Reputation, Referrals, and Credentials

By Peter DeHaan

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineAbout three years ago, I started to sense that it was time for a career change. Work wasn’t fun any more. Many of the things I relished weren’t being pursued at my company or had been delegated to others. My days were filled with tasks that I didn’t enjoy, responsibilities that bored me and a routine that was, well, too routine. In retrospect, I had tried to develop a call center that excelled at everything, an operation that gave superior service, was supported by the best technology, was growing and expanding, and was generating profits. Although we were not perfect, we were quite good. I had accomplished the major parts of what I set out to do and didn’t have that next challenge beckoning me from the future. Was the rest of my career destined to merely maintain the status quo?

I had always thought it would be exciting and invigorating to be a consultant. There would be great variety as I moved from one project to another, from one client to the next, and I would never be called upon to the keep things the same — change would be my constant companion. Yet I had misgivings. I would forego a stable, steady salary for an inconsistent and unpredictable income. I would be putting my family’s future at risk.

These thoughts continued to play in my mind during a series of doctor’s visits. Unable to find a cause for my complaints, the word “stress” reoccurred in my caretaker’s musings about my situation. Could the cause be my lack of a future vision and the repetitiveness of my routine? Intentionally, I didn’t ask the question that was on my mind, yet I knew that, either literally or figuratively, my job was killing me. It was time for a change.

I shared these concerns with my boss, who was also my partner and mentor. He, too, wanted something different and our individual intentions dovetailed nicely. We set about making a transition. I exited the company, migrating into consulting, and he became more active in the day-to-day operation.

Being your own boss has many advantages. I do most of my work at home (my morning commute is measured in seconds, plus it is a joy for me to see our kids off to school in the morning and to be there when they get home in the afternoon) and I have great flexibility (work can be molded around my family’s schedule). There are also downsides to being a consultant. You have an unpredictable income, you need to travel, and you must continually find new business. These were major concerns for me. I put myself on a conservative quarterly budget to better manage my income and resolved to accept the travel, but the need to sell remained an issue.

How would I go about getting clients? I realized that, just as with a teleservices company, there would be three ways to enhance my standing with prospects and mitigate the arduous task of continual self-promotion. These are reputation, referrals, and personal selling.

Reputation: Having been in the industry for more than 20 years, I was not unknown. I had served on various boards and committees, made presentations at many conventions and meetings (albeit with great trepidation), and written scores of articles. Motivated only by a desire to share with others and be a positive influence on the industry, I had unwittingly made myself known. Providentially, this would be greatly beneficial when I hung out my consulting shingle. To my delight, I found that I didn’t need to sell most prospects on myself or on my abilities. There was only the issue of helping them decide whether to hire a consultant in the first place. More than half of my clients have known me for several years and likely relied on my reputation in making their purchase decision.

For the outsourcing call center and teleservice company, reputation also plays a critical role in obtaining new business. Longevity as an industry provider shortens the sales cycle. When a reputation for quality service, fair dealings, and ethical practices accompany this history, a teleservice organization automatically moves to the top of the list. The converse is true when negative connotations exist. Then your company’s name migrates towards the bottom of the list, frustrating marketing efforts and requiring more time and energy to make the sale. While it takes time and focus to earn a positive reputation, the road to a bad reputation is much shorter and quicker. And once a bad reputation has been established it is incredibly difficult to overcome. Reputation – either good or bad — is a great influencer in closing sales.

Referrals: The second, and perhaps easiest, way to gain new business is when others do the work for you. In some cases you can ask clients if they know of others who could use your services. These leads are generally pre-qualified and often pre-sold. Though this is not an approach I used, some teleservice companies have added many new clients by asking existing clients for referrals. While some elect to reward clients for referrals with monetary or material gifts, others find that a sincere “thank you” garners greater results.

The ultimate level of referrals occurs when clients tell their friends and associates about you, suggesting they use your services. This is a sure sign of a delighted client. Sales via referrals occur when your actions match or surpass your words – you don’t just say what you will do, but you do what you say. These referrals are earned through the provision of quality service and reinforced by honorable business practices.

Credentials: In the last issue of Connections, I shared the story of my lengthy college quest and how it culminated with earning my Ph.D. This degree was intended to be a personal achievement to conclude my education. At first I didn’t talk much about having gotten the degree, but as I thought about the uncomfortable necessity of promoting my consulting business, I realized that I would need to publicize my educational accomplishments. Quite simply, it was a credential that needed to be promoted. As I thought about my other credentials, I compiled a short list:

  • Ph.D. in business administration
  • Certified call center auditor by Purdue University
  • Certified first-class technician from the National Association of Radio and Telecommunications Engineers
  • Second-class FCC license

There were a few others that I considered adding to the list. I thought about my association memberships, but these, along with chamber memberships and social organizations – as important as they may be – are more a label that you buy rather than an acknowledgement that you earn. I also briefly did some name-dropping since I was part of the consultant liaison programs for Blue Pumpkin and Interactive Intelligence. But when I realized that these programs didn’t confirm some level of expertise, I stopped mentioning them.

Credentials are also important for outsource call centers or teleservice companies. Virtually everyone says – and believes – that they provide superior service. So how can you distinguish your organization from the often-inflated claims of your competitors? Quite simply, you need someone else to verify it. A credential is a verifiable recognition from an independent third party that you have achieved a standard level of performance. In the teleservices industry we are fortunate to have three opportunities to earn credentials that can verify the veracity of our claims. They are the:

  • CAM-X / ATSI Award of Excellence
  • CAM-X Call Centre Award of Distinction
  • SNUG / ATSI Call Center Site Certification

Having just one of these credentials puts your organization in a unique category that few competitors can match. Having two or three moves you to the top of any list.

When I was in the operations side of the industry, I enrolled our company in the ATSI Award of Excellence program the first year it was offered. Initially, I viewed it as a quality report card. It is that, but it is also more. The resulting scores from the Award of Excellence program provide 400 data points that can be analyzed to reveal areas of strength and weakness, as well as areas of consistency and inconsistency. (Here is something to consider: you may be better off being consistently weak in an area than to be inconsistent. At least when you are consistently weak, your clients know what to expect and you deliver it every time!)

It wasn’t until after we earned the Award of Excellence that I realized, even more importantly, that it was a powerful marketing tool and a mark of distinction that needed to be promoted. It is my vision for the industry that when a prospect calls, the first thing they ask will not be “What are your rates?” but rather, “What are your certifications and awards?” When this happens, I hope you will have some credentials to share.

[For more information, see our feature article, “It’s all about Credentials.”]

Peter DeHaan PhD is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine and a passionate wordsmith. Connect with him on his personal blogs, social media sites, and newsletter, all accessible from peterdehaan.com.

[From Connection MagazineApril 2003]

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