Sunday, July 21, 2013

It's a people business

Like it or not, you’re in a people business. Professional firms in particular rely almost exclusively on their people and their skills, networks and training for delivering services to clients. These people can be hard to replace, unlike lower skilled jobs which are highly replaceable (for example in retail or manufacturing). So why is it that so many professional firms largely ignore their own people in their strategic business development messages?

Are Australian professional businesses gripped by some sort of corporate social anxiety? Why is it so common for businesses that market to other businesses to ignore their own professional staff? Sometimes they even perversely use generic corporate images (showing some politically correct racial mix of Black American, Mexican, Caucasian and Asian all in suits) rather than images of their own people.

Whenever I am asked to review or audit a business’ marketing and BD collateral, one of the first things I look for are the profiles of the people in the business. Sometimes there may be some brief profiles of a principal or two. Often there is nothing. Instead, content often focusses on recent projects, recent client work, and (invariably) too much general narrative.

Recent project news is vitally important, particularly for businesses associated with the property and construction industry. ‘You’re only as good as your last project’ is a truism. But this ignores the vital role that professional staff have in securing new business opportunities. For a prospective client, it’s not just the most recent series of projects you’ve completed as a business that counts, but also who from your business is going to be working on their job. This applies equally outside the property and construction industry.

I’ve seen this confirmed in several surveys for a variety of different businesses. When clients are asked what influences their choice of professional services firm, it’s invariably the people in that firm; their reputations, skills, and value-adding potential. It is rarely influenced by big brand names. Corporate reputation can rate as modestly important but not as highly as people.

So if people are so important to winning new business opportunities, here are some tips on how to make more of your most important asset in your business development activities:

  • Don’t stop at the principals. Your clients know full well that the principals of the business might be the rainmakers but on a daily basis, they’ll be dealing with more junior staff. So you ought to be profiling these staff and their achievements, as much as yours.
  • Don’t be fazed by staff changes. ‘But what if people leave?’ is a common objection to profiling more staff. That may have been valid when marketing was totally reliant on expensive paper based documents with long shelf lives, but these days we have digital printing (ideal for short print runs) and web-based content, both of which are quickly and cheaply updated. New staff ought to in itself be an opportunity to communicate with your clients.
  • Photographs are important. The human brain is programmed to respond to facial cues. Including written profiles of personnel without their photographs is just making life hard on yourself.
  • Informal over formal. My recommendation usually is to try get photos which are more ‘natural’ as opposed to clearly posed corporate headshots in a studio. It just feels more welcoming – I’d rather deal with someone who looks relaxed and at ease as opposed to formal and unapproachable.
  • Colour, or black and white? Sure there are circumstances when black and white images add some aesthetic value to a design but in the main, we aren’t all colour blind so my preference is for colour photos over black and white. It’s just how the mind works. (Why is it architects are notorious for creative colourful building designs but prefer their people in black and white?)
  • Don’t make them hard to find. A typical fault is to ‘hide’ profiles of your people under some generic heading – particularly so with websites. A tab or page that is easily found and headed simply ‘people’ will do.
  • Where to stop? My recommendation is usually to include everyone. That becomes a bit impractical in larger firms but as much as possible, it’s best in my view to include everyone from reception and account staff to directors.
  • Don’t overdo the narrative. A profile means outline. It doesn’t mean a life story. While it’s important to profile your people, it’s a deadly sin to provide a full career CV than runs to several pages. 

So if you’re in the business of selling services as opposed to things, maybe you should audit your marketing collateral and content with some of these observations in mind. There is no point in your biggest asset also being your biggest secret.

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