connecting clients and communities.

One of the best ways to build brand recognition for your professional service is to get involved with your clients’ communities. In any professional service, you will have clients that represent the vertical markets in which you choose to practice. Most in marketing and business development focus on those — finding places and ways to interact, network, and connect. Business and professional associations —from the licensure societies that accredit professionals to B2B associations like local chambers of commerce — are where your clients go to interact with their peers. These meetings provide natural and logical places to network.

Networking — the social aspect of making connections — is important. But to be truly effective the marketer and business developer needs to get involved. Volunteerism, for the benefit of the professional organization, is one of the hallmarks of personal and professional leadership. Making the effort to provide service, support, and resources for the association helps the organization meet its mandate for member benefit. Serving on a committee or task force, stepping up to chair a strategic effort, or being elected to a board of directors, all provide excellent ways to both help and build positive visibility.

However, that volunteer effort, while certainly viable, often overlooks the potential to serve your client’s clients, and by extension, their communities. Serving in your client’s clients associations provides not only the value of the volunteer, but connects you to the core issues facing their markets, organizations, and communities. It has the added benefit of raising your visibility to a level of contributor well beyond that of just your professional service.

Get involved with your clients and your clients’ clients communities! It is a very worthwhile brand building effort.

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passion to print to podium.

One of the challenges of the professional service firm is being seen in the market as an “expert.” One of the hallmarks of the strong brands in professional service is their thought leadership both in print and on stage. How does the marketing professional help the often introverted expert make the leap from personal passion for the ideas around which they practice and the visibility of publication or presentation?

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview marketing expert and author of more than a dozen books, Seth Godin for a cover article for SMPS’ journal, Marketer. Having done several interviews in the past —using a preset list of questions, taking copious notes, and relying on my memory to flush out the article — I called to set up a time for he and I to talk, suggesting I’d need about an hour. Godin called back and suggested I tape our interview, have it transcribed, and then edit the draft conversation into the article.

His comment was, “If I gave you an hour, we’d have another book.” He noted that a typical 30-minute interview, where he spoke — on a topic where he was passionately and intellectually expert — would generate 3,000-4,000 words. As they typical magazine or journal article is 1,000-1,500 words, I would have plenty of raw material to draw from. He was right.

I’ve used that simple method ever since to help take technical staff within my firms, who are reticent about writing for publication, into respected experts, who were then sought after for their expertise by other publications. And, by extension, it gave those same individuals the confidence to present that same content as part of a client-facing industry trade conference.

Use this technique and soon you will have experts visible in your clients eyes, and you brand stronger for the effort.

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facts tell, stories sell.

One of the most impactful business development strategies is storytelling.

However, in this era of ‘big data,’ professional service firms — and particularly their marketers and business developers — rely primarily on facts and statistics to convey their value proposition. There is nothing more scintillating to a client than hearing that a firm is ‘over 100 years old,’ has ‘20 (or more) offices,’ has ‘500 licensed engineers,’ or has constructed ‘more than 1M square feet’ of new buildings in the last 10 years. Oh, and by the way, we are ‘always’ on time and on budget.

Just kidding!

Too often, these mind-numbing, eye-glazing factoids have replaced real narrative about the challenge, the approach, the solution, and the benefits, as ‘proof’ of the ability of the firm to provide real and sustainable value for their clients. Why? Facts are simple to remember and to regurgitate. For the non-technical marketing and business developer, facts are the ‘easy’ answer. Writing value-based narrative is increasingly a lost art. And, again too often, the original storytellers (those involved in the development and delivery of the service) are gone or weren’t asked.

Today, there is such a focus on the structure and the data contained in ‘customer relationship management’ systems as the ‘be all, end all’ resource for ‘knowledge’ that the stories have gotten lost in the database. And, with the rise of visual media (i.e., film and television) and instant, mass communication (i.e., the Internet and all of its resources; combined with the era of instant access of the ‘bring your own device’) has had a noticeable impact on both the narrator and the narrative.

To get back to effective storytelling, communicators, whether marketer or business developer, must engage with the consultants, designers, engineers, and project managers, and the clients, who are involved in each project at the outset. Start a dialogue, document the progress, and create a story worth telling, and hearing. Nothing ‘sells’ like a good story.

