Digital has changed the face of professional services marketing.
The battle for business is increasingly being played out on the digital field.
Clients and prospects now routinely turn to online channels as part of their supplier selection process.
As stakeholders’ online expectations and behaviours shift, what does this mean for professional service client acquisition?
In the pre-digital landscape, the purchasing journey for professional service firms’ prospective clients was, relatively speaking, straightforward.
The process started with a problem or need that the prospect was seeking to address. They approached the firm and the firm’s professionals were on hand and involved early on, helping to establish the decision-making criteria.
The ‘marketing job’ of old was, put simply, to build networks of contacts (usually local) and to produce materials promoting the firm’s services.
Then along came digital.
A Period of Discovery
While today’s purchasing journey still starts with a problem or need, the next steps have moved on somewhat.
Prospective clients are now undertaking their own ‘silent’ discovery process, using the web to carry out preliminary due diligence to shortlist potential suppliers.
And in the B2B context, where multiple decision makers are carrying out their own individual research, the process becomes even more complex.
This extended phase of investigation takes place at a distance, potentially pushing back interaction between prospect and firm until much further down the purchasing process. Which has considerable implications for professional service firms wanting to positively influence and engage with target audiences in advance of a purchasing decision.
Reacting to these shifts in client behaviour, many professional service firms have embraced digital marketing to build influence, visibility and loyalty. For these firms, online platforms offer essential stakeholder touchpoints as part of the wider marketing mix. This is business-critial in an age where people are inundated with choice and options for suppliers.
Some firms however seem yet to either be convinced or able to refocus their efforts to include digital marketing, still relying heavily on traditional sources of work.
Taking an ‘if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it’ approach undoubtedly constitutes a business risk in a period of such rapid change and while the competition forges on ahead, gaining ground online.
Such firms are overlooking the substantial potential of digital within the pre-purchasing stage to build awareness and attract work.
Leveraging Digital for Influence
The proliferation of digital channels has precipitated a shift within professional services marketing back to content publishing. And rightly so. Because published content is the tool that breaks through the silent due diligence – initiating a conversation between the firm and its prospects.
By creating useful resources and sharing insight, firms can anticipate and address their prospects’ and clients’ underlying needs.
Social media for example has opened up contact points between firms and their stakeholders like nothing before. By generating and distributing content in relevant and appropriate formats and channels, firms can make a valuable contribution which, if correctly positioned, can be accessed and utilised as part of the prospect’s discovery process.
Where content is utilised effectively, and the message and experience resonates, firms can maximise their chances of being invited into the purchase process. Whereas those firms not actively contributing lack online visibility and risk missing out.
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Although prospects today may not begin their journey looking to develop an ongoing relationship with your firm, or any other organisation for that matter, as firms engage in ways that are useful, relevant and of benefit, the transition from unknown prospect to valued client becomes wholly plausible.
Importantly, this all happens outside of a traditional sales environment. Content (‘good’ content) seeks to be helpful to prospects, not to sell to them. This moves firms away from a position of heavy bias towards an advisory capacity; complementing the very nature of professional services.
This also empowers prospects to evaluate for themselves the suitability and appropriateness of potential advisers at a distance, without pressure or sense of obligation.
Client focus is of course nothing new. But digital technologies are empowering clients to demand that professional service firms no longer pay lip service to it.
For example, digital technologies offer unparalleled scope for market research and client insight. Social media should be utilised as a listening tool, enabling firms to shape new propositions and approaches based on the intelligence gained that will satisfy demand, and attain vital competitive advantage.
Clients are also a primary source of digital word of mouth. Peer-to-peer recommendations can make or break future purchases. Leveraged well, firms can build up a community of positive advocates to support generating additional business.
So while the explosion of digital technolgies has created a more protracted purchasing process, it has also multiplied the opportunities for professional service firms to have meaningful interaction with extended stakeholder groups.
This equates to a mutually beneficial scenario whereby clients and prospects gain access to helpful, quality information, enabling more informed decision-making, while firms are able to showcase capability, build brand awareness and gain valuable insight into clients’ needs and expectations.
Service Delivery – the Disruption Continues!
New technologies continue to proliferate and will be adopted at even greater speeds to keep pace with market demand, competition and client expectations.
The objective has to be for firms to be both visible and accessible within their target audiences’ preferred marketing channels, while offering a seamless, personalised and predictive digital experience.
Firms need to be in a state of constant vigilence toward environmental factors that do/can/may impact business – of which digital is one (and a big one at that). The requirement is to continually evaluate the relevance and effectiveness of emerging online technologies in helping to meet stakeholder needs and achieve your business goals.
Disruptive technologies are prompting organisations to reconsider their value propositions and capability in meeting and anticipating client needs. Many are promising to alter the fundamentals of firms’ interaction with their stakeholders.
Exploring and investing in emerging and evolving platforms will remain an ongoing challenge for firms as they strive to take account and control of how digital supports their promotional activities and online value proposition.
At any one time, firms should have on their agenda the analysis of current and potential disruptors, which at present should at the very least include the Internet of Things (inter-connected, intelligent devices), mobile technology (in response to users moving away from desktop access to mobile devices) and shifts in multi-channel behaviour (incorporating several channels to complete a single task or transaction).
Another area is big data. While this may seem a bit ‘last year’, the reality is, it has yet to become a common feature within professional services. Data collection, predictive analytics and marketing automation all require investment, expertise, adaptability and high levels of coordination across functions, which at present most professional service firms are yet to achieve, or even explore. But firms will at some point have to look in this direction if they are to build and enable predictive and personalised online experiences.
This year everyone is talking about Artificial Intelligence. In the legal sector alone, a number of firms have launched their first forays into AI, vying for the coveted position of market innovator or early adopter.
There is a buzz about this fast emerging area, but whether this momentum translates into mass adoption, and at what pace, remains to be seen. It will also be interesting to see the extent to which professional service firms adopt AI software and technologies – and in the same move ‘replace’ human talent or adjust their talent needs – in the pursuit of client satisfaction, enhanced efficiency and improved profitability. If the technology is there for firms to go beyond automation and incorporate machine-learning and responsive process adjustment, surely clients will soon come to expect it?
Far from presenting threats, digital marketing offers professional service firms valuable opportunities to drive client acquisition, build loyalty, awareness and trust, and exploit innovation. It is for professional service firms to find ways to stay on top of emerging technologies and shifting client expectations, while continuing to distinguish their brand, services and proposition from the competition.
We are highly experienced and incredibly passionate about making digital marketing work for professional service firms. For more information take a look at our digital marketing services for professional services or get in touch by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
Gill specialises in content and social marketing for professionals, including law firms and accountancy practices.
Gill can be contacted by email: email@example.com or by mobile: 07715 414364.
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