This article outlines 5 ways to bring data into the client acquisition efforts of a professional services firm.
We know our clients. We know what interests and drives them. We know what’s important to them on this project because we met and listened to them. We developed our proposal to speak directly to those drivers. Yet, we lose over 50% of the time.
So, we ask them — What did we get wrong? What did we misunderstand? How could we have approached this differently? And, sometimes they tell us (to the best of their ability), and of course they usually sugar coat things a bit. And, we use this information to change our approach, to modify our process, to refine our proposals. And, we’ll get better. Next year we’ll win more. But, still, we lose over 50% of the time.
Has this feedback loop ever played out in your firm? I know it has through the years in our agency. Of course, the numbers are different in every firm. But the loop is the same.
And, here’s what’s wrong with it — we’re listening, but only with our ears. We should be listening to the data around everything we do to attract a new client and land a new project. There’s plenty of data available. We just have to look for it and listen to it.
Learnings from Retail: People Say One Thing and Do Another
Data can tell us what people actually do; not just what they say they do.
Decades ago retailers and manufacturers learned a hard lesson — people say one thing and do another. When faced with a purchase decision (large or small), people behave erratically. When asked why they behaved as they did, their answers rarely matched their actions. So, retailers deployed ethnographers to watch. What do people actually do in a retail environment? What do they do leading up to a purchase? How do they behave differently when they choose not to buy? And, many of those marketers’ expectations of what people would do proved to be terribly wrong. The early years of this work were summarized in the book, Why We Buy by Paco Underhill (a fascinating read for anyone interested in consumer behavior).
On the web, ethnography has morphed into analytics. But, the premise is the same. Rather than ask people why they did what they did, we observe and learn through the data available to us online. Online retailers jumped on this quickly for obvious reasons — they actually sell things on their websites so analytics lets them study the specific activities that lead up to a purchased (or abandoned) shopping cart. As a result, today’s retail marketers are highly data-driven.
Yet, most professional services firms are largely indifferent to data (if you don’t believe me, read Randy Deutsch’s blog on the use of data in the built environment). After all, it’s a relational business. The moment a client commits to hire a firm is almost impossible to identify. That said, much of what happens around that moment can increasingly be observed through data. In fact, there’s useful data all around us. Data we can use to:
- Inform our content marketing efforts.
- Plan our business development activities.
- Improve our “go/no go” process.
- Shape our proposals and interviews.
- Improve service delivery.
The balance of this article will take a brief look at each of these 5 areas.
#1 – Bringing Data into Content Marketing
Analytics data can help you measure and improve all aspects of your content effort.
If your firm is a veteran thought leadership marketer, then there’s a good chance you’ve already made data a critical part of your effort. Yet, for firms just making the transition to a marketing approach based largely on knowledge sharing, analytics have probably not become a large part of your team’s effort.
For content marketing, Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools, tend to be your two best sources of data. You should be looking at your Google Analytics account about once a month and Google Webmaster Tools a few times a year to gauge the performance of your effort and to shape your content strategy. Using these technologies, these are the questions you should be looking to answer:
- Are we increasing the visibility of the firm? More specifically, are more people visiting and interacting with our site than in previous periods?
- Are prospects and clients finding us? Or does the majority of our traffic appear to be potential hires? (You can gauge this pretty quickly simply by looking at your site’s top landing pages.)
- Is our content getting found online? Is our search traffic increasing?
- What content types and topics are performing best? Why?
- What types of content and search strings are we most likely to get found for? Are we getting found for the topics where our knowledge and experience is most valuable? If not, why not?
- Where do clients most likely arrive on our website? (Hint: it’s less and less frequently the homepage) Have we established a clear direction for them to proceed into our website so they can understand our firm, it’s knowledge, its perspective, and its experience?
To be clear, analytics should not drive your content strategy. It should inform it. The most successful thought leadership marketers focus first on developing their ideas and building great content and recognize SEO as a downstream activity. But, once again, how people behave online should inform the decisions we make about where and how to invest our content marketing resources.
#2 – Using Data to Inform Business Development
Behavioral data can help you make your proactive business development efforts more efficient and effective.
The role of business development in a professional firm is to establish new working relationships with a handful of clients on a handful of quality projects in a given year. In many firms, it might be as few as just 2 or 3. Every single new prospective client will interact with your website in some way prior to hiring you. Guaranteed. Yet, a mid-sized consulting firm (with revenue ranging from $26M to $50M) generates on average over 40,000 website visitors in a year. Your job is essentially to find that handful of new clients through a sea of website visitors.
