Lessons from 2010

I spend some time at the end of each year planning for the next, and the kickoff is a year in review. In the process, I look at what went well, what didn’t go well, what’s changed for me and within me.  I picked up on 5 key discoveries for 2010.

  1. Turn off the email notifications.  All of them. I haven’t had a desktop email notification in years, but I never removed it from my BlackBerry.  Given the volume of email I receive, that means my phone was blinking read (“Urgent! Urgent!”) more often than not.  In the Fall, I attended a conference and wanted to concentrate, so I turned off the email notification blink.  I felt less harried right away, which I hadn’t expected.If I’m expecting a critical email, I switch back until it’s arrived, and I do get notified on text messages, which tend to be more pressing.Leaving the notification off under ordinary circumstances has made a huge difference in my day-to-day Pavlovian wear and tear.  Try it.  You won’t be sorry.  (Or if you are, you can switch back.  Seriously, it’s worth a try.
  2. It’s important to step outside your comfort zone. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference as a sponsor, which meant that I had to step outside my ordinary introvert comfort zone and be “on”, engaging people and chatting seemingly through the whole conference instead of taking a few minutes to regroup.  It was exhausting… And exhilarating. (And a big “HELLO!” to everyone who’s reading this after meeting me at the conference!)I’m still an introvert, but I learned that there’s a real benefit to trying out another way of experiencing the world. Business benefit, yes, but personal as well.  What would be a step out of your comfort zone?  Try it on for size. Again, you can always switch back.
  3. Most email isn’t as important as you might believe. As some of you remember, I took a sabbatical over the summer to handle some personal business.  Even my BlackBerry didn’t work in some of the areas where I was spending time, and I worried about being out of touch for (gasp!) 4-6 hours during the business day.  The world didn’t end.  I continued to work with my clients, book new speaking gigs, and meet and begin work with new clients.I noticed that when I’d return to the computer, about 80% of my email would be unnecessary. (This matches the Pareto Principle, of course.)  I’d delete that 80% quickly and move on to the meat, and life continued to run just as smoothly as ever.  I started trimming the 80%, but even though I now receive less email, I notice that the 80/20 rule still applies.  Knowing that makes clearing my inbox easier than ever.  What can you trim?
  4. Sometimes, you just goof up.  Admit it and deal. This one is embarrassing.  I had a 90-minute speaking engagement in September.  I was sharing information that I knew would help the audience, and it was a good group, with lots of participation even though we were meeting at 8 AM on a cold, rainy morning.  I’d prepared and rehearsed, and I had my presentation down cold.  It wasn’t until people started leaving that I realized that I’d goofed up — in a big way — and planned to finish after 2 hours instead of 90 minutes.  Oh, did I mention that this was a time management presentation?  (I told you it was embarrassing.)I’d love to pretend that I never make a mistake, but too many people could call me out on that. I always take my mistakes seriously — what can I learn, how can I adjust to avoid this happening again, and what can I do to correct the problem? — but there’s a difference between taking them seriously and taking myself so seriously that the only option is self-castigation.  During the presentation, I admitted my mistake (not much of a chance of hiding this one, y’know?) and wrapped up quickly… And then I went to another speaking engagement and gave one of the best presentations I ever have, using a timer that counted down to zero rather than up to the time I was allotted.Many professionals I’ve met hold themselves to a high standard that doesn’t allow for mistakes. But mistakes happen anyway.  Find the middle ground that allows you to respond appropriately to mistakes, get to the heart of what happened and change it, and then move on.
  5. Less input may generate more creative output. Earlier this year, I discovered an article that reported that in 2008:  households in the United States consumed a mind-boggling total of 3.6 zettabytes of information and 10,845 trillion words in 2008.  That’s a daily average of 33.8 gigabytes of information and 100,564 words per person.  Put another way, it’s the equivalent of covering the continental United States and Alaska in a 7-foot high stack of Dan Brown novels.Does anybody think we’re consuming less now?I’m an incorrigible reader, and people fascinate me, so I love Twitter and Facebook and surfing in general, not to mention my hard copy reading and even TV and radio. And I’ve noticed that it’s tough for me to come up with creative ideas for my clients or myself when I’m taking in so much information.  There’s no time for ideas to germinate.Have you ever been so nervous while speaking that you keep breathing in but you don’t exhale?  That’s what a lot of us are unintentionally doing with information.  We take in more and more, but we don’t allow ourselves the luxury of letting ideas roll around and transform and spark.  Try taking in less information, at least for a time, and see what happens. Perhaps (like me) you’ll find yourself generative creative ideas that would have been crowded out.

