Creating an author platform

If running a business, or being a self-published author, is analogous to spinning plates (which, incidentally, it is), then marketing is like catching rain drops.

If you’re a self-publisher, then you just have to accept that you’re also a business person and a marketeer. Once you make that mental leap, you’ll be in a better and stronger position to promote your novels not as something merely personal — important as that distinction may be to you — but as a product, one that you package and deliver to the correct demographic profile of people, which is to say your ideal reader.

Now, I’m not here to prescribe what I have done as the definitive approach to building an author platform for your novels. No, because I just can’t be so sure what I’ve done is the correct thing to do. The fact is, these things are fluid, and it may be that in time, I need to change things around. What I can say is, what I’ve created is — to the best of my knowledge and abilities — what I believe to be the best approach for me.

I say this as someone who’s been designing and developing websites since 1999. I’ve also been an aspiring writing for much longer, but only a published author for little over a year.

In this article, I’m only going to discuss what I did, with what tools, and with which services. Yes, alternatives exist. But since I’m not using them, I don’t think it would be appropriate to recommend something I have no personal experience in using.

A website as a foundation

Whatever you choose to build — physical or otherwise — you need to begin with the correct foundations. When considering an author platform, you begin with a website.

WordPress

I specifically chose WordPress, so that I could manage things myself. WordPress is an excellent content management system (or CMS), that is simple to install, configure, manage, and extend via Plugins. Plugins are — as their name suggests — things your plug into WordPress, which offer capabilities above and beyond what the default software is capable of achieving.

WordPress gives you two options: you either host your website with them, or; you host it yourself. In principle, if you’re not technically literate, it’s easier to allow WordPress to host your website. But that simplicity comes at a price; if you want to use your own designs for your website, you’ll need to pay extra for that.

Because of my background, I host my own version of WordPress, which allows me maximum flexibility. But it also means I have to do everything myself, with zero assistance from WordPress.

As you’ll no doubt notice, the Wayne Smallman website has a very distinctive style. You’ll also notice I have a list of my Novels & Novellas at the top of the home page. You won’t find any option in WordPress to allow you to do that. I wrote the necessary code to permit that.

I wanted to create a style that had the appearance of being busy, but in reality be quite bare and stark. I think that’s worked.

Creating stickiness

I know, stickiness conjures up some odd connotations. But the fact is, your author platform should aspire to be an exercise in creating a man-size fly trap; once a person is lured in, you want to ensnare them with your charms, talents and charisma. Or at least that’s the plan. But, crucially, you don’t want your intentions to be obvious, annoying, or [HEY, I’VE JUST PUBLISHED MY LATEST NOVEL!] .. distracting.

For instance, on the left of my website, you’ll see a search option, positioned just above buttons which allude to myself on Twitter and Facebook. If someone performs a search, they’re usually looking for something quite specific (obviously), which is typically indicative of a repeat visitor searching for something they read previously. Always a good sign.

At the top is another button, alluding to my Newsletter. Why at the top? While it’s great to have people follow you on Twitter or Facebook, a newsletter is something more personal, because the visitor has given you something very valuable; their name and email address, and their permission for you to send them messages. Once people begin to subscribe to something like a newsletter, you have a captive audience, ready to absorb your knowledge, whit, whims, and experiences. Again, a good sign.

Another major benefit of WordPress is the ability to make comments on articles — or Posts, in WordPress parlance. Firstly, you need to understand that you are going to receive a truly glacial slab of crappy and stupid “spam” comments. No escape. So just manage the best you can. WordPress offers some tools to deal with it, but ultimately, you’ll have to trudge through gazilions of moronic comments riddled with links to porn, fake watches, illegal drugs, and no end of other appallingly written offers.