Some, will simply jump up and raise their hand. Others, will take some proactive outreach and hardwork. For this latter group, where do you start? Traditionally, business development people started with a Rolodex. Who do they know? But, a seasoned partner may have hundreds or thousands of business relationships. How do they prioritize? Alphabetically?
Marketing automation systems can provide behavioral data on individual prospects. They can provide a range of useful insight such as when they interacted with your site, how frequently they came back, and what interests them (based on their actual behavior). Simultaneously, automation tools provide lead scoring, which allows the firm to assign points to individuals’ behaviors on your site. A prospect with a high point total is more engaged with your firm’s site than one with a low point total. Combining behavioral data and lead scoring enables a marketing and business development team to work together to:
- Identify a short list of priority prospects based both on a combination of both past relationships and demonstrated interest in what the firm has to say and has done.
- Tailor interactions and conversations towards what appears to most interest any individual prospective client.
#3 – Using Data to Inform the “Go/No Go Process”
Behavioral and historical data can help you make better business decisions.
I’ve looked at a number of “Go/No Go” tools used by A/E firms to determine whether or not to propose on an opportunity. While all are well intentioned and some are very effective, they’re all based entirely on the project leader’s perceptions of the prospective client. Some of the metrics are entirely objective (like, location of the project or alignment with the firm’s strategic plan). And, others are entirely subjective (like, strength of relationship). What’s lacking in every tool I’ve seen is hard data.
Looking ahead, an effective “go/no go” process should include data that comes out of your firm’s marketing automation and CRM system. This could include things like:
- Site engagement — How frequently has the prospect interacted with our firm’s thought leadership and website presence over the last 6-12 months?
- Previous win rates — How does our past success stack up on projects of this type, with this client, in this industry?
While the actual go/no go decision will always be subjective, the firms that embrace the hard data underlying their past successes and failures will drastically increase their future likelihood of success.
#4 – Using Data to Improve Proposals and Interviews
Behavioral data can help you craft better proposals.
Once again, a marketing automation system can be a wonderful tool to help a firm develop more effective proposals and interview strategies. Specifically, the system can tell you:
- Which topics and thought leadership a prospect has had the most interactions over any defined period of time.
- Which projects a prospect has spent the most time with online.
- Which firm leaders and people profiles a prospect spent the most time viewing.
All this information should be used to organize, plan and prepare the proposal.
Increasingly, we can go one step further once a proposal is delivered. Using sales automation tools, like Tinderbox, a firm can extract data related to how a prospective client actually consumes and interacts with a proposal. Assuming your proposal is delivered electronically (which, more and more are), the system can tell you:
- How much time the various members of the prospect’s selection team spent with the proposal.
- Which sections and pages were read the most and by whom.
All this information can be used, to shape the priorities and details of a post-proposal interview (if one exists). And, it can be used as learnings to improve future proposal development.
#5 – Using Data to Improve Service Delivery
Data from client feedback programs can help you fix relationships before they run completely off course.
The problem with most client satisfaction studies is they poll clients at random intervals, often well after they’ve actually worked with you on a project. Because of this, clients are likely to offer only minimal attention to the survey — making the data little more than mildly informative to the firm’s leaders. The surveys let them measure quality of service through the rear-view mirror, but don’t actually help the firm improve day-to-day service delivery in a meaningful way.
As Mike Phillips, founder of ClientFeedbackTool likes to put it, “shortly after the divorce, you’re asking the client to tell you how to be a better husband in your next marriage.” His product has virtually flipped the typical client satisfaction survey upside down by enabling the firm to ask for specific feedback at various points of the project. The data that comes back from the system enables firms to:
- Identify points of client frustration long before they become relationship killers.
- Improve performance within specific projects and project phases before it’s too late.
- Aggregate data over time to better understand the firm’s performance at all phases within the delivery of a project.
The New Data Frontier
Lean into data before your competitors lean into you.
3-4 years ago I blew the whistle on A/E firm marketers — telling them they better wake up and embrace content marketing before they fall woefully behind more nimble, forward-looking peers. Now, I’m blowing the whistle again on data. If your firm is not leaning into the data underlying both your marketing and business development efforts now, 3-4 years hence you will find yourselves with declining win rates and a sense of frustration as you try to play catch up with your more assertive and nimble peers.