Freelance Projects: Cover Legal Bases and Manage Expectations

The number of Freelance professionals working in the U.S. continues to increase. According to a 2017 survey jointly conducted by Upwork, the online marketplace that connects prospective employers with Freelance professionals in search of project work and The Freelancers Union, a not-for-profit organization that provides advocacy and health insurance to Freelance workers, 36% of the U.S. labor force derives at least some portion of annual income from Freelance work assignments.  The survey authors predict that by 2024, the percentage of Freelance workers in the U.S. will grow to include 50% of adults employed full-time.

1099 or W2?

If your organization plans to increase staffing, make it a priority to understand worker classification rules.  The Internal Revenue Service and state Departments of Revenue are watching and you don’t want to run afoul of the law.  There are three factors that help employers determine whether their staffing plan points to hiring a Freelance contract worker who will receive a 1099 form in January, or a part-time or full-time employee who will receive a W2 form in January.  If the answer to one or more of the questions below is yes, your new hire would be classified as a Freelance contractor.

1. Is there an expectation that the worker has the right to simultaneously provide  similar services for other organizations?

  • Does the worker have a business website and/or social media accounts
  • Does the worker have a business bank account
  • Does the worker have his/her own business cards and other marketing materials
  • Did the worker form a legal entity for his/her business (LLC or corporation)
  • Can the worker choose when and where the work is performed

2. Does the worker use his/her own equipment and office supplies when at work?

3. Must the worker invoice your organization to receive payment for services rendered?

Project specs in writing

Whether expressed in a formal contract or in an email, a smart Freelancer will commit to writing all duties that a client requests.  The project deadline, milestones and total fee should also be included.

Copyright exception

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, the general rule is that the person who creates a work is its legal author and owner.  The exception to that rule is “work made for hire,” i.e., a creative project or work assignment that is specially commissioned by the hiring company and produced by a non-employee.  When project work qualifies as a work made for hire the commissioning party, i.e. the company, is considered to be the work’s author and legal owner.

It’s worthwhile to include in any Freelance work contract a clause that describes the work produced for the company by the Freelancer as work made for hire, to make clear the ownership of any text, body of work, or images produced by the Freelancer.

Project payment schedule

The client and the Freelancer will discuss and agree to the project fee and its format, whether flat fee or hourly rate.  Especially in a flat fee agreement, clients are often asked to pay the Freelancer some portion of the fee in advance of beginning the project work.  When that advance is paid, it is expected that the Freelancer will immediately begin the project work.

Interim payments may be tied to the achievement of agreed-upon project milestones, or to an agreed-upon timetable.  Final payment is made at the conclusion of the project, typically within 30 days of completion.

The Freelancer should specify if credit card payments are accepted, or if checks are preferred.  How the check should be made out must be specified and tax ID information must be provided when the amount of the project will reach or exceed $600, per IRS rules.

To sum up, the Freelancer will draw up a contract that will include all important points of the work agreement. Ideally, the contract that will be signed by employer and Freelancer and each will retain a copy (but an email will suffice in most cases). 

  • Duties for which the Freelancer will be responsible
  • Project milestones
  • Project deadline
  • Work made for hire agreement
  • Project fee total amount and the payment schedule

The employer will send to the Freelancer a W9 form, which will provide the information necessary to create the 1099–MISC form that is required when payments to the Freelancer will reach or exceed $600 in a given year.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Perry Mason (CBS-TV Season 1, Episode 9, November 16, 1957) l-r Raymond Burr (Attorney Perry Mason), Pierre Watkin (Judge Keetley), Carol Leigh (Veronica Dale)

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Storytelling Made Simple

What would be useful for my audience to learn and how can I package this lesson or bit of information in a compelling story format?“—Travis Bernard, content marketing guru at TechCrunch, the leading technology industry blog based in San Francisco, CA

Whaddaya say we learn how to put together a good story for your marketing content? Some people are natural storytellers and others aren’t, but it’s always useful to develop and hone the art of storytelling when one is a public speaker and that includes Freelancers, business owners and sales professionals who must speak with prospective clients to generate sales or billable hours.  Your story need not be long and elaborate.  In fact, a concise narrative will be more memorable and impactful.

