• 28Feb

    badhireFor those of you are consultants or sole practitioners, you understand the need to balance your workload in order to provide superior customer service without stretching yourself too thin. I have run a “virtual agency” for a number of years – that means I have a database of contacts whom I can call on in a pinch to help with a last-minute client request or a new contract. The advantage of the virtual agency model is that you can scale your operation without maintaining unnecessary staff or overhead. And the clients still get your expertise instead of a handoff to a junior person; a failing I have identified with most large agencies who use the “bait and switch,” bringing in the senior team to close the contract and then the client never sees them again. Of course the challenge of consulting, or any business, is that you have to plan your workload to make best use of available resources.

    That’s why I was frustrated this week by a flurry of new business activity that failed to pan out. I think it was a combination of miscommunication and expectations on both side. At the start of the week I had three new contracts pending; verbal agreements with commitments like “we are ready to go and need you now!” By the end of the week two of the three contracts faded away, despite the verbal commitments and the signing of NDAs. It seems the prospects’ priorities and budgets changed. I guess a handshake on a deal isn’t worth what it used to be.

    My dilemma, or course, is that I had to find the resources to support the new work, which as a good consultant I did before committing to the contracts. Now I have the resources lined up and no work. It would be a bigger problem if I had staff waiting idle in the wings rather than other consultants awaiting instructions. But I still find it irksome that experienced executives from profitable companies can’t manage their operations more effectively. It’s not as though they are asking for a quote on a car or an estimate on a construction job – not once they have looked you in the eye and said “you’re hired.” If you have already written the proposal, given your best advice up front, and received a commitment from the prospect, there should be no question about moving forward.

    Consultants aren’t protected by the same labor laws as employees, and there is always an element of risk with being self-employed. I have been stiffed by a client or two in the past 20 years, and often have had to renegotiate contracts to accommodate changing client needs and budgets. It’s never pleasant, but it’s a necessary part of consulting.

    What can you do to protect yourself? Here are some thoughts based on my experience:

    1. Discount for cash up front. If you need to close a deal, cash is king. I usually ask for a retainer when I take on a new client. If they are willing to put their cash down up front, then I know they are serious. And if they are willing to show me the money, then I am usually willing to give them a break and show them the discount. It’s a good way to set the ground rules and cement the relationship.

    2. It’s all about expectation setting. You need to make sure the client knows what they are buying, which is not as obvious as it sounds. Provide a list of deliverables and, if you can, a timeline for delivery. Your best bet is to take the guesswork our of the contract, and they will commit.

    3. “Pay me for process, pay me for results.” This is an adage that was passed on to me by one of my first clients, and I continue to live by it. You can pay me for process, like keeping timesheets and activity reports, or you can pay me to deliver the goods. If I can focus on the objective, you get more value in the end. Keep your eye on the prize and don’t let process get in the way.

    4. Set your terms up front. I always give my clients an escape clause. Most agencies I have worked with use 30-day termination clauses in their contracts, and I find that makes the uninitiated nervous. Be willing to compromise. Offer 10-day or 15-day out so they don’t feel trapped.

    5. Know when to dump a bad client. The difference between hiring staff and hiring a consultant is like the difference between marriage and dating. If you hire staff to deal with your problem, it’s a much bigger commitment, since most staffers cost 150% percent of their salary when you add in benefits and overhead. By comparison, consultants are a cheap date, and if it’s a bad date, know enough to walk away. If you aren’t getting what you need or there is something that doesn’t feel right, it’s better to cut and run than hope it’s going to get better.

    6. Stand up for yourself. Okay, consultants are easy targets. They are sole practitioners; hired guns with only expertise to sell. So when a client decides to stiff you and complains you didn’t deliver, it’s time to look inside and ask yourself, “is this a valid complaint, or are you getting stiffed?” Consultants seem to be fair game for unscrupulous companies who just don’t want to pay. You don’t have to take it. There are law firms our there that will work for you on contingency. I recall a client many years ago who claimed they were underserviced and wouldn’t pay. I had nothing to lose so I found a lawyer to sue them (out of state) and since my complaint held up an IPO, they paid at least two-thirds of what they owed, which was better than nothing. The bottom line was they expected me, as a consultant, to give up and go away. Don’t.

