Positioning oneself as an Expert

It’s a bold, confident word ‘expert’.

As for its literal definition, an ‘expert’ is someone or a firm with a high level of skill or knowledge in a particular field. For me this raises some questions…

- Is the very definition of the term ‘expert’ somewhat vague and open to interpretation? What actually constitutes having a ‘high level of skill or knowledge in a particular field’?

- Is being an ‘expert’ something that one can authentically declare of oneself?

- And is being an ‘expert’ something that is more appropriately bestowed upon you by others, like an award or privilege granted as a special honour or as an acknowledgement of merit?

So, for example, a client company that discovers whether or not they experience and regard a design firm to be ‘expert’ in their particular field and, if so, maybe referring to them as ‘expert’ in a testimonial? Or maybe it’s the preserve of industry awards or other independent bodies that are better placed to make impartial judgements and hand out such acknowledgements? After all, there are no real set criteria in the vast majority of fields as to what makes an ‘expert’.

Thinking about this in terms of people we would unquestionably regard as ‘expert’ in their field…

The obvious example would be German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, and there’s broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough who has served an industry all his life, has won awards and received a knighthood in 1985 in recognition of his services to television. And then there’s Stephen Hawking who knows a thing or two about science and the universe.

These people have undoubtedly earned their stripes, however, the point I wish to make here is that I doubt they would ever have referred to themselves as ‘experts’ in say a biography or in any promotional capacity. Equally, we don’t see long-established highly experienced firms that we could easily regard as ‘expert’ in their field – for example Apple, Microsoft, EY, Goldman Sachs, etc – describing themselves as such.

Interestingly I recall, when I joined the DBA Experts Register a few years ago, feeling the term ‘experts’ was not the best way for the DBA to be positioning the register. That’s just my opinion about the name, and I hasten to add it’s not a reflection of how I view the people on the register!

Maybe I need to get out more, but this is everyday reflection on the power of words, and the nuances and idiosyncrasies that figure in my work. Part of what I do involves helping companies to position themselves authentically. Blindingly obvious maybe, but the words we choose to describe ourselves speak for us, and must be chosen with due care and understanding of their true meaning and what they actually say about us.

Thinking objectively and contemplating those I see from time to time positioning themselves as ‘experts’, I wonder how this may be perceived by their existing and prospective clients, by stakeholders, staff, associates, etc.

Of course this is a personal thing, and some of you may not agree or particularly care about this either way. However, there are certain do’s and don’ts around positioning, and from experience my instincts prompt me to advise any client of mine against defining themselves as an ‘expert’. Why?

Because generally, those that are truly at the top of their game have a solid reputation and following anyway, and they don’t need to ‘shout’. Others experience their aptitude and speak for them. Qualities such as humility, calm, transparency and restraint combined with evidence of success make for a compelling, trustworthy and believable brand proposition.

You may see this differently, so please share your thoughts and ponder the following questions:

- Is it appropriate to self-proclaim and position oneself as an ‘expert’?
- Is it the role of others to decide or propose whether someone is an ‘expert’ or not in their field?
- How do design firms feel about the idea of engaging the services of an ‘expert’?

Role Model #3 – Finding our authentic selves, with 12 Miles North

You may have noticed the extent to which organisations and brands have taken to this word ‘authentic’. I chose the word myself over the word ‘traditional’ in the positioning of my furniture venture Teer & Co 

Authentic, is a word that resonates when I browse the website of a design business I know not well called 12 Miles North. Established by two experienced people that know their way around the business of design, this is a young company that I have found myself pointing my clients towards as a great example of how to tell your story and communicate your proposition in a calm, confident and compelling way. Their purpose is clear – they talk of taking brands further and helping them find their authentic selves.

So why do we resonate with ‘authenticity’, and gravitate towards things with provenance and soul?

In its literal definition, ‘authenticity’ concerns the truthfulness of origins, attributes, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions. It’s something that has depth and speaks of being trustworthy, genuine, honest and believable. It feels wholesome and exudes a certain quality. Perhaps it resonates because it’s quite an aspirational thing.

One could say that being authentic makes allowances for any imperfections, and keeps things real. Perhaps ‘authentic’ matters because in the human context it can ‘set the tone’, helping us make real connections with people.

And what can ‘authenticity’ give us?

Well getting back to 12 Miles North, which came into the world in January 2015 as a boutique consultancy run by Creative Director Nick Birch and Brand Strategist Karen Woodhead, I would say their storytelling and tone of voice gives out an impression about them that’s reassuring, that draws you in, that you’re in safe hands. What you read can make you feel you’ve found an agency that offers the potential to take your business ‘somewhere’. Somewhere exciting perhaps, somewhere significant, somewhere that should help you resonate with your audiences.

When you visit their website you could be forgiven for interpreting them as copywriters. The founders Nick and Karen declare themselves to be ‘fanatical wordsmiths’ – it shows.

