Editor's note: This article is based on and excerpt from Online Marketing for Professional Services, published by Hinge.

The most fundamental tenet of professional services marketing may be trust. How can you expect potential clients to retain you if they don't trust you? You can't.

Conversely, the pinnacle of professional services marketing is achieving the status of "trusted adviser"—that magical point in a relationship where your client instinctively turns to you for advice on problems that lie, even remotely, in your realm of expertise.

How can you achieve such a lofty status?

Obviously, you have to prove yourself trustworthy. But before that can happen, you first have to get the clients. Historically, that's started with developing a relationship.

Golfing for Clients

When you talk about a relationship, most folks think face-to-face interaction. And for most of human history that's how relationships have been developed.

In the world of professional services, business development has translated into countless networking events, memberships on the boards of nonprofits, industry trade association conferences... and, of course, golf outings.

Familiarity comes first. From there a cordial personal relationship develops along with exposure to your professional expertise. All of that eventually leads to trust. And only thereafter does the business relationship develop.

This traditional model looks something like this:

Meeting > Personal Relationship > Familiarity with Expertise > Trust > Client

This tried-and-true formula has worked for many years. And it still works today. But this approach has a few problems.

  • First, it's slow and labor-intensive. Developing personal relationships takes time. Board meetings, conferences, networking receptions and other face-to-face techniques require significant investments of time from senior people. Consequently, these activities are very expensive, and there is a limit to how much of it any one person can do.
  • Second, face-to-face client development can be hit-and-miss. You may be at the right networking event, but you may not happen to run into the one person who needs your service. Business development can therefore seem accidental and unpredictable.
  • Finally, it tends to be focused locally. Sure, you can go to national and international conferences, but most networking has a decidedly local orientation.

Meanwhile, a robust alternative to the traditional approach to developing professional services business has evolved. Think of it as an online path to trust.

Surfing for Clients

This online path to trust has arisen from the way people use the Internet to educate themselves about business issues. It works something like this:

  1. A business is experiencing a new challenge that internal resources alone can't overcome. Perhaps it's a new regulation or a need to improve productivity in the organization. To gain some perspective on the issue, an executive at the company opens her laptop, fires up Google, and types in some search terms.
  2. As she skims the results, her eye catches an overview that explains the issue in plain language and lays out alternative approaches. The more this executive investigates, the more she concludes the company needs to retain a consultant to help it tackle the issue.
  3. Next, she begins to compile a list of potential experts. She is drawn immediately to the person who wrote the overview article; the author clearly knows his stuff and seems to have a good grasp of the issues involved. She then searches for consultants who specialize in the problem facing her company.
  4. The executive does much of this searching in Google, but she also inquires on an online forum and emails some of her industry contacts.
  5. The executive is pleasantly surprised to see a familiar name appear a couple of times in the responses—the author of the first online article she read on the subject. Clearly this person is a trustworthy source who understands her challenges. She puts this expert at the top of her list of consultants to contact.

In that scenario, and in many real-life situations, the online model is something like this:
Issue > Education > Expert > Trust > Client

This model is well suited to the online world in which so many of us operate every day. It offers several advantages:

  • It' can be very easily implemented.
  • It's not bound by geography or time zone.
  • It can be less expensive to implement.
  • It works 24 hours a day, every day.

It also has limitations. Online marketing does not offer face-to-face interactions, and it relies on your ability to be "found" for the right issues. In many ways, it's almost the antithesis of the traditional model.

How Well Does Online Marketing Work?

The obvious question is, "How well does it work?" Is online marketing a viable alternative for your professional services firm? Will it help you grow faster or be more profitable?

Well, there seems to be an unending flow of opinion around topics such as social media, SEO, and other online marketing tools. Most of those opinions are those of advocates with an ax to grind. But there's been relatively little hard evidence to make a truly informed decision.

Which is why Hinge Marketing undertook a study to find out. Among the findings of our  study: High-growth professional services firms tend to place more emphasis on blogging, SEO, and social networking—and they generate a higher proportion of their business leads via online sources—than do their peers.

High-growth businesses are defined in the study as those growing at least 20% per year over two successive years.

For more findings from the survey of 500 professional services businesses, see "Key Online Tactics of High-Growth Professional Services Firms."

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The Two Paths to Trust in Marketing Professional Services

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Lee W. Frederiksen PhD, Sean T. McVey, Sylvia Montgomery CPSM, and Aaron E. Taylor are the authors of Online Marketing for Professional Services, published by Hinge.