Trust is built over repeated interactions between people. If your business requires long term relationships then you have to make sure that investments in automation are not deployed in a way that undercut your ability to have real conversations. Unfortunately, some uses of email automation tools are pushing sales conversations into the “Uncanny Valley” because they strive to simulate–but miss–a genuine personalized touch.
I signed up for a mailing list a while ago from a reasonably famous entrepreneur and he sent me this mass email in late November promising to share “Silicon Valley Secrets.” I don’t know if it’s because I have worked in Silicon Valley for more than three decades but I found the whole thing kind of sad (of course, he’s probably laughing all the way to the bank).
I sat down with Bruce La Fetra of La Fetra Consulting for a conversation on customer interviews. We compared notes on qualitative conversations versus quantitative surveys and exchanged tips and tricks. Bruce presented some great insights on how to organize findings and how to take best advantage of insights gleaned from interviews.
What follows is an edited transcript with some hyperlinks for clarity.
Here are my notes from tonight’s Professional and Technical Consultants Association (PATCA) meeting on “Handling Difficult Client Scenarios in an Agile and Effective Manner.” It was a candid discussion among primarily experienced consultants about real situations that were challenging–and frequently painful. Several good suggestions for preventing and managing challenging customer situations:
I took part in a great roundtable conversation at tonight’s PATCA meeting on “Low Cost Marketing and Advertising for Consultants” Here were a couple of suggestions that I made in response to situations or challenges that other consultants put on the table.
“So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late” Bob Dylan “All along the watchtower“
Sunday nights are difficult times for me. Friday night you can say, well I have another 48 hours to finish what I promised by the end of the week. But by Sunday night the week is over all of your commitments are marked to market. Your chips are down. Whatever bets you have been able to place will have to bear fruit in the coming days to weeks.
Sunday Night Your Commitments Are Marked to Market
“It’s amazing how long it takes to complete something you’re not working on.”
Most of the commitments I miss are not to family or friends or clients or prospect but to myself.
Jeff Leader and I worked together in Leader-Murphy in the mid-90’s (I wish I had held on to that www.l-m.com domain name) he observed to me at the end of a particularly long work day: “You are a geyser of ideas. But we don’t need any more ideas, we need to finish this book we have started.” We never did. It was 1994 and we had a theory that corporations would use websites for internal collaboration, customer support, and real time governance and control. Sometimes you can see the future you just can’t get it down on paper. We did build more than 30 websites for firms and technical conferences in 1994-1996 but very little of what we built directly survives today.
We started SKMurphy, Inc. 11 years ago by helping two technical consulting companies find new clients: PicoCraft and New Idea Engineering. It was nuclear winter in Silicon Vally after the dotcom crash and it was time to see if the could persist long enough to find the next spring. Both firms are still active today and we continue to assist them. It’s not a bad feeling to see companies that you have helped prosper.
Related Blog Posts
Managing key commitments to customers is essential to closing deals and preventing churn. Getting a customer the correct answer to a question is a critical sales and support skill: the first step is to write down the question when you don’t know the answer.
Write Down Key Commitments
My second “real job” was doing pre and post sales support at a software startup. I had been hired at the same time as an older and more experienced engineer and after about two weeks on the job he took me aside and advised, “buy a notebook and write down any commitments you make and any questions you promise to get answers for.” He was about eight years older so I figured his memory had started to go. Also, he was not my boss. I ignored him.
Within about six weeks I had missed a few deliveries on promised items or answers and it was clear that I had mis-assessed. So I started to carry a lab notebook and write down summaries of every conversation. I included details to jog my memory like date, time, location, attendees and highlighted any commitments I made or answers that I promised.
I learned that the act of writing down a commitment in front of the customer and then replaying it for confirmation underscored that I was actually listening. At the end of the meeting I would summarize all of my commitments (or “action items”) and any questions I needed to research for a final check.
