Communication

fundamental foundational focus.

As we start a new year, I’ve found myself going back to the fundamental business development processes that I learned from early mentors.

1) Know your market. Expertise, experience and proven excellence define your niche (and be happy for that). The challenge when opportunities are slim, is chasing after anything that smells like work. Unfortunately, many succumb to fear and waste good energy on bad behavior. Revisit your vision and values and spend time researching clients (and their clients) who align with your strengths. Knowledge trumps unfocused activity every time.

2) Respect your network. Everyone in professional services, regardless of specialty, are in the same boat: fewer projects, more competition, and downward fee pressure. Invest time connecting and reconnecting with those you know, whether they can bring you business (or lead you to business). Learn what they see, share what you know, seek commonalities, consider jointly beneficial strategies.

3) Tell your story. Even with fewer projects, there are still projects to talk about. Leverage the media (“All PR is good PR!”) and share challenges, benefits and proofs with your clients, potential clients, and their clients, and their communities. When times are slow, building your media network is as critical as building your pipeline.

Spend each day researching what’s new, calling old friends, and sharing stories (and get in some billable time too, please… lol!). A few years ago, we were saying “It will be heaven in 2011.” Well, that didn’t exactly pan out. Last year, we were saying “Stay lean until 2013.” That is still good advice. Put your time, effort and money in simple, focused efforts that will pay off in the long run. That’s where your priorities should be.

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the six phases of the creative act.

Creativity is the life blood of the marketing effort. Without skillful ideation, every firm would look like every other firm—the death knell of a brand. Over the years, I’ve written and spoken about the six phases of a project, both seriously and tongue in cheek because an organized process is critical to the successful delivery of high value service.

Similarly, this process approach can be applied to the creating a new message, establishing or sustaining a position in the market, or simply identifying possibilities for new services. This process also is defined in six phases.

1. considering the possibilities
Engage regularly in a freewheeling, no holds barred, no wrong answers, brainstorming, “idea factory” meeting. Set a strategic premise (what is your goal) and then let the creativity begin. Without exception there will be some good, some bad, and some “what if we could…” ideas. Avoid setting implicit or implied limits (e.g., don’t stop at “going global” when you could be “going galactic”), and definitely don’t raise judgments or doubts for anyone’s suggestion. Inspiration and innovation often come from the least likely idea. Don’t be afraid to look outside your normal spheres of influence. Check out the completion; better check out your clients. A marketing message that resonates is driven by benefits and value.

2. freeform associative cognition
Spend some time prioritizing (but don’t throw any ideas away). Focus on three good ideas that meet your strategic goal and expand on them. What is their message? How would they be seen or experienced by the customer? How will they be extended into other aspects of your practice. How are they expressed (i.e., what medium and media)? As in step 1, there are no wrong answers—all ideas are good ideas. Look back at the early ideas (that didn’t move forward) and see if any expand, complement, or improve the ones you are studying.

3. discipline and focus
Pick one! This is the hardest step, since you probably have many good ideas to choose from. Take that “really” good idea and think through all the options to take it from concept to fruition, from inspiration to execution. What resources are needed? What budget? How quickly can you “go to market.” This is the time to set out a plan that moves from the idea forward. Most plans can be developed in just a few hours, no more than a few days, and none should span more than 6 weeks. Setting an aggressive schedule keeps the focus on the goal, and keeps the idea fresh.

4. effecting a solution
This is where the “rubber meets the road!” Buddha said, “An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that only exists as an idea.” However your idea manifests—as a new piece of collateral or e-marketing; a move into new market; or an event or promotional effort—this is the time to follow through by making it visible. This is where the idea is translated into form, where you show it to the world, and where it builds your brand.

5. retrospection
Take a breath. Sleep on it. Don’t worry. And definitely, don’t second guess yourself. Many good (even great) ideas go to market and don’t realize the impact that was hoped for. But conversely, many do make a difference, set a new high water mark for the brand, and become iconic and remain memorable. And many great ideas morph into new, new ideas that take that initial creativity and expand into even greater innovation.

6. happy feet.
Smile. At the end of the day, you’ll have developed a new, new marketing program, built on the six phases of the creative act, and will be ready to go back to number one and start again.

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consistently inconsistent.

One of the key performance indicators of effective leadership is consistency. This does not mean blind adherence to dogma. It does mean that you demonstrate behaviors that your clients, your staff and your supporters can count on. Consistency is a foundation for authenticity and integrity.

Inconsistency undermines trust and is often indicative of deeper seated issues of self esteem and ego-driven disdain and contempt for others—not characteristics of a true and effective leader. While intelligence and personality are often enough to mask these negative traits, and allow individuals to rise to a high level of leadership, it is rarely enough to allow them to sustain that position. Ultimately, that inconsistency results in isolation and vainglorious denial, and the realization of those around them that that there is need for change.

