Why even the smallest of businesses need Zoom: 50 ways to connect, serve, and earn income

Many of my small businessfolk friends either already use Zoom—the groovy online tool that lets you hold inexpensive video conference gatherings on the web—or are “Zoomcurious,” wondering how they could use it to benefit their work. Even I was intrigued . . . and I’m known as being terribly camera-shy.

small business online meetingsThings like Zoom weren’t always something solo entrepreneurs or small businesses had to think about. Not too long ago, video conferencing was for corporate types, with 20 people sitting around a polished boardroom table looking up the table to a screen where a ghostly head from Corporate was droning on and on.

Nowadays, services like Zoom, Skype, and Go To Meeting give service providers like us the ability to have meetings with faraway clients, prospective clients, audience members, potential partners, buyers, donors, virtual assistants . . . anyone. This gives us a much greater reach, widening the circle for the work we do.

Overview of its top benefits

small businesses can earn income and grow with videoconferencingIt has benefits for many types of businesses, even though it might not be obvious. For me, they are coaching sessions with people anywhere in the world, website co-creation and repair, private training, weekly virtual “office hours” for client questions, and a lot more. I can share my screen, share the viewers’ screen, take control of their screen to show them how to do something, play a video or audio, text chat publically or privately, write on a collaborative whiteboard together, create breakout rooms for individual groupings…and much more.

Best of all, I can save the video recording, audio recording, and a chat transcript, and offer those whenever it’s helpful. The free version allows you to have meetings of up to 40 minutes each. I use the service level that costs $14.99/month, which allows you to do a lot more. It pays for itself a hundred times over every month, probably more than any other tool I use.

So how might this help YOU and to YOUR work?

Below are some common and a few uncommon possibilities to ponder. See if anything here, or anything else comes up for you.  And if you have your own creative use to share, please do share it in the comments!

Attracting New Clients:

Free exploratory consultation or conversation
Free group workshops and classes
Summits and discussion groups
Group meditations or healing sessions
Demonstration of a product
Demonstration of something physical, such as

A yoga pose, meditation posture, proper exercise form
Using a tool properly
Teaching a dog a trick
How/where to apply essential oils
Doing a website/social media task online
Finding images collaboratively
Finding answers on Google
Creating a helpful document for productivity…

Serving Existing Clients Better

Meetings/conversations with or without video – you can use it even if you’re camera-shy!
Client pre-evaluation for acupuncturists, naturopaths, and healers of all kinds (to determine the right appointment type for a client)
Regular/recurring coaching, consulting, or guidance sessions
Working consultations with screen sharing
Private/secure meetings for money management or confidential activities
Group, team or mastermind sessions
Customer tech support
Video demonstrations of the products/services you offer
“Office hours” — times when you’re available online to answer questions and offer help and support
Co-working sessions: Scheduled sessions to do focused work together, avoiding procrastination and powering through a project or challenge
Larger online meetings and corporate presentations (advanced Zoom packages)

Income-Producing Activities

Sell live group workshops, classes, webinars
Sell recorded (evergreen) workshops, classes, webinars  for passive income
Introduce your service business locally
Have a video or live component to an online course you’ve created
Create an entire online course
Offer 1-to-1 coaching or guidance
Offer group coaching programs
Book/manuscript/content review and feedback
Tutoring services
Music lessons
Online instruction
Certification programs – use as a meeting component
Regular meetings as a value-added service for paid groups
Optional follow-up support packages for your product or service
Consumer survey interviews

Help, Community, Business Growth

Recording a video/screenshare to share to YouTube/Vimeo or other social media
Interviews with potential employees or freelancers
Video meeting with an employee
Video meeting with a faraway virtual assistant
Group meetings for collaborative projects
Event planning team meetings
Virtual lunch meetings
Private virtual meetings with students
Listening in on a workshop or class while driving (with the mobile app)
Nonprofit board meetings
Writing group meetings
Informal “tours” of an office space, building, shop, community garden…
Interview speakers for an upcoming event
Mediation

Certainly, there are a zillion more uses, but these were the first to come to mind. Zoom.us has really terrific support, ongoing regular webinars to introduce you to the platform, and great documentation for learning how to make it work for you. There are books and videos online too, and if you’re the kind of person who best learns things like this in a hands-on, one-to-one way, I also offer a fun bite-sized private training session for it here.

But no matter how you learn, I’d encourage you to give this tool a test drive if you haven’t already. It has really opened up the world to me, and to many of my clients. It might be just the tool you need to be joyfully productive, pleased and profitable in 2019.

You are not a conversion: Small business and the (nearly) lost art of being genuine

This is the part of writing that’s the hardest: Although I’ve had a small business for 20 years, I still get to show the world just what a slow learner I am sometimes.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from an amazing old friend with whom I’d lost contact years ago. By ‘amazing’ I mean someone I love and who randomly pops into my head all the time. She always seemed too busy to get together, calls and emails went unanswered, and I chalked it up to how some friendships fade over time. Although it made me sad, I just shelved it in my mind and moved on.

All this to say that getting an email was a big deal. It literally made my eyebrows shoot up and a big smile crease my face when I saw her name in my inbox. The note started out very friendly and chatty. She asked how I was doing, how my work was going, she’d love to find a way to get together and catch up, etc.

Then she casually dropped in a description of the political candidate that she’s been volunteering for this fall. So-and-so’s hopes and dreams about a change for the better, and so forth. And by the way, how I was going to vote in this election? Which seemed a bit weird. But hey. I was so happy to hear from her that I punched the “Reply” button right away. I answered her questions about how I was doing and what I was up to. I asked about her family, her travels, her life. I praised her candidate. And I suggested we have coffee.

I never heard back from her. I tried one more time, in case email had been having a bad day. Nothing.

