Welcome to the age of uncertainty. Of course, you already feel the effects.
Is there no longer anything stable to hang on to?
Political stability? Forget about it. The economy? Who knows. Technology? Will probably change tomorrow. How about business models? No stability there either—here come the disrupters.
What is a marketer to do? How do you guide your firm’s leadership to a sensible strategy
in such a turbulent and unstable environment?
Many firms will freeze. Cut spending. Delay important decisions until “things stabilize.” Good luck with that one. Lost opportunity and decreased momentum are pretty much guaranteed.
Others will freak. Try something new . . . anything! Now try something else. Patience and planning are out the window.
While either of these reactions is perfectly human and very understandable, they help no one except your competitors. So, what should you do when faced with so much uncertainty?
Time to Give Up
Abandon all your false hopes that things will settle down so you can get back to long leisurely planning cycles and market stability. The good old days of referral-driven strategies and “just doing good work” are gone. Geographically protected markets are fast becoming history.
We are in a new world that requires new approaches to planning and executing marketing strategies. And where are these strategies to be found? We believe that looking to the firms that are successfully growing and thriving in this uncertain market provides the best way forward.
So we began researching the fastest growing professional services firms
and their clients. By tracking how they approach their markets and add value to their clients we can learn what drives real growth. These firms have found ways to mitigate the uncertainty and market instability we all face.
What Works Now
As we reviewed our research and reflected upon our experience working with hundreds of professional services firms, several strategies for managing through uncertainty jumped to the forefront. Here are the five most important:
1. Lean into change
Change is coming, whether you want it or not. Many individuals and firms try to resist. They question the need for change and ignore the risks of doing nothing. I’m reminded of a firm that was a clear market leader in their niche. In fact, they were the first firm to specialize in the niche and enjoyed market dominance for a number of years.
Then the market began to change. New competitors entered their territory. Some used technology to offer faster or more comprehensive services. Their clients faced internal pressure to consider competitive suppliers. Yet the firm resisted evolving because they “didn’t see the need.” Their market share gradually eroded and their pricing premium was lost.
Of course, it did not need to be that way. They could have anticipated those changes and evolved ahead of the market. The problem here was not new competitors or changing client needs.
The real problem was between their ears.
The firm’s leaders convinced themselves that the new competitors weren’t a threat: “They don’t know what they are doing.” They believed that the new technology these competitors had deployed was too expensive and could not replace professional judgement. Not quite true. So, they waited and did nothing. Frozen in place, their substantial competitive advantage melted away.
2. Accelerate your planning cycles
If change is happening at a faster pace, which it most certainly is, then planning should keep pace. A yearly planning and budgeting cycle has served many firms well over the years. But does it still make sense?
Many high-growth firms have found that it doesn’t. A faster cycle of analysis and adjustment helps you cope with the faster pace of change. Here’s what we have found works best for many of our clients.
Project an overall budget for marketing, business development, and new service development. Plan for the new developments you can reasonably anticipate. Many firms also add a contingency (often 10% of the yearly budget) as a way to plan for as yet unknown adjustments.
Revisit your basic planning assumptions. Take into account current performance and any new insights, results of testing, and research as you adjust the yearly plan and associated budget.
For example, let’s say you have been holding a series of executive roundtable discussions each month. You notice that the costs to recruit attendees is increasing and attendance has been slipping over the last two quarters. You may decide to test a webinar series as a replacement for a quarter. This timing is obviously much more responsive and flexible than waiting for the yearly budget cycle. And importantly, a decision can be reversed easily if the new direction doesn’t pan out.
Review marketing results at the end of each month to judge their effectiveness and make necessary adjustments to implementation tactics. Usually, these will be small adjustments to a technique (“We get better email open rates on Tuesdays.”) or a reminder to follow through on something that has slipped (“We said we were going to publish four articles this month, but only did two.”). These monthly reviews tend to catch issues early and prevent bad habits from taking root.