What have you learned this year? I’d love to know.

What if WikiLeaks leaked about you?

I read a Forbes article about WikiLeaks last week while waiting for a delayed flight. The release of diplomatic cables has caused much embarrassment, both because of unpalatable (though apparently legal) directives and thanks to candid assessments of diplomats and leaders in other countries.

WikiLeaks is transforming the era of transparency in operations to one of forced transparency, and that got me thinking. Back when I was practicing law, I often heard friends and colleagues complaining about their clients.  “Business would be great if it weren’t for the clients!”

Some complaints were good-natured; others were real complaints about overly demanding, rude, difficult clients. I hear similar complaints at times from my clients now.

We’ve all heard the anecdotes about service providers who’ve complained about their clients on Facebook, and that’s just stupid. That’s a self-inflicted wound.  I honestly find it a little tough to feel bad for someone who doesn’t know not to whine about clients (or just about anyone else, really) on the Internet.  But you don’t do that… Right?

But imagine if someone intercepted a handwritten note attached to a file, “Mr. Z is being obnoxious about the bill again — pls call him.” (Insert your own complaint here.)  And I started thinking (as you should), what if Wiki leaked that?  The chances are remote at best, that private communications within a small organization would ever be viewed outside that organization… But what if it happened?

Here’s the real issue:  what we say tends to take on a certain power and truth in our thoughts and is expressed in our actions. I don’t mean that in some touchy-feely, weird way.  Think about this:  if you get all incensed thinking about how Client X is always calling to ask questions you’ve already answered and then Client X calls you again, aren’t you more likely to be frustrated with that call?

Professionals don’t allow that frustration to show, but when words, thoughts, and actions are all aligned, a belief is solidified. And when a belief exists, we tend to selectively see evidence that supports that belief.  We don’t intend to, necessarily, but we tend to see what we expect to see.  That, in turn, can create a self-perpetuating cycle of dissatisfaction.

Consider how you usually think and talk about your clients. Do you enjoy the people who engage you?  If not, ask yourself why.

  • Perhaps you’ve elected to ignore warning signs that a potential client will be difficult. The truth is, difficult clients do exist, and they can lead to headaches and even ethical or legal complaints against you.  Learn the signs of a difficult client so you can make a conscious decision about whether you want to work with a particular person, and consider that a difficult client can cost far more than the income he or she may bring.
  • Perhaps you’re working harder than you’d like or with fewer resources than you’d like, and stress is showing up as frustration with clients. If this is the case, figure it out and fix the problem.  Now.  You’ll be happier, your clients will likely be happier, and you’ll probably do better.
  • Perhaps you’ve simply fallen into a habit. It’s sometimes easy to be negative.  If you notice that you’ve dropped into a destructive view of your clients or your practice, call a time-out and focus on why you do what you do.  Especially in a period of prolonged stress (as we’ve experienced in this long recession), you may need to reconnect with your purpose more frequently.

Check your words and thoughts about your clients. There’s no doubt that clients can be frustrating, simply because human beings can be frustrating.  But your success, and your clients’ success in your work together, depends on your ability to address your frustration when it’s well-placed and to set it aside when it isn’t well-placed.

So, the next time you catch yourself grousing about a client, ask yourself:  What if WikiLeaks leaked that?

Educate Them!

One of my favorite self-care activities is getting a massage. I tend to tighten my shoulders when I’m working intently, and despite stretching, the end of a major project always finds me feeling as if there’s a hot spear piercing my left shoulder.

A friend recently told me about a chain of stores that offer inexpensive massages, and I’ve noticed a proliferation of clinic signs promising slashed prices. I’ve been sticking with my favorite massage therapist because she’s fantastic and I like her tremendously…  But those signs kept showing up, and I found myself wondering if perhaps I should check out cheaper massage options and save some money.  But I wondered if the massage would be as effective and relaxing.  Would I save money, or would I waste it?

I tell you this story not to discuss my massage habits, but because this is the thought process that your clients may go through when they become aware of another service provider who charges less. It’s human nature, especially when times are tight, to notice and to consider investigating a deal.  But we all know that a “deal” isn’t always a deal.

How can you help your clients distinguish a deal from a sub-optimal service?

Educate your clients. While I was mulling massage options, I received a newsletter from my favorite spa that offered a series of questions to ask a reduced-price competitor, inquiring about important massage aspects such as the training/experience of the therapists and the atmosphere in which the services are performed.  The questions qualify the preferred provider — in this instance, the spa — as the ideal, but they’d also allow me to vet competitors to see whether another option might be a good deal.

