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How to market consulting services across borders

How to market consulting services across borders

By Fiona Czerniawska, Joint Managing Director and co-founder of and one of the world’s leading experts on the consulting industry. Her books include: ‘The Intelligent Client and The Economist’, ‘Business Consulting: A Guide to How it Works’ and ‘How to Make it Work’.

It’s easier to hand out medicine than to take it Consulting firms are no exceptions to this rule.

To be fair, marketing a consulting firm isn’t easy.  It’s an intangible service the quality of which is largely in the eye of the beholder.  However these firms tend to make the problem worse by fragmenting their marketing expenditure and marginalising their marketing teams.  International firms face additional challenges.

They have to marshal resources in an organisation that is split geographically as well as by sector and service.  A problem faced by clients in one market may not be the same as those faced in others, so the need for a consistent global message has to be balanced with local autonomy.

So, here are the six critical success factors for marketing consulting services across multiple countries?

1. The starting point is a consistent definition of what marketing is? 

In a typical consulting firm as many as half the people classed as marketing are actually doing something different – account management perhaps.  While a consumer products company will have a clear distinction between marketing and selling, the boundary in consulting firms is often blurred, inevitably leading to tension on the ground – “open warfare” was how one person described it.

Getting agreement about what marketing is and how it contributes to growing revenue also paves the way for investment.  Instead of being thought of as something that simply supports the sales process, marketing should be seen as a distinct, but critical step ensuring that sales people can be as effective as possible. 

2. Reporting and budget lines 

The dispersal of marketing expenditure in consulting firms is usually a symptom of an organisational structure in which business units and/or countries can do what they please.  You can’t, therefore, expect to change this overnight.

But you can introduce an additional chain of command to a central marketing team that has control over some of the budget.  You can also distinguish between the kinds of activities you might expect a local marketing team to oversee (events, communications with local clients, etc) and those which will now be within the purview of the central team (thought leadership, branding).

3. Focus resources on a number of issue-led campaigns

Any complex organisational structure encourages in-fighting, so the next priority is to shift people’s attention outwards, by focusing resources on a small number of issue-led campaigns.

“Otherwise there’s a risk that you end up doing lots of little things which keep you in the game but don’t differentiate you,” says Andrew Shaylor.  “The central team should do things an individual country can’t.” 

The result at Ernst & Young, where Shaylor is Marketing leader, has been campaigns around “Opportunities in Adversity” and “Lessons from Change”, with Shaylor’s central team, based across Europe , providing a set of tools that project a consistent message but the details of which can also be tailored to suit individual markets.

“Local markets are very distinct,” he says, “and we don’t want generic programmes that fit nowhere. International marketing is about similarities; national marketing is about difference.”

4. Being clear about the role of the centre

Consulting firms, trying to grapple with the challenge of international marketing, often make the mistake of over-centralising to compensate.

Rather than veering from one organisational structure to another, it is important to be absolutely clear about the different role of the central and local marketing teams.

Each brings something different to this complex party but it needs to be spelt out.
Neel Arya has recently taken on the developing the positioning of KPMG’s consulting business globally.

“While the centre has to define the principles of what we do, we rely on local marketing teams for execution. Each market needs to target clients in the most appropriate way based on local culture and preferences,” Ayra said.

“Involving a wide range of regional stakeholders upfront in the development process for a global campaign can help ensure that the end product will resonate with local audiences".

5. Exploit the online opportunity

The balance between global consistency and local difference, between the big brand and the individual consultant, would be hard for consulting firms to maintain if they relied on conventional, offline marketing.

The next piece of the jigsaw, therefore, is to exploit the way in which online media can project a consistent message alongside content that has been customised to suit the needs of local markets.

6. Be consistent

Issue-led campaigns and the ease of online marketing don’t entirely solve the final challenge faced by professional firms – consistency.  While a consumer company can elevate its product into a brand through deft marketing, the brand of a consulting firm is embodied by its people.

A product doesn’t vary, but people do – a problem that is multiplied several fold when they work, not just in different practice areas, but also in different countries.  There are two aspects to dealing with this issue but consulting firms typically do one, not both.

The first comes from the top down: the central marketing team needs to ensure that all those who aren’t familiar with the subject of a particular campaign receive a clear and consistent briefing about it.

These people constitute the advance guard, able to respond intelligently to client enquiries, but they won’t be experts in the field.  The second aspect of the solution is from the bottom up: the marketing team should put in place a process that finds and gives a voice to experts in specific fields.

The thinking of these people can be used to underpin campaigns, and the individuals themselves can become spokespeople, making conference speeches and visiting interested clients.

Of course, this takes marketing far beyond its traditional boundaries – but that’s both necessary and appropriate in what consulting firms are finding is a borderless world. 

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