Twelve Mistakes Professional Service Providers Make in Marketing

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Excerpted from: How to Master the Art of Marketing Professional Services, by Allan S. Boress, CPA, CFE

Since 1980, we've observed the mistakes of thousands of professionals in marketing themselves and their practices.

If you can avoid these errors, your marketing effectiveness will improve dramatically.

Mistake #1: BEING PASSIVE.

It's a fact: the great majority of professional service providers and consultants ignore marketing altogether.

They're too busy "getting the work out" to invest time, thought or (heaven forbid) money into marketing. Many of them use excuses like "Our work speaks for itself." Or, "We build our practice the way we always have, through technical excellence." Or, "Marketing is demeaning to our profession." Sound like anyone you know?

Chances are, however, that you don't think that way much at all. You probably have an existing desire or interest in marketing or you wouldn't be talking this course. But there's many more of those reactive thinkers out there than you think, and here's good proof: In preparation for writing this book, we interviewed over 200 managing partners of professional firms all over the world. Firms ranging in size from sole practitioners to the largest offices of major firms. We wanted to know what these firms were doing differently in order to deal with increased competition and a changing profession.

Here are the results:

Less than 15% of the firms we interviewed were doing anything different regarding their marketing programs, being proactive in their personal marketing efforts, or even changing the way they did business with their clients from the year before. People in business love to complain, are thrilled to boast to their buddies, but few actually take action. The consensus from our interviews was that the professions, as a whole, were "too busy" to worry about generating new business or changing the way they went to market. Some had hired ‘marketing people' and assumed the issues we discuss in this course were ‘taken care of.'
That's great news for you!

That's why we say, "There is very little competition" no matter what profession you are in.

If your firm and your partners and staff aren't marketing your firm actively, you're not competition either. Is there competition? Of course there is. Who's the competition in your marketplace?

Yes, there are other firms that feed the same market that you do, but what are they doing to increase their business? Do they have a concerted effort or are there one or two of the same old people hustling business like they always have?

Perhaps there are firms where you are that are actively soliciting your clients via mail or phone. What are you doing to counteract that?

Maybe there are firms or individuals who are dramatically undercutting your fees, virtually giving away their services. You may have lost clients to these people. But does everyone, or even almost everyone, buy accounting and consulting services based on fees?


Do you go to the cheapest dentist or doctor in town?

Yes, we know there are certain parts of the country that are slower than others that are booming. We also have clients in depressed areas that are prospering. Why? Because they know how to go to market, how to sell effectively, and have the right relationships with their clients and referral sources. In this book, we'll show you how to effectively go to market.

Does that mean you won't run into people who are mostly concerned with fees, no matter how well you market? Of course not; it means that you will have the ability to attract the kind of client that you want, instead of having the marketplace tell you what it wants.

And you get to determine fees when you and your firm are heavily proactively marketing in the most effective manner!

Those firms that are marketing passive are SITTING DUCKS to their more aggressive competitors. If you haven't done much marketing in the past, now is a good opportunity, starting with this course, to get with the program.

Mistake #2: Having the WRONG EXPECTATIONS of Marketing

Take a moment and think about this question before you answer it: What's the purpose of marketing a tangible item like a personal computer or an automobile?

To create a desire? To get the name out? To get product information into the hands of the buyer? To "build a reputation?" NO!

The only purpose of marketing a tangible item is to sell it immediately! Right now! They want you to march into that dealership and buy their new Fuzzmobile this very minute! At the highest possible price! Whether you need it or not!

And, you will buy the tangible item because of the item, itself.

How many of us have had to live through that humbling experience known as purchasing an automobile? If the dealer has the car you want, at the right price, are you going to buy it even if they aren't necessarily nice, or professional, with you? You either like the tie you're looking at in the store, or you don't. The personal interaction with the seller has less to do with the purchase than the item itself.

But, that's not how people buy professional, intangible services.

With an intangible professional service, there's nothing to see, hear, feel, and smell! What you market, sell and deliver is air.

