The Three R’s of Professional Services Marketing

In September of every year, many of us feel an urge to go “back to school.” Even when we haven’t attended a class in years, it’s habitual for the end of summer to suggest we should be paying less attention to family and fun and more to making a living. As you turn your focus to business this fall, consider how you might incorporate into your back-to-business agenda the back-to-basics curriculum of the Three R’s of professional services marketing: relationship, referral, and reach.

#1: Relationship

The cornerstone of every independent professional’s marketing strategy should be relationship-building. If a marketing tactic you’re considering contributes to stronger relationships between you and your prospects, it’s worthy of your attention. If it doesn’t, think twice before using it, and certainly don’t rely on it.

Marketing that leads to better relationships includes activities like lunch and coffee dates, giving educational talks, and personal exchanges via phone, email, or social networking. Marketing that rarely leads to better relationships — and can sometimes damage them — includes phone calls, letters, and emails with over-the-top hype for your services, anonymous online ads, and besieging your social networking contacts with promotional announcements.

Don’t be misled by advice pushing the flavor of the week in marketing. If a new tactic suggested to you isn’t relationship-oriented, it probably isn’t worth your time.

#2: Referral

Prospects who come to you by way of a referral are more likely to become clients than those who you connect with in almost any other way. They have often already decided to work with you when you hear from them, and are less likely to question your rates or your expertise.

Generating more referrals, then, should be an essential component of your marketing. Instead of expending all your effort on filling the pipeline with unknown prospects and making cold approaches, spend more time cultivating relationships with likely referral sources.

Many professionals mistakenly believe that if they simply provide good service to their clients, the referrals that naturally result will be enough. But this is rarely the case. The best referrals often come from people who have never been your clients — members of your trade association or networking group, other professionals who serve your market, and centers of influence in your community. Time spent getting to know these folks better can be much more productive than approaching strangers.

#3: Reach

Clients don’t appear just because you are there waiting for them. You have to reach out. In marketing, reach takes many different forms — for example, you reaching out to people you already know to build better relationships, you reaching out to new potential referral sources, and you reaching outside your comfort zone to have personal interactions with prospects.

The point is that you do have to reach out rather than simply wait and react, even though outreach is often more uncomfortable. It’s tempting to rely on build-it-and-they-will-come marketing like websites consisting solely of sales letters, or online “networking” platforms populated by people you don’t even know, or classified ads, or directory listings. And there are plenty of vendors doing their own outreach to sell you on these approaches so you don’t even have to go looking for them.

But if it was really that easy to get clients — just launch a website, say, or buy an ad, and you’ll have all the clients you need — why haven’t all the folks selling you these strategies retired to tropical islands by now?

As far as marketing tactics go, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So get back to basics with your marketing this fall. Buld relationships, cultivate referrals, and reach out proactively to prospects and referral sources rather than waiting for them to find you. With the Three R’s as your guide, you’ll have everything you need to go to the head of the class.

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