A few years ago, I visited the offices of a global frozen food manufacturer. Our host, the CIO, kindly gave us a tour of the company’s state-of-the-art kitchens and adjacent focus group observation rooms. Testing was very important to this business. If a new product didn’t prepare well or taste good, the place to hear about it was in the company kitchens and not in the supermarkets.
In principle, this perspective applies to professional services too. The critical function of marketing is to find out what buyers want, then marshal the resources to provide it profitably. If you think an offering can “sell itself,” or that promotions alone can make it successful, you are not relying on marketing. You are relying on luck.
Even so, many consulting services are too abstract for focus groups. My colleagues and I experimented with that type of research in the early 2000s, when professional services firms were ramping up their efforts to get smarter about marketing in general. I ran market assessment projects for offerings as disparate as privacy and data protection, post-merger integration, and business continuity management.
None of the research was of much help, and it soon became clear why. The new services addressed business issues that clients either didn’t know they had, or hadn’t realized could be fixed. They had trouble relating our questions to their own situations. “You’ve given me a lot to think about,” one admitted.
It didn’t matter what the results were anyway, because by the time marketing was engaged, the new offering had internal momentum and nothing we did could change that. As a result, the consensus in client service was not so much that marketing added value, but that marketing set things back by three or four months. This isn’t fair, but it’s a political reality that in-house marketers have to deal with.
And who knows, maybe it’s just as well. Suppose you had $50K to spend on market research. You could use it to try to assess the market for a new service. Or you could set it aside, soft-launch the service, and see what happened. Today, I’d vote for the latter and save the $50K to research a high-profile piece of thought leadership.
You can do that with consulting because development costs aren’t nearly as much as they are for products. To launch a new consulting offering, often all a smart marketer needs is an idea and a subject matter expert.
In large, diversified firms, many times you can develop the idea immediately. For any market need you see, odds are there’s an SME somewhere in the organization who can deliver against it. It’s a little harder for smaller firms. In those cases, marketing needs to assess existing competencies and see how they map to the market opportunity. Any gap should be brought to the attention of senior management, who can then decide to hire, train, or let it be.
In any case it’s a good thing consulting services don’t cost much to develop, because as Steve Jobs famously observed, buyers often don’t know what they want till you show it to them. Actually, I’d amend that. Buyers have a hard time articulating what they want until they have something to compare it with. A pilot service is that something.
Still, nobody wants to waste time on something that ends up being a total flop. To avoid that, try rolling out the offering in phases. You can develop the supporting documents, training, and campaigns in the same rough order as they’re needed during the selling cycle. That way, you can manage your resources more effectively. (A lot of services have a slow start but end up selling well later, so don’t be too eager to pull the plug.) It might also be worthwhile to integrate the offering with ones from other practices that address the same general business issue. This takes quite a bit of internal diplomacy, but the payoff can be better cross-selling and a more satisfied client.