Your content marketing story will describe a client experience journey.  The story will feature three main characters—the hero, the villain and the mentor.  The story will have a beginning, middle and end.  A call-to-action, when you encourage your content reader to act on the information that you’ve shared, will be the story’s epilogue.

The hero of the story will have a problem to solve or avoid, a challenge to overcome, and that is the goal.  The hero will be waylaid or deceived by the villain, that is, an obstacle that is preventing him/her from achieving the goal.  The hero must seek knowledge and guidance from a mentor during the journey and that is your role, storyteller friend.

Act I is when the hero acknowledges that there is a problem to solve.  There is a goal to achieve and an effective solution will be necessary.

Act II will describe the magnitude of the problem and the failures of various less than stellar solutions that the hero has tried and discarded (homegrown remedies or competitive products).

Act III is where you come in, the mentor who helps the hero make sense of the possible solutions and explains how your product or service can resolve the matter.  The hero agrees to adopt your product or service and the problem is resolved.  The hero looks like a genius to his/her superiors and colleagues.

The Epilogue features the call-to-action, when you show the content reader how to obtain an effective solution for his/her goal, a solution that will overcome the challenge and make the content reader look like a hero to the higher-ups.

Be advised that the hero of the content story is never the product or service.  The hero of the story is the protagonist, s/he who takes action and moves the journey forward to its triumphant conclusion.  The client is always the hero of the story.  You, the storyteller and possessor of expertise, serve as a mentor, to ensure that the hero will prevail and achieve the goal.  Your product or service supports the hero by overcoming the challenge and enabling achievement of the goal.

The purpose of your content/ story is to persuade the reader to act upon the information that you’ve delivered.  Integral to persuading the reader is to build trust in you as a mentor/ expert and confidence in the solutions that you recommend and provide. You may be able to persuade content readers to give your post a Like, or share it with others.  The ultimate validation is when content readers are so confident in your proposed solution that they click through to your website shopping cart or contact you to ask questions about how you might handle a project.

Finally, you’ll need a specific story to tell (and eventually, you’ll have two or three more). Without naming names, your content/ story will the based on a client who has successfully used your product or service.  If you will tell your company’s brand story to promote awareness, your content story will illustrate why company founders were motivated to form the venture and include mention of the mission, values and guiding principles.

Client experience journey content stories, or your company’s brand story, can be included in your blog, social media posts, white papers, videos and so on. You’re sure to find that they help prospects envision their own circumstances and how your products or services can be useful.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Portrait of Clementina Maude (circa 1862) taken by her mother, Lady Clementina Hawarden (Viscountess Hawarden of England, 1822-1865)

Content Marketing Survey Findings

In 2016 the PA based marketing services company Clutch surveyed 300+ producers of online B2B content to obtain insight into how readers find, engage with and act on digital business-themed content.

The Clutch Content Marketing Survey 2016 interviewed 300+ expert content marketing writers from across the U.S. to determine how those who produce B2B content can most effectively create, publish and promote content for their organizations.  Key findings were:

  • 88% of online B2B content consumers read business content at least once a week
  • 45% of online B2B content consumers read content to stay current with trends in their respective industries
  • 20% of online B2B content readers use content to help make decisions about whether to purchase products or services
  • 45% of online B2B content consumers read about technology, 24% read about small
    business and 21% read about workplace/ HR topics
  • 87% of online B2B content readers visit search engines to look for business content
  • 85% of online B2B content readers commonly find business content on social media

Robert Rose, Chief Strategy Officer at the Content Marketing Institute in New York City, emphasizes that “Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable information to attract, acquire and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience, with the objective of driving profitable customer action.” In other words, the goal of your content marketing posts, videos, podcasts and images should be to develop a relationship with your customers, using relevant content to win them over.

main goals for content marketing

Furthermore, the expert content marketers surveyed advised that target audience personas are the most important attributes to consider when developing your content marketing strategy. “Most businesses have an idea about their audience and how it is segmented but, when it comes to taking those audiences into a content marketing strategy, they often flounder,” said Quinn Whissen, Marketing Director at Vertical Measures, a content marketing agency in Phoenix, AZ.

types of content enterprise companies create most frequently

Although challenging, clearly identifying and defining target audience personas is the foundation of an effective content strategy.  Understanding who will read the content determines the information to include and the best platforms for presentation.

content that performs best

Content marketing can be an effective tool for creating brand awareness and generating leads that convert to sales or billable hours, but realize also that it can generate benefits that go beyond a page one article ranking in Google or driving traffic to your website. Consider how content might help your organization to meet key business objectives.  How can your content increase sales?”

