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What does it mean to add value to your customers?

“How can I add value?”

This is the question I write at the bottom of my daily planner almost every day. Why? Because I want to train my brain to think in those terms. Why? Because I hear this is the key to success.

I never managed to answer this question adequately. And I had the insight that I need to answer a different question first! And that is:

“What does it mean to add value to your customers?”

Looking at this question, I realized that my efforts have been selfish. I was concerned with “my success.” The reason I wanted to add value is that I become successful by doing so. 

This question forces me to face the fact that I don’t know what “value” means for my customers. Yes, I can make guesses, but I don’t truly know. 

So many times, I have been tempted and followed through with this idea: what I do is valuable to me, so it must be valuable customers too. And if they didn’t see the value, that was their loss! This approach has resulted in projects that are too complex or in features that I thought were cool, but the customers did not care about them. 

And this has happened because I never paused to ask: “what is valuable to my customer?”.

Value is very subjective, I have discovered. I don’t handle loss very well, so I have a reliable backup policy. But others are much more willing to start over again, so backup is not essential. 

I value aesthetics and elegant design. But most of my customers value ease of use and the ability to manage the website themselves. 

I also have discovered that I am biased. And my bias is not the same as my customer’s bias. 

The first step in discovering what it means to add value to my customer is to be humble enough to admit that I don’t know and that I need to have a discussion. In this discussion, I need to ask the customer what is valuable to them, and if required, to help them discover their values in that process. I also need to set my bias aside and truly understand where the other person is coming from. 

The second step is for me to determine if we are a good fit. Based on what I now know about my customer’s values, can I truly serve them in their best interest? And sometimes the answer is no. And in this case, I have to send them away. 

But there is a way to refuse to work with someone that is not selfish. You can still add value by making a recommendation and send them to a specific someone else (your competition), instead of simply turning them down. This way, interacting with you has still got them one step closer to solving their problem, and you have been generous and trustworthy enough to recommend another person for them to work with. You may have lost a client, but you have earned trust, and in today’s world, trust is precious. 

So how can I add value to my customers? It first starts with showing empathy and meeting them where they are at. And in some cases, it means saying “no” and pointing them in a different direction.

Credits: my viewpoint on marketing and adding value is shaped in great part by people like Chris Do, Seth Godin, and Blair Enns.

Why do I write?

I am writing for both selfish reasons and generous reasons.

The selfish reason is that as I write, you will perceive me as an expert: someone who knows what he is talking about. And when you need help with your online business, you will feel confident to ask me.

Another selfish aspect is simply training. When I sit down to write, I have to put my thoughts in order. I make a mental plan; I consider what the message that I want to share is, why would you care, and how can I make it interesting. Writing gives me clarity, and it also forces me to consider the value of my processes.

The generous reason for writing is to teach. My aim with each post is for you to feel you have learned something useful that you can apply in your online business. Reading this post, you may feel inspired to write too. And a tip I have is: don’t write about you. Instead, write for your customers or the people you want to serve.

I will end this with a thank you to my brother. He is the one who first encouraged me to write and got me over: “my writing has no value” mindset.

How do you find customers?

I know this is a burning question in the minds of many entrepreneurs and freelancers. 

I don’t have a “how-to” guide that will guarantee your success, but I would like to share my perspective because it is not just about getting more business, but also about creating a better world for everyone :). I also admit that what I about to share does not apply to everyone or every business model.

My first customer was my first employer. They were buying what I had to offer, my unpolished, raw programming skills fresh out of school. I did not like that customer, but they taught me a lesson: 

your customers should find you, rather than you finding them. 

It took me almost a decade to understand it, though. 

My second customer was my second employer. But this time there was a big difference. They called me, and I had to decide if I wanted to work for them, not the other way around. They had already decided they wanted me there.

This may seem like luck, and that is what I also thought for a while. But it happened again with the third employer. And after that, I stopped being an employee and became a freelancer. And the people I work with today found me. 

