This post outlines the 6 key things any new professional services marketer should be focused on, and provides links to relevant topical reading for each.
In some ways, marketing a professional services firm is unlike any other marketing endeavor. Even a seasoned B2B marketer can find themselves more than a bit befuddled after taking the CMO post at a professional services firm. The very thing you’ve been asked to market feels like a complex, shifting target. No one in the firm is ever entirely in agreement as to what your firm actually does and who it does it for. Every client engagement is different simply because it can be. Therefore, it costs next to nothing to customize one solution from the next.
At their core, consultants and other subject matter experts see themselves as problem solvers. They love dissecting a new client problem and assembling a solution like a puzzle. By contrast, they hate codifying that problem and solution into a methodology that can be packaged and reapplied for commercial success. And, of course, that’s your job. So, you’re always a bit at odds with the partners themselves.
Maybe you’ve just been promoted to the Director of Marketing role in your firm or maybe you’re a seasoned B2B marketer who’s fairly new to professional services. Regardless of what brought you to this moment, you may find yourself stuck with the same question, “Now what?” This article lays out a sequence of 6 things I believe any new marketing leader in a professional services firm should have on her or his mind:
- Point of View
- Brand Platform
- Thought Leadership
- Lead Generation
#1 – Positioning
Over the years, I’ve found that too many firms are little more than a collection of solutions in search of a problem. So, the first task at hand is to come to an agreement on where the firm will choose to compete. This starts with making a sound and effective positioning decision.
Positioning is the collective expertise your firm offers to the market. Though it seems like defining it should be simple, getting there isn’t always easy. Luckily, there are five ways to think about positioning your firm to make it easier to find the right fit.
- Horizontal Positioning – Building deep expertise in a narrow service offering valuable to a wide range of clients across industries.
- Vertical Positioning – Aligning your firm’s resources to serve a range of needs within select industry verticals.
- Market Positioning – Dedicating your business to serving a client segment based on company size or maturity, often with innovative business models.
- Positioning by Function or Role – Aligning with a specific function like operations, marketing, or sales to become experts for those roles across industries.
- Positioning Around Technology – Building expertise in helping clients implement specific established or emerging tech platforms like Salesforce or Anaplan.
Ultimately, your goal in positioning your firm is to reduce the competitive playing field. If you believe that clients have 1000s of substitutes for what you do, then there’s a good chance you have a positioning problem. Your goal should be to narrow your vision on the marketplace such that your clients have at most a few dozen substitutes for what you do. If a client chooses to stop working with you it should take them months to find an adequate replacement, not days.
Additional resources on positioning:
- Blog: 7 Ways to Determine if Your Positioning Works
- Blog: 5 Proven Ways to Position Your Professional Services Firm
#2 – Point-of-View
Once you’ve developed clarity on where your firm will compete, you need to establish a governing point-of-view on how you do what you do. Your POV will create a layer on top of your positioning that will enable you to attract potential clients that buy into your belief system. In a sense, you can think of it as psychographic segmentation within your area of focus.
Your POV emanates from how you view the world. What is it that most clients get wrong when trying to solve the problems you’re often hired to solve? What is the conventional wisdom in the market on how something should be done? What is the better way you’ve uncovered through your client work or original research? Here are some examples:
- CEB (now part of Gartner): Research on the mindsets and behaviors of the most successful B2B salespeople, codified in the book The Challenger Sale, turned conventional wisdom on relational selling upside down, and provided a new way forward for building and training B2B sales teams.
- TBM: While most consulting firms will tell you strategy is the backbone of everything operations consulting firm TBM (a Rattleback client) brings a unique and compelling POV around speed. Organizations that move faster, innovate faster, and as a result they “win every time.”
- Navalent: While most consulting firms will work on one aspect of a company’s performance, Navalent has found that the only way to affect real transformational change in a company is to work on 3 critical domains simultaneously (a company’s leaders, its leadership teams and its organizational structure).
- Jump Associates: Most organizations aren’t looking far enough ahead when it comes to strategy development. Jump exerts that organizations need to adopt a “future focused” approach to strategy development. This can be done by planning on a longer-time horizon — 7 years to be exact. Jump Associates has proven when you operate on a longer time horizon, you reduce the competitive playing field and increase the odds of success.
- RBL Group: While most organizations look internally to define their culture, RBL believes companies should take an “outside-in” approach. The best place to build a strong culture is to start with your customers. What do they really care about? Build your culture such that it enables you to provide what your customers value most better than anyone else.
Depending on the breadth of your firm’s positioning, your POV may cut across all your markets and services or you may end up having different POVs in different areas. This all depends a bit on the size of your firm and the diversity of places in which you choose to compete.
Additional resources on developing your POV:
- Blog: Start with Why. The Best or Worst Decision You’ve Ever Made.
- Blog: POVs and UVPs – What’s the Difference?
