One of the realities of client – company relationships is that, not infrequently, clients may not understand the meaning and significance or processes, protocols, technologies, and media that you must use precisely to maintain an efficient and effective set of client relationships. This can be especially true, if they or you work in a single-person or small office environment, or work from home. The other thing that can happen is that you and I may not understand the significance and meaning that clients have associated with technologies. We’re each working with our own assumptions, and there’s a disconnect between business assumptions and client expectations.
In the area of technology, this is particularly common. The now classic book net.wars discusses how the internet came to be initially as a community of people who had certain protocols and standards for interaction that prevailed until online services (chiefly AOL) opened their gateways to the internet, spilling the first wave of people into the net who hadn’t played a role in creating these protcols, and largely weren’t aware of them. The best example is, of course, SPAM. It was AOL users, when first gaining access to usenet groups, that began to flood them with the first SPAM, starting a mutation of what was previously a more open and purely collaborative community into one that was necessarily more restrictive and protective. The F.A.Q. is a less negative example. The protocol for interacting in any forum, BBS (bulletin board system), or newsgroup has always been to first read the Frequently Asked Questions (F.A.Q.) before posting new ones. This both respects the users – keeping their attentions from being flooded with repetitive material and demanding redundant and wasteful effort in a collaborative environment – and also conserves storage, bandwidth, and general traffic over networks. If you came from an online service, however, it was provided initially by a corporation, not a collaborative community per se, and your expectations may have been to be able to post your question without reading anything at all, and to get an answer back from a customer service person. When the paying users of online services were let loose onto the more or less free internet, one of the things they brought with them was the view that discussion forums, newsgroups and the like were “help” forums, not *collaborative* communities.
The rules for each are different, obviously. In a collaborative community, you take into account everyone else’s time, attention, and interests before you post. The emphasis is on sustainability, more self-sufficiency and self-directed learning, and new questions and discussions should do what created the net in the first place – add to and extend what has gone before – grow it – further the development of the community itself and the technology that sustains it. In a help forum, the goal is to get your question answered quickly by an expert, regardless of whether it has been asked before by someone else. The result of these differing expectations was, as you can expect, that the original netizens (a term reflecting a sense of citizenship and civic-community responsibility – adherence to sustainable protocols for behavior) – the original netizens often viewed the newbies as uncivilized, arrogant in their demands to be spoonfed assistant by what are essentially volunteers and in the continual complaining over how things work, often without a lot of understanding of why some things are in place. The ‘newbies’ from the online services often viewed the original netizens as arrogant, “techno-geeks” who think you’re inferior or unintelligent if you don’t understand things, and too arrogant to “help” when there’s a document somewhere that explains the answer, and another document that explains the terminology used in the first document – which is of course, quite natural if these documents developed naturally over time, contributed to by a growing community of people who gradually learned their way around in a new society rather than paid $25/month (in 1993) for fast “walk-throughs” from large corporations like Prodigy, Compuserve, and AOL.
It’s no secret where my sympathies lie. I think you don’t barge into a community and demand it accomodate you as you pitch tent on people’s front lawns. And of course, having been involved relatively early, I have a strong respect for self-sufficiency – for people taking responsibility for their own needs to learn more – and for people who make an effort to learn instead of just demanding “walk throughs” all the time. But of course, I’m glad there’s a demand for training – I just insist that it be something we pay for rather than treated like something everyone else owes us. Community is where you collaborate by trading value for value – in that sense, you’re paying there, as well. If you just want the answer, not the community, and don’t want to contribute, then it’s got to be dollars.
A lot of the online communities have been transformed under the sheer pressure of humanity onto the internet, but a few exist now as services with paid memberships, precisely on the theory that if you pay, you’ll freeload less, though they work very differently than the service-oriented ones of the past. I’m thinking of a particular community that is mostly West Coast.
How does all this apply to business and work? Well, it’s precisely differing expectations that have to be managed in client-business relationships, and technologies and assumptions of protocol are the arena for working that out.
