Category Archives: Small Business and Freelance

The joy of pitching – 10 ways to get the job

I love pitches.  I like doing the pitching, and I like being pitched to.  I like getting a new brief, working out the idea that unlocks the puzzle and thinking about how to deliver it.  I like the teamwork that goes into putting a proposal together.  I like the nerves before the start and the blissed-out half  hour when it’s over.  And when I’m on the client’s side, I like seeing the different answers people offer to the same question.

I spent a day being pitched to by PR agencies yesterday.  It was, as always, fascinating and made me think about the basic stuff everyone should remember before they fire up the PowerPoint and go:

1. Answer the brief you’ve been given – not the one you’d like to have been given.  But…

2. Think outside the brief.  What is the client looking for beyond what’s actually in the tender document?  Longevity? New relationships? Skills transfers from your team to theirs? Can you see the thing they need that they don’t even know they want yet? Tell them about it.

3. Be surprising.  Don’t put in the first thing you think of, that’s likely to be the dullest answer – and the one everyone else comes up with.  Use the flash of inspiration that comes next, when your brain’s had time to mull over the problem for  a while.  That’s the answer that’s authentically yours, the one no-one else will think of.

4.  Be yourself.  You’re going to be working closely with your new clients, they need to be comfortable that you’re going to get on.

5. Get as much information as you can about the client and their industry before you start. ALWAYS go to the Q&A session if there’s one on offer – it’s not only polite, it also might offer you the vital clue you need to tackle the brief.  And you need to know what your competitors know, too.

6. Don’t expect your audience to be mind-readers.  You might think it’s obvious that you’ll cover the nuts and bolts of the job, but if you don’t say you will your clients might think you can’t be bothered with the basics.

7. Show you’ve thought about the audience – being able to build and manage new channels or produce celebrities at the drop of a hat is only impressive if they’re the right channels – and celebrities – to reach the audience the client wants to talk to.  This isn’t an opportunity to show off everything you know, it’s a chance to show how cleverly you can match your expertise to your potential client’s needs.

8. Show you’ve thought about the audience in the room, too.  As the client, it’s hard to concentrate when you’re watching four or five PowerPoint presentations in a row.  Mix up how you present – use props, good visuals, video, audio – one of the best presentations I’ve seen (not from yesterday’s crop) included filmed vox pops with the target audience to show that the agency knew who they needed to talk to and understood the issues.  Be entertaining, be conversational, be enthusiastic, look people in the eye, SMILE.  (Oh, and if you’re going to use PowerPoint, check your spelling and find someone who knows how to use apostrophes to give it the once over.)

9.  Think on your feet.  The client’s questions at the end inevitably bring up issues you haven’t thought of – else you’d have put them in the presentation and they wouldn’t ask the question.  Working out an answer as you speak, asking them questions to clarify what they mean  and picking up the clues they give out are just as important as hitting on the “right” answer.  Your job is to prove that you’re quick on the uptake and flexible enough to cope with new ideas.

10.  Don’t forget about the numbers – budget breakdowns, evaluation methods, targets.  They may be broad, and you might have to qualify them later, but they’ll help the client understand that you care about being business-like as well as being creative.

And that’s all there is to it.

They were a good bunch yesterday.  Now, I need to stop prevaricating and work out who I’m going to recommend gets the job…


Coping when consultants come a-calling

Or:  I am a consultant.  You are meddling in my job.  He/she/they are  exploiting the boss’s gullibility…

Odd experience of being on both ends of the consultant/consultee equation recently, with unsettling results.

First the background.  I’m providing communications support for a big  change programme in a company which has brought in one of the big 4 consulting firms to deliver the technical stuff.  As part of their standard pack the firm offers support with comms, so I had a meeting the other day with a consultant who has theoretically been brought in to do  work I was brought in to deliver.

Starting the meeting with an open mind, I found my hackles rising when she started by telling me what a comms strategy is and how to plan one.  Every time she suggested things I’d already done my jaw clenched a little harder.  Eventually we agreed, amicably,  that  my specialism was comms – and I probably had ten years’ more experience in the field than she did; hers was programme planning – and dashboards bring me out in a rash,  so we’d split the job along those lines and get on with it.  Which we have, perfectly happily ever since.

Scoot on a couple of days.  I am also providing comms planning support for another client who wants to re-focus the work being done in the department she’s just been brought in to lead.  We had a team meeting last week.  Knowing that I can be  – ahem – forceful when I’ve got the bit between my teeth, I really tried to stress how much I understood their problems and recognised the great work they were doing against the odds before getting into the  “what might we need to do to improve matters?” stuff.  Heard yesterday from my client that they just felt undermined by the criticism they felt I doled out.

Now, I feel genuinely bad about that – even though I know the team isn’t firing on all cylinders, and so do they – so something has to change.  It’s never nice to feel that you’ve made someone’s working day worse.  But it’s a good reminder of a lesson I’ve been learning since the beginning of my career – it never does to take things personally.   

