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Need wise counsel not covered anyplace else

Conducting "business" vs. volunteering

     
11:58 am on Oct 12, 2000 (gmt 0)

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WebmasterWorld Senior Member marcia is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

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I really would appreciate some input on this issue before I go one step further and continue to shoot myself in the foot.

Quote from a newsletter article I received today, written by the owner of a popular ecommerce site:

"I saw my share of difficulties. I had a huge orders cancel at the last minute, "clients" stole my consulting services under the guise of 'getting a quote'"

Being in the beginning stages, and having a pile of email to reply to, I've been giving serious thought to this very issue, and thought I'd better come up with some answers to policy before sending any more replies to queries. This quote stated exactly as it's happening.

I can understand requiring up-front non-refundable deposits to handle being compensated for time spent in case of cancellations, so this is not an issue.

But I'm being asked numerous questions prior to making definite arrangements with potential "clients", and have been in the position of having given free "consulting" by being helpful.

This comes very naturally, from having done a full year and a half of volunteer service (via chats and message board hosting, as well as email inquiry and email list postings, etc.), freely given and intended to continue.

I do, however, need to draw boundaries between volunteer and business activities and define the two roles.

Specifically, where do you draw the line for answering questions from inquiries, as to how much informaton to give before and after receiving the deposit?

Examples: What domain name should I choose? Can you recommend a web host? How should I accept payment, and can you suggest a provider for credit card services? How do I handle international monetary transactions? How do I get on search engines, and how do I choose the keywords? Should I use a shopping cart?

"clients" stole my consulting services under the guise of 'getting a quote" - I know this belongs in the dumb question department, but I know my thinking is muddied in this area, and I see this being attempted through many emails - how do I avoid this happening to me?

TIA, Marcia

1:05 pm on Oct 12, 2000 (gmt 0)

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It is an issue that will continue to come up for you after years of work Marcia. I wrestle with it continually. Throw in what we do here on the board, and you've got a real quandary on your hands.

I'm going to do something here we don't do much of, but since it was one of the best posts I've seen this year, I'm going to point out a post at another forum. Our own littleman posed your very question in Helping, where do you draw the line [searchengineforums.com] over at SEF. There were some thought provoking replies in that thread and caused me to adjust my own policy. *warning*, it also made me a bit paranoid. (ok ok, it made me a bit more paranoid. <g>).

I am in the envious position now where enough reputation and results precede inquiries that I can require payment before any work is done. I didn't used be able to do that.

I just lay out what I do and answer any clarifying questions about the process and not specifics about them or their site. I stay away from referring to their situation and instead, focus on generalities. If you focus on the "process" and not on specifics, you protect your hard earned knowledge.

For example, if a client asks:
"What domain name should I choose? "

Answer something akin to:
"We take a look at the site and together with the owner, we decide what would be most appropriate for the site and its goals. Within that process, there can be different directions we can take. Once we get into your site, we will need to have a conversation about your goals and how they relate to your choice of domain name."

With that reply, I have focused on the process of how we do it, avoided anything specific, and let them know that this info is forthcoming after purchase. If they want specifics, let them know that this is the service that you provide after sales.

It does require you to rethink your own thought process and be careful with your language. Until I got the whole lingo and focus on the process thing down, I misspoke quite a bit. Email is a tad easier because you can think it through. Phone is more effective, but make sure to take 5-15mins to set down and ask yourself what your commitment is in the phone call - what you want to have happen? Make short, but detailed crib notes to use while on the phone and gently steer the conversation in that direction - it goes a very long way. Phone work is an art, but once mastered, there is little that is more effective at producing results.

In the end, you'll have to come up with your own personal policy that you can live with long term. I think the primary thing is not to sell yourself too short.

mnw

1:30 pm on Oct 12, 2000 (gmt 0)

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Brett, I was thinking of the same post.

Marcia, Brett is right on target with his repsonse. Actually, my wife (a lawyer) taught me how to give a potential client what appears to be an answer without giving them any information. As Brett says, it's talking about the process and information gathering about their "specific" situation that will generate the "answer" they are looking for. You may already "know" the answer or, at least, have a pretty good idea what the answer will be. The would-be client needs to sign on the dotted line to get it. It might seem a little duplicitous, but it needs to be done, unless you want to be a not-for-profit company. It takes practice to walk the fine line between giving the store away and ticking off the potential client to the point you have none. It's a tease. "I have the ability to get your answers...just sign on the dotted line" Unfortunately, all of the examples that come from the real world would label me a MCP, which I am not. I just can't think of any others right now :)

2:06 pm on Oct 12, 2000 (gmt 0)

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>and be careful with your language. Until I got the whole lingo and focus on the process thing down, I misspoke quite a bit. Email is a tad easier because you can think it through.

