How committed are you?

Be committed. What’s the first thing you think when you think of commitment in the context of your business?  Without commitment in three particular areas of business, success is unlikely.

Commitment to succeeding in the business. What’s your backup plan if your business doesn’t prosper?  Some professionals (especially the risk-averse, like lawyers) need to have a backup plan to feel secure, but having an acceptable fallback can in some instances be a sign of serious trouble.

I recently spoke with a lawyer who commented that she was excited about opening her own practice and determined to make it work, but that if things didn’t go well, she could always go back to the job she’d left.  Plan B so permeated our conversation that I virtually guarantee she’ll be back at the job within a year. And that’s ok, except that she’ll return with a feeling of failure if she doesn’t recognize that she was never really committed to building her own business.

I don’t know a single person (especially over the last couple of years) who hasn’t wondered at least occasionally what if this doesn’t work… But having a clear fallback position makes it too easy to put that plan into action instead of executing the plan to make the business work. The reason is often simple:  Plan B is familiar and safe, which may not be the case with one’s own business or practice, especially during the start-up phase.

Let me be clear:  sometimes a business doesn’t work or a practice lacks the clients to survive, and you still have to pay the mortgage.  If that happens, adjust course.  You may need to take on some part-time work or even throw in the towel on the business.  But if you’re starting every week (or every day or every project) with Plan B in mind, you’ll end up with Plan B before you know it.

Commitment to business development. To get consistent results, you must be consistent with your business development efforts.

When I consult with a potential client who wants to bring in more business, I always ask questions to uncover not just what business development activities they’ve tried, but how consistently — and when a business is underperforming, consistency is always lacking.

Create a schedule of your activities, divided into daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly activity. Otherwise, you’re leaving it up to chance.  Even when you’ve developed a habit, a change in outside circumstances can undermine that habit, and you’ll never even notice unless you have a system in place.

One client wrote articles for publication every other month, but when the journal that published those articles went out of business, he neglected to put writing for publication on his task list, and guess what?  It just didn’t happen.  He searched out a couple of journals eager to publish his articles and added writing to his quarterly task list so it wouldn’t slip through the cracks again, and his stalled list of publications began growing again.  Checklists and schedules will help to keep activity consistent.

Commitment to clients. I have observed professionals who are so committed to growing their businesses that they focus almost solely on getting the next new client, leaving behind current clients.  Some professions mandate a minimum level of client service, but when’s the last time you felt good about receiving adequate service?

To succeed in business, make it part of your habit to deliver exceptional client service. That means providing the substantive service the client needs, plus providing it in a way that surpasses need.  For example, one of the top complaints about lawyers is that telephone calls go unreturned.  (I haven’t seen statistics, but I imagine unanswered emails are a growing area of dissatisfaction as well.)  Of course, you must respond in some way to your clients’ communications to provide adequate service.  Take adequate to excellent by setting a policy that you or someone on your staff will respond to every client communication within X amount of time, and then stick to that policy.

For ideas on crafting service that will delight your clients, read Seth Godin’s excellent book Purple Cow, New Edition: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable.

How committed are you? Are you willing to do what it takes to grow your business or your practice, applying a “no excuses” approach?

111 Ways to Streamline Your Time

111 Ways to Streamline Your Time:  An Inside View of Outlook® by Mary Scott

The author of 111 Ways to Streamline Your Time, Mary Scott, is a friend of mine, and just about every time we’d talk I’d learn something new about getting the most from Outlook®. I was thrilled when Mary shared that she’d decided to put the tips together into a book.  If you use Outlook®, you must pick this one up.

