Making a Good “First” Impression

There’s nothing like the old cliché, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” In the software development business, this quote definitely holds true. Earning a client’s trust will hopefully happen the first time you meet with them to discuss their problem and work to identify a business solution, but once you gain that trust and come to an agreement to help them achieve their business solution, it doesn’t stop there. There are other points during a project that provide an opportunity to make a good impression, to ensure a successful project, and a great client relationship in the future:

Project Kickoff Meeting

At the start of the project we usually conduct a project kick-off meeting. Sometimes this meeting is with your initial contact, on whom you’ve already made a good first impression (or you wouldn’t have the job), but often this meeting will introduce you to the client contact who you’ll work with throughout the course of the project. It’s important to convey, during this meeting, that you understand the company’s needs and that you’re willing to listen to their ideas, suggestions, and pain points. Here are a few examples of what I do in these meetings to help ensure I’m making a good impression:

  1. Come organized and be prepared. Make sure the client knows that you understand their problem.
  2. Ask questions and don’t assume you know any answers. You’ve got questions for a reason; assuming the answers will ultimately leave you lacking vital information you’ll need later on.
  3. Listen to what the client wants and, if what they explain doesn’t make sense, see if you exlpore new ways of “explaining it” with them. I often have clients draw what they want on a whiteboard. While the drawing might not be an accurate representation of what will be needed in the long haul, having the client take control and talk things out while sketching is a good way to get them to focus on the goals of the project and gives you a great opportunity to gather requirements.
  4. Be sure someone from your team is taking diligent notes that you can refer to after the meeting and throughout the course of the project, making sure nothing gets missed.
  5. After the meeting, send the client an email, summarizing all the details and plans that were discussed.

First Client Demo

One of my favorite things about the software development process is seeing the client’s reaction when you first show off the solution you’ll be providing. Depending on the size of the project, and how many meetings it took to fully gather the requirements, the amount of time between kick-off to the first demo could be months-a lot of hard work goes into the requirements and construction, so you don’t want this first demo to go poorly. Having a bad demo might strip their confidence in you and what you’ve been striving to achieve with them. Here are some suggestions that have helped me ensure a great initial demo:

  1. Manage the client’s expectations about what they’ll see in the demo prior to arriving for your meeting. If you don’t know what to expect, they might be disappointed when that “cool feature” they’re all waiting for isn’t quite done.
  2. Try not to demo something that isn’t believed to be fully developed. Works-in-progress will probably throw errors and not perform to expectation, so save them for next time, when they are done!
  3. Try to populate the demonstration to utilize data that the client will understand. This may seem subtle to the developers, but having the client understand exactly what they are looking at will generate more productive questions and weed out unnecessary ones. If the client is fixated on “Why do all the fields say ‘Testing A’?” they won’t be focusing on whether you’ve accomplished the task at hand.
  4. For each screen or process you review, be sure to ask if it makes sense and take note of the reaction of the customers. It is usually pretty easy to tell from their expressions whether or not they “get” what you just showed them. Don’t underestimate this step-if you go through an entire demo without offering an opportunity for questions you’ve probably lost them.

As you can see, there are at least three different times where you need to make a good “first impression” throughout a project. This idea has been hammered home to me recently in my personal life, as well, as I’ve interacted with two separate businesses where my first impression of them was less than impressive. I thought to myself “Why would I spend my money on a product when I don’t have confidence that my best interests aren’t being considered?” Make sure you’re considering your clients’ best interests when working on projects for them and make sure the impression you’re providing leaves them confident you’re doing just that-putting them first!

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“Good” Friends Can Make Good Clients

One day, years ago, I had lunch with two friendly faces. We met at a nice little place in downtown Buffalo. One gentlemen was a business partner of mine at the time (Let’s call him Bob) and the other was a fellow soccer coach, who also happened to be an attorney (Let’s call him Don).  While we caught up on the details of our lives, people kept dropping by our table to say “hello” to my friends. Most of the interactions were very formal and very brief, but it happened often enough that it struck me as odd and definitely left an impression.

