Friday, February 22, 2008

Nailing the Deal

I wanted to share a few tips about identifying milestones during a "sales" conversation so we can learn from our experiences in turning a potential "client" into a real client. While I am not currently "selling" anything, i have been put through thousands of dollars of negotiation training by previous employers (I been through this: )and so maybe some of this might be helpful (or at least thought provoking for your personal sales process: whether you are selling a product, service, or just yourself!)

The idea here is that you are talking with someone (intentionally or by happen-stance) and an opportunity to turn the conversation into a job looks like a possibility. Well, I am hugely in favor of the low-pressure pitch, but more importantly people who sell their services have a tendency to refine the message that is their product or service, but don't take enough time to listen and watch for key moments in the "sales" communication moment.

Before I outline the key milestones, I want to manifestly explain what I am NOT promoting:
  • I am personally not in favor of turning every conversation (with friends and acquaintances) into a sales pitch. Nothing is more frustrating than this.
  • I am not going to explain what "low-pressure" sales pitch looks like. I can say however that low-pressure does not mean "look sleepy" or "look like you don't care." I have heard so many people explain that they are low-pressure and when they pitch, they look like they just took a sedative or came from a massage. This may help you sell to feel that way, but it isn't sending the message that you are low-pressure... it just looks lackadaisical. Low-pressure doesn't mean "attitude" or "laid-back presentation style" as much as it means letting the "client" naturally come to intelligent conclusions.
  • I am not selling anything myself, so these are just ideas that seem to be mostly true.

OK, here are the key conversational milestone, in order:

  • The "client" has a need
  • You take interest in the need
  • The "client" explains their need
  • You tell the "client" that you perform services that meet their need
  • milestone one: you are facing a real opportunity
  • The "client" asks you to explain your services. Sometimes the "client" will begin to ask specific "how" questions with regard to your service execution of their specific need. This type of question at this stage means they are trying to get a free-bee. They are window-shopping with an empty wallet.
  • You explain THAT you can meet their need by referencing an instance on a high-level where you have met such a need and not explaining HOW you would meet their particular need. You need to move them into a more intuitively deal-making mode which isn't really happening right here, right now.
  • milestone two: you have gotten the fact that you provide services they need in front of them
  • You ask: Would you like to setup an appointment to discuss HOW I might be able to help?
  • The "client" wants you to explain all of that right now because they are in a non-committal mode of conversation and would like to window-shop your services but your question provokes a more structured approach toward cutting an actual deal and they agree to setup a meeting.
  • You immediately pencil down an appointment so you can "make your need and our conversation an priority" and tell them you will contact them to confirm and remind them in the next few days (you are playing secretary/personal assistant right now.)
  • milestone three: you have an opportunity to actually pitch in an environment that is more committal in nature than an unstructured conversation
  • You bring to the meeting a case-study of work you have accomplished that is similar to their need. A specific portfolio.
  • The "client" explains their needs in greater detail comparing and contrasting their need with your portfolio because you ask them to do this along the way (this is what you want.) The key here is that you are still dealing with WHAT their problem is and not HOW, which means you aren't yet at the deal-making stage.
  • milestone four: The "client" is making specific intuitive associations between their more specific needs and your ability to meet those needs.
  • You ask the following specific yes or no questions:

    - Do you like what I've done in this case(s)?
    - It sure seems that this opportunity you are currently facing is important for you to solve right now. Is that right?
    - Is there any reason that might keep you from taking action on this opportunity right now?

    The key here is to elicit "yes" answers from your three questions. You are warming them up both to say the word "yes" by practicing saying it and helping them build a case to hire you. Sales material will tell you that just getting them to say "yes" three times before asking them to "buy" will assure that you get the deal. This isn't always the case. We are not playing mind games, we are making specific positive connections between their need and your product or service.
  • You pay attention to each answer they give and take notes (every time they talk, take notes: this helps you address their needs, stay focused on a two-way conversation and helps them feel how important they are to you and your business.)
  • milestone five: The "client" is turning into a real client because they are now manifestly associating the reality of their need with your ability to meet that need and they now want to know HOW you will specifically meet their "unique" needs.
  • If they answer "yes" to your three important questions, then give them a moment to think about your questions and their answers. Time to think is important for settling into a decision, especially if things are moving in a positive. It takes the pressure off of the moment and feels to them like hiring you is a more intuitive response to the situation.
  • Sometimes the "client" will begin to ask specific "how" questions with regard to your execution of their specific need. This type of question at this stage means they are ready to "deal" and you are turning the "client" into a real client.
  • Tell them that you would like to work with them and ask them for the job before taking more time on setting down a specific road map.