Here's proof about the different way people buy intangible services vs. tangible items: Do you get a lot of telephone calls asking to send someone over for a consulting engagement? Is your business a place where people just march right in your office off of the street with their files, sort of like those quickie haircut places? Do your clients buy your professional services "right off of the shelf," with little interaction from you? Come on - we don't think so.

We need to take a solid look at what people are really buying when they purchase professional services - THEY'RE BUYING YOU.

No matter what firm you work for, big name or no name, the ultimate decision to purchase is based on interaction with real human beings.

Yes, if you spend an absolute fortune on advertising and entertaining and "getting the word out," about five years from now, the community will more readily recognize the name of your firm. Name recognition doesn't come overnight, and inexpensively. But, all that will do, possibly, is open the door a little wider. You still will get hired, or not hired, after they meet you! There are a lot of easier and less costly ways to get your foot in the door, and we'll show them to you.

Don't ever forget this marketing axiom: People buy other people, not firms.

"Branding" is a good idea, as it makes you and your firm more readily recognizable and memorable. It will probably get you more opportunities, and we have written an entire chapter on the subject later on in the book. BUT -- It is not the major determining factor in getting the client.

No matter if you work for the best-known firm in town, or the oldest firm in town, or your firm, or Yutz and Putz, the ultimate decision to use a service provider is based on human interaction.

Perhaps in the past you, or one of your colleagues, have come back after losing a sales opportunity and explained it away saying that the prospective client wanted to go with a "bigger name firm," or something like that. Be careful. The reason for not doing business is often not the real reason. People don't like hurting other's feelings. That's the way we're brought up. So, the buyer makes up an excuse like: "Your fees are too high." Or, "We need to go with a bigger firm," to placate you. They probably won't tell you the real reason because they don't want confrontation.

Our experience as marketing consultants to all of the professions is overwhelmingly convincing that BUSINESS IS RELATIONSHIPS.

That's good news: you don't have to invest a fortune on marketing to be effective at it. You will, however, have to get involved in the marketing effort and be willing to carry out the actions learned in this course.

And, many firms think that if they conduct one seminar or run an ad, they're going to get business from it. Sorry - That's not how it works (although you could get lucky, conceivably).

Please don't forget this marketing axiom, either: "Marketing is a process, not an event." Marketing is a cumulative process, like a hurricane. Each marketing effort builds on what you've done in the past. One-shot marketing events rarely produce business - save your money and your time.

Mistake #3: BEING UNENLIGHTED as to What Works and Investing in USELESS MARKETING TOOLS

In this book we'll cue you in to the most effective marketing tools in the world.

Mistake #4: Doing "ME-TOO" MARKETING

Does your marketing look like everyone else's? Do you do the same kinds of marketing that your competitors do? Really? Sometimes we think we are doing something exceptional, but are merely recreating what everyone else is doing.

Marketing is one very important way you can separate yourself from the competition. "Me-Too" marketing dilutes your message and could send prospective clients to your rivals.

"Me-too" marketing also tends to be quite boring. Avoid uninteresting marketing - professionals and consultants need to garner as much attention, in a professional manner of course, as possible because the very nature of what you do can be construed by the public as not necessarily fascinating nor even that important.


A good percentage of your new, incremental business must come from your existing clients and their referrals. Yet, most firms ignore their own clients when it comes to offering them new or additional services and treat their clients like "annuities" who they think won't go away because they are good service providers.

In order to have a "healthy" marketing practice, here's where we believe new business should come from based on our experience with the individuals and firms who really do it right:

50% or so of new business needs to come from your existing clients AND their referrals. 25% or so of new business needs to come from "referral sources" such as attorneys, bankers, insurance agents, real estate people, your friends and relatives, firm alumni, investment bankers, business brokers, other people in the same field (who might on the surface look like competitors, but depending on the situation, aren't).About 25% should come from "strangers" via seminars, articles, speaking engagements, advertising, direct mail, etc.

What if you're new to the profession or to the area? What if you don't have a lot of contacts? What if you've spent your career hidden away in industry or the corporate environment and are now starting afresh?

