So you want to build a reputation to woo and win clients? Some of the quickest reputation-building routes are to host seminars, give speeches and write articles. But why should potential clients listen to you?
“Clients today are bombarded with articles, speeches and seminars that contain generalities and do not distinguish the author or presenter from any of his or her competent competitors,” says former Harvard Business School professor David Maister. In his highly regarded book Managing The Professional Service Firm (a must-read book for all professionals), he discusses how to demonstrate that you have something to offer that your competitors do not.
The answer, says Maister, is a neglected tool: conducting proprietary research on topics of interest to prospective clients. This can be technical or professional in nature, or it also can be general survey research. You can contact potential clients and ask to interview them for an article or book that you are writing.
Examples are abundant of this type of research from professional service and technology service firms. Consider some of these news articles:
• Cleveland and Nashville are among the ten cities that will be hot for hotel development in the near future, says hotel real estate consultants Laventhal & Horwath
• Clients list “creativity” as the most important criterion when selecting a new agency, according to the fourth annual Thomas L. Harris/Impulse Research public relations survey
• Most San Diego employers say they will generally hold the line when it comes to new hiring in the fourth quarter, according to the latest survey by staffing agency Manpower Inc.
Advantages of proprietary research
By conducting proprietary research, you obtain special information that prospective clients can’t find elsewhere. The foundation of client seduction strategies is to give away useful information that demonstrates to clients you have the expertise to help them. Giving away general problem-solving information is good, but it is not good enough.
The information that a potential client most wants to know is, “how does my company compare to others?” There is a hidden fear in the back of the mind of every executive: are we missing out on something? Nobody wants to be behind the learning curve, especially in today’s rapidly changing business environment.
Maister, who reportedly charges $15,000 per day to counsel professional service firms on how to improve their business, recommends surveying a cross-section of executives in a given industry. Ask them to prioritize trends they worry about most, list tactics that are of the most use to them, and name devices they use. Then you can report rankings of the most threatening issues and most popular tactics. For enhanced credibility, some firms get client industry associations to co-sponsor and help guide the research.
Remember those lectures in science class about the scientific method? Well, it’s time to dust off that knowledge. The scientific method is about observing, forming a theory (or hypothesis) and then experimenting to test the results. Here is a flow chart to help with your proprietary research studies.
1. From your experience and observations, pick the three biggest problems you solve for clients and turn each problem into a research topic
2. Ask yourself: “Will this research be relevant to potential clients and trade journal editors?”
3. Review the literature of books, articles and published studies that relate to your research topic
4. Collect data through opinion surveys, focus groups, depth interviews and analysis of case studies
5. Analyze the data to draw conclusions and make recommendations
6. Write a summary report on the findings of your research (this can be as simple as a report or as elaborate as a book)
7. Use the research information in your seminars, speeches, how-to articles, Web site content and publicity
A prime example
A San Diego company that uses this strategy extensively is Harte-Hanks Market Intelligence, a 30-year-old La Jolla-based firm that provides customer relationship management (CRM) services. The company recently conducted a survey of 448 large U.S. corporations to discover how they were implementing CRM programs.
Based on the survey, Harte-Hanks was able to report that one-third of these large corporations have a CRM program in place or will have one in place within the next 12 months. Of those implementing a CRM system, approximately 26 percent are using or building a fully developed in-house solution, while the balance are using a variety of external partners and software packages.
How did Harte-Hanks use this information? The results were published in a white paper that was offered to other large corporations through exclusive executive briefings. The survey content was the basis for speeches at industry conferences and was also used in a series of no-cost, invitation-only, online seminars (also called Webinars) hosted by Harte-Hanks. Finally, the information was used for publicity, both as a general news release on some of the major findings, and as the basis of a how-to article on the top ten successful CRM implementation strategies.
While employing many other marketing strategies, Harte-Hanks Market Intelligence has made proprietary research a key part of its ongoing lead generation system. Overall, the practice has positioned the firm as a primary source of valuable information for clients.
If you want to double your business, then you need to get inside your client’s head through proprietary research and provocative results.
By conducting proprietary research, you obtain special information that prospective clients can’t find elsewhere. The foundation of client seduction is to give away useful information that demonstrates to clients you have the expertise to help them. Giving away general problem-solving information is good, but it is not good enough. You need to offer specifics, and the more provocatively you can package the results, the better.
Professionals, consultants and technology entrepreneurs can use proprietary research to obtain clients, even during tough economic times. A recent case in point is Enterpulse, an Atlanta-based Web services firm that designs and builds corporate Web sites. Projects can be extremely complex, encompassing both the external and internal Web presence of a company and serving an intricate network of customers, employees and suppliers.