Write Down Key Questions
Later I learned a technique called “the parking lot” where you write down on a flip chart or white board any questions you that either want to defer to later in conversation or you need to research. I then discovered that once I started to hold myself accountable in a public way in a meeting I could also include commitments that others had made or questions that they had promised to research in my closing summary and now we were all jointly accountable.
There is a strong temptation to avoid saying “I don’t know” and to guess at an answer or to provide a partial answer. For complex technical questions, answers that you may score as “mostly correct” tend to be rated as “you wasted my time with a wrong answer” by the customer.
In particular in a pre-sales situation saying “I don’t know, let me get back to you this afternoon (or tomorrow or next week depending upon urgency and complexity)” makes your other answers more credible because you have shown that you are willing to admit when you don’t know.
In my next job I was surprised when my boss’ boss would say, “I don’t know” clearly and frequently and I came to appreciate that “I don’t know” is actually an answer that is a hallmark of expertise. Experts know where their knowledge ends and are willing to label speculation as speculation so as not to intentionally mislead.
Some Refinements For Remote Meetings
- In a Skype session I take notes of what the other person is saying in the text chat. This demonstrates that I am actually listening and allows them to correct something I have gotten wrong or to add a key point that I didn’t include in my notes. When the session is done I have already documented it and had it reviewed by the other attendees so I can mail out the transcript if I am pressed for time, or take 10-30 minutes refine and summarize in addition to providing my raw notes.
- The option for shared note taking by contributing to the chat also encourages the other participants to add their own notes. If many people are on the call the text chat can also allow one or more chat-based conversations to proceed in parallel.
- You can also run a separate chat window just for your team so that you have a back channel to enable better coordination. Be careful you are typing public notes in the public chat and private notes in the private chat. Typing a public note in the private chat has an effect similar to waiting for an answer after you commented when your mike is mute. Typing a private note in the public window can be much more problematic – don’t write anything you would not want disclosed accidentally.
- Shared note taking works if you want to use Google Docs or Primary Pad or another shared edit platform that allows for realtime update by multiple people.
- In a webinar or screen sharing session open a Notepad or Word Doc or text file and type your “parking lot” notes into it as you are walking through a presentation or demo. As you go back you can turn them into strikethrough text or put an [x] in the front of each item as you complete it. You are left with a set of action items you can then confirm need to be address–and by when–for all parties as appropriate.
Related Blog Posts
- Are You Using a Realtime Shared Document Editing Tools? Let’s Compare Notes
- The Benefits of Collaborative Writing, Interviewing, and Improvisation
- Debugging Teams/Meetings: Start With Goals & Roles
- Social Software Speeds Team Decision Making
- Three Features for a webinar or conference call
- How Do Blogs and Wikis Help Me Collaborate With My Customers?
- Presales Anxiety: Not Knowing All of the Answers by Peter Cohan
- Updated Conference Call Meeting Tips by Nancy White
- Using the Parking Lot by Rick Brenner
- Meeting Tools: Using the Issue Bin by Kevin Eikenberry
- Conference call practices to generate knowledge and record learning by John D. Smith and Shawn Callahan
- Combining Conference Call With a Wiki by Shawn Callahan
- A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy by Clay Shirky
(in particular in Part Two: Why Now starting at “I’ll start a conference call.”)
- Project Management for Work that Matters by Seth Godin
We wanted to let all of you know that IEEE-CNSV has a new benefit for its members. You have a chance to join and participate in a formal Mastermind (Peer Support) Group. This group is much different from our regular meetings. We will meet for a fixed set of four weeks about every other week starting on April 3, 2014. Group members will make a commitment to come to all of these four meetings, and to keep what is discussed in confidence. So, that means the members really get to know each other, and work on what is keeping their businesses from higher levels of success.
- DATES: Thursdays in April & May — April 3, April 17, May 1 and May 15 of 2014
- TIME: 4-6pm
- LOCATION: Hobee’s at 800 W Ahwanee Ave, Sunnyvale, CA 94085 (just off Mathilda Ave at 101)
- COST: Free, but agree to purchase something from the restaurant, so they will reserve this room for us. This set of four meetings would normally cost $200, so this is a real bargain.