HubSpot, a marketing services firm based near Boston, MA, found that the more marketing content a potential customer reads on the company website, the more likely s/he is to buy their software.  Jeffrey Vocell, Senior Manager of Product Marketing, reports that HubSpot follows up with a customized email after a user reads three or four articles.

Metrics matter

  • Expert content marketing writers prioritize their brand story, mission statement and content types when creating their content strategy
  • 49% say that brand awareness is their main goal for content marketing
  • Research/original data, infographics, product reviews and blog posts are the most effective types of content
  • Metrics that reflect sales (32%), content readership (29%) and lead generation (29%) are more important than content sharing metrics (10%)
  • Paid advertisements outperform organic efforts when promoting and distributing content

content marketing metrics

Survey findings yield three core recommendations for content marketing:

  1. Tailor all marketing content to specific audiences.  First identify the different reader personas, then create content that matches their needs, interests, aspirations and behaviors.
  2. Identify the business goals you aim to achieve and consider how your content can enable that. For example, if you want to obtain more links back to your website, be sure to generate research/original data, infographics, product reviews, videos, blog posts and case studies.
  3. Spend less money on content creation and more on distribution.  Creating high-quality content is useless if you don’t dedicate enough effort or resources to getting it in front of your target audience.  If you can’t afford paid advertising, focus on media outreach, such as traditional journalists and influencers.

tactics used to distribute content

Regarding the most effective content distribution methods, the survey found that expert content marketers most often use paid advertisements  including pay-per-click (71%), organic social media (70%) and traditional marketing channels (69%), i.e. print media, TV, radio and direct mail.

Distribution and promotion of the content must be customized to the target audience.  For example, “If content distribution and promotion is done for recent college graduates, it has completely different channels and focuses, compared to content aimed at executives,” explains Andrea Fryrear, Chief Content Officer at Fox Content of Boulder, CO.

Finally, remember that content marketing can deliver benefits to your company that go beyond achieving a page one Google listing for an article you’ve posted or driving traffic to your website. “We don’t simply want to have an impact on marketing, but rather on the entire business unit within that organization,” said Chad Pollitt, Vice President of Audience at Relevance, an online content marketing publication based in MD.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Vaudeville and film star W.C. Fields as a carnival sideshow barker in Two Flaming Youths (Paramount Pictures, 1927)

Negotiate Your Way into Healthy Cash-Flow

Lovely summer is here, generously rewarding us with warm breezes, long days and abundant sunshine.  Summer gives us many gifts but unfortunately, a generous amount of billable hours may not be one of them.  Two possible solutions to the impasse are to step up your networking activity starting in early spring, to help yourself meet and connect with potential clients who are in hiring mode and to let family, friends and referral sources know that you’re looking for projects.  Don’t be shy!

As a self-employed professional, you are the captain of your ship and it is your responsibility to take all reasonable measures to improve your financial position.  Your survival depends on it.  Smart marketing and prudent financial management are the foundation of a successful enterprise.

The most critical aspect of financial management for Freelance consultants and small business owners is to collect accounts receivable as quickly as possible, so that adequate cash-flow is maintained and accounts payable, employees and subcontractors can be paid on time.  Regarding your accounts receivable, I recommend that you take the following actions to encourage on-time payments:

  1. During the project specs discussion propose a payment schedule, perhaps tied to the timing and achievement of certain project milestones.
  2. Request a down payment of 20% – 35% of the total project fee and unless you’ve previously worked with the client, don’t start the project work until it is in hand.
  3. Invoice according to the agreed-upon payment schedule.

I cannot overstate the importance of these three actions.  Accountants estimate that in a given year, 5% – 10% of professional services providers’ invoices will be uncollectible.  The client is not always entirely at fault.  Freelancers must demonstrate that we intend to get paid and that’s done by being serious about the project payment schedule, requiring a project fee down payment and on-time invoicing.

Another helpful tactic is to make money by saving money.  Examining your accounts payable might help you gain a few dollars each month.  The number one accounts payable tactic is to avoid paying late fees by any means necessary.  Several years ago, many companies recognized that late payment fees are a very lucrative passive revenue stream and so they doubled, or even tripled, their penalties.  Some also shortened the length of their grace period window, when a late fee could be avoided.  Defend yourself from this predatory practice by flagging all accounts payable with their due dates as they arrive and make every effort to pay on time.