    It would be nice to think that all clients are willing to honor their obligations on a handshake. They often don’t. So learn to protect yourself with solid contracts and well-defined deliverables and business practices that put you in control. Just because you choose to maintain a small business doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mighty.

    Share

    Tags: , , , , ,

  • 21Feb

    A few months ago I cited a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “Small Change” where he noted that Twitter and social media is really a “weak-tie” phenomenon and that it lacks the close connection required to promote a strong action or reaction. As Gladwell states it, “The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

    Then we have a story last week from TechCrunch of a young Egyptian man who is so grateful for the role that social media played in January 25th revolution, he named his daughter Facebook.

    According to Al-Ahram (one of the most popular newspapers in Egypt) a twenty-something Egyptian man has named his first born daughter “Facebook” in tribute to the role the social media service played in organizing the protests in Tahrir Square and beyond.

    Helmed by now-famous Googler Wael Ghonim, the “We Are Khaled Said” Facebook page showed up within 5 days of Said’s death in June and served as a hub for dissidence against Egyptian police brutality as well as a way to disseminate logistical information about the escalating anti-government protests until Mubarak’s resignation. Other activist pages like one actually called “Tahrir Square” cropped up shortly afterward.

    Apparently the revolution will be Tweeted, but does that mean Gladwell may have been wrong about the ability of social media to effect revolutionary change?

    According to the TechCrunch story, there are five million Facebook users in Egypt and growing, and there are more than 32,000 Facebook groups and 14,000 pages created after January 25th. And Wael Ghonim even thanked Mark Zuckerberg on CNN. In fact, one of the reasons it took so long for the Hosni Mubarak government to understand the gravity of the uprising was because they missed the cues that led to this revolution’; they were ignoring the chatter on Facebook and elsewhere.

    Apparently, the new regime has learned from the mistakes of the old. Apparently the new military regime is using Facebook to reach Egyptian youth, and the Ministry of Interior has set up multiple pages to try to repair the image of the state police.

    The impact of social media did help galvanize the Egyptian protesters. It gave them a common location to air their views and share information. However, as one of the TechCrunch commenters who actually was in Tahrir Square noted, “social media exist largely as a means to manufacture consent.” When the government blocked access to the Internet, cut off cellular service, and silenced media coverage, the people took to the streets to find out what was happening. That’s when the revolution really took hold, because people were connecting in a personal way using “Streetbook,” face-to-face interaction. So should we think of the Egyptian revolution as a gigantic flash mob with Molotov cocktails?

    I tend to agree that social media is a place to forge consensus, whether it’s to protest a dictatorial government, or back a brand. People gravitate to things they are passionate about online, and they share that passion with their friends. That’s what makes social media so powerful.

    Share

    Tags: , , , , ,

  • 13Feb

    prisonertheI always find inspiration from the TED conference presentations. One of the videos they highlighted this past week was Johanna Blakley, Deputy Director of the Norman Lear Center, talking about “Social media and the end of gender.” This is an interesting presentation for a number of reasons. First, I like the way she deconstructs demographics as a way to measure response. For too long, marketing professionals have been pigeon-holing their audience, their target market, by defining them by such stereotypes as age, gender, race, and income. One size does not fit all. (Whenever I think of the broad assumptions that marketers make about me I flash on Patrick McGoohan from the old series “The Prisoner” shouting, “I am not a number, I am a free man!”)

    Many of the points Blakley shares are poignant, but the thing I really like about this presentation is that is shows how social media can be truly harnessed as a tool to communicate with others of like interest. It’s not about how old you are or how much you earn, but where your passion lies that matters. Social media allows you to express that, and it allows you to connect with others (including companies) that share that passion. Social media offers a unique opportunity to talk to others who have similar interests or needs or concerns, and that is the real power of social media for marketers. It’s also the reason why you have to engage in conversation rather than shout about your wares.

