A New Era in Competing For Clients

By Bruce Marcus, The Marcus Newsletter

The conversations with Professor Philip Kotler, and Larry Smith’s findings and their interpretations in his book Inside/Outside, focus on what may be an unheralded change in professional services marketing.

From the time of the Bates Decision (Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 1977), which laid the groundwork for a new era of marketing for professional services, until now, professional services marketing has concentrated on the traditional tools of marketing – the press release, the newsletter, the seminar, the brochure, etc.. These were tools developed in the long history of product marketing, applied to the short history of professional services marketing. They worked fitfully, awkwardly, and not always very well.

But now we can indeed enter a new era in professional services marketing, and break away from the constraints of trying to fit product marketing functions to professional services marketing.

I believe that in professional services, more than in product or nonprofessional marketing, marketing is not the tools – it’s the structure and culture of the professional firm instead. The tools of marketing are merely information delivery devices, conveying the firm’s culture to a market.

I know that we’ve been talking about firm culture for a long time, but merely skirting an intensive view of its meaning. We’ve been talking, too, of strategy being more important than the tools and vehicles of marketing. What we have not seen, I believe, is the reality that what a firm is is more important than what a firm is able to say it is with traditional marketing techniques. With all our talk about culture, we still concentrate on the tools and techniques. It’s the wrong way around.

I’ve been nagged for some time by the observation that the best marketing being done since Bates has not been done by the marketers, but by the firms themselves. The firms that began to grow following Bates were those that instinctively realized that the future lay in developing new and innovative services to meet the needs of their clientele. They broke the traditional mode of the self-centered professional firm to become client oriented. They did it, and we marketers merely promoted it. But the essence of the success was not in what the marketers did – we were merely the messengers. The success sprung from what the firms themselves did.

The most successful firms are the ones that recognize this, and rely on the marketers to simply organize and convey the information. These firms are the ones that understand that their professional practice is shaped not by an abstract concept of professionalism, but by an understanding of the needs of their clients, and by shaping the practice to meet those needs.

While it’s true that the quality of the product is important to product marketing, promotion still dominates. The evidence is strong that good marketers can sell almost any product that isn’t downright bad. They can create needs and desires where none existed before. The marketers dominate. But lawyers and accountants can’t create need or desire where they don’t exist. They can only change the nature of their services and their firms to meet the needs of their clients. And we marketers merely convey the message.

Peter Drucker has said that the purpose of a company is to create a client. I believe that marketing is making a firm viable to serve the needs of its market, and then projecting the fact of that viability. With a product, it can be done with promotion. Promotion sells the product. Promotion, in product marketing can create that need. Promotion, in professional services marketing, can’t create need.

With a professional service, it can be done only by focusing professional practice on the needs of a clientele. Promotion, in professional firm marketing, is simply a knowledge management tool, used to distinguish one firm from its competitors, to impart the firm’s skills, and to enhance reputation. The tools and vehicles of marketing are merely commodities, albeit some marketers are better and more artful at using them than others. The more valuable role of marketers, then, should be to help firms structure themselves to better serve the needs of the markets. We should focus on building firm marketing cultures, and not on simply applying the tools we all now know how to use so well.

My point is that we know a great deal now about how to convey the message. The challenge for the future is how to shape the practice competitively. That challenge is as much for the firms themselves as it is for the professional marketer.

Copyright 2004 by Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved. Contact: marcus@marcusletter.com

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