How to stay within regulatory limits while alleviating client uncertainty and building a fully differentiated brand for professionals.
The days of getting all the clients and patients a professional might need just by handing out business cards at the country club or the local watering hole are long past.
Today, accountants, lawyers, doctors, consultants, engineers, and other professional service providers are faced with the same obstacles to generating qualified leads and valuable new prospects as the rest of the digital economy. Namely, leveraging modern marketing tools and platforms to rise above the fray and get noticed in a bustling, overcrowded, and highly competitive marketplace.
But professional service providers have unique challenges as well. A one size-fits-all approach won’t work for them.
For one thing, depending on their area of expertise, professionals may have restrictive regulatory requirements that other industries don’t have to wrestle with. Lawyers, for example, have notoriously strict rules about where and how they can advertise. They can’t claim they will always win a certain type of case or make guarantees about settlement amounts. Medical services, likewise, can face heavy sanctions for making unfounded claims about what their offering can deliver.
The risks of making a mistake are bigger than just sanctions. When the manufacturer of consumer packaged goods discovers that one of their products is harmful or misleadingly marketed, they can simply take it off the market, hire a PR firm to handle the fallout, wait for the furor to pass, and try again.
The reputation of a professional, however, is not so easily repaired. Bad behavior tied to the core function of a professional service speaks poorly of the entire operation and is a black mark against the brand that can’t just be swapped out. Reputations, as they say, take years to earn and seconds to lose.
They can win back the trust of their community and clients — or simply burnish it, if it’s still intact — by taking transparent and proactive steps that prove their commitment, ethical grounding, and the bonafides of their claims. Steps like:
- Participating in peer review
- Joining self-regulation initiatives in their industry
- Earning independent and well-regarded certifications
And naturally, by then following up with marketing outreach that touts those steps across the channels they operate on, such as their website, newsletter, and social media accounts.
New products are in high demand. Consumers are fickle and always on the lookout for something unique to hit the market. The same is not true of professional services, however.
“They can win the trust of their community and clients by taking transparent and proactive steps that prove their commitment, ethical grounding, and the bonafides of their claims.”
No one wants to be a surgeon’s first attempt at a procedure. They want a veteran who has done it so many times she could do it blindfolded. No one wants their lawyer to mention this is their first time litigating a case like theirs. They want the person who literally wrote the book on the subject. For new professionals and professional services, that presents a major barrier to entry. Hence, many form partnerships with more established brands or recruit old pros and go out of their way to highlight the top performers on their roster.
Every buying decision is a journey. Prospective buyers rarely get to the opening-the-wallet stage of the process until they have taken in outside perspectives, done personal research, weighed pros and cons, and taken some time to get comfortable with their decision.
Naturally, the size and type of the expenditure will directly affect how long that journey takes and by how many steps. A pack of mints in the checkout aisle is a near immediate journey. A new car is a much longer one. The issue with professional services is that they lack some of the touchpoints consumers typically rely on in their decision making process. You can kick the tires on that new car and take it for a test drive, but that’s not feasible for a dentist or an insurance broker.
Another issue is that while consumers are familiar with the goods they buy regularly, they often know little about some professional services until the day they first need them. If you’ve never had to hire an attorney before, how would you know where to look, who to trust, how much to pay, and what kind of treatment you should expect?
“Professional services lack some of the touchpoints consumers typically rely on in their decision making process.”
The consumers of professional services need significantly more education and reassurance than other customers. The end goal for marketers is to help them make an informed decision that connects them with the right professional for their needs.
The problem with misleading or overselling a professional service is that after the service is rendered and the client is unsatisfied, they will transmit their displeasure widely. Many years ago that just meant negative word-of-mouth marketing, which was problem enough, but with the advent of social media, bad reviews travel further than ever and can be a major limiter to brand growth.
The bottom line is that marketers and brand managers of professional service providers need to go further than in other industries to assuage concerns, educate potential clients, respond rapidly to questions and complaints, and share relevant and helpful content that addresses anticipatory fears.
While discussing why he believes that spending billions on marketing for Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary GEICO is a smart decision, Warren Buffet once explained his philosophy that when a product is fungible (easily replaced by an equivalent one) like many insurance products are, the only way to generate a competitive advantage is through marketing.
GEICO’s auto insurance isn’t all that different in quality or price than State Farm’s, so to win market share, it has to out advertise them. Professional services are in a similar boat. Sure, some professionals have fancier pedigrees or nicer offices, but generally, all accountants, for example, offer similar services.
Some attempt to differentiate themselves with odd marketing, i.e., strange slogans or business names, unique promotions, or targeting small niches in the hopes of attracting broader attention. There is some usefulness to approaches like that, but it’s often limited and short lived.
“When a product or service is easily replaced by an equivalent offering, the only way to generate a competitive advantage is through marketing.”
A more sustainable strategy addresses the pain points of prospective clients, delivers marketing that educates and decreases uncertainty, and builds the brand of a professional service gradually but continuously over the long term. It plays up their natural talents and the niches where they are organically authoritative and can provide true thought leadership.
The optimal route to addressing the unique marketing needs of providers of professional services addresses all their major pain points. It strategically avoids the pitfalls of regulatory limitations, reduces buyer uncertainty by promoting the experience and qualifications of the professional (and their record of past successes), and differentiates the brand by playing up its unique selling proposition, the one area of expertise they excel at above all others.
It’s a holistic approach that is designed to entice prospects and delight existing clients to build lasting relationships.
Does your professional service need a marketing update? Hanlon has deep experience helping professionals in a range of industries, from healthcare to finance and many others. Ask us what we can do for your brand.