“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely” said E. O. Wilson, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize born in 1929. He’s living proof of his own theory as he is also a 2007 honoree of a TED Prize in 2007 – still notable and modern at 78 years old! Well done, sir!
Professional services firms need to embrace this idea of being “synthesizers” of information for clients. Robotics and AI are taking over the data dumping and basic analysis. And thank goodness! We have more data than ever, and the pace of data creation continues to increase. Clients feel the data overload and just want someone to help them get to the point so they can make good decisions.
Instead of marketing the final deliverable – an insurance policy, financial statement, or estate plan – focus on helping the client understand the critical thinking process that goes into the creation of the final deliverable and promote the knowledge sharing that follows your information synthesis. After all, you started with a pile of information (hopefully using robotics and AI in your favor), and then sorted, evaluated, considered, questioned, analyzed, prioritized, synthesized, and finally understood the critical factors so that you could deliver a document that is easy(ish) to understand and share with others. That’s powerful! If you’re promoting the final document, you made it look too easy! And people don’t want to pay for easy.
Promote what the client will be able to do as a result of having gone through this process. That’s where the true value lies! Insurance policies, bookkeeping reports, and estate plans (etc.): Done right, they are the synthesis of information, critically examined based on years of experience in a specialized field, delivered with careful communication so clients can understand their options and make wise choices. Your marketing should promote them this way! People will pay for this! Don’t be bashful!
Here’s the tough part – it’s a training process for your prospects. They’re going to market looking for “insurance” or “bookkeeping” or “estate planning” so, of course, we need to make it seem like this is what we provide. But when we get the chance to talk with them, it’s important to then change the dialog to center around the “synthesis” of information. Think of it as “data in, knowledge out.”
Information synthesis is why a marketing strategy based on differentiation and specialization (niches) is so important. Your clients want to know that you understand their business better than they do so that you are able to bring them new ideas and perspectives. You can’t do that if you’re spread too thin or the Jack of All Trades (Master of None)!
Information synthesis is why your proposals are so important. A proposal is the final document a prospect receives. It’s intended to convince someone that your firm is best suited to helping meet a need and that your fee is justified. Be clear that it’s justified because of information synthesis!
Information synthesis is why your consulting practice should get your primary attention – and why you should bill for your ideas. In your firm you’re surrounded by people who have very similar levels of intellect and knowledge. I think professional service providers often forget that they really do know a LOT more than the average person in their area of focus. This has value when shared! Don’t give it away!
Information synthesis is why you need a robust thought leadership program (blog/newsletter) to showcase your knowledge. Gen X and Millennials are tech-confident self-educators so they will review what you have (or haven’t) written about and make a judgement about your knowledgebase.
Most importantly, information synthesis is why professional services firms won’t be eliminated by robotics and AI. Firms should focus on providing elevated services using robotics and AI as tools when needed. In fact, by promoting your use of robotics and AI, you’ll differentiate your information synthesis from their data sorting. Client will then understand the difference and remain willing to pay for it.
Those are my thoughts today on this topic. What do you think? How can I help? Enjoy the rest of the summer! – Alison
When a professional services firm wins a new client it is almost always because the client is switching from another service provider. Whatever the client’s motivation to make the move, there is inevitably short-term pain in the form of switching costs that must be endured. What is your firm doing to recognize and mitigate this switching costs?
Emotional / Psychological Switching Costs: Once I was involved with a CPA firm client pitch that seemed like a sure-thing. But then, all of a sudden, the process came to a screeching halt and the prospect went silent. “What happened?!” we wondered. The client couldn’t bring himself to break-ties with his current service partner. It was too difficult a conversation so he avoided by not taking any action at all. Once we learned that this was the issue, we were able to offer some moral support, remind the prospect why the change was important to him, and offer some guidance on how to approach the discussion.
It can be a difficult thing to deliver bad news (the loss of a client would surely fall into this category) to someone you’ve trusted to support your family or business. Show compassion to your prospects and ask how they’re feeling, if they have any questions about the process, and what could make it easier on them.
Time / Effort Switching Costs: I am currently switching banks (mine was just acquired) and it is PAINFUL. No fewer than 10 hours have been invested into this process and it’s not over yet. I’m not regretting my decision; I’m just annoyed at the time investment, and concerned that if I forget about a transfer or bill pay tie-in that there will be penalties and headaches down the road. (Anyone want to guess my motivation for writing about switching costs this month?)
Both you and your clients will invest time in onboarding their company to your systems and helping them become proficient with your processes and way of doing business. Whatever you can do to streamline, organize, communicate, mitigate risk, remove duplicate effort, prevent errors, etc., will be greatly appreciated by the new client and will reaffirm their decision to make the move to work with your firm. A best practice would be to have a checklist for the client that includes roles/responsibilities, timelines, and contact information for who can answer questions. Oh, and maybe a small gift? Something with your logo would be nice as a gesture to convey that you’re excited they have chosen to work with you.
