Your Client's are Terrible Goal Setters

Our clients are terrible goal setters. Most don't set goals. Those that do don't write them down. If they write them down they don't look at them. And if they look at them they have no way of knowing objectively whether the goal has been accomplished.

We talked last week about the four questions you should be asking your clients to convert them to consulting customers. Goals was one of those questions. As you begin to talk about goals with your clients you will find out how good or terrible they are at setting them. You can provide incredible value and create customers for life if you teach your clients how to set and use goals effectively.

The first step is getting them to limit their focus to just two or maybe three areas. Plenty of research has shown that people who set fewer goals are more likely to accomplish them. This also has the effect of forcing your clients to prioritize their activities. By limiting them to just to or three goals you are essentially forcing them to decide ahead of time what activities and areas will take a back seat.

Step two is getting the goal in a good format. This means writing it down according to the following formula:

From X to Y by when.

If the goal doesn't fit this formula I typically don't let clients off the hook until they can make it fit. Here are some examples of goals I have helped clients set.

  • To go from $3.6 million in revenue to $4.2 million in revenue by the end of the year.
  • To increase market share from 12.5% to 18% by December 31, 2018.
  • To increase new sales per salesperson from $900,000 to $1.5 million by December 31, 2017.
  • To increase retention from 81.5% to 83.5% by December 31, 2017.

There are some goals that will still qualify for this formula even though they do not strictly fit the "from X to Y" portion. Examples of these might be:

  • To publish our first book by the end of the year.
  • To hire a new general manager by June 30, 2017.
  • To have every employee complete a written, comprehensive training program by the end of the year.
  • To find and move into a new facility by the end of the year.

Even though these goals do not fit the strict formula it is easy to see how they are all objectively measurable and have a deadline. Objective versus subjective measurability is incredibly important. The outside world should be able to evaluate the data or ask a couple of questions and determine whether or not you have hit the goal. It should NOT be up to your subjective evaluation to say whether you have reached the finish line or not.

Step three is reviewing the goal on a regular basis. Personally I don't think you can do this too often. I like to review my goals once in the morning and once in the afternoon. They are always top of mind. When I sit down to think about my priorities for the week I have reviewed my goals 14 times during the past seven days. You can bet I will be thinking about them when I decide where I should be spending my time and energy for the next seven days. If I'm reviewing my goals twice a day I will also start each day trying to get a little closer to the finish line. Any my activities for the day will show it.

If you are having a conversation with your client about goals make sure you take the time to educate them on what makes a good goal and how to put it into practice effectively. They will think you are a genius, and you will forever set yourself apart from other accountants and CPAs who fail to take this kind of proactive approach.

If you have questions about how to start these conversations or need some help troubleshooting and getting your clients on track just reach out and I'll be happy to give you some tips.

Does Your Client Recognize the Customer? (Part 2 of Your Client's Marketing Plan Stinks)

CPA's and marketing are NOT the first two things you think about together. But growing a business is about more than processes and profit margins. At some point almost every one of your business clients is going to experience a bottleneck, and effective marketing is the only thing that will solve it. When you revamp processes and invest in resources there comes a time when the next step is scaling up sales. And to do that you need an effective marketing strategy. If you cannot help your clients create one you will be failing them at a critical time in their development.

In the first post of this series I described the "Built it and they will come" fallacy present in most small business marketing plans. In this post I want to ask another question. Do your clients know their audience?

They think they do, but do they really? There are three common responses you are going to run into when you ask this question.

Response #1: "I knew them once upon a time"

These business owners have a very dated impression of their typical customer based on old data. It might be their past experience working in the field or it might be their long forgotten leadership on the sales floor. But they are pulling these impressions from somewhere. You have to respect that and at the same time realize that at some point they moved inside the office, and became more insulated. They hired others to do the customer facing work. And gradually they lost touch, both with what people were actually buying from them and what people wish they could buy from them.

Marketing plans, if they exist in these businesses, look like they did 10 years ago. They still invest heavily in yellow pages while newcomers to the industry favor more targeted advertising. They discount rather than differentiate. Their sales staff is a mix of long term old timers and constant turnover newbies. The product catalog is too thick, there is too much dust on 80% of the warehouse shelves and they spend the industry average on the same advertising budget that everyone else does.

Of the three this is usually the easiest to help, but we will get to that in a second.

