I was reminded recently how important reputation is to a professional service firm. In our current survey of accounting, information technology, management consulting and architectural, engineering and construction firms, we asked CEOs to rate the importance of a wide range of factors in their ability to meet their growth goals. Not surprisingly, most CEO's believe that reputation is very important. That's where the challenge starts.

Reputation is a tricky concept. Every one of us has a reputation, like it or not. So do the firms that we own or work for. But we often have no clue what that reputation is. Perhaps we're even a bit reluctant to dig too deeply for fear of what we might uncover. We all know that even a single dissatisfied client can wreak havoc on our rep, and who hasn't dropped a ball somewhere? Even if you do find a tarnished reputation, what can you do about it? As it turns out, you can do a lot.

Ron Alsop's classic book The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation is a great starting point. Here's my take on Alsop's prescription:

  1. Decide what kind of reputation you want. It's not a simple decision, as reputation is an integral part of your brand. The reputation you need to grow your business may not be obvious at first. For example, a reputation for technical excellence may make you feel good, but a reputation for solving customer problems may bring in more business. And, of course, it must be a reputation that you can support in action, not just an empty slogan.
  2. Measure your reputation today. This probably involves a survey by an objective third party. We conduct surveys for our clients every day, and their customers tell us things they would never communicate directly to our clients. It would make them too uncomfortable.
  3. Reputation is built on relationships. The more you have, the broader and deeper your reputation. Of course, at the core of strong relationships are effective listening and honest communication. These relationships eventually become stakeholders who will build your reputation.
  4. Your stakeholders need ammunition. What are your firms' accomplishments, its strengths and values? In short, what are the positive aspects of your reputation? Give them stakeholders the arguments and facts they need. They can then spread the reputation.
  5. You have to live it every day. Just as with other elements of your professional service brand, your reputation has to be true. You can't just assert it or fake it.

Many firms never think about, let alone attempt, to improve their reputation. But it is very possible to influence the way in which your target customers perceive you. Quick and easy? No. Do-able? Absolutely.