The client has a learning curve to get proficient with your systems, but you have a learning curve to understand their business, who to go to with questions, their goals and how to help them. Be cognizant that their previous service provider already knew all of this information, so the client is incurring additional effort in getting you up to speed. Surely your excellent ideas will far outweigh this in the long run, but do try to document and share information internally so that the client isn’t answering the same question multiple times.
During the client’s onboarding process someone may ask a question that compares your system to how they are accustomed to doing things. I have two thoughts on this. First, it’s possible that the previous service provider is doing some things better than you firm does them. Be open minded to learning new things and potentially implementing improved systems. Good ideas come from unexpected places! Second, it’s important to have standard practices, but there may be times when exceptions are needed to satisfy certain people. Just be sure that this exception is communicated with your whole team so the client doesn’t have to mention it time and again throughout your relationship or it will become a proverbial thorn in their shoe.
Monetary Switching Costs: Your firm may have a higher or lower cost structure than the previous service provider. Regardless of the ongoing fees, there may be actual monetary switching costs. For instance, some hourly employees may need to work overtime to deliver information to your office in order to transfer their account, or there may be some hard costs like purchasing new checks, new business cards, or additional equipment like an encrypted scanner. If you are aware of these expenses it might make sense to cover the cost as long as there is no conflict of interest. You could give a discount on the first invoice if directly paying for the materials isn’t standard practice in your profession.
Winning a new client is cause for celebration. Just remember that your new client has made a big decision to switch service providers and have entrusted you. Be sure to invest in earning that trust by putting your best foot forward starting with the onboarding process and you’ll save everyone stress and time. Read more of my ideas related to new clients in my blog post: Setting Expectations is a Critical Aspect of Onboarding Clients.
And, of course, if I can help your firm, please contact me.
Where’s the line between marketing and business development? To determine the answer to this, first I would want to know why you’re asking. Are you developing a responsibilities and a hand-off between two teams? Do you want to determine the ROI of your marketing? Are you writing a job description for a new business development hire? Are you considering whether your marketing person is really a “marketing AND business development” person?
Here’s the thing… there’s no bright line between marketing and business development anymore. It has been blurred by online marketing, sophisticated databases, marketing automation and the metrics marketing is now able to provide. I call it marketing the gravitational pull that brings people to the firm over time by conveying your culture and values, knowledge and experience, specialization and service, reliability and confidence, impact and answers through its many varied activities.
As a marketer who works with professional services organizations that require the firm’s leaders to act as business developers (vs having a trained and dedicated sales force), I tend to think marketing takes on the lion’s share of the responsibility for attracting new business. The up-side of this is that marketing can show positive ROI and can be thought of as an investment instead of an expense. Fun fact, when I started in professional services marketing in 2004, marketing was considered “administrative” and “overhead”. Ouch.
If you truly wanted to find the line between marketing and business development, I’d draw it at the point where a prospect is inviting you to the table. If you’re going to go do a “pitch” meeting or provide a proposal, that’s business development. Thinking of it this way, that’s about the final 5% of effort, and STILL marketing can play a role in preparing for the meeting, researching the prospect online, helping to assemble a folder of “leave behinds” like thought leadership, bios, and case studies, and helping to develop the proposal. Even at this extreme end of the process, that’s a lot of involvement by marketing so is marketing really “handing off” to business development?
Again, I say, why are you asking the question of a line between marketing and business development? Perhaps asking the question isn’t really something we need to do anymore. Marketing is everywhere! Marketing can touch the firm through its culture; its employees through recruiting, onboarding, and retention programs; its prospects through the website, newsletter, social media, and proposals; and its clients through alerts and thought leadership, events, branded materials, being served by happy employees, and more.
If your marketing is helping you to meet your firm’s goals, it’s doing its job. Have you thanked a marketer today?
Contact me to agree, disagree, or just continue the conversation!
Professional service providers are highly respected for their knowledge of complex and sophisticated areas of business. But with so many providers vying for the same clients, commoditization becomes a problem unless you differentiate by service specialization or a niche industry.
Let’s get the definitions out of the way. Service specialization is when you provide a service that is different from the normal suite offered by your competitors. By definition it’s not likely to be a compliance service. Perhaps you guide companies through some process like converting to an ESOP or B-Corp or do some kind of lesser-known international tax. By contrast, a niche industry focus has to do with what businesses you’re targeting as your clients. You may provide the bread-and-butter services to them (and more, hopefully) but it’s the target market that creates the differentiation. Perhaps you are focused on getting municipalities or medical device companies or hotels as new clients.
Why should you differentiate by industry niche or service specialization? You’ll be working smarter, not harder. You’ll stand out as being known for something special so you’ll get better referrals and you won’t have to compete on price. Firms that specialize (by service or industry) attract more opportunities, win a higher percentage of those, and command higher rates for the work. Win – win – win.
How do you identify what industry niche or service specialization to focus on? Here are the four internal and four external areas I suggest considering before declaring your new intentions.
- Willingness to focus – While you must commit to a new way of doing business, not everyone needs to be involved. Partners who are close to retirement are not likely to be motivated to start doing things differently. Fine, but don’t let that stop those who are willing to evolve. You do not have to fire any clients or transfer any relationships (at first). Just decide on one niche or service to get you started so you can practice this process and be convinced by the results.