Well, you may have to blow that 25% way out of proportion. We'll teach you everything you need to know about how to parlay your existing resources and pursue "outside" forms of marketing.

Most firms look to take the easy way out, by marketing to the "25% strangers" through direct mail, advertising or looking for the proverbial "silver bullet" that will magically provide business for them, instead of emphasizing face-to-face contact-making.

The point is that most firms ignore their own backyard and outside resources wind up selling services to the firm's existing clients that could be provided by the firm. After interviewing over 600 large and small clients of professional firms for this book, we discovered that most don't even know what other services their service providers can perform for them.

Worse, it's those outside resources that your clients use, instead of you, that infect the client relationship. Once you have an outside resource doing work for your client, the relationship is now at risk because sharp service providers try to bring their buddies into your client relationship. It secures their position and pays back referrals received (from other professionals at other firms).

It's also important to continue to market to your clients to let them know how valuable you are - why using you is such a good idea.

One reason auto companies advertise so heavily is because they want additional purchases from their existing customers and referrals. They constantly send home the value of their product as they know it's much more difficult to attract business from someone who has never done business with them before than to keep and get more business from someone they already have in their stable as a customer.
Much of the growth and profitability of firms that are extremely successful is due to the additional services sold to existing clients, often on a value-billing basis.

Mistake #6: Ignoring INTERNAL MARKETING

All of the marketing in the world, no matter how great it is, won't be nearly as effective if everyone isn't on the bandwagon back at the ranch. Successful firms involve everyone in marketing the firm's services.

Did you know that everyone in your firm is conveying a message all of the time to everybody about your firm? That's the essence of marketing.

How is your phone answered? What do your finished reports look like? What does your office look like? What do your people look like? Are they dressing ‘business casual' or ‘homeless casual?' How do they treat your clients? What message are you trying to convey, but aren't?

If your firm and your people aren't in alignment with the kind of client you're trying to attract, marketing can't work.

Everyone in the firm needs their own "personal marketing plan." Even the receptionist. Everyone needs to know what's expected of him or her as his or her part of the marketing effort.

Mistake #7: Searching for TOO MANY REFERRAL SOURCES

As we said earlier, a significant portion of your new business, about 25%, needs to come from referral sources, outside of clients. What if your percentages differ from ours? You may be doing something very right (e.g.: getting a lot of new work from clients) but ignoring your referral relationships.

Most professionals don't understand what it takes to have a true referral relationship. We'll discuss that later. Most professionals also look at referral relationships as a numbers game: "The more attorneys I know, the more people who will send me business!" Not necessarily. The Best Business Generators in all of the professions most often have FEWER referral sources than their less productive rivals.

Mistake #8: Marketing to TOO MANY DIFFERENT MARKETS

We often start consulting engagements with discussions about exactly what kind of new business the firm would want. What's interesting about professionals is, they want everything! Municipal work - sure! We'd love some of that! Keep our people busy in the off-season! Not-for-profit work? Sure - off-season and easy - let's get some of that! Manufacturing? Definitely! E-commerce? Oh yeah!

Most firms use the "Chinese Menu" approach to marketing: You want it? We got it! If that diluted approach works for you and your firm, keep using it. We find repeatedly, though, that many firms invest a lot of money and effort into marketing technical expertise that nobody cares about. We see many firms pursue markets they shouldn't, thus diluting the overall marketing effectiveness.

Now, we don't want to downplay the importance of technical expertise as the foundation for all good marketing. But you have to know what kind of technical expertise the market wants before you market it.

The best example of this is something called ‘web-trust.' Many CPA/consulting firms have invested a lot of time, money and effort with minimal or no results because they were pushing a product, developing an expertise, that nobody in that business really wanted or was going to pay for.

Also, promoting to markets where you don't already have a presence can be a long and difficult road. Later we'll discuss the concept of "cloning" your best clients.


On what day does Toyota not advertise? Christmas? New Year's? Somebody recently said "December 7th" (for you Generation X'ers, that's the day the Japanese bombed our installation at Pearl Harbor and was the start of the US' involvement in World War II)? Nope - Toyota advertises every single day.