Another reason to pay on time is that a good payment record can sometimes be used to negotiate a lower credit card interest rate or request that certain fees might be waived or reduced at your bank.  While you’re on the phone and in the mood to negotiate, call your cell phone company and internet service provider and see what they can do to lower your monthly bill.

Adequate cash-flow is the life blood of every business, required to finance all business operations, including marketing campaigns, technological upgrades, professional development and other activities that support the venture.  No business can function effectively, much less grow and thrive, without healthy cash-flow.  Your diligence and negotiation skills can contribute substantively to its maintenance.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: The Fruit and Vegetable Seller (1631) by Louise Moillon (France, 1610 – 1696) Courtesy of La Musee du Louvre, Paris

Figuring Out How to Take a Vacation

Summer is here at last and for many, thoughts turn to taking time off to relax and have fun.  Vacations make us feel good but they’re slipping from the grasp of an increasing number of workers, most notably the country’s 57.3 million Freelancers (2017 data), who receive no paid vacation benefit.  In fact, we pay twice for our vacations.  The first hit happens because we stand to lose money when we don’t work. The second hit occurs when paying for the vacation itself, if we choose to travel. Vacations are an expensive proposition for us.  Yet, they are an investment in our well-being and they are worthwhile.

Numerous studies show that we become psychologically healthier, we have a more positive outlook on life and we’re more resilient when we regularly take vacations. We’re also more productive, better problem solvers and more inclined to create and achieve business and personal goals.  It’s been amply documented that uber analyst Sigmund Freud was especially fond of vacations and he took great pleasure in personally planning his family’s annual summer get aways.

I’ll take my usual mini-vacation this summer and with some advance planning, I’ll bet you can, too.  No matter when you’re able to get away for a few days, or even if you opt for a “stay-cation” and take local day trips or just unplug from the daily grind, planning will be the key.

Step One of your vacation planning is to consider your business cycle so you can arrange to slip in a vacation during the usual slow periods.  In most industries, the Christmas to New Year’s Day period is very slow and the final week or two in August is almost as dormant.  However, for wedding planners and those who participate in that industry, summer vacations are out of the question because it’s your busiest season.  If you’re an accountant, celebrating Valentine’s Day at Punta Cana is something you’ll never do, because it’s tax season from January – April.  If you are in certain retail businesses, then traveling is out of the question between October 1 and Christmas Eve.

When you see a gap in your schedule of projects, pounce. “Stay-cations” are of course a lot easier to fit in.  You just have to do it.  Maybe you can schedule a spa “stay-cation” that’s spread out over three or four days, when you’ll schedule a massage one day, a mani /pedi the next, a facial the day after and so on?  You might also visit a museum or find a free outdoor music performance nearby.

Step Two entails your vacation budget.  Wherever you’d like to go, you probably already have an idea of the cost.  Research the price of air fare if you must fly and compare traditional B & B, airbnb and small hotel room rates.  Start setting aside funds that will get you to your preferred destination several months in advance.

Step Three will find you plotting out your work load, to ensure that all projects are completed by their deadlines and all milestones reached as promised.  In some instances it will be necessary to inform certain clients (a month in advance) that you’ll be away for a few days but ideally, you’ll schedule the vacation when you know you’ll be between projects.

Create a spreadsheet with all project tasks listed, with milestone and deadline dates noted, so you can plan and pace your work load 4 – 6 weeks in advance of your vacation date.  Do you publish a blog or newsletter that would appear while you’re on vacation? Add your content marketing to the spreadsheet as well, so you’ll have time to write posts and schedule them for automatic publishing on the desired dates.  You may need to work a few nights and weekends to ensure that all work is completed, but you’ll have something to look forward to, right?  While you’re at it, make a post vacation to-do list that will be ready for you when you return, to give yourself a stress-free re-entry.

Finally, take care of your accounts receivable so that cash-flow will not be interrupted, a very important matter when paying for a vacation.  Ready all invoices, attach to the appropriate emails and save as drafts.  On invoicing days, go into your phone and send from anywhere in the world.

