RFPs (Request For Proposal). Why I think they suck.

Today, a friend posted on Facebook that the company he works for is going to put out an RFP for some graphic design work. Timely, because at my new job, we actually answer RFPs, but here’s why I think they suck.

A request for proposal is basically sent out by a company that needs to have some work done. For example, if your company needs a new website, a new logo or a new IT infrastructure, you can send out a request for companies to send you their best proposals.

The upside for the client:

You’ll receive multiple offers from pretty talented people and organizations. You can base your decision on the work that has gone into the proposals you’ve received, combined with the price under the line. Great!

The downside for the client:

When I freelanced, I ignored RFPs, solely because I didn’t have time for them. Crafting a proposal that’s put together well takes time; Time I don’t have because I’m helping people that found me for my talents. I’m not saying I’m the best in my field and everyone should hire me, but I know for a fact that I have designer friends that do exactly the same as I did: ignoring RFPs.

Guess what? You’re missing out on these great people!

The upside for the designer:

You can end up with a great contract and a lasting relationship with the client. This client usually has fairly deep pockets, so you’ll have some freedom when it comes to going over budget in some cases.

The downsides for the designer:

RFPs have gotten super complicated over the years. The bigger the organization of the client, the more (silly) questions they ask for. A lot of them are based on points, so you can’t afford to skip a paragraph.
Writing a proposal takes time. A lot, in some cases. No request is the same and the requirements for the proposal is also always different, which means you can’t just have a template ready and swap out some information. Time = money.

Another one is the usual unrealistic timelines. Clients often set deadlines because they don’t know how long it actually takes to do the job. That means you’re rushing a job that 9 out of 10 times doesn’t need to be rushed. When they seek you out without an RFP, you can educate them before they put out an RFP.

Boards or committees. When a company is sending out an RFP, it’s likely that they think it’s a good idea to put together a committee that’s in charge of the project, which means, you’ll get 7 opinions if there are 7 members on the committee. Make sure you’re in charge of that situation and make the client understand that you’ll need a unified answer, preferably from 1 person.

I mentioned the upside for the designer: A lasting relationship, however, if the client has put out an RFP this time, they’ll likely do it again and the only advantage you have over your competitors is that you have history, but it’s absolutely no guarantee that they’ll continue working with you.

Oh and of course: there’s no guarantee you’ll actually get the job or even hear back from the potential client. Time wasted.

Clients, how can we make it better?

Look, I understand that big companies need a few quotes/proposals before pulling any triggers, but there’s a better way.

  1. Don’t make RFPs complicated. You don’t need to know my family history to receive a great logo. If you keep it simple, you’ll more likely get more response because the threshold isn’t high.
  2. Do your homework. Don’t just whip up an RFP and send it to who-ever wants to reply. Seek out talented designers. Have meetings with them and THEN ask for a proposal. You’ll get your money’s worth.
  3. Don’t base your decision on the number under the line. Services are not products and can not be compared as such.
    1. Pick the one that doesn’t have time for you now. It means they’re busy, which means they have work, which means they do a good job.
    2. Don’t go for the cheapest. These are usually the ones that have something to prove or don’t know what they’re doing. If someone is confident in their work, they’ll make you pay for their talent. You get what you pay for.
  4. Be courteous. The least you can do is shoot an email to the people that replied but didn’t make the cut. If you’re really nice, you’ll actually say WHY they weren’t picked (and “we found someone else with a better proposal” is not helpful).
  5. Don’t be too strict on the end-result. You’re hiring a professional. Let us do OUR job.
  6. Don’t set ridiculous deadlines or at least be willing to be flexible on them. I understand you’re not in our business, so you might not know how long it takes to do our job. Just because you made a promise to your boss, doesn’t mean we have to rush (and compromise) our job.

End rant

I’ve had a gripe with RFPs for a long time and although I’m still new at my new gig, it’s already my least favourite part of the job.

Your turn. Are you a client that sends out RFPs? Are you a designer? Do you agree with me, or am I completely wrong? Drop a comment below.

Reboot your posture!

This may not seem relevant to a lot of you guys, but for me, this is something I’ve been struggling with for years and it’s mainly due to the work I do: bad posture.

My job is sitting at a desk for about 8-10 hours a day. When I started my record store, I started walking around more, so that helped, but I still couldn’t shake my hunched back.

I’ve tried a lot. Massages, Chiropractors and standing desks. Even the ol’ wives tale: “put a stick behind your back and hang your arms over it”. Every little bit helped, but nothing as much as these 3 simple exercises.

I Googled “posture correction” and came across the following video with 3 simple exercises that I thought looked pretty silly to actually be effective, but my back hurt and I took whatever advice was available.

  • Step 1: Put your back against a wall. Push your head against the wall and tuck in your chin (important!)
  • Step 2: Move your arms up and down to a 45-degree angle, like you’re “flapping your wings” (I know, right?). Do this 10 times.
  • Step 3: Cover your ears with the palms of your hands and point them back down to a 45-degree angle. Do this 10 times.
  • Step 4: Pretend you’re climbing a rope ladder with just your arms. Use all the muscles you’d normally use to do so. Climb 10 steps.
  • Step 5: Repeat step 1 to 4, 3 times. Repeat all of this twice a day.