WHAT MIGHT BE DISCUSSED IN A MASTERMIND MEETING?
Mastermind meetings allow you do share ideas as to what areas you are considering for the growth of your business, or your business and life balance. You will get feedback from your peers on how to resolve the concerns.
Areas that could be discussed:
- Business Plans for 2014
- How to get more business
- ow to handle the stress of too much business at one time
- How to get out from under Brokers
- How to keep up with changing technologies
- Whatever concerns or challenges you might be having
We are diligent in getting feedback on our consulting performance. Here are four questions we use to help us to improve our practice. We also solicit feedback after every talk, seminar, and workshop that offer. We read all of it, and try and make new mistakes on the next iteration.
Four Questions We Use To Help Improve Our Practice
We do a lot of initial consultation calls where we walk around an issue or a challenge a startup is facing. The calls typically focus on lead generation, sales process, new product introduction, or practical tips for managing the challenges of bootstrapping a new firm or product. For the last several years we have been sending the following four question survey, sometimes with a fifth question specific to the session, to everyone who took part.
Please take five minutes and help us improve our process
Please reflect on our conversation and take a few minutes to write a one sentence answer to four questions to help us improve our process:
- What was the most useful question or suggestion that you heard?
- What was the least useful?
- What, if anything, did I fail to do that you expected me to do?
- What else can I do to improve my process?
We get better than an 80% response rate and have learned a lot. Many small subtle things that people have been kind enough to suggest we stop doing. And a some significant additions or alterations as well.
I will start with a few simple phrases I have–almost–trained myself to avoid as a result of feedback:
- “Now don’t take this the wrong way…”
whatever comes next also needs to be rephrased to reflect the entrepreneur’s perspective not mine.
- “Normally when an entrepreneur tells me they are selling to small business it means they don’t know their target market.”
Now I try and probe for more specific attributes and skip the insult. For example: “Small business covers a broad category of firms. Is there a particular type of small business that would benefit the most or would make a decision more rapidly.”
- “You know what IRS calls a business that does not make a profit? A hobby.”
Again gratuitously insulting, so I now try to probe more for the plan for break-even operation and see if they have determined what their remaining runway is so that they can find a graceful exit if need be before some very bad outcomes.
One suggestion for improvement a few years ago lead me to rethink some of the ways that I had focused too much on my own time efficiency:
I would have appreciated your starting our conversation by asking me to tell our story. That way we could have started from a ‘shared base of understanding’ of what we have tried so far. (Perhaps you felt you knew enough from the brief I sent you in advance? Or in your experience doing that makes the sessions too long?)
This triggered a fair amount of reflection and led me to write the following answer
This is a fair point: I need to avoid the “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” prescription that does not seem to be rooted in an extraction of symptoms from a case history, a diagnosis or differentials. Probably the two most important aspects in a brief consult are
- Why you, why now? what is your evidence of need and why are you qualified to solve this problem. The “Business English” as an outgrowth of global teams I took as a given. It may not explain your lack of traction in China for example but to a first order anyone who wants to engage in global business needs to speak / write English effectively. And your credentials were established in my review of the website.
- What have you tried that has worked? Where is there even a weak signal for success). In your case we uncovered two things that you can build on pretty quickly and spent some time walking around what that might look like at the next level of scale.
But your question made me realize two of the shortcomings, or at least risks, to asking you to write down “the story so far.” While it is more time efficient for my review and gives you more time to compose your thoughts and revise/reflect on it:
- it’s not the same as voicing it and having it heard. I can hear the emotion in your voice in a way that is distilled out of the writing.
- And you are not sure that I have actually read what you send. (I did).
But I had not considered that. I should probably have done a brief recap that established I saw a need for your offering and believed that you had the ability to deliver it and that the challenge appeared to be more in targeting and initial engagement scaling to a relationship than in determining if there was a need.