So get away from it all and enjoy yourself! Even if your schedule and budget won’t allow you to spend two weeks in Buenos Aires or Marrakesh, taking one or more short vacations throughout the year is also beneficial, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Quality of Life.  The study researchers queried 974 Dutch vacationers and found that the excitement and anticipation associated with vacation planning delivers more of the psychological and physical benefits than the vacation itself and those benefits are multiplied when vacations of any length are taken throughout the year.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: ©  Rachel Landau

Go with the Flow, a sand sculpture designed and built by Melineige Beauregard of Quebec, Canada for the 14th Annual Revere Beach International Sand Sculpting Festival (2017) in Revere, MA

Succeeding In A Niche Market

When operating in the B2B services sector, it is useful to keep in mind that “Elegance is refusal,” advice that is attributed to the late style icon Diana Vreeland, who was Editor-in-Chief at Vogue Magazine from 1963 to 1971.  Perhaps some Freelance consultants haven’t realized this, but the question in the mind of the prospect  you’ve been talking to is, “Does this guy (or gal) have the know-how to understand my problem and the expertise to solve it?” You’ve got to admit, that’s a very good question and you won’t make many sales until you figure out how to demonstrate that you do.

Early in my Freelancing career, I made the rookie mistake of trying to be all things to all potential clients, because I desperately wanted to get my business rolling.  I wanted billable hours and a growing client list.  It took a little while to figure out that presenting myself as a jack-of-all-trades (who was apparently perceived as a master-of-none) was the wrong strategy and was not winning me enough business.  Attempting to spread myself thin was not the way to persuade clients that I had a depth of knowledge that they could trust.

Eventually I realized that trimming a couple of service options would amplify, rather than diminish, my perceived expertise and make it easier to present myself as a knowledgeable authority who can deliver the outcomes that clients need.

Another benefit of concentrating your expertise in a carefully selected group of services is that it’s much easier to develop and implement an effective marketing strategy.  Creating a compelling elevator pitch is much easier when your focus is narrow and deep, as is putting together marketing messages and devising promotional campaigns, choosing key words for SEO, identifying competitive advantages, communicating the value proposition and building a trusted brand.

Once you are profitably operating within your chosen niche and have earned the trust and respect of a few good clients and referral sources, it’s good business to think about expanding your footprint and entering a sub-niche market.  Your goal will be to discover a secondary line of business that’s a natural add-on to what you’re doing now.  Leverage the success and relationships that you’ve built in your primary niche market to open doors to a new product or service that a subset of your current clients would be willing to buy from you.  You’re looking to discover a specific need, challenge, or frustration that certain of your clients routinely face and will pay to resolve.

You will do some research.  Start by paying attention to your clients’ businesses and where your products and services fit into the realization of their mission-critical goals, or challenges they must solve.  Test the depth of demand for what you might offer in a sub-niche market by conducting a Google search.  If there are many articles written on the topic, that demonstrates good potential for making a profit.  Read a few articles and learn what those in the industry say about the topic—what worries them and what motivates them to buy products or services to address this need?

Search next for businesses that currently provide products or services that address that need or problem.  The presence of competitors is a good sign, as long as the market does not appear to be saturated.  If companies are doing business in that space, then there is money to be made.  Visit at least three or four websites and study the features and described benefits of products and services offered for sale in your proposed sub-niche.  Take special note of the selling points, how services are delivered, bundled, or priced.  Also read the blogs, newsletters and client testimonials.  View client lists—are any of these businesses selling to your clients?

Once you’ve decided to enter a sub-niche market, you must conduct a vigorous marketing campaign to announce your presence.  Consider it your big chance to launch an email marketing campaign.  You’ll only contact clients and others who already know you, so your emails will likely be read.  This is also a good time to offer discount pricing, so that early on you’ll get experience in delivering the product or service to your sub-niche, allowing you to obtain client feedback and perfect the process.

The launch campaign will also involve your newsletter, blog, white papers, or case studies, plus updates posted to LinkedIn and any other of your social media platforms and, as soon as you can schedule an appearance, a webinar or podcast.  In 12-18 months, you may gain enough traction in your sub-niche to be positioned to invite a happy client to give a testimonial, perhaps in the form of a case study, so that you can reinforce the value you bring to those with whom you work.  Good luck!

