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3 Steps to Find Your Edge

My son and I watched a baseball playoff game the other night. The announcer remarked on the control displayed by the experienced pitcher working on the mound. Down in the count, the seasoned pro relaxed and even took the edge off his pitch, grounding himself in his capabilities and throwing the ball with confidence. The commentator noted that when young pitchers find themselves in a pickle, they tend to throw harder and then, even harder, letting frustration cloud their focus as their pitches become ever more wild.

How are you responding to today’s tough market? With experience and confidence? Or with frustration and anxiety, pursuing nearly any opportunity, regardless of the project criteria or your firms’ potential to be victorious?

As markets thin and become more competitive, fundamentals are crucial. To move forward successfully, you must tap your inner Socrates and “know thyself.” It’s imperative that you and your team are clear on your brand’s strengths in order to leverage and even exploit them. Understand who you are and make strategic decisions from a place of knowing. Remove random. Target.

Sound impossible? It’s not. Even in a tight market where the competition is fierce, your firm has an edge. The key is knowing where it is and how to sharpen it.

So, what is your edge?

Oh, you’re not sure…I see. Well, there are ways to sleuth the answer. I mean, clearly your firm has an edge with some clients, right? You’ve competed for and won enough work to confirm that you offer “something,” and I would suggest something special.

Here are three clear steps to mine your current resources and discover for yourself – and for your future – what differentiates your firm, why you win projects and even why, sometimes, you don’t.

1. Look in the Mirror and ask everyone on staff to join you. What do you see?Does everyone see the same thing? What are your Strengths and potential Weaknesses? Honesty and specificity bring value to this exercise, so don’t waste your time with simple platitudes and slogans. Dig deeply.

Now, look out the window at the external environment. Try to see beyond the wreckage that may populate your immediate market view and discern what may be verging on the horizon. Can you identify specific Opportunities? What about Threats?

Yes, this is a SWOT exercise (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), an intensely worthwhile strategic conversation to have with employees and stakeholders well beyond the C Suite. It’s an exploration and a reality check, as well as a fantastic team builder that begins to move your organization in one direction. While engendering a sense of ownership among all team members, a SWOT activity also avails a wealth of creativity to your strategy process.

While you’re all together, order some lunch and take time to glance into the crystal ball. Ask your people to imagine where the firm might go, what success looks like and how you might get there.   

2. Survey the Marketplace by putting your competitors under a scope to see of what they are made. How do they present themselves? What does their brand say? Conducting a Competitive Landscape Assessment gives you a lay of the land, a map showing both hills and valleys to help you discover the path of least resistance to your success.

Of course, include your own firm in this assessment to discern how you stack up, what differentiates you from your competitors and how you might stand out from the pack. Competitors are a reality, we all have them. Being conscious of the differences between your firm and the competition brings strategic perspective and will help when answering tough questions like, “Should we pursue this opportunity?” and “What does the client need from a firm like ours to be successful with this project”

3. Ask Clients What They Think – of YOU. How do they make selections? Where do they get information to qualify potential vendors? What are their needs? Notice that all of these questions turn the table to focus on the client, the decision maker, the one who can make or break your business goals and select to work with you…or someone else. I hate to say it, but most firms are completely self-absorbed, vainly looking at themselves, their capabilities and their portfolio. It’s important to look at your profile, absolutely, but change the lens to view yourself through the eyes of your best and most desirable clients.

It’s also helpful to ask clients what they think of your firm,  reaching beyond “You’re great!” to discover why you’re great, what positive qualities they associate with you, how you could improve your product or service and who do they identify as your top competitors.

Company leaders often feel they know the answers to these questions and, sometimes, they do. While conducting client surveys and interviews can offer eye-popping surprises, more often they provide a fresh angle on an existing perspective, a clearer path for a new direction and a significant boost in confidence as you make your next move.

