Thoughts on Marketing a Small Consulting Firm
Marketing is everything that you and your company do to find and keep clients. Most small consulting engineering firms do not have marketing departments or even dedicated marketers. Marketing responsibilities are carried out by partners as one of several management responsibilities.
Many excellent engineers enter the consulting profession when they retire or when circumstances force them to look for alternative employ. Such engineers may choose to join existing consulting engineering firms, or to open their own small companies. These small consultancies can have from one to ten partners.
Marketing is everything that you and your company do to find and keep clients. Most small consulting engineering firms do not have marketing departments or even dedicated marketers. Marketing responsibilities are carried out by partners as one of several management responsibilities. The most intensive marketing activities relate to lead generation, client relations, and development of study proposals.
However, marketing does not come naturally to engineers and they prefer to be recognised for their technical prowess and ability to solve problems. Marketing takes time and effort, and most consultants would rather spend this time on technical issues. Not only must you invest time in marketing activities, but it also takes considerable time before you will see results. Keep in mind that a consultant does not sell a tangible product. We primarily sell ideas and concepts, and it is difficult for people to buy what they cannot see.
In this article we share some thoughts on the marketing of a small engineering and project management consulting firm. It is not a discussion on the well-known four P’s of marketing, i.e., the product, price, place, and promotion of a good or service. Instead, it focuses on those matters of importance to the marketing of goods or a service in the context of a small consultancy.
Marketing a small consulting firm
To structure the discussion, the article is divided in four areas of interest that relate to the marketing of the services of a small consultancy. These four areas are:
- Ability of team: It is essential that the consulting team has sufficient depth of experience and can perform work of a high standard over a broad scope of activities. What can be done to ensure a one-stop shop for the client?
- Visibility of the company: How well known is the consultancy and how easy is it to get hold of? This deals with what can be done to make the consultancy more visible.
- Quality of work: This area deals with the level of satisfaction experienced by a client when a report or project phase is completed. Would the client recommend the consultancy to his peers?
- Client focus: Being client focused means taking the viewpoint of the client. The consultant/marketer must put him/herself in the shoes of the client and view things from the client’s perspective.
The four focus areas of the article are illustrated in Figure 1. Each of these four areas is discussed in detail in the sections that follow.
Figure 1: Requirements for successfully marketing a small consulting firm.
Ability of the team
The question uppermost in the mind of a prospective client is whether a consultant or team of consultants will be able to solve his/her problem. This means that the ability of the consultant or team to perform the work required is of decisive importance. Ability means having the talent, knowledge, skill, tools, and proficiency in the area of interest to the prospective client.
In the area of ability of the team, the subtopics to be discussed are shown in Figure 2. Each of these subtopics is discussed in detail in the sections that follow.
Figure 2: Important elements of the ability area.
Know your strengths
Before you can market your services, it is essential to know what your strengths are. This can easily be done using the familiar SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. Try to perform the SWOT analysis from the viewpoint of the client. Build on your strengths, exploit opportunities, eliminate weaknesses and risk-manage threats.
Engineers with many years’ experience should be familiar with their individual strengths and weaknesses but conduct the analysis for the total consulting team. It is preferable to use an external facilitator to conduct the SWOT analysis, because engineers do not easily admit to any weaknesses!
Supplement your strengths
Once you know what the team’s strengths and weaknesses are, the next step is to decide whether you want to remain with the status quo, or whether you want to supplement the in-house strengths with expertise from outside to address the identified weaknesses.
A weakness may be the lack of process safety expertise. This can be overcome by appointing a consultant with the necessary training and expertise or maybe forming an alliance with another consultancy that has the specific abilities. In this manner you can render a complete service to the client. However, Frederiksen (2010) found that consulting firms offering a narrow range of services to specific market sectors had faster growth rates and greater profitability than broad-based service firms.
The next step is to define your consultancy’s niche and value proposition. The idea is to be better than anyone else in ‘something’.
