This article was originally published in PM magazine, the membership journal for PM Forum.

Graham Archbold looks at what firms need to do to succeed through the downturn and beyond.

During the dash for cash at the outset of the Covid crisis, marketing budgets were first in line for the chop. Some slashed, most trimmed to essentials only.

Furlough fever has meant a 30-70% temporary headcount reduction among marketing teams. Ironic when the need for client insight and communication is greater than ever. But in spite of all this, some teams have not only coped but led firms to innovate, creating new service lines or tapping new markets. How is that possible?

The first feat was in rallying relevant colleagues to communicate with clients at a one-to-one level like never before.

Fortunately it came without much wrangling or cajoling that fee-earners grasped the need to pick up the phone. Not transactional dialling to ask for work but genuine empathic relationship-building conversations. The sort that business development professionals have long coached and those without the rainmaking genes have resisted. One firm checked their telephony stats and found a 50% uptick in the number of outbound calls during the onset of the crisis.

While fee-earners perhaps unwittingly undertook the greatest market research and relationship building exercise of their lives, meanwhile marketers mobilised to make the most of broader communications channels. Establishing a Coronavirus Hub provided a broad base of information to convert the constant stream of government programmes and rules changes into meaningful advice.

thought your managing partner could pull off a weekly videocast in place of another dreary email? Some have been better than others but the important thing has been to reassure, coordinate and show leadership during the disruption. Internal communication has been crucial not only for those struggling under new pressures but those now on the side-lines: some firms created online ‘furlough centres’ as an information and communication platform with resources for staff in need of reassurance and practical support.

P is for pivot
We tend to fall into the trap of thinking that marketing is about communicating the value of our services. But in fact, that’s just advertising. At its best, marketing means understanding clients and then actually inventing services in response to their needs.

The smartest marketing teams have taken the insights gathered from partners’ new found willingness to listen to clients and formulated changes to processes and propositions. A few examples of pivoting services include:

• The firm specialising in licencing applications for bars and restaurants that pivoted to instead helping councils deal with licencing applications at a time when they couldn’t hold hearings or meet legal obligations.
• The accountancy firm launching an advisor-led funding platform aimed at businesses that can’t secure CBILS money, effectively becoming funding

The gap between that one-to-one relationship marketing and mass comms was then filled with sector-focused initiatives.

The heavy lifting involved teams pulling together to produce content on a plethora of subjects with alerts and articles on everything from will writing, to new build housing, to domestic abuse and a dozen other areas all in quick succession.

With communications ramped up – one firm confirmed they’d sent more mailshots in three weeks than they had done in the previous 12 months – firms saw record audience growth and increases in engagement. As people sought means to maintain a connection with the world and their professional networks, engagement soared: for example, Twitter jumped 23% in daily usage and Instagram saw a 76% increase in accumulated likes on #ad posts.

The top performers have also overhauled internal comms.

That means loyal clients will find ways to stay with preferred advisors, provided you help them justify spend with your firm over others. Differentiation matters more than ever.

Riding the recession
“The outlook is dire. We expect global economic activity to decline on a scale we have not seen since the Great Depression”. That’s the official line from the IMF. Professional services firms typically have pipeline lag of two to three months so while some practices will remain relatively busy, the impact will start to be felt soon enough.

Marketing and BD leaders are unanimous in acknowledging the need to face up to imminent and potentially longlasting recession. However it also means there is opportunity to review and make changes that are overdue. Dubious spend on the likes of tables at industry awards, events or sports sponsorship, and ads in directories are easier to rebuff than ever.

The collective advice from a number of marketing and BD leaders is:

• Adopt a positive mindset: there is opportunity to win market share from less adaptable competitors by trialling new initiatives.
• Prioritise retaining current clients over winning new ones and find out what they are doing, thinking and feeling.
• Run frequent ‘opportunity scans’ to inform your service offering and keep communications relevant as economic conditions change.
• Spend smart: use the opportunity to cut what you already knew was wasteful and spend on what will bring long-term value.
• Show leadership within your team, the broader firm and with clients.

Elsewhere the key move has been to reinvigorate internal and external referral channels at a time when demand for some services has evaporated and others is at an all-time high.

In all cases, the challenge is extracting all this new market research – every conversation or message and converting it into insight. It takes regular brainstorming, sharing what people are seeing and looking for the common client challenges. For one firm gathering input took the form of an online survey to literally quiz partners on what they’d uncovered in conversation. Compiling the individual insights revealed patterns in needs along with opportunities to help.

A pivot in service offering can mean devising entirely new offerings or redefining a current one for new audiences. Either way, it starts with understanding clients’ needs. Regular and open dialogue becomes more critical than ever because it’s impossible to understand customer pain points without the capacity for empathy.

Marketing-driven service innovation takes guts because whether an initiative will fly or flop can’t be predicted. Plus, it needs testing with clients as soon as there’s a minimum viable version ready to go.

The leaders behind these initiatives warn of two dangers. First, within the firm, innovators can be perceived as rebellious because going against the status quo means challenging those wedded to the current way of doing things. Soliciting their input and getting them on board early is the only way to avoid roadblocks.

Second is getting the tone of promotional materials wrong. Anything that smacks of selling will immediately see a backlash. One marketing director relates how an email with a slightly salesy tone relating to the offer of support in accessing loans triggered complaints of exploiting clients’ weaknesses.

Alongside the tone of communications, it’s wise to get real about how buying behaviour is changing. As we move from crisis-mode to a recession mindset, buyers of professional services are:
• More likely than ever to postpone big ticket matters and instructions
• Spend more time researching alternatives to your service provision
• Negotiate harder at renewal and for new services
• Insist on fixed-fee packages over unrestricted hourly rates.

Rather than try to ignore these trends, it’s better to anticipate and prepare to counteract where possible. Research at Nisus Consulting has shown that only 7% of legal buyers are exclusively price motivated. Even if this proportion doubles during a downturn, it’s relatively low.

The disruption, revenue falls, along with pressures to find new ways of making money are already exposing the organisational and operational truths of firms.

Covid-19 has provided impetus for firms to step up to human responsibilities, introduce innovations that seek to help, reassure and maintain personal connections with stressed clients. Bold leadership and adaptability now will set up firms for success through the downturn and beyond.

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