Finding your second whale – Marketing the professional services firm

How are you different from all the other firms out there?

It seems every week, we talk to just another professional services firm trying to kick-start their marketing and sales process. We sit down with the founder and ask, “How are you different from all the other firms out there?”

When we ask that question, we get the same answers:

  • we have a global delivery model
  • we are client centric
  • we put people first
  • we are domain experts
  • we really understand our clients
  • Yay! Welcome to the club.

With those credentials, you are beautiful and unique, just like every other snowflake.

Your competitors have the same answer. They have a global delivery model, are client-centric, put people first, are domain experts, and really understand their clients.

So, if you are just another professional services shop, what do you do when it comes to answering the question: How are you different from all the other firms out there?

There are several interrelated answers to this question, but probably the most important answer is “trusted customer relationships.” For growing professional services firms, trusted customer relationships are even more important than messaging, positioning, defensible niche creation, and even company culture.

Trusted Relationships and Hunting Big Accounts –  the founder’s problem of scale

Say the word “trusted customer relationships,” and many definitions and meanings come to mind. Each definition has a different context. In this case, we need to be very specific about context, so we want to discuss a very specific scenario.

In our work with professional services firms in the $1 to $10 million/year revenue range, we generally see a founder who has left a senior Fortune 500 position to start a company. As a first customer, the new entrepreneur lands his account by selling services back to his former employer—a whale (a large farmable account capable of more than $1M annual billings and a well-known brand or reputation).

At face value, in this scenario, other than a trusted relationship, there is very little that differentiates the consultant’s business from the competition. All things being equal and aside from marginal differences in talent, culture, expertise, and methodology, almost every other $1M to $10M competing services firm can do a job as well as any other.

So when we talk about trusted customer relationships, we’re talking about founders who have leveraged a deep pre-existing relationship to become entrepreneurs. This relationship was built over many years through interaction, integrity, success/failure, transparency, and consistency.

Because of the relationship, the founder brings speed and nimbleness to problem-solving. This is because he or she has an intuitive grasp of the project goal (i.e., the benefit to the company) AND the culture’s style of generating support for the goal AND the culture’s preferred style of organizing execution toward the goal. Together, all this means a relationship that is hard to duplicate.

The problem of scaling this kind of relationship begins when the founder wants to find another major whale-sized account that is just as profitable and farmable as the first major account.

The entire problem of finding the second whale is creating what was “second nature” with the founder’s former employer. How do you replicate in the selling, marketing, and delivery process the relationships that were created over time through interaction, integrity, success/failure, transparency, and consistency?

The answer (and the currency by which the trust is established, earned and scaled) is USEFULNESS.

In sales processes, conversations, relationships, personal networks, and persuasion have always been the de facto currency. If people buy from people and if a brand is really the sum total of a customer’s interaction with a company, then it follows that in B2B, the founder’s personal brand is really all that matters when it comes to finding the next whale.

And, if you accept the fact that, for professional services firms of this size, the definition of a successful marketing and sales campaign could be the addition of one new whale per year. In this context, the sales and marketing discussion takes on an interesting new perspective.

The web and social media did not create the idea of a personal brand. Leading with value and emphasizing relationship value over a quick transaction have always been the hallmarks of successful professional services organizations.

The only difference that social media makes is that the technology finally got granular enough and accessible enough and instantiated enough to be useful in facilitating this level of the ageless human dialog of value exchange.

The tendency of people to become known through repeat encounters is as old as walking upright – and establishing a brand of credibility and openness to repeat transactions is earned by being accessible and broadly useful to the challenges prospects face – across the whole lifecycle of the problem solution.

Me too webinars and co-op vendor funds

Unfortunately, many founders of professional services organizations somehow got disconnected from this simple truth. You can see this in their marketing departments—day after day, churning out me-too webinars with co-op vendor funds. If everyone uses the same campaign materials and sells the same products, then there is no differentiation.

For that and many other reasons, a dedicated emphasis on personal branding may overlap and replace some of the “traditional” tactics in marketing’s tool chest. The highest value of these personal branding activities is how they reach past the product attributes and into the underlying human issues beneath the problem the prospective company is experiencing.

Growing professional services firms must take the next step to scale personal branding.  Marketing’s ability to speak to, or at least package the pitch, to speak to this broad set of human issues is the leg up that the sales organization needs to stand out, be remembered, and be valued as sources of solid thinking, not just products.  Again, before trusted advisor, before regular meetings, even before someone recognizes your name comes USEFULNESS – which we believe is the new universal method for finding and growing a business through new sales.

This is not to say that this approach should completely replace the “core” business-building activities. Over time, however, it will replace the shopworn marketing tactics that just aren’t working like they used to. Marketing will soon be measured by its ability to reach into the inner recesses of the decision process around every significant buying decision. Buying decisions are so complex within major accounts that nothing other than pure USEFULNESS could penetrate the dialog.

Great salespeople have always done this—communicated the solution when it was time, then spoke specifically about how it could be sold inside by the champion, how it would be implemented, and the benefits that would accrue. Equipping the internal champion to carry the message further and generate some kudos for himself in the process is natural.