- Critical mass of clients – To find your first niche, consider your current client base first. Please do this by data and not gut feeling. Run a report in your billing system by NAICS code to determine the areas in which you currently have a significant number of desirable clients. This may be where you should start with your first niche. It also may not be the best place to start if you are groaning at the thought of bringing in more clients like the ones you have now. If nothing else, it will provide food for thought.
- Internal leader – You will need someone to lead the charge so when considering what niche or service to focus on, you’ll need to determine if someone is willing to carry that flag. If not, you can’t be successful at it, so don’t set yourselves up for failure. This person will need to be the technical lead on ALL engagements inside that niche. When new opportunities come along, this leader will be involved with the pitches and will service the new clients.
- Well trained and dedicated staff – As with a leader, you’ll need people to do the work to serve these clients. If the niche/service is going to churn though unenthusiastic staff, the work and clients will suffer. That said, everyone should be educated on the benefits of specialization and should want to work in this premier space within your firm!
- Potential growth market – You’ll want to choose a service or niche that has some potential future success, not a dying market (unless your focus is M&A, of course!). Do some research on the industry trends to see what quantity and size businesses are expected to comprise this market in the next 5-10 years. Also, think upstream because as your firm grows, so will your minimum threshold for new client size.
- Potential cross-selling services – What issues are businesses in your potential niche market facing and how can you potentially serve them? We all want to sell services beyond compliance and the niche focus is a prime way to do that. Business leaders are desperate for quality guidance as the pace of change in so many areas is dizzying. You may currently have the ability to provide additional services to this new market, or you may need to get educated and create a new service specialization to meet the needs of your new clients.
- Potential to be competitive – When considering where to put your efforts, look at the current options your prospects have to choose from (your competitors). If there are a good number of high quality options, or one dominant player who is the default in a certain space, you may want to consider a different niche market. This is when barriers to entry come into play. Of course, once you have overcome the barrier, it will work in your favor. But getting into new spaces can sometimes mean an investment in training or further education. For instance, if you want to do forensic accounting for governmental entities, you’ll need a specific credential. But once you have it, you’ll be in rare space.
- Active industry trade group – This is when you’ll need to consider how to get in front of your new prospects to let them know you’d be an optimal provider of services. A trade organization is like fishing in a barrel. If there is a trade group, the niche leader and the team will need to join and get active with committees, sponsorships, and speaking opportunities. You’ll want to create a niche marketing plan (that goes beyond the trade group) and put year-round effort and investment into making your new niche a success.
For growing firms, the days of serving businesses down the street are waning. With the rise of technology that helps us work from anywhere, business leaders would rather get the best advice from a firm that has deep specialized knowledge and can provide the best guidance than work with the generalist down the road whom they can visit for an open house once a year. If your firm is fishing upstream for larger clients, specialization by service or niche industry is a must. Get started now with one and then add more as you can.
Contact me if you want some help!
Marketing is one word that means a lot of things. And marketing takes on a lot of responsibility in a professional services firm from branding to online marketing to coaching to revenue generation and client retention. Some marketing activities take a lot of time but don’t cost much money and some are expensive but are easy to execute. This latter bucket is where a lot of professional services firms get into trouble. Don’t fall into these five traps that will spend-down your marketing budget without much to show for your investment. (more…)
Next month I’ll be presenting on the topic of How the Fastest Growing CPA Firms Spend their Marketing Dollars at the MSCPA’s Practice Management conference. If you’re a CPA, I’ll hope you attend!
While the research this article (and presentation) is based on is from CPA firms, I believe the basic principles are true for all of professional services firms, so everyone, please, read on!
Have you heard the parable of the woman who wants to make frog soup? The problem is that the frogs keep jumping out of the pot of boiling water. After some thought, she decides to put the frogs into cold water and then turn on the stove. The frogs stay in the pot as the water temperature slowly rises and eventually boils, making frog soup. (more…)
Professional services firms dedicate significant time and effort to winning over each prospective client. Every new client is important, so it’s important to make clients happy early in the relationship. At this initial stage, each interaction comprises a large portion of the total experience with your firm. Whether from your website, email exchanges, the proposal, your team’s pitch meeting, an engagement letter, the receptionist answering the phone, etc., every aspect of your pitch and onboarding communications matter! Later, when you’ve “won over the client” with consistently high quality advice and timely responses to requests, you’ll have a bit of leeway if a mistake happens. Early on however, every detail matters as the prospect or client forms and builds their impression of your firm’s brand. (more…)
It has taken you years to build your firm’s client base. Some clients you had to work hard to win and some practically fell in the front door. Some are an exact fit for what your team does best – and others are not. Some pay your current billing rates without discounts or write-offs, and some quietly get the best deal in town (maybe too good!). In the lifespan of any firm, there comes a time when firing clients is the right thing to do. But how do you decide which clients to let go, and what process should you follow to communicate your decision? (more…)