Sales and Marketing Strategy for Professional Services: What Every Firm Needs to Know
Bringing in new clients is essential to the health of every professional services firm. And nothing is more central to the success of that endeavor than an effective sales and marketing strategy. This article will focus on how to develop a strategy for your firm.
Let’s begin by clearing up some basic confusion: what is the difference between sales and marketing?
Sales vs. Marketing in Professional Services
Sales is about convincing your prospects buy your services. It’s about closing business opportunities.
Marketing is about offering the right services with the right benefits to the right prospects. It’s about creating demand.
There are some functions within professional services settings that may be a part of either marketing or sales. Lead generation is perhaps the best example. In some firms, lead generation is a key part of the sales function. In other firms where the marketing team is more active, lead generation falls on their shoulders. The same is true for proposal preparation.
Sales and marketing strategy is different for professional services. And there is more to this difference than your target audience alone. After all, professional services can be B2B or B2C, although most fall into the former category.
The true difference arises from the nature of the services themselves and the relationship between the provider and the client.
Expertise, Trust and the Professional Services Sale
Most professional services clients are buying your expertise. It is the top criterion in most provider searches. Further, some form of expertise is overwhelmingly what tips the scale when the final selection is made.
But the professional relationship is not only about expertise, it’s also about trust.
In all sales and marketing relationships there is a need for at least some level of basic trust. After all, we won’t do business with someone who is likely to take advantage of us or provides a product that doesn’t work.
In professional services, trust is a central, defining issue — even more important than it is to B2B products and services. In professional relationships clients often have to share sensitive or embarrassing information. They rely on us for advice and counsel. That’s why we call them clients rather than customers.
As Charles Green has so eloquently argued, many professional services providers can even become trusted advisors. But that trust must be earned and maintained over time. It is essential to a productive professional relationship.
It is this dual need for trust and expertise that drives sales and marketing strategy. And as we will see below, having a good understanding of how prospective clients view their relationship with you will help you plan your marketing and sales strategy.
A Word About Terms
As many politicians and pundits are fond of saying, “words matter.” And one of the most loaded words in many firms is “sales.” For many professionals, the term itself conjures up unethical manipulation and unbecoming practices.
In many firms, the term “sales” is never used. The act of closing a new client is referred to as “business development” or even “marketing.” However, for our purposes we want to set aside those considerations and be very specific about the concepts we are discussing.
This definitional challenge is made worse because there are no widely held common practices that cut across firms. Even two firms in the same industry may approach their sales and marketing strategies very differently.
So let’s start with some definitions.
Sales is the process of assessing the suitability of potential new clients, educating them about your firm and its services and persuading them to buy.
Other activities around new business development, such as generating new opportunities or preparing a proposal may or may not be included in the sales role. What is or is not a part of the role will depend on the strategy you select.
Marketing is the process of understanding your marketplace and competitors, defining appropriate positioning and services, promoting the firm to your target audience and explaining how they might benefit by working with your firm.
In some firms, marketing may also serve the role of educating and nurturing potential clients and referral sources, identifying potential new business opportunities and preparing new business proposals. How these responsibilities are allocated between sales and marketing is a key component of your strategy.
Inbound vs. Outbound Marketing and Your Sales Strategy
As you evaluate potential sales and marketing strategies, you need to understand the difference between inbound and outbound marketing.
Outbound marketing is the traditional approach to marketing. It is what firms do when they advertise or try to educate potential clients about what they do and persuade them to use their services. The firm has near-complete control over an outbound campaign — when it begins, who will see it and what it says. It primarily relies on marketing or advertising materials to persuade the prospect.
Inbound marketing relies on creating a stream of original, non-self-promotional educational content that demonstrates a firm’s expertise to prospects that encounter it. This approach is also called content marketing or thought leadership marketing. Often, the content is optimized for online search so that it can be easily found and reach a wide audience. Inbound marketing works because it makes your expertise visible to potential clients and referral sources, and it builds trust over time because prospects find the materials practical and insightful.
As we’ll see as we explore different strategies, which approach you use helps make some configurations possible and others impractical.
