Insights and Resources

Unconventional marketing wisdom. A wakeup call for consulting firms

By Conal McClure

What level of control do you really have to attract and win new work, the right kind that makes strategic sense for your firm?

Like most consultants it’s a waiting game, hoping for new work (and the right amount of it) to come to you. Having built up good networks over time, hopefully you don’t do much waiting, but ultimately it’s your referral networks and perhaps government tender panels that decide what and how much of it comes your way.

No doubt, business is good. The business keeps growing, new projects keep rolling in the door, the team is expanding along with the strength of your reputation in the marketplace, and you are rightly proud of the great work your team can deliver.

But, while it’s hopefully not an urgent problem, you believe (usually with good reason) that your business is deserving of a greater share of the better work going around.

Strategically you recognise there are growth opportunities not being harnessed, but current marketing and business development activity just keeps hitting a wall. The limited marketing you do, at best delivers a few wins here and there, but overall the ROI is questionable.

It’s a tough nut to crack and one you are unlikely to resolve unless we recognise a more fundamental issue.

Marketing is about control and influence, not just at attracting and converting buyers, but being in control of what and how they buy and how you deliver the outcomes. Either you are in control, or the market is and this can lead to very different outcomes for your business.

The less control you have, the more the market takes.

If you have control, you wield influence. The more influence you have, the more power you have in the buying cycle.

That power allows you to be more selective on how much you charge, who you work with and how you work.

And when you can make those kinds of decisions you gain more strategic control of your business.

Lose control and this happens…

The market takes more control.

The more control the market takes, the more the market compels your business to shape itself around the problems they think they have.

The more your business is shaped around the market, the more your business looks like every other business that is also being shaped by this same market.

And the more your business looks like every other business, this loss of control leaves you with no other option than to just wait and let others drop work into your lap. Provided there is sufficient work out there, your network is big enough and you are good at what you do, chances are you’ll continue to be ok.

All our clients are doing ok when they initially walk through our door, in fact most of them are doing better than ok and have built very successful businesses. But they all recognised they didn’t have enough control over their new business pipeline and attract the higher value work they know they can do. And importantly they didn’t feel confident in their ability to throttle up or down demand to fit capacity.

Following are some pieces of advice that might help you view the problem through a different lens and escape the referral treadmill.

I’ve called them unconventional marketing wisdom only because they fly in the face of where conventional thinking often leads. Some of these are ideas are counter-intuitive. All of them will probably make you feel uncomfortable.

You aren’t in the business of customer experience

You aren’t in the business of customer service … unless you’ve allowed your expertise to become commoditised, in which case you probably are in the business of customer service and / or experience, whether you like it or not.

Retailers know this. If their products aren’t exclusive to the store, their value proposition is the customer service, price and experience they create. That’s ok in retail but selling professional services, or more accurately knowledge and expertise from a similar mindset puts you in the weakest possible position to the buyer.

In a market full of ‘same’ competitors, your marketing face is probably built to say the things you think the market wants you to say.

It means trying to gain an edge in hygiene, looking more appealing at an emotional level, endless tweaking of the website and wordsmithing to find new ways to say “we are approachable, collaborative, innovative, great to work with, friendly, attentive etc..” to gain an edge that ultimately can’t be substantiated before a client starts working with you.

These may be necessary qualities necessary to deliver better outcomes, but I’d argue they are simply the entry qualifications to being a good business.

And once you win a client, retaining them and hoping for future referred work depends on maintaining a strong customer experience. Miss the mark, they’ll just buy from somewhere else next time.

So what’s the solution?

Stop leaning on customer service attributes as your differentiator. Eliminate it from the value proposition and throw it in as an added freebie.

Rethink how to position your expertise around differentiated outcomes that are so compelling that your clients would accept poor customer servicing and a price premium because they simply don’t believe they can get the same value and result from anyone else.

Of course, this is easier said than done but if you want to get off the teat of referrals and warm leads and take back control of your own self-generated new business pipeline you need to solve this fundamental problem first.

The good news is while from a high level your services may well be undifferentiated, there are alternative differentiation strategies you probably haven’t thought of. You can read more here.

Stop thinking like a Big 4

Most founders and management of SME management consulting firms are ex-big 4. It’s no surprise that Big 4 mindsets carry across and permeate the whole mid-tier segment.

But when the Big 4 keep cutting the lunch of the mid-tiers, what can you do to fight back?

For a start, trying to beat them at their own game is a futile exercise.

They simply have the brand awareness, size, and budgets to outplay any would be competitor that wants to challenge them using the same marketing tactics or tries to out-brand them as the “safe” choice.

Yet, the Big 4 carry a significant disadvantage when it comes to marketing that small to mid-tier can exploit.

The larger the firm, the more “full service” they become and as a result, the more complicated and broader their marketing becomes as they try to appeal to a vast and difficult to define target audience. Their sacrosanct brand does all the heavy lifting for them which in turn significantly reduces their agility and flexibility.

Smaller firms can win the game by exploiting this weakness through niche marketing, being bolder and more nuanced in their messaging, more targeted in defining the ideal client and more specialised in their approach.

Play a different game, a game that you can win, that we’ll unpack below.

Your market position should be narrow. Much tighter than what you actually do or could do.

Every time you expand the breadth of what you take to market, you blunt its edge.

Messaging is compromised as it needs to resonate with different buyers. Depth of capability becomes shallow and surface level adding to the differentiation dilemma.  On the surface, everyone is the same!

Choose wisely the things you actively take to market and those you leave in the background.

What you take to market doesn’t necessarily have to align with the biggest or the most profitable areas of your business. It’s not even necessarily the area that needs more work.