    I also was intrigued by Blakley’s observation that women are more active on social media and may be easier to target. That’s no surprise, frankly. I observe how my wife has taken to Facebook as a means to share insights about kids, politics, local happenings, you name it. She strikes me as the typical Facebook user, and she uses it as an online back fence over which she can gossip with her friends, share her views, and catch up with old buddies. Us guys, who speak in monosyllabic grunts, aren’t driven by the same motivators.

    So what does this tell us as marketers. It tells us to micro-target. Think about unique areas of interest and not demographics. We can now target prospective clients and customers based on their areas of need and interest, which is much more relevant than anything gleaned from demographics. It’s time to engage.

     

    Share

    Tags: , ,

  • 07Feb

    I have been working with all my clients lately to help them expand their social media strategy. For some, like Lifehouse, a non-profit group that I do some pro bono work for here in the Bay Area, it’s really a matter of developing a strategy and finding the in-house resources to execute the strategy. Their target audience is mostly regional, and they are working to build a following to promote their work with people with developmental disabilities, and to promote their Great Chefs and Wineries event in April, which makes Facebook and Twitter logical channels to build a following. For other clients, like Market Rates Insight, which offers deposit rate research to banks and credit unions, we have developed a more a more targeted approach, blogging about research findings and bank rate trends to build awareness in the banking community and create content to feed channels on LinkedIn, Banking Innovation, Twitter, and the like.

    But no matter what the strategy, it amazes me that I still run into resistance from senior management about why they don’t want to deal with social media. That’s why I was inspired by a recent guest post on Marketing Profs’ Daily Fix by Chester Frazier of Definition Systems offering a set of common excuses for NOT using social media. I have heard all of these, and others:

    1. Our target audience isn’t on Facebook or Twitter. Chester’s point is that clients think it’s a demographic issue and boomers clueless-excusesdon’t hang out online. Definitely false. But more to the point, there are special forums on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere that appeal to every niche and market. You just have to find the right conversation and join in.

    2. Facebook is a time-waster for staff. One of my clients, Actiance (formerly FaceTime Communications), specializes in securing Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, not because their customers are worried about employees wasting time, but because they recognize that people want to connect through these channels, including customers. The new generation of customers are communicating using social media, and you should find ways to encourage them to harness these new marketing channels.

    3. We tried it and it didn’t work. It’s like any other marketing program, you have to experiment and refine your strategy, then measure the results. Most companies social media strategies fail because they forget that it’s about being social, it’s about conversation, it’s not about a one-way blast saying “buy my product.” (And it still amazes me that I get Twitter requests from businesses that don’t post anything except the praises of their multi-level marketing scheme or their latest health product.)

    4. We are too busy. I hear that a lot. Does this mean you are too busy to talk to potential customers about what you do? You should be able to build social media into your day-to-day operations, particularly if you are conducting business via the web. It’s like saying you are too busy to market your business.

    5. We don’t have the staff. Can we outsource it? I hear this one a lot. Executives are busy people and don’t have the time, or want to take the time, to engage with potential customers. People want to talk to you, not a shill. You can’t outsource authenticity. And you can’t outsource expertise. I can help my clients interpret and articulate their opinions and expertise, but no one wants my opinion. They want to talk to the expert directly, and if you demonstrate your expertise, they will engage with you looking for more. That’s how you build your business.

    So no matter what your business, you can benefit from social media. You just need to have a strategy that dovetails with your marketing program, then focus on execution and measuring the results. Don’t get sidetracked by excuses. Get out there and experiment. You’ll be pleased with the results.

    Share

    Tags: , , , , , ,

   

Recent Comments

  • Having utilized a press release submission to promote many o...
  • Thanks Tom! I agree with your "time and place" assessment an...
  • Point taken, Marc. I guess over the years I started assuming...
  • You're absolutely right...kind of. Tom, my firm -- Strate...
  • Hi, Jennifer: In my business we use analyst quotes as indep...