Newsletters

A newsletter is an invaluable resource for any type of business, and authors (aspiring or otherwise) are no different in that respect. I chose MailChimp and their Forever Free plan. Initially, I’d built my own newsletter with freely available software. Why do this? Because I didn’t like the idea of paying. However, when I thought about it, the Forever Free plan is hugely accommodating, and should I exceed their 2,000 subscriber limit, I’d most likely be an established author by that stage anyway, and paying a monthly fee wouldn’t be so onerous a thing.

I cannot stress the importance of consistency. By that, I’m referring not just to design but also your message and self image. As you’d expect, I eschewed the free Templates for MailChimp’s various Campaigns and I designed my own so that they match the design of the website. Also, because I’m a programmer, I was able to build a Page within WordPress (akin to a Post, but with subtly different options) and embed the MailChimp sign-up form, accompanied by my very own blurb.

What goes into your newsletter is up to you, but I’d think carefully. Don’t just re-use what is already available on your website. Consider giving your subscribers something they might find valuable. As an example, my “Continuum” approach to writing means I have a vast and sprawling universe within which characters, places, technologies, and events exist. I can’t explore or explain everything I write about in detail; some things need to remain vague for the purposes of what is yet to come. But in some instances, I can elaborate, and it’s these excursions into the Continuum that I’ll be offering to my subscribers, giving them access to things money literally cannot buy.

Creating social media satellites

Facebook and Twitter are your friends. Firstly, grab yourself a Facebook Page, and choose your type wisely. “Artist, Band or Public Figure” is probably the way to go on that one. Secondly, sign up with Twitter and choose a username that’s your name, assuming the name faeries haven’t already swooped in and taken that one. If so, consider using first name initial and surname, or something similar.

Please, give some serious thought to the names you chose for both your Facebook Page, and your Twitter username. If you’re serious about becoming a successful author, people are going to search for you by your name. So calling your Facebook Page something philosophical / pretentious, like: “The Journey”, or using something spurious / sad, such as: “ilikecats” as a Twitter username are both beyond the realms of unbelievable uselessness and adrift in an ocean of irredeemable irrelevance. Incidentally, “ilikecats” is gone, so you’re out of luck on that one. Sorry.

Collectively, you may have heard people refer to Twitter and Facebook as social media, and / or social networking. While broadly interchangeable, they’re slightly different in purpose. But for the sake of this article, I’m not going to delve into the minutia, because you just won’t feel the difference at this stage. If you’re still curious, give me a shout and I’ll talk specifics.

Of course, there are other places you could join, but the trick is to not spread yourself so thinly that your presence is so gossamer thin and tenuous, reaching out to you is as burdensome an exercise as it is akin to hosting a seance. Be realistic.

Facebook Page

Because I’m just starting out as an author, my personal Facebook Page isn’t exactly the bustling epicentre of modern literature. But popularity aside, you need to build something with the expectation of tens of thousands, rather than ten. Or 9. So think Manhattan tower block, not two-birth tent.

First, choose a photograph of yourself, or a logo and use that for the Profile Picture that appears in the square on the left. Second, choose an appropriate and specific picture for the Cover. Ideally, the cover of your most recent novel and not a picture of your favourite pet cat, or your children.

Depending on the type of Page you’ve chosen, if you have the “Event, Milestone” option, choose Event and include your previous works with their corresponding publication dates. Why do this? You’re building a new Page that has history to it. That sense of provenance gives gravitas and reassurance to any would-be reader who might otherwise think you just came down with the last shower of rain.

If you’re not on Goodreads, you’re some kind of insane masochistic author who wants to feel the pain of continually struggling to gain exposure. Oh, you are signed up with Goodreads? Excellent. Now while you’re in Facebook:

  1. first, connect your Facebook account to Goodreads;
  2. then navigate to the Goodreads App Page;
  3. now, click the “Add to my Page” link in the menu on the left below the Goodreads photo and confirm;
  4. and finally, click the “Setup your Goodreads tab.” link.

Assuming everything went according to plan, you should now see the Goodreads Tab on you Facebook Page.