It wasn’t until I read about inbound marketing that I understood what was going on. And that, in fact, luck was just a part of it, and maybe not the most significant part. 

What I was not doing was not sitting around, waiting for clients to call. I was continuously working. Either to improve my skill or to generously solve other people’s problems. 

When I began my freelance work, I’ve spent the first two years doing volunteer work. And they have been the best years. In those times, I would only do work that was profoundly satisfying to me. And I discovered how nourishing it is for the soul to be able to choose the people you are working with or working for. 

To paraphrase Seth Godin, the way to get clients is to do work that matters for people who care and to do so generously.

Contact forms done right!

What is worse than nobody contacting you for business? It is having to deal with a lot of Spam. Spam takes away from your attention, and it can potentially drown a valid contact request or a genuine request for support. 

I will be talking here about WordPress and specific plugins, but the general principles apply to other technologies as well. 

The contact form is an essential part of your business. You can get both feedback about how you are doing, but also it is a way for customers to quickly reach out to you, or for leads to ask presale questions. 

The easiest way to get a contact form in WordPress is to use Contact Form 7

But just installing and activating the plugin is not enough. There are two extra steps that I suggest you do:

First: get rid of SPAM. 

Yes, I know, in the first few weeks or months there will be no problems, but as soon as a script bot discovers you it will send a ton of Spam, and that will also affect your server reputation and your ability to send out email. Don’t wait for that to happen. 

To get rid of Spam activate and configure the CAPTCHA test. The one from Google works best, and I choose it most of the times. (If privacy is a big concern from you, I don’t know if Google can be trusted, so shop around!)

Second: Safeguard against email failure.

The way a simple contact form usually works is to accept the submitted message and then email you (the website owner) with the contact message. 

This way used to work well, but with the ever-increasing Spam problem, there is a chance that the contact email will never reach you. When and if this happens, you will never know. Unless…

Unless you also save the messages on the server where you can review them later. For this, I use the companion plugin Flamingo. Aside from making sure you don’t lose your messages, this collection of data can become a treasure when it comes to customer research: most common questions asked, or problems in interacting with your products and so on.

Bonus: Integrate with an auto-responder.

When you begin to get more messages than you can quickly respond to, a nice touch is to use an auto-responder to provide some quick tips or to reassure your visitors that you will get back to them as soon as you can.

When you do use Flamingo or an auto-responder, make sure you update your privacy policy to inform your users about that and be GDPR compliant.

A look into the (not so distant) future.  

Soon contact forms will be replaced with virtual agents/assistants. This is already happening, and it will be a game-changer — more about AI in a different article.

Can you run a business and not talk to anybody?

At my core, I am a computer nerd. I am excellent at talking to computers. Not so much when it comes to other human beings.

For a long time, this was the only thing I would do. I was the happiest when I got the project specs on paper, so I could read them and implement them, by myself.

But when I decided to become a freelancer, I realized that I had to talk to other people. I had to talk to the people I wanted to serve about their goals and their vision, but also about money. There were times when I knew had to say “no,” but I couldn’t. There were times where there was a conflict that had to be resolved through better communication.

I wish I could say there is an easy “how-to guide” to learn to communicate better, but there isn’t. I just had to practice — one awkward conversation after the other.  

And it is still hard at times. Especially when I need to make a change in how I price things, or in the terms of the engagement. 

So why go through all this trouble and stress of learning to be a better communicator?

Although it seems obvious now, here is the lesson I resisted the most: to find clients and to keep finding better clients, you need to learn to communicate. There is no way around this. 

You need to know how to tell your story compellingly; how to communicate your pricing and how to negotiate in your favor. You need to be able to use your conversation skills to determine how you can best create value for your clients. And, in some cases, you need to know how to let some clients go. 

By avoiding communication, I would frequently make wrong assumptions about what was valuable for my client, and that would jeopardize the relationship and the project. 