Because the need for the service was pretty clear, at least to me, and your team’s background supported your ability to develop and deliver it I did not dig in the way that I might when someone proposes a novel product or service (particularly when I cannot see a need for it, or I can see a need but I cannot see how their prior experience qualifies them to offer a competitive, much less distinctive, offering). I didn’t have any qualms about your ability to develop and deliver. I was confident that you could organize an approach that would work once you had a clearer picture of target and triggers.
There is a risk in asking people to recount all the ways that they have failed or all of the good ideas that they have had that have not borne fruit is that it anchors the subsequent conversation in what has not worked and why instead of a theory of the need, your current hypotheses for how you can add value, and what a successes to date we can build on to continue the market exploration.
But it’s a fair point that entrepreneurs benefit from recounting their journey. My intent was to offer you some specific suggestions for how you could refine your message, your target customer criteria, and help you simplify your offering to get some initial traction. But you have to see that as rooted in your specific situation and not some generic checklist of options or canned answers.
Thanks for taking the time to send a detailed response and some suggestions for how I can improve.
We still ask for a written overview in advance so that I can start with some context. We also believe it helps a team prepare correlate their experiences and come to a rough consensus on at least what the key challenges or constraints are. But we try keep learning and make new mistakes.
“Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.”
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Four Questions We Use To Help Improve Our Practice –
In short learn from every engagement with a client or customer
Update July 19, 2014: We now ask
3. What changes, if any, have you made in your plans for the next three months as a result of our conversation?
This has proven to be a better indicator of what questions and suggestions were useful.
PATCA is a non-profit organization created in 1975 specifically to help connect businesses and independent consultants. I was invited to take part in a PACA panel on “The Consulting Landscape: Forward Looking Skills and Practices” on Thursday June 13, 2013. It offered me a chance to clarify my thinking on the future of professional consulting and to have it critiqued by seasoned professional consultants.
Here is the overview for the panel
Change happens. In the present it comes more rapidly than in the past. Are you prepared to steer your business and the services you provide to clients through the changes that will impact your consulting business?
This panel of three experienced consultants will look at trends and potential disruptions that will affect how you run your consulting business and what your clients expect from you. They will examine client business practices, economic trends and uncertainties, and technology that affect how we do business.
Future of Professional Consulting
I have included my remarks and some of the questions, both edited for brevity. Here are the bullets from the five slides I presented:
Skills Still Valuable in 2020
- Face-to-Face and Phone Conversation
- Written Communication – E-Mail, Blog
- Text Chat
- Webinar / Screen Share
- Negotiation and Sales Skills
Key Service Parameters
- Outputs – What does the client get? What problem do firms hire you to solve?
- End Time – How long will it take?
- Cost: How much will it cost?
- Inputs – What do you need to get started?
- Controls / Interim Observations – How will we jointly manage the project and our mutual expectations?
- Start Time – When can you start?
- Inside the Black Box: questions not normally asked:
What do you do?
What is your process (beyond how do we jointly manage)?
How do you do it?
Skills That Will Become More Important In 2020
- Service Innovation
- Podcasting and Audio Production
- Video Presentation / Production – Video is the New HTML
- Task and Project Management Systems
- Stop E-mailing status and attachments
- Don’t Let Discussions Get Buried in Inbox
- Synchronous Docs Complement Conversations
Trends and Technologies to Watch
- Non-Billable Hour or “Value” Models
- “Flipped Classroom” Models
- Continuous – Connected – Transparent
- Global Practice
- Diagnostic & Service Configuration Tools
About SKMurphy, Inc
- We Are Customer Development Consultants
- Our Focus is on Technology Entrepreneurs
- We Help Them Find Leads & Close Deals
- Early Customers
- Early Revenue
- Early References
Partial Transcript of Edited Remarks
What can you negotiate and sell is as important as what you can do.
The half life of skills seems to be shrinking, this means that you have to be strategic in the capabilities that you choose to develop and you need to continually invest in renewing those skills that offer competitive differentiation.
Service innovation is becoming increasingly important: how do you raise the bar not only by how you package your offering but also by adding new features or capabilities. Decomposing what you can do into building blocks that you can knit together with other partners is one way to increase your rate of innovation.
