhaps at all) if I don’t know enough about the things I’m working on. Also, there are times when what the client thinks they want isn’t really what they need, or more importantly, what their customers need. And then there’s the unintentional omissions, the lack of technical clout on their part, the legal implications, and finally, the gotchas.

Being like Colombo

Not everyone appreciates the endless barrage of questions. I suppose some people find being asked questions like some kind of pestering, or that you’re questioning their abilities in some way, as if they haven’t or can’t articulate their needs properly.

Let’s face it, who doesn’t think Lieutenant Colombo a laughable irritation with his trademark “Err, excuse me, sir. Just one last question…” he asks, head bowed, with an upturned hand to his head, waving his cigar aloft as he scratches a furrow in his brow with a stubby thumb. But you know what? Colombo always figured things out in the end.

He would often ask obvious questions. Now, they are the most irritating questions, but sometimes, you need to make absolutely sure you understand things, or woe betide the fool who goes to work on X when the project required Y.

One lead in particular kept insisting that what she wanted was simple because she’d seen a friend doing the same thing, whatever that meant. Once I’d managed to disentangle what she needed from what she thought she wanted, the whole complexion of the project changed dramatically. Rather than something simple, what was asking for would have been a £3,000-5,000 project, while not earth shattering, is still much more than she’d anticipated. I replied with an email containing a huge list of questions I’d managed to lift from difference sources, to save time, and I never heard from her again!

Fire away!

I freely admit that I’m not the diplomat I imagine myself to be, and so a machine gun style assault of questions might not have been the best tactic, in that one instance.

The problem for yourself is knowing how far to go, and how much effort to pour into that earliest of phases, when they could just take your questions, your initial thoughts and vanish into the night. I’m in a similar position, whereby the aforementioned lead could easily take the draft brief and schedule for the web application project I’ve supplied them with a move onto someone else.

I’m able to mitigate against some of these problems by giving them only the most superficial explanation of what I have in, leaving out key details which would allow them to take my ideas make them happen. So for them to get at my ideas, they need me to follow them through. However, if you’re just selling red, green and blue widgets, you have to find other ways of keeping that lead warm.

So, what am I asking you to do? Why ask questions, of course! Honestly, don’t be afraid to look silly asking those obvious questions, because that one moment of silliness might look like a good deal more appealing than seeing a project stall or even fail, all for the want of being obvious.


Why the hell should small businesses even care about brand?

Brand is something most people have an understanding of — Heinz, Apple, Ford, Nike, Sony. Just about everyone knows the value of a brand name and the perception of others towards you when you invest in those brands. But what about your own brand, and does it even make sense to talk about your own business brand when you’re a small business?

The rules that apply to the Ford’s and Apple’s of this world also apply to your local plumber, joiner and electrician. Recently, I wrote about the 10 personal branding habits of the professionals, which has been a very successful article, one that clearly resonates with a lot of businesses around the world. However, it’s not the rules that separate the large businesses from the smaller ones, but the words, phrases and terminology; big businesses are much more likely to have university educated marketeers who’re up on all the current business parlance. As for the small business? It’s all buzz words and jargon to them.

The cult of personality marketing

Over on Marketing Donut, a growing business services and advice web magazine, a title caught my eye — “I’m a small business – why do I need a brand?” It’s a good question. It’s also a very good article, too!

For the most part, talking about brand with small businesses is just confusing and stirs up more questions than it answers. However, the advice offered here in the above article is precisely the kind I offer to my clients, which makes the whole thing much more understandable to the plumbers, joiners and electricians of this world.

Oftentimes, the client will reply by saying: “Oh, so this is like a brand name, yeah?” So I find it’s better to let them make that connection, rather than me try and place it there. At that point, brand isn’t this big thing, but something they can not only get a fix on and pursue as a function of their own marketing, succeeding by the sheer weight of their own personality.

It’s easy to think of marketing, or any kind of promotional activity, as being external to you and your business, as if there’s no physical connection between the two. But that’s what brand is essentially all about; bridging the perception of your business with the business itself. In reality, you become the very essence of your marketing.

But even this sounds contrived and lofty, when for the most part a smile, a disarming joke, a professional approach to work and a little honesty are all hallmarks of someone who’s likely to do well from word-of-mouth marketing. And at that point, their brand begins to grow and grow.

Out there, all over the country, thousands of plumbers, car mechanics, joiners, painters, decorators and electricians have thriving local trades, all of which are directly attributable to them marketing themselves through their personalities.

The brand performance curve

I’ve found is that smaller businesses often feel a greater benefit from an improved brand image than larger more established businesses, with the plumber being a good example; you really wouldn’t expect your local plumber to have professionally designed and printed business cards, would you?

So that one thing makes a statement which implies someone who is established and professional enough to put their name to their service. Immediately, the perception of that business is lifted high above their competitors. But for the larger more established businesses, the effort required for differentiation is measurably more difficult. Why? Because it is expected that larger businesses have business cards, compliment slips, headed paper and envelopes, pretty girls answering telephone calls in plush office receptions, account handlers wearing crisp suits and wide smiles —here, differentiation demands extraordinary people making extraordinary effort because these businesses have ridden their brand performance up and over the curve and are now coasting along the plateau.