You need to identify what your clients need that is not readily available to them. According to Biech (2003), your niche is the place you wish to occupy that will set you apart from most of your competition. It might be the services you provide, how you provide services, to whom you provide the services, or the expertise and/or experience you have when providing these services. In other words, your niche is that unique combination of components that gives you an unfair advantage over your competition.
Your value proposition is a description of what the client can expect to gain from their purchase and should be crystal clear. You need to tell your prospective clients exactly who you are and what you can do for them. If you can provide examples of your work, so much the better. The clearer your value proposition is on your website, company prospectus, or introductory presentation, the more sales will be generated.
A consultant is never too old to learn and must continually do so to remain relevant and flexible enough to tackle new challenges.
It is essential to follow industry and environmental trends to identify what type of technical support and expertise will be required in the future. In our consultancy we have several consultants with in-depth knowledge of coal gasification and coal-to-liquid technologies. However, there is unlikely to be further investment in these technologies. These consultants are now focusing their attention on new energy technologies like LNG, biogas, and hydrogen.
Clients for engineering or project management services desire dealing with a one-stop-shop. This means that either you must have specialist consultants in-house or have easy access to specialists in your professional support network.
A consulting support network comprises other consultancies or engineering companies with whom you collaborate on assignments when the need arises. Such collaborative arrangements can be formal or informal. Study other service providers in your business area, know their strong points and areas of expertise, and cooperate when it makes sense to do so: a win-win situation. Know that other service providers will also study your strong points and make use of your services from time to time.
Make an effort to identify and establish a working relationship with other consulting firms with complementary skillsets.
Client statements regarding the ability of you and your team of consultants to execute tasks and add value are extremely valuable. If clients compliment your work verbally, you may ask them to put it in writing. According to Williams (2020), 91% of clients are willing to give testimonials, whereas only 11% of service providers ask for it.
Endeavor to collect a testimonial for every job successfully completed. Client testimonials can help to convince prospective clients to use your consultancy for their problems and projects. Testimonials can be used for marketing purposes on your website, in your company prospectus, and in proposals.
Visibility of the company
Consulting services are no longer local in nature (Hinge, 2021). Consulting firms and prospective clients have learned that business can be developed, clients can be serviced, and talent managed remotely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. This implies that consulting firms must be visible and accessible around the globe.
In the area of visibility, the subtopics to be discussed are shown in Figure 3. Each of these subtopics is discussed in detail in the sections that follow.
Figure 3: Important elements of the visibility area.
Another issue that goes hand in hand with visibility, is persistency. Profitable leads can be generated by consultants who may not be the best marketers, but who are persistent. Do not let prospective clients who say: ‘We’re not interested,’ discourage you.
Positioning your brand is about occupying a position in the mind of your prospective clients that differentiates it from competitor brands.
There are no rules about naming your company. However, your company name should be easy to remember and it should project the image you desire. The name should also tell a potential client something about what you do (Biech, 2003).
Like the name of your company, your logo should say something about your consulting business. Your logo should be displayed proudly on your marketing materials, stationery, presentation templates, proposals, reports, invoices, and advertising specialty items. Your logo is an indicator of ownership on your firm’s intellectual property. It will be used to signify that this thinking was produced by your company.
According to Mlicki (2017), brand strategy at a professional services firm is really about defining what the firm would like to be known for.
Website and search engine optimisation
You need to invest in an informative and effective website. It is no longer sufficient if the website provides some basic details. A well-designed, high-performance website offers far greater opportunity and flexibility. Your website should attract, educate, and inform potential clients early in the buying process through your expertise (expressed as thought leadership) (Mlicki, 2019). Hinge (2021) found that successful service providers generate almost half of their leads (46.1%) from digital sources.
According to Coorey (2017), your website offers you the opportunity to tell your story and showcase your wares like few other marketing tools. You can host every part of your portfolio of products and services on your website to attract potential clients. A good website can demonstrate your expertise and generate leads in a steady, reliable fashion. A website is available full time and can be seen by an unlimited number of viewers and potential clients across diverse geographic areas. However, no website, irrespective of how well done, will help you grow your business if it does not project a genuine and consistent value proposition.
