So you want a website, right?

This might come as something of a shock, given that I’m a web designer and developer, but the first few questions I ask a prospective new client are designed to determine whether they actually need a website at all. I know, weird, eh?

Anyway, the thing is, there’s a surprising number of businesses out there who feel pressured into particular marketing activities, just because that’s what their competitors are doing. If I must sound like your dad, chiding you for doing the self same thing as one of your daft friends: would you walk off a cliff if they did?


Earning trust in business

There are no short cuts to making people trust you for your words or your deeds, and even less so in the business world. And on the web, trust is a hard-earned currency.

I single out the web because unless you’ve got a video connection, no one can see your expressions, hear the tone of your voice, see your gestures or the movement of your eyes — all of which are strong indicators of sincerity. Without those face-to-face guides, trust takes that much longer to earn.

In a recent article exploring a Google Labs experiment, I had this to say about the value of trust on the web:

“It is inevitable that trust will be the number one currency on the web. Trust is more easily given than it is bought. The more people who trust something or someone, the more value is given, which will therefore (most likely) attract more trust and amass more value.”

And trust as a currency — while being free from exchange rates — is often difficult to sell but earns some excellent interest.

Ways to earn trust in business

As a business owner, certain things have become clearer to me over the years. One of them is that people buy into people long before they buy into your products or services.

That’s why I enjoy meeting people face-to-face. This is my chance to make the most of my personal brand, that ‘brand’ being me!

I use my enthusiasm as a conduit for my business knowledge to show people that I care about what they do and how I might be able to make things better for them and their business.

For the impartial yet interested visitor coming to your website or ‘blog, they want to feel that you’re a person they can trust. They want to be able to use you and your services, while at the same time be confident that you’ll still be around the day after they’ve paid you.

They don’t want hidden costs, dodgy business practices or shoddy workmanship. They want demonstrable evidence of you being good enough for them to spend good money with, and that you’ll be around to support their present and future needs.

In short, they want to feel that they can trust you. But how do you convey all of your worthy and commendable values via the web, or from within a social network?

Testimonials

There’s just no substitute for a good referral, so word-of-mouth recommendations are still the top means of getting yourself known.

Word-of-mouth recommendations are by far the most cost-effective means of marketing, and only works because you were good enough to be recommended in the first place. And if you’re within a close-knit social network, there’s every chance this vocal referral will have an echo effect — being heard by many more businesses along the way.

If you have very satisfied customers and you’re sure they would have no problem singing your praises, then ask them for a testimonial. Ideally, this testimonial would come on company letterhead, written in hand, and signed personally — but that’s just an ideal!

Extending this ideal scenario further, maybe adding in a photograph of the aforementioned very satisfied customer along with their testimonial on your website will add that essential sense of trust. Additionally, getting your client to link to your website or ‘blog is even better.

Placement is also key. Some people might want to place all of their testimonials on one page, but I try to encourage my clients to place their testimonials within the web pages of a product or service that the testimonial relates to, assuming that’s the case.

Case Studies

So your customer is happy with their little lot. You’ve got paid, so you’re happy with your little lot, too. You look back on the job and realize that as well as learning some new things, you also managed to improve on many fronts — you hit the budget, breezed the deadline and managed to give your customer that little bit more than they’d asked for. I’d say that’s got the makings of a Case Study!

Put simply, a Case Study is a working, living documentary, evidencing your good work and the satisfaction of your customer. Ideally, a Case Study should be no more than a thousand words and should consist of four parts:

  1. A summary of what was achieved, typically entitled as benefits in the form of bullet points. They should match the prior objectives of the company, and be implied in numerical form (ex. increased 20%)
  2. A description of the project, the aims, the stakeholders and the particulars of the project.
  3. A summary of what was achieved, typically entitled as benefits in the form of bullet points.
  4. A conclusion, with supplementary links to the customers website and other related resources.

Why not add in a testimonial, right in the conclusion? Also, add in some photography, or maybe a picture of the client logo, their premises — something that’s going to add some visual interest. Also, if appropriate, link to the page on your website that relates to the products or services you supplied to the client.

Case Studies can be quite authoritative content for your website. So by adding in some strong words and phrases that relate very specifically to you, your customer and both your businesses, the search engines will make the most of that authority.

Standards, professional memberships and associations

Next time you’re given a business card from someone, look at the end of their name. Chances are, you’ll spot a bunch of letters.

If I wanted to, I could write my name as: Wayne Smallman ND, HND, Ba(hons). But for the most part, Wayne Smallman gets me by just fine!

When you see stuff like this, you’re given some vital information — that this individual had a formal education that resulted in a recognized qualification. So that’s years of studious education put to good use. If they providing a service to you, you’re probably going to benefit from their knowledge in some way.

If your business is ISO rated for example, or if you’re a British-based business and you’re an Investor in People, then your business has a valued, recognized accreditation that will open doors. In the case of the ISO 9001 rating, this means you have formal procedures in place that govern certain aspects of your business practices.

As for Investors in People: “Developed in 1990 by a partnership of leading businesses and national organisations, the Standard helps organisations to improve performance and realise objectives through the management and development of their people.”

