Newbie Does Content Marketing World: The Good, the Bad, and the Orange

This is not a top 10 takeaways listicle. Or a shameless crop of speaker quotes to get retweets. This is a story of a thrifty writer who went to Content Marketing World in Cleveland, the apparent “Capital of Content,” thanks to doubling down on promo codes.  It was everything—and nothing I expected. 

Cult of Orange Kool-Aid

If you didn’t know this by now, the Content Marketing Institute LOVES its orange. A lot. I urge you to bring shades if you go to CMW. Be prepared for hordes of attendees that wear it on various parts of their bodies; from hats to shoes to everything in-between. Then there are the signage, carpet, and yes, even orange food-colored products (that I did not imbibe in). In my complete ignorance of Planet Orange, I thought it would be mildly amusing to wear my coincidentally-coral top to the first evening reception. Bad idea. I became an instant, unwilling cult participant. Part of me likes the rah-rah team spirit and the other thinks it’s a tad creepy. I do love purple, so maybe if it was Planet Purple I could have gotten into the color craze more.

Run With Precision of Surgery

Speaking as a former event planner and attendee of a bajillion conferences, it’s my second nature to find mistakes or mental note what I would change–-you know for the fun of it and to feel superior. But I was hard-pressed to find any major boo-boos no matter how hard I tried. CMW was a well-oiled logistics machine from start to finish. The sessions started on time, the speakers were 90% top notch, and the events were memorable. Even the most basic details like lunches—normally a hassle when you have to leave the conference or sit in a stuffy banquet room— were grab-and-go to run to a session or hang out at the convention center. It’s a detail, but one that makes a difference in the overall experience. The opening reception held in the newly-revamped Flats area had it all: food, drinks, a pool, networking, groovy lighting, content geeks awkwardly dancing. But it worked. Cheap Trick concert in one word: epic. Though I loved them when I was a teen, I wasn’t that excited, thinking they were more AARP than OMG. Boy was I wrong, these badasses put on a rockin’ show. I even got one of the guitar picks that was tossed in the audience! #groupiemoment

Mix and Match Theme

Make no mistake: the theme of the show was “Content Strikes Back” and there were Star Wars posters everywhere, cheesy references to it in most presentations, and the grand stage opened with Joe Pulizzi on a starship deck that looked like it came from community theater (I think on purpose?). Added strange bonus: Pulizzi’s ending included a contentized Matrix scene, replete with Keanu Reeve’s trademark black jacket. Similarly, many attendees, including myself, wondered what the hell the former Luke Skywalker could contribute to the content conversation. But we were wrong—the guy proved to be an engaging, funny, and honest speaker about celebrity content and could talk a good game about his Twitter-follower competition with Carrie Fisher. He even trashed Star Wars franchise for making him lose 50 pounds for his one scene in “The Force Awakens”that only showed his face. Other daily keynotes were engaging—in fact the speaker with the highest rating automatically gets top spot at the start of the conference.

Attack of the Corporate Packs

There are an estimated 3,500 people that attended CMW event from 50 countries and 50 of the Fortune 100. In other words, the vast majority are from a corporate environment, which was evident through the massive content marketing teams traveling in packs. Armed with occasional orange clothing and an expense account, the roamed the convention center hallways in droves. Admittedly, I did feel like an oddball as a freelancer. But there were plenty of friendly people to network with. It would have been more inclusive, however, to have sessions catering to us content outliers.The closest was one on best practices to hire freelance writers (you can bet I was there). There was also a “Writing Salon” for consultants  in the spiffy new Hilton, away from the action. In the future, I would like to see more events for corporate and freelancers to network directly.

Dare to be “Different” or Die

Remember I said this won’t be a list of takeaways? Indulge me with my few random observations. Speakers in many of the sessions said in their own unique way that content has reached peak so you must think and do differently. As content marketers, we can no longer crank out the same old stuff—with so much noise you absolutely, unequivocally must stand out. Obvious yes, but how to get around it? Idea-planting included: call attention to a provocative question that no one else answers in the industry; take a stand on an industry issue; find that missing stat and capitalize on it in a big way; extract insight from data for a non-obvious answer; dig for interesting correlations and weird ideas to pounce on; come up with “unthinkable” ideas no one else is doing (like freeing gated content or doing a negative campaign that speaks the truth). Though none of these ideas were exclusively new, together they lent a shot of creativity and deeper thought to bring home.

Fuzzy Line Between Journalism and Content: Demolished

As a former journalist (and a cynical reporter at heart) I was surprised, elated and deflated to see that the rise of “brand newsrooms” (oxymoron anyone?) is a real, established thing. Among content marketers and journalists alike, there is a resigned acceptance that newspapers are dying, content is thriving, and a way to make a buck on the side (which has become the main entree). As one speaker and former reporter put it: journalists don’t think they need anything from content, but content marketers know they need journalists. A journalism style brings a dose of reality to content. In essence, the mindset of journalism can lead to greater content marketing.  We should always be asking ourselves with every piece of content we produce: will it pass skeptic test? The only thing I disagreed with: that the pace of content marketing is significantly slower than daily deadlines of journalism, but then again, maybe it’s just my clients (and you know who you are).

KISS Principle lives aka no Friction

Several speakers focused on the importance of content simplicity from writing to delivery. Cut the resistance between where you are and where you want to go to make it easier for your readers. We’re not just left-brained or right-brained about decision-making. Our reptilian brain likes simple choices and hates change. This or that. Chocolate or vanilla. Try or buy. That also means that content should stay away from any sort of difficult, interruptive reading experiences, like rotating banners or tons of links. We need to prepare and communicate our content simply, elegantly and concisely, whether it’s an ad campaign, landing page, a blog post or even social media post. Another fact: Consumers don’t care where they get their information from, they just want it. So don’t be concerned about “credit,” be concerned about giving readers what they want—they’ll thank you later. Again, not rocket science, but  good to remind ourselves of every time we’re producing content, it’s not about us, it’s about freely delivering value and and solving problems for our readers. In other words, the fantastically-jargonny word: customer centricity.

My content marketing awards

Unsurprisingly, the award session didn’t include best freelance content marketer of the year or other  honored oddities. However, I’ve devised some of my own to fill in the gap. You’re welcome.

Best opportunity: 1% on the web are creating content, the rest are lurkers and contributors; this means infinite opportunity for content creators who want mindshare to be a leader not sheep

Best reality check: You may have great content, but quality alone cannot overcome the competitive landscape

Best quote: If you’re writing for everyone, you’re not writing for anyone

Best anti-best practice: Don’t follow best practices, great marketers craft their own

Strangest buzzphrase: “children of personas”: I dare you to bring it up in your next content strategy meeting just to see the dazed expressions

Most unrealistic concept: “empathy meetings”one presenter said, is when he meets with clients weekly to discuss and solve core problems; My empathy starts when I have to go to a meeting at all

Most overused word: Friction—it just rubs me the wrong way

Best live tweeting: Selfie Humblebrag aka @Shumblebrag. Brilliant at keeping the pretention, ridiculousness, and conference clichés in check. We need more of that—everywhere.

In a nutshell, I think CMW was worth the price (including my discounts, of course). It was some good learning, easy networking, and fun entertainment—but please don’t expect me to wear orange next year.

Author’s note: Next post I’ll be taking a look at the content produced by CMW trade show exhibitors to assess who is eating their own dog food and who needs to bulk up.



Size Matters: What Small Business Wish You Knew

smmmSan Francisco Small Business Week came and went in May, but we carry on long after the most pricey city in the land pays homage to its 85,000 independents. The mom and pop shops. The consultants. The entrepreneurs (I refuse to legitimize  solopreneurs). We’re growing like crazy, but still the outliers of the American worker.

SMBs appreciate the attention once a year, but here’s what you should know about us—from those curious to start their own business to others who cannot fathom how we slog through this life after year.

We work 24/7

sb3I’m not a drama queen. Believe me, I know people with “regular day jobs” work their butts off too—it’s not a competition, but a very different life. You get a salary no matter what you do. Us? Nope. We only get paid when and how hard we work. And that’s not including the time we think about work on “off” hours. Waking up with a bright idea at 3am, worrying about the client who didn’t pay us, following up on the stale lead from last month. It’s very tough to go on vacation without having concerns. Anxiety-filled questions flood your head, like: will a client find someone new and completely forget me? Did the person I left in charge do a great job or make me look like a putz? And inevitably…Will I ever work again? (OK maybe I am a drama queen). My sister loves to reminds me of a visit years ago to Boston with the promise of helping her move out of her apartment.  I spent 75 percent of the time with one ear to the phone with a client and the other taping boxes (did I mention what a great multi-tasker I am?).

Our Relationship Skills Are Constantly Challenged

 sb2Most of small biz owners do not have psychology degrees and must rely on our smarts—specifically social IQ—to deal with the cacophony of situations, thorny problems, and awkwardness that can occur on a daily basis. There is no playbook for dealing with a wide range of emotions and intelligence we encounter—whether clients or potential customers. We are pushed to rely on our best communication skills (when we don’t have them tee’d up), make instant decisions (which we may instantly regret) or screw something up wildly on the spot (see question above about future employment opportunities). And let’s face it, there are certain people that make working together more difficult than it needs to be. Think of it like communication kung-fu, but without the black belt. One of my first clients (through a friend, even more awkward) included a permanently-agitated, resentful employee who constantly tried to point out flaws, and went from passive to aggressive without the hyphen. I learned early on from this experience and others like it to try and put myself in that person’s shoes. Maybe the person was competitive, or worried I was angling for their job, or stressed about something at home, or maybe, just maybe, was just a certified jerk.  I remained professional and reserved my self-control, which has served me well to deal with the next client problem child(s). Thankfully there haven’t been tons of these “learning opportunities.” And though I would like to think I get better at it every year, there is inevitably a new angle on it each time and I think about what I would do in the future. Speaking of which…

Small Biz Can Reinvent

enSure, the word “pivot” is cliché, along with “disruption” and the crop of other Silicon Valley tech-y jargon. No matter what you call it, change happens, whether you bring it on yourself or it comes hurling to your doorstep. From big decisions to small tweaks: the move from project fees to hourly rates, to add new products and services, to never taking a client to a restaurant again because the waiter was rude. For me, my Reinvention Moment was the day I broke up with Events. We were together for years, though admittedly had a love/hate relationship (mostly hate). I spent years laboriously tending to Events, yet wanted to leave more than a semiconductor show in Orange County. Do I ever miss the great money? Yep. The beauty when a perfectly orchestrated event goes off without a hitch? Uh-huh. But do I want the headaches, lugging crap around all the time, and the stress of  planning and fussing over every detail. Heck no.  And once I quit, I never looked back. I created my own change and freed up more time for writing projects, my first work love. Another great thing about having your own biz? If I ever wanted to get back together with Events—I could. (But we all know how round two usually goes).

There is No “Us” in Brand

smmmmWhether you have a teeny retail shop, a thriving online business, or sell hot dogs on  the streets of New York City, you’re still the boss and Head Honcho of Everything. If an employee screws up your Twitter account, a customer gets ridiculously overcharged, or the hot dogs end up burnt— that comes back to you—it’s your baby, whether you like it in that moment or not. Now is not the time to hide behind excuses (nor tall employees). When something goes awry—as it often does—we own up to it and fix it. Small business takes this commitment very seriously. And if we don’t, things will go south in a hurry. SMB knows better than anyone, the one thing that is difficult—if not impossible to repair—is your reputation. Once you’re “damaged goods,” it’s near-impossible to get your coveted spot back. Think of vendors, stores and customer experiences  you never want to revisit. For a famous brand, say Tylenol or Toyota, or celebrity like Martha Stewart, redemption is granted through time. Humans love that schadenfreude stuff. But these are on-of-a-kind and popular cultural brand icons we want to like (and purchase from). Those same rules don’t apply to small business. Once you screw up royally, it’s pretty much over and onto the next.

We’re a Different Breed

sm5Not to be too black and white. Or Type A or B. But you’re a small business owner—or you’re not. I could rattle off the qualities that make it so, but that would be superficial. I never fashioned working away at my small business when I grew up, but I somehow caught the bug and here I am 17 years later. I think what separates a committed independent is best encapsulated in a conversation recently with a pilot friend of 25 years. He is passionate about flying for a major airline and can’t imagine doing anything else with his life—that’s why he gets up at the crack-ass of dawn, goes through constant sleep deprivation, and curbs his drinking long before the evening wears on. He asked me what job would get me up early and go to a corporate job. I sat there for a minute, paused, and said “nothing” (besides the fact that I despise getting up early). This is exactly where I want to be and in the life I want—like a Silicon valley innovation, it’s designed, produced, marketed, and constantly iterated. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.



LinkedIn Tries to Wiggle Out of Its Work Khakis

Think fast: what social networks do you expect girls in bikinis, political statements, and religious rants? Facebook…Instagram…LinkedIn. Wait what??

Insert screeching brakes sound here.

These types of posts are becoming more and more common on LinkedIn. In fact, a war is being waged in the LinkedIn community upon itself. Newsfeeds are filling up fast with complaints of personal, off-color or racy images, mixed with those defending it. And it’s gotten downright nasty, taking up more real estate than ever.

Examples? (replete with thousands of comments pro and con)

– Before-and-after photos of a woman in a skimpy outfit to demonstrate a personal trainer’s results

– an image of a fast food employees praying through the drive-through window with a customer

– An image of an orange-faced businessman with bad hair who happens to be running for president

-A dad showing off the breakfast food porn his kids made that morning

-Posts complaining about these types of posts

-Posts complaining about posts complaining about these posts

…Get the idea?

The fact is, many LinkedIn members want the network to remain the buttoned-up workplace they know, while others choose to use it as a fertile sharing ground for anything.

While LinkedIn does have a community behavior policy in its terms of agreement (like other networks), its ambiguity leaves the policy’s implementation frayed at the edges and open to interpretation (also like other networks). The specific clause forbids a LinkedIn member to “Act dishonestly or unprofessionally, including by posting inappropriate, inaccurate, or objectionable content.”

But what do those words mean in the age of social media and increasingly blurry lines between personal and work lives?

The grandaddy of social networks has made it clear it wants to stay out of this touchy conversation and leave it to members “work it out.”

But me thinks there is something much bigger going on here.

The loud silence gives voice to the idea that the old network is simply
“pivoting” in true Silicon Valley fashion. All of the signs and symptoms are there. And it would seem like the next logical step to attempt unicorn social media status and attain relevancy in all parts of its users lives.

But no matter how it dresses for casual Friday, LinkedIn screams work. It’s decidedly not the go-to for a fun fix like a Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook. And that’s why the company is taking its cue from the blue-logoed, most popular social network in the world.

Look at the mounting evidence: the red notification that excites and brings on that Pavlovian response for more; the “like” button for posts and new jobs; larger, multi-size imagery; more targeted ads and messages on the sides of the pages; the ability to publish (ala post); the new chat feature replacing messages; network birthday notifications, a snazzy new Facebook-like app, and other telltale signs.

The only thing that’s missing so far? Community acceptance.

The fact is, something is not quite connecting for  millions of LinkedIn users. Could it be that the community DOES like a modicum of  personal and work life to remain separate? Most people feel uncomfortable sharing vacation photos, opining their views on political candidates, or ranting about lousy customer service to a network mostly from former and current employers, professional event or other work circumstances.  We have lots of other places to do that, thank you very much.

LinkedIn wants to have it both ways—to be the “world’s largest professional network”— but  change the definition of what that means in order to grow and more deeply engage its users.

And it may be fighting a losing battle and in the process turn off community members to what is perceived as a degredated, cheapened network.

The fact is, we all have our own definitions and standards of what stays in the outer circle but there are some common threads—that’s not going to change much over time. It’s the reason we don’t wear shorts to an interview. Or tell our boss we got in a big fight with our mate. Or share that we’re going to a political rally on the weekend. It’s this thing called “boundaries.”

My rule of thumb is if it’s not something I would say to a colleague, it doesn’t go on LinkedIn. That doesn’t mean I can’t have fun or a sense of humor or show my personality— it just means I have no interest in doing more than that on LinkedIn.

This is as personal as it gets.




An Author, Agent, and Publisher Walk into a Writing Conference…


As we sat huddled at crowded tables in the Peacock Room of the elegant Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, my deja vu struck: I was watching a Tony Robbins motivational conference on PBS.

The dozen or so men and women on stage, all shapes, sizes and ages, stood up and gripped the mic—some with more confidence than others—and told their stories: “Three years ago, I too was sitting where you are, my book idea barely conceived, uncomfortable and unproven but here I am now a published author with an advance and another book on the way.” Riotous clapping ensues. Rinse and repeat with other inspiring stories.

