This article outlines the need for firms to put a greater focus on marketing to clients’ wants and needs.
Over the first few months of this year I wrote a series of articles related to demand generation. I wrote a story of unlikely allies to showcase what demand generation looks like in other industries. I shared 7 secrets of demand generating firms from our research and experience working with professional services firms of all types. And, I outlined 3 major issues that block demand generation from happening in most firms. A few times in those articles, I alluded to the Solutions > Needs > Wants Continuum (though not directly with those words) and how important it is to setting your thought leadership strategy and driving leads and revenue from your marketing efforts. This article drives squarely into that topic.
Stop Selling Solutions in Search of Problems
One of the aspects of our marketing review process is an assessment of a firm’s outward messaging. This includes both corporate messaging (how the firm describes itself) and practice-level messaging (language used on market and service pages to describe what it does for specific buyers). After doing 3-4 of these a year for a number of years, I am confident in saying that at least 90% of firms fall down in their practice-level messaging. The vast majority of firms present solutions that are in search of problems. We’ve designed hundreds of roundabouts, do you need one? We’ve implemented hundreds of knowledge management and learning management systems, do you need one?
Of course, no firm would actually write this way. More typically, firms will provide a fairly comprehensive summary of the solution along with a variety of indicators as to why they believe their service is superior relative to their peers — this is usually a reference to the firm’s history, the qualifications of the consultants themselves, a short client roster or some data about the volume of the work they’ve completed over time. All these could be potentially valuable, but what is usually conspicuously absent is a clear problem statement. Why does this service exist? What problem is it designed to solve? Alternatively, what opportunity might the service have been designed to help a client realize?
Good Firms Market to Client Needs
The logical inverse of this is to focus on the problem itself (the client’s need). The inverse of my examples above might look something like this:
- Our community has 1-2 intersections that have higher than normal incidents of fatal or near-fatal accidents. And, we consistently have rush hour bottlenecks at these 3-4 points within the community. We need to reduce these bottlenecks and reduce the amount of major accidents. What can we do, if anything?
- Our organization is set to lose 15% of its most senior workforce over the next 5 years. Many of these people have been with our organization for 20+ years. I’m concerned that if we don’t figure out how to capture what they know and educate the people who will replace them that we’ll cease to be in business 5 years from now. We need to capture knowledge and formalize a learning strategy. How do I do that?
Now, typically these types of questions should form the basis for a firm’s content marketing strategy. At its core, the whole idea of content marketing is to provide helpful answers to the meaningful questions you’re clients are struggling with that your firm is capable of solving. If your firm is self-publishing, a good portion of your content should be designed to answer questions like these.
Great Firms (Demand Generators) Market to Client Wants
That said, there’s a higher level of marketing that some firms manage to unlock. It future casts what’s happening in the market and paints a compelling future reality that clients want to reach out and grab. Now, some firms will never actually get here. And, that may be perfectly okay. But, as you’ll see later, marketing to clients wants is the path to higher level decision-makers and higher levels of profitability than your firm may have previously thought possible. Client wants, within similar contexts to what I’ve presented here, might look like this:
- We’d like our community to grow from about 35k residents to 60k residents over the next 10 years. We’d like to attract more knowledge-based businesses and the workers, families and taxes that come with them. We know that technology has the potential to create massive change to our communities and transit systems — be it autonomous cars, ride-sharing, or even high-speed “tubes.” We want to be a community of choice for these types of companies, what will our transportation infrastructure need to look like to get there?
- We’re losing 20% of our talent in our workforce over the next 10 years to retirement. We’ll be replacing them with younger employees that bring a whole new set of skills and mindsets on where we compete, how we win, and how work gets done. While capturing and leveraging that knowledge is important, what we really want is to use this transition as an opportunity to open up new growth markets and new service offerings we hadn’t previously thought possible.
While the examples given as written might be too narrow to constitute a market you’d want to address with thought leadership, the takeaways I’d like you to have are these:
- Clients’ wants are big, broad and complex.
- They provide space for you to provide objective perspective on where the client’s world is headed and help them realize the opportunity to get there.
- It’s likely not necessary for your future vision of the world to be exacting or even wholly accurate when push comes to shove. The very fact that you’re helping a client think about what their future reality might look like will prove valuable to both parties.
- While needs speak to problems a client is trying to overcome, wants always point to opportunities a client is trying to realize. In that sense, needs are ‘negative’ and wants are ‘positive.’ Most of us (when afforded the opportunity) like to think about potentials and positives rather than reality and negatives.
- Wants are future-tense and are a bit fuzzy; needs tend to be present-tense and a lot more concrete.
Looking at Buyers and Margins on the Continuum
A lot of firms put basically no thought, research or marketing budget towards trying to frame clients’ wants and the future opportunities those wants will represent (both for the clients and the firm). And, while we would probably not suggest that all you ever do as a firm is future-cast you shouldn’t spend all your time navel-gazing either. It’s important and appropriate for a firm of almost any size or type to invest some of their thought leadership marketing resources into future wants. The reasons are probably readily apparent:
- Connecting with senior decision-makers. It is the responsibility of the C-suite and senior leaders of any organization to have their eyes on the horizon. They are responsible for future value. A good client organization will relegate a lot of the thinking on today’s issues down the organization to mid-level managers in order to enable the senior leaders to focus on where the organization is headed. If you want to have conversations with senior leaders, and most firms do, then high quality thought leadership that speaks to future wants is practically mandatory in order to open new, high-level conversations.
- Higher margins. Those mid-level managers create budgets that are presented to senior leaders for approval. Those budgets are used to research how to solve those problems (those needs we talked about) and hire solution providers to help solve them. In some instances, those mid-level managers may actually push the actual hiring of the solution provider even further down the organization. They impose the budget they got approved on someone who’s very job it is to squeeze as much out of that budget as possible. All that work you put into describing your solutions is going to a lower level decision maker who’s had a budget thrust upon them. By contrast, senior leaders are capable of creating budget that didn’t previously exist. And, because the nature of the want is fuzzy, the client will look to the advisor to bring it into focus and is willing to pay a premium for that to happen.
In the end, there is a direct relationship between your firm’s ability to market to Wants > Needs > Solutions (in that order) and your ability to achieve higher margins for your work. But, in a lot of firms the marketing effort (be it content development or relational selling) operates at direct odds with this margin structure:
So, this is a bit more complex than that “start writing about the questions your clients ask” message that gets bantered around the content marketing community so frequently. To get at client wants, you’re going to have to structure smart, strategic research and trust the talented senior marketers and leaders in your organization to project a path forward for your clients and your firm. There’s probably no specific blueprint on how to do that, though every year we learn from some of the best in the world (including folks at McKinsey and HBR) at our conference on thought leadership marketing.