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Can a full service firm survive in a digital age?

Can a full service firm survive in a digital age?

By Jim Thompson

Imagine you’re (or maybe you are) a full service accounting, law, engineering or consulting firm offering the standard gambit of services to a full spectrum of market segments and industries. You are made up of a number of partners and people who are experts in their particular fields.

You don’t specialise in any particular vertical or horizontal segment and even if you do you don’t over promote it in case it pigeon holes you and /or costs you “other” work.

So from the outside you are a “generalist” firm and that’s ok but it presents a greater marketing challenge in a digital age, challenges that are going to increase into the future.

Why you ask?


There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000. It’s just so much harder to be heard through the constant electronic bombardment inflicted on us all.

The wider your audience the more noise you have to contend with. As I’ve said before if everyone is your customer then everyone is your competitor.

The specialist has the advantage in this environment because their target audience is much smaller.

Mixed Messages

The generalist is more often than not trying to be all things to all people through one channel. Your outbound communication in this case either has to be general in nature or irrelevant to large segments of your followers.

We all have limited time available to digest your messages and are being forced to be more and more selective in what we listen to. If you want my attention you have to give me value.

Sorry but even if I’m a loyal client or referrer, as important as some things are to you or your other clients I just don’t have time for things that aren’t relevant to me or my business.

Partners / Owners

I’m not telling the marketing department anything they don’t already know here but having multiple partners across multiple service lines is an issue.

Putting aside the difficulty in gaining consensus there is and always will be varying degrees of enthusiasm, understanding and involvement. Meaning some divisions will shine and flourish and others will remain stagnant which sends mixed signals to the market.

The specialist firm again has the upper hand as buy in across divisions is not such an issue as they don’t have as many, if any.

Conflicting Priorities

Whose division or service line is the most important, who gets home page space, whose articles get published first, does your website or extended online presence represent a battlefield of compromise?

The most senior partners or the one who shouts loudest or the one who actually bothers to produce some content?

People Are Experts Not Companies

Many generalists attempt to overcome the issues discussed above by directing outbound messages through a single company feed – i.e. a company Twitter account or newsletter.

The problem here is that people are experts not companies, people want to listen to and talk to people.

I don’t think we want to hear opinions, advice or learn from a firm or brand. If I want to engage, ask a question or reply – who am I actually talking to, a marketer, the receptionist or an expert?

Self Perpetuated Failure

Yes in the generalist firm it can all just get too hard and compromises are taken or we burn out another marketing manager or worse we just give up.

If that’s the case then of course the effort won’t be rewarded, there will be no wins, the whole digital space will be undervalued internally and on the cycle goes – what I call “self perpetuated failure”.

Obviously a poor networker won’t get any leads from networking so you can’t expect a poor online presence to either.

The Wash Up

Don’t get me wrong, for the foreseeable future there will always be a place for the generalist but it will become harder and harder to maintain a strong market position against the more savvy and nimble specialist firms as they push the generalist firms further and further towards a commodity.

This means that the generalists will have to lift their games and move beyond the referral mindset, get smarter, explore multiple points of presence and become far more strategic with their online marketing.

Learn more about how to turn your online presence into a powerful source of new business.

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