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Stand Out in the Era of Commoditization

By Jeff Beals

You are a brand. You are a business of one.

As a hard-working professional, you have a personal brand, a reputation that must be carefully maintained and zealously promoted. In today’s economy, effective personal branding has never been more important.

Regardless of your occupation, you are probably fighting two major challenges: the economy and “commoditization.” You may be the best at what you do, but there are still so many competitors in your marketplace. In an era of commoditization, consumers have more choices than they know what to do with. Clients often assume all providers are competent, so they end up making their choices based on a professional’s personal brand.

So, when someone is ready for the services you provide, how can your personal brand stand out in a crowd? If you’re a good self marketer, you have little to fear. You need to be the professional whose name pops into the client’s head when it’s time to buy.

Building a bigger image takes work, but anyone with at least moderate talent can do it. The key is to follow certain steps:

1. See yourself as a business entity, not just a person
2. Think like a marketer – apply classic marketing principles to yourself
3. Determine who is in your personal target audience
4. Exploit the part of your expertise that is most interesting to outsiders
5. Live actively and network everyday
6. Foster relationships with local media
7. Become a writer and speaker within your area of expertise
8. Promote yourself 24-hours-a-day on the Internet
9. Use social media

You have sole ownership of your personal brand, but it comes with a burden. You bear the responsibility for building that brand, shaping it and promoting it to the general public. As a self marketer, you can recruit the services of others, but the responsibility to carry out a marketing strategy is ultimately yours.

Don’t let other people or any haunting feelings of self doubt stand in your way. Self marketers have to stick their necks out and take risks. Not only is it worth the risk, but establishing a well-known personal brand is essential in today’s ultra competitive marketplace.

Ask Probing Questions to “See the World through Johnny’s Eyes”

No matter what you do for a living, “knowing where you stand” is critical to your success.

Former Texas A&M University football coach R.C. Slocum says that the ability to listen is the number-one skill set a football coach must possess. Why? Because college football coaches are locked in a brutally competitive, never-ending, cut-throat battle to recruit the best athletes for their teams. As the winningest coach in A&M football history, Slocum would know. He was a prolific recruiter, who put together several solid teams. His Aggies lost only four home games during the 1990’s.

Slocum had a saying he often used to remind his assistant coaches to listen and empathize: “If you want to sell what Johnny buys, you need to see the world through Johnny’s eyes.”

Too many football recruiters miss the boat, Slocum believes. Such coaches will meet with a high school player and his family and spend all their time talking about what the coaches think is best for the young man instead of going slowly at first, asking probing questions and getting the young man to open up. This gives the coach a better understanding of what the player is all about and what he really wants from a college.

In order for listening to be effective, one needs to ask the right questions, the kinds of questions that yield useful answers. When Coach Slocum prepared for phone conversations and personal visits, he would first formulate a plan. He identified certain questions or discussion areas that he wanted to explore.

Before each meeting, Slocum knew what information he wanted and was prepared to get it. “Don’t just get on the phone and say, ‘how you doing? How was practice today?'” Slocum said. “You’re not finding out anything. That’s just chit chattin’. You should always have probing questions. It’s okay to have some chit-chat, but while you’re doing that, ask questions to find out what he’s all about.”

In addition to providing selling cues to the coach, probing questions help him determine whether the player is truly a fit for the team. “If you ask a lot of questions, you might find out that football is not all that important to him,” Slocum explained. “Maybe he just played ’cause his dad wanted him to do it. You might think this guy down deep isn’t burning with the desire and willing to make the sacrifices you have to make to be a big time football player.”

Probing questions are important in any business, not just football recruiting. Too many salespersons, executives and entrepreneurs go to networking events just for the sake of networking. They grab a cocktail, enjoy the free appetizers, say “hi” to a few people and then go back to the office. Many of us simply “chit-chat” instead of deliberately seeking valuable information from our conversations. If you sell copiers, you need to move beyond small talk and ask questions that lead you to businesses that must replace their aging machines. Insurance brokers need to probe to find out who is experiencing a life-changing event. Real estate agents need to ask, “Who do you know who’s thinking about moving in the next year?”

Having a plan before we start conversations, makes our interactions with other professionals more fruitful. But regardless of what information we seek, and regardless of how much we learn from a given person, it is paramount that we focus and truly listen to each person. Showing deep and earnest interest in a person is a critical part of listening.

When a savvy professional spends time with a prospect, client or colleague, he or she listens actively and makes that person feel like nobody else matters, that for at least that moment, nobody else exists in the whole world. If you can do this, the results are powerful.

Jeff Beals delivers presentations to a wide variety of audiences nationwide. Presentations are adapted to fit your organization’s goals and can be keynote speeches (30 to 90 minutes) or workshops (two to four hours) covering the following topics: 
  1. “Self Marketing Power: Branding Yourself as a Business of One”
  2. “Tons of Room at the Top: the Attitude of Success”
  3. “National Signing Day: What All Professionals Can Learn from College Football”
These presentations are energetic, humorous and packed full of valuable information. To discuss booking a presentation, go to JeffBeals.com or call (402) 637-9300.

Be Everywhere

The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said, “I went to the woods, because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to love deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” I love that passage, and while I’m not hiding out on Walden Pond, I try to follow that philosophy.

As professionals we need “to suck out the marrow” of our career lives. We have to lead active, deliberate careers that are at least somewhat externally focused. That means you turn off the laptop, step out of your cubical and get involved outside the office.

