What do you do when a study or survey comes out, lambasting your livelihood and indicating that your product or service isn't as valuable as you feel it is? Surely vitamin business owners collectively winced when late last year, the medical journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, published an editorial stating that multivitamins provide no real health benefit and "should be avoided."
Or perhaps a consensus forms that your product isn't that necessary after all. Think how florists feel when they read that all-too-common request in obituaries, "In lieu of flowers, please send charitable donations to ..."
Or maybe your business is as ethical as they come, but you have plenty of unethical competitors whose actions are making you guilty by association.
In other words, you don't suck, but a lot of people think you do.
If your industry has a perception problem, what real options do you have? If changing industries or curling up in a corner and crying don't sound like viable strategies, here are four options that just might work:
1. Show how you're different. Karen Wrolson, a life coach in Camarillo, California, says her field is often criticized because it's unregulated and many people just hang out a shingle with no qualifications. Several years ago, she met a 25-year-old woman at a business workshop who fit the bill of the unqualified life coach.
"I asked her what her educational background was," Wrolson says. "She told me she was a high school graduate but that she'd had a terrible life, so she felt that trained her to be a life coach," At 59, Wrolson has two master's degrees, in education and marketing, and is certified as a life coach. She also helped design the operations model for two schools for at-risk teenagers and spent a combined 22 years working as the director of and counselor at each of them. Small wonder she found the young woman at the workshop lacking in the qualifications department.
Others apparently think most life coaches lack that same educational or professional background. "When I tell people I'm a life coach," Wrolson says, "they roll their eyes—if not externally, internally—and assume I'm a bozo with no training or education. It's really frustrating."
Lesson Learned: Don't be bashful when it comes to defending what you do. If you're in a field with a lot of unqualified or undistinguished competitors, tell prospective clients—immediately—what separates you from the pack.
2. Educate your customer base. Laura Reed of Meridian, Idaho, doesn't mince words, especially when it comes to how others perceive her industry. "The field in general is often looked down upon or not always perceived in a positive light," says Reed, who is in the tattoo industry.
But her business doesn't offer traditional tattoos. Reed runs Artistic Cosmetic Solutions, a permanent cosmetic makeup clinic. Permanent makeup is "cosmetic tattooing of the facial features to enhance color and improve shape," as Reed explains on her website.
Reed understands why many potential customers initially blanch when they hear what she does. "Most states don't have any licensing for tattooing, whether it's traditional body art or permanent makeup," she says. "That means anyone can get training anywhere—even from a DVD online—buy a cheap tattoo gun that may not be allowed by the health department if inspected, and go to work out of their home or in the back room of a nail or hair salon."
Deserved or not, the tattooing industry doesn't have the greatest reputation. Which is why, like Wrolson, Reed educates potential clients every chance she gets. For Reed, that's a pretty easy thing to do, since her own face has been cosmetically tattooed.
"I have permanent eyebrows, eyeliner and lipstick, and it does not look clownish," Reed says. After she tells people about her own permanent cosmetic makeup, she adds, "the person usually starts asking more questions, and it becomes an educational discussion about this field."
Lesson Learned: Everyone's entitled to his or her own opinion, but you may be able to change it, if you give prospects and customers a valid reason why you think their perception is off-base.
3. Respect the perception. There probably wasn't much Peter McBride could do to counter the "in lieu of flowers" sentiment in obituaries without looking like a jerk. As the founder and owner of FuneralFlowers.com, a national independent service that delivers flowers for funerals, he couldn't exactly tell grieving families that they're completely wrong about requesting donations instead of flowers.
Instead, McBride decided to "unite my life's passion with my work," as he puts it. His company donates at least 10 percent of its gross profits (about 2 percent of gross sales receipts) to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and The Bone Marrow Foundation. McBride, a father of three, chose these organizations because his 13-year-old son Jack is a leukemia survivor, and he credits both with much of the reason his son is still around.
It's a way of doing business that genuinely does some good—but it's also a smart way to respect how the public feels about charitable donations in lieu of flowers. By using McBride's service, potential customers who wonder whether they should send flowers or donate to a charity on behalf of the deceases can do both.
Lesson Learned: You can learn something even from the people who are critical of or lukewarm to your industry. "Customers want to have a connection with the companies they hand their money to," McBride says. "The most important ingredient, however, is that it has to be sincere. Customers are smart, and they can smell a rat a mile away."
4. Push clients to the competition—but only the good ones. As crazy as it sounds, you should speak well of your good competitors and root for their success, says Stephen Sheinbaum, CEO of New York City-based Merchant Cash and Capital (MCC), an alternative financing company. That means Sheinbaum's firm is part of an industry that's populated by well-established, reputable brands as well as predatory lenders.
"When people talk to me about my competitors, I'm quick to name them and speak highly of them," Sheinbaum says. "If they're going to use a competitor, I want them to have a positive experience. It's like if you're Coke and somebody's going to drink something else, you should steer them to drink Pepsi—you know it's well-bottled and they aren't going to get sick."
One reason to keep your friends close but your enemies closer? If a potential customer goes to a fly-by-night operation in your industry and has a terrible experience, rather than see the light and come back to you, they may just quit your industry as a whole.
"Of course, you always want to be a little more successful than your competitors, but if your competitors fail, that's the worst thing that can happen," Sheinbaum says. As he explains, if you have three main companies in the same space and two of them fail, vendors may start looking at your company—the last one standing—suspiciously and be less willing to help you out.
Lesson Learned: Pay it forward to the best of the rest in your industry. There really is something to karma.
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