Task Management

As a consultant with several clients, it is of utmost importance that each of my clients feels that he or she is getting the top treatment from me. I rely heavily on recommendations from my clients to fuel my business, and this in turn requires that I treat my clients well. Part of this is maintaining a rapid response time for all clients, so that they feel that I listen to them, and respond appropriately.

The problem on my end of this is simple. With several active clients, each of whom requires that I perform some task or another, how do I maintain a good relationship with all of them? Obviously, some tasks are more critical than others, but a client who has many low-priority tasks still requires a response, even if other clients keep raising high-priority items to be dealt with.

The system I use is fairly simple to implement, though the times I mention are meant as a general guideline, and can be changed according to need. Each client I work for, when they submit a task, is given an immediate response time. So if Client A submits a low priority task, I may inform him that the task will be completed within 3 weeks. This is based on the amount of work I currently have, plus some space for new high-priority tasks that might come in before the three weeks. However, if nothing else comes into play during that time, I may complete the task earlier. From the client’s perspective, since I have provided a time frame for the task, they are tolerant of a delay in getting their task completed, as long as I abide by the time line I provided.

On my end, I simply keep a list of all active tasks. I have some projects which are ongoing, and last for potentially months at a time. For those, I try not to provide an absolute date for the final product, but instead, give a range which is refined as we approach the end of the project. In order to be able to work on those projects, I designate about 50% of my available time to all my new projects (more if the schedule is light that week). The other 50% is divided among short-term tasks, fixing bugs, making small changes, and maintainance. As a new task is sent to me, I add it to my list of active tasks, either under the short-term work or under the long-term work. Within that group, it is prioritized and assigned a completion date (or range, in the case of long-term work). Any future tasks that are sent in are then prioritized without moving any tasks that are already planned.

I don’t use any special tools or software to keep track of my work. I find that a pen and paper work just fine, as long as you keep that information highly visible. What I actually use is Excel, listing each task, who reported it, the time to complete it, and the completion date I provided the client. I also mark the last date that I worked on that project, and what version of the project that particular item is meant to be included with. That allows me to group pieces of work together and bundle them into single releases.

If you have another system for prioritizing across multiple clients, I would love to hear about it. My process is a work in progress, so I am very interested in hearing other methods of managing your workload.

Networking and Following Up

I have, as mentioned in an earlier post, recently attended a networking event. I met with a few dozen people, and a few have tried to follow up with me, but most have not. Personally, however, I have not followed up with very many, and of the few who did try to follow up with me, I have only agreed to further a connection with one so far.

I will address the last part first. Two people in the same line of work contacted me, asking for a follow up meeting. Both said similar things, that they had been impressed by me at the event, and wanted to see if we could work something out together. The difference, however, was that one fellow stopped there. He did not mention my newly started business. He did not mention anything specific about me beyond my name. I turned down his request for a meeting. The other fellow commented on my new status as the owner of a business, on policies from my business that impressed him. He had clearly visited my website to find that out. Granted, that took him a total of two minutes to get that information, but at least we had something to talk about. I knew what he did, he knew what I did, and so we had a reason to meet.

This example has illustrated some of the criteria for arranging a follow up with anyone you meet at a networking event, or any event in which you meet new people, for that matter:

  1. If you have their card, you can get some information about them off the internet easily enough. Do it, and then when you follow up, provide enough information about them that they know you looked them up.
  2. Don’t make the follow up sound like a sales call. You’re not trying to sell them something (although, of course, you are likely hoping for a sale to come out of this). You’re looking to establish a relationship that will result in many sales, not just for you, but for them as well.
  3. Spend time talking about what they do, what their needs are, and how you might be able to help. Talk about their business, the types of people they likely deal with, and how you can help their clients as well. Talk about working together to help each other, and to help others. Don’t talk about your latest product that they really need. Save that for after you meet.
  4. Give them a reason to meet you. For example, if you’re in marketing, and they started a business in social media advertising, explain that you would be interested in sharing notes. Now they have a reason to meet you: you will tell them about marketing their product, and they will tell you more about the product. Both people gain.

Back to the original point, though. I did not follow up with very many of the people I met, because I don’t think most of us have anything in common. Many of the people at the event came to sell. I wasn’t there to buy. Others are in business that in no way connects to what I do. I don’t know people who might need their services. Or the impressions I got off them did not impress me (and in some cases, I made a note to avoid the person).

Image is extremely important at networking events. You need to convince the people you meet that working together can build a mutually beneficial relationship. If it seems like only one of you will gain out of the relationship, even if in the long run that may not be true, you will see the potential buyer run from the seller.

Asking for Help

I was called this morning by a university friend whom I have not spoken to in a while. He wanted to know if I could do some work for him, which happened to be outside my area of expertise. Without digging further, I gave him a referral to another friend who might have been able to help. A few minutes later, I got an e-mail indicating that this university friend wanted some work to be done, but either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for the work.

