Wednesday, November 30, 2005

First impressions

You only get one chance to make a first impression - and it can make or break a relationship.

Having spent 90 minutes this week with a prospective client, whom I don't expect to become a client, not least because of the impression I made by wearing a navy cashmere blazer accompanied by a mis-matched pair of black and brown suit trousers (the result of dressing in the dark), I began to think about occasions when first impressions had made a negative impact on me.

The one that sticks most in my mind was turning up to the first day of an interim contract that I knew two others befopre me had turned down.

I arrived at the office and was met Having kicked my heels for a good 15 minutes in reception, a project co-ordinator turrned up and signed me in. There were no passes ready for me to get through the security doors or use the canteen or vending facilities - and no steps were in hand to get me the passes.

The project office had one small window at one end - I was shown to a desk at the other end. it faced the wall. No-one looked up when I came in or made any attempt to greet me. They just carried on doing what they were doing. My boss and her boss were both going to be out of the office that day - and possibly the next. There was no induction planned for me and everyone else on the team was pretty busy doing whatever they were doing.

I had no laptop. I had no phone. I had no idea what I was supposed to do.

I was given a few reports to read and diligently did so until lunchtime - when everyone else disappeared into a meeting. Later in the afternoon I started going up to my new colleagues and trying to get their take on the project's communications. This continued on the next day when there was still no plan for induction or in fact anything much to get me involved. All of my colleagues were painting a fairly depressing picture of the project - and a couple confessed they were on the point of leaving.

At the end of day two, I felt like joining them! Despite finally spending time with my new boss and indeed her boss over the next fortnight, I never got over that initial feeling of joining a failing project. I conducted a diagnostic which suggested that communication wasn't really the issue and that the project itself was on somewhat shaky ground. My boss agreed - her boss didn't. But I still felt like a square peg in a round hole, and decided not to continue past the diagnostic phase.

It could, of course, have been so different. If the employer had made it easy for me to be part of the team in that first few days, I think I would have entered into the work whole-heartedly. Had there been an induction plan; had people made time to get me up to speed; had my colleagues given the impression they valued what I - and they - needed to do, then I'd have gibven it my best shot. But my first impression stuck.

Those first impressions so often do.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

One of those days

Yesterday was just one of those days. It was a Monday, of course, and I seemed to be suffering from the effects of a busy weekend where L-B had turned 12 and we'd seemed to have people in, out and through the house absolutely all of Saturday and Sunday.

Anyway, I learned two lessons yesterday: never get dressed in the dark, and don't go into pitch meetings when you have a migraine.

With L-B heading off for the school bus shortly after 7.30am each morning, we're all up a bit earlier now. It was still dark outside when I crawled out from under a very warm duvet and opened the wardrobe to inspect what was a) clean b) businesswear c) vaguely matching.

To my mind I'd selected a blue jacket, blue stripey shirt and grey trousers. Anyway, more of that later.

The effects of a non-stop weekend had left me with the seeds of a migraine. Sophie and Rory fighting just before we left for school brought the first shoots of pain and vivid colour, and by the time I got into the office and sat down at the PC, my brain was somewhat disconnected from the rest of me.

Anyway, a couple of migraleve later, I was printing out a credentials pack for the three people I was meeting as I pitched to take on the PR for a hotel/conference centre. Now external media relations is stretching our skills a little - I have done it, but not for a while. However, this potential client approached us and this was a call-back following an initial meeting.

I was driving over beyond Oxford for the lunchtime meeting, my head now settled into a dull throb, when I glanced at my grey flannel trousers. They were, of course, not my grey flannel trousers, but a pair of suit trousers, black with brown pinstripes. Funnily enough, they go great with the shirt. Also the shirt goes really well with the jacket. But the jacket and the trousers actually don't match up at all.

By now I was past Oxford with just 30 minutes to get to the meeting - no chance to nip home and change or even into a shop to get something more appropriate. No surprise them when the headache began to kick back in.

I arrived at the potential client and met not three but four immaculately dressed execs. I'd explained by e-mail that my pitch style was conversational and that I would rather talk with them than merely do a show-and-tell presentation.

For the next 40 minutes they sat stony faced; hardly an interjection; no signs of emotion really either way. It also seemed that the brief I was working to had moved on, so much of the basis for my PR plan was on very unsteady ground. One person in the meeting grew openly hostile, another said absolutely nothing in the who 90 minutes I was on site. Meanwhile a small team of navvies was alternately drilling at the back of my eye sockets and then hammering at the inside of my temples.