Why is this important? Because outcomes from a client survey take the guessing out of the game. Talk to your clients and you finally KNOW. Be brave. It takes some guts to ask for their opinion, but the perspective? Well, it’s priceless.

These three steps really do add up. Synthesized, they become an equation for success, empowering you to eliminate minuses and highlight pluses. Square the remainder of the equation and you’re at the root of your most powerful brand position. It’s as simple as 1, 2, 3.

 

Looking to accomplish any of these steps? Contact me, I can help.

Looking for the New Economy?

Are you a creator, empathizer and meaning maker? Every industry has a few of these types – right-brain dominant thinkers – with some sectors heavily influenced by them. Left brain-dominant thinkers emphasize sequence, logic, and analysis and are also commonly found in most fields, albeit at varying degrees.

Left-brainers that have served as the driving force in the recent decades known as the Information Age. According to author Daniel Pink, a new era he calls the “Conceptual Age” is dawning, one that prizes the right-brain aptitudes of artists, inventors, caregivers and storytellers.

Pink’s 2005 book, A Whole New Mind: Why the Right Brain will Rule the Future is a worthy read for anyone looking to the future and, possibly, to re-tool their company or career. With so much anxiety in the financial world, Pink’s well-researched thesis that significant economic shifts are redefining value in favor of right-brain directed abilities such as inventiveness and empathy are a comfort to creatives in any industry.

Pink asserts that three major forces are propelling this shift:

~ material abundance has deepened the desire for the non-material: meaning, beauty, and spirituality

~ global outsourcing of highly specialized, white-collar jobs

~ advancements in technology and automation that have eliminated certain types of work

 

In whatever Age, we all employ both left and right brain aptitudes, however Pink contends that right-brain sensibilities will become the key differentiators in the new Conceptual Age. He outlines six, right brain “senses” that, coupled with left brain reasoning, will help to develop the “whole new mind” the future demands.

Design – moving beyond the functional emphasis of the Information Age, design values qualitative characteristics of a product, service or experience such as beauty, whimsy, and emotion. How can emotionality and design further your marketing efforts?

Story – it is no longer sufficient to tap data to defend a point. Story leverages persuasion and communication to develop a compelling and influential narrative. Products and services are humanized with stories of how real people might solve problems and realize dreams, like with the successful ad series “Mastercard…priceless.”

Symphony – As highly specialized, white collar jobs are outsourced globally, desirable workers of the future will be able to synthesize disparate elements into a new concept of “whole,” an integrative quality Pink names symphony. Symphony involves big picture thinking, crossing boundaries, and combining diverse pieces into something new. The onslaught of social media channels epitomizes symphonic thinking, engaging boundary-crossing strategies to reach target audiences.

Empathy - pervasive information and complex analytics have outdated simple logic. Moving forward, success will belong to those with empathy, those who can understand and care for others, as well as create and nurture relationships. Understanding true client needs is paramount in the Conceptual Age, involving client surveys and interviews, as well as in-depth interpersonal discussions to inform product development and market strategy.

Play – you’ve heard it, “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy” and, in the Conceptual Age, it is true. Pink sites numerous instances that demonstrate good ideas come from happy people and that play is integral to our health and well-being. Can play and wit be an element of your marketing effort? Blogging, Twitter and other social media channels can serve a valuable role in sharing the people and personalities that serve your clients.

Meaning –  widespread abundance has freed millions of people of mundane struggles and allowed their attentions to turn to more significant aspirations: meaning, purpose and spirituality. Increasingly, successful corporate marketing efforts benefit and involve non-profits, engaging community groups and extending professional services to those in need.

What do you think of Pink’s Conceptual Age? How will you work with these six senses to succeed in the future? And what about your marketing plans…?

 

Doing as I Say

“It pays to establish objectives for your blog,” I told my client. “Then, outline a structure – three to five broad topic areas that your target audience is interested in. Brainstorm 10 or 15 post ideas for each topic and – BANG! – you have removed much of the anxiety that will keep you from posting consistently and instilled confidence that your posts are ‘on target’ for your audience.”

