At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, America’s founding fathers wrestled with how our young nation would govern itself. Those deliberations – shaped by political intrigue and diverse personal agendas – included creation of the government’s executive branch.
The world has changed dramatically since 1787, but the roles and responsibilities of the nation’s chief executive have remained the same.
Over the past 228 years, the nation has grown from 13 colonies with under 4 million people, to 50 states and nearly 323 million citizens. War was waged with muskets and cannons at close range targets; today drones and laser-guided missiles take out enemies on the other side of the world. The federal government employed 1,000 nonmilitary workers; today we have nearly 3 million federal employees in 15 departments, 69 agencies and 383 nonmilitary sub-agencies. News and information often took days and weeks to reach the first president; now it’s delivered almost as it happens, and Americans expect immediate solutions from its chief executive.
In a world that Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton would no longer recognize, America has outgrown the office of the presidency they designed.
In 2015, no single individual – regardless of experience, I.Q. or political savvy – is capable of understanding and managing effectively the nation’s complex domestic and foreign affairs, while simultaneously acting as its commander-in-chief, cheerleader, comforter and ceremonial leader. The traditional role of the American president, modeled in part after the British monarchy, is an anachronism.
Into this moment in American history – where the president’s job is far too vast and its citizenry increasingly frustrated with Washington’s lack of results or accountability – enters the bombastic Donald Trump: an established worldwide brand name carefully crafted to be associated with financial success and getting deals done. He’s a man long on politically incorrect opinions and short on details behind his ideas, whose greatest gift involves saying what many people are only thinking.
Mainstream Republicans and other detractors waiting for the Trump juggernaut to implode when the presidential campaign enters its “explain your political platform” phase are certain to be disappointed. Facts and details will not be the Achilles Heel of the man in the empty $5,000 suit. Americans already understand that the Trump brand may be built on smoke and mirrors, but they don’t care about his plans or details because of politicians’ broken promises in the past. The political system’s failure has legitimized Trump’s candidacy.
When it’s time to show his cards, Trump’s political platform will be simple, straightforward and consistent with his brand positioning. To avoid details and deflect criticism, his campaign strategy will be built largely on promises to appoint to key positions the nation’s “best and brightest” people – an action-oriented team of advisors and doers, rather than self-interested career bureaucrats. Weaned on a decade of The Apprentice on television, Americans will believe that The Donald can find the right people to affect change, and if those lieutenants fail…they’ll be fired and replaced. That’s the type of hard-nosed decision-making and accountability that voters hunger for in a chief executive, whether it’s in a TV show, a company or a nation. And Trump’s campaign strategy will resonate with voters from all walks of life.
The concept of Donald Trump as president is disconcerting for many Americans. But he will remain a viable candidate not only because the executive branch of government has far too much on its plate to ever succeed, but also because the distinctions between entertainment and reality in all aspects of American culture continue to be blurred. Trump may be a cartoon character, but his historical timing is perfect, and his political instincts are formidable and underestimated.
Lacking any rival candidate from either party who can inspire the populace on a visceral level and who can provide a credible alternative to business-as-usual politics, America may very well end up with Donald Trump as its first “know-nothing” president, whose skills are managerial rather than intellectual. In electing Trump, Americans will fundamentally change the role of the presidency by proxy rather than constitutional amendment, because our form of government established in 1787, however outdated, will always be considered as sacrosanct as the Bible.
The impact of Donald Trump as an American president will likely bring even greater disruption to the nation’s political infrastructure. After changing the dynamics of the office of the president, the next target of American voters will be the legislative branch of government. That’s what Trump’s political opponents may fear the most.
At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787, America’s founding fathers wrestled with how our young nation would govern itself. Those deliberations – shaped by political intrigue and diverse personal agendas – included creation of the government’s executive branch.
For many decades, physicians have been taught the “3 A’s” of a sound medical practice. They are the 3 qualities that their patients will value most highly, in rank order of importance:
Regardless of whether your professional field is medicine, law, technology or finance, that same ranking applies to how you are valued by clients, particularly in B2B businesses.
For better or worse, your clients judge you (or your firm) primarily on a personal, visceral basis. First, they must like you (“Affability”), and be confident in your commitment to them (“Accessibility.”) Your actual performance (“Ability”) will always be judged by clients on a relative basis, compared with their own knowledge of your craft, their past experience with other providers, the career risks involved in making a change, etc.