By consistently speaking your truth you build confidence in your staff and your clients. By living with intention, you manifest that truth in the quality and innovation of the services you provide. By acting with humility, you recognize the value of the position and feelings of others. Through consistent effort and mindfulness, you practice the practice of leadership. With discipline and focus, you deliver on the promise of leadership—inspiration and promise, grounded in the present moment. Through retrospection and reflection, you share wisdom and develop the next generation of leaders.

Consistently being consistent is the core competency of building lasting relationships.

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collaborative intelligence.

Each year, the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) stages a major event, their Build Business conference. This building industry-focused conference, features speakers covering topics of advanced marketing and business development techniques, market-sector focused panels, and keynotes from noted thought leaders and authors. Examples of some of the best “award winning” ideas for collateral, communication, and client appreciation are featured at the conference’s black-tie Awards Gala. Details of the programs and speakers can be found at www.buildbusiness.org.

I’ve been attending these annual gatherings of professional service marketing’s leaders and thought leaders since 1989. In over 20 years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing such business greats as Tom Peters and Dan Pink, and meeting thousands of my peers from across the country and from every sector of the building industry. What distinguishes this convention over many other industry events is the quality of the programming and the emphasis on networking, combined with the exuberant enthusiasm and optimism that you will only find in the company of dedicated marketing professionals. “Work hard, play hard” could easily be the subtext of the conference.

At the end of the three days, stimulated by new ideas, invigorated by the collaborative intelligence gained from interacting with professionals focused on growing their business, expanding their market share, and delivering increasingly differentiated service, I return to my firm prepared to “hit the ground running” motivated by new ideas and new connections.

If you’re in the professional service industry, especially if you work in a building-industry related firm, SMPS’ Build Business conference is not to be missed. Attend, learn and share!

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balancing act.

The role of the professional service firm is to provide advisory knowledge to benefit a client’s interests or issues. The challenge each firm faces is balancing their efforts between multiple clients—needed to maintain and grow the practice—and to serve them all with equal energy and focus. The marketer’s role is to help prioritize the identification, pursuit, and acquisition of new clients consistent with the operational abilities of the firm to serve them.

Collaborations between marketing and operational leadership ensures that growth strategies focus on winning new work with clients who’s needs align with the capability of the service firm to excel at providing solutions. In a challenging economy—marked by fewer potential opportunities and increased competition—marketing strategies must focus on building and winning work within the firm’s “sweet spot” and not be lured into wasting energy on low probability pursuits.

At the same time, operational focus must ensure that equal and excellent effort is put forward to meet existing obligations for all current clients, regardless of size or stature. Every client deserves your best. Regardless of size or scope, the result of right practice pays dividends. Referrals and references, kudos and awards, repeat business and extended engagements result from delivering exemplary service to each client, based on their goals and objectives, and your ability to deliver the desired service.

This combination of strategic focus and operational excellence is the hallmark of the successful professional service firm. Those who learn to balance the two can succeed beyond expectation.

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passionate simplicity.

I recently read about the ability for successful professionals to have and excel in multiple areas of “passion”—those areas of learning, practice, and expertise that define us as “professionals.” The author, Gilat Ben-Dor, said, “By passion, I mean nurturing this intense joy and desire around a certain topic. This anchors you. A multi-passionate professional is very well anchored and connected.”

I have to agree. Look around at those successful leaders in your sector of professional practice, and in particular at those engaged in marketing. Rarely will you find a single-dimensional individual, but more likely someone who has multiple interests at which they are either expert, or practicing to become expert. These interests can be both professional and personal. The variety only adds to the mix.

The challenge with strong calling to multiple areas of interest is staying focused on what’s important. The benefit of engaging in rich, multi-faceted experiences is the added perspective it gives to your core competency (that thing we call a “job”), and allows us to do that not to a greater degree of excellence. Our work in our primary area of practice benefits greatly from other skills, experience and training that we put into our other passions.

I think the key is keeping it simple. Focusing in the present moment on the task at hand, while drawing creative energy from all the passionate areas of our life, lets us put forth the right action to deliver the service and solutions that our clients desire, making them passionate about engaging us again (and again!).

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front row on a roller coaster.

One of the marketing challenges of small (and many large) professional service practices is to not fall into the comfort of the “next big win.” Back in the day, having charted my own 25-person firm’s monthly ‘new business’ and I noted a surprising anomaly.

We’d win work, then we’d do the work, then we’d look for more work, win that work, then we’d do that work. And on, and on, and on. At the end of the year, quarter or month (didn’t really matter), our revenue stream looked like a roller coaster ride.

And when times were good, that was OK. But in a challenging economy, relying on the last “big win” is a recipe for disaster. In fact, the strategy necessary to build a truly enduring practice is to embed marketing and business development into every aspect of the practice. Not won and done, but won of many!

This takes a different kind of strategic discipline than most professional service firms (and the technical staff that provide the “service”) have as a core competency. It takes a mindset (maybe a mind shift) that says for every 80% of your “billable” time, there should be 20% dedicated to the firm’s marketing and business development effort. Not a big price to pay, but one that most don’t put as a regimen or a requirement for their staff.

