Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why You must Offer Customers a Guiding Oar in Today's Environment

By Britton Manasco

What does it take to earn the trust of key decision-makers and influencers in today’s turbulent economy?
It’s no longer simply about product features or service capabilities. When your customers are making a significant commitment and putting precious dollars (even their own business) at risk, they expect more than ever before. They want a helping hand and a guiding oar. They aren’t just investing in your solutions; they are investing in a promise of superior returns and best practice. They are investing in your company as a leading advisor and authority who is ready, willing and able to help them navigate a challenging period in economic history.

That is why buyers will increasingly gravitate towards thought leaders.
Cisco Systems, the $40 billion maker of networking systems and solutions, represents a great example of this point. The company managed to eclipse competitors such as Juniper Networks and Alcatel-Lucent by thinking of itself not just as a technology company but a “leadership consultancy.” John Chambers, the firm’s CEO, contends that the insights Cisco has gained by networking its own business can now be shared with its clients to help them drive growth. “We’re really talking about business process change,” he says. “And since we have done it for ourselves, we can show others how.”
Over more than a decade, Cisco has actively promoted its ideas about how to leverage networks for business success. It has underwritten ground-breaking research. It has published extensively. And its executives, particularly Chambers, have been visible proponents of network-driven business. Such efforts help to set Cisco apart from other players in the networking sector while opening up new markets – such as telepresence and web conferencing – for the company to penetrate. The company’s thought leadership positions it as a respected authority as opposed to simply another vendor.
So what does it take to become
the authority in a marketplace and earn the trust of one’s prospects? As the experience of respected players such as Cisco,, McKinsey and FedEx suggest, there are several steps once must take to become a thought leader. Among them:
1.  Identify issue(s) that you wish to own and content that helps customers

You can’t be an authority on everything. It’s critical to determine the issues that matter – or will matter – to the customers you intend to engage. recognized the growing expense of software implementation and integration as a growing source of dissatisfaction. Note that the issue was framed from the point of view of the buyer’s problem as opposed to the seller’s product features. The company’s CEO, Marc Benioff, became the voice of a buyer backlash and promoter of a new approach that turned a painful capital expense into an operational one that is comparatively easier to justify and implement.

2.  Invest in the development of solid, research-driven insights and perspectives

The key here is to actively engage in the research necessary to stay on top of market trends, customer concerns and new business opportunities. Consistently cited as the most prestigious and influential consulting firm in the world, McKinsey & Co. recognized the wider potential of investing in thought leadership back in the 1970s and 1980s. It would produce top research on management topics and then, present it as scholarly articles in the Harvard Business Review or thought-provoking editorials in the Wall Street Journal. Other research and insights – such as those produced by the McKinsey Global Institute – are presented to clients and prospects in its own influential publication, the McKinsey Quarterly.

3.  Develop a distinct, high-level position/message that resonates and is authentic

Companies must move beyond what they sell to focus on the results they deliver and their thought leadership is a powerful way of conveying this perspective. Cisco offers another interesting example here. The company recognizes that “networking technology” is a little cold and mechanistic on its own. With this in mind, it has coined the umbrella term “human network effect” for its marketing and customer outreach efforts. The concept not only humanizes the company, but reflects the fact that the real winners are people and that its success stories have a distinctly human face.  
4.  Leverage your insights in multiple channels

FedEx's thought leadership marketing program, known as “Access,” reaches C-suite decision-makers through multiple channels including executive events, web site initiatives and direct mail. The company also publishes a custom magazine, Access Review, to reach its targeted customers. The program is designed to show FedEx's leadership role in the global economy. Grounding its point of view in solid research, FedEx commissioned the independent, nonprofit research firm SRI International to study and measure the movement of goods and information around the world. Each year, the company releases a new report ranking 75 nations based on nearly two-dozen indicators of access to information and physical goods.

As the premium for customer trust continues to rise in the coming years, companies will increasingly embrace thought leadership as a means of earning and strengthening it. Buyers now expect their suppliers and solution providers to illuminate the path forward and guide them through demanding decisions. By meeting this profound need, thought leaders take the steps necessary to become market leaders.

Britton Manasco is a contributing "trustmeister" to the Reputation Garage and founder of Manasco Marketing Partners, a firm that specialized in thought leadership strategy and execution.  He also produces the blog, Illuminating the Future: How Thought Leaders Become Market Leaders.