It’s The Matter Of Perception

It's the matter of perception - Small Business BlogLately I have been busy managing things. There are many different things that need managing and it takes different kinds of people to manage certain things. Having said all that, everyone, especially in the small business area, have to know (or learn) to manage their own perception. In other words, you have to know how to control the way people perceive you.

Let’s consider the following example. The company has just hired a technical expertise person, who they call ‘developer’ for lack of a better word. Company itself does not maintain any IT staff, rather relying on multiple outside vendors to provide services. Immediately upon the introduction of the ‘developer’ to vendors they went from happy and content to almost hostile. The obvious reason was that from their perspective the ‘developer’ is going to take away from their plate and take over most, if not all, work some of them are doing. Company’s management happily

Now, had this ‘developer’ been introduced to vendors by using his actual title – which included the word “manager” – things would have went a lot easier. Vendors would understand that the real goal of that person coming aboard would be to manage company’s relationship with those very vendors, having a more streamlined way of communicating requirements and processing feedback. In a way, this person should be a single point of contact between vendors and the company, removing or significantly reducing ambiguity and redundancy in processes.

However, by not managing the proper perception of the role, the company management created an obstacle in their relationship with vendors that wasn’t there before. Had the proper perception management applied – there would be no hostility whatsoever.

Managing the way your business partners and vendors perceive you and people who work for you is an important stage in relationship development. A lot of small businesses miss the opportunity to build on this early on and playing a catch-up game to resolve the issues that should not have been there in the first place.

business clients

Understanding The Web Designer – 10 Critical Questions You Should NOT Be Asking

There is an interesting article on Small Business Branding blog – “10 Critical Questions To Ask A Web Designer”. The post is wrong on so many accounts, it’s would have been easier to ignore it altogether. However, being a lead to a Zealus web design studio for so many years I can’t help but notice how irrelevant most of these questions are – and here’s why:

1. What skills do you or your team posses? HTML, CSS, Drupal, WordPress, MySQL, PHP, CGI, Ruby on Rails? – author argues that by listening to the white noise the project lead makes while trying to answer your question you will be able to pick something useful. Wrong – you won’t. If he’s technically savvy he (or she, doesn’t matter) will sink you in the sea of gibberish technology talk, and if he’s not – he will sink you even deeper in semi-technology blabber. Point is – you will leave thinking that you have talked to a smart guy while in reality you have learned nothing.
What you should be asking – what’s the technology called, how widespread is it, how mature is it. These are the things you can understand, remember and cross-check after the conversation. What’s important – you will be able to make a business decision based on things you can comprehend.

2. How quickly can you provide a first draft of the site and how long does a job like this normally take? – author argues that such preliminary estimates can help you manage your schedule. Wrong – before signing the contract all dates are so grossly underestimated that you really have to live outside of the reality to base anything but future negotiations on those dates.
What you should be asking – how long projects like these take typically? What are the pitfalls, what could drag the project, how to prevent dragging from happening.

3. What is your working procedure and how will you communicate your progress? – if you are working with freelancers they most likely have no procedure in place and if you have with some established group they will tell you about project status reports even before you have to ask. The reason being that people who’s been around long enough know that if they fail to communicate properly they fail to get paid. So they will make damn sure their client knows all the hard work they put in, they will create a dashboard with tasks, timelines, heck, you might even see Gantt chart!
What you should be asking – what is the phone number of the person responsible for the project. One single person has to be responsible, if there is more than one – walk away.

4. How much support comes with this package deal? – obvious statement that no one works for free is obvious. Make sure you ask this question before negotiations begin, otherwise you can negotiate that sweet low price only to find out that support costs painfully extra. Unless you’re dealing with “Cheap web sites for r$499 per 5 pages” type of designers – there is no point in asking this question aside from the other negotiations.

5. What kind of after support do you offer? – same thing. Best thing to do is negotiate a support contract for some period immediately after launch so you will be covered in case something comes out immediately after your web project is live. In addition to that you might want to get a per-incident support after initial support contract is expired.
What to ask – nothing, keep negotiating.

6. What is your normal procedure if the job does not turn out satisfactorily? – author is then ventures on a journey of how everyone is spoiled by generous refund policies. Well, you just go and try to get a refund from anyone, I just want to watch how easy it would be. Speaking of service contracts, I may not live long enough to see the end of it anyway.
What you should be asking – nothing, just get a copy of the contract BEFORE you sign in and show it to your lawyer. It just another one of those things you want to negotiate as hard as you can. We have actually dropped a number of contracts because we could not successfully negotiate this single point. Everything else was set, but because client wanted a full refund or had some other crazy idea about how he gets all of his money back at the end when he tells us he doesn’t like it – it was dropped. It’s cheaper than a lawsuit anyway.

