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professional services marketing

How can you tell a story true to your firm?

Posted by Peter Gow on Tue, Mar 01, 2016

shutterstock_202205455.jpgYou may already be settling into a new position at a professional services firm. Perhaps you’ve done this marketing and communications thing before, or perhaps you are brand-new to the field. It might even be that you are in a position that no one at your firm has ever held before.

These are going to be exciting weeks, trying to figure out all there is to know about your new firm, meeting a whole new cast of characters, and discovering all sorts of projects and deadlines that will seem more than a bit overwhelming some days. And there will be other discoveries, too, as you dive more and more deeply into your new environment.

When they hired you they probably shared with you all kinds of strategic goals and plans, to-do lists of things the firm needs to accomplish, and a bunch of challenges it faces. But they might have neglected to mention that your job is to know, in the most profound ways possible, the heart and soul of your firm. As much as anyone else, you have to know what is fundamentally true about your firm, to feel its truth and mission and values in your work day bones. How can you tell a story true to your firm?

There will be scoffers, so be prepared to meet and co-opt them. Somebody seems to have told employees a long time ago that “marketing” is a dirty word, and some of them still believe it. The answer to this is to be sincerely interested in what they are doing, talk to them, be a student, be innocent. You’ll discover that the value they bring is pretty hard to explain, even for them, so ask questions, test your own understanding, and stick to what is real and true when you try to interpret this for others. But for heaven’s sake, engage with them—don’t just stay in your office sweating to meet administrative deadlines, because all the met deadlines in the world aren’t worth a professional services team that knows you, trusts you, and believes in you and your work.

Remember that the firm exists for its clients. It is not for the board, for the CEO/Managing Director, or for the employees. Your firm exists to help clients in their tomorrows, their next weeks, their next years, their lives. Find out how its amazing work is actually experienced by clients, how they see and feel the firm's “value proposition.” Get clients to talk to you about this—not necessarily for today’s tweets (but why not, if you get great stuff?) but as deep background for everything you do.

Clients who can speak with clarity and conviction about the meaning of their own experiences of your firm are a resource more valuable to you than diamonds.

There will be not just deadlines and projects but people with ideas about how to “spin” this or that. Resist this—you are not a spin doctor, and years of watching Mad Men and campaign ads on television have schooled your audience all too well in the art of deception detection. Tell the truth, or find something else to talk about.

You also have a huge responsibility that no one ever told you about: there are things that are wrong with your firm, things it says it does but doesn’t, things it does that it probably shouldn’t do so much. Your responsibility, as you learn more and more about what is true, is to tell those who need to know it when something is going on that doesn’t align with the firm's mission, its values, or the brand promise it makes to clients and its community. You may be doing all you can to “tell it like it is,” but the employees need to be doing all they can to make sure that the firm “does it” as you are telling it. It’s a two-way street, and you can’t do your job well when you know that what the firm says and what it does are out of alignment.

Dig in, embrace the culture, find the truth, and unleash the truest voice of the firm. For a while you need to be an anthropologist, a witness, an explorer, helping to interpret and explain and advocate for the firm in its complex relationships with its communities and sometimes even its own mission and values.

You have a big role. But exploring and understanding a community of human beings is amazingly gratifying work, whether your firm is large or small, prosperous or struggling. As your find your firm’s true voice you are likely to discover your own, just as understanding its values may clarify some of your own. Don’t be afraid to take it all personally—firms are all about people, always have been and always will be. 

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This blog was written by Peter Gow

A long-time independent school teacher, administrator, and consultant with deep roots in academic program development as well as branding and marketing, Peter will be familiar to many as a regular contributor to Independent School magazine and an indefatigable blogger on his own at Not Your Father’s School. He is also executive director of the Independent Curriculum Group.


Topics: Inbound marketing, imageseven, Branding, Communication, Marcom, Professional services marketing, PSM