Video: Can You Hack Service Firm Growth?

What Is The Surest Path To Trusted Advisor Status? 

Lately I’ve been receiving strange messages from people who promise that they can help me hack growth for my service company. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but it sounds painful. Most of the hacks I’ve received have been from sports injuries that are still with me all these years later.

But when they say hack, I think it means that they intend to show me a shortcut to growing my firm. They imply that they have a secret sauce that no one else knows about. They are kind enough to give me access to this secret if I give them money. Hmmmm… I’m dubious. Here’s why.

To grow my organization, I have essentially two options. I can offer new services to existing clients or offer existing services to new clients. That’s pretty much it. If I assume that I’ve already taken the lion’s share of the budget available for our services from existing clients, this means I have to acquire new clients to grow.

Most of my clients have arrived at this same conclusion. They want to grow by acquiring organic ideal clients. Yet, for service firms, client acquisition is directly tied to trusted advisor status. After all, people won’t give you money for intangible services unless they trust you.

So this raises an interesting question. Can you really hack your way into trusted advisor status? Should you even try? I think you know the answer. Let me share with you the surest path to becoming a trusted advisor so you can grow your firm.


Why You Should Not Hack

Before I talk about the sure path to trusted advisor status, I want to address reasons not to hack. Here they are. I will state them in the form of a question.

  • What does it suggest about someone if they hack their way into a relationship?
  • Can you really trust a hack?
  • What kind of relationship can you expect from a hack?

These are questions that I think you should ponder before you take on a hacking strategy. Let’s tackle this first question. What does it suggest about someone if they hack their way into a relationship?

This reminds me of the networking events I used to attend when I was new to the industry. Marketing associations abound in most major cities and people are always trying to build relationships from these associations.

But there are always the pushy types who force their way into conversations and then try to give you their card – all without acknowledging the conversation that was going on before they pushed their way in. Do you really want to look like an interrupter? Will this behavior build trust or likability?

Now let’s address the second question. Can you really trust a hack? What does it suggest about someone’s character if they are a self-described hack? I believe that integrity is critical to achieving trusted advisor status. Do hacks have character or integrity? Is this really a moniker you want associated with your personal brand? Would you be comfortable if someone introduced you as the foremost hack in your industry?

Finally, let’s talk about this third question. What kind of relationship can you expect from a hack? The term hack is often equated with cheat. I hear things like: our approach will help you cheat the system and bypass the obstacles that hold you back. Really?

Who wants to be in a relationship with a cheater? This is where the whole hack approach really breaks down for service providers. Those who promise a hack seem to assume that a signature on a deal is the win. Service leaders know otherwise.

Just because a new client signs a deal, that doesn’t mean you’ve won. It simply means you’ve earned the opportunity to serve them. You’ve gained enough trust to open a door to a relationship, hopefully a long-term relationship. But the real value will come from the ongoing trust you keep with the client. This is also how you earn revenue, not from a signed deal.

No. I’m afraid this whole hacking thing will not do. It will not lead to trusted advisor status. It will not lead to acquisition of organic ideal clients. It will not produce growth.


Key Take-Away

Just because a new client signs a deal, that doesn’t mean you’ve won. It simply means you’ve earned the opportunity to serve them.


So What Does Impact Growth

If we assume that hacking is not the best way to achieve growth, we’re still left with a conundrum. What does stimulate service-firm growth? What will allow you to achieve trusted advisor status?

After being a professional services marketing leader for the last 20 plus years, here is the surest path I’ve discovered to achieving trusted advisor status with organic prospects:

  • Build an ideal client profile.
  • Ask yourself what matters to ideal clients: goals, opportunities, challenges.
  • Ideate your best advice for these topics.
  • Package this advice into short-form and long-form content marketing materials.
  • Presume to be their trusted advisor before money changes hands.
  • Deploy your content on top of a marketing automation platform.
  • Pull organic ideal prospects into the consultative sale.

Let’s explore each of these in greater detail.

Build An Ideal Client Profile

The surest path to trusted advisor status is marked by expertise. Most of the clients that we are privileged to serve are subject matter experts in a specific market niche. Our clients have a history of serving their clients at a very high level. They are committed to excellence.