E-mail: Those of us that came from the world of typewriters and faxes, may not be aware of the many protocols. I have a colleague who used to try to treat it as chat. If I refilled my coffee before replying to an e-mail, I got back a bewildered response, a mere three minutes after the previous message, “Are you THERE?!?” Most of us know better, but a lot of people treat it like a walkie-talkie. Ever gotten or sent an e-mail that just says “OK”. Not every statement needs a reply. Then of course, there are people who don’t reply when they should. You make a substantive point and just never hear back from them. “Well, you didn’t ask a question.” All-caps is another one. It’s difficult to tell if it’s for emphasis, or if you’re shouting. So we end up sticking emoticons (smiley faces) on everything to make up for shouting. That piece of netiquette is well known. In corporate life, everyone loves to make fun of the person who hits “reply-all” to an e-mail from the CEO for a one-word response “OK” that then goes to all 5,000 members of the organization. It’s even worse when someone puts you on their “mailing list” and includes your e-mail address in the TO: or CC: line along with everyone else, effectively handing that ready-made “mailing list” to all the multi-level marketers he knows. Ever get that joke someone you know mails out to everyone in their address book? You know, the one containing that virus you got? Same thing.
Telephone: A much older technology, of course, but it has in fact evolved greatly. More and more of us are ditching land-lines for cell phones, or ditching cell phones for SIP phones (SIP is an internet protocol for telephony), etc. I make all my outbound business and personal phone calls in Skype. My inbound calls come to me as transcribed e-mails, allowing me to not interrupt my workflow. I don’t have a land line. And my cell is for emergencies, or for calling Google to get a phone number or address, if I’m away from home. But the way people talk on telephones has changed, too. My wife is a hair stylist, and a lot of her clients prefer to make appointments via text message. Cell phones are creating massive causes for car accidents, too – the mobility of communication is changing the protocols people follow. Some people think nothing of driving in two lanes while they chat about who is dating whom, or talking in a loud animated manner about things you’d expect to see on Phil Donahue when they’re inches in front of you in line for a cashier. I don’t even bother calling most clients on their land lines anymore – they don’t know why they have them, and neither do I, since they don’t answer them. The land line is more like “the voice mail line”. If I need to get through now, it’s the cell. But how business is expected to use the phone, even small business, is largely shaped by large corporations and paid subscription services. Sometimes people wonder that I don’t answer the phone 24/7 or have a staffer doing it. I can have someone do it, but you won’t get the expertise, so it’s just an appointment booking mechanism, and then the price of our services to the client has go to go way up. The overhead of having that staff around the clock as well as making all those appointments, and then hiring someone of equal talent and experience to keep them or else to do the work we’re doing for clients, means we now pay five salaries instead of one, just to answer the phone.
I figure not every client is my client, and just don’t do it. It keeps our costs to the client lower, my headaches fewer, and that’s a win-win for our target audience. As a small business, I don’t let large corporations set all the standards for me. After all, if we copied the way they build web sites, our clients’ marketing would suck. Small businesses have more flexibility to be more responsive than the large corps, and their advantage is in using it, not tying on tons of dead weight just to be “respectable”. If you want that, quit your business and go get a job. If you want to run your own shop, run it like your own shop. But you see, that involves considerations about how to manage expectations between company and client, specifically in the area of technologies. And should we, you may ask, put so much emphasis on technology as the arena for working this out? Yes. Yes, because what is contemporary technology in business all about? Primarily it’s about interactions and interactivity. From Twitter to live documents (like Google Docs) to Skype, it’s about connectivity, community (there’s that word again), and sociality (made that one up), and yes between company, client, and actually the rest of the world at large. And when that’s the case, when it’s a revolutionizing set of changes, as I believe it is, all these questions about our assumptions – our expectations – the protocols – the “rules” (as I like to frame them) – of our interactions come up. One of the things I’m continually talking about with my clients is how to be successful doing internet marketing in social media. The prime protocol – the primary rule – #1 – is don’t spam your audience. Don’t pitch them. Don’t confuse marketing with advertising. The surest way to alienate them and find twitter and facebook “useless” (which is something you convince yourself – not something that’s really what it is), is to keep telling them what you offer and how to get it. Instead, the protocol for social media – for the new Web 2.0 communities – is much, much more like what it was before 1994, than what it has been from 1994-2007. It is to give something of value away. To contribute by giving away your insight, analysis, information, expertise, and build a community through social contribution, drawing on your background and experience, earning you the place of resident expert. People who do that have no trouble ‘finding’ clients – the clients find them. The people who spam, find themselves in a pulpit without a congregation.
