Kristin Syltevik is founder and CEO of Hotwire, which specialises in PR for high-technology companies.

All around the UK you can hear the sound of belts tightening and budgets being cut. Those of us that have been around for a while know that this is just the natural way of things. We may indeed be moving into recession, or ‘winter’, but ‘spring’ is just around the corner, and we should prepare accordingly.

Many companies are feeling the pinch. The first to suffer are always the service providers as customers look carefully at any discretionary spending, such as training. This is, of course, a false economy. When times are tough you should spend more on training your people, especially in sales and customer service. The best way to get out of a recession is always to sell more.

This is difficult for some, especially those that do not regard themselves as natural salespeople; I spend a good amount of my time teaching sales to the professional classes: consultants, lawyers, accountants, engineers and bank managers.

Their challenge is that, on paper, their organisations are identical to their competitors; they have a set of expert skills and some great customers. But how can they differentiate their companies, and in a tough economic climate show that they provide an excellent return on investment?

One of the most competitive service industries is public relations. There are hundreds of companies out there, all theoretically providing the same set of services. Only the smartest will survive the upcoming recession, and many are suffering, as customers delay their spending or use in-house resources.

Kristin Syltevik is founder and CEO of Hotwire, who specialise in PR for high-technology companies and have a cabinet full of awards to prove their credentials. She explained that from the early days they focused on several key areas to succeed in a highly challenging and competitive market.

The natural approach of a PR company is always to stress their creativity, which is very effective when selling in the boom times. During a recession, much better sales slogans are: ‘value for money’, ‘effective use of budget’, and ‘detailed analysis of costs’.

Syltevik explained that the most important aspect of service provision is measurement; how can you prove that you are providing value for money with your services? She approached a professor of PR at a university and together they designed a bespoke set of tools to constantly test the effectiveness of what they were doing for their clients, to demonstrate that they were providing value for money at all times.

She explained the next most important aspect is having detailed industry knowledge. The people in her company need to know as much about their specialist industries as their customers. This requires significant research and then making the right information available to the customer exactly when they need it, in the form of industry analysis, press coverage, white papers and interviews with industry figures and analysts.

Another of Hotwire’s important differentiators is their pan-European coverage, with offices in London, Madrid, Paris, Frankfurt and Milan, so they attract pan-European companies with significant PR budgets.

This can be difficult for small organisations, but many companies have technical people on-site at customer locations. They should always ask the client if they can let them have some dedicated office space which can become a sales focus for other departments in the same client and even new business in the local area. This should be for a suitable consideration, of course; perhaps some free consultant days on that new project they were considering.

Syltevik’s final recommendation for success in a tough market was to hire only the best people. The main differentiator for service companies is the quality of their staff, which should be emphasised in all product literature and on the web site.

The downside of this is that inevitably some of your ‘stars’ will one day leave and form their own companies, but Syltevik was philosophical about this, explaining that this was the way of things, to be expected if you hire the best people and she always lets these people leave with good grace; there is space in the market for everybody.

But if there was just one particular personal attribute she looks for when hiring people it is ‘eager’. In PR, as in all other service industries, you should be eager to please, eager to listen and eager to prove your value.

The last two attributes are particularly important now when times are tight, but soon the new shoots will be coming through, and it will once more be the right season to be creative.

Kristin Syltevik is MD of Hotwire, an award-winning PR agency which she co-founded in 2000. Hotwire has offices in London, Boston, Frankfurt, Paris, Madrid and Milan, as well as two sister agencies, Skywrite Communications and 33 Digital.

This article is a chapter from ‘This Is How Yoodoo It’ – a collection of Financial Times columns written by Mike Southon. You can buy this book in hard copy and in Kindle version here:

About Mike Southon

Mike Southon is a serially successful entrepreneur, best-selling business author, mentor and one of the world’s top business speakers on entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship and sales.

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