“Love in a time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez is a great book. It reflects many themes we are experiencing today such as the Coronavirus plague and the attempts to maintain relationships across great distances. So what about marketing in a time of Coronavirus? Once professional service firms transitioned staff to working from home and tackled their cash flow, their primary concern became their clients. And, of course, the question of generating business in the new environment. Some of us have seen recessions before. We wonder whether any of those lessons will apply to our post-pandemic, digitally-based “new” normal. We will have to be creative and bold. It will be different for large and small firms and those in different professional services sectors. So to summarise recent client discussions and as a service to my smaller clients, I’ve pulled together 23 pragmatic ideas to inspire and motivate your marketing and business development in a time of Coronavirus.
Manage each stage of the crisis
By now you should have completed your crisis management. A key part of that was using the crisis communications cycle:
• Pre-crisis – Predicting, Preparing, Preventing and Planning (hopefully, we will be prepared for next time!)
• Response – Taking fast action and responding
• Recovery – Rebuilding our relationships and position
You might use a planning grid to show your position (where to go), plan (what to do), perspective (viewpoint), project priorities and preparedness across the pre-crisis, response and recovery phases. You may want to refresh on Mintzberg’s approaches to strategy. Think hard about your bounce-back plan – both in the short and longer term.
Your approach to marketing will depend on whether you are in the Respond, Recovery or Reinvention phases.
1. Talk to your people
There’s a plethora of guidance about remote collaboration and managing virtual teams. And it’s growing daily. Your people may feel overwhelmed and isolated – whether they are furloughed or trying to cover several jobs with increased demand from home. Neuroscience has volumes of evidence that staff need to feel heard, connected, appreciated and cared for if they are to be happy and productive.
Once you’ve tackled the logistics of working from home, you need to address their emotional needs. Maintain their connection and commitment to your firm’s purpose and values. Reassure them as much as you can in this time of great uncertainty. Remember that they are people first and employees second. You may find it helpful to view this video on emotions during the change cycle.
Your people will be speaking to your clients. They need to be and sound enthusiastic and informed – and to sing from the same hymn sheet. They have the power to create good or bad client experiences – they are your brand ambassadors.
And it may lead to discoveries. Remember how The Samaritans was formed? It was because those people who came for counselling with a priest found great comfort when they talked to the volunteers who listened as they provided refreshments while they waited. The service was created because “The power of volunteers – to listen, confidentially and without judgement – turned out to be the real strength of the service”.
2. Connect with clients – personally
Don’t forget we are human beings – needing contact and connection.
Technology is great. It has surely saved many businesses from certain extinction during lock down.
There is already neuroscience research showing that people suffer from screen fatigue when faced with back-to-back Zoom, Teams or FaceTime sessions. Their brains become frazzled with conflicting messages of on-screen contact without real face-to-face interaction.
And it doesn’t matter how well your technology personalises electronic communications – there’s no substitute for taking the time to speak personally to people. The telephone is best. So please pick up the phone to sustain those relationships.
In this time of great uncertainty – we crave a calm and confident voice. But remain authentic and acknowledge that there may be few answers. We are all vulnerable at the moment. Be comfortable in admitting that perhaps you don’t have ALL the answers. But ensure that your reassuring presence will help to build those relationship bonds.
Listen really carefully to what your clients are saying. Ask open questions and resist your desire to close loops and provide answers. Be a real Trusted Advisor and become part of your client’s team virtually. Travel the (bumpy) road with them to co-create the answers.
3. Prioritise existing clients
Without question, existing clients must to be your first priority.
We know the Pareto principle – 80% of revenues and profits come from just 20% of clients. So make it a priority to get on the phone to talk to them. Ask them how they are doing. Show that you care. Find out what’s on their mind – what help or assistance they would find most valuable. Even if it isn’t something that you can provide yourself right now. Help them forge valuable new connections who might be able to help. Share what you know about similar businesses. Talk. Reassure. Listen.
