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December 20 2013

15:52

How to Rock Your Business Phone Calls

As a web designer, how do you feel about business phone calls?

Your answer probably depends on your personality. Some people love to talk on the phone. Others dread phone calls.

If you’re busy, an unexpected phone call can disrupt your day. If you’re a bit on the shy side, talking to a client on the phone may make you nervous.

Love them or hate them–business phone calls are an important part of running your web design business. That’s not going to change any time soon.

business-phone-calls

Fortunately, regardless of whether you love business phone calls or hate them, there are some steps you can take to make your business phone calls go more smoothly. In this post, I share five of those steps. If you liked this post, you’ll probably also like 5 Communication Tips for Freelancers and Designers.

Step 1: Schedule All Client Calls

Unexpected phone calls can be a real nuisance. Here are just some of the disadvantages of getting an unexpected phone call:

  • Interrupts your train of thought. Interruptions can cause you to make mistakes. They can cause you to skip steps in your development process. They can even cause stress. You can read more about the adverse affects of interruptions in the news story, Even Brief Interruptions Spawn Errors, published on ScienceDaily.
  • No time for preparation. Another reason unexpected phone calls can be bad is that you have no time to prepare. A client may call you out of the blue and ask a question that you really don’t have any answer for. Even worse, your lack of preparation may cause you to give a wrong or incomplete answer.
  • Can cause stress. For some of us, receiving a sudden call can be stressful. Not knowing what the client wants or whether they are upset can contribute to that stress. In some cases, an unexpected call on a busy day can lead to overtime or even a missed deadline.

These disadvantages are why I recommend that freelance web designers and other freelancers encourage clients to schedule a time to talk on the phone. Usually, email is adequate for scheduling calls, but if you handle a large volume of client phone calls, you may need to consider scheduling software like Bookeo or EZnetScheduler.

If a client really needs the ability to contact you whenever they want to and will not agree to schedule a phone call, you should charge an extra monthly fee for that convenience. After all, they are basically asking you to be “on call” for them.

Step 2: Be Prepared

Having your clients and prospects schedule their calls with you gives you a chance to prepare for the call.

When they schedule an appointment, ask them to give a brief overview of the purpose of the call. Here are some common reasons why clients and prospects request a phone call:

  • They want to discuss additional projects.
  • They need your professional advice.
  • They want technical support for a project.
  • They want to involve you in their company’s regular team meetings.

Knowing what the meeting is about gives you the chance to do your homework and present yourself and your web design business in a positive light. You’ll also discover what type of involvement you need to have in the meeting. For some meetings, such as a regular team meeting, you may only need to report your progress and identify any problems you have. For other meetings, such as when they want professional advice, you may need to conduct the meeting yourself.

Step 3: Use an Agenda

business-phone-calls2

If you’re expected to conduct the meeting yourself, it’s a good idea to prepare an agenda. Your agenda doesn’t need to be anything formal. A simple outline is usually good enough.

Having an agenda keeps the meeting on track and reduces the amount of wasted time.

Once you’ve created your meeting agenda, it’s a good idea to send it to your client. If the client will have more than one person participating in the meeting, ask for the names of the other participants and send them the agenda as well.

Distributing the agenda in advance lets the client know what you think the meeting is about. It also gives them a chance to add a topic to the meeting if they see that you’re not covering everything they want to discuss.

Step 4: Listen Carefully

Listening is an important part of any relationship. The freelancer/client relationship is no exception.

In fact, if you do all of the talking on your phone call, something is wrong.

Here are some guidelines to help you pay attention to what your client or prospect is saying:

  • Take Notes. No matter how good your memory is, the odds of you accurately remembering everything that was discussed during the meeting is slim.
  • Ask Questions. Too many freelancers fail to ask questions when they don’t understand something the client says. It’s better to ask now than be sorry later.
  • Send out meeting minutes. I often send the meeting minutes to the client for their agreement. This is their chance to say, “I agree” or “I do not agree.

Remember, phone calls aren’t the only way to have a meeting with your non-local clients and prospects.

Step 5: Consider an Alternative to a Phone Call

A young couple talking to each other via online video chat.

