We all know how important it is to have a business brand, but you may not realize how important it is for your brand to align with your reputation. In other words, is what you’re putting out in the world as your brand aligned with how you and your business are perceived and experienced by clients and prospective clients?
In this blog, I focus on:
What a brand is and isn’t.
How a consulting brand and reputation relate.
Why it's important to assess your brand and reputation annually (at least).
How to approach the reassessment. and what to do with it
What Is a Brand?
A brand is much more than a logo and catchy tag line, fancy business card and website, or any other visual element that serves as a mental or emotional trigger. They are representations of your brand used to help clients and prospects quickly identify and/or distinguish your consultancy from others. However, they are not the entirety of your brand. Your brand is the overall story and impression you create about your consulting business. It’s what you put out to the world about you, your business, and how you behave as person and business. It’s the collective sum of experiences others have when engaging and exchanging with you.
It’s important to be very deliberate about your brand because you don't want it to be experienced as confusing or random. You want it to be very carefully cultivated so it can guide your business decisions and define how you operate—from A to Z, in every touch point with others.
How Does a Consulting Brand and Reputation Relate?
On the flip side of the brand you create and aim to bring to life is your reputation, which is how prospects, clients, and other interested parties perceive you and what you’re putting out in the world. You can control what you present as your brand, your offerings, and how you deliver them, but you can only manage but not control how others collectively grasp or relate to them. If your reputation isn’t accurately reflecting who you are and/or what you want to be, your job is to reassess your brand to improve what you’re promoting, how you’re delivering it, and how those things are experienced by others.
Reputation is so critical to consultants because it’s how you get and keep business. Whenever I talk to anyone about business development, “reputational capital” is at the heart of the discussion. Seeding, growing, and nurturing it helps provide relief from the non-stop grinding associated with seeking and bringing in new business. The better your reputation, the less you must do to win that business.
Over the years, I’ve developed a strong reputation in my field. I rely on it to help sustain and grow my consulting business. But what happens if the brand I built doesn’t match my reputation? How do I even know if they are misaligned and how can I fix it if they are?
Why Is It Important to Reassess Your Brand and Reputation Annually (At Least)?
Once again, reassessment is all about aligning your brand—what you put out into the world—with your reputation—what other people are experiencing and saying about your brand. Sometimes your brand and your reputation are aligned, but, at other times, they are misaligned. Misalignments create expectation and experience gaps that frustrate and disappoint the clients you serve as well as confuse prospects you aim to convert to clients. Those gaps cost you both time and money.
I examine my own professional and consulting business brands often. At times, I realize that some plans for and decisions about my brands work well while others, not so much. This is a common experience for consultants, and it needs attention. My annual review reveals what adjustments, if not outright changes, need to be made if I am to ensure my business and I are favorably positioned in 2020.
Let’s look at a real-world example of a misaligned brand and reputation. Imagine your first purchase from an online retailer. You decided to give them a try because of how they promote their product and service quality: prompt, free shipping. and easy returns. It sounds like a breeze. Then you wait for your package and nothing. Your order doesn’t ship or arrive when promised; you can’t reach customer service; and, eventually, the product you receive is either the wrong one or of poor quality. I bet you’re not a happy customer! That’s because there’s gap between what you perceived (your expectation) and what you received (your experience). Those two things must align.
Consider these scenarios faced by consultants like you as additional reasons why reassessment is so important:
“I have colleagues who do a great job of qualifying their prospective clients as to whether they're a fit for them. But I've faced situations when I didn't turn down a prospect I should have and spent the entire engagement worried that I wouldn't deliver my best work. From the onset, client communication was unclear and uneven. I was afraid things wouldn’t work out well enough for me or my clients to count the relationship a success. Now I realize reassessment is a perfect opportunity to outline criteria by which I say "no" to not only manage communication, but also to clarify the type of clients I am willing to take on.”
"I’m not doing as well as I want on delivering what I think is a truly excellent product or service. My questions for myself are ‘Can I get better?’ and ‘Should I be doing it at all?’ I'm thinking about a specific piece of work that I’ve been doing somewhat reluctantly because a client whom I've worked with for a long time asked me to do things that I don't think I'm the best person to do, even though I think I've been helpful. So part of my reassessment is asking myself if I need to set better expectations with clients about what I will and won't do."
