Why trust sells: The winning way to market your professional service

Casey Lightbody examines how people buy professional services, and reveals how to synchronize your marketing with their buying cycle to reach more clients and close more sales

Your marketing spend is a major investment. Naturally you want those dollars to convert into higher profits and sustainable growth. But unless you understand how people decide on a service provider, how can you give prospects the right incentive, at the right time, to make sure they choose you?
What do buyers really want?
When buying products people predominantly use rational criteria to make their choices. It’s different for professional services, because your services are intangible and the outcomes can be hard to predict. Typically your technical capability is greater than that of the buyer, which makes it difficult for them to assess. So buyers rely on other criteria to make their decisions, including their personal ‘gut feeling’ about you.
People generally turn to professional service providers because they need help handling a perceived risk, or to achieve something important to them. They have a unique set of needs and they’ll have to trust you with sensitive information about themselves or their business. They could be risking their wealth, home, career or reputation by following your advice. If you fail to deliver, they will personally suffer the consequences.
So what professional service buyers most want is an adviser they can trust.
Authority: Getting on the shortlist
For product purchases people tend to rely on impartial reviews to judge the quality of an item. When it comes to professional services, buyers prefer personal recommendations from someone they know. Research by the Hinge Research Institute shows that 87% of people buying accounting and financial services turn first to friends or colleagues for a referral, with a further 11% searching online or asking via social media.
At this stage the primary question buyers have is ‘who is most able to do this for me?’. They’ll base their answer on the information they get through referrals (i.e. your reputation) first and then on their research into your qualifications, capabilities and expertise, predominantly online via your website, a web search or your social media channels. Buyers are looking for evidence of your authority and experience – unless they’re convinced you have the skills they need, you simply won’t make the shortlist.
Getting personal: Clinching the deal
To choose between providers on the shortlist, buyers ask three questions:
1. Can you really fix my problem?
They want evidence that you can resolve their individual, specific issues. Other considerations only become important once they’re convinced of this.
2. How will you make my life easier?
This will be based on costs, flexibility, service standards and the picture you paint for them of future outcomes.
3. Will I enjoy working with you?
Clients want advisors they feel comfortable with. They need to have total confidence that the specific person or team who’ll be handling their project has their best interests at heart.
Trust is critical to the professional services buying process, which is why a marketing strategy based on establishing and nurturing trust is the absolute key to successful sales.
The winning strategy: Matching your marketing to the buying cycle
Stage 1: Establish your authority
Outcome: Generate leads
This stage involves creating a distinctive brand, supported by high-impact marketing collateral and an unforgettable online presence, to raise your profile with your target audience.
Referrals are a vital source of business for professional service firms so you should do all you can to encourage them. The most cost and time effective way to build and leverage referral relationships and collect client endorsements is through LinkedIn. It’s the social media platform of choice for professional services, with 12.4% of all users being in the finance industry. LinkedIn is a powerful platform for any business, from single operators to large corporates, to grow a professional network of prospects, strategic alliances and centres of influence.
Of course, once you’re on their radar, potential buyers will investigate you further. This means you’ll also need a high-converting online platform (usually a website) to capture and nurture the valuable leads you generate through referrals and other marketing activities. It should be filled with great content that educates, empowers or entertains your specific audience and demonstrates your expertise. To do this effectively you really need to know your audience, so regular market research is valuable investment. Your email database and social media platforms are essential tools in your arsenal to conduct this research.
Stage 2: Prove your value
Outcome: Close sales
In the lead nurturing phase your marketing needs to get personal. Buyers believe in your broad capabilities and now they need to know how you can help them. They want you to show that you understand their concerns and can deliver a solution.
Your priority is to talk to them, through email, on social media or in person. Engage authentically with your audience. Answer questions. Participate in conversations that are important to them. Find out exactly what they need (they may not even know themselves) and start solving their issues. Share specific, relevant information or ideas that will genuinely help and offer case studies to prove that your strategies work. Show them how their goals will be achieved and their lives will be easier once they hire you.
Stage 3: Develop the relationship
Outcome: Increase loyalty
Marketing during the relationship stage is about finding new ways you can help your clients. It’s likely that they won’t know what else you can do for them, so keeping up a dialogue, focused on their issues, is central to cross-selling and increasing loyalty. That doesn’t mean bombarding them with sales material – again, it’s all about providing them with targeted information that’s relevant to their specific needs. The more you do to help them, the more satisfied and loyal they’ll become.
At this point you’ve come full circle. Delighted clients become your most powerful advocates and can be very proactive about making referrals. Since your reputation is so critical to lead generation it’s important to encourage this behavior with thanks and acknowledgement (or a formal referral program) and to leverage recommendations by sharing them, especially on your website and social media platforms.
Nurturing trust: Getting long-term results
The trust that forms the basis of any professional services relationship must be nurtured over time. It’s experiential, growing or fading based on your behavior and the extent to which you deliver on your promises and live by your values.
From the first moment they hear about you, clients begin to judge whether they’ll be able to rely on you. How much they trust you will dictate whether or not they choose you over a competitor, stick with you once the contract ends, come back for more services and refer you to others.
That’s why a trust-based strategy, attuned to the needs of each customer’s position within the buying cycle, is the best way to get great results from your marketing spend.

This is a slightly amended version of an article written by Casey Lightbody, principal consultant at Cloud Marketing Services. It has been shortened to make it suitable for web publishing.