Today’s technology offers many alternatives to the telephone when it comes to meeting with long-distance clients. Here are just a few of those alternatives:

  • Skype IM or Video Chat. In addition to providing the capability to make VOIP phone calls, Skype also gives you the option to instant message with your contacts or to have a video call.
  • Google Hangouts. Many freelancers don’t realize that you can schedule a private meeting using Google Hangouts for up to ten people.
  • Web Conferencing. In addition to the tools listed above, you can use a specialized web conferencing tool such as GoToMeeting and Cisco WebEx . One advantage of web conferencing is that many tools allow you to share visuals and even your computer screen with participants.

Your Turn

How do you manage phone calls? Do you schedule calls, or do you take them as they arrive?

February 01 2011

13:30

Are Meetings Broken, or are Other Problems Being Overlooked?

This post is part of a series authored by the speakers of the upcoming UX London conference. As media sponsors, we’re proud to provide exclusive introductions to the topics that will comprise the event!

37 Signals recently launched a one-page website at boycottameetingday.com encouraging you to join the anti-meeting movement by boycotting a single meeting on January 19, 2011. The current estimated size of the workforce in the United States, where 37 Signals operates, is roughly 154 million people. As of January 18th there were around 3,300 people who had agreed to join the movement and, I assume, didn’t show up for a meeting on January 19th. This number jumped to an impressive (if a little suspicious) 215,730 by the morning of the big day, January 20. But even that number indicates an adoption rate in the U.S. alone of less than 0.002%. In other words, this particular movement isn’t starting off with a bang.

I’m joking about that adoption rate being a measure of success, of course. The goal of the site and the book it promotes, Rework, is challenging and changing the underlying assumptions about successful process and culture in the workplace. Having read the book, I agree that there’s a lot that isn’t working (literally) and like some of the proposed ideas for solving those problems. But I find this mini-website and the content of Rework devoted to meetings to be heavy on rhetoric, light on data, and more importantly, lacking enough tactical value.

Boycott!

Boycotting is traditionally an act of last resort reserved for when a product poses an perceived health threat to consumers, or when the organizers of an event are considered so morally bankrupt their efforts should not be supported. Imagine if we boycotted everything that was simply broken. Alternator breaks on your car? Boycott! Leave it by the side of the road, never to be driven again. Guitar breaks a string? Boycott! Never play it again, and replace it with a brand new guitar. (Sweet, dude!) Having a troublesome phase with your significant other? Boycott! Either start dating again, switch teams, or go celibate.

Automobile engines, musical instruments, and human relationships are complex processes consisting of many moving parts and variables that are entirely out of our control. But the ways in which they improve our lives far outweigh the inconvenience of the routine maintenance, and the rare major overhauls, that they require. The same can be said of meetings as a mechanism for getting things done. 

Boycott?

Boycott a Meeting Day makes a number of statements supporting their case for meetings being a broken model for doing business. I would argue that this rhetoric doesn’t actually solve any problems. These statements do, however, illustrate two things: either someone isn’t taking responsibility for the meeting itself, or meetings are being blamed for other problems entirely.

You’re doing it wrong.

Meetings are usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or some interface design).

Sometimes agreement on abstract things is necessary before a group can move on to concrete things. Bummer, but this is how human beings work and it’s a indicative of a larger aspect of human relationships: trust. People in positions of responsibility need to trust that the concrete work being done by those reporting to them will service the abstract goals they’ve identified for the organization. A great meeting, consisting of ideas conveyed at the right conceptual level with passion, can build that trust, and possibly lead to even fewer meetings.

And who says you can’t have a meeting about a code or interface design challenge? Where I work, we do it all the time. 

Meetings frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what they are about.

Meetings usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute.

Just because something “usually” or even “frequently” happens doesn’t make it acceptable. If people have gotten lazy about agendas, fix them. You should be able to articulate the purpose of the meeting in actionable terms that fit into a larger process.

And if you aren’t conveying information, then yes, you are wasting time, but that’s not the fault of the medium, that’s the fault of the organizer or presenter. Take a look at a conference like TED versus any number of death by PowerPoint conferences. Content is king, even in meetings.

Don’t blame meetings for other problems.

Meetings require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway.