If you don’t learn to communicate better, you will have to let someone else do the talking, write the copy on your site, create the video, and tell your story. And even if they do a good job, they are not you :). You will continue to depend on someone else. It will be comfortable, but you will be limited to your view from the “back seat.”

If you are still not convinced then maybe this will shake you up a bit (as it did me): 

“The better communicator will determine the price.” 

A business-savvy website should consider money, and therefore price. And you can spend a lot of time and money optimizing the technical bits, but if your communication is off, your success will be limited.  

I will end this post with a book recommendation. It is the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, but it’s worth every dollar: Pricing Creativity by Blair Enns. Don’t think that if you don’t work in the creative business that this book does not apply to you. It does! And it is all about communication.

The Process – A project from start to finish

There is value in having a process. It helps you provide consistent results, and you have something that you can continuously work on to improve. 

Here is “The Process” that I use today with software projects.

1. Are we a good fit? 

The first thing that happens is the discussion where both myself and the client try to determine if we are a good fit for one another. 

My job is to determine what the client needs and consider if I can provide a creative solution to solve that problem at a price that is fair for both of us. 

Sometimes this discussion happens in two parts if I need a break to do some research and investigation before I can begin to think of ways I could help. 

An important note here is that what is “needed” may not be what the client initial thought may be needed. That is why we have a conversation before any agreement happens. 

2. Project Set-Up 

After we agree on scope, price, and what it means to be 100% satisfied, I begin the work. 

With time I have learned the value of keeping things organized and tidy. 

Each client gets their individual folder that will document the history of the project. In that folder I will have things like:

  • meeting notes; 
  • agreement of project scope and price;
  • backups – I never do any changes unless I have a backup first;
  • client files – images, documents, other media;
  • a work-log – where I document what I have done and why. In very rare cases, I can use that to remind the client of the road we took together and justify a decision over the other. Another benefit is that you learn and get better by journaling what you do; 
  • access details – a file where I store various logins that the client has shared with me. In some cases, it makes good sense to have this file encrypted, like a ZIP archive with a password, for example;
  • any new agreed-upon changes also go here;

3. Making a plan – The List

I was trained, mostly by my father, to be organized by using lists. And I have kept that training and added on top of it. It is very useful, and it gives me clarity on what it needs to be done and in what order. 

Here I make a list of everything that needs to be done, broken down in tasks. The tool I use most of the time is Asana. I have tried Trello and Bootcamp, but I find Asana to be much closer to how I like to work. 

I also use a calendar service (like Google Calendar) to remind myself of upcoming deadlines.

Something that I found is handy is to split my list into three main sections:

 a. Go Live – the project cannot go live or shipped if any of the tasks here are not finished;

 b. Nice to Have – other tasks originating from the client that we can add later, after the go-live and in, some cases, in a “Phase 2” of the project;

 c. Bright Ideas – here I write down my own ideas that I think could help the client;

Why am I organizing things like this? 

The short answer is that it forces me to focus on the client; to get them on the market as soon as possible. I did not always use to think like that, and I was routinely making the mistake of focusing on tasks in the “Bright Ideas” section because there were so inspiring to me and they would challenge me. But in most cases, they were not mandatory for the client. So that added unjustified delays and extra costs. While I don’t think the client is always right, I do believe the client knows what is important to them. And that is where my focus should be and what I should be solving first. 

I hope it is now evident that the order in which I go about these tasks is: Go Live, then Nice To Have and then Bright Ideas. And I have learned to be OK with the fact that most projects stop after the “Go Live” part when the burning need of the client has been met. 

So why still keep “Nice to have” and “Bright Ideas” around? 

The biggest reason is to clear your mind so you can focus on the tasks at hand, knowing that your “good thoughts” are not lost. The second big reason is that is how you learn and grow. Maybe you don’t implement these ideas now, in this project, but because you wrote them down and thought about them you will remember them, and they may be the perfect solution for the next project or the “Phase 2” of this project. The “Bright Ideas” section is your most creative section. Don’t throw it away.

