First of all, the people running the business either know it all, or know nothing.
Second, they're time poor and tend to want to abdicate responsibility for the work, which frankly doesn't work because any good campaign is a partnership and the people in the business have expertise that is needed to effectively market them.
Third, they tend to offer lots of different services to different types of buyers, making it difficult to nail down exactly who the buyer is and where they are.
Fourth, they're looking for a silver bullet with a guarantee.
Fifth, there's too many other factors to mention so I'm just going to stop at 4.
Bottom line is that consulting firms are tough. But, and this is a big but (I can hear my kids sniggering about that phrase right now) it doesn't have to be so hard. It won't be easy mind you. Getting the jump on your competitors is never easy. Making money in a highly competitive industry isn't easy. And for the reasons listed above, it's not easy. But it's also not impossible. But like most things in life it requires a plan, the discipline to stick to it, constant review and the guts to change tack if things aren't working, or your competitors jump outflank you.
"Ok Mr smartypants, I now know what not to do. How about you tell me what I should do?" Well I'm glad you asked. Here's a step by step approach that whilst not a silver bullet, will help you formulate a plan for your business that will lead you in the right direction:
1 Branding. Get this right, and get it right now. If it means rebranding, do it. Your brand is the foundation on which everything else is built. If yours is rubbish (and sorry but I see a lot more rubbish than gold) fix it. If you don't it'll act like an anvil around your ankle for everything you do going forward (and that's if it's just bad, if it's awful, then you're in real strife). By the by, brands are tough, so go out and find yourself a good brand agency, but also get someone else who you trust who knows brands back to front to act as a sounding board for you. Buying a brand when you're not a brand person yourself, is like buying a used yacht when you've never been to sea before. It won't end well.
2 Get your house in order. It fascinates me how many businesses will go out and spend money on marketing when they haven't even got the basic building blocks of good internal marketing sorted first. Is your receptionist absolutely first rate (or first impressions might be last impressions)? Do you have a plan in place to speak to your existing customers on a regular basis? Do you have a plan to reward your existing customers on a regular basis? Have you trained your staff on the priorities of your business and how important it is to keep churn to a minimum? Is your building and car signage up to scratch (really people, what do you think a faded, peeling decal on the front of your building says about you? Is your website better than your competitors? Do you have standard protocols about how customers should be treated, and about how new customers should be on-board? If you don't, do it now. No amount of advertising spend is going to make and/or save you more money than getting these basics in order.
3 Target your market. I know, I know, I said this was hard for consulting firms, but I didn't say it was impossible. If you have to break it into 25 subgroups I don't care. Just go through the process of working out who is most likely to buy from you, and of those, which are the most lucrative and (importantly) which ones you want. The last thing you want to do is fill your ledger with idiot clients that will make your life a misery (and maybe this is part of the profile - clients that listen, ask questions, but eventually take your good advice). If you don't know who you're aiming for, you won't hit anything. So sit down and work this out - pronto.
4 Once you know who you want to talk to, the next step is how you're going to reach them. You can try a lot of traditional media but I've found it to be universally useless (pardon the alliteration). This is nothing against traditional media, as it works excellently in other situations. I just tend to find that people don't tend to buy consulting firms from direct mail, or print ads or really any unsolicited marketing. You can cold call if that's your thing, but I've never liked it. It's very hit and miss, and frankly I don't think it does much for my brand to be cold calling businesses. So what do you do? Well, you're not gonna like it, and this is the part where we find out why most consulting firms struggle to grow. The following are the only things I've found to consistently work.
5 Network your backside off. This isn't my go mind you. I've got 3 young kids and I play a lot of music so being out every night drinking or on the golf course 3 times a week just isn't an option. But I'll still put it here because I know of plenty of people who do it and enjoy great success. What I will say is that a universal truth is that the more people you sit in front of, the more you'll sell. So as a general rule, even if you don't like networking, look for every and any opportunity to get out of the office and into someone else's. Deals get done face to face, not via email.
6 Grow by acquisition. This is dangerous and comes with a host of complications, but it's also a way to grow fast. I've got several clients in this mode and they're going great guns. But that's not to say they're not also experiencing more than their fair share of stress. This is a hard road, but if you get good advice, have very tight rules about how you approach it and do your due diligence like your life depended on it, you'll probably be ok.
7 Become a thought leader. God, I hate that term. Wasn't Manson a thought leader? It just sounds so awful, but I have to admit it has its merits. If you can present yourself as a person of both knowledge and integrity, work will flow to you. But as always, there's a catch. You have to do it, and do it, and do it ad infinitum. It's arduous people. We're not just talking about short blurbs on Facebook. We're talking about regularly posting content to the web that others will find useful. That's not easy. There's a lot of nonsense out there and it's almost a full-time job to differentiate between the posters who want to make a living posting, and the people who run good businesses and have a wealth of expertise to impart. But regardless, if you can position yourself in this manner, there's a whole world of people on LinkedIn who might like to have a coffee with you, or recommend you to someone else who might.
And here's the truly dreadful part, you have to do all of this (well, maybe not the grow by acquisition part). There's no silver bullet, just lots of bronze bullets and I've just given you 7 of them. There's a whole lot more mind you, but if you manage to get these 7 (or 6 at least) into play, and do it well, things will start to fall into place. They have to because you'll have revolutionised the way you do business.
If you'd like to hear more about smart ways to market a consulting business, let me just say I like coffee (not as much as I like scotch, but people tend to look at you funny if you're drinking scotch at 10 in the morning) and I love to meet new people and talk to them about their marketing. So if you want to catch up, sling me a message on LinkedIn and we'll tee it up. Otherwise, all the best and whatever you do, be different.