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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fear

Every few years, purveyors of public opinion publish lists of what Americans fear the most. Invariably, issues such as getting cancer or not being financially secure in old age would be somewhere on the list. The leading fear almost always was having to speak in front of a large group of people. But the most recent study that I have seen has a dominant theme in tune with the last two years—people’s biggest fear is losing their jobs and service oriented companies are afraid of losing existing or prospective business.

Today, we will focus on this fear issue from a business standpoint. Talk to almost anyone in the business world and no one feels secure about their clients anymore. Part of the reason is the weak economy, the nagging high unemployment and timidity about spending that most marketers are living today. Also, the life span of a marketing director at a U.S. company is now amazingly under two years. So, your clients are afraid for themselves and often point fingers at agencies, broadcasters, publishers and cable providers when anything goes wrong.

Management gurus usually suggest the following actions that are all common sense but are not novel:

1) Make yourself indispensable to your clients. Be there for them 24/7. Give them service until they say enough!
2) Do all the dirty work. Smooth things over with senior client management; pour the coffee, show up for weekend sessions. Generally hold their hands. If need be, take blame for things even if the marketing director was the villain of the piece or chief architect of a mishap.
3) Live and breathe the client. The client’s work is honored throughout your organization, and you become totally client focused to the point of being boring and obsessive.

Recently, I ran across a consultant who struck me as totally fearless so I thought I would report his approach which was different but seems to work very well.

My newfound friend entered a meeting and breezed through his credentials (which were extensive and impressive) in about 90 seconds. He provided no power-point, no beautifully embossed folders with a slick sales piece. He did almost no selling but within two minutes had already started consulting. What he did was to begin asking questions about our mutual prospect.

One thing stunned me. We both were given briefing books about 500 pages long. I devoured it over a weekend as is my habit and thought that I had found some core company problems on page 263 and another bombshell buried in a table on page 438. My ally clearly had a nodding acquaintance with it but told me that he had played 45 holes of golf the previous weekend.

What the consultant did was get the people talking. Most marketers love to talk about their business. Within a half hour he was making suggestions as his process of discovery began to flesh out. In my experience, most of us wait to get briefed or hired before we give our product away. He was pleasant and appeared competent but had no arrogance. At times, he asked questions that I thought were obvious as they were clearly answered in the briefing book. No one but I seemed offended. They answered in great detail and he kept throwing up suggestion after suggestion. The mix of dumb questions laced with some seemingly lame suggestions had me embarrassed for him now and then. He forged ahead and the particularly egregious recommendations were dismissed with a smile by the prospects and a “that will never work” but the clients were all on the edge of their seats to hear what else he had up his sleeve.

Finally after five hours, the client asked what the fee structure was. He smiled and said “why don’t we do another session really soon and we can work that out.” A day later he followed up with nice summary and a few more ideas. I called him and said what if they take your suggestions and mine and decide to do nothing or go elsewhere? “You worry too much, Don. The more we learn, the better our suggestions will be. And they have a lot more problems than they realize.”

He got the business, still works with them, and I hope to work with him again on other projects. Here are few comments on his approach:

1) Both he and I are not kids. Grey hair helps in that we can be more fearless than many. If we do not get hired, it will not affect what we eat for breakfast the next day. Our kids are out of college so we do not have to have the heart to heart chat that East Podunk State is your only option, son. Not having strong financial pressure, we never look desperate because we are not. Perhaps we are looser than the competition.
2) He got away with a few reckless questions because he had credibility in many other areas. One complaint that I have about the younger generation is that they often have no filter. Many times someone will blurt out “what’s that” or want a definition of a term that an account supervisor in a particular industry has to know. So, everyone cannot do what he does. But, he likely asks questions that a few others in the room would like to but are afraid to ask.
3) He has a generosity of spirit with prospects. I have been burned a few times by blog readers and others who ask my advice, take it, and then never follow up with a contract or a check. My friend says don’t worry—eventually the great majority of them will come to you with remunerated work even if you have to wait a couple of years.
4) Some 90% of his business comes from referrals. There was no slick leave behind because he does not have one. And, he consults almost from the beginning of the session. Over the years I have seen many agencies waste an hour of a two hour new business presentation telling of their case studies and showing a creative reel or two. People want you to talk about them and they want to talk about themselves and their problems. My friend gets this better than anyone I have ever met.
5) Sales people rarely ask me what my clients needs are. They tell you what they have to sell. Some active listening and a few questions could help them craft infinitely better recommendations than most of us see day to day.

Face it. Fear will be with many of us for a long time to come in our current economy. My friend’s approach may not work for everyone but I am sure that elements of it merit your serious consideration.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may contact him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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