Preparing for Uncertainty

When it comes to the economy, who’s right?  Who knows? And more importantly, who cares!

Why the Economy is (somewhat) Irrelevant

If you’ve been sitting around using the weak job market as an excuse for a lack of search assignments, you’re probably already a former member of this industry.

But, if you’re still here, you already know that you cannot let the economy be the determinant of your success.

While a strong job market certainly makes it easier to find opportunities, you can still grow your business in a weak economy. It’s simply a matter of having the right strategy and then executing better than your competitors. As my father has frequently reminded me “plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

Plan for the Worst

Let’s say this year turns out a lot like last year. What will that mean to you? From a practical standpoint, it means that you’re going to continue to have to work harder for every dollar you earn.

To thrive in this kind of environment, here’s the first rule you need to follow: make the tough economy the other guy’s problem. It may sound trite, but you must choose who’s going to suffer from a down market-you or your competition. Assuming you’d prefer not to be the one suffering, here’s a plan for dominating a down market.

1. Focus on the fundamentals

a. Differentiation.

If you want to take business from the competition, you need to give people a compelling reason to choose your firm over others. What makes you unique? Why should a prospect pick your firm over the competition?

Before you answer these questions, let me give you one restriction: you can’t use the words quality or service to differentiate your services. These words are so overused (and not just by search firms) that no one will believe you if you try to use them. So how can you differentiate? The key is to pick one aspect of your service that is very important to the segment of the market you want to serve, and then make yourself the best at delivering that specific value.

For example, Domino’s Pizza doesn’t proclaim to deliver the world’s best pizza, the key to their success is fast delivery. Wal-Mart doesn’t promise exceptional service, they’re differentiation is price.

To find a way to differentiate your services, look at two things:

  • The problems that cause businesses to need search services.
  • The reasons why your clients dislike using search services.

Your goal is to identify one problem you can solve better than anyone else or one unique way you can improve the experience of using search services.

You might find your answer by focusing on a very specific industry or in a specific type of position.

You might find it by looking at new pricing models, or finding ways to streamline your workflow to become more efficient. Or you might create your unique value by changing the service experience to better fit the desires of the kinds of clients you want to serve.

The key is to select ONE specific area to distinguish your firm from the competition, and then modify your service process so that you deliver that one value better (and more consistently) than ANYONE else.

b. Know your customer.

Who are your best clients? Why do they use your services? The biggest mistake I see search and staffing firms make to assume that “everyone” is a good prospect. Most businesses are not good prospects for you. They don’t want (or aren’t willing to pay for) your services. And even among companies that already use search services, most won’t want to work with you. Why? Because you’re not a one-size fits all professional. If you’ve done a good job differentiating yourself, you offer a unique value that will only appeal to a select segment of the market. To market successfully, you must clearly identify who your ideal client is and why these people would buy from you. Using this profile, you can compile a highly targeted prospect list.

So how do you find out why people buy from you? Simple, ask them. Sit down with your top three, five or ten clients.

Ask them three questions:

  • What do we do that’s “right” for you? What problems do we help you solve?
  • What is it about using search services that you dislike most?
  • In the coming year, what could we do to be more of an asset to your business?

These three simple questions (okay, technically four questions) will provide great insight into the things your clients value most and like least about using search services.

Use these conversations to discover ideas for differentiation. You can also use the conversations to get feedback on changes you may be considering in your service model.

c. Sound strategy.

We’re an industry who’s leadership ranks are dominated by former sales professionals and recruiters. On the plus side, we’re fearless about selling. We’ll pick up the phone and call anyone, anytime. We’re ideally suited to the implementation of just about any business development strategy, but therein lies the problem.

For most of the industry, there is no business development strategy. Instead, we rely on random calling and networking activities. Most of us don’t have a plan or a disciplined process for business development. It’s a function we pay attention to when we have down time, and as a result we face constant peaks and valleys in our assignment flow. (And if it makes you feel better, this problem is common in most professional services firms).

To develop a steady stream of business, start with a sound business development strategy. If you’ve completed the steps above to develop your positioning message and clearly define your ideal client, you’re ready to create your strategy.

Here’s the process we recommend:

  1. Define your objectives – specifically how much business do you want to generate in the next 12 months?
  2. Develop your product and pricing strategy – what is the “product” you offer and how will you charge for your services (hint: if your product is just qualified candidates or search services, you will be perceived as a commodity. You need to define your product in a way the differentiates you. For example, your product could be fastest fill, best access to top talent currently employed by the competition, or greatest expertise in recruiting a specific type of people.)
  3. Define your USP (Unique Selling Proposition) – put into specific words the one aspect of your services that differentiates you from the competition (make sure you have facts, statistics, case studies, and/or testimonials that prove your ability to deliver this value)
  4. Develop your creative strategy – define the rational and emotional reasons why your ideal client will want to buy from you (these reasons will become the foundation of your sales and marketing messages)
  5. Determine tactics – brainstorm every method you can think of to get your message to your target prospects, and then evaluate each method to determine which of these tactics will be most effective and affordable
  6. Implementation process – create a process for implementing your tactics that ensures that your business development activities are consistently implemented (see below)

2. Consistent Marketing

How consistently do you market your services? Do you even have a marketing plan?

