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 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 PATCA 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 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 speeded 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. Some examples:
- Facebook started at Harvard and moved to the Ivys before conquering the world.
- Google is rolling out their high bandwidth fiber solution in Kansas City not nationwide.
- Proctor and Gamble launches most new consumer products in a test market to learn more before scaling up.
This is normally because
- your offering will provides more value to a small subset of the total population it may ultimately appeal to.
- there may be to be ecosystem or supporting vendors/applications in place to really be useful
- social proof and word of mouth are easier to establish in a niche and a new product lacks both, which retards its acceptance among pragmatics, early majority, late majority, and laggards.
I would be careful not confuse the demand curve you seem to be promising your investors with the current market you can readily access, and the subset of prospects who are willing to abandon their current solution to embrace yours.
Traditional PR involved actual relationships between the PR agency and journalists, analysts, and other opinion makers. The traditional PR professional would ask a number of tough questions of the client as a proxy for the journalists et al to improve the story before the client told it to anyone else. The PR professional had a reputation to maintain with the writers (who were few because they were associated with an expensive printing press or radio/TV station) and was careful to vet the story for “newsworthiness.”
With the rise of new media and dramatically lower costs of publication/distribution for text, audio, and video these relationships have changed. But it’s still important to cultivate relationships with writers, analysts, and other opinion makers whether you do so directly or with the help of an agency.
One of the better books on the changes that the Internet brought to media and marketing is The Cluetrain Manifesto which is available on-line at http://www.cluetrain.com/book/index.html
Most of the teams we work with are targeting niche markets (at least initially) where it’s more effective to take part in ongoing conversations in a few communities focused on the need, problem, or technology. There are very few true overnight successes and banking on a big bang launch over the steady accumulation of customer case studies and endorsements (both formally in your own messaging and informally through “word of mouth” in communities with a natural interest in your offering) seems shortsighted. At a minimum you should have a Plan B for what you will do if the “launch” fails in third party media–it should not be to go out of business.
If you cannot think of two of three alternatives to a “big bang” launch that spread the same budget and effort over a longer period of time that allows for experimentation and iteration–and therefore more learning–you should probably think harder.
As the Kamikaze pilot instructor said to his class, “I want you to watch carefully because I am only going to do this once.” It’s hard to learn from a big bang launch.
The goal of a marketing interaction isn’t to close the sale, any more than the goal of a first date is to get married. No, the opportunity is to move forward, to earn attention and trust and curiosity and conversation.
Seth Godin in “Free Coffee, Next Exit“
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.
Some Rules of Thumb on “Networking” from Ford Harding’s Rainmaking (pages 44-59):
- Networking is helping people.
- You must learn to recognize a lead for someone else when you hear it.
- Networking is a sincere effort rather than keeping score.
- Networking is a sense of urgency and obligation.
- Networking is showing gratitude.
- Networking is maintaining trust.
- Networking requires you to spend some of your time selling other firm’s products and services.
- You must selective in who you partner with as these are a serious investment of time.
- Motivation is critical ingredient in effective networking.
I like this list and refer to it periodically. A couple of quick thoughts on ways that I try and apply it:
- “helping people” often the right question or the right introduction is much more valuable than advice.
- “recognizing a lead” and “selling other firm’s products and services” often gives me better perspective on my own offerings. I also have to listen more actively and ask the right questions to be prepared to do either for another person.
- “showing gratitude” e-mail is good, a phone call is better, a handwritten note says a lot. I have tried hard to cultivate an attitude of “counting my blessings” in the last five years or so; I write more testimonials, offer more referrals, and write more notes than I used to.
- “maintaining trust” is intrinsic to success in business. It includes not wasting people’s time, remaining mindful that your own failures not only reflect poorly on you but whoever recommended or introduced you, taking care when making commitments and taking pains to meet them.
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.
Len Sklar, author “The Check is NOT in the Mail” has spoken several times at Bootstrapper Breakfasts. Here is a recent talk he gave where he stresses the importance of putting payment terms and the consequences on non-payment in writing, communicating them in advance, and ensuring that they are understood.
It all seems so obvious but have you actually done this?
Too many entrepreneurs are afraid to pick up the phone and see if it’s a quality problem or a slow payment problem, letting the situation fester until they become angry and less effective or staying ignorant of real defect in their offering that need to be addressed.
Prevent Collection Problems With Clarity on Payment Terms
Key points to story:
- Business manager asked patients to pay when services were rendered.
- He did not ask them to make payments on bills that were in arrears but did ask them to bring the account current at the next time that services were rendered.
- He stressed that they valued their business and anticipated that some patients would react angrily. He did not become angry in turn.
- He outlined the consequences and escalation path for non-payment after different periods of delinquency.
- He made sure that they understood the terms by asking if they had questions, which if any parts were unclear, and to stress aspects of the policy that patients often ignored.