As we said earlier, marketing is a process, not an event. Marketing needs to be conducted even during your busy season, to be most effective. Otherwise, you have to get all geared up all over again and almost start from scratch whenever it's over.

There is time in everyone's day to go to market: it's called lunch (or breakfast, or dinner). Most people eat lunch, even when busy. However, we usually eat lunch by ourselves or at our desks or with our friends at the firm.
We suggest not less than two lunches or breakfasts or after-work meetings a week with clients, referral sources, prospective clients, etc. even during busy season.

The professionals who are committed to successful marketing don't leave the marketplace during times when they are very busy; many increase their exposure because they know that is simply the best time of the year to do marketing because of a heightened level of interest in what they do.

Mistake #10: BEING CHEAP

How much do your most successful clients spend promoting their businesses? What would happen if they stopped?

It seems to us that almost every professional wants to die with as much money as possible. The great majority of service providers don't see the difference between costs and investments.

The most successful firms we know set aside a percentage of gross revenues and treat it as a fixed cost, like rent, to do marketing. One of the very most successful firms in the country that we know of invests 4 - 5% of gross revenues in marketing. In the beginning, that percentage was higher for them. The most successful engineering firm we know of invests 10% of gross revenues in marketing. Professional firms invest more than 1% or 2%, and usually that includes non-marketing items buried there by the partners.

Similarly, most firms and individuals don't take the skills of personal marketing and selling seriously enough, nor are willing to invest in their people, to properly prepare the partners and staff to succeed at bringing in more business.

Less than 10% of the major firms in the US provide significant training to their people in this area and then they wonder why they lose golden opportunities, get beat up on fees, or simply don't generate enough golden opportunities in the first place.

Folks, marketing and selling are the greatest skills in the world, one that can be learned. Just ask Bill Clinton about that. His people did a much better job of "marketing" his presidency than did the elder Bush's. Bill Clinton was a beautifully "packaged" candidate and left office with the highest rating of any president as they continued to market to their customers even after the sale was made.

"Running for office" can be quite similar to "Running for CPA," "Running for Consultant" or Running for Attorney." It's a person-to-person event. Some people are born with personal marketing skills, but most professionals aren't (and that's a good reason why they became service providers instead of salespeople).

So, to amplify the productivity of your firm's marketing efforts, involve your people, you included, in as much marketing and selling skill development as you possibly can.

Mistake #11: RELYING ON THE MARKETING PEOPLE to Do All of the Marketing

Some firms have hired "marketing directors" in recent times to handle the marketing chores. These are the most frustrated people we know.

Almost every professional firm we've ever talked to that has allocated someone to the marketing function (sometimes a clerical person with no real knowledge or background in marketing) and expected him or her to be the ones to bring in business.

NO! No that's not how it works! If marketing, and generating new business worked that way, every firm would be on that bandwagon.

Everyone must be involved in the marketing effort! The partners can't pass it on to the staff and to the marketing person. All marketing does is provide the opportunity. Good marketing puts you in the position to get that opportunity more often than the competition.

Somebody still has to show up and get the work (that's called ‘selling')!

The biggest complaint I hear from marketing directors is: "I can't get our people to do anything."

Mistake #12: NOT FOLLOWING THROUGH on the Leads Generated by Marketing

Good leads are hard to come by for most of us.

People that don't follow through on marketing leads should be ashamed of themselves. We've found that its the same people who complain about not enough new business, as the ones who don't jump on referrals and hot leads immediately before they cool off.

The longer one waits to follow through on that referral or interest shown by a prospective or existing client, the colder that lead gets and the harder to convert into business.

Yes, you do have time to follow through on leads - it's called lunch.

Allan S. Boress, CPA, CFE is one of America's most sought after speakers and trainers on the subject of personal marketing, systematic selling and client retention. He is the author of the "I Hate Selling Tapes" available on his web site. You may reach him at 954/345-4666 or at [email protected] or

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