Freelancers And Small Business Owners: Being Great At Your Craft Isn’t Enough

You’re an experienced and talented [insert professional specialty here]. That’s a fabulous selling point, but it may not be enough Black text Value Is Everything on blue backgroundto attract your ideal clients or keep them happy for the long-term.

 

Sure, when you excel at the work you do, you have a competitive edge. To sharpen that edge, however, you may need to demonstrate other important skills, too.

 

Besides seeing yourself as a freelancer/professional extraordinaire doing your craft, strive to fulfill other roles, as well, to make yourself an invaluable resource to your customers.

 

Three Personas To Improve Your Professionalism

 

Competent Project Manager

Some clients have it all together—others not so much. If you have project management skills, you can fill a critical void for customers who lack the ability to organize efforts and keep projects on track. I was fortunate to have had the experience of working as a telecom product manager in my past career. Tasked with managing time lines and deliverables across various groups, the competence I developed in coordinating projects has become one of my biggest value propositions as a freelance writer.

 

Kick-Ass Communicator

Describing products and services, proposing rates, setting expectations, confirming responsibilities, explaining processes, and so on—things every business owner needs to do almost daily—all require communicating clearly. Concentrate on organizing your thoughts and getting to the point in conversations written and spoken. As an accomplished communicator, you can more effectively avoid misunderstandings and ensure you and your clients will be on the same page.

 

Intuitive Listener

Listening so you absorb what clients are saying, recognizing the motivation behind their words, and going a little above and beyond to understand their challenges can really set you apart. By getting to the heart of your clients’ issues rather than simply treating symptoms with Band-Aid solutions, you will earn trust, respect, and hopefully long-term business relationships. For example, I regularly have prospects come to me thinking their websites’ existing content is why they aren’t generating online leads. But after listening to them, reviewing their content, and looking at the big picture, I often find content alone isn’t their problem, and my services independently wouldn’t significantly improve their outcomes. In those situations, I refer these customers to other professionals who have the ability to fill the voids I cannot (like website design/development, SEO, and social media strategy).

 

The Value Of Being More

By developing these identities within your professional persona, you become more than just a service provider—you become an indispensable asset to your clients.

 

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” ~ Warren Buffett

 

Give them value and you’ll gain trust, respect, and loyalty.

 

What will you do to be more today?

A Good Product Or Service At A Good Price Isn’t Always Enough

When you’re a small business owner, your product or services and price will only take you so far. If your customers don’t feel appreciated, they’ll eventually walkThe-Little-Things away.

Recently, one of my Facebook friends asked me if I had ever attended the local martial arts studio her son is enrolled in. I hadn’t, but I know of the owners because they had attended the same studio I did in years gone by. My friend told me, although the owners are fantastic with the kids and offer a wonderful training program at a fair price, she’s planning to find a different studio for her son.

Great with kids. Excellent program. Good price. What’s the problem?

It’s simple—and sad.

The owners seem to think it’s too much trouble or just plain don’t think it’s necessary to acknowledge students’ parents with as little as a smile or a “hello” when they arrive at their studio.

End result: They are going to lose business because they aren’t willing to put forth the minimal effort needed to show they value their paying customers.

As small business owners, we’re human. We all get busy or distracted or stressed or frustrated and might slip up in showing our customers the appreciation they deserve. But NEVER can we let it become a habit. We can never take it for granted that our skills, products, or price will carry the load for us.

We have to put forth genuine effort and energy to show customers we value them. Fortunately for us, it doesn’t usually require that much of either.

Smile freely.

Say “Thank you” often.

Care.

A little can go a long way.

Avoid This Fatal Small Business Mistake

Small Business Saturday (Nov. 28) is around the corner. It’s a time for celebrating the benefits of having small businesses in the Work for itlocal community and rallying to support them. American Express’s “Shop Local” mantra is the call to support local small businesses on Small Business Saturday.

Yes, small business owners, this day is for you!

But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to try.

Being a local small business doesn’t mean people are obligated to support you. You have to do your part, and you need to make customers feel appreciated.

Examples Of Doing Small Business The Wrong Way

I recently had two encounters with local small businesses that failed to recognize that. I won’t call them out by name, but I will share my experience with each.