When our meal came to an end, Bob and I walked out together and he marveled at how funny it was that I was on a first name basis with one of the most powerful and influential people in the area. I didn’t even know who he was talking about, which made it even more comical for him. It was then Bob explained to me who Don really was. I had no idea that my good friend Don was in fact, “Mr. Smith, high-powered attorney extraordinaire” to most of the free world!

Interestingly, this has happened to me again and again, over the years. The office is on high alert because “Mr. So-and-So” is coming in from large company X.  Mr. S shows up and guess what? He’s actually Jimmy or Sandy or Kev. I usually get greeted with a “Tommy” or “Tommy Boy!” and then there’s five to ten minutes of soccer talk before we even broach the business of why they’ve come to Algonquin.

You see, I’m heavily involved in the soccer community here in Western New York and that involvement has led to some great friendships with some well-connected people.

My point here is not to convince anyone that I’m a big shot or special in any way. Name droppers annoy me to be honest, hence the fictional names above. But, to me, stories like this are great testaments to the fact that it’s so important to think beyond the office… To get out into our communities and become involved. There are thousands of organizations out there in need of quality leaders and volunteers. Finding one that speaks to you can offer the amazing opportunity to both make a difference and make some new friends. And, to be brutally honest, sales guys can always use more friends.

I realize this might come across as calculated, but that’s not my intention at all. I’m not suggesting you join boards or organizations in order to schmooze potential clients. What I am suggesting is that if you put yourself out there, in a way that you’re genuinely motivated to do, you’ll meet like-minded people and like-minded people often make the best clients.

The cornerstone of the corporate culture here at Algonquin Studios is the idea of “Family, Faith, and Work,” recognizing that “Faith” doesn’t have to be Sunday worship. Maybe your faith is about building houses with Habitat for Humanity or teaching kids the value of team sports and exercise with Buffalo Soccer Club. Whatever it is, think about giving it some of your time and best efforts.

I hear it all the time. “I don’t have time to volunteer for an organization outside of my day job.” But the funny thing is, if you make the time, you just might find that you really enjoy it and who knows… Mr. Smith, who sits on the board, might just become your “good friend Don.”

The “Doctor Who” Effect

As a sales consultant, I always think it’s great when something I was told during my training process comes up in a real world selling experience. I often only feel as if I’ve truly absorbed the conceptual ideas behind selling when I experience them in a hands-on way. I was recently reminded, during a successful sales call, about the importance of the chemistry between client and prospective vendor and it hammered home the idea that “You’re selling yourself just as much as you’re selling the service you offer.”

Most successful businesses spend a huge amount of time and resources on perfecting things like sales pitches, marketing materials, and product or service offerings. And we expect companies to do this because we all understand that the whole point of any sales and marketing effort is to generate as many leads as possible in order to create as many opportunities as possible to earn business. And in the face of a global marketplace, where there are countless options of web or software development, the sales and marketing team at Algonquin has to work hard to differentiate company and our services from the competition. Finding prospects who are ready and willing to talk to us about our solutions is only the first step. Discovering that we’re a good match process and budget-wise gets us “almost there,” but what does the final “yes” or “no” decision often come down to? Sometimes is simply an intangible quality I’m going to start calling “The Doctor Who Effect.”

Toward the end of the successful sales call mentioned earlier, my co-worker threw out a Doctor Who reference for dramatic effect. And, wouldn’t you know it? We were sitting in a room of Doctor Who aficionados! Now, to be honest, things were going very well prior to the Doctor name drop. We had a good vibe going – some humor, some well-natured sarcasm, and a lot of head nodding. But I truly believe the Doctor Who reference sealed the deal because it helped the prospective client realized that, as people, we’re geared the same way they are. The following week, we returned to give a demo and we discovered they’d already signed our contract, before even seeing the presentation!

