Sybil Stershic, founder of Quality Service Marketing, is a long-time consultant and blogger on internal marketing and the author of . A former chairperson of the American Marketing Association Board of Directors, she continues to lead workshops fort AMA including its “ .” The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of and a frequent contributor to the .
MKC: You’ve chosen to specialize in internal marketing. How do you see that different from marketing to the outside world?
Sybil: It’s not that different in the sense that it recognizes that you have a critical audience – only this time they’re your employees and volunteers. Basically you can use marketing to educate them, motivate them and persuade them, just as you use marketing to educate, motivate and persuade consumers from the external side. What’s different, however, is that most organizations don’t recognize employees and volunteers as an internal audience that needs to be addressed.
MKC: Why is internal marketing important?
Sybil: Internal marketing is all about taking care of your employees and volunteers so that they can take care of your consumers and stakeholders. Nonprofits face increasing competition for strategic resources from other nonprofits as well as from for-profits. They’re competing for consumers, competing for funding, competing for volunteer talent, and they’re competing for consumer attention. So what is it that really distinguishes one nonprofit from another? It’s the brand, not only in terms of what you do, but in how you do it. The people in the organization are the face of the brand, and that’s what makes a difference. That’s the core competitive advantage.
MKC: Are nonprofits any better or worse at employee relations than businesses?
Sybil: There’s an interesting paradox there. It’s not unusual to have a toxic workplace in the nonprofit sector. People assume that because employees are passionate about the mission, their workplace is great. They presume that all nonprofits are run by effective managers and effective leaders, and that’s not always the case.
MKC: Why is leadership not so good? Don’t we train people to do this?
Sybil: Yes, but even with training you still have to deal with internal politics and personalities. I know a perfect example of a nonprofit where there would be an incredible revolving door of people leaving if the economy was better. The head of the organization brought in a second-in-command that he was hoping to train as his replacement, and this person had a toxic personality. Employees and volunteers were upset, and nothing happened until it got to the point where the volunteers revolted. They complained loud and long, and top management finally got the message and conducted an employee survey. Shocked by the survey results, management had to act and made some changes.
MKC: Is this the state in which you first see the clients typically?
Sybil: Absolutely not. I learned a long time ago that the people who need me the most are not the ones who are going to hire me. Because they’re clueless, and I’ve learned not to waste my time educating people on why you need to engage your employees and volunteers. Where I have most success, and what I enjoy most, is working with those clients who already “get” it. They know the importance of the employees and volunteers on the brand. They’re already doing some of the right things and they want to do even better. That’s when they bring me in.
Internal marketing is so critical because the employees and volunteers are the face of the brand. And here’s the bottom line: if the employees and volunteers don’t feel valued, neither will the other stakeholders. That’s why internal marketing needs to address how to take care of the needs of the employees and volunteers.
MKC: Is that message any easier for businesses and nonprofits to accept now than it was when you started?
Sybil: It’s gotten a little bit easier, only because in the last five or six years employee engagement has become a hot topic and a buzzword in CEO offices. More people are getting on the bandwagon. But there’s a difference between jumping on the bandwagon because it’s the thing to do, and really “getting” it.
MKC: When potential clients do approach you, what is it that they think they need?
Sybil: Basically they want an outside, objective source to come in and help them work with their employees. I come in more as an organizational adviser and facilitator. I run workshops for clients, helping them understand the rationale and tools for internal marketing. I demystify the concept and help them realize what aspects of internal marketing they’re already using; they just need to put it together in a way that makes sense for the organization. I also facilitate strategic planning or strategic marketing planning for organizations.
When it comes to improving the organization, I don’t come in with the ideas. That’s not my role. The employees already know what to do. I just have to help them realize it. I always tell my clients, if you have any question about what to do next, ask your employees – get their input. They’re the ones who work with your consumers, clients, and donors. They’re the ones who work with your volunteers and referral sources – including influencers and the families – and they know what needs to be done. Ask them.
MKC: I wanted to switch a little bit to ask you about blogging. When did you start that?
Sybil: I started blogging in 2005, thanks to one of your recent interview subjects, Diva Marketing), who continues to inspire me. I went to a seminar that Toby did on blogging and she convinced me to start. So this is the beginning of my 8th year of blogging, and I’ve got a lot of content.(
MKC: What was your goal was when you started?
Sybil: It was to build a base of content on internal marketing to position myself as a thought leader in that area, and basically, extend my brand. When I started the blog I was also working on my first book on internal marketing. The blog allowed me to develop content and kind of test it in a way, see what the interest was. My book on internal marketing  came out in fall of 2007. Now the book is still applicable, still used, still selling very well, and a lot of companies are buying it and using it – but the thing is, it’s static. Through my blog, however, I can keep the book and the material alive by continually posting on the blog. Now I’m almost finished with the manuscript on my internal marketing book for nonprofits, and I’ve been doing a lot of blog content as part of that.
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.