Recently, while at a conference in an industry we serve, I was asked by a prospective client why they should choose The Austin Company over a competitor for their next project. It is an awkward question since first, you are being put in a position where anything you say can be interpreted as bashing the competition and that can always backfire on you. And second, in our industry, we do not know our competition as well as say, Coke knows Pepsi.
The best answer came from one of our industry leaders in the meeting. You see, the competitor in question was not at the conference, does not attend and support the industry associations, and does not invest nor contribute to the industry in any way visible to us. Austin, on the other hand, is very active at many levels. We are very visible. The answer to the prospect’s question was the question – “Is it important to you that companies in our industry contribute to the organizations that promote the health of your markets and business?” We really did not get a direct answer to the question.
So the question remains. And it has had me thinking about the return on our investment in this industry and our markets in general. All things being equal, you can make a logical case for making the investment. It adds to your presence, your knowledge and your development as an individual and as your Company, by extension.
But all things are never equal.
The return on investment in purely financial terms is more of a subjective analysis than meets the eye. It is difficult to allocate the amount of a business that is the direct result of a market investment. Sales calls, websites, direct mail, advertising, word of mouth and trade shows and conferences are all contributory to sales. So to determine what to allocate to the cumulative sales in a market is problematic.
In the end, it is purely a judgment call. And it is highly unlikely that the investment harms you in any way besides its impact on overhead. But I also tend to believe that the professional development from participation in a vertical market we serve is very valuable. I have found that without a focus on a particular market, you tend to be a generalist. As a generalist, you only know what you know. Once you begin to specialize or focus, you begin to understand how little you know about that market. A specialist begins to know what they do not know. It begins to humble you and you take that humility to all markets you serve.
Such a humility kills complacency. You are driven to be a better listener and create more empathy for each market. Your services and strategies become more about the prospect and their drivers than about your business. Once that happens, you become more empowered to serve them while meeting your own needs.
The thing I love most about our business is that to be effective at it, we need to understand the business of our customers. What are the drivers that cause a company to invest $50MM to $100MM in a project and what keeps them up at night? I find that endlessly fascinating and educational. And exposure to these events in the end makes us better service providers.
I think, subjectively, that investing in these conferences makes us better if for any other reason than we are a more compelling organization to work with, more well-rounded, and more focused on how we serve our customers – than how our customers exist for us to do their capital projects.
It also makes a career a lot more interesting.
“You give loyalty, you'll get it back. You give love, you'll get it back.”
“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”
“Profit in business comes from repeat customers, customers that boast about your project or service, and that bring friends with them.”
W. Edwards Deming