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Tuned in Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2010
Marketing budgets are an easy first place to go when you need to cut expenses at your business.

“I’m a big believer in scrutinizing what you’re spending,” says Laura Sheridan, founder and president of Viva La Brand LLC. “If you’re not either getting great results or learning from it, it shouldn’t be part of your marketing program.”

But you need to think before you cut. If you don’t, you may find that you killed a great opportunity to generate more revenue.

Sheridan has worked with successful businesses across the region, including Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., Pierre’s Ice Cream Co. and LogicJunction, to help develop effective brand strategies that get results.

“If you have the wrong message, you’re not going to reach anyone because your target audience won’t think you’re talking to them,” Sheridan says. “You have to talk to your customer.”

Sheridan suggests finding a third-party brand strategist who can come up with a better way to connect with what your customers are looking for.

“You really need a professional who has done this so they can structure the questions in a way that the answers are things that the leader can really use to forward his or her business,” Sheridan says.

You need someone who is objective and isn’t biased toward your products and services through past experience and past discussions.

“They can say, ‘Look, I’m not an expert in this business,’” Sheridan says. “My job is to communicate information and to help this company that hired me improve their products and services. You’re a very important customer to them and they want to make sure they are meeting your needs and anticipating your needs.’”

When you start looking for someone to fill this strategist role, be sure to present a clear problem and keep any solutions you might have in mind to yourself.

“Don’t say, ‘Here’s the research I want to do,’” Sheridan says. “I would suggest the CEO say, ‘Here’s my business problem. How do you suggest we resolve it?’ Then see what the person’s solution is. You’ll be able to assess whether you think it’s a strong approach or not.”

Get this potential strategist to take you through a case study of how he or she handled a problem similar to what you’re experiencing with another business.

“I’d say, ‘OK, give me some examples of where you did that,’” Sheridan says. “I’d want the person to describe, ‘Here are three clients that we did that project with. Let me tell you what we did. Let me tell you the outcome and let me tell you the results and how it has positively impacted the company.’”

As you’re listening to the explanation, pay close attention to body language and how this person handles a conversation.

“Is this person a really good listener?” Sheridan says. “A researcher has to be just an amazing listener, very articulate, very clear and very succinct. Those basic qualities, I would be really attuned to making sure they are very strong in those areas.”

You’re also looking for a level of organization to ensure that you’ll get a full report from the strategist’s interview with your customer.

“This should be turn-key for the CEO,” Sheridan says. “As the researcher, my job is I do all of the interviews. I either tape them or I take incredible notes and I write up very detailed interview notes. But then as part of my whole brand strategy, I do an analysis to find themes and then I share with my client all the notes.

“Then I do a presentation with the client to share all the learning. ‘Here are my recommendations based on everything I heard to take your business to the next level.’”

Be prepared

So what if you don’t want a brand strategist talking to your customers? What if you want to do it yourself?

Laura Sheridan says make sure you’re asking questions that will lead to actionable answers.

“I see often where somebody will say, ‘Well, why don’t we ask this question?’ because they are curious,” says Sheridan, founder and president of Viva La Brand LLC. “But a good researcher will say, ‘OK, let’s say we ask this question. What are the two most obvious or likely answers? What are we going to do with that information?’

“If you just get a bunch of information that you can’t act upon, it’s worthless.”

Start with very general, open-ended questions.

“I like to start these dialogues with questions like, ‘When I say X, the brand name of the company name or the product, what comes to mind?’ Then I’m a big believer in letting the customer or prospect talk. Don’t do a follow-up question when there is just one second of silence. People like to fill silence. It’s amazing how when you let them talk, how much more valuable information you can get.”

However you proceed with your conversation, one of the keys is to be respectful of your customers’ time.

“Communicate to the customers that you really want to improve and offer better products and service and that the customer will really benefit if they are upfront and share,” Sheridan says.

How to reach: Viva La Brand LLC, (216) 548-6780 or www.vivalabrand.com