WHITEBOOT’s target market is high-touch professional services firms, but what is a “high-touch” professional service?
That’s a good question. To distinguish a high-touch professional service, here are two similar, yet different client needs:
- You own a single restaurant and you need someone to do your annual business tax filings. So you need a tax accountant.
- You own a chain of 50 restaurants, and the IRS has sent a letter stating that it intends to charge your company for failure to properly do tax withholdings for tips across all your restaurants. So you need a tax accountant.
In both cases the restaurant owner needs a tax accountant, but of course, it’s not the same thing. In the latter situation, the client needs someone who brings specialized advice, has encountered this specific situation before and can work closely with the client’s team to evaluate the situation and alternatives. More importantly, the 50-store chain owner will be more personally interested in the choice of tax accountant than the single-restaurant owner will.
What Makes a High-Touch Professional Service?
A high-touch professional service has most or all of the following characteristics:
- A highly-customized service based on the client’s unique situation
- The firm’s professionals bring a broad set of specialized skills required to execute the project. In other words, these professionals are not just good at one thing; they are good at a number of things that are exactly what the client needs. For instance, a healthcare-focused forensic senior accounting partner has a number of skills, but she is not the right person for most accounting projects. However, her set of skills is exactly right for small set of specific projects
- Engagement sizes worth a minimum of $250,000 (and quite often, much more than that)
- A predominately large-company client base (because these are the companies that can afford such projects)
- Senior professionals at the firm who have the credibility to interface regularly with the client’s C-level executives and / or boards of directors
- Public-facing embarrassment for the senior executive team if the hired firm executes the project poorly
- Being almost impossible for the client to switch advisors mid-process
- Price not being a critical factor in the client’s selection of a vendor (this characteristic is particularly important in differentiating high-touch services from big ticket, but not high-touch services)
What are some of types of projects which require these types of services?
- A company’s initial public offering
- A review of a company’s strategic alternatives
- An audit of a large publicly traded company
- A liability lawsuit against a company
- A re-launch of a major consumer brand
To put it simply, high-touch professional services practices work on projects that need to be executed flawlessly, because failure could cost the client many millions of dollars or more than the actual engagement.
High-Touch Relationship Managers Have Traditionally Worried about Marketing, But Why?
In most companies, sales people recognize the value of marketing, because marketing provides sales opportunities. Even in professional services firms providing more broadly-needed services, practitioners are pretty interested in any effort which provides new leads.
In high-touch professional services firms, however, many practitioners are wary of marketing efforts. Before launching any marketing effort, it is important to recognize the foundations of this wariness:
- Practitioners are control freaks when it comes to managing their client relationship. The advisor-client relationship is usually complex and has a long history. When an outside voice sends messages without the context of the relationship history, it can disrupt the relationship, and one inappropriate communication could potentially spoil years of client development work.
- Practitioners want to avoid “mass-market” feeling communications for their closest relationships. While relationship managers can generally agree to sending marketing communications to lower-priority clients and prospects, there is a view among some practitioners that marketing communications could taint the intimacy of particularly close relationships.
- Relationship managers want to avoid sending irrelevant emails to clients. A lot of marketing content which professional services firms send out goes to broad lists of clients without any targeting. Relationship managers want to avoid having clients develop a habit of ignoring email from their firms.
Some of these fears are more valid than others, but the key takeaway is that relationship managers at “high-touch” professional firms want marketers to recognize these concerns in coming up with potential marketing programs. Fortunately, content marketing best practices address many of these concerns.
The next post on the WHITEBOOT blog will dive deeper into the reasons why traditional marketing practices have not been effective in high-touch professional services firms and what a framework for a successful high-touch marketing program would look like.