Larry Tramutola on Branding a Small Professional Service Firm

tramutola“Its a certain standard of behavior I want to live up to. I have a responsibility to this brand.”

Larry Tramutola can charm your socks off or clean your clock, take your pick. He’s street smart (credit eleven years working as an organizer with Cesar Chavez and the UFW) and aggresively charismatic, which I suppose you must be in order to build one of the most successful political consulting practices in the country. He’s been called the Billion Dollar Man for his firm’s success in passing bond and parcel tax measures in California, and his book Sidewalk Strategies, Seven Winning Steps for Candidates, Causes and Communities is required reading for anyone who wants to effect change in the community and must get public support to do it.

Uncharacteristic of many professionals who run small consulting firms, Tramutola has actually spent brainpower and money on branding a professional service firm. His success at building a powerful brand culture for nearly a decade has left a trail of bread crumbs that every small business owner should assiduously follow.

I sat down with him recently, and the topic turned to building a small business brand…

Why customer service is the brand for small firms.

“We realized that brand was how you do business, not the logo, the look of the company or the materials. We went on a path to develop a plan to really improve the quality of service. It affected every aspect of how we operated as a team of people.”

How does your brand philosophy change the way you do business?

“Our work is political work, which is often managing campaigns and winning campaigns. So for years I thought our clients would be happy when they won. But I found out through research that even though we won we didn’t necessarily have a happy client. So when we went for a referral we couldn’t use them. We had to learn that it isn’t purely about winning. Customer satisfaction and quality relationships became part of our brand. Once you understand that it changes everything about your business. It’s more expensive in the short run, but in the long run it’s not at all.”

How does the brand guide your core values? 

“We developed core values for the firm that are consistent with customer satisfaction. I use those core values in all of my staff meetings. We take one and ask how does our work this week apply to that core value. It creates discussion. And you do have a turn-over of personnel, and it is important that new personnel as well as the old personnel are reminded of what those values are.”

What effort and resources have you invested in this?

“The brand has to be something you work at every day, because it’s not just the logo on the door it’s a way of doing business which candidly I didn’t understand when we first went into this. It’s expensive. Doing customer satisfaction surveys every year and getting candid assessments of our work with clients is an expensive process. But if you keep one client it makes it up.

front coverWhat was the role of your book, Sidewalk Strategies, in establishing the brand? 

“The book really started out to be a collection of stories about how individuals [effected change in their communities] boiled down into the lessons the average person could do. Average people in average communities can make a huge difference in their communities if they follow certain steps. And the first one is figuring out what you believe in. You can’t make a difference in the world if you don’t know what you believe in. Out of this collection of stories we developed certain principles that seemed to be present in most actions. So the book became a statement of how you do this work. The book helped establish us as experts in how you do community involvement. Without the book that would have been very difficult.”

What does the company brand mean to you as an owner?

“Articulating the brand has even kept me on the straight and narrow. It forces me to be a better me. The brand is a set of objectives that I want to live my life by, to run my business by. It’s not religion, but its a certain standard of behavior that I want to live up to. It doesn’t allow me to wallow in negativity for a day or two, I have a responsibility to this brand.”

Your thoughts on the company name being your own name?

“Because my name was so unique, there weren’t many Tramutolas, by the time we got around to branding the firm there was a certain amount of cache in the political world, so we branded that. Now whether that was a mistake or not I don’t know, but we branded that. But I have seen interest from others in wanting to purchase or take over our brand, separate and apart from me, my family, my kids and that. For me, my name, that’s been a little harder to do, in transitioning to the next level, but its not undoable, its been done many times before.”

What advice do you have for branding a professional service firm? 

“First, you think you are providing something to [clients], you need to find out what they think they are getting. Look at yourself as others see you, not as you see yourself. Then build upon the best of what they see and the best of what you want to be, and that is the sweet spot. There’s always a struggle to find that. Secondly, as an owner of a small firm, what is your exit? Do you just want to leave someday and close the door and walk away or do you want to leave some kind of legacy. So then the question becomes who do you bring into the firm. Do you bring in someone who shares the values? To me that is important. You want to attract people who can’t just do the work, but who share a certain vision and values.”

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