Every day at Hinge, we talk to marketing teams from professional services firms of every stripe. And if there is one thing they have in common, it’s the challenge of getting management stakeholders to buy into critical marketing initiatives. That’s what we want to tackle in this post.
Let’s start with a quick look at what’s behind this resistance.
Why stakeholders don’t support marketing
While there are many individual reasons for a lack of stakeholder buy-in, they typically fall into several broad categories:
- Stakeholders don’t believe there is a need to change long-standing practices. “Our clients are different.” “We’ve never gotten a client from our website.” Because their personal experience doesn’t include success with contemporary marketing strategies, stakeholders reject the need to do anything differently.
- They don’t believe that marketing can make a difference. They do not have confidence that marketing can actually improve growth or profitability. They fear spending money and time, only to have nothing change. In some cases, they may even question the competence of their marketing team.
- They are afraid that they will be asked to do something they are unable or uncomfortable doing. Fear of change is certainly a part of it, but there is more: “Will I be asked to do something that is profoundly uncomfortable or embarrassing? What if someone asks a question that I don’t know how to answer?”
- They have motivations that run counter to marketing priorities. Senior leaders may be waiting out the clock until retirement, or the firm’s compensation system may strongly favor billable work over business development. In other words, you may be battling a hidden force that makes all of your efforts much harder.
In some ways, it should come as no surprise that there is resistance to marketing from the top. After all, the professional services marketplace does not have a long history of embracing marketing. And many of today’s professional services leaders went into the business with little interest or education in marketing principles. Add in a bit of misinformation, and you have today’s situation.
So, if you are responsible for marketing success, what can you do to generate the stakeholder buy-in you need to do your job?
Top Strategies to Secure Stakeholder Buy-In
While there is no magic formula for building support, we’ve identified ten strategies that we have seen work in many firms. Each is based on solid behavioral principles.
- Use data to educate.
The most common frustration we hear from marketing professionals is that their superiors don’t value their thoughtful recommendations. When we dig a little deeper, however, we find that in most cases marketers aren’t supporting their recommendations with data.
Even if they are not data heads, most professionals are influenced by facts and research. As rational professionals, top executives think of themselves as anchored in reality. Facts still matter, so use them to build a compelling, research-supported case.
The data is there. In fact, Hinge publishes many free studies and other resourcesthat can arm you with the facts you need to build a compelling case. They are there for you. Use them.
- Find a peer firm example.
Nothing gets a stakeholder’s juices flowing like a hated competitor’s successful marketing program. This deep-seated urge to best the competition has inspired many marketing initiatives.
Almost as good is seeing a trusted peer firm launch a successful campaign or program. Most stakeholders don’t want their firm to be a test case for an untried program. But if you can show them that others have already succeeded with a specific marketing approach, you can reduce that anxiety.
Look to your trade associations or potential service providers for examples of firms to showcase. If you can demonstrate that comparable firms have successfully executed what you are recommending, you will be much closer to achieving stakeholder buy-in.
- Get an outside expert to educate stakeholders.
No matter how right you are or how well-researched your recommendations, there are inherent limits to your influence. You may be too familiar to your long-time colleagues, so it’s easy for them to take you for granted. Or in the eyes of your colleagues, you may be “too new” or “too young” to understand your clients.
Repeat after me, “you are never a prophet in your own land.” Sad, but true.
So what is the solution? Bring in an outside expert to educate and inform your stakeholders. Make it someone they will respect and trust. An outside expert’s observations and recommendations will often carry more weight than the very same points coming from you.
Given Hinge’s heavy focus on research-based results, I have often been asked to be one of these “experts from afar,” as have a number of my colleagues. We have been impressed by how often this strategy has helped galvanize stakeholder support for critical initiatives. Often, the internal marketing person’s influence increases as he or she become associated with the “new thinking.”
- Do a comprehensive piece of research on your firm’s brand.
If research is the currency valued by professional services stakeholders, then research on your own firm and clients is the gold standard. Nothing is more relevant or persuasive than what your clients and referral sources have to say about your firm and its place in the marketplace.
We have seen this type of research turn some of the harshest critics into all-in supporters. To be effective, the research must be objective and credible. Stakeholders will want to be sure they can trust the conclusions.
We’re not talking about a cursory client satisfaction study. Rather, your research should profile your target clients and seek to understand how they view your firm, how it compares to alternatives, what issues they are struggling with, how they seek advice, what distinguishes your practice from competitors, and the like. If you are interested, we discuss key research topics in more detail in a post on brand research for professional services firms.
- Try an experiment with one practice.
If you can’t get buy-in for a firm-wide change, try an experiment with a single practice. In our experience, many firms already have a practice or two that they have targeted for more growth. Sometimes it is new or has been recently acquired in a merger.