Happy 4th of July and thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Boston Cremes (1962), Wayne Thiebaud  (b. 1920)                                               Courtesy of The Crocker Art Museum   Sacramento, CA

Productivity Hacks To Keep You On Track

Whether you work at home or in a co-working space, Freelance consultants will not see payment for our work until key milestones are reached or the project is complete.  Pay day will come around as scheduled only when we have the discipline to do our best work and get the job done.  Productivity equals a pay check for the self-employed.  Productivity also means that one is able to devote adequate time to activities that enhance the consulting practice, such as professional development and networking, as well as having time to enjoy a personal life.  Here are a few things you can do to maintain peak performance every day.

Define your work schedule

In general, Freelancers need to be available when clients expect us to be available. Answering client emails within an hour and calls as they come in demonstrates that we’re responsive and trustworthy.  Define the hours that you’ll be on the job and commit to working within that time frame.  Unless you’re on a very time-sensitive project, being “open for business” from approximately 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM Monday through Friday, with the exception of holidays, will seem reasonable to your clients.

Perform one task at a time

Multi-tasking has lost its luster.  Productivity experts now realize that we perform better when we work on one task at a time and give it our full attention.  Attempting to work simultaneously on more than one task can easily result in errors that require do-overs that undermine productivity.

Schedule time for content marketing and social media

Investigate social media aggregators such as FlockBuffer and Hootsuite , so that you can manage your blog, newsletter and social media accounts all from one dashboard.  Aggregators allow you to efficiently schedule and focus on this aspect of your consulting practice, whether you check in every day or once a week.  Some of these services offer a free, but limited, option that might meet your needs.

Organize your work space

Followers of Feng Shui understand the importance of maintaining a clean, neat desk and office space, as do devotees of Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2011). De-cluttering is good for the soul and good for productivity, too.  For more information, please read my post Feng Shui for your office .

Be proactive

Every day, create a to-do list for the next day.  Rank the list into A-Tasks (high priority), B -Tasks (important, not urgent) and C-Tasks (do them when time allows).  The A-Tasks are what you start with each day.

Do not allow yourself to be controlled by non-business related incoming calls and emails. Put your ringer on silent and keep an eye on caller ID, so you’ll know if you must answer a call and do the same with emails—answer what pertains to business immediately.  You may want to devote the early morning and evening to answering non-urgent calls and emails.

Take breaks

Every 90 minutes to two hours, take a brain break.  On a nice day,  you might take a walk around the block.  If it’s cold or wet, leave your desk, find a comfortable place to put your feet up and meditate for 15 minutes.  Recharging your energy stores is important for promoting concentration, focus and creativity.

Invent deadlines

Decide how much time you should spend on a particular task and make yourself follow the time you allot.  Creating a bit of urgency can be a useful tactic to keep yourself motivated and working.

Eliminate distractions

Close your office door when you are not home alone, or signal that you’re engrossed in work if you’re in an open plan co-working space, to discourage others from dropping in to gossip or otherwise ease their boredom at your expense.  However, make yourself available to your child during your break times or when s/he has an urgent need and be available to take important work-related questions posed by your co-working colleagues.  It is unrealistic to hermetically seal yourself off from your environment, but nevertheless imperative that you have the ability to work undisturbed.

Exercise

Numerous studies conducted over the past 20 years have shown a positive correlation between regular exercise and productivity, in addition to the benefits for one’s physical and psychological health.  Create a physical and psychological foundation that supports your productivity by hitting the gym, going for a run or swim, or participating in the team sport of your choice, at least four times a week, for a minimum of 30 minutes per session.

Review and evaluate your day

At the end of the day, evaluate how well you measured up to the items on your to-do list. Did you accomplish what you set out to do? Identify what helped, or hindered, your performance and make any necessary adjustments.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: The Gleaners (1857) Jean-Francois Millet (1814 – 1875)                                     Courtesy of La Musee D’Orsay, Paris

Follow the Winners

In one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite movies, The Godfather Part II (1974), Michael Corleone (youngest son of the Godfather) says “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” That advice was quickly adopted by those in business, who interpreted the line as a warning to keep a sharp eye on competitors.  No one wants to be blindsided by the competition and made vulnerable to the loss of revenue and market share.  That fear can keep one awake at night.  But how much time and effort should be spent looking over one’s shoulder and how often does such behavior result in anything that’s actionable or profitable?

