Friday, July 06, 2007

Help Your Customer; Help Yourself

The other day, I was talking to a client (let's call her Andrea) about a project that I'm working on when she made an off-hand remark. We had been talking about how soon her team was going to be able to provide me with some critical content for my project, when Andrea said, "We're so under-the-water here that I'm thinking of canceling all our projects with outside vendors. We just can't get them the information they need fast enough."

Needless to say, this wasn't something I wanted to hear. No, I wanted to protest, you might want to get rid of those other, know-nothing freelancers, but you can't possibly mean me."

Instead I told Andrea, "I know what you mean. I've been in your position myself. By the time I pulled all the resources and information together - half of which were my head - I might as well have done the whole thing myself."

Andrea assured me that she wasn't thinking of canceling the project I'm doing.

Thank you, Andrea.

But I do know that, given my long experience, I tend to be a very low maintenance vendor. A lot of what I work on is messaging, sales tools, web site content, etc. - items that require some degree of knowledge about a product.

So before I bug a customer with a lot of questions, I will review whatever material there is to be had. No, I don't become an expert overnight, but I do get a good sense of what the products do and how they're (currently) positioned. I then develop a list of questions for the internal product experts. The list will have questions specific to the product, as well as general questions about information I need for different marketing vehicles (data sheet vs. brochure vs. sales preso).

In some cases, I take a stab at the answer and ask if I got it right.

List in hand, I'll work directly with the product expert(s) to make sure I'm technically accurate and complete. My goal is always to not waste anyone's time by asking obvious questions that I should have been able to figure out on my own.

I also try to minimize the possibility that I'm going to hear the words "this isn't quite right" by being very explicit, early on, about what I'll be delivering - especially when I'm working on something new. I'll lay out my approach in some detail, and give a sample or two that reflects the tone I'm planning on taking. Better to hear "this isn't quite right" based on a page or two rather than after I've delivered what I thought was a near-final product.

Another thing I always shoot for is minimizing the number of iterations and reviews by getting clear up front who's going to be reviewing material and what they're going to be reviewing it for. When I hear that everybody and his brother have to look at everything, I shudder and sigh. Then I try to work back to what it is everybody needs to buy in on. If it's core messages about a product's positioning, fine. Let's get the fundamental story straight first. But I always try to get the customer to draw the line at "everybody into the pool" endless wordsmithing and nitpicking. Unfortunately, some people are so into trying to make everyone happy (or, politically, trying to keep anyone from undermining a project), that they stick with the must-get-buy-in-from-everyone approach. Uuugggghhhhhh.

I will be hearing from Andrea shortly about the next steps in our current project. I have suggested an approach that I think will minimize the time, hassle, and back-and-forth for her team. Let's hope she takes me up on it.

1 comment:

Mary Schmidt said...

Maureen,

Like you, I try to get ahead of the train - do research on the client's competitors, industry, read articles, etc. etc. - before I ever put pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

And, a prerequisite is a mutually agreed Statement of Work so we can both manage our time and expectations.

As for the "writing by committee" if it has to happen, I do my best to make it clear that the end product will likely be (very) delayed and probably not very good (Sorry, Ms and Mr. Client, but you do pay me to tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear.)

Oh, and when the prospective clients says something like, "I'll have to do some more thinking and get back to you what I need to see in a proposal" - I volunteer to draft something for their review. Makes everyone's life a lot easier.