For consulting firms marketing is a tricky business, writes Alison Huntington of Source Global Research...

A perennial challenge is to figure out how to communicate a client experience that is so tied up in the people clients meet. That’s tough enough, but increasingly, marketing departments will need to work out how they add robots, software, and assets into the mix. And as firms vie for a position in the transformation market, communicating how your unique end-to-end, strategy-through-execution approach is different from everyone else’s unique end-to-end, strategy-through-execution approach adds another dimension to the marketing challenge.

Our research uncovers another, quite startling issue: that consulting firms’ marketing is most effective among those that are already heavy users of a firm. In effect, marketing is preaching to the converted.

We’ve looked at attributes that marketing departments should have some control over: brand and reputation, breadth of services, quality of thought leadership, and innovative approach. In all, the heavy users of consulting firms are far more positive about these attributes than any other client group.

Surely, if marketing is effective, there should be better awareness of a firm’s breadth of services before clients actually work with it. Similarly, a good piece of thought leadership should resonate with more than just a core of loyal clients. In an increasingly competitive market, being able to communicate that you have fresh thinking and new ways of solving clients’ issues (thus an innovative approach) should be a strategic imperative if you are to grow your business. But it doesn’t seem to be happening.

Why is this? Perhaps it’s the overwhelming focus on key accounts that runs through most consulting firms. Just as perceptions of quality rise among heavy users, firms tilt their marketing efforts towards them, too. Firms understand these clients’ issues better, have more frequent conversations with them, and derive most of their income from them—so it’s important to keep them happy. That could mean that thought leadership campaigns are thought up, designed, and distributed mainly with key accounts in mind. Firms may not be thinking as much about how to apply their innovative ideas to clients they don’t know so well, because, frankly, that takes time, money, and effort, and it’s a safer bet to stick to who you know. It’s a risk-averse approach to marketing that focuses on accounts where a firm is already firmly embedded and likely to sell more. And it appears to deliver a return, because your most loyal clients think you’re fabulous.

There’s just one problem: The vast majority of the market is being ignored.


Alison Huntington is a leading commentator on the consulting industry at Source who provide specialist research on the management consulting market to consultants and their clients.