Response #2: "Yeah, I know 'em"

Before I explain this mentality let me paint you a picture.

I'm sitting across from a middle aged business owner in shirt sleeves and Wrangler jeans. I ask him, “do you know what your best customer looks like?”

Before answering he pushes the chair away from the conference table, moves the toothpick to the other corner of his mouth, and folds his arms while propping his cowboy boots up on the end of the table. “Yeah, I know ‘em,” he says.

Get the picture?

Without referencing any data or fact-based evidence these business owners begin to recount the characteristics of just a few customers, the outliers. On the one end of the spectrum they describe their largest accounts, which typically have the lowest margins. On the other end they describe their highest maintenance accounts that require the largest overhead investment.

These businesses are unlikely to have any marketing plan. The accounts that loom largest are based on a friendship that the owner believes to be unscalable. Therefor, no effort is made to find similar large accounts. The other accounts he described, the high maintenance accounts, are a pain in the neck. No one can imagine creating a marketing plan to attract more of those. So theres is no plan.

This is what business looks like on autopilot. A couple of big accounts come your way. What resources aren’t dedicated to serving them try to take care of the squeaky wheels. The biggest accounts get larger. No effort is made to obtain additional large accounts. No effort is made to obtain medium sized-low maintenance accounts. No effort is made to disengage from high maintenance pain in the neck customers.

It usually takes the loss of the largest account to get everyone to wake up and start executing a pro-active marketing strategy.

Response #3: "Ummm......?"

This third response typically comes from the business owner technician. These owners focus on the tools and services that might be used to fix problems, rather than the actual problems their customers are experiencing. They take their cues from vendors that sell them the tools of their trade, suppliers that provide product, marketers looking for advertising dollars and competitors who seem to be setting the pace for everyone else.

More than anything they just want to focus on getting the work done. If there's a way to do it faster, they want to hear it. But they rarely ask whether the work is worth doing or if it is the most important work they should be doing. Customers and their problems are a distraction and an obstacle to getting the work done. What information they can provide about their customers is based on second hand accounts from someone that has a vested interest in selling them something.

The universal problem

Each of these three groups shares the same problem. It is that they would rather speculate about what customers want, speculate about what message resonates with them, speculate about what problems they have and how much they would be willing to pay to solve them...they'd rather speculate about all these things than do the hard work of leaving the nest and finding out for themselves.

When you ask them to go out and ask their customers some questions to find out what we should be marketing and how we should be marketing it they hesitate. Then they start to tell you all the things their customers would say if they went to them and asked. BUT THEY WON'T GO ASK! They'd rather just speculate.

Your role

The good news is that this situation presents an enormous opportunity, if you are willing to take advantage of it. You customer is sitting there in the dark, clueless about what they should be doing from a selling and marketing standpoint. This also means they are clueless about what they should be producing and the services they should be providing, not to mention the pricing they should be charging. Someone has to go out and get this information. If your business owner client won't do it there is a really good chance they just don't know how.

Here's what you can do to help.

Get your client to tell you the names of their top 10 customers and get permission to call on these people. When you get them on the phone (or sit down in person) explain who you are, that you are trying to help your client get better information on customers and what those customers want. Then have a simple conversation. Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. What frustrates you about the industry my client is in?
  2. What are some things my client is doing well?
  3. What problems are we not even seeing?
  4. What are you most and least willing to pay extra for?
  5. If you were to consider switching vendors what things would be most important to you?

There are more questions but these are plenty to get you started. After half a dozen of these conversations you will have some very valuable information for your client. And you will have the beginnings of a marketing strategy that is more relevant than anything that has been done in years.

Your Client's Marketing Plan Stinks (Part 1 of 3)

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There is a perception that CPA's are the last people in the world that business owners should ask for help when it comes to their marketing plan. Maybe that reputation is well earned, maybe it's not. One thing is for sure though, if you want to help your clients grow their businesses you are going to have to deal with marketing. It comes up in 100% of my client relationships. And it is often one of the biggest value adds you can deliver for your customer.

Marketing is simply the process of conveying your message to the customer in such a way that they buy what you are selling. I'm sure there are more lofty text book definitions, but this is the crux of it. You must have a message. It must be relevant to your customer. To be effective it must drive sales. Over this blog post and the next two I'm going to share the practical side of marketing in small business and the role you should be playing for your clients. The first question I want you to ask is this:

Does your client have a "build it and they will come" mentality?