Continuing to increase your differentiation is going to become more important. Whether you face Silicon Valley competitors or global competitors, they are going to go to school on you if you win business.
Challenge as a consultant is to build trust. Voice presentations help to do that. Consulting websites are going to include a lot more audio and video because production costs have plummeted and done right it’s more compelling and helps to build trust more rapidly than print content alone.
Synchronous documents that several people can edit at once are becoming more important. If you are in the same room with someone we are used to collaborating on a white board or sheet of paper. Combining these synchronous docs with chat and a phone call makes distance collaboration much more effective.
We even use synchronous docs in a face-to-face meeting because it’s a much better model than one person taking minute or each person taking their own notes. The synchronous document is shared and persistent, you end the meeting with something everyone feels some ownership of, and it surfaces misunderstanding much more rapidly.
Involving your customer in co-creation–this is the natural evolution of passing people taking turns drawing on the same napkin or piece of graph paper–is something to consider.
If part of your value has been to deliver training, the flipped classroom model where the information is available beforehand–think MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and Kahn Academy–is going to put a lot of pressure on traditional classroom lecture models.
Question: why change if what you are doing now is working?
If you believe that these trends are at work and your current billing and service delivery models are going to be impacted, you may compress the need for a lot of change in a short amount of time if you let your competition move down the learning curve before you take the first step.
Another challenge is to start to be explicit about your intake, diagnosis and service configuration. Whether is going to a Jiffy Lube or an ER, the intake process is very efficient and follows explicit protocols for problem identification. I think consultants need to look at automating aspects of both their diagnosis and service delivery.
I think we are going to see expert services embedded and intermingled of these emerging communications infrastructure: tables, smartphones, and VoIP models.
Q: what about things that are “off the radar” like innovative materials and quantum computing? How much attention should you pay to these things and incorporate them in your planning?
Bill Buxton, the original inventor of the multi-touch interface, wrote a great article in Business Week called “the long nose of innovation.” The time constant from lab demonstration to successful mainstream adoption of an innovation seems to be 30 years, and that lag doesn’t seem to be changing. 3D printers are 30 years old for example. The science fiction author William Gibson observed more than a decade ago that “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”
The things that will affect you in the next five years you will be able to see instances of today. They won’t come out of nowhere; somebody is already doing it now.
But the clock cycle for distance collaboration has sped up considerably in the last 30 years. We have moved from Fedex for overnight delivery to Internet downloads available in a few seconds. Understanding how to work with global teams is increasingly important.
My perspective is that I am going to be consulting into the 2030’s. This is what I want to be doing: so I have a long term planning horizon.
That means that I try and cultivate relationships with people who are in their 20’s and 30’s as part of a talent spotting exercise so when they are in positions of authority they remember me as that SOB who helped them out.
I think too often we focus on “how do I get to the decision maker?” This used to be someone older than us, and is now someone our age, and pretty soon will be someone younger than us.
You have to be planting acorns every year if you have long term ambitions to be a consultant. So that’s one strategy: talent spotting to support a twenty year planning horizon.
I think the consulting model is going to become more pervasive. There is a great book by Michael Malone called “The Future Arrived Yesterday” (which was initially titled the “Protean Corporation”) where he looks at employment relationships becoming much shorter term and more contingent. So I think there will be a lot more people working as consultants.
I started this firm in 2003 in the middle of what was nuclear winter in Silicon Valley. Total employment in Silicon Valley has yet to recover to the number of jobs that we had here in 2001. It was very hard.
Our first two clients were consultants who were trying to make mortgage payments to hold onto their houses. It was an interesting time–kind of like the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times.”
I realized a few years in, if I can actually make it in this climate I could probably do OK when things turn around. The fact that I made it through that and it’s ten years later taught me that it was important to have a long term vision and willingness to see it through.
You need to think about how you are going to plan acorns, whether it’s with relationships or with capabilities that you develop.