12 Miles North won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. For me though, they become a Role Model design business for the way their website communicates their story in a pared down, considered, authentic way. You know they are experienced from the outset – from their tone of voice and elegant use of words that set them apart from other design agency websites. They articulate ‘why’ they exist, you get a sense of their values, what inspires them and what type of client they are most suited to working with. Their writing style helps Nick and Karen achieve a level of differentiation in a crowded market.

At times we all need to stretch ourselves and go twelve miles further. In doing so, we may just find that authentic thing in the way that 12 Miles North has and so eloquently communicates its authentic self.

Retaining and developing clients – the designer’s Achilles heel?

Interesting to read and reflect on the findings of Up to the Light’s latest and very informative report What Clients Think 2016 published in March 2016 in association with the DBA.

For anyone unfamiliar with this report it presents the findings of 435 interviews, conducted with clients of design agencies during 2015, to monitor the health of client/agency relationships.

As I read through the section ‘Keeping Clients’ which covers client service and client development issues, I found myself recalling and comparing this to the key findings of a client survey I conducted back in 2001 at a time when I was running a design practice I set up in 1999. Our ‘Signpost Survey’ posed the question…Are you being served?…and explored marketers’ attitudes towards and their experiences of working with designers. Design Week published extracts from the findings in a piece they summarised as Poor show from consultancies which identified weaknesses in the way design firms engaged with and serviced clients at this time.

 

15 years on and I see the common ground between both surveys. One can draw conclusions around the apparent lack of progress being made by many design firms in their responsibilities to service and develop healthy client relationships. This is a service industry, and yet client service clearly seems to be an ongoing challenge for many design firms.

So what does teer bring to the client service and development challenge?

Occupying the space I have between agencies and clients since the mid-80s, you get 30+ years’ sector experience applied to methodologies and growth-oriented activities that are implemented efficiently, have a generally positive impact and are well received by clients.

1980s – Client-side product developer commissioning design services on behalf of toy and games manufacturers

1990s – Agency-side in Account Direction roles working for various creative agencies including Holmes & Marchant Group

1999 to 2003 – Design business owner serving mostly large multinational UK-based clients

2003 to present – Strategic growth consultancy trading as teer providing mentoring and coaching services to design business owners / leaders

We all have our experiences and hopefully learn from the often fickle nature of client relationships. Personally, I’ve developed and apply practical methodologies that help design firms adopt a more client-focused mindset and proactive behaviour that can shape or improve how they retain and develop healthy client relationships.

If you’re curious or suspect there is scope for improving your client servicing then a conversation could be your next step. On the other hand, if you’re sceptical or confident you have the client service thing all buttoned down, you might just want to check by asking yourself some questions, like:

  • Do we monitor and know how clients experience working with us?
  • How well do we engage with and manage the interactions we have with clients on projects?
  • How do clients feel we compare with their past or incumbent agencies they might work with?
  • Outside of fee-based projects, is our behaviour within client relationships mostly reactive or proactive regarding their challenges, needs and future plans?

Testimonial from Ian Whybrow, Managing Director at Whybrow Wayfinding

“Simon is a very empathetic ‘people person’ who, in addition to the benefits he has brought to the business, has also provided me with greater clarity for me personally as to what I want to happen over the next few years”….more.

Design agency owners and leaders…more ON, less IN?

Owners and leaders of small and medium size design firms can often be found working predominantly IN the business tackling the day-to-days.  Understandable maybe in the multitasking hands-on world of the SME. But are many positioning themselves and focusing where they could or indeed should be for the firm?

Most will follow what is meant when we use the term ON or IN the business, but for the sake of clarity…

Working ON the business is stepping back and looking into the business and equally what’s happening outside the business in the market. It’s concerning yourself with the bigger picture considerations for the firm. This will typically involve thinking about the strategic growth options, the competitive landscape, general management and operations, reviewing the financial position and it can involve activities that see yourself behaving as an ambassador for the firm….ensuring that your firm is seen and heard in the market place.

Working IN the business is when people are focused largely on internal considerations like running client projects, preparing presentations and fee proposals, managing people and the general day-to-day activities and inner workings of the firm.

So what is the right balance for owners and leaders of small and medium size design firms?

The extent to which heads of design firms should be working ON and IN the business will be relative to individual strengths, weaknesses and in part to their preferences, so there is no general rule here. However, from experience, I have more often than not found that most owners and leaders are striving to be working 60-70% of their time ON the business, and 30-40% IN the business.

For some this can be quite a significant change in how they work, which can take some planning, some organisational change, and time to put in place. For those heads that may recognise or acknowledge the need for change, either for themselves or in other areas of the firm, the path that leads to change will typically involve exploration of several areas of the business, including; roles and responsibilities, resources, time management, working behaviours, discipline, team structure, utilisation, and so on.

So as an owner or leader of a design firm, are you satisfied that you have the right balance of working IN and/or ON the business, and are you positioning yourself and focusing your time appropriately for the firm?

