Projecting a Professional Image
Did you know that most people make up their minds about someone within twenty seconds of meeting them? Maybe not completely, but the first impression is usually made within 20 seconds. And in many respects, that first impression is almost impossible to change.
For consultants, it's even worse. Potential clients often form lasting opinions BEFORE they even meet you. It starts with the very first contact.
I own a small consulting firm. It consists of my wife, myself and a couple of other professionals. Our "corporate headquarters" is in the basement of our house. Yet everyday we compete -- and win, against much larger, wealthier consulting firms -- as well as the "local" favorite -- for multi-million dollar campaigns and six-figure fees. In fact, as those who work with me will attest, I am genuinely shocked when we are not selected. I mean really shocked.
It's not arrogance -- it is image and product. I don't think most of our clients realize how small we are, or that we don't have a huge staff and an expensive office.
We do it by focusing on what counts - the service and the process -- without sacrificing the image. They assume we are larger than we are because they see image, process and service come together in one package.
Does your marketing reflect the image you want? Don't think you aren't doing marketing. You may not advertise or send mailings, but you are marketing every day. In life, people make judgments about your professionalism based on your image every day. I have always wondered why it is that the only time I slip into sweats and a T-shirt to get milk at 10 p.m. is the same time I run into the CEO of some local company. It is just proof positive that you never know when you will be selling yourself. So, be prepared.
From the first time a potential client calls our office, he is greeted by a real person. No voice mail, no answering machines, no "leave a message, I'll get right back to you." Harvey McKay, author of Swim with the Sharks, says that he ALWAYS interviews two people personally -- prospective CEOs and receptionists -- because he thinks they are the two most visible, and important, people in the company.
How do we, a small company, afford to have someone answer our phones? If we aren't in the office, the phones forward to the best answering service money can buy. They answer our phones "Capital Quest" -- and they answer within three or four rings. They don't sound bored or sound as if they are an answering service. They sound as though they are a part of our company.
More importantly is what happens after they answer the call. They patch the call through to our cell phone. You would be surprised how impressed a potential client is that our "office" tracked me down on the road and that they were able to avoid phone tag or a trip through voice mail hell. By the way, we pay a whopping $85 per month for this service.
Get a toll-free number. They are cheap -- about $10 a month plus the cost of the call. Call your phone company, and they can set you up with one in about 10 minutes. Clients and prospective clients appreciate the courtesy, and it has become almost standard operating procedure for even small companies to have toll-free numbers. If the prospective client expects it, you need to deliver it.
Now, when the client reaches you, what do they always want...Information! So, what do you send them? Is it impressive? Does it make the statement you want? Or, is it a leftover cover for a college report; you know the ones, red with pockets bought at Walgreen's for a buck, with a home made label stuck to the front? If the materials you use to market yourself don't look great -- why should the client think you can make THEM look good?
Our initial packet is a printed brochure, four pages with a cover. It addresses our service and includes pictures of past clients with brief descriptions. There's a pocket in the back where we could put a proposal. It is designed to start the "sales" process -- convincing the client that we know what we are doing. Each costs about a buck to print, 2,000 at a time. One printing lasts us about three years. They practically scream "efficient" and "professional".
Do you have real, printed letterhead and business cards, or is it printed off of your laser printer? No matter how good your graphic skills and no matter how high-quality the printer, it simply isn't the same. Print it on good quality paper, with two colors. LOOK like you are going to be in business for 5, 10 or even 20 years. Don't look gaudy, but look professional. Put all the information a potential client will need on your business card ; address, phone, cell phone, pager, email, etc. Don't forget that you want them to contact you; so give them what they need in order to do so.
Psssttt...buddy, want a free color laser printer? Try www.freecolorprinters.com. It's legit and, with even moderate usage, it can provide a big boost to your image by producing sharp, clear color reports, presentations and brochures. And yes, it's really free. Check it out.
How about those envelopes? Are they professionally printed or just run through your laser printer? By the way, you do have a laser printer and not an ink jet, don't you?. If printed envelopes were good enough for your first job search, why would they not be desirable for your business? Isn't consulting essentially a continual job search?
When you mail a packet of information, do you simply scribble the name and address on the big mailing envelope? Or, do you take the time to type the name and address on a pre-printed label? Think of it this way: what's the first thing a potential client will see? The label. The little things count.
Image carries over to every single thing that you do, especially in the early stages of your client relationship. We are very cognizant of this fact, right down to the car we rent when we visit for the sales presentation. The last thing a potential client wants to see is their potential consultant driving up in a Mercedes convertible. They know it's their money you are spending.
One of my worst image mistakes regarded a car. We leased a car for one of our employees and got a great deal from a little used car dealer. Unfortunately, within a month, our employee had a meeting with the wealthiest, and most philanthropic guy in town, who happened to be the largest automobile dealer in the state. He made it a point to walk her out to the car. Yep, all the way down three flights of stairs and out to the middle of the parking lot. Did he notice that the car she was driving wasn't sold by one of his 14 dealerships? In a heartbeat. Did he comment on it? In a heartbeat. I will never forget his question: "hmmm, I wonder how much Pete's Motors donates to your clients in our community?" People do notice things. Luckily for us, our employee was smart enough to admit our mistake, but also tell him we did lease the car through the BANK he owned. He laughed -- but his point was made.
Image goes to the way you dress, as well. Our company once won a great contract because, in part, we didn't wear $1,000 suits -- at least that was according to the hospital board president. This small, Midwestern community did not take to expensive suits from out of town. Our blue blazers and gray slacks were professional, without being flashy. Is that any way to pick a consultant? Probably not, but image is one of the primary, often subconscious, selection criteria.
Of course, the opposite is true as well. We almost lost a campaign contract AFTER the study because I wore sports coats, not suits -- and slip-ons, instead of shoes that tie. They told me that it didn't fit the image in their southern community. You can bet the next time I met them, I was wearing a business suit and wing-tip shoes. Small things perhaps, but when you consider the contracts we sign are worth $100,000 or more, what's $150 for a pair of shoes?
Is your website professional? You do have a web presence; don't you? The worldwide web is a great marketing tool. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 60% of our leads come from someone visiting our webpage. To be honest, I'm not thrilled with how ours looks. The information is phenomenal, but the look isn't the best in the world. That's why we are re-doing it -- again -- until we get it right.
Web designers are a dime-a-dozen and relatively inexpensive. Hire one -- don't practice on your own page. It's worth the money -- especially if you plan on ever working outside of your "home" area. Remember that, marketed correctly, your webpage will be your potential clients' FIRST contact with your company. Make certain that it reflects the image you want.
Does the address say something about you, or did you pick up one of those "free services" where your address is "bobsconsulting.freeserver.imtoocheaptopay$100ayear.com." For a very reasonable fee -- about $35 a year -- you can almost always register some variation of your company's name. We love ours at capitalcampaigns.com. It says a lot about what we do.
Do you have an email address? Of course you do, or you wouldn't be getting this newsletter. The real question is whether your email address is easy to remember, or whether it looks like someone just stirred up the alphabet. Something simple will always catch on, and that's part of the process of image marketing.
Image is a big part of the sales process. Over time, you can develop a more personal relationship with a long-term client, but in the short run, it will be your image that will determine whether you get a chance to develop the long-term relationship. In our business, people are always judging us. Learn to make that work FOR you, not against you.
Fare well, and farewell for this week ...