Is the client buying you or the brand?

For as long as I’ve been marketing professional services this question has been one of the most fiercely debated. Does the client buy the anticipated relationship with the practitioner, someone they need to trust implicitly and actually enjoy working with, to get the best results? Or, do they need the name of a Big 4 or top-tier law firm to provide the level of comfort that comes with the reputation of the brand?

I believe the answer is both. Clients do make unconscious decisions about you and how they feel about you personally. However, they will also make unconscious decisions about your firm, based on their recognition, or unrecognition, and perceptions of your firm (i.e. the firm’s brand). This is the power of branding and brand positioning. Both your personal brand and the brand value of your firm will influence the prospect’s decision to put their trust in you and your firm.

Your reputation as a practitioner in the market will affect the number of quality referrals you receive as well as your sales conversions. When the prospect meets with you they will make very fast decisions about how they feel about you. People want to work with people they like. They don’t need to become your best friends, but clients will be prepared to pay more for service they perceive as excellent value. Part of the value equation is trust and you need to develop rapport with a client to develop trust.

There are many books and articles about how to develop rapport and trust, including David Maister’s “The Trusted Advisor”, first published in 2000. The article “Becoming a Trusted Advisor – the Ten Behaviours”, by Michael Fleming is a good short guide:

“Lawyers spend a lot of time constructing complex, technical, logical arguments to persuade their clients why they should engage them for particular work. I’m not saying that logic doesn’t have a role to play but too many professional advisors spend too much time polishing their logical arguments and not enough time thinking about how they might better connect emotionally with their clients. Trusted advisors understand that it’s vital that they try to make an emotional connection with their clients. The good ones do it by using stories, anecdotes, examples, analogies, imagery, visual aids, and even some light humour.”

Your personal brand, your ‘reputation’ in the local market, your online (digital) personal brand, and your behaviour in-person, all influence your success. Your firm’s brand also influences this success. A brand is an implied promise (to existing and prospective clients) that the level of quality people have come to expect from a brand will continue with future purchases of the same brand. Strong brand management can increase a firm’s perceived value to the client and thereby increase brand equity. This can increase future sales by making a comparison with competing firms more favourable. It can also enable the firm to charge more for the service.

There is evidence that a firm with a strong brand, i.e. a good reputation in the market, will attract higher yielding clients and can demand a higher fee for services provided. Some clients actively choose a firm based on their brand, for example a publicly listed company choosing a Big 4 accounting firm for a financial audit, as they perceive the need for a certain level of experience and resources. Other more cost-conscious clients may perceive these firms as too expensive, but they will have perceptions of other firms.

According to Lee Frederiksen from Hinge Marketing in his article “Brand Strength and the Halo Effect in Marketing”:

“The concept of a strong brand is something that we all understand on a very intuitive level. From our own experience, we know that firms with high brand strength do better in the marketplace, whether they need new clients, business partners or employees.

So what exactly is brand strength? While there is no universal definition, we describe the brand strength of a professional services firm as the combination of a firm’s reputation and its visibility. Firms that have better reputations coupled with higher visibility have stronger brands.”

Prospective clients are searching for answers online, so firms that have a solid content strategy, to help build a strong brand, will feel the benefits of more enquiries, but if the culture of the firm and the personal brand of its front line does not align with its external brand it won’t be growing at the speed it would like to.

If you are a senior member of your firm, a principal or senior staff member, you need to be developing your own personal brand, as well as supporting the development of your firm’s brand. You can no longer rely on reputation alone. To achieve positive personal branding and powerful firm branding you need to be strategic and proactive.

  1. Develop your personal brand by becoming a thought leader. Becoming a thought leader involves specialising in a sector of the market or providing a niche service, and developing content (articles, white papers, events, speeches, etc.) that demonstrates your expertise in this area.
  2. Develop your personal brand by developing your emotional intelligence. This includes how you build rapport with clients and prospective clients. Train everyone in the firm and arm them with the interpersonal skills to make better emotional connections.
  3. Develop the firm’s brand by actively working on your brand’s presence in the market. This can be done online with a sophisticated content strategy. Support your firm’s marketing team or engage an external marketing consultant to spend time developing and executing a strategic content plan to proactively position your firm.
  4. Develop the firm’s brand by ensuring that your external brand activities align with your internal culture and client service standards. It’s not enough to say that you help your clients achieve their business goals if your staff do not know how to do this and just revert to the comfort of compliance work.

In a post-GFC professional services environment, where clients are demanding more of everything, you can differentiate both yourself and your firm, but it needs to be done with intent and with discipline. You need to plan to develop your own personal brand, as well as your staff members’ personal brands, and your firm’s brand. Prospective clients are making decisions based on their perceptions of you and your firm, your personal brand and your firm’s brand, so you need to actively develop both.

Employee engagement = Brand engagement

satisfaction_meter_03

According to Wikipedia “Customer engagement (CE) is an effect, a reaction, a connection, a response and/or an experience of customers with one another, with a company or a brand”. The key word is “connection”. It’s all about connection. You want your clients or customers to connect with your brand. In B2B, and also in B2C, you need your customers to connect with your people in order for them to connect with the brand. It doesn’t matter if the connection is made in person, via social media, or just through reading your content. The human element is always there.

So, if humans count, and customers want meaningful, authentic connections with the people within your organisation, then you need your employees to be authentic and genuinely care about the interactions they’re having. The only way this will happen is if your employees are engaged. They need to feel engaged with the work they are doing day-to-day. The more engaged they are, the more effort they will apply to the work you would like them to do (including interacting with customers). This also applies to non-customer facing staff. Whatever job they have to do within the organisation will ultimately affect the product or service, regardless of what that is.

