There’s no escaping it. We are in an age of uncertainty. Uncertainty about the economy, a war in Europe, and the combative political environment have all increased the level of unpredictability. The battle for top talent continues to rage on. And, as if that weren’t enough, firms are faced with the prospect of working with clients who have increased expectations around digital engagement. These are indeed challenging times for professional services.

With all these challenges the question arises, “Is it still possible to find success in this environment?” This year’s edition of the High Growth Study provides a resounding yes to that question. There is a group of firms that continues to find robust growth and exceptional profitability even in the face of heightened uncertainty and risk. We call them High Growth firms.

In this year’s study we dig deeper into how this exceptional group of firms is continuing to find success.

About the Study

Every year, the Hinge Research Institute conducts a study of professional services firms to identify emerging trends and determine what the fastest growing, most profitable firms do differently. This year’s study taps into a robust sample.

Over 700 firms participated, representing the six industry groups shown below. Full research reports are available for each of the industries. The sample contained firms of various size ranges, and they do business in every region of the globe.

Meet the High Growth Firms

High Growth firms are defined as those firms that achieve at least 20% compound annual growth over a three-year evaluation period. These firms are then compared to firms that experienced little or no growth over the same time frame. This allows us to identify strategies and practices that are associated with faster and more profitable growth.

This year, the High Growth firms in our sample experienced a median growth rate of 32%. This contrasts with 10% median growth for Average Growth firms. No Growth firms averaged an 8% revenue decline. The average median growth rate of all firms surveyed was 13.0%.

The superior performance of these High Growth firms is not limited to their exceptional growth rates. They are also more profitable. High growth firms showed an average profit of almost 25%. By contrast, their No Growth peers showed an average profit of less than 10%. High Growth firms are almost two and a half times more profitable.

What makes these exceptional firms so successful? How can they generate greater growth and profitability in a crowded and unpredictable marketplace?  We identified key advantages in four critical domains: Technology, Talent, Marketing and Business Development, and Strategy.

Let’s review some of the key findings and conclusions.

Key Findings and Conclusions

In an age of uncertainty there are strategies to reduce risk.

If you are feeling the challenges of uncertainty, you are not alone. Unpredictability in the marketplace (40.6%) is the top concern across all professional services firms. This is an increase over last year’s record levels. And sadly, given the factors driving this uncertainty, it’s unlikely that it will be abating anytime soon. 

Many High Growth firms have found ways of working around that uncertainty. One of those strategies is to conduct regular research on your target audience to track their ever-shifting concerns and priorities. This strategy gives them the advantage of reducing the level of uncertainty and replacing it with solid information about their target clients and their competitive environment. 

Other strategies employed by High Growth firms include using more automation to give them more flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and engaging more outsourced talent to close important skills gaps. The chart below shows that the High Growth firms are much more likely to use outsourced talent for a wide range of marketing needs. In cases where the need for specific talent is variable over time or the required skills are hard to find, outsourcing is often the smart choice.

Corporate culture looms large in the evolving battle for talent.

The pitched battle for top talent that started last year intensified this year. Finding and retaining top talent is the second most frequent business challenge (37.6%) cited by professional services firms. Some firms find themselves with more business than they have staff to service.

The results show that High Growth firms have an advantage with corporate culture. The staff at these firms are more likely to be satisfied with their corporate culture than are the staff at slower growing firms. This is significant in that our previous research has shown that dissatisfaction with culture is one of the top drivers of turnover.

The full industry reports list a range of techniques that firms use to enhance their corporate cultures—and identify which ones are favored by employees of High Growth firms. They may be strategies that you may want to consider for your firm.

High Growth firms also use more technology and outsourced services to leverage their people and give them greater flexibility when faced with talent shortages.

Digital maturity is becoming a driver of growth and profitability.

Digital technologies are offering a range of opportunities for firms to increase their productivity and flexibility. This year’s study clearly documents how High Growth firms have embraced this opportunity. The following chart shows that High Growth firms have a higher level of digital maturity then do their No Growth peers. They are more likely to use digital technology across a wide range of business processes (details of the types of technologies used are available in the full industry reports).

This digital advantage is also apparent when it comes to the topic of a large-scale digital transformation. High Growth firms are twice as likely to have already completed a digital transformation.

The digital advantage enjoyed by High Growth firms is perhaps most evident in the marketing area. They not only are leveraging this technology to increase productivity, they’re also using it to track the performance of their marketing programs. Viewed in this light, their digital maturity has helped them address the broad issues of talent shortages and unpredictability in the marketplace by offering their team greater leverage and more flexibility. If your firm is not already beginning to adopt digital technologies, this report should provide all the motivation that you need. 

Embrace marketing or fall behind.

Many professional services firms have been slow to embrace marketing’s potential and take advantage of the perspective that it offers. High Growth firms have taken a different path. They are more likely to embrace marketing with greater funding levels and a broader role within the firm.

Marketing is involved in more functions in High Growth firms than it is in No Growth firms. These functions include everything from researching target markets to determining which services to offer and how to price them. They are even involved in recruiting. A robust marketing function is also critical to tracking and evaluating campaign performance. Those who do not embrace the potential contributions of a strong marketing function are at a distinct disadvantage.

High Growth firms are also likely to use more marketing techniques than their slower growing competitors. Importantly, many of the techniques favored by High Growth firms are those that are most helpful in generating digital leads. For example, they’re more likely to publish written blog posts and to use keyword research and search engine optimization. 

The use of search engine optimization is particularly noteworthy as it allows potential clients to learn about the expertise that you offer. It is one of the key techniques used in inbound digital marketing. High Growth firms enjoy the benefits of this greater focus on digital channels. They get about a third more leads from digital sources then do their No Growth peers.

A new strategy for a new reality.

Any effective business strategy must be based on an accurate understanding of reality. When that reality changes, your strategy must adjust to reflect that new reality. We are in such a period.

The growth of digital technology and a shortage of top talent are part of the new reality. To make matters worse, our understanding is steeped in uncertainty about the evolving marketplace and how it will affect our clients. How does one effectively cope with this?

Our High Growth firms provide a model for success. They use regular research to validate their understanding and sharpen their decision making. They track marketing performance and make frequent adjustments. They’ve also found ways to leverage technologies and employ strategies such as outsourcing to deal with uncertainty. They provide models for how to address a range of significant challenges and suggest where one can productively focus their attention. Use them as models for developing your new strategy to reflect today’s new reality.