09 October 2011

Buried Treasure

Not long ago, I wrote a colleague, the former chief exec of a client organisation, asking for his recommendation.  We have a sound, genial professional and personal relationship, and we have communicated regularly by phone and email since parting ways a few months ago.  Although we didn't get the happy ending we strove for throughout our last adventure, I was proud of the exceptional effort and dedication we had given.

I'd spent four years nurturing the growth of his organisation, first on a pro bono basis, and when the small but feisty nonprofit hit a sizable financial and regulatory speed bump in late 2009 and the crisis took on life-or-death dimensions in early 2010, I stepped in as full-time formal consultant to him and the wounded organisation.  I liked these people, I liked their organisation, and I wanted success for them.

Over sixteen months, I put my career, reputation, and resources on the line, went head-to-head in negotiations with their franchisor and governing authorities, brought the group through stringent internal audits and various reports with an A+, developed integrated marketing to bring them into the digital age and new programming to blow the cobwebs off their dusty line-up, recruited a much-needed, highly skilled executive for an ancillary organisation providing 60% of their integral funding, networked da shizz out of my professional contacts to procure services they couldn't have afforded otherwise, stretched the dollars in their budget to get "the most bang for the buck", and on a nearly daily basis, encouraged, guided, and acted as cheerleader and noodge to the chief exec, staff, and his beaten-down, discouraged board.

When his one-line recommendation arrived at my inbox, it was vague, akin to a pat on the head, and so generic it could've applied to one's babysitter, secretary, barber, or the kid who bags your groceries.  Coming as it did from a highly literate academic, it was, well, underwhelming.  I was shocked.  Disappointed.  Disturbed.  Twenty-four hours later, I was still steaming, but puzzled, too.  What had happened?

Albeit a painful reminder, my dismay at this colleague's lackluster recommendation served me as a refresher course for three important self-marketing principles I've taught clients in the past:

1 - How Do You Intend to Use It?

Whether asking a client/colleague to serve as a reference or to provide a ringing recommendation of you and your work, first let them know how you intend to use their thoughts.  Example:  if you want a fabulous blurb to put on the jacket of your new book, provide a gift copy of the book to your potential endorser along with a handwritten (yes, handwritten!) note
  • (a) asking for their honest appraisal of the book in two or three paragraphs
  • (b) because you value their opinion and
  • (c) hope to include appropriate remarks on the book's sales jacket.

Don't just blindly ask someone to serve as a reference for you.  Explain the gig or project you're after, something about the people involved in it and what kind of person or firm you understand they want, how you see yourself as a good match.  "If the ABC Outfit contacts you, would you feel comfortable sharing with them our experiences on the XYZ project and telling them you think I'd be a good fit for _____?"  Listen carefully to their answer, make notes, re-direct if necessary.

If you are asking for a written recommendation, say to include at LinkedIn, or to post on your company brochure or website, be clear about the scope of what you want to accomplish or emphasise with their opinion.  What exactly is the picture you want to paint with the endorsements or recommendations?  More importantly, can your source honestly appraise you and your work in a manner congruent with this picture?

2- Name It & Claim It!

When asking a past/present client to serve as your reference or to provide you a recommendation, don't spare the specificity!

Ask pointedly for comments on the role you/your firm fulfilled -- and define that role.  Ask for comments about significant skill sets and/or resources you applied to their situation -- and name those skill sets and resources.  Ask for comments about the scope, dimension, and spectrum of the work performed -- and remind the client of those particulars plus any singular challenges you overcame while acting on their behalf.

Sadly, it's just too darn easy for clients to gloss over or take for granted what we accomplish for them.  It isn't always a deliberate oversight; but sometimes, their vanity may make it intentional.  (Problems?  What problems?  We didn't have no stinkin' problems!)

All of this reminds me of what Sammy Davis, Jr. said in his autobiography Yes, I Can!, in answer to critics who'd downplayed his talent as a dancer, "The better a dancer you are, the easier it should look.  If you've done your job right, everybody ought to think they could jump up and do as well."  [with apologies to The Man Himself and the Boyars for my poor paraphrase]

3 - Tell 'Em What You Told 'Em

The same fundamental which guides public speaking also applies, with slight alteration, to the work we consultants perform for clients, and therefore, to seeking a recommendation/reference from the client later on.  "Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em -- tell 'em -- then tell 'em what you told 'em."  (BTW, you can see this very principle at work in Steve Jobs' 2005 Commencement Speech to Stanford.)

As consultants, we may believe the evidence of our contributions so surrounds our client and permeates his functioning, he cannot possibly be unaware of our value and accomplishment.  After all, here's the beautifully designed business plan, the 25-page report with charts and graphs, the newly-recruited investor, the ink is still wet on the check in payment of our services, the client's phone is ringing with new orders, the website traffic stays longer and clicks more, the pews and chairs are filled, and the bottom line has been transformed from an ugly rumour to a celebrated balance.

Not so, grasshopper.

We might paraphrase the Tell 'Em principle to, "Tell clients what results you can deliver, deliver those results +10% better, then tell them face-to-face and in writing what you delivered."

One For the Road

I shouldn't need to add this last thought, but I will:  whatever the outcome of your request to a colleague for serving as a reference or for providing a recommendation, thank the donor for his or her thoughts and time.  If you see their words could be ever-so-slightly tweaked to benefit you better, thank them, share the potential revision with them, and ask if they're AOK with updating it.

Yeh, yeh, yeh, I know this stuff.  Just needed reminding.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.
(Proverbs 27:6)

See you on the patio!

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