Growing a professional services firm is challenging. It’s not as if there is a physical product to focus on. Firms pretty much sell the invisible — a promise of future results. Often, they struggle even to show what they’ve done for existing clients in any kind of concrete way due to confidentiality issues.
For the most part, services provided by one firm will be almost identical to those of its nearest competitors. This is often the result of regulatory requirements (there is a reasonably prescribed way to manage a business’s accounts for example). But for those in marketing, this makes achieving any meaningful differentiation a significant hurdle.
The professional services industry generally has a relatively low client churn. While this is a good thing for an established firm, it presents challenges for those looking to break new ground or expand their footprint. The thought of changing accountant, for example, is one that fills most business leaders with dread. And this limits the number of potential clients that are in the market at any one time.
Finally, there is typically a large number of competitive offerings from other professional services firms (which, as we’ve mentioned, often look the same and offer the same range of services). As a result, potential clients who are looking to change can be left with the view that they could pretty much select any reasonably competent firm and see little difference.
These factors create significant barriers to using marketing to grow the business. Firms tend to fall back on networking and word of mouth. It becomes more about who you know than what you know or what you do.
This is fine if it delivers an ongoing stream of good-fit potential clients but sooner or later, the little black book tends to get exhausted.
Then what do you do?
While there will be some outliers, there are fundamentally four ways most firms try to grow:
Too many professional service firms dive head-first into tactics without putting in place the core foundations that will help ensure long-term success.
Firstly, you should have a marketing strategy that connects with your wider business strategy. This will ensure that the activities you do pursue — from blog articles and content marketing to email marketing and social media posts — will all pull in the same direction and contribute to what matters to the firm as a whole. It will help you avoid random acts of marketing.
You should have a clear idea of what a good-fit client looks like. It’s likely that new profitable clients will look a lot like your most profitable existing clients. Of course, if you’re branching into new areas, you should have a good understanding of who buys services like yours. This will help you hone your target audience and focus your efforts.
Whether we’re talking about existing or prospective clients, gaining clarity about what they’re actually looking for (and why) will be key to success.
All too often, firms make assumptions about client motivations based on their own worldview. However: you are not the client. You have knowledge they don’t. You have a different perspective. It’s why they come to you in the first place.
By spending time interviewing clients and conducting primary research, you can get a much better idea of what clients are really looking for (not simply what you’d like them to be looking for). This will inform your content marketing strategy, website content, chosen marketing channels, SEO keyword research — pretty much everything.
It will help you not just in creating content but ensuring that you develop relevant content that has real value to your target clients.
There is a natural tendency among firm leadership to expect short-term/near-term leads to come in off the back of any marketing activity.
Who wouldn’t? More leads mean more income.
The problem is that this runs squarely into a brutal truth in professional services: not many clients are in market at any one time.
Let’s face it, nobody wakes up on a cold Tuesday morning and thinks, “I fancy changing my accountant/legal advisor/consultant today.” It’s fraught with risk, it’s emotionally hard work and it’s the start of a lot of disruption.
To put this in perspective, let’s run some rough and ready numbers.
In the UK, there are around 5.3m businesses of under 10 people (micro-businesses). There are a further 240k businesses between 10 and 250 people (SMBs).
If we take accountancy as an example, clients change accountants pretty infrequently — every 10 years would be a reasonable average tenure.
This means 530k micro-businesses will be in the market this year and around 24.5k SMBs. In the next quarter, this drops to 132k micro-businesses and 6k SMBs.
This month? It comes down to 44k micro-businesses and just 2k SMBs.
Now consider that there are around 40,000 accountancy practices in the UK.
Now, of course, the numbers will vary depending on the niche your firm operates within. However, a good rule of thumb is to expect somewhere around 5% of potential clients to be in the market at any time.
Fundamentally, this lack of in-market opportunities means two things:
So what should you do?
At a top level, we can split our activity into three broad categories:
Lead generation is focused on the in-market buyers discussed above. It’s about the relatively small number of potential clients who are looking for a new firm right now. As such, lead generation activity tends to have a short-term focus (this month, next month). Its messaging will revolve around buying signals (often called intent) — “Looking for a new firm?” type stuff. In terms of tactics, it will lean towards the likes of SEO, Google advertising (and retargeting) and potentially Facebook advertising (especially where you are targeting micro-businesses and individual business owners.
Demand generation focuses on clients who are not in the market yet. It has a longer time horizon (the next six months to a year). In terms of messaging, will be around problem-solving — “How do I do X?” content. Tactics will include content marketing, SEO and LinkedIn advertising.
Brand/reputation building is about the long term (a year or more). Messaging tends to focus on awareness and brand recognition in the market — eg, “I think of an accountancy in the life sciences market, I think of X firm“. This is often the domain of PR, paid media, LinkedIn ads and high-value, high-quality content marketing focused around thought leadership on key issues.
When thinking of how you divide your efforts, you should be broadly thinking in terms of 10% going to lead generation, 40% to demand generation and 50% to brand/reputation building.
Whole books get written on strategy — and you can also dive into our own more in-depth articles: How to create a B2B marketing strategy that delivers and How to translate your business strategy into a B2B marketing strategy (with examples).
In this article, we’ll simply take a top-level 30,000ft view.
There is no one-size-fits-all marketing strategy. However, if there was, it would be: Be the firm that’s closest to the client.
Here, we come to a second brutal truth: No one cares about our firms, they care about their own businesses.
We should always be careful to check our assumptions. Firms tend to believe potential clients think about who to work with far more than they actually do. They’ll also assume clients have far greater knowledge and interest than they do.
On the whole, neither of these is true.
In developing your firm’s marketing strategy, you need to spend time understanding clients — what it’s like to be them, what keeps them up at night, their ambitions etc. The best way is to ask them (or get an impartial third party to ask them). Then, you’ll need to clearly show this understanding in your marketing, content and wider positioning.
In doing so, we’d recommend being as niche as you dare.
This will not suit every firm of course. However, to put this in context: the competition for professional service firms specialising in serving high-growth biotech businesses will be far less than for a generalist firm serving SMBs.
Specialising affords you the ability to be a sought-after expert who truly understands what clients need.
While you may struggle to differentiate your firm based on what you do, you can look to create a distinctive positioning around how you do it and how you work with clients.
For most professional services firms, this will be the richest area for developing your positioning — one that’s important to clients, unique to the firm and defensible against competitors.
Ultimately, this will enable you to create communications and content focused on clients and what matters in their worlds. You’ll be able to demonstrate you understand them better than other firms. And you’ll be more likely to be remembered when the time comes for them to make a change.
While content marketing is just one approach, content is a natural bedfellow for businesses that sell their thinking. The question is: how can you maximise your content marketing efforts?
Fundamentally, this comes done to being visible where it matters with content potential clients value.
Let’s break that down.
The best content in the world is largely worthless if no one sees it.
You’ll need to spend time identifying where potential clients go for information. This will vary based on their industry and specific areas of focus.
For example, if we look at a hot topic such as business financing, using a tool such as SparkToro, we can see key websites include Smallbiztrends.com, Cityam.com and Finextra.com among others. However, if we shift to look at sustainability, the key sites become Greenbiz.com, Grist.org and Treehugger.com.
Importantly, getting in front of your audience on these sites will almost certainly involve paying for access.
Of course, you may take the view that social media posts can get you similar reach for free. Sadly, this hasn’t been the case for some years — for example, an unpromoted LinkedIn post will reach around 5% of your firm’s followers (let alone everyone else).
Fundamentally, you’ll need a robust paid distribution strategy in place to succeed.
The second part of the equation is developing content potential clients value. So what do they value?
The Hinge Research Institute runs studies into how business buyers search for work-related topics. In order of probability, the key channels in 2022 were:
This leads to a good starter list for what professional service providers should be considering as tactics:
Will you need all of these? Probably not. But, if you’re placing all your bets on free social media, chances are you’ll lose out to others with a more rounded approach.
Not all content is created equal. Beyond simple quality metrics, some content works better earlier in a sale and some later on.
The thing is, you won’t be able to identify with any certainty what stage a prospective client is at. This means you need to create valuable content covering everyone from potential clients who don’t even realise they have a problem to those shopping for a new professional services partner right now.
We can split this into three broad areas of focus:
Of course, this can make it sound like you’ll need to create vast amounts of content for every wrinkle in what potential clients need. You don’t. But you do need to have a core bench of content covering the main stages of the sale.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article (and we’re only skimming the surface).
To sum up, there are five broad areas you should be focusing on in marketing your professional service firm:
We hope you’ve found this guide useful. If you want to discuss how your firm could better market its services, we’d love to talk.
Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll set up a convenient time to chat.
Jason Ball is the founder and managing director at Considered. With a multi-decade career in B2B marketing, he’s worked with world-leading brands such as Adobe, Google, EY and Cisco together with niche specialists in technology, manufacturing and professional services.