The consultant talking to me should have started by asking where we were on the job before she leapt in with the assumption that nothing was happening – but she wasn’t criticising me personally, she just didn’t know what I’d done.  It was pointless getting cross about it.  The team I met last week evidently didn’t hear any of the good stuff about themselves, they just took away a sense that it’s not good enough.  There’s a lesson there for me about framing what I’m saying, but equally it’s worth remembering that however hard you try, some people will only hear criticism, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

2011: 5 lessons from a hard year in business

It’s hardly the Office of National Statistics’ survey of the national accounts, but I’ve been spending the last semi-working day of the year looking at some figures for my business which showed:

1.  I’ve worked more days – at a slightly lower day rate – for more clients this year than last.  Which surprises me.  If you’d asked  before I looked at the numbers, I’d have said this year was the worst ever.  In fact, with a full quarter still to come, I can see I’ll end the year  up in both days billed and income generated. Possibly it has just felt harder, coming after the long slog of 2010/11, which left reserves of both cash and bulldog spirit at an all-time low.

2.  But, I’ve got an awful long way to go before I return to the glory days of  my personal annus mirabilis – 2008/09 – when the global economy tanked but mine soared.

3. My business suffered from being too closely entangled with the public sector.  I was cushioned through ’08/’09 by a government commited to  spending to ward off a slump (thanks Gordon).  Things slowed down immediately after the general election.  It’s been a high price to pay for not taking my own good advice to spread the work around (though in fairness I saw the crash coming, I just wasn’t able to avoid it).  It takes a while to change direction – even for a tiny business like mine – it’s not just a matter of developing new contacts, it’s also a question of changing people’s perceptions of what you can do.  No wonder there’s been  a boom in advice for ex-public sector bods trying to join the private sector.

4. The good news, though is that in the world of micro-businesses the difference between a good year and a terrible one can be just one contract.  This year has been improved by two new clients offering several months’-worth of work each.  The thing to cling to during the troughs in business is that one phone call can turn things round.

5.  I’m not the only one to have found trading tough.  Some clients I got lots of work from in the early days have disappeared completely.  Only one client I worked for last year has used me in the last 9 months, all the other business has come from new leads.  If nothing else this highlights the importance of marketing your business and expanding your network of contacts.

However, comparing “now” with “then”  already feels like an academic exercise. As an SME-owning friend said at the weekend:  the world has  changed.  There’s no point worrying that you no longer know you’re going to be booked out for the next six months.  It’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future, and we’ve just got to make the best of it.  The trick, for freelancers like me at least, is to diversify – to develop new skills and ever-wider networks, to get better at seeing where new opportunities are coming from and to be flexible enough to grab them.  I can see some light at the end of the tunnel – do these points ring true for anyone else?

101 words of advice: how to handle debt

From  recent personal experience – as the disgruntled supplier – I suggest:

If they owe you

  • Be reasonable.  Times are tough, people generally do the decent thing.  Anyway hitting hurricane force immediately leaves nowhere to go.
  • Be persistent.
  • Know your rights.

If you owe them:

  • Don’t hide.  Ignoring email, phone messages or carrier pigeons sent to chase the debt won’t work.  Like Arnie, they’ll be back.  Keeping people in the dark  infuriates them.  There’s good advice here.
  • Be honest, explain, offer to pay a bit at a time to show good will.
  • Get  help.
  • Remember, no-one believes “the cheque’s in the post”.


What recruitment consultants don’t tell you about job hunting

Can recruitment consultants help?

I mix freelance projects with longer interim posts so I’m a bit of a recruitment consultant connoisseur.  There are lots who specialise in placing interim managers .  Some are brilliant – finding out my strengths and skills, asking where I want to work and what’s important to me, keeping in touch.  The best one I’ve come across is happy to share my details with partner agencies if she feels they might have clients who can use me, knowing  they will reciprocate.

The bad ones are woeful.  “Never mind the quality, feel the width” they  cry, as they pitch CVs by the bucket-full at clients, in the hope that somewhere in the human mix is a round-ish peg for the round hole they’re trying to fill.  They’re generally easy to spot – they don’t return calls, give no feedback on  applications, suggest you exaggerate the rates you charged in a previous role so that “you’ll be taken more seriously” and NEVER counsel you that, on reflection, the role they’re filling doesn’t meet your needs (or that you don’t fit the client’s).  It’s disappointing to come across one of them, it shouldn’t be surprising.  Recruitment consultancies work for the companies that hire them, not the candidates they place.  We’re the raw materials.

Working your personal network

There’s loads of advice online for getting the best out of a  recruitment consultant and it’s worth working at – I say again, many of them are excellent and great sources of support and advice.  The web also bristles with job-hunting guides.  I liked the self-explanatory 49 Best Ways To Get A Job in Today’s Horrible Economy. But I’ve had more leads on actual, chargeable work through personal networking and recommendations from previous clients than  any consultancy. This makes LinkedIn and other social networks the most valuable job-hunting tools you can wield these days.  This classic advice still holds good, even though 2009 sounds as distant as the Middle Ages in communications now.