Professional services firms of all types and sizes are finding new client relationships can and do start online. This article outlines the six things you will need to do to make this happen in your firm.
It’s a relational business. But, where do high quality relationships start? For years, they’ve started at a conference or a tradeshow. And, while they still often do, more and more firms are finding high quality relationships starting online (For the remaining skeptics among us, I’ve profiled a number firms having success attracting clients online here and here).
But, what does it take to actually attract a client that you don’t already know online? Can you just toss up a website with some of your past client work and hire a 3rd party SEO consultant to do some “keyword magic” to drive leads to your door? While this might’ve worked in the past, I think we can comfortably say those days are pretty much beyond the horizon in your rearview mirror.
Ultimately, if your firm is going to have success online; if it’s going to attract potential clients you don’t already know and eventually nurture them towards a relationship, it’s going to take some time, courage and hard work. As I see it, there are 6 things most firms need to do to make this happen.
#1 – Effective Positioning
Before you’re going to have any success attracting a client to your website (and to your firm), you’ll need to paint a clear picture of the type of client you hope to attract. This usually means making some hard decisions about your business. You’ll have to give up some things to get some other (hopefully better) things. Maybe your A/E firm has pursued work in the healthcare arena for years with only sporadic success. Or, your consulting firm has done the occasional process improvement project, but hasn’t really had the consistent flow of opportunity to build a practice around it. These orphaned practice areas stand in the way of giving someone a clear picture of what your firm is about. And, they often preclude you from being easily found online.
Google is a machine. While it’s an incredibly smart machine built by thousands of really talented engineers, it’s still just a machine. If an intelligent human being can’t quickly discern your positioning, it’s reasonable to assume Google will struggle to do so as well. By contrast, when your positioning is clear and succinct, you make it much easier for Google to understand too.
Effective positioning should quickly turn away clients you’re not looking for while just as quickly engaging those you are. It should reduce the size of your market while making you more attractive to that smaller slice. In just a few sentences, your positioning should quickly communicate three things:
- Who you serve
- What you do
- The benefit you create
For more on positioning read:
- Three Proven Ways to Position a Professional Services Firm
- Five Examples of Well Positioned A/E Firms
- Five Examples of Well Positioned Consulting Firms
To attract clients online your firm’s positioning should make it easy for someone who’s never heard of you to describe your firm in a search phrase.
#2 – A Steady Diet of High Quality Content
While Google is doing a lot of things these days, first and foremost, it’s still a search engine. As a result, it’s consistently looking for high quality, useful content it can share with its global audience of searchers. If your firm is going to get found online, it needs to tend to this fundamental need of the modern web.
If your positioning serves as the foundation of your online strategy, your content functions like the building on top of it. Content makes your positioning tangible, accessible and real to the potential client. For Google, it gives a reason for it to come back. The more frequently you add content to your site, the more frequently Google will index it. The more content you develop surrounding a pressing issue that matters to your clients, the more likely Google is to see your site as a source for useful insight on that issue.
As the marketer of the firm you’re in a race. But, this race isn’t a sprint. It’s a slow, methodical marathon. The marathon is full of highs and lows, but slow and steady wins the race. A well positioned firm that makes a concerted effort to consistently produce and search optimize high quality content over time will attract clients online. In fact, it will attract substantively more clients than a similar firm that simply hires an SEO consultant to do some keyword strategy and build some back links.
Some additional useful resources on this topic:
- Seven Steps to Develop Your Content Marketing Strategy
- How to Improve Your SEO Efforts Without Spending Much Money
Clients generally do not start by searching for a firm like yours. Usually, they search for an answer to a question. They find the answer, and your firm, through your content.
#3 – Build an Audience
I opened this article with the refrain, “It’s a relational business,” for a reason. I don’t think any of us are kidding ourselves that a client is likely to do a quick Google search, locate a consulting firm, and hire it on the spot.
For that matter, it’s equally unlikely that a client is going to do a Google search on a topic, find the answer in your article, and simply jump on the phone with one of your firm’s principals or consultants to talk about it — even if they do have a pressing problem you could solve right away, the path to hiring you is usually more complex than that.
So, once you attract a client to your site, your goal is to nurture them towards a conversation when the time is right. We do this by having clear and effective calls-to-action. This doesn’t mean we jump right to making a contact offer. What it does mean, is inviting them to take a first step with us by asking them to sign up for a newsletter of some kind. We’re simply asking them for permission to market to them in the future. We do this through a well-placed and clearly worded subscription form.
Now, clearly, not everyone who signs up for your firm’s newsletter is going to become a client or even have any type of meaningful conversation with your firm. In fact, it will be a very small percentage of them that do. As a result, one of our most important objectives is to build an audience of people who are receptive to your firm’s marketing activities.
With effective positioning, consistent application of content, and well placed call-to-actions you will build an audience of people over time who:
- Match the type of client you identified within your positioning model.