As long as you don’t over-commit yourself – burning the candle at both ends, so to speak – being involved actually makes you better at your core work.

People who join professional associations, who get involved in their place of worship, or who engage in community service learn more and meet more people. Many of the people you meet during involvement opportunities are members of your personal target audience. In any given office, there is at least one person who is active in the community and seemingly knows everyone. It is no coincidence that such a person brings in a lot of business, finds great publicity opportunities for the company and, in turn, gets a lot of promotions.

Simply put, involvement leads to success. Self marketing is a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year obligation. It does not end until your career ends. You must be out there seeing and being seen. You have to do it perpetually, so that your personal target audience remembers you.

An acquaintance of mine once noticed my quote and picture in a newspaper article. A week earlier, she saw me do an interview on television. She occasionally listened to my radio show. She would frequently see me at networking functions around town. She called me one afternoon and said, “I just have to tell you – you are everywhere!” She was amazed at how I was getting around town, meeting people and building name recognition. I told her it was just part of my job and part of my long-term career strategy. I wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know, because she too did a great job being “everywhere.”

Use your time wisely. If you have family or other commitments in the evening, make sure you use your lunch hour for networking and other self marketing activities. Ambitious professionals should not eat lunch by themselves more than once or twice a week; it’s simply too important of a networking opportunity to waste.

The fact is, in order to stand out, you need to be everywhere. As much as you may desire to go home and watch television after work, you need to spend a little more time working, showing up at events. While you don’t have to drink until your liver gives out, you do need to be a man or woman about town. Sometimes you have to stay out late at a cocktail party where important prospects have gathered. Sometimes you need to get up early and meet a member of your personal target audience for coffee before you both start work.

It’s not easy, and it comes with a price, but successful professionals are seemingly “everywhere.”

Don’t Waste the Bad Economy

While many indicators point to an improving economy, it’s far more difficult to attract clients now than it was a few years ago. Perhaps worse, many economists expect the job market to remain dismal for all of 2010 and maybe even longer. Credit is still hard to obtain and consumer confidence is far from robust.

When times are tough, the phones aren’t ringing so much and the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked. When business is difficult, it just isn’t fun anymore. That leads many to pull back and reduce their work intensity for fear that their efforts would end up being applied in vain.

That’s the wrong response to a challenging market. In times like these, smart professionals develop new products, become more innovative, embrace creativity and market themselves harder than ever.

If you’re not working on as many deals as you would like right now, use the extra time to sharpen your skills. Read business books and invite people you admire to lunch, so you can “pick their brains.” Perhaps you’ve been thinking of developing a new product. This is a great time to work on it. Use the down time to reexamine what you do. Try to see your career and your business from different angles in order to find more effective ways to accomplish your mission.

A long time ago, the great businessman Henry Ford visited a beef packing plant in Chicago. Ford took great interest in the way workers processed the beef from whole carcasses into small cuts of ready-to-sell meat. As he observed, it occurred to Ford that if the process was reversed, all the cuts would go back together to form a whole steer carcass again. The metaphorical light bulb switched on in Ford’s head. “I can build automobiles this way,” he thought. Ford returned home to Detroit and promptly created the famous assembly line.

What can you learn from the methods other professionals use in their industries?

A recession is no time to stop marketing. History shows that those companies and professionals that stay in front of their clients are the ones that prosper when good times return.

During the 1920’s, Ford was selling 10 vehicles for every one sold by Chevrolet. After the Great Depression, Chevy held the sales lead. Why? Marketing. Chevy didn’t let up during the bad economy. The same thing occurred in other industries. Before the Depression, C.W. Post dominated the breakfast cereal market. By the end of the Depression, Kellogg was number one.

Never let down times or any self doubt cause you to slow your efforts to foster relationships, build your brand and acquire new clients.

Yes, times are tough, but business is cyclical. If you think about it, a recession is a precious period of time when viewed in the context of your entire career. If business was always raging at top speed, when would we have the chance to reinvent?

So, if you haven’t started your recession-time self-improvement work, you need to get going. There might not be much time to finish it before things start booming again.

The Fine Line

My most frequent presentation topic is the same as the title of my first book: “Self Marketing Power,” which is my fancy term for “personal branding.” In today’s loud, crowded and fast-moving market place, personal branding is an essential skill. Regardless of what you do for a living, you must develop a personal brand, jealously guard its integrity and zealously promote it to your personal target audience.

Despite the necessity of personal branding, many professionals aren’t entirely comfortable doing it. They’re afraid they might cross the fine line that lies between healthy, effective self marketing and egotistical boasting. That’s a reasonable concern, because one of the first things a self marketer must embrace is the virtue of humility. Nobody likes braggarts, show-offs, know-it-alls and blowhards.

Never fear, you can avoid turning your self marketing efforts into egotisical boasting by following a few, simple criteria: 1. plan your self marketing efforts ahead of time; 2. be consistent in your personal-brand message; 3. make sure your self marketing tactics are carried out skillfully and tastefully; and 4. make sure anything you do for self marketing purposes is ethical, moral and benefits others in addition to furthering your own brand.

Welcome

Welcome to my new blog. I will write articles related to personal branding and other business motivation topics that will help you achieve greater business, career and life success. Some of the material will come from my books and speeches, while other material will come from research or life observations. I hope you enjoy it and find value in it. Best wishes for great success!