Talking with the president of a client firm at a recent social event, I realized our work with Bill (not his real name) and his company illustrated SO many things I've learned from being in business for over 23 years. And today, I would like to share some of them with you.
The Interested Introvert
Soon after starting the firm I took a selling and marketing course for CPAs where I learned two things I'll never forget:
- An interested introvert can be a better salesperson than an interesting extrovert
- It takes nine favorable impressions for someone to feel sufficiently comfortable to do business with you.
The first statement was exactly what I needed to hear early on, because I am a VERY strong introvert – certainly the opposite of the stereotypical extroverted salesperson.
Why can an interested introvert be a good salesperson? Because an introvert is less likely to talk about himself and his firm, and more likely to ask questions about the prospect's issues and needs. And, boy, could I ask questions! While I have always been naturally inquisitive, my initial training and experience as an external auditor took this to a higher level.
Why might an interesting extrovert not be an effective sales person? Because such a person is likely to spend much of a meeting talking about himself, his company, and its products or services, while focusing little attention on listening to the prospect.
Nine Favorable Impressions
The second statement has driven our marketing efforts for over 20 years because, if we do things well, we can get nine favorable impressions with most anyone in seven months. How?
- Impression one is most important – an initial conversation or meeting provides the opportunity to get things started. At this time, I do my best to ask questions and learn what's important to this person, get their business card, and obtain permission to subscribe them to our monthly e-newsletter.
- Impression two is a followup e-mail, thanking the person for taking time to tell me about his or her business, and letting me do the same. I also mention a comment from our conversation, attempt to relate this to something on our web site, and provide a link to that content.
- Impressions three through nine come from our seven monthly e-newsletters subsequent to that initial meeting.
So, how well does Bill's experience with Todd Herman Associates illustrate these two statements?
Bill and I first met at a seminar jointly conducted by my friend, Abby Donnelly, and me in 2008. After the seminar, I sent Bill a followup email, while our monthly e-newsletters kept our name in front of him with interesting and useful information.
Almost two years later, Bill finally had a need that prompted him to pick up the phone and arrange a meeting. During that 90 minute meeting, I talked about the firm, our experience and our capabilities for probably five minutes. Then, my associate and I went into questioning mode to understand his issues and his needs. At the end of the meeting, we had obtained sufficient information to prepare a proposal for Bill.
When Bill and I talked about a week later, he said he had an intern who could handle this work. He thanked me for our time, and I thanked him for the opportunity to meet him and learn about his business.
Fast forward seven months, when I got another call from Bill. Here is his opening sentence – "Todd, I made a big mistake not hiring your firm back in January. I've just put off the 'go-live' date of our system upgrade for the fourth time, and I've got to get this thing done quickly." I told him to give me a day or two to check our projects and availability, and I'd get back to him. Fortunately, we were able to meet his needs and timeframe, so we got the work!
Is this experience typical? Yes.
Two simple statements – two foundations of our longevity. Anyone can do them. Few will. Why not?
Taking the Long View
Most people fail to take the long view when marketing sophisticated services such as ours. They are impatient or run out of money. They resort to selling, instead of networking and marketing and nurturing.
I like to put it this way – given the nature of our work, there's only about a 5% chance that someone will need today what we can provide them. Over the next 2-3 years, however, that 5% chance will likely become 80% to 90%, and we want to be top of mind when it does. Thirty Months – that's how long it took for Bill to have a need we could serve. Taking the long view – another foundation of our longevity.
Providing High-Quality Content ... and Now, Award-Winning Content!
What helped keep us top of mind in Bill's mind? Our monthly e-newsletter. Had we not provided Bill interesting and useful content in his inbox monthly, he would have stopped opening and reading our e-newsletter – or have opted out entirely.
Until two years ago, people had to take my word about the quality of our monthly e-newsletter. And then ... we entered the Apex Awards for Publication Excellence for the first time – and won! So we entered again in 2012 ... and won again!
In the 2011 Apex Awards, we won in the "Newsletter Writing" category for our December 2010 e-newsletter, "The Unreal Other."
In the 2012 Apex Awards, we won in the "Special Purpose Writing" category for our January 2012 e-newsletter, "Closing the Gaps: Using Personal Accountability to Progressively See More Clearly."
If you look at the other award winners in these or other categories, you'll see the other winners are either much larger companies, or persons or firms who write for a living. Not too shabby, for a 10-person business technology consulting firm. High-quality content – another key to longevity.
"What Do You Do?"
Back to Bill and his company. Our first project with him focused more on the technology side of things – a system upgrade was stalled, and it needed to get back on track. Problems had to be analyzed, decisions needed to be made, and tasks had to get done – and they all were. This type of project is easy to describe at a business social or a networking event, when I'm invariably asked the classic line, "So, tell me – what do you do?"
The answer is not that easy. In fact, I've always found it VERY hard to CONCISELY describe what we do, because what we do can differ widely from one client to the next. Look at it from my standpoint – I've got to sum up over 30,000 hours of service to over 175 clients, on over 775 distinct projects, spanning more than 23 years and many different industries. A single sentence? That's a tall order.
For the first 22 years, I went through several different versions of an "elevator pitch." Then, beginning in October 2011, I began to re-think how I was describing the firm ... because people still weren't "getting it." The result?
Todd Herman Associates is a business technology consulting firm focused on non-routine technology issues. We are the ones to call when you need to ...
... replace QuickBooks ...
... get two systems to "talk" to each other ...
... shrink process cycle time ...
... or tame large volumes of data.
This one finally resonated with people on the first try. My search for an elevator pitch was over.
"What Value Do You Bring?"
Or was it? It soon dawned on me – "What do you do?" is the wrong question. The better question, for my firm or any other firm, is "What value do you bring your clients?" The second project we did for Bill's company illustrates this.
The first project – finishing their system upgrade – was merely the prerequisite for the REAL project, overhauling their production planning and scheduling processes. This second project delivered the real business value – we helped pinpoint how scheduling certain jobs and departments could bring machined components into the assembly area all at the same time, coordinating many different tasks and making better use of constrained resources.
Armed with this insight, I could FINALLY begin to answer some probing questions by our new Manager of Business Development, who wanted to better understand WHY clients call on us. It boils down to this:
- Todd Herman Associates delivers business value by providing solutions to five basic issues:
- It costs too much to ...
- It takes too long to ...
- We have too many ...
- I really need to ...
- I wish we could ...
While each of these issues can occur in various areas of a business or across different industries, they really reflect different flavors of "pain" – whether a vague pain (need or wish) or a sharply defined pain (cost, cycle time, or quality). For Bill's first project, the system upgrade, Todd Herman Associates delivered value by fixing two piercing pains – the upgrade was taking too long, and this delay caused late shipments for many customer jobs. For his second project, we fixed several pains – inaccurate manual scheduling was replaced with highly accurate system scheduling, machines began being utilized more efficiently, time and energy spent expediting late jobs was dramatically reduced, and work finally flowed smoothly through the plant.
The answer to what value you bring might be what flavor of pain you and your company can fix.
Bill, I Owe You ...
So, Bill, thank you for giving me the perfect lede for this topic, and for sparking my thinking to tie together themes evolving over the past 23 years.
Todd L. Herman