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My son assembled this robot from a box of parts he's been collecting.

Sometimes being creative means collaborating with your children. It’s important to let them take the creative lead and to just help out with the parts involving the hot glue gun.

My son and I usually start with a question: what should we make today? Sometimes we start with the materials and try to figure out what they want to be. We had an old camera that wanted to be the robot pictured here. My son has a box of art parts and he found the reflectors which became the robot’s laser eyes. The iPhone box with it’s icons that look like buttons and controls became the body and we added some wire for arms and some rolled corrugated cardboard for the feet (not shown in the picture).

Now he picks up interesting robot parts as he comes across bolts, broken electronic devices, and other odds and ends as we walk around town.

How do you like to play creatively with children? Do you make things? pictures? songs or poems? dances? games? How do you start the process?

After attending several workshops and listening to webinars about developing a social media strategy and just scratching my head, I finally began to understand. Initially, like any small business owner, I was reluctant to add things to my to-do list, unless I had some way to measure the returns. Especially something like social media which involves spending time on the Internet, which I like to do and might find distracting. Once I could understand that networking online was really very similar to networking at events, then I knew what to do.

My notes are so simple, that I smile every time I see them.  But they remind me of what to do and put me in a good mood which helps:

  • It’s a party.
  • You go to the party daily.
  • You stay for at least 1/2 an hour.

Here’s what you like to do at the party:

  1. Update your status bars on LinkedIn and Facebook (personal network and business fan page).
  2. Talk to the people you find most interesting. This could mean commenting on favorite blogs from a list of 10 to check at least once a week.  On twitter, it means responding to and/or retweeting posts that attract your attention.
  3. Browse around other blogs, just looking and commenting as you see fit.  Twitter is a great place to find links to interesting blog posts, especially since you are already following people with similar interests.
  4. Ask and answer questions.  You might belong to a LinkedIn group with an interesting discussion thread. Or it could be a yahoogroup where members are posing questions and sharing referrals. Or a social site like Citymommy where members are posting links and sharing information.  Like most relationships, the more love you give, the more love you get.
  5. Research deeper as needed.  Take a little extra time now and then to really delve into a topic or check out the people you are meeting online.  What does their online presence reveal about them? Do you want to bookmark them for future reference or subscribe to their e-newsletter for more information on an on-going basis?  It’s all good networking and you will find some great resources, both people and information, that you can share.
  6. Post to your own blog and share a link to it on twitter, Linkedin, and your facebook fan page.  All three sites can do this automatically from your blog.
  7. Finally, track and measure the results.  What do you want to measure? Google analytics will track traffic to your web-site which is a good place to start.  Your blog can track the number of visits (besides your own!) or you might use the number of comments as another measure of engagement.

What do you like to do at the online party?

A workshop on “The Success Process” earlier this week still has me thinking.  Speaker Charlotte Woods, of Tell It To Your Face, defined being present as being here now, in the moment, focussed and engaged.  She also suggested that being present with clients can be a competitive edge.  Love it!  The more we really listen and focus on what clients need, the better able we are to address those needs.

But wait, my business is conducted online which means that I am never physically present with clients because I work from my own office and communicate with clients over the Internet and on the phone.  So I challenged myself to think of ways that I can be more present with clients without actually being there face-to-face.  Here’s how to be more “present” when working with clients online.

1. Include the personal details in your professional online presence.  While it’s important to appear professional and capable, don’t neglect to include some of those personal details that will individualize you and set you apart as a real person and not just a website with auto-responders.  A blog about business is an excellent place to add this real dimension about yourself to your business practice.  Your “about” page or profile page on your website is another excellent opportunity to share something of the real person behind the website. Include a photograph of yourself and your staff and tell the story of just how you got here and what you think about doing this business.

2. Be responsive.  Dedicate the time in your schedule to return emails and phone calls in a timely manner no matter how busy you will get because you will get busy and feel like you don’t have time to take care of it all.  Clients will appreciate the regular contact and it will strengthen your connection.

3. Be realistic about your limits up front.  In order to be real and to be present with your clients, you can’t promise them everything like 24/7 access to you personally because that is not going to work out in the long run.  Let clients know ahead of time when you are available for calls and emails on a regular basis and what your RUSH or urgent policies are.  Managing your clients’ expectations proactively will serve to develop trust between you and your client.