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is an excellent way to improve your company’s online visibility. SEO is essentially a collection of best practices used to improve the probability of ranking high in Google searches for relevant keywords. These changes may include adding keywords to the titles of your pages, adding carefully worded paragraphs in your website, making your pages load faster, improving your site’s appearance, and so on.
An elevator pitch is a brief, persuasive speech that you can use to spark interest in what your organization does. Ideally, your elevator pitch should last no more than a minute. You should be able to deliver it anywhere, including in an elevator, without taking up too much of the listener’s time.
Figure out your firm’s value proposition and work that into the pitch, alongside a little bit about yourself. Keep trimming it down until you have a pitch that delivers the essence of what makes your company so good and different from the competitors. According to Coorey (2017), a strong elevator pitch is one of the key marketing strategies for architecture and engineering firms. The pitch should leave the potential client wanting more information and, ideally, your contact details.
Public speaking and webinars
Public speaking and webinars are excellent vehicles to let those in the industry know who you are and build a reputation for yourself and your company. While posting content online can help you to develop your firm’s brand, some clients are going to want to see that you are the real deal (Coorey, 2017).
Public speaking is beneficial in several ways. It builds your confidence, helps you overcome fears, develops your leadership skills, develops critical thinking skills, and makes you more aware of how others perceive you. More importantly, it increases your visibility, creates new relationships, and can help you drive change. However, public speaking will not help much if you cannot deliver a potent message.
Webinars do not offer the same immediacy as public speaking, but it is a growing methodology to improve your and your company’s visibility.
A professional network is a group of people who have connected with one another for career or business-related reasons. Examples are the institutes for different branches of engineering, project management institutes (e.g., Project Management South Africa (PMSA)) and the Construction Industry Institute (CII).
Professional networks offer the opportunity to interact with peers with like interests, learn about new business opportunities, identify potential leads, and become more visible: it offers the opportunity to network. Networking is defined as the act of making contact and exchanging information with other people, groups, and institutions to develop mutually beneficial relationships.
Making a speech at such professional meetings and conferences is a sure way to get noticed.
Books and articles
An excellent way to promote you, your company, and your products or services is to give information away, especially information that you have generated yourself. This can be in the form of books, articles, and blogs. Many websites offer information in exchange for your name and email address.
Write a book about your specialist knowledge, your unique approach to problem solving, or project management. Such a book could be the underlying differentiation between you and the competition and is an excellent way to demonstrate your technical abilities. It could also form the basis of training material to be made available on your website. Writing a book is a huge undertaking but earns you instant respect and high visibility. Books could be made available to potential clients who register on your website. Do not write a book if you want to make money from the sales thereof; you probably will not. However, it does make an excellent marketing tool.
Similarly, regular articles published on your website about issues related to your projects and specialist areas can put your name in front of potential clients. This is a great way to share your knowledge repeatedly. However, you cannot just post one or two articles and expect clients to take notice of you. Successful marketing requires sustained, consistent, and coordinated effort (McLaughlin, 2007).
You can attract attention to your company and more traffic to your website by creating and distributing press releases. Press releases, when worded carefully and distributed efficiently, can strengthen brand awareness, generate leads, and create interest about your consultancy and services.
A press release is information supplied to reporters or media that is an official statement or account of an event that is specially prepared and issued to make known to the public. It is generally done when you have a newsworthy event such as a new product, website, successful project, or upcoming event. The key is to write about it and let everyone know through a press release.
Lead generation services
Many marketing agencies offer lead generation services for business that do not wish to develop their own systems. These agencies will often have a network of companies and websites that it uses to promote its client businesses. When a visitor (i.e. a potential customer) expresses interest in one of the agency’s clients, the agency passes that lead back to the client.
Lead generation takes several forms. Cold calling is one of the most prominent methods where they make calls in the hope of getting people interested in your services. Other lead generation companies use digital marketing and create websites to advertise your services. Lead generation campaigns put you in front of a lot of people very quickly. However, be prepared for many unqualified leads (Coorey, 2017).
