Tag Archives: professional services marketing

The Power of Unsolicited Pitch Letters

bigstockphoto_youth_pitcher_and_baseball_1941527-s600x600Over the past 20 years, most of my firm’s new business has been generated by unsolicited pitch letters sent to targeted prospects. These brief, tailored messages – sent either by email or snail mail – have not only enabled us to maintain a consistent pipeline of clients; but more importantly, we’ve built a practice consisting of high-value companies and people that we wanted to work for. And we’ve never resorted to advertising, sponsorships or other expensive, low-yielding tactics to promote our brand or services.

The simple truth is that properly researched, well-crafted pitch letters are probably the most effective way for any type of professional services firm to build its client base and grow revenue. Unsolicited pitch letters, when they succeed, can also be an extremely effective way for your firm to avoid the RFP process…by anticipating their needs, you enable the targeted company to skip the beauty contest altogether.

Here are 5 of the many lessons that we’ve learned about how to use this powerful marketing tactic properly:

The Secret Sauce is NOT the Pitch Letter. For every pitch letter we send out, my firm invests at least an hour or two researching the target company. We review all of the target’ s public facing information to understand its value proposition, competitive landscape, leadership, reputation, marketing & sales sophistication and apparent resources. Our research goal is to identify either a specific problem or an opportunity where think we can add value. Lacking this insight, you have no tangible basis for an effective pitch letter.

Your Pitch Letter Must be About Them, Not You. Your targeted decision-makers receive scores of pitch letters and phone solicitations from your competitors. Nearly all of those firms will mistakenly talk about themselves, and what they’ve done for their clients. But the only thing that’s of interest to prospects is what you can do for them. So you need to first let prospects know that you understand their problem / opportunity (because you’ve done proper research), and then offer to share your ideas on that topic. (Yes…you’ll need to have some ideas to offer.)

Grabbing Their Attention is Goal #1. Using email, your pitch letter will not be read unless you incent the target to open it. This is no easy task, given the volume of email most decision-makers receive every day. Your subject line should be serious, rather than cute or clever, and should generate some curiosity. Also try to mention the name of the target company in your subject line, so that it’s not discounted as a canned letter or mass mailing. You should also consider mailing a hard copy pitch letter, in addition to, or in lieu of an email pitch. These days, a hard copy letter is more likely to be noticed than an email.

Stop Selling and Start Listening. The only goal of your pitch letter is to start a conversation, ideally face-to-face. This is your opportunity to discuss the target’s issues and your ideas. Sometimes you’ll miss the mark, sometimes you will nail it, and sometimes they’ll have a need or problem that’s unrelated to the one you’ve identified. If you ask smart questions, take notes, and focus on understanding their business and personal circumstances (instead of seeking to walk out with a signed contract), you’ll establish the foundation for a relationship that might lead to revenue at some point.

View Selling as a Numbers Game. Timing is every in life, including business development. You can research a great target, identify their problem or opportunity, and be in a position to add value, but for 100 different reasons (unrelated to you or your pitch), the prospect is not willing, able or ready to engage you. So the only way you can address the random nature of sales is to increase the number of doors that you knock on. If you’re serious about leveraging the power of pitch letters, you’ll need to send them out on a consistent, disciplined basis. Think of your program simply as a long-term seed-sewing process, and shoot to send out 3-5 pitch letters every week. Over time, you’ll see tangible results.

There are many more tactical aspects involved in the art of pitch letters – what content to include and avoid, which individual to solicit, what attachments to include, how to monitor and follow-up, etc. – to cover in a single blog post. But simply getting started, and establishing a pitch letter routine are the two most critical steps.

What’s presented here, combined with overcoming a fear of failure, is all you’ll need to get started on the path to building your business through pitch letters. Happy hunting.

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7 Signs that You’re NOT a Thought Leader

wise-man-guru-mountain-top-photo

Thought Leadership is perhaps the most widely used and consistently abused strategy in professional services marketing. There’s diverse opinion regarding what it is, and fuzzy expectations with respect to its benefits.

