Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Archive for April, 2009

The Past is Prologue

Posted by debrahelwig on April 23, 2009

grandmahandsIn my family, we’re lucky to have a matriarch – an honest-to-God “wise old woman” named Ruby. She’s 92 this year, with a razor sharp wit and a perspective on life few can match.

One year ago today, Ruby gripped my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You mark my words. Start planting your victory garden now. There’s rough times coming. Just like back when. I can feel it.”

That startled me. What? Bad times? Not really! Really?

After all, in April of 2008, the perfect storm in the financial markets was months away from its apex. The Dow was still trading high. Job losses weren’t dominating the news. Gas prices were painful, but most of us were blissfully unaware that the problems in our economy were systemic or far-reaching.

Except Ruby, who had seen it all before.

She didn’t just warn us that day, either. She told us what to do about it. After all, she’d been through the Great Depression and knew exactly what to do to make the best of bad times. Step-by-step on that sunny Florida afternoon, she gave us a road map of how our family could manage if the worst did happen.

Of course, five months later, we saw just how right Ruby was. And because we’d benefited from her perspective, we were far more prepared for the downturn than we might have been.

Today, in April 2009, we’re all continuing to find our way through the “new economic reality,” and many professional services firms are struggling to figure out what to do next. Cut staff? Reduce benefits? Change service offerings? Cut niches? The tension across industries is palpable. Maybe it’s that way at your firm too.

But what if you had a “Ruby” in your corner? Someone who could tell you what steps to take, ideas to try, things that might work, things you might not have thought of on your own?

Here’s the great news: You probably already do.

As you and your firm plan a path through the current economic downturn, your first questions should be:

Who in our circle remembers what has gone before – who has their fingers on the pulse of history?

After all, this is not the world’s first economic downturn. In the USA alone, there have been eight recessions of varying magnitude in the past 80 years, four of them in the last 40.

Translate: Our country’s last four recessions happened during the working lifetime of people you know. And that period includes a major crisis in 1973 that lambasted every sector of the economy.

During those times, firms had to cut back, make changes in salaries and staff, and “get lean” to make it through, just like we’re doing now. How did they do it then? What mistakes did they make? What can you learn and adapt and apply that will make your firm’s journey through the crisis that much easier?

Someone you know may have the answers to those questions.

The help you need to be successful in the face of hard times literally may be sitting at the desk right next to yours. Or it may be just a phone call or email away. That voice of experience might be among your coworkers. Your firm’s retired partners. Clients. Family members. Friends. The possibilities are endless.

Rethink your connections. A valuable new (old) perspective may be easily within reach.

Photo by Jamelah (license)

Posted in Accounting, Attitudes, Leadership, Professional Services, Relationship Building, Strategic Planning | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Appearances: What Professional Services Can Learn from Susan Boyle

Posted by debrahelwig on April 16, 2009

susan-boylePretty much every media outlet I can think of, from mainstream news to Twitter and back again, is buzzing with the story of Susan Boyle. And rightfully so.

When Susan walked onto the set of Britain’s Got Talent this past Saturday, no one took her seriously. Not because she couldn’t sing – no one had even heard her yet. It was because she didn’t look like our modern concept of a singing sensation. She was silly and unlovely, and no one like that could possibly have talent, could they?

Then Susan opened her mouth and nailed I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables.

The audience went wild. Judge Piers Morgan called his “Yes” vote for her “The BIGGEST YES I have ever given anybody.” The overall sense from the audience was a giant “Where did THAT come from?”

The facts of the story – the intensity of the reaction – the viral-ness of Susan’s success – all these things should be doing more than putting a smile on your face. It should be giving you a wake-up call for your professional services career.

Really? Professional services? Me?

Oh, yes.

Because Susan Boyle is a fantastic example of the huge dichotomy between what we SAY and what we DO. Of the enormous contradictions when it comes to our gut reactions about looks and style and all sorts of other things that shouldn’t be important, but that matter – very much – in the day-to-day of our careers.

There are two lessons from Susan’s journey that you can apply immediately – and if you do, you have a huge opportunity to reach a very hungry potential client base and do truly great things.

Here’s lesson number one:

Your clients’ potential value cannot be measured solely by their appearance.

“Appearance” can mean a lot of things. On one level, I do mean personal appearance – how many tales have you heard over the years about the salesperson who turned away a customer because “he didn’t look like he could afford it,” only to have the guy whip out a roll of $100 bills and buy from someone else?

But personal appearance is only the first and most obvious point to consider. Your valuable potential client might have a tiny, unlovely office. Or a less-than-perfect Web site (or no Web site at all). Or a unappealing, “dirty job”-style line of business.

If you react from your gut instead of thinking it through, these kinds of “turn offs” can shut down a valuable relationship before it ever gets a chance to start.

Taking a moment to evaluate the possibilities behind the “appearances” could literally change everything. Intentionally turn off your preconceived ideas to clearly evaluate what their potential might be, and you might find a diamond in the rough who others have dismissed as not worth their time or effort.

