Tag Archives: career risk

How to Sell to Companies that are Out of Your League

jim-carreyThe most enduring injustice in the world of B2B marketing is that, very often, a firm with strong brand perceptions will be selected over a more qualified, but lesser-known firm. The old adage, “No one was ever fired for hiring IBM,” still rings true in every industry. And firms that understand this market dynamic, and work to build a marketing strategy to address the underlying human issues, can gain market acceptance and compete effectively against larger and better-known competitors.

The central, unspoken issue embedded within the selection process for any type of B2B firm is easy to understand. All decision-makers require a certain level of comfort and confidence necessary for them: 1. To propose a relatively unknown candidate to their “boss” (however that’s defined), and more importantly, 2. To rationalize their selection of that unknown candidate; and worst case, to defend their decision should their selected provider fail. Avoiding responsibility for a bad decision is always the top priority.

By taking either of these two steps, decision-makers put skin in the game. Their personal welfare – notably, keeping their job – will always be far more important to them than selecting the most qualified firm. So regardless of your firm’s size or brand stature, this inherent “career risk” is the key obstacle that must always be overcome.

Here are three ways your firm can achieve that goal through marketing:

Don’t Exclude Your Firm from Consideration

Small firms can exclude themselves from consideration by large prospects in two ways. They either focus exclusively on quantitative characteristics of their firm (and refuse to acknowledge the human side of decision-making)…or they never attempt to solicit companies considered to be “out of their league” (either for lack of inertia, or for fear of failure.)

Although it would be reckless to devote all or most of your firm’s marketing efforts to “low probability” prospects, excluding them altogether represents an opportunity loss. Solely from the standpoint of marketing skills development, and regardless of the outcome, pitching your firm to tougher prospects will increase its effectiveness in those leagues where it is “entitled” to play. Most high handicap (struggling) golfers will attest that they perform on a much higher level when paired with better players. That same performance dynamic holds true in marketing your firm.

The opportunity loss in not hunting for larger game is that you can never know a prospect’s current situation, mindset or future plans. They may be unhappy with their current provider and are seeking a change, or their new strategy may involve hiring a smaller that can provide a more personalized level of service. It’s always better to lose (and to learn from your losses), than it is to not enter the game at all.

Think and Act Like a “Safe Choice”

If your small firm is prepared to acknowledge that market perceptions are at least as important as its credentials (an enormous hurdle for many firms), then it’s half-way toward the goal of competing effectively against better known brands. The other half of your quest to be considered a “safe choice” by prospects involves thinking and acting exactly like your most successful competitors, in terms of marketing communications.

Here are the five marketing assets applied by successful firms:

– A well-articulated value proposition: Until you have a clear understanding of why and how your company is of value to clients, and are able to express that in a clear, concise manner, don’t invest in any marketing tools or tactics.

– An effective website: As the mother ship of your brand, and the most important public-facing expression of your firm’s value proposition, your website needs to go beyond “what we do” and “who we are.” It must also provide insights into “what we believe,” “how we think,” “how we operate” and address “who validates our credibility.”

– Bona fide thought leadership: This self-generated content showcases your firm’s intellectual capital, which builds confidence in its potential to succeed. Bona fide thought leadership does not promote your firm, or attempt to sell its products or services.

– Inherent third-party endorsements: These credibility tools can take many forms, ranging from published articles in respected publications, to speaking engagements at industry conferences. The quality of these types of indirect endorsements are more important than frequency.

– Top-of-mind awareness: To maintain familiarity with your brand in the marketplace, your firm will need to pro-actively reach out to its current and prospective clients and referral sources, ideally on a quarterly basis. The information you send to those target audiences must be relevant and of interest to them.

Associate with Established / Trusted Brands

If your company has little or no brand stature, one of the quickest and most effective ways to change that dynamic is to directly associate your brand with specific firms or individuals who already possess the market credibility and respect that you’re seeking. There are a number of tactics you can apply to benefit from this brand-related “halo effect.”

For example, your quarterly outreach to target audiences (referenced above) might feature interviews with respected industry leaders, or with well-known subject matter experts. Or your firm might host a series of by-invitation-only webinars, or in-person roundtable discussions, featuring recognized authorities in a particular profession or industry.

Regardless of the specific halo effect tactic(s) you apply, the underlying strategy remains the same: to create an editorial product or host an event that enables your firm’s brand reputation to be positioned – in the minds of others – as being in the same league as the well-established third-party brand(s) that you are promoting.

Many firms possess some of the marketing assets outlined here, and fewer firms possess all of them. An extremely small number of companies are able to apply these tactics in a consistent manner, or view marketing as an ongoing business discipline, rather than a list of items to be checked off.

If your company understands the human dynamics of decision-making, and applies an appropriate marketing strategy to build its brand stature, it will be capable of competing at any level, and is unlikely to remain small or unknown for very long.