More on the unevenly distributed future from Rob Rodin in “Free, Perfect, and Now”
The problem is that, in reality, the future can be hard to recognize. It’s not evenly distributed; it’s hidden in corners. While there is no shortage of clues, they are buried beneath a crush of information. Radical adaptation to shifting customer demand is the first law of business survival today, but how can you learn what you need to know in order to anticipate those shifts?
h/t to Brian Dear for this citation. I blogged about Rodin’s book in “Tangible Costs, Time, and Pricing to Value.‘ I was fortunate to have Rob Rodin on a panel at the 1995 Design Automation Conference that addressed “The Impact of the World Wide Web on Electronic Design and EDA.” He talked about several the principles he was using to transform Marshall to leverage the Web, his experiences there formed the basis for “Free, Perfect, and Now.”
I don’t think it’s a new trend but one new service that I recently signed up for asked me to take a short survey about how I felt about their product and what I planned to do. They E-Mailed it from a “no-reply” email address and I realized that an answer I had stuffed into the “Any Other Comments” box would make for a good short blog post.
Please don’t e-mail me from a “no-reply” address: if you don’t want a real conversation, or even an e-mail exchange, I don’t have the sense you are interested in a business relationship. If you only want me to answer your multiple choice survey questions and are not interested in my questions I think you are limiting how much you can learn from a real interaction.
While the 2 minute explainer video is helpful what I would find more useful–and what’s missing from your site–are real examples: please offer more examples of example configurations and more customer stories about how they used your product to change their business. Since I am a consultant I would find stories from other consultants particularly helpful.
You have sent me a number of reminders and updates in the last three weeks, included this latest that links to an automated survey. But none of them come from a named person or an e-mail address that can be replied to. While I can appreciate this is very efficient for you it may not be having the effect you are hoping for.
Your approach reminds me of when I was a child playing with walkie-talkies and someone in the group would keep their thumb on the transmit switch the entire time they held the handset. Although the rest of us got a running account of what he thought and was doing, there was no way to have a conversation.
See “We’re Terrible Listeners — And Here’s Why” by Susan de la Vergne; her conclusion: “Why don’t we listen well? The person we’re listening to isn’t important. Change that perspective, and you fix the problem.”
And the corollary is true, when you don’t listen, or worse remove the possibility for listening, you communicate to the other person that they are not important. Here are the last three paragraphs from We’re Terrible Listeners — And Here’s Why by Susan de la Vergne
In technology, when we find a problem with a product, we pursue its root cause. What’s really making this happen? Then we fix the root cause. We know we could just tinker with things so the symptoms stop appearing, but without getting at what’s really wrong, it’s only a matter of time before the problem shows up again.
Same thing applies here. When we’re trying to listen, we could count to seven before speaking or remind ourselves not to interrupt, but those are just symptoms. Becoming a better listener requires taking a deeper dive into the problem. We need to get at the root cause.
Why don’t we listen well? The person we’re listening to isn’t important. Change that perspective, and you fix the problem.
Quick reminder: I will be moderating a panel on “Successful Consulting Engagements with Startups” at the May 21 IEEE-CNSV meeting. I volunteered to pull this panel together after a long thread on the CNSV e-mail list June about the topic.
I have been fortunate to attract three knowledgeable and experienced engineers to take part in the panel, two are also serial entrepreneurs:
- Chris Apple, Software Consultant at Apple Enterprises
Chris Apple founded Apple Enterprises in 1981; he specializes in embedded firmware, control software and application software. He develops the embedded product, the PC control application, the manufacturing and calibration application and even the installer: he takes a concept and makes it a product.
- Kip Brown, PE, Principal at CMBJR Consulting, Inc.
Kip Clyde Brown, PE is a Professional Engineer with IC design experience in analog and mixed signal. In addition to his consulting experience he does expert witness work and is an at-large director of IEEE-CNSV. He has also founded three startups and will be able to provide insights from both sides of the table on the topic of startups hiring consultants.