Quality of work
Steve Jobs once said: “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” In other words, do not settle for mediocrity or be mediocre. This is certainly true for a consulting business.
In the area of quality of work, the subtopics to be discussed are shown in Figure 4. Each of these subtopics is discussed in detail in the sections that follow.
Figure 4: Important elements of the quality of work area.
Marketing materials for a consulting company will include the company prospectus, business cards, letterheads, and company brochures. Your business cards and other paper products often project the first image to your clients, so they may also be the most important marketing tool you have. Because of this importance to your business, do not skimp on quality or design. It goes without saying that there should be no spelling errors, grammatical errors, or formatting problems. Have marketing materials professionally edited to ensure that it creates the desired impact of professionalism and quality.
Repetition and consistency with the use of colour and your logo will ensure that potential clients remember you.
According to McLaughlin (2007), the proposal is one of the most powerful, but misused tools, in a consultant’s marketing arsenal. The proposal is essentially what will determine whether you get the contract, or not.
Matters that demand attention in any proposal include:
- Client details: Make sure that you have the client’s name right. I’ve received a proposal with both my and my company name wrong.
- Focus: Ensure that the proposal focuses on the client’s problem and the way it will be addressed. Do not talk more about your firm than about the client’s problem.
- Differentiation: Ensure that the proposal gives a basis of differentiation so that the client can see the benefit of selecting your consultancy.
- Grammar & layout: Eliminate misspellings, inconsistent word usage, poor grammar, unnecessary jargon, bad punctuation, and inconsistent formats.
Keep proposals concise and reader-friendly. Clients resent proposals stuffed with unnecessary information, so include only what is essential. Put information about your company in a separate appendix. Keeping your proposals as short as possible will improve the likelihood of having them read by prospective clients (McLaughlin, 2007).
A study report is typically the physical end-product of the work performed for your client and this is what will be used to assess your value contribution. If the client likes what is presented to him/her, it improves your chances of another contract, a testimonial or a recommendation to others.
Try to keep reports concise and always include an executive summary with the pertinent findings. Every report is a mirror of your ability and attention to detail is critical. Again, there should be no language or formatting problems in reports. Professional editing is recommended unless you have good writers in-house who can see to the editing of reports.
Take great care when building financial models on spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets to ensure that the intended calculations are performed in the different cells. Errors easily creep in when inserting new lines and columns or transcribing from Excel to Sheets, or vice versa. I know that this is not marketing as such, but it certainly affects the overall quality of your work.
Presentations to clients and prospective clients should be done on standardised corporate templates. Keep slides simple and refrain from putting too much information on a slide. Give attention to consistent use of terminology, style, colour, fonts, and, of course, grammar.
Consider using a graphic design house to prepare an introductory presentation of your consultancy for prospective clients.
Value for money
As discussed above, quality is mandatory in everything with your name on it. However, you should still endeavour to pleasantly surprise your clients. This will reinforce a perception of value for money, which may lead to further work for the client and/or a good testimonial.
The best way to achieve this is to under-promise and over-deliver.
When considering client focus for a consulting company, we must first understand client orientation. Client orientation can be understood as an approach, or mindset that puts the client and his/her interest first. Client focus can be understood as forming the strategy for client orientation for the consultant and the consultancy.
In terms of marketing a consultancy, being client focused means taking the viewpoint of the client. The consultant/marketer must put him/herself in the shoes of the client and view things from the client’s perspective. It effectively means putting the client in the driving seat and focusing on his/her needs, wishes, aspirations and dreams.
In the area of client focus, the subtopics to be discussed are shown in Figure 5. Each of these subtopics is discussed in detail in the sections that follow.
Figure 5: Important elements of the client focus area.
Becoming client focused
Becoming client focused is a two-step process: first get the right mindset and then follow with the appropriate behaviour. Of course, these two are interconnected.
First, we need to switch on the mindset of focusing on the client. This involves letting go of our own priorities and ego. Ego has no place in the life of a consultant. Let go of focusing on your own needs and wants and focus on those of your client instead.