The whole process takes less than 3 to 5 minutes.

What I’ve found is that first off, it felt like a workout the first few times I did it as if I was lifting weights. It immediately helped me stand up straighter. Of course, I started slouching later in the day, but I simply reset that by doing the exercises again.

Why am I writing this? Because I know a lot of people with bad posture. If they read this, I hope they take my advice and check out the video and at least try the exercises for a couple of days.

Customer service 101

Whether you’re selling products online or services door-to-door, the #1 concern for your customers is: how is your customer service. How do you handle a situation when a customer has a question or an issue with a product they bought from you?
If your answer to that is “we have great customer service”, you’re doing it wrong. Every company will tell you they have that.

Here’s a little secret:

It’s not about customer service. It’s about customer experience.

Recently, I had some trouble with a WordPress theme and here’s a good example of how NOT to do it.
I sent an email to customer support about the issue I was having. This was the reply:

email1

Keep in mind that my email signature states that I run a web design company.
After responding that the option I was looking for was no longer there, I get this:

email2

Web designer, remember? Don’t you think I would’ve clicked that already?

Not only is the extremely short reply insulting, it’s also not very helpful. That on top of waiting for 10 hours for a reply like this made me choose not to upgrade the theme to the premium version and overall, it felt like a bad customer experience overall. I figured it out on my own, but it would’ve taken a lot of frustration out of the equation if I would’ve received a quick, useful reply in the first place.
I understand that if you’re on the other side of the world, you need to sleep, but at least make damn sure you’re helping people when you’re awake.

I hear you think: “Oh, you’re using a free version. You can’t expect much service for that”. You’re wrong. I was willing to upgrade to the premium version of this theme, but I’m not going to pay for something that comes with this level of service.

Some examples of great customer service

This actually happened today. We’re building a Shopify store for one of our clients, and we’re using a recurring billing app called ReCharge.
This morning, I ran into an issue where I had to import 85 products into the ReCharge database. Their dashboard isn’t built for this and you’re supposed to add every product manually, one by one. For most stores, this is not a problem, but I wasn’t going to waste my client’s time doing this manually.

I sent an email to ReCharge support about the situation, and I got this as a reply, within 10 minutes:

email3

  • Friendly 
  • Helpful (they offered to do it for me!) 
  • Quick 
  • Asked additional questions to make sure they did it right the first time 

Another example

Canadian mobility provider Koodo. I have been a loyal customer for years, and most of that comes from their excellent customer experience.

A few weeks ago, I had some questions about my tab and how it would be affected if I switched phones. Guess what? I sent an email. This was their reply.

email8

You think the amount of text is overkill? Hell no.

  • Friendly 
  • Helpful (They explained exactly what to do where) 
  • Quick? Well, I had to wait a few hours, but it wasn’t a time pressing matter.
  • Additional, useful information that I didn’t even ask for? 
  • Other options to contact them 

How to do it right?

It doesn’t matter what business you’re in or how you accept customer inquiries, whether it’s via email, chat, phone or social media, there are 5 main elements to a great customer experience:

  1. Your response needs to be reasonably quick.
  2. It needs to be helpful (try to anticipate how a customer would react to whatever you’re about to answer).
  3. It needs to be friendly, for obvious reasons.
  4. Try to provide more information than they ask for.
  5. A sincere thank you, of some kind will go a long way (and I don’t mean the scripted “thank you for calling Company XYZ, how can I help you?” or “Thanks” in your email signature)
  6. (Bonus) Use the IFTTTOT method. “If This Then That Or That”. Answer a query by giving options. “If this happens, try this, and if that doesn’t work, do this”.
    For example, if you run a store and a product is no longer available, you can give the option to either cancel the order for a refund, for a store credit or replace the product with an alternative. This gives the customer 3 options. They’ll feel better than when they hear “Sorry, it’s sold out”.

What can you add? Do you have excellent customer experience with companies? Share them in the comments below.

Your comfort zone. It’s where nothing really happens.

I’ve been stepping out of my comfort zone quite a few times. It’s where things are scary and exciting. Let me tell you about my most recent experience.

As you know, I run a web design company by day and I run an online record store. It’s what I enjoy doing and (I think) something I’m good at. However, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut when you’re doing something for a long time. Sure, my record store is less than a year old, but it has a lot to do with web design, marketing and sales, something my web design company does, so it’s basically the same job, but with different products.

Getting stuck in a rut is one of the worst things that can happen when you’re a business owner. You stop caring about your customers and start focusing on money over joy.

My wife and a few friends work at the only school in town here. One of my friends is a janitor.
When the janitor was planned for surgery, she was going to push herself to get back to work as soon as possible, so that the school wouldn’t have to worry about hiring a replacement, or if they would, she would come back to work to sub-standard cleanliness.
“Maybe we can hire Mark!”. Uh-oh. Me as the janitor at a school? Did I mention it’s an all-French school and I don’t speak French?
Not only is janitorial work not exactly something I went to school for but it’s also a far cry from web design, marketing and sales.
I decided to take the job anyway. One of the reasons was so I could make some extra cash, so my wife could take the summer off. Another was to help out a friend (the janitor) and a third, which I only realized when I was actually working at the school, was to get the hell out of my comfort zone and jump over the rut that was waiting for me.