- Arthur Keller Ph.D., Managing Partner at Minerva Consulting
Dr. Arthur M. Keller is Managing Partner of Minerva Consulting. Dr. Keller serves as an expert witness on patent infringement cases and as advisor to startups. He has served on the board of several startups, including Persistence Software, where he was Chief Technical Advisor prior to its IPO. He has also co-founded several startups, including Mergent Systems, which was acquired by Commerce One.
The four of us had a dry run on Friday and I learned a lot from the stories and lessons learned that were shared. There were often multiple perspectives on key issues, but each engineer’s opinion was based on three decades of experience as consultants or entrepreneurs.
We have structured it as a very interactive session both among the panel members and with the audience. Whether you are thinking about doing a consulting engagement with a startup or are in a startup wrestling with options for how to hire a consultant you will get an overview of how to look at the issues and some practical lessons learned.
- When: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 7:00 PM
- Cost: Free / No RSVP needed
- Where: Agilent Technologies, Inc. – Aristotle Room, Bldg. 5 5301 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara, CA 95051 (Map & Directions)
Startups often need a consultant’s expertise but their limited resources can make for riskier and more complex fee arrangements than larger companies. A panel of three consultants–two of whom are also serial entrepreneurs who have founded technology startups–will offer their perspective on the practical realities of working for startups. This session will outline important tips and issues to consider if you are exploring investing your time working as a consultant for a startup. The panel will share their rules of thumb and stories from the trenches. Consultants and technology entrepreneurs are invited to take part in a candid discussion.
If you manage a firm that provides creative, design, or professional services you have to balance making a profit with investing in your team. If you are struggling to increase project profitability you may be interested in preliminary results from an ongoing research effort that has identified key questions that can help you manage and deliver creative projects at a profit.
The true measure for project profitability factors in not only your costs and revenue but also your need to
- improve current capabilities,
- develop new capabilities,
- establish new relationships,
- and acquire new domain knowledge.
I am collaborating with Michal Domanski on interviews with creative service firm managers to understand how they address these challenges. Our focus has been on the questions that they have found most useful to manage creative projects for improved customer value and increased profitability. We have summarized our findings to date in an ebook entitled “Value, Profit, and Creativity: Questions That Help You Manage And Deliver Profitable Projects.“
The ebook outlines a simple process to
- improve the accuracy of your estimates,
- deploy your team more effectively,
- eliminate sources of error and inefficiency,
- and identify opportunities that successful projects have now enabled.
Download your ebook here: http://teamwork.mdomans.com/book/
If you manage a firm that delivers creative or design projects and would like to take part in a brief interview please contact me to take part in the ongoing research.
Q: We’ve sculpted our product in a niche that was a subset of the larger target audience. But it is not a niche product–and our investors agree–it’s aimed at the the middle of the bell curve. We feel impatient with our progress and are considering a significant investment in a traditional PR firm; we hope this will dynamite our whole effort with a big splash.
Most successful products start out in a niche and move to a sequence of larger/adjacent niches. Impatience for success works against learning.
Saturday March 24, 9-11am
Ground Floor Silicon Valley, located at 2030 Duane Avenue, Santa Clara,
We are launching new Mastermind groups in response to several requests from entrepreneurs who wanted to form an advisory board of peers with a deeper understanding of each other’s businesses and shared accountability.
Come to the meeting and see if you feel comfortable with the other folks that we invite and we will work out times and locations. There will certainly be one group that meets on weekends, there may be others that meet on a workday.
The difference between these mastermind meetings and a Bootstrapper Breakfast meeting is that anyone is welcome to drop in to a breakfast, this will be the same group meeting and holding each other accountable for goals and commitments. Over time, because these entrepreneurs are more or less in the same stage of their business and meeting multiple times they will get to know each better than the average breakfast attendee.
There is no charge for this open house but if you decide to join a facilitated small group there is a small monthly subscription. Want to be notified of future open houses join Bay Area Mastermind meetup.