Like most sales people, I’ve walked out of a handful of sales calls that were so awkward and uncomfortable, I was sure I was never going to hear from the client again. And I never did. Regardless of our expertise or product offerings, if I don’t “click” with a client, I’m probably not going to get the sale. And, of course, I’ve walked out of sales calls feeling like the prospect and I were long-lost best friends, only to have them go in another direction and, in those cases, I can only assume that while “The Doctor Who Effect” may have been in effect, our solution or price point simply weren’t the right fit for the company.

The “sweet spot” is when you’ve got both the best solution AND the best chemistry going for you. I’ve seen the powerful combination in effect more than once now and I’m convinced it’s key to the majority of successful sales. Now I just have to work on finding more prospects who watch Doctor Who!

Client Engagement… In The Face of Summer Hours and Vacations

We’re in the midst of the Dog Days of Summer. It’s been so, so hot lately and, here in Buffalo, it hasn’t really rained in what feels like a year. Certainly, just getting to work can feel like an accomplishment on these 90 degree days, but once I am here, one of the real challenges of any marketer’s job begins – keeping engagement rates up in a time of summer hours, long lunches, and 2 week-long vacations.

Based on research conducted by our email vendor, I’m proud to say that Algonquin’s email outreach attempts are usually incredibly successful. We consistently record email open rates of approximately 12% higher than our industry’s average, with click-through rates at an even-higher 15%. Come summer, these numbers drop a bit, not unexpectedly (thanks to those pesky vacations, I’m sure), but we still record rates well above the average for other companies in the consulting and professional services fields.

How? I’m so glad you asked…

Consistency
Once upon a time, the marketing team here at Algonquin picked a monthly newsletter “publication” date and we’ve stuck to it. While our choice was random – the second Wednesday of every month – I don’t think the results we’ve seen are. By consistently delivering content to our clients and prospects at the same time each month, we’ve set an expectation that we’re now living up to. When our newsletter pops up in their mailboxes, our recipients aren’t surprised… they’ve been expecting it. In fact, I like to think they’ve been looking forward to receiving it and are excited about reading its contents and learning more about what’s happening at Algonquin Studios.

Quality
Obviously, we could provide the most consistent schedule of emails known to man, but if they didn’t contain interesting, relevant information those emails would probably never get read. While it’s easy to generate sales copy touting the next great idea or product, offering real substance is more difficult but it’s also what keeps clients listening. Here at Algonquin, we like to feature recently completed projects, as a way to both showcase our work and give clients ideas about how we might be able to help them; we always include information about our non-profit soccer program, so that clients and friends are kept up to date on the exciting work Buffalo Soccer Club staff and volunteers are doing with children in the City of Buffalo; and we offer information on the user groups and webinars we run to help clients get the most out from their technology.

Loyalty
If you’re a regular reader of the Algonquin Studios blog, you’ve probably heard us talk about our relationship-building approach to business. Here at Algonquin, we’re not looking to be a quick fix or one-time vendor for our clients; we want to establish a longterm relationship with the companies that need our services, getting to know their businesses and pain points and providing consulting and web and software development that will make real, positive impacts on the way they do business. Our focus is on these longterm relationships, not flash-in-the-pan interactions and I think our email recipients may be more likely to read our emails because they know and trust us and understand that our communications will provide value, rather than simply being a vehicles to drive sales.

Fun
This last one might seem a little silly (how appropriate), but having fun is an important part of the way we do business. Afterall humor is one of the Four H’s we espouse here at Algonquin. So, we try to make sure there’s something fun in our monthly newsletters. For example, every month we run a trivia contest and offer our readers the chance to win a prize (this summer, we’ve been giving away 4 packs of tickets to Buffalo Bisons’ games). It may seem like a little thing, but most of us like to win things and if the trivia contest keeps people coming back from more Algonquin Studios news, I’m ok with that!

So, now that you’ve heard about how we do things here at Algonquin, tell me… How does your company work at engaging clients and keep them coming back for more?

White Water and Software Support

The view from my weekend office - Lower Falls, Genesee River, Letchworth State Park

Some people may not know this but I have two jobs.  My full time job here at Algonquin Studios, as a Software Support Representative, and my part time job, as a weekend warrior guiding rafts on local white water rivers.