Some business experts recommend that rather than obsessing over competitors, perhaps wondering what you might copy, instead study successful business leaders in other industries. When looking to keep your organization relevant and vital, strategies implemented by leaders at successful companies in industries other than your own can provide lessons and inspiration that will benefit you and your business.

To launch and sustain a profitable business, it is essential that you offer products or services for which there is a growing market, that you recognize and articulate a strong value proposition that attracts customers and that you devise a smart and efficient business model to put it all in motion and deliver the goods.  It makes sense to study innovative entrepreneurs from a variety of industries, so that you can learn what worked for their organizations and think about how certain of those strategies and tactics might be applied to your venture.

You might start this unique form of competitive intelligence by walking into a bookstore and browsing through the business section. You’ll be certain to find at least one or two interesting books, perhaps in memoir form, written by entrepreneurs who overcame significant obstacles and setbacks, only to prevail and build multi-million dollar organizations.  You might also look for speaker programs at nearby colleges, local chambers of commerce, or other business organizations that from time to time are known to host speakers who tell the story of how s/he built a successful enterprise.

Finally, since so much in life hinges on relationships and developing a strong and supportive network, remember also to reach out to those whom you know.  When you stop and think, you’ll realize that you cross paths with business owners and leaders on a regular basis.  We see and interact with these smart, successful professionals at neighborhood association meetings, at the garden club, at our place of worship, while at the gym and when serving on a not-for-profit board.  I’m willing to wager that you’ll be able to develop a friendship with at least two of these individuals and find opportunities to talk business now and again.

So extend yourself and get to know a little better the people with whom you regularly interact.  Start with some friendly small talk and and work your way toward having real conversations that lead to developing relationships.  At some point, you may be able to segue into a conversation about business, at your organization and theirs.  If you reach the level of trust that includes sharing stories about business challenges and tactics, you’ll be fortunate to have found a friend and perhaps also a mentor.  The experience will be much more satisfying, and effective, than spying on and obsessing over your business rivals.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Nike, goddess of victory, awards Heracles (Hercules) with the prize of a laurel wreath for his win at the 776 B.C. Olympics. Courtesy of the British Museum in London.

Knowing How to Delegate Is a Productivity Plus

Those of us who work alone frequently need to at least maximize, if not increase, our productivity and hiring part-time or temporary help may be what it takes to get us there.  Sometimes, you need to ramp up to take on a big project for which you’ll need specialized competencies that are not in your skill set, prompting you to hire subcontractors.  In that case, you’ll lead a team and coordinate numerous tasks that drive completion of the project deliverables.  In other cases, you need administrative help to free you from routine tasks like bookkeeping and invoicing, or following-up with customer service requests.

In each scenario, the ability to effectively delegate will be instrumental in creating a positive working environment, where your hired help will strive to do their best work, so that desired outcomes are achieved.

Delegating can be considered both an art and a science and with practice, it can be mastered.  An unwillingness or inability to delegate indicates poor leadership.  Leaders who insist upon having their hands tightly on the wheel of every initiative are often perceived as controlling micromanagers by those who work with them. Such behavior telegraphs a lack of trust or even respect.  It is demotivating and ultimately counterproductive.  Here’s a checklist to help you perfect your delegating skill.

  1. Learn and assess the skills and interests of team members/ employees                                                                                                                        Consult with and observe your team members or employees when putting together a working group or assigning tasks and accommodate, to the best of your ability, their strengths and preferences, according to the project needs.  This could be a skills development opportunity for some and the wise leader will enable that process whenever possible and reap the benefits.
  2. Choose the right tasks to delegate                                                                                     You, team leader, are responsible for understanding and communicating the strategic, big picture view of the work.  Subcontractors and part-time help are responsible for their area of specialized skills.  You coordinate all tasks and ensure that milestones are met and the deliverables are provided within the project deadline and budget.
  3.  Provide the tools and authority to do the work                                                    Ensure that your employees or team have the resources—information, time, budget, equipment— and the authority to do what you’ve asked of them.  Don’t make them run to you whenever they need to take action.  Rather, empower them and let them apply their intelligence and creativity to making you look good.
  4. Be clear about expectations                                                                                           Explain the goals of the project or tasks and how they support short or long-term plans.  Explain how results/ success will be measured. Confirm that those who work for or with you understand their individual responsibilities and the collective goal. Make sure that the goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.
  5. Provide feedback, guidance and encouragement.  Acknowledge success.     Monitor performance and quickly correct any misunderstandings or problems. Find teachable moments and provide training or useful suggestions when needed.  Encourage and enable excellent work to keep people motivated and productivity high.  Team members and employees will appreciate that you recognize and diplomatically call out both superior and weak performances.

