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Effective Marketing for Professional Services

Not very many years ago, professionals could fully rely on their reputations and country club contacts to obtain a steady stream of clients or patients. Today, though, lawyers, accountants, management consultants, architects, engineers, dentists, doctors, and other professionals must do extensive marketing to maintain and build their practices.

Several developments during the last few years have accelerated this trend, among them the followin;

1.Legal sanctions.
Several highly publicized court cases have opened the door to such previously banned marketing tools as advertising.
2.Too many professionals.
Law, architecture, dentistry, and other professions have become overcrowded and their members must increasingly compete for customers.
3.A declining public image.
In an era of consumerism and malpractice suits, professionals are no longer on a pedestal. This condition has made it necessary—and, ironically, more acceptable—for professionals to use marketing to enhance their public images and to improve their clients’ and patients’ satisfaction.
These developments are pushing numerous professional service firms into the marketing arena.
This write-up reviews seven marketing challenges that confront professional providers more frequently and affect them more intensely than they do the marketers of goods and nonprofessional services. It also lists down proposed solutions to the challenges. These are;

1.Strict Ethical & Legal Constraints
While constraints on marketing have loosened enormously of late, there are still a host of ethical and legal restraints that require careful attention. They are enforced by national, state, and local professional societies, certification boards, government agencies, and other bodies.
The professional service firm can take several steps to ensure that its marketing activities stay within ethical and legal boundaries. First, it can participate in peer review and self-regulation programs. A self-initiated program (supported by capable legal counsel) can help not only to avoid legal and ethical difficulties but also to deal with the thorny problem of maintaining quality control.
Professional organizations can, in addition, make a commitment to educate clients or patients about what constitutes acceptable professional behavior. Sometimes people ask for ethical compromises simply because they do not know any better. An explanation of how and why services are being performed in certain ways can help to limit inappropriate requests and to build trust and avoid misunderstandings between practitioners and the people they serve.
Finally, certain firms can become more selective in accepting customers. Clients or patients who are especially demanding or who seem likely to complain excessively can be dropped or avoided. Some CPA firms are increasingly refusing to work with clients whose companies face serious financial difficulties. Such weeding out should be aimed at unethical clients or patients, however, to avoid public complaints (that could lead to restrictive legislation) from those who are legitimately too poor, too troubled, or too ill to obtain competent professional assistance.

2.Buyer Uncertainty
Professional services are what economists sometimes call “credence” goods, in that purchasers must place great faith in those who sell the services. Professional services usually lack many attributes that a buyer can confidently and competently evaluate before—or even after—making a purchase decision.
The professional service organization should design its personal contacts, PR activities, advertising, and service delivery approaches to teach clients or patients about the following: When they should seek a professional service; Which attributes to consider in evaluating different providers; How to communicate their concerns, desires, or other issues to professionals; What they can realistically expect providers to accomplish.
Teaching these things to prospective and current customers will reduce buyer uncertainty while increasing buyer loyalty. The executive director of a major architectural firm expressed the objective this way: “You’re selling a feeling of comfort with you and an understanding of clients’ problems and anxieties.”

3.Need to Be Perceived as Having Experience
Because buyers of professional services are often uncertain about the criteria to use in selecting a professional, they tend to focus on one question: Have you done it before? People prefer to use accountants and management consultants who have worked in their industry previously, lawyers who have litigated cases just like theirs, architects who have designed buildings like the one they want to build, and surgeons who have performed the needed surgical procedure hundreds of times. Using an experienced professional makes a risky purchase seem less risky. Among other things, if anything goes wrong, a buyer may avoid being blamed by superiors or family members for carelessly choosing an unproven professional.
This situation tends to push professional service organizations toward specialization as they discover that they can best maintain or increase business by offering a limited set of services (that they have provided many times before) to a limited market.
To overcome the need for experience to break into a new service or market, a firm has three options: a. Recruit people possessing the needed experience. b. Merge or otherwise join forces with a firm that has experience in the service or market. c. Reduce fees.

