Today's marketplace is crowded: thanks to the Internet, I can buy cat food from Kansas and have my bookkeeping done while I sleep by a guy in India.
So why would I ever choose to buy from you?
That's the question we all have to answer, unless we want to fall into the never-ending, downward spiral of competing on price. As the continued existence of Mercedes-Benz, Rolex, and Gucci proves, however, you can find a way to thrive at the top of the market. But in order to do so, you need two key ingredients -- a compelling brand, and the perception of immense value. A $60,000 Mercedes may be an awful bargain if you're just looking for a way to get around town. But it's a great deal when the buyer is looking for absolute certainty that she's getting quality, performance, and prestige -- the best that money can buy.
For most businesses, there's not much risk for customers in trying you out. If they hate your restaurant, they don't have to go back. If they think there are better deals to be had on gardening supplies, they'll turn to the Internet. But it's different for professional service businesses: the stakes are infinitely higher. Pick the wrong lawyer, and you may lose custody of your kids -- or control of your company. Pick the wrong insurance agent, and the policy they glibly advised you to buy might leave you in the lurch. Pick the wrong CPA and the government could be breathing down your neck. Customers simply can't afford to make the wrong decision.
But the problem is, most people don't know how to evaluate the professionals they hire. You can be smart and college-educated, but that doesn't mean you can read over sample contracts and figure out if your lawyer is on the ball. You might have loved The Tipping Point, but that doesn't really prepare you to tell one marketing consultant from another -- or suss out whether they're just smooth-talking charlatans.
In a world with too many options and not enough clarity, it's easy for people to become paralyzed. How can they make the best decision? The answer is that they rely on the "wisdom of crowds." More and more, customers gravitate toward known quantities -- established experts who are recognized in their professions and in their communities.
So how do you become a trusted expert?
First, recognize that it's not about money. Some professional service firms pay for expensive newspaper ads, featuring ego-stroking pictures of their partners wearing sagacious half-smiles. Others rent blue-blood hotel ballrooms or trendy boites and treat their clients to big parties with open bars. Nobody minds this, of course, but it's not a real strategy for getting -- or keeping -- business. There are dozens of free or virtually-free steps you can take to build your brand, if you have the right strategy in place. Bribing clients with fancy shindigs isn't one of them.
So here are seven strategies that actually do work:
Make Friends With the Media. Journalists are literally paid to be objective, third-party truth-sniffers. Clients rightly value their take a lot more than any paid advertisement you could put out. Introduce yourself to reporters who cover your beat, and offer to be a resource.
Create Your Own Content. Nothing says "expert" like a body of work. Pick your favorite strategies and go to town -- podcasts, white papers, public speeches, e-newsletters. All of these force to you think deeply about the issues your clients face, and are an impressive calling card when you can answer their questions with, "Let me send you the article I wrote about that."
Professional Involvement. You're not just another lawyer -- you're the president of the Bar Association! Does that set you apart in your clients' eyes? You bet it does. Networking with other people in your industry helps build your skills, as you share best practices, but also helps you interact with a pool of potential referral sources. Make a wide enough circle of friends, and the business is yours.
Embrace Charity. Inviting your clients to charity events is a great way to cement a relationship. You're spending time with them outside the office, and you may discover shared passions (you've both had relatives who battled breast cancer, or you both care about protecting the rainforest). And it never hurts to be recognized by your clients or the media as a "Good Guy Giving Back."
Make Your Networking Count. Don't just go to a random event and throw your business cards around. Evaluate if it's worthwhile beforehand by researching the attendees and the format -- is it a good source of potential clients? If your target audience is Fortune 500 C-level execs, you can skip the young professionals' mixer at the sports bar. Once you make new contacts, focus on quality -- not quantity. You want to find out enough information, and build enough of a relationship, so there's a real reason to follow up and keep in touch. Hit-and-run networking simply doesn't work.
Tap Your Current or Past Clients. Most of us know we should -- but don't -- ask for referrals. Do it. It doesn't have to be sleazy or high-pressure. Just make it a point to remind them periodically that referrals are how you get business, and you'd appreciate them mentioning you to others. Don't forget to ask for testimonials you can display on your website, and find ways to stay top-of-mind, whether it's with periodic phone calls, sending them interesting articles, etc.
Charge High Fees. This may, indeed, seem counterintuitive as a way to get more business. But what we're talking about is the right kind of business. One of the most established principles in social psychology is that people believe they get what they pay for. If you've followed the steps above and have created a rock-solid brand, people will pay handsome fees to work with you -- and will be delighted they've secured such a top-of-the-line professional.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.
Follow Dorie Clark on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dorieclark