Lessons learned from 30 years in a professional services business
Professional services marketing is one of the toughest specialties in my line of work. First of all, marketing an intangible service is much harder than marketing a tangible product, like a tasty new food item. Second, it’s hard to know where to spend your money, and which tactics are appropriate for a professional services firm.
There are a million different things you could do, and a lot of professionals struggle to make sense of all the options. A quick Google search for “business-to-business marketing tips” produces an unprecedented amount of misinformation.
Like this little gem of nonsense:
“While consumers choose products based not only on price but also on popularity, status, and other emotional triggers, B-to-B buyers make decisions on price and profit potential alone.”
B-to-B marketing, they claim, is all about reason and logic.
These misinformed “experts” expect me to believe that emotion plays NO role in B-to-B marketing decisions. As if real people are magically transformed into corporate purchasing automatons the minute they set foot at the office.
Give me a break.
Thirty years running a professional services business, and I can’t think of one single client we ever landed because of some rigorous analytical purchasing process. Not one.
People buy for subjective reasons, then they justify the purchase decision with a logical checklist of excuses. In B-to-B purchases, they just need a little longer list.
In the case of BN Branding, when we ask clients why they chose us, here’s what they say:
“Because I like those ads you did for Smidge.”
“Because I really relate to that article you wrote about the yin and yang of marketing.”
“I just got a good feeling from your website.”
All purely subjective, intangible excuses.
Other clients say it’s because we have a disciplined branding process. But even that’s not an objective reason. Our process produces a FEELING of confidence that allows them to act. But no one’s going to tell you what’s really going on, deep down. They might not even know why they really buy from you.
In B-to-B marketing it’s gut first. Then heart. And then the head.
The psychology of rationalization is well documented. The latest advances in neuroscience and behavioral economics prove, time and time again, that it’s human nature. That’s how our brains are wired.
So that’s lesson #1 from all my years in professional services marketing: Never underestimate the power of emotion in B-to-B purchases.
If your marketing efforts revolve around checklists of facts and features, you’re not going to see the results you’d like. Facts can’t be the centerpiece of your marketing. You have to dig deeper than that.
Facts seldom offer an emotional hook, or any reason whatsoever for the brain to pause and seriously consider your service offer. In fact, the human brain is hard-wired to gloss right over facts and data, and move on to more meaningful things.
Like stories and distinctly different graphics. Facts tell. Stories sell.
What stories are you telling? What proprietary branded graphics have you produced lately?
Lesson #2: Love what you do.
Service businesses are easy to start, but hard to grow.
That’s because the business model for most professional service firms is sub-optimal. Sales cycles are long and drawn out. Delivery is highly dependent on talent. And every client requires your skill and attention, to some degree.
Most are not scalable because they hinge on the talent of a few key partners.
The challenges are substantial, so you better love your work. In fact, you better be downright passionate about your particular specialty.
Branding, in one form or another, has been my passion since I was 15. I absolutely love producing eye catching ads, effective websites, or inspired content… whatever it takes to help clients succeed.
I love the collaboration with clients and designers and programmers. I love the collision of art and commerce. I still get a charge out of the creative process, even if it’s just a little digital ad that we’re producing.
That enthusiasm is infectious.
On the other hand, “inspiring banker” is an oxymoron. And I’ve never met an accountant who seemed genuinely passionate about her work.
I’ve tried six different accounting firms over the years, and not one has shown any interest in my business whatsoever. Not one has ever called, in the middle of the year, to check on my progress and offer financial advice. (In fact, not one has ever sent any kind of proactive communication of any kind.)
Not one has positioned herself as anything more than an end-of-year number cruncher. Seems like a great opportunity — for someone. (If there are any really good accountants out there, give me a call!)
A glaring lack of passion is an easy way to UNsell the clients you’ve already sold. The fact is, passionate professionals like me want to do business with other passionate professionals. Or if not passionate, at least interested. Engaged. Semi-helpful!
Harry Beckwith wrote three great books on service industry marketing. In “Selling the Invisible” he says the first priority is the service itself. You gotta get the service right. I believe that starts with your attitude.
