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  • Writer's pictureChris Ward

Warning: Ambitious competitors could be targeting your legacy clients.

Part 2: How one decades-old firm dealt with the situation.

Keeping clients for 30 years and more is a tremendous achievement. But when complacency sets in, these same clients can become prime targets for wily predators.

In my last post, I described a professional services firm that had become overly reliant on legacy clients. For years, long-standing clients had provided a major portion of the firm’s revenues. Times had been good. Unfortunately, for this firm, times they were a-changin'!

For legacy relationships, retirements can be a killer.

Retirements at the firm and several legacy clients as well as a growing number of aggressive competitors were threatening the status quo and the firm's billings. Several senior partners, seeing the writing on the wall, recognized that complacency was no longer an option. The question they were grappling with was how best to protect what they had and replace any business that disappeared along the way.

That’s when I was brought in as a part-time marketing director. From the beginning, I recognized that inculcating a marketing mindset into the firm’s partnership was essential. The partners agreed that something had to be done. What they hadn’t yet realized is that the solution involved not just a marketing strategy and a part-time marketing director but people – partners and associates – to execute it. That realization would come over the next few months.

Creating a marketing strategy was job #1.

Beyond its circle of clients and a small group of related businesses, and despite the 60-plus years it had been in business, the firm was relatively unknown. Unlike many competitors, the firm did no advertising, didn’t publish many articles, hadn’t hosted an event, educational or otherwise in years, and shied away from networking.

So, my first job was to develop and get approval for an integrated marketing strategy. Deciding what to do was the easy part. By far the hardest task was getting the partners onside with the work that they would have to do for the strategy to succeed. This took a lot of one-on-one meetings, a couple of partners who were willing to champion the cause, several presentations, and ongoing support from the management committee.

The strategy itself required several important decisions. The first involved deciding where to focus marketing activities. The firm had positions in entertainment and real estate. Because the entertainment industry produced over 42% of the firm's billings, and it continued to be a growth industry, there was general agreement that it would be the top priority.

What’s the best way to find out what clients really want? Ask them.

Early on in my tenure, I had face-to-face meetings with several clients to get a first-hand feel for the firm’s strengths and shortcomings. This research produced some very useful findings. One really stood out.

Every client we spoke with was happy with the firm’s work. However, a significant number told us they wanted a more personal relationship with the partner in charge. As one client put it, “I’d love to get to know him better. It would be great to get out for a beer occasionally.” Comments like these really hit home with the partners who preferred Zoom, Teams, and the phone to getting out from behind their desks and meeting clients on their home turf.

From complacency to planned action.

The approved marketing strategy had five major pillars:

  1. Increase awareness of the firm and individual professional staff members.

  2. Position the firm and its partners as authorities in key service areas.

  3. Raise the firm’s visibility and desirability among top-quality university graduates.

  4. Increase net client gains, in part, by decreasing client attrition.

  5. Generate qualified new business leads.

Metrics were established for each pillar. Most importantly, results were tracked and presented to all employees at quarterly update meetings. Rewards were offered to any staff member who introduced the firm to a prospective client. Engaging staff in conversations on business development was ultimately helpful in landing several new clients.

The first 6 months.

The marketing strategy had several major components. Work on most got started in the first six months, although several (the first whitepaper, for example) were not ready for prime time until well into my first year. The major components included:

  • Creating a content marketing strategy designed to support lead generation, acquire and nurture newsletter subscribers, improve client retention, build client loyalty, and enhance the authority of partners and the firm.

  • Redoing the website to give it a more contemporary feel, showcase the firm’s expertise and professional staff, and optimize it for search engines.

  • Recruiting an SEO specialist to get the firm on Google’s first page in four key markets.

  • Authoring a series of whitepapers to help position the firm as an authority in key practice areas.

  • Publishing a monthly newsletter that featured relevant industry news, short articles by professional staff members, other information of interest to clients and, occasionally, guest articles by non-competitive professionals and clients.

  • Encouraging and preparing partners and associates to attend, network, and speak at industry events.

  • Hosting two events for clients and prospects annually, each with a theme and a well-known speaker (in addition to the firm’s own professionals).

Was the program successful?

In the words of one senior partner, “It did better than any of us had hoped. We understood the value of building awareness. And we expected we would get some business leads. But we were totally unprepared for the number – 37 good leads in just a few months of which six became clients. Plus, some of us were getting invitations to speak at symposia and were being included in panels at industry events. We’d never had this kind of exposure before.”

What can we learn from this firm’s experience?

In the first place, it’s never too late to ramp up your marketing. And the time to start is right now, hopefully before you face a situation like the firm in this post.

Second, stick-to-itiveness. Establishing a firm’s authority and building awareness are not easy tasks. And they don’t happen overnight. In this case, 8 different tools were used, and the firm had the good sense to continue to invest in tools and programs long after some partners began asking, "We’ve done well this year. Do we have to continue this marketing stuff next year?”

Third, generating qualified leads is not something that can be left to a newsletter program blog, whitepaper, or anything else. It takes a plan, the active involvement of employees (in this case, partners and associates), and a willingness to step outside of long-established comfort zones to speak and network.

A word of caution.

Rather than rush into producing a newsletter, blog, or any other type of marketing content, make sure that whatever you do has a well-thought-out place in your overall content marketing strategy. If you’re just starting out, it might take a month or two to conduct the necessary research and think through the best ways of reaching different customer types. That does require a bit of patience. However, having a sound plan to follow will make it well worth the wait.

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