Or are you like most search professionals who rely on a combination of word-of-mouth and occasional selling and networking when time permits?

What surprises me most about the search business is how many professionals in this industry think they cannot afford marketing, yet they invest tens of thousands of dollars on useless cold-calling in the hopes of generating more business. Great marketing doesn’t have to cost a fortune. The secret is to get the right message to the right people on a consistent basis. And to do that you need a plan and a process that ensures you are regularly promoting yourself (and positioning your message) to people who will be interested.

Assuming you’ve created a sound marketing strategy (as outlined above), creating an implementation plan is quite easy. All you need is a calendar and about 30 minutes to plan.

On your calendar, you want to plan three types of marketing activities:

  • Activities to open doors with new clients
  • Activities to expand relationships with existing clients
  • Activities to improve your candidate relationships

On your calendar, you should outline one thing you will do each month for each type of activity.

For example, you could:

  • Send a personal letter to introduce your USP to a new group of prospects
  • Share an article or idea you have that relates to the interests of your target audience
  • Send a card or personal note to build relationships and keep yourself top-of-mind
  • Share a case study or success story about how you helped a client solve a problem
  • Provide a financial illustration outlining the economic value of search services
  • Market appropriate top candidates via e-mail, direct mail or telephone
  • Attend a networking event or better yet create your own networking event
  • Host a seminar or webinar on a topic of interest to your target audience
  • Conduct a survey
  • Follow-up on past placements to verify client satisfaction
  • Send postcards as a fun way to stay in-touch or promote your USP
  • Create an e-mail newsletter on topics of interest to your clients
  • Provide tips on how to make the search process easier

While this is by no means a complete list of possible marketing activities, you may notice at least one trend in this list. Most of the marketing tactics are client focused.

At least fifty percent of your communication should be about topics that your clients’ find interesting. If your marketing is all about you, it will soon be ignored. But if you offer interesting information that truly helps your clients solve problems in their professional and personal lives, then they will come to value and even anticipate your marketing.

One last word about consistent marketing-don’t try to do everything yourself. As a busy search professional, you may find many months in which you simply don’t have the time to implement your marketing. Rather than go without, get help. Often, the solution is as simple as delegating the implementation process to an administrative person in your office (you want someone who’s good with details).

When it comes to creating your materials, avoid the temptation to do everything in house. You’re a search professional, not a copywriter or a graphic designer. Just like you can make a significant difference for a client in their hiring, marketing professionals can make a significant difference in your businesses. There are some very talented people around who can help you with strategy, copy, graphic design and implementation planning…all for a cost of well less than one placement.

3. Be an Opportunist

To make a down market “the other guy’s problem,” you have to be somewhat of an opportunist. You may have to not just identify new opportunities, but you may have to create them. Here are a few ideas to help you capitalize:

  • Within existing clients, look to expand the scope of positions you fill. You might do this by broadening your services or partnering with another firm that can supply complimentary recruiting talents.
  • Expand your geographic reach. Many search professionals already work nationally or even internationally, how about you? The more specialized your focus, the easier it can be to solicit and complete long-distance work.
  • Re-engineer your service model. Sometimes the best way to create new opportunities is to take your business apart and then put it back together again. For example, you might expand your potential market by unbundling your process into distinct activities. Or you could re-engineer your recruiting methods to lower your costs and change your pricing model. The key to re-engineering is not just to improve efficiency, but also to create opportunities to truly differentiate your services from the competition.
  • Be more targeted and focus on educational selling. Create new opportunities by teaching your ideal clients when, why and how to use your services.
  • Stop being a search consultant and start being a problem solver. The more you are able to solve problems for clients, the greater your value. The challenge is to force yourself to learn more about each of your clients’ businesses, and then work with them to find solutions to their problems-even if it doesn’t mean more work for you! Over time, being a problem solver will position you as a trusted advisor and ultimately result in more business opportunities and referrals.
  • Continue to network and aggressively seek referrals from clients and candidates. Make networking a planned activity on your monthly marketing calendar.
  • Get more involved in your clients’ industry. Become a speaker. Write for trade magazines. Attend industry events. The more you become an integral part of your clients’ industry, the more they will come to trust your advice and value your services.
  • Create opportunities to interact with clients. Find excuses to have conversations with clients and prospects about the issues that affect their business. For example, you might send an article in the mail or by e-mail and then place a follow-up call. The goal is to develop open lines of communication so that you can be the first recruiter to be made aware of search opportunities.

Hope for the Best

If you’ve created a thorough plan for the worst, and you consistently execute that plan, you’ll be able to do more than hope for the best, you’ll make it happen. While you can’t change the economy, you can give yourself better access to a greater percentage of your target market’s search assignments. With a sound strategy, consistent marketing to a well-targeted list, and an aggressive search for new opportunities, you will make 2004 your best year ever.

Of course, your success may bring its own challenges…but then again, those are the kinds of challenges that are much more fun to manage!