12 Steps to Transform Professional Services Marketing

by | Marketing Organization, Marketing ROI, Marketing Strategy, Most popular

Transform Professional Services Marketing

Big or small, if professional services firms want to survive, it’s well past the time to change how they think about marketing. In this article, I cover the steps that professional services firms can take to transform marketing and how they generate revenue.

Anyone who has worked in the world of professional services knows how unique the industry is and how nuanced firms can be. Professional services firms market complex, intangible solutions to what are big, public, and potentially embarrassing problems. These solutions are bought by some of the most sophisticated c-level buyers at top companies around the globe.  To add to the pressure, professionals operate from Byzantine, matrixed systems in one of the most political and contentious ownership structures, a partnership.

Firms attract brilliant, analytical, driven, and, often, insecure business minds who think they know everything about everything. As a result, most professional services Marketing functions are seen as cost centers that operate solely as productivity levers for practice utilization or as brand police who “make things pretty.”  Most professional services Marketing functions don’t understand their firm’s business and add limited strategic value. In its current form, marketing muddles along at suboptimal performance levels, squandering valuable firm resources fulfilling brochure requests and formatting proposals. High-performance marketing does not thrive in this environment.

85% of enterprise decision makers feel they have a timeframe of two years to make significant inroads on their digital transformation before suffering financially and/or falling behind their competitors.  Are Businesses Really Digitally Transforming or Living in Digital Denial, Progress, 2016

If the situation in professional services were not bad enough, Marketing as a discipline has gone through a revolution in the past decade while most firms stayed cemented in this antiquated Marketing mindset. As a result, the firms are being devoured from the top of the market where big firms are getting bigger and from the bottom where SaaS upstarts are gobbling up the market.

It’s clearly time for a change.

Here are 12 Steps to Transform Professional Services Marketing 


 1. Join the Growth School of Marketing Thought

Percentage of Firms Agreeing with the Statement: 

Our Marketing is a strategic function and a core part of the executive leadership team.” 


Three Years Ago



 ITSMA-2015 Measuring and Communicating Marketing Impact 

There are two schools of Marketing thought in professional services. In the Productivity School, Marketing exists to keep utilization high for highly-paid consultants. Marketing is a cost center. The job is to take orders and make things pretty. Its measure is production volume. In the Growth School, Marketing exists to drive profitable growth. Its job is strategic value creation.  Marketing is a REVENUE generator. Its measure is strategic IMPACT. The two marketing organizations are polar opposites in terms of leadership, capabilities, metrics, and structure. The future of professional services marketing is built in the Growth School mindset.


 2. Choose to Lead or To Follow

Professional services are about generating new ideas to big business problems, not pumping out “content.” Either you lead with your thinking or you follow others. The tier-one firms LEAD; all other tiers just follow. Try as you might, a marketing organization cannot be something different for each practice leader’s vision. There are simply not enough hours in the day and breadth of skills to excel at four key marketing areas that drive growth. As a result, your marketing strategy either is focused on leading (R&D and Demand Generation) or following (Lead Generation and Sales Support). Decide if you want to eat at the table or to pick up the crumbs.  Transform Marketing accordingly.

  READ: The Smartest Way to Allocate Your Marketing Investments


 3. Engineer Out the BS of PS

Professional services firms have a problem few other industries have: The BS of PS. The BS of PS is the organizational dysfunction created by the intangible, fungible nature of solutions, matrix structures, partnerships, billable hours, contradictory performance measures, competitive landscapes, and cultures of optionality.

High-performance Marketing functions engineer as much of the BS of PS out of the system as possible. For example, if matrix decision-making is muddled and leads to sub-optimal decisions, missed opportunities, or reputation-eroding gaffs; outline who owns important decisions and build your systems accordingly. If your firm has a culture of optionality and people choose not to take your CRM tool seriously, kill the tool and build your Marketing organization to optimize client experience through your marketing automation or onsite conversion tools. If your firm lacks the trust to cross-sell, change the culture, and build a robust account-based marketing system. If the culture won’t change, avoid account-based marketing, and eliminate time-wasting account planning and share-of-wallet metrics. Don’t communicate a collaborative brand promise that your culture can’t deliver. It will destroy your firm’s reputation. Instead, structure marketing to build a master brand that empowers each practice to command their individual business fiefdoms and sell on their own. 

