Thursday, November 24, 2011

Writing Your Way to Success

It's a safe bet that consultants will have to do some writing. Much of the consulting work I’ve done has involved developing process-related materials for clients. I have created all manner of process descriptions, procedures, document templates, checklists, guidance documents, and other work aids. Other engagements have involved performing a process assessment that resulted in a written report of my observations, analysis, and recommendations. So the ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and effectively through the written word is an essential skill for many consultants. In this and several future posts I’ll share some things I've learned about writing.

As you gain experience and wisdom in a particular domain, you might wish to share what you've learned with others. I've written more than 150 articles on numerous software development, quality, and management topics, as well as more than twenty articles on chemistry and military history, of all things. Most of these articles were published by traditional print magazines, although more and more have appeared in recent years on websites. Most magazines will pay for articles; many websites will not. But remember, everything is negotiable (see last week’s blog post). If you have a good enough story to tell and enough credibility in the industry, you might be able to negotiate some payment from anyone who publishes your work. In general, you might get between $200 and $1000 per article, although the latter figure seems to be on the high side these days.

Eventually you might decide to write a book. That's a whole different prospect from writing a bunch of articles. Telling a story in a few thousand words on a focused topic isn't too hard; writing 60,000 to 100,000 words in a typical book takes mucho planning, time, and effort. Then there's the whole matter of getting the book published, negotiating contracts, promoting it, and all the rest. It ain't trivial.

I'll talk more about writing articles and books in future posts, but for now here’s one tidbit of wisdom I've acquired after writing seven books: think about whose writing you find particularly appealing and learn from them. You might have favorite authors who you find to be especially helpful, interesting, and enjoyable to read. Take the time to examine their work and assess why you like their writing. Then you can try to emulate some of those desirable characteristics in your own work.

I did this quite a few years ago. I realized that Steve McConnell was one of my favorite software authors (he's also a good friend). Steve has written numerous top-selling software books and is very highly regarded in the industry. When I thought about it, I realized that Steve used fairly short sentences in much of his writing, and he writes in a direct, conversational style. I also favor that informal writing style, although I confess to being somewhat long-winded by nature. My sentences can get wordy. I also tend to overuse adverbs, and I say "tend to" a lot. We all have our shortcomings.

Once I recognized what I like about Steve's writing, I tried to steer my own writing style in that direction. I use the statistics from Word's grammar checker (part of the spell check feature) to provide guidance. I find the grammar checking feature in Word worse than useless overall—I think it was programmed on Opposite Day—but I do like these statistics. The statistics report the average number of sentences per paragraph in the document, words per sentence, and characters per word. The number of characters per word should be around five when writing in English. I aim to keep the average words per sentence no higher than twenty, and preferably fewer. Shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs enhance readability.

The statistics report also shows several readability measures. The higher the Flesch Reading Ease index, the easier the document is to read (duh). I aim for at least 40. The lower the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, the easier the document is to read. I keep my technical writing at a grade level around twelve. For my nontechnical writing, I aim for a grade level between eight and nine. I also try to keep the number of passive sentences low. Sentences written in the active voice are more direct and easier to understand than passive-voice sentences.

If the statistics don't come out like I want after I've drafted an article or book chapter, I'll do some editing to simplify the material and increase the readability. By way of example, here are the statistics for this post:
  • 1188 words
  • Average of 6.6 sentences per paragraph (a little high)
  • Average of 15.5 words per sentence (fine)
  • Average of 4.8 characters per word (typical)
  • One percent passive sentences (fine)
  • Flesch Reading Ease of 57.9 (great)
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 8.8 (wonderful)
If these statistics are meaningful, you should find this post easy to read. I hope that's the case.

The whole point of writing is to communicate with your readers. Readers respond to writing that doesn't make them work hard to understand it. They love direct, simple tutorials that teach them techniques they can apply immediately. Readers appreciate clearly stated concepts, explanations, and opinions. Some authors write as though they want readers to know how smart they are. Nobody cares how smart you are. They just care if you're able to communicate useful information to them. Hence, my interest in using a simple and conversational writing style. When I was writing a series of tutorials on assembly language for an Atari computer magazine long ago, I met a man who said, "When I work through your articles, I feel like you are standing there explaining them to me." That was great to hear, because it was exactly what I was trying to accomplish.

As you develop your writing style, you might think about what kind of compliments from an admiring reader would mean the most to you. Then you can develop a style that elicits that sort of feedback. Just this week, a reader commented on one of my blog posts: “I always enjoy your articles as they provide so much insight and information in a simple and interesting way. I find that your books are also very user-friendly and practical.” This comment delighted me: “simple, interesting, user-friendly, and practical” was music to my ears. It's one thing to inspire people with ideas, but I'm most interested in giving busy practitioners both useful techniques and the motivation to apply them.

I was educated as a scientist. The first substantial document I wrote was a PhD thesis in physical organic chemistry titled "Kinetics and Mechanism of Lithium Aluminum Hydride Reductions of Ketones." (What could be more fascinating than that? Actually, it was pretty cool.) Scientists neither write nor speak like normal people. When I began writing on topics other than science, it took me quite a while to un-learn how scientists write, to revamp my writing style to be more accessible. I think I've largely succeeded. One of the best compliments I ever got on my writing was when someone said, "You don't write like you have a PhD." I was most pleased.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Everything's Negotiable

Throughout my career, I have used a simple speaking agreement or consulting agreement to record all the details of each engagement. I'll talk more about these agreements in a future post. Most of the time this simple form works fine. Occasionally, though, I will get some pushback from the client on specific terms in the agreement. And once in a while, the client's legal department gets in on the action and sends me a massive document to sign.

People naturally write contracts biased in their own favor, so you need to read anything you get from a client very carefully. And it's good to remember that almost all of the terms can be negotiated if you aren't happy with them. In fact, I'm in the midst of such a negotiation this very day. So far, this client is proving quite accommodating of the changes I'm requesting. For instance, the client’s standard services contract demanded that I take a drug test, something I’ve encountered only once before. I replied that I don’t take drugs and I don’t take drug tests. The client dropped the requirement. Sometimes you just have to ask.

In this post I describe some typical categories where you might need to do some negotiation with a client.

Fees: The most obvious negotiable term is the fee you're charging for your services. Frankly, I’ve found that clients don't challenge this as frequently as you might expect. I have standard rates that I quote for certain services, but there's some flexibility in them. For instance, I'll offer a nice discount if a client wants to acquire a site license for some of my eLearning training courses in addition to having me present a live seminar. I'll also drop the price if the client wants a combination of consulting and training services, or to have me present multiple classes during the same trip. Similarly, I offer a bundle discount if someone buys multiple products at the same time.

Once, a prospective client asked for a discount of several thousand dollars off a two-day training course simply because my quote exceeded her budget. She just wanted me to knock the price down because I'm such a nice guy. Sorry, I'm not that nice. I wasn't willing to do the job for the price she suggested, and we never were able to come to an agreement. Sometimes that's the way negotiations turn out.

Cancellation Fee: My speaking agreement always include a cancellation or rescheduling fee. Some clients balk at this. My premise is that, when I sign the agreement, I am committing a certain number of days for the client event, plus preparation and travel time. Should the client decide to change the agreed-upon date or to cancel the event entirely, it's unlikely that I can rebook that time slot with another client on short notice. If I purchase a nonrefundable airline ticket, changing the dates or canceling will cost me some money.

Therefore, I ask the client to make a similar commitment to me in the form of agreeing to pay me twenty or twenty-five percent of the price as a cancellation or rescheduling fee. Sometimes we negotiate a lower such fee. Or, we might put some time bounds around it. Maybe no payment is due if I can reschedule at no cost to me or if they cancel at least X weeks prior to the event. But I always insist on a cancellation fee. If the client isn't willing to sign up for that, we don't make a deal.

I had one client who tried waiting until immediately prior to the scheduled event to sign the speaking agreement, to minimize the likelihood of having to cancel or reschedule and thereby incur a fee. However, my policy is to not commit specific dates to an event until I receive the signed speaking agreement. I felt no qualms about giving that client’s desired date to another who was willing to make the commitment. I didn't appreciate the game of schedule chicken this client was playing with me. That gig fell through, also.