The ideas here are that you don't want to rush them into saying "yes, I will hire you" in a non-committal manner only to turn around and disappear or say "no" a few days later. And the way you accomplish this is (again):

  1. Know their is a real need,
  2. Intelligently inform them that you can meet their need,
  3. You have secured an opportunity to pitch that in a real business-deal-making environment (this is very critical and it doesn't mean in an office, just not in an environment where the deal has no real hope of being made)
  4. The client is making specific connections with the details of their need and the details of your services,
  5. The client wants to know more about the HOW (starts talking around a deal)

...and so you are ready to cut a deal. I think it is more helpful if you know where you are in these kinds of conversations and get the psychology of how people make smart decisions. This is "by feel" in terms of getting the right environment working for you, but intentionally knowing where you and the client are in the process of cutting a deal helps you navigate the conversation toward the next milestone!

The Snowy Garden State

We have been very fortunate in the north east to endure, thus far, an amazingly mild winter. Twice it has "snowed" but as a former Midwesterner, those two occurrences barely deserve to get called a "snow" since it melted away the same day. In that same thread the temperature has remained in the 40-50s all "winter" with a number of days in the mid 60s and upper 70s. While some might scream "global warming" they wouldn't actually be operating from a very global mindset since much of the Midwest and central U.S. have been buried in snow and cold for the greater part of the winter, hence not a global(ly) warm experience at all.

No matter, we just received our first real "snow" of the winter. I took some extra time and shot some photo this morning to commemorate my first New Jersey snowy winter's day as a resident of the state.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Project Planning and the Art of Management

OK, so I am thinking about how project management workflow seems to executefor a lot of groups and I would like to offer a few thoughts on the topic. I have a bit of education and experience in these areas and I think that I if you don't have a process in place (or at least one that really works), well, you might want to consider the following.

Here are the two items I would like to cover on the topic of Project Management Workflow:

  1. Project planning impact (as cost correlates to project activity.)

  2. Project planning tools and techniques (to improve the situation.)

I think that I am likely preaching to the choir here, but I wanted to put the ideas out there so more folks could keep the discussion going on improving Project Management through improved organization and communication.

Project Planning Impact

In my last ten years (or so) in the field of technology, I have been everything from an analyst, to a project manager (managing multi-million dollar projects) to a designer or developer. While my passion rests with the later, I have something to offer in the first categories. The largest lesson I take home from my experience with project management (and this comes from both the school of hard knocks and traditional Business Administration management university training and the PMBOK from the Project Management Institute) is that the cost on projects increase as the project is being executed, and positive correlation (negative financial impact) between cost increases and project requirement changes as you move down the timeline toward the end of the project. Check out the following diagram:

This happens because requirements are documented (scope is defined) early on and execution of that plan sets a course in the project. When a change to requirements (change to scope) is made later in the project, then efforts made up to that point may be sunk cost and lost benefit and so accomplished work has to be readdressed to accommodate the changes. The more this happens the more we hemorrhage profits from the project. Therefore, a few keys to mitigating this risk would be to do the following:

  1. Be as thorough at gathering requirements as is feasible. There are diminishing returns on this and success is determined by how we are able to gather and confirm requirements with the client on a project by project basis.

  2. Complete requirements (scope) as early as possible. If this is your actual contract for work then the client would need to know that fact.

  3. Communicate to the client an agreed upon plan for how to manage requirement changes (which are scope changes.) The goal here is to be able to communicate that nothing is ever out of scope so much that money and time cannot fix (assuming we do not alter the quality variable, which I review in a moment.) It is up to us if we want to share the cost of changes with our clients, but there is no reason to not manage that with the understanding of scope.