This ranking priority may seem illogical to a lawyer, fund manager or a physician whose view of the world is built on measurable evidence and tangible outcomes. But this apparent anomaly in client sentiment is supported by many real life examples. Insurance companies report that doctors who admit their mistakes and apologize to patients are rarely sued. Successful stock brokers report that they seldom lose clients for poor portfolio performance, if they are quick to explain why it happened and what’s being done about it.
Although client communication is at least as important as actual performance in most service businesses, companies seldom give that task the attention it deserves.
But for firms that understand the business impact of client communication, and have made a commitment to pay more than lip service to the discipline, the most significant challenges involve:
- Finding the proper communication frequency, channels and content
- Cutting through the vast amount of information that clients receive each day
- Applying tactics that reinforce their firm’s value proposition and differentiation
Here are a four ways to improve your firm’s client communication strategy:
Stop Guessing About What Clients Think: One of the most obvious yet overlooked ways to maintain and strengthen communication with clients is to ask them for their opinion. Legendary New York City Mayor Ed Koch constantly asked his constituents, “How am I doing?” And it was more than a political gimmick, as Koch always listened to their responses, and applied what he learned to improve his performance and reputation.
You can measure client sentiment on an informal basis, similar to Ed Koch; but you’re more likely to yield meaningful results if you conduct a formal survey either online and / or by telephone. Online platforms like surveymonkey.com make it easy to design, conduct and evaluate a client opinion survey. You can conduct phone interviews yourself, or engage a 3rd party.
There’s a widely used survey methodology that yield “Net Promoter Scores,” designed to measure client loyalty; but for most small firms, you really only need to ask three questions: 1. Are we meeting your expectations? 2. If not, why not? 3. How else can we add value to our relationship? The responses will likely provide some basis on which you can measure client sentiment and make beneficial changes. But the intrinsic marketing value of any opinion survey – regardless of the questions or response rates – is that it lets clients know you care about them.
Consistency and Speed of Communication Matter: The cornerstone of your client communication strategy should involve regularly scheduled contact; ideally on a quarterly basis, and provide content that’s of genuine interest to them. This does not include your performance / activity reports; news that touts your firm’s “Best of [fill in the blank] Award;” its 4 recently hired employees; or the results of last month’s employee 5k mud run. It should include viewpoints and guidance that’s not self-serving, and helps your clients to succeed. For scheduled contact, consistency also matters. Using floor broker lingo, this is a “Fill or Kill” decision, so either commit to scheduled client outreach, or don’t start a program.
Your firm should also be prepared, on an opportunistic basis, to communicate with its clients when there is some (internal or external) material event that may cause them to be confused, concerned or excited. This is a critical part of what “accessibility” means: that you’re always thinking of your client’s welfare. Whether it’s a 500-point drop in the Dow Industrials, or a new scientific discovery related to their business, you need to reach out to your clients – by email, phone, text, snail mail – as soon as possible to deliver the (bad or good) news. Ideally, you’ll also be in a position to help them avoid, adjust to or benefit from the information you provide.
Personalize Your Client Communications: Small firms have a significant marketing advantage, because it doesn’t take very much effort or expense to add a personal touch to their communications with clients. For starters, your firm should know and track personal information of key individuals, including their birthday, spouse / partner’s name, children’s names and ages, hobbies, favorite sports teams, etc. No detail is unimportant.
An old adage, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” rings true across all lines of business. The more information you have about the personal lives of your clients, the better prepared you’ll be to have conversations about what’s most important to them, and to find ways to reinforce your long-term relationships. Ask about their trip to Belize. Send them a handwritten note when their hockey team wins the Stanley Cup, or when their daughter gets accepted to law school. Send a box of cigars when they win their club’s golf tournament. Treat them to dinner at an upscale restaurant on their 10th wedding anniversary. As long as your efforts are genuine, clients will remember, appreciate and reciprocate in terms of loyalty.
Think Outside the Box during Holiday Season: In lemming-like fashion, around the holidays most companies will send out a greeting card purchased from an online catalogue, imprinted with the firm’s name. (Many companies don’t even bother to sign their card, or to add a personal message.) Holiday season conformity can provide a great opportunity to stand out from the crowd. For example, instead of sending out a holiday greeting in mid-December, consider sending a clever Happy Thanksgiving card, which won’t get lost in the pile of December’s cards, and will avoid offending anyone, based on their religious affiliation.
Another way to stand out is to forgo the traditional cocktail party or reception, where great expense and advance planning can all be for naught if bad weather or a competing event keeps your invited guests from attending. As an alternative, host a fancy catered luncheon for your client’s entire staff at their own office location during the holiday season, where you attend and hand out the egg nog or candy canes. Or avoid the holiday madness altogether, and around Memorial Day send your clients a beach chair, boogie board or cooler (all featuring your firm’s logo) to celebrate the beginning of the summer season.