Usage Rights: The consulting service contracts that some corporations use attempt to claim unreasonable rights for the presentation materials used in a training course. They might stipulate that the client has the right to use the course materials in any way they wish, simply because I presented the course once at their company. This right could extend to unlimited distribution of the material throughout the company, teaching the class themselves within or outside their company using those materials, or even licensing my courseware to other companies. This is the first clause that I remove from every such service contract. My clients do not have the right to use my training materials for any purpose other than the courses I am presenting, unless we execute a separate licensing agreement. I’ve never had any problem getting this clause removed.

Video Recording: Occasionally, a client wishes to record my presentation and show it to other people throughout their company. Obviously, this represents a lost opportunity for me, because they might use the video rather than hiring me to come in and teach another class.

I am not totally averse to video recording. If the session I’m presenting was open to anyone in the company who wanted to come, it's fine with me for them to record it for anyone who could not physically attend the live session. Usually, though, my training courses are capped at a certain number of attendees for the agreed-upon fee. If they want to make the material available to other people, such as through videoconferencing or videotape, I will generally permit this but charge them extra for the privilege.

Insurance: Contracts coming out of the legal department generally contain clauses about the various types of insurance the consultant is expected to provide. If you have multiple employees, you might be expected to provide worker's compensation insurance coverage, but to my knowledge (and remember, this is not legal advice), sole proprietors are exempt from workers comp. I do carry business liability insurance, which offers some protection if, say, I injure a student with my laser pointer or damage some property with my car. However, the coverage amounts stipulated in the contract often are higher than I carry, so I negotiate to lower those coverage expectations. This has never been a problem for me when I point it out to the client's legal department.

I do not carry professional malpractice (errors and omissions) insurance, although some companies request that. Clients have always been willing to remove that requirement when I point out that I don't carry it and that I don't need E&O coverage for the sorts of engagement I typically perform.

Other Expenses: Today, for the first time in my career, a client required that I undergo a criminal background investigation. I have no objection to that, so long as they don't find all my secret offshore bank accounts or the yachts, but they wanted to charge me $49.79 for the privilege. I was able to persuade the client to cover this cost. They also might want to pull a credit report on me. Also fine (if peculiar), except that I have freezes on my credit reports with TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax—the three major credit reporting agencies—as protection against identity theft. If this client wants a credit report, I have to pay $10 per agency to unfreeze my account and $10 more to refreeze it. I asked the client to pay for that, also, but they decided they didn’t need to do a credit check after all.

Each party involved in a negotiation is striving to adjust the outcome in their favor, but they should also respect their counterpart's legitimate needs. We all have limits to our flexibility. If the people with whom we're negotiating insist on finalizing the terms beyond our tolerance limits, we won't reach a mutually acceptable outcome. You don't win every negotiation, but you might be able to do better than you expect just by asking.

For more on effective negotiation, I highly recommend Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton. This book provides excellent advice on how to successfully negotiate from an understanding of each party's interests, rather than by debating immovable positions.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Be Prepared for the Unexpected (contributed by Claudia Dencker)

My career has taken many twists and turns and has been filled with amazing opportunities and successes, as well as its share of disappointments. While I am now an employee of Stanford University, I spent the bulk of my career as an independent consultant. And there is truly no better career.

Many authors have written about the business of consulting, such as how to set yourself up legally, financially, and with the tax authorities. But that's the easy part, because you are in control. You take action, you get results. Where many consultants, business people, and even job candidates fail is in securing the gig, securing the sale, securing the job. Without a consulting assignment, you won't be able to start or maintain your status as an independent consultant.

This post and others will take you through what I believe are the most important aspects of consulting: establishing a relationship and maintaining that relationship, thereby securing repeat business. Many of the lessons in these posts can also be applied to interviewing for a job for regular employment.

I have a non-technical background. But, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time when the economy was expanding. I left Hewlett-Packard in 1983 as a software quality engineer with little prospect for advancement unless I got an MBA. The job offer I received from a small start-up in Santa Clara, California, was a compelling step towards realizing the long-held dream of running my own business. This company, a contract software testing house, taught me the necessary skills to take my first step into consulting. I learned the great importance of salesmanship from two masters, one a long-standing salesman and the other a recent graduate from San Jose State who came to sales naturally.