It shook things up in my head. It pressed me for time in my own business, which made me cram lots of work into the limited time I had. It made me appreciate the web design business and record store again. Not that I ever really lost appreciation, but still. It also boosted my French. I still don’t speak it, simply because I don’t know where to start a sentence, but I’ll be able to understand my daughter better when she rambles complete sentences in French to me.

My friend is back on the job after this weekend, and I’ll be able to catch up on some of the todo-list items that got put aside during the past few weeks.

It’ll be a coffee fuelled week, I’ll tell you that. I believe that if you want to be successful in your business (and personal life!), do good things that you’re not comfortable with. It’ll make you a better business owner and a better person in general.

Connect with site visitors, use live chat

As a business owner, you’re probably always trying to connect with (potential) customers in one way or another. Social media, email newsletters, sometimes even cold calling them. But have you ever considered putting a live chat widget on your website?

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I run a side-business, an online record store called Funky Moose Records. Especially when you’re dealing with end-user customers, having a direct channel to reach you is invaluable.

There are a bunch of ways customers can contact you: Through email, through a phone call or even through social media messaging, but all of those are passive. You’re essentially waiting for people to take action, so you can talk to them.

Email: Great for longer, in-depth conversations, but if your inbox is anything like mine, it can become crowded very quickly, so the response is not always quick.
Phone calls: Getting an immediate response from the store owner is great for customers but in my experience a bit of a hassle. If I promise something over the phone, I better have a system in place to make those promises come true. And if I happen to be on the road, I often request the customer to send me an email. Paper trail.
Social media: Although a lot of people are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, their messaging systems are rather clunky. You’ll always have to be on Facebook to get your messages, which leads to (a lot of) distractions (I just saw that Kylie Jenner scratched her legs on her MET gala dress, OMG!).

It might not be for every business, but for my record store, it’s perfect: Live Chat. I have an instant connection with my customers, I have a paper trail and, best of all, it can be pro-active.

My weapon of choice is Tidio Chat. I’ll give you a few examples of why it’s awesome:

  • It’s pro-active. There are “automation settings”, which allow you to trigger a certain response when people are on your site. For example, if you’ve never been on my site, you’ll get a friendly welcome message. When you reply (and only then!), a chat will open on my computer, and we’re instantly connected. You can do the same for returning visitors (“Welcome back!”).
    Another option is to pop up the chat when people visit a certain page. e.g., when you visit my contact page, a chat will appear asking if I can help you immediately, instead of waiting for an email.
  • You can fine-tune the appearance of the widget on your site, so it looks like it’s actually part of your site.
  • They have an incredible customer support team. They’re in London, UK, and they shut down the chat at 11pm their time (4pm Saskatchewan time), but when they’re there, their response is great!
  • They have apps for mobile devices, so even if you’re on the go, people can still message you, as if you’re texting with them. They also have a Chrome extension, Desktop apps and of course, the browser window.
  • Best of all, it’s FREE to use. They have premium features that are absolutely worth paying for, but it never hurts to try something for free.
    Especially for businesses that have a receptionist/assistant or are at their desk most of the work-day, Live Chat is a great solution.

Contact me if you need any help installing the chat on your site. I’d be glad to help.

Advertising through Google

Every business owner knows the drill. You get a phone call from a company that almost promises you more sales if you advertise with them. After dancing around the final cost by pushing all the benefits first, they get to a number that’s enough to buy a new iPad… every month.
This might be peanuts for a multinational, but for small business owners, that’s a steep hill to climb, and in the end, did you actually get those sales, or did you just throw iPads in a bottomless pit?

What if you can control the cost and reach a bigger, more targeted audience?

Some of you may know, I also run an online record store, so a lot of my advice is coming from my experience building that store.
Selling records is a tough business. Low margins, high shipping costs and very picky customers. So, I had to find a way to advertise on a budget.

Google Adwords
Google Adwords was my first stop in advertising the business. The beauty of Adwords is that you can highly target your audience. You can set who sees your ads by literally creating a circle around your area of business. Then narrow it down to specific searches. For example, my ad only shows up in western Canada, and only for people who search for specific keywords like “vinyl records Canada” or “online record stores”.

In the past 30 days, I received well over 500 visitors on my site with a daily budget of $2.50, which makes a total of $65. Now, you have to understand that all of these 500 visitors are people that are at least interested in collecting records. Those 500 visitors, a few of them bought, grossing over $300. Not bad for a $65 investment.

It’s not all rose petals and moonlit stargazing. I had to go through quite a bit of trial and error before I got to these numbers. That’s why you create multiple ad campaigns, multiple ads and try different targets and keywords to see what works best. Take the best campaign(s) and try to perfect that.

In upcoming posts, I will talk about Facebook advertising and “retargeting” and I’ll be digging into Adwords a little deeper, so keep an eye on this blog.

Contact me if you’d like assistance with getting your ad campaigns set up.