The new world of professional services

Teamwork

The good old days are gone. Post the GFC, professional services clients now expect a very different service. Increasingly sophisticated clients expect professionals to be more responsive and have a better understanding of their business and the commercial pressures they face.

Service must now be truly client-centred and professionals need to be creative and empathetic. They must work with, not just for, their clients. They need to create solutions, not just present solutions. Innovation is about changing cultures within the organisation, engaging and collaborating with clients.

In Katherine Tower’s article “Culture Shock”, Paul Jenkins, Managing Partner of global law firm Ashurst, says:

   “It’s not about law firms choosing to innovate, it’s about being required to innovate by sophisticated clients. Clients now have the expectation that processes will be simplified, that we will make life easier for them and that they will be given greater accessibility.”

So why is it so difficult to innovate? The focus for many firms continues to be billable hours, with ‘today’ as the main focus. If ‘today’ is the dominant focus, what is the encouragement for professionals to innovate? While there is nothing wrong with making money today, what about building for the future?

Also, with most firms there is no alignment between innovation and compensation. You will never have innovation unless you allocate some time and reward to making it happen.

Often, the firm’s leadership does not see the value in innovation. The theory is, “Aren’t we successful now, so why do we have to change?” Leadership in the Big 4, global law firms and consulting firms see this issue differently and are constantly looking for ways to innovate. While they can spend more time and more resources than smaller firms, it does not mean that smaller firms can ignore this issue completely.

When it comes to the sales process, this is the new reality. According to the RAINGroup, in their “What Sales Winners Do Differently” research, there are three levels of selling behaviours and outcomes that set sales winners apart:

Level 1 is Connect. Winners connect the dots between client needs and their company’s services as solutions. Winners also connect with people. They’re perceived to listen and connect personally with buyers more often.

Level 2 is Convince. Winners convince buyers that they can achieve maximum return, that the risks are minimal, and that the seller is the best choice among all options. In other words, they are masters at making the value proposition case as compelling as possible, and communicate it effectively.

Level 3 is Collaborate. Winners collaborate through behavior – they are perceived to be responsive, proactive, and easy to buy from (collaborative in how they work). At the same time, it’s not just how the seller interacts; it’s what they do. Buyers believe that winners actually collaborate with them during their buying process (collaboration in the sense of working with the buyer to achieve a mutual goal), and that they educate buyers with new ideas and perspectives. Indeed, buyers perceived these sellers to be integral to their success.

It’s the third level, collaboration, that is now so critical to every step in the client journey, not just during the sales process. Client service should now be delivered as a collaboration between the professionals and the client. Solutions are developed and delivered by collaborating with the client. This means the professional must thoroughly understand the client’s industry and business. There are now far more professionals specialising in specific industries or categories of clients to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

Professionals have known for some time that the best profit is not in the compliance services, but the broader advisory and consultative services, adding value by building and enabling. Firms do not want to become commoditised. To be able to charge premium fees, and grow the firm, it is vital that professional services firms master consulting and collaborating skills. In order to be truly innovative, firms need to enable and engage their people and the primary focus must be on genuinely engaging and collaborating with clients.

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.

Thought Leadership Versus Content – What is the Difference?

These days the terms ‘thought leadership’ and ‘content’ are used almost interchangeably. What is the difference? Marketers of professional services (traditionally legal, accounting and engineering services) have been using ‘thought leadership’ as a strategic profiling, brand building device for decades. These days, as we market professional services firms, B2B, and B2C companies, we talk about both thought leadership and content marketing. I’m not sure people really know what they both are and how they should be used.

Thought leadership is exactly that, leading edge thought. Thought leadership is the goal; the goal is to be seen as a ‘thought leader’. It is actually the goal of a particular type of content. Thought leadership content is material containing original thoughts, opinions and in-depth analysis, which hypothesises and proposes new concepts and ideas. True thought leadership will take a long-term view on topics and issues. It’s about building reputation and authority over time and across multiple digital, social and offline channels. It enables your organisation’s subject matter experts to act as trusted advisers who offer helpful, responsive, generous and useful advice. Over time, this type of content will establish the firm’s experts as true thought leaders. If you are the subject matter expert, you will participate in online and offline conversations, and steadily build your credibility through affinity, authenticity and trust. This adds value to your personal brand and ultimately the brand of the firm.

Content, on the other hand, has multiple purposes. It is the material you or your company produces, in whatever format you choose, i.e. written content, videos, infographics, memes, newsletters, podcasts etc. It specifically refers to online, digital material, although some marketers are starting to refer to offline printed material as content now too. It is not meant to explicitly promote a brand, but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services.

