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Making Self-Promotion Work For You

By John R. Graham


There’s nothing complicated about being successful in business. It’s simple and it goes like this: “It’s all about making a name for yourself.” 

That’s it, self-promotion or getting known.

Whether it’s finding and impressing prospects, keeping current clients, or moving ahead in a career, volunteering has long been the platform for gaining visibility. For some, it’s serving on company committees and taking on extra assignments, or having a reputation as the “get it done” person.

In the community, self-promotion ranges from sponsoring or coaching youth sports teams, working charity fundraisers, belonging to a service club or fraternal organization, serving on nonprofit boards, chairing special events, or helping with alumni and civic projects.

Awards and commendations help, too, along with photos in local, business, alumni, and online publications. For added visibility, pursuing elected local office and moving up from there raises the bar even higher. Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social-media platforms can also ratchet up the getting well-known possibilities.

It boils down to getting as much consistent “exposure” as possible, and hoping there will be a worthwhile payoff. But, that takes work — lots of it. And there is no guarantee that the payback, if any, will justify the investment of energy and time.

While this may seem like a bleak picture, fraught with too many hurdles and not enough assurances, there is another way to look at it — a different perspective that acknowledges that being known is an essential component in achieving success. 

At the same time, trying to get there can be like driving at night without headlights. Because of this, many who attempt to become “well known” make a fatal mistake. They assume that getting as much visibility as possible is what will get them there. Unfortunately, others find such behavior off-putting and negative.

Yet, “being known” can have immense value by letting the spotlight shine on what you do, not who you are, and that means always asking one question: “How can I help?” 

In other words, with the proper focus, marketing or selling yourself can lead to success without going on an endless ego trip that alienates others.

And here’s how to do it. Pushing aside the absurd “self-made man” myth and currently popular “bootstrapping,” the unavoidable fact is that we all need help in reaching our goals. Think about it. Whether it’s getting a latte on the way to work, choosing what to wear for a special event, deciding on a dream home, doing a better job managing money, having career mentors, or simply figuring out a home-improvement project, we need help.

What we don’t want is hype. In fact, we reject it. The immense success of online peer recommendations makes it clear that we trust our friends, associates, and neighbors far more than we do “sponsored” endorsements or the slick and senseless words of clever copywriters. 

It goes even further — much further. We reject anyone who tries to “sell” us, including those who try to “sell” themselves. We refuse to be told how to think, what to buy, or how to live.

And our customers want exactly what we want: they want helpers, even if they don’t come across them very often. Yet, they know them when they see them. 

They respond to those who are skilled at identifying problems and crafting workable solutions. And they’re more than willing to plunk down their dollars for what makes sense to them.

If there were ever “magic words” in business that express exactly what customers are waiting to hear, here they are: “How can I help?” These words totally change the agenda by announcing that someone is willing to listen, learn, and share — not just get.

When “How can I help?” becomes the mantra, something remarkable happens. It makes people comfortable so they are more open, rather than wary and doubtful. They’re also more willing to tell others about their experience.

That’s the way it is with a long-time central Iowa builder, who says, “I love to serve. I did my own punch lists on my homes before turning them over to my customers. If I can serve you somehow, let me know.” He gets it.

After Condé Nast Traveler named XV Beacon in Boston the number one hotel in the country, The Boston Globe interviewed several guests. One said, “Everyone knows me by name, everyone understands my preferences … I don’t have to even ask for things. They just magically appear.” This is why 50 percent of the guests are repeat customers. It’s not magic. Like the builder from Iowa, the hotel staff gets it. They love to help. 

Serving and helping are the best ways to get referrals and recommendations. People become your ambassadors and are eager to talk about how you have helped them, rather than what you sold them.

It’s helping that attracts and keeps customers, and here are some suggestions for engaging customers in a helping way:

1. Focus intently on what customers want. Note the little, seemingly insignificant, things that make them smile. These make the difference, so keep track of them.

2. In the same way, keep a record of dislikes, the bothersome things that can add up fast and create discontent.

3. Put yourself to the test by asking if a proposed solution will really help your customer or prospect reach his/her goal. If there’s doubt, reject it.

4. Express appreciation. Say thank you for the opportunity to help.

5. Keep customers and prospects top of mind by always being alert for helpful ideas to share with them. 

6. Respond promptly to all messages, not just the ones you think are important. People want to know you received the message they sent. It’s a unique way to help.

Nothing contributes more to success than helping. It sends a clear message that you know what has value to your customers.   

John R. Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales strategist-consultant and business writer. He publishes a free monthly eBulletin, called “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales.” Contact him at 

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