Smart. Really, sometimes I amaze myself.

The humbling moment came shortly after this client meeting, when I reviewed my own blog (this one!) and realized that 1) it lacked consistency 2) the focus was vague and 3) I had anxiety about what to write that was keeping me from writing at all.

It’s the tale of the tailor with holes in the elbows of his jacket. I am an experienced marketer that isn’t taking my own advice. While I had established objectives for the blog (and told you about them), I had not taken the time to structure topic outlines that would help my creative mind generate post ideas. The outcome? I’m not posting consistently.

This old dog learns a valuable new trick - Listen to Thyself

This week, I’ve reviewed my blog, as well as notes from various client meetings, and outlined four topic areas that respond to questions I’ve encountered from colleagues and clients. These are now the focus of this blog:

Marki-Speak  – As in any profession, there are terms and terminology unique to marketing that many find baffling (even if they sound cool). These terms drive me crazy, mostly because no one seems sure of exactly what they mean. Vital to effective communications is clarity and understanding. Marki-Speak will decode, define, and discuss key marketing phrases using laymen’s terms and solid examples, not more fancy lingo. Here’s a few ideas:

  • SEO/SEM
  • Value Proposition
  • VOC
  • Networking
  • Niche
  • Blog
  • Content vs. Copywriting

True Stories – Ideas are exciting and there is a lot of marketing advice available that is largely theoretical. However, I learn best by example – I want to see how things are actually accomplished, not just how they could be realized. True Stories will feature client case studies, campaign examples, blog and website strategies, and “lessons learned” to help guide and inspire your own marketing efforts.

Going Social – There are a bundle of new communication channels out there and, it seems, more are launched every day. While this is all very exciting, it can be scary too. Going Social will discuss the “what,” “how,” and “why” of various social media channels, including new tools and cross-platform tactics to help you leverage your time efficiently.

M101 – Balancing out the plethora of new communication bells and whistles are the tried and true fundamentals of good strategy and marketing. I am not belittling my profession when I say that sound marketing is not brain surgery or rocket science. The reality is that it doesn’t require an MBA in Marketing to understand your client, develop a focused communication strategy for a target audience, or market yourself consistently and creatively. M101 will focus on strategy and marketing essentials that are at the heart of every successful company.

Finally, I will be posting more consistently and will send an email notice with each new post. I won’t pop into your inbox more than once per week (unless something super exciting comes up!) so, please, stay tuned. I am committed to providing valuable, usable marketing information.

In fact, CHIME IN! Do the topics I’ve outlined interest you? Are there others you would suggest? Please share your marketing questions, thoughts, and curiosities in the comments section below or shoot me an email – I’d love to hear from you.

image: Marcelo Barboza

Three Reasons Firms Avoid Client Feedback

Real-time client feedback is priceless. Any arguments with this? I doubt it.

We all know that getting a debrief following a proposal loss is a good idea. Likewise, we understand that it is also a good practice to interview clients when a project is awarded. Getting answers to questions like these are critical: Are there specific reasons we were (or were not) awarded this project? What do you feel was the top advantage the winning firm (or we) had over our firm (or our competitors)? Did you learn something about our firm through this process that you didn’t know before? Did this help or hinder our selection?

Win or lose, client dialogue is important as it not only allows you to garner the client’s perspective of your firm, but also your competitors. This type of information inevitably helps to improve your win ratio for the next competitive proposal process with this client, or any other.

So, why do some firm’s avoid these important conversations?

They assume they know why they lost or another firm won. Principals are especially guilty of this behavior because, well, their experienced. It’s likely that they know the individuals at the competing firms, including their work and their personalities, and make assumptions based on this knowledge. Assumptions, however, are never a good idea. Why? Because they presume  things are static, that the competition is not evolving or changing and that the client is likewise invariable. This, of course, is ridiculous!