My advice, read two books. Tribes by Seth Godin, and net.wars edited by Wendy M. Grossman. Get yourself the picture of where we’ve been and where we’re going. It’s strongly related, because people are social animals, even the least social of us.
IM (instant messengers): Ever been in the middle of a really important thought, or activity, or finally trying to shut down, and up pops that <beep> instant message with “Hi. I saw you online”? Yeah, me too. It’s why I stay invisible all the time. Synchronous communication is for the absolutely lowest level of support in your organization. That’s why there are automated chat clients that do “automated support” for you, using artificial intelligence. If the chatter asks, “How do I reset my password?” the chat client dutifully responds with the link to the instructions along with some nice verbiage – “I have it right here, sir.” (it gets your gender from your client file, or guesses it from your name). If you have time to play that role in your business, by all means, put up one of those “Talk to me instantly” widgets on your site. I find synchronous communication to be a workflow-destroyer and, while it’s easy for clients to add me, I don’t use it for clients, I use it for staff. With e-mail, I can keep some structure and flow in my life. As an asynchronous communication form, it lets me have more than one client at a time, which is necessary to survive at all. I eliminate the expectation of instant responses, and usually set a standard of a reply within 24hrs. Ever seen those auto-responders that say “I’ll get back with you asap?” I don’t use them, but I understand why they are there. For one thing, the worst thing you can do to spam is auto-reply to it, thereby confirming your address as a sale-able part of the list, and exponentially increasing the likelihood of further spam in a never-ending snowball of e-garbage. Think before you automate. Some of us who have automated other things have, occasionally made mistakes, only to come back and find a serious mess on our hands. Wow, I can’t even tell you about a couple of things I’ve totally &*^%$-ed up that way. Automated payments, too. Remember that thing you thought you cancelled a year ago? Automate the expense, automate the payment, automate the renewal – argh! Anyway, managing client expectations for communications – synchronous vs. asynchronous – response time, times of day, etc. is key.
One of the things I always struggle with is how you make sure your clients know you work with multiple clients at once, so no you can’t stop and do six hours of straight work on their project on demand, just because they took the day off to focus on it. You may have six clients’ projects to touch that day. My best solution right now is to focus on turn-around time and response time. By conveying average turnaround time, up front, I am leaving myself free to have enough clients at once to survive, and hopefully communicating, at least subtly, that one client’s project is not all I’m doing today, one at a time, etc. If you’ve got good ways to get this across to set client expectations, please comment and add your advice.
Reminders: I send out action items frequently, and reminders if I haven’t heard anything in a few days. It’s interesting, because large corporations do the same thing, of course – I find the majority of clients appreciate it. Sometimes, if they’re feeling harried by other work obligations, and you’re dependent on them for deliverables to complete the project, they can feel pressured. Moreso, actually, because you’re a smaller business, your reminder is more personal, and it altogether seems more personal. This can prompt another exchange over it not being pressure, but just being what one client termed “due diligence” – staying up on it. We do what we can to manage the feelings of the recipient, but there are limits. If you’ve got ideas, please share them.