Absolutely. If I find that certain key points keep coming up repeatedly, I write a web page. NOT in FAQ style, but more of sales brochure -long on what I do in general, short on specifics. I tune and tweak the language often, usually just before I send the url to the prospect. Now, my sales pitch tends to be a brief email that references several web pages I'd like them to visit. This sounds somewhat stark, but it has worked extremely well for me.

2:36 pm on Oct 12, 2000 (gmt 0)

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my 2

We generally talk to a CEO or Director of Marketing.
We have a conference call with all the team members on the line.
We explain our backgrounds and the tasks we intend to perform.
We do not talk in terms of rank but in terms of traffic.
We gain their trust and close the deal.
They do not understand a darn thing.
They just want results.
They don't have the time to do it or the human resources to do it inhouse.
Nothing is in writing until we send the contract which outlines the *general* terms.
We win some and we loose some.

Jaguar_Joe

2:50 pm on Oct 12, 2000 (gmt 0)

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I enjoy reading posts in Webmaster World but have felt that I have little to contribute until now since I'm a SE novice. When it comes to consulting, however, I have some experience which I can share. I've been doing business consulting for over 15 years. When I started, I used to have 'free initial meetings' with prospects, offering a few tidbits of advice in the hope that it would demonstrate my expertise and get me a new client. It rarely worked. I changed my position to "I don't give free advice to entice clients. I don't need to. Because I'm good." Taking that position improved my image in the eyes of prospective clients and my 'capture rate' improved substantially. I also got a better class of clients. When a prospect calls me and talks (or e-mails me), the most frequently asked question is, "How do I know you're any good?" My answer - look at the client testimonials posted on my website. I am also willing to give them phone numbers of a couple of current clients in a business field similar to theirs. (Interestingly, 95% of these people become clients WITHOUT EVER contacting my references! The fact that I'm willing to give out such contact information is, apparently, good enough for them.

Marcia, I've read many of your posts here and over at SEF. You're obviously good at what you do and probably have many satisfied clients. I recommend that you stop giving free advice and tell clients why you don't need to. Just like I do. It works!

2:52 pm on Oct 12, 2000 (gmt 0)

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Good point worth repeating Mike. The higher up the food chain you go, the less chance of letting a company secret slip out - because if you do, they don't know what it was you just said anyway.
2:55 pm on Oct 12, 2000 (gmt 0)

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You might also check out the punchlist here [4geeks.com]. It's focused on design work, but much of the top sections applies to SEO. Questions like "Will there be other Internet, marketing, or publishing professionals working on this project?" can serve to tip you off early as to the inhouse capabilities for appropriating your consulting services without compensation.

There's Jaguar Joe checkin' in. Welcome, Jag!

5:52 pm on Oct 12, 2000 (gmt 0)

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Hi Marcia,

As to the moral/philosophical/spiritual aspect of this question, I think it is summarized very beautifully in the thread that Brett posted. The consensus was definitely that it is important to give because "what goes around comes around." However, you stated that you intend to continue helping others, so that would not be the issue.

It is definitely very important to draw the line, especially if SEO is what you do for a living. Since I don't know anything about business, I can't contribute much in that respect. The one thing that I do want to point out is that your work is extremely valuable, and when it comes to business, you should not give it away. As someone recently told me,

"Don't let anyone undervalue your work."

You have accumulated your knowledge through countless hours of work and research, and when it comes to business there is no need for you to give it away.

2much's 2cents.

P.S. Going along with that thread, I just want to say a big THANK YOU to everybody.

9:14 am on Oct 13, 2000 (gmt 0)

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WebmasterWorld Senior Member marcia is a WebmasterWorld Top Contributor of All Time 10+ Year Member

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Wow, what a lot of food for thought, and a lot of self-evaluation and correction needed!

Brett, you uncovered a major flaw, and pointed the way to the route to take.

"I just lay out what I do and answer any clarifying questions about the process and not specifics about them or their site"

There's a repetitive pattern going on, time after time, and I've left myself wide open to excessive demands on my time and inadvertantly giving away too much information too soon, as well as too much correspondence and delay taking place.

The keyword is "process." First, I'll get more info up front in the inquiry form, which will save one round of email questioning back and forth - Step 1 of the process immediately streamlined.

As for handling specifics, the same questions come up repeatedly - I'll make a list of those areas - domain name, credit cards, etc. - and that will all make up the topics to be covered during an hour's worth of free "consultation time" which I'll include with designing their site, which will be the first step, AFTER I receive their deposit.

In response to questions, I'll give a generality, and say that specifics for them will be covered as part of the consultation.

From rcjordan: "If I find that certain key points keep coming up repeatedly, I write a web page"

Right on target. I'll do up a page on "how it works," defining the procedures in general terms, with a link to the inquiry form, and if they bypass it, I'll send them the link when they start asking questions. Another round saved.

"I think the primary thing is not to sell yourself too short."

I might just be doing that. Two years ago I had never done a web page in my life. I did a personal homepage, got a super-site award, did some more sites, and got enough confidence to host a chat.