To anyone who is thinking about contacting an old friend to do them a favor: if what you are asking them to do is something that normally costs, then offer to pay for the work! Just because you’re an old friend does not mean that they will do the work for you for free. Let them make the call on that count. If your friend says they can’t do the work for any reason, but gives you the name of someone who can, you should absolutely offer to pay for the work, as the new referral has no connection to you at all!

There is an old saying not to mix family and business. While people will bend this rule on occassion, it is almost always done at the discretion of the one doing the work. If you’re thinking about asking someone to do what they normally get paid for, then offer to pay them. Otherwise, you may find them cutting you off completely, and they certainly won’t help you out in the future.

Getting Started with Networking

As an earlier article I wrote mentioned, I waded into the world of networking a week ago for the first time. However, based on how networking has been described by people who spend much of their life networking, I have in fact been networking for many years.

Any time I talk to a member of my family, a friend, or a coworker about what I do, I am networking. If I establish a relationship with someone, whether professional or personal, I am networking. In the book Make Your Contacts Count the authors describe 6 types of connections, from what they term Accident at one extreme, to Ally at the other. Using their descriptions as a base, I will explain why I can claim to have been networking for years, and so have you.

An Accident is someone you meet by chance, such as the person sitting next to you on an airplane as you fly to Aruba for a vacation. While you may chat with them for the duration of the flight, unless you establish some common ground and exchange contact information with a reason to follow up, you would be hard-pressed to locate that person again.

An Acquaintance is someone whom you could locate again if you needed to, for example, a friend of a friend. You’ve met them, you know their name, and you know how you are connected. However, your knowledge of who they are and what they do is limited, as is their knowledge about you.

An Actor is someone who knows a bit more about you, for example, a friend or a coworker. You could probably describe what they do in general terms, and you see and talk to each other on occassion.

An Associate knows what you do. They can give examples of your work. You talk to one another regularly, and are in touch with each other’s activities.

An Advocate not only knows what you do, but they will volunteer that information to others. They can describe in detail what you do to a third person, and can and do recommend you to others.

An Ally is one who is interested in you succeeding. They share in your successes and failures, they give you advice, they push you to move ahead and succeed.

Using these stages as a baseline, you have been networking for a long time, just like me, except, also like me, you probably didn’t realize it. If you were to write down the names of 100 people you know, you could group them using the 6 stages mentioned above. For example, your parents are your Allies, as they push you to succeed. A friend who you meet for coffee once a week would be an Associate or Advocate. The guy you ran into at a friend’s birthday party last week would be classified as an Accident.

Every time you talk to someone, you have the potential to move them closer to you in your network. As you approach the Ally stage, you have fewer and fewer people in your network. Your goal, when networking, is to gain Advocates and Allies. The way you do this is by gaining the trust of the people you meet, and helping them to be informed about what it is you do.

This, of course, will take time, since people will not advertise you unless they have a reason to trust you. That means that they need to see examples of your work, they need to know people whom you have worked for. They need to know about some of the more spectacular successes that you’ve had. They are gaining an appreciation for your competence. This is something that takes time, but you can speed it up if you pay attention.

When you speak to someone, whether they are already in your network or not, figure out which stage of your network they belong to. Then decide how you are going to move them one or two stages closer to being an Advocate. Can you demonstrate your competence in an area they can relate to? Use examples that pertain to their area of expertise. If they are in sales, and you write software, talk about a piece of work you did for someone in marketing. If information is confidential, find ways to obscure who you worked for, and any proprietary information.

People will assume that if you do one thing well, you do many things well. If you talk to Bill and promise to send him some information on your latest project, and then do so, Bill will assume you are reliable. If you tell Mary that can refer her a competent electrician who is cheap, and that referral works out, Mary and the electrician appreciate you because you gave one person work and saved another some money. However, Mary will now trust your referrals and opinions more, because the first one you gave worked out for her. As time goes on, you can reinforce this trust, but establishing it in the first place is key.

First impressions are the most lasting, so plan on making yours memorable in a way that shows you in the best light. Find an Ally to help you work on your image, go out an prepare a few variations of a personal introduction, get some examples to back up your competence, and meet new people and reconnect with people you “already know”.

New Computer from Dell

I was just sent an e-mail advertising a new computer system from Dell: the XPS One 24 Desktop. I’m looking for a new development computer, and I prefer to use Dell, as I have had very good experiences with them in the past. Does anyone have any feedback on this system?

One of the downsides to this system I am already aware of, and that is that you are limited in terms of the amount of customization that’s available. However, I’m not quite ready to buy, and it will likely be another 6 months before I do, so maybe by then, that issue will have been resolved, at least somewhat. But are there any other issues with this system I should be aware of?

Best Practices

I’ve been hearing a lot about best practices lately, and came to an interesting realization. I’m from an IT background, so I will focus on that area, but what I have to say can be extended to essentially any professional area.

In IT, there are two kinds of Best Practices: those that apply to how we operate, and those that apply to our code. When I hear the term Best Practice, I tend to think of a new coding standard, or a particular step in our development life cycle, such as how we do peer code review. I’ve worked on writing some of these practices, and I agree that they are needed. However, there is something missing.

