Effective marketing – a discussion with managing partners

At the end of 2018 I was invited to facilitate a Managing Partners’ Forum breakfast roundtable titled: Effective marketing – a discussion with managing partners. There were managing partners of law, accountancy and management consulting firms present – and the session was chaired by Richard Thorby. Here’s a summary of the key points I raised and the highlights from the ensuing discussion.

Context: Marketing in professional service firms

Business development in a professional services firm comprises three processes:

  • Marketing (research and analysis, planning, segmentation, positioning, value proposition development, profile raising and lead generation)
  • Selling (nurturing leads, developing relationships, pitching, conversion for new business development) and
  • Relationship management (client experience management, service delivery, developing existing clients, cross-selling, account management and collaboration as well as referrer management).

Effective marketing…

Anticipates client needs

    • Don’t just push what you want to sell
    • Undertake research so that you REALLY know what clients need
    • Find new opportunities and identify/create new markets
    • Develop new products/services and technology – even business models

Generates more profit

    • Concentrate on short AND long term profit
    • Analyse which services, teams, projects, markets and clients generate the most profit
    • Consider differentiated pricing strategies

Achieves goals

    • Make goals SMART (Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Realistic. Time-specific)
    • Align with the firm’s, department’s and individual fee-earners’ goals
    • Include fee-earner time and long sales cycles in ROI/ROMI calculations

Has a focused strategy

    • Support the firm’s business, financial and reputation goals and strategy
    • Undertake detailed internal and external analysis
    • Make a choice and focus
    • Segment markets and clarify the ‘go to market’ approach
    • Articulate your competitive advantage in client value terms
    • Consider existing vs. new clients and referrers
    • Be creative and focus on a key market insight or big idea


    • Educate and engage (internal communications) all fee-earners and support staff
    • Integrate marketing, selling and relationship management activities in a campaign
    • Choose the right blend of traditional and digital methods
    • Involve finance, human resources, knowledge management, operations, technology and other management functions

Uses infrastructure, technology and resources appropriately

    • Equip people with the right skills and motivate them with the right rewards
    • Ensure the right data is captured and maintained
    • Manage the entire client experience journey
    • Track preferences and personalisation so that it’s not a “one size fits all”
    • Automate repetitive processes so you can invest time in face-to-face interactions
    • Appoint qualified marketing and sales professionals with KPIs to the right roles

Illustrative stories: Effective marketing – a discussion with managing partners

I told a series of stories to illustrate the points:

  • The property finance lawyer who worked 4,200 hours a year generating £12.3 million
  • The managing partner who “just” wanted a brochure from marketing
  • A firm that hired a marketing high flier who tackled branding and web sites without exploring what the practice leaders needed or analysing the market
  • A superstar rainmaker managing partner who couldn’t be replaced making succession a real challenge
  • Two new accountancy partners who built their portfolios through niche marketing approaches using very different promotional methods to suit their personal styles and strengths
  • How research and thought leadership helped a lawyer build a highly successful new office from scratch
  • The close “Godfather” client relationship partner which benefitted from an intervention from a third party
  • A large property business which simplified its value proposition (message) and marketing communications strategy to align and engage all of its people

Effective marketing – a discussion with managing partners

The discussion was animated and extensive. Some of the key themes emerging included:

Confusion between marketing and selling Many professional service firms are reliant on the personal selling skills of fee-earners to forge effective relationships with potential clients and referrers. Sometimes there was confusion about how marketing could best assist in this process. A common challenge was the lack of fee-earner knowledge and confidence in how to sell professionally.  Whilst familiarity with clients and “product” knowledge was fundamental for this, we also discussed the importance of insight selling as a way to add value to client interactions. Other firms had fee-earners who were effective at selling but who faced the challenge of low market awareness of their firms. 

Transition and change management Some indicated that their firms were going through a transition. They were shifting from traditional ways of thinking about marketing to new ways. These firms are educating their fee-earners about strategic marketing and the different business development activities that are appropriate for various markets and tasks. There are several posts about change management – for example this one on Millennials.

Client ownership Another aspect to cultural change was ownership of the client. Some firms had partners who were protective of their clients and prevented wider relationship management and cross-selling. Many firms had moved to a culture where the firm owns the clients. There was mention of the LBS research that showed the importance of the professional relationship which of course I would support in view of my latest book being about business relationships and also on posts about trust.

Cohesion Where firms had multiple teams of fee-earners serving diverse markets, there was often a challenge in achieving focus and cohesion in marketing and business development activity. The need for a business strategy that sets out aims and priorities – and a marketing strategy that focuses on developing profitable markets and work streams – was discussed. The matrix approach was familiar to most firms. Some mentioned the need to achieve the right balance of “bottom up” and “top down” strategy. How to introduce a marketing planning process into a professional firm.

Need for research There was a consensus that research was important. Client feedback was important both to persuade and convince fee-earners of the need for action and to identify the priorities that would lead to further profitable growth. Sources of research support and CEM research.

Short term and long term profit Some firms experienced a conflict between maximising profit in the short term (so time was focused on fee earning – “the chargeable hour is king”) and the longer term (where time is invested in marketing and relationship management for future revenue). The use of Client Lifetime Value (CLV) was a measure to focus on client profitability in the longer term. Some firms felt that their people (especially the younger generation) were more focused on the impact of their work. Becoming a Certified B Corporation was mentioned as a method to ensure social responsibility. The Board – and the business plan – must indicate the aims and priorities and ensure that the reward system is aligned.

Attracting talent with the employer brand An issue faced by all professional service firms was the need to attract the right talent. The role of the marketing team in developing and promoting the employer brand to attract the right human capital was mentioned – although this needed different metrics for measurement.

The right marketing and business development team Some partners were concerned that there might be a mismatch between the roles and competencies of the marketing and business development team that they had and what was needed. They felt that markets were moving faster than their internal teams. Others were concerned that their marketing and BD teams were “bullied” into activities that were not strategically important. The need to have an understanding of marketing at Board level – and support for an agreed strategy – and for this filter to the fee-earners was discussed. Some firms had successful transitioned from a reactive support service type of marketing communications team to a proactive strategically-focused business development team. Ideas on developing the right marketing and business development team.

Looking ahead At the end of the discussion, there were some thoughts about the future. The role of digital communication and further commoditisation was mentioned. Some mentioned Government support for the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and others talked about the value of design thinking.

I wrote a blog post on Return on Investment (ROI) in professional service firm marketing a while ago – with references to Jesse J and Einstein.