I alternately wanted the ground to open up and swallow me and to slap the new marketing manager whose role seemed only to score points at my expense. Of course I just smiled, was polite and carried on climbing the north face of Everest.

I know we could do the job and do it very well for the client. Our prices are keen and our ideas - based on the brief - were sound. However, I came out of the meeting feeling that our chances of success are about the same as a snowball in my oven lasting through Christmas.

I'll wait and see for the client to come back......But the blue jacket/brown pinstripe combination was NOT a good idea.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Mucked around

I really enjoy most of the aspects of being part of a very small company. We get to work on some really nice projects and there's no opportunity for the corporate politics and back biting that occurs in larger organisations. The downside is that clients and others know we're small - and simply don't give us the respect they'd accord a larger business.

At the moment this is manifesting itself in several ways: we're owed money by a couple of large clients, but their payment processes are so Byzantine - plus the fact that we hardly register on their radar - that it's proving very difficult to get anywhere with them. The sums involved aren't large, but why do the biggest companies take longest to pay the smallest?

Secondly we're suffering from re-book fever. So many meetings have been cancelled or shifted recently that it's now becoming hard to balance the time we actually spend meeting clients to getting the job done. Most people have had the good grace to phone to postpone, but on a couple of occasions I've driven across London only to be told 'Oh, sorry he's in a meeting and will have to cancel' once I've arrived - and that's an existing client, not someone we're merely pitching to.

Still, on the upside, there's some new work coming in that will stretch us in a new direction, and a couple of promising partnerships beginning to gain pace too. 2005 has been a tough year, but the prospects for 2006 are brighter.... so long as we can pin down those meetings, and cash the cheques!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Coining a phrase

By chance, I think I coined a phrase the other day to describe the normal workings of a small business. Certainly it fits Leapfrog and the rollercoaster working style we've come to love in the past five and three quarter years.

The phrase is 'manic to panic' - manic for those times when there are seemingly more projects on the go than hours in the week to fulfill them, and panic when there are clearly more than 24 hours in the day and very little on the books to fill that time.

We're always aiming for somewhere in the middle - though often veering towards one of the extremes.


I had a weird small job last Thursday - Armistice Day - to take some pictures of the Australian WW1 War Graves at Harefield. They're within the parish church graveyard - the same church where I got married back in 1987.

Harefield was the site of an ANZAC war hospital. Originally created with the expectation of 60 summer patients and up to 150 in the winter. By 1918, the hospital was regularly stacked to the gunnels with over 1,000 patients.

More than 100 who made it back from the front never recovered from their wounds and were buried with full military honours in this quiet corner of Middlesex.

Last Thursday was appropriately dank and grey and all the more poignant for the fact that a funeral - I think for a child - had just taken place a few yards away in the main cemetery. The raw aching despair of loss was palpable as friends and relatives left flowers, balloons and toys on the grave.

My photographic subjects lay in neat rows tended, but cared for only impersonally. Young men denied a life by the machinations of those far from the front.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Unexpected outcome

I spent a couple of days last week in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. The weather was characteristically seasonal - horizontal rain blown in by a storm force wind - but the welcome was warmth itself.

I was over in the Province to deliver a workshop on communications during change to a bunch of forensic scientists. They were a great crowd and it was a good couple of days with a huge amount of knowledge transfer (both ways I might add!).

These guys are facing an unexpected challenge in coping with Northern Ireland's peace dividend. World renowned for their expertise in the forensic science of bomb damage, blood splatter and the detritus of terrorism, they're now having to adapt to being a market-led service operating in a peace time environment - and it's not easy. Suddenly they have customers and competition and a distinct lack of clear purpose. For 30 years they were part of the fight against sectarian terror in the six counties. Now, they deal with burglaries and run of the mill crime - alongside the odd murder.

They will change - they have no choice. But sometimes even peace can have a few casualties.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Is it really a virtual revolution?

98% of Brits have never heard of blogs - yet a new one is launched somewhere in the world and something like 20 million blogs are now in existence just in the English language. Is it a fad among the technoliterate or is it really part of a social communication revolution?

