There are a lot of things that go into a successful business and having your peers respect you as a professional and an authority. Some things are tangible and others less so. Sometimes all it takes to get the job is to make sure you have a reputation of respecting your customer. I’ve run into many instances where so-called professionals stopped at what they considered to be “good enough”. If my expectation of good enough differed from theirs and I asked them to go further (but not past what we originally agreed upon), they balked. Friends, if you want to be the best — really want to make a name for yourself — you’re going to have to go the extra mile and not stop at good enough. Taking shortcuts leads to more work later, which, in turn, leads to fewer hours you can give to new clients. The result is a less successful business in the long run because you aren’t making money when you’re re-doing what you should have done right in the first place.
Five Best Business Practices
So what are these lofty expectations I have for business professionals? They probably aren’t that different from yours, but it’s all in the execution. My advice to anyone who wants to establish themselves as the go-to person for a niche (blogging or otherwise) is the following:
- Set reasonable expectations. If you’re dealing with multiple clients and your business is growing, you’ll find that just doing things as they come up will win you no friends. You’ll be pulled in too many directions, won’t finish jobs to the best of your ability (because you’re just trying to cross things off your list to get to the next one), and you’ll over-commit yourself. When you can’t come through, your client is angry, you’re frustrated, and no one’s happy. You can avoid this whole mess by simply taking on as much as you can handle and no more. Will you turn work away? You might. You’ll also have a working schedule you can manage so you’ll be able to set strong boundaries (e.g., I only work between normal business hours) and reasonable expectations (e.g., since I work from home, I produce about twice as much as I would in an office setting — I’ll have your project done Tuesday instead of Thursday).
- Meet those expectations. Once you’ve set expectations, you must meet them. That’s why it’s so important to only take on what you can manage and seriously consider what you can deliver before you agree to deliver it. If something comes up, let your client know immediately how this will impact her project and how you’re going to handle it.
- Don’t give excuses. Unless someone has died (and, sadly, that happens), your client doesn’t care why you’re late with a deadline — especially if you’re late because you were working on another client you thought was more fun or more important. Oh, yes. I’ve been given the “I was working 18-hour days over here so I couldn’t work on your stuff!” If you think telling your client how hard you’re working for someone else is going to inspire confidence, you’re mistaken. What it tells your client is that she’s not as important and you don’t see her project as a big deal.
- Communicate clearly. Regardless of what the project is, you should always be completely clear with your client about how things are progressing and what you can (and can’t) deliver. Confirm action items, deliverables, and dates in writing. You should set up a list of dates for specific action items so both you and your client know what milestones are being met. It’s also important to explain to your client that if she misses deadlines for anything she’s responsible for giving to you, then your due date moves as well. If you have a full queue, then you’ll have to be very clear about the fact that, if she doesn’t provide you with the necessary items when you need them, she may end up at the back of the line because you have a strict project calendar juggling many clients. Which brings me to #5.
- Make your client feel like they’re your only client. This is hard and can be frustrating because you probably don’t have just one client. However, if you haven’t taken on more than you can handle (or delegate), and you’ve set up firm boundaries and expectations, you’ll be fine. If your clients know you have reasonable expectations of them and are firm with your boundaries, they’ll respect that you aren’t at their beck and call and will be more likely to respect your time.
The Tools You Need to Succeed
Now that you’re committed to setting and meeting reasonable expectations (and your clients know what you expect from them), how do you make it work? Two of my favorite tools are mind mapping and an editorial calendar. The first allows you to brainstorm and collaborate so your ideas are the best they can be; the second allows you to assign those dazzling plans to a schedule that keeps you on track, promotes productivity (because you know what’s coming up and can plan accordingly), and allows you to see if you have time to take on any other projects.
In seventh grade I had to write my first outline for a research paper. Up until then I’d been writing and re-writing my own stories and papers in a way that made sense to me. The trouble was that I was doing a lot of re-writing because as I would read my creations, they didn’t always flow (have I mentioned that even from an early age I liked things in a specific order?). I had no idea what an outline was or that I could use it to ensure my first try would be more flow-y. Fast forward to today and basic outlines have evolved into mind mapping. Mind mapping is a visual way of structuring your projects and keeping track of the tasks associated with it. You can move things around, add or delete items as needed, and even use your mind map as a presentation. With so many online options, you can use mind mapping software for your individual projects as well as collaborative ventures. If you’re ready to try out some mind mapping to see if it can enhance your creativity (or at least just help you organize it), check out 15 Great Mind Mapping Tools and Apps or Mind Mapping Tools for Designers and Why It’s Important. Once you have your mind maps in place, you can transfer the final product or schedule to your editorial calendar.
I’m a firm believer in using an editorial calendar to tame the chaos of your business life. An editorial calendar is simply assigning publishing dates for articles (or deadlines for projects, tasks, or milestones). For some people setting deadlines for themselves ensures productivity (and others, as I can attest, may find it limiting). Regardless of which camp you fall into, seeing your deadlines, milestones, and tasks on the calendar will help you quickly determine if you can reasonably take on a new client or project. If deadlines help you meet a goal, you’ll love the editorial calendar. If deadlines feel like soul-sucking creativity killers, use the calendar as a suggestion and rearrange it as necessary. You’ll likely find that just a little pre-planning makes your business run more smoothly (or at least keeps track of your brilliant ideas).
If you’re a blogger, a well-implemented editorial calendar allows you to see at a glance a running list of topics you want to write about and how those topics converge on your blog. If you notice you have several posts on a topic but they aren’t scheduled close together, you may want to rearrange the flow so those articles form a series instead of just one-off posts here or there. An Editorial Calendar Will Keep You Sane is my take on how I used an editorial calendar to keep track of three blogs and weekly column at another blog. I’ve pared down a little (I have just one blog now), but I still find that an editorial calendar (whether on- or offline) helps me focus my writing efforts and plan my weeks. Blogging for Web Designers: Editorial Calendars and Style Guides via Smashing Magazine is full of excellent advice including checklists for getting started with an editorial calendar and setting a schedule that works for you (even if you’re not a web designer). And if you’re a WordPress.org user, you’re super-duper lucky because there’s an editorial calendar plug-in that you will fall in love with.
Do a Good Job
Overall, it’s not hard to do a really good job. If you value quality work, you’ll know what it takes to produce it. You’ll understand that clients want that quality and will choose you over the other guy even if you’re more expensive (because, let’s face it, there’s a reason you’re more expensive). I’m surprised more people aren’t doing quality work and I’m even more surprised that clients are putting up with it.
What I’d like to know now is how are you ensuring you’re the professional authority in your niche? What tools are you using to help you?