Lean Times, Tight Budgets

By: Sharon Berman,

Published: California State Bar – Small Firm & Solo Practitioner Section – 2008 Annual Meeting Issue

Many small and solo firms are hunkering down for a tight economy. This may mean less business in specific practice areas, as well as the opening of new doors in other practice areas.

Making the most of your practice administrative dollars is a challenging proposition in this type of market. One approach is to cut investments in marketing and public relations strategies. It’s a savvy firm, however, that will remain committed to its marketing in a slower economy.

Firms that remain dedicated to their marketing have a significant advantage in leaner times, and even more so when the economy picks up. With fewer firms actively marketing, there’s less “clutter” in the market place, and less of a challenge to attract attention. Additionally, as the market turns around, there’s no ramp-up period to get your marketing back into the swing of things, while your counterparts will be scrambling to catch up.

Of course, marketing and public relations cost money to make money, so you’ll want to look at value marketing even as you tighten your belt. Certain marketing items may need to be put on hold.

Maybe you don’t overhaul your firm’s graphics this year, or redo your brochure and logo. But there are some tactics you simply must not put on hold, for doing so will hurt your post-recession business even more than the current tight economy might hurt it.

Here are the key factors to effective marketing in a penny-pinching economy:

I. Strategy and Planning

Strategy and careful planning are always important, but become critical more so when dollars are scarce. Don’t allow fear to be your barrier to investing in marketing. Focus on your marketing target, and remain on that target.

Do you have a clear, concise plan so that you know what you’re aiming for? This is the time to rethink your messages, and the messengers – are your marketing messages and marketing media resonating with your targets and current clients?

How does your marketing calendar look for the rest of the year and into 2009?

Do you know what is supposed to happen when? Do you have lead times adequately factored in? Hint: Whatever you believe the lead time to be, add 25 percent more.

II. Your Database

Your database is the core of your marketing program, and your incoming/outgoing referral system. Now, more than ever, you don’t want to be wasting time or money, so if your database is not up-to-date, or if your database consists of a bunch of business cards with a rubber band around them, you’re going to waste some portion of your marketing budget. Waste is always bad, but especially now, it is even worse. Moreover, your database should extend beyond current and former clients who are in your time and billing program. It should include prospective clients, referral sources and influencers – anyone your name should be in front of on a regular basis.

III. Consistent Communication

Consistently communicating with your target markets and potential clients is more important than what color you do it in. If you’ve been sending out good-looking newsletters on high quality paper with top-notch content, I applaud you. If you’re looking for ways to scale back, evaluate switching the newsletter to black and white with grayscale images instead of color. You might go down a notch or two on the paper quality scale. You might scale back to only one hard copy newsletter each quarter, but supplement that hardcopy newsletter by developing and distributing your ‘between newsletter’ updates online. The important thing is to stay in front of your audience.

Some firms only distribute their material by email, thinking that it saves them money. While it’s certainly less expensive than printing and distributing it through the US mail, an email-only program will hurt your impact. Hitting that delete key is pretty easy, and you’re missing the audience that may respond better to something tangible, and something they’ll keep on the desk, rather than in the ever-expanding email “in-box.”

IV. Invest in Business Development Training

Investing in business development training for you and your team is more important in a down market. After all, you have this potential sales force you are deploying every day – you, your partners and associates, and even your paralegals, assistants, receptionist, etc. Now is not the time to miss a marketing opportunity. There are few sales ‘naturals.’ Most of us need to learn how to identify and qualify potential clients, to conduct appropriate sales conversations, and to keep practicing and honing those skills. You can’t force associates with no marketing skills (natural or trained) and tell them to bring in business. Someone has to show them what to do and how to do it.

Invest in yourself and read books, listen to tapes, participate in webinars, go to classes and refine your client development skills.

V. Work With What You Have

So maybe this isn’t the year where you completely overhaul your website. Maybe you just can’t swing it this year. So just work with what you have.

If you can’t afford to redo the website, it doesn’t mean that you should ignore it and let it become dated and stale. You may not be in love with the way it looks, or the way it reflects on your firm, but keeping it fresh and up-to-date is many times better than an absolutely dated website where the last item was posted in 2005.

Get in the habit of making sure you’re success stories are written up and posted, that you’ve added the third year as a Super Lawyer to your bio, that your speaking engagements are posted, and articles you’ve authored get on the website. A website is a place to “hang” items that demonstrate energy, expertise, and leadership.

Put the new website at the top of your marketing budget for next year, but don’t ignore what you have this year. (Search engines ‘reward’ sites with fresh content by moving them up in the search results. Even ugly sites get this favorable treatment just by adding fresh content on a regular basis.)

VI. Current Clients

Your clients know you and your work, so that you don’t have to go through the same “sales” process as with a new prospect, right? Well, that’s true, but it doesn’t mean you should not market to your existing clients. This concept is referred to as “maintenance marketing” and is extremely cost-effective.

Think about how you can deliver more value and deeper relationships to them. What kind of consulting services can you offer, or how can you revisit other challenging areas they have they expressed interest in addressing in the past? You are already their trusted advisor with an interest in your clients’ success.

Given the cost of acquiring a new client, keeping and expanding your relationships with current clients through retention marketing is one of your most valuable approaches in a down economy.

VII. Reinforce Your Credibility

If this economy has left you with time on your hands, you can put it to good use by investing it in reinforcing your One of the best ways to do that is to place by-lined articles; articles written under your own name as opposed to a journalist writing an article that quotes you. What article ideas have you had rolling around in your head? Capture them and put them on paper. Don’t let perfection get in the way of just getting the material from your mind down on paper. Get the words down and you can edit it the next time around. Or, you can ask a friend, colleague, or professional writer to take a look at what you’ve written.

As the economy picks up, you’ll have less time to put the first draft of your articles on paper. To have a few lined up that someone else can polish as work ramps up means that you can keep your marketing going.

VIII. Measure and Track

It’s hard to know how fast you’re driving without a speedometer, and it’s hard to know how far you’ve traveled without an odometer. Marketing is the same way: You have to know how far and fast you’ve come so you can fine tune the marketing process. This is perhaps the most critical, but also most often overlooked aspect of a firm’s marketing. Yes, it’s notoriously difficult to measure results in a professional services setting, but as far as possible, you should gather as much marketing results data as possible.

Some firms limit their measurement to new clients, but you should also consider tracking “nibbles” from prospective clients that resulted from a marketing effort such as a talk, a lunch, or your website.

There’s always a see-saw between time and money. You may have more time to invest now and time to address the aspects of marketing that you never seemed to find the time to do. Investing your time now can mean much more business down the line.

 


Sharon Berman is principal of Berbay Marketing & PR, a marketing consulting firm specializing in working with professional services firms. She can be reached at berman@berbay.com.
The firm’s website is www.berbay.com.

Berbay Marketing & PR
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