Executives in professional services firms are the engines of growth. These professionals, who are often responsible for selling and delivering business, are looking for how best to build their reputations in ways that create new relationships and drive more revenue, and many are using their Web sites as captive publishing platforms to crank out a steady stream of “thoughtware.”
In my experience, most of these investments will fall short of delivering meaningful value to clients. The content fails to address timely, relevant business issues and provide insightful thinking. In the end, these content factories also come up short of supporting the promised growth.
In an effective thought leadership program, content development is only one of the planks. There needs to be a strong connection between building the overall brand and, importantly, positioning specific individuals — the visible experts. Without that, firms and their executives miss the personal connections that are at the heart of any professional services business. And, clearly, a robust rollout plan is essential — one that transcends the hype of any single channel (think Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, video, conferences).
Without a strategic plan that is built around what your clients want, need and value, even the most interesting ideas and insights will fail to break through the wall of noise in business communications today.
When all three planks of the platform are solidly in place, the opportunities for you to achieve visibility and drive growth increase dramatically. You become sought out for your insights, to the point of becoming magnets for new clients. Your ability to close sales improves, as does your ability to maintain margins. In short, you become the visible expert — a game changer who builds client confidence while filling the sales pipeline.
Most executives in professional services firms — consultancies, law firms, accounting and tax firms, technology companies with a services arm, and so forth — have ideas worth sharing. Indeed, firms are often chock full of experts who bring market perspective and frontline client experience to the table.
Day-in and day-out, you see your clients making headway addressing complex issues or applying innovations, and you grasp the importance of sharing leading practices and framing options in the context of your clients’ challenges. You have the potential to advance the collective thinking.
Yet you may lack visibility with the specific decision-makers and influencers you need to reach in order to grow the business.
Simply put, you struggle to find the time to crystallize your ideas — and then get them to the people and markets that matter most. Focused on running the practice, serving clients, selling, recruiting and developing talent, you have a hard time stepping away to challenge, frame and shape your thinking. In short, you lack a disciplined, strategic approach that allows you to drive the debate while building your “personal eminence.”
You’re not alone. The world of professional services is filled with “invisible experts” who aren’t sure how their ideas and points of view stack up in markets filled with lots of other experts, all of whom want to be known and valued for their insights, but none of whom seem to know how to accelerate that process of becoming known.
You’re in touch with what your clients need, but is that true for the often stretched marketing, PR, digital and communications team members who back you up? Do they understand the expertise and knowledge you command?
Beyond having access to channels that get you into the market, can they tease out the innovative ideas and insights that address your clients’ business issues? Without perspectives that add value, your firm runs the risk of offering undifferentiated services that become commodities, which show up in weak pricing power.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably one of those executives who is teeming with interesting ideas and insights. The challenge is to get those ideas out of your head and into the marketplace without tying up a lot of your time. From there, it’s a straight path to listening and engaging people in the online and in-person communities that matter.
That’s when new thinking evolves. Options surface. Ideas become more relevant. Solutions for individual clients begin to take shape. Measurable business value is created — both for your clients and your firm.
Make no mistake, speed is of the essence. Business issues surface quickly — sparked by new regulations, technology advances, leadership or ownership changes and more. The first to market with insightful thinking and novel approaches that help clients create a thoughtful path forward capture the edge and command premium rates.
Take the story of a consulting firm during the recent financial crisis. When a government agency opened bidding for a major contract, senior executives at the firm decided to go beyond just responding to the competitive RFP with standard materials on their capabilities and qualifications. They decided to showcase early-stage thinking and the unique expertise of an emerging thought leader.
Less than two weeks after bidding began, the consulting firm had placed insightful pieces on asset intelligence in prominent media, relying on the Internet as the accelerator and tapping the value of tried-and-true traditional channels, as well. As the government agency researched the competitive bids, one name popped up over and again: the visible expert with the innovative approach.
By winning the battle for ideas, the firm won the contest for the contract. That contract meant tens of millions of dollars of billable work for years to come.
The takeaways? There’s no question that eminence building must synch to the overall brand of your professional services firm. But brand value and revenue growth are sparked by the individuals who make up any firm.
So focus sharply on timely client issues. Understand how to take advantage of catalysts to uncover your insights. Seek ways to accelerate your market presence that delivers real — and measurable — impact in three areas: reputation, relationships and revenue. Moreover, take full advantage of the benefits of social media — listening, evolving and iterating ideas.
Finally, make sure your eminence plan is deliberately designed so you advance the discussion in ways that raise the bar for your clients, your firm and yourself.
Pauline Weger is chief executive of Fairfax-based Signature Thinkers, which offers branding and marketing services to businesses and nonprofits in the Washington area.