Is Your Professionalism Pushing Customers Away?

At a conference a few years ago, I met a man selling a product that left me baffled. The idea behind their pitch was to make small businesses seem like they were bigger by making people harder to reach. You know those phone menus you get stuck in every time you need customer service from a big company? They sold those for small businesses.

Just to make this clear: the idea wasn’t to make call volume more manageable, it was to make it seem like the company was just so darn busy and successful that they couldn’t take your call without a system to make calls more manageable.

Now you get to be an unscientific poll of one. Raise your hand if you like those phone menus you get stuck in when you call a big company. I can make a pretty good guess at what you’re thinking (even if you didn’t actually raise your hand, cause it’s kind of a weird thing to do while you’re sitting at a computer.)

I don’t believe I know a single person who wouldn’t prefer to get an actual human being on the other end of the line.

The Dangerous Fallacy of “Professionalism”

If you think being professional means creating more distance between you and your customers, you’re stuck in a dangerous fallacy. This isn’t a fallacy that affects all business owners, but the existence of the company described above shows that it affects enough for there to be an industry around catering to them.personalisbetter

The same fallacy drives business writing that’s dry and bland. If you’re afraid that injecting personality into your writing will make it seem less professional, you’re pushing people away.

Why Personal is Always Better

Your current customers, the audience you hope will become customers, all those people you’re trying to reach – they’re all people. No matter how much brands spend in the hopes that people will feel connected to a logo, people will always have an easier time relating to other people.

Your business is made up of a number of people, all with distinct personalities. Any efforts you make to downplay that reality in order to show your business as something less personal and more generically “professional,” creates unnecessary distance between your brand and the people you want to connect with it.

Now take a look at the way you communicate with your audience. Are you doing anything to needlessly push them away? Look for opportunities to add more personality to your content and interactions. When your customers can get a peek at the humans behind the brand,

25 Creative Ideas for Gaining Local Exposure for Your Small Business

small business and local networking

A small business specifically focused on attracting local customers has an advantage over businesses with a broader scope. While it still takes some time, effort and strategizing, building up a reputation within the local community is easier than doing so nationally or internationally.

The most obvious advantage to gaining local exposure is increased referrals and customers, but that’s just the start. By becoming a member of the local business community, you will gain valuable new connections, knowledge, and get the priceless benefit of contributing to something larger than yourself.

Every small business owner has a number of options to choose from to raise the profile of your business in the community. Think carefully about which methods are right for you and your business. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1) Sponsor a charity event.

2) Help plan or host a local networking event.

3) Partner with other local businesses.

4) Give speeches and presentations to relevant groups.

5) Contribute articles to local publications and blogs.

6) Contribute to your local public radio affiliate.

8) Register your website with local directories.

9) Optimize your website for relevant local search terms.

10) Join local business organizations and actively attend networking events.

11) Sponsor a local party, art, or music show.

12) Write articles with valuable advice on local attractions and issues on your business blog.

13) Become a mentor to students and young businesspeople with an interest in your field.

14) Sponsor an educational contest related to your industry that encourages young people to learn more about it.

15) Start an organization or meetup that provides value to other professionals.

16) Offer classes for people interested in learning more about what you do.

17) Create and promote online instructional videos that teach people valuable information about your trade.

18) Participate in local conferences as a speaker, exhibitor, attendee or sponsor.

19) Research who some of the most prominent experts and business people in the community are, and look for opportunities to meet and learn from them.

20) Interview other local small business owners for your blog.

21) Join local LinkedIn Groups and Google Communities and participate (don’t just promote!).

22) Interact with other local businesses, individuals and organizations on social media.

23) Provide eye-catching t-shirts with your business name and logo to friends, partners and customers.

24) Donate a portion of each sale to a local charity, or let customers choose between several for the percentage of their purchase to go to.

25) Start a scholarship for local high school students.

Many of these boil down to seeking out opportunities to get involved in and give back to the local community. One of the nice perks of this approach to business is you get to feel good about the work you do, and benefit professionally at the same time.

10 Lessons that Struggling to Communicate Abroad Taught Me About Business Communication

Sometimes you have a need that seems so simple, but you just can’t get out the right words to communicate it to the person you’re speaking to.