But here’s the interesting thing about their business models. They routinely solve the same types of problems for clients over and over again. This is how they have attained their expertise. Their clients fit a certain profile and they know how to help other people who are just like them.

Once our clients figure out exactly who they are ideally suited to serve, a light bulb turns on for them. They discover that the path to growth comes from simply replicating the ideal clients they already serve today.

What makes an ideal client, well, ideal? There are seven major qualities that we have identified that cause ideal clients to stand out:

  1. Impact: you deliver services that have a significant impact on their situation, usually their top or bottom line or both.
  2. Budget: ideal clients easily afford your services and usually have already reserved a line item in their budget for those services.
  3. Profits: you earn a substantial profit by delivering these services.
  4. Insights: you understand what your ideal client needs often better than they do.
  5. Expertise: your ideal clients want and need your specific capabilities and have limited options for acquiring that expertise.
  6. Culture: there is a good fit between the way you do business and the way your ideal clients prefer to be served.
  7. Chemistry: your staff and your ideal clients’ staff work well together with few conflicts.

If you want to achieve trusted advisor status, you have to build a profile of the people you want to serve. Take a moment right now and think about clients who fit these seven criteria. Then ask yourself what these clients have in common. Write down those characteristics. This is a great start toward building your ideal client profile.

Ask Yourself What Matters To Ideal Clients

It’s not enough to have an ideal client profile. You also have to develop a deep understanding of what matters to ideal clients. In our experience, there are typically three things that they obsess over: goals, opportunities and challenges.

Goals are those things which absolutely, positively must be accomplished. Goals are the reasons that people have jobs and careers. Goals will always get funded.

Opportunities are those things that excite their imagination and get their juices flowing. Opportunities create energy. But they may or may not get funded.

Challenges are those things that hold people back from achieving the goals. Challenges frustrate ideal clients and keep them awake at night. But here’s the weird thing about challenges. The human animal has a tremendous capacity for tolerating pain. This means that challenges will only get funded when they become acute.

So if you want to achieve trusted advisor status, make a list of the top goals, opportunities and challenges of ideal clients. You’ll use this in the next step.

Ideate Your Best Advice For These Topics

Once you understand who your ideal client is and what matters to them, it’s time to move to ideation. Ask yourself this important question. What is our collective best advice to help clients achieve their goals, realize their opportunities and overcome their challenges?

I just finished an ideation session with a client where we spent two days brainstorming answers to this question. This brainstorming session produced some great ideas and the collective wisdom of this service organization for how to help clients do things that really matter to them.

If you want to achieve trusted advisor status, ideate your best ideas and advice.

Package Your Advice Into Content Marketing Materials

Once you have great advice that would help existing ideal clients, you’re going to use this advice to attract new ideal clients. I call these organic ideal prospects and I’ll explain more about this in just a moment. To attract these prospects, you’re going to parse your counsel into two directions: short-form content and long-form content.

Short-form content is usually something like a blog-post or maybe a short presentation. This should be something that people can consume in just a few minutes. I like short-form content that either gives a quick overview of a larger plan or that goes into greater detail on just one idea.

Long-form content is what you really need to create though, because this is what drives people to your website. Long form content, like e-books, action guides, white papers and even webinars, requires registration. A person has to give you their contact information in exchange for access to the ideas in the long form piece.

If you’re still not sure what I mean by short-form and long-form, I’ll use a food analogy. Short-form content is like an appetizer when you go to a nice restaurant. It’s tasty and even a pleasure to enjoy. But it won’t fill you up or completely satisfy your hunger.

Long-form content is like a four-course meal, where you get to feast to your heart’s content. Our clients who create a bridge between short-form and long-form content typically find that organic ideal prospects will come and binge and this creates trust in the digital sphere.

If you want to attract great new clients, parse your counsel across short-form and long-form content assets.

Presume To Be Their Trusted Advisor Before Money Changes Hands

I want to present a caveat here. As I’m sure you know, the world of content marketing has become chaotic. It’s hard to stand out now because everyone seems to be producing content and a lot of it seems to be quite similar.

