The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, is one of the best selling business books of all time. Author Stephen Covey’s approach to being effective in business requires an alignment to his “true north” principles. These concepts have been so popular that they were even adopted by the Clinton presidency in the ‘90s.
Like Covey’s principles, a set of habits can be adopted and followed to help any web pro stand apart from the crowd, resulting in more clients, higher margins, and a reputation that virtually guarantees success. It wouldn’t be difficult to come up with dozens of good habits, but for the sake of consistency with Covey’s book, here are the top seven that helped me (and, therefore, my agency) mature and make a killing over the past thirteen years.
If you’ve worked in this industry long, you’ve probably participated in a “postmortem”– a conversational meeting you have after completing a project, with the sole purpose of learning what worked and what didn’t, so that subsequent projects can be better. The interesting thing is that, once you’ve completed numerous projects, you get very good at knowing what can go wrong.
So, why wait until after those problems occur, when you can instead avoid them by preparing in advance? We call this preemptive discussion a “premortem,” and it’s your opportunity to predict issues like:
Be proactive to avoid problems down the road.
This is an interesting habit. So few web-pros follow it that it can sometimes seem unrealistic. Successful agencies like Crispin Porter + Bogusky have even gone so far as to list their inability to meet deadlines in their marketing materials as a badge of honor.
Make no mistake, though — the habit of meeting deadlines is attainable and will have amazing effects on your business:
I started my agency 13 years ago, and it wasn’t until year 12 that we developed this habit. We were consistently 3 to 4 weeks behind for so long that we eventually gave up on being caught up. But an interesting thing happened once we got enough of a break to complete every task on our list: we knew exactly how we got there and what we needed to do to stay there. Once you feel the inner peace of being on top of your work, you’ll refuse to ever go back.
When it comes to code, doing things right the first time will make it easier to support later and increase the opportunities for reusing it on other projects. Rushing through it will save a little time now, but cost you dearly in the long run.
When it comes to design, you have no way to hide bad work. More than budgets, ability to meet deadlines, your sales skills or your relationships, your demonstrated ability to generate results is what prospects are going to use to select their vendor.
If you’re not impressed by your own portfolio, don’t expect anyone else to be.
If there is one piece of negative client feedback I’ve heard more than any other, it would be that we failed to respond promptly and set expectations. Interestingly, failure to communicate is one of the easiest habits to overcome. Are you ignoring emails? Answer them sooner. Are you failing to keep clients updated on project progress? Email every client at least once per day with an update. Communication is not rocket science, but poor communication is a universal problem.
If you suffer from poor communication, the first thing you should do is to expose the reasons. Common factors include:
If you examine the reality behind these beliefs, though, you’ll find that the results of poor communication are almost always worse than the results of promptly communicating bad news. Time doesn’t stop for clients at the moment they request information — every hour that goes by adds to their frustration, anxiety, and confusion, not to mention their desire to find a new vendor. By contrast, many times clients have said something like, “If we have to postpone launch by three days, I can deal with that. But, I need to know right away instead of one hour before we expect the site to go live.”
Translation? Overall, you’re going to look better if you communicate any news — whether good or bad — as soon as possible.
We use Zendesk for our project and support task scheduling, and we train clients to email all inquiries to a dedicated support address that automatically creates Zendesk tickets. Zendesk then does two really cool things:
Each month, we review these stats and see how we’re tracking over time. It’s a surprisingly motivating exercise that helps the poorest communicators to improve. Whether you choose to use Zendesk or not, find a methodology that ensures timely communication.
It’s the backbone of your work.
For several years, my agency has operated under the tagline: We don’t provide a service. We provide a result.
What I rarely communicate is the source of that line. It wasn’t the outcome of a complex branding exercise. It’s a quote from Miami Vice. In the 2006 movie, a major drug lord was having a “project kick-off meeting” of sorts and told his new, would-be drug runners, “In all matters, when you work for us, you must do exactly what you say you will do. In this business with me, if you say you will do a thing, you must do exactly that thing. I do not pay you for a service. I pay you for a result.”
I adopted this concept because it really resonates as a foundation for our work. When we say we’ll forward a document by end-of-day, we do it. When we promise to design or build something a certain way, we make sure it happens. And, as mentioned above, when we commit to a deadline, we take it seriously. Nothing generates client loyalty as much as being reliable.
One of the best ways to ensure that you do what you say you’re going to do is to keep a list of those things. That can be easier said than done if you keep project tasks in Basecamp, internal tasks in your Moleskine, and personal tasks on Post-It Notes scattered around your desk.
We’ve found that combining everything into a single place is the most reliable way to stay on top of responsibilities of all types (client requests, phone messages, project deadlines, etc.). Again, we use Zendesk, but there are literally hundreds of apps that provide suitable functionality.
Project tasks? Create to-dos. Discuss an idea with Rebecca? Create a to-do. Remind yourself to upgrade Photoshop? Create a to-do. We create to-dos for everything, and then we use the Priority field to specify which things need to be done today, soon, or later. The list is always open in our browser, but we also have the mobile app installed on our phones so we can monitor and update away from the office. It takes a few weeks to turn the concept into a habit, but it helps us get things done much more quickly.
This is such a huge topic that I’ll almost certainly focus a future article on it, but the basics can be covered here. The bottom line? Successful agencies and freelancers develop an appreciation for profitability, and they’re always looking in the rearview to find opportunities for improvement.
Good money management has two sides: Charging clients appropriately and spending only when you should. When both are executed properly, the result is profit.
Charging clients consistently and commensurately with the results you provide is probably easier than prudent spending. After all, we like making money. The problem is that most of us also like spending money.
I frequently “hit the reset button” on our spending, cutting out almost every expense we have, including unnecessary contractors. Nevertheless, I eventually loosen the reigns on certain things, only to regret 70% of those expenditures later. That’s okay. Experimentation is good. The key is to constantly revisit your spending and see which items can be avoided in the future. Some examples from my experience include:
A decade ago, my days were frequently spent fielding angry client calls about missed expectations. Nobody can leave that kind of work at the office — it consumes you 24 hours a day. Today, we enjoy incredible profit margins and a 100% client-satisfaction rating in Zendesk (it’s been in place for about six months so far). Our clients are sticking with us longer and referring us to more businesses. We rarely work on weekends, and we always leave the office at 5pm sharp on weekdays.
It took many years and a lot of focused effort to get there, but the results are worth it. Personally, I’ve gone from working in this field for the money to working in this field because I love the challenge.
Develop these seven concepts into habits yourself, and let me know how they change you.
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