4. Set Up a Schedule 

I believe that if a project does not have a deadline, it will never finish. I am very wary of clients who say: “we can finish this whenever… no rush!”. That can be a source of significant delays for you and the project. 

I know this is not the same for everyone, but if deadlines motivate you, a client who is continuously delaying the project will drive you mad. 

In this step, I set-up reminders in my calendar for milestones that will help me get the work done in time for launch. 

When I do this, I need to allow time for the “unexpected” right before the launch. So I plan to finish the project at least a few days early to have some space to extend in case of unforeseen trouble. 

5. Doing the work

Only in step 5 comes the most fun part for me, doing software work :). But as a solopreneur, I need to do and master the business admin part as well.

When doing software work, I have a few principles that I follow:

  • Blocks of uninterrupted time – 2 – 3 hours blocks when I am the most efficient. When coding, there is a complex context that you need to have running in your head, and that takes time to build. If your block of time is too short, then most of that is spent just reminding yourself what the project is about;
  • use a versioning system – this should be obvious – even if you are working alone, it is so much easier to roll back to something that was working when you have a versioning system in place 
  • automatic testing – for particular clients that require a very high level of quality control this needs to be done;
  • Automatic backups of the client’s old code/website – again, just in case you need to roll back. Make sure the backups also include the database, not just the code files;
  • Keep track of working time – in some cases, “hours of time” is what I am billing to the client, and also this is how I know if we are going to finish on time. I am however transitioning out of this, so stay tuned for a post about it. Keeping track of time can be a learning and discipline building tool, just like journaling your work, but sometimes it becomes very, very restrictive and creates a lot of stress; 

6. Client Feedback 

I used to work, work, work, and then do the “big WOW” reveal at the end when the client would be floored with the amazing quality and results. 

This big reveal was silly. 

Why? Because it would allow me to focus on the “Bright Ideas” list instead of “Go Live.” And I would deliver an excellent, high-quality product, that would not speak to the client’s needs. 

What I do now is to deliver work in smaller increments and get feedback soon and often. I am careful here that the feedback I am looking for is “does this meet your needs, madam client?” and not about “how to do my job.” Therefore it is a tool to keep me focused on finding solutions that are important and relevant to the client. 

7. Making mistakes 

Mistakes are happening in every project. If I am not making mistakes, I am not learning anything new, and I am just delivering the same old solution. In some cases, that is OK, but generally, that is not what I am looking for. Each client is unique, so I want to challenge myself and meet their individual needs. 

It is therefore essential to know that I will be making mistakes and have a plan on what do to about them. Like, make sure I have factored that in the price so I don’t add more as a cost to the client to fix them. Also, I need to include those in my schedule. That is why I always have the “unexpected problem” in my planing with some time allocated to it. 

I am, however, fair. If I make a stupid mistake that I could have easily foreseen and avoided, the fix is on the house! I am talking here about the unavoidable trials and errors when you are building custom solutions and exploring places you have not explored before. Those mistakes need to be allowed for if you want to arrive at a good solution where you have explored alternatives that did not work. 

8. Going Live 

When I “go live,” I strive to have a seamless experience for the customer and their clients, which means as little to no downtime if that is at all possible. Over time I have discovered various ways of “flipping the switch” that can use depending on the specific situation. 

Again here, backups are super important. In case you mess up the live deployment, you need to be sure you can roll back to what worked before. I have seen so many instances where this not done, and people roll the dice. They may be that good, but it is just a matter of “when” things will crash on you, not “if.” I have learned my lesson.

9. Review and Learn

Ideally, the project has completed with the “double thank you.” You give thanks for the business, and the client is grateful for the solution they got. 

Either way now is the time to reflect on the project and look for “lessons learned.” 

What worked? Do more of that!

What did not work? Do less of that! 🙂 Or at least try to figure out what you can do differently next time. 