- If you don’t discuss money before you provide your product or service then you are forced to discuss it after you have provided the product or service when your negotiating position is substantially worse.
Related Blog Posts
“If there is something you must do and you cannot do it, you cannot do anything else.”
I think this highlights a variation on perfectionism but it’s something I certainly wrestle with from time to time. “Good enough” is one way to break the logjam, but if something is late I can sometimes feel that it has to be better (or perfect) to justify the fact that it’s late.
I worked with a peer manager at Cisco who would damage projects because he wanted to work on a task but he could not do quick and dirty version or a first draft. He would get later and work on it without showing anyone and ultimately teams learned to route around him or be very careful of any solo assignments he took on.
Sometimes I don’t want to take the next step because I can’t face the downside: I would rather live with the possibility of an outcome than take the necessary steps to determine if it’s actually going to happen. When I was younger I would sometimes hold off on selling a stock that had dropped because “it’s not a loss until I sell it.”
When I had a business in the mid-90’s I was slow to prune my sales funnel of prospects that had stalled, I see this same behavior in clients now. Once you do you realize that you have to generate more leads and that often forces you to explore new options or approaches you have hesitated on because the pipeline looks full.
Perfectionism is a very dangerous trait in a startup founder. Two ways that we address it in both our own operations and in our client engagements is to use wikis and shared calendars. Every draft of a plan or document goes into the wiki from the beginning: everyone’s drafts and progress (or lack of progress) are visible to everyone else on the team. But because we are on the same team we can help each other out. Shared calendars and gives team members permission to help with phone calls and meetings you are avoiding scheduling.
Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.
From an article by Theresa Shafer in the PATCA Feb 2011 Newsletter
Understanding why companies hire consultants can provide clues on what to look for and how to find more business.
1. Crisis Resolution: Often consultants are hired to solve a crisis when the current staff cannot resolve the situation adequately. Sometimes the crisis involves time to market, sometimes product failure, or an unexpected employee situation. For example, outside consultants might be bought in to solve a power, timing, or IE6 compatibility issue. These situations are great opportunities because you have a very motivated buyer! What type of crises do you help solve? How can you find more of these situations?
2. Expert Skills: Consultants are hired for skills that are not available in-house. If these skills are a short-term need, it’s often much more cost-effective for a company to hire an outside expert rather than adding someone on the full-time payroll. To which teams do you bring complementary skills?
3. Additional Resources: Consultants are added to the staff to deliver a project that is important and urgent. They may look to outside consultants to fully staff the latest project, or to complete a project that is outside of their business model. Besides PATCA, where do companies look for these qualified resources? Are you listed there?
4. Training: Sometimes, especially in areas involving new technologies, a company’s staff will need to be trained. They may need to learn how to use a new device, a software package, or a new management training system. On which tools could you provide training? What are some new skills that you could teach?
5. Objective Review: Companies can’t always have highly specialized experts on staff full time to evaluate every product or service they want to use. They may use outside consultants to fully evaluate and independently test a new software product, tool, or compliance program. What set of tools could you evaluate and advise on?
Consultants are a useful and cost effective resource for companies. They meet short term needs for specific expertise. And, it may be more cost-effective for a company compared to adding someone on the full-time payroll. Broadcasting how your talents and expertise can be of value in solving prospective clients’ problems is a good way to find new partnering and client relationships.
Most of our clients offer complex software products, frequently in combination with some amount of consulting services. Their sales are not the results of credit card transactions but a complex orchestrated sales process. Frequently their prospects need to see a custom demonstration or a benchmark that relies on their own data, not just the standard demo our customers routinely perform.
Prospects are often very busy and it can be difficult to determine if they are slacking off or overwhelmed, at least temporarily, with other priorities.
Here are five steps we try to get out customers to include in their sales process to keep the ball rolling with busy prospects.
- Get a commitment for when the prospect will send the data or other inputs that they need either for a custom demo or custom proposal. For example “so do you think you can get that to me by next Tuesday?”
- Get permission to call them back or follow up: “so if I don’t hear from you is it OK if I call you back on Thursday to make sure this doesn’t fall through the cracks.” Notice that you give the prospect some slack from their committed date.
- Understand what the ultimate deadline is that they are working to. That way in the call backs you can mention “I just want to be clear; you indicated you wanted us to finish the evaluation by the end of October to meet your deadlines. If we can’t get your specs and input data and get started we can’t meet your date.” Be especially wary of “we need this yesterday” as due date. It may mean that they have been living with the problem for while and have no firm plan to proceed. Worse that that, yesterday is not a day that will ever come.
- Always put an expiration date on any quotation or proposal. This gives you two more chances to follow up, once a few days before it’s due to expire to remind them, and once a day or two after it’s expired to give them one last chance to buy and to determine, if possible why they delayed or decided not to buy.