Equip your staff with guidance and structure for their client conversations. It may be possible – as a part of ongoing dialogues – to capture answers and views to standard questions that can then be assembled into some early and exploratory thought leadership. Social media is full of quick polls at the moment and people are intrigued to benchmark their views against others.
4. Adjust your web site
Ensure that you have clear signposts on your home page to the information that your clients most want during the Coronavirus crisis. Provide links to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), checklists, summaries of official guidance, your latest blog posts, relevant (digital) events and other helpful advice.
To benefit from search engine optimisation (SEO), ensure that each page focuses on a specific issue for a specific audience and includes the relevant words or phrases that clients use in their searches. Adapt the content to accommodate new client journeys.
Look at all of your digital touch points – your web site, your social media campaigns, your emails and newsletters – and see them from the client’s point of view. Are they integrated? Are they seamless? Do they reinforce key themes and messages?
5. Review your marketing strategy and brand
In the pandemic panic, some firms seem to have forgotten their brand principles and carefully thought-through marketing strategies. They have abandoned their long term future for their short term survival.
And while you must of course adapt to the challenging circumstances it doesn’t mean that everything you discovered, learned or committed to before has to go out of the window.
Look at those strategies and consider short term campaigns and communications tactics that fit within or compliment your overall strategic umbrella or framework. I explored this in the context of marketing for accountants and tax advisers in a webinar with Tim Prizeman of Kelso PR.
6. Remember your referrers
Many professional firms rely on third parties for recommendations and referrals. It’s no different now.
So review your strategies and your contact books and reconnect with your referrers. Not with a “What work can you refer to me?” approach. But enquiring about the changes they are observing, the approaches they are adopting and with a view to finding ways to help them.
There’s lots of pre-lockdown advice on referrer management strategies.
Remember that if you give first and give more, you will generate a reciprocal favour bank of goodwill. And here are some ideas for what to do when you can’t reciprocate.
7. Adjust your pricing to preserve cash
Many of my professional services clients were dismayed when the crisis broke and their clients said that they could not or would not pay their fees. Yet, in the crisis, their clients are demanding more help than usual.
So be proactive. If possible, make special arrangements for clients who are particularly short of cash but need additional assistance. Consider deferring or adjusting payments in the short term if your cash flow will bear it.
Consider establishing some sort of community fund where those clients that are coping can contribute towards those that are not. Consider whether you have staff who can donate their time and energy to Pro Bono causes or volunteering which may be allowed under furlough conditions.
8. Call up your current opportunities
The chances are that prior to the lockdown you had been in discussions with prospective new clients. You should have a log of those enquiries and initial calls and meetings. You may even have issued some tenders. Now would be a good time to re-connect. They may not be in a position to continue the previous discussions but they may appreciate the call and ask to talk about more pressing matters.
9. Refine your segments and personas
Part of your marketing strategy will be a thorough examination of your past clients and referrers – their business sectors, their size, their growth ambitions, their location etc. You will also have considered where the best future opportunities might be. Your decisions will have driven your segmentation strategy. In your digital strategy you may even have developed a series of personas – to identify your most likely clients, their needs and preferences.
Review those segments and personas to see if they still fit under the Coronavirus crisis. Maybe you need to slice and dice your market a different way – the clients who are really suffering (e.g. sports, leisure and hospitality) and those who are expanding faster than usual and succeeding (e.g. technology and logistics). Adapt your communications accordingly for those who are suffering or succeeding.
Maybe adopt a counter-intuitive approach by focusing on those clients who are experiencing accelerated growth.
10. Provide real value
John Naisbitt said “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge”.
Your clients are desperate for relevant information, comparisons, ideas and inspiration.
Don’t just assemble and regurgitate data – convert it into knowledge, insight and practical actions for your clients. Don’t replicate – re-imagine. Don’t communicate for communications sake – have a clear aim, be confident, offer wisdom and provide real value to your clients. And make sure you offer a call to action if you think they would find value in further information to continue the conversation.
11. Dare to be different
During the initial stages of the crisis, I was struck by how similar communications from firms were. They all had the same subject line in emails or titles of blogs. There was no differentiation. I had real empathy and sympathy with those clients faced with a deluge of “samey” messages.
