So this month the BrandingWire posse of pundits, of which I’m a member, blogs about branding a small IT firm serving B2B and non-profit organizations. It is a real company but prefers to remain anonymous.
After reading my blog be sure to visit the blogs of other BrandingWire pundits. Those links are located in the right column of this blog page, and listedagain at the end of this blog. Or you could click the image here to start at the BrandingWire home page where this month’s assignment is presented.
As I see it, this firm is having trouble defining who they are.
Their services, mostly provided through small, hourly contracts, range from 24-hour emergency problem-solving to installations, conversions and upgrades. They serve health care, non-profit, financial and retail clients.
Apparently most of their existing clients and their prospects are not used to paying for good IT services. They don’t perceive the value. As the company freely admits, they are looked upon as an “IT repair service” when their desire is to become a “business partner”.
Reading their goal of becoming a partner with their clients harkens me back to my days with IBM. That was – and still is – their modus operandi.
Building a sound business model
Now I’m getting away from the branding aspects of strategy for a moment because I believe branding needs to be based on a firm business foundation, and that the brand should then align with the business core. I would first want to develop the company structure and orientation.
Is it driven by technocrats or business/marketing people? IBM was driven by marketing and sales, particularly sales. Their sales force was trained and rewarded to be business consultants, working with client IT people and with executives within the company. They held seminars and workshops to promote (in my day) such leading edge technologies as time-sharing systems, linear programming and CAD/CAM. Sales people (called Account Managers) worked conceptually with top customer execs to develop long-range plans and systems based on ROI considerations. They wrote proposals much as a McKinsey consultant might, from a strategic platform.
Then each account had a Systems Engineer (or a crew of SE’s) to work hand in glove with client IT people to implement the systems and help with everyday problems and fixes. Also, Field Engineers were assigned to take care of hardware installation and maintenance on a contract basis.
Even in a small IT company, I believe you need evangelistic account people selling the concepts and benefits of particular system solutions. These folks need to be business oriented instead of technicians. They’ll do most of their work at executive, non-IT levels. The services themselves would then be carried out by top-notch technical people working within the customer environment with customer IT personnel to implement and then trouble-shoot as required. Now you have the basis for a partnership.
Characteristics of viable niches
You’ll need to identify a niche with three minimum characteristics:
1) It’s large enough to provide cash flow and profits for your company and your top three competitors.
2) The niche and its participants can be readily identified and approached.
3) Niche participants feel enough pain from the problems you promise to solve that they will listen and ultimately pay for a solution.
Three ways to differentiate a B2B business
If this structure is in place, you can now differentiate your service in one or more ways:
1) By industry you serve. This particular company was started serving non-profits but found they were not cash-rich. Perhaps they can specialize in retail for example. Find or educate an account rep in point-of-sale data capturing, sku tracking, trend reporting, etc.. Identify those retailers within a 100-mile radius and develop top-level relationships through seminars, association membership and regular information exchanges.
2) By application specialty. This needs to be a broad enough application to make it viable. It might be database development and mining which might appeal to marketing functions in retail, wholesale, fund-raising and medical research. Again, the spokes-evangelist must be hired and provided the technical backup to sell the concept as well as install and maintain such a system.
3) By the way you do business. Here you’re not focusing on a market niche, you’re just selling your approach to helping companies achieve their business goals through IT applications. This is harder to pull off for a smaller organization because their people probably don’t have the knowledge to meaningfully partner with prospect execs. But by focusing on, let’s say, three allied niches you might make it work.
Branding equals information dissemination
Now about branding this new, niched structure: For a service business, providing information – not just promotional literature and data sheets but knowledge prospects and customers can use to develop strategies and tactical plans – is the best way to brand the business. Becoming an expert and letting your market know it should be the main thrust. That means knowledgeable people first and informational materials second.
That doesn’t mean you ignore traditional branding elements. In addressing them, starting with a business name, I’d make sure it wasn’t too “techy”. It shouldn’t be Associated Systems Solutions, or as people will call it, ASS. Rather, the name should reflect the bigger picture. In fact, “Big Picture” might be a good name for this entity.
And of course the logo, tagline, graphic standards and trade dress will need to be compatible.
But of most importance is that the mission, vision, brand story, code of conduct and elevator pitch should be aligned and communicated to and through every single employee. In the service business, employees are really the key to your brand. They not only represent the brand, they are the brand in customer’s eyes.
Employees are the brand
This includes how they dress, how they interact with others, how they communicate enthusiasm and exhibit a helpful attitude. Oh, yes, make sure they’re competent.
It may take time to hire the right people, establish the contacts and get up to speed on the industries and applications required. You’ll need to prepare seminar curriculum and materials; join associations and standards committees; participate in industry trade shows, symposiums and conferences, and constantly publish white papers, technical briefs, trade articles and executive application descriptions.
But to become known as a specialist, the “go-to” company for (name your niche), is a lot easier, faster and less costly than to attempt to become all things to all people. Yes, I know you might have to pass up a piece of business to focus on your niche. But in the long run, the company’s reputation and position in the chosen niche will be a magnet for other niche participants. You can become the authority. You can command higher rates. You will enjoy being a big fish in a smaller pond.
All you need to do is find that viable niche, one that is not already dominated by a big fish competitor, and start to focus your business.
Read the other blogs about IT
Now: read what the other BrandingWire pundits have to say on this subject. Just click here to go to the BrandingWire web site. The individual blogs are listed and linked below”
I hope you’ll enjoy the discussion and pick up an ideas or two in the process.