By Mark A. Miner
In the realm of professional services, competition has never been more fierce and the need for differentiation more acute. Firms which provide services by highly educated, licensed experts are increasingly viewed as commodities, where outcomes are expected and their work perceived as identical to competitors.
At the same time, in an economy with virtually full employment, talent shortages in the professions are at epidemic levels. Recruiting is exceptionally difficult without blowing out reasonable compensation structures or lacking creative programs of stock awards, signing bonuses, student loan payoffs and other incentives.
What magic potion can firms use to set themselves apart, pre-qualify credentials, regularly land on shortlists, receive more requests for proposals and become the pursuit, not the pursuer? How do they flip the dynamic to their advantage as a desired go-to resource, trusted problem solver and employer of choice?
It’s difficult to tackle these issues when a firm’s professionals are on the clock and under great pressure to bill time to clients. Every single day, the billable tenth of an hour remains supreme and the marketing process a distraction from the primary mission of maximizing earning power and minimizing overhead time.
What’s a firm to do to stand out?
Part of the solution is to showcase people through storytelling. The old saw that “people are our most valuable asset and walk out the door every night” is as true now as ever.
Why is it, then, that firms’ communications regularly obscure people and their unique human skills? Is it any wonder that the commodity perception exists when human-ness is absent?
Some firms fear that by touting specific people, they’ll be poached by rivals – the idea that the “spouting whale gets harpooned.” Others say that the firm name and brand come before any particular individual and that as a team, no one should outshine any other. Yet others will say their work speaks for itself and so choose to showcase only technical competency and completed projects.
All of these concerns are valid to some degree, and every firm needs to know the limits of its risks and pain points. But in the eye of a prospective client or new hire, a marketing message without the human element of personality is not as compelling or differentiating. When people-ness is sublimated, the perception of commodity remains.
Mark Schaefer, a college friend from West Virginia University and today one of the nation’s top social media gurus, talks about this in in depth in his new book Marketing Rebellion. His thesis? In a world saturated with hype, fake news and message overkill, “the most human company wins.”
And as another friend says over and over, as vice president of sales for a nationally emerging architectural/engineering firm, “It’s still all about people.”
People always attract people. It’s always been thus but even moreso today in a society where technology increasingly pervades into our lives and so much of what we see, hear and touch is considered machine-like, artificial or a copy, pushing us further and further away from the originality of others.
People simply crave the authenticity of other people.
In the classic 1980 book Megatrends, author John Naisbitt made an observation called “high tech, high touch,” which I believe has proven accurate. His concept is that the more we are removed from other humans, over many decades, the more we crave human-ness as a touchstone for reality.
Professional services firms need to seize on this idea. What does “human-ness” look like in this context? How can firms make that element essential to their marketing communications? What can and should firms do to integrate that in all of their public outreach?
How can the “human-ness” of a lawyer, public accountant, financial planner or health care provider be conveyed in a tasteful, appropriate story without the person appearing to be showboating?
There are hosts of ways.
My top suggestions are to let clients do it for you. Or the press. Or a strategic partner you’re working with on an essential community service project. Or the bestower of an award or organizer of a prestigious conference. Or a sponsorship where your people are engaged more than just writing a check.
For years, the corporate magazine I edited for an international engineering firm featured clients who loved the coverage and sang the praises of our engineers, architects and surveyors. These articles often were republished by the trade press, extending their useful life.
For a U.S. Top 100 law firm, where I was head of media and public relations for a decade, we built face-to-face relationships with key journalists in more than a dozen U.S. cities where the firm had offices. As the dialogue became authentically two-way and trusted, reporters wrote meaningful stories that elevated the profiles and appeal of our high-powered corporate dealmakers and litigators, adding to their prestige.
One large accounting firm I’ve worked with lost two partners and an office manager to cancer within 18 months. Rather than be crushed under the magnitude of that loss, the firm went on the offensive which inspired employees and clients. We formed our own 501(c) 3 charity with one mission in mind: fund the fight against cancer. Not only did we raise meaningful funds, matched by the firm’s partners, and underwrite game-changing programs in our communities, but the firm was recognized in press stories, statewide awards and even a board seat in the local American Cancer Society unit. All of the firm’s employees were involved and served as the public face of the effort.
That’s the heart of “human-ness” in marketing the professions. It’s storytelling about trust and human interaction. It’s actively capturing the essence of what clients as humans desire. These range from understanding client finances, knowing their headaches, absolute trust, creative trouble-shooting and mental toughness. And – of course, always – it’s conveying the technical smarts and caliber of your clientele.
How firms deploy an integrated communications package is what will help change the pre-qualification dynamic and create demand that will propel them ahead of competitors.
The author is CEO of Mark Miner Communications, LLC and Minerd.com Publishing, LLC. He has been named for his work in the National Law Journal, People and Fortune magazines, and is a recipient of the Renaissance Hall of Fame Award of the Public Relations Society of America, Pittsburgh chapter. He also is the publisher of Forged in Steel, the first book connecting the dots between time-tested leadership, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Judeo-Christian values. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.