Where to start?
Organisations with a strong marketing ethos have attempted to transform the market place. More and more intermediaries appear to be entering into the fray with alarming regularity. Their normal thrust involves extensive brand promotion as a means of capturing new business enquiries, typically via the web, or via national advertising campaigns. Strategically these intermediaries pose something of a risk for the smaller firm in that the intermediary brand often becomes the brand the client develops a relationship with and the ‘trusted advisor’ becomes relegated to a processing back-office role. The arrival of Alternative Business Structures (ABS) in the UK, for example, will open up the market to even more competitors, some with very well established and trusted brand names.
These developments are a threat to smaller businesses, but it is certainly not all bad news and marketing can be used by the smaller firm to good effect to not only protect an existing position but also to gain more clients. Most important of all, an understanding of the tools and techniques involved in marketing and how they can be used to good effect is a vital prerequisite to businesses operating in a more competitive environment.
The fundamentals of marketing
There are many definitions of marketing and there is no need to discuss the relative merits of these here. The Chartered Institute of Marketing’s definition is surprising for some in that it places considerable emphasis on the management processes required to satisfy a customer. This broad definition is useful for all organisations in that it does not restrict marketing management to the more traditional areas of advertising, events, the web, etc. but looks at the fundamental set up of an organisation and how its processes serve the needs of customers.
This is particularly important in the context of a professional service firm where the vast majority of the people in the organisation have day-to-day contact with the customer and can dramatically affect the success of the organisation. There are at least two levels to consider here, the procedural and the cultural.
Procedurally this involves looking at the processes and practices of a business and assessing how well these meet the needs of the client. Once this mind-set is adopted organisations can begin to adjust to the needs of the client and possibly their business model to a more client-focused ethos.
This seems relatively straight forward, but it is astonishing how indifferent some organisations can appear when meeting the needs of clients. A quick look at reception area procedures can reveal much about an organisation.
Waiting is inevitable if meetings over run, however the waiting experience is often an anxious experience for clients. Uncomfortable seating, dull reading material, poor attention to comfort factors and a badly managed reception area will not add to the professional first impression of any organisation. Experience also suggests that there is a fair amount of ‘dirty washing’ that gets aired in conversations in receptions that range from calls about lost documents, not knowing the movements of a Partner and so on. Obvious but often neglected. The principle of having a good look at client-facing procedures normally reveals opportunities for improvement, whether it be something as obvious as reception areas or more complex areas such as on-going client communications.
Professional service organisations also need to have a ‘marketing culture’, where all staff view the objective of meeting or indeed exceeding client expectations as the most important component of their job description. Influencing organisational culture is notoriously difficult but it is probably easier for the smaller organisations in that it typically comes down to the management style and leadership qualities of senior personnel.
Operational procedures and organisational culture may not appear on the initial list for most marketing campaigns, but in professional services where the linked issues of reputation, referral and service quality are critical factors in stimulating not only repeat business but also new business, they must not be ignored.
A marketing plan
It is recommended that organisations of all sizes compile regular marketing plans that go beyond the simple tactical and look at the longer aims and objectives of a business. For smaller organisations these plans can be compiled in-house following a template approach. The plan should look at the various tools and techniques that are available and then show how these will be deployed to achieve a particular objective at a particular time. Evaluation methods may be available and should be included in the plan to provide a feel for the return on investment.
For a small organisation operating within this sector the following headings for a marketing plan provide a useful staring point.
A statement of broad strategic objectives
- Observations on the current market place and factors that may affect the success of the business
- Structural, procedural and cultural issues
- Referral sources
- Maximising work from existing clients
- Advertising (in print and online)
- Events and exhibitions
- PR and media coverage (in print and online)
- Direct marketing (data, e-mail, post etc.)
- Client care and relationship management
- Networking and memberships (in person and online).
Sections 1-3 could be linked to a wider firm’s business plan or created as the introductory ‘scene setting’ section for the tactical marketing activity. Against headings 4-13 the organisation should identify the activities to be carried out, responsibilities allocated, budgets specified and where possible evaluation methodology agreed. In some instances evaluation maybe near impossible. For example, brand awareness building is tricky to measure for small firms. Email campaigns can, however, be measured, unique email addresses can be set up for direct campaigns, while web-based activities often allow for detailed analysis of who viewed what web pages, when and for how long.
Some organisations may feel they could benefit from advice from a professional services sector marketing specialist. This is not essential but could be useful to help ensure that a plan is using the tools and techniques in a way that has a reasonable chance of success. This may avoid wasting precious marketing budget.
Client care and referrals
Given the changing nature of the market place, the explosion of web-based marketing and the sometimes baffling new world of social networking, it is perhaps comforting to understand that the connected issues of reputation, referral and service quality are still the single most cited reasons for appointing professional service firms. Recent marketing research reports reveal that across firms of all size the issues of reputation and referral are seen as the single most important components of the marketing efforts of firms.
This does not mean that firms can sit back and ignore a changing market or changing methods of engagement. It does mean that significant efforts should be placed on maximising the perceptions both clients and referral sources have of the firm. Feedback on perceptions of service quality and capability play a central role in professional services marketing. Perceptions of organisations are not static. Changing technology, changing client lifestyles and changing expectations of value all need to be accommodated by organisations.
The phrase ‘trusted advisor’ is useful in this context in that many people are unlikely to take advice on a highly personal matter from an individual or organisation that they do not know or has not been recommended to them.
There are large brand names that dominate the high street, out of town commercial business parks or the virtual world of the internet, but very few of these organisations will have the same brand values as a recommended ‘trusted advisor’. There are some exceptions to this but an adequate defence against monolithic brands is personal service and established expertise. This defence has to be backed by substance, just being small does not in itself result in exceptional service or capability.
If nothing else organisations should commence a marketing planning process. It does not matter how big the organisation is, this will provide a focus for action. It is not always the case that what is planned gets done, but planning does provide a mechanism for action.
In the short term much can be done by looking at the organisation, its culture and how well it is set up to meet the existing and potential needs of its clients. This should be a critical process and the mind-set needs to be one that looks at the business not from within but from the client perspective. The following simple questions are indicative of the types of questions organisations should be posing themselves.
- Does the client need more regular information updates?
- How would the client like to be billed?
- Do we need to be able to provide more information via our website?
- How can we minimise the cost to the client?
- Are we perceived as being slow in responding?
- How are we perceived by referral points, existing clients and potential clients?
Given a client-focused perspective and a few marketing tools and techniques deployed with imagination and good implementation, much can be achieved by smaller firms.
This article is designed to provide those involved in marketing a small to medium-sized firm with practical advice framed in the context of a professional practice. Ideally it should be read in conjunction with the series of ‘marketing tip sheets’ that will shortly be published by STEP, for more details email [email protected]
The article and the tip sheets provide an introduction to the issues associated with successful marketing and should prove to be useful in guiding the thought process of business owners and marketing decision makers.
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