Since Meridian West and PM Forum began benchmarking the priorities and investment decisions of professional services marketing leaders in 2012, one theme has dominated the agenda year after year: implementing innovations and improvements to the client experience. In our 2016 Benchmark 79% of the 85 respondents – all senior marketers from professional services firms – say they plan to focus more attention on improving client experience this year. One in five (20%) cite improving their firm’s client experience as their number one priority for the year ahead. A further 17% say their top priority for 2016 is to obtain more feedback from clients.
However, in this year’s Benchmark we have witnessed a marked shift in the discourse about client service. When asked about their rationale for focusing on client service and client feedback, marketers use terms such as ‘return on investment’, ‘measurement’, ‘ data’, ‘business strategy’ and ‘commerciality’ much more frequently to explain their plans. They are more comfortable adopting language of B2C marketing. Marketers now place greater emphasis on achieving measurable strategic and financial outcomes as a result of their increased effort on improving client experience.
To improve strategic outcomes marketers will need to be more vocal about how they can contribute to the client agenda. More than nine out of ten (93%) Benchmark participants believe that the skills of marketers will play a vital role in addressing the strategic challenges facing their firm in the future. Highlighting the link between client service and finance performance can help marketers to demonstrate their value. “With the market in the middle of the biggest flux ever experienced, marketers need to consider the value they can bring and the importance of their role in client relationships management,” says one Benchmark respondent. “They need to make their own contribution to the growth of the firm rather than just going with the flow.”
When the skills of professional marketers are considered vital, our Benchmark shows that fee-earners are also expected to become more actively involved in marketing and business development. Over half (56%) of respondents anticipate an increase in non-chargeable fee-earner time linked to marketing and business development. They expect the proportion of fee-earner time spent on marketing to rise by 3.5% on average during 2016. This increase reflects the pressure firms are under to target new growth segments and deepen existing relationships. Marketers therefore have an essential role to play in collaboration with feeearners to ensure marketing time is spent on activities that further the firm’s strategic goals.
In previous years our Benchmark has revealed that limited direct contact with clients is a major hurdle that prevents marketers from improving client experience. Evidence from the 2016 Benchmark suggests this is gradually improving: 63% of senior marketers are now regularly involved in measuring client satisfaction compared with 49% in 2015.
Yet a gap still exists between the stated ambitions of marketers and how they actually spend their time. For example, despite wanting to demonstrate greater marketing ROI, only a third (35%) of marketers are regularly involved in analysing financial data. Only a fifth (21%) are regularly involved in defining the firm’s overall growth strategy. And only 12% are regularly involved in making decisions about pricing and scoping of client work; Meridian West’s research among clients of professional firms conclusively shows that pricing and scoping are areas that have a tangible impact on how clients evaluate a firm’s performance.
With client demands showing no signs of abating, marketers need to embrace radical change to stay ahead of competitors. Marketers agree that incremental change alone won’t be sufficient to deliver the step-change required to meet strategic outcomes for 2016. Two-thirds (66%) realise that some form of transformational change in their marketing processes is necessary. One area this can be achieved is technology – see chart opposite: 46% say their primary focus is on exploiting the latest marketing technology for higher performance compared to 19% who are focused on optimising existing technologies (the remaining 35% cite an equal split).
Investment in technology can provide professional firms with access to valuable data about client behaviours, preferences and needs. This insight can be used to directly improve client experience by offering a more personalised level of service. Among Benchmark respondents, 61% say their primary focus is on tailoring marketing processes to better meet the needs of different markets or client segments. However, 41% of marketers place data analytics among the top three most significant skills gaps in their marketing team, which suggests that an investment in skills and talent is required alongside investment in technology.
Many marketers in our survey say their firm either has no existing account management and client feedback infrastructure, or that they are looking to refresh and revitalise their programme for 2016. “We believe that keeping our existing clients and encouraging them to refer other clients is most likely to help us grow the topline,” says one Benchmark respondent. “We will focus on improving our client listening programme to inform the decisions we make.”
What can be learned from the approaches adopted by the leaders? When marketers were asked about their current client feedback and key account management programme, our Benchmark reveals that:
In addition to a focus on client service, our Benchmark reveals that thought leadership and insight campaigns are also set to rise in importance during 2016: two-thirds (66%) of marketers say they plan to do more of this in 2016, compared with 56% who cited thought leadership as a strategic priority back in 2015. “It has proved extremely beneficial to our market positioning to keep innovating our thinking and promoting that through content, events, speaking, engaging and media comment,” says one Benchmark respondent. Focusing on content strategy over the year ahead can help firms to demonstrate expertise, credibility and provide opportunities for marketers to have conversations with clients.
Achieving transformative change requires investment. Therefore it is good to see that marketers are positive about their ability to fund additional activities: our Benchmark shows an anticipated 3.2% increase on average in overall marketing budgets for the next 12 months (see chart above). Nearly one in five (18%) of respondents say their budget will increase by more than 5%. This is the highest increase reported since we launched the Benchmark in 2012.
Access to additional resource is matched by similar increases in marketing function headcount (an average increase of 2.6% expected) and expenditure on marketing team salaries (3.2% average increase). Senior marketers say they will focus their headcount expansion in three areas: key account management, bid support and sales, and digital marketing. It is no coincidence that these three areas overlap with the top strategic priorities that professional services marketers will be grappling with in 2016. Marketing leaders are keen to ensure their teams are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in a rapidly-changing environment.
Alastair Beddow is a director at Meridian West. He works with firms to define growth strategies, develop and implement client feedback programmes, and conduct world-leading thought leadership campaigns. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on the Marketing Leaders Benchmark.