There are 7 marketing patterns, driven by the natural tensions within professional services firms — 3 patterns of change, 3 patterns that aren’t changing, and 1 that may never change.
There’s a stand-off happening. Somewhere in that dusty, rustic Italian version of the Old West the gun-slingers are facing each other. Or, at least it’s fun to imagine it that way. Rather, what I’m really thinking about are the cultural tensions within firms. These tensions are largely natural, and mostly healthy. They’re tensions between firm leaders and they’re tensions between those leaders and their marketing teams. Usually they’re tensions between the “way we’ve always done things” and the way a few new voices within the firm think “we should start doing things.” The good news is if you’re feeling these tensions, you’re not alone. When we talk to firms we’re hearing them quite frequently. Henceforth, I’ll refer to them as the patterns we’re seeing across the marketplace.
Some of these patterns are good. They’re pushing firms in healthy, new directions. They’re wearing the “white hats” in our Old West drama. Others, the Bad, are fighting to preserve a reality that’s dying a slow but likely eventual death. Who will emerge? Who will lead? Who will ride off into the sunset as that iconic whistle plays? And, what’s just plain ugly?
The Good — 3 Patterns of Change in Professional Services Firms
Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen a lot of positive change within firms in terms of how they think about their business and how they’re marketing it. This reflects itself in 3 “good” patterns I see across the market.
#1 – Firms are Telling Their Story Better
For the last 2-3 years we’ve been highly critical of the way firms describe themselves. I’ve used a number of analogies. I’ve described firms as collections of solutions in search of problems. And, as painful descriptions of features lacking any sense of benefits. We’ve emphasized the need for firms to get crystal clear about their positioning, to develop their unique point-of-view, and to develop cohesive value propositions for each of their practices.
The new emerging pattern we’re seeing is more firms having the courage to do just that. We’re seeing more firms tighten up their positioning. And, we’re seeing firms step back and take a thoughtful approach to defining their unique point-of-view. In just the past 2 years, we’ve helped program management firms, A/E firms, technology firms, OD and leadership consulting firms, and leading operations consulting firms develop more compelling and coherent stories. And, that’s just some of the firms we’ve had the capacity to partner with directly. Hundreds of others have found their voice by accessing our training programs, working with other agencies or resolving it on their own.
#2 – Firms are Telling Better Client Stories
We’ve also been critical of the way firms describe the work they do with their clients. Historically, A/E firms have shown a tendency to dive into the physical and functional details of the spaces they design while practically ignoring the business context and impact of what they’re doing. Simultaneously, consulting firms have identified client confidentiality as an insurmountable mountain blocking the way to telling useful client stories.
Here again, we’re seeing more and more firms breaking through these barriers to tell highly effective case stories. On the A/E side, we’ve helped numerous firms improve their client stories. And, at Profiting From Thought Leadership 2018, Cathy Olofson of Innosight, a leading innovation and growth consulting firm, will share an inside look into how her team has succeeded in developing case studies and testimonials with high profile clients such as Walgreens, Citi, Procter & Gamble and Aetna.
#3 – Firms are More Savvy with Marketing Technology
While attending an industry event in 2013, I was shocked to find that only 1-2 out of 40 management consulting firms were using marketing automation. And, I was confident that the number of A/E firms lagged even further behind that. At that point in time, we’d been using various automation platforms for 2-3 years and were struggling to convince clients as to the value the technology could have within their practice.
Fast forward to today, and I can confidently say that every major consulting firm is using marketing automation in some way shape or form. We have far fewer conversations with clients about whether this type of technology is valuable. And, more conversations around how to use the technology to market more effectively and prove ROI on thought leadership campaigns. In fact, the majority of our clients now use marketing automation (sometimes with our assistance). Also, we’re finding clients are much more interested in trying other types of technology — such as social publishing tools, social listening tools, SEO software, and lead capture technology. Sometimes they’re even pushing us to bring new solutions to bear. The good news is just about everyone is more open to trying new things in the world of marketing technology.
The Bad — 3 Patterns Not Changing Fast Enough in Professional Services Firms
That said, there are a number of things that simply aren’t changing fast enough in a lot of firms. These things, the bad, draw from the voices saying, “this is the way we’ve always done things.” While I do agree there are some things that never change — like a client’s need for objective advice on the pressing issues of the day — it’s generally unhealthy to get stuck in a single view of the world. Business is changing. Clients are retiring and would be folly to our port our own experiences on how business happens onto the next generation of clients and business leaders. I see 3 patterns of things that simply aren’t changing fast enough.