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everything changes… get used to it.

Welcome to my first blog posting of 2013. In the past I’ve written about patience and impermanence, but thought it was timely to revisit Buddha, the marketing strategist.

One of the basic precepts of Buddhism teaches that impermanence is reality. Nothing stays the same. Change is constant. When you realize that circumstances — often situations well out of our control — can have a significant and sustained influence on our business, it can help focus our strategic marketing efforts on flexible, adaptable and agile programs. Realize that the same influence of impermanence impacts in equal measure our clients (and our clients’ clients). This, in turn, implies the need to be ever mindful of the social, technologic, economic and political factors surrounding our marketplace.

It is easy to overlook big picture shifts that happen at a glacial pace. The subtle can be much more insidious than the gross. Disruptive changes — whether catastrophic like major weather events or innovative like a new discovery or technology — are far easier to grasp and respond to. When the shift is long in coming, elusive or amorphous it can be harder to make the necessary adjustments. Take the demise of Kodak as an example. Their failure to acknowledge the slow but steady change over the last two decades from film to digital forced their bankruptcy and forever changes the market’s perception of their value.

A second Buddhist precept is acceptance. However change manifests it is critical to not react by “hunkering down” and hoping (more often praying) that this will all be back to normal “real soon now.” One only need to read the volumes on the “new normal” economy triggered by the 2008/09 “Great Recession” to realize that those firms that hunkered were quickly surpassed by those that took immediate action to restructure, redesign, and reposition to capture a smaller, but still relevant market share.

Once you accept impermanence, you can act effectively and accordingly. Increasing the frequency of your market planning, monitoring closely the direct and indirect influences having an impact your clients, and even more closely monitoring the communication efforts of your competitors, and prepare our firms to move quickly when circumstances change.

Patience is the third of the Buddhist virtues, as it is in many other cultures and philosophical paradigms. Though impermanence may force radical action and acceptance may help rationalize the need for change, adopting a patient perspective provides the foundation for long-term success. Rarely do new strategies have immediate impact. Focusing on consistent communication of value — defined in client-facing terms and based on the new realities driven by change — positions your firm for an enduring and profitable future.

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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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to go or not to go.

That is the question. However, in these days of limited opportunities, the answer always seems to be “go!” Should it be? That’s the real question.

Competition for professional services, even in good times, is defined by the functions of expertise, experience, and the ability to differentiate and deliver “relevant” solutions. It is even more so today, with limited resources on the client side to originate projects, and increased competition (by multiples unheard of in recent past) on the provider side.

As a result, the tendency of many firms in dire need to generate revenue is to chase any request for qualifications or proposal no matter how far afield from their core competency or serviceable geography. Worse, the chase proceeds with little or no knowledge, let alone relationship with the client’s decision makers. At what cost?

It would be one thing if the marketing effort to create a statement of qualifications or fee proposal, preparation of technical solution “ideas” and the ultimate presentation materials (and time and expense of technical professionals) was “free.” But it is not. Calculating your average “cost of goods sold” (to use the manufacturer’s parlance) would show that those costs can easily run into the tens of thousands (on larger pursuits, hundreds of thousands) of dollars.

With no prior relationship with the client, no prior knowledge of the project, no experience with that type of project, no knowledge of the deliverable expectations, schedule or budget, and no forethought to the availability or capability of internal resources (i.e., people) to first “win” the work, and then “do” the work, the chances of actually winning the work is at best “slim to none.” (Note: you can use those 5 questions to create a simple go/no-go checklist that will save you time and money!) No matter how good you think your portfolio of experience is, it pales in the light of relationships.

Put that same budget to client development and the results are markedly different. One 20 year study showed that service providers, who invested six to nine months of strategically orchestrated “time” to developing depth and breadth in the “relationship” with a client, won subsequent work 80% of the time. More often than not, they understood the client’s business better, they knew the key client personnel on a personal level, and they were in a position to share “for free” honest, advisory expertise to help that client better craft the program for the project.

Invest your time and money in that approach, and “go” will always be the answer. And, winning more work, the result!

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