This isn’t an unknown feeling when you’re living in your native country, surrounded by people who speak your own language. But, it becomes an everyday occurrence when you’re in a foreign country that has just a smattering of people who speak the same language, and even fewer who are truly fluent.

Words I think I know are sometimes pronounced so abominably as to be unrecognizable to my audience, and attempts to describe what I mean when I don’t know the correct word are only occasionally successful. For a writer accustomed to using language with ease, struggling to communicate well abroad is a humbling and valuable learning experience.

Many of the challenges I’ve faced are extreme versions of communication challenges common in marketing and the business world in general. Here are a few key lessons.

1) There’s always more than one way to say something.

This is one of the first tricks you fall back on when struggling to communicate in a foreign language. When I get to the point in a sentence where I don’t know the word for what I want to say next, I talk around it. A ball becomes “a circular thing you use in a game,” an ATM becomes “a machine you use for change when all you have is a card.” It’s not elegant, but it gets the job done.

Flaubert reportedly re-wrote everything he put on paper extensively and repeatedly while working on Madame Bovary. He knew the best way to get at le seul mot juste was to try out as many different ways to say the same thing as possible.

When writing a business email or a piece of marketing copy, you’re not aiming for the level of literary masterpiece Flaubert was going for; but, you can still manage to produce a better, clearer piece of writing by taking a little extra time to think about alternate ways to communicate what you’re saying.

2) A little preparation goes a long way.

I went out one day recently with the primary goal of finding somewhere I could print out a boarding pass. As many technological terms in Italian are taken directly from the English (computer, for example, is “computer”), I assumed I’d have an easy time finding where I could print something.

Wrong. I had a completely unsuccessful conversation with a man at a local information office who thought I was asking where to go to buy a computer. Only with the help of his English-speaking colleague did I learn both the correct word for “to print” (stampare) and the closest spot where I could go to do so.

Had I taken 30 seconds to look up the word before I went out, I’d have been able to easily and clearly ask for what I needed.

The words you use, as an industry insider, aren’t always the same ones your target audience is likely to use and understand for the same concepts. Anyone who has thrown the title “copywriter” around to people working in different fields is used to having to give the added explanation “that’s copywrite, not copyright.” Knowing the right words to use with the right audience will save a lot of potential confusion down the line.

3) An interested audience will work to understand.

If you’ve already gained the interest of the person or people you’re communicating with, they’ll be happy to meet you halfway in understanding you and being understood. Communication works much better when there’s a buy-in on both sides.

The conversations I’ve had with the people hosting me, those interested in a friendly conversation, or, oh, Italian men who like the ladies, tend to go smoothly as they’re willing to put in the effort to follow what I’m saying, and help me understand what they have to say.

Someone who already has a good relationship with you or your company, or is coming to you based off of the enthusiastic recommendation of a trusted friend, will have a higher tolerance for any communication difficulties because they already like you.

On the other hand…

4) An uninterested audience will begrudge you for not making communication easier on them.

People at shops and train stations are often annoyed at the girl speaking broken Italian because having to communicate with me makes their jobs harder.

Someone not already convinced communication with you is worth the effort, or who has some reason to be unhappy with your company, is going to be much less patient with anything you say that’s hard to understand.

Imagine waiting for tech support on hold for 30 minutes, and then talking to someone who uses tech jargon you can’t follow. Your impulse won’t be to calmly ask them to put that in simpler terms, you’ll probably want to do some yelling.

For anyone that hasn’t already been won over to you or your company, it’s worth making an extra effort to communicate clearly and use a tone that can only be construed as helpful.

5) Context is crucial.

The difference between trying to have a conversation somewhere crowded with loud music playing or in a quiet park or restaurant is considerable. Just as who you’re talking to changes the way to approach a conversation, so does where you are, the subject matter being discussed, and the relationship you have with the audience.

In marketing, this point has less to do with being able to hear the words being spoken and more to do with thinking carefully about how people are coming to the information you’re putting before them. The words you use on the website’s product page will be seen by prospects at a different point in the process, looking for a different sort of information, than the words in your blog posts, emails, or that you share on social media.

