Last year I got a cold that ended up turning into a painful ear infection. My doctor took one look in my ear and said she wouldn’t be surprised if my eardrum ruptured (it did on the drive home). In addition to rest and TLC from my family, she prescribed antibiotics and asked me which pharmacy I use.
Nice story, Alison. What’s your point?
Did you read that exchanges as a business development transition? I didn’t. And yet, looked at through a different lens, I hired my doctor to provide advisory services (the medical appointment wherein she diagnosed my illness) and I then agreed to an additional, follow-on solution that cost me additional money (the prescription) without hesitation.
Your clients think the same of you as I do of my doctor… you’re the specialist who can diagnose the problem, propose the solution, and make it happen. And your clients will be as naturally inclined to follow your lead as I was to tell my doctor which pharmacy I use and pick up the prescription.
So, what can we learn form this?
What if you start thinking of yourself as the doctor and believing that your clients WANT your help and will GLADLY listen to and pay you for it? You’d sell more advisory services, is what I think!
You have perspective on your clients’ businesses that their owners don’t have because of your years of education and experience in your field. (SIDE NOTE: I think that advisors forget this because your firm is full of smart people whose knowledge overlaps with yours – but 99%+ of the US population doesn’t know as much as you do about your areas of specialization.) Clients can TRULY benefit from your ideas.
Did you notice that my doctor recommended antibiotics and then swiftly moved to the next step by asking me where I wanted to pick them up? My motivation for writing this diatribe is that I have seen so many professional service advisors shy away from moving from problem to solution in one meeting for fear of seeming like a salesperson. You’ll know that a client needs help with outsourced accounting to clean-up their books, or disability insurance to protect their family, or a better time tracking system for their employees. Is your next step to give light to the issue and start to make that solution happen, or do you mention the issue and beneath your breath mumble that someone in the firm could get involved, leaving it in their hands to think about and maybe come back to you later? WAY too often, I see the latter and, in that case, both the client and the advisor are worse off.
Prescriptive selling is the process of identifying an issue, recommending a best course of action, and progressing toward the solution all in one conversation.
Oomph…. I can feel the resistance coming through the computer screen… Alison, this can’t work. Your analogy of an ear infection is too simple to translate to the complicated and expensive services we provide. There are multiple decision makers, it costs thousands of dollars — but, but, but.
OK! I hear you. My analogy is not cancer and the myriad of complicated health care options. I mean, even I knew the solution to my ear infection was antibiotics, I just couldn’t get them on my own. In return, can you agree that many times your clients have problems with somewhat obvious answers that they can’t move past on their own too? Maybe they need KPIs and a dashboard, or tax planning, or a financial plan. The prescriptive model works well for those circumstances where the client understands that your proposed plan is the logical next step. In these circumstances you take responsibility for ushering the client toward what is best for them.
Even when your clients have complex issues, I think prescriptive selling has a place. Doctors have been knocked lately for giving patients too much data and too many options without weighing in on which course of action is best (maybe there’s a general scare of malpractice these days?). When big projects arise, be willing to break things down into smaller, more manageable pieces, and to lead the client from one step to the next while keeping the big picture in mind.
Take me, for example…. My clients don’t hire me so we can have esoteric conversations about marketing. They hire me so I can prescribe a plan and help us to take actions that will help them reach their goals.
Anyway! That’s what’s been on my mind lately. I hope you find it compelling, and that you might even be willing to give it a try. Let’s keep talking! Reach out any time!
Oh, and Happy Halloween!
So…. How’s it going? With your marketing new year’s resolutions, I mean. July 1 is half way through the year (hard as it is to believe!) so now is a great time to evaluate your plan and progress to date because there is still time to course-correct and achieve your goals before year-end. Let’s reflect back on the process:
#1: What do you want to achieve?
Begin with the end in mind I wrote in my second-ever blog post way back in 2013. It’s still true today. If things have gotten off track, perhaps it’s time to evaluate whether your goal was a bit too ambitious. It can be better to recalibrate and achieve a lesser goal than to give up later in the year as the original goal is clearly going to be out of reach. Conversely, if you set a low-ball goal, it may be time to ramp-up your effort and get going!
#2: How much time you can commit to marketing?
I said before that 2-3 hours per week is necessary in order to accomplish anything meaningful. With everyone’s varying vacation travel, I find July and August can be a nice time of year to focus on some self-directed work. As a bonus, you’ll also be developing a good habit that can be continued through the fall.
#3: What activities will lead to your highest probability of success?
Networking in the summer tends to be more one-on-one as the Chambers and other groups ramp down their event calendars. Make a list of the clients, referral sources and other service providers that serve your clients and start sending invites to meet for (iced) coffee. It’s OK if the date you pick ends up being seven weeks away, the time will pass!
If you want to do more writing but haven’t gotten started because you don’t know what to write about, considering asking your marketing department. Your website traffic may offer the answer in the form of popular keywords used to find your site.
#4: What support do you need?