In both instances, you have a wealth of trust that ought to be made a key feature of the benefits of using your business. Be sure to get the proper permission to make these associations and memberships known. Get the proper logos and add them into the relevant web pages and printed stationary.

It is easy to forget or underestimate the value of your “organic knowledge”, and your qualifications and accreditations are an integral part of that invaluable, ever-growing resource.

Trust as a value-added part of your business

By making the most of your qualifications, your accreditations, your more-than-happy client base, your professional associations, memberships and your processes & procedures, you have all of the ingredients to build a formidable series of Unique Selling Propositions, all of which will mature into a valuable and transferable store of trust.

So make the most of the respect your clients give to you every time they come back for more. Trust me — you’ll do just fine.

This article was first published on Octane’s sister blog, Blah, Blah! Technology, in an article entitled: “Earning trust in business


Just what can Apple, Google teach us about avoiding competition in business?

In this age of hyper connectivity, if you think that you’re in direct competition with someone else, there’s something wrong with your business strategy. For many businesses, there’s an angle or a niche just waiting to be exploited — and the key to unlocking this success is to not compete at all.

Look at Google and Apple, for example; Apple no more just make computers than Google are just in the search business. When you elect to use one of Google’s business software applications like Gmail or Wave, or when you choose to buy an iMac or MacBook Pro from Apple, you’re buying into a statement-making philosophy — Apple and Google exude minimalist simplicity.

For those that choose to compete with such industry behemoths, they choose to engage in a battle with two businesses that can churn out complementary innovations with unerring and repetitious ease, designed to stultify even the hardiest of business strategies — just ask Microsoft, a competitor to both Apple and Google and a company that is losing in key markets to both.

Controlling the business experience

Apple control the whole computer experience from the moment you walk into one of their stores, even beyond you pulling out your credit card. From then on, you’re within the gears and cogs of a very slick, highly artificial but incredibly refined and precisely managed event, culminating not in a purchase, as is the case with their competitors, but at the moment you begin using your Apple product for the first time. Why? Because it’s about the experience.

For those who use Google’s new Wave, an innovative collaborative communications tool, or Gmail, their highly respected web email client, you’re working within an ultra-efficient software environment that apes the features of bigger commercial software like Microsoft Office, but instead gives you just what you need to accomplish the task at hand, and for free.

By way of a disclaimer, I’ll freely admit that not everyone has the luxury of moving their businesses around in such a way as to reduce their exposure to competition. But for those that are nimble and fleet-footed enough to spot a niche, it’s worth expending the effort and exploring those gaps in the market.

So what’s the take-away moral of this story? Your task is to look at what you do, compare that to what your competitors do and create an experience that is so compelling, so enhanced and so client-centric that the added value nature of your service is reason enough for those clients to justify the expense of choosing you over anyone else.

The term premiumization springs to mind, and while apt, it’s a buzzword I personally dislike. And here’s some ideas about how to distance yourself from those around you: And here’s some ideas about how to distance yourself from those around you:

  • Personalize your service from beginning to end.
  • Think about your clients needs and anticipate in advance what they might want, then…
  • … Exceed the expectations / needs of your clients.
  • If possible, avoid competing on price and concentrate on quality.
  • Demonstrate just how much you know your industry and start your own blog.
  • Keep things simple, avoid buzzwords and don’t be afraid to say no!

Today, more than at any other time, there are just too many businesses doing the same things. Between differentiation and diversification hides a strategy that will help you build a service-driven business that places quality and your clients before all else.


The perception of business success

As business people, it’s surprisingly easy to forget the very things that make you money day in, day out. I call this “Organic Knowledge” — you know that you know these things, but you either forget or fail to see the importance of what you know. So the perception is, you feel you know less than you should and hardly ever feel as though you know enough.

And this is where perception plays a hugely important role in things. First of all, it’s probably as well that you don’t feel that you know enough. This way, you remain competitive and you’re likely to want to stay on top of things.

In business, there’s always one more mountain to climb

I have a habit of helping people. I often use analogies to pull down the negative perceptions people might have of themselves and their businesses.

One such analogy was that of a friend cast as a mountaineer. Here is a self-imposed challenge, one of conquering one mountain after another.

In business, each new project you undertake can seem like a mountain to climb. Planning is essential, and as the project progresses, resources can become more rarified, the chances of failure often increase and the further you go and the more difficult things become, the less likely it is that if you struggle, someone will be there able to help. But that that’s not always the case and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Depending on how long you’ve been in business, you could have conquered many a mountain! But despite your experience, you’ll keep making the same mistakes along the way. This is sometimes attributable to being reactive rather than proactive, which is a precarious ledge to be on.

Admiring the view your business affords you

As I said, planning is essential for many reasons. First of all, good planning will afford you the time to stop and take a breather. Here’s your chance to take a more holistic view of what you’ve achieved, not just within the scope of your current challenge, but over all.

From where you’re standing, if you happen to look up, all you’re going to see is a distant peak, towering above you. But if you take the time to look back over your shoulder, you’ll surely see a chain of mountains snaking away from you, each one conquered and done with.