Something else that shows up here is opportunities to learn new things. Look at the “Bright Ideas” section and the “Nice to Have” section and try to come up with solutions to those that use new technologies. I sometimes set-up a pet project where I implement that solution.

I mustn’t skip this step or else I would get stuck in a rut. 

Mic to you!

How is your process different when you’re helping your clients? What are some of your lessons learned along your journey? 

Business Automation

When you start a business, you do it because you have something to say, something to share, or a service that may benefit others. So there are a lot of opportunities to be creative and to express yourself. 

But once you start getting some traction or you have been at it for a while, you begin to realize that many of the activities you do are business administration tasks, and not so many creative tasks. 

Some people enjoy this, but most creatives tend to feel drained by it. 

If you can afford it, a solution is to hire someone who cares to help you. 

Another solution is to automate as much as you can. 

We live in the age of Artificial Intelligence. If you wonder: “Is there a way I could automate this” the answer is very likely to be “yes.”

Here are some of the things that can easily be automated:

  • order fulfillment for downloadable products
  • thank you notes
  • providing support and guides about how to use or access your products
  • ask for feedback or testimonials
  • subscribe customers to your newsletter service
  • backups of your important data
  • weekly or monthly reports
  • health checks of your systems
  • posting on social media

Zapier is one of the most powerful automation tools that I know. It allows you to connect apps and services that do not talk to one another and create all kinds of workflows that will run automatically. 

And if you are thinking of building an online service yourself, it may be worthwhile to integrate it with Zapier as this will increase the rate of adoption. Many other services will be able to connect with you without having to write custom code. 

There is a caveat to all of this: your customers and visitors are humans, and they crave a human connection. Automate the repetitive tasks, and for the others, let your creativity and human nature shine :).

A gorgeous website is different from a GOOD website

Can over-designing things become a problem?

We like pretty things. I get that.

We like the restaurant to be clean and inviting. Easy to understand.

But where do you draw the line? Where do you find a balance between pretty and functional?

I struggle with finding this balance my work. I want to use data to make a decision and not just my gut feeling.

I am a computer nerd. I design software, I write code, and I take pride in my work. But I am often faced with this dilemma:

Should I invest more in software design or graphic design when working on a project?

Nobody will use a pretty app that is not working.

I think we can all agree on that.

At the other extreme, some people will use an ugly app because it solves a big problem reliably.

But I want to do better and find some middle ground.

Good software design improves stability and performance. Makes maintenance easier, thus reducing the costs.

Good graphic design makes the user experience more comfortable. Reduces the learning curve and makes your application more widespread.

So how do you split your budget? Is it 50/50? Or should you focus more on performance, for example?

The more I think about this, the more I realize that your target audience is the one that will dictate what your focus should be.

If you have software that helps people to solve a big problem, probably nobody will care that it is ugly, not intuitive, and incredibly awkward to use. If they are desperate for a solution, they will accept one, no matter how it is delivered.

On the other hand, if you are talking about a game with bubbles… well those need to be some pretty bubbles to keep the audience engaged. In the case of games, you are not after a solution; you are after an “experience of play.”

How does this apply to websites?

I guess if your offer solves a significant problem, you can be forgiven if your site’s design is still from the 90s. But if there is a lot of competition, then a good design may help you stand out.

And this word “may” is where the problem comes in for me. How can I quantify it in terms of a website goal? It is intuitive to think that a good design will increase sales, but you also need to know how much? You need to have some idea of how close you will get to your end goal, so you know how much you are willing to invest in that good design.

Designers are very excited to make things pretty, to make them pop, to make them unique. And I understand that. You are making art, and you want it to be beautiful. But is it really useful?

I fall into this trap myself with software when I over-design something just for the pleasure of creating a “perfect design.” But in the end, that does not benefit the client all that much. There are so many examples with people doing very well, by using poorly designed tools.

They’re also amazing designs, both software, and graphic, that nobody uses.

To help make this decision more comfortable (and profitable), I’d like to know a way to quantify the benefits of excellent graphic design. Any thoughts?