When people “like” a Page on Facebook, it is — in my opinion — one step away from (or closer to) them being a subscriber to your newsletter (in theory if not practice), in that those people are happy for you to bring things to their attention at your discretion. Don’t bore them with personal trivia and minutia. Do provide them with meaningful and worthy sources of knowledge and resources.

If you’re out and about, take relevant photographs and post them to your Page. If you have a book launch, make that an Event. If your hit the Amazon best sellers’ list, make that a Milestone. If someone wrote a glowing review, or you wrote an article or a guest post on another website, post that as a Status update:

  1. first, paste the link;
  2. after a while, Facebook should detect the link and grab the title, introduction, and — if present — a graphic or photograph;
  3. select the link and begin typing to replace the link with something more appropriate — don’t worry, your link is safe;
  4. and finally, click the “Post” button.

By all means, tease with suggestions, ideas, and anything else you think might entice and invite inquiry. Give them an insight into what you’re presently working on. Work to engage your followers and make them a part of your journey towards literary fame and success. If they like you, they might just help you along the way.

Twitter

Twitter is your uninterrupted stream of consciousness laid bare. But that isn’t an invitation to repeat any of the aforementioned nonsense, like boring the crap out of people. Most of what I mentioned previously for Facebook is transferable to Twitter — with the obvious exception of the technical specifics.

Twitter has a certain immediacy and reach that should allow you to make contact with other authors, your readers, and visa versa. Don’t continually push your novels, or you’re just going to annoy people and look like an over eager, egomaniacal fool. Not a good place to be.

When writing your Twitter profile, think about the consistency of your approach, be concise, and include a link to a specific Page or Post on your WordPress website (which I have yet to do for me personally, but have done for Octane). Why specific? Because we love measuring our success, don’t we? Of course we do. And one of the best ways to measure is to funnel people according to the various channels through which we present ourselves.

Similarly to Facebook, Twitter permits a certain level of customisation. You’ll notice that my author profile has both a background image (which is taken directly from my website) and a logo graphic behind my profile details.

You & I, fellow authors

So, Goodreads again. You are an author, correct? If so, make sure Goodreads knows about this and begin the process of including your books. And that’s as far as I’m going to go with Goodreads, because it’s an article unto itself. However, what I can do is point you to a template I’ve created for posting on Goodreads Groups.

Marketing

Like any marketing campaign, when you funnel people towards a particular goal, you’re essentially pointing them to a “Landing Page“, which is where your offer is to be found. I know this must sound dreadfully prosaic and clinical, but if you don’t approach writing with some kind of business mentality, you are — to paraphrase the Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca — a person who knows not which port they sail from, where no wind is favourable. Or you could just be spectacularly fortunate and hit self-publishing gold at the first attempt. However, to quote Forbes Bingley — a recurring character in many of my as-yet to be written novels — hope is for the unprepared.

Measuring success and failure

As an experience, failure is perhaps more valuable than success, assuming you’re able to learn anything from either. To derive value from failure you must firstly know where you went wrong and then formulate a methodical approach to avoiding any such repetition. To enjoy success, you must plot a course through the wreckage of previous failures and formulate a methodical approach to repeating the journey again and again and again.

I use Google Analytics to track people moving around a website. Google offer a massive and sprawling service, one that some might find intimidating. I also use Clicky, which is much more human scale and offers a simpler window to your website. I do recommend using both, and both offer a means of including their code within WordPress in a relatively pain-free way.

I use Clicky’s Spy tool, which allows me to see traffic to my website in real time, which is great for when people make comments. Clicky can determine the name of the person who made a comment and then recognise them on subsequent returns, which allows me to react in a timely manner and respond accordingly. Just to be clear, when people make any comment on WordPress, they must first provide a name and email address, so there’s so privacy chicanery at work here.

