Prospective clients certainly want to know if you have the experience and skills they need. But before they put you on their short list of candidates for consideration, they first will need some assurance that your company is a “safe choice.” The hard reality is that — regardless of your firm’s ability to add value — decision-makers at every level are unwilling to risk their career or reputation on selection of an outside advisor or firm may fail to meet expectations, or even harm their business.
To make matters worse, prospective clients will decide to include or exclude you from their short list long before they talk with you, or meet you in person. Before reaching out to you or sending an RFP, prospects will determine whether your firm is a “safe choice” based on the same method they use to select a restaurant, a movie or golf course. They’ll form an opinion based on publicly available information they find online.
Unfortunately, simply telling target audiences — in your public-facing marketing assets — that your company is smart, honest, unique, innovative, creative, cutting-edge, trusted, etc. rarely succeeds. Prospects will require both hard and soft evidence to support their decision to include you as a serious candidate.
Most importantly, prospects need to feel confident that when their boss, partner, board of directors or spouse ever has cause to ask, “Why did you hire those guys?” that they will be able to provide a strong, defensible, well-reasoned “CYA” response.
If, as the outdated adage suggests, that “nobody has ever been fired for hiring IBM,” then how do you make the short list of candidates if you’re not IBM, and trying to survive in a world where you’re considered a risk even before you’re given an opportunity to succeed or fail?
Here are some tangible and intangible factors that, on an individual and combined basis, can drive marketplace opinion on whether you or your firm is a “safe choice”:
- Transparency: Is information regarding your firm’s philosophy, products / services, processes and people available and easily accessible? (Acid Test: How much digging is required to gain a basic understanding of your value proposition?)
- Consistency: Is all your information kept up-to-date, and relevant to current market conditions? (Acid Test: What’s the frequency and quality of content generation, as well as the number of direct and indirect “touches” with target audiences?)
- Enthusiasm: Does your firm appear genuinely enthusiastic about its business, and its communication with target audiences? Or does activity seem “cookie-cutter,” and communication appear to be treated as a necessary evil? (Acid Test: How often are innovation, provocative thinking and fun baked into those efforts?)
- Core Values: Are your company’s core values expressed in a compelling manner, to address the need to know what you stand for? More importantly, are those core values demonstrated through its actions? (Acid Test: Are they aspirational and inspirational? Is there tangible evidence that your core values really drive decision-making?)
- Culture: Is there a visible common culture, beyond shared academic credentials or charitable activities? Are there tangible signs that employees are valued, have a unified vision and enjoy working together? (Acid Test: Other than the annual mud run photo, do employees appear to be engaged as a team?)
- Associations: Who and what are the people, organizations, ideas and causes associated with your firm? Are those connections — perhaps reflected thought a Board of Advisors — respected, credible and trustworthy? (Acid Test: Is the firm actively connected with the outside world?)
- External Validation: How is your firm’s value proposition confirmed by objective 3rd parties? Do reliable sources express open support or inherent endorsement? (Acid Test: Do credible media sources or research firms cover the company? Do clients identify themselves by name and company?)
- Thought Leadership: Are efforts made to share / promote your firm’s intellectual capital in a helpful manner that’s not directly self-serving? (Acid Test: Do other opinion leaders reference your firm’s ideas or contributions? Are white papers just poorly disguised sales collateral?)
- Persona: Does your firm appear to be run by interesting human beings, or hide its personality behind an opaque, institutional veneer? (Acid Test: Does the overall impact of public-facing communication project warmth and sincerity, or distance and arrogance?)
Short of claiming a long client list of successful companies that your prospects want to emulate, there’s no magic formula that will increase your firm’s ability to be perceived as a safe choice. But as decision-making regarding selection of outside resources is increasingly based on a Google search, your firm can greatly improve its chances of making the short list by managing its online visibility in a more strategic manner.