Our simple definition is that Thought Leadership is a content marketing strategy designed to leverage intellectual capital as a means to engage target audiences. The practical benefits of Thought Leadership are delivered through the power of “intrinsic selling.”

Without getting overly theoretical, here’s what we mean by that:

“Extrinsic selling” occurs when a seller’s credibility relies heavily on work they’ve performed for other customers. This requires the prospective customer to make a leap of faith; to believe the service provider can match or exceed what’s been done for others. It’s a “trust me” sales approach.

Conversely, intrinsic selling does not require a prospective client to base their selection on work done for others. Instead, it engages the prospective client based on ideas, opinions and advice that enables them to make their own objective decision regarding the seller’s potential to add value. Because no leap of faith is required, it’s a more powerful sales methodology.

The intellectual capital embodied within Thought Leadership is what provides you with credibility, and gives potential buyers the confidence to do business with you. It also serves as a sophisticated sales hook designed to grab their attention.

It’s easier to understand what Thought Leadership is by examining the behaviors that are contrary to its fundamental principles.

So here are 7 signs that you’re not cut out to be a Thought Leader:

  1. You call yourself a Thought Leader. Worse yet, you call yourself a “visionary.” Thought Leadership is not a mantle that can be claimed. It’s a market perception that’s earned over time, and an unofficial stature that’s assigned to you by others.
  2. Your editorial content is self-serving. If you’re unwilling to provide insights, information and recommendations without making yourself the hero, or without directly plugging your firm’s products / services, then you’re not really practicing Thought Leadership.
  3. You lack original or interesting ideas. Repurposing “archived” content (a/k/a other people’s thinking), or providing summaries or news reports of information that’s available elsewhere, will likely position you as an industry parrot, rather than a Thought Leader.
  4. You’re not a true student of your craft. Bona fide Thought Leaders are constantly focused on the current state and future direction of their professional discipline. They appreciate that a rising tide floats all boats, and unselfishly share what they know and think.
  5. You think Thought Leadership has a goal line. If you’re looking for instant gratification, and don’t completely believe, at the outset, in the long-term value of Thought Leadership as an ongoing marketing strategy, then simply scratch it off your to-do list.
  6. You refuse to share the spotlight. The most effective Thought Leaders seek to manage, rather than control, the conversation. Rather than pushing their own viewpoint, they define and promote topics and identify people worth paying attention to.
  7. You’re unwilling to work hard. Consistency is the most significant hurdle in the quest for Thought Leadership. To establish a level of top-of-mind awareness required for your target audiences to form and sustain a positive opinion, you need to generate relevant content on a quarterly basis. And that requires personal (or enterprise) discipline.

Just to be clear…the most effective Thought Leaders are not in the game for altruistic reasons. They expect a tangible return on their investment, in terms of market engagement.

Toward that end, a Thought Leadership strategy must ensure that your intellectual capital – whether it’s initially presented in a public platform (such as a seminar), through earned media (publicity), or owned media (social) channels – is also delivered directly to all relevant target audiences in a manner that’s not self-serving, and that fosters two-way conversations.

For example, rather than publicly touting that you’ve been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, you should leverage that media exposure in a more nuanced, sophisticated manner. You can expand on the underlying topic in a direct communication to clients, prospects and referral sources, soliciting their thoughts, and referencing the Wall Street Journal article (rather than your specific quote in it) as a catalyst for the discussion.

This long-winded perspective is not intended to dissuade you from seeking Thought Leadership status. To get started, you should identify a relevant, respected Thought Leader, study how they’ve earned that status, and then simply jump into the pool. Once you’re comfortable in the water, there will be ongoing opportunities to tailor an effective Thought Leadership strategy.

In true Thought Leadership fashion, please share your opinions, experiences and frustrations involving this battle-worn marketing strategy.

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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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What Type of Marketing Cry-Baby are You?

conflict-resolutionWhen a client complained to me recently about the difficulty of competing against larger companies, I had a flashback to when my kids were in grade school. Often, when they complained a whiny manner (with or without tears), I’d start singing one particular verse of the well-known kids’ song, “The Wheels on the Bus.”

As my kids started to whine, I would sing:

“The babies on the bus go wah, wah, wah

Wah, wah, wah…wah, wah, wah

The babies on the bus go wah, wah, wah

All through the town.”

