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An interview with David Gumpert


Interview by: James Nelson

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David GumpertIn the USA, David Gumpert is a nationally known writer on professional services and entrepreneurship, where he writes extensively for Business and The Nation.

Formally an editor with The Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review, he has authored and co-authored eight books on various aspects of business planning and starting a business, including How to Really Start Your Own Business and Burn Your Business Plan.

He talks here about the marketing implementation issues facing professional service firms.

How would you describe the current market realities for professional service firms?

David Gumpert:

Service professionals are only now beginning to face several new marketing realities. More than ever before, organizations are much more cost-conscious about buying-in professional services, and they are shopping around more than was previously true. The competition among professional service firms has become fierce and long-time personal relationships now count for less.

What specific implications does this have for professional services?

David Gumpert:

The three most important ones are the need to add value, the need to cross sell and the need to market effectively.

To adding value, it is more important than ever for service professionals to add value to the services they provide. A lawyer or accountant who can put the management of a fast-growing company in touch with venture capitalists or investment bankers for essential financing is an example of how value can be added. But such added value can come in smaller ways. Electronic or print newsletters and booklets that provide useful information and advice are being used by firms to add value. Or a consultant who uses contacts with the financial press to get a client favourably quoted is also adding value.

Looking at cross selling, this involves attracting existing clients to purchase additional services from the same firm. Some law and accounting firms have added various consulting services to handle particular needs like IT processing or the regulatory challenges of particular industry areas like healthcare or biotechnology. Unfortunately, in many large professional service firms different practice areas or groups often work separately from each other and fail to communicate effectively. For example, those working with clients in estate planning or environmental matters may not be in touch with corporate or real estate colleagues about opportunities for selling those services to existing clients, and vice versa.

To promote effectively, service professionals must find new ways to get their names and qualifications in front of potential new clients. Many professionals are uncomfortable with the type of advertising done by consumer product companies. Yet anyone who works extensively with service professionals knows how many interesting and newsworthy developments take place within these firms, including industry surveys and reports about leading-edge trends. Service firms are often working with clients to develop innovative financing, manufacturing and IT techniques. Yet few of these developments get public exposure. And when they finally do, competitors often get the credit.

How has the Internet changed the rules of the game in how professional service businesses approach and manage their marketing?

David Gumpert:

It’s just another medium. One we never had before which transcends distance. On the Internet a business needs to make a big statement in a very small space. So the name and logo may be reduced to just several centimetres and still be very visible, understandable and memorable. In design, if the company’s services are on the website and they all look as if they’re from separate service providers, then you are not going to make a very strong statement. So firms need to think through what their visual presence on the Web should be like. But essentially it’s just another added medium. Of course, the identity should not be any different than the one in other mediums.

Why have so many professional service firms been slow to respond to the new competitive environment?

David Gumpert:

Much has been written about the strategic issues that professional service firms must deal with. These issues include fundamental matters such as determining a firm’s strategy, identifying emerging practice areas, segmenting markets, and organizing effectively.

Because marketing is a recent requirement for many service firms, matters previously taken for granted by many companies haven’t been adequately addressed by senior management. Firm partners often become so involved in strategic issues that matters concerning practical marketing  implementation are often overlooked. For example, assembling necessary client and prospect data, effectively coordinating activities between admin staff and professional personnel, exploiting the best print or electronic vehicles for reaching client prospects, and involving service professionals in outreach efforts.

What are some examples of the most glaring deficiencies?

David Gumpert:

They are really very basic issues, but they seem to be troublesome for many professional service firms. Key among these are:

Maintenance of client and prospect lists. Without up-to-date and properly maintained lists of clients and prospects, it is impossible to communicate with them effectively and efficiently – a key aspect of marketing implementation.

In some cases, different groups or practice areas with the same firm maintain lists and e-mail addresses using different categories, making integration of the lists nearly impossible. In other cases, individual consultants, lawyers and accountants keep their own personal lists which are never incorporated into the firm’s master file. Sometimes lists of prospects and past clients become hopelessly out of date. I know of a large consulting firm which discovered that a large mailing of newsletters and articles to promote the firm were either returned by the postal service or discarded at corporate mail rooms because the people to whom they were addressed had left or moved to new locations.

Effective internal communications. Many professional service firms have added staff members who specialize in various aspects of marketing, public relations, promotion, webcasting and publication production. These staff members are intended to help develop and implement strategies, but in many firms their role and their talents aren’t taken as seriously as they should be. Part of the reason is that traditionally the people with the most authority in professional services are those who have been accepted as partners, or the equivalent. Staff members usually can’t become partners and tend to be regarded as “second class citizens“ whose opinions and roles aren’t essential to the firm.