The penny drops at last

When I received three more of these emails from other friends, with similar radio silence, I realized what was up. This is (I learned, slowly) a tactic from the playbook of political candidates. All their phone/email volunteers use it. There’s no warmth toward me whatsoever. It’s just a suggested script, and she had no actual desire to be in contact on a human level.

It’s okay—lesson learned, and I’ve always got my big girl pants on. But it tripped a larger conversation in my head. (Come on, you know me; even a bad hair day can trip a larger conversation in my head 🙂

This happens online a lot, doesn’t it? We get missives from various kinds of service providers that are full of warmth and support and friendliness, designed to make us feel seen, feel heard. That button pushed, they progress into a pitch for whatever it is the person’s promoting that they know will make our quality of life even better.

When we reach the scarcity part of the email or sales page—only three spots left! I won’t offer this again this year! the price will go up next year! And there it is. That pit-of-the-stomach moment when we realize what we’d hoped was some sort of genuine human connection was actually just a textbook strategy. When we see we’re really just part of someone’s spreadsheet under the column “conversions.”

The emails from friends? Well-meaning, yes. Serving a purpose, yes. But do I matter? All I am to a political candidate is a conversion—am I, or am not, going to vote to give them the job they want?

When did we stop seeing each other as individuals?

When did we lose the awareness of individual needs, pains, and desires? At what point did we convince ourselves that we’re doing people such a favor with whatever we’re “selling” that we needn’t bother paying attention to how impersonal and mechanistic we’re being? When I’m having a (now rare) glass of wine while working in the evening, I’ve been known to talk back to websites like that: “Do you know how obvious you’re being? Do you think I believe you actually care?” (for an amusing visual, imagine Gordon the Dog growling at the screen, which often happens)

Don’t even get me started on the name “ConvertKit.” If you use it, and of course it does have its uses, PLEASE make sure it doesn’t say “ConvertKit” anywhere near your forms (like right below them, in tiny letters). Let’s not be part of the depersonalization problem.

Since we are all both creators/sellers AND consumers, you’re going to see a lot of the word “We” in the following sentences. Sorry.

We are not just conversions. We are people, with a pulse, a sick dog, a cough that won’t go away, a nagging sense of not-being-enough, too little time to cook a healthy dinner tonight, insomnia, a job we detest but can’t seem to escape.

We are not conversions. We’re people who have a glimmer of hope when they find something—your coaching program, your book, your workshop—that might ease our stress. Maybe we’ll even get some sleep tonight if we believe hard enough.

We are not conversions. We’re people willing to pay for the privilege of being treated like people instead of another cha-ching in someone’s PayPal account.

There has to be a better way

It’s time to stop converting and remember what it’s all about: Being of service, making someone else’s day/night/dinner/life/work better in some way, and being a person of integrity as you do it.

If you agree with this, and want your promotional materials to be genuine and compassionate, here are some things you might pay attention to:

  • Think about the person you’re speaking to with your promotion. Visualize them as a person; give them a face. Consider going to https://images.google.com and finding a face for your ideal client (hint: start with the word “face” and then the adjective that describes how they might currently be feeling: frustrated, stressed, underpaid, scared)
  • With that face in your mind (or even better, on your bulletin board) read your sales page out loud to them. Pay attention to how your voice sounds. Where do you shift into sales-pitch language? Where do you stop talking to them as though they’re standing right in front of you, and instead move into convincing an anonymous “them” to buy your stuff?
  • Find your most intuitive friend who might be interested in what you’re offering, or able to look at it objectively. Have her read your sales page and track how she feels with each paragraph. Have her use words like curious, interested, hopeful, surprised, disappointed at price, delighted with price, doubtful, confused. Ask her to call out any places where it ceased to feel as though a conversation were taking place, and instead she was being “funneled” into buying.
  • If you’re part of a mastermind group, local business group, women’s group, or Facebook interest group, see if you can find some folks who would be willing to examine your sales page and give you honest feedback—anonymous if need be, via SurveyMonkey.com or similar—about how the page feels, where they shift away from being seen/heard and start to feel “sold”, what they might change that would make less formulaic and more human and kind.

We are not conversions. We are people, with our own unique needs, pains, and desires. And in a world where it seems like it’s all about “the art of the deal,” if we’re treated with kindness and respect all the way to the “Buy Now” button, we will choose your offerings over all others.

Building blocks of a healthy web presence for your thoughtful small business

I’m forever tinkering with my own biology. From what/when/how much I eat, to how much physical activity I engage in, to what sorts of chemicals I allow into my microbiome and home, I’m a fun-loving scientist using my own body as the test subject. (If I ever try to do something like graft on a second brain or install bionic hands, I’ll get permission from you guys first.)

I’m stacking up blocks, taking them down, stacking them another way. I’m experimenting, noticing, tracking, and adjusting. What works? What keeps me joyful and what weighs me down? What has no effect and isn’t worth the trouble, and what gives the most gratification and reward?

As you might guess, I often put on my Fun Scientist lab coat when it comes to websites for my self-employed kindred spirits too.

I’ve noticed over the years that, just as there are a handful of simple things we can do to make our bodies/homes/lives happier and healthier, so too there are a handful of simple things we can do that make promoting our work easier, more effective, and less likely to cause headaches and heartburn. Below are a few of them. I’ve divided them into “public facing” (the part the public sees) and “behind the scenes” (the part that’s mostly invisible to the public).

Basic website elements: Public facing elements

HOME/LANDING PAGE: As my teenaged friends would say, “No duh.” Yes, you need a home page. Make sure you have one that doesn’t take forever to load, and that acts as a warm, welcoming anteroom for all the wonderful goodness inside.