Years ago my boys decided open up a donut stand on the Saturday of our neighborhood-wide garage sale. I fronted the inventory: about six dozen Crispy Creme donuts. They picked out the location: the baseball field parking lot along the main boulevard through the neighborhood. We set up shop on the tailgate of my truck.

One car showed up, and bought two donuts. Nothing else happened. Finally I said, "Boys, you can wait for the customer to come to you or you can go to the customer."

Now, imagine it's a Saturday morning. You've downed your first cup of coffee and you're contemplating breakfast but everything seems like too much work. The doorbell rings and there stands an eight year-old boy with an expectant look on his face and a dozen donuts in his outstretched hands, silhouetted in a shaft of light coming down from the heavens framed perfectly in your doorway. Would you buy the donuts?

I could not convince my two would-be entrepreneurs to continue pounding the pavement even after our first successful door-to-door sale. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that they were looking forward to buying the remaining inventory from me with their allowance. It's a silly story, but it illustrates the mentality a lot of your clients have toward marketing their product.

It might be a great new product offering. It might be glossy new marketing materials. It might be a remodeled store front. It might be a brand new high traffic location. Whatever it is there is a misconception that just because it's the biggest and best thing happening in the business owner's life it will be similarly huge for the customer. It won't. The customer has other important stuff they're excited about. What is important to you isn't necessarily important to them.

Are they wearing sneakers or loafers

There's a great story about a company called Staff Leasing that started here in Bradenton, FL. It was one of the first big PEO companies. The four owners each put up $5,000 for startup capital and literally set up shop in one of their garages. Every weekday for six months they would pick a busy commercial street and they would go door-to-door all morning. They would all gather for lunch, put on a fresh shirt, and spend the afternoon going door-to-door on the other side of the street.

I often tell my clients they need to go buy a new pair of shoes when they tell me about their latest product offering that is going to be wildly successful. For some businesses the suggestion is literal, for others it is just figurative. But the push back is real. If your plans don't include taking the message and the pitch to the customer I'm not interested in spending a lot of time executing. One of my most successful clients has a social media, adwords and website promotions budget that rivals the payroll of some of his competitors. He has learned the product is nothing if it turns out to be the proverbial tree falling in the forest.

Your role with your clients

It is not your job to construct the marketing plan. It is your job to make sure there is one. It is your job to ask the questions that get your client to consider their ignorance in this area and the need for a better plan of attack. Here are some questions you can ask:

  1. How are current customers going to hear about this?
  2. How many times are they going to hear about it in the next 30, 60, 90 days?
  3. How are new prospects going to hear about it?
  4. How are these people going to be pitched?
  5. How do we know this is what customers and prospects want?
  6. How has everyone (sales, service, support, admin and executives) been trained to deliver the same message?
  7. How is everyone incented to deliver that message?
  8. Why do we think this campaign will be successful?
  9. What are the measures for success?
  10. When will we gather to look at the results and decide what to do next?

Your clients may get too emotionally wrapped up in their latest project to see the rough edges and barriers that you anticipate. By asking simple, but very provocative questions you can help them take a critical look that makes success much more likely.

Don't Price Like Mickey Mouse

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Here in central Florida the Mouse isn't just a theme park mascot. He's big business. And Mickey made some bone headed business calls this year, as recounted in this Motley Fool article, 5 Reasons Disney World Lost This Summer. Chief among these was raising prices for no good reason. And that's what I want to talk about.

Disney raised the price of single day tickets almost 20% during peak summer season. And they did it at a time when their four Orlando theme parks opened no new attractions. There was speculation that the move was meant to reduce last summer's rampant over crowding. And if that's what they were looking for, IT WORKED.

Things got so bad that Disney lifted all of the blackout days for their cheapest summer pass holders in the hopes that some of that overcrowding would return. It didn't happen and this year Comcast owned competitor Universal Orlando Resort is eating the Mouse’s lunch.

What does this have to do with your consulting practice? There's a tendency to raise prices on one-off tax returns and accounting work to free up capacity for more consulting. And that can have unintended consequences.