The experience of the information you provide in these various formats differs and what you say, and how you say it, should reflect the knowledge of those differences.

6) One-on-one conversations work better than trying to participate in a group.

Hanging out with a group of Italians who are all more comfortable speaking with each other and for each other (e.g. quickly and naturally, with some slang here and there) means I’m less likely to actively participate, and more likely to quietly (try to) follow and learn from those speaking.

There are a lot of benefits to group communication. You have the opportunity to meet more people, learn from the questions and ideas of a variety of minds, and appreciate the difference in expertise and perspective presented.

Nonetheless, a more personalized, focused interaction one-on-one is often much more productive than a communique meant for a large audience.

7) The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Isn’t this just true of everything in life? My first week back in Italy, I thought I’d lost all of the ability I’d gained in my year here 6 years ago. But, the second week I realized my questions and conversations came a little easier, and by the third felt pretty close to where I’d been at the end of my year abroad.

Each conversation boosts my ability and confidence a bit more.

With writing and speaking, it’s inevitable that you’ll get better the more of it you do, especially if you’re mixing research into your practice. The words start to come more easily and confidently, you find yourself getting faster, and you get better at picking up techniques and wording that work.

8) Never hesitate to ask more questions.

The most egregious communication errors occur when people get complacent and assume they’re understanding each other just fine. I might feel awkward asking more questions of an annoyed ticket seller, but if I’m not 100% confident that I know which train to get on and where to get off for my connection, I’m much better off irritating a stranger than getting stuck in some small town in Sicily without knowing where to go next.

With clients, customers, vendors, colleagues, and, let’s face it, friends, family and significant others, you are much less likely to find yourself in conflict if you’re particular about clarifying terms and getting as much information upfront as possible.

You don’t want to learn that your customer thought your product had a capability it doesn’t after they’ve purchased it and are pissed. Or, that your client had a 20-page white paper in mind, rather than the 6-page one you sent in, and now wants you to do over triple the work for the same rate.

If someone gets irked at you for wanting more information and clarification from them, that’s their problem. You want to make sure you know what you’re doing and how to do it right, or what’s the point?

9) Being understood is more important than being clever.

I remember having a conversation with a fellow student in my abroad program years ago about the realization that it’s very difficult to communicate a distinct personality in a new language. Cracking jokes, or communicating personal quirks, just doesn’t have a place when you’re struggling to communicate at a basic level.

Humor and wit in marketing can often work fantastically and give your brand more personality. But, they should be lower on the priority list than communicating who you are and what you do effectively.

If you’ve got a good handle on that part, and someone in your organization is pretty adept in the humor department (there’s nothing worse than trying for wit and failing), then building up that personality around and within the basics can work fine. Just focus on clarity first.

10) You can’t always predict which concepts will be difficult to explain, and which will be simple.

With the Romance languages, many of the more formal and academic terms are very similar across the languages. But, the everyday common-usage terms are distinct. When the Roman Empire was imposing its language on all the territories it conquered, people deigned to use it for some business, scholarship, and writing; but when it came to talking amongst themselves and facing everyday tasks, they held on to their original languages more.

Thus, it’s actually easier to have an academic conversation with someone about great literature or history than to chat casually about the weather, food, or how your day went.

In life, we’re often not all that great at predicting what’s easy for others to understand, and what’s more challenging. Thinking back to the earlier tech support example, the guy on the other end of the line doesn’t know how adept you are with technology. Maybe you’re something of an expert and would be offended if he didn’t speak to you at your level, or maybe you’re the kind of person who really does need to hear that question that frustrates so many: “have you tried restarting?”

We have to be prepared to shift how we talk about our expertise based on the needs of the person we’re communicating with. Sometimes the concepts we think are a piece of cake may actually be those that make our audience want to bang their heads against the wall.

The Secret to Good Marketing…

The end goal of marketing is to help a company make more sales. Each company must determine the best intermediary goals their marketing should accomplish in order to reach that point. But to be successful, marketing must aid in creating a more profitable business.