As my kids whined louder, I would sing louder. And they would eventually storm away, totally frustrated. Over time, my kids got the message that I had zero tolerance for Cry-Babies. Eventually, I would only have to sing an extended warm-up note of the song (“The…..”), before they would stop whining and walk away.

As an abusive but somewhat responsible parent, I usually tried to have an “adult conversation” with the offending Cry-Baby to resolve the underlying problem, but only after the whining had stopped.

Over the course of my business career, I’ve run into several grown-up “Marketing Cry-Babies.” Whenever they start to whine about marketing-related challenges, I’m always tempted to begin singing the “babies on the bus” verse, but career risk and loss of client revenue serves to made me think twice.

Here are the 3 most common types of behavior exhibited by Marketing Cry-Babies. See if you fit into any one (or all) of these categories:

The “I want it NOW!” Cry-Baby: This marketer demands instant gratification. To him, marketing is a casino, complete with slot machines, craps tables and roulette wheels. With money to spend, he jumps from game to game – feeding the slots, placing chips on spaces – hoping to hit the jackpot. He doesn’t remain very long at any game, and believes that if he plays them all, he’s entitled to win something. When he runs out of money or grows tired of not winning big, this Cry-Baby will leave the casino angry or disappointed that his marketing “investment” has failed to pay off.

“I want it NOW!” Cry-Babies don’t understand that long-term strategy and tactical consistency are the most critical aspects of marketing success. My adult conversation with them goes like this: None of the “games” in the marketing toolkit – publicity, advertising, social media, videos, conferences, newsletters, blogging, direct mail, etc. – either individually or collectively will ever deliver an immediate jackpot. To be a consistent winner in the marketing casino, you need to really understand the risks and potential rewards of all the games; only play those games with odds that are in your favor; commit to playing those games long enough to win; and be willing to change how you’re playing the game – rather than walking away – if you are not winning.

The “It’s All About ME.” Cry-Baby: This marketer believes clients and prospects have a genuine interest in her company’s ideas, experience, success, etc. So the firm’s public-facing materials and “thought leadership” are promotional and self-serving. White papers and editorial content are poorly disguised sales pitches, and offer no helpful information or insights. Lots of time is devoted to winning industry recognition; far less time is invested in managing the customer experience or supporting the sales force.  This Cry-Baby can’t understand why all her marketing activity doesn’t improve revenue or client retention.

“It’s All about ME.” Cry-Babies don’t appreciate that clients and prospects aremost interested in how you can help with their particular problem or opportunity. My brief adult conversation with them goes like this: Clients and prospects don’t really give a hoot about your white papers, industry awards or client list. You need to learn what they need, how they think, and why they’re frustrated or optimistic. That effort demands two-way conversations, and direct market engagement. Based on those insights (which can change with great frequency) you’ll need to (re)direct all of your marketing efforts to resonate in their world, and not yours.

The “That’s Just Not Fair!” Cry-Baby: This marketer is convinced that the cards are stacked against him. There’s never enough money in the budget. The competition can’t be beaten.  Management doesn’t understand marketplace dynamics. Sales reps don’t know how to convert their leads. This Cry-Baby always has a reason for marketing’s lack of success, and lots of excuses not to try harder (or at all.)

“That’s Just Not Fair!” Cry-Babies are either afraid to fail, or afraid to succeed. Either way, they are hard-wired to whine, and often not worth having an adult conversation with. But here goes anyway: Having money to throw at marketing does not ensure success. Larger competitors can have greater bureaucracy that slows marketing momentum, and too many chefs in the marketing kitchen that dilute strategies and tactics. Big firms can get complacent, and be afraid to try new solutions. Regardless of budget or existing brand recognition, smaller firms can always gain competitive advantage through creativity, tenacity and a burning desire to steal the lunch from competitors, regardless of their size or reputation. Being the underdog can be a marketing asset; but you need to give people some good reasons to root for you.

There is some recourse, however, for all types of Marketing Cry-Babies who insist on whining. They simply need to spend more time on the golf course, where that behavior is always appropriate, and where you’re encouraged to attach a “crying towel” to your bag. Fore!