But there were and are a few that dared to be different. To be positive where others were negative. To offer an unusual opinion rather than follow the herd. To take a long term view where others focussed on the short term. To step into the fray rather than hide in the shadows. It takes insight, confidence and bravery to dare to be different.
As Churchill said “He who dares, wins”.
12. Put a face on it
Another practice that struck me was those organisations which put their leaders in the spotlight. The cult of the personality is alive and kicking.
It was interesting to see that organisations such as RICS and IoD had senior people leading from the front. They offered personal, regular and relevant updates. They took responsibility for their members. I remember both the leaders and their messages. Yet I cannot recollect anything from those professional organisations where the message was from some anonymous and amorphous source. The leaders generated presence and dialogue while the anonymous views were ignored.
So support your top people in putting their best foot forward as they are propelled into the spotlight. People buy people, Make sure that they buy your people.
13. Database and contact harvesting
Don’t despair if your client and contact database isn’t up to date. Most people now have some time to start improving the quality and quantity of the information – and to secure those important GDPR permissions.
Don’t try to eat the elephant though – focus on improving the information for most important clients, contacts and referrers. Capture the information from those telephone calls.
Design campaigns (see below) that encourage your clients and contacts to sign up for information so that your future database will be in better shape. And while you improve your database, use social media to reach people.
14. Stay on the radar with social media
Emails can be intrusive (and require a good database and creative design skills).
Social media is less intrusive. But don’t use it simply to broadcast your message. Use it to listen to what clients are saying. Use it to share their messages. Use it to promote their businesses. Use it to co-create new ideas and content.
And during lock down it might be a good time to get everyone to focus on updating their social media profiles. And ensuring that they have social media connections with their most critical clients, contacts and referrers. Social media connections reduce the need for those pesky GDPR rules too.
You don’t want your clients to only see your competitors on social media – it might cause sufficient cognitive dissonance for them to consider switching suppliers.
15. Develop great content
Under normal circumstances, professionals complained that they didn’t have time to prepare intriguing and persuasive articles or blog posts. Well now’s your chance!
Many professionals have the luxury of time to research and develop a series of posts on a related topic – preferably as part of a campaign (see below).
And rather than just concentrating on the technical or advice elements, pay more attention at the moment to the voice or tone of your writing. Aggressive sales approaches don’t quite fit the zeitgeist right now.
And why restrict yourself to written words? The crisis presents a great opportunity to develop video and podcast skills and material to reach your contacts in different ways – and to perhaps reach a whole new (younger) audience.
So many professionals have untapped assets in their physical appearance and unusual environments (I enjoyed watching a fellow Trustee the other evening with a backdrop of trailing leaves over a rustic trellis and stunning river views) or their rich, resonant voices with a talent for humour or storytelling.
16. Review your client care procedures
It’s likely that you will have far more questions and enquiries from clients than you would normally experience.
And it is also likely that you are calling on staff to help respond to those enquiries who are perhaps not as experienced at being on the front line. So take a look at your processes, procedures and training for enquiry management.
Prepare standard responses and templates to frequently asked questions to support your staff. Empower them to connect with the clients as human beings and to see each interaction as the embodiment of everything that your firm stands for.
Check in with everyone regularly and capture and share best practice. Now is a good time to invest in some training for your people.
17. Present digital events and create online communities
Many professional service firms rely on networking to renew contact with existing clients and referrers and to reach new prospective clients.
Whilst digital events don’t have quite the same benefits as meeting people face-to-face they do allow you to share insights and answer questions in a time-efficient way.
They also enable people to connect with others in a similar situation and hear the questions and experiences of their peers. The Managing Partners Forum has an excellent weekly digital event offering a variety of speakers and the opportunity for the on-line community to connect and interact.
Digital training events are excellent for knowledge sharing – even if they don’t quite meet the need for experiential skills training and development. And people still need to accrue their CPD points.