By having a standard practice in this area we should be able to mitigate risk in the area of timeline as well (not just cost.) If a requirement didn’t get documented then production activities couldn’t have accounted for that and accomplished the task with respect to the timeline. If production activities missed taking care of a documented requirement, then we would know that quite easily as well. If a requirement is added at any point in the timeline we can know two additional time and cost related realities:

  1. We can begin to anticipate how the added requirement affects the timeline, the general assumption being, in the minimum, that changes take longer the further down the project timeline you are due to having to readdress accomplished work.

  2. We can begin to anticipate how the added requirement affects the cost, the general assumption being, in the minimum, that changes cost more the further down the project timeline you are due to having to readdress accomplished work.

The last variable in project management is Quality (the “iron triangle” as it is called is: Quality, Cost and Time) and the rule is that while they all affect each other, you can only consider any two of these three variable fixed at any one time. For example, you can demand a Cost and a Quality as fixed values, but then Time is variably determined by the other two. This means that if the timeline must not change, and we are not going to pass the costs of change down to the client, then one of two realities happens inside the company (you) providing the service:

  1. Our "companies" assumes the cost and pays to add resources to get a job done (something my employer recently did on a project to get a large amount of very redudant work completed.)

  2. Our "companies" adds hours to the timeline in a way that doesn’t affect the client, passing the cost on to employees by adding those hours to their week beyond the typical hours of business operation (if you work alone, this is the equivalent of getting paid less as your pay is now spread across more hours of work.)

No matter the case and outcome our "companies" can manage this reality and the other Iron Triangle (Client, Company and Company Employees/or freelancers personal time) should be aware of how these issues are going to be managed.

Finally, all based on the above, I would like to recommend a technique for documenting requirements that is a lot easier and intuitive to quickly review at a higher level (details still need to be gathered, but this layer pulls everything together.)

Project Planning Tools and Techniques

This section should be quick, as it will require more time to explain / train / learn if you adopt it. There is a ton of information on the internet on how to build traditional Workflow Diagrams.

Check out the following diagram:

Workflow diagrams, like those that one could build in MS Visio, could be drawn up at a high level first. Understanding purpose of each type of box, and each type of workflow, detailed documentation could be textually authored to explain how each box is executed (these details would reflect something closer to what most of us do today.) Basically, the diagrams are a quick way for the client as well as the development team and the project manager/analyst to quickly see how the project will be built. Later when a requirement is added or changed, the PM/A and Designer/Developer can examine the change and more easily estimate the amount of impact on the project. In the above diagram, it might be simple to add the “new activity” (maybe that is Question Randomization in a compliance course) or it may be more difficult, but no matter, we ought to more quickly be able to pinpoint the impact of the change or addition to the rest of the work accomplished as well as secheduled.

So, after that long set of ideas of which, again, I am likely preaching to the choir, please let me know your thoughts about how we might be able to discuss some of this stuff together in a larger forum?

All of this presupposes more open communication with our clients. Often times, we don't want to state the obvious (about billing, change request management, contract details) because it is a touchy subject. But the thing is, I would rather negotiate up-front and not take a job than work on something and not get paid.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Mike Huckabee is an original

I was recently listening to a number of videos on YouTube that outlined the policies and positions of folks who are currently running for office, and I have to say that so far I find myself genuinely in-line with a lot of what Mike Huckabee has to say. From national security to immigration to energy independence, I think he is one of the most well rounded candidates with a good handle on the role and power of government.

Recently, having relocated to the upper east coast, I took the time to visit the governmental historical sites in Philadelphia, PA. And walking through those exhibits and visiting the Liberty Bell and the locations where the Declaration of Independence was signed and set into motion, it quickly becomes clear how far from our foundation our government has drifted. I recall a moment when the tour-guide gives a speech about the electing of the first president of the United States and shared that the founding primary goal of our President (as it continues to exist today) is to provide protection and liaise on behalf of America with leaders of other nations. This is a tricky topic because it is the specific delegated responsibility of the President to care about these things (protection), but the press takes that understanding and turns the mention of it into "war-mongering." In fact, I would go so far as to say that the policies of many of our candidates reflect a complete rejection of that presidential duty.