 

  1. My husband and I were recently at a business event where a business owner of an entertainment venue complained about the community not coming out to attend performances. His tone and his attitude made me feel like he was pointing the finger at us, even though we regularly support his business. While he may not have meant it personally, that’s how I took it. In his frustration and discontent with the local community’s support, he lumped us—long-time customers—into the bunch. I left feeling like he doesn’t appreciate our business. And now I really don’t have much interest in going back any time soon.
  2. Second example is the interaction I recently had with the insurance agent and company that provided my family’s homeowners insurance. As we were working with a pitbull rescue to adopt a furry family member, I contacted our agent to see if our policy had any restrictions on the breeds of dogs we could have to maintain our policy. She responded by emailing a clause from the insurance company that indicates pit bulls couldn’t be covered. I asked her for additional information regarding our options…then radio silence. After several days of no response from her, we switched both our homeowners and auto insurance policies to State Farm—who, by the way, has stellar local customer service.

The Lesson For Small Business Owners

Being local doesn’t mean you can take your customers for granted. It doesn’t mean local people must shop at your store or select you to provide their services simply because you’re a local company.

You have to earn their business, and you have to appreciate them.

Good Businesses Have Bad Moments. Cut Them A Little Slack.

No Business Is Absolutely Perfect.

As much as any small business wants to deliver a perfect customer experience during each and every interaction, it will slip up. Perhaps (and hopefully) notThumbs down often will that happen, but it will happen.

For example:

  • The local coffee shop’s brew won’t be piping hot.

 

  • Your veterinarian will be behind schedule and you’ll wait longer than you care to for Fido’s appointment.

 

  • The Mediterranean restaurant down the street will forget to serve your salad dressing on the side.

 

  • Before she wraps the bracelet you bought for your mom, the cashier at the gift shop downtown will forget to remove the price tag.

 

Honest, unintentional, few-and-far-between mistakes happen. They’re unfortunate and can inconvenience you, yes. Are they something to get upset about enough to warrant slamming a business on social media? I say, probably not.

 

But many people see things differently. They jump to criticize and discredit for the smallest measure of imperfection. And sometimes they don’t even explain why they’re dissatisfied.

 

Just recently, one of my own Facebook friends blasted a status update calling out a local coffee shop. Her remark…“Was at [name of café] this morning. Very disappointing.”

 

That was it.

 

She tagged the business’s Facebook page in her post, but didn’t post directly on the page. Because of the way she went about mentioning the business and because she and the business owner aren’t friends on Facebook, the business owner had no way of responding on the platform. She had no way of asking why the customer had a bad experience. She had no way of asking the customer if they could talk about it offline. She had no way of asking the customer how she could make it right.

 

So there it was. Her business was publicly shamed for no specific reason and with no direct way to respond.

 

Coincidentally, I had a meeting at that coffee shop the same morning. My experience was wonderful—as usual. And so, as a fellow small business owner and regularly satisfied customer, I felt it my duty to come to the rescue (well, as best I could anyway) by commenting on my friend’s post to share my positive experience at the café that day.

 

My comment probably didn’t undo much of the damage, but by seeing similar comments by others posted after mine, I’d like to think it helped restore at least a little bit of public favor for that small business.

 

It’s Better To Pick Our Battles On Social Media.

Just as people aren’t perfect, neither are businesses. They’re owned and staffed by imperfect humans who will try their very best, but who will sometimes fall short.

 

Sure, negative remarks on social media about a business’s performance are sometimes justified—particularly if a customer has had repeat bad experiences that weren’t addressed when brought to the owner’s attention. But shouldn’t every business have an opportunity to find out how they failed a customer and how they can set things right?

 

As customers ourselves, we need to remember that. When we have a lackluster experience, we don’t do ourselves any favors by venting for the sake of simply getting it off our chests. What will improve our future visits to businesses that have disappointed us in some way is to start an honest dialogue with owners and managers to explain why we’re unhappy and what we would like them to do differently.

 

Simple. Sensible. And something about which we should remind the overzealous business critics in our social media networks. After all, you and I never know when they might turn on us for the slightest slip.

 

How has your business (or others that you frequently visit) been bitten by unjustly harsh social media commentary? How have you handled it?

 

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Do Unto Vendors – Being a Good Customer

It’s Not Right to Not Treat Vendors RightShaking hands

Treating customers right is a no-brainer, but being a good customer doesn’t always come as naturally.

As solopreneurs and small business owners, we want things done. We want things done now. We want things done right. We want things done at the right price.

Yes, we can be a demanding lot!

While we tend to at times bend over backwards to please our clients, we can be tough in equal proportion on those who provide us with services and products. It’s not wrong to expect quality, punctuality, and value, but it is wrong to treat vendors with a lack of respect and unreasonable demands.