Online Documents: One of our solutions to the above issue is live, collaborative, online documents (like Google Docs). We’ll share a list of action items and other project documents that we maintain online in a secure environment, so they can at any time see the updates. The challenge is, of course, not everyone is yet used to live documents. Most people still think of documents as something you possess, that may be on your hard drive, rather than an interactive construct that you share and collaborate on and maintain. The former is the Microsoft mentality, who finds themselves haplessly trying to copy Google with Live Docs, though without the fundamental reasoning behind it, and the latter thinking – much more in tune with Web 2.0 and with how businesses really need to work to be efficient and effective – is Google’s. I’ve seen large corporations struggle, to much amusement, with sorting out and exchanging and collaborating on different versions of documents as e-mail attachments, meaning no two people can work on the same document at once (it’s “checked out” to use Microsoft’s early term when they first tried this), or else you can, but then you have to have another person who reconstructs a new version of the document out of the pieces worked on by each team member. That’s 2009 productivity for ya! So many useless jobs that technology gives us a way to live without. All it was waiting for was the motivation to waste less money. The only comforting thing for those of us that compete with big corps, is the assurance that they’re just finding different things to waste it on – it’s moving the peas on the plate, not making them disappear. Anyway, if you’re really, really not experienced with much beyond e-mail, the concept of a shared document, and even creating an account or logging in to see it, may be new to you. A lot of people get stumped, so it’s not the only solution. We fall back to e-mail until those clients’ own companies’ needs demand that they catch up.
Filing: That brings up e-mail again. Ever been asked for the same e-mail again and again – the client can’t find it, or deleted it, or doesn’t know what folder he put it in, etc.? It slows him down – he has to e-mail you to get his e-mail. And of course, it takes a bite out of your productivity and efficiency. This is why you’ve got to charge a substantive fee for your work. Because you’re going to serve as either tutor or efficiency triage for a percentage of your clients – one or the other. I’m not trying to pick on clients. I like my clients, and you probably like yours. What I’m saying is that we also have to talk about, and they about their clients, how you manage those expectations and what are the results. If my client is a real estate appraiser who is constantly having to stop during the day and take “What’s the status?” calls from his clients, he’d benefit from pro-active status updates – which is something my company uses, too. You get your clients started, then when they call, you wean them off of the phone, “Oh yeah. I sent you the status this morning. Did you get my e-mail?” Not an accusation, just always including the point that there’s another process already in effect, that they’re being taken care of. In the same way, we provide pre-designed tutorials at the completion of every project. And the tutorials indicate that custom instruction is also available for a reasonable fee. That sets the expectation. Before that, some clients would wonder why hours of custom instruction weren’t included in the spec. Now, we set the expectation by being proactive and also offering alternatives. That’s not all we do, but it’s enough to make the point here. Offer self-sufficiency and self-directed learning – offer the F.A.Q., so to speak – but make the “walk through” available for a fee. That’s the hybrid of the two protocols we described at the beginning.
Calendar Items: We send these and not everyone knows what to do with them, which is to be expected. They’re a protocol in corporate life, or in large offices with shared networks (server-installed e-mail/calendar applications like Outlook) where lots of meetings take place. Still, it works more than it fails. Some clients treat it as a confirmation, some as an invitation, and some as a calendar item. We love it. Rarely, but still sometimes, we get back “what am I supposed to do with this?” or the client gets confused over time zones. More commonly, because the client isn’t using these productivity tools in his own office, the client forgets about the appointment and is surprised at our call, which is exactly why calendar items were invented. Whether you are a one-man shop, a contractor, or working in an office of two people, calendar items can increase your productivity and minimize disparities between business-client expectations. I recommend Google Calendar. It’s faster and easier than Outlook (time is productivity), it’s compatible if your recipient uses Outlook, Lotus Notes, and a host of other e-mail/calendar applications, and it offers extra features if you’re a Gmail junkie like me.