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Manage the Pedigree Factor in Professional Services Marketing

MissP1Institutional pedigree always matters, regardless of the type of professional service you’re selling. But to leverage pedigree as a marketing asset, you first need to understand why it’s important to your target audience, and decide what type(s) of pedigree will have the greatest influence on them. The professional credentials your firm possesses (or creates) are a major consideration in determining which doors to knock on, and which doors to ignore.

Pedigree means different things to decision-makers. In the classic sense, personal pedigree can take into account where you were raised, schools you attended, club memberships, employment history, who you know, and even your race and ancestry. For better or worse, there are many companies that hire employees based largely or exclusively on those external credentials, in order to create a consistent (albeit often elitist) institutional persona.

Whether they’re selecting a lawyer, management consultant or hedge fund manager, there are decision-makers who will always require the classic resume-based pedigree. Conversely, there are plenty of “meritocracy” buyers of professional services who will eschew external credentials and base their selections on the quality of ideas, past performance or future potential.

These suggestions might help you hack your way through the pedigree jungle:

Understand the fear factor in selection of an outside advisor. The old adage, “No one was ever fired for hiring I.B.M.” still rings true. Known brands are safe choices. When an individual selects an outside advisor, career risk plays a significant role in their decision-making. Their personal nightmare is twofold: first, that their selection will fail to meet expectations by a wide margin; secondly, that their own organization will not agree with their reasons for selecting the outside advisor…even if they supported the decision.

Unfortunately for professional services providers lacking strong external credentials, the reluctance to select them is far more prevalent at larger institutions. This is simply because the downside risk of making mistakes is much greater at larger firms. Selection errors may be tolerated at smaller firms, but as a company’s bureaucracy grows, so do the consequences related to selection errors. At big firms, taking a chance on an unproven or unknown outside provider is considered career suicide.

Reduce decision-making risk for prospective clients. If your firm doesn’t possess a strong traditional pedigree, there are several ways you can reduce decision-making risk for prospective clients. The most effective tactics involve generating either direct or indirect 3rd party endorsements that support your firm’s credibility. Here are three examples:

  • Earned Media: Positive exposure in respected, bona fide media sources (Wall Street Journal, Forbes, etc.) is still one of the most powerful ways to build credibility. Most small firms can’t afford a sustained PR effort delivered by an outside agency, but with a modest investment of time, creativity and determination, a DIY initiative can yield media placements that will bolster market confidence.
  • Industry Platforms: Most conferences, seminars and other types of industry platforms are now “pay-to-play” arrangements that extract significant sponsorship fees in exchange for a spot on the agenda. But the inherent 3rd party marketing value of these events is directly related to the credibility of the sponsoring organization. So rather than investing heavily in these events, seek opportunities to participate actively – as an officer or committee member – in professional associations that are respected by your targeted decision-makers.
  • Branded Interviews: This powerful but little known tactic involves alignment of your (lesser known) brand with a 3rd party (an individual or company) that’s well known and highly regarded in your market segment. One simple way to benefit from this “halo effect” is to create a quarterly publication that features non-self-serving interviews with these opinion leaders, covering topics of interest to your decision makers. In addition to driving top-of-mind awareness each quarter, when archived on your website, these interviews will serve to validate your pedigree.

Take advantage of non-performing, highly credentialed competitors. Some highly credentialed firms will coast on their reputations, and are not as hungry or diligent as their competitors that rely on performance rather than pedigree. This market opportunity often involves mid-sized firms that have engaged high pedigree providers, in hopes of receiving first-class service, only to be disappointed by treatment as second (or third) class citizens.

Thanks to internet transparency, these “abused client” opportunities can be easy to identify if you look for them. A straightforward “Are you receiving what you’re paying for?” solicitation can resonate in the prospect’s corner office, and often initiate conversations that lead to engagements where your firm is viewed as a hero simply for providing a level of service that the client deserves.

Conduct a pedigree “sniff-test” before you knock on doors. Marketing success relies heavily on hunting for high potential targets, and not wasting time elsewhere. A prospective client’s own pedigree is a strong indicator of their selection preferences for outside providers. Here’s the sniff test: if a potential client employs people with very similar academic and professional backgrounds, and your firm’s credentials are not a match, then don’t waste your time where you’re unlikely to be considered. Instead, look for pedigree landscapes that are compatible with your firm’s credentials, or seek opportunities where your firm’s credentials will be considered a cut above the prospective client’s pedigree.

Mark Twain once wrote, “In Boston they ask…How much does he know? In New York…How much is he worth? In Philadelphia…Who were his parents?”  The most effective professional services marketers define precisely what’s most important to their targeted prospects, and showcase their pedigree accordingly.

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