It should use colors, images, and language that makes people feel the way you want them to feel (calmed, excited, curious, hopeful). It should give them a topline view of how you can help them shift from where they are now to where they want to be. It should have clear next steps to reach you or get more information.

Oh, there’s a ton I could write about the elements of a successful homepage, but for now, just remember this mantra and make sure your homepage says it: I’m glad you’re here. I see you and know why you’ve come. Here are some things I can offer for that. Here’s what you can do next.

ABOUT: Include an About page that helps people know, like, and trust you. People visit About pages for several reasons, but it all wraps around learning whether you’re the best person for what they’re hoping to achieve, have, fix, or become.

Tailor your About page to your ideal client. If you’re offering a service to an audience for whom credentials=credibility, detail those. If you’re offering something where being a good-hearted, wise listener is most important, show me that. Show me your face. Show me your humanity. Show me that you “get” me.

A CLEAR VIEW OF WHAT YOU OFFER: Don’t just list what you do a Services or Products page. Give me the full details on what you offer, how much it costs, and how it’s going to change me. Let me see/hear the voices of other people who’ve experienced the service. Describe the “new story” it’s going to create for me. Give me a next step (buy button, ‘more information’ button, sign up button).

There’s a thousand mile difference between “Here’s what I offer” and “Here’s what I offer and here’s why it’s going to light up your day/life/work/health.” Make sure you’re putting the effort into creating the latter.

TIERED OFFERINGS: Many folks sell very expensive services and/or products, and they are usually worth every penny. But although your prices might be perfectly fair, when you’re starting out, you may find that you have trouble building a client base. It’s not that you’re not worth it, because you absolutely are; it’s just that many people need to be eased into feeling confident and comfortable enough to spend their dollars working with you.

Offer a variety of entry points to working with you or buying from you, at different price points that give them a staircase rather than a ladder. The easiest first step is to offer lots of free content (articles, blogs, etc.) that show you care about them. The next might be a free consultation. After that, a low-priced offering such as an ebook, workshop, or mini-session helps them to get a taste of working with you. Then a mid-priced offer…are you seeing the staircase now? If you offer all of those, your high-price-point coaching packages no longer feel like such a risky endeavor. They know you. You’ve proven your mettle and have been honest, helpful, and generous.

BE PAINFULLY CLEAR ABOUT NEXT STEPS (CALLS-TO-ACTION): Check and doublecheck that you’ve provided a path to a next step toward you on every page, perhaps one for every option you present to readers. (If you make readers burn calories trying to figure it out, they will assume you’ll also make them burn calories if you they choose to work with you.) Calls-to-action must be very clear and obvious – buttons of contrasting colors are particularly useful here. If you have any doubt as to whether your call-to-action is clear, have someone unfamiliar with your website walk through it and give you feedback.

DON’T NEGLECT CONTACT DETAILS: Be sure to provide clear and persistent contact information and a way for your reader to reach you if they have questions or want to explore further (such as a free consult). Persistent? Remember that, while they are meandering in your site assessing your offerings, the YES of inspiration can strike them at any time. Make sure there’s always something in view that aids and abets them in following that inspiration; don’t make them go hunting for it.

BLOG: Hey! Come back here! I know all the reasons why this word makes you recoil (see my blog post “10 Reasons to consider writing a blog, even if the thought of it makes you cringe“)

But I can’t overstate the value of including something on your website that has new juicy material added to it regularly. If it helps don’t call it a blog. Call it Articles. News. The Latest. What’s Up.

It says several things about you: I know my stuff. I am out here paying attention. I am always thinking of how I can be helpful to my people. I am generous with my time and wisdom. I am trustworthy and I show up for you. I am someone valuable to have in your life.

Basic website elements: Behind-the-scenes stuff that’s still super-important to have:

A SECURE CERTIFICATE that lets you have “https.” Google has already started to scare the heck out of your site visitors by warning them away from any sites that don’t have this, and it will become fairly universal in the coming month. Please don’t postpone. Learn more in my Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/websitesforgood/posts/2155915141307233

A PRIVACY POLICY that includes your cookie policy, information on what data your site collects from them (GDPR stuff), and terms of use of your site. Contact me if you need to have this created for you. Not only does Google use this as a factor for search engine listings, but you really don’t want to run afoul of the GDPR/data privacy laws.

If you use WordPress, PLUGINS FOR SECURITY (such as Wordfence or iThemes Security) AND FOR AUTOMATIC BACKUPS. Unless you relish the possibility of throwing your website investment of time and money down the drain due to hacking or system failure (plus the cost of having a new one built), you really can’t go without these any more. And there’s no reason not to. They are free, and just need to be installed and set up with basic settings.

GOOGLE ANALYTICS (or other systems of tracking visitor statistics): This is very simple to set up, free, and allows you to receive reports showing who’s coming to your site, how they found you, where they go, where they DON’T go, and a lot more.

AT LEAST A LITTLE SOCIAL MEDIA: Basic presence on at least one social media channel can help most of us, and it’s nothing to fear. A Facebook business page (NOT your personal page) or a LinkedIn profile are natural choices for many. The ability to reach millions more of your people for free is not something to dismiss just because it sounds hard. But because it DOES sound hard, I’m working on two bite-sized private training sessions to just sit down with me for an hour on Zoom and get it done. We’ll have fun. There will be music and poetry and cold drinks 🙂 Write me if you’d like more information on that.

There are many more things I can list, and of course I could wax poetic about telling your story, being a changemaker, choosing the right photos, etc.

But like the basic building blocks of keeping your body healthy, we’ll start with these…then experiment, notice, track, and adjust.

Enjoy!


P.S. Remember, if you don’t have these things, you can always drop me a line and ask me questions about anything. I’m here.

GDPR = Guide to Developing a Philosophy of Respect

I am normally good with words, and especially good with letters. (“Q” is a particular favorite…such a cute little tail.)