Research tells us clearly that in-house clients want inspiration and innovation workshops where ideas are shared and new realities are co-created. It will take significant preparation and skilled facilitation, but these types of events can be conducted on-line.
But there is also scope for virtual social events – whether these are accompanied by items sent in the post, with a fun theme, with help from sports or arts guests or with some form of creative facilitation. People like the opportunity to let their hair down (even further) in lockdown – particularly if they can involve other members of their households whether kids or animals.
Use social media to promote the digital events and perhaps create and moderate an online group or community where people can continue to connect and share experiences.
18. Develop new products and services
Whilst talking to your clients and contacts, you may identify the need for new services.
This might something as simple as a new dedicated helpline – or a different configuration of your existing services.
Plan the new service – who it is for, the value it will deliver, its price, how it will be delivered and how you will communicate it. Consider using online and social media advertising to get your message out there quickly – a short, focused campaign doesn’t have to cost the earth.
I recently participated in a webinar with Tim Prizeman of Kelso PR where we addressed this idea for accountants – but the principles apply equally to lawyers and surveyors. Visit the emergency marketing webinar for accountants and ask for the recording of the video or podcast. Or watch the 17 minutes on my session on marketing strategy for accountants and tax advisors.
19. Create a campaign
Whether using a new service or existing services, develop a campaign for a specific period of time and blend the relevant content marketing and online advertising strategies to reach and engage your audience.
Short bursts of concentrated and focused communications activity can help you cut through all the noise out there and reinforce your reputation and your message.
Here’s some guidance on creating campaigns.
20. Make your clients the heroes
Become truly client-centric. You could take a big step and avoid talking about you, your firm and its services. Make your clients the heroes. Whether that is by joining them in their efforts to reinvent themselves, sharing their stories or joining charitable initiatives to help the real heroes on the front-line.
We often talk about adding true value by helping the clients of our clients. So maybe look at diverting some of your energy and resources at doing just that. Generous and selfless actions will resonate in these difficult times.
21. Start to sell – but carefully
The professions tend to shy away from selling at the best of times. And right now, as I mentioned, there’s nervousness about taking a direct approach to selling.
But remember the saying by Peter Drucker that “The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous”.
With a carefully crafted marketing strategy and communications campaign you CAN initiate conversations that can lead to valuable sales opportunities. Clients may need different things right now, and the challenge is to find the right approach to convert that interest into profitable sales.
Remember that challenger or insight selling is most effective. Reframe selling as “be more detective” if necessary for those reticent professionals.
22. Scenario planning – Surge or Slump?
Some argue that in this time of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) you can’t plan. Some people suggest that you simply pivot or respond to events and your strategy emerges as a result. But I believe the need for planning is even greater now although you may need to alter your approach.
Many people predict a recession. Others suggest we will face a massive surge in latent demand. No one really knows. So rather than betting on a horse that you don’t even know will start – back all the horses.
Develop your ideas about different scenarios – the worst, the best and the most likely – and start planning how you will respond to each situation. This way whatever happens you will have done the necessary thinking and planning and will be poised to leap into action.
Neuroscience evidence suggests that those who use mental contrasting – balancing optimism and pessimism – who aim high but have a realistic grasp of the challenges – are those who are most successful.
23. Reinvention – Prepare for the “new” normal
The crisis also gives us the opportunity to consider how we re-invent our business models, services and marketing for the future. And that’s important as we are unlikely to return to the days exactly as they were before. A new paradigm for professional services will emerge.
Firms may be able to release cash from excess office space to invest in more technology or different skills. Firms may venture into different geographical areas as working from home redefines physical boundaries. Firms may upscale with different ways of delivering bulk services or downscale with a focus on new niches. Different pricing models may come to the fore – subscription-based or shared risk.
Collaboration may break down professional boundaries, create new consortia and redefine the traditional client–adviser roles. Law firms may become technology companies, accountants move further towards consultancy and surveyors become property developers.
Remember “He who dares, wins”.
I hope these brief thoughts have given you some food for thought. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions or further ideas. I look forward to seeing you digitally soon or face-to-face when the lockdown is eased.