More demanding than ever

If you just raise prices a lot of clients you might want to leave will stay, pay the higher price, and become your worst nightmare. Everybody I know that DID buy summer passes to Disney gripes and complains at every opportunity about how they got screwed. They are still going to Disney, but they aren't doing much to encourage their friends and neighbors to go with them.

If you have a client that is an enormous time suck raising the price has the potential to make them an even larger thorn in your side. My experience is that your problem clients usually know they are a pain in the butt, and they secretly appreciate the fact that you put up with them. When you raise their price they will begrudgingly pay it, and they will feel more justified in demanding more of your time and attention.

I think it's better to tell these kinds of clients that you don't have the capacity or desire to keep doing their work. Arrange a soft landing at another firm and preserve the relationship. Your transparency here is important on two fronts. It keeps a poorly executed pricing strategy from back firing. And it bolsters your confidence and resolve to do the work you really want to do.

How deep is too deep

One of the problems with creating capacity through price increases is the inexact science of selling those increases to the customers. Disney clearly raised prices too high. But they didn't know that when they came up with their fancy tiered pricing model. I'm sure the spreadsheet looked great. In the real world it's hard to predict how your pricing increases are going to go over.

And once the new prices are out there you can't backtrack without losing loads of credibility with your customers. This is happening with Disney. When Disney lifted the blackout dates for all those cheap annual pass holders they simultaneously devalued the premier annual pass holders who paid through the nose to go to the parks whenever they wanted.

If you raise prices too high and a few too many clients walk, you will probably freak out. Then you will spend the next two or three years rolling over every time someone pushes back on your price. Your confidence and pricing fortitude will be gone. This is another reason I’m such a big advocate of transparency. As a small business owner you need confidence in yourself to be successful. Having one-on-one conversations with clients where you decide exactly who you will and who you won’t work with is a much healthier way to create capacity and build your self confidence at the same time.

Have something to show for it

I think this is the biggest lesson to learn from Disney. Had one or more of their parks featured a major new attracting they could have (and would have) used the grand opening to justify higher one day and season pass prices. It's likely a lot of people would have still opted out, but probably not as many. And Disney would have enjoyed a whole new tier of customers who weren't considering the parks until those new attractions compelled them to get in on the action.

In your consulting practice you can sell steep price increases if they entail higher value for your customers. Those who opt out are not left out. You didn’t give them a take or leave it price decision. Instead you let them weigh their options and decide whether they want the increased value enough to pay for it. If they don't want it, it is their decision that causes them to move on, not your blanket policy forcing them out the door.

You can increase the price of a tax return 50% if it includes planning throughout the year. You can increase payroll prep by 25% if it includes help with onboarding new employees and not just delivering their first paycheck. We doubled and tripled prices one year and told clients they would now be getting a custom suite of services designed specifically around their goals for the year. When you do these things not everyone will sign on, and that's good because it creates the capacity you are looking for. More important, you will find some clients that open up and take advantage of your expanded services, in spite of everything you ever thought about what they wanted or what they might be willing to spend.

Price increases aren’t bad, but as a strategy in and of themselves they can do more harm than good.

Tricks for Becoming a Better Face-to-Face Communicator

There's this one guy....Every time we get together it takes me about 2 minutes to remember why I don't accept a lunch invite from him more than a few times a year. We see each other, shake hands, tell the server what we want to drink and then one of us asks, "So what's been happening?" It doesn't really matter who goes first. If he's talking he's thinking about what he wants to say next. If I'm talking, he's still thinking about what he wants to say next. It's so obvious that by the time lunch arrives I can't wait to leave. I don't want to be that guy. I am terrified of becoming that guy.

Listening is a skill that is not only good social etiquette; it also has a direct impact on your ability to serve customers. Eventually poor listening will start to hurt you in the wallet as clients disengage and discover you can't help them with their biggest problems because you won't take the time to truly understand their biggest problems. Even if you get the diagnosis right, you'll never be able to guide your customers through execution because they'll see you as the pompous know-it-all that doesn't really "get" what they're all about.

At it's core good listening is about good communication and good communication is at the root of healthy relationships. If you want healthy relationships where loyalty and goodwill help you grow your business, listening is a skill you need to develop and hone, just like you work on things like public speaking or time management.