Here’s the other half of the lesson – the contradiction – and it’s critical:

Like it or not, your appearance matters. In every situation, and in every medium where you connect with others on behalf of your firm.

I know I just said that you can’t allow appearances to muddy up your evaluation of a client’s worth. And the fact is, they shouldn’t be doing it to you either. But they are. Susan proves it. It’s a double standard, and it’s basic to human nature. So you have to make the first impression count.

A physical presentation that matches the tone of your firm is just part of the equation. You also need to consider the client you’re meeting, and what they might expect of you. A marketing director recently told me, “The client told me we got the work because we were the only firm who bothered to put on a tie for the meeting. We don’t wear ties at our office, but this was a buttoned up, old school company, so how hard was it to figure out that we should be a little more formal? No one else paid attention, and we got the work.”

There’s the key: pay attention.

Think about your Web site. Your proposal package. Your business cards and brochures and letterhead. Are they all in sync with one another and the best possible representation of your firm’s values and spirit?

Do they sing?

For better or worse, too many of us judge based on appearances. When we’re proved wrong, it is often an occasion for surprise and delight – but unlike Susan Boyle, lots of wonderful people and companies are never given the chance to get past an unfortunate first impression.

You can be the person who chooses to do things differently – and in so doing, you may change the trajectory of your business forever.

All you have to do is make your appearance count – and never put too much stock in anyone else’s.

Photo by Bert Kommerij (license)

Posted in Attitudes, Business Development, Leadership, Networking, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Too Much of a Good Thing

Posted by debrahelwig on April 13, 2009

beanies-tooDo you remember when Beanie Babies were all the rage?

About 15 years ago, these small, understuffed toys were THE thing to collect. They came in every conceivable shape and color. And everybody who was anybody was buying the darn things. Heck, I still have a Beanie flamingo sitting on my desk as I type this blog post!

Like with any collecting fad, though, some people went a little crazier over the Beanie calvacade than others. I remember this one friend of mine who had hundreds of Beanies. Hundreds. The chase and acquisition was thrilling for her.

But here’s the part people didn’t talk about back then: once she had them, she just shoved them in a corner and didn’t do anything with them – except dust them, move them, and have to hassle with them when she wanted to use the space they took up. Very quickly, they became a time drain and added no value to her life.

Too much of a good thing. And it became toxic.

Fast forward to today. We’re still a nation of collectors.  But now, the hottest rage in collections the world over isn’t a stuffed toy, or a game, or any kind of sports memorabilia.

It’s followers on Twitter.

(And friends on Facebook. And connections on LinkedIn. You get the idea.)

No doubt, I get excited when I see a new person is following me on Twitter. And I love finding new connections who teach me cool things, and who let me share my ideas and stories. If you’re online, I bet you do too.

But have you seen a message like this one?

“Just hit 9,999 followers. Help me get to 10,000!”

As if the number of followers mattered a lot more than who the followers were.

Ummmm, no.

Take this as a warning: the acquisition may be a rush, but following and being followed by thousands of people, regardless of their appropriateness for your network, may be just as toxic as a too-large Beanie collection. The white noise they’ll generate is just another version of the “heap of toys in the corner you have to move and dust” – a load dragging on you and preventing you from having fun or getting anything of substance accomplished.

Debbie Weil wrote a great post about this a little over a month ago titled Social Networking is Not Just a Numbers Game. Her advice?

It’s not how many; it’s what you do for your connections. Are you useful in some way? Are you providing value? If the answer is yes, and you create value over time, then you will be able to go back to your network and get something of value to you – whether it’s information or a sale.

So learn from my friend’s Beanies. Raw numbers matter not one whit.

Be selective, and Twitter, Facebook, and every other social media outpost can yield great things.

Stay consumed with your social media statistics, and you’ll probably find yourself suffocating under the electronic equivalent of a mountain of unloved toys.

Photo by Bianca Prime (license).

Posted in Attitudes, Business Development, Networking | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

How Flexible is Your Menu?

Posted by debrahelwig on April 3, 2009

cheeseburgerI love Mexican food. Especially with jalapeños. LOTS of jalapeños.

In fact, I find it hard to believe that there are people out there who wouldn’t like to gluttonously drown themselves in cheese dip. But there are – a few. And one of them is my friend, the amazing-marketing-insights-person Barbara Price.

Last year Barbara treated us to a wonderful story on her blog called “Every Cheeseburger Begins Life as a Hamburger,” which shares the story of Barb’s non-Mexican-loving taste buds’ journey with friends to a local Mexican restaurant.

Barb ordered a hamburger, and they wouldn’t give it to her, because there were only cheeseburgers on the menu. Barb’s retort? “Every cheeseburger begins life as a hamburger.”

Her blog used this story to make an incredibly important point: Sometimes what we have written down – our policies, our offerings, our way of doing business – blinds us to opportunity.

That story stuck with me. I’ve thought about it over and over during the past year.

Because she’s right. And more now than ever before.

Think about your own firm for a minute. As the recession took off, I’d bet your clients started to worry. To ask questions about price. About cutting services. About streamlining and doing less. How did you react?