"When I saw that my brand and reputation were misaligned, I began to wonder whether I unknowingly ventured into my no-go zone. I know if spend too much time doing work outside of my scope of my capabilities, my reputation is going to take a hit because I know I can't do my best work."
“Life balance is part of what I’ll reassess. Getting too busy doesn't just make it harder for me to deliver at the level of quality that I want to and that my clients deserve, it also gets in the way of keeping my baseline strong (e.g., eating right, exercising, enough sleep, all that good stuff). As I head into the new year and think about life balance, I’m asking myself ‘What can I do differently?’”
“I had a difficult experience with a client that left me feeling uncentered. It wasn't the end of the year but, I couldn't wait until then to understand how things ended so badly. I did a reassessment shortly after the engagement ended and was able to identify what, when, and where things went wrong. Not only did the reassessment give me clarity as to how to improve, but it was a real confidence booster when rediscovering what I do well."
How Should I Approach the Reassessment and Then What Do I Do With It?
So here you are, heading toward the end of the year. It's time to do an annual reassessment of our brands and reputations. But where do you start? Presumably, as a consultant, you’ve already made some decisions about what your brand is at the beginning of the year. Now, you’re going to look back at those decisions and unpack how they were of equal benefit to your clients, consulting business, and life.
First, we need to take a look at all the elements of your brand at the end of the year. Then, based on your clients’ views and experiences with you, your brands, and your business, make decisions about what you want to do and how you want to adjust and execute in the new year. In the end, you want to make sure that what you set out at the beginning of the year for your brand and what people have experienced all year—your reputation—are in sync.
So how do you find out if your brand and reputation are connecting in the ways you intended? Well, you can start by not performing a reassessment in a vacuum. While it may seem appealing to lock yourself in a room alone, the truth is you need input from others. Without that feedback, you have no way to deeply and honestly reflect over what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. You need ruthless honesty with yourself to accurately assess the alignment between what you’re putting out in the world and how it’s being experienced. And you can’t do this in isolation. You’ll want to seek input through formal client surveys, informal conversations with clients, and feedback from trusted colleagues. You can learn a lot about what does and doesn’t work from these sources.
Once you’ve reassessed your brand and reputation, and you know what gaps you want close, it’s time to start planning for the upcoming year. You want to make deliberate, high-yield decisions about what to keep and adjust in the new year.Include goals across multiple dimensions where you found gaps (e.g., strategic, operational, tactical) so you can close those pesky gaps in the upcoming year. Your goals can be set for the immediate future (within 30 days), short-term (60 to 90 days), midterm (6 to 9 months), and the long-term or near future (within 12 to 18 months). Adding a date stamp to your goals adds a layer of accountability for actually achieving them.
Since consulting is only one part of your life, don’t forget to include goals for your life as well! Having a plan for your life—such as having enough time for yourself and loved ones—will inform your business goals and vice versa. Embedding balanced aspects into your life will make you happier. And, when you’re happier, it makes your clients and business happier.
When you embark on a reassessment, please remember that you're examining what's working, what's not working, and what you're not sure about. This doesn’t always mean, "OK, now I’ve got to change everything." A sudden or overnight brand overhaul could feel jarring and send the wrong message in your market, potentially hurting your reputation. You never want clients to ask, “Who is [insert name here] this year?” or doubt your ability to provide excellent service.
Consistency is important. You've spent a lot of time, whether you were conscious of it or not, getting your brand to stick out in your market. You only want to unstick the things that aren't serving you or your clients. A great question to ask yourself is “What should I stop, start, and continue doing in the new year?”
And, by the way, no worries if you don’t complete your reassessment and planning right away. You can always continue your process throughout January and then again whenever your business needs recalibration. The most important thing is to get it done before you suffer any loss of reputational capital.
If you enjoyed this blog and would like to know more, I invite you to listen to two related podcasts with Shaunice Hawkins, a principal at Evolutions Consulting and Advising, which is a boutique strategic communication consulting firm.