Why Your Niche Matters More Than Ever

You will hear entrepreneurial leaders and other talking heads (Seth Godin, can you hear me?) telling us to find our niche. As I was watching a Twitter feed during lunch on the day of the manhunt for the (alleged) Boston Marathon bomber, it struck me how unimportant nearly all the voices (tweets) were, at least to me. They were all just a bunch of noise.

Why is finding your niche so important?  It is easy to look out into the world and easily become overwhelmed by the flood of information.  You have a product, a service, or an idea that you want to share with the world, but you will more than likely be drowned out, unless you start with your niche.  Take the case of the Twitter posts I mentioned above: nobody cares about your comments unless you have active followers.  Finding your niche is the best way to be heard through all the noise.

Don’t worry about being listed on the Amazon best seller’s list or getting a call for an interview by Wired, Inc., or Fast Company.  Focus on your niche first.  I have learned this lesson over the years. When I started this company, I had grand hopes and dreams for this company to become a large player in the ERP space, providing implementation services across the full spectrum of Oracle E-Business Suite modules. I never put much effort into that bigger plan for a variety of reasons, and frankly I am glad that I did not. Instead, I focused on being really good and getting better at just one area: Human Capital Management (a/k/a HRMS). Although I read this more than a decade ago and can’t remember who said it, this is the age of the specialist.

The reason the niche matters is because people who care about what you sell or say will be the ones listening.

The Headless Ghost Movie Poster

You won’t hear this guy complaining about his niche.

It is much easier get the attention of 200 people than 200,000,000 people. If the message is important or interesting enough, those 200 will make sure it spreads to a larger audience.

The important thing is to find your niche, decide if there is growth, and then get in and build.

The book Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World is next on my reading list, which addresses platform creation.  The platform is one of the concepts Seth Godin proposes in his book Linchpin, another book that I consider recommended reading. I will offer my thoughts after I’ve read it.

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As a general rule, I spend no time on Twitter. I will usually visit when I want to see how a big new event trends, especially from people on the ground.  Aside from that, I am only there when I post updates to this blog.

Things I Carry

In the spirit of the LinkedIn series, Things I Carry, I have created my list of the things that I carry. I am a frequent traveler and have well over 1 million miles of air, car, train, and bus travel over the past 10 years, and I’ve learned to travel as lean as possible.  These are the things I carry:

  • Family
  • Assistant
  • ThinkPad
  • Voice recorder
  • Ebook Reader

Family

I will wax sentimental here and tell you that I carry my family in my heart, and this is the most important thing that I carry. I could not do what I do as effectively as I could without the unwavering support and love from my wife and children.  Because of this support, I am more balanced, driven, focused, and grounded than I ever was as a free agent. This is sincere, honest, and true.

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Build Customer Loyalty by Adopting their Vision, Mission, and Culture

Wine and Olive Tapas

You can wine them and dine them, but it is going to cost you.

For the small consulting firm and independent consultants, building strong customer loyalty can make or break your business. Weak customer loyalty, at the very least, will make the struggle to keep your sales pipeline full a lot more difficult.  Strong customer loyalty will provide dividends for years to come.  Some of the common approaches to loyalty building are:

  • Wine and dine (or lunch and brunch) your clients
  • Provide outstanding service
  • Be professional

Spoiling your clients with good meals and drinks is fun for all involved, but I do not recommend this as a general rule. There are too many ways for this to go wrong: company policy violations (improper gifts), setting a precedent for future dealings, liability concerns, and the risk of being the next big thing on YouTube.  Reserve this for post-go live celebrations, if you must.  Providing outstanding service is an obvious choice and professionalism speaks for itself, though the monetary value of either is difficult to quantify.

I have found one method that is not as obvious, but is absolutely effective and profitable: adopt your client’s vision, mission, and culture.  There are three steps to doing it right, which I term the RDI MethodReconnaissance, Disguise, and Integration.

 

Step 1: Reconnaissance: 

Find out everything you can about the company.  This is fairly easy for most organizations, although you might have to do a little more work for closely held private companies.