When the mind is switched to client focus, now you must concentrate on improving your client-focused behaviour. Analyse your behaviour from the viewpoint of the client and consider what could have been done differently that would increase the level of satisfaction, appreciation, and happiness that the client is experiencing. Train yourself in client focus skills by making the most of any encounters with clients.
When you are serving a client, focus on both your mindset and behaviour. Ask yourself if your mindset is tuned to primarily help your client and if you are acting in the best interest of your client. Most clients will easily sense insincerity, and this will hamper your marketing efforts.
The client’s perspective
Apollo (2018) postulates that if we are unsure of where a prospective client really is in their buying decision process, the chances that we are going to make the best decisions about how to pursue the opportunity are remote. He (Apollo, 2018) maintains that accurately diagnosing the current state of a prospect’s buying journey is extremely important.
There are seven phases commonly found in a successful buying journey, i.e., a journey which results in a contract to perform consulting work for the client. According to Apollo (2018), these are:
- Pre-buying phase: This is also known as the status quo phase. The prospective client appears to be unconcerned about services and prospects we can offer and seems to be satisfied with their current situation.
- Exploration: The prospective client has now become aware of a potentially significant issue and has started to actively explore their options. In this phase there is no clarity regarding what may be required.
- Definition: The prospective client has now entered the buying cycle and is refining their business case, decision criteria, decision process and decision-making team. They prepare a shortlist of viable options for evaluation.
- Selection: The prospective client actively evaluates their shortlisted options to select the most cost-effective solution. This involves the issuing of a request for proposal, evaluating the proposals, and clarification discussions.
- Verification: In this phase, the prospective client verifies their chosen solution and attempts to negotiate the best possible terms, often involving legal and commercial specialists.
- Approval: The prospective client has decided to purchase a service, has lobbied the business case to senior management, and submitted the project to the relevant approval committee for final approval. Thereafter, an order can be placed with the chosen service provider.
- Implementation: Although this phase is post sale, the consulting engineer should keep in mind that from the client’s perspective, the buying journey is not over until the problem they originally set out to solve has been satisfactorily addressed.
When a consulting firm only becomes aware of an opportunity when receiving an unexpected request for proposal, the chances of winning that contract have already been dramatically diminished because they have not been provided an opportunity for any prior input.
Clients believe they pay consultants exorbitant fees, but often have little understanding of the work and effort that goes into an engineering design or a project plan of execution. It is essential for the client to feel that they are getting value for money. One way to achieve this is to have the client participate in project alignment sessions and progress meetings.
Understanding and meeting the client’s needs and expectations are crucial. Satisfied clients will be repeat clients. They will also provide positive reference to other potential clients. These are two particularly good reasons for focusing on a client’s perceived value of the work done. To have an engineering consultancy prosper and grow, understand what clients require, adapt to suit their changing requirements, and continuously improve the quality of service.
Customer/client satisfaction is imperative to any business, no matter how large or small, or what the industry may be. Both positive and negative feedback should be monitored carefully, and all results should be acted on to allow clients to know that the consulting company values their input. All feedback should be a way to aid continuous improvement and should be addressed quickly and efficiently.
Ethics and professional conduct
An environment that fosters a client focus mindset empowers people to do what is necessary to take care of the client, but without crossing the line. Sometimes it may be difficult for a consultant to determine exactly where ‘the line’ is.
A way to overcome this issue is to draw up a code of ethics and professional conduct to clearly define the boundaries within which the consultants conduct business. Consultants have an obligation to be fair, transparent, accountable, and responsible in their conduct toward clients, civil society, and the environment. Legal compliance is a minimum requirement in any dealings with stakeholders. Such a code of ethics and professional conduct should include commitments to the client, to stakeholders and civil society, as well as to the environment. Some examples are given below:
- Commitment to our clients: Only accept assignments for which you possess the requisite competence. Serve clients with honesty, integrity, and professionalism. Always act in the client’s best interests. Keep client information confidential. Establish realistic expectations of the benefits and results of services. Charge fees that are reasonable, legitimate, and commensurate with the services delivered. Avoid conflicts of interest.
