Market Leadership Strategy #1: Thought Leadership

At the start of every year I like to set out the big themes I'll be focusing on during the year, and I share those themes in the hope that you'll find them useful in some way.

In 2015 my big overarching theme is Market Leadership. As I'm sure you can guess, future blog posts, emails and video will focus on some of the practical details on how to achieve market leadership in your market.

This first video of 2015 looks at the first of three big strategies I believe work the best to achieve market leadership for service and information based businesses: Thought Leadership.

You can catch the next two videos on Relationship Leadership here and on Marketing Leadership here.

An "App" To Improve Your Marketing (sort of)

Marketing AppI've decided to lose a bit of weight over the next few months. And like many people, I'm using a little App for my iPhone to track my progress, what I'm eating, and how much I'm exercising.

It's amazing the effect it's having already on my behaviour. Just the very fact of making my activities and my progress visible is causing me to make different choices about what I eat and drink.

Read more about applying these principles to your marketing >>

One-To-Many Or One-To-Few?

CrowdThere's a fundamental principle of business that's equally as vital online as offline. And yet I've rarely heard it articulated.

It's the principle of understanding whether you're in a one-to-many or one-to-few business.

Understanding this is much more important than labelling yourself “business to business” or “business to consumer” because it fundamentally impacts the type of marketing that will work best for you.

Read more about how the one to many/one to few concepts can impact your business

Becoming a Trusted Advisor

It's the holy grail of Professional Services – to become a trusted advisor to your senior clients. To be viewed – and sought out – as a source of valued advice and support.

In this short video I review the key steps you need to take to become a trusted advisor and valued partner to your senior clients.

How To Become A Trusted Advisor: A More Clients TV Video

 
Video Transcript:

So you want to become a Trusted Advisor to your senior clients?

The benefits from a business development perspective are clear: if you're the first port of call for a client with a critical business problem then you're in a tremendous position to help shape that client's thinking, to build a deep understanding of the situation, and to establish strong credibility through the discussions.

In other words, you'll be in pole position to win any related work.

And if you’ve established a position of being able to help and offer good advice across a broad range of issues – not just in your own specialism – they you become an indispensable partner – not just a supplier.

But becoming a trusted advisor doesn’t happen overnight. The position’s got to be earned – and that takes time and it takes consistent action.

How To Become a Trusted Advisor

The clues to what to focus on are in the name – trusted advisor. You must establish both a trust-based relationship with your client; and you must be viewed as a source of valuable advice.

Building trust can only be done by demonstrating and proving trustworthiness over time. The client must come to believe that you understand them, you have their best interests at heart, and you will deal with them with candour – always being honest about what you can and cannot do, and taking a long term perspective rather than seeing them as a short-term sales prospect.

When the Huthwaite Group studied client’s perceptions of professional service salespeople, they found that of the key elements of trust (in their words: candour, competence and concern) it was the area of showing concern and empathy for their clients where professionals performed the worst. Much worse that their counterparts in product sales.

Accountants, lawyers and consultants are trained “to be professional”. To be objective, fact-driven and solution focused. They’ve been conditioned into feeling they must constantly demonstrate their cleverness and expertise in order to be credible.

But all of this mitigates against showing genuine human concern for clients and their challenges.

It’s not that professionals don’t care about their clients – far from it. But they must learn to express this concern in ways which clients can appreciate. Using our listening skills, for example, not to gather ammunition for our next verbal gem – but to build genuine and deep understanding of a client’s situation.

When it comes to demonstrating that you can provide valuable advice, this again must be demonstrated over time. Every interaction with your senior clients is a chance to either advance their perception of you as a source of valuable insight, or not.

First you must “earn your spurs” – earn the basic right to be listened to by your senior clients. You do this by demonstrating competence in the areas for which you have been hired. Until you have done this, attempts to advise on wider areas will fall on deaf ears – you need to demonstrate your basic capabilities first.

But many professionals stop there. They limit their interactions with clients to talking about the work at hand and the specialism they focus on.

Over time, this causes them to be pigeon-holed as merely a technical specialist. Someone who can be relied on to deal with specific topics – but not a trusted advisor who can help with more challenging problems.

