Last December I had lunch with a colleague who runs a successful business. Curious to how he manages to secure so many industry-leading clients, I asked him what sort of marketing strategy he had in the works.
“Zero,” he said.
I got him to elaborate.
“I haven’t had a marketing budget in years. At this point it’s all about relationships. One thing you have to remember is that companies are run by people and that people talk.” As problems sprout and the people running those companies look for solutions, names begin to enter the conversation.
“My name comes up,” he said.
He claims his success comes from building successful relationships with people. And after a few years of seeing him in action, I feel inclined to agree with him.
First, his communication style. He begins and ends each e-mail with classic salutations: “Dear…” and “Regards.” His writing is formal, but concise. Always polite, he never makes demands in writing. Instead, if something is urgent he calls. It speaks volumes that despite having several assistants working for him, he always makes the requests personally. Each call opens and closes in a similar fashion as his e-mail letters and always ends with a “Thank you.” Even when facing a mountain of work, I can’t help but feel agreeable to his deadlines and I am sure many others feel the same way. While many struggle to avoid sending angry e-mails, he seems to have moved past it by funneling all his communication through his formula.
Of course, communication is only the first step. One has to also deliver the goods if they want their name to become synonymous with solutions. Being a perfectionist helps. I’ve noticed that even after years of using the same piece of writing (an introduction to one of his reports, for example), he is willing to alter it if someone makes a helpful suggestion. Such desire to improve on something that is essentially perfect is a common trait that the best businesses exploit. Sir Jony Ive, lead designer at Apple, is well known for his propensity for perfection and his willingness to shed the old to find the new.
Finally, the little things. Companies often tout the work-life balance, but it takes people to keep that goal alive. As last December’s lunch came to an end and the bill came around, all of us (several others who work with him on a regular basis were also there at the lunch) instinctively reached for our wallets. He thanked us, but waved our good gesture away and took the bill himself. Two weeks later I received a gift card attached to a short letter from him (second year in a row) expressing his gratitude and his looking forward to the next year.
So accounting for the lunch and gift cards that he sends out (no doubt to dozens, if not close to 100 people), perhaps his budget isn’t exactly zero. But I wouldn’t classify his actions as marketing related, as he hasn’t put up an advertisement for his business in years and what money he does spend goes toward thanking his clients — a critical component toward his proven success in retaining clients.
This year, I decided to send him a thank you letter in return.