Is the client buying you or the brand?

For as long as I’ve been marketing professional services this question has been one of the most fiercely debated. Does the client buy the anticipated relationship with the practitioner, someone they need to trust implicitly and actually enjoy working with, to get the best results? Or, do they need the name of a Big 4 or top-tier law firm to provide the level of comfort that comes with the reputation of the brand?

I believe the answer is both. Clients do make unconscious decisions about you and how they feel about you personally. However, they will also make unconscious decisions about your firm, based on their recognition, or unrecognition, and perceptions of your firm (i.e. the firm’s brand). This is the power of branding and brand positioning. Both your personal brand and the brand value of your firm will influence the prospect’s decision to put their trust in you and your firm.

Your reputation as a practitioner in the market will affect the number of quality referrals you receive as well as your sales conversions. When the prospect meets with you they will make very fast decisions about how they feel about you. People want to work with people they like. They don’t need to become your best friends, but clients will be prepared to pay more for service they perceive as excellent value. Part of the value equation is trust and you need to develop rapport with a client to develop trust.

There are many books and articles about how to develop rapport and trust, including David Maister’s “The Trusted Advisor”, first published in 2000. The article “Becoming a Trusted Advisor – the Ten Behaviours”, by Michael Fleming is a good short guide:

“Lawyers spend a lot of time constructing complex, technical, logical arguments to persuade their clients why they should engage them for particular work. I’m not saying that logic doesn’t have a role to play but too many professional advisors spend too much time polishing their logical arguments and not enough time thinking about how they might better connect emotionally with their clients. Trusted advisors understand that it’s vital that they try to make an emotional connection with their clients. The good ones do it by using stories, anecdotes, examples, analogies, imagery, visual aids, and even some light humour.”

Your personal brand, your ‘reputation’ in the local market, your online (digital) personal brand, and your behaviour in-person, all influence your success. Your firm’s brand also influences this success. A brand is an implied promise (to existing and prospective clients) that the level of quality people have come to expect from a brand will continue with future purchases of the same brand. Strong brand management can increase a firm’s perceived value to the client and thereby increase brand equity. This can increase future sales by making a comparison with competing firms more favourable. It can also enable the firm to charge more for the service.

There is evidence that a firm with a strong brand, i.e. a good reputation in the market, will attract higher yielding clients and can demand a higher fee for services provided. Some clients actively choose a firm based on their brand, for example a publicly listed company choosing a Big 4 accounting firm for a financial audit, as they perceive the need for a certain level of experience and resources. Other more cost-conscious clients may perceive these firms as too expensive, but they will have perceptions of other firms.

According to Lee Frederiksen from Hinge Marketing in his article “Brand Strength and the Halo Effect in Marketing”:

“The concept of a strong brand is something that we all understand on a very intuitive level. From our own experience, we know that firms with high brand strength do better in the marketplace, whether they need new clients, business partners or employees.

So what exactly is brand strength? While there is no universal definition, we describe the brand strength of a professional services firm as the combination of a firm’s reputation and its visibility. Firms that have better reputations coupled with higher visibility have stronger brands.”

Prospective clients are searching for answers online, so firms that have a solid content strategy, to help build a strong brand, will feel the benefits of more enquiries, but if the culture of the firm and the personal brand of its front line does not align with its external brand it won’t be growing at the speed it would like to.

If you are a senior member of your firm, a principal or senior staff member, you need to be developing your own personal brand, as well as supporting the development of your firm’s brand. You can no longer rely on reputation alone. To achieve positive personal branding and powerful firm branding you need to be strategic and proactive.

  1. Develop your personal brand by becoming a thought leader. Becoming a thought leader involves specialising in a sector of the market or providing a niche service, and developing content (articles, white papers, events, speeches, etc.) that demonstrates your expertise in this area.
  2. Develop your personal brand by developing your emotional intelligence. This includes how you build rapport with clients and prospective clients. Train everyone in the firm and arm them with the interpersonal skills to make better emotional connections.
  3. Develop the firm’s brand by actively working on your brand’s presence in the market. This can be done online with a sophisticated content strategy. Support your firm’s marketing team or engage an external marketing consultant to spend time developing and executing a strategic content plan to proactively position your firm.
  4. Develop the firm’s brand by ensuring that your external brand activities align with your internal culture and client service standards. It’s not enough to say that you help your clients achieve their business goals if your staff do not know how to do this and just revert to the comfort of compliance work.

In a post-GFC professional services environment, where clients are demanding more of everything, you can differentiate both yourself and your firm, but it needs to be done with intent and with discipline. You need to plan to develop your own personal brand, as well as your staff members’ personal brands, and your firm’s brand. Prospective clients are making decisions based on their perceptions of you and your firm, your personal brand and your firm’s brand, so you need to actively develop both.

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