So, let’s say you write a Post, or do a guest writing spot somewhere that provides an author link to a Post about one of your books. Unless you’re tracking the visits to your website, you won’t have the first clue where the visits came from. More to the point, you won’t have clue one whether you had any visits in the first place. So that sudden spike in visitors you had a week ago? Yes, that one you have no idea about at the time. How unfortunate, and a mistake you’re doomed to repeat, unless you use Google Analytics, or Clicky. Or both.

Also, you could be running a promotion on Smashwords or Goodreads, and that traffic is your measure of just what kind of success (or failure) your campaign is experiencing. Similarly, you could just be trying to figure out where the subscribers to your newsletter are coming from. Or, you’re just trying to determine which of your novel Posts or Pages is the most popular, and at what time of the day, or even which day of the week, or in which country! Yes, you have that much control it’s almost obscene.

More importantly, you’ll get to see where people are coming from, like your Twitter or Facebook Page, your Goodreads Author profile, or just about anywhere.

Your goals, channels, and funnels

Look, I’m not a professional marketeer, nor do I purport to be, either. Instead, I work in conjunction with professional marketeers within the organisations I provide web design and web application development services to. In an effort to keep things simple, your goals — in order of importance — are:

  1. books;
  2. newsletter;
  3. Goodreads Author profile;
  4. Twitter and / or Facebook Page.

Your channels are everywhere you’re to be found. Your goal funnels are the routes to those books you keep writing, and their efficacy relies entirely on how you build and manage them. Each time someone “likes”, follows, or elects to sign up with something you offer, they are one step closer to either buying and book and becoming a reader, or a worthy and known admirer of your literary works.

I’m hoping you’re kind of overwhelmed, but in a buzzing-tingling sort of way, where the empowerment you feel is likely to point you in directions you hadn’t previously considered. Feel free to include me in the acknowledgements of your next novel. No pressure, honest.


How best to deal with the needs of leads

So you got a lead. Good for you! Warming that lead up is crucial. Fudging the numbers, or scaring them with big ideas can just leave them feeling cold. So what do you do? Scale those big ideas into bite-sized chunks and think long-term.

I’ve been thinking about project management a lot recently (and doing a lot of project management, also), which you’ll probably have detected as you’ve skimmed through the headlines to my earlier articles. In some ways, this article is a continuation of the last, which you may want to read, to give you some background.

Be the voice of trust

As with almost every facet of business, trust is a mandatory quality and not some interchangeable attribute you can substitute, by being cheap or quick. So when someone comes to you for your services, it’s as much about people management as planning and pricing — people won’t buy from you until they’ve bought into you.

Being eager is great, but there’s always the danger you’re coming across too strong and a little too eager, bordering on insincere. After all, we’ve all witnessed the say-yes-to-anything sales man and woman at work, and clearly the experienced amongst us have these encounters drifting forward from the back of our minds.

And here’s where I go slightly off at a tangent, but it’ll all make sense, trust me. And I begin with a confession — I don’t pitch for work.

Octane doesn’t do the pitch thing!

The problem with pitching for work is that you’re sort of relying on one thing while skipping several others. In the first instance, you’re assuming the brief you’ve been giving is worth the pixels or paper it’s written on. And then latterly, you’re skipping the all-important initial meeting where you initiate a Q&A, to disentangle need from want.

So when that brief arrives, I’m usually to be found shaking my head, wondering just what the hell I’m supposed to make of the whole thing. Worst thing is, the emphasis is nearly always on cost, in that they equate cheap to be synonymous with being good. Well, we all know where that road leads to.

I’m guessing that, by now, you see where I’m going with this, right? Ask the right questions, and keep asking the right questions. If required, and as I’ve said before, don’t be afraid to ask the obvious questions.

What I’m really getting at is, I either do things right and in their correct order, or I just don’t want to do them at all. And since I’m eleven years into the big game, I have the option of indulging in that particular luxury of choice.

