(First published in the CAD++ Newsletter in mid-1994)
You may recall a few issues ago, I harped on how people who used a single phone number for both voice and FAX numbers presented a poor image to potential customers. In this month’s column, I’d like to expand the concept of image, because image can be a small company’s biggest asset.
If you’re an engineer, discussing an “image” probably smacks of marketing drivel – the technology is the most important asset, right? Nope. Without the image, the technology has little value. You could have the best new product in the world, but if people can’t be convinced that they should pay attention to you, it’s likely that no one will find out how great your product really is.
What does an image do?
Before I go into what it takes to build an image that will benefit your business, it’s important to understand what an image accomplishes for you. Basically, an image is what gives both existing and future customers their impression as to the state of your business. This applies to initial impressions as well as the on-going impression people have of your business. A negative image will turn off customers, while a positive one can rally them to your offerings. A lack of any image whatsoever will result in no gain for you at all.
How to Gain a Negative Image
To be able to create a positive image for your company, it’s good to know what things turn people off, and therefore contribute to a negative image:
- Arrogance. Unless your customers are from New York City, being arrogant will rarely gain you any business. Arrogance can be sensed via lack of patience with callers, belittling the knowledge or needs of potential customers, not being willing to compromise and take a customer’s needs into account, not being sensitive to your customers’ concerns, or just being plain rude.
- One Man Shop. Unless you are a consultant selling your own time, if you give the impression that your company consists of one person, and you’re hard to reach in person, it conveys a lack of stability, and as a result, the customer will look for other options that are not as likely to let him or her down. For consultants, since they are selling themselves, this is not really an issue.
- Shoddyness. If you are selling a product, and the product and accompanying materials look shoddy (poor photocopies, spelling mistakes, handwritten diskette labels, software crashes frequently or doesn’t work), you’ll get a reputation for releasing incomplete product. If you’re a consultant, similar points apply to the work you produce for a customer.
- Inconsistency. This includes keeping wildly varying hours, having a different look and feel in all your promotional and packaging efforts, as well as being reliable one week and unreliable the next.
- BS (Bovine Excrement). Never ever lie or make something up when you don’t know the answer.
- Non-existence. If you do nothing to promote your offerings, you will do the one thing that’s almost worse than gaining a negative image, namely have no image and no recognition whatsoever.
The Positive Image Factors
Based on all the things I mentioned as contributing factors to a negative image, let’s take a look at positive image building factors.
- Professionalism. This does not necessarily mean wearing a suit and tie. Instead it means that you treat your customers with courtesy, that your products and promotional materials aren’t shoddy feeling or looking, and that you are reasonably accessible to your customers.
- Friendliness. Make sure to be willing to talk to your customers in such a way that they feel good about talking with you (again, avoid any signs of arrogance). If your customers have a problem, and you can help out, do so. Same goes if they have concerns about your products. If you just cannot accommodate their request, be apologetic instead of terse. Above all, listen to your customers – they’re a valuable resource. If you can establish a rapport with your customers, they’ll help you sell your products or services.
- Stability. Make your customers feel comfortable about doing business with you. In your promotional materials, list the year the business was started – even if it’s only a year, it helps build the impression that you plan on being around for a while. Get separate FAX & voice phone lines (see my column a few months ago). Make your business seem large enough to handle your customers’ needs, even if you’re the only person in it. This can be done by taking credit cards, shipping via parcel carriers or overnight service, having professional looking brochures and order forms (not necessarily multi-color, but at least a colored paper and possibly colored ink – I’ll discuss printing in a future column), and a solid product. As part of stability, it’s also important to show focus. Don’t offer a zillion different products for different markets unless you can make sure each one gets lots of attention from the support perspective. Small companies generally can’t effectively do dozens of things at once, and even they somehow can, they create a confused image for customers, who don’t understand what the company really does.
- Knowledge. In order to create a relationship built on mutual trust (which is a positive thing), it’s important to both be knowledgeable about what your product does, and how your customers work. However, if you don’t know something, or don’t understand something, again, don’t make it up. Be honest and admit you don’t know, but also offer to get the right information. Once you do, learn from it, because the same question is likely to come around again at some point.
- Visibility. Get your company’s name out there – this is marketing (which I’ll also cover in an upcoming column). Write press releases, talk to magazine editors, write articles, talk to user’s groups, get on-line, etc. Make sure that when a problem comes up that your product could solve, that someone will immediately point to your product as the solution, even if they haven’t personally used the product. If you want some great ideas for doing this sort of stuff, let me recommend “Guerilla Marketing” by Jay Conrad Levinson. This inexpensive paperback book can be found in your local bookstore’s marketing or business section, and is chock full of invaluable marketing ideas and tips.
Now, I’ve mentioned the small company image issue several times as a negative, but seeming to be too big a company can cause other problems, because customers are used to getting lousy support from large companies. There’s a balance that needs to be struck – being large enough to appear stable, but small enough to care.
Some of the things you can do to strike that balance include establishing a recognizable company name – don’t use your own name. Using your own name for the business makes it appear small, and if you actually are successful with the business named after you, and sell it at some point down the road, you may loose all rights to use your name in any other business fashion, ever again. This has happened to several well-known individuals, including the Amos from Famous Amos cookies, the Moog who invented Moog Synthesizers, and countless others. When you choose a name, and you plan on doing business in other parts of the U.S. or world, you should also check to make sure your name does not infringe on someone else’s trademark.
There are several ways of checking for conflicting names (we use a company called Thompson & Thompson, which has offices nationwide). In any event, once you get a clear name, register it with your state government or town (which you register with depends on what state you’re in and what the relative laws of company creation are), and get a nice, memorable logo designed. A decent company name and logo will go a long way to helping you establish the image you want for your company.
The other image building factors I suggest above will further bolster your company’s image, and help make it more successful. It can be a lot of work initially, but all the positive image building factors should ultimately become your way of business life, and your corporate philosophy.