An annual study again puts NJ at the top of the states that people are leaving. That again bring up our business climate and land-use policies.
I recently spoke with about 50 real estate agents at Worden and Green, a Century 21 brokerage in Hillsborough, about making oneself stand out. It’s the problem we all have: How do we make ourselves different from the zillions of others in the same business we’re in.
The presentation and discussion led up to five points I suggested they take home:
- Self-reflection and self-direction are necessary: Creating your brand and differentiating yourself from your competition isn’t something that just happens. If someone asks why they should do business with you instead of a competitor, you can’t just say, “I’m better.” In fact, what you stand for – your brand – has to be something you decide after a lot of thought about who you are, why you do what you do, what you’re best at, who impacts your success, and what you want people to know about you and think about you. Once you know all that, the actions you must take to build and defend that reputation become more obvious.
- Know thy customer: I can always tell when somebody has thought their communications and marketing plans through because they can tell me in great detail who their customer is. Too many Realtors tell me, “People buying or selling homes,” and too many builders tell me, “People buying a new home.” You have to narrow your target and know as much about your customer as possible. You need to know basic demographics. How do they get information? Whose advice do they follow? The more you know, the better you can communicate with them. Your own credibility as an expert improves because you communicate with stakeholders — be they customers, regulators, other Realtors or anyone else who can help you succeed — in a form and channel that is readily understood and accepted.
- Consider your message very carefully. When I counsel organizations or individual businesspeople, we spend a lot of time on the message. That includes the wording and the delivery. After all, you can have the most exciting ad around, the best quote in a news article, the pithiest blog entry or the greatest elevator speech, but if it’s not delivered in a way that’s meaningful to your customer, it won’t be heard. And if the message isn’t delivered in words and tone that resonate, your message won’t be heard. And, finally, if you haven’t thought about your message and you say something that misses the mark, you’ve blow your opportunity because your message won’t be heard. So consider what you want to say to your customers very carefully.
- Communicate the way your customers want to communicate and make sure you know if you’ve been heard. If I get you a great placement in a central Pennsylvania newspaper, but your customers are in New Jersey, it really doesn’t matter, does it? This is part of knowing your customer: How do they like to get information? That’s how you need to deliver it. You may love to do Facebook and, of course, it’s very cool to be on social media. But if you’re dealing with a group that doesn’t use it, you’re not going to be successful. Equally important is to make sure you’re heard, no matter what medium you use. If nobody is responding to your call to action, you’re not being heard. You have to figure out why and change it. Is your medium? Is it your message? Once you figure it out, you’ll get better results.
- Engage, engage, engage. Social media is about engagement, not just blasting one-way messages out to the Internet. You need to ask questions and get people to reply to your messaging. For instance, I’d like to know what you think of this blog entry. What do you do to know your customer and to make sure you’re being heard. Even if you’re using traditional media, whether it’s a news release or speaking to a group, there are ways to generate a response.
In today’s world, though, you need more than a simple response. You need to be creating conversations. No matter how you communicate, it needs to be an ongoing thing. And you need to listen and respond and adjust your communications and marketing activities. That’s engaging your audience. It’s having a conversation. That builds relationships and trust.
And that generates sales.
See the original PowerPoint deck here.
Should a developer facing a boisterous and vocal community group sue the members of that group to muzzle them? Tempting, isn’t it?
On the Jersey Shore, a homebuilder has done just that. That company received permission to build and sell 76 homes to the general market instead of to active adults, as originally approved. A group of residents, however, doesn’t agree with the change, and has expressed its opposition in a variety of ways. The builder has filed suit, according to the local newspaper, complaining that one of the members of the group has “issued defamatory statements and information constituting libel and slander.”
I don’t know any more than what’s been written in that one article, so I’m not going to comment on this particular case. But it got me thinking: Is it a good idea to fight back against citizen groups by using the courts?
Here are some of my random thoughts. What do you think?
- Lawsuits are part of the development process in New Jersey. They shouldn’t be, but they are. Usually, suit is filed over interpretation of points of law, not over points of opinion. The arguments are usually esoteric, and tied directly to some law or regulation related to the project.
- Companies that protect their reputation enjoy better sales, higher customer satisfaction rates and happier employees. They also can usually withstand the unsubstantiated verbal barrages of a citizen’s group. It is, of course, a different story if the citizen’s group is telling the truth and the corporation is isn’t being completely honest.
- Court is the appropriate place to prove a point of law, but is it the appropriate place to stop or hobble a conversation? Even if the gavel drops eventually in favor of a developer who complains in court that people are saying bad things about the company or a community, does anyone really believe they’ve gagged the opposition?
- There are more expenses to a lawsuit than financial ones. One must weigh the reputational and good-will costs and compare them to walking away from a project or just gritting one’s teeth and bearing the insults. A lawsuit will be seen as heavy artillery wielded by a corporation against residents exercising their First Amendment rights. People – including those who will be giving you approvals and buying your homes – may wonder why the company was so heavy-handed.
- There are other steps to try before filing a highly visible lawsuit (all lawsuits are highly visible). A developer can meet with the opponents to listen to concerns and, if possible, address them. Use public meetings; op-ed pieces; interviews with news outlets; alliances in the community; direct mail pieces; special Web sites, blogs, Facebook pages or other forms of interaction to communicate. A developer who wanted to build in my neighborhood went door-to-door. Does it work every time? No. Will you win over every opponent? No. Can you proceed and honestly say you’ve listened and tried to address concerns. Yes. Have communities been built and been very successful despite community activism? Yes.
A lawsuit is almost always a last resort. If used to stop someone from saying angry things against a corporation, it must be carefully considered, including how much it will fan flames and what it does to a developer’s attempts to build bridges in the community.
If, however, you find yourself filing such a suit, be ready to defend it in the court of public opinion as well as a court of law.
- Make sure you can clearly explain in a few compelling words why you’ve filed the suit. You have about one sentence to make your case, whether it’s to the media, the mayor or the minions in your company and the community.
- Make sure your allies and community officials know it’s coming, even if the warning is just a few minutes.
- Decide with your public relations person whether the filing should be announced or if you should wait for questions.
- Always respond to the media. Refusing to talk with the media allows your opponents to tell your story for you. Even if you’ve strategically decided not to comment, not returning a reporter’s call is rude. Returning the call keeps the lines of communication open. And remember: Never say “no comment.” You can explain that you can’t comment on pending litigation, or you can decline to speak about specifics, but talk generalities. Your PR person and your attorney must work together to counsel you on your response once a lawsuit is filed.
- Remember to have your key messages ready and make any interview — media, community appearance or small meeting — yours.
Your development team should include an experienced public relations professional to protect and build your reputation by helping you deal with the media, the community and the government (shameless plug: like In-House Public Relations). Your public relations team is your diplomatic corps. A lawsuit is a big military weapon. You need both to navigate the crazy populist regulatory paths in New Jersey. And your PR team may keep you out of a lawsuit.
The method of dealing with issues that I’m suggesting may take more time and the outcome isn’t assured — you may still wind up in court. But then, a legal verdict is not a sure thing either. The longer method enables you to look everyone in the eye and honestly say you tried to be a good neighbor.