The Importance of Marketing to Existing Clients from Managing the Professional Service Firm

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Managing the Professional Service Firm by David H. Maister is a must-read book for anyone running a professional services business. For too long, I thought that a digital creative firm like Barrel was somehow special and played by different rules than consulting, legal, accounting, or architecture/design businesses. Wrong.

It became quickly apparent in the first few pages of the book that Barrel operates in the same way as any other professional service firm and that core concepts such as client satisfaction, skill building, productivity, and getting better business were 100% applicable to the work that we do day in and day out.

Marketing to Existing Clients

One section that I found myself re-reading a few times was the chapter on “Marketing to Existing Clients”. Maister mentions how too many professional firms, while acknowledging that existing clients represent the best source of new business, devote more attention and resources to chasing brand new clients. While it is important to add new clients in order to bring fresh challenges and new contacts, Maister points out a few reasons why winning work from existing clients is very valuable:

  1. Existing clients represent higher-probability prospects because they already trust and know the firm.
  2. The marketing costs to win new business is lower since the firm doesn’t need to spend as much time and resources researching the client or partaking in time-consuming activities to win the new client over.
  3. “Follow-on” work from existing clients are often more profitable than first-time engagements from new clients. (This I’ve seen time and time again at Barrel, where the first project is often at break-even or even a loss but the follow-on work is where we recoup.)
  4. There is a higher probability that the firm can, over time, integrate more junior talent into the delivery of services to the client by building up the client’s acceptance of the juniors, thereby allowing the firm to achieve higher profitability through greater leverage (Maister defines “leverage” in this book as the ratio of junior to senior professional staff–if a firm can have a greater number of juniors while still billing at high rates, then the firm has greater leverage.)

I can confirm that each of the four reasons above have been very true at Barrel. However, as Maister notes, it’s important to “focus and target one’s efforts on the best opportunities” when marketing to existing clients. Rather than trying to win anything from any of our existing accounts, Maister suggests picking prospects where “(a) there are additional client needs that the firm can serve, and (b) the relationship is good enough to raise the probability that a marketing effort will pay off.”

The Tactics

Once we know who the existing client targets are, Maister provides three tables that, together, act like a playbook for winning new work. Listing the three tables reveals a 3-step strategy:

  1. Making the Client Disposed to Use the Firm Again
  2. Increasing the Firm’s Capabilities to Serve this Client
  3. Finding and Pursuing the Next Engagement

Below are the tables written out in full (for my own future reference more than anything else):

TABLE 9-1: Making the Client Disposed to Use the Firm Again

  1. Going the extra mile on the current engagement
    Use new business budget to fund extra analysis
    Use budget to improve turnaround time, service

    Improve quality of presentation
    More documentation, explanations, accessibility
  2. Increasing the amount of client contact
    Telephone regularly
    Visit at every opportunity
    Schedule business meetings near mealtime
    Invite to firm offices
    Introduce one’s partners
    Get firm leaders involved
  3. Building the business relationship
    Help client with contacts
    Put on special seminars for client’s staff
    Volunteer to attend client’s internal meetings
    Offer free day of counseling on nonproject matters
    Send client useful articles
    If possible, refer business to client
  4. Building the personal relationship
    Social activities
    Remember personal, family anniversaries
    Obtain scarce tickets
    Provide home telephone number
    Offer use of firm’s facilities

Table 9-2: Increasing the Firm’s Capabilities to Serve the Client

  1. Increasing knowledge of client’s industry
    Study industry magazine/newsletters thoroughly
    Attend industry meetings with client
    Conduct proprietary studies
  2. Increasing knowledge of client’s business
    Read all client’s brochures, annual reports, other public documents
    Ask to see strategic plan
    Volunteer to critique internal studies
    Conduct reverse seminar
  3. Increasing knowledge of client’s organization
    Ask for organization chart
    Ask who client deals with most
    Ask about the client’s boss
    Ask about power structure
    Arrange to meet other executives
    Spend time with client’s juniors
  4. Increasing knowledge of client
    Find out precisely how client is evaluated inside his or her company
    Find out what he or she is unhappy with

Table 9-3: Finding and Pursuing the Next Engagement

  1. Creating opportunities to demonstrate initiative and competence
    Volunteer services of one’s partners
    Arrange meetings with one’s partners
  2. Digging out new intelligence on new needs
    Use entire project team to gather info
    Get invited to their meetings
    Arrange to meet other executives
    Spend time with client staff at all levels
  3. Assembling evidence of new need
    Conduct additional analysis
    If possible, conduct additional interviews
    Conduct special studies
  4. Creating awareness of new need
    Bring problem areas to client’s attention early (Find ways to worry client)
    Document evidence of problems
    Compare client company’s statistics to others
    Share results of work done for other clients
  5. Finding sponsor/friend/coach in client organization
    Figure out who wants change
  6. Asking for new engagement at the right time
    “Point out” opportunities early and often, with no “hard sell”
    Concrete proposal only when confident it will be accepted

I was fairly pleased that none of these were mind-blowingly new to me. In fact, I felt that we regularly engage in a number of these activities with some of our key clients. However, these tables do make clear to me that there’s always room for improvement and that we can be very methodical and organized about how we engage in some of these tactics.

My task will be not only to figure out how I can spend more time engaging in some of these activities, but to train and hire talent that can help our team to scale in our efforts to market more effectively to our existing clients. If we can smartly scale our ability to deliver great work, build trust, and continually expand our capabilities to serve our clients, we’ll be headed in the right direction.

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