Company website:

  • Find their mission and/or vision statements;
  • Read everything you can find about them.  You can infer a bit about an organization’s purpose just by reading about them;
  • Take a look at the job postings, in particular the area in which you will be working;
  • Pay attention to pictures, see what people are wearing, and determine what appears to be important to the organization.

The Internet:

  • Start with Wikipedia.  This may seem odd, but you can find out a lot about a organization’s culture by their history.
  • Search for news articles from reliable news sources.
  • Look for company events, especially pictures.
  • Check their stock price history, if they are publicly traded, and do an EDGAR search.
  • Find community events or local causes where they take part and support.
People:
  • Ask your peers if they have worked for or know someone who has worked for the organization.
  • If you are going to a client through a recruiter, gather as much information as you can from them.
  • Ask your client contact about the dress code, culture, and environment.  This is obvious, but often overlooked.

Step 2: Disguise

This sounds a lot more clandestine than it really is, but you are essentially adopting a different persona when working with your client.  The main things on which to focus:

  • Dress code
  • Body language
  • Speech

You need to dress like your client does.  Ask them simply: “What is your dress code?”  Don’t have time or cannot get an answer?  Pack several changes of clothing if you must.  Don’t wear Armani suits when working for a heavy construction firm, even if you’re dealing with the back office.  Don’t wear a polo shirt and jeans if you are working with a multi-national bank.

Your body language and speech should communicate that you are on par and equal terms with them. Even if you went to Cambridge or Harvard, do not speak above your client, else you risk alienating them. Speak to them using their terminology and their manner of speech.

Step 3: Integration

The Integration step is the most difficult, because it requires you to ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ and embrace your client’s culture and vision for the future.  This is tricky because it requires you to:

  • Create a good first impression (“first impressions are lasting impressions”);
  • Adopt their philosophy of doing business when dealing with them, without going native;
  • Learn about any internal drama’s and power plays that exist in all organizations, but do not be drawn into them;
  • Be empathetic to their problems;
  • Communicate with the client often that you understand their vision and that you are there to help them achieve their goals;
  • Make your interactions with staff memorable;
  • Leave your ego in your suitcase;
  • Learn the names of everyone with whom you work, even the entry-level staff.  These are people who will be the managers and directors of the future, who will bring you back for repeat projects later.
  • Deliver excellence in service and deliverables.

This is both a mental exercise and an act of diplomacy. If you are not sure what to do, start by listening more and talking less.  Process what you see and hear, make notes if you must, and use that information to foster the lasting relationships necessary.  I have seen many highly qualified consultants shown the door because they fail to grasp the concepts of adopting a client’s culture even a little.

The integration step raises some philosophical questions about adopting a culture that might be in conflict with your personal beliefs. A consultant that strongly supports Amnesty International may find themselves internally conflict by adopting the culture of their client, a defense contractor. That is a topic for another article.

Loyalty in the client-consultant relationship is a two-way street. Your clients will become loyal to you, as you become loyal to them.  98% of our work at Matrice Consulting over the past two years has come from repeat customers, and it has been constant, steady work.  The bonds you create with your client representatives will pay huge dividends further down the road, sometimes many years later.

I close this article with two true stories of this concept in practice: the wrong way and the right way.

The Wrong Way

Once upon a time, there was a large retailer known for its frugality and lean operations.  They needed some consulting resources to implement a new ERP module, so they hired a couple of consultants for the job.  These consultants came to this company dressed in their best Hugo Boss and Armani suits, where they found everyone in the office dressed in jeans and polo shirts.  The consultants met with the company’s staff to begin gathering requirements, but treated the staff like they were below them.  After about two weeks, they were asked to leave and never come back.

The Right Way

Once upon a time, there was a small consulting firm that took a contract to implement a new ERP module with a large public-sector client.  The consultant they sent learned everything he could about the organization.  He adopted their dress code, listened to their problems and challenges, and adopted their mission as his mission, and their vision as his vision.  He communicated his dedication to that vision and he delivered on that promise.  After completing his work with this client, the client contracted with the consulting firm to do more work…again, and again, and again, and again.