#1 – Patience is Too Short
Unfortunately, more often than not I find myself shaking my head at the expectations of firm leaders as to the results they’ll achieve from new marketing initiatives. We see too many firms operating without a strategic plan. Too many firms operating without an objectives-driven marketing plan. And, routinely we run into practice leaders who simply don’t want to take the time necessary to step back and figure those things out before running down a path. It’s as if they’d rather keep running in place in a race with no destination than slow down and figure out where they’re going in the first place.
Often, we see this lack of patience emerge in firms that are new to thought leadership marketing. The expectation appears to be that a steady diet of high quality leads will just fly through the door within a few months of launching a first campaign. In our experience, success with any marketing approach is more like a marathon than a sprint. The marketer needs to establish a long-term view of what they’re trying to accomplish in the marketplace and systematically drive towards that goal. We would never expect a new business development person to yield much fruit within the first 6 months of their new role. Yet, leaders routinely expect far greater and quicker gains from new marketing investments. In the world of professional services marketing, patience and tenacity almost always wins.
#2 – Digital is Under-Prioritized
In response to digital marketing discussions, we still too many firm leaders say, “our clients just don’t buy that way.” Of course, the role of digital marketing is more nuanced than that. Most good clients probably won’t do a straight web search for a firm like yours. They will not hire you from your website or even because of your website. They won’t hire you because of the content you share on Twitter or LinkedIn.
But, I can promise that clients use all these resources at various points of their hiring process. Just about anyone with a web connection uses Google (or Baidu if they’re in China) to research issues they’re looking to understand more thoroughly. They’re searching for answers to pressing business questions they have. And, they turn to Google (or Baidu) to do it. Good clients are avid readers. They’re regularly scanning useful resources that help them keep a gauge on what’s happening in their business, in their market, and what’s on the horizon. They do this by subscribing to business and industry journals and attending conferences. They also do this by subscribing to firm’s e-newsletters and by following leading thinkers and relevant topics on social media. Ultimately, I can promise you that every single new client / new relationship you land from this day forward will go through your website in one way or another at some point during their hiring process. It’s an undeniable fact. Ignore it at your peril.
#3 – Rainmakers Are Valued Over Knowledge Builders
In some ways, this pattern is intertwined with Pattern #1 (a general lack of patience). Everyone loves a quick fix. The idea that we could simply find someone on the street, drop them into our firm, and a flow of business follows looks just as appealing as that watering hole over the horizon in that dusty west Texas desert. Of course, that watering hole is a mirage just as the rainmaker often is too. Firms place incredibly high value on someone who can immediately bring a “book of business” to the practice. Yes, there are people who have incredible networks. One of our client’s describes his partner’s network like a tree. You just shake it now and then and a bushel of apples falls out. Wouldn’t we all want more people like that in our business? But, remember, there’s a reason she’s already partner.
Simultaneously, firms don’t place enough value on the people who build knowledge for the practice. The people who are willing to make strategic investments in research. The people who use that research to discover new insights and develop a unique point-of-view for the practice. The ones that take that point-of-view and love it, hone it, and work it into a really compelling story that takes the marketplace by storm. Forget about rainmakers. Look for the people in your practice who have the courage and tenacity to discover new insights and describe them to the marketplace in compelling ways. Those are the ones who can build healthy demand for tomorrow.
The Ugly — What May Never Change in Many Professional Services Firms
I have to admit it’s been at least 10 years since I actually watched the movie that inspired the theme for this post. I don’t know who the Good is, who the Bad is, or even who the Ugly is. I can’t even tell you the plot for the story. But, according to the script of just about any U.S. western ever produced, there has to be an Ugly. So, it’s time to get ugly.
The Ugly is the one thing that simply may never change in a lot of firms — the cultural perception of marketing. In a lot of firms, marketing is seen as nothing more than the proposal team. The folks who manage events and make things look nice. They run the calendar. It’s a tactical support function that reports up through a shared services group. It’s a cost-center to be starved. Its services are managed by the pound and the expectation is that it exists to remove tactical burdens off the laps of highly billable experts. My friend, Jeff McKay, likes to call this the “productivity school of marketing” — we’ll cover this in detail in an upcoming podcast episode of Rattle & Pedal. I just like to call it sales support. All these things have to be there in a firm. But marketing can be, and generally should be, so much more.
Marketing should be looking ahead to where the market is going and pressing the partners to think differently about the practice and the services it provides. It should be defining what the firm would like to be known for in the marketplace and establishing an intellectual property agenda to make that happen. It should be guiding original primary research and helping subject matter experts develop unique and original points-of-view about what the firm does and how it does it. It should be championing a thought leadership marketing effort and establishing the firm as an expert in the marketplace. It should have a seat at the leadership table, and be accountable for defining future growth opportunities. Ultimately, marketing should be focused on developing future demand.