I also completely LOVE the ideas that Huckabees has about healthcare. In summary, he believes that would we do better as a nation to help move healthcare out from under the responsibility of our employers, over to the indispensability of individuals, in the form of "portable healthcare" that focuses and invests in prevention and not the management of reacting to diseases.

Huckabee says that the solution is, "either give every person in America the same healthcare that Congress has, or give Congress the same healthcare that every American has. They will get it fixed." Now, if you listened to that statement in a vacuum you might be mistaken and imagine that he is in favor of universal healthcare that offers all Americans that same plan that congressmen get. He explains that our American health "system" is upside down, in that it focuses on dealing with disease and not wellness and prevention. "We've got a system that, no matter how much money we pour into it, we're not going to fix it." He goes on to say, "we're not going to fix it until we address the fact that this country has put it's focus not on wellness, not on prevention, not on health, but on sickness." He explains that it is like owning a boat that is taking on water and our reaction isn't to plug the hole, but to get a bigger bucket to scoop the water out. He is about inspiring and investing in making this sort of change first, then making personal healthcare plans more attainable by people and not by companies who are simply looking out for companies and not for their people.

I think the most wise part of the last statement, is that Huckabee is acknowledging that fundamentally, companies are meeting their requirement for providing a health plan to fulltime employees, but at the most basic level, the company has to look out for it's bottomline. I can say that I would trust the help of a friend quicker that I have ever felt a company itself reach out and provide special support to me as a hurting or in-need individual. The same logic applies to the government, in my opinion. I would trust a government helping to move the healthcare system to a more health and wellness focus while making me responsible to carry my "plan" regardless of who my employer is. I don't think that the government has a good track record of taking my tax dollars and doing much more than meeting a self-imposed requirement or simply bailing the water out of a sinking ship. Now, while that sounds heavy and negative and not very trusting, I would say that this is actually quite empowering. The idea that the government would return to it's roots and support OUR rights and personal philanthropy rather than simply take my money and fiscally support ineffective solutions, feels more like our nations commitment to protect rather than provide in that it: protects us from special interest, protects us from unregulated self-regulated governmental spending, helps us grow as individuals by handing us back our bank accounts and making us responsible again for be generous with one another rather than giving us a false sense of philanthropy by paying our dues in the form of taxes and depending on the effectiveness of federal programs.

I will end with this note: I recently watched the news on Super Tuesday and observed that many people leaving the polls (not to pick on democrats, but it was statistically significant in the reporting of MSNBC) when asked why they were voting for the candidate they explained who they voted for by unintentionally simply regurgitating the marketed campaign of that individual. For example, when someone said they voted for Obama, when asked why, they said "He will bring the change we need." (Sound familiar) When asked the same question for those voting for H. Clinton they said "She has the experience." These are the punchlines that both Obama and Clinton have been campaigning with around the country. Ironically enough, later that night, Jay Leno was interviewing these same Americans out on the street. When he showed a Picture of a candidate, they named the candidate with ease "OBama"... "Clinton." But then when asked, "What is candidate Obama's first name?" the response was, "I don't know. I bet Oprah knows!" So, while this is not a scientific analysis, it makes me sad to think that as Americans, we know that "Obama" is supported by "Oprah," and "Obama" is the candidate for "change," most Americans don't have a clue what sort of "change" Obama represents, let alone his first name. How could someone vote for Obama's "change" and not know if they are compatable with the sort of "change" Obama says he wants to bring? My hope is that, in the least, you know the first names of all of the candidates, and that rather than simply sing songs about their campaign slogans, we would realy know and morally back and identify with the goals and character of these candidates, so that when we vote, we are moving the country in the right direction.

The most offered answer when asking why someone would not vote for a candidate goes something like this, "I am not sure that candidate can actually win." Well, one thing is for sure. The one who wins, is the one that we vote for. If you ever wanted to "do your part," then go vote as a self-educated American, truly knowing what your candidate represents. Remember that you are not provided for by your government. You provide for your government and lend your local and state to federal resources so it can server appropriately and not the other way around.

