Reinventing Professional Services: Building Your Business in the Digital Marketplace
By Ari Kaplan
The technological landscape has reshaped the way white collar workers cultivate and promote their businesses. This article offers insights on taking advantage of enterprising techniques to stand out and reinvent yourself as an insightful chameleon rather than as an isolated purveyor of facts and figures. It details the importance of offering resources instead of simply selling; reveals strategies for increasing your searchability and distinguishing yourself in an economic recovery, and offers advice readers can immediately use to strengthen client relationships.
Between my college graduation and my first semester of law school, I spent a year living in Kobe, Japan, working for the Japanese government through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program.
During one of my vacations, I made a last-minute decision to visit Nepal and flew into Kathmandu late one spring evening in 1994. I was alone, with only a backpack and a Lonely Planet guidebook. I recall a single telephone in the airport and I waited in what seemed like a very long line for an opportunity to call a few guesthouses in the city.
As I waited, I paid little attention to the travelers around me or to their systematic usage of the phone. I periodically looked up from my book and noticed that each subsequent person on the line lifted the receiver, dialed, and waited for almost the exact same amount of time as the preceding individual.
As one walked away, another stepped forward, lifted the receiver, and executed the routine. It was very mechanical and efficient. There was, however, one problem that went unsaid until I had an opportunity to play the game.
The phone was broken!
Each person took the same steps and realized the same result – failure. They thought those steps worked for their predecessor and simply followed his or her lead. They were unaware of the earlier results so they left in confusion without saying a word to their fellow travelers.
Upon realizing the trouble, I turned to the person behind me and informed him that the handset did not work. He smiled and waved as I walked away to either find another pay phone or some other type of travel assistance.
When I looked back, I was surprised to see him holding the receiver attempting to make a call. Even more startling was that despite my advisory to him and a few others within earshot in the line, not a single person left. Not one.
Today, providers of a broad range of professional services find themselves waiting in a proverbial line to use tools and techniques that are of waning utility. It is harder for them to build relationships with the same longevity and therefore they face greater challenges in developing business. Although most had been following a similar path for years with a fair amount of success, the recession and the impact of technology on information-oriented advisory careers are forcing them to become more entrepreneurial.
A well-respected education, industry experience, and a book of contacts are no longer enough. There is a renewed focus on practical innovation. New technology allows you to showcase your talent to a much broader audience. These tools empower you to interact with that audience in a more organic fashion. But, it is more of an effort to achieve incremental advancement than revolutionary change.
A Single Bottle of Water Can Be the Key to Your Reinvention
I was in a taxi recently and, after sitting down, the driver generously offered me a bottle of water. After a few questions, he admitted that he always provides water for his passengers because it increases the potential tip to an average of 15-20%. It also encourages a future call.
And, just like that, he exceeded my expectations by reinventing what it means to be a cab driver. He did not create the next iPad. He did not give me a deep discount. He simply raised the bar ever so slightly on customer service. As he predicted, of course, I increased the tip, even though I did not drink a sip of water.
In a recovering economy, professionals are often considering ways to reestablish what they offer their clients, employers and prospects. That effort requires some realignment and a more holistic approach to business.
“Licensed experts in every discipline are sensing a revolution in how they deliver their services to a more empowered audience of clients… Only those who target their audience and find ways to creatively interact with its members will continue to thrive.”
Welcome the Wind Tunnel
Firms seeking more efficiency must begin by putting their individual practice groups into a proverbial wind tunnel. While clients were once driven simply by results, they now want performance coupled with precision in its execution. In the same way that individuals must routinely evaluate their own level of productivity, organizations must conduct an analysis of their operations. From administrative departments to client service teams, start by developing a questionnaire to uncover potential areas for improvement.
Acknowledge Your Full Team
This initiative requires participation by an entire team, rather than a select group of individuals. That collaborative conversation is a hallmark of reinvention, along with collective ownership of a firm’s success. Management should include views from administration, finance, professional development, marketing, public relations, and information technology, because their unique talents will help diversify the voices supporting the proposal.
Consider acknowledging the broader talent pool by including more staff profiles on firm websites. Since you are going to highlight your innovative approach to billing, training, staffing, and other areas, those responsible for this transformation could make future pitches more marketable. As organizations reinvent themselves, they should contemplate redefining what it means to be a cohesive business, particularly since that integrated approach is so attractive to clients and prospects.
Set Your Strategic Plan Free
While many firms, law, accounting and otherwise, are developing strategic plans for their growth and market positioning, they are often closely held secrets by a select group of principals. Today, however, for those organizations to succeed, they must tap the wisdom of the internal community, rather than those who represent a small constituency.
While those leaders are capable, the pressures on their time and the need to be hyper-responsive to client demands necessitate experimenting with crowd-sourcing potential ideas for implementation. From summer hires to office managers, there is probably an aspect of the strategic plan that each individual can uniquely address if given the opportunity.
That focus on the micro level, rather than simply the macro, is at the core of reinvention in the recovery. Organizations must conduct an analysis of their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to properly position themselves in the market.
Instead of seeking to study the entire organization, which is a long-term project, requiring significant resources, begin the inquiry at the practice group, department or satellite office level. Start by asking questions about successes and failures, allowing the responses to drive the nature of the discussion.
Fighting the Commoditization Craze
In fact, social media has completely shifted the landscape from commentary to conversation. While experts once informed individuals about key issues in their field, they are now responding to queries and discussing those issues in an open forum. That transparency has reconfigured the setting.
