Last updated 15 November 2022
Not long ago, I met up with three old university friends who are all employed by (or have been employed by) large public-sector organisations. Their work environments (the support and demands of a corporate structure; the necessity of wearing shoes with rigid soles) couldn’t be more different from mine (the freedom to improve or damage my business unchecked by rules set by others; an office six metres from my bed). Yet I always learn things from our work-related chats, whether in the form of direct tips to apply to my business or reflections that give me an altered viewpoint on how I exist as a small business owner. I’d like to share two of those reflections with you.
Next to fees, feedback is the most valuable commodity we get from our clients
Whether through direct reporting, receipt of career mentoring, performance evaluations or 360-degree reviews, my employed friends receive a vast amount more feedback on their work than I do as a self-employed person. And that makes me a bit jealous because, for me as a small business owner, feedback on the service I provide is a vital determinant of how well I am able to respond to what my clients want. Receiving feedback – and reacting to it well – is therefore crucial to the success of my business.
Realising how precious a commodity feedback is can help us to react positively when we receive it – whether it’s good or bad. When you’ve done everything right and the client is falling over themselves to say so, taking a bit of time to bask in your own brilliance is perfectly justified (after all, when you’re self-employed, nobody is going to do it for you). But, once you’ve basked to an appropriate degree, reflect on why the project went well. Did you have a particularly good working relationship with the author or client and, if so, how can you work on fostering such relationships with your other contacts? Did you use a new process or piece of software and, if so, how can you use it to benefit your other clients? Did you come up with a brilliant solution to a problem and, if so, how can you use it in other projects or avoid the difficulty ever happening again?
Likewise, we all sometimes get the sinking feeling that comes from learning that a client is less than thrilled with our work. Whether they are actually complaining or just unenthusiastically satisfied, this is a cue to think about what you could do differently. How can you eliminate the possibility of repeating any mistakes or misunderstandings? Or, if everything went smoothly but your client gives the impression of being distinctly underwhelmed, what can you do to wow them in future and thus make them more likely to return to you?
Many, many publishers and clients won’t bother giving feedback and will simply move on to someone else if they’re unhappy with your work. If you’re lucky enough to have someone take the time to tell you why they’re unhappy with your service, embrace that feedback with open arms and squeeze every last bit of value out of it. It’s a cliché but, when your livelihood is at stake, such feedback truly is a gift – which is why I keep records of mine and include many examples on my website.
For the self-employed, fragility can be inspiring
Don’t get me wrong: workers’ rights and employment laws are excellent and necessary things. However, when I chose to become self-employed, I left all of those protections behind me. As a consequence, I probably view my situation as a worker rather differently from how an employed person views theirs. Essentially, my position in relation to each of my clients is much more fragile.
A major difference is that a client can ‘sack’ me at a moment’s notice (as long as we’re not in the middle of a specific contracted project). Heck, I can be sacked without my clients even telling me I’ve been sacked. All they have to do is not give me more work. This might not even be because I’ve done something wrong – the client might have undergone internal restructuring that means my services are no longer required, or they might simply have found someone else who’s a stunningly good match for their needs. They have absolutely zero legal responsibility to tell me if this happens, or even to remember I exist.
On the face of it, this can be terrifying, and of course it’s why most self-employed people have more than one client (in case one of them suddenly sails off into the sunset). But I would so much rather live and work in this way, as it makes me utterly accountable for how I run my business. Because I can be sacked at a moment’s notice, I can never be complacent. It’s my responsibility to make sure my business works well but (on the upside) it’s my responsibility to make sure my business runs well (yes, I did mean to repeat myself there). Nobody is going to pick up the slack, and personally I find that invigorating and inspiring.
The feedback–fragility connection
I’ve used the word ‘commodity’ in this post deliberately, as I firmly believe that feedback is a monetisable quantity for a small business. Whether you’re taking steps to ensure you sustain activities your clients have praised or are working on eliminating practices that weren’t so helpful, how you respond to feedback will have a direct effect on your future earnings and your client retention – and, thus, allow you to embrace and enjoy the fragility of your business rather than fearing it.
Wishing you an invigorating and enriching 2017!