Manage the Pedigree Factor in Professional Services Marketing

MissP1Institutional pedigree always matters, regardless of the type of professional service you’re selling. But to leverage pedigree as a marketing asset, you first need to understand why it’s important to your target audience, and decide what type(s) of pedigree will have the greatest influence on them. The professional credentials your firm possesses (or creates) are a major consideration in determining which doors to knock on, and which doors to ignore.

Pedigree means different things to decision-makers. In the classic sense, personal pedigree can take into account where you were raised, schools you attended, club memberships, employment history, who you know, and even your race and ancestry. For better or worse, there are many companies that hire employees based largely or exclusively on those external credentials, in order to create a consistent (albeit often elitist) institutional persona.

Whether they’re selecting a lawyer, management consultant or hedge fund manager, there are decision-makers who will always require the classic resume-based pedigree. Conversely, there are plenty of “meritocracy” buyers of professional services who will eschew external credentials and base their selections on the quality of ideas, past performance or future potential.

These suggestions might help you hack your way through the pedigree jungle:

Understand the fear factor in selection of an outside advisor. The old adage, “No one was ever fired for hiring I.B.M.” still rings true. Known brands are safe choices. When an individual selects an outside advisor, career risk plays a significant role in their decision-making. Their personal nightmare is twofold: first, that their selection will fail to meet expectations by a wide margin; secondly, that their own organization will not agree with their reasons for selecting the outside advisor…even if they supported the decision.

Unfortunately for professional services providers lacking strong external credentials, the reluctance to select them is far more prevalent at larger institutions. This is simply because the downside risk of making mistakes is much greater at larger firms. Selection errors may be tolerated at smaller firms, but as a company’s bureaucracy grows, so do the consequences related to selection errors. At big firms, taking a chance on an unproven or unknown outside provider is considered career suicide.

Reduce decision-making risk for prospective clients. If your firm doesn’t possess a strong traditional pedigree, there are several ways you can reduce decision-making risk for prospective clients. The most effective tactics involve generating either direct or indirect 3rd party endorsements that support your firm’s credibility. Here are three examples:

  • Earned Media: Positive exposure in respected, bona fide media sources (Wall Street Journal, Forbes, etc.) is still one of the most powerful ways to build credibility. Most small firms can’t afford a sustained PR effort delivered by an outside agency, but with a modest investment of time, creativity and determination, a DIY initiative can yield media placements that will bolster market confidence.
  • Industry Platforms: Most conferences, seminars and other types of industry platforms are now “pay-to-play” arrangements that extract significant sponsorship fees in exchange for a spot on the agenda. But the inherent 3rd party marketing value of these events is directly related to the credibility of the sponsoring organization. So rather than investing heavily in these events, seek opportunities to participate actively – as an officer or committee member – in professional associations that are respected by your targeted decision-makers.
  • Branded Interviews: This powerful but little known tactic involves alignment of your (lesser known) brand with a 3rd party (an individual or company) that’s well known and highly regarded in your market segment. One simple way to benefit from this “halo effect” is to create a quarterly publication that features non-self-serving interviews with these opinion leaders, covering topics of interest to your decision makers. In addition to driving top-of-mind awareness each quarter, when archived on your website, these interviews will serve to validate your pedigree.

Take advantage of non-performing, highly credentialed competitors. Some highly credentialed firms will coast on their reputations, and are not as hungry or diligent as their competitors that rely on performance rather than pedigree. This market opportunity often involves mid-sized firms that have engaged high pedigree providers, in hopes of receiving first-class service, only to be disappointed by treatment as second (or third) class citizens.

Thanks to internet transparency, these “abused client” opportunities can be easy to identify if you look for them. A straightforward “Are you receiving what you’re paying for?” solicitation can resonate in the prospect’s corner office, and often initiate conversations that lead to engagements where your firm is viewed as a hero simply for providing a level of service that the client deserves.

Conduct a pedigree “sniff-test” before you knock on doors. Marketing success relies heavily on hunting for high potential targets, and not wasting time elsewhere. A prospective client’s own pedigree is a strong indicator of their selection preferences for outside providers. Here’s the sniff test: if a potential client employs people with very similar academic and professional backgrounds, and your firm’s credentials are not a match, then don’t waste your time where you’re unlikely to be considered. Instead, look for pedigree landscapes that are compatible with your firm’s credentials, or seek opportunities where your firm’s credentials will be considered a cut above the prospective client’s pedigree.

Mark Twain once wrote, “In Boston they ask…How much does he know? In New York…How much is he worth? In Philadelphia…Who were his parents?”  The most effective professional services marketers define precisely what’s most important to their targeted prospects, and showcase their pedigree accordingly.

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