The real secret sauce of client communication for any business is to manage the effort as an opportunity rather than a necessary evil. Or in the words of Dicky Fox, fictional mentor of Jerry Maguire, from the 1996 movie of the same name:
“The key to this business is personal relationships.”
Make that your own mission statement, and watch your business grow.
The tenacity of Nan Britton and her family helped to prove that America’s 29th president fathered more than the Teapot Dome corruption scandal. Harding never met his out-of-wedlock daughter, Elizabeth Ann, but demonstrated presidential timber by providing financial support for her until he died in office at the age of 57.
For Chief Marketing Officers, the outcome of this juicy scandal might provide some hope that hard work and determination can help them to legitimize the often maligned marketing function, and perhaps increase their stature and length of tenure at the senior management table.
Unfortunately, there are no DNA tests to validate marketing as a legitimate member of the CXO family of business functions. But there are some unscientific ways to accomplish that goal within your company:
- Clarify Marketing’s Role – The most pragmatic answer to “What is marketing?” may be: “Whatever your employer (or client) needs it to be.” Exploration of how marketing can be applied to achieve tangible benefits for your organization begins with frank and perhaps eye-opening conversations with senior managers to gain a first-hand understanding of their current perceptions and expectations of the function. You may be surprised at the depth of misunderstanding that exists within your organization regarding your activity and its value. This is an opportunity to clarify what marketing does and can do for them, to identify their needs and establish expectations.
- Get Quantitative – The fuzzy nature of marketing can sometimes make it difficult to demonstrate a direct correlation between that activity and tangible business outcomes. Most senior executives accept that reality, and do not expect marketing to be a profit center. However, marketers who understand the bottom-line orientation of the business world make it a priority to connect the dots internally, by explaining and highlighting what role marketing has played in helping to produce results – whether those outcomes are measured by lead generation, search engine page rankings, revenue growth, employee satisfaction or customer experience.
- Speak Their Language – It’s not necessary to understand all the technicalities, issues or nuances related to various corporate functions, but marketers need to know what’s important. For example, your CFO does not expect you to be up-to-date on Dodd-Frank compliance, but does expect you to be well-versed regarding the company’s business model (how it makes and spends money), its competitive landscape, key legislation and enterprise priorities such as market share, acquisition or going public. Speaking your company’s language has less to do with knowing balance sheet terminology, and more to do with being tuned into what’s on the priority list of its senior team and your ability to adapt marketing strategies to support those goals.
- Get Strategic – As a staff function, marketing is often viewed as corporate overhead, and expendable when times get tough. Making marketing an essential element in line function strategies can build internal support as well as career longevity. To make marketing indispensible within your organization, focus on activities that are valued by senior management. These are typically tactics that make the phones ring, or move the revenue needle. For example, drive a successful effort to get your company’s whiz-bang technology included in a respected industry benchmark such as the Gartner Magic Quadrant (ideally, without paying Gartner’s hefty subscription fee), and watch the marketing department’s stature rise internally.
- Act Like an Agency – Outside marketing firms live or die by the level of service and results they deliver to clients. An agency’s motivation and enthusiasm are driven by an appreciation that if they fail to meet expectations or add value, they will likely be replaced. Corporate marketing practitioners who adopt an agency mindset – treating each operational function as an outside agency might manage a client – can build internal support across the organization. From a practical standpoint, this means understanding what your internal clients need, developing tailored plans of action, being accountable for agreed-upon deliverables and maintaining a sense of urgency.
- Be Fearless – You must serve as the marketing function’s ambassador within your company. Keep the pom-poms in the file cabinet, but don’t be shy about discussing what’s working, as well as what’s not and why. If you don’t point out marketing’s contribution to the top or bottom lines, no one else will. Conversely, if you don’t put shortcomings out on the table, someone else is likely to do that for you. And if you’re in an environment where honest conversations regarding success and failure are not fostered, then it may not be a management table where you want to be seated.
The ancestors of President Harding’s mistress fought for decades simply to prove that Nan Britton was telling the truth regarding her love child. Marketing, as the love child of every enterprise, deserves an equal level of determination to prove its value to a skeptical business world.
In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Apple CEO Steve Jobs offered a “connect the dots” perspective on the random events that shaped his life.
“You cannot connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards…
For B2B marketers, this “rear view mirror” approach to connecting the dots in your tactical tool kit makes great sense.