If you are looking to rent a desk or conference room by the hour, day, week or month here are four tools you can use to search. All of them cover Silicon Valley and other metropolitan regions as well
Implications for the future of startups and small service firms:
- It’s interesting that same forces that are making fractional leases on computing capability available in the cloud seem to be at work enabling the ad hoc provisioning of workspaces.
- Coupled with the pervasive availability of wifi in coffee shops and eating establishments and transition to laptops or even smaller form factor tablets and smartphones for computing support, the old assumptions that an incubator provided value offering office space, Internet connectivity, and space in a co-located datacenter are defunct.
- For startups with less than a dozen people, both their computing and physical office configurations are becoming increasingly virtual.
I think this will enable new opportunities for firms to provide professional services, knowledge work, and clerical support in a variety of new forms and delivery modes by interacting either in virtual on-line spaces and/or virtual office space on demand.
Update Thu-Feb-09: A commenter suggests evenues.com also provides information about meeting rooms and event venues. I took a quick look at the site for Meeting Rooms San Jose and learned about a number of new venues to consider. The site also had an interesting blog post on “A Brief History of Coffee Houses as Meeting Places” which reminded me of this RSA video of Steve Johnson on “Where Good Ideas Come From.” In it he explains that coffee houses were one of the first co-working establishments that allowed people to mix and recombine different thoughts to form new ideas.
Update Fri-Feb-10: I came across Cloud Virtual Office (tagline “Virtual Offices & Touchdown Space”) researching “Going Bedouin” a term coined by Greg Olsen that I had written about previously on “Bootstrapping Startups: Bedouin, Global, Incessant, and Transparent” Related blog posts:
- the original blog post by Greg Olsen is no longer available but a copy that admits an image that contained his recipe for a Bedouin startup is still up at “Going Bedouin” on GigaOm
- “The Long Hallway” by Jonathan Follett
Update Mon-Apr-2 a reader suggested DesksNear.Me as another tool for this list.
Networking is good questions, listening, and helping others. Some rules of thumb for networking from Ford Harding’s Rainmaking (pages 44-59):
Prospects gain an appreciation for your expertise and ability to understand and to solve their problems through what you write, what you say, and what your customers’ say about you. You should have a plan for developing referrals and testimonials, but I want to focus writing and public speaking as opportunities to demonstrate your expertise and give prospects a reason to believe that you can assist them. These outbound messaging strategies will complement your referral program and are essential to attracting new customers and cultivating valuable long-term business relationships.
Here are some suggestions for practices that will help you routinely refine and curate your thoughts.
- Collect Good Questions & Your Good Answers: When you get a good question from a prospect or a customer take the time to write up a succinct answer in a follow up e-mail (even if you have answered it in a phone call or face to face meeting).
- Refine & Generalize Your Good Answers: save your e-mail in a special folder for “good answers” and set aside time every week or month to reviewing and refining it so that it becomes a more general answer that’s applicable to more than just the person you initially answered it for.
- Start a FAQ on your website: If you don’t have one it’s worth considering starting a “Frequently Asked Questions” list. If a particular question indicates you have a defect in our standard presentation or marketing materials it’s more appropriate to fix the source of the question instead.
- Reformat Your Generalized Good Answers: Convert good answers into articles or blog posts.
- Make the Time to Rehearse: Always leave time to rehearse in front of at least one other person before you give the live talk.
- Record Your Talks: Record at least the audio for your talks and listen to both your presentation and any Q&A. Listen to it again a few days later and a month or two later.
- Consider Writing an Article: either as a leave behind instead of your slides or as another blog post.
- Never Give a Talk Only Once: Considering the cost in time to develop and rehearse a good talk, you want to find at least three opportunities to give a talk or variations on it.
- Videotape A Good Talk In Front Of An Audience: Once you have given a talk two or three times live either do a video recording of it or arrange to have later versions videotaped. You will look and sound much better in front of a live audience with a talk you are comfortable giving and this will come through on the video. Consider editing it into a couple of 5-10 minute chunks if you can to use as teasers, summaries, or good stand-alone content.