Today’s storefronts and social media platforms make it easy for anyone to hang out a shingle. Whether you’re a quilt maker, graphic designer or marketing consultant, you can build a very professional-looking web presence in a matter of hours. Then, over a relatively short time, build up your credibility as well by tweeting, pinning, or blogging on your topic. But a pretty front end and lots of followers say nothing about your ability to deliver professional work on a timely basis.
An example: My cousin is about to become a Bat Mitzvah. She’s the last of our generation, and everyone wants to pitch in to help. My stepmom offered to take on the task of finding and ordering the invitations, and identified a seller on Etsy who says she has done invitations before. Her Etsy store looks nice, she doesn’t have any negative feedback (among the six feedbacks she has), and her style matches the Bat Mitzvah girl’s quite well.
So customized invitations are ordered, a few weeks pass, and they don’t arrive by the agreed-upon date. My aunt calls the seller and she says “Oh, I’m running a little late.” A few more days pass and some of the invitations arrive. Some, as in, all of the invitations. 2/3 of the envelopes. 1/2 of the reply cards. Oh, and the invitations don’t fit in the envelopes. Frantic phone calls ensue. The seller is absolutely unapologetic. “It’s not my fault the invitations don’t fit in the envelopes,” she says (as if there’s some invitation fairy who could have guaranteed that for her). And she can’t complete the order because she’s at a wedding for the next week.
With some creative engineering on my aunt’s part and a friendly neighborhood printer, the invitations get redone and out the door. But neither my aunt nor stepmom will be rushing back to Etsy any time soon.
The high potential for disconnect between the glossy veneer and the under-the-hood capabilities makes for two dilemmas: How do people who are looking for professional services determine who’s really capable of delivering, and how do those of us who really can deliver differentiate ourselves from those who really can’t?
My answer to those looking to hire is: Look for people who really walk the walk, not just talk the talk. For a professional service person such as a consultant, graphic designer or developer, ask tons of questions. Review their LinkedIn profile (there is absolutely zero excuse for not having a solid LinkedIn profile by now). Get references. Look at prior work. And when you do contract with someone, have — at the very least — an email agreement spelling out the work to be done, the timeframe, and the compensation.
For those of us who have shingles of our own, we have to walk the walk too! If we’re selling blogs as a solution for our clients, we darn well better be blogging. If we’re designing websites – well, I’m sorry, the shoemaker’s children (no time, yadda yadda yadda) analogy doesn’t work for me. We ought to have at least a decent (if not full-bells-and-whistles) website of our own. If we say we’re social media experts – I don’t think it matters if our Klout score is 0 or 100, but I do think it matters that we’ve built up at least a modest Twitter following, tweet regularly (and that our Twitter followers were not obviously bought), that we have a good LinkedIn profile, and that we have presences on at least a few other social media platforms (Facebook, Pinterest, or more). We should also be able to show evidence of our past work.
My personal criteria when I hire social media freelancers (for my own agency) may apply to the hiring of nearly any service provider (marketing, design or other):
- Look for people with client-side or agency experience (and more than just a three-month internship).
- Some corporate experience also indicates that they can play well with others in a professional environment and they have been able to hold to deadlines and meet internal or external client expectations.
- In social media especially, there are a lot of brand-new social media “consultants” out there (young and old) who have never had a professional job and perhaps have never had to write a budget, a contract, a client report or even a meeting agenda. If all they know how to do is tweet – what value are they really bringing to the table? Look at their LinkedIn profile for a progressively upwards series of “real jobs” which indicates that they have skills beyond tweeting.
- Professional writing can be a very good indicator of someone’s professionalism and thoroughness. You’re not looking for the next Hemingway, but you do want to see the person you might hire can spell (and accurately check their spell-check), write in complete sentences, and clearly express their thoughts.
- Don’t settle for looking at the work they’ve done for themselves. Always ask for examples of the paid work they’ve done for others. This is particularly important with designers (they will often show you portfolio pieces which were done on spec or for classes) and social media consultants (who may point to their own Twitter account but not be able to show you a client’s account they’ve managed). Of course, it’s not always easy to confirm that a consultant has done all of the work they say they’ve done for a client, but seeing something is better than nothing.
- Which leads to references. And this is critical. Don’t hire someone unless they can provide, and you can at least verify, if not get a good reference from, a current or former client.
Most importantly, we should all look beyond the pretty coat of paint. Look past the Twitter followers, the sleek and well-organized storefront, the Klout score and the Facebook fans. Dig around. Ask questions. And be an involved client or an involved, reliable, and professional service provider. We all thank you for it.