Here's what my struggle with listening looks like. I go out to meet a new prospect, a business owner that has heard good things about us from another client or maybe a referral source. I'm there to learn as much as I can, and also to answer any questions they have about me and what we do. I'm primed to listen. I know I need to listen well. Listening is my number one priority during this meeting.

But what happens?

The Awkward Silence and The Burning Question

There are two things that tend to get in the way of me being a good listener. The first is the awkward silence. If I have never met the person one of my biggest fears is discovering someone who stinks at conversation. It's terrible. There's no personal chemistry, no small talk, no substantive topics come up. Minutes stretch into days and we both just want it to be over.

The other obstacle to good listening is even worse. Let's say the person is a GREAT conversationalist and we really hit it off. Multiple times during our 60-90 minutes together I find myself fixated on a question I just MUST know the answer to. Maybe it's a burning curiosity. Maybe it's a critical detail they left out. Maybe it's a piece of advice or a tool I want to share to help them. But I'm polite, so I don't butt in. I wait for a break in the conversation. I wait my turn. And the whole time I'm waiting, I'm desperately trying to hold onto that question, that thought, that piece of advice, that tool. And because I stink at multi-tasking (and you do too) every single second I try to hold on and not forget I'M NOT LISTENING. I'm just waiting to respond.

But there's hope. It's a simple system that starts before I ever darken the door of a prospect's lobby.

21 Questions

So before the meeting I sit down, sometimes it's in the parking lot five minutes before I need to walk in the door, and I rack my brain to write down 21 questions. There's a sample at the top of this post that I just made up. The list is different every time, but a lot of the questions show up over and over again.

When I find myself in one of those awkward silences I say, "You know I was thinking about our meeting and some things I wanted to ask you. Let me see...we already talked about that...and that...oh yeah, what are some daily habits you've built that really help you out?"

That's step one, and that helps guard against the uncomfortable silences when you run into a poor conversationalist. But how do you stay present during the meeting?

Stealthy Notetaking

As you start the meeting you need to pull out a notebook or piece of paper, the same one that has the 21 questions on it. Now you need to take some notes early, even if they don't mean anything. Just establish the expectation that you are going to be writing stuff down for most of the meeting. If you don't take notes early here's what happens. Twenty minutes deep in conversation, you pick up your pen to start writing for the first time and the other person immediately gets self-conscious. They start wondering what was so important you suddenly decided to start taking notes. Often they will forget what they were going to say. You're note taking is now an 800 pound gorilla in the room that becomes very awkward.

I am a natural note taker so this isn't an issue for me. I process stuff better (and listen better) when I take notes, but I'm careful to keep as much eye contact as possible. No one wants to stare at the top of my bald head for 90 minutes. I start taking notes early and often. When one of those curious questions crops up or when a critical detail is left out, I just write down enough to jog my memory and put a blank check box next to it. Then I forget about it and go back to being totally engrossed in the conversation.

When a logical break occurs, I go back to my notes and say, "while you were talking something popped into my head and I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget it. Let me find it. Oh yeah, here it is. You said Bob can be a challenge. Can you give me an example so I understand what kind of challenge you are dealing with?"

There are two things that make this approach work so well.

1. It honors your host

Most people are not accustomed to being taken so seriously that their listeners take notes, don't interrupt while they are talking, and write down questions as they go. Treating people this way causes them to be transformed. Timid people become more sure of themselves. Stressed people relax. Harried business owners slow down and give you all the time you want. It's honor and people respond to it in a tangible way.

2. Transparency builds rapport

Early in the conversation I will often share my approach out loud. As I’m flipping through my notebook I say something like, “sometimes I stink at conversation and I want to be a better listener so I've made up this little system. Let me get to the right page here..." Sometimes they just say "no problem." Sometimes they want to hear more about the system. Sometimes they confess to being poor listeners themselves. But they are ALWAYS curious about the 21 questions. It's a great icebreaker. By sharing one of my struggles with them, they loosen up and are a little more willing to share some of their struggles with me.

Listening to and communicating with clients and prospects is one of the highest value skills you can master. If you want to go out on your own or take your firm to the next level good listening is critical. Getting just a little more disciplined in your approach before the meeting and a little more comfortable using your notes during the meeting can develop that skill a lot faster.

