I get asked on a regular basis if advertising works in consulting and the professional services.  Especially by people who have recently gone out on their own.  These people typically have a lot of expertise relating to their craft.  They just need a few clients to get things rolling.  Why is this such a hard nut to crack?  Well,  as Tom McMakin and I discuss at length in our book How Clients Buy, all of us who fall into the expert services (those of us who get paid to provide IDEAs – insight, design, expertise and advice) have been trained to do the work, but nowhere along the way have we ever been taught how to get clients.  It’s one heckuva conundrum.  No clients = no work.

I think most consultants wish there were a relatively simple, affordable advertising approach that would make their phones ring and their emails ping.  Unfortunately, that silver bullet simply doesn’t exist for most of us in the expert services .  Targeted advertising does have value.  But not in the way we wish it would. Advertising can bring awareness to your brand – especially for new firms without a long history – and it can bring some degree of understanding to what your firm specializes in, who you serve, and how you are unique.  The main issue is that advertising alone will not make the phone ring for most of us.  There are a few notable exceptions – such as billboards advertising personal injury lawyers – but by and large, that is the reality we live in.

The reason advertising doesn’t work is that clients hire people who they know, respect and trust….or who come recommended by a trusted friend or colleague.  Unfortunately, advertising has very little effect on building relationships with those we wish to serve, having them respect our professional capability, and trusting that we will always have their best interests at heart.  Alas, advertising has limited value in the clients buying decision journey.  

Same goes with SEO – search engine optimization.  Most professionals have a website.  It’s usually one of the first things we do when we hang out our new shingle.  As soon as we launch our shiny new website, we start getting harangued by SEO experts offering to drive immense traffic to our sites and countless sales leads.  Don’t fall for it.  It’s not going to happen….as Mom’s words echo in our ears, ‘if it sounds too good to be true…’.   Prospective clients do not go searching for experts using the Google search bar.  Websites are mostly only there to vet us out once we’ve established the first steps of a new client relationship.

Sames goes with Marketing Automation.  You may not know marketing automation by its name, but you’ve certainly been on the receiving end of it as your InBox floods with ‘content’ from a seemingly endless line of people trying to engage with you.  Marketing automation is the software that manages the sending and receiving of media content to customers.  Again, when the phone rings and someone wants to license you their latest marketing automation tool – again, promising long lines of credible sales leads – don’t fall for it.  It’s not going to happen.

Before I get accused of poo-poo’ing marketing automation, let me say that it does offer value for consumer product companies or organizations with vast quantities of members (alumni associations, for example).  For most of us in the expert services, our target audience is at most a few hundred prospective clients.  Do we need powerful software to connect with dozens or hundreds of prospective clients?  No, we need a phone, a computer, the postal service, a pair of shoes or an airline ticket.  Vastly cheaper than the latest marketing automation tool.

At the end of the day, the only thing that really works is building solid relationships with those who can hire you or refer business to you.  That is where 90+% of your work will originate.  Relationship building is time consuming, and it’s hard. But it’s really the only thing that works.  It’s not what we typically want to hear. 

The thought of picking up the phone, or emailing someone, or hopping on a plane, or speaking at a conference, or writing a white paper….either sounds scary or seems like a lot of work.  It often is.  But, it’s how people get to know us, respect and trust us.  And, until someone gets to know us, respect us and trust us – or have someone recommend us that does – we aren’t likely to be on their short list of experts they’re considering hiring to help them solve a thorny problem or fulfill an important need.

As my friend and former business partner, Dr. Mike Reilly, often said, ‘just because I didn’t tell you what you wanted to hear…doesn’t mean I didn’t help you.’  Please let me know what has worked for you.  And, if you’ve had success in advertising, please let me know.  Every day I’m learning.

Good luck!