How to Be a Good Customer

Are you the kind of customer you would welcome with open arms?

  • Are you courteous…freely using “please” and “thank you”?
  • Do you provide enough detailed information so vendors can do what they need to do effectively?
  • Do you pay attention to the work vendors have completed and let them know early on in a project if you’ll need any adjustments?
  • Do you have reasonable expectations for when a project should be completed?
  • Do you respond promptly to vendors’ questions?
  • Do you have a clear vision about what you want before you ask vendors to do work for you?
  • Are you willing to pay a fair price for expertise and quality work?
  • Are you understanding of delays due to unforeseen circumstances that are out of your vendors’ control?
  • Do you show interest in and work toward forging ongoing professional relationships with vendors?
  • Do you freely show appreciation of the work your vendors do for you?
  • Do you write recommendations on Linkedin?
  • Do you refer colleagues to your vendors?

Why Do Unto Vendors?

Besides the simple fact that treating others well is the right thing to do, treating vendors well has its business perks as well . By being a great customer, you build goodwill, trust and loyalty. Just as those things are important with your customers, they can lead to unexpected benefits when developed with vendors. You might find that your vendors will give you extras at either discounted rates or for free. You might gain new business through referrals from your vendors. You might find that vendors are more willing and able to accommodate the occasional rush order when you’re faced with an emergency need.

And on top of it all, word gets around. Vendors are part of the business community as a whole, which means they talk with other business owners and professionals about their experiences with other business owners and professionals. What would you want those conversations to sound like when your name enters the discussion?

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5 Action Words Every Solopreneur Needs to Act On

The only way to find success (however you define it) as a solopreneur is to take action. Being passive and hoping that potential clients happen to stumble upon you by chance won’t take you very far – if anywhere at all! Action is all about doing and here are a few action words (a.k.a. verbs) that solopreneurs and small business owners can practice every day to make sure they’re not keeping their businesses in an idle state.

Create
Let the eye rolls begin as I mention what you see and hear about 100 times each day. Content! Whether you’re in an inherently creative field or not, creating content in some way, shape or form to demonstrate your expertise in your industry is essential to expanding your reach. Producing – or not producing – your own content will differentiate you from your competitors. Your choice: create or become invisible.

Help
Every day, aim to do something to help someone else. Going the extra mile to assist a client, prospect or colleague doesn’t have to take up much of your time and it doesn’t mean you have to give your work away for free. Email an article that you know someone will find interesting or helpful, connect two professionals who seem to have synergy, refer someone looking for a service to someone you know who will deliver it well. It’s easy to help…and your good deeds will give you a reputation for being that professional who truly cares about others. That’s the type of professional I choose over others when presented with similar services – and I think most other people have that in common with me.

Interact
In this digital social world, it’s not enough to push your message; interacting is equally important. ALWAYS reply to comments on your blog posts and social media updates…even if just to say “thank you.” Also, when appropriate for your audience, reciprocate by commenting on and/or sharing others’ online content. And never let emails – particularly those from clients or prospects – go unanswered for more than 24 hours unless you’re on vacation. Social media has made it so very easy and convenient for solopreneurs to build good will, but it’s up to you to take action and harness that potential.


Reflect
In my opinion, this action is way underrated! While “reflect” seems passive, it’s anything but. As you work on building your business, take time regularly to review what is working and what is not.

  • Which social networks are providing the best exposure?
  • Which networking events and affiliations are leading you to the most prospects?
  • Which types of projects are delivering the best return?
  • What do you enjoy most and least about your work?
  • What process improvements can you make to serve clients better and use your time more effectively?

Adjust
Perhaps the most important verb all solopreneurs should put into practice is “adjust”! Clients’ needs and wants change, tools and resources change, the business climate changes…we change. To keep up and stay relevant in the dynamic world that is small business, you need to fine-tune your ability – and willingness – to evolve.

What other verbs do you think solopreneurs need to act on to be masters of their own destinies?

How What You’re NOT Can Successfully Set Your Brand Apart

As solopreneurs, we put a lot of thought into what we are to customers – and into how that makes us different from our Apples and Orangescompetitors. That’s very important, but what if you’re in an industry that’s borderline commodity. What if you do a fine job for customers, but the type of service you provide or business you’re in in really doesn’t lend itself naturally to differentiation?