If you are to approach any competitive environment with a hope of victory, the only thing to assume is that nothing can be. Circumstances are always changing, as are skills, staffing, motivations and objectives. Winning firms continually gather information on the competitive market place and the client situation and analyze this to best position themselves. A debrief is integral to this process.

They are afraid of hearing bad things. This one is tough because many people refuse to even acknowledge that they are afraid, making it nearly impossible to overcome. Remind yourself that asking what went wrong is the definitive indicator of sincere interest in the client’s needs. Ultimately, making this difficult contact says, “We are interested in your opinion, in understanding how we might improve our relationship and in doing business with you in the future.” Conversely, not following up could indicate indifference, lack of interest or even utter disregard.

  • Step one: Recognize your fear.
  • Step two: Acknowledge that you may not want to make this contact, but that you can.
  • Step three: Prepare, it eases anxiety. Create a list of questions and take time to imagine different scenarios for the conversation, as well as how you might handle each.
  • Step four: Understand that it may not be what your firm did wrong, but what another firm did right that made the difference in selection. You may learn a new tactic!
  • Step five: Request a meeting or get them on the phone. Body language and voice inflection can dramatically enhance your understanding.

They are too busy pursuing the next proposal. While it is a significant challenge in these tough economic times, it is imperative to approach each client (note: not project!) with strategy and diligence, not just when there is an RFQ on the table. Pursue work with clients you want to work with and understand that it may take more than a single opportunity or two to garner a selection. Appreciate that the loss of a project could be a step toward winning the next one.

It’s key to remember that, from a client perspective, projects are big risks. The firm selected needs to be talented and capable, as well as professional, reliable and trustworthy. This level of confidence is seldom achieved during a singe RFQ/RFP process, but is earned over a period of time, through multiple interactions both big and small, formal and casual. If you are willing to invest the time, energy and money pursuing work, follow through by spending a few minutes to further the client relationship you’ve initiated. It could begin to build something that leads to your next job.

Are there other reasons firms avoid client debriefs? What are they? Might a third party debrief interview be a good path for your? If so, I can help. Contact me!

 

image courtesy: stock.xchng

Why I’m Blogging (and why I hope you’ll join me)

marketing communications are in the midst of a sea change. no longer is one-way, “billboard” messaging sufficient to successfully position a firm. today’s marketplace demands an integrated approach, leveraging both conventional marketing methodologies and newer, dialogue-based formats.

clients want a voice…and so they should. we need to listen to them.

blogging, like other social media channels, provides for dialogue. I make a statement or posit a theory here, and you – my clients, colleagues and friends – have the opportunity to respond and counter. while I certainly hope to provide provocative and useful perspective, I imagine the comments you contribute will be far more valuable for me, and anyone else listening.

dialogue brings a dynamic new facet to brand communications.

it’s taken me awhile to understand this, and then more time to embrace it. and I’m still learning, gratefully and fervently, as the marketing platform continues to evolve.

with so much hype around social media channels, many people have questions:

  • - are traditional marketing venues a waste of time? (no)
  • - is social media appropriate in all situations? (no)
  • - should social media be considered as part of a comprehensive marketing plan? (yes)
  • - do I have an obligation to use this blog space to provide value? (yes)

I invite you to follow this blog – click the RSS feed or sign up for emails. You can also “like” the Facebook page – the posts will all link there. I won’t inundate you with posts or bother you with details of my lunch, my laundry or my children’s latest accomplishments.

over time, you’ll note that I often ask “why?” I feel strongly that before time is allocated or money spent on any strategic initiative, objectives need to be identified, vetted and thoroughly understood. why would we do it any other way?

so, practicing what I preach, here are my goals for this blog:

  • - engage clients, colleagues and friends in a dialogue about key marketing issues
  • - explore and discuss both traditional and new media approaches
  • - provide thought leadership in strategy development and marketing communications
  • - demonstrate my capabilities, build relationships and secure projects

thanks for stopping by. I look forward to our dialogue.
-linda