Project priorities

Certainly from my point of view, the various requests and briefs I receive are either a cursory examination of needs, or technically incomplete, which is to be expected as their authors are unlikely to as technically competent and literate as I am. Either way, none of this is a problem for me. But, it’s at this stage that the problems can surface.

Curb your enthusiasm

“Yeah, I can do that.” being the reaction of many, upon reading through a brief. “This is easy.” they add, enthusiastically, quickly diving into a lengthy and detailed document of how they’re going to transform the humble and basic needs of the prospective client into some all-singing, all-dancing cavalcade of features and bells and whistles.

Overload. That is the word most appropriate and often to be found on the lips and in the minds of the recipients this tome of a document sent back in reply to the author of the brief. Overwhelming. That’s another word, very similar to the first.

Needed now, Next time, Nice to have

Being objective is something that cannot be emphasized enough. What the prospective client may think is vitally important may well be of secondary or tertiary importance. So prioritizing those requirements is essential a function as just about anything else. In fact, getting things in the wrong order could be a project-ending event.

What I do is take those needs, break them down into what I see as their right order and then sort them again, this time by, well time. You see, any good project has a deadline. And since time is the final arbiter of all things, good or bad, by shuffling those needs around, based on which are Needed now, we can then sort the rest into those that are required Next time around, with the remainder being the ones that would be Nice to have at some later date.

Once you start thinking and then acting this way, everything then sort of looks better. Modular. Now there’s a good word, and appropriate, too.

Cooking up a feast of features

You’ve taken the needs of the prospective client and chopped, hacked, sliced and diced them into bite-sized chunks that are much more digestible by all, delivered to them in an appetizing assortment of textual delights!

OK, enough with the food theme, you get the idea. The point is, you’ve given dates their requirements by which you’ll deliver demonstrable evidence of your good work, packaging your ideas with their own, adding a quality of depth to a project, that allows them to structure their time and budgets accordingly. Keep in mind, the author of the brief might not be decision maker, so your reply may well be a sales letter to their immediate superior.

Packaging your project estimates

We’ve covered a lot of ground, here. So I think this calls for a break-down.

  1. Think strategically, and long term.
  2. Keep the technical talk to a minimum, or at least keep it simple.
  3. Since this is a lead, you’re still very much selling your self and your services, so write accordingly.
  4. Break everything down by their respective priorities, and sort those requirements into Needed now, Next time, Nice to have.
  5. And finally, since there’s no small measure of consultancy being thrown into this, fold those activities into your estimates.

So there you go, a neat list of suggestions, to keep you on your toes and help warm up that lead. Of course, these things are dynamic, but I’m sure you’ll not go too far wrong if you keep these suggestions in mind or at least at hand.


11 steps to building the perfect project

While we’re always eager to strike new ground and get working as quickly as possible, planning is the be-all and end-all of the success of any project. As the saying goes — fail to plan and plan to fail.

I’ve seen eagerness get the better of judgement. I’ve seen people lunge straight into the work side of things and be content to worry about the details afterwards. I’m not one of those people.

The best laid plans…

A few years ago, I took a former client to County Court because they were simply unprepared to let me plan a project they way I’d recommended from the very beginning. And then when things went wrong, the client simply would not accept responsibility for their own failure and refused to pay.

Now, taking my own advice, I chose to invoice the client in stages, mitigating the losses I suffered. However, because of their incessant adding of new bells and whistles, the latter stage of this failed project ballooned and the whole thing simple couldn’t be maintained.

Building the right foundations

So what’s the solution? As usual, the solution is best served when we first describe the problem in simple terms. During the County Court proceedings, I needed to make the case against the client as simple, clear and unambiguous as possible. And I did that by way of an extremely simple analogy.

Imagine you’ve been contracted to build a house; a small abode, not too dissimilar to a bungalow. You dutifully ask the client all the right questions, to which you receive clear answers and the work commences with you laying the foundations for the house.