Service professionals who succeed will be those who come to grips with the necessity of getting down into the trenches.”

A result of this is that while partners are so preoccupied with serving clients they fail to follow through on marketing implementation. Meanwhile, marketing staff members often fail to learn about important opportunities for gaining publicity and other market exposure for the firm, such as from surveys, unusual client engagements, speeches given by partners and other developments. For instance, service professionals are in some cases using leading-edge techniques to help clients improve productivity or save overhead costs. Appropriate publicity for these techniques could help attract new clients. But the marketing staff must be aware of the activities before they can be expected to contact the news media.

Reaching out to prospects and clients. While there is an abundance of electronic and print vehicles for communicating with prospects and clients, firms too often approach these vehicles in a hit-or-miss way, and when one approach does not work they abandon all of them. One vehicle that is especially difficult for professional service firms to implement is the corporate brochure. Because a brochure goes to the very core of a firm’s identity, many firms find it difficult to gain agreement among the partners. They sometimes agonize for months over the brochure content so that it may be outdated when finally approved.

Personal involvement of professionals. Because professionals are preoccupied with maximizing their chargeable hours, marketing implementation is hard for many to justify. Why should they spend time writing for an electronic newsletter or preparing for a speech when they could be charging out time at high hourly rates. Yet it is personal involvement by professionals that enables staff members to do their jobs effectively and allows the firm to reach out to prospective clients who are crucial to future growth.

So professionals must cease being aloof from the marketing fray, and not be afraid to jump in and get their hands dirty?

David Gumpert:

Yes, fundamentally service professionals should be seeking to position their firms as being the best at what they do. They must convince their clients and prospective clients that their firm has the solutions to the client problems.

The next step is for them to get their name in front of existing and prospective clients and referral sources on a regular basis, in a tasteful and positive way. Ideally, outsiders should see the firm’s name together with some written material of substance at least every other month. Partners should obtain invitations as speakers before important business organizations likely to have client prospects. Service professionals who succeed in this will be those who come to grips with the necessity of getting down into the trenches, and getting their hands dirty in the process. That means tending to the seemingly grimy details, to include:

Get lists in order. Service professionals who are going to publish articles, newsletters and brochures, must have people to send them to. This list has to be in proper order before material is ready to send out. Otherwise, professionals and staff could end up spending weeks getting the list together, and by the time everything is in order the article or newsletter planned for mailing may be out of date. Ideally, a firm’s list contains the names not only of current and past clients, but of prospects and referral sources as well. If it doesn’t, professionals should give priority to assembling such a list.

Commit to a regular programme. Few marketing and sales approaches work on a one-time basis. They must be re-enforced by regular follow-ups. For a firm that is just getting started on a marketing communications programme, it is usually best to start small and inexpensively. As results and experience accumulate, it’s possible to work up toward more expensive techniques. In the world of marketing communications, bigger and more expensive is not always more effective.

Two of the most cost-effective marketing communications programmes are house publications and public relations. Electronic house publications are the best approach for getting started quickly. It’s possible to have material in front of clients and prospects within weeks of beginning efforts. The two main vehicles are client advisories and newsletters. Client advisories can be as simple as writing about the implications of recent legislative or tax law changes, while newsletters have the advantage that the firm commits to a set production schedule to get its name in front of clients and providing real benefits at the same time.

Public relations involves getting firm and partner names in front of people by being quoted in the press, writing articles for periodicals and giving talks and speeches. PR efforts require time to bear fruit because the details are often being planned many months in advance. However, public relations need not be difficult, intimidating or expensive for professionals who are able to target the right outlets, some examples being:

Getting quoted in the press. When articles are being written about something that concerns a professional’s area of expertise, encourage reporters to call for comments and observations. For that to happen, professionals must let the right reporters and editors know about their qualifications. Often, reporters and editors are grateful for assistance and ideas because they need ongoing contact to experts. Simply monitor the newspapers and magazines in which you want to be quoted and think about how you might be of assistance to them with editorial commentary.

Getting published. Having an article published in a magazine or journal that goes to prospective clients need not be difficult. Publications are often looking for appropriate material, and professionals can call editors to suggest topical ideas. Or, if a professional has already written an article, send it along to the editor who is responsible for that topical area.

Specking engagements. Professionals should learn which organizations attract the people they want to reach. Then make contact with the individuals who arrange the programmes. Locating the right person may take some networking, but organizations need good speakers and often welcome the chance to have new faces speak to their members.

Any final thoughts?

David Gumpert:

Just that the days of service professionals looking down their nose at self-promotion and public relations are over. Those who engage in it regularly and combine it with effective client service will be the ones to prosper.

July 2008.