So why then did I have so much trouble with the now well-known acronym GDPR? Coming out of my mouth or keyboard to tell people about it, it would become DGPR, GPDR, etc. How embarrassing for a demi-geek like me.

When this happens in my brain, it always helps to give an acronym a meaning, a hook, so it’s not just a bunch of letters floating in my soup bowl. I didn’t get a hook from its real spelling-out (General Data Protection Regulation makes me fall asleep right around the first “O” in protection).

So I thought about why it’s even a “thing.” What’s at the core of it all…why was it so important to go through all this bother? That helped me dream up my own: Guide to Developing a Philosophy of Respect

I know. Crazy idealist. Oh well.

But think now: What’s this GDPR stuff about? At its core, it’s about respecting peoples’ rights to not have their personal information used and re-used, swapped and sold, manipulated and mushed to serve purposes they never intended when they shared it.

It’s like this: Say I’m at a social event and I’m lucky enough to make a new friend, Marcia. Very cool person, lots in common, and we decide we’re going to walk our dogs together. Marcia gives me her cell number and her address so I can arrange to drive Gordie over, pick her up and take our stroll. It’s a wonderful time.

What if, after that, I began to freely share everything she’s told me with other people? What if I’m on some very public online space and describe her, “Oh, yeah—such a cool person. She lives at 3998 S. Mayhew Circle. She has a Welsh Springer Spaniel and an Audi R8 and she’s a proctologist. Here’s her phone number too, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you gave her a ring some time.”

Okay, that’s a goofy example, but you get the feeling, right? I’ve taken information she shared with me for a specific reason—information she does NOT want others to know, especially people with nefarious intent—and splashed it all around.

Unchecked, companies you buys from could take what you’ve shared with them—what they DEMANDED you share with them in order to sign up for their service—and then turn around and share/sell this information to partner organizations or data brokers. They can then re-sell it to other companies and causes that have nothing to do with your original agreement.

In some twisted universe, that might be okay. But most normal humans would agree that here in ours, it stinks. Hence the need for repercussions under a law like GDPR. Because, as much as we may tire of the tangled spaghetti of law after law after law governing every imaginable situation, it’s gotten to the point where respect is no longer a “given” in business, if it ever was, and in the digital age has to be enforced with legislation.

With our small businesses, yours and mine, we want to put respect and integrity above all other values. The people who come to work with us (or buy from us) deserve our honesty, our clarity, and above all, our respect for their time and other precious resources. Privacy of their personal information—protecting what they’ve shared with us—is one of those resources.

So rather than looking at GDPR as another pain in the posterior to deal with, let’s reframe that.

Let’s look at it as an opportunity to examine the elements of our online presence, from websites to email to social media, to be sure we are indeed operating from within a culture of openness and respect.

It’s good for our businesses, good for the people we serve, good for our souls, and (lastly!) good for staying out of the legal crosshairs of privacy laws.

In my next post I’ll talk about some very common elements of many websites—contact forms, subscriber mechanisms, schedulers, payment links—and suggest reasonably painless ways for small companies like ours to make sure we are being very clear about things like:

  1. what personal information is collected by these useful mechanisms
  2. why we ask for it—what beneficial purpose it serves for us AND for them
  3. whether it’s stored on our website
  4. how people can know what we store, and how they can ask it to be deleted
  5. and more

Relax. All will be well.

See you soon.

Love,
Margaret

Self-care for the self-employed: Taking time to read the map

Like all the self-employed people I know and love, I try to grow my business in a variety of ways. Some ways feel natural, as natural as running a hand through my hair. Others push me outside my comfort zone.

The latter, of course, isn’t fatal, and is even good for us to an extent, right? I try to do a little more every day to “get out there” and get better at what I do, slowly moving beyond what I previously thought was possible for me. I like to look at it as a long, exploratory walk on a new-to-me trail through a beautiful forest. I could choose a route that I’m already 100% familiar with, I suppose. But stepping out of my “known,” my habitual ways of interacting with the world, tests my stamina, my courage, and my powers of observation. And that’s all good.

Until it isn’t.

It’s a quiet morning in Colorado. I’m sitting out on the back porch, being scrutinized by an upside-down chickadee on a nearby branch. I’m sipping coffee and staring out into space. I always have a sense that I should be doing something else instead. Some marketing thing. Some new-product development thing. Some big audacious goal. But this morning it’s a nagging voice I can barely hear, like being yelled at by someone who’s behind thick glass.

I pull a metaphorical curtain over it, and go back to sipping and staring.

Over the past few months, I’ve taken on things that have pushed me out of my introvert comfort zone again and again. Publishing a book. Public speaking. Interviews. More networking and collaboration than I think I’ve done in the last five years combined. A lot more of “the M word” (marketing) than I’m comfortable with.

All of this from the person who, at any party, is the girl in the corner having a quiet conversation with a tall potted plant.

I’ve enjoyed it all, in the way you enjoy the new muscles you start to notice in the mirror after committing to a new exercise regimen. It’s like, “Wow, look at that. I’m so glad I’m doing this.”

It feels like I’ve been on a trail, carrying a knapsack full of protein bars, Red Bull, wise books, and a walkie-talkie connection with some very smart mentors. Exploring, experimenting, breaking through to new parts of the wilderness within me. Enjoying the scenery and the healthy feeling of getting stronger and wiser and braver.

But after about 9 months of pushing hard with both hands, widening my comfort zone and filling my mind and heart with new things, I screeched to a stop. My body started to break. My mind would wander in circles. I was weary, overstimulated, insomnia-wracked, unable to turn my brain off. My emails to people had lost their tenderness. My morning writing became more mechanical, and there was no pleasure in it.

So.