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Facing the #1 B2B Deal-Killer: “Do You Have Any Clients Just Like Me?”

In new business development efforts, B2B firms of all types are often challenged by prospective clients with this question: “Do you have any experience working for companies in my industry?”

Very often, the answer to that question can be a deal-killer for B2B firms without an appropriate client list or some other means to demonstrate industry-specific credentials.

Lacking the proper “just like me” credentials, some firms will argue that the skills and experience they currently possess can be applied across all types of industries. And although this may be true, that response typically fails to convince the prospect, and can even backfire. Because most companies believe their situation and the challenges they face are unique, suggesting otherwise usually will end the sales process.

Short of a firm merger or hiring an individual with the experience in a targeted industry, there are a few ways that professional services firms can gain business outside of the constraints of their current industry credentials. For example:

  • Recast Your Value Proposition: Take an inventory of your firm’s experience and capabilities, and identify those elements that are likely to address the current needs and opportunities of the industry you’re seeking to break into. By re-casting your public facing materials, or creating new marketing collateral and thought leadership that’s focused on your target industry, you can establish a baseline level of credibility that serves to offset the lack of actual client work in that field.
  • Seek Expertise in Individuals: Your firm may not possess the desired industry credentials, but some of your employees might. Ask all of your associates if their professional experience includes work either for or with companies in a targeted industry, and “borrow” those credentials, with their permission. Prospects often don’t care where your firm has gained the requisite industry knowledge, as long as they are confident that it exists.
  • Engage Freelance Talent: There are plenty of freelance practitioners with deep credentials in your target industry who are willing to lend their credibility and expertise to help make a sale, if they stand to benefit from the transaction. This is also a way to test the business potential of a new industry vertical without hiring an employee.
  • Earn Your Credentials: If you’re serious about breaking into a new industry, you’ll need to become a student of what makes it tick: the economics, the core issues, the competitive landscape, and how it is currently being serviced by your peers. This means following trade journals; reading relevant books and academic research; attending leading conferences and trade shows; studying the opinions of its thought leaders; talking to people who are considered “experts” in that field; and contributing comments and questions in relevant online / offline industry platforms. Chances are that this work will eventually generate insights, discussions and relationships that foster tangible business engagements in that industry.

What’s important to remember is that, regardless of the target industry, your credentials are only one part of the sales process. Once you overcome the “clients just like me” hurdle, the prospect will be more interested in how you intend to address their specific problem or opportunity. And that’s where you should work to direct the conversation.

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Bare Essentials: Marketing as a Necessary Evil

Business owners across all industries and professions start companies because they have a specific expertise or interest – whether it involves trading currency futures or replacing car mufflers – and eventually discover that selling their product or service is neither in their wheelhouse, nor something they enjoy doing.

To make matters worse, business owners often engage ad agencies, PR firms and outside (and internal) marketing “experts” who are always ready to prescribe a long list of tactical solutions (white papers, blogs, newsletters, publicity, social media, direct mail, conferences, advertising, etc.)…all of which may be more likely to generate distractions and invoices than new accounts or revenue growth.

As a result, business owners are often left confused, disappointed and angry over the lack of return on their marketing investment. Or they’ve heard all the horror stories and avoid marketing altogether, hoping their “connections” will drive new business.

Because marketing is viewed by many business owners as a necessary evil, a common question they ask is, “What are the bare essentials that I absolutely need to grow my business?”

Here’s a very short list marketing essentials for B2B and professional services firms:

 1. A Website that’s Worth Reading: Your website must provide visitors with a clear understanding of who you are, what you do, how you do it, why you are doing it, and who would benefit most from what you do. Your website should also:

  • Use plainspoken, simple language
  • Not ramble on, or seek to dazzle readers with your brilliance
  • Be written by a professional copywriter; not by you or by your attorney
  • Contain graphic elements that support your firm’s brand (avoid cheesy stock photos)
  • Feature a limited number of sections / pages, and be easy to navigate
  • Take advantage of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics
  • Avoid being overly self-promotional
  • Present your professionals as individuals who are real and approachable
  • Use first-class, consistent photography for people’s portraits
  • Consider using a brief video (under 2 minutes) of your key people, and / or an animated video that explains your business
  • Include contact information; not a generic response form
  • Not require a user name and password to gain access to white papers or other content that showcases your firm’s intellectual capital