- Commitment to stakeholders and civil society: Consultants will conduct business in a professional manner and not bring the consulting profession into disrepute. Report any deliberate malfeasance by a client to relevant authorities. Be respectful of those whose wellbeing may be contingent on your advice. Do not let considerations of race, gender, nationality, religion, politics, sexual orientation, or social status influence your professional behaviour or advice. Decline assignments which may compromise the code of ethics and professional conduct.
- Commitment to the environment: Respect nature and apply good environmental practice in all consulting work. Fully disclose to clients all known impacts of proposed technology options on the environment. Seek to minimise carbon dioxide emissions on all projects.
When the client comes second
All marketing handbooks, marketing materials, and professionals will tell you that your firm should put the client’s needs first. However, McLaughlin (2007) posits that the way to achieve consistently profitable results is to sometimes put your consultants first and your clients second.
The talents and skills of the consultants in your consultancy are more critical to your long-term success than your roster of clients. Losing a client will result in an immediate financial impact. However, if you lose a great consultant, you lose a lot more than money. You lose a portion of your ability to sell and deliver work and you lose the client relationships that the consultant built. Good consultants are tougher to replace than clients.
A departing consultant can create a cascade effect that causes others to leave the firm, compounding your losses. An ex-colleague can set up another consultancy and become your competitor. Turnover is inevitable in professional services firms. Take the sting out of a very demanding business by providing a supportive work environment, offering challenging opportunities, and paying people what they are worth.
Let your consultants know that they come first in the practice and they will make sure that clients are their priority (McLaughlin, 2007).
Do not talk more than you listen in your first meetings with prospective clients. Allow the client plenty of opportunity to fully describe what needs to be done. Do not even think about selling your services until you are sure what the problem is that must be solved.
Do not agree to submit a proposal before qualifying the opportunity. Some clients will ask for a proposal simply to get you out of their office. According to McLaughlin (2007), you should only undertake to write a proposal when you are convinced you have a qualified lead with at least a 40% chance of winning the work.
Do not talk about price in the first meeting with a prospective client. Resist the temptation to give an estimate for the work to be performed. Politely ask clients to allow you time to work through and absorb the information provided and set a firm date to get a price back to them.
Remember that the client may also be your toughest competitor. In every opportunity, you have two invisible competitors: the first is the client who chooses a ‘do nothing’ strategy and abandons the project and the second is the client who decides to do the project without a consultant (McLaughlin, 2007).
Apollo, B. (2018) The Outcome-Centric Selling Blog. Where is your prospect in their buying journey? Available from https://www.inflexion-point.com/blog/where-is-your-prospect-in-their-buying-journey. Accessed on 2 February 2021.
Biech, E. (2003) Marketing Your Consulting Services. Pfeiffer, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons, Inc., San Francisco, CA.
Coorey, B. (2017) 10 Marketing strategies for architecture and engineering firms. Available from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/10-marketing-strategies-architecture-engineering-firms-coorey/. Accessed on 24 January 2021.
Frederiksen, L.W. (2010) The High Growth Professional Services Firm: How some firms are able to grow in any market. The McLean Group, Baltimore MD.
Hinge (2021) High growth study 2021: Executive summary. Hinge Research Institute, Reston, VA.
McLaughlin, M.W. (2007) 62 Tips for Consulting Success. Published by MindShare Consulting, LLC, Portland, OR.
Mlicki, J. (2019) New to A/E firm marketing? Start in these 5 areas. Available from https://www.rattleback.com/insights/articles/marketing-engineering-services/. Accessed on 24 January 2021.
Williams, B. (2020) 21 Mind-Blowing Sales Stats. Available from https://blog.thebrevetgroup.com/21-mind-blowing-sales-stats. Accessed on 4 February 2021.
Jurie holds a BEng(Chem)Hons and an MBA. He has more than 37 years of engineering, operations management and functional management experience. He started, developed and managed the Environmental & Risk Engineering group in Sasol Technology for more than 14 years. More...
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