"People in this country, in a very unique experiment loan certain rights to the government in order that they might have protection from enemies, foreign and domestic. But the essential purpose of government was to protect, not to provide. Remember what Abraham Lincoln said, that a government that can do everything for you is a government that can take everything from you." - Mike Huckabee

(If you want to ge a quick understanding Mike Huckabee on a number of issues, check out: Best of Mike Huckabee on YouTube.)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Colored <LI> Bullets in Flash

This blog entry will be from the geekery. If you are not interested in a problem explanation from the "realm of Geek-dom" then you might want to skip this one. Here goes!

As per my job, I spend a good chunk of time writing object oriented code in Flash for the purpose of creating eLearning. I work for a group called NXLevel Solutions (NXLevel Solutions)and most recently I have come across what appears to be a bug in Flash. Here is an explanation of the problem:

The problem (exactly):

  • When flash encounters any color treatment to text inside an <li> it applies the first occurrence of that color treatment to the bullet. The only case where this does not happen is when the first color treatment is the color #000000 (AKA "Black.")

  • So, when confronted with a stylized element with color treatment, Flash applies any color treatment other than black (#000000) to the bullet (i.e. a hyperlink color or a font tag applying some color.)

The issue here is that while you might want to highlight some text inside a Flash bullet using color, or possibly hyperlink to something and highlight the hyperlink (again, using color) you aren't likely to desire to have that one bullet (of a possible list of bullets) be in a different color. This is really irritating.

What is worse is that there isn't any good information on this topic out there on the web. Everyone on the web wants to know how to change the bullet color, usually to match the general text color, but there is nearly no blogging on the topic of stopping the bullet color from changing when the above condition is true. I eventually found one forum/blog on the topic:

Search for Bullet, and the first occurrence on the page describes the problem in the flash player. Search again and the next occurrence explains a “hack!” that doesn’t work. Maybe this worked for someone in some situation (notice that this is really a Flex commentary)but it did not work for me. A variation of it did actually work, but this is completely a "hack" and not acceptable if you are working with dynamic content that contains bullets. Here is the "hack":

We have to trick Flash by applying a color treatment very (very) close to black, first, before anything else, on one or more characters, after the start of the "LI" tag . Examine the following:

When the above text is loaded into the htmlText property of a TextField in Flash, the second item would have an orange bullet. Now examine the following:

By applying the variant of Black (#010000) we get the bullet back, and the two black shades are virtually identical. This is a complete hack and for it to work, each and every HTML "LI" tag element would have to be examined and the first character of each "LI" would require replacement using this technique.

Two items of note before moving forward: This is not a problem if you compile your FLA into a SWF targeting Flash Player 7. Any target of Flash Player 8 or higher results in this problem and as far as I know, this is the only solution. here is an example of what the output specifically looks like once rendered:

Here we can see that while it solves the bullet color issue in Flash (in the second block of bullets) there are a number of other issues that then happen. For example, you have to implement the following content rules or you create more problems:

  1. No bulleted lists can start with a color treated element, like colorized text or colorized hyperlinks.
  2. All bulleted lists need to primarily contain black text (we cannot have the content of the bulleted list be “Blue” or anything other than black because the color of the text won't match the bullet or the first character of the Bullet text.)
  3. Someone would need to examine the copy for "LI" tags and search and replace each first character in each "LI" with the “hack” text, so flash can present it clearly.

This is horrible, but as of this moment, the only way I could figure it out. At the time I am writing this, the problem persists in the Flash 9 player (while the following downloadable example it written using Flash Pro 8) i can tell you that rendering the SWF in Flash CS3 targeting for any Flash Player other than version 7 still remains problematic!)

Here is the downloadable example:

Adobe (if you are listening)... is there a better solution to this? If not, could we get a priority patch to players 8 and 9 (and 10?), and get an update to the Flash Pro 8/CS3/(CS4?) authoring environment? While I am certain you could fix this for FP 10, please, remember that many of us still HAVE TO TARGET older players, because our client networks are not implementing the latest flash player versions.

Thanks and if anyone has a solution, feel free to comment.


If you are also having problems with nested bullets and thought they were not possible in flash, read this blogpost to solve your HTML nested bullets in Flash issue.