According to Enterpulse, 2002 was a “now or never” year as the deepening technology recession further eroded sales and prospects. Many of the firm’s larger and better-known competitors had gone bankrupt in the previous 12 months. Enterpulse, a midsized firm, actually viewed this as an opportunity to become a bigger player and gain market share in its category. But the company needed to make a bold move to raise its visibility, boost sales and leave its few remaining competitors behind.
To overcome the challenges in communicating with Enterpulse’s audiences, the firm commissioned a proprietary research study through Ketchum Public Relations of heavy business Internet users. The survey results would be useful to interest the media in a new story angle on the Internet, and also to give executive information technology decision-makers compelling data for evaluating their companies’ Web presence from a user perspective.
The result was 265 qualified U.S. leads for the sales force to pursue, with three of these leads quickly converting to signed contracts. The entire budget was $100,000, including $25,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. With an average engagement of $250,000 per client, this means a return on investment of at least 650 percent.
Internet death penalty
How did they do it? Enterpulse had to overcome two pivotal challenges in communicating with prospective customers:
Reporters Ketchum talked with were not particularly interested in writing about the Internet anymore — unless the reporter could unearth a new angle and back it up with examples.
Making the case for a user-centric Web experience would require strong evidence to convince an analytical, data-oriented audience of IT decision-makers.
Ketchum Research developed and conducted a survey of more than 300 heavy Internet users in the fields of IT, sales/marketing, purchasing and human resources.
The proprietary research results revealed that users overwhelmingly expect Web sites to be user-friendly or they won’t return. Enterpulse and Ketchum called this end result the “Internet Death Penalty” and showcased the phrase in press materials and media outreach to attract maximum attention. If you want attention, you need to be provocative.
How to publicize results
But being provocative is only the first step. You also need to be proactive in spreading the results of the research.
Ketchum helped Enterpulse CEO Michael Reene write a provocative white paper to alert companies to the fact that they should evaluate their Web presence from a user perspective, or else risk alienating customers. The white paper was featured on the home page of Enterpulse’s Web site, www.Enterpulse.com. The firm traded the white paper for e-mail addresses and required interested persons wishing to download a free copy to first input their contact information into an online form.
Enterpulse hired Ketchum to conduct a 30-day media relations campaign. The news release was issued via Business Wire and Internet Wire. Ketchum also contacted national business media, the top 100 daily newspapers, and key trade media in the IT, banking and retail vertical markets. Reporters were provided with a link to the white paper for further information and also offered a detailed analysis of the survey results.
Media interviews were conducted with Reene, who used real-world examples of Web sites relevant to the survey results to support the white paper’s premise. A bylined article (based on the news release) was written and placed in several IT-oriented publications.
Media coverage for the survey clearly convinced information technology decision-makers to take a closer look at Enterpulse’s thesis — as evidenced by more than 1,000 downloads of the white paper on the Enterpulse Web site by high-profile organizations such as Disney, American Airlines, Princeton University, Hallmark and Panasonic.
Approximately 18 daily newspapers, 60 metro business journals, 20 industry/IT trade publications and four radio spots have featured Enterpulse’s findings. Coverage highlights include USA Today, Newsbytes, CNET, InfoWorld, 60-plus metro business weeklies around the country and Stores Magazine.
The campaign appears to be spreading virally over time, with additional daily newspapers, Web sites and other outlets continuing to pick up the survey results from the original wire story and from publications that featured the story.
Always keep in mind that the information a potential client most wants to know is: “How does my company compare to others?” There is a hidden fear in the back of every executive’s mind that some critical piece of business intelligence is missing. Nobody wants to be behind the learning curve, especially in today’s rapidly changing business environment.
Let me ask you this (now be honest): Do you really understand the problems of your prospects and clients? Or do you just think you know? Make no doubt about it, the stakes are high. Wrong marketing messages will cost you potential clients and lead to more struggles and frustration.
So here’s how to become a new client magnet. Each group of prospects experiences its own unique frustrations and pains. What’s the secret to crafting a marketing message that will maximize your attraction factor? Ask them (or have someone ask for you) about their pains. Start by asking a sample about their ideal professional or consultant, and them segue into problems. Listen carefully to the exact words they use (you will want to mimic them in your marketing messages).
When you interview some current, past and potential clients about the pains you solve, here are 10 questions you should always ask:
1. Describe for me the “ideal” experience with a ____________ (your profession or line of consulting). How do most compare to this ideal?
2. Describe for me a recent time that the experience was less than ideal.
3. What are the three most important aspects of doing business with a___________.
4. If I said a __________ was a good value, what would that mean to you?
5. In what ways does dealing with a _________ cost you besides money (time, hassle, effort, etc.)?
6. What is the biggest pain about working with a _________.
7. Would you recommend a _________ to a friend or colleague? Why, or why not?
8. How does working with a _________ help you make money?
9. What does a _________ do really well?
10. If you had the opportunity to work with a ________ again, would you? Why, or why not?