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.

How to protect and profit from your ideas

The greatest prize I possess isn’t my computer, nor is it my programming skills, or even my experience — it’s my ideas. My ideas are what have kept me in business all this time. How you work those ideas from imagination to reality decides whether you profit from them, or watch on as others walk away with them.

Your ideas are your most valuable assets, even if you don’t realize it. But even a great idea is nothing if not acted upon. Sometimes, it’s necessary to share an idea, to make it real, but there are hazards to sharing ideas; you’re effectively giving them away.

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.”Henry Ford

Crucially, it’s all about how you share an idea. And the best way to share an idea is to sell it to someone. No, I don’t mean to put a price tag on it and then hand the idea over once they’ve paid you, although that’s not a million miles from what happens in the end.

When I say sell, I mean to pitch an idea, as in to a client. A client will come to me with a problem, or a set of problems, and I’ll have a think about how I could fix those problems as quickly, efficiently and cost effectively as possible.

As was the case with the To Book hotel booking application I developed for Premier UK, when I came up with a very efficient way of processing bookings that kept the user on one page, minimizing the number of actions (and by extension, the number of clicks) they had to make.

The client calculated that using this one feature often shaved off between 30 and 60 seconds per booking, which is a massive time saving when you’re dealing with hundreds and sometimes thousands of bookings.

Would you like to know more about web applications, or perhaps you’d like to know what a web application is? Read on to find out more.

Protecting your ideas from theft — the big tease

Clearly, this is a very valuable idea, but it’s an idea that only really worked within the context of the web application itself, although I’m sure someone could easily replicate the idea elsewhere.

The thing is, once you come up with all of your clever and innovative solutions, the trick lies in how you pitch those ideas as features of something much bigger.

You want to say just enough to tease them with the benefits and the potential for cost savings, efficiency etc, but not give them too much information that they could go elsewhere with your ideas, leaving you out of pocket.

Using project management to profit from your ideas

For a business like mine, the up-front innovative thinking is a legitimate cost centre; one that requires your valuable time. But it’s hard to put a cost to those ideas up front, so you’re best bet is to recover the time from within the execution of the project itself, over time.

But the challenges are still present, even once the project is underway — what’s to stop a client committing to work, you spending a month implementing your ideas, and then having them walk away without paying a penny? This is why you must break the project down into key stages and charge based on the completion of those stages.

By doing this, you’re financially insulating yourself and at the same guarding your ideas. Typically, I’ll withhold the major ideas until later in the project, but this does depend on the client.

Would you like to know more about projects and payment planning? Read on to find out more.

Balancing your ideas — protection against exposure

Ultimately, it’s a balancing act. On the one hand, there’s your ideas and your natural urge to protect them, and on the other hand, before a client is prepared to make a decision, they need to know what that idea entails.

A good relationship with a client is always going to be the more ideal start to any project, but even that is no guarantee. So do you consider some kind of contract? Many businesses think this kind of formal arrangement will scare a client, but I’ve found many appreciate the effort and understand the potential protection a contract offers.

Those that dislike contracts might not be the best client to get involved with; are they really all that trust-worthy if they squirm at the prospect of putting their name to a mutually protective contractual agreement?

NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement)

You could also consider a NDA, or Non Disclosure Agreement, which could work within a pre-existing contractual agreement, and be applicable to a specific project only.

A NDA is essentially a brief that often contains commercially sensitive and very specific technical details. The purpose of the Non Disclosure Agreement is, as it’s name suggests, to ensure you do not disclose anything outlined within the agreement to which you’ve put your signature to.

IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) contract

Let’s imagine you need to use a third party to help out, perhaps providing programming services. Also, the client has come to you with a NDA, which you are obliged to sign. There’s a chance that during the course of the project you and your third party:

  • could be providing intrinsically new methods / ways of accomplishing certain activities;
  • as well as using code used elsewhere, from within previous projects of your own;
  • and perhaps using commercial code for specific functions.

In these situations, you need to draw up an outline of who owns what aspects and which parties are entitled to do what with the various parts of the project, and perhaps for how long. If the client is willing to fully compensate you for your efforts, then fine.

However, if there are portions of code in there that belong to you or someone else, then some licensing arrangement may be required.

So the purpose of an Intellectual Property Rights contract is basically to protect the rights of your work, otherwise referred to as IP, or Intellectual Property.

Final thoughts

All of the above are personal / professional experiences of my own, drawn from over ten years of being in business. And as is the case with anything that involves contracts and signatures, it’s best to speak with a qualified legal adviser first, to ensure you’re using the right language, and that your agreements are enforceable, should either party break them.

Above all, don’t be put off by the pit falls and legal machinations. Just keep your mind open and those ideas flowing. You can always deal with the legalities later on.