There Are No Shortcuts to Professional Services Growth

by | Growth Strategy, Marketing Strategy

short cuts to professional services growth

Managing partners and practice leaders dread hearing certain refrains: “Our biggest client just left for a competitor.,” “Our top consultant is quitting,” and the dreaded, “We won’t hit our number.” Among these admonitions, there’s one less frequently voiced but equally detested message: “There are no shortcuts to growing the firm.” I know it is not a welcomed expression because I’m often the one delivering this news. It disheartens many leaders because they believe they possess a hidden gem of a brand and are just one marketing campaign away from a growth inflection point.

The allure of a magical marketing tactic to turn on the “lead spigot” is tempting, particularly in slow markets. Whether it’s developing a viral campaign, rebranding the firm, changing marketing leaders, redesigning a website, or employing a “new” sales methodology, the hope is for an immediate impact. Unfortunately, no single campaign, low-cost LinkedIn ad, or cold-calling service can replace the essential elements that drive professional service growth.

Why? Because professional services’ purchase decisions are driven by three attributes: Expertise, Results, and Simpatico. These criteria can’t be neatly packaged and scaled into a marketing campaign. They are seeds that must be planted, watered, fertilized, and nurtured. In other words, they must be defined and then demonstrated over time. Buyers desire trustworthy advisors. Trust is built by consistently delivering the value promised by your firm’s Expertise, Results, and Simpatico. This level of trust requires human interaction, which cannot be rushed and is challenging to scale. This is why professional services firms thrive on referrals. 

Firms must invest in building long-term relationships that deliver value over time. 

If you want more predictable growth, stop looking for shortcuts. Focus time and resources on areas that produce trust and differentiation. Yes, it takes more time to build and execute, but once built, it is much more scalable. Get started on the right stuff today. 

Here are the areas firms should prioritize to generate more profitable revenue quickly and consistently. Many will be intuitive and easily passed over because you think you have it covered. You don’t have it “covered” if you cannot point to the strategy, goals, processes, rewards, and metrics that operationalize each area. 


Professional services sales and marketing priorities from highest to lowest:

  1. Expand services to existing clients

The easiest sale is to an existing client who loves you. Train and reward ALL your people to identify needs that lead to additional value. This requires systems that monitor and deepen knowledge across the client. Do not leave this up to chance, as many firms do. You can do better, no matter your starting point. Focus on developing a deeper understanding of your clients’ broader business challenges and how your firm can bring its expertise to bear.

  2. Reactivate prior clients

After an active client, a past client who trusts you is the easiest sale. All firms have neglected past clients that have had no interaction for months or years. This in and of itself is a tragedy. No client should be forgotten or depended on to call when they are in need. People change, roles change, and conditions change.  The skills above are transferable here.

  3. Generate referrals from current and past clients

Referrals are the main source of leads for firms. Most firms wait for them to come in. Top firms make it easier for clients to refer others by first letting them know that referrals are expected and welcomed and second by helping clients identify great referral candidates (i.e., a clear definition of an ideal client). It is the adage, “Help me help you.” You are more likely to be top of mind at referral time if you not only “check in” but provide insights and value regularly. 

  4. Leadership and Consultant relationship-building

Sales is EVERYBODY’S responsibility. That doesn’t mean cold-calling and a quota. It does mean getting out of the building or outside your single client and building your professional network. It means living with a mindset that helps others be successful and providing proactive value (making meaningful introductions, presenting career advancement opportunities, sharing helpful articles/competitive insights, or potential technology use cases, etc.) I’m amazed at how little purposeful relationship-building consultants do. They have a million excuses for not doing it (client meetings).  Firms should train their people and set the expectation that it will be done. Every moment of the day presents an opportunity to connect and demonstrate value.  It starts with a mindset.

  5. Technology Partner Sales Leads

No matter the technology platform, salespeople at your technology partners want four simple things from your relationship: 1. Quality leads, 2. Faster opportunity closes, 3. Client feature or seat expansion, and 4. Reduced customer churn. If you do not add that value, don’t expect any attention or lead reciprocity. These relationships are symbiotic and critical to the modern professional services firm. If you do not have a partner relationship owner who is rewarded for relationship KPIs, you are guilty of neglect.

  6. Tech Partner Co-marketing Leads

While Marketing for professional services firms is about brand building and demand generation, technology marketing is primarily about lead generation. Co-marketing exploits the strengths and goals of each partner. Tech providers develop the features. Service providers provide insights and use cases/case studies that demonstrate the platform’s successful real-world application. The more original and powerful the combination of those characteristics, the more attention, support, and push on the marketing front. A partner is not interested in a success story it has seen 100 times–or even five. Add more value.

  7. Inbound third-party referral (e.g., Clutch, G2, Tech partner service provider directories)

Third-party referral sources are low-hanging lead-generation fruit. Marketing should have your profiles optimized on all the relevant sites for your firm. Optimization means clear, differentiated messaging, detailed specializations in strength areas (industries, capabilities, etc.), and regular client feedback uploaded to the referral site. The lead volume will not be high, but on average, it will be the most sales-ready inbound leads your firm will see. These referrals should be a key metric in your marketing analytics.

