I’ve been a professional service marketer and entrepreneur now for nearly 25 years. Over the course of my career I’ve worn many hats. But I’ve always been in the business of growing service firms. Sometimes that means growing brand awareness. Sometimes that means re-positioning brands. Sometimes that means productizing services so they are easier to sell. Sometimes that means coaching sales and business development teams.
But there is one thing that has not changed over those 25 years. I believe the fundamental goal of marketing is to make a firm more valuable. There are many ways to do this, many initiatives that could contribute to that goal. But the goal itself – adding value – really hasn’t changed.
What has changed a great deal over the past 10 years is how service firms go to market, how they build trusted relationships with prospects and how they acquire great new clients. There has been nothing less than an earthquake of disruption in service marketing. It’s radically different today than when I started my career.
Yet the goal remains the same – add value. What’s the best way to do that today? How should sales and marketing leaders build their strategy? What should be in and what should be out of your plans? What is the best way to apply your resources to most likely realize growth? Here are my perspectives.
In this day and age, prospective service buyers don’t want to talk to a human being until after they’ve made up their mind that you could be their service provider.
Where Should You Focus?
When I look at all of the changes that have taken place in professional service marketing and sales over the last decade or so, I’m struck by one phenomenon. While the tactics have changed tremendously – the strategy remains relatively constant. Here it is.
If you want to be successful in growing a professional service firm, you have to get in front of the right people and tell them the right story. You have to make the right promises. Those promises need to be compelling and meaningful for those people. Then you have to deliver against your promises, without question. You have to maintain your credibility. If you do this, you’ll grow. That’s it. It’s really that simple.
So the strategy really hasn’t changed. What has changed tremendously over the last several years is the number of ways you can tell that story – the messaging platforms – and the ways you can get in front of the right people – the channels. But the process of telling stories and making promises really is not all that different today than it was when I started my career.
This is where a lot of service firms are making mistakes today and running into some pretty significant challenges. Just because you’re telling your story on twitter today versus a direct mail piece 20 years ago, that doesn’t mean the story or the promise can be any less meaningful.
This is why my advice to you about how to build your sales and marketing plans starts with the foundation of everything else – positioning. In fact, here are my four focus areas for sales and marketing success in professional services:
- Develop the best position
- Deploy content marketing
- Acquire the right technology systems
- Adopt a scientific orientation
Let’s look at each one of these in greater detail.
Develop The Best Position
Positioning concerns being crystal clear about who you want to serve and how you impact them. When your position is clear, there is no doubt about who your ideal client is or what you can do for them. This is the single biggest area where I see professional service firms struggling today. Let me explain what I mean by this.
If I were to ask an accountant, what do you do, they might answer: I’m an accountant. If I were to ask a lawyer the same question they might say, I’m a lawyer. If I asked an engineer, they might say, I’m an engineer. The same is true of an architect, a financial advisor or even a professional coach. But none of these statements actually answer the question.
Let me provide some alternatives that I think make this point about positioning clear. I’ll ask the question and answer as if i were the professional service provider. What do you do?
- Accountant: I help entrepreneurs realize their financial dreams by optimizing cash-flows and reducing taxes.
- Lawyer: I protect and enhance the value of a company’s most important assets: their intellectual property.
- Architect: I empower land developers to design and build spaces that human beings love to occupy.
- Financial Advisor: I give families peace of mind, knowing that they are on track to accomplish the financial goals that matter most to them.
- Coach: I inspire and guide the next generation of leaders to break through to new heights of personal performance and quality of life.
- IT Consultant: I accelerate my clients toward their goals with technology systems that improve productivity and stakeholder delight.
You see the key component of positioning is not what. It’s who. Who do you serve? What do they want to accomplish? Then it’s how. How do you serve these people? How does you serving them propel them toward their goals more effectively than if you were not serving them?
Finally, there is the what. What do you do? What service do you offer? But the what always comes after the who and the how.
The biggest mistake I see today in service marketing and selling is focusing on the what and virtually ignoring the who. This is completely backwards. This also makes your story completely indistinguishable from every other service organization on the planet today.
There are thousands of accountants, lawyers, architects, financial advisors, coaches and IT consultants. The question becomes, why would someone pick your firm rather than a firm down the street?
If you want to win, you have to position for the who and the how. The who is who you serve. The how is how what you do impacts them in ways that are meaningful to them. If you get your positioning right, then everything else will follow.
Content marketing is the single greatest opportunity I’ve ever witnessed to tell great stories. It is so important, in fact, that I’ve developed an Action Guide about this topic. It’s called 7 Steps To A Content Marketing Program That Consistently Yields Ideal Clients and it’s free on our website. The Action Guide contains 7 videos and 7 downloadable tools.
So what is content marketing? I think of content marketing as the ultimate try-before-you-buy opportunity for prospective clients. Herein lies the problem with services. They are intangible. I cannot hold them in my hand or compare the features and benefits of this service versus that service. There is no credible buyer’s guide that allows me to compare either service offerings or service providers.
This means, as a service buyer, I am taking a lot of risk. I have to trust a service provider a great deal to sign an agreement that says I’ll give you a lot of money and you’ll give me nothing tangible in return. Now that’s faith.