Nonetheless, marketing serves a different role than sales does.  Sales is about getting a person to cross that final line of making a purchase or signing a contract. Marketing is about getting them to the line to begin with.  If you meet a new guy at a party and he spends a lot of time talking about how awesome he is, you probably won’t walk away from the conversation convinced. If you hear from your good friend Joe how awesome this guy is, or if he impresses everyone at the party with great jokes and stories, he’s a lot more likely to win you over as someone worth knowing.

In the same way, a business offering up a sales pitch about how great they are won’t gain much traction without a reputation to back that up.

Marketing (alongside the equally important customer service) is an important tool in building that reputation. You have to:

a)    Make sure people know your company exists (and what you do), and

b)   Build up enough trust that you’re the first place they’ll turn when they need what you offer.

To do so, you have to focus less on yourself and how great what you have to offer is, and think more about what the customer needs and how you can help.

…It’s About Giving

Content Marketing Means GivingThe secret is that you have to set ego to the side and focus on providing something of value. You should already be doing this for current customers, whose testimonials and positive word of mouth are some of the best marketing tools in your arsenal. To attract new customers and gain their trust, you need to think about what you’re willing to offer them for free that will demonstrate your knowledge and integrity.

In many cases, this means content. Turn the expertise and good ideas you have into blog posts, articles, videos and other forms of informational tools that answer questions your prospective customers are likely to have.

It could also mean a free version of your product with lighter features than the paid version.  If you’re a service provider, this could take the form of a free consultation that gives potential clients a taste of your expertise tailored to their needs.

None of these forms of giving are selfless. They’re designed to help you gain attention for your business and build a reputation around your expertise. Even so, isn’t it nice to embrace a business approach that doubles as doing something good for people?

Know Where to Draw the Line

Ok, so giving plays an important role in good marketing, but you’re still running a business. You have to approach your giving with a strategy in mind.

If you’re providing a free version of your product, decide just how much functionality you’re comfortable giving away before users have to upgrade to the paid version.

If your focus is more on content, most of what you produce should be focused on value for the consumer, but some of it can be about you. MacKenzie Fogelson recommends the 80/20 rule when it comes to social sharing. The same can be reasonably applied to the content you produce.

If 80% of your content is all about helping your target audience, 20% can be about product updates, special deals, and other forms of promotion. If you do enough preliminary work to gain the customer’s trust, those pitches will only be getting to an audience already interested in what you do.  By that point, you’ll be the guy at the party with Joe’s recommendation and the stream of jokes that have already made everybody laugh, and people won’t be as inclined to doubt you’re as awesome as you say you are.

The Danger of Going “Too Broad”

I thought I had a pretty good idea of how to communicate my services, when I found myself fumbling recently over the question of my specialty. When you’re talking to people who work in different fields, an elevator pitch that offers a fairly general description of the work you do is usually good enough. But, in a room full of people who do similar work, it becomes important to know how to identify and articulate just where your strengths fit in.

The lesson reminded me of a conversation I had with a professor in college. I was trying to pick out a subject to focus a paper about Absalom, Absalom on and as I kept listing off topics, she kept saying “too broad.” After a fair amount of listing, I finally came up with a focused enough subject for her approval. I ended up writing over 15 pages on one particularly notable scene in the book. She was right, anything more broad would have made for a behemoth of a paper.

I started off freelancing thinking I had to be good at a long list of specialties to make it work, and spent the first few months learning what my professor had taught me years earlier: the importance of having a focus.

You can either be mediocre at a lot of things, or really good at a few.

Having a specialty or niche has a number of benefits:

  • It gives you the room you need to become an expert at something. No one person has the time to be an expert at a long list of skills and subjects, but any one of us can get a lot closer to that title a lot faster by honing in on a particular specialty.
  • It makes it easier to find your target audience. Whether you’re a freelancer or a business, looking for customers and clients from a massive audience is more challenging than being able to focus on a target group. A writer with experience working with oil and gas clients knows who to target, and can make a more persuasive pitch for why she’s the right pick than one casting a wide berth for any client at all.
  • You can become a part of a community. In any field, who you know is important. There’s a wide world of people out there and if you can focus your efforts on making connections with people in a few select industries, you can get more out of the relationships you have.

If you can pinpoint a focus that best fits your skills, you can approach your marketing with much greater efficiency and get more out of the time you spend on the work you do.