Whatever the specific reasons, stakeholders may already agree that this practice “needs help.” And they may be willing to try an approach they would be hesitant to adopt in their own practice area. This is the opening you need. It gives you a chance to prove that your ideas work. The key is to make sure that the testing is accompanied by evaluation and an analysis of results. You must learn from the test to make progress.
This Test–Measure–Learn approach illustrated in Figure 1 can be applied in many areas of the firm. If you can help it take root in the firm’s culture it will open the door to testing service offerings, market entries, pricing options, automation strategies and marketing programs. It will be a big win for the firm as a whole.
Figure 1. The Test–Measure–Learn approach
- Describe modern professional services marketing as a team sport.
Back in the day, business development was an individual endeavor. The marketing department was little more than administrative support. As a billable professional, you were required to generate your own leads, nurture them and convert them into clients. If you were good at securing new business you we’re thought of as a “rainmaker” on a fast track to a partnership.
What if you couldn’t do it all? Often, your career prospects were limited.
That was then. Today, a lot has changed. Modern marketing, with all its new technology and digital techniques, has become increasingly complex. We have recognized that asking any individual to be good at all these skills is not a winning strategy.
To explain this new paradigm, start talking about marketing as a team sport. Figure 2 shows some of the talents you will need to field a modern marketing program. No one person can master all of these skills. Instead, you will need to assemble a team of specialized players — whether in-house, outsourced, or a combination of the two. All players need to understand your objectives, the strategy you will use to achieve them and their roles. To win in today’s complex marketing environment, all your players have to work off the same playbook.
Figure 2. The modern marketing team
Introducing this concept to your firm can build a sense of shared purpose and a realization that there can be a role for many skill sets. It can also help a firm understand it needs to acquire additional skills.
- Train and involve internal talent.
One approach to building your team is to train internal billable resources. There is an obvious appeal to this strategy. Your firm is already paying their salaries, so why not get more productivity by training them to perform a part-time marketing role? And if yours is a firm of reasonable size, you likely have people who are more than willing to learn something new.
For example, in an earlier study on employer branding we found that some folks (especially Millennials) highly value the opportunity to represent their firm on social media. So give them the opportunity to be a part of the marketing/business development team. By involving others, you expand your resources, improve results and build support for future initiatives.
This strategy also helps your colleagues realize when there are important unmet needs. More professionals are engaged and in a position to advocate for resources to improve results. This support can be very helpful when budget time rolls around or if you are building stakeholder buy-in for your latest project.
- Outsource key roles.
As you build your team, you may realize you need some marketing skills you can’t afford to develop in-house. Strategy development, website design and performance analysis are common examples. How can you handle this situation? How do you even get support for the resource?
One approach is to position the use of the outside resource as a test (see 5 above). This allows you to test it the “right way,” using someone who knows what they are doing from the outset. If the test is successful, you will have proven the benefit of the technique you were testing and can move to making it a permanent program using whatever resource makes the most sense.
Another variation is to use your outside resource as an expert (see 3 above) to educate your stakeholders. By interacting with the expert, stakeholders can become more knowledgeable about what works in today’s competitive marketplace. If you plan to employ this strategy, you’ll have to be careful to select a resource that can command the respect of your stakeholders — and deliver the results you need.
- Change the incentive structure.
Stakeholder resistance is often encouraged by an incentive structure that rewards the wrong behavior. Compensate people based solely on hours billed and you will struggle to get support for marketing or business development activities. So change the incentive system.
This may seem like an insurmountable goal, but ponder it for a minute. If the incentive system is counterproductive to growth and sustainable success it should be changed — and it is in the stakeholders’ interest to do so. Some, or even most, of the current stakeholders probably already know it.
We have seen situations where the marketing department provided the impetus to galvanize opinion and launch a new approach. By the way, any time there is a change in firm leadership is a great time to consider this option.
- Do fewer things but do them better.
Many professional services marketing approaches feel a bit like a game of Whack-a-Mole. Try one tactic over here, then a different one in another practice, and then a third somewhere else, etcetera. The problem is that you do nothing with enough consistency or depth to give it a chance to succeed.
And if you never succeed, you will not build up the creditability to earn stakeholder respect. So focus on fewer initiatives and do them with enough focus to succeed. Try using data (see 1 above) to show that you need to do a technique correctly and with enough frequency to be effective.
Many stakeholders find this argument credible and consistent with what they have “suspected” was true. By attempting fewer things you will save money. Use your budget to do the high-priority things well.
A Final Thought
Developing stakeholder buy-in for marketing and business development projects can be a challenge, especially in a professional services firm. But it is certainly not impossible. We have seen these principles and strategies work again and again.
Understand the sources of resistance, then select the strategies that address them best. And don’t give up. We have seen some of the biggest naysayers become huge marketing fans.
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