How the iPad Pro + Pencil Can Change Your Consulting Workflow

Last week a friend of mine showed up to a meeting with an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil and declared, "Joey, I'm a believer, man!" A month earlier he had watched my meeting workflow, and decided he wanted something similar. During that same meeting I showed another iPad Pro/Pencil owner some of the apps I use to get the most out of the hardware. What makes the iPad Pro so much different from its predecessors?

I need to preface all of these comments by saying that I'm not out to compare the iPad to the Microsoft Surface, laptops or Android options. What you use is what you use. If your hardware produces comparable results you know what I’m talking about. The platform doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just talking about what I know. I’m currently using a 12.9” iPad Pro with 128GB of storage. In addition to the Apple Pencil I use the Apple Smart Keyboard cover and the Apple silicone case.

I started using an iPad pro because a client asked me to get familiar with it. We were developing some software for use in the field and the Apple Pencil was a better option than a finger when it came to interacting with customers. Within two weeks I was hooked and using it everyday for the majority of my workflow.

The Pencil

Since I've had an iPad, and even before with tablet computers, I've tried to use a stylus. Every stylus I have ever tried wasn't responsive enough or just didn't work as expected. So I reverted to using my finger on the iPad for hand writing and drawing. And I bought into the Steve Jobs mentality that nobody wanted a stylus. If my free, God-given finger was better than anything that cost money he must have known what he was talking about. But then Apple took a stab at making a stylus.

It is about as close to writing on paper as you’re going to get…today. And I love to write on paper. It's still not a fountain pen, but my handwriting looks exactly like my handwriting. It's hard to describe how good it is, because most of the time you don't even notice it. The Pencil just gets out of the way and you can write or draw on the screen without thinking about the tool in your hand.

Notability as the killer app

I have been an avid user of Notability for several years. On the iPad it is hands-down the best handwriting, drawing, and PDF markup tool I have used. For years I have carried a day book/journal with me to all appointments, but I am noticing that even that is starting to change. If much of the agenda for a particular meeting is based on PDFs that I'm bringing to that meeting I am more likely to push the PDF into Notability and keep all of my notes there.

I have always had a hard time giving up my paper habit because seeing my own handwriting and diagrams gives my notes a context that typewritten text will never achieve. Within seconds I can recognize the content from a meeting that took place weeks or months ago. And Notability (when paired with the Apple Pencil) preserves this context.

I give my notes descriptive titles before they are archived in Evernote and sometimes I will include a couple of sentences of typewritten text in the Evernote document. As a general rule I don't need to search through the body of my handwriting, so text recognition is not something that I'm looking for in this app. I know there are several competitors to Notability, but after trying all of them I keep coming back to this app.

One other nice “feature” of Notability is that it sync’s across the iPhone and Mac with separate apps. It’s something you don’t think you’ll need…until you do.

Screen size

The iPad Pro, the large 12.9” version, is huge. It takes some getting used to and plopping all of that screen real estate down in your lap can be intimidating. But once you start using it you find all sorts of uses for the extra space.

The split screen mode works really well and switching between applications using the split screen is easy to get used to. For years my carry-around iPad has been an iPad mini. The iPad Pro in landscape mode is like putting two mini’s side-by-side. In addition to putting iOS apps side by side I can remote into my 27” iMac and it’s actually usable without having to constantly zoom in and zoom out.

In the traditional paper document paradigm the iPad Pro is the perfect size. It is almost exactly the size of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. When you are marking up the document it feels like you are marking up the actual document, but with all of the added benefits of different ink colors, different highlighter styles, the ability to drop in a picture or sticky notes, etc.

The screen size and portability also makes the iPad Pro the perfect device for giving presentations to small groups. When I deliver proposals to prospects they are always presented using Keynote. The iPad Pro is plenty big enough to stand up at the end of a conference room table to present to three or four people. If the presentation includes any kind of video the speakers in the iPad Pro are so good it isn’t necessary to carry around a separate Bluetooth or other external speaker.

Round tripping between apps and workflows

iOS share sheets have become a staple of my workflow. It's very easy to go into a client file in Dropbox, pull out a document, send it to Notability, annotate it, email a flattened PDF back to the client, and send the archived meeting notes to Evernote. There are parts of my workflow like this that are faster on the iPad then they are on a desktop computer, if they are even possible on the desktop.

