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What young service providers must learn

Even though I advise people on digital disruption, I am not immune to the phenomenon myself. A writer and business advisor must keep up with changing times; I cannot count on the old ways of consuming business content staying relevant.

And so over the past few years I have been on a personal journey of creating a digital presence and a new range of products and approaches. In this journey I have encountered a wide range of service providers. Most of these vendors share a common characteristic: they are very young businesses, led by very young people.

My observation and experience leads to a sobering conclusion: that there is much for these young Kenyan businesses to learn about service provision. The journey has not always been a happy one; I have burned a lot of money and time trying to work with the wrong people. I have found some gems, of course I have: people who take their work very seriously and deliver to a high standard. But the average experience has been disappointing.

All of these businesses, good and bad, invariably have very fresh and enthusiastic people in them. The energy they exude is palpable and infectious. This is a great thing, contrasting with the ponderous, rigid and downright boring professionals of the past generation. But being lively is not good enough. One must also be serious about standards and about delivery. And too often, the new generation offering digital solutions simply does not take its own work seriously enough.

They will give you a great pitch; offer new insights and fresh angles; and collect your deposit with alacrity. And then…nothing. You will wait and wait for them, long after any agreed deadline has passed; then, after much cajolement and many threats, you will catch first sight of the product – and you will pull your hair out at the horribly shoddy work being passed off to you.

I learnt my lessons slowly and painfully, and understood how to filter out the dross. In the end, it’s been worth it; I now have a set of new products and approaches delivered to a high quality, and some very serious long-term partners. So I thought I should write some advice down this Sunday. If you are a young professional trying to make your mark selling services to businesses, please note these recommendations with care; they may be the making of you.

First, please know that you don’t just hawk a product or service; if you’re selling to a business, you succeed by making your customer’s business succeed. So spend time understanding your customer’s business and its unique pressures. Do your best to craft something that solves a problem or does a job for your customer. You’re selling success, not sweets on the street. Don’t trick your customers; enhance and improve them. Lifetime business relationships spring from this.

Second, don’t take on more work than you can deliver to a high standard. The phenomenon of taking on more business than you can handle is very widespread; it even brings huge corporations down when they expand faster than their finances and their capacity allow. Young businesses must avoid this at all costs. Do good work, every time, and be patient. Let your reputation grow. Say no if you can’t do the work properly. It will pay off in the long term when your reputation for quality is sealed.

Third, don’t hold the day job and the side hustle. This is very common, and I have pretty much never seen it work. The side hustler usually ends up disappointing both the employer and the customer. It is better to go deep; when employed, give your job your fullest attention; when in business, give all your time to your venture. Trying to serve different masters simultaneously just means you stay superficial and shallow on all sides.

Last, communicate properly. Don’t overplay it when selling, and don’t disappear when delivering. Even if your project runs into trouble, don’t hide. Show up and come clean. You may be surprised how many customers respect candid talk, even when they are disappointed by other aspects of your work. If you have truly bitten off more than you can chew, be the one to say so and take a hit. You might still be able to rescue the situation someday.

So there you are: four bits of guidance, offered with the desire to see you raise your game. They’re not theoretical; I have used them in my line of business all my life. I hope they help you. To the few I have found who do things this way, much applause.

(Sunday Nation, 19 February 2017)

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