I have spent my career in professional services. From Price Waterhouse to Interbrand to DDB to now running my own agency. Over that time I have become an expert in branding and marketing professional services. At least that is what peers and clients say. To make that claim myself is analogous to me telling you that “I’m cool” or “I’m funny” or “I’m smart”. The credibility is in others saying it. Having others speak well of you is the goal of branding.
This specialty allows me to work with law firms, management and marketing consultancies, advertising and digital agencies, and accounting firms. An engagement with an investment management firm led to an insight about how and why clients truly decide on one professional over another.
For a long period we assumed that clients first and foremost chose expertise. This assumption led ad agencies to talk about themselves way too much, law firms to numb clients with superior high-minded jargon, and management consultancies to dazzle with mysterious black boxes of proprietary processes. To their credit many professionals identified this as a problem but mistakenly identified the solution. They chose to switch emphasis and focus on the prospective client’s situation.
That was a logical leap and I too believed in it. The idea was, stop talking about me, me, me and begin talking about you, you, you. The message became ‘we care about you’, ‘we know about you’, ‘we can help you’. It was a solid idea and still has a place in the branding, marketing and sales of professional services. Yet, there is a simpler, more direct and more honest way to get clients to engage “you” and your professional service.
They Have to Like You
It all starts with liking and I do not mean the Facebook variety. Clients make assumptions when choosing a professional. This is why so much of branding, marketing and selling professional services is subjective. It is for this reason that I have repeatedly claimed that it is one of the toughest industries to market.
Clients often assume professional services businesses possess the requisite expertise otherwise how could they be in the business? Yet, they never make assumptions about whether or not they can really connect and work with them.
So we now find ourselves in a time when the client’s first consideration is a true connection. In the past, professional services businesses called this “chemistry”. Unfortunately, chemistry is fleeting because we are all human. That is why professional relationships have become increasingly shorter and are under greater scrutiny. Chemistry has to be replaced by connection.
Connection differs in that it is human, reciprocal, and real. Whereas chemistry speaks to the passing good vibes when a professional services firm wins a new client and begins the work. Studies have shown that enthusiasm tapers off rapidly as the parties get to know each other. A true connection mitigates that fact.
They Have to Trust You
Relationships are established and run on trust. There is really not much more to say except how do you prove trust if you have never worked with the person or company before? It is tough to convey trust through business communications. This goes back to my contention that you yourself cannot claim to be cool.
So how do you do it? Trust is portrayed through your client list, tenure of client relationships, testimonials, and referrals. These things happen if you perform on behalf of the client by helping them improve their business and that only happens if they trust you. Think of it as a different kind of “circle of trust”. Like any relationship, you start by taking a chance on each other.
They Have to Admire You
Just ten years ago the primary emphasis was on credentials when selecting a professional. Of course, they are still important but now they follow likability and trust. The professional relationship has proven itself to be a very human one. I am in the practice of branding and marketing but coaching, supporting, and guiding individuals dominates every engagement.
It is my own 80/20 rule. 80 percent of my business is counseling and 20 percent is branding and marketing practice. I have come to treasure this fact. It leads to a truly professional relationship because it recognizes the human aspect of business. It has me invest both intellectually and emotionally in my clients’ businesses.
Like + Trust + Admiration = Connection
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes once said, “A client to me is a mere unit, a factor in a problem.” We know that the fictional detective was a dispassionate soul who lacked empathy. Everything to him was clinical yet his clients needed more. Doyle inherently knew this so created the more emotionally grounded and connected Dr. Watson. Between the two of them they got it done.
Creating a balance of branding smarts and people connection is the challenge of my practice. It is a constant and evolving learning for me and I am grateful for it. I now approach my business development efforts using this equation of like + trust + admiration to create true connections. In the past four years, I have only competed for one engagement. The rest have all come through word-of-mouth, referral and repeat business. That is the new goal of professional services branding…do not exhaust resources on traditional marketing…invest in each relationship.