Archives for category: business

Being a supplier means that sometimes it is easy to make assumptions about the people and organisations we work for.

‘Organisation X have the same problems as all the others in that sector’

‘It was the usual thing when the brief came in’

‘They don’t need (what they’ve asked for), they need this thing’

And so on.

Sometimes we all need help to listen more carefully. To not make assumptions, or project our ideas or frustrations on the requests that others are making.

It’s also important for us to recognise what we need, and request it clearly – and politely – from others.

Generally we’re not that bad at this, as a team. But when work is stacking up, it’s easy to relieve the pressure by projecting our frustrations on to the requests we receive. There’s no such thing as a stupid question or a bad brief – we just haven’t yet identified the need behind it.

Frustrated face

A common source of frustration might be a request to close up white space on a web page. When we hear that, it’s easy to think ‘what do they know about design?’. In fact, the client may be under pressure to find space for competing priorities, or to satisfy a perception that less white space equals greater value for money.

Whatever the real need; pausing to consider, and listening attentively to find out the answer, is invaluable.

Easy enough to say this in a few lines on a blog, but more tricky to put in to practice every day.

For that, we’ve been working with Max St John and Wild Things – his alternative business school.

Max has run a workshop for the Helpful team and been visiting our office once a month, to help us apply a form of Non-Violent Communication, which he calls Collaborative Communication, to our work.

It’s early days, but I feel there has been a real difference in how our team copes under pressure. We’re not a consistently serene, happy and forgiving ship, and nor should we ever think we can be – Max is pretty clear on that. But the value in simply recognising when we are getting into a judgement cycle is brilliant. The atmosphere is lightened and we can all have a laugh – recognising that it is us who are wrong in the first instance, and working together to identify the real need behind clients’ requests.

It is now OK for us to get frustrated, openly, but work together to lighten the load and get to the nub of the problem. And that means we’re better able to help our clients too.

If you’re working in a team where blame and frustration are creeping in to projects, then I’d encourage you to get in touch with Max.

photo credit: Untitled via photopin (license)

I’ve always been a morning person. Coffee, breakfast, jump on the bike or on the train, and get going for the day ahead. Partly this is due to the way I was brought up, and partly reflecting the energy of some of the inspiring people I have worked with in the past 15 years.

Since joining Helpful I’m even more of a morning person. I am generally pretty excited about getting on with a to-do list that never seems to get any shorter, but is packed full of interesting and varied work. Mixing the challenges of growing a small business, winning new work and delivering projects (training, web builds and strategic support) seems a pretty perfect mix of activities to me.

It isn’t without challenges though. I’m on a steep learning curve when it comes to project management, having spent five years dealing with work that has either felt very reactive, or extremely drawn out. None of our projects come with the luxury of protracted timescales, or rarely with the immediacy of ‘just get it done’ – clients want to be involved, and make decisions. Honestly: I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In fact, the pipeline of new work has been so full at times that we’ve made some tough choices about only working with clients who want to be involved and learn. Providing endless routine support or maintenance to organisations that don’t really care about their own capability isn’t a business I or any of my colleagues want to be in.

A new job is also a great time to make some tweaks to working habits too. I’m working even less in email than ever before, which is brilliant for me and probably frustrating for everyone else. The Business is GREAT itch finally won and I bought a Brompton. London has opened up for me in a way I never thought possible. I’m a little more fit and much of the aggravation of public transport has gone. And with such a mix of sectors and types of project each day, my reading has changed for the better. I can dip in and out of the echo chambers of old, while freeing up time to find out how digital works in all sorts of other organisations and territories.Scotrail sleeper from a moving window

Crucially, as well as learning a lot, I also feel able to apply lots of experience and put a few old ghosts to rest too. In particular, digital in press office. More on that another time.

Finally, I couldn’t write about my first six months at Helpful without mentioning the sleeper train. We’ve been working in Scotland at various times and used the sleeper to make the most of busy schedules. I am a total convert to the faded glamour and practicality. Rubbery egg and Euston station never seemed so appealing as they do now.

Image courtesy of

This idea has been consuming my thoughts for months: I only want to buy things from real people.

As a consumer, and an employee, these lines from the Cluetrain Manifesto haunt me:

64. We want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.

65. We’re also the workers who make your companies go. We want to talk to customers directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a script.

Simply put: I no longer believe in call centres, anonymous email and corporate social media accounts. I only want to buy, or deal with, people who are passionate about their work.

Looking back on my expenditure for 2014, I can recall seven unsatisfactory online transactions, where systems failed, questions were not answered properly, and I ended up having to make a phone call or email an anonymous account. That’s a total of £3,249 in, at best, tedious and protracted ‘online’ purchases, and a wasted 4.5 hours to boot.

Insurance, pensions and broadband are difficult to buy and totally impersonal (ironic, given their impact on how I lead my life). Coffee, car repairs and bikes are the opposite. I’ve found fun, expert people to sell me these things, on- and offline.

Tell me why I can’t buy pensions, insurance and broadband from fun, expert people, online, and save some time as well?

Maybe I can.

GiffGaff is an obvious example, where an online community can provide advice and help you buy goods and services. Train companies are pretty good too. I had thought car insurance would be a problem, until I found this company. The call centre experience was terrible but fortunately some of their staff are online, openly. It took a bit of digging, because the team’s enthusiasm is largely hidden behind a big ugly phone number:

Adrian Flux staff on Twitter

And they produce this interesting blog, which is far better than any of their corporate social media activity:

Adrian Flux blog

This is just one example, but my experience as a consumer is littered with others.

My patience is running out with organisations pretending they are on social media, while hiding their staff and all that personality and knowledge behind a corporate Twitter profile, or a lame blog.

This is where that niggling idea becomes a plan. I will start 2015 with just one resolution: I will not buy anything from organisations who pretend to use digital channels.

Rules of engagement

  • If I can buy a product online or in a shop, successfully, then I will
  • I definitely won’t buy or deal with an organisation that insists on directing me to a call centre
  • If an online transaction fails, I’ll try to find someone – a real person – elsewhere online, who can help me complete the transaction. If no-one is there that can help, then I move on to another provider.
  • No corporate Twitter accounts, unless tweets are attributed
  • No call centres**

This isn’t a hollow commitment. I have some big and important purchases to make in 2015, including moving my pension, a new mortgage and buying home furnishings. In some ways I am more nervous about the smaller purchases: flights, for example. Let’s hope those online booking systems hold up.

If you’ve read this far, I’d like you to hold me to this resolution and I’ll report back on how easy (or not) this is. I will celebrate those organisations that do it well, and name and shame those that are pretenders to digital.

*With the exception of emergency services