On a recent call with CMOs of small-to-mid-sized professional services firms, it was refreshing to hear that at least one company has been scooping up new business during the Covid-19 pandemic. Then again, that firm occupies a particular sweet spot for the current times — helping companies put their PPP small business relief funds to work.
The rest of the CMOs agreed that the pandemic has made it a lot tougher to win new clients. The Coronavirus has been highly effective in undercutting several of the main pillars of services firms’ traditional sales and marketing approaches to reaching potential new customers.
Services aren’t like widgets that can be sold “cold” to new customers. They can only be sold through a process of building trust and credibility. But our socially distanced reality has made it a lot harder to make new friends, whether in business or other circles.
All the tried and trusted techniques that services firms traditionally use to engage with new clients – from speeches to dinners to conferences – have gone out of the window, and may stay that way for a while. Zoom calls are a useful tool, but they’re no real substitute when it comes to building rapport and gaining trust with clients.
On the client side, buyers are more wary around engaging with new, untested providers at a time of crisis. Not many companies are looking to switch their auditor or IT provider during such a period of uncertainty. Services providers also risk giving off an air of desperation by aggressively chasing new business when uncertainty is high and economic times tough.
In this environment, services firms would be well advised to avoid wasting resources on chasing new clients. Most firms will find that their time and energy is better spent on laying the foundation for deeper relationships with their current clients. The returns from this approach may not be immediate, but the effort will be repaid over time as they move to the front of the queue for new business with the client.
The following are six methods that services firms can employ to deepen ties and expand their footprint with existing clients:
1. Demonstrate value. Services firms should be reaching out to their clients to find out how they can be of service, without any expectation of a financial return. They should aim to be a router of value, helping clients get out ahead of issues and find resources and contacts as needed to navigate their way through the current crisis. This may be difficult for firms to hear at a time when revenues are flat or shrinking. But making yourself a trusted resource for a client has powerful long-term benefits, raising your profile as a partner who can be relied on and who isn’t in the relationship for short-term gain.
2. Tell your success stories. Now is a great time to broaden your profile within a client firm by telling the story of the work you’ve done. Perhaps you helped one business unit save costs, raise efficiencies in their operations, and win new business. You should be telling that story across the firm, showcasing how you can create value and achieve change management for other departments. Ideally, this process starts at the beginning of a project by engaging a range of stakeholders who may be affected by the change and who you can then naturally follow up with after completion.
3. Unlock internal cooperation. All that time saved on conferences and travel can be usefully directed into improving marketing collaboration among your firm’s partners to better engage clients. Often practices do great work for a client but are lax at evangelizing their success or putting the information into CRM systems so that the story can be shared. Improving collaboration and creating richer CRM detail empowers your partners to leverage the entire breadth of services your firm offers when looking to help clients.
4. Strike the right tone. At a time of crisis, it’s vital to get the tone right in your dealings with clients. Back in 2008, a consultancy firm I worked for started sending glossy research brochures out to clients. It didn’t go over well with several CEOs at a time when the world had been plunged into financial crisis with job losses and bankruptcies mounting. Instead, humanize your outreach, taking into account the current environment and the challenges you and your client share.
5. Stay flexible. Services firms must be flexible in response to rapidly fluctuating needs during a crisis period like this. They should be willing to change the scope of a project, put up with delays when they happen, and to swallow smaller expenses rather than nickel and dime clients. Showing flexibility will help build the trust with clients essential to building a long-term relationship.
6. Bridge the sales vs. marketing divide. Focusing on aligning the efforts of sales and marketing is another good use of Covid-19 downtime that can help cement client relationships. The two departments often pull in different directions, with sales viewing marketing as a source of vanity metrics that don’t bring in new business, and marketing seeing sales as a bunch of rogues who have no respect for the infrastructure behind new business such as websites and thought leadership strategy. Consider an account-based marketing strategy to more closely tie the efforts of a traditionally split house.
Professional services firms that can crystallize their value to clients in these important ways stand a good chance of emerging stronger from this period, even if they didn’t win a single new customer during the pandemic.