 

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: A Goldsmith in Baghdad (1901), Kamal al-Mulk (1847-1941) courtesy of the Islamic Consultative Assembly in Tehran, Iran

Speeding Up Your Sales Pipeline

How wonderful would it be if your prospective clients would just hurry up and make a decision about if and when they’ll give you a sale? Even if 80% decline, as predicted in Pareto’s 80/20 rule, think of the time and aggravation that you’d be spared.  There’d be no more chasing so-called prospects who either can’t or won’t green-light a sale for you.  Your numbers would probably increase, if for no other reason than you’d stop wasting time on lost causes and look for better possibilities.

Getting a commitment to either fish or cut bait in maybe a week or two is a fantasy, but learning how to get better at qualifying prospects is within reach and here are four tips to help you do just that.  Implement these tactics and you’ll move prospects through your sales pipeline faster than ever before.

1. Sell to the decision-maker

Is the person who you think is the prospect really the prospect? Does this person have the authority to make the decision and approve the budget? If not, there will be no sale until and unless you get in front of the real decision-maker.

Especially in B2B sales, a gatekeeper or other lower-level employee could be enlisted to find out the details and then report back to the actual decision-maker.  Alternatively, the decision could be made by a committee of senior staff members, one of whom may be speaking with you, but s/he alone cannot give the green-light without getting agreement from other committee members.

In either case, you’ll need to get around the stand-in, learn the identity of who has the most influence and focus your attention on addressing that person’s hot buttons, so that the sale can move forward at a faster pace.

Step One in ferreting out the identity of the real decision-maker is noticing the job title of the person with whom you’re speaking.  If s/he ranks lower than Director or Vice President, most likely there’s someone in the background pulling the strings.  Unless you’re selling office supplies, ask the stand-in if s/he is able to directly approve the budget and if there are others who might like to directly ask you questions about your product, service, or project.  Be respectful of feelings, but do encourage the participation in the sales process of the one who can sign the check.

2. Discover what worries your prospect

Get a big-picture understanding of your prospect’s most urgent and top-of-mind challenges and near-term objectives, as they apply to what you can bring to the table in terms of a product or service.  What does your prospect think will happen if the product doesn’t get purchased or the project doesn’t get done?  How will company leaders feel when the problem is resolved and objectives are achieved?

Learn as much as possible about what your prospect wants and how committed s/he is to achieving goals and resolving issues.  Ask “what” and “how” questions to discover these key insights.

3. Confirm that your solution is a fit 

Ultimately, all salespeople want to close deals. But ironically, it’s sometimes better to walk away from a potential sale if the product or service isn’t a good fit for either you or the prospect.  Pushing for a sale that won’t bring about the best outcomes never ends well and it should be avoided, even when you’re desperate to do business.

In these situations, your objective is about getting to “no” faster.  Then you can move on and pursue other prospects who may be better positioned to buy from you.  It’s  preferable to speed inappropriate prospects through the pipeline and devote the time saved to identifying and meeting with qualified prospects who might say “yes.”

To ensure that your product or service can solve the problem or help the prospect meet a goal, ask pointed questions and listen well to determine whether your solution will produce the best results and be cost-effective in the long run.

4. Learn the prospect’s timetable

Is there an urgent need or deadline that compels your prospect to take action and implement a solution quickly? If you know that to be true, you can most likely expedite the sale (and get the price you want, as well).  Ask questions to help yourself evaluate whether the prospect could be ready to do the deal in a week or two, or in months.

One important line of questioning should concern available funding for the proposed sale or project.  In some cases, the prospect would sincerely like to move forward, but there is insufficient political support in the organization for his/her agenda.

The information will allow you to adjust your expectations for the sale and decide if you should continue to pursue, pick up the thread in a few months, or close the book on a pipe dream.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Portrait of Evdokiya Nickolayevna Chesmenskaya (1780) by Jean-Louis Voille (1744 – 1806) courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow