From the Consultant Files: Make That First Impression Count

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We all know that phrase, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Trite as it may sound, it’s also true. I put the shoe on the other foot (to borrow another cliché) and recently interviewed vendors for my website redesign. It was a stark reminder of how important that first meeting is. Here’s what I learned.

Do Your Homework

When I interview for a gig, I prep: research the position, company, potential client, you get the idea. One of the vendors I spoke with seemed to have no clue about the project (even though I emailed her about it in advance). Worse yet, I had to spell out my website address, which is my name. Don’t be that vendor. I’ve learned everything I need to know before we (don’t) go any further. Being unprepared reflects poorly— either you’re not interested, too busy, disorganized, or all of the above. Harsh? Yes, but goes back to that first impression.

Go Easy on the Critique 

That first call with a potential client always walks a tightrope: You want to show your value, but too much feedback or criticism can backfire. For instance, when the gig is to rewrite website copy, I don’t trash the current site since the person I’m speaking with may have approved it, or worse yet, wrote the copy. I let the client lead the conversation. One vendor suggested I get rid of my blog, even though I told her it was part of my marketing strategy. Another commented that it was a “red flag” when I told her I was busy and might be delayed in getting back to her sometimes. (Ironically my red flag was  her saying that.)

Gig First, Money Second

No consultant wants to waste time on a job that is not in his or her price range, including yours truly. But it’s not the first question that I ask about a contract. Sure, it’s in the top three but we’ll get to the money soon enough. One email exchange with a vendor ended the job before it even started when he relayed his minimum project amount (which was over my threshold). It reminds me of that famous quote from former supermodel Linda Evangelista back in the ’80s: “I don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” It’s not always wise to reject a gig outright before you have all the info. What if this work leads to bigger and better projects? Or I can introduce you to others that can hire you? Don’t close a door before you know what’s behind it.

Follow Up the Right Amount

We’ve all been there, even for a 9-5 job: You have that first call, everything goes great, and now you have to gauge when to check back in. You want to show that you’re interested but not appear desperate. There are no hard and fast rules, but do something (unless you don’t want the work). Several vendors followed up at the right cadence; one even sent me ideas for potential design directions. Another vendor’s proposal didn’t come through due to an internet service glitch, which I only found out by contacting her. On the flip side, there can be toooo much communication. One vendor asked me to fill out a lengthy questionnaire before our call, even though I told her we were having an intro chat (she then shrunk the meeting invite to a measly 15 minutes). Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go over well.

Chemistry Matters

Like most relationships, that first call is a microcosm of what’s to come in the future. Did you have a natural back and forth, or was it awkward and stilted? Did the person ask the right questions? Did you have anything in common? While being chummy is not a requirement to work together, a decent rapport and good communication are. You’ll be collaborating closely, so pay attention to how you relate to one another. Building a client relationship isn’t just about your expertise, it’s also the interpersonal dynamics. Both matter and are part of the hiring package.

Treat Referrals with Care

When someone gives me a referral, I am not only grateful, but well aware I have an inside track to getting the contract over some random vendor. But it’s also not a guarantee I get the gig either. I still have to put in the work to show you’re the best fit for the job. Of the referrals for my project, some weren’t right fit, which is to be expected. That’s why I extended the same respect to the them that I would want when I don’t get a job. After I made my decision, I notified the candidates and thanked them for their proposals. We all put time and energy into landing a gig, so don’t leave vendors hanging.

In the end, I followed my gut from first impressions: I chose someone that I thought had the right mix of skills, clearly wanted the work, came with good references, and seemed reliable. Hopefully my next blog post won’t be another cliché: “Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” 😆

photo credit: Frabz.com

 

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Five Smarter Ways to Start Your Next Gig

A lot of times in Hollywood you’re as good as your last job”

-Liev Schrieber

OK, we’re not in Tinseltown. But as consultants, we can all learn a valuable lesson here: the way your last gig goes can dictate your future, so kick things off on the right foot. Here are some tricks I’ve learned over the years to save you time.

Get a 360° View

multitask_253458706-thumb-380xauto-3991We know all the usual suspects before you start a new contract: look at the website, study up on materials your new client gave you, tap anyone you know that works there and get the skinny. But with so much information on the internet (not to mention other consultants chomping at the bit), you’ve got to do more. Read articles about their business, review their social media, how the competition talks, dig into their corporate culture on employee rating sites, check out their ads – in short, act like you’re starting a job as an employee.

Get the Work in Writingsamuelgoldwyn1

This would seem a no-brainer, but many consultants start contracts without a written agreement and will “do the paperwork later.” Nope. If it involves money and time, get a record of it – whether your contract or the client’s, a signed estimate, or other legally- binding document. Don’t miss the nuances of your profession either. As a writer, one of the most difficult areas to gauge is how many rounds of edits. Sometimes it’s two, others it takes a village, so I bake that into each job. Think of your own industry and the “gotchas.”

Set Communication Ground Rules
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Email. Phone. Text. Skype. Ad nauseam. Your client has preferences to keep in touch. Make sure you know what they are before you start work. They’ll appreciate that you asked. Forgo misunderstandings after you bombard him or her with emails and should have picked up the phone. For your part, if you have a commitment every Thursday afternoon from 4-6pm, let the client know before you start the gig. Also, be firm about your own preferences: years ago I had a client that called me for everything, urgent or not. Having a conversation at the beginning works wonders.

Get Dialed into Corporate Life

jpmorgan-just-relaxed-its-office-dress-code-in-a-huge-wayOne of the many reasons folks leave corporate life for freelancing is the bureaucracy – you can run but you can’t hide. Be prepared to have déjà vu when you contract for a large corporation, especially if you will be on their email system or are assigned a company computer. Then there’s the security badge and other administrative tasks. Find out what those tasks are before you start your job so you can be productive Day One.

Strut Your Stuff For Free

veryLet’s be clear: don’t spend 25 hours on complementary work. But once you have the gig, show your value-add early. Offer gratis recommendations on a project related to your assignment. Doing this can pay off now and later: it’s a perfect opportunity to be generous with your skills, and secondly, can possibly score you another assignment. Be careful not to sound critical and frame language as “opportunities.” Example: a recent website client showed me their newsletter as part of background info and I served up a list of improvements they could make. If and when they take this project on, I can potentially lead the work.

Once you check off these boxes,  it’s all about the Liev Schrieber method: do your best work and you’ll probably get that callback on the next gig.

 

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.