Last night at the BBC, CiB and the IABC linked up to jointly host an event called @Joining the Virtual Revolution. Nevon's own Neville Hobson, Neil Mcintosh from Guardian Unlimited and the BBC's Head of Knowledge Management, Euan Semple all gave their own take on blogs, wikis and podcasts and the impact they're having on both on corporates and on citizens (or subjects as passport-carrying Brits are known).

Neville took the strategic route, showcasing some examples of corporates using blogs well - and those such as Dell and Land Rover who appear to have a blind spot to the social communication revolution. He also stressed the impact podcasts can have - bringing voice to the masses when face to face isn't possible. Neil looked more at how the mass media - and particularly The guardian is responding to the democratisation of communication - it's certainly worth checking out their travel site.

Euan looked at how the use of bulletin boards, blogs and wikis behind the firewalls of the BBC were breaking down the barriers between the various management and production silos at play within the broadcaster.

While the guys said little that I wasn't already aware of - this being a general overview to an audience of business communicators, there were some real pearls. There was a little debate around blogs purporting to be written by CEOs and actually coming straight from the typing fingertips of their corporate communicators - this 'shamblogging' (have I coined a term here?) rapidly becomes obvious and does more communication harm than good.

What also really interested me as an organisational communicator was the consensus that these new tools are merely that - new ways of supplementing and augmenting existing channels - not a replacement for face-to-face or whatever horse fits the particular course an organisation is taking.

However Euan made the most telling point for me. He stated that certain senior management blogs had considerably more credibility than the e-mails eminating from the BBC's top management team which were often unread and perceived as bland spins. Blogs, on the other hand were considered personal, intimate and credible. I think there's a real clue here for communicators.

Back home later in the evening, I listened to Davis Davis, potential Tory leader proclaim that the age of spin is coming to an end. Will these new tools of social communication hasten that end?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Best way to market

I have to admit that I'm in a quandary over how best to market my services. As with most very small companies, people who know me tend to come back and use my services - I've been working with the same design agency now for almost 15 years and my most lucrative client has used me for more than a decade.

But it's not safe to rely on these guys coming back month in and month out with new and interesting projects - changes in their business may well lead to me falling out of favour in time.

Whenever business has been quiet, I've looked to market the skills I offer and the services I provide to organisations I'd like to work with or for. That has always worked better than waiting for responses to an ad on a page or people just happening to reach my website.

I'm not one for cold calling - how often will people look to buy services from an organisational communication professional as the result of a phone call? Sometimes I'll write a letter or fire off an e-mail - but rarely to a cold lead. Our kind of business is built on close working relationships, so that has to be some kind of connection for me to even think about proactively contacting someone who hasn't used my business before. So, I'll keep a regular eye out for who's moved where and will also work the network - getting back on the radar of people I've enjoyed working with in the past.

Many of the letters and e-mails prompt little or no response - not necessarily a bad thing as I'm not into heavy selling - but may just prick a memory bubble that could lead to a conversation or even a piece of work further down the line. But a few do prompt a good response and it's gratifying to know that people want to work with Leapfrog again - even if they may not have anything immediate.

But the most useful tool for me in marketing Leapfrog is personal relationships - getting out and meeting my peers and colleagues and sharing those subjects of mutual interest. Tonight I'm off to a seminar on blogs, wikis and the other new technology tools at our disposal. I'm there to learn, but also to market myself.

At the other end of the scale, I'm looking at ad opportunities and making more of my website. However, I've yet to really divine what value they bring other than shoring up my presence within my comms niche.

There may be a better way still of promoting Leapfrog's services - I'm certainly still looking.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Just the average insecurity

I seem to be spending more time on pitching than doing at the moment. One biggish project has been held up while the technical architecture of a web site is sorted out, while a piece of change work is taking a little longer to get up to speed than I'd originally hoped.

In the meantime I'm trying to market myself for short-term and writing pieces - while my partner is doing exactly the opposite. Next week she starts on a six month five-day-a-week contract with the prospect of it extending significantly longer.

Sod's law dictates that when I'm busy, I get a couple ofr quests a month for smaller, tactical pieces that I invariably have to turn down. But when I've got gaps between projects, no-one's in the hunt for someone to carry out that job that'll take only a day or three.

I hate not having enough to do. Even though I know that I've got two days in Ireland on a project next week, and other stuff that'll kick in shortly afterwards, I'm not enjoying this week. I'm not good at managing quiet time - it must be catholic guilt about not working or something.

Oh well, I better get back to polishing my latest pitch... for about the fourth time this week, and it's only Tuesday.