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10 Things I've Learned After 30 Years in Business

04/01/2015 01:09 EDT | Updated 06/01/2015 05:59 EDT
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Businessman holding stock arrow on salt flats.

When I started my business, my purpose was clear: to leverage my communications skills in order to become wealthy. I learned that unexpected things happen along the way and I needed to live by some non-negotiable beliefs if I was to be happy in my work.

So, three decades later I am still learning. This is where I've learned thus far.

#1: Be clear about what you do and why

Hard work and personal sacrifice to win the approval of others is no substitute for having a purpose in what you do. Your purpose could range from a real passion for helping people realize their financial and life goals to your love of public speaking or writing or even simply making money. Ask yourself every day how your goals will nurture and fulfill you.

#2: Work only with the clients and customers with whom you really want to work

I found it tempting early on to work with just about anyone who had a communications requirement. I reasoned that any business was good business as long as I was paid fairly. I soon learned that personal chemistry between a client and supporting professional is critical. You need not "like" the person but you must respect them. No amount of budget and resulting cash flow can replace the need to be comfortable with a person's ethics or treatment of others. To be sure, conduct a quick 'likeability test." For example, if a prospective client is rude to a server in a restaurant, receptionist or other service provider, I see red flags. And I haven't been wrong yet.

#3: Work on -- versus in -- your business

You created your business to serve you and your clients, not to swallow you up in unrealistic, self-imposed demands on your time that can ruin your health and personal life. Set boundaries for your business as if it was another person or pet with boundless energy. You will become more productive if you work, whenever possible, within consistent limits.

#4: Things I wish I had never said to prospects and clients

"We can arrange a briefing at your convenience -- even though I know we are on a tight deadline." Too conciliatory while putting undue pressure on myself to pull rabbits from a hat.

"I visited your website and think it's very good." The website may have been dreadful but I felt compelled to offer false praise to win the business.

"I have heard negative things about that firm." Even though I meant well by speaking frankly with a client about one of his competitors, I had no idea the competitor's firm was owned by the client's sister-in-law. Reserve judgment or choose your words carefully.

#5: Things I am glad I said to clients

When I was not chosen for a project, I said, "I respect your decision not to work with me on this occasion, and I will look forward to other opportunities to work with you. I wish you success with the new communications firm." Three days later, the client called with another project. He said it was based in part on my professionalism after a competitor was chosen to do the work.

#6: Avoid client politics

The corporate sands can shift like the Sahara landscape overnight. Your favourite client may be in favour one day and be re-assigned (or worse) the next.

Treat everyone as professionals and keep your personal opinions about clients to yourself. Avoid forming personal relationships with clients or favouring one client or team over another. Aim to be equally comfortable with everyone in any situation.

As people move from company to company, you want them to remember you as objective and professional -- and take you with them.

#7: Set realistic business goals

There is nothing wrong with aiming high, but setting unrealistic goals you know will require luck to achieve is a fast way to burn out: Hope is not a viable business strategy. At the start, set goals, reach them, reward yourself and your team and gradually raise the bar as you go. You may experience an unexpected breakthrough catalyst that triggers rapid business gains, and you will consider this a win.

#8: Network effectively -- and selectively

Before accepting an invitation to meet over coffee with a prospect or influencer, discuss an agenda. Find out what they want to discuss -- and if they wish to pitch you or buy from you. Attend conferences and events of any size freely as long as your audience is there and you see five benefits of attending. Set goals before you attend and be strategic about how you spend your valuable time at any meeting or event.

#9: Give credit where credit is due

Always acknowledge the efforts of your client's team (at all levels) in helping to ensure a good result. When you respect others' efforts, they will respect yours even more.

#10: Nurture your banking relationships

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) wrote that, "A banker [...] will lend you an umbrella when the sun shines but wants it back the minute it begins to rain." Bankers provide products and services but they also earn a living by ensuring your business thrives. Your banker can be a valuable source of ideas and encouragement. Many have seen just about everything in business and can flag opportunities and problems well before they show up on your radar.

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