Hidden Identity – How your customers and prospects really see you
Do you know what your clients and prospects really think of your company, your products, and you? Chances are the answer is No. Even companies that think they know are often surprised to learn the real truth.
We tend to see ourselves one way while our prospects and customers see a completely different picture. How does that happen? We think it’s because people don’t notice the specific things that influence their perception – which is pretty much everything we say and do, both as companies and as individuals.
Think about it for a minute – Everything you say and do tells people something about you. Every communication, whether written, spoken (or unspoken), formal or informal broadcasts who you are and what you believe to be important.
Communication not only includes marketing materials, but also internal communications, annual reports, recruiting materials, contracts. The words you use and the way you use those words gives the world a clear picture of your "hidden identity." What are you unwittingly saying about yourself?
Everything your company does – every product offer, every rebate, every refund, every community event, every employee, and every relationship – shows people who you are and what you believe in.
You are what you do
Regardless of what your marketing materials suggest… Regardless of what you espouse in your mission and vision… Regardless of what you actually believe, actions speak louder than words. People respond to evidence more than they respond to talk.
In order to be perceived as credible, in order for people to trust you, you must be trustworthy and congruent. In other words, you must walk the talk.
Think of a time when you heard a company claim, "Our people are our biggest asset." or “This is a great place to work.” Often, I've heard those words and seen high turnover at that same firm – among both employees and suppliers. If it's such a great place to work, why are so many people leaving?
Another one of my favorites is the bank that says “We’re here for our customers” but they open at 9 and close at 3. These companies are incongruent and their clients and prospects pick up on it.
If your business hasn’t jumped to the next level of success, perhaps its because there’s a disconnect between who you think you are and what your customers and prospects really see.
The Pieces of the Puzzle
Clients and prospects form a picture of you and your company in their minds. This picture forms over time and is influenced by a number of factors. Here are a few of the most important factors:
- Every communication, both inside your company and externally: your annual report, your website, every piece of mail you send, your business objectives, job descriptions – all provide clues as to who you are and what you believe.
- How you treat your employees, your suppliers and virtually everyone you come into contact with is a reflection of who you are. It’s not enough to say people are important; you have to live it each and every day. You have to prove it through your real-life interactions with employees, customers, vendors and strategic alliance partners.
- Your internal processes, your management style, even your office environment, dress code, and the kind of music you play, all say something about your company and its values.
For example, what is a bank that opens at 9:00 and closes at 3:00 or an airline that routinely overbooks flights saying about how they feel about customer care?
- The people who answer your phones are the gatekeepers to your future relationships. This is a very telling aspect of your company identity. In a very real way, the people who answer your phone determine if your company is perceived as friendly – or not. Are they natural communicators who build relationships, or are they annoyed at doing a job that's beneath them?
- Every association or relationship – everyone you do business with and associate with becomes a part of your identity.
- How you respond in a crisis provides key insight into who you are. Do you take responsibility? Tell the truth? Can the public trust you do the right thing? When the Exxon Valdez flooded Prince William Sound with its huge cargo of oil. Exxon "stonewalled." No information. No accountability.
Johnson and Johnson, on the other hand, handled a similar crisis very differently. When several deaths associated with cyanide-laced Tylenol tablets caused a nation-wide panic, J&J put the safety of the public first.
They did a media blitz to alert consumers, stopped production and advertising of Tylenol and recalled all Tylenol capsules from the market. In the end their actions saved the integrity of both their product and their corporation as a whole.
6 Things You Can Do to Enhance Your Credibility
Here are six things you can do to become more aware of how you are perceived and consciously influence that perception.
1. Find out how others see you
See yourself as others see you. Get a second and third and fourth outside opinion or perspective. Ask the people that work in your company. Ask your customers. Ask your suppliers. Ask the delivery boy. Ask the people in the elevator.
And don’t just ask once, ask often. Solicit feedback in a variety of different contexts from a variety of stakeholders.
Pay attention. Listen to what’s going on around you. Listen not only to those from whom you ask for feedback – but to those you didn’t.
What are your competitors saying about you? How about potential employees? What is their perception of your company? Is it somewhere they’d like to work? How about x-employees and x-suppliers – what are they saying about you? Are there common themes in the feedback? Where are there areas where you can take immediate action?
2. Choose your relations wisely
We humans are associative by nature. We associate a company with the other companies it does business with, just like we associate an individual with the people (both professionally and personally) they associate with. It’s the same as with kids in school – you are who you hang around with.
You are your relationships. And chances are a relationship or association either positively enhances your credibility and reputation or it detracts from it. Rarely is their any middle ground.
Take the time to review all your business relationships, analyzing each in terms of whether it adds value or detracts value from your reputation. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does this relationship work for me?
- Are there common values and shared purpose?
- Is this relationship important to my long-term goals?
- Is this the kind of company or individual I want to be associated with?
- Does this association add credibility or detract from it?
3. Tell the Truth
When you make a mistake, fess up and own up. Customers are far more likely to forgive a mistake than they are a cover-up or even a negligent withholding of information.
Don’t hide your services inside or behind marketing-eeze or legal-eeze. Describe distinctly and coherently who you are and what you do. The more open and honest you are about what you can (and cannot) or will (or won’t) do, the more your customers and prospects will respond.
4. Walk the Talk
There’s a story amongst the consulting ranks of a renowned time management consultant who responded to questions about his program by saying “I haven’t had time to look at it.”
It appears that it is not only time management consultants who are afflicted with this. Financial consultants with bad personal investment track records, Insurance guys who don’t use their own products, marriage counselors who have never been married or who have multiple divorces, and so on.
If you are concerned about your integrity and credibility (and you better be), never, under any circumstances try to sell something that you’re not. Inevitably someone will call you on it. Strive to be congruent in everything you do.
5. Get to Know Your Target Market
Reputation is based on relationships, which are based on “relating” which is based on people. You can’t have good relationships unless or until you understand yourself (as an individual and as a company) and understand the people you are dealing with – how they are wired, what they value and what they want.
If you know what your clients and prospects want and expect from you, you stand a far greater chance of meeting their expectations.
6. Speak the Language of Your Target Market
Once you get to know your target audience, your next step is to learn to speak their language. That means using language that gets through their mental filters. It means presenting information in a way that stands the absolute best chance of sinking in and inspiring them to action.
Make it easy for prospects to say yes. Make it easy for clients to get the kind of support they need to stay loyal, to refer you to their friends and colleagues.
NOTE: This article was written in 2000, before we had all the different web communication vehicles we have today. It's a bit dated, in that it doesn't mention these, but the message still rings true. Tune in to subsequent posts to learn how to "read" people when you're not face-to-face.