The biggest challenges of digital transformation are developing new business models and strategies to increase connectivity and engagement (43%), implementing a digital strategy across the organization (39%) and recruiting employees with the right digital skills (32%). – BT CIO Report, 2016

READ: The Unnatural Act of Cross-Selling


 4. Identify Your Ideal Client

There are many benefits to honing the firm in on an ideal client. If you’re discounting your fees to close deals or creating a lot of build-from-scratch engagements, there is a disconnect between your firm and the clients your marketing structure is attracting. Consider:

– Your services are NOT good enough to command a premium.
– You’re selling to clients that do NOT value your services.
– You don’t fully understand their issues, purchasing process, buying priorities, culture, or needs.

As a result, your go-to-market strategy is sub-optimal and you’re squandering product development, marketing, sales, client service, and brand resources trying to satisfy a client that doesn’t appreciate the value you offer. Top firms have clarity about the value they offer clients; they price their services at demand equilibrium, and they build marketing organizations relentlessly focused on attracting and serving more of them.

READ: How to Identify Your Ideal Client


5. Dissect Your Ideal Client’s Buying Journey Ad Infinitum

Marketing’s number one goal is to understand the client, including his/her issues, needs, irritations, frustrations, ambitions, insecurities, goals, and pressures, and then feed that understanding back to the firm. Without this institutional understanding, marketing cannot effectively communicate brand differentiation, the line cannot innovate, and client service can’t deliver a unique client experience. This pursuit NEVER ends. A high-performance marketing structure sits upon a foundation of relentless buyer analysis that dictates systems, processes, thought leadership governance, technology, and culture.

Only half (54%) of survey respondents have completely mapped out the customer journey. This means that many companies are changing without true customer-centricity.  (The 2016 State of Digital Transformation)

READ: The Question Is Not Why Clients Buy, But How


 6. Lead with Goals, Build Process, Follow with Martech

There are some 6000+ marketing technologies available. Transforming marketing is NOT about installing a new technology so don’t get caught in a platform cult or martech-as-transformation-panacea trap. Firms need to look no further than their own CRM systems to learn this important lesson.  Yes, the modern Growth School Marketing function must exploit technology for learning and scale. But, it must use it to support the fundamental goals outlined above. Technologies enable firms to meet potential clients where they are in their buying cycle and serve them in a way that is consistent with the firm’s values and culture. Don’t jump on a cultish bandwagon or add bolt-on applications that create unwieldy technology permutations or feed bad behaviors—goals, process, technology, in that order.

According to a recent ITSMA study, a third of respondents agree that their main strategic objective for transformation is to grow revenue. Improving profitability is the second priority (31%), followed by entering new markets (29%) and improving the customer experience (25%).

READ: Aligning Marketing’s Goals with Partner Goals



7. Build Marketing Around the Client, NOT a Practice or Geography

The gravitational force will pull your marketing organization in the direction of P&L ownership (i.e. geography or practice). Budgets are often allocated and managed this way.  It’s time to dispel this antiquated perspective. Clients do not look at their world in terms of your firm’s practices or functions. They see it through their issues and worldviews. They hire firms that demonstrate that they understand their business. Structure your Marketing organization to deliver your messages by client issue. If necessary, retrofit all practice marketing into relevant issue campaigns, regardless of how the thought leadership is developed or the channels used to deliver it. Your issues will fall into macro business issues buckets: cost reduction, risk management, growth productivity, etc. that your ideal client is facing.

READ: Building the Optimal Marketing Organization


8. Build Your Marketing Organization as if Amazon Were Your Main Competitor

Firms often think they compete against a similar firm around the corner. As a result, marketing is a me-too exercise. From a marketing and client experience perspective, your competitors are Amazon, Apple, and Uber. B2B and B2C buying expectations have converged. B2B buyers now demand the personalization, responsiveness, and ease they get from their preferred online service providers. Your competitive advantage will occur at the furthest reaches of the expertise, results, and ease of doing business differentiators. These tech companies are setting the bar for ease of doing business. Building your Marketing organization to deliver anything less will leave you in your competitor’s wake.  

