Tips for Growing a Small Professional Services Firm
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Four Keys to Growing a Creative Services Firm

The creative services business requires managing and selling a rather unpredictable product – people. But, this doesn’t mean your business and its success must be equally unpredictable. Creative services companies can realize steady growth and success – even with the uncertainty and variability that accompanies managing and selling people’s services.

Tips for Growing a Small Professional Services Firm

Here are four key strategies for success that every creative services company should adopt:

Deliver consistent, high-quality service that is a terrific value for your clients.

Good service brings good reputation … good reputation brings good clients and team members … which encourages you to do more good service… This is the bedrock of the keys to success. If you do this well, the others will follow. However, if you do this poorly, your business may never move forward. Doing it well is a virtuous circle.

Can you say that your customers are 100% thrilled with your work? Do they rave about it to you, their friends, and anyone who asks? If not, focus on this first. Customer satisfaction, especially when people are the product, is paramount.

Some people believe that this is the only thing that they need to do to reach success, and while I agree that without solid work and a great reputation, you will never find success, just doing good work is not enough to achieve predictable results.

Know what business you are in and what drives your success.

In his book, The Anatomy of a Consulting Firm, author David Maister categorizes creative services into four fields. He writes that everything – from marketing to hiring, managerial styles to economics, key skills to career paths, and performance appraisal criteria – varies significantly depending upon which service the firm provides. Once you determine who you are, you will connect with and best serve your clients. He divides creative service firms into four categories:

  • The Pharmacist – A firm that must excel at efficiency and repeatedly provide highly standardized processes at lower and lower costs.
  • The Nurse – This business must excel at its ability to counsel and guide the client through an established process.
  • The Brain Surgeon – A combination of high levels of customization, creativity, and innovation with a low degree of client interaction.
  • The Psychotherapist – This category is as much about creative diagnosis as it is about execution. Clients are seeking help determining what needs to be done as well as how to do it.

Each of these business types has different criteria for success; therefore, you must first determine which type defines you to achieve success. Do your clients look for a high degree of trust and interaction? Then you need to hire people who are good at that. But that same person would be a disaster in a firm that succeeds based on efficiency and repetition. If you try to build your business without first clearly deciding what kind of creative services firm you want to be, you will have a hard time knowing who to hire, what kind of clients to look for or even what kind of work to perform.

Have a consistent, predictable process for obtaining new clients.

There are many keys to success, but without clients, the rest doesn’t matter. You need good clients who value your work, pay you on time, and tell other people about you. If you haven’t found a process that consistently delivers this kind of client, then your success will be ephemeral. Successful firms have activities, actions, and processes that are built into their culture. While these actions may be different for each firm, they have some things in common:

  • They get face-to-face. At some point, you need to get out and meet some prospects. Some firms can find prospects on the phone or the Internet, but they are the exception. For most firms, getting out into the marketplace is the activity that most highly correlates to success.
  • They demonstrate their competence. Seminars, articles, speeches, networking, assessments, and free training – any activity that allows you to demonstrate (as opposed to talking about) your competence is likely to generate inquiries.
  • They build their business in good times and bad. When you only look for clients when you need them, your results are limited. If you find a way to generate new clients consistently, you will never be in the undesirable position of needing a client. When you are in that position, you often don’t attract your best clients or earn the desired rates.
  • They make business development a priority. We always want the perfect business-development process that never adds stress to our already busy schedule. Forget it. Business development deserves a place on your calendar every bit as much as client service work does – they depend on each other. You need to continually evaluate and re-evaluate your business to ensure its efficiency and effectiveness to your clients’ benefit.

Have a consistent, predictable process for building your client-service capabilities.

Many people will agree when I say they need to be consistent in business development yet not institute consistent training and hiring of client-service people. If you are at all successful at business development, you will generate more work. And, if you have more work, you will need more people to deliver that service. If you haven’t developed a talented service delivery team, you will be constantly pulled away from business-development activities to fill holes in your client-service team. I see many owners of creative service firms who feel like they can’t sell more; they can’t serve more clients because they don’t have the capacity. Successful firms balance their business development and their talent development. Best practices include:

  • Hire folks from the bottom up. Train them in what you are good at, in how you deliver value, and then promote from within. Even those “brain surgeon” firms discussed above have their mix of less experienced and more experienced people.
  • Invest in training and development. Even the most efficiency-conscious firms need to prepare their high-potential team members to be the next generation of leaders. Consistently invest in the best training you can find, fit it into people’s calendars, and then ensure they are getting it done. This has to be as important as the delivery of your service, or it will get ignored.
  • Know what behaviors result in value to the client and reward those behaviors. Don’t tolerate those who cannot consistently achieve the desired behaviors. Quickly identify those who will fail, help them make a solid transition, and get someone new into your talent pipeline. Trying to save a person who doesn’t fit in your business is as counterproductive as trying to land a project that doesn’t fit your business. You don’t have the extra time and effort to waste on people that will most likely fail anyway when you could be investing that time and effort into a new person who has the ability to succeed.

Sure, managing a creative services business can be tricky, but by following these keys to success, you can add some certainty to your unpredictability.

Photo credit: CJS*64 A man with a camera

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