Avoid an Identity Crisis: Make These Tough Calls For Your Firm

Avoid an Identity Crisis: Make These Tough Calls For Your Firm

The world is covered in the carcasses of failed professional services firms. What led to this sea of whitewashed bones? Indecisiveness. Tough choices are needed, particularly on these six issues.

Listen to the B2B Revealed podcast episode…

Do you specialize in clients or method?

This is a key choice you’re going to have to make right from the start.

You need to focus on either a type of client or a method. This is important for any professional service firm, but it’s particularly key to the survival of market research and competitive intelligence companies.

If you decide to focus on a type of client, you need to know them inside and out. You should know your target clients’:

  • Size.
  • Location.
  • Industry focus.

You also need to be able to recognize when clients don’t fit the target profile. Then you need to politely turn them down.

Your company can’t do everything for everyone.

If you’re accepting any and all clients, you’ll spread your company too thin. Your company can’t do everything for everyone. Trying to do that is a recipe for sloppy work. Instead, focus on being a great choice for a specific type of client

If you’re method focused, you need to have absolute confidence that your company delivers on that method better than anyone else. Perhaps you invented the method or have some supporting evidence that you use it best.

Client or method is an important decision to make for a number of reasons:

  • If you don’t know who your professional services firm is, how are your potential buyers supposed to figure it out? Odds are, they won’t try. They’ll pass you over to consider more concrete options.
  • Looking desperate is never a good business plan. Leaving the impression that you’ll take anything that walks in the door makes you look less specialist than bargain basement bin.
  • Without a focus, how will you decide on the continuing education to invest in for yourself or your employees? Once again, trying to be a jack of all trades will make you a master of none.

The decision to focus on a type of client or method isn’t always an easy one. It was a difficult choice for Cascade Insights, but I think our making that tough call is one of the main reasons we’ve been so successful.

Today, we focus exclusively on B2B technology companies.

Today, we focus exclusively on B2B technology companies. When we started Cascade Insights 10 years ago, we began with a much broader approach. Back then, we didn’t turn away B2C companies.

Within about a year of launching Cascade Insights, we decided to concentrate our efforts on B2B companies in the technology sector. This narrowing of focus allowed us to be true experts in this specific field. We didn’t have to waste valuable research time getting up to speed on the client’s unique industry context. With our focus, we already have the context before we start a project.

What are the right tools to invest in as a professional services firm?

Many professional service firms struggle with using technology effectively.

Technology should serve your professional services firm like a booster rocket. Look at it this way, you wouldn’t want to launch a spacecraft with just one engine. You want boosters, stages, etc.

For each of your job duties, there is probably some sort of technological tool out there to make it easier.

For each of your job duties, there is probably some sort of technological tool out there to make it easier.

I’ll share some of the tools that smooth our daily market research tasks:

  • For conference calls, we’re big fans of UberConference. There is no pin to join the call. This prevents the inevitable delay of someone being late to the phone meeting because they couldn’t find the correct pin to enter. We have a dedicated Uber Conference line for every analyst in the company.
  • For scheduling we use Calendly. It provides a slick web UI that shows everyone your availability for different types of time slots. One view may show availability for 30-minute meetings, another for 60-minute meetings, and another may show availability only on Monday and Friday. With this capability, we no longer have to send 10 different emails just to find a meeting time.
  • For sharing proposals and research finding previews, we rely on Attach. We really like the engagement statistics we get with this tool. With proposals, it shows us where stakeholders spent their time reading. We also can see the slides they sped through. When we send drafts of our research findings, we are able to see where the leaders of the client’s company are lingering in the deck. This is valuable because we can learn whether stakeholders only read the executive summary or if they were drawn in by a particular slide or section. Obviously, this information helps us tailor our findings decks and provides us with valuable insight into how to present future findings.
  • We use LinkedIn a lot for lead gen and for recruiting study respondents. Yes, there is spam on the platform. Yes, there are a few people who aren’t really who they say they are. However, LinkedIn is an open directory of business professionals of a magnitude that has never been seen before. If you were in business 20 years ago, it was highly unlikely that you could learn the names, titles, and job responsibilities of the teams in your client’s companies without ever having actually met them. With LinkedIn, that’s possible. We recommend getting the highest level of LinkedIn access that you can afford.
  • We use Toggl to track time. Not everyone is a fan of time tracking, but we think it’s incredibly valuable to see how our team spends their time and which activities are profitable and which are losing money.

How much should your professional services firm charge per engagement?

Pricing is another major challenge for professional service firms.

Some of the obvious things you need are:

  • To be paid.
  • To know when you’re getting paid.
  • To budget for how much you can safely spend.
  • To understand what you owe the government.

After that, the rest is detail.

…when you look at your finances, make sure that you balance long-term research with short-term focus.

With that in mind, when you look at your finances, make sure that you balance long-term research with short-term focus.