3. Get ahead of your target clients
In the “good old days” of professional services business development it was considered a best practice to ask potential clients, “What keeps you up at night?”. Today, that question is a great way to scare clients away.
According to our research, one of the top things that potential clients are trying to avoid is a service provider who doesn’t understand their industry. It’s costly to pay someone to learn about their industry and risk that they miss something important. In today’s digital world, consumers are trained to expect that you can access someone who understands your issue and has a proven solution.
But it is not enough to simply understand the current issues in an industry. You need to be in a position to tell your prospective client what they should be
worried about. You should be able to educate the client about emerging threats and opportunities and have potential solutions (or at least approaches) available to your clients.
One of our clients illustrates this principle in action. Nishith Desai Associates is an Indian law firm headquartered in Mumbai. With offices around the world, they service major corporations that want to do business in India as well as Indian firms with global ambitions. They routinely scan emerging technologies and business models to determine potential legal questions that may arise. Then they began to craft strategies and approaches to these emerging issues. This allows them to identify possible solutions early and provide a major benefit to their clients. While this kind of R&D is obviously a big investment (more about that below) it has positioned Nishith Desai as one of the most innovative law firms in Asia and produced a client list second to none.
Your clients believe that your professional expertise and deep experience in their industry should give you valuable insights that you can share with them to add value to your services. Don’t disappoint them.
Now if this sounds challenging, you’re right. It is. But don’t despair. You have a valuable tool to help you accomplish this formidable task. That tool is research.
4. Use research to increase insight and reduce risk
Research has two big benefits. First, it gives you insight into your target audience. Understanding industry trends and common issues helps you target your marketing messages to prospects’ real concerns. You can demonstrate deep understanding and deliver greater value.
Second, it has a positive impact on your brand. When you share your research results, you are seen as a leader and an innovator. Even if a prospect never bothers to read the research, they are reassured that you know what you are doing. This helps you attract qualified leads and close new business.
But when it comes to impact, not all research has the same perceived value.
You may want to familiarize yourself with research published by other firms (called secondary research). Reading up on secondary research shows general industry knowledge and awareness.
But the gold standard is original independent research (called primary research). You can do it yourself (usually with professional help), or you can sponsor a study conducted by a third party. This type of research is unavailable anywhere else, so it’s of is much greater value. How much greater? Well consider this. High Growth firms are three times more likely to conduct primary research than their slower growing peers.
5. Make small reversible bets
When you are operating in an uncertain environment it is difficult to know which products or services will be successful or which marketing campaigns will produce the best results. Research certainly helps reduce the risks. But at some point, you will need to try something
to know for sure. That’s where this strategy comes in handy.
The key is to try things early and on a small scale. By conducting small experiments, you gain knowledge faster while preventing a large, irreversible disaster. This is exactly the strategy used by Nishith Desai Associates, the law firm that researches emerging trends and technologies. They do not bet on a single technology or a single trend. Rather they focus on, for example, many technologies, from drones to block chain. And they invest in small increments over time.
This way, they increase the probability they will remain relevant without taking a big risk on a single bet.
This same strategy applies to other business situations, as well. Another of our clients was considering acquiring a competitive firm to greatly expand their service offerings. To evaluate the proposition, they set up a test with the firm they were considering acquiring. Together they approached several of the firm’s existing clients offering the new service. To their surprise, they learned that their clients didn’t see the service as being compatible with how they were currently seen in the marketplace. The new service would likely add confusion and erode their reputation. By making a small bet, in this case a limited test, they saved a big mistake.
The same principle applies when considering a new marketing approach or adopting a new technology. Make several small incremental bets to gain valuable insight and experience. You’ll avoid big, irreversible gambles on one hand and inaction on the other.
Your Goal: A Culture of Learning and Growth
So, where does this all lead? How do you sustain growth in turbulent and uncertain times? All of the approaches we described above lead in a consistent direction. Develop a firm culture that is built around learning and growth. Rather than resist change, embrace it. Reframe uncertainty as a challenge to be managed and overcome, not an excuse for inaction.
Related: Why Digital Branding is So Important