Before I tell you just what I learned, let me relate a story. Years into my independent consulting career, I was trying to secure some business with a medical device company in San Jose, California. I had already made contact with the decision maker. As part of his qualification process, he wanted me to meet some of the key team members before making a commitment. I agreed and we set a date.

On the day of the appointment, thinking that I would only be meeting with two or three people, I drove to the site. It was a stunning day with bright sunshine, blue sky and a cool breeze blowing through the South Bay, a good omen for the day. As usual, I dressed in business attire and took along some company brochures and business cards in my briefcase, confident that I had a solid chance of landing the job after meeting with a few people. Imagine my surprise when I entered the conference room and saw twenty people sitting around a large table all waiting to meet me. I took a deep breath, smiled at everyone, and relaxed. This would not be a typical session.

The people around the table introduced themselves. Then came the first question: "Tell us about your services." For those of you interviewing for a job, this is the same question as, "Tell us about yourself." I had practiced my pitch many times before in similar settings, in written materials, and through presentations, so I launched into a description of my services. This took about five minutes, as I had pared it to the essentials. I didn't want to talk too much about myself. I wanted to learn from the potential customers what they were looking for, what their pain points were, and how I could help. Only two or three attendees asked questions; everyone else sat and listened. I kept my answers short and to the point, being sure to answer only the question that was asked and nothing more. I even let the occasional silence set in.

Towards the end of the meeting, someone asked another common question, "How much is it going to cost?" I responded with my usual answer: "Let me review your specifications, and I'll put together a cost for you quickly." I had learned years ago to avoid giving off-the-cuff estimates. The goal of my meeting with the twenty participants was to get to the next step in the sales cycle. Off-the-cuff cost estimates can slam doors.

The meeting ended when I had gathered all the information I needed to finalize and cost the proposal and to be assured of its success. I had spent much of the meeting listening to the customer, not rushing my answers, and, when I did speak, keeping answers on point. I tried to keep the customer talking as much as possible.

As I left, I informed everyone that I was very interested. "I want your business," I said. "It would be pleasure doing business with you and your team." I'm happy to say that I landed the job. To this day, I still don't know why there were twenty people in the room, as I worked with only one of them.

So what had I learned from the two sales masters that helped me land this contract? Here are the primary lessons:
  • Listen, listen, listen. Have the customers tell you what their pain points are—don't assume that you already know. Keep the customers talking and elaborating on their situation. This will help you to form an air-tight response to their needs.
  • Only answer the question that was asked. Do not elaborate or expand unnecessarily.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected (like a much larger interviewing group than you expected).
And some other lessons:
  • Avoid ball-parking the cost of your services off the top of your head. Even cost ranges can be booby traps unless they are ridiculously wide, and then everyone will recognize that. This will work against you.
  • Be sure to tell the customer that you want their business. In an unexpected way, it is flattering to the customer and of course, important to you. Your career as an independent consultant starts with that first sale.
I also learned to relax in those face-to-face meetings; they can be fun.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Kind of Business Plan

When I began my consulting career I didn’t have an explicit business plan. I hadn’t set particular goals for myself, let alone devised a strategy for achieving those goals. I just thought I’d see what happened and how my new career shaped up. I don’t necessarily recommend this strategy, although it worked out okay in my case.

Once I got established, I did think more about how I wanted my consulting career to evolve. I came up with a sort of rudimentary business objective: earn a nice living while I’m asleep. While that’s not a true business plan, that objective did force the question of, “How are you going to do that?” As an independent consultant with no employees, every penny of revenue I generated came through my own efforts. So the trick was to figure out how to generate as much income as possible with as little effort as possible. That is, to look for sources of unearned income. I came up with several techniques for creating ongoing revenue streams after some initial investment of effort.

You can get some great ideas about passive income from a fine book by Alan Weiss called Money Talks: How to Make $1 Million as a Speaker. I’ve never made a million dollars in a year, but my investment in this book certainly paid off. Weiss wrote another useful book titled Million Dollar Consulting: The Professional’s Guide to Growing a Practice. I recommend both of these to both aspiring and experienced consultants.