The underlying appeal of any connect-the-dots puzzle is based on seeing a recognizable image appear from an apparent hodge-podge of numbered dots, simply by following a prescribed path. But for most marketers, if the dots represent possible tactical solutions, then your challenge is that:
- There are usually too many dots to choose from, and
- The dots have no assigned numbers to follow
And that’s why Steve Jobs’ advice should be followed by marketers: Start with a specific business outcome you’re seeking, and build your tactical strategy in reverse order. For example:
Step One: Create Your Picture One reason why average CMO tenure is so brief is because marketers often focus on the dots, rather than on the picture that the connected dots should create. If you’re a B2B marketer, one picture you might want to create is making the “short list;” which means being contacted consistently by prospective (or existing) clients as a candidate for assignments. That’s a picture your CEO understands and appreciates, because it can lead directly to revenue. It also leads to continued employment for CMOs.
Step Two: Ignore Your Dots With your picture defined, it can be difficult to resist the urge to open the tactical toolbox immediately. But prior to selecting and numbering the dots, you’ll need to sketch the path the dots will follow. Using the “short list” picture, for example, you’ll first need to gain internal consensus on:
- What your clients and prospects need right now or in the future
- Why your firm is entitled to be on the short list (your value proposition)
- How you stack up against other firms seeking a place on the short list
- What’s likely to exclude your firm from short list consideration
- How to quantitatively measure the effectiveness of your short list strategy
Step Three: Select and Number Your Dots With your picture and path well defined, the selection and sequencing of tactical dots in often a no-brainer. To complete the “short list” picture example: your dots will likely involve:
- Top-of-mind Awareness: You’ll need to establish an internal discipline designed to communicate directly and consistently (ideally on a quarterly basis) with clients, prospect and referral sources. The old adage “Out of Sight / Out of Mind” rings true in B2B communication, and don’t expect social media to address that requirement.
- Thought Leadership: This label for intellectual capital may be a bit shopworn, but your firm must provide its target audiences with content (owned media or earned media) that validates intellectual capital and potential to add value. And you’re more likely to make the short list by providing content that’s interesting and helpful to them, and not simply touting your own credentials.
- Distribution Capability: This need not be an expensive or complicated CRM system. You simply need to build and maintain a robust database of targeted individuals, and use a distribution / tracking platform (such as Constant Contact) that gets your content to them easily, and in a professional format.
Step Four: Add Dots Selectively When there’s little (or slow) progress being made toward completion of a “picture,” the temptation for marketers is to simply add more tactical dots, rather than trying to understand why the existing dots are not properly connecting. In general, additional dots should be applied only if they add incremental value to a picture that’s already completed. For example, if your firm is regularly making the “short list,” but wants to eliminate competitors altogether, you might add a tactical dot involving pro-active outreach (in advance of any short list) to select prospects, to introduce a proprietary or solution tailored to their needs.
It’s unlikely that Steve Jobs had marketing in mind 10 years ago, as he connected the dots of his life experiences. But if you connect the dots in rear-view mirror fashion, we think it’s likely you’ll produce tangible business results that are based on more than just passive, wishful thinking…as the second line of Job’s advice to Stanford grads suggests:
…So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.
Unfortunately for marketers, words like “trust” and “somehow” just don’t past muster in the business world.
Gaining the attention and interest of investors and their advisors has always been a challenge. In our online world, it’s become even more difficult to cut through the constant volume of noise. Our growing reliance on electronics has also made it less likely for people to remember anything, because their devices do it for them. This has put new demands on fund marketers, who must re-think how they communicate with target audiences, if they intend to overcome short attention spans and digital amnesia.
Short of having the SEC announce that your fund is under investigation, there’s no quick or easy way to gain the attention of investors. The bad news is that it’s getting even more difficult for funds to establish and sustain investor awareness. Here are two reasons why:
- The volume of information available is staggering: we now create as much information every two days as we did from the dawn of man through 2003. The impact of information overload on modern man is that we now have a significantly shorter attention span. Studies have shown that our digital lifestyle has reduced the average attention span from 12 seconds in 2000, to 8 seconds on 2015, which is one second less than that of a goldfish.
- As reliance on digital devices has grown, our ability to remember information has been greatly reduced. A recent survey highlighting this “digital amnesia” showed that most adults could not remember current phone numbers – such as their workplace or children’s phones – but could recall their own home phone number from when they were a child. People don’t remember information because their devices now can remember for them.
If the bad news for fund marketers is that it’s more difficult than ever to gain and maintain the attention of investors, then here’s the good news: most of your competitors are doing of lousy job addressing those tasks.
