How to market a professional practice

Contributor - Drayton Bird

A female cosmetic dentist treats a patient

Marketing is vital for accountants and law firms that want to bring in new business. But what are the key principles for promoting professional firms? Drayton Bird - inspirational marketer, speaker and author - shares his wisdom

A few years ago, a London accountancy firm approached me. The first thing I asked was, "On what basis do you invest in marketing?".

The senior partner replied, "One to four - £1 to get £4 back in fees."

I replied that I start with what I see as the most important question in marketing: how much is a client worth to you over time?

He saw this as irrelevant. He couldn't wait to get some nifty ideas and just thought I was time-wasting and that was the end of that.

I remembered then that when three years ago I was writing a book about marketing for law firms, a friend who is a senior partner with one of the top London firms said: "Lawyers think they understand marketing. They don't, but nothing can convince them to the contrary."

I told that to an accountant. He laughed and said, "We're worse".

Most businesses see marketing as a cost. I see it as an investment. A client will stay with you for about seven years. The first thing to decide is how much you are willing to invest.

The aim is to find a decent prospect at an acceptable cost, turn that prospect into a client at an acceptable cost and keep that client as long as possible, selling as many services as you can during that period.

I'm sorry if you think it's all about clever creative ideas - but that, from somebody who makes a living as a writer, is the plain truth. Clever creative ideas, more often than not, cloud the judgement and get disastrous results.

You just have to answer one question: how much is a new client worth to me? How much am I willing to invest? How long am I prepared to wait to turn a profit? Amazon waited quite a few years.

How to find prospects

Your first aim is to find prospects. You can do it in two ways - by going to them or getting them to come to you.

You want to get prospects' names and email or other addresses and place them on a database. Those names on your database are twice as likely to do business with you as identical people who have had no contact with you. As you go on you add details about them, so that you can talk to them in a relevant way.

They will not come to you just because you have a fancy website, or because your offices are wonderful.

You can fish for them by advertising - on the internet and in the media - and asking them to reply. Or you can go to them by renting or buying mailing lists or going to places where they gather.

They are most likely to reply if you offer them something free. A report, a seminar or a webinar, a business breakfast, free advice - anything relevant they might value. My long-time client Hargreaves Lansdown does little else but that.

They bite when they want

Once you have those details at an acceptable cost you must keep sending them helpful stuff until they are ready to buy. This rarely happens quickly.

This always surprises people. They forget that people have many other things on their minds than you. With a professional practice where it is not an easy decision like buying a new computer, I estimate this might be about two years.

Do not underestimate how often you can talk to people. One boring message is too many. But if they are interested and you are helpful they will not mind.

One of my clients who sells buildings sends out more than 100 follow-up messages. When I asked the marketing director at one large firm - the largest in its field - how long he followed up prospects, he replied, "Till they give in".

The most important thing

An early advertising genius, Claude Hopkins, wrote two-and-a-half immensely wise pages about marketing back in 1926 - the shortest chapter in a very short book called Scientific Advertising.

The chapter title was "Just salesmanship". In it he pointed out something that's obvious when you think about it. If you could afford to, you would send your best most persuasive, reassuring, helpful person to talk with every prospect. What could be more powerful?

But you can't afford to. Those people are very expensive. But marketing simply replicates what they do, as far as possible, through other cheaper media.

So forget all the high-sounding jargon in business textbooks. Good marketing is simple. It is just a substitute for salesmanship.

Every time you review anything you are thinking of running, ask yourself, would a great salesperson say that?

Five critical factors for marketing your professional firm

People often imagine that marketing is like a magic wand. It is not. It cannot sell a bad product or service. The factors that matter most are:

1. Your service and its positioning

There is only one profit centre in business. It is your customer or client. Therefore you must assess what you offer bearing in mind what your prospective client is thinking. They are thinking, "Why should I choose you? What do you offer that is better or different?" If the answer is "nothing", why should they choose you?

Positioning is your place in the minds of other people - like your personality. Virgin and British Airways both fly to New York for much the same price, from the same airports in similar planes, taking about the same time with similar service. I prefer Virgin's personality.

2. Research and testing

Research reveals how you are seen and what is happening in your market. Testing is measuring the results of various messages by counting the responses and seeing what works best. I have seen two words in an email heading increase replies by 50 per cent. One ad I wrote for The Prudential seven years ago got ten times as many as another in the same paper on the same day.

3. Targeting

Even the most persuasive message will fail in the wrong medium, sent to the wrong people or badly timed.

4. Incentives

These are offers you make to encourage people to reply. To give an example, today I was editing some emails for a client who is an IFA. They offered a report on the effect of the new tax changes for Non-Doms.

5. Creative

This is what I have spent my entire career on and I love it. But it will fail if you don't get the other factors right.

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Drayton Bird

The Chartered Institute of Marketing named him, with others such as Tom Peters, Ted Levitt and Philip Kotler, one of the 50 individuals who have shaped modern marketing. As one advertising agency head commented: “Drayton doesn’t just teach.

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