A few of my favorite tips (and note that although Mary’s focus is Outlook®, these tips can be adapted for any system):

  • Tip 2 (Add content from an email to a Contact): Relationship-building is easier when you’re able to remember information about your contacts and don’t have to fumble around with names and important dates.  Mary shows you easily how to copy something from an email — a spouse’s name, perhaps, or a favorite author — into the Contact record for easy retrieval.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have these reminders at your fingertips when you’re preparing to meet with a contact?
  • Tip 19 (AAA Rule:  Always Attach Attachments): Some systems (Gmail, for example) have safeguards to make sure you remembered to attach the file mentioned in your email — but typically only if you use some variation on the word “attach”.  Without that safeguard, it’s easy to forget the attachment (especially if you’re in a hurry), forcing you to spend extra time resending the email with the file.  Mary’s AAA Rule suggests attaching the file, then typing the email, and finally addressing it, thus eliminating the risk of hitting send and then realizing the mistake.  (Tip 21 is related and helpful — make addressing the email the last step of all messages to prevent premature sending.)
  • Tip 51 (Save Each Other Time) could revolutionize email communications. Mary points out simple time-saving ideas that we should all use in email, such as “Save the reader the time and frustration of trying to figure out what you want — indicate the action you want taken in the first lines of your message.  Don’t bury it in the content.  Don’t assume that everyone will read to the bottom of your message.”  (Emphasis mine.)
  • Tip 81 (Use Contacts for more than people): Mary suggests using contacts for static lists, information like clothing sizes and books to read, etc.  For example, Mary describes that one of her clients uses this approach to save packing lists for various kinds of trips, under “Contact” names like Packing List – Business, Packing List – Family, and Packing List – Skiing.  Save the relevant information in the Notes (or “white space”) section of the Contact record, and you’re ready to go.
  • Tip 104 (Recurring tasks) is a time-saver and memory aid. If you have tasks that recur on a regular basis (quarterly reports, for instance), set the task to recur on the appropriate basis.  Before this tip, I’d always run late (or worry that I had) in remembering to draft reports that are always due in mid-January and mid-July; now I set recurring tasks for January 1 and July 1 and I know I’m covered whether the due date is a little early or a little late in any given year.

Mary’s book is a must-purchase for every Outlook® user (especially since she specifically addresses both 2003 and 2007, so you never have to wonder how to adapt a particular tip to your system), and I strongly recommend it for everyone who’d like to make the most of their email/contact/task system, even if you don’t use Outlook®. While not all of the tips will transfer to other systems, Mary includes plenty of ideas and approaches that transfer easily to non-Outlook® products.

Meeting Client Expectations… Or Not

One of the top client complaints received by bar associations across the country has to do with lawyers’ failure to return telephone calls. I haven’t seen statistics, but I suspect that clients also complain about lawyers who fail to answer email.  Clients expect that their lawyer will communicate with them in a timely manner, and on the surface, just about all lawyers agree.  And the same is true for other service providers, including those who don’t have a professional oversight board of some sort.

But we’ve all had that annoying client. You know, the one who is constantly on the phone or sending yet another email with an unnecessary question or comment.  The one who is so insistent on knowing when a task will be completed that it may feel like you won’t have time to do the work unless you “ignore” the client for a while.  And even if you don’t have one of those clients, you’re probably still swimming in telephone calls and emails — we all are these days.

So, how do you deal with client expectations about communications? If you meet every expectation, you’ll add dramatically to your workload and you may worry that your clients will dictate how you operate your business; if you don’t meet expectations, you may find yourself on the wrong end of a complaint, or you may discover that dissatisfied clients are telling their friends and colleagues about your [perceived] poor service.

Have a conversation with your clients about communications at the time of engagement. The most dangerous expectations are those that go unexpressed.  If, for example, a client is expecting a weekly check-in and you don’t realize that, it’s probably a safe bet that the client will quickly feel dissatisfied and either start clamoring for attention or silently smoldering.  If you ask what the client expects, you’ll have an opportunity to meet that expectation.

And, you may choose not to meet the client’s expectations. When there’s nothing pressing, for instance, you may not communicate with the client for some period of time.  If you bill based on time, unnecessary communications will run up your client’s bill (perhaps creating greater dissatisfaction), and if you use a flat fee arrangement, unnecessary communications can eviscerate your profit.

When you discuss expectations, you can respond to what your client expects by sharing your own expectations. Some clients will be satisfied when they understand when and why you communicate (especially if you agree to communicate in the manner your client prefers), some may negotiate with you in some way, and some may choose not to hire you.  Regardless of the outcome, both of you will come out ahead for having had the conversation.