Running a professional services firm in this modern, highly-competitive market is both exciting and challenging. It has always been a difficult sector to master. Now that new unexpected factors – mobile technologies and artificial intelligence - are being thrown into the mix, some consulting businesses find themselves struggling. That’s where market positioning via thought leadership can come in handy.
If we look at how the accountancy sector has changed in the last couple of years, self-service mobile apps like Quickbooks and Sage have made quite a few accountants redundant. This is only the beginning. According to a recent study commissioned by the White House, up to 47% of U.S. jobs could disappear in the next 20 years on account of artificial intelligence and automation.
Of course, it’s predominantly the lower-paid jobs that are at most risk, however, there are already examples of services-based businesses taking a massive hit. The profession of travel agent has been eliminated almost in its entirety through the advance of travel websites and apps.
There is also an increased pressure that some established professional services firms are receiving from younger and more agile players – some accountancy firms are repositioning themselves to also play the roles of wealth management experts and even insurance brokers.
Less agile players will fall off the bandwagon
Russ Alan Prince, the wealth management contributor at Forbes proposes a scenario by which all professional services companies will eventually divide into two classes – the Elite and the Struggling.
The trend is already visible in some parts of the sector. If you compare the current Elite and Struggling, the latter don’t necessarily lack competency. We see many small to medium size businesses that have a wealth of experience and prowess yet due to a disjointed marketing effort, they gravitate more and more towards the Struggling class. What it comes down to is professional services marketing skills and to be more precise – elements like branding and market positioning.
To be able to generate more leads for professional services, the firms need to position themselves as thought leaders. One of the main stumbling blocks on the road to the thought leader status is the internal attitude towards marketing in general.
Learn to love marketing
A study looking at how an in-house Marketing Department is viewed within the professional services industry, revealed that the current role of a Marketing Department is seen as inefficient and as a waste of money. The prevailing mindset is that it’s more important to work on existing customer retention and to rely on word-of-mouth and referrals than actively pursuing strategies that are capable to generate more leads for professional services firms.
This is a very narrow-minded and failure-prone way of looking at things. Us, marketers, can be annoying, especially when we start telling you, professionals, that you need to carve out a spare slot in your busy schedule to write blog posts or to interact with random strangers on social media. However, we can prove that through correct market positioning, your consultancy can become a thought leader.
Who is a thought leader
In a broader sense, a thought leader is someone who is perceived as an expert and the go-to person in their field of expertise. If a journalist or a blogger wants to write an article about the future trends in, for example, fiduciary accounting, he will need guidance from a professional because it’s a complicated topic. Who is he going to call for a quote – yourself or your competitor?
How do professionals become thought leaders? The first step is market positioning, which is a creative process of shaping consumer (and influencer) perception of your brand.
How to position your brand?
There are different ways you can position your brand. RattleBack – a branding consultancy firm from Ohio suggests three types of market positioning for professional services:
- Horizontal positioning – achieved by building expertise in a narrow niche that results in a high-value offering but low breadth of application. Although this approach can be very lucrative it can also limit your professional services firm’s growth.
- Vertical positioning – involves building expertise to serve a number of different needs for clients by encompassing multiple industry verticals. Although this is a safer bet, it is also an easy one to get wrong unless you do proper market research because in order to deliver successful vertical positioning, you have to be confident the clients actually need all this additional expertise.
- Innovative positioning – this is what most tech startups are doing. They disrupt their industry by inventing new or better ways of accomplishing things. For example, if you can build an app that will enhance your customer experience, you will be well ahead your competition.
Methods for positioning and brand building
Brand perception is not about your website’s colour scheme or quality of your logo design. Once you’ve nailed your positioning, you should define the values and culture that make your firm unique. Immerse yourself into this branding process and thought leadership suddenly becomes easier because you are clear on your message and clear on what you can contribute to the world.
A big part of positioning yourself as thought leader is developing a message and communication vocabulary that focuses on clients’ needs rather than your own needs.
Sharing a fact that you now serve 100 clients and that your ambition is to double your client base by 2018 might look like a good snippet of bragging rights, however, it doesn’t tell the client that you understand his problem and that you have a solution for it.
If you look at successful businesses and how they communicate their brand message through their websites and other marketing materials, you’ll notice that the awards, media mentions and current clients are featured nearer to the footer or in the sidebar. The main bulk of the content is geared towards discussing the solutions.
Using inbound marketing to position yourself as a thought leader
Inbound marketing makes thought leadership a lot easier. It can be as simple a step as starting to write a blog, however, it’s not easy to persuade professional services firms that it’s the right way forward.
A survey carried out by ProfessionX showed that although most professional services firms agree that distributing thought leadership literature is an important part of lead generation strategy, they remain apprehensive about the Inbound marketing way of thinking – publishing a blog and building online tools was pushed to the very bottom of the list, together with the anachronistic remnants of outbound marketing such as cold calling.
Do you have what it takes to positioned yourself as a thought leader within your professional services sector? Get in touch with us and let’s look at your strategy.