If you’ve been trying to go it alone, but it’s not happening, it may be time for some external accountability from your marketing team, a fellow partner, or a business coach.
If you’re doing the work but the results are coming, then this summer can be a good time to reevaluate your expectations. Sometimes marketing takes longer than you’d like it to – and sometimes the activity you’ve chosen isn’t actually aligned with the outcome you’ve selected. Either way, your marketing team ought to be able to offer some council in this area.
There are six months ahead of us in 2019; plenty of time to reflect, adjust, recommit, and get going with marketing! Let’s end the DECADE strong! If I can help you, please reach out!
To close more business, specialists who are expected to sell (aka – firm partners) should start to listen for the question behind the question when reading RFPs and in prospect meetings. Often a seemingly simple question has more meaning and by addressing the underlying issue, you’ll allay their concerns, differentiate from the competition and win more business.
“How many other companies in my industry do you work with?”
This question is perhaps the most common and perhaps commonly not thought through well because it seems “obvious” from the inside. This issue is why professional services firms market by niche. By having a tailored description of your services and reinforcing articles and other resources on your website, prospects feel that their company will be well take care for and that your team. You’ll also pass through the pre-contact filter whereas firms that don’t have niche industry info on their website may never know about the prospect at all. Believe it or not, this self-investigation process accounts for a large portion of the process and eliminates more than half of the possible service providers! (I read that somewhere – ask me if you want me to dig up the exact statistics.)
What’s the question behind the question? This one has a few that you can address.
- Do you know what issues are specific to my industry so that you’ll be able to give me good guidance?
- Will your team be learning on the job? (And am I paying for that?)
When addressing this issue in a proposal, it’s important to make mention of how you have addressed issues that the prospect is facing or that you know are coming their way through new regulations. You can include how many years of experience your team members have (but please don’t add them up – saying your team has an aggregated 52 years of experience is just weird!) But also consider that if you don’t have direct experience with exactly the type or organization or their needs you can gain their confidence by talking about how you’ve done the same work for different organizations. I recently helped a CPA firm think through this and to change their thinking from “we haven’t done exactly this before so we won’t win this bid” to “we have great experience in the prospect’s issues, just not applied in this way but I know we can serve this prospect well.” Changing their thinking gave them confidence and they won a major new client.
“Why is this service so expensive?”
This question might not always be asked out loud but it’s probably thought almost every time. A large portion of professional services are “need to have” not “want to have” so there is inherent price sensitivity. Professional services also tend to be expensive because your services are complicated and because you’re highly educated and highly experienced professionals who (rightfully) command a high billable rate. And let’s not forget the technology investment and risk you take on by signing-off on the work.
What’s the question behind the question?
Clients don’t understand what goes into your work since they don’t see it happening. They don’t know how long you’re spending on something or how efficient you are at it or what technology you have so that it’s actually taking less time than it could. Whatever you can do to help prospects understand the effort, the VALUE, and the IMPACT of your work, will be beneficial to you both.
For example, an estate planning client got this price question because a well-known online provider is considered a viable option in the minds of the general public. How could the “same” estate planning documents cost more from a local firm than the online provider? And why bother paying more? The answer is that the local firm would examine over 150 issues and include the correct legal wording based on the client’s exact circumstances where as the online provider would give the generic response or wouldn’t delve to that level of detail at all. The significance of this is that if the estate plan documents were ever needed in court or at a hospital, the one from the local firm should help the client in the expected way, whereas the documents from online provider may not. The answer to the question behind the question is that they’re really not comparable services at all and that “expense” can be paid upfront or at a higher rate to fix or unravel the problem later! Add to that, a local firm can help you keep your documents updated year-after-year as your life changes whereas the Internet is not going to follow-up. Outdated documents can be just as harmful as no documents depending on what they say…. You may find yourself relying on an ex for medical decisions if you don’t stay current.
Experience and price are two top-of-mind issues for prospects. Understanding a prospect’s REAL reason for asking these questions will help you to address their concerns at more than the surface level and will help you win more business. If you want help thinking through these questions or other commonly asked prospect questions, reach out! Good luck!
Sometimes you just need to get cashflow, well, flowing. When that’s the case, I usually recommend turning to your current client base. Your current clients are your best prospects. Why? Because it’s not very likely that 100% of them are receiving 100% of your potential service offerings. Surely you have good intentions, but cross-selling to current clients isn’t usually done with as much clarity of intention as it could be, which means you’re leaving money – and client satisfaction – on the table. There is likely some great service that you’ve started offering lately or that you’ve gotten good at and think that more people/companies could benefit from. Here are six reasons you should get organized, and start selling to current clients. (more…)
The New Year’s holiday brings to mind a renewal, a fresh start, a time to reflect and look ahead. New Year’s is known as a time when we set goals for ourselves – “Resolutions” we decide to call them somehow implying that we’re committing – resolving – to make them happen. While the tried-and-true health related resolutions are admirable, are you considering making a New Year’s Marketing Resolution? (more…)
“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!