- There is a temptation when a prospect slows done to push for near term dates or to try and pull the timetable back in. The prospect is really in charge of the sales timetable so these efforts are often useless or even counter-productive. Instead you should offer a date that is even farther out and see if they pull it back in. If they tell you that they plan to get back to you in four weeks after you have been “playing ping pong” and iterating rapidly over earlier requests, suggest that you will check in in three months if you don’t hear from them. This pushes the date out even further, if they are serious about buying it’s better to let them pull the date back in instead of pushing for an earlier date if they start to feel overwhelmed.
Lack of response is not the worst outcome for a startup. The worst outcome is that you first invest time in a detailed customized demo, perhaps followed by a detailed proposal, and then find that the prospects are maintaining radio silence. Before you invest a lot of your team’s time,make sure that there is a strong business reason that will force them to make a decision.
Consulting is the art of influencing people at their request. People want some sort of change—or fear some sort of change—so they seek consulting, in one form or another.
Gerald Weinberg in “Secrets of Consulting“
I think B2B software is often purchased by firms hoping to achieve–or avoid–some sort of change. Like consulting, software is the promise of an ongoing business relationship. The two essentials in a mutually satisfactory business relationship are trust and an exchange of value. Weinberg offers 11 “Laws of Trust” in chapter 13 of “Secrets of Consulting” that I believe are also very applicable to software startups trying to establish and maintain successful business relationships with their prospects and customers. I have added my own notes as bullets after each Law where I felt I could add some ways to apply them more directly to software startups.
- Nobody but you cares about the reason you let another person down.
- It’s tempting to spend time on excuses that would be better spent on anticipating and preventing poor performance and unsatisfactory outcomes.
- See also “Conserving Trust In a Downturn“
- Trust takes years to win, moments to lose.
- If you do something do make a customer doubt your firm’s integrity or commitment to shared success it’s often an unrecoverable error.
- People don’t tell you when they stop trusting you.
- You have to listen for what’s not said.
- If your customers are not asking you for help, it’s possible that you have a rock solid product. It’s more likely that they no longer have any confidence in your ability to help them.
- It’s also critical to establish and maintain trust among founders, see “Three Tips For Minimizing Misunderstandings Among Co-Founders“
- The trick of earning trust is to avoid all tricks.
- Be forthright
- See “Treat Social Capital With the Same Care as Cash“
- People are never liars—in their own eyes.
- Weinberg elaborates: Always believe that your prospects and customers are telling the truth—as they see it, and as they think it would help me to hear it.
- Especially in the beginning of a business relationship it takes time to earn trust; prospects in particular are not going to be entirely candid until they have confidence in your ability to help them.
- Always trust your client—and cut the cards.
- Always be collecting data. Always be collecting multiple perspectives.
- Never be dishonest, even if the client requests it.
- It’s better to be viewed as uncooperative than a cheat. And once you establish a willingness to bend or break rules in the customer’s mind you will get asked to do it again.
- Never promise anything you are not sure you can deliver.
- Especially with early customers you are asking them to take a risk in working with you, only make commitments you are confident of keeping. This often argues for a phased approach or contingent pricing so that you are only paid after you have delivered a result.
- See also “Honesty in Negotiations“
- Always keep your promise.
- This is true even for beta customers (or those that have purchased your early “minimum viable product”). Too often beta or MVP is used as an excuse for non-performance: “We told you it was beta software.” Don’t be those guys.
- See also “Experiments Vs. Commitments“
- Get it in writing, but depend on trust.
- The primary reason to put things in plain English is to make sure that both sides clearly understand their mutual expectations and requirements, which will help to prevent a lot of misunderstandings.
- Keeping your business operations clear to your employees employees also fosters trust, and is an important component of maintaining your customers’ trust with you startup where anyone can be customer facing as the situation dictates. See also “The Business is Everyone’s Business.”
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
- Weinberg simply calls out “The Golden Rule” to complement his first ten.
“People usually feel weak and vulnerable when they retain a consultant. Small wonder that the consultants they retain are first and foremost the ones they feel will not hurt them. Consultants who are looking for work should think less about price and learn more about trust.”
Gerald Weinberg on “Price and Trust” in “Secrets of Consulting”
I think this also applies to software startups. In our “Engineering Your Sales” workshop we stress that your prospect won’t act on your offer until they both understand your product and believe in your benefits, and that requires establishing trust.
Weinberg’s wrote Secrets in 1985 and I have purchased a half a dozen copies since it first came out, buying new ones when I wanted to re-read it and could not remember who I had lent it to last. It’s a great book. It’s now out as an E-book on Smashwords and well worth the $9.95. The print version has a nicer layout but all of the content except for his final list of rules (the last three pages) is in the E-Book. And you can’t grep dead trees so in some ways it’s more readable.