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The 7 Habits of Successful Web Pros

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.

1. Perform a Premortem

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:

  • The client team on this project includes 8 people and a board of directors. Client teams of that size are always a challenge to manage, so how can we prepare?
  • Roger is doing the PHP development on this project, and he always takes twice as long to build a site as he estimates. How can we schedule accordingly?
  • I’m starting three new projects this month. What will I do if I start to get stretched too thinly?

Be proactive to avoid problems down the road.

2. Meet Deadlines

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:

  • Clients will stay with you longer.
  • You’ll have no problem getting amazing testimonials that help you win new business.
  • You’ll have the time to do the growth-critical things on that list you’ve been compiling for years.
  • Employees (if you have any) will feel happier and more successful.
  • YOU will be happier and more successful.

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.

3. Never Deliver Work You’re Not Proud Of

Nothing hurts a web pro or agency more than having a crappy portfolio. Whether you’re delivering a chunk of code, a set of design comps, or an entire website, remember that you’re probably going to have to work with it for months or years to come. Would you want to modify messy Javascript nine months from now? Do you want to make regular changes to a home page layout that you never liked in the first place? Will fast but substandard work seem like a good business decision when you have to list that e-commerce T-shirt site as a “past project” on your next proposal?

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.

4. Communicate with Clients

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:

  • It often seems better to not respond to client inquiries at all than to provide bad news, so we put off responding until we have better news.
  • We’re so busy that we want to stay focused on other tasks instead of taking that phone call or promptly responding to that email.

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:

  1. It tracks our “first-response” times for all tickets so we can see how long it typically takes us to respond (and then improve).
  2. It prompts clients to rate our response on each ticket, so we can see how we’re succeeding and failing.

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.

5. Do What You Say You Will Do

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.

6. Schedule All To-Dos in One Place

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.

7. Manage Money Wisely

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:

  • In my agency’s early years, I used to avoid doing project management myself. So, I once decided to invest in a very senior PM to whom I paid a high salary. He convinced me that implementing Microsoft Project Server would set us up for future growth. He may have been right, but he ended up leaving after several months and $20k worth of MS Project customizations, which we promptly trashed when he left. My desire to sidestep my project management responsibilities probably cost me $50k within six months. After that, I taught myself to enjoy project management.
  • When we built our 8,000 square-foot office space, we set up a telecom infrastructure that included servers, a new phone system, MS Exchange, back-up systems, and Ethernet throughout. The cost was somewhere in the $65k range, not including a two-employee team to support it. Today, we use Google Drive, a virtual PBX VOIP phone system, Gmail, an Apple Time Capsule, and WI-FI. Cost? About $80 per month.

Make the Change

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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