Using applications like Airmail I can stream together workflows that create new Trello cards from messages, PDF emails to Evernote, create appointments and a bunch of stuff I still haven't played with yet. Integration with hardware features like cameras and microphones and GPS means there are many things (and the list keeps expanding) that are much easier to do on the iPad than they are on a traditional desktop computer or laptop. This has been the case with iOS devices for a while, but the additional screen real estate means you find yourself in this more productive ecosystem for a bigger portion of your workday. And the more time you spend in iOS the more things you discover you can do with it.

Sometimes it is hard to describe exactly how this piece of hardware changes and improves my main workflow of working with and following up with clients. But when people see it in action they start to see the possibilities in their own workflow habits. It's something you need to experience for a few weeks to really grasp, and if you have the ability I would encourage you to try it out. It seems particularly well-suited to anyone who is working with clients and needs to be mobile.

Stop Writing Reports

I remember the very first full fledged consulting engagement I sold. The partners in the firm didn't know what I was up to. It was summer time and they were just glad I had my own work to do. I eventually came back to the office to write up my recommendations and sent a draft to the audit partner. That started a three week ordeal.

My list of recommendations did not fit in any of the pigeon holes identified in the AICPA or PPC guides. And the partners didn't think my two pages were substantial enough. Even after we figured out what kind of report to attach we went 'round and 'round about needing to beef up the package so there were at least enough pages to run through the binding machine.

This is a sickness in many public accounting and law firms. You would think they were charging by the pound instead of the hour (forget about value pricing). And it is something you must address before you start adding a bunch of consulting clients.

Our approach is built around strategic consulting and execution. Aside from one-page strategic plans and quarterly campaigns there is not a lot of "reporting" that needs to be done. But we also do a lot of special projects that require us to document recommendations or findings. And here we have a very specific report writing policy. WE DON'T DO IT.

This is not my idea. I took Alan Weiss's advice in Million Dollar Consulting and stopped writing reports more than ten years ago. If the client wants a report they can provide someone to write it and I'll tell them what should go in it. But writing reports is almost always a waste of everyone's time. Not only is it unnecessary. It's a distraction.

Last week I sat in a dive bar on the island because it was the only place open while Hurricane Hermine blew past Southwest Florida. With an iPad and a couple of burgers between us, I walked the client through several weeks worth of work, presented my findings, and closed with a plan of action. It was 100 times more effective than any report I was forced to write so we could justify that expensive binding machine. Here are the ground rules I try to follow.

  1. Write no reports. I offer to make myself available to someone on the client team (for a fee) so they can debrief me and write the report themselves if they wish. So far no one has taken me up on the offer.
  2. Present findings, recommendations and next actions. "Present" means face-to-face (either physically or virtually). I don't email anything before presenting it. The reason for this is that most of the value for the client is in being able to discuss the issues and what I propose to do about them. From my side I want to make sure my work is put to good use. In a real, live conversation I can gauge the level of understanding and make sure what I mean to communicate is actually what the client is hearing.
  3. Leave behind a succinct, bullet point overview. I don't give this to the client ahead of time because I don't want them reading point #5 while I'm trying to make sure they understand point #1. But I think it is important to give them all of the substantive points in writing before we part ways. Our discussion usually follows a Keynote presentation on the iPad. I never just print out the slides because I think it's silly to leave behind 10 pages when you can fit the same bullet points on one sheet of paper? So I reformat the presentation in Word and give it to the client after we are done going through the presentation.
  4. Close with action steps. The last thing we talk about and the last section of my leave behind are proposed action steps. This is my opinion of what they should do next. Sometimes it includes a bullet point to hire me for help with execution. Other times it's a laundry list of things they need to do to make progress. If you don't tell your client what to do next they will feel cheated and their view of you will be more ivory tower know-it-all than in-the-trenches colleague.

The last thing I usually ask is "how will I know when you've done anything with this?" Resist the temptation to answer for them or to guess. You'll be suprised at the answers you get.

Strengths are all that matter

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Developing Employees’ Strengths Boosts Sales, Profit, and Engagement by Brandon Rigoni, Ph.D. and Jim Asplund in the Harvard Business Review is worth your time and attention as a consultant. Many times clients will want you to work on making people better. But you are working to take them from just being mediocre to being borderline proficient. This is what happens when you focus on coaching someone through their weaknesses. They may improve, but only marginally. And their improvement rarely means much for the company. The worst part is that you have done nothing for the individual. Who goes home with a sense of fulfillment after a day of being borderline proficient? Nobody! 

