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The Marcus Perspective

When You’re All Alone In the Forest

By Bruce W. Marcus

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And You’re Surrounded By Giants Who Want Your Clients

In an economic environment in which the larger firms are competing with the smaller firms for the smaller clients, and in which law firms are retrenching and the client pool is diminishing, can the sole practitioner or the smaller firm compete in this arena?

We’re talking about competition — not just getting clients. We’re talking about getting clients that other firms, large and small, wanted as well, and about having to fight for them. And about building a practice you define, and not merely accumulating random clients.

When a tight economic environment drives a national law firm into your neighborhood and is willing to accept as clients the same size companies that you’ve been serving for years, you’ve got a problem. And when the giant starts hitting on your clients with expensive brochures, and public relations campaigns, and newsletters, and seminars, and direct mail — when they start to bombard your territory with lots of dollars and marketing effort — do you retire? Or do you fight back?

Can you fight back?

Yes, you can. And very handily, too.

The secret lies in the peculiar nature of professional services marketing, where several factors prevail that may give advantages to large firms, but still don’t preclude successful marketing by smaller ones.

First, we know that nobody hires a lawyer or a consultant from an ad or a press release or any other individual marketing tool. They may buy toothpaste that way, maybe. But not a lawyer or a consultant.

Second, we do know that people buy services to meet needs — either real or perceived. These are needs you may very well be as capable of meeting as the large firms are.

Marketing, properly done, builds the context and the reputation and the awareness of skills and service, but ultimately, the sale is made by an individual. This means that the larger national firm may have the greater ability to build a national reputation to sell against, but the sale is still going to have to be made on the local level by an individual.

For the smaller firm as well, the sale is also made by an individual. The smaller firm may have the advantage in understanding the local market, and smaller companies sometimes prefer to do business with a smaller local professional firm. Moreover, not all services offered by a national firm are available in equal quality in each office. This can be, for the local firm, an opportunity to supply a service that’s competitive to the national firm.

Ultimately, the ability of the smaller firm to compete resides in the fact that regardless of the magnitude or scope of the marketing apparatus, it still comes down to the individual making the sale. And while the larger firm’s individuals may have more of a marketing phalanx behind them, the sole practitioner may have his or her arsenal as well.

For example, nothing prevents the sole practitioner from writing an article, or giving a speech, or sending out a media release, or using a Web site or even running a seminar. The national firm may be capable of bringing in bigger names to its seminars, or even supplying the practice offices with professionally prepared material, but the smaller firm can be imaginative and clever in choosing regional themes or specialized topics. The local firm may even have the advantage of better understanding of the local market and business community. Many a small practitioner, in each of the professions, is quoted in ,I>The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. And many a small local firm knows somebody at the bank or the university to join with for substance in a seminar.

Here, imagination, not heft, is what counts.

What, indeed, can the small practitioner do?

Plan. Few large firms function with plans that get as detailed as the sole practitioner must — or can — be. The small practitioner can decide, for example, to target specific companies as potential clients, and then take the time to build a case for those companies’ choosing your firm rather than a competitor. The small practitioner can move tactically to seize advantage more readily than can the individual with that large phalanx behind him.

And the small practitioner should plan, instead of merely lashing out to get another client. Getting clients is exhausting, and can be deceptively expensive and unprofitable in the long term. Building a practice is building a future. Good marketing builds practices.

Research. The giant has the ability to garner a vast amount of information to serve as the foundation for a major marketing campaign. But for the sole practitioner, there’s a great deal of information available about the market, the companies in the local market, their needs, the services they buy, and so forth. Local media advertising departments know a lot about your market. The Census Bureau knows more. And good local libraries are a great source. The demographics of the business world, today, are written down to the neighborhood, and even the block. It’s not expensive. Build your own lists of local prospects, on which you can consent rate for focused marketing efforts.

Play to strengths. If you’ve got two or three clients in one industry, then you know a lot about that industry’s practices as they relate to your profession. This is especially marketable. You have something to sell to other companies in that industry in your area. The marketing tools available to the giant firm are equally available to the small practitioner — yet another anomaly of professional services marketing. It’s the way the tools are used, not the size of the marketing budget, that matters.

