The foundational tools for marketing and growing a consulting firm are the same as they were when this article was first published in May 2014. But their importance has escalated in an increasingly competitive, high-inflation environment. We’ve updated the content to reflect the latest thinking and illustrate what it takes to set your firm apart and attract new business today.
Maybe you’ve just been promoted to the Director of Marketing role in your firm, maybe you’ve been marketing professional services firms for some time and just accepted a new post in a consulting firm, or maybe you’re a seasoned B2B marketer who’s fairly new to the consulting industry. 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 five things I believe any new marketing leader in a mid-sized consulting firm should be thinking about.
For any marketer to be successful, they need to start with clarity on the types of clients they hope to attract. While most consulting firms already have brand and business strategy figured out long before they endeavor to hire a non-consultant to lead the marketing post, there are occasional exceptions. So it’s important we start at the beginning:
- What markets are we in and why have we chosen to compete in them?
- What expertise do we have and where is it most relevant?
- What proof do we have that our expertise is both relevant and valuable? Examples include marketable case studies and outcomes, fact-based research, and any other “in market” application of our recommended remedy.
If the principals of the firm can’t offer you clear and concise answers to most of these questions, you may have a positioning problem on your hands.
HERE ARE A FEW OTHER RESOURCES YOU MAY FIND USEFUL:
- 3 Ways to Position a Professional Services Firm
- 5 Examples of Well-Positioned Consulting Firms
- Developing Your Firm Positioning to Inform Strategic Choices
What differentiates one consulting firm from the next in the eyes of a potential client? While positioning is quite often the root of differentiation, it’s still just one aspect of what distinguishes one firm from the next. Even for the most specific business problem, clients generally have at least a handful of viable alternatives to solve it.
Differentiation is about strategically aligning critical aspects of the firm’s business against its positioning such that it creates something unique and valuable to the firm’s ideal clients. The culmination of this is often grounded in a distinct point of view or POV—essentially its core belief about the best way to go about solving its clients’ problems or addressing their opportunities.
That said, we can’t invest in everything. Generally, a firm has to make decisions about where to invest resources (and where not to) in order to fulfill its point of view and build something tangibly different and uniquely valuable to its ideal clientele.
Usually it’s some combination of these things that works:
- Process and methodology — Maybe your firm has developed a unique process or methodology that has proven to produce tangible results against a specific set or type of business problems. The Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), originally coined in Gino Wickman’s book, Traction, now used by thousands of consultants and more than 170,000 companies around the world to create alignment and traction around corporate vision, is a good example of this.
- Proprietary systems, data and techniques — Or, perhaps your firm has built proprietary data or systems you use in your work. David C. Baker has built his business advisory services including his Total Business Reset assessment around his comprehensive and proprietary benchmarking database of more than 12,000 data points. Recombinators is another example of a management consulting firm that differentiates itself based on its Challenge Tree database, which includes more than 10,000 winning business cases amassed across functions and industries.
- Hiring and training practices — Often, the way a firm hires and trains its people is a critical aspect of what makes it unique. For years, much of Accenture’s success was built around the intense learning and teambuilding activities that occurred during the first few months of employment for new consultants at its St. Charles education facility. This bootcamp-like experience was the backbone of the firm’s client engagement process. It was the place that smart people with little technology background became smart technologists with the skills to apply the firm’s rigorous process.
- Culture and philosophy — Companies can differentiate themselves based on their core beliefs and how they treat their associates and clients. Rattleback client Jump Associates has built its business around an enablement philosophy that empowers the world’s largest organizations to build and execute future focused strategies. By helping executives and their teams think about what might happen in the next five to 10 years instead of analyzing current and past data, Jump instills clients with an organizational mindset that drives sustainable growth in dramatically changing times.
In most cases, one of these things in isolation is not the basis for meaningful differentiation; generally, a firm must invest in multiple areas in order to build something that’s truly unique and tangibly valuable. The combination of these factors crystalizes the company’s POV. Another Rattleback client, TBM Consulting, leverages its diagnostic process, proprietary management system, and a culture that’s grounded in working at the point of impact to drive efficiencies, remove waste, and generate immediate results for its clients. All this ladders up to the consultancy’s defining mantra: in manufacturing, speed wins every time.
Another resource related to differentiation you may find helpful:
#3. Thought Leadership
These days, the intelligent cultivation, development, and dissemination of thought leadership has become one of the most important and effective tools in marketing and branding a consulting firm. Indeed, this is what brings your firm’s differentiating POV to life. Done right, thought leadership can become one of a firm’s most effective and valuable tools for attracting potential new clients. Yet, doing it right is quite hard. And, with the rapid explosion of content, cutting through the noise has become harder than ever.
