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Why does marketing in professional services firms fail?

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Kristin Wing
Kristin Wing

Writing a piece on why marketing in professional services firms fail..and what to do about it. 

What do you think the top reasons are? I promise to share results!

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Rob Nance
Rob Nance

I've heard this from countless accounting firm marketers:

"The CPAs here micro-manage the marketing process. Let me market! I don't mess with the tax returns and business valuations that you do!"

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Martin Bissett
Martin Bissett

I feel it fails for a number of reasons that come under two distinct headlines:

 

1. The Knowing-Doing Gap

2. The confusion of marketing with selling.

 

Many firms now know what needs to happen on marketing (we need a better profile, we need to get our message out there etc) but struggle to hire the right people to execute it and therefore feel they have to micro-manage but without the requisite experience in marketing to do so, as Craig highlights.

The other major area is seeing marketing in terms of new business walking directly through the door as a result; rather than seeing marketing as 'opportunity creation' and requiring 'opportunity closure' to accompany it.

 

 

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Craig Weeks
Craig Weeks

What I've seen parallels Martin's remarks.

Another common result is that the firm's management will find they can't really see the connection between whatever it is the marketing person does and tangible results.  They often respond by measuring activity, e.g. how many marketing emails are sent out, how many articles in the local newspaper, how many hits on the new website, etc.   Unfortunately, unless this is done at a fairly sophisticated level, the result is misanalysis (garbage in; garbage out) of whether or not the marketing efforts are working.  Frustrated, management will then all too often look at the cost, conclude whatever is happening is insufficient, and suspend the effort.

When I've had the opportunity to provide any advice to a newly-hired marketing person the first thing I always talk about is how they must manage the perceptions and expectations of the firm's management.  I am acutely aware of one situation where the marketing person's uncommon creativity generated a series of very desirable opportunities only to have them wasted by partner's inept closing skills.  You can guess who got blamed and eventually let go because their efforts "weren't working."

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Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk
Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk

I wholeheartedly agree with all of the above comments. Having worked in a firm and now as a consultant to the industry, I've seen both sides. So many times firms hire very junior marketing people and expect the results of a seasoned professional. Then, with no one to guide that person, they wind up going in many directions trying to please various partners yet not meeting any firm marketing objectives. And since few invest in a true marketing plan, the marketing person is basically set up to fail, the firm doesn't get the results they want and no one is happy. 

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Debra Andrews
Debra Andrews

This is an important question and a conversation I'd like to get going again!

In my experience, achieving buy-in from partners and firm professionals is difficult, and failure to do so is the reason that many firms' marketing efforts fail. Oftentimes, firm leadership is savvy enough to realize the need for marketing but lacks the time, motivation, or guidance to take ownership of marketing themselves. They hire an in-house marketing professional or an outsourced marketing staff and expect that marketer to produce results alone and on an island. 

In reality, marketing professionals can't grow a business all by their lonesome. Marketing professionals are responsible for providing strategic direction, leadership, staff training, and the basic framework for a successful marketing effort, but without the manpower and expertise that firm professionals can provide the marketer is somewhat handicapped.

I believe that professional services firms who: 1) embrace marketing from top-to-bottom 2) have an interested partner/principal who acts as a "marketing champion" 3) have solid marketing strategy and leadership are the firms that can avoid many of the problems noted above and grow business through marketing.

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Debra Andrews
Debra Andrews

Kristin, have you completed your piece on this topic? If so, I'd love to read it.

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Patrick McLoughlin
Patrick McLoughlin

Thanks for this great discusssion.  A lot of good points have already been raised.

From my experience there are 2 major reasons so many firms fail:

Firstly, practices generally don't measure the Return On their Marketing Investment thoroughly enough.  They don't focus on, and refine, activity that delivers results.  Many tend to repeatedly spend on projects they are comfortable with and take pleasure from.  

The second reason is perfectly summed up by Mike Schultz & John E. Doeer in their excellent book 'Professional Services Marketing.' 

'‘It's common for firms to throw down the gauntlet with a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG) for revenue growth.  But while they might have the eyes for growth, in the end many don't have the stomach. Serious growth usually requires serious investment in both marketing budget and time.  Even with proper investment, growth does not happen overnight.  The truth about marketing for professional services firms is that success requires patience and persistence to give the investment time to pan out.

For multi-partner firms there is another major reason for failure.  I wrote a blog about it last month: Effective Accounting Marketing for Multi-Partner Firms

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Debra Andrews
Debra Andrews

Patrick, I loved the blog post. That anecdote about Betty Crocker is very interesting; I'd never heard it before!

In your experience, what is the best way to get shareholders/partners to take ownership of the  marketing plan?  I always keep a firm's leadership involved in the planning process, but it is sometimes hard to get valuable contributions from those partners with no interest in marketing. The partners who DO believe in marketing end up "owning" the plan, while the partners with little interst in marketing don't participate in creating the plan and therefore reject certain tactics when it comes time for the plan to be implemented.

Does anyone have recommendations as to how I may get even the marketing "non-believers" to participate?

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Patrick McLoughlin
Patrick McLoughlin

Please forgive me Debra for taking so long to respond.  Somehow, I managed to miss your response.

It is a difficult question.  It’s not so bad if the partners are united in the future direction of the firm.    

Ideally, we want to get partner buy-in from brainstorming to putting a loose provisional plan in place.  If we can get the partners to poke holes in the plan and agree improvements they might just take ownership.

It's all a lot easier to say than do though!

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