Future Trends in Marketing for Professional Service Firms: An Interview with Gerry Riskin

Print PDF

By Gerry Riskin | Feb 14, 2014

Marketing ideas are the toughest things in the world to breathe life into, and real advice — information based on experience and knowledge that is really outside the scope of what most professionals within the firm would otherwise be aware of — sometimes seems hard to come by. Gerry Riskin is interviewed here by Capstone Marketing on the trends he sees in the future of the marketing of professional service firms and understanding the relationship between the marketers and the professionals.

Capstone: What trends do you see in marketing professional services?

Riskin: One, there is a very tired, overused word called differentiation and respectfully, most people in professional services firms don’t know what that is. If they do know what it is, they are challenged about how to apply it in a professional services firm. I believe differentiating is becoming more and more important. It is possible, and it rests with going through a process of understanding of an individual or a group, what it is that they have done — their specific experience base — that really is unique and impressive.

Capstone: Would you agree that clients hire accountants and attorneys based on their specific experience in an industry or service area?

Riskin: I agree completely. I think that there are choices out there. Even sophisticated clients, even with relationships within professional service firms, probably can think of one or two or three alternatives and at that stage I think the firms or groups or individuals that have successfully differentiated themselves will stand alone and be the preferred provider.

Capstone: There are statistics that if you’re in the top three firms your opportunities to bid on new work are so much greater than if you’re number four.

Riskin: I’m sure that’s right. Now, in terms of differentiating, I wanted to add that I think as imperfectly as the profession has approached that subject they have focused on their substantive practice capability. I truly believe that differentiating today or into the near future is going to require not only the substantive practice capability but the methodologies as well. This is another area that many good professionals haven’t even begun to think about the relevance of their methodologies in addition to their substantive capabilities.

Capstone: Explain more about methodologies.

Riskin: There may be a practitioner who is extremely capable technically. Now, overlay that with some firms that have tried to understand well enough what clients want and need so that they can build in teams, processes that fit not only with the end result but also with the kind of interaction the client wants during the process depending upon their level of sophistication but also going to taking some cost out, if possible.

Capstone: You’re talking about not only soft skills, communication and relationship skills, but how else professionals can you compete to win clients.

Riskin: Let’s go to a very specific example, the leverage through technology. Don’t tell me you’re the best tax consultant or securities lawyer, that’s not enough anymore. With all due respect, I have three people in mind who are all brilliant, just like you. Now, tell me that you’ve invested inside your team in technology, processes, etc. that allow you to produce more quickly, more effectively, and with higher quality. If one of you can demonstrate that you’re going to be my preferred provider. Especially if I’m a person inside a corporate client who has tremendous budgetary pressures on me. Even if I like you, and even if I think you’re the smartest, if someone who is very capable can deliver much more efficiently I’m afraid that’s going to be very persuasive because I want to look good to my president or CFO.

Capstone: Not becoming the low-cost provider but working more efficiently that you’re able to offer the service at a lower cost.

Riskin: It’s interesting. It’s a very delicate subject because sometimes the people who are building the methodologies and processes aren’t even necessarily cheaper. They may give more value though, more tangible support to the client. For example, even in terms of documentation, as a professional we can provide documentation to a client but some professionals figure out what those documents are doing inside the client after they’re delivered and they modify them so that the client can use them internally without changing them. It’s simple but it’s valuable especially as companies get bigger and they want to reduce the stress of the interaction.

Capstone: What other trends do you see?

Riskin: Well, you touched on something that is extremely important and that is industry knowledge. Again, if you ask a good professional, “Do you think industry knowledge is important?” the answer will be, “Yes.” “Do you take steps to acquire industry knowledge?” The answer will still be, “Yes.” Yet, with all due respect, many professionals don’t have a clue. The reason is that they don’t know the beginning of what it is really to learn about the industry of their clients and, again, there are some professionals that are starting to invest in doing just that. Really having industry people inside to speak to them, really going out and having secondments or reading the publications or speaking or listening but they’re really starting to become industry knowledgeable. Professionals must start getting serious about it and not just giving lip service to it.

Capstone: The competition is more than ever now with accounting industry consolidators and power networks. I think there’s a huge opportunity yet it amazes me how many firms there are that all of this is passing them by. They feel that if they stick to what they’re doing, they’ve been successful, they’re working hard, all their people are busy, why do we need to bother with any of this marketing stuff. Eventually, they’ll be left behind, they just don’t see it.

Riskin: Well, that is a perennial problem because the same people need to both produce the work and invest in their future. The tendency is when they’re busy not to invest in the future at all. We recommend that they fight zero. In other words, that it’s okay to spend a very modest amount of time investing in the future but it’s not okay to spend zero.

Another thought I had was the issue of being a counselor versus a technician. It’s ironic because I think it’s the way it used to be many decades ago — the professional was considered not just a technical advisor but a part of the management team. I think there’s a return to that. I think the most successful professionals I see in the clients we serve have that kind of relationship with their clients or are aspiring to improve that relationship with their clients. That goes again to fighting one of the side effects of overspecialization. In other words, as firms got bigger, as they grew faster, they had to pigeonhole people more quickly into specialty areas for obvious reasons, it made sense. Yet, the bottom line is that you have highly capable people in many firms who can’t relate to the whole body of the client. There are some people who have figured out that they cannot allow their specialty knowledge to make them myopic. They have to be able to transcend their own specialty area and see what the client needs from the profession.

Capstone: What are the greatest marketing challenges of firms now?

