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The "M-Word"

By Kelly O'Brien
Posted Thursday, January 20, 2005

It was a real eye-opener to hear the perceptions people have about what it means to market professional services, as well as the anxiety the "m-word" (marketing) conjures up. It reminded me that, just because professional service providers have a lot of expertise in their chosen field, it doesn't mean they have the same level of understanding about the business of growing a practice.

As a matter of fact, expertise can get in the way of being a good marketer. As a highly-trained professional, it's easy and natural to communicate about what you know and how you do it. But it falls on deaf ears and glazed-over eyes when you use words, images, and language that are about your expertise, not about the problems you solve for your target audience.

What Marketing Professional Services Is Not

The most common misperception is that marketing is about wowing prospects with your expertise using slick brochures, advertising, websites, logos, press releases, flyers, networking, and "communications programs." You are wasting your firm's time and money if your approach to marketing starts and stops here. Why? Because unless you've clearly nailed (and tested!) your message to intended clients, investing prematurely in these things will only accelerate how much you'll confuse them!

Logos, brochures, websites, and ads are mere tools that help you communicate your message in a way that builds and sustains relationships with your target market. The expensive and frustrating mistake I see professional service firms make over and over again is that they jump to develop the tools of marketing before they've clearly identified the right things to say, to the right audience, with the right timing, in the right combination of ways, using the right tools.

It's actually a bit more complicated than that, since each of these tools should be thought of as a strategy (i.e., your online strategy, your networking and referral strategy, your direct mail strategy, your PR strategy). All of these strategies, then, get woven together in a sequence and combination -- an integrated system -- that makes sense for your firm and your market, based on your business objectives and your resources. More on that later, but first, let's look at what marketing your professional services really is.

Marketing Professional Services IS...

...all about building trust. Getting people to buy your expertise as a professional service provider is an intangible sale. As sales guru Harry Beckwith says, it's "selling the invisible." Sure, you may have "consulting services" or "IT services" or "financial planning services" that seem pretty tangible to you. But for your intended client, it's about trusting that your firm is their best choice -- out of all others offering the same service (so it seems from your client's perspective!) -- for solving their problems. Period.

So how do you do this? Through a 2-phased approach to creating a "system of strategies" that reaches out to, learns from, and educates your target audience. Do it right, and you'll create a buzz that attracts more clients to your firm than you ever thought possible. For specific tips on what to consider in building your firm's system of marketing strategies, keep reading...

Here's what you need to consider before you spend another dime on brochures, business cards, a website, or flyer (ditto for the time you spend networking or giving talks -- these tips apply to any method of communication, written or verbal!).

Think of this in two phases: Phase 1 is about building the case for your intended clients to trust you, as a basis for deciding that your firm is the best one to solve their problems. Phase 2 is about building relationships through the strategies that makes sense for your firm, given your unique goals, needs, resources, etc. This month, you'll get tips on Phase month, we'll look at Phase 2.

During Phase 1, you must...

* be crystal clear about who your intended client is and is not. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the more niched your services are, the easier it is to communicate with them in specific ways, and the faster you'll attract clients. If you try to sell your services to "small business" or "homeowners," guess are a lot your competitors. Look different through your clients' eyes by defining your unique niche. Linda Falkenstein's "Nichecraft" is a great book to learn more, also available on our website, under Books.

* develop language to talk or write about your firm that focuses on your intended clients' problems, not your services, or worse, the processes you use. This solution-based language is the foundation for any packaging and promotion you do verbally (i.e., during sales meetings, telephone calls, networking events) and in writing (i.e., online through your website and newsletter; offline through brochures, direct mail, etc.).

* for every single encounter you have with your target market (i.e., through your written materials, online, in person), answer the questions "where is the reader or listener's head right now? what's in it for them to pay attention to us? what is their burning problem right now that we can help resolve?"

* develop a core "solution statement" that tells who you serve and the problem you solve. This becomes the "magnetic north" of your marketing strategy. For example, ours is "TurningPointe Marketing helps professional service firms attract more clients, stabilize their business, and take their practice to the next level." Whether it's at a networking event, on my website, this core statement drives everything we do and keeps us focused.

Whether it's in a letter of introduction, how we introduce ourselves, who we do and do not consider a prospect, where we spend our time, it's all about helping professional service firms grow their business. By the way, this core statement usually gets an " do you do that?" response, which gets the conversation going. Notice we don't say "We do marketing strategy." That more typical response is about us, not them, and does nothing to invite further dialog.

* articulate and demonstrate your "case" for why intended clients should trust you. This is done through articles and talks that share your expertise, case studies illustrating your results with clients, third-party recognition in the press, awards, testimonials, and so on. These things become the building blocks for strategies you'll use in Phase 2.

* "productize," package, and price your services in ways that make it easy for your intended clients to buy from you. High-end consulting services is only one way to work with big companies. What other smaller, less expensive, short-sales-cycle offers can you make?

Next month, we'll look at what's involved in Phase 2 of your "system of strategies" to market your professional services. Remember, the key is to see marketing professional services as a relationship-building process, not tactics, that begins with a client-centric mastery of how you communicate with your target audience. Like any solid relationship that lasts, your relationship with intended and current clients must be based on trust. Start with that objective in mind, and the m-word you'll start to enjoy is "more" in the form of more clients, more results, and more return on your marketing dollars.

© 2003 TurningPointe Marketing, Inc. All rights reserved. We encourage sharing and publication of Your Monthly TurningPointe in whole or in part if copyright and attribution, including live web site link and email link, are always included. Please let us know where and when it will appear. Thank you!

About the Author
Marketing educator, Kelly O'Brien, is creator of the "Create a TurningPointe!" Marketing Bootcamp. To learn more about this step-by-step program, and to sign up for FREE how-to articles and 20-page marketing guide, visit (


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