I realized that the attendees at the 50+ tables wide-eyed and straining to listen, weren’t attending this conference to refresh grammar rules, learn story arcs, or methods to hone their pitch. They were here to fulfill their dream: The ecstatic giddiness of writing a book and getting it published.

I also understood clearly at that moment that it wasn’t just about writing the book, it was the desire for others to read your book. It made me wonder: could one exist without the other? I loved writing but if no one read it, did it count?  If I don’t have feedback does it mean I won’t know if my writing is good? Does any of this even matter? My mind raced with “If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it…” questions, but was brought back to the noisy excitement of more clapping.

Once I checked back into the reality of the room, I felt a sense of shame and idiocy recalling the one-in-a-million chances and fakery we’ve all seen on TV: The faith healer raising a small boy out of his wheelchair. “The Price is Right” contestant who wins a car because she reveals a stapler in her purse to Bob Barker. The lottery winner on TV grinning ear to ear. Could this dream really happen to me?

But then I checked myself.

I too could be on that stage. I too could write that book. I too had that passion—and it was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it was one of those rare moments I felt a deep sense of camaraderie with every person in the room for their passion to write, no matter how different we were. And believe me, we were miles apart.

From the young woman writing about birthing in the wilderness to the female coach advising how to say “no” without guilt. Or the San Francisco hipster taxi driver musing on his rides to the serial dater writing about her kooky love misadventures. Then there was the doctor penning a story of a 5th grader doing surgery and a famous cartoonist’s son spinning historical fiction. The list goes on.

This quilt of ideas and passion in the room strangely seemed to fit together: We all have a story to get out and conversely, want someone to read it. But I still couldn’t help asking myself if I was part of a group of unrealistic dreamers or soon-to-be successes.

Throughout the weekend I attended classes about parables, platforms, and pitches, which only served to fuel the strike-it-big fantasy. Excitement was sparked by topics like: how to option your book; rules for media interviews; scheduling out book series.

Though I became weary of all the advice, potential triumphs, and scribbling notes, I nonetheless stayed motivated by the possibilities of writing dreams. In the evenings, between sips of wine and bites of networking snacks, we tested our pitches and ruminated on fears and fantasies for our books.

But there was the subtext buzzing beneath the surface during the entire conference: Self-publishing is the last resort if you don’t get published. It’s the First-Class versus Coach of the industry. The unspoken message is that if you are a published author, you’re legitimized, if you self-published, not so much. After all, anyone can publish a book these days. That doesn’t make it a bad option, but it means you have no other option. Some authors don’t care. But some care very much.

Of course, the (again one-in-a-million) example heard of self-publishing throughout the weekend was the lucky author of the “The Martian” discovered online, then part of an Oscar-nominated movie, and the rest is history. Yes, sometimes luck, talent, and timing really do intersect in life. But how many lives? How many times?

By the end of the conference, through all the classes, writers, agents, and publishers I encountered, the biggest discovery had nothing to do with potential book fame—it only had to do with my relationship to writing.

For those who lament with words every day, it is not a choice, it’s something we must do, no matter how painful or glorious it is. It’s more than getting our thoughts on the virtual paper, or praising ourselves for the beauty of perfect prose strung together, or slogging through that final edit that renders us broken but exhilarated. It’s about completeness. The End. Ready for Prime Time—whatever form that takes.

The truth is that writing is the least of the work if you want to be a published author—whether you seek a contract or self-publish. For those of us who live in the world of feared procrastination just looking at the blank screen, that alone can be enough to click on Facebook for life.

You’ll be eeking out every page, editing and re-editing, creating your platform, finding publishing options, hiring a coach or an editor, getting educated on contracts. It can make your head spin. And maybe if you have the time, reading other works to continue that inspiration. It’s enough to look at your book as a side project, which it is already if you are working to support yourself to write (99% of us).

This isn’t all bad though, it means that it will light a fire under your ass—or it won’t. The passion you feel for your project comes completely from within. Being a “published author” can come in many forms —but that flotation device in an ocean of words that keeps you above water is shaky at best and may or may not sink at any point.

But then I slipped into my imagination and clearly saw a snapshot of the glossy cover of my book, the title a bit fuzzy and the image splashy color but illegible. But what I did see with extreme clarity, was my name in big bold letters staring back at me.

And as I learned from 74-year-old Walter at the conference, now is when you should write your book. “I don’t have a lot more time to tell my story so I need to do it now.” He see’s the ultimate deadline and in doing so, has accomplished the seemingly impossible.









7 Ways to Better Marketing in 2016

Let’s start the new year right: out with the old and in with the fresh.

#1 Get off the training wheels articles

Dear content experts: We know that images are processed 60x more than text. We also know that tweets with images get tons more shares than those without. We get it. There are hundreds of articles on these basics. If you want more SEO, be less of a sheep and more of a leader. Got an interesting take on why Twitter sucks for certain businesses? Or an argument to do long-form blogging instead of 500 words? Bring it. Make us think, provoke us and push us further in our education, don’t give us the same-old.

#2 No more gobbling up junk food infographics

Ratios are important, including infographics. For instance, when the largest element of an infographic is the logo of the company that produced it, it’s a clear warning sign. Many infographics these days are filled with fluffy, contextless stats aimed at showcasing themselves for shares and/or hopping on popular culture (not very well). We have more innovative data visualization opportunities than ever. Let’s use this information to educate and inspire ideas, not dumb down readers.

#3 Overthrow the content monarchy drivel

…Is so 2013 (I’m guilty myself). No more using “content is king” or corollary: “content is queen” context, engagement or anything else that is sidekick to the King. (and why does the Queen always have the helping role?) These cliché terms are ubiquitous and mean nothing anymore. We’re way beyond this revelation (see #1). It’s time for the next level analysis when we write about content. Speaking of which…

#4 Doctor’s orders: marketing does not cure cancer

I do suggest one new monarchy term: “Content is the new court jester”. We’re a pretty humorless bunch. We do have the Condescending Corporate Facebook page, Clickhole, recaps of social media flubs, and the occasional catch-all. But more laughs and less self-importance is the prescription for what ails us. There are brands that get humor thankfully. Yes, meaty, relevant content is an essential ingredient for smart marketing strategy and contributes to revenue (fingers crossed), but let’s have some fun, people.

#5 A fresh litter is worth 10 copycats

A blog post compiling expert views is one thing, but regurgitating others’ ideas with few word changes has a centuries-old legal term: plagiarism. It’s spread online like rancid butter. If you have an opinion, state it and back up with well-thought ideas and research. While we’re at it, let’s do away with hijacking trending stories unless an authentic connection is there. The passage of time often reveals more interesting or thoughtful insights. Better yet, let the story ride out its 15 minutes and write about something original.

#6 Social media deserves a demotion

There, I said it. While social media continues its star billing, advertising (save for ethically ambigious “sponsored content”), events, and everything else in the marketing wheelhouse is relegated to the D-list. Social also gives  click-bait culture a huge boost. True, social media disrupted how we communicate with each other and brands, but ALL marketing is a part of the promotion landscape. Young marketers are taught to burrow heads into their screens 24/7 without understanding or caring about what they can learn by looking up and around. All pieces of the promotion pie are part of our rich legacy. (P.S. Apple does billboards, so you know it’s still cool).

#7 Time travel to forward-thinking content 

There are tons of articles about “next year…” this time of year, but what about visionary pieces that look at marketing five or 10 years down the road? The internet of things, mobility, and other technologies are reshaping the way we market. Let’s peek into future so we can plan for the Next Big Thing (or avoid a trending rat hole). Like: why virtual reality will change the way we shop or how robots are invading into journalism . Let’s learn about these futuristic ideas now and start planning for what’s to come . Even if these predictions never come true, it opens our minds to new possibilities and ways of thinking.

Here’s to a great marketing year in 2016….hold the filler.






Think Like Your Client and Become a Better Consultant


Freelancers love to write about the woes of not getting paid, how they feel underappreciated, and dole out consulting advice like there’s no tomorrow. One topic we rarely explore, however, is the client point of view working with us. What do they wish we’d change? What annoys them? And what can we learn as consultants?

I know personally because I’ve been on both sides of the fence, both as a client and a freelancer. I’ve heard complaints. I’ve noted bad behaviors. I’ve been asked to change the way I operate occasionally (#trueconfessions). But to know your clients’ pet peeves is half the battle—doing something about it is quite another.

Here are some common complaints from the client trenches and ways to remedy them before they spiral out of control, or you flat out lose the work.

Don’t tell me about your other clients

The old adage “Always tell your clients you have other work” for fear of them thinking you’re desperate can also have a downside when you are actually really busy. Freelancers sometimes go too far and won’t shut up about other clients. This can take the form of blathering on about a job that is dominating your life, saying you’re strapped for time, having difficulty scheduling meetings, or worse yet, missing deadlines (more on this later). Here’s the reality: Clients don’t care much about your other jobs—they are interested in the projects you’re working on for them. Make their job your number one priority as if it were your only assignment, because in their eyes, it is. Prattling on about other non-issues also includes babysitter problems, a sinus infection, or bad dog behavior unless that’s your small talk of choice before you dig in to the work.

Do this instead: Minimize or eliminate client chatter and off-topics and focus on what’s in front of you. Mention other clients only if it’s relevant to the discussion or boosts your experience/knowledge.

Go by my communication style, not yours

In the days before “internet” was the standard lexicon, communication with clients was much easier. Fewer options meant less friction and decision making about getting your project done. Today’s technology cornucopia requires frenetic dexterity and multi-tasking: Email, text, web conference, or God forbid phone! Most clients, however, have a preferred method that will be revealed quickly. If they’re all over the map, take the initiative to ask how they want to communicate and cadence they prefer—even if you’re half-way through the project it will be worth it. I learned my lesson years ago when a client told me I was sending too many emails. That’s when we agreed to wrap up topics in one email every day. I still ask myself with every client email I write: do I send this email? Can I figure it out on my own or by asking someone else? Can it wait?

Do this instead: Make communication methods and work style a part of your project kick-off discussion with a client. Asking directly will show you are thoughtful about the work process, acknowledge their needs, and set a unified beginning to your relationship.

Meet your deadlines. Period.

I’m don’t consider myself to be a God fearin’ type but deadlines are my bible. When you don’t meet delivery dates, credibility is lost and the next job with that client could be in jeopardy. Next up, your work reputation could be at stake. Though it seems obvious that meeting deadlines would be part of a consultant’s ethos, making it top priority is what makes the difference. Sometimes milestones aren’t met due to client delays, external circumstances, or other issues beyond your control. That notwithstanding, the “Say what you mean and mean what you say” applies when it comes to deadlines.

Do this instead: Get a strong grip on deadlines with your client early on—are they loosy goosy or are they firm drop dead dates? Keep your client updated on project status so there are no surprises. Better to tell them red flags before they have to ask—by then it’s too late.

Keep payments professional

We all know step one is do the work, step two is  invoice and step three is receiving a check on your payment terms. But any consultant will tell you, that’s not always how this plays out. When working as a corporate client many moons ago, I still bristle when I think about the writer who called in advance of her invoice date and said she needed her check so she could pay her quarterly business taxes. This is not my problem as her client. Certainly companies need to pay on time (who doesn’t have stories about the late payment, including moi?). But as consultants, we also need to abide by our own terms and manage our finances properly—this is not the concern of our client.

Do this instead: Set your payment terms early on in the project and stick to them. Don’t ask to be paid early unless you have a darn good reason (i.e a portion of the project is delayed, canceled, or finishes early—this last one a rarity, of course.)

Just because I know you as a (friend, colleague, acquaintance) does not give you a work pass

Ever hire a friend for a job for it only to turn out to be a disaster? Me too. I’ve been on both sides of the fence on this one. The rule of thumb is the business relationship comes first when you’re working together, but never at the expense of the friendship. Sure you have a “short cut” to communication since you have an established relationship but that shouldn’t be an excuse for late work, overconfidence, or any other bad behavior you wouldn’t consider acceptable with a consultant you didn’t know personally. As a client years ago, I hired a friend and discovered she wasn’t up to snuff with deadlines, the quality of her work, and other aspects of the project. I was both surprised and disappointed. I kept the friendship but let go of the work relationship after that  job. I’ve also worked as a consultant for several friends and treat them like I would any other client. Mutual respect and professionalism is key.

Do this instead: Again, talk about the rules of engagement early on to head off potential issues. Talk about your work styles, expectations, and any concerns. Be honest to avoid conflict later that could put a crimp in your personal relationship. So not worth it.

Bonus for both sides: Follow your gut

Intuition is highly underrated, especially when a consultant is hungry for new work and a client is starving for help. Both can lead to unappetizing results under the right (or rather wrong) circumstances. I liken it to overlooking flaws when dating someone and later those same negative qualities seemingly come out of nowhere—they were there from the beginning, of course, you just didn’t want to see them. My personal work hell in my first years of consulting was a similar life lesson: ridiculously high expectations, a crazy schedule, and poor communication skills made for a very unhappy work scenario. I told the client why the job wasn’t a good fit and that I wanted to end the contract. He, in turn, was livid, tried to convince me to stay, and then decided he wouldn’t pay me for the work I had completed. Sadly, I didn’t have the fortitude to fight for my money in those early days of my business. It was an expensive lesson but worth it. Always look  for the answer inside, whether you’re hiring someone or being hired (and oh yeah, dating too). Pay attention to that little voice, it really is telling you something.

Do this instead: The first time or two you talk as a potential client or consultant, if you get a bad feeling or fumble over communication every sentence, try and talk about it (tricky considering the situation) or get out gracefully—often it’s best bow out early instead of trying to make something work that could be a nightmare assignment for both of you.

The fact is, I learn work lessons from my clients every day—some that inspire me to do things differently, others that surprise me with epiphanies, and a few choice ones  I’ll never work with again but are good article material. Win-Win!

Five Consulting Reality Checks

nickThere’s a reason for stereotypes: Sometimes they’re true. But a lot of times they’re not. As a freelancer for 16 years, I’ve gotten all of these questions, multiple times: Do you wake up at noon? Do you charge clients every time they pick up the phone? Do you hate any of your clients? The answer to all of these questions is an unequivocal no, but I will spill intel that you won’t hear elsewhere.#1 You’re either a consulting type or you’re not

Plenty of friends and colleagues talk about starting their own businesses. It’s fun to chat about but hard to do: You work your ass off most days. You scour for jobs on the others. Your business and your personal life blend too much. Vacations are a rarity. And there certainly is no job security. While not an easy path, it’s very rewarding. I’ve known some folks who go in and out of consulting, but 99% either stick with it or not—there’s not much in between.

#2 We have different rates for different clients

There, I said it. This might come as a shock and even seem unfair, but consulting is not a one size fits all business. If you’re a big corporate client, for instance, I know the going rates versus a small business who can’t afford as much or is cheaper. Or a nonprofit. Or a friend of the family. Or the project is long-term versus a one-off. There are lots of reasons for different pricing. You can be sure I won’t gouge you, but all factors are taken into consideration to come up with that magic number.

#3 Expenses. Are. High.

I’m not asking you to take out the violin, but understand that even if you think you’re shelling out a small fortune, much of that money is already allocated: besides life expenses like housing and food, there’s health insurance, office costs, gas/travel, marketing, client meals and gifts, and that little thing called taxes every quarter. Know that a fair chunk of that 1099 check is going to it. The high rolling consultant trope is only a fantasy held by clients and well, us.

#4 We’ll work harder for you than the typical employee

This might seem presumptuous and even downright cocky, but there is a reason we put such effort into our work: We’re only as good as our last job with you. Employees have an ongoing flow of work and opportunities to show their stuff, not to mention a semblance of job security. Us?

We’re judged on every engagement. Being too comfortable can be the biggest downfall. It’s a great motivator to go that extra mile, every time. Which leads me to the last truth…
#5 We’re committed to you, but we’re always dating.

It’s not that we’re planning to cheat on you by running off with the competition, but we don’t have blinders on either. And don’t forget we have other clients. Like any open relationship, we still go to networking events, meet with other work suitors, and scan the job ads. We know that you could leave your company or get laid off. Budgets get cut. Or a new person comes in with their own cronies. We have to protect our investment in you. Remember that variety is a reason consultants do what we do. We don’t just love working for ourselves; we love working with lots of you.

One last truth: We are nothing without you. Clients are the lifeblood of our business and we learn a lot from these relationships, even if we don’t tell you that. We become smarter, grow as a work partner, hold up a mirror to our strengths and weaknesses, become better problem solvers, and even help evolve our businesses.

So thank you for letting me do what I love—but my payment terms are still net 30.