WHAT WE DON’T KNOW AND WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW ABOUT WHY PEOPLE BUY PROFESSIONAL SERVICES
Despite thousands of dollars spent on research about why people choose one professional service firm rather than another, we still know remarkably little. Professional services are, to a large extent, too amorphous to respond to simple motivation, but there are some reasonable surmises that can be made, based on both logic and experience.
Unfortunately, the many homegrown surveys done by law and accounting firms don’t go deeply enough into motivations to fully understand how people or firms choose one professional firm over another. Part of the problem resides in the fact that professional services marketing rarely moves people to act immediately, and so the purchase decision is often too distant from the marketing effort — unlike product marketing. Part of the problem is that the reasons buyers need or want legal services are variable and diverse. To a large degree, many individuals — and many companies — make retaining decisions for irrational reasons, such as personal relationships or word-of-mouth recommendations. In many cases, decisions are made based on reputation or name recognition. Except for larger firms that have either in-house staffs or long-standing relationships with lawyers, a very large part of the market doesn’t have the least idea about how to qualify the professionals they hire. As discouraging as that may sound, it tells us a great deal about how to formulate the elements of a marketing program.
Surveys, moreover, consistently show that how professionals think their clients view their performance and what clients actually think are usually miles apart.
In other words, experience or not, we know far less than we should know. And so we’re back to surmises and objectives.
In the light of what we do know, and considering the singular nature of marketing professional services (as compared, for example, to product marketing), what works? Or more specifically, what seems to work?
- Name recognition. Except for corporations and very large or national companies (whose in-house lawyers make the buying decisions), people tend to buy names they recognize. The concept of branding seems to have crept in under the door, but in professional services, branding is simply jargon for name recognition. (Professional services marketers seem to be attracted to jargon like flies to honey. Stick to the real world and plain English — it works better.) Establishing name recognition, however, is easy: Simply inundate the market with your firm’s name. An ad campaign that says little more than “Smith & Dale is a law firm. We do good work” and saying it over and over again, will give you name recognition, but little more. It helps, but it’s not everything.
- Reputation. If your firm has a reputation for resolving legal problems, service, not overcharging, or anything good, it goes to building trust — which is an essential element in professional services. Trust is an essential factor in retaining professionals.
- Specialty. If your firm has a reputation in a specialty — estate planning, labor relations, cash flow management, etc. — it’s a major factor in being considered by a prospective client.
- Demonstrating expertise. A significant reason you are asked to propose is that your reputation is founded on demonstrable expertise. This is accomplished by such activities as writing articles, social media, speaking, participating in seminars, public relations and other such devices.
- Networking. In the old days, it was the golf course or the country club. Today, it’s done by planned participation in organizations in the fields served by your prospective clients. For example, a client of mine belonged to an organization of business people. Her specialty was labor law. The problem was that another member, who was also a labor lawyer and a competitor, was running seminars for the organization’s members. Our plan was for the client to become visible and active in the organization; volunteering, offering to run for office, and so forth. We then came up with a specific seminar idea that hadn’t been done before. It worked. Harry Potter and his wand couldn’t have done it better.
- Client referrals and word of mouth. Clients who are particularly satisfied with your work will enthusiastically recommend you to other prospective clients. Your clients may have to be prompted, but it’s worth the effort. Word of mouth (now called by the peculiar name, viral marketing — more jargon), in which people tell one another about your virtues, is a marvelous concept, but difficult to generate. You have to do something worth talking about, though (my attorney made me thousands of dollars, etc.). Viral marketing will, in the long run, sell more beer or tomato soup than it will legal services.
- Influentials. In law, there are always people from other professions or trades who are in a position to recommend you. Not just lawyers who recommend accountants, or vice-versa, but bankers, business leaders, relatives and friends. A client once told me that if he could take a banker to lunch once a week, he’d double his practice in a year. A colleague asked: “But what do I talk about? Our firm?” No, you talk about his or her business and clients. You listen. And if you listen carefully, you’re going to hear something to which you can say, “We can help with that. Can you arrange an appointment?” It works.
- Serendipity. Or luck, is more like it. A lawyer for a former client of mine claimed that he brought in clients by hanging out in a bar and conversing with strangers. And he did both. Everybody has a story, and if you’re lucky, and listen, and play it right, you can do it too. However, serendipity is great, but you can’t build much of a practice on it.
- Practice Development. At some time in every marketing campaign, the name recognition and reputation and networking come to a point at which the prospect has to agree to start Monday. This may require some heavy-duty work, which is how the concept of practice development comes into play. The prospect must be sold. A request for a proposal may have to be answered. The prospect may be considering other of your competitors. This goes well beyond the skills of name recognition and reputation building, which is why the specialty of practice development evolved.
Because a professional services marketing program must do more than accumulate clients, and because it must function in a dynamic world that’s constantly in flux, an effective marketing program can’t be a static list of activities that use a static list of marketing tools. It must have clear objectives that are flexible enough to accommodate the dynamic nature of the market. It must focus on specific aspects of a practice, predicated on the distinctive needs of each aspect of the prospective clientele. For example, a marketing program to attract high-asset individuals is different from one to attract corporations. A program to attract real estate developers is different than one to attract builders. And while it’s commonly assumed that the idea is to sell the firm, experience shows that marketing professional services works best when it focuses on individual market segments. A program that does well results in projecting a capable firm in all its parts. Obviously, then, a clear understanding of each market served is essential. In other words, no one-size marketing program fits all. How, then, recognizing the foregoing differences, can marketing programs be devised that are focused, effective, and competitive? The answer resides in formulating objectives for each marketing program, based on the distinctive characteristics of each market. It helps immeasurably.
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, (www.marcusletter.com), the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), and the forthcoming PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING 3.0 (Bay Street Group, Summer, 2011) from which this article is adapted. For more information, go to http://bit.ly/MarcusBook. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved