Relationships. Trust. Delivery of superb value. These are core ingredients of a successful service firm. Talk to 100 service firm marketers and leaders, and they'll all tell you (and most of them believe it, even if they're wrong) that their firm is at the top of their industry in each of these categories.

Why, then, do service firms typically do such a poor job of bringing relationships, trust, and value into their marketing mixes?

I live in Boston and I read the Boston Business Journal. For better or worse, law firms, accounting firms, consulting firms, and professional services firms of all types are flocking to the print media to improve their "name recognition" and get their message out. Of course, since they all believe that they're at the top of the food chain when it comes to relationships, trust, and value, they all say so in their advertising copy.

The copy usually reads something like this:

For over 143 years, the firm of Flugelhorn, Ocarina, Nyckelharpa and Zither has provided innovative business advisory solutions to the Boston area entrepreneurs and business leaders. Our efficient and effective solutions stem from our deep knowledge of our areas of expertise, our customers' businesses, and our dedication to exceptional customer service.

You don't need services, you need solutions! And not just any solutions, solutions that deliver value. We focus on delivering a unique level of value to our client base. You deserve the best, and we are the best. In today's competitive environment, you can trust FONZ to help you succeed.

Pretty sharp copy, if you ask me. They covered core topics that make them such a great service firm and they communicate it all so well. The FONZ is cool! Right?

Clearly this is bad marketing all around, but it doesn't come from a bad place. It's just weak execution of good intent.

Win friends and influence people

I have not conducted a friendship satisfaction and loyalty survey, but let's assume for the moment that I have some good and genuine friendships—friendships that have grown over time with people I trust, like to interact with, and expect to interact with over the long term. Hopefully, they feel the same way about me. We have good relationships.

Fast forward to now. I'm at a party. Since I'm always looking to make new friends, I consider this party a good opportunity for friendship development. When I meet people, I give them my friendship elevator pitch (which is quite polished, I might add).

In my pitch, I let them know that I'm looking for long-term friendships built on trust, reliability, and mutual benefit. I note for their convenience that my friendship activities tend to focus on Jukido Jujitsu, fly fishing, golf, traveling, and a number of other areas they might find of interest.

Strangely enough, I don't seem to get too many friends with this approach.

Do it, don't say it

A consulting firm executive once told me that he needed to get his prospects and customers to perceive that his firm was credible and distinctive. I believe that a lot of service firm executives have this same thought, so they end up writing ads that say, "I'm credible and distinctive." Or "I'm trustworthy." Or "I'm innovative yet solid."

If service firms want their clients and prospects to believe that they're credible and distinctive, they need to demonstrate that they are credible and distinctive. Simply communicating it is not only not enough, it can create the wrong impression. (When I see ads like this, I think to myself, "If they're this self-centered, and this bad at marketing, how good are they really at their core services?")

How can demonstrate your value to them, you ask?

  1. Understand your value. Unlike what many marketing consultants say, this value doesn't need to be unique. It just needs to be genuine, distinctive, and valuable to them. You don't need to be the only person to have innovative financial consulting processes, you just need to be worthwhile in specific situations to specific clients who might need them.

  2. Make the value tangible. The value that clients eventually realize from you might be your efficient and effective solutions that helped them grow their revenue and strengthen their business. But I don't know what that means or what to do with it. Instead, communicate that your innovative approach to financial restructuring has successfully freed up over $2.2 billion dollars of capital tied up in businesses.

  3. Make the process and outcomes tangible. Clients also want to know what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, and what outcomes they can expect. It's easier to lead the prospect down the path you want them to go when you show them the path and destination itself.

  4. Don't market the relationship. If you go directly to, "Let's get married, have eight kids, and retire to a nice condo in Boca," you're not likely get too many takers on your offer. The saying "coming on like gangbusters" comes to mind. You have a number of hoops to jump through before you have the right to state that your firm is the firm to be trusted with a prospect's most challenging legal needs (or whatever those needs may be).

  5. Create experiences with you. Instead of marketing the whole relationship, start by dating. At first, the experience might be that you make an offer to them to read your whitepaper. Perhaps you offer that they attend your seminar. Maybe you have a business meeting to discuss a particular topic of interest to them.

  6. Offer value in the experiences. If you have a whitepaper, a seminar, a meeting with a client, or whatever offers that you choose to make to clients, don't make them thinly veiled sales pitches. The best selling you can do is actually providing value—starting right with your marketing copy—to clients. First impressions go a long way, and if a prospective client decides to invest even five minutes in reading something you wrote, make it a worthwhile five minutes.

If, after the five minutes, all you did was try to sell to them, their first impression will be "these people aren't worth my time." And that's not the right impression to make when time with you is what you're selling.

Brand by doing, not by telling

Back to the beginning of our article: Why don't all of these ads touting firms' "trustworthiness" offer something of direct and immediate value? Where's the whitepaper? Where's the seminar? Where's the webinar? Where's something, anything, that you can offer that might actually be worthwhile right now?

From a marketing perspective, these value-based offers will not only create a perception in the mind of the prospect that you are a source of value, they'll also create leads for you. If you write an ad and put it in your local business journal without a call to action, a bunch of people will see your ad and then do nothing. Add in a whitepaper, event, or something else of value... and you get the chance to start a conversation with these people that can lead directly to new business.

Much of professional service firm marketing these days is so focused on creating "brand" that they miss the point of what a brand really is: a reputation for quality and value built one by one with clients. So instead of branding by telling people that you're trustworthy and valuable, start being trustworthy and valuable and demonstrating that to potential clients. Do that, and building the brand you so desire will take care of itself.

And with the same money that you're spending to build the brand, you can generate leads, relationships, and trust at the same time.

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image of Mike Schultz

Mike Schultz is president of RAIN Group, a global sales training and performance improvement company, and director of the RAIN Group Center for Sales Research. He is the bestselling author of Rainmaking Conversations and Insight Selling. He also writes for the RAIN Selling Blog.

LinkedIn: Mike Schultz

Twitter: @mike_schultz