Even though your website will be “brochure ware” with little or no functionality, it’s important that it be properly wired into Google Analytics or clicky.com, so that you know who is visiting your site, where that traffic is coming from, what information they are looking at, and how long they are staying. If you don’t monitor website traffic on a regular basis, then you are missing opportunities to follow-up on potential interest, and to make ongoing improvements to your website and marketing strategy.

2. A Device that Helps People Remember You:  The key marketing goal for most service-related businesses is top-of-mind awareness, which means getting people to remember you, and to reach out to you when they’re ready to buy whatever you’re selling. Because you can never know when your target audiences (current and prospective clients, intermediaries, referral sources, etc.) will be ready to make decisions, your firm must create an internal discipline and content to remind them of:

  • Your existence
  • Your intellectual capital
  • Your credibility
  • Your potential to help them

To achieve top-of-mind awareness, you’ll need to establish and maintain scheduled, direct communication with your target audiences, either by email or snail mail. The two necessary component are an up-to-date database (or CRM system), and interesting, relevant content to send to them on a quarterly basis. For many firms, the database creation is relatively easy; but content development can be extremely difficult because it takes time and planning.

Here are some ways to make this process simpler and more effective:

  • Create a repeatable format, such as an interview series, a partner letter, or hypothetical (or real) case studies.
  • Your content should not be lengthy, and should accommodate surface readers through headlines, subheads, sidebars, an intro or summary.
  • Avoid canned newsletter formats and do not promote firm-specific news. No one really cares about your firm’s recent mud run or fundraiser.
  • Address topics and issues that demonstrate the firm’s thought leadership, but don’t present it in an overly academic, ponderous style. Make it readable, and skip the complex charts.
  • Add all the content you generate to a “Thought Leadership” section of your website, so that it gains broader exposure and longer shelf-life.

Remember that your marketing strategy here is consistent contact with decision-makers. So unless you commit to communicate on a regular basis, don’t start a market outreach program. If quarterly is too onerous, then semi-annually is better than nothing. Just keep in mind that there is usually an opportunity loss associated with infrequent contact. And if all this sounds like too much work, then skip to Item #3 below.

3. A LinkedIn Profile that Mirrors Your Website: LinkedIn has become an important market research and due diligence tool for all industries. To leverage this online exposure, and because LinkedIn can drive traffic to your website, your company’s LinkedIn profile should have the same look and feel as your website. This graphic and content consistency suggests to outside audiences that your firm has its act together, strategically and operationally. Here are some other ways to benefit from LinkedIn:

  • Make sure that the individual profiles of all your staff members are a reflection of your firm’s professionalism. Although this effort can be like herding cats, at the very least ensure that your firm is described accurately and consistently in all their LinkedIn profiles.
  • Ensure that all of your staff profiles include photographs. Better yet, bring in a professional photographer and provide all staff members with high quality photos for their LinkedIn profiles.
  • Post all of the Thought Leadership content (described in Step 2) onto your firm’s LinkedIn profile as it’s published, to gain additional exposure.
  • Work at building your LinkedIn connections, which should also be added to your database of target audiences that you reach out to on a regular basis.

If you’re looking to do only ONE “bare marketing essential” from this short list, focus on building a world- class website. Your website still serves as the mother ship of your brand, it’s the one place that all prospective clients will visit, and it can kill interest quickly if it’s not professional-looking and distinctive. And if that’s too much of a marketing burden, then you might consider another profession…perhaps as an astronaut or a rodeo clown.

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Marketing Failure at Professional Services Firms: Who’s to Blame?

imagesKRCJCX00The Hinge Research Institute – a division of one of the nation’s smartest B2B marketing consultancies – recently published the results of its survey of 530 professional services firms representing accounting and finance; technology; marketing and communications; architecture; engineering and construction; legal; and management consulting disciplines.

