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About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  April 01, 2008

Three Ways to Economy-Proof Your Business Without Hurting Your Brand

Originally published for RainToday.com

During a down economy and uncertain financial times, clients think it is natural to pull back from investing in big-ticket solutions…even though they still need outside help to solve their problems. In response, many high-end professional service firms get flexible when potential clients balk at “risky” high-end investments.

The challenge in being flexible is finding the boundary between the need to be nimble and the appearance of desperation, between the need to generate revenue and the appearance of having a fire sale.

Below are three ways to be flexible without damaging your first-class reputation.

1. Commoditize Your Offerings

Every challenging economy brings out the commoditizers. Why? To serve buyers who are just too cautious to take the budget hit from big-ticket projects. Instead of fighting this viewpoint, join the party by coming up with off-the-shelf, information products of your own.

For firms with prominent brands, it’s a great way to maintain relationships with clients who are experiencing temporary budget cuts. This strategy also prevents low-cost competitors from introducing their services and up-selling later.

Too many firms leave this money on the table, thinking that distributing “general information” will dilute their brand. That’s not the buyers’ perception: They think you have something unique to offer, otherwise, you wouldn’t be prominent. So if your brand is strong enough, your content will be perceived as better anyway.

The Boundary: Here, it’s no customization. The low-cost folks aren’t offering that, so you don’t have to either. If clients do want tailoring, then the ball is in your court to up-sell limited assistance or to create good will with value-add.

Another up-sell opportunity: package deals that include conference calls, “exclusive content,” and other limited-access offers.

Example: Instead of giving customized workshops on selling skills, a sales consultant can create their own version of DVDs for internal meetings. This can not only be sold to current clients with the budget blues, but it can also be distributed in training catalogues. The consultant can even give away the DVDs to her high-fee clients as value-add.

2. Reach Out to Do-It-Yourselfers

When the economy gets rough, many clients believe they have more time than money. Rather than jump through all the budget hoops, leaders will look inward to find their own solutions. Rather than use outside experts to figure it all out, buyers will purchase the necessary resources and content and do the work themselves. This means professional service firms can lend a hand by providing the right resources.

Even though this kind content is more in-depth than the typical off-the-shelf formats, providing these processes will not hurt your brand. It extends your expertise to potential clients who wouldn’t work with you otherwise.

Everyone understands the price-point difference between using a system to do the work themselves and paying you to do it for them. Therefore, your high-end services aren’t cannibalized.

In fact, many of my clients are reformed “do-it-yourselfers” who’ve learned the hard way that they need outside help. So be sure to follow up with these folks and offer possible upgrades. (See the next subsection for ideas.)

The Boundary: Here it is scope: make the application as narrow as possible. Provide a systematic approach with scripts, templates and checklists. These systems are not all things to all people – they go an inch wide and a mile deep. Go beyond general education and the CD/DVD formats – the commodity market has that covered.

An up-sell opportunity: online interaction that applies the learning. Games are huge now, especially with the millennial generation. For instance, a team-building expert created an online adventure game using the skills they teach and the military uses simulations to teach decision-making in high-stress situations.

These types of games are easier than you think to implement. Programmers are everywhere, and open source code makes creating games more possible than ever.

Example: Instead of getting a huge contract for coaching middle managers, an elite executive coaching company can license their processes and even provide checklists to train internal coaches. This is a great way to create a consistent culture between upper and middle management and to increase bench strength.

3. Have “Good Enough” Solutions

When money feels scarce, clients look for the best solution at the best price. Sometimes they are willing to focus on the most pressing needs first, and pay for the rest later.

By unbundling your larger project into smaller, more precise pieces, you can give clients what they need right now and at a price they are more comfortable with. Your brand won’t suffer if you give clients half a loaf of bread, as long as they know it’s only half. They can always come back for the other half.

At first blush, these solutions appear unprofitable. The old adage about a small sale taking the same time to close as a large sale is true. The profitability is in the implementation. It often takes less work to deliver on these options, so there is still room in your schedule for the larger contracts.

These alternatives also create repeat purchases, which are much more profitable because of the low marketing costs. Because you are still working closely with the client, you can spot needs and plant the seeds for the next project. My favorite phrase: “If we joined forces again, I would focus on….”

The Boundary: Again, it’s scope and availability. Prospective clients need to know they are not getting the same thing as the larger project. Not only do the differences need to be spelled out, but the impact does as well:

  • Will the limited scope slow down progress in implementation?
  • Can they use low-cost alternatives to make up the differences?

By reviewing the impact upfront, you risk losing a sale now, but avoid creating a bad client later.

Example: A market research company can have full-blown analysis specifically designed for their clients, and provide an in-depth game plan with six-month’s follow-up. A smaller project would not include individualized research, would use current information to focus on one or two areas, and would include no follow-up support. Both options have value; the rationale behind the price points is clear.

A Diamond is Still a Diamond

Years ago, I struggled with how to help experts who really wanted to work with me but who were too scared to pay my fees.

One of my high-end clients said it best: “Tiffany’s has diamonds of many sizes. People can pay less for a smaller size and more if they want more carats. But all the stones have the same high quality – they are all ‘Tiffany diamonds.'”

You can help more people by offering your expertise in a variety of different formats. By using clear boundaries, you can manage expectations so your clients understand what they get. And by keeping the quality high, your brand will soar even higher.

Filed Under: Branding, Market Strategy


About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.