Here are some key take aways from the article and how I try to apply them in my work with clients. 

Focusing on strengths builds culture

Gallup found that those who use their strengths every day are more likely "to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect." Rigoni and Asplund mention this as an aside before they get into the sales and profit numbers, but I think it should be the central focus of the article. 

My most successful clients are the ones who have the most fun. Their employees smile a lot at customers, laugh a lot with their managers and generally enjoy going to work every day. And the reason is simple. Doing what you're good at produces a very deep current of well being that is easy to share with others. 

It doesn't matter how many foosball tables your client puts in the break room or how many miniature boxed cereals they stock in the kitchen. If their employees aren't going home every day feeling like they were  born to do this or gifted to do that or just really damn good at their job, they aren't going to drive the culture that makes your client standout from all other other companies that do what they do. 

Developing strengths is key to employee fulfillment, which drives culture, which drives everything important in your client's business. 

If you don't use their strengths someone else will

The authors found a 26-72 percentage point decrease in turnover when companies with high turnover implemented a program to focus on developing employee's strengths. Let that sink in for a second. Companies with high turnover were able to drastically reduce it, not by increasing wages, not with performance compensation, not with increased benefits, not with perks, not with free sushi bars and unlimited supplies of Red Bull. They reduced turnover by changing things up so people were spending more of their time in their sweet spot. 

That begs the question. Why were people leaving in the first place? Go talk to them. They'll tell you. I've sat in on lots of exit interviews and I'm sure you have too. Less than 1% say "I'm leaving, but I don't know where I'm going." They have the next spot picked out. They've accepted someone's offer and money isn't the reason they give for leaving. It's always the opportunity: the opportunity to do more, the opportunity to spend more time on their first love, the opportunity to do what they know they were made to do. 

If your client won't put in the time and effort to find a spot where their people will shine the employees will do it themselves, and often that means they will be lost to a competitor. 

What's good for the goose...

Rigoni and Asplund suggest that step one is to start with leadership. In most small businesses the leader is not spending the majority of the time in their sweet spot. If you are trying to help your client improve sales, profit and engagement starting with the person whose time is most valuable is a pretty good idea.  How you do this could fill a book, but here are a few things that have worked with my clients. 

  1. Come up with a "will not do" list. This will include a lot of stuff that still has to get done. If you work with your client on building a culture of focusing on developing strengths you get to ask them completely different question than most business. Most CEO's look across their group of direct reports and try to decide which silo this soon to be delegated responsibility should land in. That's the wrong approach. Get them to think about the whole organization and ask "who's really good at this already?" It might be a manager, but it also might be an intern. Rather than just trying to get it off the owner's plate, think about who will develop the most if it lands on their plate. 
  2. Limit everything else to 20%. We would all like to spend 100% of our time in our sweet spot, and their are people who do, but getting there is a journey. Start by limiting non sweet spot activities to 20% of the owner's time and budget them as such. Make a list of all of these non-sweet spot responsibilities and shoe horn them into the week. You can squeeze them into a 2 hour block every day or carve out an entire day of the week just for them. This is a very effective tactic. At first your client may not think they can squeeze it all in, but if you force them to they will find out the things that aren't absolutely necessary just go away without much pomp or consequence.
  3. Be transparent. Use Strengths Finder, the same tool used by the authors, to identify your client's strengths and then get the owner to open up with their team. Get the to ask the team what things the owner is doing that don't fit into his or her top 5 strengths. Ask who would be better at these things or how the owner can play a smaller role in getting them done. Most business owners won't do this because it sets them up for accountability from their team. But those who do will find an easy out for things they didn't think they could stop doing. 

I read once that in his prime Tiger Woods rarely worked on his driving accuracy, one of his few weaknesses. He preferred to focus on improving his short game, a noted strength, and his extraordinary conditioning. Before Tiger very few PGA players hit the weight room as part of their regular training regimen. When asked about those choices and whether his lack of driving accuracy was holding him back he said that he usually hit the ball so far off the tee that he was well beyond most of the hazards golf course architects put in place to penalize less accurate players. And with his short game he was able to get back in a position to post birdies with less than stellar driving. As in golf, so it is in business.  If you develop your strengths most of your weaknesses become irrelevant.