Tom Searcy, author of “Hunt Big Sales,” says, “People only buy what they can safely sell to others, or defend if challenged. Our job as whale hunters is to equip and train the buyers to defend themselves from the attacks that will come later.”

In such a discussion, you first get to cross over into the advisor role, almost coaching the internal champion on how to make the case succinctly for your solution. Not only is this valuable, but you quickly pick up other cues about the company’s comfort level with the disruption that comes with change, entrenched interests and some of their agendas, priority of the need against other investments the company is making, etc.  These are exactly the kind of things that are “walking around knowledge” for the recently exited employee when he hangs out his shingle and sells services to his former employer.

In transferring this knowledge to new whales, over time, the more useful encounters you have with the prospect/customer, the more quickly you can equip them to defend themselves and eventually co-own your goal. Co-owning a goal is not just implementing the solution but helping your internal champion adequately share and evolve the problem and its solution.

Co-ownership explores how the whale’s culture generates appropriately widespread concurrence on this problem. How does it get on the priority list of problems to be attacked? How does the company’s culture establish resources for those sufficiently high-priority problems it decides to attack? What is the current decision-maker’s role in those deliberations about priority and resources?

When these questions are answered, THEN, only THEN can the sales machinery begin sketching a proposal that speaks to prospective solutions AND how to help steer consideration of those solutions through the company’s internal machinery, equipping the current decision-maker to advance the dialog, not just show a product list and price sheet from a vendor.

Trying to short-circuit this natural process is much like getting married on a first date. It only happens to a lucky/unlucky few.

The sales process must be a value-add to stand out from the competition’s.  As satisfying as it would be to sit in a prospect’s office and take an order, most substantial-dollar transactions cast a 6 to 18-month shadow in front of them. Helping with the decision dynamics of getting your solution chosen is a way to equip your internal champion, to lead with value, and to stand apart from the show-up-and-throw-up types.

In our experience working with professional services organizations, the one true differentiator that separates one firm from another is the relationship it has with clients. Unfortunately, this aggregate concept is tired, shopworn, and not even a memorable cliché.

Yet, if the personal relationships of the firm are the true differentiator, then the co-ownership of problems that keep the project on track, on the priority list (to preserve resource allocation), and interim results appropriately socialized to maintain support.  These dimensions are what is inside the “relationship” concept, and the goal of ever more familiarity is to have an ever faster grasp of the goal of co-ownership.

The ideal scenario for finding the next whale begins with discovering the client’s pain points, challenges, or problems—because then the dialog can begin about possible solutions. All too often, in the rush to “close the deal,” we’ve seen too many founders jump straight from this discovery to an internal mapping back to their company’s potential products and services for addressing the prospect’s problems.

Instead of rushing to a solution, co-ownership should begin with a fresh perspective about the issues surrounding the problems, solutions, challenges, and benefits, untethered to a promotional push to sell the products. The intellectual property related to the solution provider’s area of specialty can be scattered around like seeds to find fertile ground wherever it can.

This really is where the payoff is when it comes time for the customer to source his next solution – it shows when the salesperson gets the call telling him of the need, it shows in the degree of involvement in helping shape understanding of the need, perhaps even contributing to the internal defense document to secure funding.

This is far beyond “will the prospect know whom to call” when he needs something.  In every case, the IT services firm that wins disproportionately is the one that has established trusted relationships with clients, possibly many years in advance of projects.

Recurring features of trusted relationships include:

SKIN IN THE GAME.  Perhaps this is better framed as alignment. Do you have skin in the game? Are your fees tied to the client achieving their project goals as well as their business goals? How closely is your success tied to the client’s success?

TRANSPARENCY. This is another component of co-ownership. When your profitability is aligned with the client’s goals, transparency and trust are built into the transaction.

RELATIONSHIPS. Invariably, project success will involve interactions beyond just the salesperson and the internal champion. To what degree does the salesperson have relationships with sources of special knowledge or experience when helping refine a solution?

ACCUMULATED LEARNING.  The essence of repeat interaction is that no one has to start from a blank sheet to establish a baseline understanding of the challenge, the resources, the culture, and the goals.  The salesperson with a trusted relationship is all this “on steroids.”  Not just having access to previous purchases but having notes about issues learned while implementing the solution, technical notes, people notes, management hot buttons, etc., that broaden the reach of the internal champion as he navigates the project.

The items listed above, when appropriately investigated, can lead you to the answer of what is different. It can help you help the client mitigate risks (and, in some cases, share risk) as well as understand your critical thinking abilities.

If product specs, delivery times, rates, and service level guarantees are all very close and can be put on the IT “menu,” where can the differentiation come from?  As all veteran sales stars know, the differentiation happens when you human beings finally make sense of chaos — when data becomes information, specs are aligned with goals, project timelines get fleshed out, and dollars are allocated.

The professional services menu of services can be neat, clinical, and rational; the messy part is in the eating. No one ever gets nourished by consuming the menu.

Want to talk about growing your professional services firm? Finding your 3rd or 15th whale? Ways to improve this article? Touch base, send me a note, I’d love to chat.



macon Raine