Role Model #2 – Anomaly

Defining succinctly who you are and what it is that makes you ‘special’ is a challenge for anyone in this industry. However, a clear positioning can deliver much-needed clarity in a time-starved world and saturated marketplace.

Whether in advertising, media, research or design, those agencies that have enjoyed the most consistent success have powerful intellectual content – they’ve developed models, tools, structures and processes that demonstrate and articulate their beliefs. In making clear statements of these ideas, they not only position and differentiate themselves, they also create a culture that attracts like-minded employees and clients.

A good example of how this has been done well is Anomaly in the US, which called itself a ‘new model agency’ when it set up (originally in the US) in 2004 with a totally different remuneration structure to the normal agency. Anomaly worked on the basis of a share in profits in ‘true partnership’ with clients. The agency launched with these principles at its core, and I believe has stuck by them. Today Anomaly has offices in New York, London, Amsterdam and Toronto.

For me, Anomaly seems to want to be an example to others, and is an agency that doesn’t seem afraid.

I find myself pointing agencies towards them as just a great example of a creative firm doing things differently. This is how we build reputation, make ourselves memorable, engaging, and become recognised by clients and seen as valued collaborative partners.

Refs: Help clients understand what makes you special

Testimonial from Jeff Benveniste, Managing Partner at Global Edge

“Simon is a truly excellent business mentor and coach. Over the last 5 years he has been a valuable sounding board in helping me to grow my business.

The combination of his commercial acumen, challenging questions and strong listening skills has enabled me to find out more about myself and what I need to specifically work on or change to achieve my desired outcome”….more.

Introducing…teer Role Models

teer Role Models has been introduced to emphasise the importance of finding effective ways to communicate with and nurture our contacts and potential new clients on the new business journey.

Nurturing in a meaningful and constructive way is a balance between the right level of contact and having something of value and relevance to share.

In a time starved world, communicating brief insights on those we see in our industry that serve as role models – whether for their behaviours, actions, tools, intellectual property they create, etc – is one way of constructively expressing ourselves, communicating some value, standing out, and building positive perceptions.

Driven as-and-when by observations, inspiration and day-to-day experiences, teer Role Models can evoke thoughts, provide useful guidance, and become a valuable tool from a new business perspective. Designers may want to consider how to apply this thinking in their own outreach.

I’ve chosen strategic design agency Good to kick-start teer Role Models which will aim to become a regular feature for designers.

Role Model #1 – Good

So how do designers demonstrate or explain the value of design, that Achilles heel and well-trodden road?

For me, Good takes the best possible approach to demonstrating the value of design and presenting their work for clients, by allowing some tangible ‘facts and figures’ to figure prominently in their case studies. Explicit evidence of the positive impact their work has had on their clients’ business.

Actually, a great website overall…clear positioning and persuasive tone of voice. Long may Good maintain this focus on how they present their story, and the value of design.

Refs: Outcomes at the outset

Testimonial from David Watts, Managing Director at CCD

“We worked with Simon for three years (Oct 2012 to Sep 2015) and his mission was to help us grow our business from a consultancy to develop a more design-orientated offer.

He was instrumental in setting up, from scratch, a new environmental graphics & wayfinding team and taking our workspace design team into new areas”….more.

Exploring your options for Strategic Growth

Like most commercial organisations, design firms are in business to see improvements in sales and profits.

But how do design firms actually approach the task of exploring their options for strategic growth, and what are the typical options that can help them frame these considerations? As a starting point, there are perhaps four strategic options to explore:

Option 1
Current services/expertise into current market sectors to attract more clients = Low Risk

Option 2
Develop new services for current market sectors/clients

Option 3
Expand current services/expertise into new market sectors

Option 4
Develop new services into new market sectors = High Risk

Each option carries with it inherent risks and certain marketing implications. What is your appetite for risk? Which is right for your firm? Where do your objectives, services and expertise sit within these options? The best strategy may actually combine more than one of these options to suit different services or different areas of the business.

The least risk option is number 1. Find more clients for your existing services. Easier said than done, especially if you already have a significant market share in a current market. Although for most businesses there is usually scope to attract more of the same type of customers.

The option with most risk is number 4, going into new markets with a new service. This classic ‘diversification’ move may appear to offer great potential, but can be a recipe for disaster if you do not have an adequate understanding of market conditions or the competitive landscape.

It’s difficult for a business to move into a new market at the best of times. Establishing sales channels, generating demand, managing customer expectations, and pre-empting competitors actions can be a real challenge, requiring a substantial amount of resources.

Whichever route/s design firms decide to explore there are marketing decisions to be made. Sales processes, services, competitive positioning, promotional considerations and brand identity are a few of the things that will need to be reviewed.

Consideration must be given to how design firms manage the marketing-related impact of these changes to produce the best result.

- Adding value for customers
- Staff issues
- Business processes
- Measuring results and reviewing progress
- Knowing which marketing activities to implement, and the best time to do it.

Creating the necessary time and space in the business to thoroughly explore the options is the first step on this journey. Good luck!