I admit that my job title is unusual, and I should not be surprised that I get a lot of questions about it. To me, however, the name says it all — my job is “Director of Corporate Visibility.” Here’s how we think about it at PCI, a marketing agency based in the Washington, DC area, and how our thought process might benefit your own organization.
Like many small-to-midsize professional services firms, PCI traditionally relied almost entirely upon referrals and word-of-mouth for its business development. Certainly there is no better way to get new business than to have your own clients talk you up. But there is also a built-in limitation to depending exclusively upon this channel. You are restricted to your clients’ own networks of contacts, and you are hoping that they will see fit to look for opportunities on your behalf. Even clients who are deliriously happy with your services may not make it a priority to get you new business, though, and some even guard you jealously, afraid that your attention will be diverted by other parties.
PCI did a better job than many of networking and asking for referrals. Still, I had to agree when my CEO stood up at our annual kickoff meeting and said, “Let’s face it. In the grand scheme of things, nobody knows who we are.”
Professional services firms often struggle with business development. We serve a select clientele – the decision makers who choose legal, accounting, and in our case, marketing firms to meet their corporate needs. We don’t have a shiny product to take pictures of; we don’t have an easily identifiable competitive advantage. The fact is, it is very hard for someone outside of our profession to judge who is good and who is not, or who will be the best for their particular situation. For this reason, most forms of advertising don’t work very well. People don’t make a decision about who is going to handle their critical marketing and advertising needs from an AdWords blurb or radio commercial; they act only after meeting and becoming comfortable with the individuals who will be doing their work.
This is a key fact that many professional services firms fail to grasp. We all pay lip service to the idea that “our people are our competitive advantage,” but when it comes to business development, we forget that and try to tell prospective clients why our firms are so great. They don’t care. They want to know that the people with whom they will interact on a day to day basis have their back, and have the experience and expertise to solve their problems.
Personally, I take this for granted. I am a people person, and I have no problem to put myself out there as the face of the company. I’ve worked hard to develop a personal brand, not because I plan to jump ship, but because I know that certain clients will gravitate to me and the firm of which I am a part. This is not something with which everyone is comfortable. Many of my colleagues at PCI are outstanding individual contributors, true artists and experts in their field. But the idea of leveraging that expertise in a public forum, even on behalf of the company, is foreign to them. My affectionate message to them: get over it. The world is not going to beat a path to your door if they don’t know the door exists.
So when my CEO asked me to take on the job of making the company more visible, I knew it was not going to be an easy lift. But here are the three strategies that he and I settled on, and some sense of how they are already beginning to pay off.
Build a Strong Home Base. They have to be able to find you, and when they do, they have to receive a benefit for their search. This means two things in today’s marketplace, even for professional services: you simply must recognize the need for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and you must have a website that represents your human assets in the best possible way.
The algorithms for Google and the other search engines (yes, there are other search engines) are in constant flux – both to provide better search results for users and to keep people from gaming the system. SEO is therefore a never-ending battle, if your potential clients are going to be able to find you through an organic search. And search they do –don’t kid yourself that your client base is older or less digitally native. Even senior executives use Amazon and Nordstrom.com, and the behavior carries over to their searches for professional service firms.
Then, when they get to your website, will they get what they came for? Is it more blather about your firm, or is there unique, sharable content that spotlights your people and their unique expertise? We took a hard look at PCI’s SEO and website, and came to the inescapable conclusion that it all had to be redone. From scratch. It was a project that we liken to a surgeon taking out his own appendix, without anesthesia, but it’s done now and we’re seeing the benefits in the form of new clients and new business, for the first time originating from something besides referrals.
Get Social. It’s no longer an option for a professional services firm to participate in social media. But it’s even more critical for your people to do so, as well. Social media has become one of the most powerful means for breaking out of the constraints imposed by the size of your personal network, and that of your best clients.
This does not mean that every member of your team needs to be spending the day posting, tweeting, and commenting on every social media platform. It’s generally better to pick one or two – with LinkedIn and Twitter being my current favorites for business-related participation. But recognize that social media participation helps to build linkages in a way that nothing else can replicate.
This comes naturally for me, but it frankly has involved pulling teeth at PCI. Some people just consider themselves “private,” and don’t see the value. I understand, but as with all things there is a balance. Keep private social media private – that’s as it should be – then pick one or two channels for which each team member can participate on a professional level. We’re seeing a huge increase in our links, likes, and shares as more and more of us get social on a daily basis.
Go to the Show. Online digital is great. But there is still no substitute for personal contact. The best leads will come from people who see you, meet you, or hear you and decide that you have something to offer them. This is no mystery – there are opportunities everywhere for speaking engagements, panels, workshops, and talks.
I’ve never met one I didn’t like. Every opportunity to get in front of people has the potential to multiply a network many times over. I’ve spoken to CPAs in Ohio, lawyers in Illinois, and infographic artists in Oregon – the last being the most interesting since I knew next to nothing about infographics before I started working on the presentation. Even an audience that yields no potential clients is a chance to polish your message and work on your presentation techniques.
So part of my job is not only fulfilling opportunities to speak myself, but also getting more of the PCI team – sometimes kicking and screaming – in front of in-person audiences as well. They never fail to step up, and we’ve begun to get the best feedback of all – requests for follow-up appearances.
Corporate visibility – through SEO, social media participation, and in-person presentations. Today, it’s an essential way to transform business development efforts. The end result can be the gold standard for a professional services firm: to no longer be waiting for business, begging for business, or hustling for business, but instead to have the business chasing you.