If you are into comics, you will probably know that Wonder Woman and Superman belong to the DC Comics world and Spider-Man and Black Widow are from the Marvel Universe. If you’re really into comics, you might be fiercely loyal to one or the other. If you’re like me, you just know the super heroes. Weirdly, it’s similar in the professional services world. For clients that do need a brand name, for whatever reason, they might choose one of the Big 4 accounting firms, or one of the global law or engineering firms. The client will find a partner/director, and a team, they are confident will deliver the results they need. For them it matters if the super hero comes from one firm over another. For others, they are just looking for someone who will look after them and help them achieve their goals. They are looking for their own personal hero.
So, does the client buy the anticipated relationship with the practitioner, someone they need to trust and feel comfortable working with, to get the best results? Or, are they trusting in the perceived value of a firm’s name to provide the level of comfort that comes with the reputation of the brand?
I believe the answer is both. Different clients have different requirements, but even clients that are basing their decision on the individual will still have perceptions about the firm’s brand. 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 nonrecognition, 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 and it will also have a positive effect on 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 services they perceive as excellent value. Part of the value equation is trust and you need to develop rapport with a client to develop trust.
Your personal brand, your ‘reputation’ in the local market, your online (digital) brand, and your behaviour in-person, all influence your success. Your firm’s brand can also support 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. 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, e.g. a publicly listed company choosing a Big 4 accounting firm for a financial audit, as there is a need for a certain level of experience and resources. Other more cost-conscious clients may perceive these firms as too expensive. Your brand strategy will help you position your firm, wherever you wish to be positioned, in relation to the market.
According to Lee Frederiksen from Hinge Marketing in his article “Brand Strength and the Halo Effect in Marketing“:
“Your firm doesn’t need to be the best at everything. You just need to be the best at something and the Halo Effect will help pull the rest of your services forward. Similarly, you don’t need to be highly visible to everyone. But you do need to have a strong presence somewhere. From that starting point, your brand strength can grow.”
Prospective clients are increasingly searching for answers online, so firms that have a solid content strategy, building a strong presence in a niche market, with your firm’s leaders ‘front and centre’, will feel the benefits of more enquiries.
If you are a partner/director/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. To achieve positive personal branding and powerful firm branding you need to be strategic and proactive. Hinge calls it becoming a Visible Expert®.
Become 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, books, etc.) that demonstrates your expertise in this area.
Develop 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.
Develop the firm’s brand. Actively work on your brand presence in the market. This can be done online, with a sophisticated content strategy, and offline through traditional marketing activities. Support your firm’s marketing team, or engage an external marketing consultant, to spend time developing and executing a strategic marketing plan to proactively position your firm.
Ensure that your external brand aligns with your internal culture. Don’t make promises of service standards, if these are not supported internally. 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, and your staff members’ personal brands, as well as 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.