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Market thyself! Featured

9:43am EDT July 22, 2002
When it comes to growing their practices, professional service firms of attorneys, accountants, financial advisers and consultants spend a good deal of time, effort and money building their images.

Since clients usually retain individuals instead of firms, this makes sense. The creation of an aura around individuals delivering expertise is critical and reinforces credibility.

Traditionally, professional service firms market their image mainly through promotional means such as seminars and forums, public relations and image advertising. The problem with these efforts is that many firms assume this is marketing.

The reality is that these seminars may be informational, but they can also be a distraction from the real opportunities for, and challenges of, growth. That’s because often, the real answer to growth lies in other parts of the marketing mix. This includes target marketing, product development, pricing and distribution.

But many professional service firms de-emphasize these areas because they are much more personal, and this can be hard to face. Here are ideas worth pursuing:

Target marketing

Service firms grow through personal relationships with a few key clients, which over time become the firm’s base of business. Targeting markets requires choosing clients by more objective means and perhaps replacing those who have become friends.

Product development

In a service firm, the partners are the products. Assess partners’ performance and activities, then package and manage them appropriately.

Pricing

Billing by hours fortifies the value of individuals and their degrees. The more degrees a firm can feature, the more it can bill. But clients buy solutions to their problems, not hours of talent. Isn’t the selling of hours more of a convenience for internal accounting?

Distribution

Should the actual work product always be delivered through human means? Should personal selling and marketing be done to prospects or the intermediaries who influence them? Are referrals the real way to grow clients? And where does the Internet fit in?

Answer these questions, and you’re well on your way to a solution.

Whether or not the marketing of professional services can be completely objective is always a problem. After all, it is tough when the owner, the president and the product are one and the same.

But professional services firms do go overboard. It happens when:

  • There is a perception that professional services cannot be marketed and sold in a quantifiable and measurable manner.

  • The individual in charge of marketing is neither a partner nor or a degreed professional in the firm’s line of work.

  • Marketing decisions are made mostly for partners with the most tenure and billings.

  • Partner differences impede marketing decision-making.

So what is practical, possible and appropriate for moving toward becoming a market-driven organization? Here are some key steps:

1. Recognize that a firm’s core competence must include marketing.

2. Bring in outside objectivity. Extreme competence in one’s profession does not necessarily translate into marketing expertise.

3. Remove organizational barriers between marketing and the executive committee. Don’t hold marketing decisions hostage to differences between partners.

4. Understand that the Internet is changing the very core of how professional services are delivered and marketed. Determine your firm’s Internet marketing strategy, not just its Web site.

5. Look at the firm’s base of business in terms of all of the ingredients of the marketing mix, not just promotional activities.

Some providers of professional services are nostalgic for a time when excellence was measured by their own profession. Today, all of us need to focus on marketing our businesses in addition to marketing our professions.

Andy Birol (abirol@pacerassociates.com) is president of PACER Associates Inc., a Solon-based consulting firm working with companies that need to focus on the best ways to find, keep and grow more customers. Andy can be reached at (440) 349-1970 or at www.pacerassociates.com.