- Gave you permission to market to them.
- Find value in your firm’s perspective related to their business.
- Are willing to share your content with others and even refer you when appropriate.
Some additional useful resources on this topic:
Developing a new client relationship online usually starts with one small step — earning the right to regularly market to someone over time.
#4 – Follow-On Marketing
This part is rather simple, once you’ve earned the right to market to someone, you need to follow through with the commitment to do so. All too often, firms work hard to build a subscriber list only to let it die on the vine with little to no follow-on activities.
Your follow-on marketing effort doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to useful. Just like your content effort, it’s the consistency that counts. If your commitment to subscribers is that you’re going to deliver an email once a month, do everything you can to deliver a useful piece of content to their inbox on the same day every month.
Here are some tips for your follow-on marketing effort:
- Either a traditional HTML newsletter, or a simple text-based email from an individual in your firm can be effective.
- Regardless of the system you use, always send email from an individual in your firm to reduce the likelihood of getting caught in a spam filter.
- To start, a straightforward email marketing tool like Constant Contact or Emma will work just fine to get your email consistently delivered to the inbox.
- If you’re interested in building more sophisticated lead nurturing programs or in using lead scoring and behavioral data to make your business development efforts more intelligent and effective, consider investing in a marketing automation system.
- Be a contrarian. My email inbox gets more and more cluttered every day while my physical mailbox sits practically empty. If you have the resources, a physical mailing of a useful article on occasion could prove to be very effective.
- Identify the next logical progression you’d expect a potential client to take prior to having a direct conversation with your firm. Perhaps it’s attending a webinar or an in-person event. Engineer this next level of engagement into your marketing effort — a subset of your casual readers will progress to this higher level of engagement.
Some additional useful resources:
#5 – Demonstrate Proof
For most professional services firms, the objective is to bring aboard 3-4 new clients in a given year. In the big picture, it’s smart to think about your online marketing effort as one big funnel designed to yield a small amount of qualified leads and opportunities for your firm to pursue (or decline). In most cases, for those opportunities to emerge, the firm needs to demonstrate to the client a reasonable amount of proof that they’re both capable of doing what they claim and that they have the sufficient people and knowledge to deliver. A client that’s made it this far in their journey is expecting to see a few things on a firm’s website:
- Case Studies — A selection of high quality case studies demonstrating that your firm has experience applying the concepts it’s shared via its educational content.
- People — A reasonable cross-section of the firm’s leaders and doers demonstrating that your firm has both the capabilities to do the work, but also seasoned people with relevant prior experience to lead it.
Ultimately, a client will enter a formal conversation when they’re ready, and when they do they’ll expect tangible proof that your firm has both the experience and the people necessary to back up the story told by your positioning, your content and your ongoing marketing effort.
Combining patient and consistent application of follow-on marketing with demonstrable proof that your firm can create the value it states, a reasonable number of clients will invite you in to a conversation.
Some Additional Useful Resources:
#6 – Add the Human Element
There are going to be some clients who simply are never going to directly ask for help. They may be regular and avid readers of your firm’s thought leadership and they may be actively struggling through challenges you could help them with, but for one reason or another they’ll simply never ask. It could be they’re not entirely sure how to diagnose their own situation or it could be a simple expectation that it’s your firm’s responsibility to initiate a dialogue.
Ultimately, you can bring a client all the way to the door, but sometimes they’re waiting for a direct, personal invitation to come in. This the point where your firm transitions from marketing to business development. Your firm should absolutely designate resources to do proactive outreach towards the leads you generate online. Here are some tips to make this process more effective:
- If you’ve invested in marketing automation, use your lead scoring model to identify individuals who are demonstrating buying behavior by their actions on your website. This process will help you identify a short list of potential clients from your pool of subscribers for proactive follow-up. If you’re not using marketing automation, consider a simpler metric like emails clicked to develop your short-list.
- Conduct appropriate, personal outreach to your short list on a regular basis. This does not mean cold calling every single person who downloads an eBook. It does mean taking the time to intepret the data that comes from your marketing technology and using your judgment to make an appropriate, non-threatening inquiry. Often, a short, personal email will suffice.
- It’s okay and expected to ask for a meeting and to demonstrate an interest in working with your potential client.
- It’s okay to acknowledge that you’re aware that your potential client is a subscriber to your newsletter. Everyone appreciates being recognized and feeling special.
- It’s not okay to make statements like, “I saw you visited our case studies page….” Everyone’s aware that technology is available to give you that granular level of insight, but it doesn’t make anyone feel special. It makes them feel stalked.
It is intelligent and effective to provide personal follow-up to a small list of your subscribers on a regular basis. While no one will engage before they are ready, you will increase your quality of outcomes over time.
Wrapping It Up
Relationships between clients and firms can and do start online everyday. If you commit your firm to all the activities underlying each of these areas, I’m confident you will see tangible results in terms of leads generated, new project opportunities and real client revenue over time.