Elements of Modern Professional Services Marketing 1: Research

By Aaron Taylor

The professional services marketplace is undergoing fundamental change. Today's buyers are relying on the power and convenience of the Internet to find and vet professional services firms. As marketing moves away from traditional referrals and toward a practice of sharing knowledge, a firm's reputation depends increasingly on its command of ideas. In this first of a multi-part series, we explore the foundation upon which expertise and knowledge is built: research.

The better you know your audience, the more easily you can turn prospects into clients. Who can argue with that?

But most professional services firms don't know their audiences as well as they think. And they aren't fully aware of the evolving challenges and trends that affect their clients' businesses. As a result, most service firms — perhaps even yours — are missing golden opportunities to solve the problems that matter most to their clients.

How to do you stay abreast of changes in your clients' marketplace? You might try to maintain ongoing relationships with your clients — sit down with them on a regular basis and ask about their business challenges. But for many busy firms, this approach just isn't practical. Instead, consider establishing an ongoing program of structured research in which you contact a representative sample of your market and learn about their problems, successes and how they perceive your firm. The resulting data will suggest ways you can adjust your business to give you an advantage over competitors.

The Research on Research

The facts tell a compelling story. Firms that conduct regular research on their target audiences tend to grow much faster and are more profitable than their peers that do little or no research. According to our research into professional services firms, firms that conduct formal research on their client markets at least once a quarter grow over ten times faster and are almost twice as profitable than firms that do none.

Growth and Profitability Chart

Even doing occasional research can have a tremendous effect on your firm's growth and profitability, but the greatest gains go to those who make it part of their marketing routine.

How to Conduct Research

Let's make one thing clear: the kind of research we're talking about is not a client satisfaction survey. It's much broader and yields more strategic information.

So what does this research look like? And how do firms conduct it? There are no hard and fast rules, but here are a few guidelines to get you started:

  • Phone interviews are best. Nothing beats a live interview. Even reluctant participants often open up to a skillful interviewer. In fact, the greatest insights are often volunteered outside the scope of the questionnaire.
  • Online surveys are second best, but they don't have to be second rate. A well crafted online survey can still reap valuable information. And they tend to be easier and less expensive to implement. But an online survey will never capture the same insights as an oral interview. And the response rate is likely to be very low.
  • Don't do it yourself. People are much more likely to engage with and provide honest answers to a third party. If you insist on doing the research yourself — which is better than doing no research at all — just be aware that you will capture only a portion of the overall picture.
  • Don't limit it to your current clients. Cold prospects are more difficult to get on the phone, but they provide by far the most accurate picture of your marketplace. Clients who got away — those who chose another firm over yours — can offer invaluable insights into your weaknesses. Lapsed clients can help you understand how to become more relevant and engaged.

What Questions Should You Ask?

We recommend that you include a mix of open- and closed-ended questions. Open-ended questions give participants the opportunity to provide detailed insights and volunteer information that you may not have anticipated. Close-ended questions, such as ratings, multiple choice and yes/no questions, are easy to tabulate and compare over time.

In the questions themselves, you'll certainly want to address issues relevant to your clients' industries. But don't forget to ask about the bigger picture, too:

  • Key challenges they face in the market
  • Their priorities for the coming year
  • How they make buying decisions
  • How they perceive your firm (strengths, weaknesses)
  • What they look for in a firm like yours
  • Who they view as your competitors
  • Services they need in the short term

How Many Interviews?

You will want to talk to a reasonable swath of your audience — enough to paint an accurate portrait of your market. We find that 20 interviews often provides enough data for most firms, though more is always better. You may be able to get away with a smaller sample, but you run the risk of getting skewed results. If you have diverse audiences, of course, you may need a much larger sample.

How to Use Research

Most firms find many uses for their market research. Here are just a few of the ways it can enhance your reputation, generate leads and bring in more clients:

  • Tweak or redefine your positioning to differentiate your firm from competitors
  • Introduce new services that prospects want
  • Use it as an entree to bring former clients back into the fold
  • Offer new services to current or former clients
  • Anticipate clients' needs
  • Write blog posts or articles that address urgent market challenges
  • Publish a research study (use it to collect leads on your website)
  • Use the research as fodder for speeches, seminars or webinars

Getting Started

As discussed above, a third party will give you the best information. This approach has the added benefit of taking most of the burden off your plate and makes it easy to take the pulse of your market on a regular basis. Our own research suggests that to make the most of this tool you'll want to conduct research at least quarterly.

If you prefer to conduct the research yourself, however, do what it takes to make it a priority in your organization. Research can be a great deal of work, especially if you conduct phone interviews, so build market research into the job descriptions of the people who will be doing the work. Phone interviewing is an art, so you may want to invest in some formal training for your research staff.

Remember, even occasional research is better than none. The sooner you get started, the sooner your firm will reap its rewards.

Further Reading


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