Have you heard the parable of the woman who wants to make frog soup? The problem is that the frogs keep jumping out of the pot of boiling water. After some thought, she decides to put the frogs into cold water and then turn on the stove. The frogs stay in the pot as the water temperature slowly rises and eventually boils, making frog soup.

In professional services sometimes it seems like the experts, authors, and talking heads are always saying that change is coming at a pace that seems dizzying – as if you’re a frog being dropped into boiling water. But while the reality may not match the headlines, change is coming – and it always will. Denying the inevitable and maintaining the status quo will only make your firm the frog in cold water.  Slowly, perhaps imperceptibly slowly, your firm will fall farther and farther behind the competitors who are willing to keep their eyes and ears open and therefore take advantage of trends to grow their firms.

What should professional services firm leaders to do evaluate the market and prioritize firm resources to remain competitive?

  1. Choose an industry expert to follow. Essentially pundits get paid to predict the future, a tough job to be sure. To make their predictions, industry experts absorb information from many areas of business, watch market trends, and make connections between seemingly disparate ideas. By following an expert on social media you’ll be able to see what media sources they value and rely on to make their recommendations. This will allow you to make your own evaluation of the quality of this information and decide if you agree or disagree with an expert’s reported future trend.
  2. Take time to talk about the future.  Perhaps it doesn’t need to be every leader in your firm who is keeping an eye toward the horizon, but surely a few need to, and those people need to be given the opportunity to recommend change as needed.  Set aside time on a regular basis (perhaps quarterly) to discuss trends. If an idea seems promising, perhaps then you can create a task force to further evaluate it and make recommendations to the firm about how to make changes in the firm to evolve to the future.  If nothing else, the practice of picking your heads up and looking around could positively impact your firm culture.
  3. Listen – really listen – to your clients. Your clients trust you, so they likely ask you questions that are slightly (or completely) outside of your areas of expertise. Beyond helping the client with what’s right in front of them, consider the trend that is creating the problem they’re trying to solve and how other clients might be similarly impacted now and in the future. Then take your thinking one step further to consider how that trend will impact your firm in the future if it continues. Perhaps there is a new service or new service delivery model that you can develop to be ahead of your competitors and win more market share.
  4. Be curious and ask questions. Another thing that the experts do is talk to a lot of people – inside and outside of the industry they advise. You can do the same thing! Start conversations with your clients, referral sources, and other trusted business leaders to ask them what’s impacting their business now and what they’re keeping an eye on for the future. If you do this regularly, you’ll start to identify threads that connect one concept to another and eventually you’ll have an “ah-ha moment” that could lead to something great.
  5. Beta-Test an idea.  If you have identified a trend and want to test a potential solution, consider doing a free or low-cost beta-test for a client that needs your help during your slower time of the year.  Let the client know that you’ll be asking for their feedback (and patience) in exchange for the reduced fee. This will allow you to get the kinks out, determine the right pricing model, and develop a case-study and marketing materials before you go to market.

In professional services it can be difficult to differentiate. One way to do that is by keeping your eyes and ears open so you can stay one step ahead of the competition and solve client needs as they arise in the market, not after you’ve been asked about it a dozen times. You don’t need to be an expert in every area, focus on the markets in which you’re strongest and become the go-to leader by offering something unique or by bundling services in a unique way. You’ll have a much easier time with marketing, you’ll win more proposals, and you’ll make more money doing work that’s more interesting.

Let me know how I can help!

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Alison has more than ten years of professional services marketing and business development experience. She is a Double Eagle, holding both a BS in Management with concentrations in Marketing & Information Systems, and an MBA from Boston College. Alison is a member of the 2009 Boston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 class of honorees. Visit Alison on Google+.