“So what did I learn from my previous challenges?” That’s the question you need to be asking yourself. What organic knowledge did you bring to your current project, and what new knowledge did you pick up along the way?

How you manage your known and recently acquired knowledge is up to you. But it’s essential that you have some method of managing and extracting this knowledge.

At some point, you’re either going to struggle or fail. But there’s value in failure, too. Smart people perform an autopsy on the dead project. They tease open the remains and look for tell-tail signs of the cause of death. Knowing how you fail could well help you insulate your business from future failures.

Regaling others with stories of business adventures

As is often the case, you will find yourself at some business gathering, function or networking event. As you move around, speaking with various people, there’s one question no businessman or businesswoman can hope to avoid: “So, what is that you do?” Or words to that affect.

If you can’t answer this question without thinking about it, there’s a chance you’re not clear about a lot of other things about your business, too.

“I help people make money from the Web. I help people work over the Web. I help people measure what they’re doing on the Web.”

There’s a ton of other stuff behind that simple response, of course, but that’s the cool thing about a well-worded reply — you encourage the person asking the question to ask even more questions about you, your business and what you do.

So understanding the full breadth & depth of your organic knowledge will pay dividends in the long run.

Knowing me, knowing you

Figuring out what it is that you know, or what you’re good at is often pretty difficult to pin down. You will often dismiss out of hand certain things as being boring, or two simple to really count. So in these situations, why not ask friends, colleagues, other business contacts or even clients what they think you’re good at.

Of course, be careful how you word such questions — maybe dress the question up as some kind of customer satisfaction survey, which might uncover even more valuable information. But that’s a topic in itself, well outside the remit of this discussion.

What you’ll get back might just surprise you.

So in the end, your biggest challenge might be one of self discovery. But if you approach this one challenge with the right mind set, it might be more of a mole hill than a mountain.

This article was first published on Octane’s sister blog, Blah, Blah! Technology, in an article entitled: “The perception of business success


The value of business knowledge

Adults don’t just pop into existence, fully educated and well-heeled. And the same applies to businesses — things need to be learned along the way. However, the expectations of our clients can be that the knowledge we apply to their projects is established, tried and fully tested. But it’s sometimes borrowed, or even totally new.

Sometimes, as designers and web developers, we’re learning on our client’s time. But that’s not a bad thing, nor is it unusual or wrong — we can’t know everything there is to know in our chosen field.

Client expectations of our business knowledge

Problem is, the expectations of our clients are such that 1. they sometimes fear the discovery process, as if we should already know these things, and 2. fail to see that the discovery process aspect of a project is not just essential but billable, too.

But let’s just look at things through the eyes of the client for a second, shall we? First of all, setting aside issues of copyright, IPR’s (Intellectual Property Rights) contracts and such, most clients would feel that whatever we learn on their time and their money should only be used on their projects and nowhere else.

After all, they can’t be expected to be the unofficial R&D lab’ for our other clients, some of which possibly being their competitors.

As much as anything else, the client wants and perhaps needs to trust our judgement. And if they then see that we’re researching or experimenting with new ideas, concepts and methods, they may interpret those activities very differently to how you might imagine. You could be sending out mixed signals.

But the thing is — and I know this is going to sound cliché and trite — we’re students of life and we’re also apprentices of our chosen professions, too.

I for one don’t always invoice for time spent researching a new way of doing something, if I feel there are likely to be real, material benefits for my other clients. That would be unethical.

So it’s as well be up-front and honest about your processes and explain the originality of what you’re doing. I’d even go as far as recommending you appraise the client as to which 3rd parties you choose to involve, should that be the case.

There have been many occasions when I’ve taken on a project whose constituent parts exist only as outlines in my mind, right up until the point where I begin to do the preparatory planning work, whereupon I’m able to demonstrate my understanding of their needs, which the client and myself can then build upon.

This might sound weird to some people, but if it’s a programming or a creative design issue, I’m rarely vexed, it’s more a question of time and the amount thereof — few of my clients have posed questions that I’m unable to resolve.

The value of our time to our clients

But then the client’s expectations can be quite different, too. Sometimes their opinion of what we’re doing for them is that our job is easy — it’s just computer stuff!

We might make this computer stuff look easy simply because we’re sat down much of the time, but the mental manual labour and the heavy lifting is very much underway in our heads. After all, don’t pilots stay seated why flying an aircraft? And it’s not everyone who can fly.

It’s during these times that the perception of our success can be skewed somewhat. So some education is in order, and here’s your chance to bring your clients up to speed with what your job entails by inviting them to the office — Let them sit with you and learn first hand the time it takes to turn Widget A from blue to red.

My feeling is that most of the perceived “us & them” client versus supplier arguments that emerge are almost entirely borne out of not knowing or understanding what we’re doing.

Talk to your clients and ask them what they think, and what they feel. Allay their fears with a little light education and you too could prevent Project X taking on a life of its very own, devouring your time, consuming all of the good-will currency you’ve banked with your clients in the process.

This article was first published on Octane’s sister blog, Blah, Blah! Technology, in an article entitled: “The value of business knowledge