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.


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!