On Being Prepared

One of the more important aspects of being a good consultant, or good at any profession, is being prepared for whatever situations you face. As a consultant, I know that the clients I serve are facing big challenges and they rely on me (and the team at Elementive) to help them make the most of their data and get results. I believe I have an obligation to every client I work with to be prepared to answer their questions fully and help them find solutions. The same holds true for speaking or blogging where it is my job to be fully prepared to address my audience and readers with something interesting and meaningful.

Preparing For The Expected

Broadly, there are two categories of stuff to prepare for: what can be expected and that which cannot be expected. Relatively speaking, the easier stuff to prepare for is what can be reasonably expected. If you have an agenda for a meeting, you can prepare the data and talking points for every item in that agenda. If you have are delivering a speech at a conference, you can prepare by getting familiar with your slides and the subject matter being covered. If you are delivering a report or research findings, you can prepare by double-checking the research and ensuring the key items are covered. Examples abound, the point is there are many situations where you can come prepared.

To prepare for these known and expected situations, at Elementive, we spend countless hours—far more than we ever bill for—discussing the client’s situation, looking at it from different angles, pulling all kinds of data and testing different hypotheses. Very little of this prep work leads to something the client actually sees—most of it ends up in folders upon folders of screenshots, Excel files, and notes. What the client eventually sees are carefully prepared reports covering the best, most relevant, most actionable findings and recommendations. All that hard work and iteration means we really are able to help clients find out what is going on with their website and online marketing. Because of this, our clients are able to achieve some great results.

The same approach is true in other areas. There are many blog posts I’ve written that will never be published because they just aren’t good enough. For every blog post written, there are at least twelve sticky notes on my desk full of other ideas. For every YouTube video we’ve published, there are others that have been scrapped. Emails written to clients, especially the longer ones, are carefully drafted and revised with plenty being cut before the send key is hit. The amount of preparation is directly correlated with the amount of trash that ends up on the garbage heap—it is a time-consuming process.

Preparing For The Unexpected

That brings us to the second category: what you can’t expect but still must prepare for anyway. This is really hard stuff to prepare for because you have to take some guesses about the unknown. This usually takes the form of questions. As part of meetings or presentations, I enjoy being asked questions. In many cases, I’m fully prepared because I anticipated that question and was able to think through an answer in advance.

Of course, along with all the questions I expected, there are always surprise questions that I could have never anticipated. I really enjoy these types of questions because they push you to think. Sure, the more I work with clients the better I get at anticipating questions, reducing the surprises. Though, I doubt I will ever eliminate surprise questions entirely as there is always more to know and always a different perspective. Different experiences and perspectives will inevitably lead to a question I could have never thought of on my own.

Even for these unexpected situations, though, you can still prepare. For me, I prepare by reading a ton about everything I can get my hands on that is in some way connected to websites or online marketing. That background knowledge allows me to usually give a client some type of advice on their question or ideas of where to look next. It gives me more ideas and helps me form other types of connections. It also exposes me to different thoughts and perspectives, helping to reduce the amount of the unexpected I’ll ever need to prepare for.

Of course, when all else fails, I’ve also learned that I need to be willing and prepared to say “I don’t know, but let me find out”. This can sometimes be the hardest thing of all to learn how to say.

Too Many Excuses

Unfortunately, there are many people who are simply unprepared and offer up many excuses for why:

You didn’t have the time to prepare. Sorry, but if it really mattered, you’d make the time to prepare despite everything else happening in life. To be sure, there are those last minute requests that come up from clients with seemingly impossible deadlines. But, if you’ve done any work for the client in the past (a.k.a. prep), you should have a solid foundation on which to quickly iterate to fulfill the new request. If you can’t adequately prepare because your calendar is already booked solid, then you owe it to the client to decline that last-minute project.

Technology didn’t cooperate with me. I tend to view this as the modern equivalent of a dog eating your homework. Yes, computers crash and files are lost, but you can use services like Dropbox or Google Drive help you from being too dependent on a single computer. If your phone dies a minute before your conference call, you’d be wise to have more than one phone available. If the screen share fails during a presentation, you need to prepare your talk so that it works with or without visuals. If your mic fails, learn to project to the back row. There are many examples, but to put it simply, the state of your tech doesn’t really matter. All you need to succeed for most things in life is your brain.

I’ve also heard that you just couldn’t prepare enough because your competition was too stiff. What that means is that the bar is set higher. Is it unfair? Perhaps. But if the thing in question is something really important that matters deeply to you, then you need to accept this reality, prepare like crazy and rise to the occasion. If somehow you have taken on a project or a task that requires knowledge of a subject you know little about, then you have an obligation to learn that subject quickly. Surround yourself with people who are experts, YouTube the hec out of the subject, fill your Kindle with every related book, or dig into Wikipedia. With so many resources, many free, available, there is no excuse not to learn something about any subject matter. While you won’t gain expert status overnight, a few hours, days, or weeks or learning can help you get to a spot where you are prepared enough to ask intelligent questions, follow basic patterns, and make a few noteworthy observations. I’ve seen people with barely entry-level skills outshine the supposed expert simply because of how prepared they were.

No Excuses

Ultimately, you have a duty to come prepared for anything that matters to you. There are no excuses. The clients I serve, the blog posts I write, and the presentations I deliver all matter to me. Because of this, I have no choice but to do the hard work of preparing for the expected and the unexpected. I’m far from perfect, but by preparing again and again for each new situation, I get better and can deliver better results. Yes, it leads to late nights and long hours, but if you aren’t willing to do the hard work of preparing, then you shouldn’t take on the project in the first place. If, however, you have taken on a project, you have an obligation to yourself and to the client to be willing to dive in and prepare so that you can really deliver.

Do you want to get prepared for what’s next in your business? Contact me and let’s talk about how you can use data and analytics to prepare for whatever is coming next.