Do you still care about your brand?

You should. But I wouldn’t get too hung up about it, either. Many business people recognize their deficiencies, so if you can see where you’re going wrong, you’re already on the road to a remedy. That said, knowing that little changes can lead to better things for your small business, perhaps you ought to think big!


Asking clients the right questions

Rarely do you just manage a project in isolation. To some extent, you’re also managing the client. As an added consequence, you’re also managing their expectations. So are their any questions you ought to be asking your client before, during and after a project?

A while ago, I read 14 questions to ask your clients before and after a project, which I encourage you to read if you’re either a freelancer or aspiring project manager, or someone like me, a Jack of all trades. I decided to follow the article up with some insights of my own, gleaned from managing clients, their projects and their expectations.

But first of all, I’d like to add some questions of my own.

What do you need your website to do?

A stupid question? You’d be surprised. In the past, I’ve talked people out of having a website and told them to concentrate on the marketing methods that are proven to work, rather than experimenting with one that most likely won’t earn them a penny or raise their profile.

People still believe that “If we build, they will come” and that is not often the case. Sure, if you’re a hugely popular brand name, or you intend executing a marketing campaign to promote your website, I can help! But if it’s just a brochureware website, made up of few web pages and bunch of images — all of which you’re unlikely to update on a regular basis — there are better ways of marketing your business.

The needs of the client come second to those of their customers. The odd few people don’t like to hear that kind of talk because they have all kids of ideas about what they want, which don’t always align with what their customers need.

Are you sure?

This is an open ended question, applicable in so many ways. But don’t be afraid to ask! So many will shy away from second guessing a client. It’s not a requirement of the client to know exactly what they need. But once we’ve finally figured out what it is they do need, it is incumbent on them to pay for the whole of the journey, not just the getting there. By asking the right questions at the right time, you can avoid a lot of hassle for yourself and your client. Chances are, all of this stuff is new to them, so be their guide.

Be brave and ask.

Do you have the funds to see this project through?

Don’t be shy! Money is not a rude word. Be up-front and ask the client if they have the funds to meet with the project. Sometimes, the needs of the client exceed the budget and they will probably hope you’re going to come down on price.

It’s essential you have a process in place. If you’re dealing with a project that’s likely to be worth several thousand in web design and development costs, for example, you need to break the project down into smaller, deliverable parts, each of which being billable. This will ease your cash flow and help ease things financially, should the client pull out part way through.

Where do you want to be in 3-5 years time?

I first put this question to a friend of mine, not realizing at the time just a how powerful a motivator that question would be to her. It wasn’t until some time later that she thought about where she’d prefer to be and how that realization simply didn’t match her present direction in life. I change her life with a single ten word question.

You can write up all of the marketing and business plans you like, but just thinking about where you want to be in three or five years time is something totally different. And it’s not until you do this that you begin to appreciate what resources you’ll need access to if you’re going to make your dream come true.

Once you have a clearer thought in mind, the next thing to do is to put together a series of realistic, achievable strategies to help you get there. This isn’t just about having a bigger website, or just getting more clients / customers. This is about building sustainability into everything you do.

And now I’d like to expand on some of the questions in the Design Reviver article.

What is your company’s reputation?

I suspect many companies probably couldn’t answer this question. Many wouldn’t really know how to quantify any kind of sentiment amongst their customers, other than asking them directly, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Of course, reputation is action after the fact. What you really want to be doing is managing your companies brand right from the outset, mitigating some of the problems your reputation may inflicted upon it later on.

So what can you do to measure the value of your reputation? Well, this new social web offers many tools to monitor things like customer perception, for example.

Google Alerts is a free service that allows you to track certain keywords, such as your company name, which will offer some insight into what people may be saying about you.

Then there’s Twitter, which allows you to search for keywords and save the searches, functioning in much the same way as Google Alerts, but within Twitter itself.

What is your target audience?

Sometimes, this kind of question can have unexpected consequences. Be careful how you interpret their answer, because “target” can often be misconstrued as “idea”, and the ideal customer isn’t always the same as the ones they already have. In chasing down the ideal, there’s a danger of neglecting the needs of those they’re currently servicing.

It’s certainly a question that needs to be asked, but any provisions you choose to make, with respect to your website being re-design and / or re-developed, should be done so with an eye towards maintaining the same level of service your current crop of customers and come to expect.

Do you plan on having any revisions and updates done to this project?

This is a question I don’t actually ask in this way. The question arises as a result of establishing the clients broader needs. If it’s web application project, like To Book, then we build a series of plans, covering short-, medium- and long-term needs.

Building a website (and even more so a web application) is like building a house; it’s essential you get the foundations right at the outset. In most cases, I start by planning and then building a framework.

If a framework was a house, it would be the foundations, the wiring, the plumbing and the locks for all of the doors and windows. The actual plans, as well as the building materials are for the developers, like myself, to decide upon and ultimately build on top of the framework.