When you have a best practice, be it process-oriented, or task-oriented, make sure your customers know the practice. If your testing process includes 4 levels of testing, advertise it! If you use the Super Special Coding Standards, advertise it (and include a link so that your customers can find out more about that standard)!

While I’ve heard much about Best Practices at work, I only hear about them internally. As a consumer, I cannot remember the last time I saw a company advertise its Best Practices. As a supplier of a a product or service, you choose to use some practices because of some benefit you think it will have, whether it be improving the quality of your product, or make it simply easier to maintain, or some other reason. However, if you tell your customers what you are doing, what standards you use, they can appreciate the effort you are putting forward for them. Why are you wasting an easy opportunity to brag about your high-quality product?

Why I would pay when there's a free alternative

A friend of mine posted yesterday on How to Compete With Free. I would like to address the same topic, but from the perspective of a consumer, as opposed to the perspective of a distributor. After all, to understand how to distribute, you need to first understand how the consumer thinks.

When I look at options for a service or product, I will start with the free options. However, I tend to approach it with a cynical twist, that is, you get what you pay for. So my first reviews are looking for flaws, trying to figure out what the catch is, and why it’s free. Once I have determined that the free alternatives won’t work, I move up the price line, until I find a solution that will work.

What this means is that if you are trying to get me to use your product, and to pay for your service, you have to meet one of two criteria:

  1. Your product is free, and does what I need
  2. Your product is cheap, and does what I need and there are no free alternatives.

Unfortunately, both these models mean you won’t make very much money from me. However, you can take this approach, and apply Craig’s List approach from Jeremy’s article, in which you start charging more for the advanced features.

Like many people I know, once I start using your system, I will continue to use your system if it can meet my needs, even if it costs more than an alternative. Of course, eventually you will hit an upper limit, where if you charge too much for the product or service, I will go elsewhere. That’s why you work with marketing people to figure out what that number is. But if you design your sales model based on giving away or charging a minimal amount for a product that does most of what most users want, and then charge extra to use the advanced features, you will be able to compete with the free alternatives. After all, your product is mostly free too.


I’ve just come back from a networking event, the first formal such event I’ve ever attended. I drove out through unplowed roads, which made a 20 minute drive take closer to 60 minutes. I wasn’t the only one, however, as about 60 people attended, although some did arrive late.

I had been briefed as to what format these events tend to follow, and so I had my “elevator speech” prepared, a small infomercial rehearsed, and plenty of business cards to hand out. I wasn’t coming to buy anything, but neither was I coming to sell. I was there to meet people, make connections, and hopefully, in a while, once we’ve established some sort of relationship, exchange contracts and clients.

When I arrived, I was given a card with 3 numbers on it. I picked up a cup of coffee and headed over to the table with the appropriate number on it. There was no one sitting there, but then again, I was still about 20 minutes early. A few minutes later, a couple other people sat down at my table, and we started chatting about our work. The formal program had not yet begun, and I was connecting to 2 other people already.

The program kicked off with the room almost filled (10 tables with 6 seats at each) with an introduction by the chair of the Jewish Chamber of Commerce Toronto, Daniel Sonshine, about the purpose of the event, and a small tribute to UJA, with which the Jewish Chamber of Commerce is affiliated. Sarah Lambersky picked up the introduction with our instructions: each person would have 2 minutes to introduce themselves to their table. At the end of 12 minutes, everyone would get up, move to their next table, and we would repeat, and then again for a third table.

In my preparations for this event, I read that before you trade business cards, have a reason to trade. Apparently, I was the only one in the room to have read that advice, because before I could blink, I had 5 business cards sitting in front of me. Oh well, I guess I’ll hand out mine, and hope that people don’t just toss it in the recycling.

The event went well, with my meeting 13 other people during the round table portion of the event (2 people were at my table twice). But in my opinion, the best part of the event started when we stopped the round table, and began to mingle.

First, I went over to someone who had introduced herself to me at the table as a graphic artist. I got her website so that I could see a sample of her work, and will be forwarding her contact information to a few people I know who might be hiring. I then ran into someone I had seen around, and found out what he does. Turns out, he has a need for custom software from time to time, but he usually outsources it to India. He knows one of my current clients fairly well, and is going to be in touch with them for a referral. I then met another IT consultant, who focuses on web design and search engine optimization, which was another card to go into the special to follow up on pocket.

Another person came up to me, looking to strike conversation. He’s in sales, marketing advertising space in a trade magazine. While I don’t think the two of us had much in common, although we did chat for a while, he introduced me to someone he had met earlier in the evening, who has connections to a large number of small and medium sized businesses. I chatted with David for a while, though, and gave him some tips on improving his introduction, as he had mentioned that some people got confused as to what he does. I also gave him the title of the book I had been reading on networking, Make Your Contacts Count, as it may help him with future events.

At the end of the evening, I left with about 20 cards, due to the desire on the part of most participants to hand out as many as possible. Of those, about half will likely end up in the recycling, but 10 contacts for 2 hours of effort is a pretty good return on my time, as long as I remember to follow up on them, which is my task for the next few days.