How to find a silver lining in a tarnished industry

by Barbara Taylor (barbara@allantaylor.co) 235 views 

The cast of characters doesn’t change much from year to year, poll to poll: Oil and gas, banking, the cable company. They always seem to rank at or near the top of America’s most-hated industries.

The list of least-popular professions remains fairly consistent, as well. Can anyone remember a time when top dishonors didn’t go to politicians, real estate agents and car salesmen?

When I first got into the business-for-sale industry in 2006, I didn’t know much about the overall reputation of the business brokerage industry. My husband and I had a subpar experience using a business broker when we sold our business. At the time I chalked it up to one underperformer. It wasn’t until I’d been in the industry myself for a few years that I realized the truth: nobody likes business brokers.

I kept my chin up for a number of years, trying to rise above it all. In 2012 I got into a war of words with Norm Brodsky, nationally recognized entrepreneur and columnist for Inc. magazine. He wrote an article that started with this: “I’m no fan of business brokers. I’m not saying they’re all crooks.” He went on to tell readers that so many business brokers were “ethically challenged” that it was “a good idea to be very cautious when dealing with them.”

At the time I was writing a column called “Transaction” for the New York Times’ small-business blog, “You’re the Boss.” I shot back my best defense of the business-for-sale profession. Alas, judging by the comments from readers — and the state of the industry five years later — I didn’t do much to change public perception.

The reasons why business brokers are roundly disliked and deemed untrustworthy are the same for any industry with a bad reputation. Industries with a bad rep tend to resist change, ignore customers, and act in their own self-interest. In short, they just don’t care.

Doing business in an unpopular industry can feel like an uphill battle. The constant horror stories and bad PR can wear you down. But it’s also a fantastic opportunity for the fearless entrepreneur to build a business that truly shines. Having spent over a decade in an unpopular industry, here are a few things I’ve learned.

The first thing I’ve learned is to be vocal. My attempt to counter the negative perception of business brokerage in the Times may not have silenced the critics, but staying quiet would have accomplished even less. The worst thing you can do is give up and not even try. No matter how your industry is perceived, sooner or later customers will need your product or service. When that time comes, it will be critical that they know about your company and what you do.

An unpopular industry also offers the ideal environment for differentiating your business. We rebranded several years ago as M&A advisors and changed our fee structure. It was a process that took years, not months, but was well worth the effort and bumps in the road. Once you’ve come out the other side of differentiation, you’ll gain a loyal network of people who are quick to promote your business as the only logical choice.

Lastly, being in an unpopular industry offers the opportunity to get laser-focused on your customer. If the rest of your industry doesn’t listen or care, you can. The more you understand your customer’s needs, the more you can connect with them. In an industry where hard numbers often rule the day, my firm works hard to acknowledge the soft issues and human element of selling a business. No matter what’s happening with a deal, we strive to maintain good relationships in an industry where relationships are often collateral damage.

Doing business in an unpopular industry is not for the faint of heart. But if you look hard enough, you should find a silver lining. Embrace it!

Editor’s note: Barbara Taylor is the co-founder of Allan Taylor & Co., a mergers and acquisition firm in Bentonville. You can follow her on Twitter @ballantaylor or visit her company website at www.allantaylor.co. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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