A successful author and authority on how to grow an independent company, Robert Craven has also been a contributor to Growing Business for many years. We caught up with him to discuss his latest book Grow Your Service Firm.
Here he reveals why he’s targeting service firms, their biggest shortcomings, and how they could easily put things right – with a bit of effort!
Who is Grow Your Service Firm for?
This book is aimed at anyone who is running their own business or someone else’s business. More specifically, it focuses on the needs of the smaller professional firm, everything from accountants, solicitors and dentists through to landscape gardeners, web designers and graphic artists.
At what stage will these professional firms be at for the book to resonate?
The book is perfect for early stage businesses as people think about how they are going to compete. It’s even better for someone who has been going for a year or so and is now trying to separate themselves from the pack.
You’ve had success with books on kick-starting a business and Bright Marketing for Small Business. What was the motivation behind writing a book for service firms now?
Service firms are brilliant at “doing the doing” but just too often they don’t know how to grow their business and sell their service.
What frustrates you most about professional service firms?
Technically brilliant, most service firms are pants at anything to do with selling or promoting their service in a way that is compelling to the client.
How common a problem is this?
I see it everywhere I look.
What other commonalities do they share?
They tend to be obsessed with doing the best job ever... not seeing the service through the customer’s eyes... not able to be commercially minded... charge too little and end up short changing themselves, despite their best intentions.
What are the key messages would you like readers to take from the book and apply to their businesses today?
Put up your prices, make the tough decisions, take action, be brave, sort your under-performers (services, suppliers, staff, customers), be remarkable, deliver outstanding service, blow your customers away, create a stream of clients wanting to work with you.
The notion of having to position yourself publicly as an expert in order to grow your business seems a recent phenomenon. To what extent has the nature of service firms changed – and, if so, what was the catalyst?
Nothing has changed. Service firms by definition sell intangibles and as such their reputation is what people buy. Marketing is not a battle of the product but a battle for the mind of the customer. In today’s modern joined-up internet world you can create a bigger distance between you and your competition that was ever possible before (or not!).
Why is technical excellence, word of mouth, or location no longer enough? Is the advent of the internet at the heart of all this, with an increased need to engage with customers publicly to build trust?
The Expert! model is a series of interlocking and supporting pieces of the service firm jigsaw. Combine them all and you get more than the sum of the individual parts. The internet (and the attitude it has created) simply accelerates and emphasises the relationship (or lack of it) between you and your potential client.
How has the customer changed in the way they seek professional services?
Word of mouth is stronger than ever as most people find it difficult to believe what they read in adverts. In some senses interruption marketing is dead and people seek relationships above simple transactions. Anyone can search any business and find independent reviews – your reputation becomes your most valuable asset.
For many, positioning yourself as an expert is anathema for owner-managers – who just want to run their business and provide their service, rather than putting themselves forward as a font of all wisdom. How easily does the expert model fit with British sensibilities?
I’m afraid that if you are not putting your business forward then one of your competitors will be putting themselves forward. I am not saying that you need to turn into a whirling dervish of blatant self-obsessed publicity, screaming from the rooftops. What I am saying is that you need to put your best foot forward and make it easy to buy from you. The best way to do this is to show them how you can solve their problem for them and that you can demonstrate that you are the best provider.
What are the risks associated with putting your expertise and reputation in the public domain rather than quietly going about growing your business organically through word of mouth?
Being quiet is not an option as you will be forgotten about. As long as you are honest and authentic then you will be recognised for what you are. Being consistent becomes crucial here, for instance what you say, how you say it and how you present it become increasingly important in the new branded world.
You talk about the need for systematic processes for communicating and delivering work. Can you give some examples of what specific services firms could do to achieve that?
Example – a web design business creates a 10-step process for delivering work. This can be seen by both the clients and the agency team making the whole journey clearer.
Example – an accounting firm plots the customer journey from first enquiry to year-end accounts to make sure that every step on the way will be “above average”.
You’re an advocate of fairly drastic action – sacking customers business owners should see as pond life or scum – so if you pick up Grow Your Service Firm and want it to work do you have to be prepared to make some hard calls?
It is the first sign of madness to keep doing the same things and expect a different result. To that extent I think many businesses do need to shift gear or radically change some parts of their business in order to see results. Minor incremental change usually creates minor incremental results.
You talk about the key pillars of business that owner-managers should be obsessed with – strategy, marketing, team – plus a willingness to let go of control and take others’ advice. Are shock tactics generally required to achieve the last two?
It never makes sense to just be shocking for the sake of it. All I’m asking is that we challenge our assumptions so that we can become the best we can possibly be.
What evidence do you have that professional service firms you have worked with have grown as a result of your advice? Can you give some examples?
We have a catalogue of case studies where significant results have been achieved in relatively short timescales. An accounting firm that has seen profits increase by 150%, a posh furniture company that has seen sales up by 50%, a web design agency employing new staff, and so on.
Robert Craven is a keynote speaker and the author of business best-seller Kick-Start Your Business (foreword by Sir Richard Branson) and runs The Directors’ Centre. He shows MDs and owners how to grow their sales and profits and focuses on how to do this in recessionary times. His latest book Grow Your Service Firm is out now. www.robert-craven.com/gysf.php