  8. Third-party syndication/outreach (associations, collaborations, events, speaking opportunities, etc.)

Top firms, particularly those that are thought leaders, build broad and deep relationships with key industry partners. They build these relationships as thought leaders who genuinely influence the market by creating, advancing, and sharing ideas to help others. They do not show up only when it’s convenient and there is something personal to gain. They plant relationship seeds and they nurture them for everyone’s long-term benefit. Serve on boards, run committees, drive event themes, build relationships, and contribute to the organization’s success. 

  9. SEO Organic Inbound (sales-ready)

Professional services websites are not massive sales-ready lead-generating engines. They are brand-building and demand-generation tools. That does not mean that they should neglect those rare visitors who are ready for a sales conversation. Your site should have a clear call to action that makes it easy for a prospect to meet the right person in your firm. The optimal approach to this is different for each firm. It can be as simple as a phone number, a “Free Consultation”, “Connect on LinkedIn,” a “Contact Us” page, a “Talk to Sales” email link, or a Calendly meeting link. Remove all the friction you can.

  10. SEO Organic Inbound-nurtured (email)

A white paper download does not mandate an intrusive sales call. Most web visitors are not ready to buy and do not want to talk to you. However, a website visit indicates that there is a connection to the value your firm provides. One-size-fits-all automated spam emails are generally not useful. Relevant, unobtrusive valuable information is. Marketing should respond with a thoughtful and personalized follow-up that adds value and begins building trust in your brand. If and when the prospect is ready, they will respond through the appropriate channel. Again, this lead source requires a long-term mindset. 

  11. Social media (Individual activity)

So many firms think that posting to a company profile on LinkedIn should be a cheap, magical source of leads. It seldom is. I’m not saying that it is bad. I’m saying firms have unrealistic expectations. The higher return from LinkedIn comes from the work that individuals do to deliver value to their social media network. They put in the effort and time to build their brands and thought leader credentials. They do not ask marketing to share canned posts or simply like/share the firm’s generic posts. Instead, like in-person relationship building, they provide their connections with relevant, helpful insights and connections. They give more than they receive and call in favors as necessary. Great examples: BIG NAMES – Geoffrey Moore, Scott Galloway UP-AND-COMERS – Florian Heinrichs, Ryan Lucht

  12. Social media (Firmwide)


  13. Outbound Sales Development Rep (SDR)

Most firms want to believe that this channel is the lead-generation panacea. Whether it is in-house or outsourced, this channel seldom works for firms. We know from our own experience that no one likes cold calls. Why would we visit this torment on our prospects? Professional services buyers want to speak to the experts on their delivery team. An SDR generally has a fraction of the required knowledge and is an annoyance standing between the prospect and those with real knowledge. SDRs make sense when the firm has a well-oiled lead generation machine. Few firms do. 

  14. Pay Per Click (PPC)

Pay-per-click is a digital marketing model that allows advertisers to buy visits to a website rather than earning them organically through search engine optimization (SEO). Search engine advertising is the most popular. Advertisers bid for ad placement in a search engine’s sponsored links when someone searches for a keyword. PPC has many advantages including targeting ads to a specific audience based on keywords, location, etc., easily measured results, budget control, and flexible customization. While PPC can be a valuable lead generation channel, its success depends on the strategy, budget, and ongoing optimization. It is important to note that PPC just delivers traffic to the website. The website still has the uphill battle of conversion and nurturing.

  15. Social media ads

See PPC and Social media

  16. Cold email

Like the SDR above, this channel sounds so easy, inexpensive, and painless. Simply look at your own experience to glean its effectiveness. What is your perception of the brands that spam your email? How many of these intrusions have you received and to how many have you responded? Do you want to have the brand strength of essential oil salesmen, porn sites, and hackers? Email can be an effective tool. However, if you send email, make it highly personal and relevant.

Before you start

NONE of these channels produce fruit unless a firm has clearly outlined, validated, committed to, invested in, and built the essential pre-cursors to differentiate itself in the market:

  1. Clear Business/Growth strategy that takes into account the firm’s Performance Envelope
  2. An Ideal client (i.e. the client who values the value the firm provides defined by an actual Target List)
  3. An Intellectual Capital Agenda (expertise, intellectual capital, and solutions align with desired client results)
  4. Clear value proposition (built on the firm’s capabilities that address specific issues and value/results delivered)
  5. A succinct, meaningful, and differentiated POV (articulated, substantiated, operationalized, and relentlessly communicated through the channels above)
  6. Quantifiable proof points that demonstrate the firm’s expertise and results in these choices above

Conclusion: You must plant the tree before you can pick the fruit. 

Disappointing as it might be, there are no shortcuts to growth. Clients demand proof of your Expertise, Results, and Simpatico. This proof comes in human form and is best delivered through the channel priorities above. If a firm is unable or unwilling to develop and sustain these essentials, it will not drive predictable growth. It will always be looking for a shortcut and getting bad news. 

Professional services growth demands time, effort, and commitment to building relationships and demonstrating value over time. The professional services success stories are from those who have clearly defined who they are, know the value that they deliver, and attack the markets that allow them to demonstrate their “best selves.” 


Listen to this episode on “Shortcuts” on the Rattle & Pedal podcast.

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About the Author

Jeff McKay
Founder & CEO
Prudent Pedal

As a strategist and fractional CMO, Jeff helps firms set smart growth strategies in motion. He was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen. Learn more.

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