The New Business Pipeline and Your Sales and Marketing Strategy
To develop a feel for how alternative strategies might be configured, start with the notion of a new business pipeline or funnel. This can provide a model of the client journey and a way to illustrate similarities and differences among approaches.
The pipeline has three sections. The top section attracts prospects to the firm. It is typically a core marketing function. It assumes that you already know how you are positioned and the nature of your target audience and their needs.
The second section nurtures prospects and builds engagement. It starts with the identification of a potential client (sometimes called a prospect or suspect) and ends when a prospect has an actual opportunity to use your services. This middle section of the pipeline may belong to either marketing or sales.
Inbound marketing is especially useful in the top and middle sections of a new business pipeline. In firms with a strong inbound program, the marketing function is usually in charge of lead generation and opportunity identification.
Finally, the bottom section begins with the identified opportunity and is completed when the prospect becomes a client. Most people refer to this process as “closing,” and it is almost always a sales function.
Now, let’s look at some common approaches to sales and marketing.
Top Sales and Marketing Strategies
In the seller-doer model, the person making the sale is also the person doing the work. It is perhaps the most common strategy, especially for small firms.
It has the distinct advantage that the potential client has full knowledge of who they will be working with. This arrangement has the added advantage of building familiarity and trust during the course of the business development cycle.
In some firms the seller-doer may also be charged with finding new prospects and nurturing them until they become sales opportunities. This poses several disadvantages. The seller-doer has a split mandate. When they are selling they feel like they should be doing client work. When they are doing client work, selling suffers.
The predictable result is either continual switching between roles or a sine wave effect in which periods of heavy work are followed by periods of heavy business development. Feast or famine is the way it feels.
In some larger firms where partners oversee teams of professionals, this effect can be less extreme because much of the work can be handed off to subordinates. Even in this case, however, the friction is always there.
2. Traditional Seller Strategy
In the traditional seller model a sales person is responsible for generating and closing the opportunity. When the sale is closed, the doer enters the picture to perform the work. The seller often maintains an ongoing relationship with the client to uncover and close other opportunities.
The big advantage is that you have dedicated roles that assure focused and uninterrupted effort. Doing the work does not interfere with ongoing business development.
This strategy is not widely used in professional services firms. The big reason is that it does not allow the client to evaluate an individual’s expertise or establish trust. There are situations where the model can work. For instance, if there is another path to establishing trust — or if expertise can be assumed — the model can be made to work. Think commodity services, for example.
3. Seller and Expert Strategy
There are some situations where the nature of an engagement requires an extensive proposal and contract negotiation phase. Federal government contracts and large engineering and construction projects are two examples that jump to mind.
In these situations, it is often desirable to have a dedicated capture specialist working the sale. While there is also a need for the expert who will be doing the work to be an active participant there is recognition that another role is needed.
This model has the advantage of allowing prospects to experience a firm’s expertise while also having a dedicated sales professional. In that sense, it represents the best of both worlds.
This approach is not more widely used because it requires more highly trained, highly compensated staff. So unless opportunities are large enough to warrant the added expense, this strategy can be unsustainable.
4. Business Developer and Closer-Doer Strategy
In this model a sales-oriented professional is involved in generating, qualifying and nurturing leads. However, they do not provide a technical perspective or close the sale. To distinguish this role from a traditional sales person, we’ll call this individual a “business developer.”
Like the seller-doer arrangement, this strategy involves a subject matter expert who will close the sale and do the work. We call this role the “closer-doer” because part of the seller role is performed by the business developer.
Like the seller and expert strategy, this configuration has the advantage of specialization. Also, because they are not closing the sale, the business developer may need fewer advanced skills.
There is a third advantage. Because the professional closing the sale is also the one doing the work, the client can establish a working relationship during the sales process, and there is no information lost in the transition from prospect to client.
The disadvantages come from the need for two professionals in the sales process. Although this need is less intensive than in the seller and expert strategy, you still have added expenses with the second person.