Write an article. Not all articles in the trade press are written by top 10 law firm partners, nor by professional writers. A reprint of an article from any professional journal, national, state or local, is a prestigious mailing piece. Better yet, an article for the local media or client industry trade journals or Web sites on such subjects as new laws, estate planning, etc. is the best kind of self-promotion you can do.

Web sites and blogs. For a firm of any size not to have a Web site would be like not having a telephone or a copying machine. Clients expect electronic access to your firm, not only for the information, but as testimony to the fact that you’re contemporary. A Web site is cheaper than a brochure, and can be updated frequently. A Web site can also be supplemented with a blog. A blog is a kind of personal online journal. For a professional, it affords the opportunity to demonstrate expertise and awareness of the industries served by your firm, as well as your skills. Blogs have surprisingly large readership, and are a major marketing tool. Don’t ignore the value of the social media — Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and the like.

Press. Cultivate the reporters who cover business for the local press. Send them releases frequently on new laws, forming partnerships and so forth. Or better yet, instead of formal releases, send them personal letters with the same tips. They’ll get read, they’ll get used, they’ll be appreciated, and you’ll find yourself frequently quoted. And eventually, the reporters will come to rely on you when they need expertise for a story they’re doing.

Networking. Join clubs and organizations, focusing on those whose other members are either prospective clients or who have access to them. Take bankers and lawyers to lunch. Participate in charitable events. The way it should be done is to more carefully pick your contacts, in terms of business, and to organize your participation to focus on making your skills visible.

Direct mail. Direct mail, either hard copy or e-mail, can be extremely effective for smaller firm. If the target audience is carefully selected, and the letters or messages are written in terms of the prospect’s needs and not simply descriptions of what you have to sell, and you follow up each message with phone calls, it works. Not mass mailing. Send out only as many letters as you can follow up within a week of the mailing.

Telemarketing. A good telemarketing campaign, done by people who know the difference between selling subscriptions and selling a service, does produce clients. And when it’s tied in with a direct mail or e-mail campaign, it’s dynamite for the small firm.

Speeches and seminars. You can participate in local organizations that can offer you a platform to speak. You can also run your own seminars. They need not be elaborate, but they must be genuinely informative. For help, tie in with a lawyer or a banker or the local university. Invite both clients and non-clients, and follow up afterwards with the prospects.

Advertising. The sole practitioner can advertise locally — and can do it intelligently, cleverly, persuasively. Remember, though, that the purpose of advertising is to build name recognition and a context for other marketing efforts. Focus on skills, not on vague firm messages. Focus on client needs, not your own self-serving virtues.

Selling. Ultimately, your best marketing efforts can do no more than get you access to a prospective clients, who must then be sold. Selling professional services is not the same as selling vacuum cleaners. There are four basic points to the best technique:

  1. Learn your prospects needs and problems;
  2. Demonstrate that you understand those needs and problems;
  3. Explain how you can help solve the needs and problems; and
  4. Get a starting date.
At no point does the word selling enter the picture. Address those four points, and you can have a client.

There’s a lot that can be done, then, to fight the giants.

Is there absolute parity? No, of course not. Except in your skills, experience, imagination, and your knowledge of the local market.

The verity of it all is that the smaller practitioner may not have the same marketing budget or clout as the larger firm, but the thoughtful and imaginative smaller or regional practitioner is not driven out of the marketing arena. Not even by price-cutting.

Merely being large is no guarantee of marketing success. The local office of a large firm must still use the national marketing function effectively, but it’s still a local office.

Size alone, then, is not franchise, for either the large or small firm. Rather, for the smaller firm, it’s frequently an opportunity to function cleverly and strategically. Franchise in the marketplace is using marketing effectively, for both the large and small firm.

Professional services marketing is an equal opportunity marketing arena.

Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, ( and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). His e-mail address is Copyright Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.


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