BrandingWire: 9 recommendations for an IT firm

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This month's BrandingWire exercise takes us to the IT world. The following brief maps out our little strategic challenge:
Company Description:

We are a small company based in Canada. We do just about everything IT: proactive work (such as network maintenance), monitoring of critical systems, emergency work (IT fixes, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week), new user set-ups, procurement of hardware and software (at a discount through our top vendors), consulting work (which can be anything from upgrading all 100 of your Windows computers to Macs, or something simple like what open-source software alternatives would we recommend instead of Photoshop).

We are also offering services in a new area called Green IT. It is all about transforming the way IT is used to help cut down on energy use and waste. Solutions could include datacenters with virtualized servers, remote access of datacenters (to keep the systems in a stable environment), or sending software electronically to eliminate packaging waste. We want to get more into this area!

Target Customers:

Small to medium sized business in our city and the surrounding areas. (Note: we do provide support to branch offices of our customers across Canada.)

We seem to attract a lot of non-profit (environment, research, health) and financial/accounting clients. I believe we aimed more for non-profits when the company was first started, both because of the President’s contacts in that sector and also because they easier to access than other businesses and they have formed a tight knit community in our city. The issue with non-profits is that, because of their tight usually government-controlled budgets, we’re in a constant struggle to get paid for our extensive work.

Our clients are typically not technically-oriented. Companies are both B2B and B2C, ranging in industry from financial and accounting services to commercial real estate, health care services, non-profits, and some retail.

We’d like to aim for businesses with younger staff that understand technology and can appreciate the need for IT, as well as the critical nature of technology services in relation to their business operations. But it has proven to be hard… which leads me to…

Biggest PR/Marketing Challenge:

We charge hourly for consulting, project hours and support time; the hourly price is lower with a contract than without a contract, where we would come out and do things on a case by case basis. It’s difficult to convince SMBs that our services are worth the amount we are charging – however, to draft a legal document, they’re more than willing to a pay a top notch lawyer $500/hour. If your IT services – your computers, your printers, your network, your data – are done incorrectly, you’re out of business. Customers view IT issues as a pain (ie. my email is down again) instead of as a critical part of their business (ie. without IT, we can’t function as a company).

Customers just don’t always understand the value of IT services.

Our monthly support contract covers just about everything “IT”. Then on top of that, say you’ve signed up for a 10 hour contract for support – we don’t just send a bill at the end of the month: we send you a full report of every single minute of work that was done for your company and what was accomplished. We log every incident and track all time and documentation within our Helpdesk. And because we’re a small company at heart (growing now; we’ve doubled our size in the past 2 years), we do give great customer service – our clients know us and they know if something goes horribly wrong with their email at 3 in the morning, they can reach us with one phone call.

Main Marketing/PR Goal:

1. Help our current clients understand why our services are worth the price tag. This may be an inherent problem in the industry (it’s known that IT is on average never properly budgeted for), but EDS and other huge IT corporations don’t seem to have a problem. We want them to see us as a partner for their business, not just an “IT repair service”.

2. Bring in clients who understand the importance of IT services already, and get them to pick us above our competitors for our value-added work.

How we would like BrandingWire to help us:

I feel like we’re too entrenched in the technology/service provider perspective to understand how our clients and potential clients really see IT. Hopefully BrandingWire can help us see our company from a purely marketing perspective. Our company is great – we just need to get that idea out there to our current clients and to those that have yet to hear about us.

1. First things first: Build a KILLER website. Make it fresh. Pick crisp, bright organic colors. Give your website a color scheme and structure that convey the fact that by hiring you, your clients are hiring the very best in the business and their lives are about to become a whole lot more pleasant. List the menu of services clearly on the main page, but keep the text areas to a minimum. Take some pointers from luxury consumer goods websites. Think fashion-oriented brands. Look at your competitors' websites, and do the EXACT OPPOSITE. You don't want to distract your potential clients with a whole lot of boring copy and overused keywords. Instead, please their brains with clean structure and appealing colors, while giving them an uninterrupted list of what you will do for them. (Then make it super easy for them to navigate the site and find out what your story is on their own terms.)

Your objective here is to a) differentiate yourselves from the hundreds of other typical IT companies out there that all look, sound and feel the same, and b) inspire not only confidence, value and professionalism, but excitement about your company. (We'll come back to that.)

2. Don't just present yourselves as an IT company (the answer to IT problems). That's already implied. Everyone gets it. Instead, take it a step further and present yourselves as the answer to other IT companies. Be easier to work with. Be less geeky. Be less boring. Be less in the way. Become every mid-sized company's "no hassles" IT partner. Don't hesitate to tell your potential clients "Look, you don't need to worry about the IT stuff anymore. We have it handled. Go take care of your business. ;)"

It probably wouldn't hurt to schedule regular meetings with some of the principals to make hardware and software recommendations, but be careful not to turn into salesmen. Be advisors. This type of endeavor can't be self-serving, or it will backfire. If you want to be seen as more than an IT repair service and more as an IT partner, become more involved in the shaping of your clients' tech infrastructure.