Photo by G. Patterson

I’ve stepped off that trail for a while. I’ve put the adventure of moving into new lands on hold. Instead, I’m back at the porch table with my journal and my pen (the equivalent of my map and compass), thinking about where I might want to go next. I’m quietly, carefully mapping it out. There are an infinite number of possible destinations to choose from: Which one(s) will be the most joyful? Which ones will make my time here on Earth matter most?

I’m resting more. I’m breathing more. I turn off the computer for hours, sometimes longer. I say “no” more (a lot more, a fiscally scary amount of “no”).

I stay hydrated. I eat very, very well. I move my body and gently keep it limber and strong. I systematically remove toxic things from my home and my life. I’ve traded the business development books on my nightstand with a copy of Dr. Frank Lipman’s How to Be Well, and am on the second reading of it.

I still take care of clients, answer emails, do coaching sessions and consultations. I’m still here, and doing what I always do. I’m just off the dusty trail and back in my comfort zone for a while. I’m quiet, listening more than speaking, moving slowly and deliberately so I can sense what feels best. I’m planning the next few years of my life on this Earth.

Though I’m not recommending you do the same—we are all in different places in our work—I want to be sure to remind you that this possibility exists for all of us. If it feels as though this is what you need as well, make it so. Say no more. Clear the parts of your day planner that no longer bring you the same joy. Feel your body’s reactions as you move through your “normal” working day, and take note of the rhythms of tension and stress. Set aside some time to do what feels comfortable and easy, and see what kind of inspiration that ease brings. You may find that dialing it all down for a while helps you reshape the things that just aren’t working for you anymore, with no self-judgment and no regrets.

It’s worth it.

Be well.

 

Goodbye, “free” gift: A better way to build a list of email subscribers

What I’m about to say will sound like heresy to some people.

Okay, to a LOT of people.

But I’ve been pondering this for a long time and I want to put my head on the block and see what you think.

For many years, and like many businesses on the web, I offered a “free” gift to people who were willing to join my subscriber list. It was just what everyone did, and seemed a fair and honorable exchange: I will give you something of value to your business if you’ll give me a try to see what I’m about.

The eBook was called How to Pay Us Less: Tips and Tricks to Pay Less for Web-related Services and if you click that link you can now get a copy of that ebook for the low low price of doing nothing at all (well, except clicking).

Although I’ve never bombarded my list with emails, and people can unsubscribe themselves at any time, I’ve always felt a little strange about the whole practice. If I had a brick-and-mortar storefront, it would be like having little glass case set up at the door full of cupcakes, saying, “I’ll only give you one of these delicious cupcakes if you’ll just drop what you’re doing and come in and talk to me.”

Mmmmm, cupcakes.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, right.  These kinds of “free gifts” are known by many names (free gift, free ebook, lead magnet, opt-in incentive, freemium, ethical bribe, etc.)  I would guess that 80% of the service provider websites I see offer some variant of it. I did too for a long time.

But not anymore. Know why?

Because Free isn’t free. When I ask for a person’s contact details, I’m asking for their time, their attention, their inbox space. I’m adding to the 677 emails they already have, waiting to be sorted or trashed. I’m adding a task to their morning by forcing them to decide whether to open my emails or not. I’m adding another twining choice point to their day, along with the dozens or hundreds of other choices that will force them to burn calories. I am making them find and click the “unsubscribe” button if they don’t want to keep hearing from me. (George Kao has a great article on Medium about the topic as well.)

I receive a number of emails every day from people whose “free gift” I consumed, and I just stay on the list because I have seventeen things fighting for my attention as I’m perusing my inbox, and I can’t take the time to thoughtfully decide whether I want to stay subscribed or not. So I keep getting them, deleting them, feeling vaguely guilty about the whole thing.

Of the dozens of every-now-and-again subscribed emails I receive, I’d say there are 6 or 7 that are day-changers, even life-changers. They are the emails that I look forward to, that make me smile when they arrive, that I ALWAYS take time to read. These are people I believe in, people I feel kinship with, people who have interesting and valuable things to say. If I don’t have time to read their email right away, I’ll always snooze it with Boomerang until I know I’ll have more quiet.

I am envious of those people, to be perfectly honest. I want to be more like them. I want to build relationships and kinships, rather than entice someone into my circle with a cupcake.

So I’ve decided that I will endeavor to be that instead: Someone that people stay in touch with because I matter to them, and because they look forward to hearing from me. No bribery required. I just want to be among the ones whose useful sharing of valuable stuff makes me a valued part of their far-flung community.

Of course, it would be a lot easier to just keep exchanging some juicy tidbit for someone’s email address. It’s a much bigger task to knuckle down and get into a rhythm of creating/sharing material that’s eye-opening, helpful, stress-reducing, or giggle-inducing. Laser-focusing on the creation of those kinds of things, and taking it as seriously as—more seriously than—the other parts of my work, is so much harder, but so much better.

So that’s my plan. My life—in work and everywhere else—is an exercise in finding more and more ways to operate from a place of integrity. While being interesting, warm, and funny. Picture me creating new content here, with a hot cup of coffee, ambient cafe sounds courtesy of Coffitivity and enjoying a nice warm cupcake. (Sure you don’t want to come by?)

Do you offer a “free gift” in exchange for email signups? How would it be to instead show/tell people the kind of wisdom & help you offer to people who’ve joined your email list, and ask them to give you a try?

Here, I’ll go first:

If you want to follow me for a bit and see how I do, you can click the “Subscribe” link at the top right of the window; as always, you can unsubscribe any time, or if it’s just not your cup of tea. (Or coffee.)

If you still want to offer something for free, then please do. Do it a lot. Be generous, be prolific in creating beautiful things your audience members will use and love and remember. And at the bottom of your content you might gently suggest that—if the thing they’re reading is of value to them, they might consider signing up to have that sort of thing delivered via the occasional email. And give them an easy way to do that.