Story Time!
One of my clients, owner of  a local marketing and design firm, shared a story with me about one of his clients who faced that very challenge.  Being in the pet food distribution business, his client was in a market where products offered and price points were pretty much the same everywhere.  When asked how he differentiated himself from his competitors, he said something to the effect of, “I make sure that I’m not an a_ _ hole.”  (I’ll let you fill in the blanks!)

Quite a point of differentiation, eh? As I understand, because very little competition enters that industry and customers don’t have a lot of options, some distributors were acting like jerks toward their clients.

So, my client’s client found that not being an a_ _ hole was his key point of differentiation.  His unique selling proposition wasn’t centered on what he was. It was all about what he WASN’T!

What does that mean to us as solopreneurs?
My thoughts…

  • Sometimes you have to think about more than just the bells & whistles of what you offer. The personality behind your brand is what clients will gravitate toward and connect with – especially when you’re offering services that aren’t overwhelmingly different from those of your competitors.
  • ALWAYS treat clients with professionalism and respect. Don’t be the “a_ _ hole”  your competitors are taking business away from.

Time for you to share! Is there anything that you’re NOT that has set you apart from your competition? Have you seen business owners sink their own ships by being jerks to their clients?

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Ways Solopreneurs Can Create a Customer Experience Clients Will Want to Repeat

What you need to do to deliver a stand-out “customer experience” isn’t all that easy to pin down when you’re a solopreneur delivering professional services – often either remotely or in external environments over which you have little control.  There’s generally no decor, no music, no mood lighting, and no other sort of frills and fanfare to set the tone. So how do you make working with you a positive, memorable experience  that your clients will want to repeat? How do you embrace the “Power of the Heart” as Chuck Wall calls mentions in his book Customer CEOWhile you might not have all the resources that larger companies have at their fingertips, there are things you can do to harness the Power of the Heart when working with clients:

  • Be cheerful and make clients feel wanted and appreciated.
  • Communicate often so clients know that you care about their projects and that you’re making progress.
  • Be responsive to questions and concerns.
  • Be collaborative and demonstrate that you’re a partner vested in the success of their projects.
  • If you make mistakes, admit to them, say “I’m sorry,” and find a way to make it right.
  • If clients mess up don’t be accusatory. Diplomatically explain their errors and don’t use an accusatory tone. They most likely didn’t do it on purpose.
  • Deliver what you promise.
  • Deliver what you promise on time.
  • Say “Please” and “Thank you” often and abundantly.
  • When you don’t see eye-to-eye on some aspect of a project, listen to their point of view and take time to understand it before sharing your thoughts.
  • Stay in tune with their needs and direct them to resources that can help them solve issues that aren’t in your area professionally.
  • Embrace their uniqueness.
  • Be nice – always!

As Wall mentions in Customer CEO, most clients want to love what you do for them. They’re investing time and dollars in your relationship. Why would they want to waste either? Give them quality, exceed their expectations, and give them every reason to like you and come back for more!

Your turn! How do you make the experience of doing business with you something special? 

What Solopreneurs Need to Know and Do to Harness the “Customer CEO” Power of Value

When I started reading “Customer CEO – How to Profit from the Power of Your Customers” by Chuck Wall Light bulb(@CustomerCEO), I thought I’d write a review after I finished the book. But I’m finding so much helpful insight along the way, that it makes more sense to share Wall’s nuggets of wisdom in smaller doses. I hope that packaging some of what he shares in his book in posts that provide tips and food for solopreneurial thought will allow you to focus and think about how you might apply it in your own solo-business.

They’ve got the Power
Throughout “Customer CEO,” Wall homes in on the nine “powers” (core needs) that customers possess.

It’s these powers that make your customers the CEO of your company. Like it or not, your customers really do have the control. But the good news is that by tuning into their wants and needs, you can channel their powers into creating and sustaining a thriving business.

Why solopreneurs need to value the Power of Value
Among the nine powers, Wall speaks to the “Power of Value.” As Wall points out, value is highly subjective and different in the eye of one beholder to the next. But there are two universal concerns that all customers – those of mega businesses and those of solopreneurs – share…

  • They don’t want to be ripped off!
  • They don’t want to do business with someone who is “fly by night.”

As solo-business owners, it’s up to us to build trust and demonstrate to our customers and prospective customers that we deliver on our promises, that we provide products and services that are worth what they’re paying for them, and that we’re in business with the intent to stay in business. What are some ways to do that?

