An elephant doesn’t have to do much in order to stand out in a crowd – his size ensures that he’ll be noticed. Likewise, giant corporations don’t have to worry so much about distinguishing themselves from other, similar companies because they’re so big that people will have at least a vague idea of what they do and the philosophies under which they operate. For small and medium businesses, though – especially in a highly competitive arena such as that of managed service providers – it’s a real challenge to get into the limelight and get (the right kind of) attention for your company.
I recently ran across an article on the U.S. Small Business Administration web site that gave ten tips for building and growing a “stand-out small business brand.” One of the ten was “Have a distinctive voice” but the short article didn’t go into much detail about how to do that or even what a business’s “voice” is. But it did inspire me to think about that and do some more research and come up with some ideas of my own.
In this context, “voice” can have several different meanings. It can refer to anything from the way front-line employees deal with individual customers in person or over the phone to the leadership role that company executives take within the industry.
The term “voice” can also be used to describe your company’s personality. Yes – businesses have them, too. Think about the personas projected by IBM vs that of Google. When you think of the former, you envision staid, older execs wearing suits and ties and carrying briefcases. When you think of the latter, the picture that comes to mind is young, nerdy folks in jeans and tee shirts, eating pizza out of a box. It doesn’t matter that when it comes to individual employees, there are plenty of “suits” working at Google and young nerds working at IBM; those are the personalities associated with the respective companies.
Often a company’s persona “just grows that way” – it’s the natural consequence of its leaders’ management style and/or the type(s) of people who gravitate toward working there. But that means the company’s image might or might not reflect what you want to project to the public. Managing the company’s persona through judicious use of “voice” will help you to fine-tune your image for targeting the types of customers you want to attract.
Assuming you have a web site, use business email, and engage in social media and other types of online marketing, you need to be aware that your company also has a “cyber persona” – and it might or might not match what you’re projecting through other forms of marketing and advertising and through your personal interactions with customers, partners and suppliers.
The key is consistency when it comes to your company’s personality and thus its “voice.” You don’t want to speak in many different, conflicting voices that will at best confuse those who deal with you and at worst, drive away potential customers, investors and others whose favor you want to cultivate.
Because it’s not practical or desirable for only one person to always represent the company to everyone, that means educating everybody in the organization regarding what the company’s public persona is and (if different) what you want it to be. For example, do you want to come across as the friendly, fun company to deal with or the one that’s serious and “all business?” Neither answer is right or wrong – that’s a business decision that needs to be made taking many factors into account. The point is that once the decision is made, that’s the “voice” that should be adopted in all dealings with the public.
Apple, regardless of what you might think about it and its products, is a good example of a company that consciously found, developed and maintained a consistent voice over many years. This was driven in large part by the fact that it had a strong (some would say overbearing) and charismatic leader in Steve Jobs. Microsoft and Google, though more diversified, have had more trouble finding and projecting a consistent voice in the last few years. This is, indeed, partly a result of that diversification and partly because even though both companies have had strong internal leadership, no one (since Bill Gates left Microsoft) has been truly successful in becoming the face of either company.
Does that mean that, in order for your business to develop a voice that’s loud but not irritating or overly aggressive, you need one person to whom others can look to model their public-facing attitudes, philosophies and business behaviors? Not necessarily (think IBM again), but it helps.
Meanwhile, if you want to stand out from the crowd, think of character traits that you admire in individuals. What makes a person popular? How can you adapt and develop those traits in a business entity? If you can make customers and other members of the public think of your company in more personal terms, as something that’s likeable, trustworthy, creative, and so forth, you’re on the right track to bringing in more business and building brand loyalty.