In its report, 2015 Professional Services Marketing Priorities, Hinge examined current business challenges and approaches to implementing marketing initiatives at small and medium-sized firms, with annual revenues ranging from less than $5 million to more than $100 million. Owners, partners and principals represented 60% of survey respondents, marketing professionals represented 23%, and the balance were operational or senior level decision-makers at those firms.

Although this was not the intention of this study, or the expressed conclusions of Hinge, the research findings provide insight into why marketing fails to deliver a reasonable return at most professional services firms.

Failure to Connect the Dots

In the Hinge research, here’s how small and medium sized professional services firms ranked their current business challenges:

  • No surprises here. “Attracting and developing new business” (72.1%) is understandably the most significant challenge for any business;
  • However… “Strategy / Planning Issues” (26.8%) are either something professional services firms believe they have under control; are not greatly concerned about; or fail to associate with new business development.

Activity without Purpose or Accountability

The apparent disconnect between strategy / planning and actual marketplace results is reinforced in the marketing initiatives that professional services firms planned for 2015.

According to the Hinge survey, the focus of most professional services firms is on the tactical aspects of marketing, reflected in their plans to:

  • Increase the visibility of their brand (57.9%) and their experts (54.5%)
  • Upgrade their websites (54.9%)
  • Make clients more aware of services (53.5%)
  • Create content marketing programs (47.2%)

Conversely, the strategic aspects of marketing are all at the bottom of the 2015 to-do list for most professional services firms:

  • Develop marketing strategy / plan (45.5%)
  • Find stronger competitive advantage (40.8%)
  • Conduct research on target market (33.8%)
  • Conduct client satisfaction research (22.7%)

It might be argued that strategic marketing tasks did not make the list of 2015 planned initiatives because professional services firms already have those disciplines covered. But our own experience counseling professional services firms over the past 20 years suggests otherwise.

One of the first questions we ask a new or prospective client is this: “Do you have a written marketing plan?” Most often, and consistent with the Hinge study, the answer we receive from them is “No.”

Who’s to blame for unmet expectations in marketing professional services: The senior managers who focus on tactics without a strategic foundation? Or the marketing professionals who should know better?

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B2B Conferences: Essential Marketing Tactic…or Waste of Time and Money?

Regardless of industry, B2B conferences and seminars can be a significant waste of time, money and opportunity. But the conference sponsor is typically not at fault for the lack of return on this marketing investment. It’s often the result of poor planning, lack of creativity, laziness or unrealistic expectations by the companies that participate in them.

Here are three issues you should address, in advance of investing in a conference of any kind:

Do I understand the inherent marketing value of conferences? Before it became a “pay to play” world, there was some brand stature and inherent 3rd party endorsement associated with participation as a keynote speaker or panelist on a conference agenda. Nowadays, however, even if you’re invited to speak, attendees will likely assume that you’ve paid for the privilege, so the brand cachet is diminished.

The real marketing value of participation in any conference agenda is not based on what you say to the 100 attendees during your 15 minutes on the podium. Instead, it’s based on what you do, both before and after the conference, to reach, influence and engage the 1,000+ or 2,000+ decision-makers who were either too busy or too important to attend the event. In many respects, a conference simply provides a legitimate reason to communicate with those individuals who are most important you.

Do I have the internal discipline to make conferences a worthwhile investment? Because conferences are expensive, inefficient, haphazard and difficult to evaluate, you must establish an internal discipline and specific strategies to harness their marketing value. For starters, you need access to a robust, accurate database of your clients, prospects and referral sources. Possessing a list of conference attendees, either before or after the conference, is of lesser importance.

You also need to create a detailed communications strategy – tailored for each event – that addresses how you intend to:

  • Share intellectual capital associated with the event (either generated by you or someone else), and how to
  • Leverage that intellectual capital to drive engagement with your target audiences either before and / or after the conference.

For example, if you’ve given a conference presentation, you can send highlights of your remarks to your database shortly after the event, and offer to send them your complete remarks or PowerPoint slides. Or you can convert your presentation into a bylined article for publication in an appropriate business or trade journal, and then send target audiences the published piece along with a personalized cover note.