Attachments: Ever ask for a .jpg or .gif and get a word document? Sometimes, you can’t even pull the image out of it without Microsoft reducing the quality down to garbage. Ever send an attachment, and your recipient has trouble viewing it? That’s why PDFs are helpful. Send a .jpg or .gif which is smaller and quicker, and your client might open it in Microsoft Picture Viewer which comes with Windows. Not only is the size it shows not real (it scales it without telling you), but your client might have trouble even finding an application to open it. What if it opens in Paint for them? It can be slow, and confusing. In the area of graphics, for that matter, it’s a very large number of people who can take photos but can’t locate them on their hard drive to attach and send to you, let alone crop or resize them (especially if Picture Viewer is displaying an scaled down size, when the real size – if they take photos at full resolution – is bigger than the wall behind their monitor). Attachments can be a pain. What I do is keep an eye on what my clients use every day, in their own profession, and that’s the format I prefer for that client group. If in doubt, I send PDF. A PDF printer driver is essential. Without it, your Word doc is going to open in Open Office, or vice versa. Your .jpg or .gif may be hopeless. Your Excel sheet may open in Excel, but if their default template is messed up, all the columns might get reset to standard width or something like that. What if they’re on a Mac, and you’re not? It’s not worth it. I manage client expectations by sticking with a cross-platform file format like PDF.
Social Media: What about Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn? I’ve had friends write things on my wall that I’ve had to delete, because my clients see them. I’ve had clients spam me, just like I’m one of their clients, because they’re hitting their entire contact list. It can be confusing if you haven’t learned the protocols and netiquette of being a netizen to graduate to understanding effective use of Web 2.0 social media. That’s why we teach this stuff, and provide consulting on it, etc. It can be used effectively, and it can be frustrating if you charge in not knowing how to do it effectively. I set up a blog for a colleague who promptly created an ideological flame war with it. I knew it would happen, but it was actually a good learning experience. You bring the assumptions of what you’re familiar with in other venues, and have to discover that “how the world works” isn’t really how it works – it’s just how it works in one place, at one time, among one group of people. The world is big. And if you see the world as big, the world is bigger. Remember, as we wrote about personality types and personality-based marketing, you are not normal – 75% of your clients are specifically *not* like you – they have a different set of assumptions, needs, and a different focus and direction. If you market to yourself, you sell 25%. Better put, you rule out 75% up front and pitch to a quarter of your audience. If you market to everyone, you’re at least reaching all those that are currently in your auidence with your message – then whether you grow your audience, and how they respond, is about the other things. The world isn’t the “how the world works” – that’s just my version – the quarter I’ve carved out. The world is also the 75% you don’t know. Anyway, after eventual frustration, the blog became an abandoned blog, like so many. But now the opportunity exists for him to rebuild, taking lessons learned – not overreacting by restricting discussion – monoblogs are overrated – not simply dumping the entire medium – “social media doesn’t work for me” – no, you weren’t working for social media – it’s you, not it, that must adapt, or else yeah, you’re tossing that audience away – that’s ok, more for the rest of us. 🙂 Not to be cute, the point is that it’s a learning curve. Social media, whether for you, or your clients, is not Web 1.0. It’s not a “web site”. It’s not waiting for you to charge in with your existing assumptions.
It’s like 1994, when AOL allowed their users access to the internet. Do you go in and alienate the people that are already there, or do you choose to humble yourself, learn, and gradually come to understand the rules – the protocols of community in the new environment. Do you park on someone’s lawn or do you check into a hotel, visit the diner, and get to know the local vibe? Social media is a great venue for learning once again to learn, to become more self-sufficient in technology and, if you do that, you get to build amazing business potential. Rember the first spammer, who saw the gateway to the net as a license to blast every Usenet newsgroup with advertisements for multi-level marketing? That could be you, also. Ever seen a blog that was a series of ads? Or just a huge portrait of an otherwise boring personality? Here’s my favorite color this week. The rule is value. Give it away. Contribute. Focus on that, and only that, and all the rest follows. Your brand isn’t your logo, it’s what you say and do, folks. Social media is a great clarifying process. Your brand is who you are. It’s the substance too, not just the image. It’s the man and the mask – it’s both.
That’s it. Yeah, I know my writing style is unusual. It’s not wrong, tho. It’s part of the delightful incongruity that is me. As always, I hope it was helpful.