Truth or Marketing?

As a man with three children and nearly 18 (consecutive) years of parenting under his belt, I thought I’d pretty much seen it all when it comes to spectator-ing at kids’ sporting events.

Soccer, lacrosse, basketball, baseball, football, even the snooze-inducing T-ball … I’ve been there. And while the games change from season to season, and the kids are reshuffled from year to year, they all kind of feel the same.

All except one … Cross-Country Track (or XC, for those hoarding their letters).

My 14-year-old daughter Emily is a high school freshman on the school team, and so this year, for the first time, I’ve attended several cross-country meets.

I’ve noticed a few big differences compared to the other sports…

First of all, cross-country is very solitary. So while you are indeed competing for an overall team score, during the meet, there’s really not much interaction between players. Or between players and coaches. Or between players and race officials. Everyone just lines up and runs.

Second, the outcome is entirely objective and not one bit controversial. There are no missed calls by the referees; no bad decisions by the coaches; no rewards or punishments subjectively given out for effort, or intention, or sportsmanship.

You simply run as fast as you can, and the earlier you come in, the better you do. Even the decision regarding who gets a varsity letter at the end of the season is based on a predetermined, performance-based scoring system, with the best rising cleanly to the top.

When it comes to marketing your business, on the other hand, things could hardly be more different.

Out here in the chaotic world of client acquisition, there’s no starting gun, no race track, no clock and no finish line. Good marketing (getting people to remember you, think well of you and hire you) and objective reality (the fact that you are smarter, better and more experienced) aren’t that highly correlated.

In fact, if you’re looking for a sports analogy, marketing is more like fishing. Success depends a lot on when and where you show up, what you use for bait, how hungry the fish are, and how many other people are parked right beside you. Your objective fishing skills are important as well, but there are many other factors.

I mention all this because I see lots of professional service firms (of all sizes) obsessed with making the case that they’re better – smarter, more experienced, better educated, etc.

That’s a problem. First, because it’s probably not true. I’ve met your competitors and, I’m sorry to have to break this to you, they are also smart, experienced and well educated (granted, not as good-looking).

Second, even if it were true (did I mention that it probably isn’t?), your prospects and even your existing clients, can’t tell the difference. Think about it … do you know how technically qualified your accountant or doctor or auto mechanic is?

So here’s what I recommend. Spend less time behaving as if you’re running a road race – where the most skilled always win – and accept the fact that the marketplace is imperfect. Do things that leverage this imperfection:

  1. Publish. Americans in particular seem to believe that if you publish a book, you’re somehow an expert. You may have five advanced degrees in e-mail newsletters, but if I write a book on the topic, I’m the authority. Why? I don’t know; take it up with America.

    But it doesn’t have to be a book. Newsletter, podcast, thought piece, public speaking, whatever. The point is, if you want to be seen as a thought leader, you need to share your leading thoughts … on a regular basis.

  1. Focus. Resumes (a necessary tool for getting a job) are about accounting for your whereabouts since high school. No time gaps along the way (Was he in prison?) and the path you took had better make logical sense.

    Marketing, on the other hand, is about putting a narrow, relevant foot forward – being top of mind when I have a specific problem and convincing me that you can make it go away.

    So when you build your web site, tell your story, or write your “stuff,” toss out anything that doesn’t support what you claim expertise in (even if some of that anything was mighty impressive). Well-rounded people have jobs; experts have clients.

  1. Simplify. I know, you’ve got a lot to say, and many good things to talk about.

    But here’s the thing. If your description of what you do – whether written or verbal – doesn’t feel painfully oversimplified (to you), it’s too complicated. I can’t even remember where I parked my car, do you think I’m going to remember your tagline when I leave tonight’s networking meeting?

    Boil it down. Then boil it some more.

Here’s the bottom line. It can be frustrating to think that experience, credentials and even true expertise don’t automatically put you at the front of the client finish line. But that just seems to be the way it works in the jumble that is the professional services marketplace.

So don’t fight it; use it. Focus on things that help you stand out as a memorable expert, and that varsity letter will be in your hands before you know it.

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