Why Remote Workers Are More (Yes, More) Engaged

An interesting article from Harvard Business Review arrived in my email this morning that I want to share:

Why Remote Workers Are More (Yes, More) Engaged.

Two points that stand out to me are:

  • Absence makes people try harder to connect
  • Leaders of virtual teams make better use of tools
Unknown American Mountain

Your remote worker is somewhere in this picture.

I agree with Mr. Edinger for the most part, but one point that he omits is the perspective of the remote worker.  I believe that many remote workers actually put more effort into making sure they connect with their leaders.  I do work remotely quite often for my clients, in the capacity of an independent consultant, and remaining visible and accessible is very important.  Communication, have channels in multiple directions, flows as much from the workers back to their managers, as the other way around.  Engagement is a two-way street.

I think that remote workers feel that they need to prove themselves, to justify their absence from the office.  I was one of the first remote workers at my company in the late 1990’s, when working remotely was still a rare thing.  The friction that I received from one of the directors, who was not my boss, almost stopped the remote work, until I was able to justify why I needed to work remotely.  The justification was backed up by delivery.

Delivery is where the remote worker really engages his or her boss.  The efficiencies gained by working remotely allows the remote worker to deliver more often and in a more visible way.  In this way, they are engaging their leaders and other team members more than those workers on site.

For the record, I believe a blended onsite/offsite remote work arrangement works best, in particular if you are an independent consultant.  It is good for your client to see your smiling face on a regular basis. 🙂

Book Review: A Message to Garcia – The Best Book You Have Never Read

Andrew Summers Rowan and General Garcia

Andrews Summers Rowan in the center, General Calixto García on the right.

I stumbled across an amazing story, A Message to Garcia, about 6 months ago, which sums up what we all should strive to be and should look for when hiring people.  This book is in the public domain, and I am including copies at the end of this review, based on the Project Gutenberg texts.

The book, which is really more of an essay, was written by Elbert Hubbard, an American writer and philosopher who was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He wrote this story shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War, based on the actions of Andrew Summers Rowan.  During the war, Rowan was asked by his general to deliver a message from President McKinley to General Calixto García, leader of the Cuban resistance, who was hidden in the mountains in an unknown location.  Not asking how he was going to accomplish such a task, he took the message from his general, and without a word he set off and successfully delivered the message to Garcia.

The essay extols the virtues of Rowan as a desirable trait for all people.  Here is the crux of Hubbard’s message, as I see it:

The world needs people who can take a task and complete it, without question, complaint, or fuss.

Many of us are that person.  As managers, these are the person we want working on our teams.  As entrepreneurs, these are definitely the people we want for our startups.  Hubbard describes those who cannot take or follow through on orders as morally deformed or crippled.  He sympathisizes with the hard working person, who does their job without complaint, without stupid questions.  To quote Hubbard:

“His kind is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go. He is wanted in every city, town and village—in every office, shop, store and factory.”

I am not going to try an analyze the book from head to tail here, because I would do an injustice to it.  The one thing that strikes me is that this book could have been written yesterday.  I believe it is as important a book as any I have read in years and should be required reading for every child, high school student, college student, worker, soldier, and citizen.  It is short enough to read in a few minutes and I very highly recommend it.  You can download or read the book here:

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I am forming an opinion lately that books do not need to be long, but rather short.  This was first brought to my attention while reading Seth Godin’s “The Dip”.  There are too many non-fiction books that have filler, because apparently some publishers charge for books by the pound.  There may be a prevailing thought that a short book does not carry as much perceived value as a long, large, heavy one.  This is why we end up abandoning books before finishing them, unless the content is very compelling.

I believe books need to be shorter, not longer.  I think that takes a great deal of time and thought to write a shorter book than it does a longer book.  To quote Cicero (also attributed to Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, and others):

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

To quote my wife:

“Land the plane.”