Why Having A Great Brand Can Lead You to Fail in Sales

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By Andrew Sobel

So you have a strong brand. Congratulations.

You walk into a prospective client’s office feeling confident and self-assured. You bask in the trust and respect that a good brand confers.

But wait—this particular meeting may not be the bowl of cherries you expected. In fact, the executive you’re talking to may have a pre-conceived notion of who you are and what you do. A perception that could, unfortunately, be outdated or just plain wrong. Suddenly, you’re swimming upstream.

“I thought you were a bargain-rate outsourcing company that helped companies cut costs. You’re now a what? A strategic solutions shop focused on revenue growth? Huh. Really?”

Man on Diving Board

Even if your prospect’s perception is not off kilter, he or she will certainly have very high expectations of you. As a well-known brand, your every statement—your every step—will be scrutinized. If you don’t live up to your brand promise, the result will quickly be a smoking ruin. Believe me, it happens all the time.

These are some of the dilemmas of Brand Value versus Specific Value. If you can learn the ins and outs of these two fundamental drivers of client success, you’ll leave your competitors behind.

To explain these, let me share some leading-edge research with you on how we form impressions about other peoples’ value as potential romantic partners. These new studies about how we choose mates have some important lessons for client development:

Imagine that you’re single and have just arrived at graduate school. You walk into an introductory social event and begin sizing up your classmates. The first things you assess are attractiveness, charisma, and success—in aggregate, something researchers call Mate Value. You make these judgments in minutes if not seconds.

Apparently, these evaluations are very similar—that is, there is a high consensus within a given group about each person’s Mate Value.

But then, something very interesting happens: As people get to know each other over time, the consensus on mate value falls apart. What takes its place is called Unique Value. If you are viewed as having low Mate Value, once someone spends time with you and gets to know you, you may be seen has having very high Unique Value (and vice-versa). The two of you may discover you share a love of literature, or sailing, and start to hit it off despite an initial lack of interest.

In short, first impressions can give way to a more nuanced assessment that is specific to each person. But you need tointeract with the individual over a period of time. These findings were reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by researchers Paul W. Eastwick and Lucy L. Hunt, and summarized in this New York Times article.

What does this have to do with client relationships? A lot.

When you first meet a prospect, before you even walk in the room you are sized up immediately on one important thing: Your perceived brand. Then, as you carry on a conversation with the executive over several meetings, they begin to perceive the distinct, specific value you can add irrespective of your brand. As mentioned earlier, I call these two factors Brand Value andSpecific Value.

Let’s take a deeper look at how to use these effectively to win and keep clients.

1. The dynamics of Brand Value and Specific Value

Brand value is the perceived strength, relevance, and accessibility of your brand to the client prospect. Brands reduce institutional and personal risk for the buyer. Brand Value includes the client’s perception of:

  • Where you are in the “pecking order” of competitors (e.g., are you the market leader? A market leader? A second-tier company? Etc.)
  • The range of products and services you offer
  • Your expected quality and fee levels

Specific value can be defined as the client’s perception that you helped them better understand their problem, provided insight during your conversations, and have a solution that is what they need. It refers to the tailored value you add over time based on building a deep understanding of the client and their business. Specific value also encompasses the personal rapport and understanding you build with the client.

In the graphic, below, I’ve set out four permutations of Brand and Specific Value, based on whether or not they are high or low.

Value Diagram

 Quadrant One: Anger (lower left). Neither you nor your firm has a well-known brand, and you fail to add any value either during the sales process or during delivery–if you get that opportunity. The client’s reaction? Anger and frustration. You’ll never, ever get another chance.

Quadrant Two: Disappointment (upper left). The client opens their door to a well-known company with a strong brand. But the firm doesn’t add specific value—they don’t deliver. The result? Not just disappointment but also a feeling of having been taken advantage of. Ripped off.

Quadrant Three: Reaffirmation (upper right). If you have a great brand and you add a high amount of specific value, the client is not just pleased—they will feel justified in having “brought in the best.” Your brand and your work are affirmed as being outstanding. Everyone feels good.

Quadrant Four: Delight (lower right). This is when a company or individual with no brand adds great specific value during the sales process and then executes flawlessly during delivery. The result? A client who feels like they have found a special gem. It’s almost like they have a secret. They are delighted and may feel great loyalty to their “undiscovered but special” resource.

Here’s the point: Whether you or your firm has a great brand or has none, you have both a large opportunity and a large risk.

2. Steps you can take to build and accelerate the perception of Specific Value in the client development process.Especially if you have an unfamiliar brand, you have to assiduously demonstrate client-specific value.

If you’re going to see a new prospect, try these strategies:

  • Carefully prepare for your meeting. Go in knowing as much as you can about the prospect’s business, key challenges, and personal profile. (This step alone will set you apart from 50% of your competitors).
  • Bring an incisive, thoughtful point of view about the client’s business and/or industry.
  • Develop 3-4 thoughtful/thought-provoking questions.
  • Prepare several engaging examples of how you’ve helped other similar clients with similar challenges
  • Mention several best practices that other clients have successfully used.
  • Challenge the client’s problem definition.
  • Ask about the strategic context for the discussion. Why are they interested in program x or product y?
  • Dig deeply into the prospect’s most important priorities, needs, or goals for the year.

If you’re working with an ongoing client, think about these strategies:

  • Invest extra time to really get to know your client’s business. Visit their offices and operations.
  • Get to know your client as a person. Until you do, you’ll be perceived as a competent vendor, not a trusted partner.
  • Periodically have a discussion with your client about the value and impact of your work.
  • Always be bringing your client small ideas about how to improve their business, no matter what your expertise is or what narrow area you may be working in.

Here’s the good news: By continually adding client-specific value, an unfamiliar brand becomes not just familiar but it is perceived as being bigger and better known than it really is. That is: lots of client-specific value will lead to higher brand value among your client base. And then, you can parlay this into broader, more visible brand leadership through publishing, speaking, and so on.

Finally, you have to create more high-value interactions, which are the foundation of Specific Value.

Remember our graduate students, who formed nearly instant impressions of other’s “mate value”—their attractiveness, charisma, and success? What demolished these initial impressions was getting to know people better and understanding their particular strengths, interests, and capabilities.

Here are some suggestions to help ensure you have the chanceto add client-specific value and get the face time to do so:

  • Convey Specific Value before you even meet. The most receptive prospect is one who has already perceived value from you in the form of your website, publications you may have sent them, and so on.
  • Don’t spread yourself too thinly. If you try and cover too many prospects or work with too many clients, you’ll never be able to make the investments needed to develop client-specific value.
  • Create frequent Interactions. Communicate often with your list of “critical few” relationships. Stay in touch multiple times a year.
  • Embody the new brand you have become. If you want to change the perception of your existing brand, act like you embody the new brand you want to have. If clients perceive you as doing small, transactional projects, start talking about transformational partnerships. Describe an example of client work you’ve done that embodies the new brand.
  • Get more face time. If you’re in a competitive bid, the more face time you can get with the client, the greater your chances of success. Every interaction gives you more opportunity to add client-specific value.

A great brand is wonderful to have, but you can easily shoot yourself in the foot by resting on your laurels and not working incredibly hard to add Specific Value. And if your Brand Value is low, cheer up: You can start building it up today, one interaction at a time.

Andrew Sobel

I help my clients build enduring relationships with their clients and other important individuals in their lives
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