For thought leadership to work you need the following:
- A strategy for determining which topics the firm wants to own.
- A unique and well-developed point of view on those topics that demonstrates how your firm tackles the issue or solves the problem in a better, more effective, and/or less costly way.
- A defined approach to thought leadership development and content generation to bring that POV on those topics to life.
- A clear editorial process to ensure you have the ability to produce an ongoing flow of content in a sustained and timely manner.
- A detailed strategy on how you plan to distribute and promote it.
- And, you’ll need to support the whole effort with the resources (people, money and technology) to do it effectively.
Oh, is that all? Yes, it’s a lot. But firms that truly invest themselves in the process of thought leadership can attain extraordinary results — case in point, CEB essentially changed the entire marketplace conversation on how selling gets done with the research, insights, and content it poured into its 2011 book, The Challenger Sale. The firm claims to have trained over 80,000 sales professionals on the Challenger methodology, and its stock price gradually grew from $37.39 per share on November 10, 2011, when the book was published to $75.90 on January 10, 2017, when it was officially sold to Gartner in a $2.6B transaction. For more on how they did it, check out the post Demand Generation at Training and Advisory Firm CEB.
AND FOR A COMPREHENSIVE GUIDE TO GROWING YOUR OWN FIRM THROUGH THOUGHT LEADERSHIP, SEE:
Our research shows that the most successful high-growth firms consider their corporate websites to be their most valuable marketing asset. Further, they recognize that the website is much more than a capabilities presentation or a place for credentialing. It is a strategic tool that plays a pivotal role in client acquisition and in initiating new conversations with real prospects you want to do business with and whom you may already know, or not. When built correctly and with thoughtful consideration to where a prospect is in the buying journey, a website will enable a firm to:
- Attract potential clients who are looking for solutions to the problems they know how to solve.
- Showcase the firm’s unique point of view and approach in successfully addressing those issues and ingratiate prospects to that point of view.
- Demonstrate sufficient depth of knowledge with proof of results within the prospect’s industry and/or for similar organizations, thus reducing risk for the prospect.
- Align with the customer’s buying journey and move the prospect through each phase of their journey within a contained digital experience.
#5. Marketing Planning
You’re in luck — if you’ve made it this far, we’re getting down to the nitty gritty. You’ve tackled the most strategic aspects of marketing and growing your firm and you’ve invested in the content and tools necessary to do so. Now you need to drive into the tactics and details of how you’ll drive the engine — the marketing plan. Ultimately, we’ve found that an effective marketing plan for a consulting firm needs to cover three macro aspects of the firm’s client acquisition efforts:
- Thought Leadership — We covered this above, but the planning process seeks to formalize these things for internal audiences. An effective thought leadership plan should establish both an editorial calendar and review process, including defining a set of roles, and outlining who’s going to do what when to develop thought leadership content and take it into the marketplace.
- Strategies & Tactics — How will we get our firm, its principals and subject matter experts in front of the clients we really covet? What tactics online and off should we use to promote the firm? What events should we attend? Where should we seek speaking opportunities? Your plan should take into account all aspects of firm promotion, advertising, and events.
- Measurement & Outcomes — Finally, any good business strategy and marketing plan needs to outline what we hope to accomplish and how we hope to measure it. Ultimately, the plan should establish a link between marketing activities and business development activities. How many quality opportunities will it take to generate the new client opportunities needed to meet the firm’s revenue objectives? What percentage of qualified opportunities have we historically won? How many quality initial meetings does it take to generate that number of opportunities? Historically, which marketing tactics have been our best sources of quality interactions and initial meetings? If there are no established answers, make some inferences and establish a baseline for the next planning cycle.
Another useful resources related to marketing planning:
IF YOU BUILD YOUR MARKETING TOOLKIT, GROWTH WILL COME
While tools like thought leadership and websites have evolved over the past several years, the fundamental principles for growth-focused marketing for professional services firms remain the same. Know who you want to attract, what problems you can help them solve, and why you can solve them better than your competitors. Then have a solid plan for telling that story and promoting your POV. While this blog is far from a “how to market a consulting firm” list, I do hope it serves as a useful resource to put you on the right path as you embark on your new endeavor. If you’d like some help, give us a call. We can dive deeper into any or all of these fundamentals to make sure your marketing is working as effectively as it can.