4. Be reliable.  It almost goes without saying that you should do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it.  I’ve heard the advice “under promise and over deliver” before and will repeat it here without much ado.  Life will happen and the more you communicate about the bumps along the way that cause delays, the more your client will be prepared and adjust his or her expectations.  I find it better to pad my schedule with some contingency time on projects and to be pleasantly surprised when I finish ahead of schedule rather than the other way around.

5. Really listen.  Sometimes I know my business so well and what the client needs that I am tempted to jump right into talking about the solutions I can offer.  It’s better when I clear my own mind of assumptions and my expectations and just listen to their story.  There will be plenty of time afterwards to craft a solution that fits their needs.  I always take notes and slow down to write what I am hearing so that I can really concentrate on what’s being said.  The bonus is that I also have a written record to refer to when I approach the next step.

6. Put it in writing.  Just providing a short list of what you said you will do next in an email to the client supports the verbal exchange and offers an early opportunity to clarify the communication.  It also shows that you were listening and how you have organized yourself to present a solution.  It can also become a basis for a more formal and essential working agreement or contract for the job which benefits both the client and yourself.

In fact some of the advantages of working online with clients are the very things that allow be to be more present.  I manage my own time and schedule so I know when and how to focus on my clients and their needs.  I don’t have to physically be there which means that I am not rushing to get there, finding parking, and thinking about where I am going next.  I can relax a bit and bring my focussed attention to the problem at hand.  And I really enjoy working mindfully on projects for clients without interruption.  The work gets my best attention and gets done more accurately.

This list is just a beginning as I am sure there are many more ways to really be present while working for a client online and ways that working this way becomes an advantage for clients.  Please share your ideas in the comment section below.

Everyone talks about great customer service.  But what is it?  You know it when you get it and you know it even more so when you don’t!   How can you tell if you are giving it?

Repeat business is the short answer.  Clients are going to relate to you as a person first and will want to continue to do business with you if they like you.  Providing a great service is part of the process but really, everything you say or do for the client matters.

As a consumer, I am always very excited to find a great service that I can rely upon when I need it.  For example, San Francisco has many fine bike shops and I tried quite a few before I found my bike mechanic.  I have only an occasional need of his services but am always delighted when I bring a bike in for a tune-up or just to change a flat.  Every time, he takes the time to stop what he is doing and listen to what I need.  No matter how small or trivial my request, he gives it his attention, usually right then and there.  He’s up front about the cost and when the repair can be completed.  I have always been satisfied with the work and am always pleased by his manners.

Sadly, last time I took my bike to the shop, another mechanic was there.  He took in my son’s bike, gave me an estimate and a pick-up time and I thought all would be well.  The day I was supposed to pick up the bike, he called me.  Did I want repairs that would cost me more than the value of my cheap bike?  No, not really.  But what was a cheap bike to him was a very valuable story in our family lore.  You see, my son had “won” that bike in a raffle we had entered when he was only a year old.  We had held on to that bike for 5 years, just waiting until he was old enough to finally enjoy his prize.

So my son and I went to pick up the bike.  The mechanic had not tuned it up and in fact, reported that the rear brake had broken off when he adjusted it.  He returned it to us with no charge and advised us not to waste our money on this one but to get a good bike.  I know that he meant well but he had just violated rule #1 of good customer service.  Rule #1 should be that all problems that a customer or client brings up are important problems and should not be dismissed.  I’ve experienced such an attitude in bike shops before.  And, from quite a few tech support people too.  The “I know better than you do” attitude does not win repeat business from me, or from most people, I suspect.  Rule # 2 should be to do no harm (um, excuse me, you just broke my bike that I brought in to be fixed) if you can’t help.  When on the phone for tech support, the harm is often the time wasted waiting for the support person to figure out that the problem really is the one you called and reported, and not what he thought it must be.

If rules 1 and 2 come from a lesson learned at my expense, the following rules are from the far more enjoyable experiences with MY bike mechanic, the one I will use again and again.

#3.  Be a good listener.

#4. Deliver on time and on budget.

#5. Be courteous, no matter what kind of day you are having or how busy you are.

Anything else to add?

As the owner of a service business, I know it is all about great customer service.  Many of the business owners I assist are service business owners themselves.  So we are in agreement that great customer service is important and central to doing business.  In an ideal world, the service provider would be able to recognize the value of great service and accept assistance when and where needed.  We all need help sometimes.  In the real world, the helper may have trouble asking for some help in the first place.  And once he or she asks for help, may have trouble accepting the help offered.  It can be hard to let go when the owner is used to doing it all by him- or herself.  Consequently, I have been thinking about ways to help a helper.  And it is advice that I myself shall have to heed as I am sometimes the helper in need of some help.