How to Develop Your Sales and Marketing Strategy
Developing your sales and marketing strategy is perhaps one of the most important priorities for a firm’s overall growth and financial health. With the right plan growth and profitability are predictable and controllable. With the wrong strategy, firms often struggle. For this reason, it’s important that senior management fully buy in to the strategy.
Developing a smart plan is a process. And from our perspective it is a process that requires strong marketing leadership. Why marketing? Because the required research and analysis is a core marketing function.
What if you do not have that level of marketing talent in your firm? The simple solution is to retain an outside resource who can help you through the process.
Whether you develop your plan yourself or engage professional help, the process is the same.
1. Target Client and Brand Research
The strategy should start by taking an objective look at your target client and the marketplace you operate in. Don’t make the mistake of focusing at the beginning on the services you offer or the way your firm is organized.
First, the best strategies revolve around the marketplace as it really is, not the way we think it is or wish it were. In the absence of objective information it is too easy to fall into a pattern of wishful thinking.
Second, client needs evolve quickly, so you may miss a major shift if you do not start with a clean slate. Firms that do regular research on their target client group grow faster and are more profitable.
If done correctly this research will give you a clear idea of client needs and priorities, their buying process, the competitive landscape, how you firm brand is perceived and the real benefits clients receive from working with you. This knowledge can dramatically reduce your risk and lead to a much better strategy.
2. Overall Business Strategy and Plans
Once you know how your firm measures up in the marketplace, it is time to take a look at your firm’s internal situation. What does your firm want to accomplish? Are you interested in growth? Are you contemplating a major leadership change?
Answers to questions like these provide the business context for your sales and marketing strategy. They inform what your strategy will need to accomplish and how it will be evaluated.
So why not start with the firm’s overall strategy and plans before doing market and brand research? In our many years of experience, we’ve found that leading with research has a way of grounding plans in reality and makes them more likely to be successful.
3. Assess Current Resources
To get a handle on what your firm can actually achieve, you’ll need to ask yourselves lot of questions.
What internal resources are available to execute a strategy? What sort of talent is already on board? What level of training do they have? Do the doers understand sales? Does the marketing staff understand the services you offer?
How about tools? Do you have the marketing infrastructure you need to pull off an inbound strategy? How about sales tools such as marketing collateral or case study videos?
We have found that answering questions like these will give you real insight into what is both possible and practical. It also adds a level of specificity that makes the sales and marketing strategy easier to execute. In the absence of this information, strategies are often under-resourced or simply not feasible.
4. Settle on the Overall Strategy
In all likelihood you already have a model in place. At this point, you will evaluate the approach you’ve been using and select the overall model you will use for sales and marketing going forward. Will it be a seller-doer model? Or perhaps a seller and expert approach? Will you be using inbound or outbound marketing? How will your firm be positioned in the marketplace? What are your key messages?
In this phase, making decisions on the full range of issues and documenting them are your key activities. While this may seem like a daunting task, it is made much easier if you have completed the earlier analyses.
5. Implementation Plan
Once the strategy is set you can work through the steps to begin implementing it. Some of the key considerations include:
- Sales and marketing tools
- Infrastructure such as a CRM or marketing automation system
- Talent that needs to be hired or outsourced
- Training required
- Marketing calendar to schedule and coordinate activities
- Metrics that will allow you to evaluate and adjust the strategy
- Implementation schedule, budget and responsibilities
This implementation plan is very useful in making your new strategy a reality. Firms often stumble at this part of the process. They may develop an excellent strategy, only to watch it fail because it was never fully implemented. Don’t let that happen to you.
- Understand your buyers. Win more business. Read the latest findings from Inside the Buyer’s Brain, Second Edition, the biggest study of professional services buyers to date. It’s free!
- Our Professional Services Guide to Research gives you the tools and knowledge you need to lead your firm through conducting research.
- Get the step-by-step training your or your team need to implement a powerful marketing plan. Join Hinge University
How Hinge Can Help:
Developing an effective, research-driven strategy is a hallmark of our unique Visible Firm Program. This science-based program includes research, benchmarking, strategy development, planning and full implementation support. Depending on your needs, Hinge can help with some or all of the process.
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