Most high-touch professional services practitioners have a gut feeling that traditional marketing has no benefit to their practice.
Yet few practitioners have actually examined why that is.
It is true that marketing done the old-fashioned way does not provide a lot of benefit to high-touch professional services providers. Traditional marketing focuses on the wrong goals and uses the wrong marketing tools for the high-touch professional services client base.
What’s needed then is a new marketing approach that addresses the challenges firms and their people face in building their practices.
But before coming up with solutions, it’s necessary to diagnose the problem. Here are four reasons why marketing high-touch professional services is different from traditional marketing.
1. Most High-Touch Practitioners Do Not Need Lead Generation
Most companies outside high-touch professional services have thousands of potential customers. The job of marketing at these businesses is to go out to the world and identify potential buyers for the sales team to convert.
This dynamic generally isn’t true for high-touch professional services practices for a couple of reasons:
- First, high-touch professionals are generally looking for relationships that generate at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in billings per year – not many companies can provide that revenue potential.
- Second, high-touch professionals are usually very specialized in their field, which is a big reason why they can charge lots of money. For instance, there are lots of lawyers, and there are lots of patent lawyers, but there are only a few patent lawyers who specialize in semiconductor intellectual property litigation. And there are perhaps only a few dozen semiconductor companies that can generate substantial fees for this type of practice.
Consequently, for many “high-touch” practices, their universe of potential clients is fairly well-known, and the best professionals have existing relationships with the key decision makers at most potential client companies. “Getting new leads,” a very traditional marketing goal, is not necessarily the high-touch practitioner’s key marketing challenge.
2. It Takes Years of Relationship Building to Win an Engagement
Traditional marketing uses metrics like time-to-close and customer acquisition cost.
However, for these metrics to be useful, the measuring period has to be in months.
In most high-touch practices, it takes years to build a relationship sufficiently to be in a position to win potential business at a client:
- First, a practitioner has to break into the group of advisors who already have working relationships with the client’s C-level decision makers, which is not an easy task.
- Then a practitioner has to compete against these firms and demonstrate they can provide meaningfully better service.
- Hopefully, that will provide an opportunity to get a piece of business from which the practitioner can expand the fee potential going forward.
Practitioners do really think about multi-year investments when deciding where to prioritize their client development efforts. This years-long relationship-building process frustrates marketers because it is very hard to calculate a multi-year return on investment.
3. In Many Cases, Firm-Centric Marketing Does Not Win Business
Whether it is a top-tier investment bank, consulting firm, law firm or accounting firm, it is very hard for a client to differentiate the foremost professional services firms’ capabilities. All the leading firms appear to have broad expertise and smart, engaged staff. Think about it: is there really a difference between the brand value of Ernst & Young and that of PwC? Do you really understand the differences among the top corporate law firms based on their brands?
If it is hard for even top firms in their industry to derive competitively differentiating value from firm brands, it is doubly challenging in the mid-market.
Most firms should instead market practices’ and individual practitioners’ capabilities. Doing so addresses the real questions that clients ask in selecting an advisor: does a practitioner have great personal charisma and industry recognition, and does a practice demonstrate the most experience and expertise in executing the proposed engagement?
There are a few implications from this:
- Firm-centric marketing is likely to have lower returns on investment, while marketing practices and personal brands are likely to provide higher returns.
- Marketing cannot be its own independent operation. Instead, marketing has to work hand-in-hand with practitioners, who have to be completely bought in on any marketing effort.
- While marketing can provide behind-the-scenes support on creating and executing marketing campaigns, the face of the campaign must be the practice or practitioner, and practitioners need to provide meaningful ongoing support of the marketing activities.
4. The “Impersonal Marketing” Problem
Finally, there is a fear among relationship managers that any broad marketing program is ineffective because it is impersonal and because the messaging and style of the communications may disrupt the client-advisor relationship.
In addressing this fear, it is helpful to segment the client base in two: priority relationships and non-priority relationships.
First: non-priority relationships. These are relationships that the practice leader wants to nurture because they may be a source of future opportunities, but they are unlikely to yield near-term engagements. It is very hard for a practice leader to make an argument that sending marketing communications to these clients would disrupt the relationship, since there is unlikely to be a significant amount of existing intimacy within the relationship. In fact, marketing to this portion of the client base can have very high value because it continues to educate the client about the firm’s and practitioners’ capabilities.
Even with priority relationships, marketing has value if done well. The problem with most professional services marketing programs is that they provide content that the client does not want to read. If instead you send content that clients do want to read, are you really doing a disservice to your relationship? Of course not. In fact, such content is likely to further strengthen priority relationships.
So What Would an Effective Marketing Program for High-Touch Professional Services Look Like?
A new set of marketing principles is emerging that addresses the unique needs of high-touch professional services firms. These emerging principles include:
- The objective of most high-touch professional services marketing programs should be on strengthening existing relationships, not generating new leads.
- A content marketing program, incorporating consistent, valuable content, can complement existing client development efforts to strengthen relationships more quickly.
- A content strategy should focus on providing insights that the client audience wants to read.
- Marketing should be prioritized towards promoting specific practices and individual practitioners, not overall firms. However, doing this effectively requires complete buy-in on a marketing program from practice leaders and firm leadership.
- New marketing metrics, focused on measuring relationship strength and year-over-year relationship progression, are needed to demonstrate the true return on investment of professional services marketing programs.
- A comprehensive marketing program should incorporate a personalized outreach process that is more intimate than traditional marketing programs.
- For the marketing function to truly succeed at high-touch firms, it will need to become viewed as an essential resource in helping the practitioner decide where to prioritize precious client development time.
Some version of these principles can be the basis of most high-touch professional services firms’ marketing programs. They address the common complaints professionals have about traditional marketing programs and provide a roadmap for how to implement and evolve programs over time. Particularly at larger firms, discussing these principles before diving into strategy and implementation can help achieve buy-in and support for marketing programs, which will likely increase the effectiveness of the programs.