3. Always keep it simple. Use words everyone can understand. Don't bore anyone with unnecessary details. Be relevant. Be geeky, but only minimally so.

4. Understand your clients' business, and help IT truly become an active part of it. The problem that most IT firms wrestle with is that they appear to only focus on IT. That's bad because IT is a weird, geeky, necessary-evil kind of thing, and that makes you a weird, geeky, necessary-evil kind of service. In order to be effective and not seen as merely IT repairmen, you have to change the conversation. You have to distance yourself from the IT conversation. You have to help your client change its relationship with IT.

For starters, you have to understand how your clients use technology at every level of their organization. I would suggest interviewing employees in every department, and finding out what works for them and what doesn't. Understand their struggles with technology. Listen to what they want and what they wrestle with. This humanizes the technology. It helps turn the conversation from "what happens in the server room" (which is irrelevant to most people in the company) to "what I do when a customer calls and I need to pull up his account" (which is pretty damn important to everyone).

Then, give them what they want, and fix what they wrestle with on a daily basis. If you can fix human problems that relate to technology rather than simply fixing technical problems, you will become their IT partner forever. Most IT companies claim to do this, but they don't. (I have never known an IT company that even comes close to doing this.)

That requires a different approach from Day 1: It forces you to make interface assessments throughout the organization and look at potential IT problems from both a human and an operational perspective rather than a purely technical one.

Fixing IT problems in a human and an operational context, has a lot more value to a company exec than fixing a problem that he/she perceives to be purely IT-related (too complicated,too out-of-sight, and too expensive).

As a bonus, your techs will seem more human and more helpful... instead f the typical "who's that dude?" "Oh, I think he's one of the IT guys" conversations I've been a part of my entire career.

IT management is not something that happens in the back after everyone goes home. That's what you need to get through to your clients. IT is an integral part of their business like Marketing, Finance, Sales, Purchasing, etc. Help integrate it into your clients' company cultures. Make it not be an alien, complicated thing.

Don't feel bad: Marketing departments working for most engineering firms have similar value-related problems.

5. Definitely push the Green IT angle. If you can show clients that the Green IT program will save them cash and earn them good karma points, you'll have something very valuable to offer. If there is already an industry-wide program with its own logo, display it on your site, all marketing collateral, and even your invoices. If there isn't one, have a graphic designer create a logo for you, and propose to national and international regulatory bodies within your industry that it become the mark of Green IT initiatives. The objective here is to give clients a visual cue they will either recognize or want to inquire about.

6. Become friends with your best clients. Join the same organizations they belong to. Let their professional and social networks become your networks. This is the best way to grow your business in an environment which will value you as more than just an IT repair service.

7. Publish articles, white papers, how-to guides, etc. Help sponsor or organize tech-related conferences or seminars. Sit on tech-related boards. Work with local universities and other educational facilities. Become an IT authority in the business world. (Become more than just an IT company.)

8. If you don't have one already, create a simple menu of services relative to client company size, level of need, and budget limitations. Limit it to 3 or 4 levels. Keep it super simple. (A la carte services work too, but if you can create easy-to-understand packages, you will simplify the client acquisition process.) The kinds of companies who select menu-style services won't be your best clients, but they may become so once they get to know you and start asking for more custom services and a greater level of attention.

9. Make your brand of IT sexy. Don't laugh. I'm serious. Shake the geeky image. You're in the high-tech business, and you're at the very top level of it. Act, look, speak and work accordingly. Drop the boring golf shirts, the droopy socks and the cheap sneakers. Get better haircuts. Hire a fashion consultant if you have to, but find a way to make your team look good, act cool, and look like they just flew in from Madison Avenue - not the local GameSpot store.

That's right: I'm talking about an IT makeover here. (Hey, you're tired of being treated like IT repairmen, right? Change the way you look and act, and the way people perceive you and treat you will change accordingly.) It sucks that looks matter, but welcome to the real world: The way you present yourself does indeed matter.

The sad reality of the world is this: Nobody cares what a nerd has to say, except perhaps another nerd. Think back to high school. College, even. Watch what happens to nerds in politics. Watch how differently people are treated in retail outlets, board rooms and at a doctor's office based on how they look and carry themselves.

I have spent years watching IT guys, salespeople and execs from other companies walk in and out of meetings, and let me tell you: Smarts, knowledge and ability aren't enough if you don't first project confidence, cool, and a bit of style. Shake up the stereotypes. As a matter fact, shatter them. Present yourselves as cool guys who happen to be IT pros, and you will find that most people in your client organization will be a whole lot more willing to listen to what you have to say than if you looked like every other computer nerd they've watched walk through the door.

That's it for me, but feel free to read the rest of the BrandingWire team's recommendations here.

Have a great Monday everyone. ;)

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