To establish your trusted advisor status you must demonstrate that you can give valuable advice outside your specialism. You must demonstrate you knowledge of business in general, and of the client’s business and industry specifically. This means you must do your homework.

As a professional you must know the key issues of the day. In business and industry generally. In your client’s industry more specifically. And if you can, in your client’s company.

As you get closer and closer to your client, they’ll also begin to share issues that are personal to them and their role. But at the start, it’s the more general industry and company issues which you must focus on.

Always make sure you’re up to date with industry news – and ask the client about their opinions. Put out tentative hypotheses to gently establish the fact that you’ve been thinking about their industry and their company. Highlight a recent move a competitor made and ask them how effective they feel it was – and be prepared to give your tentative views too.

Don’t push this too far, too early. I’ve seen many junior consultants and aspiring partners rush far too fast into trying to “coach” senior clients long before they have earned the right.

Instead, recognise where you are in your relationship: Have I established my basic competence? Have I created an impression of strong general business knowledge? Have I demonstrated useful insights into key business problems? View the development of your relationship as a ladder you climb step by step – and hand-in-hand with your client at every step.

Do this and you will set yourself well apart from the vast majority of professional services business developers.

Do it really well, and you’ll find that the clients you develop your trusted advisor roles with will support you for many, many years.

Why We Need More Experts, Not Fewer

More ExpertsExpert.

It's an overused term for sure.

Over on Danny Brown's blog, Ryan Hanley recently railed against The Commoditization of Expertise.

His argument was twofold. Partly that so many people now call themselves a “guru”, “expert” or “thought leader” that the term's become meaningless.

And partly that most of these folks were just regurgitating what others have already said. They weren't creating new insights themselves.

Well, I'd certainly agree with the first sentiment. If you have to call yourself a guru, or “the king of so-and-so” or “the queen of wotsit” you probably aren't. And you're being embarassing. Stop it.

But I'm going to disagree with the second point.

There's a great need for people who are “local experts”. Only Rosser Reeves invented the USP – but the world needs plenty of experts in it to help businesses create one (if they do it right, of course – most don't).

There was only one Peter Drucker – but millons of organisations needed help in management by objectives, customer focus, decentralisation and all the other stuff he pioneered.

There's only one Michael Porter, but…well, you get the picture.

Ironically, Ryan illustrated his point by saying “..in his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell theorizes that it takes a person 10,000 hours of practice to master a task”.

Of course, the 10,000 hour principle doesn't come from Gladwell. It comes from Professor Anders Ericsson via Geoff Colvin and a bunch of others. Thus perfectly illustrating the point: Gladwell's not an ideas guy. He's a populariser. He's a type of expert in his own right – he finds out the new and interesting stuff that scientists and other “deep experts” are coming up with and makes it accessible to a broad public.

And similarly, a small business in Norwich doesn't need (and can't afford) Seth Godin to come over to show them how to make their business remarkable. But they can hire a local guy who's expert enough in Godin's ideas (and others) to put them into practice.

Now the local expert isn't going to earn quite as much as Seth Godin. But the world needs him too. And he'll be much better rewarded than the local guy who's not so expert.

So whether they're completely original or they're popularisers, or their local implementors – the world needs plenty of experts.

The Twin Track Strategy For Startup Professional Firms

One of the stories I hear the most often from struggling solo professionals or small firms is that they did well for a couple of years after starting up and then just kind of plateaued.

Usually what's happened is that work came in easily in the early days. Ex clients and colleagues heard they were now out on their own and sent work their way. They did a good job and got repeat business and a few referrals.

But eventually, they ran out of steam. The close circle of people who knew them well enough to feel confident sending work to them ran dry or was hit by recession, retirement or other factors.

Sometimes the steam runs out after 12 months. Sometimes after 18 months. Sometimes it can be as long as 2 or 3 years.

But eventually it will run out, unless you start actively marketing yourself and widening your network.

Clients buy for meany reasons. With clients who know you well, who like you, and who trust you and your capabilities, you don't have to do much active marketing or selling to them.

But this can trap you into complacency.

You see, the potential clients who don't know you so well – the ones outside your close circle – they see a different picture.

They don't have that history with you. That experience that tells them you're a safe pair of hands. So they look for external indicators that you'd be a good choice to work with them.

