When Nick Smallman, a classically trained actor, just missed reaching the top of the shortlist for the role of Tim in the BBC sitcom The Office, he decided to put his skills to another use. He founded Working Voices, a firm specialising in the development of communication skills among senior company directors.
For six years, he has been training some of the City's top executives in areas such as memory skills, neuro-linguistic programming, body language, emotional intelligence, vocal delivery and business writing. The next challenge for Mr Smallman and his seven staff is to launch Working Voices as a service for the general public, though that is easier said than done.
"It has been relatively easy to sell our services to the corporate market," he explains. "The training is obviously useful to, say, a vice-president of an investment bank who has to visit clients all the time and communicate on many levels. But when you're trying to sell to an individual who may perhaps want to be a better communicator, training like this is quite intangible to them."
In the corporate market, the reputation of Working Voices has grown through word of mouth. "Someone tells another person in the business world about the benefits and that's how we generate new business. However, when you're dealing with individuals, I can't see how we would achieve this, at least in the beginning."
It's not as if communication training is a well-known concept outside workplaces, says Mr Smallman. "In fact, we don't really have any competition. For example, you can go on the internet and find several companies that offer corporate training, but what they promote does not translate easily for the general public.
"The only other place that really offers the kind of thing we do on a bigger scale is the States. I don't know if it's that the British haven't caught up yet, or if it's something that is not important to individuals here."
He suspects the former. "If you talk to people on the street, they will tell you they are under-confident in certain areas and a lot of that is down to communication skills. So it would seem to me there is a massive need."
Mr Smallman is still pondering what the costs of the new service would be, and the best way of delivering the training to individuals. "In the business arena, we provide coaching both one-to-one and in groups of up to 300 people," he explains.
Although he expects that most people who took up his service would do so to improve the way they communicate in their work, he claims the training can have many knock-on effects. "People have seen dramatic improvements in their marriages and other relationships where there is a lot of social interaction. It's very holistic."
Mr Smallman does not want to market Working Voices as a confidence masterclass, however. "We want the focus to be on communication skills - improving these so that people find you really magnetic to listen to."
While it won't be possible to offer trials or pilots, as he does with companies, he has considered providing taster sessions. Instead of The Office, he could come to your office.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Christine Cryne, Chief Executive, The Chartered Institute of Marketing
"Mr Smallman is offering a service that has not yet moved into the mainstream, and potential new clients will need to be convinced of its value. As the messages that Working Voices needs to convey are complex, this can best be achieved by presenting real examples of how the firm has helped clients in the past - in a way that the general public can relate to.
"To increase his customer base, Mr Smallman might consider using partnerships such as Relate and Career Services to get to people who would benefit. Direct mail, where there is more opportunity to provide detailed information than with advertising, might also be an option if he can clearly define his target markets.
"Also, as word of mouth has worked well, an awareness-building campaign in the consumer media could be a cost-efficient way of complementing other activities."
Victoria Selman, Internet Marketing Consultant, SEMS
"The challenge facing Working Voices is the same as for any other firm hunting new business.
"In order to launch itself to the general public, Working Voices needs to do three things: develop a good understanding of the needs of its target market; convey the benefits of its training programme effectively and establish the company's credibility.
"Mr Smallman should conduct quantitative market research, like a survey, to establish how much people might be prepared to pay for a course and their preferred format for the training.
"Working Voices could convey the social benefits of its training programme by linking with marriage guidance counsellors, who could tell their clients that good communication is the key to successful relationships. Meanwhile, teaming up with business coaches could spread the word about the advantages of communication skills in the workplace."
Vicky Wiggins, Planning Director, Saatchi & Saatchi
"I'm surprised that the firm is trying to broaden its audience at this stage. It seems unlikely it will have exhausted the profitable business market yet, with only seven employees.
"However, Working Voices may have hit on a goldmine. You only have to look at popular entertainment to see the potential in this: Would Like to Meet, Wife Swap and Supernanny tap into our desire to improve our lives through better communication.
"The issue is how to reach the potential audience. My recommendations would be as follows. First, look to the US to see how equivalent companies have expanded their business.
"Second, use current business contacts to 'infect' the people they meet in their personal lives. Word of mouth is the best advertising, so put their new-found magnetism to work.
"And finally, consider the power of branded content. What's to stop Working Voices partnering a TV company to create a series that demonstrates its work?"Reuse content