But then the client realizes the true value of the land and changes their mind — now they want a twelve story apartment block. But they also want all of this work doing for much the same price you originally agreed to for the bungalow. And worse still, on the same plot of land on top of the same foundations.

That was my predicament described in painful detail. Sat across from me in the County Court room, the now former client squirmed with growing discomfort while his colleague looked away impassively and shame faced.

Yes, I won the case, but I’d rather not have been there in the first place. As clearly as I’d explained to the client these issues from the very outset, they were unprepared to heed my articulate protestations concerning the perils we were destined to endure, as we would eventually face each other down across a very solid wooden table in some anonymous County Court room somewhere in Yorkshire.

So again, what’s the solution? There’s no way of over stating how important trust is in all of this. And trust is a two-way street. Also, trust your instincts. I didn’t. Why? Because while I was prepared to plan ahead, I was the eager fool. So matters weren’t helped by the fact that I was being lied to by the client, which my instincts had informed me of, but I continued working with the client regardless.

Trust isn’t absolutely essential, so long as both parties adhere to what’s been agreed. Yes, that’s some kind of trust, but not the right kind. As we all know, trust is a hard-earned quality of any relationship, and for some, it’s simply not a given they can be trusted.

Laying the foundations of a successful project

Sadly, there’s no magic trick to managing client expectations. But there are a number of things you can do help insulate yourself from the death of a project, or to work towards keeping a project alive when circumstances are at odds with you and your carefully laid plans:

  1. Once the client is happy with using your services, reply to them either by post or email with a confirmation of the brief (or at least what you both agreed on), with a copy of your terms & conditions, and ask them to reply to this correspondence, which will be your proof of receipt and a tacit acceptance of your terms & conditions. And in a court of law, this acknowledgement is as good as a binding agreement between yourself and the client.
  2. In addition to agreeing on what your activities will be, the client has commitments, too — enshrine their commitments in the brief, also.
  3. Once they have agreed on their commitments, don’t be afraid to chase the client down when they’re being tardy. Yes, this can be an annoyance for them, but it’s preferable to seeing the project languish, stall or possibly even fail.
  4. Be thorough, objective and assume nothing — don’t be afraid to ask the obvious, as you’d be surprised just how many times the stark staring obvious gets over-looked!
  5. On the subject of being thorough, keep complete and precise notes of everything, and I mean everything — every form of correspondence, every conversation and every decision or moment of indecision. What you know is vital, and can serve as an audit trail, should things go wrong. Also, in keeping such detailed records, you increase your value to the client, as they may then rely on your for such things.
  6. Know who all of the stakeholders are in a project, and know what their roles are. As much as you can, limit the number of stakeholders who are charged with defining your work schedule. You do not want to commit to work that you may not be paid for.
  7. More importantly, don’t be afraid to say “no”. Seriously, Saying “yes” is often synonymous with “I don’t know, but I’ll try”, and that’s as good as a lie.
  8. Break the project into deliverable and demonstrable stages, invoicing at each stage.
  9. If you foresee problems, explain them to the client as clearly and as early as possible.
  10. Don’t allow yourself to be railroaded into doing something you know is either illegal or not in the best interests of the project.
  11. If the client begins to make additions and / or amendments to the project, assess their potential for disruption and be prepared to move them to the end of whatever stage you’re working on, or even the end of the project. While the client may have you believe those additions and / or amendments are vital, be thorough, objective and assume nothing — and stick to the plan.

Sometimes, the needs of the project are far greater than the wants of the client. Articulating that to a client takes a deft touch that not all can summon up the words for. So clearly, perils remain.

That aside, armed as you now are with various ways of staving off project failure, the only thing you may lack is the guile, the gumption and the sheer guts to ask those obvious questions and to say “no” where and when appropriate.

Beyond that, you should now have the right idea about how to manage a project and all of its attendant delicacies and details. So good luck!

Do you have your own project tips, tricks and things to avoid? If so, why not share them in a comment.


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.