  • Maintain a portfolio of your best work.
  • Share testimonials that give you credibility.
  • Give detailed proposals that share the entire scope of work. For example: when I propose a rate for a website content writing project, I don’t just give an $X.XX rate for “website content;” I make it clear that my rate includes all research, collaboration, writing, revisions.”)
  • Don’t miss deadlines.
  • Be responsive. Never let more than 24 hours go by (unless you’re on vacation or in the hospital!) without either responding to or at least acknowledging that you received a customer’s inquiry.
  • Network tirelessly – and consistently – both online and face-to-face. Remember business relationships develop over time. You need to be persistent and show that you’ll be around for the long haul.

Empowered by the Power of Value
I encourage you to take Wall’s advice and find out what your customers think about you, your services and products, and what they like or don’t like about doing business with you. Overcoming customer skepticism related to the Power of Value gets easier as you become more in tune with the value you provide (in the eyes of your customers) – and as you become more comfortable with communicating that value.

What about you? In what ways have your Customer CEOs shared that you provide value to them? How do you keep the lines of communication open to keep tabs on your customers’ satisfaction with your products and services and the experience you deliver?

[Special thanks to Shelton Interactive for bringing “Customer CEO” to my attention and for the opportunity to add it to my library!]

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What Do Your Customers Want? The Same Things You Do!

Whether you’re just starting out as a solopreneur or have been running your small professional services business for a Confused manwhile, you’ve probably at some time wondered, “What do customers want?”

That will be different to some degree depending on the particular industry you’re in and your specialties, but there are some universal things that all prospective customers are looking for. And they’re not in any way mysterious or elusive. In fact, they’re the exact same things that you likely look for when choosing a professional services provider.

  • A solution – Customers choose a professional services provider to satisfy a need. They reach out to you because they’re unable to solve a problem or accomplish something on their own – either because of lack of resources or skills.

 Tip: Think about and be prepared to communicate clearly about the problems/needs that you’re able to solve.

 

  • Expertise – Expertise doesn’t always equate to years of experience – though that can give you an edge in establishing credibility. Expertise is knowing your stuff and having the capability of delivering quality to your clients.

Tip: If you’re a new solopreneur and struggling to get business because of your lack of experience, get some volunteer projects under your belt to build your portfolio and list of references.

  • Honesty – Clients expect (and rightly so) honesty in a professional services provider. They don’t want empty promises that can’t be fulfilled. They want you to do business ethically and to be honest about expected outcomes.

 Tip: Be realistic from the beginning about what you can deliver and when you can deliver it. “Pie in the sky” promises won’t earn you points when they don’t pan out.

  • Reliability – Consistent quality and performance are the keys to getting repeat business from your customers. If they know that they can depend on you to do the job well, they’ll be more inclined to give you more work.

 Tip: Repeat clients are the ultimate source of testimonials and referrals. The fact that someone has come back to you time and again stands as a testament to your reliability. Ask your repeat clients for testimonials and recommendations on Linkedin.

  • Fair rate – While some clients are 100% driven to decision based on price, the majority are willing to pay a fair rate for quality services. Most recognize that we often get what we pay for.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to charge what you’re worth. Don’t gouge your clients with excessive costs, but do be aware of your strengths and set your fees so that they’re favorable for you, yet fair to the customer.

  • A sense of caring – Customers expect you to care about the work you’re doing for them, the results that you deliver, and your relationship with them.

Tip: It’s not difficult to demonstrate caring, but you need to pay attention to the opportunities to do so. In your emails, on phone calls, and in meetings, tell clients “thank you” often and tell them that you appreciate the opportunity to work with them.

  • Responsiveness – Clients expect you to respond promptly to their questions and concerns. Responsiveness demonstrates what we talked about in the previous bullet point, caring. And it can set you apart from your competitors.

 Tip: Always try to respond to clients and prospects within 24 hours – even if just to say that you received their message, and will be getting back to them soon. In urgent situations, respond as close to immediately as possible.

 

  • No unpleasant surprises – No one likes “bait and switch” tactics, discovering hidden fees, or missed deadlines.

 Tip: Prepare and plan before proposing or starting projects for clients. Get a grip on – and communicate – the scope of what you’ll do, when you’ll do it, what you’ll need from the customer and how much it will cost them.

Pleasing customers doesn’t require a Magic 8 Ball, but it does take understanding their fundamental wants and needs. And fortunately, you have the means to do that quite easily. Simply tune into what YOU look for in a professional services provider – and deliver on those things!

Your turn! What do you look for in a professional services provider? How has your own experience as a customer shaped your approach to working with clients?

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