Love to all!

 

Should you offer a free consultation or exploratory session? Yes. No. Maybe.

I’ve had some good conversations lately about the ups and downs of offering a free introductory session, consultation, or discovery session to potential clients.

In general, get-to-know-you sessions are a fabulous idea. Although they are often seen as a way to “sell” someone who may not yet be sold on you, I’d encourage you to look at it from a different perspective, and adopt a mindset of curiosity and generosity instead.

To illustrate, there’s a statement in several places on my website that says what my own free consultations are about:

I offer a free 30-minute consultation to talk through your business needs, your new work, or your goals, and to help you visualize a path for making them happen. No pushy sales pitch, no adding you to a mailing list, no hidden anything. Please feel free to contact me – I’ll bet I can help.

The “different perspective” I referred to?  I don’t see these words as a sales tactic, and I make that very clear. I get a ton of joy out of meeting people who are working for themselves and bringing their skills and gifts to the world. My consultations are one part gabbing over coffee, one part wide-eyed wonder at learning something new, and one part intuitive assessment: Are the two of us a good fit for one another? Would I be happy and proud to bring their work to a larger audience? Will they find my style comfortable and empowering?

It almost never enters my mind to use this time to coerce or convince. If that makes me a poor businesswoman, well, so be it.

I came to this point of view after a number of chance encounters with certain professionals and wannabe-gurus. I was slow to learn that some people promote free introductions heavily in order to fill spaces on their calendar during dry times. There’s nothing wrong with this—it’s hard to grow a business, and we need to try everything. But it was clear, in my case(s), that their interest in me as a human was very thin, and thus when it came to our appointed time,

  • Some didn’t show up at all.
  • Some were late, sending an email 15 minutes into our allotted time apologizing for their tardiness.
  • One did the consultation when walking in a noisy store, obviously running errands and multitasking. I heard the tinny scrape of clothes hangers in the background.
  • In most cases, the session was followed up with an automated email sales pitch, and I was automatically added to their mailing list and started receiving daily emails.

Sigh.

But I eventually developed a stronger intuition about this, and in the past few years I’ve only experienced sessions with those who operate from a place of integrity and respect and curiosity. Each of the two coaches I now work with treated me with great respect and kindness in their introductory sessions, as an equal, exploring our respective preferences and needs to find out whether I was a good fit for them, and vice-versa.

What does that look like?

I felt respected, heard, and appreciated.

They showed up exactly when and where and how they promised.

They had a clear structure to explore my needs and their offerings and where they might or might not fit each other.

They followed up with an email that proved they were paying attention and cared. This was a personal thank-you note (NOT automated), with thoughts on next steps (or why they didn’t feel the fit was good) and best wishes for my success.

Done right, a free consultation/discovery session/exploration is a lovely idea, a beautiful idea, and it can help you find more of the right people. Here are a few thoughts to help these sessions be the best they can be for both you and clients:

  • Keep them short. Ish. Fifteen to 30 minutes is a good zone that—according to many practitioners—also cuts down on the number of people who may see a free hour with you as too good to pass up.
  • Gather some conversation fodder before the call. Many contact forms and schedulers will allow you to create robust “intake forms,” short questionnaires filled out in advance that help you to know more about the person booking. That way, your time together is as juicy and productive as possible.
  • Be ready with the answers to the common questions about your work. This is especially important if you’ve experienced having to explain just what it is you do. YOU might know what you do inside and out, but most people need a little help visualizing the beautiful intersection between their life and yours. Help them see the tangible, real-life before and after stories that can blossom.
  • Map out and do a follow-up sequence that is personal and respectful and not hinged on outcomes. Give some next steps. If it’s not a good fit, say so, and trust that the space you’re keeping open for the right person will be filled. All of this takes about five minutes of your day, and it means a lot.
  • Stay in integrity. If you want to stay in touch, in your follow-up sequence state HOW you’d like to stay in touch or check back with them, and ask permission to do so. (Not only is it distasteful to start bombarding someone with newsletters and clever emails, it’s illegal.)
  • Stay curious and open-minded, and see your free sessions as a gift to YOU, an opportunity to peer into the life and heart of another good human being and see if you can help elevate one another.

Search yourself. If there’s the slightest down-deep feeling that some sessions are going to be “good” and some “wasted time,” then consider only doing paid sessions. There’s no ick around choosing this route. My experiences with paid assessment sessions, even brief ones, have been 100% on-point, on-time, over-delivering and honest. Sometimes we’re more likely to see the time as productive—without dependence on a certain outcome—when something of value is exchanged.

Free introductory sessions or consults can be a joy. They’re a great way to keep our energies strong positive by sharing them with another soul who’s curious about our work.

Enjoy them!

Keeping your website from getting lost in the crowd, Chapter 2

Yesterday I wrote about the folks in my tribe who claim they don’t have a story to tell, and thus miss out on a key way to stand out in the minds of the people they most want to reach.

Because I know that 99.9% of you are the type who can better visualize things by seeing examples, I wanted to offer you this jumpstart, which takes you to some unfamiliar and unorthodox places to look for your story. I don’t expect they will all be appropriate for everyone; my hope is that they will warm up the Play-Doh of your mind, make it malleable and flexible, so other stories will come to you more easily.

I also offer a bite-sized coaching session on storytelling for your existing website if you think you’d like a sherpa to help you get started. No pressure though—you’ve got this!

Pick any one of the following, and tell us that story. Be open to others that pop into your mind; I call these “opportunistic stories,” the ones that bubble to the surface when you’re working with memories.