If you’re not on the podium, you’ll need to be more creative. For example, you might send your target audiences a “Sorry I missed you…” communication that provides your insights on the conference’s highlights, or expresses a contrarian viewpoint related to its underlying theme. Or you might even consider hi-jacking the conference agenda, by inviting high-value targets to a roundtable discussion / reception at a very exclusive venue near the event. (Conference sponsors do their best to prevent this type of guerilla marketing.)

In all cases, the strategic goal is to amortize the time and money you’ve invested in the conference, in order to reach a wider and sometimes more appropriate audience. By using the conference credibility (or its related topic / theme) to showcase your intellectual capital, drive top-of-mind awareness and foster direct engagement, you’ll have a much greater likelihood of yielding a connection between the event and tangible business metrics, including new client engagements and revenue growth.

Are my expectations for this conference realistic? Sometimes lightning actually does strike: you’ll make a connection at a conference that eventually leads to new business. But most of the time, putting your company’s logo on a lanyard, participating in a panel discussion, or sponsoring a mid-morning coffee break will lead to absolutely nothing. If there were a consistent direct connection between conference participation and business growth, there would be a very long waiting list for sponsorships.

If you understand that conferences will always be a low percentage marketing strategy, then you have a clear choice. You can either:

  1. Avoid conferences altogether, by hosting your own private events or programs.
  2. Leverage your participation to showcase intellectual capital with a wider audience.
  3. Simply enjoy the camaraderie, the golf / tennis / beach, and the nightlife…and hope for the best. In short, conference participation is similar to all other marketing-related tactics. Smart, focused and strategic will always produce better outcomes than “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

In short, conference participation is similar to all other marketing-related tactics. Smart, focused and strategic will always produce better outcomes than “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

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Confucius Say: Your Case Studies are Worthless

confuciusThe most noteworthy article on B2B selling was published in a 1966 Harvard Business Review article (#66213). In “How to Buy /Sell Professional Services,” author Warren J. Wittreich explains the differences between extrinsic and intrinsic selling.

Extrinsic selling occurs, according to Wittreich, when a B2B seller relies on successful work that’s been performed for other customers, as a means to validate the seller’s capabilities and potential ability to perform for a prospective customer.

The weakness of extrinsic selling is that it requires a prospective customer to make a leap of faith: to believe the service provider will provide a level of success that matches or exceeds the work performed for the seller’s past or current clients. Extrinsic selling is a “trust me” approach, employed by a great number of B2B product and service providers.

Conversely, intrinsic selling does not require a prospective client to base its selection of a seller based on work done for others. No leap of faith required. Instead, it engages the prospect in a meaningful dialogue that (1) addresses their specific situation; (2) demonstrates — on an immediate, first-hand basis — the seller’s understanding of the situation; and (3) validates the seller’s ability to help the potential buyer. Intrinsic selling provides buyers with a significantly higher level of confidence in the seller’s capabilities, and leads to an engagement or sale far more frequently and rapidly than extrinsic selling.

The B2B marketer’s task is to equip the sales force with methodologies and tools that help initiate and facilitate intrinsic selling. This goal is rarely accomplished through anonymous or identified client / customer “case studies,” which are widely used, that prospective clients rarely read, and often carry the same level of credibility as references on a job applicant’s resume. (Would a company ever publish examples of its past work that were not portrayed as highly successful?)

Create Tools to Engage Prospects

One example of effective B2B intrinsic selling involved Phibro Energy’s introduction of energy derivatives…which enabled large companies to manage price risk related to gasoline, jet fuel and heating oil. To capture the attention of CFOs of those companies, and to convince them that energy derivatives were a viable risk management strategy, Phibro’s sales force needed more than brochureware. A prospective client needed to understand exactly how energy derivatives would benefit his company.

To establish an intrinsic sales dynamic, Phibro equipped its sales reps with a worksheet that calculated the range and depth of the prospect’s energy price exposure. Then, by applying a sophisticated algorithm, the sales rep was able to show exactly how energy risk management could improve the CFO’s company’s balance sheet.

