Why do some firms experience strong growth year after year, while others grow slowly, if at all? At Hinge, we’ve spent a decade trying to answer this question, and we’ve developed a pretty good understanding of what high-growth firms do differently from their average-growth peers.
Let’s begin by considering average firms. These businesses have a few things working against them from the start.
1. Average firms tend to be run by practitioners — that is, their leaders were trained to deliver a technical service. As a result, they have little business training other than compulsory schooling at the University of Hard Knocks.
2. They look to competitors for marketing guidance. This is a completely understandable proclivity. After all, at least one of your competitors must be doing something right. Unfortunately, when this tendency is compounded with #1, the results are predictable: bland, look-alike firms that move with the agility of a slug.
3. They shy away from risk. As a species, professional services firms tend to be conservative with their money. They often invest their marketing budgets in “tried-and-true” techniques such as face-to-face networking, tradeshows and sponsorships. Little do they know that their “safe” approach to marketing is limiting their opportunities.
4. They are focused on client service. At businesses run by practitioners, delivery and client service are top priority. Without a doubt, these activities are crucial to a firm’s success — but so is generating new business, which often gets short shrift when the team is busy with client work. This leads to a self-perpetuating feast-or-famine existence, a real growth killer.
5. They offer the same set of services to the same clients. In a given industry, the majority of professional services firm don’t substantively differ from each other, and in a given market they tend to compete for the same set of clients. When you consider this situation from the buyer’s perspective, you can see the problem it creates: how does a buyer choose from an undifferentiated array of firms that look and sound alike?
Next, let’s look at high-growth firms. Notice how they approach their markets very differently and how their priorities contrast with average-growth firms.
1. High-growth firms make their expertise visible. In this content-hungry age, success goes to the firms that take that thing they have in spades — expertise — and use it to build visibility and trust in the marketplace. These firms view expertise not as a trade secret but as something to be shared freely and widely.
2. They invest in content marketing. The most efficient way to share expertise is through a well-conceived content marketing program. High-growth firms encourage their individual experts to blog, write books, conduct webinars and speak at events. Educating prospects and earning their trust is the new referral. It’s no longer who you know, it’s what you know, that matters most.
3. They strive to understand their target clients. How? They conduct regular research on their audience. In fact, firms that do this kind of research at least quarterly can grow up to 15x faster than firms that do no client research. Research helps firms keep up with their market’s changing needs and adapt more quickly.
4. They obsess about standing out. High-growth firms are far more likely to have a strong differentiator than their low-growth peers. Often, that means they specialize — in an industry or a service offering, for instance. Where average firms see risk in a narrow focus, high-growth firms see opportunities to differentiate themselves, build depth in a niche and command higher specialists fees.
5. They make marketing a priority. Without marketing, a firm has no reason to exist. High-growth firms understand that attracting clients is the most urgent function of their business, and they take marketing very seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean they invest more money than their average counterparts (though some do), but they use their dollars far more efficiently. To these high performers, marketing is an essential strategy, not a luxury.
6. They measure their results and adjust their marketing. These firms take marketing performance seriously, and they track a variety of marketing metrics. But it’s what they do with the information that makes all the difference — they test different approaches and make course adjustments all year long. Over time, these incremental improvements add up to a giant competitive advantage.
7. They market to prospective hires. High-growth firms understand that they are only as good as their people. So they go out of their way to attract and retain top talent. That means building a brand that appeals as much to their staff as their clients.
It takes considerable resolve to overcome inertia and make significant changes to a firm’s marketing priorities. But making these necessary shifts in attitude and approach can result in a marketing program that is able to generate consistent growth for many years to come.