At first, you may think these jobs are completely different from one another.  At one I’m in an office, sitting at a desk and computer with Wi-Fi easily accessible; at the other I’m outside, sitting in an inflatable rubber raft that I could easily pop with the knife I carry, without the ability to make a phone call (even if I carried my cell phone with me).  But in reality the jobs are quite similar; it is my responsibility to make customers happy and ensure they have a good user experience.

Here at Algonquin Studios, my goal is that our clients will be smiling when they hang up the phone with me.  People call in with a problem – the problem can be as small as not knowing how to print an invoice or a bigger issue that takes my team a few days of research, to figure out exactly what happened, before we’re able to get back to customer. Whether it takes me 5 minutes to resolve the issue, or 5 days, my ultimate goal is the same – helping the client and providing quality service.

When rafting, my ultimate goal is no different – to give the guests in my boat a fun, safe trip down the river and have them smiling when we get to the “take out.”  Whether it’s 35 degree day, with snow falling, or an 85 degree day, with the sun shinning, I’m doing everything in my power to give my guests the best user experience I can.

At both jobs, I’ve got a team of individuals backing me up to help accomplish our common goal.  We work together asking and answering questions, learning from each other, and helping each other out so we we’re always getting better at what we do.  And, at Algonquin, there’s never an answer of “sorry, we don’t know the answer” or “sorry, we can’t help you,” we’ll always get back to the client, even if we don’t have an answer right away.

At the end of the day, regardless of which job I’m working, I’m fortunate enough to say that, along with my clients, I’m always smiling too.  At the end of a long day on the river, I smile when I hear the excitement in people’s voices at the end of a white water trip, as they recount every rapid and say they can’t wait to call their friends to tell them all the details. And, when I’m catching the train home after a day at Algonquin Studios, I’ve always got a smile on my face because I know that I worked hard and was able to help my clients handle the bumps in their operations and achieve their goals for a successful business day!

How Can I Help You?

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a project and you encounter a problem with one of the tools you use or services you rely on to get things done. Although it’s easy to immediately lose your temper, remember that there’s probably a team of highly-trained, friendly people waiting to help you, just a phone call away. Of course, talking to “customer service” can be painful in and of itself and so, I present you with some tips to ensure both you and your support representative are smiling when your phone call is over:

1. Remember – The Issue You’re Experiencing Is Probably Not The Fault Of The Person You’re Speaking With

This can be easy to forget when frustration abounds. It’s something everyone does – we hit our boiling point and start looking for someone to blame – but the first person to pick up the phone often unfairly takes the blunt of your rage. Take a step back – did this person personally decide to cause you any grief? Probably not. So, before losing it on the person asking “How can I help you?” keep in mind that he just offered his assistance. Which leads to my second tip…

2. Put Yourself In Their Shoes

It’s important to remember that, at the other end of the line, the person trying to deal with your current issue actually receives phone calls from frustrated, upset customers on a regular basis. Possibly all day long. Imagine for a moment that you’ve been put in his position – would you rather be speaking with a calm, patient customer or an angry, short-tempered one? It’s much less stressful for everyone involved if you can keep your cool at all times. Yelling at your support rep probably won’t move things along any quicker.

3. Give As Much Detail As Possible About The Problem You’re Experiencing

Sure, you might not know what’s causing the problem or even what the problem actually is, but you’re not doing anyone a favor by saying “It’s not working” and leaving it at that. Let the person trying to assist you know what you were doing when the difficulty began. Is this the first time you’ve tried to use the product or service? Or were you, perhaps, interacting with the product in a new or unusual way? Remember, the person on the other end of the line can’t read your mind (but rest assured, we’re working on it!), and while the odds are fairly good that the support representative you’re dealing with has resolved that issue in the past for another customer, the more clues he can get about the issue, the quicker he can help you resolve the problem and get you off the phone and on your way to success.