So, within an existing competitive landscape of funds that are absolutely clueless when it comes to marketing, your fund can be exceptional. Here are three simple ways to help you achieve that distinction:
1. Give them something worthwhile: For starters, explain what you stand for, how you are different, how you make decisions, and why you are worthy of their consideration. You’ll need to validate those claims, not only through your own words and deeds, but also through 3rd party endorsements from sources they know and trust. Effective 3rd party endorsements – embodied within media coverage of your firm, a video featuring an investor, or highlights of your presentation at an industry seminar – provide your target audiences with information that appears objective and believable. To hold their attention, your information must also address issues, challenges and opportunities that are important to them…which is unlikely to include your firm’s AUM growth.
2. Make it easy for them to understand you: All of the tools your firm uses to communicate – website, pitch deck, brochures, etc. – should be consistent in what you say, how you say it, and what the materials look like. Most importantly, your communication should be easy for them to understand, regardless of the complexity of the content. Attempting to impress investors with technical jargon and lengthy explanations only serves to shift their attention and interest somewhere else. To measure the readability in your written communication, try the online BlaBlaMeter diagnostic (blablameter.com), which is an admittedly unscientific, but somewhat objective barometer of your fund’s “BS” factor.
3. Speak to them directly and regularly: The explosion of information online has made direct communication even more important. You’ll need to create an internal discipline that ensures meaningful and consistent contact (ideally on a quarterly basis) with existing and prospective investors, as well as those who influence them. The content you send to those audiences – by email or direct mail – should display your fund’s intellectual capital and institutional values without being self-promotional or self-serving. Consider, for example, sending out market commentaries written by respected individuals outside of your firm, or Q&A interviews that you conduct with opinion leaders whose values are aligned with yours. The goal is to make your firm memorable, in a world where remembering is no longer a necessity.
If all of this sounds like too much work, you will likely find greater comfort and continued anonymity simply by hoping that investors take interest in your fund the old-fashioned way…solely through its track record and word-of-mouth recommendations. And if you’re lucky enough to get noticed and remembered by investors in that manner, you are truly exceptional.
The Hinge Research Institute – a division of one of the nation’s smartest B2B marketing consultancies – recently published the results of its survey of 530 professional services firms representing accounting and finance; technology; marketing and communications; architecture; engineering and construction; legal; and management consulting disciplines.
In its report, 2015 Professional Services Marketing Priorities, Hinge examined current business challenges and approaches to implementing marketing initiatives at small and medium-sized firms, with annual revenues ranging from less than $5 million to more than $100 million. Owners, partners and principals represented 60% of survey respondents, marketing professionals represented 23%, and the balance were operational or senior level decision-makers at those firms.
Although this was not the intention of this study, or the expressed conclusions of Hinge, the research findings provide insight into why marketing fails to deliver a reasonable return at most professional services firms.
Failure to Connect the Dots
In the Hinge research, here’s how small and medium sized professional services firms ranked their current business challenges:
- No surprises here. “Attracting and developing new business” (72.1%) is understandably the most significant challenge for any business;
- However… “Strategy / Planning Issues” (26.8%) are either something professional services firms believe they have under control; are not greatly concerned about; or fail to associate with new business development.
Activity without Purpose or Accountability
The apparent disconnect between strategy / planning and actual marketplace results is reinforced in the marketing initiatives that professional services firms planned for 2015.
According to the Hinge survey, the focus of most professional services firms is on the tactical aspects of marketing, reflected in their plans to:
- Increase the visibility of their brand (57.9%) and their experts (54.5%)
- Upgrade their websites (54.9%)
- Make clients more aware of services (53.5%)
- Create content marketing programs (47.2%)
Conversely, the strategic aspects of marketing are all at the bottom of the 2015 to-do list for most professional services firms:
- Develop marketing strategy / plan (45.5%)
- Find stronger competitive advantage (40.8%)
- Conduct research on target market (33.8%)
- Conduct client satisfaction research (22.7%)
It might be argued that strategic marketing tasks did not make the list of 2015 planned initiatives because professional services firms already have those disciplines covered. But our own experience counseling professional services firms over the past 20 years suggests otherwise.
One of the first questions we ask a new or prospective client is this: “Do you have a written marketing plan?” Most often, and consistent with the Hinge study, the answer we receive from them is “No.”
Who’s to blame for unmet expectations in marketing professional services: The senior managers who focus on tactics without a strategic foundation? Or the marketing professionals who should know better?