Take to market what gives you the strongest strategic advantage. Becoming MARKETABLE is understanding what that strategic advantage is.

As a business there will be many arrows that fit in your bow. Some of these will be highly marketable, some won’t. It’s not that they’re not needed, or in demand but forming a strong value proposition and compelling point of difference is just too difficult. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do those things, but maybe you don’t market them.

We are not suggesting you change what you do (you can of course) but where you expend your marketing effort beyond the hygiene level.

A word of warning, this mindset shift can be a difficult bridge to cross and maybe not everyone will be able to cross it.

Fear of missing out and internal politics that fights over marketing bandwidth will cause you to include too much.

Market to the unaware, not the ready to buy

The ready to buy have their cheque books out and are ready to go, so there’s no surprise that almost all marketing is fixated on this segment of the market.

It may look appealing, but it’s a trap that puts you into the weakest possible marketable position. Being so late in the buying cycle means:

  • The buyer is educated (at least in their mind). They already know what they want to buy and are now focussed on vendor selection. It’s a guaranteed ticket to the beauty parade along with a bunch of your competitors. You’ll focus on your hygiene marketing to try and stand out from the crowd while still aligning to what the customer thinks they want to buy.
  • All your competitors are focussed on this stage of the buying cycle too. Your competitive edge is at its weakest here. Getting cut through is more difficult and costly.
  • The power is completely with the buyer. Your ability to influence their decision is at its weakest, they can choose whoever they want.
  • With so much choice, it’s also made it difficult for the buyer to buy. The sales cycle is more complex and endless meetings bog down the process of converting them to a client.
  • You have to be a better sales person.

What’s the alternative?

Find a new pond to fish.

Focus on the “not ready to buy”.

In fact, go back as early as you can in the buying cycle to where the customer isn’t even aware they have a problem.

On the surface this approach doesn’t seem to make much sense, but this is where your marketing gets the most leverage. There are several reasons for this.

  • Your competitors aren’t here, or there’ll be far fewer of them around. It’s cheaper with less noise making it more efficient to get the attention of your prospective new clients.
  • Your target audience isn’t in buy mode and you’re not in sales mode. They may not even be aware they have a problem to solve. With the right strategy, uneducated buyers can be educated, are more malleable and open to being nurtured into your view of the world.
  • Instead of dealing with buyers in vendor selection mode where they wield the power, your firm holds the power of being the scarce expert.

It’s not easy to fish this pond.

The strategy and mindset is fundamentally different to hygiene marketing and beyond the scope of this article to show you how it works.

More information is available in our No BS Marketing Guide for Consulting Firms. Download below.

Polarise your buyers. It’s ok if some of them don’t agree or respect your perspective.

Build a strong perspective, stand for something that drives a wedge between you and your competitors. You’ll invite criticism. That’s ok, it means people can see a difference and are forced to take a viewpoint and respond with their own opinions.

Most management consulting firms are inherently risk averse and play it too safe, particularly the ones that rely on their brand. The idea of alienating part of the market who may not agree may not seem like an attractive idea. You don’t want to say anything that may give potential clients a reason to not work with you. Although then you end up saying not much at all.

The challenges you are solving are unlikely to be new. Your clients have been banging their head against them for years.

They’ve probably had a string of consultants who’ve lined up before you to have a crack at solving them. Many of them failed to really deliver an implementable and sustainable solution, so now the waters are muddied making your buyers sceptical and resistant to whatever marketing claims you make. Rightly or wrongly you’ve been tarred by their brush.

Play it too safe, and you’ll stay firmly within the bounds of conventional thinking. You’ll have nothing new or of value to bring to the conversation. They’ll have no real reason beyond faith to believe your firm has any real insight or answers different to what they’ve already seen, heard, or experienced before.

Perspective that polarises will invite critics. Get it right and you’ll also build a tribe of followers who will look a lot like your ideal clients because they respect and agree with you and your perspective. They are sold!

Step outside the referral bubble

When you rely exclusively on work that comes through your referral channels, you get put in a box. Your referral sources only refer work they decide you are a good fit for. Your view of the market shrinks, and you adapt your business around that limited view of the market which boxes you in even more.

Your best work and opportunities may not be with those clients, but your market position strengthens with and around them. A conviction is formed that convinces you that your positioning is strong.

If you step back out of the referral bubble, the competitive landscape can look very different.

The advantage you think you had, isn’t real in the wider market.

And because you haven’t had to actively attract cold leads and win work from outside the referral channels, you’ve lost that external valuable intel and capability needed to successfully market further afield.

Market when you are busy

Why would you invest in marketing if your business is always running at full capacity?

Marketing may be used to bring in more work, but more importantly, it should be about bringing in “better” work to replace lower value, less optimal work. How you define “better” is up to you, but it should be within your control, not at the whim of your clients or your unfulfilled capacity.

This lands me back at the wakeup call I wanted to make. A strong and continually improving marketing function is necessary to design and operationalise strategy.

These are surely some of the most important strategic questions your firm needs to answer:

  1. Who is an ideal client?
  2. How to attract the ideal client from your own steam, not left to others.
  3. How to win more higher value work from these clients.
  4. How to scale up or down the amount of new work coming into the business.
  5. How to command a higher price premium from the strategic advantage created.

The wakeup call – most have given up finding or believing there is an answer to any of these questions.

Therein lies the opportunity for you.

Before you start

Before beginning any engagement and to create a more valuable initial conversation we ask you to download and read our guide.


Inside you will find out more about the One Rabbit philosophy, learn some uncomfortable truths and how to market your firm.

Why it’s so hard for consulting firms to market themselves.
Practical steps you can take to overcome the uncomfortable truth and leapfrog your competitors.
The most common mistakes that consulting firms make in marketing themselves.