4. Let The Support Rep Know How You Feel

When you’re nearing the end of the call, give a hint as to how satisfied you are. Odds are,  the person you’ve been speaking to really does want you to be frustration-free so, if you’re happy and everything is looking up, tell him that you appreciate his help and that you’ll give a call back if you have any more problems. On the flip-side, if your problem hasn’t been resolved, or you feel like the support service didn’t meet your needs, make it known. It’s his job to put your mind at ease, even if it means transferring you to someone more knowledgeable.

5. Ask About Changes You’d Like To See

Most products aren’t perfect and there’s always room for improvement. If you’ve got a wonderful idea about how to make an existing product more beneficial for you and the others using it, let the support rep know. While he may not be directly responsible for approving or implementing changes, he’ll probably know who to refer you to or how to pass the message along. Companies should want to hear feedback from their end users – nobody knows how useful or effective a product is like the people who use it on a daily basis. If there are bugs or quirks that should be resolved, mention them! It’ll likely help create a better product in the long run.

The most important thing to remember is that most customer support/service reps really do love helping people. And, believe it or not, it really does make our day when a customer ends a call with “Thank you so much for your help!”

Love your support representative and they’ll love you back!

Spreading Holiday Cheer in a “Bah, Humbug” Economy

So, we’re in the midst of the holiday season. Thanksgiving may be but a memory but Chanukah’s here, Christmas, and Kwanza are right around the corner, and New Year’s Eve is close behind and, because I’m easily motivated by food, I’ve noticed that the holiday “goodies” we’re all used to getting from vendors and clients have become less and less common over the past few years. I’ll assume it has to do with the economy and I’ll be thankful that I don’t have to let out the waistband on my pants in order to accommodate yet another delicious box of chocolates, but it did get me thinking: At this time of year, when we traditionally give people presents to show how much we appreciate our relationships with them, what do we do now that budgets are slashed and fancy gift-giving isn’t the option it used to be? How do we make sure the business relationships we value are still getting a little holiday love?

Here are some ideas I’ve been kicking around this week:

Holiday Cards
The USPS is still a pretty cheap way to get your message out there and the name and logo recognition that come from sending a card can be great. Plus, holiday cards can have a particularly personal feel if you address them to each recipient individually, call out a personal detail or two about your working relationship with them, and personally sign each one. It may sound like a lot of work, but sometimes it’s the extra touch that makes a true difference in setting your business apart from your competition.

Emails
I’ve gotten some pretty great holiday-themed emails over the past few weeks. Emails with pictures of kids and pets decked out in their finest, emails with amusing infographics about the calories in a typical Thanksgiving meal and the most stressful Christmas songs, even helpful emails reminding me of shipping deadlines. But the thing that stands out to me about these emails is that none of them were explicitly trying to sell me anything, which makes me kind of happy. Opening my inbox and finding an email intended only to make me smile is a pretty nice thing.

Your Own Products
My coworker frequently gets these cool, shiny envelopes in the mail from one of our clients. Inside, they usually contain a fun example of some recent work and their holiday envelope certainly didn’t disappoint this year. Inside were two holiday-themed examples with special features – pop outs, scratch and sniffs, even an augmented reality video. The work was a lot of fun but it also served as a great reminder of the kinds of things our client is able to produce and who we should call when we need the products they offer!

Savings
If you’re a B2C organization, or even a B2B with products or services that can be discounted, offering your clients a time-sensitive promotional price can be a great way to say “thank you” while generating some end of the year business at the same time. People are always looking for sales at this time of year and everyone loves a bargain, even on business-related goods and services.

Charitable Donations
A lot of companies have a charity that holds a special place in the hearts of the founders or employees. Why not consider making a donation, in your client’s names, during the holidays? You’ll likely help someone who could use a little extra goodwill at this time of year and give your clients (and yourself) the warm and fuzzies!

Of course, the traditional corporate gift is always appreciated (at Algonquin, we’re big fans of giving (and receiving!) Fairytale Brownies, easily the yummiest work-related gift I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting) and you can be pretty sure that your clients will be happy with almost anything you send, but if you need to consider a less expensive or more purposeful option, there are a lot of good ways to break the chocolate/wine/fruit basket mold and still do something that resonates with your clients.