Phibro’s energy exposure worksheet not only enabled their sales reps to establish an intrinsic sales dynamic, it cast the sales rep in a consultative role, and positioned Phibro Energy as a resource that could help reduce economic risk and lower operating costs.

Marketers at most B2B businesses, as well as many B2C firms, have similar opportunities to build interactive disciplines and tools — both online and offline — that can empower their sales reps to leverage the power of intrinsic selling. In taking this approach, they also benefit from the wisdom of the marketing master, Confucius, who purportedly wrote:

 I hear…and I forget.

I see…and I remember.

I do…and I understand.

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Three Myths and Realities of Client Newsletters

Client newsletters are the most widely used, often abused and hotly debated marketing tactic for professional services firms of any size. Here are three highly subjective myths and realities to help your firm determine whether it’s a worthwhile tool, or how to improve your current newsletter.

MYTH #1:        Your B2B Firm Needs a Client Newsletter

Marketers want you to believe that your firm needs a newsletter. But traditional newsletters – containing commentary ranging from tax legislation to new technology, or who’s joined the firm – are not a marketing necessity. In fact, at many firms their client newsletter is a marketing albatross. Each issue involves a frustrating hunt for timely information of genuine interest. Some firms avoid this pain by slapping their logo on boilerplate content purchased from a 3rd party, but those firms can pay a bigger price, in terms of brand damage. It says to target audiences, “We value our relationship, but we don’t really care enough (or know enough) to produce our own newsletter.”

REALITY #1:     Your Firm Needs to Drive Top-of-Mind Awareness

The intrinsic purpose of tactics that communicate with clients, prospects and referral sources is to reinforce the perception that your firm is smart, trustworthy and prepared to help. Beyond keeping and growing existing clients, your primary marketing goal is to drive top-of-mind awareness with target audiences. That way, when a prospect is seeking assistance, there’s a greater likelihood your firm will be selected, or at least will be put on the “short list” of candidates. If that’s the goal, then consistency and quality of the contact are critical; neither of which necessarily require a newsletter format to accomplish.

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MYTH #2:        People Want to Learn About Your Firm’s Success

It’s nice to think that clients and prospects really care about your firm’s growth and accomplishments. The sad truth is that your success is more important to your competitors, and to current and prospective employees than it is to people who generate revenue for the firm. Blowing your own horn can also backfire. When your firm touts that a senior partner has just published a book and was a guest on CNBC, your target audiences may wonder why that partner isn’t focused on client matters, or whether the cost of his book’s publicity tour will result in higher hourly rates.

REALITY #2:     Your Clients, Prospects and Referral Sources Care about Themselves

Understanding that all people are self-interested can make you a better marketer. Rather than creating newsletter content that’s based on what you know, on what you’ve done or on what you can do, focus instead on the ideas, talents and accomplishments of your target audiences, regardless of whether your firm played any role in their success. This is a very tough concept for many B2B firms to understand and embrace: that the most powerful form of thought leadership does not involve pushing out your own ideas. Instead, it involves deciding what ideas merit the attention of your target audiences, as well as what voices are worth listening to. True thought leaders seek to manage the conversation, not to control it.

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MYTH #3:        A Newsletter is a Cost-Effective Marketing Tactic

The old saw, “Cheap is dear” rings true when it comes to newsletters. If it’s created in-house, few firms actually track the hours required to write, edit, approve and publish their newsletter. If it consists of cut & paste content, few firms consider the cost of producing a newsletter that very few people will read or respect. Regardless of content, only a small number of professional service firms proactively work to expand their newsletter’s reach, to maintain an adequate CRM capability, or to properly leverage readership analytics from open and click-thru rates, if their newsletter is delivered online.

REALITY #3:     Your Marketing Requires More than a One-Way Conversation

Newsletters often are one-way conversations. A fundamental marketing objective is to engage clients and prospects in a conversation regarding their specific needs and opportunities. Despite the buzz regarding social media, that channel also falls short in terms of engagement. If your firm’s traditional and social media marketing tactics do not serve as catalysts to drive Face-to-Face discussions and Word-of-Mouth referrals, then their “cost-effectiveness” can never be measured on a meaningful basis.

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