Any business only exists because of its clients and customers. Professional firms that forget this self-evident truth and fail to put in place practical marketing measures to main a steady stream of these precious creatures, never grow or flourish as they should.

Some firms are ‘reluctant marketers’ because they feel marketing is somehow ‘unprofessional’ or a sign that things aren’t going well. Others don’t market because ‘it’s not something we’ve ever really done’, or because they just don’t know how. Then, through inertia, this all-important business aspect slips between the cracks of daily work.

Whatever the reason, no firm is safe from the contagion of economic downturns or changes in market tastes. So, putting ‘your best face’ forward, especially in uncertain economic times, is not just a requirement for success, but actual survival.

Two essential conditions

For a firm to attract new clients, two things need to happen:

  • Potential clients must be aware of you. If they are not, how can they do business with you? This is crucial for young firms with no profile;
  • Once clients are aware of you, they must not only know what you have to offer but also, when it comes to making a choice, prefer you to the competition.

It is the role of everyday, practical marketing to ensure your firm meets these two conditions.

How to speak to your market

Many marketing techniques are available, but they all fall into one of two main categories: those targeted at individuals (direct mail, phone calls and email campaigns) and non-targeted, broad brush techniques that communicate to groups (press advertising, leafleting, websites and PR).

Because many professional firms have highly defined target audiences of perhaps no more than a few hundred prospects (or even less), based on criteria such as business sector or location non-targeted marketing can be wasteful. Consequently, a targeted approach is often more cost-effective.

Unlike mass marketing, every targeted marketing campaign requires a database of individuals and the most productive list is one that you have already – of past and current clients.

With the cost of identifying and acquiring new clients often put at five times more than the cost of selling to old ones, it makes sense to go for this ‘captive’ market. After all, just ‘staying in touch’ (through a periodic newsletter, email or letter) with a group that’s already shown their willingness to buy from you, may be all that’s required to stop them straying. And that means you don’t have to go to the cost and trouble of replacing them.

Finding new clients

Of course, natural attrition ensures you will have to go after new clients, something that should be undertaken in an organised, sustainable and on-going manner, not in a sporadic ‘stop-start’ fashion at the sudden departure of a partner, or panicked reaction to a dip in billings.

If your firm is to undertake targeted marketing, then ‘qualified’ lists of suitable prospects easily and cheaply bought from brokers.

And while email offers a highly cost-effective way of reaching individuals, this sheer convenience means that inboxes are blitzed with frequently disregarded marketing messages.

Because of that, there is something of a resurgence in direct mail – the sending of marketing material through the post – particularly given digital printing techniques, which can deliver short prints very cost effectively.

For a professional firm, a direct mail campaign is often very appropriate – it gets away from the perceived cheapness of email, and exudes professionalism, if high-quality materials and visuals are used. What’s more, it can be integrated with an email to create an extensive, immediate and even more cost-effective marketing campaign.

What is your offer?

Of course, it’s all very well knowing how you are going to communicate with would-be clients, but what are you going to say to them?

In the past (and where competition is limited, this is still the case), it was possible to be a generalist, offering all things to all people; nowadays it just creates a ‘vanilla’ market where no one stands out from the crowd.

This also makes you vulnerable to the ‘specialist provider’ who, by concentrating on delivering a particular set of services, is perceived to have greater knowledge of that area.

So, if you want to get more business, you need to be the strawberry in the ice cream.

This distinctive difference that helps clients make a choice. In marketing terms, this is often spoken of as a USP or Unique Selling Proposition – the idea that every firm must define what is unique about themselves in an expressive phrase.

From a practical perspective, think of it as What you do (which services you are offering), Who you do it for (your market) and How you do it (through consulting, seminars etc). That’s pretty much all your would-be clients want to know. Encapsulate this in a tag-line and through this simple exercise of definition, you will have catapulted yourself in front of most other professional firms and started to create a particular and distinctive ‘offer’.

It’s value, not price

Simply put, your ‘offer’ is ‘the package’ that clients buy from you, encompassing such things as the range of services, level of service, speed and quality of delivery, when the service will be delivered, the location of its delivery, who will deliver it, how problems will be handled, your reputation and experience and of course price.

When times are tough, it is tempting to focus on price as a way to become more ‘competitive’. And though price can be crucially important in securing business, sensible firms will not let themselves be lured into a rate-cutting battle with competitors – since ‘buying business’ is rarely good for anyone, even clients, who can end up with a cost – not quality – driven service.

So, a professional firm does better to market not on price, but on the ‘perceived value’ of the services it offers clients – this is based on a mixture of what the firm actually offers and what would-be clients think it offers.

To do this, firms need to make sure that clients understand the value of what they offer by describing how what they do and the way that they do it is of particular merit. So, if Process A means that clients will get a deliverable faster, tell them about it. If your thoroughly tested account management system means that life will be much smoother for them than with competitors, explain that to them. Your marketing messages should exude the benefits for them of doing business with you.

This is particularly important if your stand at either end of the pricing spectrum.

If your pricing is low you must defend yourself against being thought as offering a cheap, lower quality service – if you are low-cost, tell clients how you manage to keep costs down to their advantage, by stripping out services that they don’t need. Conversely, f you are high-end, explain to clients why you are worth the money – because, for instance, you only employ the highest quality staff, who are the best in the business.

Increasing response

The expression ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ is never truer than in marketing and this is something that’s encapsulated in a ‘call to action’, something that every piece of targeted marketing should have.

In other words, don’t expect someone to know what to do, instead tell them what you want them to do. And while your ultimate aim will be to get would-be clients to buy from you, very few will buy your services directly from your marketing campaign – that’s not surprising when research shows that it can take some seven contacts before the ‘would-be’ is removed from in front of client.

So, the point of most ‘calls to action’ is to move potential buyers just a little closer to you, by incrementally overcoming their resistance by asking them to sign up for a newsletter, calling you for further information or registering their interest in a seminar.

However, one of the best ways of increasing response rates from your marketing is to entice new clients with a ‘bait piece’ – information perceived as being valuable to the recipient – a financial analysis, a taxation review, a technical survey, an in-depth book or a thought provoking White Paper, or something similar.

Such a bait piece can be based on your own findings, thoughts and research, but the recipient must believe it will give them knowledge and insight. What it must not be is a self-serving piece of corporate puff, or it will get little response.

Such material is particularly effective when made available for immediate download. Make receipt dependent on giving an opt-in email address, and you have an immediate addition to your marketing database that will enable you to stay in touch and build a relationship.

Being prepared

Of course, no matter what results your marketing delivers, all is lost if you do nothing about it. So, before you begin any marketing exercise, decide how you will manage the response. That means knowing what to do with an enquiry when it comes in, who will deal with it and when, who will organise any follow-up material and so forth.

Finally, if you want your firm to be more successful at marketing, you must monitor and test results. Marketing isn’t set in stone. Nobody knows exactly what will happen. But as soon as you have undertaken one piece of marketing – whether it was a success or not – you have a baseline to work to. Now you can produce a different piece of marketing (don’t change more than one thing at a time if you can), and try that out.

Move forward in a controlled routine, and soon you will find that marketing, rather than being something to be avoided, is something to be embraced.