by Dale L. Haines Emerson’s Professional Services Review Journal “During the 1990s the vast majority of businesses relaxed their standards of dress,” notes David Molpus, workplace correspondent for National Public Radio, “and for some employees Casual Friday has evolved into Casual Everyday. ‘Business Casual’ has become ‘Very Casual’ in some parts of the country. Business attire consultants say, however, that the pendulum is about to swing back to a more ‘grown up’ mode of dress.” As the economy slows, customers are becoming more cautious about whom they do business with. What they’re looking for is a sign of stability, and a sign of professionalism. Wearing weekend loungewear to work is not a confidence builder. Many observers recognize that the move toward less casual business dress represents a broader corporate trend toward demonstrating professionalism and reliability. Most professionals recognize that gaining customer trust is extremely important in relationships, especially to address issues that arise out of interdependence, uncertainty and perceived risk. But there is significant evidence that businesses are placing more emphasis than ever on increasing levels of customer trust.
Branding Professional Services Reputation
As much of the consumer behavior research demonstrates, one of the principal components of customer trust is the reputation of the product or company that produces the product. And reputation is even more important for professional services than it is for products because services are by nature far more difficult to evaluate. “Services differ fundamentally from goods by their intangibility,” write customer perception researchers Leonard Berry and A. Parasuraman in Marketing Services: Competing Through Quality. “A good is in essence an object, a thing. A service is in essence a performance.” A crucial challenge in branding of professional services is to define for the service what the service cannot define for itself. In most cases, customers cannot see a service, but they can see various tangible items associated with the service. All of these tangibles are ‘clues’ about the quality and value of the deliverable. And these clues – produced intentionally or unintentionally – are the indicators that customers use to form their opinions about the reputation of a company and its services. “Because customers must try to understand a service without actually seeing it, because they want to know what they are buying and why they should buy before making a purchase decision, they tend to be especially attentive to tangible clues about the service,” continue Berry and Parasuraman. “For better or for worse, these tangible clues do communicate. If unmanaged, the clues can convey all the wrong messages about the service, seriously undermining the overall marketing strategy. If well- managed, the clues can teach customers about the service, bringing vitality and reinforcement to the marketing strategy. . . . The question is not whether service customers will perceive tangible clues about the service; most customers, most of the time, will. The question is whether they will perceive managed or unmanaged clues.” Few would argue that the power of a strong reputation is not important in professional services. Indeed, some would say that reputation is at the core of professional services because it instills customer confidence and drives perceptions of value in service deliverables. Providing advice and expertise of any kind – legal, medical, financial, or technical – draws in some manner on the power and authority of professional reputation. Yet communicating reputation in an effective and quality way has significant room to grow in the professional services arena, and certainly lags behind the more developed and sophisticated approaches used in the realm of product branding.
Professional Identity Materials
One of the most effective – and often underappreciated – methods for conveying professional reputation is through the use of high- end collateral and corporate identity materials. In fact, BusinessWeek reported that a Yankelovich Clancy Shulman poll of business executives nationwide found corporate identity materials – business cards, letterhead, and such – are second only to annual sales in conveying a company’s prestige. Highly successful companies use top-quality identity materials for everything from letterhead, business proposals and business plans, to press releases, newsletters and product sales sheets. Dallas-based Lockhart Industries is recognized as the nation’s leading provider of high-quality stationery and specialty binding and presentation materials, for professional services firms and other sectors that require similar specialty identity products. Lockhart serves over 4,000 professional services firms and other corporate clients such as investment advisors and financial planners, attorneys, physicians, insurance counselors, accountants and other professionals. Lockhart’s first products were report covers and covers for tax returns, and still is best-known for its patented specialty covers and bindery products. But the Lockhart product list covers everything from stationery products such as letterhead, envelopes, and business cards to announcement products and a full line of formal presentation items.
Lockhart Quality Is The Difference
While there are literally thousands of suppliers nationwide that offer letterhead, stationery and report covers, Lockhart’s products exhibit a level of substance and excellence that distinguishes them from all others. Producing materials that are better than premium is not just a core value at Lockhart Industries, it is a mantra that permeates the entire organization. “Where we really shine,” announces CEO and company founder William Lockhart, “there’s one word – quality. There isn’t anything that we do where we’re not ten miles ahead on when it comes to quality.” It may be tempting to discount such comments as exaggeration. Or you may believe that other companies are capable of delivering the same top-quality products. But experiencing first-hand Lockhart’s passion for excellence brings into focus how truly different the Lockhart offerings are. Touring their 40,000 square-foot facility uncovers a unique combination of old-world skill and craftsmanship with state-of-the-art technology. “All of our production is completed in-house, never brokered or farmed out for production or imprinting,” explains company President Greg Lockhart. “That way we can totally control and ensure the quality of the final product. Everything – from entering customers’ orders to designing logos to printing – is done in-house by qualified professionals.” In one part of the facility, a one-of-a-kind, computer-controlled machine converts half-ton rolls of specially-made cover stock into custom products for a client. Lockhart uses the maximum cotton content in their covers because, as Greg Lockhart contends, “Nothing else has the look and feel of cotton. Lower-quality linens and wood fiber stock simply cannot match cotton’s strength, crispness, and fine textures. That’s also why all of the letterhead and report sheets we produce are 100 percent cotton as well.” In fact, the paper stock Lockhart uses is produced by Crane & Company, exclusively for Lockhart. Crane & Company has made all US currency stock since 1879, and 100 percent fine cotton business papers since 1801. Lockhart commissions Crane & Company to custom mill Lockhart Bond for client presentations. “We needed a 100 percent cotton business paper with heavier weight,” offers William Lockhart, “and Crane & Company produced for us a bond paper with special opacity and a fine, velvet finish. Even though Crane trims their paper to very tight tolerances, we needed an even higher degree of dimensional consistency – within hundredths of an inch – for the best possible report edge alignment. That’s why Lockhart Bond is precision cut – one sheet at a time.” Past a room full of the latest computerized Heidelberg presses, quality control inspectors examine presentation binders and customer letterhead for possible flaws. The inspectors study each piece individually, both visually and by touch. “Every piece of every presentation component is hand inspected – front and back – for possible blemishes or any other imperfection that could reflect on the quality of the client’s work,” claims William Lockhart. In another part of the facility, die makers create precision brass embossing dies and steel engraving dies. Most shops use mass produced, photo-etched die plates, which yield shallow images that get weaker and less crisp with every stroke of the press. Lockhart uses only precision-milled brass embossing dies and hand-tooled steel dies for deep, crisp images. Skilled die makers hand-tool each character in the engraving die to generate maximum depth and ink brilliancy. “Not only that,” adds Greg Lockhart, “all of our engraved presentation covers are individually hand-fed and inspected to ensure perfect ink impressions.” From one section to the next, attention to detail infuses work on the production floor. And that allows Lockhart Industries to offer a simple yet powerful guarantee. William Lockhart explains, “We ask that our customers risk nothing. Everything a customer orders – including custom, imprinted work – is guaranteed to satisfy them 100 percent, or they can return it at our expense for immediate refund. Period.”
Products For All Firms
Customers use Lockhart products both on the ‘front end’ of a business relationship (proposals, corporate capabilities materials, recruiting packages) as well as on the ‘back end’ (client reports, contracts, tax returns, financial statements and other financial reports, appraisals of property or artwork, estate planning documents, significant corporate documents and so on). Some customers have found additional uses in the demonstration of professional and thought leadership, using Lockhart products at corporate trade shows, executive round tables, professional organization meetings, and for textual copies of speeches and presentations. Serving Lockhart’s largest clients, particularly national and multiple-office firms, is the Platinum Services Group. Platinum benefits include a wide range of complimentary services tailored to each client’s needs, including: custom cover styles, special production dies and samples; custom PMS color cover stock and private watermarked letterhead/report sheets; design and consulting conferences with key Lockhart personnel; complimentary binding equipment for each office (including repair or replacement); and no-cost firm name/logo design with brass embossing dies. Platinum Services Group clients also are protected with a two-year pricing guarantee, trade-in programs for firm name changes, and design, dies and production-imprinted samples before ordering, without cost or obligation. This level of service, combined with Lockhart quality, has created very high levels of client loyalty and customer satisfaction. As one corporate customer concludes, “The term ‘Lockhart’ is almost a verb in our company. We don’t just send a report or a proposal to a client – we ‘Lockhart’ it.” With most kinds of products, the Lockhart level of quality with such steadfast guarantees usually comes at a price – often prohibitively high. But the substantial use of technology – especially computer-controlled production – allows Lockhart to deliver highly customized products with very small print runs, often with short turnaround times. This level of mass customization and just-in-time production is unequalled in the presentation materials niche, enabling Lockhart to offer top-quality products at a competitive price to organizations of all sizes. “It used to be that only the largest firms that could take advantage of economies of scale would consider using premium presentation products,” adds Greg Lockhart. “With us, much smaller companies – even sole practitioners – can benefit from the same quality products that national firms use.” Indeed, while customers view Lockhart products as special, many do not reserve them only for special occasions or presentations. These customers have found that communicating a consistent, professional identity returns tangible benefits. For example, Rob Hoxton is Managing Director of Hoxton Financial, a full-service financial services firm and registered investment advisor. Writing in a recent issue of Insurance Marketing, Hoxton described his experience with Lockhart presentation materials, saying he “used them with every proposal and recruiting interview and realized more than an 800% increase in average commissions, [and] more than a 500% increase in referral business.”
Using top-shelf identity materials is not for every firm. Successfully communicating a strong professional reputation sets high customer expectations, and means having to deliver at premium levels. Firms interested in competing on price rather than quality, or firms not interested in moving their services up the value chain will have little use for Lockhart-quality materials. But some professional services firms can benefit. These are the firms that recognize a good reputation can attract the best employees, premium prices, and higher levels of customer satisfaction. These are the firms that realize they are not providing a commodity, but value-added service. These are the firms that understand quality presentation has a positive influence on how customers assess the value of the services they receive. These are the firms that know reputations equal economic power because customers will pay for a better reputation. Clients may pay thousands of dollars for professional services, and the value they realize is embodied in the advice, expertise and guidance they receive. But often the only tangible evidence of the deliverables is the report, the estate plan, or the tax return in their hands. Some professionals dress their work in ‘Casual Friday’ attire, while others use top-shelf presentation materials. When it comes to professional identity products, Lockhart’s ‘top-shelf’ is three feet above the rest.