Last November, one of our members hunted me down, desperately in need of a site update. I offered to do ONE ivillage page for her, with just a few holiday items. I got inspired one night and did up her whole hypermart site as a surprise. I submitted it to Yahoo, and it was accepted within 5 days.

I had read a tutorial on doing sites for Yahoo submission, but still had no idea how it happened. But I was hooked. I started digging in to the search engine stuff a few months later, and the rest is history.

She's had steady business, and is now swamped with orders, which has led to my having a "reputation" by word of mouth. I get a lot of inquiries from crafters, who don't like to spend $ on doing web sites. Basically, I've included the search engine work as part of the site fees, unless it's been a specific request otherwise. Which will change shortly.

I probably do sell myself short - I'm still in shock when I see rankings, and still wonder "how did that happen?"

2_much, that thread is great, and the "symptoms" of the undervaluing are about to undergo major changes :)

Thanks so much for all the great insights and suggestions!

9:27 am on Oct 13, 2000 (gmt 0)

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Hi Marcia, Everyone,

The above advice is great. There is some particle real world information in there.

I can't say that I have the same outlook that I had say four months before I wrote that post. I am becoming more seasoned and reserved with my information. I do not share the details nearly as much as I use to. It is a hard balance, not just with clients but with your fellow SEOs. For insurance I try to not leave any trail to my own projects or even hint at who I am working with/for. I guess that is what every war scared veteran of this business does. I do not go public with my best ideas like I did when I started out. That said, you do get to know people and even trust a few.

When I first started to some server side scripting I asked a person in another forum for help, and I was completely ignored. That pissed me off so bad, and I never wanted to be that type of person. Yet, there is that risk. I find myself less open then I once was - a lot of that has to do with work load and family life, but not all of it. I guess I'm still trying to find a balance.

This may sound a bit negative, but there are a lot of people who will try to take advantage of you. You need to protect yourself and your hard work, and look out for your own self interest while still giving to others. In a way business is like romance.

As for the particle application of the above chatter all the posts above are excellent.

GWJ

12:20 pm on Oct 13, 2000 (gmt 0)

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Hi All,

Well I am one of the old-newbies(?). Anyway I troll/search/read and reread posts. All information gleamed here I look at as a starting/building block. I find myself reading every morning the forums here and then spending a good amount of the day surfing and researching on the web to get a "fuller" picture of the things I pick up here. I try to post replies when I feel I can give accurate information, in my mind I do worry about not giving enough back, but I assume that as I grow I can offer more of what I learn.

I can feel for your situations. By nature I am a gear head/hardware freak. I get a few calls at home a lot of nights from people asking all sorts of hardware related questions as I am known for my love of bleeding edge (goes beyond cutting) hardware. Most people I do not mind spending 10 minutes with. Their were ones that I have weeded out as they just show up with machine in hand expecting me to drop everything. Real frustrating. My wife always brings me back down when I get to jaded.

I guess in a round about way I am trying to say thank you to everyone who posts here as you all have taught me things. Their is always a cold beer in the fridge in Ohio for anyone and a warm smile.

Thanks again,

Brian

1:04 pm on Oct 13, 2000 (gmt 0)

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This may well be the most useful thread in either forum..

I can only underline what I think is the most important point made already by several here, but i find it works best.

Talk about the Process and not the Content.

What people are buying from you is a process, not answers. Your professional methods can not be stolen, only facts and answers,, and they change all the time.

Jaguar_Joe

3:46 pm on Oct 13, 2000 (gmt 0)

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"Talk about the Process and not the Content." Chiyo, that's a great one-sentence summary for handling prospective clients.

Marcia, in my earlier post, I said something like "stop giving free advice." I meant that in the context of a meeting/discussion with a prospective client. The free advice that we all give in these forums is a different animal. It's a gesture of help with no expectation of monetary gain later on. So, Marcia, I hope you'll keep sharing your ideas in these (and other forums).

I've enjoyed reading all the postings in this thread and have found them helpful. Thanks to all.

8:17 am on Oct 21, 2000 (gmt 0)

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I think this whole thread points out the need for us to take "consulting consultants" more seriously. There are quite a few on the web that do the consult/consultants biz for independant webmasters.
7:51 am on Nov 19, 2002 (gmt 0)

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*cough* (told you it was still here ;-)
3:36 pm on Nov 19, 2002 (gmt 0)

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I'd like to add one slightly different viewpoint.

While I agree with the "talk about process / generalities" approach I modify this approach depending upon my familarity with the client. I often get work through several business relationships. These folks are the prime contractor for the job and call me in to do the web development work. They ask how to approach it with the client and I tell them what I think is appropriate for the job. I've worked with them for years and we've developed a trusting relationship. That's the key. I trust them. I tell them what they need to know, and they're the ones to speak in generalities with their client. We did establish that technique early on in our relationship so that they weren't inadvertantly giving away too much.

If, however, I am speaking with a totally new client - I do think carefully before I speak and learned to speak like a politician.;)

 

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