Are you a recognised leader in your field? If they google your name do they see lots of articles where you share your expertise? Are you presenting on your topic frequently? Can they find lots of testimonials saying what a great job you did? Does your website inspire them that you know the area they need help in like the back of your hand?

For most professionals who've been getting all their work from existing relationships and referrals, the answer is usually no.

Many of them are incredibly talented – but they've never had to showcase that talent to the world before. The clients who hired them already knew they were good.

And it takes time to build your reputation. To build your website and fill it with content. To build a portfolio of testimonials, published articles and successful speaking engagements.

So you need to start on this early.

When you first start up the majority of your business is likely to come from people who already know you. Ex clients and referrals. You need to focus and actively work these channels.

But you also need to adopt a parallel strategy of building your authority in your field. Writing, blogging, speaking. These are the things that will bring clients to you in the future and prove your capabilities for people who don't already know you.

In know this from my own personal experience. I went through the exact same pattern with the business from ex clients and colleagues largely drying up after a year or so.

But thankfully (and I have to admit, somewhat luckily as I'd done it out of interest rather than as a deliberate strategy) I'd been writing and blogging for over 12 months by the time that happened and was beginning to bring in leads via my website.

If you're just starting your own business make sure you do something similar. Don't rely on people who already know how great you are to keep you in business forever. You need to start working on building your authority and market position from day 1.

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Image by the real kam75

“How I Escaped My Certain Fate” – A Comedian’s Lesson In Niche Marketing

How I Escaped My Certain Fate

Over the holidays I've been reading comedian Stewart Lee's How I Escaped My Certain Fate which chronicles his rise, fall and rise again in the world of stand up comedy.

As well as being a pretty funny book, it contains a huge marketing lesson for all of us.

Lee was part of double act Lee and Herring who had a relatively successful show on the BBC for a couple of years (relatively successful in the sense that it was my favourite programme and lasted a couple of series). Despite that, when he returned to the stand-up circuit he struggled.

In essence, his nonchalant delivery, choice of material and complex routines meant that he didn't have the mass appeal of more populist comedians of the era. Despite his TV success and respect from “those in the know” (Ricky Gervais cited him as his favourite comedian, for example), he simply couldn't get enough people turning up to his gigs to make money from them. So he retired from stand up in 2000.

After achieving critical (though again, not huge monetary) success as the writer of Jerry Springer The Opera, he returned to stand up in 2004 – prompted partly by being accused of copying Gervais who had actually been influenced by him.

This time, things were different.

Instead of trying to make a success of the mainstream circuit, he took advice from comedy poet John Hegley who told him “you only need a few thousand fans. And if they all give you ten pounds a year, you're away”.

He wasn't particularly ambitious. He just wanted to do what he loved doing and, in his words, “survive”.

Rather than trying to get booked in big venues and trying to attract large mainstream audiences, he got his booker to focus on smaller locations with audiences who would be be open to his type of humour.

“Instead of going on for guaranteed fees in empty council venues and failing to build an audience, or boring the shit out of Friday night punters who just wanted to have some fun between work and the disco, I needed to be in the dedicated comedy clubs that had flourished in my absence from the circuit, playing for smaller fees to smaller crowds composed of people that would get it and would come back next time with a friend”.

His shows were promoted by “…letting nerds all over the land know about your work via these newfangled social networking sites…”.

He took inspiration from the obscure Jazz musicians he loved and how they ran their affairs “direct marketing their work to sustainably farmed fan bases”.

And it worked.

Audiences of 20 to 30 became 50 to 60 became 100 to 200 and eventually up to 500 to 600.

A TV series followed which won him best comedy programme and best male comedian at last year's British Comedy Awards. He's currently mid way through a 4 month daily run at the Leicester Square Theatre before heading out on tour again.

The lesson for all of us?

Most of us and our businesses are more like a Stewart Lee than a Michael McIntyre or a John Bishop.

We're never going to have the widespread appeal to fill stadiums with the average man on the street. But we should be able to find a few thousand people who love what we do.

And that's enough.

If we can find them. If we can connect with them and inspire them to hire us or pay us for something. If they become big enough fans to “bring their friends”.

Then we've got very successful business.

And the way to do it is the same way Lee did it. Direct marketing to a targeted fan base – rather than trying to please a mass audience.