- Guide: How to Develop a Point of View in 5 Steps
#3 – Brand Platform
In our experience a firm’s positioning and its POV make up 2/3 of a complete brand strategy. They form the essence of how you will present your firm to the market — who you serve, what you do, and your unique view on how it should be done. The next critical step in marketing your firm is articulating these things in a clear and compelling way that draws from the unique culture and personality of your firm. Essentially, you’re looking to translate the thinking you’ve developed into a clear and distinct market-facing message. That message is both verbal and visual. At Rattleback, we like to call this the brand platform. It’s the face you present to the world.
Your brand platform consists of all the visual tools you use to tell your story (your firm’s corporate logo and the look-and-feel of your communications). It also includes your corporate messaging (a clear 2-sentence description describing who you serve, what you do and the benefits a client earns as a result of a business relationship with you). And, it includes individual practice and service-level messaging (clear descriptions of the problems your clients face and the solutions you’ve designed to help them solve them).
Additional resources on branding:
#4 – Thought Leadership
Ultimately, marketing your firm is about educating potential clients on issues you know how to solve or opportunities you can help them realize. A steady flow of high quality thought leadership is your best lever for creating awareness, demonstrating relevance, and generating leads. Because of that, it’s tempting to jump past the first 3 steps and right into content development. But, in our experience, if you haven’t really thought through the three big issues that precede this, your investments in thought leadership won’t be very successful.
Yet, doing it right is quite hard. And, with the rapid explosion of AI-fueled content, cutting through the noise has become harder than ever. For thought leadership to work you need to establish a clear strategy for the topics you’d like to own in the marketplace. Then, work from there to build a deep body of work around each one. This means backing up your firm’s unique POV with substantive research (both quantitative research and best practices case story interviews). And, taking it to market in a multi-dimensional way (self publishing on your own website and publishing in reputable external media). And, doing it with consistency and regularity so you can increase the likelihood of being found online.
Additional resources related to thought leadership strategy, development and promotion:
- eBook: The Thought Leadership Handbook
- Blog: Why Self-Publishing is a Critical Part of Your Thought Leadership Marketing Mix
- Blog: Why External Publishing is a Critical Part of Your Thought Leadership Marketing Mix
#5 – Website
A professional service firm’s website is its most critical marketing asset. Ultimately, it’s the vessel that brings everything together. It’s the carrier for your unique brand story (the compelling presentation of your firm’s positioning and unique POV in the marketplace). And, it’s the central resource for all your firm’s thought leadership — all content you self-publish should exist here and all content you publish elsewhere should be pointed to from here.
On top of all that, your website has a unique ability to do things no other marketing tool in your arsenal can. To start, your steady flow of original thought leadership will help you attract potential clients to your firm via search. From there, when designed and managed correctly, your site has the unique ability to nudge clients through their buying process. You can literally guide clients from learning about the issues you solve, to vetting your firm’s ability to solve them, and ultimately into a dialogue with your principals or business development experts.
#6 – LEAD GENERATION
To power business growth, you’ll first need to clarify your strategy for generating leads and cultivating an effective sales pipeline. While your thought leadership engine can provide inbound leads over time, don’t rely solely on inbound — industry-wide shifts, like the rise of AI and changes in search algorithms, are too big a threat.
Power up your lead generation engine by engaging in speaking engagements, virtual events, targeted paid media campaigns, and focused business development outreach. But don’t go all in at once. Focus on building expertise in one or two new channels before expanding further.
This Lead Generation Handbook provides helpful frameworks to determine the right mix of outbound and inbound lead generation for your growth goals. Develop a focused lead gen strategy combining inbound traffic with select outbound channels that align with your firm’s goals, strengths, and budget. A concentrated effort like this will build a thriving pipeline and empower sales growth.
ASSESSING YOUR FIRM’S CURRENT MARKETING STRATEGY
Starting any new marketing strategy can feel daunting at first. But you don’t have to do everything at once (or alone, for that matter.) Start smart by investing in the areas that could drive the most impact for your firm. As you build confidence and gain more knowledge, you’ll be able to take on more initiatives to fuel your firm’s growth.
To determine where you should start, ask these questions:
- Positioning — How long would it take a client to replace your firm? Months or days? If it would take them longer, it means your positioning was a good fit for them and they’re having trouble finding another solution.
- POV — If we shared your POV with one of your closest competitors would they be nodding their head or contesting your claim? We’ll give you a hint: Immediate consensus may mean your POV isn’t as unique as you think.
- Branding — If we took your logo off your website and communications and replaced it with a competitor’s branding would anyone notice? Your firm must have a brand identity that stands out from the crowd — not blend in with it.
- Thought Leadership — Do you have a clear agenda for the topics you must own? Is it grounded in what your clients most care about and desperately want your help?
- Website — Does it pass all 5 critical stress tests? If not, call your developer. They’re gonna be busy.
- Lead Generation — Does everyone understand and agree with how you’ll bring new clients to the door? Your approach should be manifested in a plan of action — no more talk. If it’s not, your business development and marketing teams need to come together and learn from each other. Then, you need to make a plan.
Once you have the answers to your questions, give us a call. We’re ready to tackle anything you’ve got.
This article, originally published in March 2018, was updated with our latest thinking in September 2023.