When everyone says, for 8 of every 40 hours (and yes, I know we all put in much more than that; but you can do the math), we contact our current and past “successful” clients (i.e., profitable) and we reach out to new potential clients (who look like them in business practice). We schedule time to talk, time to meet, even (for all you business developers), time to play golf, catch a game, or support their favorite charity (as a volunteer, not just a donor).

This roller coaster phenomenon comes from getting so excited by the recent adrenaline rush of the last ride that we forget we still have a long line to wait in before we get to experience the next one.

As much as I enjoy the adrenaline rush of the front row on the roller coaster, I’d much prefer a steady and consistent ride of a practice that values marketing and business development as a core competency that is as valuable as our technical skills, and the resultant steady and stable revenue graph.

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rocket surgery.

It never ceases to amaze me that marketing professional services is considered “easy” by the technical professionals the marketing and business development team serve, and help promote. After all, successful marketing is only a “two drink minimum” as Scott Adams’ Dilbert once noted. While the technical staff wait patiently for the next project to come in the door, the marketing team is out scouting, fishing and hunting for new work. In the professional service sector, “you can’t do anything until somebody sells something.”

In reality, the processes of market research, planning, collateral and communications, business development and information management (the six key strengths as identified by the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), requires knowledge, experience, and practiced expertise to be successful. It is a time consuming and complex effort to differentiate your practice from your competitors, and to position the firm for the next win.

And while the marketing and business development team’s efforts are usually at the “front end” of the opportunity pursuit cycle, the technical professional plays a vital role as well. As the opportunity moves through the pursuit funnel toward final client decision-making, the ‘pro’ has an important responsibility to help in the process of securing new work.

However, too often, burdened by a history of management expectations to remain “billable,” the professionals have every excuse to not to participate in the qualifications, proposal and interview process that is critical to securing each contract. I know this is a generality, but I’m betting that if I polled 100 marketing directors I would hear the same sad story. Anyone who does marketing, knows how laborious, time constrained, and costly the proposal process can be. However, that is nothing compared to the sales pitch that has to be done, to win the work. There are always excuses.

So how do we overcome this philosophical divide? “It’s a relationship business” is another truism. Take the time to buddy up, take a marketer to lunch (or take an engineer to lunch). Share stories. Bond. Learn to respect each other’s expertise. These economic times mandate that we all pull together to successfully grow our business. And the best way to do that is to value each other’s critical role in the process. It’s not rocket surgery!

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the irony of experience.

We are often faced with the irony that everything we thought was true is wrong. We draw from our experiences—good and bad, informing and humbling, nurturing and demoralizing—and hopefully (after all if we can’t be optimistic, what’s left except cynicism) apply that learning to each new opportunity (and its counter—each new challenge).

Service is based on the quality of the relationship. As we create, build and enhance our practice, we trust that the expertise and the experience we bring to our clients will be seen as valuable. Where we miss the mark is when we believe that our expertise and experience is invaluable.

Realizing that each party brings a unique and self-aware (not necessarily self-centered, but certainly self-centric) view on what the impact and results of our engagement will yield is critical. Ego is the root causal of most client/consultant rifts, especially when we, the consultant, forget the age old wisdom that “the client is always right.”

Forgoing ego is a real challenge. It is far too easy to attach expectation to our own pre-defined image of the outcome. This is not to say there is no power in intention. Short- and long-term goals help us visualize (and realize) our dreams. Getting there remains a step-by-step process of applying our practice to the practice.

Focusing on mutually agreed upon goals, and communicating openly, honestly (and regularly) overcomes questions of intention, performance, or value. The advisors who learn this lesson, provides higher value than those who “know it all” and are convinced of the righteousness of their rightness. We are all infallible.

The best value-based solution usually comes from experience drawn from a mistake, miscalculation, or failure. Those that rise from a misstep to formulate better, more informed counsel will ultimately succeed. There is no obligation to our client relationships beyond that. Isn’t it ironic?

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imagination. intention. innovation.

In a challenging economy for professional services it is often easy to fall into the realm of imagination—flights of fancy designed to ease the worry of a difficult reality with the wish for better times. That’s alright! We all do it under stress. Imagination is a powerful tool for change. However, imagination can also be illusory, causing us to overlook opportunities while waiting for a change that is unrealistic, if not unlikely.

The best course of action is to act with intention—imagining outcomes that are within the skills of your practice and putting in place the strategies and actions that will ensure they are realized. The “vision” process exemplifies this attitude and behavior. By setting in place a cultural understanding of your aspirations, stated in the present tense, sets expectations for an outcome that not only benefits the practice, but does so by benefiting your clients.

A vision that focuses on innovation is a powerful tool to break the status quo with more than “out of the box” thinking—moving instead to “what box?” Eliminating barriers to innovation, supporting new ideas for process and products, can stimulate you and your staff to move beyond what is to what could be. It is only then that your imagination, combined with your fully present intention can create a culture of true innovation for your practice.

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