WHAT?  Tell potential clients that someone else is offering a good deal?  Why would you do that? When you give candid information that may cut against your economic interest, clients recognize it, and it tends to raise your credibility.  When your credibility goes up, it becomes more likely that they’ll trust you when you tell them that in situation A, it’s fine to use a cut-rate provider, but in situation B, they’ll come out ahead by paying more and working with you.  And when you gain client trust, all manner of good things begin to happen.

To educate your clients and potential client market in this way, take these steps:

  1. Who are your competitors?  Who offers the same services to meet the same needs (your direct competitors) and who offers different services to meet the same needs (your indirect competitors)?  To continue the massage example, other massage therapists are the spa’s direct competitors.  Yoga studios, gyms, aromatherapy solutions, and many other modalities can credibly claim to help with physical tension that results from stress, and those other service providers are indirect competitors.
  2. How are you different from your direct competitors?  Why is massage better than yoga for addressing stress-induced tightness and pain?  Why should a business planning to incorporate hire you rather than using LegalZoom?
  3. Once you’ve identified what sets you apart, decide how you can communicate that to your potential clients.  Maybe it’s a newsletter, like my favorite spa sent.  Or you might write an article that compares and contrasts your services with others.  Perhaps you’ll weave it into conversation.

However you communicate your distinguishing factors, make sure you provide both emotional and rational distinctions. You have more experience (rational), which means that you can give clear guidance about a convoluted situation (emotional).  Because you’ve been through an experience like your client’s (emotional), you’re able to identify the steps that will have the biggest impact for your client (rational).

Instead of worrying about competition, educate your clients and turn obstacles into opportunity.

Threat or opportunity? It’s all about perspective

Most businesses do some sort of year-end review and lay plans for the next year. Many client-based businesses slow down a bit this time of year, and you have two choices:  coast along, or use the downtime to your advantage.  Surely you can guess which approach I’d advise!

When you sit down with pen and paper or cozy up with your computer, what’s the best way to look at where you’ve been this year and where you’d like to go next? Or, for those of you who are new in business, what should you be considering as you lay your plans?

You may have heard of a SWOT analysis, which stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. SWOT analysis is taught in business schools and elsewhere as a model to distinguish your business from competitors.  It’s a helpful model, but it’s never felt like a fit to me.

I don’t find “threat” to be a helpful concept — and it isn’t because I’m an overly optimistic Pollyanna who never sees a threat. Certainly, there are situations and circumstances out there that can pose a challenge to your business, some of which can be fatal if they’re ignored.  But focusing on “threat”, in my experience, tends to call forth a defensive response, which sets up a reactive, rather than a creative, approach.

A more powerful perspective recognizes that where an obstacle exists, there’s almost always an opportunity. Sometimes it’s exploiting a particular market condition or a news story that’s put negative focus on something you or your clients are doing.  That’s an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade, meaning that the opportunity isn’t one you would necessarily seek out under other circumstances.

But sometimes spotting an obstacle leads you to recognize an opportunity that you would have dismissed as a problem. A few months ago, I was talking with a lawyer whose practice centers on family law and who wanted to work with a certain slice of the celebrity market.  She’d identified a big obstacle:  she wasn’t a part of the celebrity lawyer crowd.  She described a group of lawyers known to one another and to that market, and even though she had many celebrity contacts, she was an outsider to that world.  And there’s the opportunity.  Much as politicians campaign on having the “outside the beltway” perspective, she could position herself as someone who wouldn’t have the same old, same old approach already known to others in the crowd.  She could use her outsider status as a positive differentiation.  Do you see it?  Obstacle… Opportunity.

Another example:  I worked with a consultant whose business was exploding at the seams. She had a unique process to solve a particular problem, and she had a deep connection to the community of people who were struggling with the problem.  Obstacle: not enough time and energy to work with the clients beating down her door.  Opportunity: she was able to raise her fees so that she could work with fewer clients one-on-one, and she certified some associate consultants in her process, so clients who didn’t want to pay her new fees could still work with someone she’d personally trained to apply her unique process.  The result?  She continues to serve a large community and to help them solve their problems, but she now does so in a way that provides more income without draining her energy.

What’s your biggest obstacle? You know, the one that keeps you up at night.  The one that you find yourself worrying about even when you didn’t intend to think about business.

Turn that obstacle on its head.  Look for the (as yet) unappreciated opportunity that exists within it. Sometimes it’s difficult to see the opportunity if you’re too close, so ask for help from creative colleagues.  Or call on me.  Opportunity-spotting is one of my favorite things to do, and I’d be delighted to help.