The Content Marketing Institute, an online resource for information on all things content marketing related, defines content marketing as: “Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

The key word is “valuable”, otherwise the definition could be describing almost any form of advertising or marketing. If people seek out a piece of content, if people want to consume it, rather than avoiding it, it’s the sort of content that could be part of a content marketing campaign.

There are numerous different formats of digital content. See Tami Briesies’ “101 Different Types of Digital Content”.

The relationship between the two

Content marketing is about building the brand, driving client/customer action, and ultimately driving sales, by engaging the target audience. Thought leadership is achieved by using particular types of content in a new and unique way, to build profile and positioning. Thought leadership content would generally be content such as white papers, reports, articles, videos etc. For example, a white paper or report might analyse the results of industry research and you might even choose to charge a fee for this content. The thought leadership content establishes the author, and the brand, as a thought leader.

Back in 2013, Laura Ramos, of Forrester, illustrated the relationship like this:

Some excellent examples of B2B thought leadership can be found in the article “11 B2B Brands Putting Out Real Thought Leadership Content” by Robert McGuire.

How do you use them both?

For quality content, the idea is to produce a consistent volume of engaging content, making sure it is:

  • Findable
  • Readable
  • Understandable
  • Actionable
  • Shareable

This checklist from Ahava Leibtag “Creating Valuable Content: An Essential Checklist” is a great place to start.

Content should be used to engage with potential clients/customers and drive interested prospective clients/customers (leads) to your website to ultimately take action, by signing up for more content or to be contacted by you directly.

Thought leadership content should be used to build your profile as an expert in your area of expertise. Thought leadership ultimately helps you position yourself and your service as significantly valuable to potential clients. Prospective clients will seek you out and it will allow you to realise your optimum value.

The key is to develop a targeted, structured, and informed content strategy, including thought leadership content, to increase brand engagement and ultimately increase sales leads.

What is digital marketing in professional services?

Everyone’s talking about digital marketing. Turning data and online activity into sales. Driving traffic to a website to sell a product or service. What does this mean for professional services? Is it worth spending valuable time and money on developing digital marketing capabilities? In traditional accounting, legal and engineering firms can we really turn our online activities into actual leads? The short answer is yes. It might seem illusive in the professional services world, but it can be done.

There is definitely incentive to do it. Hinge Marketing’s research shows that “firms that generate 40% or more of their leads online grow 4 times faster.” Marketing online is cheaper and can be more targeted.

In professional services, the digital marketing strategy is all about content marketing. Actually, we already do content marketing, we just call it thought leadership. We have the content; we just need to optimize it to drive traffic to the website. We need to use, and test, the best keywords for search engines like Google to find our content. There are various tools available to create and test content for Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Then, once visitors are on the site, we need to meet them where they are in the buying cycle and provide more relevant content to engage them and move them further down the sales funnel.

A few things to consider when developing your digital marketing strategy:

  1. First, you need systems in place to record the online activity. The idea is to track and measure as much information as possible. You want to be recording website traffic and trends, through website analytics, as well as the interaction, activity and identifying information for every individual user who interacts with your website. There are various systems that will do this. Once you’re capturing user details, although they may be anonymous at the start, you can then work towards capturing their contact details, so you can either market further to them, or contact them directly, depending where they are in the buying cycle.
  2. You need to have a plan, which includes a content management plan, to identify the areas of service you want to be known for and found online for. These would normally correspond to your practice development areas, already identified in your overall marketing plan. You would normally have key spokespeople or ‘visible experts’ or ‘thought leaders’. These are the people generally writing or initiating the content. Your optimized keywords will be identified through this plan. Then, from the plan, you can work out which channels are going to be the most useful, including social media platforms, organic search, paid search, and other websites for referrals etc.
  3. Once you have a process in place to ‘amplify’ your content through the relevant channels, you can then start to measure the traffic being driven back to the website. Depending on activity by users, the website can deliver personalized content and send the user to particular pages and content on your website. At this point, you’ll want to capture personal information, by providing a form for the user to fill in before they can download the content. You can also provide forms for users to fill in to receive more information about your services or request someone to contact them. You can then ‘score’ your leads and decide what marketing you would like to deliver to them. If you have a marketing automation system you can begin to send relevant emails to them. Google re-marketing is also an option.

It’s important to map the visitor journey and be concise and measured about the content a visitor receives. Based on their activity on the site, you can start to map where they are in the buying cycle. In professional services, our lead times can be quite long – sometimes months or even years – so it’s crucial to nurture the lead along the way. The visitor might not be ready to talk to anyone yet, but might be happy to receive thought leadership, if it’s relevant and useful.

You can, and should, turn your social media and other online activities into real and valuable leads. There is really no point spending time and effort on social media if you’re not using it to drive traffic to your website and capturing actionable leads. Online brand building is only worthwhile if you can turn the brand engagement into billable client engagements.