By establishing all of these things at outset, and by agreeing on what features are to be included and then expected one, two and then three years hence, I can get the foundations of the website in the right shape from the outset.

After all, there’s no point putting the foundations down for a bungalow if the client wants a four story office block in three years time!

Conclusion

Simply accepting a brief from a client is just negligent. You have a duty to ensure their expectations are realistic and achievable, or you’re just creating problems and storing them up for later on. Don’t just say “Yes!” to everything if you don’t agree or think / know there will be problems. If required, say “No.” and propose an alternative.

But above all, be brave and ask questions.


An exercise in building brand, engaging customers and creating a community

Brand. Engagement. Conversation. Community. We hear these words all of the time, but for many, making use of them is time consuming and often drags you into unfamiliar territory. So how do we make the transition from company to brand and beyond?

When I walk into my gym, scattered on the reception counter is a collection of flyers and printed pamphlets promoting their various events. They’re on cork boards, stuck to walls, they’re announced over the speaker system, displayed on the flat TV screens in the gym, the changing rooms and the bar area — they’re promoting events everywhere throughout the gym.

Brilliant, eh? Well, nearly. To some extent, the strength of the message is being lost on those that are head-down busy like me; you’ve either got time or you haven’t. Promoting internally will have results, but people are increasingly becoming “ad’ blind”, and just don’t even see adverts. What’s needed is an elective process, one that people subscribe to.

Put your business through its paces

Much has been made of Facebook and many people labour under the impression that it’s is just for kids. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Because if it was, Octane wouldn’t be there.

For a business like Octane, community is a more difficult end goal to build because my offering is different. Blah, Blah! Technology has a very healthy Page, currently heading towards 400 fans. People appear to enjoy not only science, technology and social media.

So, my gym. They have a website, which I doubt is doing them an ounce of good. They have all of these great offers, promotions, give-aways, competitions etc, but the uptake isn’t as good as it could be.

Right now, they have all of these members, most of which elected to give up their email addresses when they joined. This being a private gym, membership isn’t exactly cheap — but the service and the facilities are excellent, I hasten to add! I reckon their demographic has a healthy bulge in the 30-35 year old area. I would say it’s not a great leap of speculation to imagine many of that group of people being on Facebook. And we already know they have a disposable income, so that’s a given.

Run a Page on Facebook

So let’s say my gym got themselves a Page on Facebook. What next? People. Specifically their members.

They’d need do a mail merge and ping out emails to all of their members with an announcement for their Page, with a list of features and benefits. The gym looks pro-active and score points for being in the face of their members.

Advice on Facebook — Creating a Landing Page for Twitter, Facebook.

Brand

Next up, they start a structured campaign of posting links to relevant content and internal promotions, such as:

  1. dietary planning;
  2. local sporting events (football, rugby etc);
  3. competitions / give-aways;
  4. up-coming acts at their very own night club and bar;
  5. healthy eating ideas and recipes;
  6. family events and kids sports days…

… offering up some good, sound advice to their members, for almost zero cost — they’ve usually got 3-4 people downstairs handling calls and shuffle paper around, all of whom could easily take on this task.

This is valuable know-how and advice, with experts on hand (those being the gym staff) to field questions, book one-to-one sessions, join classes etc.

In subtle but measurable ways, the perception of the gym shifts from just a company and to a brand — and from a gym to a place to meet people and build on your social life. The members now value what the gym represents and begin to talk.

Advice on branding — 10 personal branding habits of the professionals, Manage personal brand like a porn star.

Engagement

Pages on Facebook include the option to add Discussions, which are forums for people to discuss different topics. From personal experience, these either work or they don’t. But as a gym, they could post on a wide range of topics (protein supplements, types of pre and post work-out stretches, effects of alcohol, etc) and get people talking, asking questions and engaging.

When a curry night or a horse racing day comes up (among many others), they create an event for their Page, which then shows up on peoples front pages. The members then elect to say whether they’re to attend, not to attend, or say they’re not sure.

Over time, the gym can better gauge uptake for an event (what works, what doesn’t, when and why) and get an idea of how many are likely to attend. Plus, since people can share events with friends, they could invite someone as a guest, who might just turn into a member later on.

Conversation

The events go down a storm, as they usually do. The members and staff who were there took loads photos and recorded the odd video of dads dancing on their mobil phone, and later over the course of the following week post said photos and videos to the Page, tagging staff and other members.

People laugh, share comments, “like” photos, reminisce, strike up friendships and start conversations.

Community

Before long, members are organizing nights out, inviting fellow members and friends to fun runs, races, competitions, hiking trips, the list goes on. We’re no longer just members, nor are we just friends — we’re now a community.

Brand. Engagement. Conversation. Community. They’re all right there, for pennies. All without even breaking a sweat. Well almost. Like anything else that’s good in life, it takes time and effort. But if you invest both, then you invest wisely and be a winner.

If you’d like to know more about how social media and internet marketing can help your business, get in touch right now.