What service buyers are actually acquiring, believe it or not, is the opportunity to achieve an outcome that matters to them. They are not buying your services. They are buying a likelihood, a probability. This probability sounds to them something like this. By hiring you to achieve this goal, I am far more likely to realize the outcome I desire than if I try to do this on my own or if I hire some other provider.
So the question becomes, what inspires them to take that leap of faith? What causes them to say yes to your promise? In my experience, there is one question that matters more than any other as it relates to getting a yes.
How are you going to accomplish this goal for me, for my business, for my family?
This is the single most important question I train service sales and business development people to listen for. This is the question that all of our content strategies are designed to elicit. We want today’s sophisticated service buyer to self-persuade, using digital resources and content, and then ask that all important question.
This question, how will you do it for me, is really about approach. Service buyers want to know what your approach will be to accomplishing the goals that matter to them. In fact, I have come to believe that approach matters just as much as high-profile people and a respected brand that is well recognized in your industry.
When people say yes to your service offering, they are really saying yes to your approach. So the question becomes, how do they learn about that approach and what gives them the confidence to say yes? This is complicated by the fact that we live in an age of deep distrust.
In this day and age, prospective service buyers don’t want to talk to a human being until after they’ve made up their mind that you could be their service provider. In other words, they want to make 90% of the decision about whether or not to work with you without giving you a voice in that decision-process, at least not a human voice. They expect you to earn their trust without actually talking to them.
A huge factor in their decision-making process will be their confidence in your people, your history of delivering results and in the approach that they think you’ll take to achieve their goals. If they’re not confident in your people, your history of outcomes or your approach, they’ll walk away and you’ll never even know you missed a deal. So, how do they learn about all of that or gain confidence in it if they are not willing to talk to you?
This is where content marketing has forever changed the game. If you give people great ideas about how to accomplish their goals long before they become your client, they get to sample your approach. They get to try-before-they-buy. This means you win.
The Right Technology Systems
Since today’s sophisticated service buyer wants to take their inbound journey independent of a human being, you have a challenge. If you produce content and ideas that attract prospective service buyers, how do you know who is leaning in? How do your sales and business development people know with whom they should be spending time? How do you demonstrate to yourself and your stakeholders that all of your investments in content marketing are actually producing the outcomes you want to realize? How do you know whether or not you are producing an ROI and what size is that ROI?
These questions are the primary impetus behind a new approach to technology for sales and marketing teams at service firms. After about a decade of experimenting, I’ve come up with an acronym that now guides all of our technology recommendations and investments. Just to be clear, I don’t recommend something that we haven’t implemented ourselves. The acronym goes like this:
CMS + MA + CRM + SMM = Success.
These are the technology systems you need to invest in to produce a high-performance sales and marketing system that consistently impacts growth. Let’s go through each of these.
CMS stands for Content Management System. CMS’s are used to build and manage websites and deploy content marketing on a consistent basis. Here are some guidelines to help you think about what you need in a CMS:
- It should produce a mobile responsive site because you cannot ignore today’s mobile user.
- It should be easy to work in and intuitive for those who manage your site.
- It should be extensible and allow you to quickly add new pages. In today’s content-driven world, you should be updating your website at least weekly.
MA stands for marketing automation. Marketing automation systems sit between your CMS and your CRM system and convey critical information. At my firm we work in several different MA platforms. Here are some guidelines to help you think about what you need in an MA system:
- It should track the digital footprint of every user in your CRM and translate that footprint into a score based on a taxonomy that you define.
- The digital footprint tracking should include every touch point a user could encounter: email sends, opens and clicks; webpage visits; form views and submits; media downloads; social media likes and shares.
- The system should accurately track time-on-site and time-on-page for every user because this is a key indicator of intent.
- It should allow for lead grading. This is a feature that allows you to define who is most likely to buy based on ideal client profile criteria such as title, geography and industry.
CRM stands for customer relationship manager. Today, for reasons we cannot explain, all of our clients use salesforce. SMM stands for social media manager. There are a number of these tools available today and they are quickly morphing in terms of features and benefits. If you visit our website, you’ll find a number of free resources that will help you think through the best technology systems for your needs.
A Scientific Orientation
All of this technology should allow you to accomplish a goal that I believe is incredibly important: adopting a scientific orientation to service sales and marketing. I don’t believe in black magic or voodoo or the secret sauce of rainmakers.
I’m okay with getting lucky now and then in business. But for the most part, I want to know that if I pull certain levers I’m going to achieve certain results, time after time. I want to understand cause-and-effect relationships. I don’t want to rely on luck.
This is why I believe you have to commit to measuring everything and then asking yourself what worked and what didn’t work and why. As a young marketing professional, these questions scared me. But as a seasoned entrepreneur, I now believe these questions are essential.
This is the approach that we now take for us and for all of our clients:
- Put forward our best hypotheses about what we believe will most likely achieve the goals. Get all of the best ideas on the table and vet them until we are satisfied.
- Put forward a specific and measurable goal for every major initiative. Make this reasonable while at the same time having a stretch quality to it.
- Define how the initiative will be measured. Discuss not only the metrics but also the specific tools that you are confident will produce accurate data.
- Build a plan to execute the initiative using a Gantt chart.
- Analyze the outcomes.
If you take these steps, you put yourself in the best possible position to become a learning organization. Those organizations who commit to excellence and to a scientific orientation will learn, will refine and will grow.