Riskin: One change that I’m keeping my eye on is the speed at which clients and prospective clients can get detailed information about providers that may not be in a form that the provider was trying to provide. Let me be specific. The provider creates a brochure or a website and thinks that the client or prospective client is going to pick up the brochure and read it and be overwhelmed by the prose, and is going to go to the website and be overwhelmed by the sophistication and follow it all the way through and look at the site map and not be able to sit down for a moment. That is not how the consumer of professional services is viewing things at all. They now have the capability of doing random access searches which give them data on professionals that span firms. For example, let’s say a railway wants a professional to serve them. That railway now can say, “I want a search of professionals who have a range of certain capabilities but I want in particular to know those who in their resumes have railway experience.” They’ve either worked for a railway, fought a railway case, have audited a railway, or whatever. Now, you might say that’s a pretty narrow search but if you think of the way the web works you might come up with dozens of professionals with criteria of that nature. Now that wasn’t in the thinking of any of the service providers when they put the data in their resumes. My point is that I think the sophistication of the consumer to acquire information about providers will outpace the sophistication of the provider to provide information. As a result, I think that professional firms would be quite wise to think about the way information is accessed from the web, or directories, and to begin to plan the nature of the content so it will be captured by various types of searches.

Capstone: What do you think are the major obstacles to the success of marketing directors?

Riskin: The most significant obstacle to the success of a marketing director is the very different mindset and processes that they experience as opposed to the professionals they serve. The relationship can nearly be toxic out of the gates. Before the marketing person has expressed a single idea or attempted to serve the relationship could be in trouble. I went through an analysis of this; I’ll try to give you the quick bottom line. If you want to know whether someone is a lawyer there’s a very simple answer to that question. It’s yes or no. And most lawyers will tell you the exact criteria you need to apply to answer that question, for example, a certificate that allows them to practice. Let’s call that the generic criteria. The second question is a lawyer likely to be educated? Oh, yes, we can pretty well bet today that a lawyer has a law degree and probably has an undergraduate degree before it. How does a lawyer create a document, for example, draft a contract? Well, a lawyer looks backwards at contracts that have been done before. Why? Is it because these are regressive people? No. It’s because their job is to create an agreement that will have a predictable outcome if tested in a court. Now, follow that for a moment. A lawyer is someone who is very definite about who they are, at least from one dimension, and number two, are very conservative careful approach to avoid risk and gain predictability.

Now, take the marketing professional. What is a marketing professional? Well, in some firms it can be the most sophisticated, capable, educated, experienced person you can imagine. In another firm it can be a secretary who showed some promise and was asked to help with the firm brochure when there weren’t sufficient resources. The position itself doesn’t tell us enough to know what we’re dealing with. Then, number two, how would a good marketing professional create a document? What they would do is realize that the world is dynamic, it is continually changing, people are continually bombarded by certain kinds of information packaged in certain ways and so their mission is to break out of the mold enough to capture the attention of the intended market. They know the only way to do that is to experiment because they know the whole game of marketing is testing and measuring and finding out what’s working and what isn’t, and doing more of what’s working.

Now take those two people and put them in the same room. The lawyer wants to see the marketing plan so the marketing professional describes the plan. The lawyer wants to know the authority for that, “Who’s done it before?” “How do we know it has worked?” The marketing professional says, “We don’t, we’re trying it.” Well, if you want an analogy you can think of a young lawyer who goes to a senior lawyer who asks, “How did you draft this agreement?” “Oh, I just had this dream last night that it would be neat to draft an agreement in a particular way.” Then, we ask this kid if the agreement would be sustained if tested in a court. He says, “I’m not sure, we won’t know until we try it.” Well, the firm is going to fire that lawyer.

The successful marketing professional has to learn to facilitate the process. Professionals are normally control freaks and normally very capable of acquiring vast amounts of information very quickly so they want to have all the information and make their own decision. The successful marketing professionals are those who provide information, insights, give good alternatives, so when they choose from the menu it’s a win-win selection. Also, respectfully, a lot of marketing professionals put themselves right behind the eight ball because they fall into the trap of recommending, “I recommend you do ‘A’.” The first thing a good professional is going to do is tear that apart. That’s how they think. “Why shouldn’t we do ‘B’?”

Capstone: If the marketing director was to give them two or three alternatives that are all equally good and the professionals made the decision, then they’ve got buy in because the professionals made the decision.

Riskin: Yes, but even in additional to that, perhaps facilitating. For example, you have several alternatives. They are all fraught with risk because none of them will necessarily work. Here’s the thinking behind the experiment. Here’s the reasoning why this might work. You need to decide whether you want to take a risk. Maybe even facilitate what the gains would be if this idea worked. In other words, we could do a traditional brochure and the risk is low. But, what’s the upside? We could attempt to provide services over the Internet. The risk may be higher but the rewards could be astronomical.

Capstone: Can a marketing director be a leader in a firm and be held in equal esteem to the partner group?

Riskin: My speculation is this. You and I both know that some firms are well managed and some are not managed at all. I don’t think an excellent marketing professional has a chance in an unmanaged firm only because they’re too afraid of the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies of every single individual. They can convince and gain the unqualified support of a good managing partner but if the managing partner doesn’t have influence in the firm then they’ll be eaten alive.

Let’s say a firm is well managed and organized. Then, my speculation is that the marketing professional can have an enormous impact, especially as firms get larger. I think that successes can become visible and a good marketing professional does what any good service provider of anything does and that is reminds the people whom they are serving of the successes and the accomplishments.

Capstone: What are the three greatest contributions a marketing director can make in a firm?

Riskin: Number one would be real advice. In other words, information based on experience and knowledge that is really outside the scope of what most professionals within the firm would otherwise be aware of. Two, would be interpersonal skills, the ability to help the firm leaders sell good ideas among the rest of the firm. Three, would be the ability to execute. Marketing ideas are the toughest things in the world to breathe life into so even when there’s agreement executing well is yet another talent.