Monday, February 23, 2009

Hard Sell vs. Soft Sell … What Works Best?

Frank, a CPA in Colorado, wrote me about last week’s post and wonders about the relative effectiveness of direct marketing (hard sell) vs. indirect (soft sell)? First of all, let’s define the terms. “Direct” in practical marketing speak means those messages that are targeted to a group and directly appeal to them to purchase your services. An example might be an accountant who specializes in working with musical acts and targets them with ads in various music industry publications. A more basic example (which I wouldn’t recommend but illustrates the point) is placing 3” X 5” cards under people’s windshield wipers in front of the local supermarket saying you’ve just opened your office nearby and are accepting new clients.

“Indirect” refers to activities that place you and your skills before an audience (your clients, speeches, writings, interviews, etc.) and members of the audience decide independently to inquire about your services, refer you to someone else, or otherwise develop client opportunities for you.

Now, back to Eric’s question, which approach works best? As a general statement indirect works best but suffers the disadvantage of taking longer to realize revenue from your marketing efforts. That’s a balance you’ll need to individually make based upon your own circumstances. In a perfect world, you try one or more versions of both and go with what has the superior ROI and develops the most desirable prospective clients.

The late Howard Shenson, widely regarded as an especially competent consultant and frequent speaker and writer of business development practices, wrote: "I have long been an advocate of indirect marketing techniques. ... I believe that the direct, hard-sell techniques (cold calls, advertising, direct mail) are not as effective as the indirect strategies, which are more like public relations activities. As an added bonus, these indirect, low-cost/no-cost techniques are much less expensive."

In advocating the indirect approach, Howard wasn't relying on guesswork. He did periodic surveys over the years and received responses from thousands of consultants about what sorts of marketing efforts they used and what worked. The results? The lowest-paid consultants marketed themselves via cold calls and paid advertising. The most successful and highest-paid used the public relations techniques: writing and speaking.

The gold standard for indirect marketing of your services is to speak and write for audiences populated by desirable prospects or those who frequently deal with these prospects, e.g. attorneys, consultants, bankers, financial advisors, brokers, etc. When Gloria Allred- the feminist & discrimination lawyer - appears on Court TV you can bet that there are literally hundreds of women viewing who silently file away the thought that if they are ever sexually harassed they now know who to call.

Closer to home, when you appear before a group of real estate agents at their Association’s weekly breakfast and give a 15 minute presentation on the latest regs and interpretations relating to 1031 exchanges, you can bet a number of them will file that away anticipating the day when a client needs help in this area. It is good customer service and makes them appear on top of things for their client when they can quickly offer up your name as a local expert in that area.

If you host a seminar, or speak at a relevant seminar, or write a book or publish a blog or newsletter, or engage in a whole host of similar activities you and your expertise begin to gather traction and become a known commodity within the population you wish to influence. This leads to both direct expressions of interest and referrals.

When might that happen? Who knows, but if you do enough of these type presentations there will eventually be a large group of potential clients and referrers out there. As that number grows the odds tip in your favor and at some point a slow but steady stream of high quality prospects will be the norm.

What is it you can speak and write about? Accountants, like lawyers, have the advantage of dealing within a highly complex and technical environment that abounds in regulations, opinions, appellate rulings, and a host of local, state and federal laws. There is no shortage of subjects. The first step is to find something you find interesting that is reasonably esoteric and then becoming the local authority. Jump on every opportunity to be interviewed, give a presentation and write something for local/regional publications.

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