It’s almost as if there is a master writer somewhere who is coaching little writing minions in all of the things they need to say to get views, likes and shares. This is not what I am advising you to do. Your content needs to be unique in one critical way.

You must presume to be a trusted advisor before money changes hands. Here is what I mean by this. Many content marketing pieces promise seven steps to achieve the big goal. We use this same approach and it has been very effective for us. But many organizations have not realized the success we’ve seen. Why is this?

I have copies of white papers and e-books on my desktop that remind me of the kinds of content we DO NOT want to create. The ideas are shallow and so filled with truisms and clichés that there are almost no unique insights.

Your content must not be like this. Your content has to be nuanced with rich ideas that arise directly from your experiences with guiding clients toward their goals. Your content has to be infused with insights from your real world experiences, what you know actually works.

Trusted advisors achieve that status because they don’t over-promise or make claims that are simply incredulous. Trusted advisors are practical, realistic, down-to-earth and authentic.

If you want to build relationships with organic prospects, you have to presume to be their advisor before they start paying you.

Deploy Your Content On Top Of A Marketing Automation Platform

It’s not enough to have great short-form and long-form content these days. You also need this to be deployed on top of a marketing automation platform that allows you to see who is leaning-in. You need to track the digital footprint of everyone who is in your digital ecosystem. This is something we call the inbound journey.

After analyzing the digital footprint of literally thousands of people, we see them consistently passing through four stages:

  • Anonymous – where they surf your website and sample your content without identifying themselves.
  • Acknowledged – where they register for a content asset and submit their personal information.
  • Engaged – where they spend time thinking about your ideas and how you can help them.
  • Leaning-in – where they are predisposed to want to enter serious dialogue with you as soon as they have need and budget.

A marketing automation package that tracks every click on the inbound journey will make invisible users visible to you. In my experience, the best prospects, those with budget authority and decision-rights, will choose to remain as invisible as possible as they navigate the inbound journey.  

A marketing automation platform will allow you to see them and begin to build a strategy for how to serve them well long before they become your client. This puts you ahead of the game when it comes time for dialogue.

If you want to grow your service business, you need to deploy your content on top of a marketing automation platform.

Pull Organic Ideal Prospects Into The Consultative Sale

To grow a service-based business, you need to replicate ideal clients. This means you need to attract prospects who fit your ideal client profile. I call these organic ideal prospects. There are two terms here I want to explain: organic and ideal.

An organic prospect is someone who:

  • Has never done business with you.
  • Was not in your database, was not a referral from an existing client or partner and was not in contact with you before they started their inbound journey.
  • Knew very little about you before they started their inbound journey and you knew nothing about them.
  • Was not predisposed to want to work with you and had no reason to say yes to you before they started their inbound journey.

This is how I think of organic prospects. They are truly new business.

An organic ideal prospect is someone who fits your ideal client profile and is truly organic. This means they are new to you and they are perfect for your firm. How cool is that?

Once you are connecting with these people in the digital space, you’ll want to engage them in the consultative sale. This type of sale is quite different from the techniques used by a lot of consultants.

Most consultants enter dialogue looking for a deal. Consultants who deploy the consultative sale enter dialogue looking for a fit. They ask questions far more than they talk. They never pitch their company because they know prospects have already done their due diligence online. Prospects already know them pretty well.

The consultative sale is about helping organic ideal prospects determine the best way to apply your skills and capabilities to their goals, opportunities and challenges. This is about defining how to have the greatest impact on them. This is about building a roadmap to their future.

If you want to really grow your company, focus on organic ideal prospects and pull them into the consultative sale.

Where To Go From Here

While I’ve given you several good ideas in this post, there are a lot more ideas I’d like to share with you in an e-book I’ve written called 10 Things Service Websites Must Do To Drive Revenue. If you liked this blog-post, you will love the e-book.


About the author

Randy Shattuck is a senior marketing executive and founder of The Shattuck Group, a full-service marketing firm that specializes in growing professional services firms.

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