Reinventing yourself in the midst of the economic duldroms

Between 2007 and 2008, my company began to experience the economic pressures other companies were undergoing. Consequently, sales slowed down, we lost several co-workers and we had to do more with less. Throughout this downturn, I’ve had enough billable work for my company to keep me. For that, I am extremely grateful, but there were plenty of slow days during this period. It was important, therefore, to reinvent myself frequently and remain productive.

I stayed productive by looking for ways to keep myself employed while things were moving slow. My supervision was minimal, and my leaders counted on me to be a self-starter. They asked me to identify what the company needed next and go after it. To that end, I learned to look to be more aggressive in finding out what we needed next. Then I strategized with my leaders on ways to improve our communication practices, and they were visionary enough to see the possibilities with me.

My goal has always been to make my company more efficient and cost effective in terms of its communication practices. Lately, my approach has been to develop standardized working templates with standardized content. If I can get everyone to use a template with standardized content when communicating with our customers, we can save time and money. The message I’m trying to drive home is that a consistent message will enable us to face clients with greater confidence and spend more time making the sale instead of constantly reinventing the wheel.

Three years ago, my leaders asked me to develop sales collateral and help with their customer responses. As I gained experience, they asked me create marketing collateral for our company’s partners and customers. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for some highly recognizable clients, and have gained valuable knowledge about several classes of sales assets. As a result, I came back to my company each time with more ideas about improving our own message.

I also had time to step back and consider some of our weaknesses. I saw, for example, that we rewrote our company information every time we created a response to a request for information. Very little was the same from one response to the next, and this chaotic practice led to many headaches.

Consequently, I’ve identified opportunities for improvement along two fronts. One front involves our sales collateral. We needed several types of customer-facing and internal-facing sales assets. The other front involves the way we respond to our customers. We needed a template that would encourage consistent, structured writing and the reuse of existing information wherever possible. In both cases, we needed to document our processes to identify the industry’s best practices and develop repeatable practices based on them.

For our sales assets, I’ve identified the following opportunities based on templates that some of my colleagues designed for a large client:

  • Solution briefs (customer facing)
  • Customer presentation (customer facing)
  • White papers (customer facing)
  • Case studies (customer facing)
  • Battlecards (internal facing)
  • Competitive positioning briefs (internal facing)
  • Sales presentations (internal facing)
  • Podcasts (customer facing and internal facing)

The audience for customer-facing assets is our clients, and their purpose is to move clients toward a commitment. The audience for the internal-facing assets is our own sales force and our partners. The purpose of these assets is to equip our sales personnel a standardized message and ideas for handling a variety of competitive challenges.

For our responses, I worked with our Strategic Sales Support team to identify the steps of our response process and the parties involved. From the knowledge I gathered, I documented our response process. After that, I worked with them to develop a template. The next step is to create an online help system for using the template effectively. We designed the template to take advantage of several native paragraph styles in Microsoft Word, but had to create a few unique styles to accommodate client requests.

Last year, a larger corporation based in Europe bought our parent company, and we’re in the midst of an extensive rebranding effort that has brought the need for additional changes. As a result, we’ll be working on several other types of communication in the future. Our company has merged with three other companies and we want to project a new image that communicates the right message.

One could look at a merger and acquisition (M&A) as a sign of trouble, but I don’t see it that way. This is my opportunity to help our rebranded company to identify and implement sound documentation practices while they’re trying to figure out what their message will be. I’m also excited about showing our new parent company what we’ve done to document our processes and develop a cost-effective communication model.

Right now, we still have a long way to go with enterprise content management, but we have made progress. With Microsoft SharePoint, I’ve learned how to build document libraries, use version control and build metadata into our files. In addition, I’ve developed task lists in SharePoint that will support agile documentation with the scrum management method. I’ve also developed and tested a SharePoint single-sourcing strategy based on Ann Rockley’s enterprise content management philosophy.

I haven’t done anything like implementing Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) or Extensible Markup Language (XML), but I have used Microsoft Office and SharePoint to emulate many of the more expensive content management systems. For example, SharePoint can automate our documentation workflow and notification to fit our documentation models. I’ve documented my approach extensively in separate articles and presentations.

The beauty of this system is that we are building it on IT investments the company has already made. One of the best ways to get IT support is to design your solutions around existing hardware and software investments. The same principle applies to winning buy-in from your leadership. To the greatest extent possible, design your solution around standard, company assets. Remember the maxim: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

How do I reinvent myself?

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Jacksonville, Florida is a microcosm of a world that’s changing around us. Empty buildings stand as ghostly reminders of a busy past. In a few cases, these structures were built as far back as the dawn of the 20th Century. For years, they’ve stood as hollow shells of businesses that once bustled with activity and life. A few years ago, I looked inside one of these architectural relics and the only thing I saw was a nest of pigeons. In other cases, however, businesses recently closed due to the latest recession.

One cause of our economic misery is technological innovation. Automation has enabled companies to cut down tremendous amounts of backlog while significantly reducing overhead. Of course, that means they laid off workers by the thousands never to rehire them. As with all things, technology is a two-edged sword. We can either let it hack us to death, or we can wield it to carve new roles and groundbreaking opportunities for ourselves.

Today, I’ll discuss two opportunities. One of them is self publication. This opportunity doesn’t just apply to writing books. It applies to almost any creative or technical thing you do. It is no longer necessary to submit your work to a publisher. This is one of many ways the Internet and digitization have leveled the playing field. Seem too simple? Lots of people are doing it.

For example, people are publishing music on their own and keeping the profits. They’re also writing every genre of literature, and adding to their bottom line. A lot of it is drivel, but that’s not a new development. Moreover, it represents an additional opportunity for freelance editors and writing consultants to assist with tools that make them more productive and profitable.

Similarly, it’s getting easier to program applications. In fact, it’s so much easier that it’s quickly becoming accessible to the public with inexpensive tools. This used to be the exclusive domain of highly trained specialists. No longer! All you need is the idea, and these tools will do most of the work for you. In a few more years, we’ll see many more tools that will transform our ideas into profitable applications without hiring teams of developers.

On the other hand, developers can enhance their careers by transforming their knowledge, skills and experience into marketable services. For example, they can become consultants for those who need quick advice in developing their ground-breaking applications and businesses or they can create code for specialized functions not covered by the standard functions of these new applications.

Progress is unavoidable, but you don’t have to let it destroy your future. As long as you can imagine the possibilities, you can reinvent yourself in a multitude of ways. As I look at those empty buildings in Jacksonville, I don’t see rubble. I see new opportunities to rejuvenate and transform them into future hubs of innovation. That’s what I hope you’ll see as a result of reading this note: an opportunity to reinvent yourself for the future.