7. What software or technology will you be using to build my site and will I be able to use and update it myself? – the tragic story of a person who was asking for white noise in question #1 and ended up with useless application without anyone around to support it. That’s the illustration right there why pretty much everything that post is telling you is wrong.
What you should be asking – see question number 1: how widespread this technology, how mature is it. Is is Open Source or is it proprietary (former is better than the latter, unless you’re talking about Flash which is a whole another can of worms altogether).

8. Does it cost extra for this software or does anything you recommend to build this site going to require additional license purchased? – this is the only sane question in the whole ten, however, the justification is flawed nonetheless. As with any contractor, he brings his own tools. If your project lead is a geek he will force you into buying the top-notch hardware and software so that he could play with new shiny toys that he otherwise could not afford. If your project lead is a sales agent she will sell you whatever she will make the most of. Either case – you loose.
What you should be asking – is for a detailed chart of costs, including anything and everything your project needs to be completed successfully. Let your future contractors know that you have such and such assets and if anything needs to be purchased – it has to be put on that chart. Time, licenses, hardware, image and sound rights and royalties – everything goes there. This way you can cross-check with other contractors and actual vendors to see who’s charging you and for what. It’s your money, don’t waste it.

9. We would like the domain name administrator to be in our representative’s name and email. Can you arrange that? – unless you trust your contractor sleep in the bed with your husband (or wife) – never ever even mention this to them. Spend as much time as it requires, but BUY THE DOMAIN YOURSELF! Do not give access to your domain to anyone else, if there are any modifications – learn how to do them yourself or register a domain with registrar who has telephone support – like GoDaddy. You can rebuild the site in months, but rebuilding a reputable brand name, replacing domain that all your customers know can take years.
What should I ask – can you develop on test platform and them move the site to our domain? But any decent developer should do that anyway.

10. Can I see a portfolio of previous sites built. Or is there a demo of a site similar to what you will be building us? – this should be first question that you ask a contractor (designer, programmer or whatnot). Why is it #10 – I have no idea, I guess just to reiterate how much wrong is with initial post. In addition to portfolio (if there is any) you should briefly explain what you are trying to do and how does the designer see it solved. That should be the first thing – before you put anything else on the table.

business clients

Small Business Problems Aren’t Small

cash_registerImagine you are running a small retail store. And the online storefront as well, where you sell exactly the same stuff you sell in your brick-and-mortar. Now, correct me if I am wrong, but main issues you’ll be working with are:

  • keeping track of the inventory (N units in stock, X units on order)
  • keeping track of sales receipts (since you have cash/credit you have to learn what the heck is accounts payable and accounts receivable)
  • keeping track of employee hours worked or units of work completed (like packages prepared and shipped or units assembled)
  • keep track of all your money movements, including both direct and indirect costs (like paying salary to employees and paying handyman to fix your delivery truck, or paying your smart-ass business consultants to improve your business), i.e. all of your costs of running business
  • keep track of your customers’ records, personal requests (if your business is of such sort) or general requests (for certain merchandise)
  • keeping track of long term projects not directly related to running a store, like marketing (ads in newspapers, AdWords campaigns) or IT (web site redesign, integrating store’s POS with online ordering)

I’m sure there’s so much more than this, but I just want to stop here. So far we have operations, sales management, human resources, accounting/finance, customer relations and executive management. Did I miss anything (ah, yes, legal, let’s just skip this for a moment) else?

Now, from my experience pretty much all the business owners are keeping all this in their heads. Their bookkeeper does their bank reconciliation once a quarter or once a year. Their full time store sales person probably remembers what needs to be ordered by week’s end. She also knows most of the customers by face and name and sort of knows what they like. And every night the owner pulls cash out of the register together with thick pack of credit card receipts to try to make some sense out of them before the store opens tomorrow morning.

Sounds totally wrong? Or too familiar? That’s what I’m getting at!

Over 80% of business owners don’t go above Excel sheets in order to keep track of all of the above information. One spreadsheet – inventory, one – list of vendors, one – credit card transactions, one – payroll. And these are very well disciplined businesses, because about 60% just don’t keep track of everything. About 20% of business owners don’t keep track of anything at all, judging about their current situation by the current balance on their bank account. And that, mind you, could be a personal account, because they aren’t incorporated, just d/b/a.

Why? Because they don’t know any better. And they don’t want to pay for it, because the money’s tight, the crisis is upon us and there are more important things to do. Nobody wants to spend their time and money on something they can’t immediately use or profit from. And that is totally understandable and just as well totally wrong.

Keep reading, this is just the beginning 🙂