4.Limited Differentiability
The differentiation of products and services is hard for most marketers to achieve, but it is an especially difficult task for marketers of professional services. How do they distinguish their products from those of competitors, especially when many professional services are virtually indistinguishable? Differentiating one accounting audit, title search, or eye examination from another is very difficult. The situation is quite different from consumer products like breakfast cereals, which can be differentiated by simply sprinkling on a new coating, stamping out a new shape, or putting a famous cartoon character on the package.
To emphasize superior procedures, professionals report finding it useful to possess and promote such service features as: Personal involvement in cases or projects by high-level professionals; Easy access to services; On-time completion of work; The use of state-of-the-art support equipment like computers, communications systems, and testing devices; Easy-to-understand reports, presentations, and invoices (i.e., “We talk your language”); Frequent follow-up contacts to ensure satisfaction.

5.Immeasurable Benefits of Advertising

Advertising is generally a very useful tool for helping an organization differentiate and sell its offerings for professional service organizations, though, it has limitations. Managers should consider carefully the possibility that advertising can backfire. People still are unused to seeing or hearing advertising for many professional services and they may not like it. Clients, patients, referral sources, and even competitors could interpret advertising by a firm as suggesting that it lacks competence. (“If the firm is so good, it shouldn’t need to advertise.”)
For many professional service organizations, the most logical way to approach advertising will be closer to networking other than general advertising.

6.Converting “Doers” into “Sellers”
Whether or not advertising is used, personal selling must play a big role in the marketing of any professional service. Traditionally, professional service organizations have left selling almost exclusively in the hands of those senior people who exhibit an interest and a flair for it (“finders”); project management and technical tasks have been left to others (“minders” and “grinders”). But increasingly, these organizations are finding it necessary to get broader participation in selling. Clients and patients generally prefer to be courted by the persons who actually perform the services. Customers usually feel uncomfortable buying from people they will never see again or from officials who only sell.
Firm managers can take several steps to help overcome this problem.
First, they can consider potential selling skills when recruiting and hiring new people. Thus, when all other things are equal—including competence at performing professional tasks—the applicant who exhibits an interest in and a potential for selling well should get the nod.
Second, officials can incorporate a sales training program into staff development programs. They can teach professionals basic selling skills, such as identifying and qualifying leads, stimulating referrals, courting prospects, making presentations, negotiating deals, closing sales, and managing relationships. A variety of such sales training programs are available.
Third, top managements can wholeheartedly encourage selling and make it financially and professionally rewarding. They can ask new professionals to participate in marketing planning and to perform certain selling functions. Some firms have even assigned young professionals to full-time marketing positions (involving much more than selling) for a year or so as a way of persuading them to make a commitment to selling and marketing.
Making more doers into sellers cannot be accomplished without risk. Improving the selling skills of professionals raises the possibility that some will leave the firm and take part of their following with them. In addition, competition for clients or patients among a firm’s professionals might create ill will and reduce cooperation. Finally, there is the risk that too much time will be devoted to selling. This issue is addressed in the next section.

7.Allocating Time for Marketing
Convincing and training professionals to sell is one matter. Determining the amount of time each professional should devote to selling and marketing is a different, but related, matter. Officials must decide how much of the highly profitable time of junior people—which can normally be billed out at much higher multiples of their cost to the firm than the time of senior people—can be spared for marketing. Officials must also decide how much to limit the hours spent on marketing by senior members, who often have opportunities to make speeches, serve on prestigious committees, dine with important contacts, or take other actions that can support the marketing effort. If too many opportunities are pursued, then other important tasks, such as maintaining or improving the quality of services, may be neglected.

The first five challenges have to do mainly with the selection of marketing strategies and tactics. The last two challenges primarily affect how such firms organize and staff for marketing.
Dealing effectively with the problems cited here will not be easy for most professional service organizations. To be successful in a competitive environment, firms will usually have to make a large commitment of resources to hiring marketing talent, conducting market research, educating clients or patients, training staff members, and developing promotional materials.
 
 
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