Licensed experts in every discipline are sensing a revolution in how they deliver their services to a more empowered audience of clients in a dynamic economic environment. Advancements in technology have commoditized many of the services professionals once offered for a fee. Now, they are giving that information away and searching for higher-value revenue streams.
One can file tax returns online, diagnose simple illnesses via medical web sites, design basic room additions with self-service CAAD (computer-aided architectural design) programs, and, of course, draft a variety of legal documents for free.
Consumers are able to eliminate or reduce the need for licensed resources that once held a monopoly on trusted information. This shift requires those experts to convey basic knowledge, but in a way that tailors their understanding to the issues with which their existing or future clients are struggling. They are required to routinely engage in conversation on issues about which their clients or patients have acquired some insight and may have preexisting ideas.
Only those who target their audience and find ways to creatively interact with its members will continue to thrive. Expectations, both internal and external, are higher. Decades ago, junior professionals had seven or eight years to prove themselves. Today, they have three. And, one must be proactive now or face the consequences later. Those that are often reap rewards.
Seek Momentum, Not Perfection
Ultimately, we are in a new era that values momentum over perfection.
For decades, personal marketing was time consuming and challenging because nothing could be released into the public domain until it was ideal. There was no tolerance for mistakes or inconsistencies.
Today, we are in a climate of perpetual beta, where technology has created a climate of perfect imperfection. The culture is more accepting of shortcomings. In fact, there is a certain authenticity in being almost cool. It is more relatable. It conveys sincerity. It builds trust.
In a technological environment, people tend to be more forgiving in marketing. They are used to hiccups. Cell phones drop calls often enough that people understand when you lose the signal. Everyone with a computer has rebooted at some point in his or her life. And, of course, there are countless examples of viruses invading someone’s phone book and spamming everyone he or she knows. Minor mistakes are part of progress.
There is also freedom in not worrying about flawlessness and instead concentrating on commencement. Professionals are now liberated to start more initiatives just like the entrepreneurs they admire.
“Today, in order to convey the level of enthusiasm that potential business associates require to consider a professional’s work, there needs to be a unique level of interaction and it must convey the human aspect of the relationship.”
Start by targeting your audience and tailoring information for its members. Those selecting experts are no longer looking solely for advisors who are well educated and capable–that much is assumed. They want to see public validation of their work in the broader community. As a result, professionals who can showcase their talent directly to their target audience are perceived as more visible and, therefore, become more marketable.
Bear in mind that anyone who tries to leave his or her comfort zone falters at some point in a marketing or networking endeavor. That does not mean, however, that the effort is wasted. When you ask someone to meet and they decline, you have still set the foundation for a follow up request. When you engage in social media and do not feel like you are reaching a substantial audience or efficiently utilizing your time, you are, at a minimum, listening to a conversation that will help you direct your efforts in the future. It is about communicating your message and letting that message reflect your character.
It is not just because a medical facility cured a patient or that a law firm won a case, it is that its human talent is so excited about the success of the patient or client that the facility or firm wants to tell as many people about the journey, rather than solely the destination.
Today, in order to convey the level of enthusiasm that potential business associates require to consider a professional’s work, there needs to be a unique level of interaction. And that interaction must convey the human aspect of the relationship. It must provide insight into who you are, as much as what you can do.
A Roadmap for Reinvention
Regardless of your skills, reinvention is increasingly about finding alignment in a wired world where the answers are often less important than their conveyance. The medium is as critical as the message and the messenger. Professionals who can organically associate with a client’s challenges will find that principles of trust, authority, collaboration, and respect will simply fall into place.
In addition, members of the millennial generation have a much more collaborative mindset and are comfortable communicating a variety of ways. There is more flexibility in roles and work styles, with lockstep advancement and traditional billing practices giving way to a more creative approach.
Knowing your customer, client, or patient, is critical because of the expectation that you will understand who they are, their preferences, and their history. There was a time, not so long ago, when listening was often enough. Today, you must build a complete profile to understand the individual or organization, as well as his or her place in the market.
Start by asking your existing clients, patients, and customers where they congregate and what tools they use. Consider including that request on an intake form when meeting with a new prospect. In addition to an individual’s telephone number and home address, ask about their usage of social media and other technology. Determine whether they use mobile phone applications to coordinate their schedules or get information. Ask whether they participate in webinars or tele-seminars. Find out about their professional interests and personal hobbies.
Don’t require a response and allow one to share as much or as little as he or she prefers. If the questions are not asked, however, they are unlikely to supply the answers. Once you know where your target audience gathers, consider using the devices and tools that are best suited to reach them.
The path to success for experts requires an innovation in lifestyle as well as surroundings. You can leverage whatever communication, follow-up, and social networking tool you like. But, you must first make that initial commitment to seek reinvention, which is a decision rather than an action.
*Adapted from: Reinventing Professional Services: Building Your Business in the Digital Marketplace by Ari Kaplan. Copyright © 2011 Ari Kaplan. Published by John Wiley & Sons. Used with permission.
About the author
The New York Law Journal called Ari Kaplan’s first book, The Opportunity Maker, a “must-have treasure box of marketing ideas,” and CEOs have described his new book, Reinventing Professional Services, as “an essential guide” that “expertly showcases the multitude of opportunities the digital age has brought to the professional services market.” After nearly 9 years practicing law with large firms in Manhattan, Kaplan, named to the inaugural Fastcase 50 list of innovators, has become a go-to copywriter and industry analyst. He has shared ideas with thousands of professionals worldwide in keynote speeches, training programs, and his consulting practice. Learn more at
reinventingprofessionals.com and arikaplanadvisors.com.