So many of us, when examining these requests in the light of our standard “menu” of offerings and hourly rates, just freaked out. In Barb’s parlance, we saw our offerings as “the cheeseburger for $3.99,” and couldn’t see that underneath the piece of cheese was a less expensive hamburger waiting to be sold. Instead of getting flexible and learning how to recombine and revitalize our services to meet the market’s needs (without changing the base structure of the menu, mind you!), too many of us have said, “We can’t do that!”

Yes, you can.

Because every cheeseburger begins life as a hamburger. Everything you do at your firm can be stripped to its bare bones and recombined in ways that make sense to your clients – for now. And then you can adjust your menu again as the market improves.

In the current economic climate, rigidity could be the kiss of death. How can you make your firm more adaptable to the requests and needs of your client base?

Keep it flexible. Give ’em the hamburger if that’s what they want.

Thanks, Barbara.

Photo by foodinmouth. (license)

Posted in Accounting, Business Development, Marketing, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ford vs. Hyundai: A Cautionary Tale for Professional Services Firms

Posted by debrahelwig on April 1, 2009

Are you sick of hearing about the upheaval in the auto industry yet?

I thought I was. In my house, we’d gotten to the point of throwing (soft) objects at the TV anytime someone said “auto bailout.” Enough is enough, right?

But then, I ran across a few stories that really made me think. About the ONE, MOST BASIC thing we all could be doing better – in this economy or otherwise – to generate and keep loyal clients and customers.

The A-Ha Moment

My “a-ha” started with a post by Marelisa Fábrega that had this amazing nugget (edited here for length):

At one time, Ford asked Edward de Bono for advice on clearly differentiating themselves from their many competitors. Ford asked, “How can we make our cars more attractive to consumers?”

Dr. de Bono approached the problem from a completely different angle: “How can we make the whole driving experience better for Ford customers?” Using this perspective, Dr. de Bono came up with an idea: Ford should buy up parking lots in all the major city centers and make them available for Ford cars only. Unfortunately, Dr. de Bono’s innovation was too radical for Ford; they saw themselves as an automobile manufacturer with no interest in the parking lot business.

Lots of irony here.

If Ford HAD done this and other similar loyalty-building exercises, would they have created enough raving fans to avoid the brunt of the current auto meltdown? Hmmmm.

Heading in the Right Direction

Now, let’s look at a competitor of Ford’s called Hyundai.

In my circle, Hyundai hasn’t had the greatest rep – mostly because my good friend drove a serious lemon with their nameplate attached. BUT… then Hyundai released this ad.

WHOA. Take the car back (or, in later iterations, make my payments) if I lose my job? Shocking.

In the space of one commercial, my attitude about Hyundai completely changed. Not because they built a better car. But because their actions shouted – “We hear what our customers need and we’ll break new ground making it happen.”

Were other people as impressed as I was? Well, according to a study by CNW Research:

Surveying consumers shopping for a vehicle…as well as eventual buyers, about the carmaker’s vehicle-return program, CNW found that more than half of “intenders” hadn’t considered Hyundai before hearing about its program, and 53 percent said the program was the key reason for considering the brand.

Reports show Hyundai’s year over year sales were down only 1.5 percent in February, and up 25 percent over January 2009; Ford’s were down 48.4 percent year over year. Coincidence? I think not.

And, additional irony, yesterday Ford launched its own assurance program, with many similar features to Hyundai’s.

Coming Late to the Party

Will Ford’s attempt at an assurance program make a difference? IMHO, not much.

The Hyundai Assurance Plan is working not just because of the plan itself, but because it made Hyundai the first automaker to visibly demonstrate a new way of approaching customer relationships in the current economy. The plan is “proof” that Hyundai is not only interested in building customer relationships, but is dedicated to making the experience of buying a Hyundai better, just like Dr. de Bono suggested to Ford with his parking lot idea years ago.

I’m certain Ford’s also-ran entry into the “assurance plan” business will help them some, at least in selling cars to people inclined to buy Fords anyway. But will it change hearts and minds and create new raving fans for Ford? Likely not.

Hyundai got there first.

Now, About Professional Services

If you work for a professional services firm, it’s quite easy to fall into the mindset Ford had when it approached Dr. de Bono. Think about how often you ask, “How do we make our firm more attractive than our competitors’ firms?”

Ultimately, that line of reasoning will put you in the same position as Ford.

I urge you to flip your thinking. Ask instead, “How can we make the entire experience of consuming our services better for our customers?”

Remember, it’s the HOW, not the WHAT. Creating fans is not just about refining your end product, it’s about surprising and delighting and showing that you listen and you care. It’s about responding in radical ways to your clients’ needs. And being the first in your market space to do it.

For Hyundai, it’s not all about the car. For your firm, it can’t all be about the audit or the tax return or the legal brief or the contract. Change your thinking and you can reach unimaginable heights – and maybe change an entire industry as well.

What are you waiting for?

Posted in Attitudes, Business Development, Marketing, Professional Services, Relationship Building | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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