In my view there are two main ingredients to professional services success. If I label these two as “technical competency” and “client relationships” few would disagree. These are terms that professionals commonly use and are comfortable with.  But both of these descriptors are passive, referring mainly to achievements already attained. Of course technical competency is important to business (try succeeding without it)! But isn’t competency something that you and the firm already have? And client relationships? All will agree with the high value of existing client relationships, but these are also (by definition) already achieved. Even the most talented of business developers appreciate unsolicited, inbound calls from satisfied customers.

Suppose instead I use different descriptors for the two ingredients, namely “expertise” on the one hand, and “marketing” on the other.  Somewhat less comfortable. Expertise connotates a higher standard than competency, a level that some are reluctant to boast. Expertise also implies I think a degree of ongoing learning and continuous improvement. It’s more aspirational, and action focused.  Similarly marketing, a broad term with considerable ambiguity in the professional sector, also suggests additional effort and possibility. Few professionals will claim that they or their organizations are doing everything necessary with marketing.

Here’s a third set of descriptors for the two ingredients of success, this time even farther from the norm, and perhaps even more uncomfortable: “content” and “promotion.”

First, content instead of competency? Well, yes, because perspective clients are less interested in abilities and more interested in how those abilities can positively affect them. Customers want to hear the “story” of the firm’s unique message, its content. It’s no longer enough to have ability; in today’s Fast Future world professionals must engage clients with compelling content. This requires creativity, commitment, and effort. Most professionals have heard this, but few have yet to fully embrace content-focused or thought leadership driven, marketing.

Second, I’ve use promotion instead of marketing, again primarily to get at this fundamental requirement for action. Yes, promotion is really only one facet of the overall sales and marketing system, but it is by nature one of the more active areas of marketing strategy and initiative. Moreover, many professionals are intrinsically uncomfortable with the idea of promotion, and particularly self-promotion. Good. Feel it, because more aggressive promotion is critical today to professional success.

Both of these ingredients – content and promotion – are necessary. One without the other – that is, content without promotion, or promotion without content – simply won’t work. Firms (and individuals) need both the sizzle and the steak.

Here’s an additional secret: the latter scenario (promotion without content) works better than the former (content without promotion). Why? Because promotion – effective communication of the firm’s message to the marketplace – is in much shorter supply than technical strength. And (remember high school chemistry) the ingredients in shortest supply control the reaction.

Technical competency abounds in the world. Only in a few specialties can an individual or organization dominate a market niche through distinct capabilities.   And in our Fast Future world, differentiating on expertise is becoming ever more difficult. The new challenge today is connecting specific organizations with needy clients – across a rapidly globalizing platform. But global connectivity is becoming easier, as technological advancement, information sharing, and global collaboration progress rapidly. At this moment, the firm’s opportunity is to leverage both assets – a compelling message (story) of relevant expertise and experience, along with an ability to connect and interact with the global community. Content counts a bunch, but promotion counts even more.

I began my career as a technical professional, a geologist in the petroleum sector. Soon I became more interested in the business side of business, and transition into management and leadership. Still, I relied too much on domain expertise: strategy, leadership, and marketing theory. I’ve learned (and relearned) sense that professional competency and subject matter expertise are only a part of the success equation – and often frankly a small part. Much more important has been the ability to promote the message, the big idea, the core distinction. Alan Weiss, uber-guru for independent consultants everywhere, recently shared that learning that ‘consulting is much more about marketing than it is about consulting’ is perhaps the biggest surprise independent consultant’s experience.

So, how is it today with you? Does your firm have a talented group of professionals (architects, engineers, environmental scientists, accountants, or consultants) capable of great works and achievement, but not known or differentiated well enough in the marketplace, with prospective customers, or even by the firm’s existing clients? The recipe for success requires two main ingredients: content – transforming the firm’s expertise and experience into a client-centric message; and promotion – communicating the message in an ongoing, conversational, collaborative marketplace increasingly global in scale. As you strive for the big goals of business – growth, profit, and sustainable success–this recipe is where it begins.

What do you think?


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