Published studies like the Aberdeen Group’s EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT: PAVING THE WAY TO HAPPY CUSTOMERS go a long way to demonstrating the direct correlation between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. In the report they state,

Engaged employees positively influence the buying behaviors of customers, leading to higher customer loyalty and profitable growth.

Aberdeen concludes through the research, linking employee engagement measures with customer satisfaction levels, that,

Companies with formal employee engagement programs are indeed enjoying the fruits of their labor in fostering an environment where employees are motivated to satisfy clients.

When we take this a step further and connect customer satisfaction with brand engagement, we conclude that employee engagement is intrinsically linked to brand engagement. Satisfied, happy, engaged employees equals satisfied, happy, engaged customers. So, you can have a direct and positive affect on your brand by implementing a formal employee engagement program.

When developing a formal employee engagement program, here are a few things to consider:

Better employee satisfaction surveys

When conducting staff satisfaction surveys, or employee engagement surveys, companies often don’t ask the right questions. Surveys should be asking meaningful questions linked to drivers of engagement. They should be measuring the employee’s level of trust in management, satisfaction with their job role, and things like connection to the vision of the organisation. Surveys should be conducted frequently, annually, quarterly, or even monthly, and can be large annual surveys, covering everything, or quick snapshots in particular areas of focus. The outcomes should be quickly publicised within the organisation and areas of improvement acted upon as soon as possible, or investigated further.

It must come from the top

Even the most sophisticated engagement program will fail without the support of a company’s senior leaders. Leadership is a significant driver of employee engagement and therefore the company’s culture. Employees look to the senior leaders for guidance, so it’s crucial that leaders actively support these initiatives.

It’s all about trust

The key to a positive corporate culture is trust. Employees need to trust the leadership team and, equally, leaders need to trust employees to do the best job they can do. Employees need enough space to determine the best way to complete a task within a reasonable amount of time. The default position should be trust first, unless someone does something to lose that trust. Employees shouldn’t have to earn trust. If they are qualified, and satisfied all of the recruitment criteria, they should be allowed to get on with doing the job they were hired to do.

Ultimately, your engaged employees will deliver exceptional service to your customers, which, in turn, creates brand engagement and brand loyalty, so it’s worth spending time and money on developing and implementing employee engagement strategies and initiatives. A formal employee engagement program can create brand engagement and lead to increased company performance.

Building a B2B Brand: Why Culture is Critical

Deloitte

Strong brands are built over time. These days, we are much more conscious of brand equity, so we are able to plan for, and intentionally create, a brand identity, a brand’s voice and perceived value in the market.

Most dictionary definitions of “Brand” go something like this:

– a category of products that are all made by a particular company and all have a particular name

– a particular kind or type of something

– a mark that is burned into the skin of an animal (such as a cow) to show who owns the animal.*

In fact the last definition is where the word “brand” comes from. A brand is so much more than that. A brand is the reason why people will queue for hours for the next iPhone and it goes far beyond the product itself. The quality of the product does have an impact, but it is more about what you perceive that product to say about you.

In a professional services environment, a brand is an implied promise (to existing and prospective clients) that the level of quality people have come to expect from a brand will continue with future purchases of the same brand. If you’re selling a service, you’re selling the skills and the knowledge of your employees to clients. What if prospective clients have had no experience with your brand at all? You need to create the desire to experience your brand.

It begins with your culture. Capturing the hearts and minds of your employees and activating a purpose. Your purpose is the defining reason for existing that extends beyond the bottom line and provides necessary meaning to all who interact with the brand.

The history of accounting is thousands of years old and can be traced to ancient civilizations, but the oldest continuously functioning accounting firm can be traced to Josiah Wade in 1780 in Bristol, England, who specialised in auditing the accounting of merchants. The company became Tribe, Clark and Company in 1871 and finally merged with Deloitte in 1969.

Deloitte is an excellent example of where brand is synonymous with culture.

Deloitte considers its 195,000 skilled professionals to be actively shaping its brand. The professional services providers are the brand. In Deloitte, B2B is viewed as P2P — people to people — and Deloitte member firm professionals offer personal knowledge, insights, and experience. Training is provided worldwide to educate Deloitte professionals about the importance and function of the brand.

In September 2008, Deloitte Belgium welcomed its newest class of recent graduates and held a special event at which they met some of their new colleagues and were introduced to the firm. The introduction was most notable for its conclusion: at the end of the day, each of the newcomers received keys to their very own Deloitte-branded Mini Cooper car. Following the screening of a promotional film featuring hundreds of the cars touring the streets of Brussels (shot from a helicopter) and group participation in a safe-driving course, the new hires departed with a new car and a new appreciation for the organization they had joined. The initiative was rolled out in 2008, but juniors who start at Deloitte Belgium still receive a Mini and color the streets of Belgium.**

Deloitte recognises that people are the driving force behind the interaction with all relevant audiences. They use communication to lead to connectivity, to lead to brand awareness, to lead to brand experience, to lead to brand loyalty.**

Culture can be deliberately influenced. There are many ways to positively influence employee engagement and have a positive effect on the firm’s culture. Employee benefits, such as Deloitte’s cars, are only a small part of the overall cultural picture. If your people are engaged and united in an authentic, genuine purpose they will work hard, achieve shared goals, and deliver the best possible service to your clients.

*http://www.merriam-webster.com
**Designing B2B Brands: Lessons from Deloitte and 195,000 brand managers, Carlos Martínez Onaindía & Brian Resnick.

Achieving Brand Alignment Through Your Employees

Sasha Strauss talking about the theory behind this work. Aligning your internal messages to your external brand messages. Creating the story for your employees, so they are all talking about your organisation in the way you would like them to. Ensuring they are engaged with your brand, proud of the firm and proud of the work they do for clients.