Book Royalties: Book royalties are a gift that keeps on giving, with some caveats. First, you actually need to write the book. This is not trivial. I will talk more about writing books in later posts. Second, it has to be a good book. Ideally, it will get good reviews and people will come to recognize the contribution it makes to the software practitioner. Third, the book should fill an important niche in the software literature. For several of my books, I identified perceived gaps in the literature and attempted to plug them, with generally good success. It’s best if the domain you’re writing about doesn’t have tons of competitive titles. Fourth, people need to know about the book, which generally means going with an established publisher instead of self-publishing. You won’t get as much money per copy that way, but you will probably sell more copies. And fifth, it works best if you write a book that has a long shelf life, not one that deals with the latest software fad or with a technology that will be obsolete in a couple of years.

Most technical books don’t sell zillions of copies. You’re probably not going to be able to live on your book royalties. I do know a few people who make more than $100,000 a year from software book royalties, although I’ve never approached that lofty pinnacle. Nonetheless, the royalties add up.

Licensing: Most of my work through Process Impact has involved delivering training. The revenue stream from doing training yourself is linear: if you teach two classes, you make twice as much money as if you taught one class. If you want to increase the income-to-effort ratio, you need to disrupt this linear relationship. One option is to hire other people to teach classes for you and split the revenue. I tried a different approach. For many years I have licensed my courseware to other companies, either to teach internally to their own staff or to deliver classes to their own clients or through public seminars. Licensing has worked out well for me.

Obviously, you have to have content available that other people will find to be valuable. The content must be structured and packaged such that other people can easily learn to present it. Whenever I have developed a new course for my own use, I created detailed instructor notes and supporting information with the intent of licensing it. I’ve also licensed various bits of my other intellectual property for people to incorporate into their own products, courseware, and books, charging nominal fees for that. Just this week, I made $100 by licensing three pages of content to a training company. The total effort involved consisted of a brief email exchange and a fax.

eLearning Courses: After the attacks of 9/11, it occurred to me that people might be more reluctant to travel for training. Therefore, I began exploring ways to package some of my presentations in a CD- or web-based format so people could take my classes from the convenience of their own chair. After experimenting with different approaches, I settled on an eLearning format that closely emulates my live presentations. Certainly, there are various ways you can approach eLearning, but this seemed right for me because people enjoy my live classes and conference presentations. You can see what I came up with here. I also created on-demand webinar versions of several short conference presentations in this same eLearning format.

Over the years, I’ve sold hundreds of both single-user and corporate-wide site license versions of my eLearning courses. Creating the courses in the first place is a lot of work. After that, though, the delivery cost and effort is minimal and the profit margin substantial. The eLearning courses also make great train-the-trainer aids for people who license my instructor-led courseware.

eBooks: Some years ago I wrote several handbooks approximately 70 pages in length on various topics. Today these would be called eBooks. I have sold them as PDF downloads through my website, both as single-user copies and as site licenses that allow a company to distribute the handbooks throughout their organization. These handbooks are inexpensive, but they constitute a another small revenue stream that requires little effort on my part. You might be able to sell your eBooks through online retailers like Amazon.com. You can also create versions for use with various eBook readers, such as Kindle, Nook, and Kobo.

Other Products:
I’ve sold a variety of other products over the years through my website. None of them generate a lot of revenue, but it didn’t take a great deal of work to create them and the dollars continue to trickle in. Visit ProcessImpact.com to learn more about these various kinds of products.

Affiliate Programs: Another way to get free money is to sign up for an affiliate program. When visitors to your web site click through certain links to a vendor’s site and buy products there, you get some percentage as a commission. I’ve been a member of the Amazon Affiliates program for more than a decade. If you want to see how it works, click here. This link will take you to the Amazon.com page for my latest book, a memoir of life lessons called Pearls from Sand. Even if you don’t buy the book (what?!), you may then browse around Amazon to your heart’s content and buy lots of other stuff. I will receive a certain percentage of whatever you spend, and it costs you nothing. Go ahead, try it. Buy many things. Please. Do it again later on. Tell your friends about it. I’ll let you know how well it works.

Affiliate programs can work the other way, also. I’ve enlisted several companies to resell my eLearning courses, for instance. When one of their customers buys a course, we split the revenue. Everybody wins. Of course, not all affiliate programs yield benefits, but once set up, they provide one more way to make money while you sleep. Is this a great business plan, or what?

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)