To use an example from my personal life, I’ve been considering how to help my mother.  All her life she has been focussed on taking care of others and I have often relied upon her steadfast support.  Recently she moved the family household and I jumped at the chance to offer some help to her.  Was there anything I could do from here?  After all, I was just starting my virtual assistance business and could do some work online for her as she does not own or use a computer.  She thought about it and did ask me to contact the magazines she subscribes to and notify them of her change in address.  That was easy to accomplish on her behalf so I started there.  I also researched lists of things to take care of when moving to a new state for her to consider.  I also created a simple change of address postcard for her to send out to her mailing list.  I would have gladly mailed them out for her but she preferred to send them out on her own at a later time, after she was settled in.  So I sent a stack to her with her new address and appropriate postage so that all she had to do was write a note to her friend and fill in the addressee’s information.

And then I listened…as she packed up the house herself and enlisted the aid of my brothers to move everything in several trips to her home six hours away.  At that point, I did suggest that movers are available to pack up and haul boxes but my family was determined that they could do it themselves.  I don’t think cost was the real issue although they might think they saved money by doing it themselves.  From what I heard, if they were to tally up the truck rentals, the time taken off work, the gas and mileage costs and all the labor my mother and brothers put into the move, it would have been a comparable cost.  The problem is that my mother did not consider the value of her own time.  So she spent her time to save some money.  The truth of the matter is that I think she enjoyed it and wanted to be in charge of the details and that is fine too as really it was her prerogative.

So the lessons I learned about helping a helper could be summarized as follows:

1.  Offer to help.  Ask if there any tasks that would alleviate the workload of the helper.

2.  Do these tasks promptly and efficiently for the helper.

3.  Suggest similar tasks that the helper hasn’t thought of yet that could be done just as easily.

4.  Do as many of these tasks as the helper will allow.

5. Listen to the helper.  It would be a mistake to do everything you can think of to help as the helper really might not need or want help with some tasks.

6. And then listen some more.  Sometimes the best support is just listening and showing appreciation for the work that the helper is doing without help.  It would be a mistake to continue to advise or perhaps even criticize once the helper has made a decision about what to do by him- or herself.

As I talk to potential clients, many of them helpers, and many of them women, not so coincidentally, I keep this path in mind as I offer my assistance.   What can I do to make their workload easier?  Usually there are a few tasks they just can’t seem to get to and that is a great place to start.  And then from my view on the inside, I can see and suggest additional assistance, often ways to simplify current practices.  Usually things that the owner is too busy to consider on his or her own.  Working together, we can sort out which of these things it makes sense to change and how to make those changes.  I can offer my experience and expertise in office management to enhance what has already been put in place by the owner.  Ultimately, our working relationship becomes a partnership as we figure out how to each do what we do and love best.  It worked for my mother and it works for my clients.  And I am sure that it will work for me too when it is my turn to ask for some help.

In a professional service business, it’s not so much what you know as how well you can share what you know with others.  As a former teacher, I am fluent in many learning and communication styles and know that good communication begins with listening carefully to clients to learn more about their needs.  As a consumer, I am sometimes frustrated by experts who can tell me what they think I need before really listening to my description of the problem and without really considering my questions.  I am more impressed by the expert who listens to me and responds to my questions and can ease me into a better understanding of the problem and some possible solutions.  Rather than impress someone with my expertise, my goal instead is to make the solution easy for the client to implement.

During my first month of business, I was mistakenly more concerned with demonstrating my expertise in the tools I was using to serve clients.  I had just upgraded my computer and installed QuickBooks and was ready to help small business owners with their bookkeeping needs if they used QuickBooks.  As I met small business owners, I discovered some gaps between their current methods of bookkeeping and what I was offering.  Some collected piles of expense receipts that they needed to organize and summarize for their taxes.  Some were relying on their bank and credit card statements for their business expense information.  Some tracked their accounts in Quicken.  At first, I was thinking how I could help them when they were ready to use QuickBooks and when that might be.  I soon realized that I could better serve their needs by helping them immediately with whatever tool they were already using.  It might mean totaling expenses with pen and paper.  Or summarizing their expenses in an Excel table.  I could also do bookkeeping in Quicken or QuickBooks.  It all works.  It wasn’t the tool and my expertise with it that was important, it was helping clients get the job done as simply and quickly as possible.