If your attitude sucks, the service will too. If you don’t love the professional service you provide, fix it or get out. Go do something else before your business crumbles beneath you.
Lesson #3: Be persistently adaptable.
At my parents’ 50th anniversary my dad shared his secret to a happy marriage: “Persistence,” he said. “Simple as that.”
The same can be said for successful service businesses. You’d be amazed by how many fail simply because the key partners quit working at it. Sometimes they run out of steam because they don’t love what they do. Sometimes they devote all their energy to one big client, and forget about everything else. Sometimes other priorities prevail.
Over the last 30 years I walked away from my business twice… Once by choice (thanks to an offer I couldn’t refuse) and once because of the economy. For a few years after the crash of 2009 it became a side hustle while I did what I had to do to survive. But I never quit on it. Never lost the passion for it.
One thing’s for sure: Shit happens. Circumstances change. Markets shift. People come and go. And new technology changes the game. You have to be able to adapt.
When I rebuilt the business it took on a different form… Virtual workforce. New processes. Different talent pool. And even more flexibility.
At BN Branding we adapt to the needs of our clients. The services we deliver vary dramatically depending on what they need. Most clients have no idea so we have to figure it out for them, and lead the way. That’s how we’ve developed long term client relationships.
With commitment, patience, consistency, and adaptability. It’s about relationships, not transactions.
Professional services marketing Lesson #4: Keep learning.
In my line of work every new client, every product category and every new project requires study, learning and growth. Without it, we’d never survive.
Experience has taught us a lot, but every business is different. Every marketing situation is unique. We can’t assume anything.
There are a lot of new digital agencies that do nothing but cookie-cutter ads in one particular niche market, like dental practices or car dealerships. They literally run the exact same ads for all their clients. Just swap out the logo.
I’d shoot myself.
It’s variety that keeps things interesting. Wards off burnout. Keeps the creativity alive.
And it’s our thirst for learning that enables us to do great work for all sorts of businesses… One day it’s the nutritional benefits of organic alfalfa in rabbit food, and the next we’re dealing with software as a service in the fintech segment.
Variety is the spice of professional services life.
I often counsel clients to discard products and focus on a more narrow niche. But sometimes you have to sacrifice specialization for your own sanity.
If you’re an architect, do you really want to design nothing but elementary schools your whole life? If you’re a consultant, do you really want to devote your entire practice to cannabis dispensaries?
Lesson #5: Little gestures matter.
There’s an old Jewish proverb that says, “don’t open a shop if you can’t learn to smile.”
At BN Branding we like to celebrate little victories with our clients… Like when a website goes live. When a new brand that we’ve created hits the store shelves. When one of our ads starts popping up on our phones or on billboards up the road.
That’s just the way we roll, and come to find out, the marketing professors have a name for that: “Managing the evidence.”
In professional services marketing you have to keep proving that you’re delivering on your promises. You have to provide evidence of your performance, or at the very least, proof of life.
Radio silence is the kiss of death.
I’m always annoyed by service providers who disappear in the middle of a project. It doesn’t matter if they meet the ultimate deadline and deliver great work, if they don’t communicate at all during the process I won’t be doing business with that person, or that firm, again.
Process matters! And decent communications is part of any process.
I’m not asking for perfection. I’m just asking for the common courtesy of an email update or a quick text message that says “hey, we got pulled away on an urgent matter, and we’ll get back with you tomorrow.” That’s all it takes, assuming you actually do get back to me tomorrow.
Success hinges on keeping promises like that. It’s a lot of little gestures over a long period of time. That’s how you nurture relationships and build credibility. That’s one of the fundamentals of professional services marketing.
Lesson #6: Life’s a lot easier when you build a brand.
Beckwith summed it up quite well: “In service marketing almost nothing beats a brand.”
A brand makes your sales efforts easier and more efficient. A brand reduces stress for your prospects and makes buying easier. A brand improves credibility and aids word of mouth.”
“A brand is money.”
We can help you make both.