It’s your own fault if you aren’t prepared for anything. The meeting can’t tie you to a chair say “don’t inform yourself about the purpose of this discussion!” If people aren’t coming to meetings prepared, that’s indicative of other problems. Maybe they’re overworked, or they aren’t the right people to be at that meeting. Or worst of all, maybe they aren’t doing their jobs.

Meetings break your work day into small, incoherent pieces that disrupt your natural workflow.

If your workday is broken, fix the workday. Propose isolating meetings to specific parts of the day, or eliminating meetings altogether on particular days. It’s called time management. Figure out the best structure for your day to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. Even isolate specific chunks of time for heads down work, if you have to. Wholesale elimination of activities we don’t enjoy just isn’t an option for many of us working in medium to larger organizations, unfortunately. 

Meetings often contain at least one moron that inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense.

It’s always easier to be dismissive of problems, and sadly people, than it is to confront them. Everyone has reasons for feeling the way they do, and taking those feelings into account, possibly outside of the meeting itself, is a more respectful and effective way to handle a personality problem. 

Meetings can suck; but they don’t have to.

Meetings are the cornerstone to effective communication…right?

There’s a lot to be said about why meetings are inefficient, unsuccessful, and even irritating. There are also many situations where a meeting is not the best solution for a problem, but we tend to rely on them as an evolved an instinctual reaction to human tension. On the other hand, good meetings can also have tremendous value in the workplace. The camaraderie and trust they build between people and teams can sustain a complex project through differences of opinion, budget shortfalls, and catastrophic changes in leadership and organizational goals. 

The appeal of practicing self-design in a vacuum is obvious, and some of us are lucky enough to live that lifestyle successfully. Those of us working with clients or internal teams need to engage in group decision making, and facilitate agreement to sell great design ideas to the point of adoption and implementation. There’s a history of literature and proven methodology illustrating how and why human beings choose to use meetings in the workplace as a mechanism for getting things done. Ignoring the instinctual need and proven models for good group interaction puts great work at risk to fail as much as simply deciding not to show up for a single meeting, or for work at all.

January 17 2011

05:35

How to get promoted to a Senior Level Designer or Creative Director

1. Work extra hours

Clock

Sure the average is 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week. With that amount of effort you will probably stay stagnant and grow moldy (I’m kidding). But I bet if you ask any senior designer or art director if he/she has gotten to that career point on a measley 40 hour/week schedule, that person would laugh. If you’re not willing to dedicate extra time, don’t hold your breath on a promotion anytime soon. Even an hour or two every day will show passion for the job, commitment to deadlines, and attention to detail. And be sure to be productive in that time. Staying late doesn’t mean hard work if you’re just sitting there smiling at the ficus tree. Trust me, people will notice and your extra time will not be in vain.

2. Answer off-hour messages

messgages

Going off that note, it’s also helpful to be available when needed, even if it means on weekends or vacation days. As a coworker once said, “I’m taking time off… but I’m not REALLY taking time off.” As much as it sucks to have to do last minute asset-prepping on a Friday night, you signed up to be a team player and the best way to show your contribution is to help out on your own accord without people begging you to work a little harder. So if you want to move up the ladder, don’t be lazy. Pick up phone calls on a Friday, answer emails on a Saturday, or even respond to text messages on a Sunday. It will pay off in the long run.

3. Attend Meetings whenever possible

meetings

Now I know sometimes you can’t go to meetings if it’s reserved for executive staff or if it’s about private matters. And sometimes there will be meetings that aren’t really intended for you as a designer and that, heck, you weren’t even invited to. But if you want to take that extra step, make an effort to go to other meetings when you can. So what if it’s an engineering meeting? If you don’t know much about your company’s product or goal, ask if you can attend and at least listen and take notes. Participation isn’t necessary to learn and you might even be asked to not disrupt, which is perfectly fine given that you don’t know much anyway. Showing that you’re eager to see what the company is about outside of your role as a designer is fantastic. Just make sure you don’t go overboard and exceed your working hours with meeting hours.

4. Know your field very well

field

For some of you, that might be a “please…that’s obvious” tip. But I found out that there’s a big difference to being good at what you’re doing, in this case, designing, versus knowing the graphic design world. For example, do research. Know the ins and outs, the trending topics, the current salaries, the statistics, as much as you can learn about the field of design. Attend design seminars, keep a list of design contacts, even read up on design blogs. To be a senior level designer or an art director, you should be trusted to know these kinds of things, even if you think it won’t apply to your job. But the likelihood is that if you ever get promoted, your boss, who may not know much about design trends or salaries, may look to you for these things. For example, what if he/she wants to hire another designer and asks you what the median salary range is. Would you know that answer? What if the average salary rate is different between cities and your interviewee is coming from New York City to Fresno, where the living expenses are different? These are the small things that shouldn’t be overlooked and are what non-designers assume senior-level designers should already know.

5. Be familiar with other programs

programs

Let’s face it. The Adobe CS is in every designer’s toolbox. But what else is in there? If you were like me and went “Huh? Other tools?” thinking that Flash, Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop were all you needed in your career, then you are absolutely wrong. Sure, if you want to stick to the same routine or if you are extremely talented, stay with the CS series. But the reality is, most directors, senior designers, and creative heads know just a bit more. Whether it be Omnigraffle, Autodesk Maya, Screenflow, FTP progams, or even TextMate (hey, designers who know web development have a huge advantage nowadays), every little bit helps. Ok now I’m not saying that higher level designers are pros at other programs. If they are that’s great. But it’s nice to know the basics. I’ve definitely strayed a little bit from the design world to do some video editing and it was fun to learn. And it’s nice to say “Hey, I can help with that.” next time your boss randomly asks for video help. That will be a big +1 in their eyes, and possibly a big +1 to being promoted.

6. Prepare yourself for a leadership role

leadership

I have yet to be in a senior position, but I want to say it’s a lot more difficult than it seems. Yes you probably get paid more but “with great power, comes great responsibility.” Ok, enough with the cheesy. If you are seriously considering a higher role, prepare yourself. Is your boss swamped with work and there’s a pile of other stuff to do? Help out. Show that you don’t need to be asked to do things and that you can manage your own projects. See a new employee struggling to find things on the server? Help him out, even if he’s not a designer. These things are good practice for when you step up to that higher position and you will have to help those incoming junior designers. Questions will be asked, things will need to be taught. If you think you can answer those questions confidently and are at that point where you know the company well enough, then you may be due for a promotion.

7. Have an open mind & Get involved

openmind

Everyone has a boss, essentially. Even art directors and senior designers. Look at it from a different perspective and apply that to what you want to become. What do you see in your boss that you want to strive to become? Or things that you think could be improved on? The tough part about being a higher level authority is that you’re usually stuck in the middle of having a boss, and being someone’s boss. This goes back to a common sense point but be sure to take criticism well and be sure to communicate well. Also make sure you play an active role in your boss’ daily activites. I know meetings can suck up half your day and the other half you just want to get work done, but keep in mind that you may eventually be mentoring someone else and will have to check in on him/her regularly. Show that you can be a role model by updating your boss with your daily activity. Manage your time well and don’t forget that, when you have the chance, you should never ignore your potential employee.

8. Be voiceful and take some for the team

voiceful

I think I’ve had a decent share of good and mediocre bosses. The mediocre ones will assign you the tedious projects that nobody else wants to do, let you sit there quietly and finish them, then check in on you a few days later and give you a pat on the back. The great bosses will challenge you with a mixture of tedious and demanding projects, check in on you daily, and reward you with more exciting projects. The better supervisors are also, what I’ve noted, very certain in their speech. There’s no “ums” or “maybes” in the way they talk or even in their emails. They get straight to the point, they know what they want, they think before they speak, and they may come off a little intimidating but it’s because they are confident in how to run things. So adopt that attitude, be strong in your presentations, and happily accept some of the lame projects for the team (because one employee stuck doing the “bitch work,” as some call it, will not be a happy employee, and an unhappy employee probably means you are not being a good supervisor).

I’m sure there are many more tips to landing that promotion. These are the main things I saw from observing all the authority figures I’ve had the opportunity to work with in the past. Please share your stories and add to this! We’re all here to learn and even if you don’t have a tip, maybe even a “boss from hell” story would be a good read.

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How to get promoted to a Senior Level Designer or Creative Director

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