55% of those responsible for digital transformation cite “evolving customer behaviors and preferences” as the primary catalyst for change. Yet, the number one challenge facing executives (71%) is understanding behavior or impact of the new customer. The 2016 State of Digital Transformation

READ: The Marketing Trend Devouring Your Core Business


 9. Build Your Marketing Organization the Way Toyota Builds Cars

While your firm may never achieve the Toyota Way, it’s worthwhile to pursue the vision of delivering consistently high-quality services at the level of car maker Toyota. Continuous improvement is the hallmark of mastery and the capstone of excellence. You do not need Six-Sigma training or TQM certifications. Simply develop a habit and culture of continuously asking Why, Why, Why, Why, Why? to understand the root causes of underperformance. Don’t “fix” or build any marketing, sales, or client delivery structure until you get to the root cause. (see “Engineer Out The BS of PS” above)

READ: Building the Optimal Marketing Organization


 10. Sell Clients How You’ll Serve Clients

Clients know far too well that, “How you sell me is how you serve me.” The world is filled with blather. Don’t build a marketing organization that adds to it. Build your Marketing organization to DEMONSTRATE your brand promise, not to “communicate” it. Develop the structure and systems to onboard employees so they sell and serve consistently. That means don’t waste Marketing time, resources, and energy creating value posters and tchotchkes that add little to the client experience. Instead, invest in tools that enable the right behaviors at the moments of truth (service delivery models, rewards, sales methodologies, meeting/event protocols, CRM tools, listening skills, knowledge management tools, client research, etc.)

According to research by Miller Heiman Group and CSO Insights, 68% of B2B buyers see little or no difference between vendors, largely due to a lack of insight provided during the decision-making process.   In a survey of 500 decision-makers, only 23% of buyers said they identify sales-people as a top three resource for solving their business problems.

READ:  Three Mindsets of Long-run Salespeople


 11. Have Marketing Build It, Partners Approve It, and Marketing Run It

“Client-centric” partners demand the ability to approve marketing emails, event invitations, or any other marketing touch of a client, particularly if they have been burned before by an unauthorized outreach. It’s just a fact of life (The BS of PS), but it’s an inefficient way to run a railroad in the Internet-driven, instant-gratification, light-speed world of the 21st century. Sending an Excel spreadsheet for edits or approvals is a Productivity School tactic that has passed. Build the rules of engagement (system, timeframes, selection criteria) into your systems and processes. Then, build the marketing structure that automates these requirements. If a prospect or client requests something via your website, the prospect is in charge. Deliver as promised. Rinse and repeat.

43% of organizations with a mature digital strategy see internal departments competing to own digital as the most significant barrier to digital transformation.

12. Think Smorgasbord NOT Prix Fixe

Professional services “fish” swim in the ocean water of the complex sale. Every firm, every partner, every business developer, every buyer, every opportunity, every issue in a complex sale is unique. The communication flow is not linear and the permutations of individual interactions are infinite. Build your marketing tools to meet the needs of the people involved. Some need brochures, some tools, others just a legal pad. Some want case studies, some white papers, and others to press the flesh at events. That means Marketing must create the right number and types of gift boxes (i.e templates) and let the partners and business developers determine the gift inside (i.e modify the messaging).  Build your marketing organization to engineer out this complexity and deliver adaptability, not so it can take orders to create one-offs. Tiffany employees don’t change the color of the Tiffany box or wrap the ribbon in a knot. They help shoppers choose the beautiful gift inside the box.

READ: The Marketing Brochure and the Peter Principle


According to branding firm Prophet, marketers who have attained digital transformation have three commonalities.

  1. First, they have someone—like a CMO—who is setting the vision and leading the digital transformation charge.
  2. Second, they all have a digital transformation team or a group of individuals assigned to the task at hand.
  3. Third, companies that have reinvented themselves for the digital age are customer-centric in all that they do.

The time of executive assistants, junior designers, and GSD project managers running Marketing is over. The Productivity School of Marketing thought in professional services may be alive, but it is not well. A revolution has overtaken Marketing. The future of Professional Services marketing belongs to the Growth School of Marketing. You can change schools and start transforming today or wait to be devoured.

But make no mistake: a clear choice of thinking—and action—exists.


Be prudent.



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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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