The spark of your work: When I was a kid, I had a pattern that played out repeatedly. I wanted to be good at something, and wanted to be needed for it. So I ended up helping my friends with their math, or helping them train their dog, or showing them how to grow plants. I was shy about it, and they usually had to ask more than once, but it was always there. From those memories, I can see the spark that eventually lit the flame of my work. I wanted to help, and be respected for helping. Can you see any sparks from your earlier years that might have given you a clue about the work you’d one day do?

The first person you can remember helping: A friend tells a story about her 20’s, when she’d somehow found the right things to say, and in the right ways, to a girlfriend in trouble. The words took root and gave this girl the courage to leave an abusive relationship and steer into a life in which she navigated solely by her inner voice. I find that most people in helping professions or heart-based businesses have such a story if they find some quiet and look for it. What might yours be?

The first person who helped you (or the one who’s helped you the most) and how. These kinds of stories can be so energizing and powerful. They don’t have to be a coach or mentor or even a teacher. In one of my favorite books, Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet, she shares a story told to her by an acquaintance. When this woman was a child, her father had taken her to his office one day. His secretary had come out and crouched down to her level to speak to her, looking straight into her eyes. The woman said that no one in her dysfunctional family had ever done this. She felt as though she was being seen for the very first time; she felt as though she mattered, and it changed her right then and there. Who played a role in helping you become the person you are today, or helping you do the work you do today?

How did you learn what you know? Pick one skillset or mindset tool you’re proud of, or pleased to have. Follow the thread back in time to where you learned it. Tell us how you walked—or fell—into it. Tell us why it felt important to do, and how it serves you (and the people you help) now.

The “future me, future them” story: With your work, you’re taking two existing stories—yours and your client’s—and twining them together to create something better. For example, it might be a story from a coaching client who’s always carried guilt or fear, but you’re helping them into a new story where those things no longer block the way. It might be a story about finding ways to create your art as a living, right where it meets someone whose day is lit up by hearing or seeing what you’re creating. Their story is better and so is yours.

What stood in your way? All self-employed people or business owners have had obstacles, ranging from inhibiting fears we’ve had to overcome, all the way up to ugly events that made us want to drink warm vodka right out of a shoe at the end of the day. Perseverance stories show your readers/clients what’s important to you, and by association imply that you will also persevere for them.

The magic-wand skill: What’s something that, if your fairy godmother popped you on the head with a sequined star and granted you a wish, you’d love to know or to be? So many of us think that we have to portray ourselves as completely bulletproof and all-knowing in our business communications. But really, you can be human, and it makes you far more memorable. The first time I admitted publicly that I wished I could write a book but didn’t know how, I was surrounded by people offering support, skills, and encouragement—many of them perfect strangers. What’s a skill or shift in perception you would love to have, and which would make you more of an ally to the people you want to serve?

Are you sure your story’s true? (I thank Byron Katie for this one.) Tell us about a story you tell yourself. This one can be a story you’ve lugged around for a long time, but that—on examination—you can’t be sure is 100% true. Example: For many years I avoided teaching because I just knew I was too shy, and that I’d stumble and stammer and make a complete fool of myself. What I found instead was that, while I am an introvert, I am not shy, especially when it comes to teaching people something I’m passionate about. What do you “know” about yourself that might not be so?

A Big Shift story: When it comes to our work with people, over time we start to get a feel for how interactions are going to go, how people will react to us, and so forth. Every once in awhile, I have an experience that knocks me off my axis and forces me to rethink my well-worn path. These can range from a positive event coming from an unexpected angle (such as a client recently commenting she likes being around my energy) to a very NOT positive event (such as public criticism or social media grumps). Have there been any experiences recently that—welcome or not—led to a productive shift in how you work or with whom?

A vulnerability story: Don’t be super(wo)man. We all have less-than-stellar days in our work lives. Something said or done by a person zings right into a place where we feel we’re less-than, we didn’t react “correctly,” or we’re just missing the mark. Dare to be vulnerable and show/tell your readers what part of yourself you’re working on. There’s tremendous power in this kind of empathetic resonance, and they may feel much more comfortable stepping into a conversation with you.

What’s a story your clients or wish-they-were-clients are telling often? Remember from yesterday’s post when I said I hear people say, “I don’t have a story to tell” all the time? If you start listening with your ear tuned for these kinds of things—in conversation, in consultations/sessions, in workshop comments, on social media—you will start to see common threads. Capture those stories. See where those threads match the things you can offer to help, and use them to weave useful blog posts, articles, and even product offerings.

Share a teaching story about doing things better. I wrote a blog post a few days ago about my struggle to stay in a calm, centered, productive “state of being” by using a traffic light metaphor. I loved the personal responses I received. Many business gurus would’ve advised me to keep up the ruse that I’m always in total control and life’s always perfect, 24/7. Nothing to see here, people! (smile) But those kinds of stories create more self-awareness and self-compassion in the world. If there is something you are doing to make yourself better, stronger, happier, tell us that story. We are all human. You may be surprised at how people resonate with you.

You’re in this world, so you have stories.
Sharing them can help “your people” find, know, like, and trust you.
I hope you will.

Keeping your website from getting lost in the crowd, Chapter 1

This past week, I had a conversation with a man who is struggling to build a business around his coaching work. Now, this is a guy who has a heart the size of Jupiter, as well as great skills and a keen intuition. He’s doing fine but is still working on how to make his work stand out in a field that has—to put this gently—a great deal of competition.

I spoke to him about bringing out more storytelling (as I often do). In a situation like his, it’s naturally important to have a good and clear offering. But it’s also important to help people remember you, and to humanize yourself so people feel comfortable giving your services a try. And in terms of helping YOU be the one who stands out when a potential client is looking for the right fit for themselves, a story is going to take you much further than an alphabet soup of credentials or some massive photos of you staring out at them from every page.

He said something that I hear several times every week: “But I don’t have a story. I wouldn’t even know what to say.”

(Note to all of us: When you hear something that often from people, pay attention. That’s an elbow in the ribs from the universe. Dig into it and explore.)

I hear from people who claim they don’t have any stories to tell about their business, their work, or themselves. In response, I often borrow this response from Lauren Lee Anderson of the branding agency Moonshot: “Just because you aren’t actively telling your story doesn’t mean you don’t have one. If you’re in the world, the world has a story about you.”

Think about the second half of that quote: Imagine there’s an omniscient being, one with really nice penmanship, that’s been tracking your path from birth to where you stand right now with your vocation. Not just the mechanics of it (acquiring skills, deciding on a domain name, etc.) but your inner path as well. She’s got a thick volume—the story of You—documenting the choice points that brought you here: the fears, the excitement, the vision of what your life would be life, the stumbles, the getting-back-ups, and a thousand other things.

Now consider the ridiculous opposite: We did not just appear in our office chair one morning through spontaneous generation, fully formed, complete with the vision, skillset and mindset we needed for our work. Right?

The world has a story about you. That story is in your head and your heart, and bringing it out can help you to connect with more people and grow your work.

Some thought-joggers for those who don’t think they have a story:

  • There’s a story behind why you do what you do. Of the thousands of vocations (or art forms, or services, or products) you could’ve chosen, you clicked into this one at some point, with a sound like placing a jigsaw puzzle piece. How? Why?
  • There’s a story behind how you obtained the skills to do what you do, likely peppered with stops and starts, fears and triumphs over fear, self-doubt, and celebrations.
  • There’s a story behind why you gravitate to certain people as customers and clients and mentors and partners, and not others. Your worldview matters.
  • There’s a story behind why you’re working for yourself (or want to) and not on an assembly line churning out endless widgets or memos or someone else’s dreams.
  • …and so much more.

That’s just a brief topline. Tomorrow I’ll share a list of specific ideas that you might want to explore for yourself. Once you gather these bits of story, you can incorporate into all the ways and spaces in which you tell people about what you do. See you then.

Love your clients fiercely, and the rest will follow.

I work with a lot of people who are in love with what they create and offer the world. That’s a lovely thing indeed. When we love something we’ve made, it shows. We craft it, shape it, smooth it, make it beautiful and useful and easy to want.

One particular client comes to mind, from a few years ago. She’d just become an LCSW, and had a vision of working with people recovering from trauma. She planned the perfect office from which to offer her counseling and coaching. She mapped out the location, the colors, the perfectly soothing art, the soft and comforting furniture. She designed programs on paper that perfectly articulated her beliefs and knowledge around how individuals could get their lives back after traumatic incidents.

And then, nothing happened for two years.

She worked in the public sector for a while, joined someone else’s practice, and occasionally looked in the folder with all the paint chips and treatment plans. Something was missing for her.

That special something floated into my mind this morning in my meditation (shorthand for “Margaret stares out the window and focuses on the big tree for ten minutes”).

It’s not enough just to love what you offer.
You have to love the person you’re offering it to.

Not just love them like all people deserve to be loved, that tidy, new age book love. But love them fiercely. Love who they are, and how hard they’re trying.

When I started my business 20 years ago, I wasn’t sure I’d stick with it. At that moment I was very much in the realm of “I have a skillset I can sell. I’ll try this.” My first clients, though, changed all that.

They were children’s book authors. But not just the kind who had fun writing and illustrating cute stories that would entertain an 8-year-old for ten minutes while mom cooked dinner. They had something bigger in mind.

They were travelers and loved to explore the world. In every place they visited, they saw the beauty in the vast diversity of our Earth and its people. Different art, different food, different ways of living, different landscapes. They lived out Mark Twain’s belief that travel is “…fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” They wrote their books to open the minds of kids who might never have a chance to see this bigger world.

But even more important than that vision, something else happened: They fell in love with the readers they wrote for. The kids they met and to whom they read their first book to were fiery-eyed, hungry to know that the world was big, interesting, and theirs. They pressed in with questions about the places the book characters visited. They asked whether they liked the food, how to speak other languages, whether they wanted to go to Africa, Australia, China.

They carried the beloved images of these kids with them as they traveled, researched, and wrote. They loved these wild, curious spirits, and were loved in return.

In turn, I fell in love with them as clients. I was floored by their mission, and wanted to help them open even more eyes, minds, and hearts.

When we love someone fiercely, it breaks us open. We are bigger, better, more expansive, more joyful. We want to share the object of our love with the world. We want to do anything for them.

When we take the time to know the clients and customers we want to serve with our work or our small business, it’s easy to love them fiercely. If you’re an artist, consider that your buyer might be someone who could never have nice things when she was younger. Now she’s able to spend a little to bring beauty, whimsy, and the elemental presence of human-made art into her home, her sanctuary.

If you’re writing a book, picture the person reading it, grabbing a few quiet moments before the next wave of life knocks them over: Are they stuck, suffering, craving new knowledge, needing release/relaxation after the stressful days of modern life? Are there wings you can help her unfurl to burst up and out into a new place of perspective?

If you’re a coach, think about how hard someone has worked to try to solve the pain or problem they’re bringing to you. See them as they sit quietly, remembering a time when life seemed so much better. Think about the beautiful new story they want to create, where they are able to be more joyful and share more joy with others.

When we take the time to really know and get acquainted with our ideal clients, there’s just so much to love about them. They are trying as hard as they can, doing the best they can with the light they have to see by at this moment in their lives.

Get to know them. Love them fiercely.

Learn what they want and need right now.

Create something that focuses on their needs. Make it beautiful.

Tell the world about them. Give them something that will make them want to tell the world about you.

But mostly, just love them. Everything else—inspiration, energy, abundance—will follow.