Do the basics like looking at your profit and loss and your balance sheet. Also, ask yourself whether an individual project could have been made more profitable. Could a type of project be adjusted to be more profitable in general? For us, we may look back over our usability testing studies, our quant studies, or in-depth interviews, etc., and consider whether a tweak in our process could bring more money in.

If you’re just starting a professional services firm, it’s easiest to focus on each project individually. Ask yourself whether each project did well financially or not.

If you’re just starting a professional services firm, it’s easiest to focus on each project individually. Ask yourself whether each project did well financially or not.

At some point, you’re going to have to get a merit badge in finance. You’ll need to be able to fluently speak P&L, balance sheets, accrual vs. cash, and net income percentages. In the end, you’re the one on the hook for your company’s finances, not your employees, not your clients, and not even your accountant. Your accountant just prepares the books. You’re the one who finds the projects and the revenue to fill them.

How will you market your professional services firm? How will you measure its success?

Today, you need to produce content like your life depends on it. While your mortality may not actually hang in the balance, your search rank surely does.

Keep a grain of salt, though. Your professional service firm, try as it might, will never go viral the way political buffoonery, Justin Bieber’s hair, or the latest teen sparkle vampires will. Keep your expectations in check.  Ten hearts from potential buyers is way better than a thousand spammy likes.

Ten hearts from potential buyers is way better than a thousand spammy likes.

One important lesson is to promote your content more than you produce it. Writing content and casting it to the winds doesn’t help anyone. It’s wasted effort (and resources). You can’t just publish in the wilderness. You need to be seen.

In marketing especially, make sure you’re leveraging tools to measure and increase your impact. We use:

  • Google Analytics to measure engagement with our content. It packs a lot of insight into free statistics.
  • Hello Bar to test different CTAs on our website.
  • MailChimp to send newsletters and track opens and click rates.
  • ProsperWorks to maintain a client contact list.
  • Positionly to track our search engine ranking.

These tools allow us to easily determine whether each piece of our content is doing well. We can also effectively analyze our social promotion campaigns. This wealth of access to analytics allows us to continually reevaluate how our marketing team spends their time in order to maximize the right kind of traffic to our site and to our Contact Us page.

The beauty of today’s marketing stack is that you can easily measure and monitor your content in ways that your predecessors could have only dreamed about. Previously, you would have had to leverage the fishbowl at the conference and hope for the best. Or you would have had to give a conference presentation and pray that the right people would walk to the front of the room and ask for a card. Today, you can have more of an analytics-driven approach to marketing, no matter the size of your professional services firm.

Contracted IT, SaaS or DIY?

If you’re a company of 50 people or less, you should not have a dedicated full-time IT person. Sorry, but it’s true.

If you’re a company of 50 people or less, you should not have a dedicated full-time IT person. Sorry, but it’s true. These days, what you can’t contract out when it comes to IT, you can simply turn into a SaaS purchase.

You should be using cloud-based email, calendar, task and project management tools so you never have to worry about a bad install.

You should buy hardware that you won’t need to repair daily, weekly or even monthly. You’ll never regret the additional expense. That $500 you saved yourself on a cheap laptop just doesn’t add up when you have to spend that three times over just to keep it functional.

I (Sean) am a pretty technical guy and could ostensibly run Cascade Insights’ entire infrastructure if I wanted to. I suppose I could control every time someone gets provisioned with an email account, calendar, file sharing, etc. However, I just don’t have that kind of time.

At some point, you need to leave the web design to the professionals. Let them handle web hosting and updates too.

How are you going to make the tough calls?

The bad (good) news is, when running a professional service firm, you’re going to have to make tough calls all the time. Business is no place for indecisiveness, even when the choice is unpleasant.

You’re just not going to get to do everything. At some point, you’ll have to push something you want to do back another six months or set it aside entirely. You’re not going to be able to travel to all the conferences you want to go to. You’re not going to win every deal. You’re not even going to be able to say “yes” to every good deal. You’re not always going to hire the perfect employee. Sometimes, you’re going to have to fire employees and even clients. That’s running a professional services firm.

In the words of The Rolling Stones,

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need.”

Frankly, that should be enough for all of us.

This podcast is brought to you by Cascade Insights. We specialize in market research and competitive intelligence for B2B technology companies. Our focus allows us to deliver detailed insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. Got a B2B tech sector question? We can help.

Photo Credits:

“Who Are You” – © Marek / Fotolia
“No Thanks”  – © Balint Radu / Fotolia
“Rocket” – © simple cartoon / Fotolia
“Money Bag” – © Nikolai Titov / Fotolia
“Going Viral” – © Krasimira Nevenova / Fotolia
“SaaS / Cloud” – © vector_master / Fotolia
“Direction To Take” – © Wissanu99 / Fotolia

Sean Campbell

CEO

Sean Campbell (All Posts)

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