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Passion, People and Principles

Marketing in a One-Off Industry

post # 178 — August 31, 2006 — a Client Relations post

Tim Burrows, from GHD in Australia, has submitted the following question for us to discuss. Here’s Tim:

Across the spectrum of industries, there is a wide variety of client needs, ranging from repetitive and regular advice through to one-off projects. In the latter case, some of these clients you may never serve again. How do you market yourself if you are in a “one-off” industry?

I’m not arguing that word of mouth referrals are not useful, and that’s still where you start to build a reputation and a lead flow. But does the emphasis need to change if you are mainly or mostly working on one-off jobs? Are there other activities that would be useful in this situation that would not be that useful in the case of “repeat business clients”?

I would be interested to see what kind of responses you get from the rapidly growing community that is participating in the discussion on this blog.

OK, Tim. You clearly want the views of others as well as me, so I’ll try and keep my views concise.

I still believe that the best tactics for attracting new clients (even or especially) in a one-off industry are those I wrote about in Managing the Professional Service Firm:

b) Keep up a regular stream of little articles

c) Put on seminars (on-line) and

d) Do surveys and other data-gathering research that can position you as the source of “Facts no one else has got” – even if those facts are just opinion surveys among your target audience asking them about current trends.

The surveys provide the regular, fresh content for the speeches, article-writing and seminars.

Those were my opinions, 20 years ago, and so we have to add in everything we’ve learned about online marketing (see my recent article Adventures in Modern Marketing), so you probably especailly need, in a one-off business, a website – with lots of content – where people you don’t know (or who don’t know you) can find you easily and be easily impressed with what you have to offer. (The second part is harder)


So, that’s my contribution to get us started. Others? How do you market in a one-off business? What do you do DIFFERENTLY than you do in a “repeat transaction” or”ongoing relationship” world?


Ken Hedberg said:

Several thoughts, all springing from the value of the relationship established with the ‘one-off’ client:

– The project may be one-off, but does that forever exhaust the needs of the client? (Surely not.) Make sure the client keeps you ‘front-of-mind’ as she/he considers other related issues. In particular, remind the client of the range of capabilities you (and your organization) have and the types of issues you address best. In other words, even in a one-off industry, selling repeat or follow-on projects works.

– Clients change positions, including moves to new organizations. Anyone you’ve served successfully should become a permanent fixture in your professional network. Especially in the on-line world, include the client in your e-newsletter solicitations, webinar invitations, and especially, in short personal notes of professional interest. This way, when she/he faces a related issue in the new position, you’ll be on the short list of likely providers.

– Even in one-off industries, clients make referrals when colleagues (in other parts of the same organization or in other organizations) face similar issues. You need to make sure your ongoing relationship remains solid (see ideas above) so that you are among the consultants referred by the client.

These aren’t intended to be a comprehensive list of ideas, only a partial list of those activities directly related to sustaining professional relationships with past clients.

posted on August 31, 2006

James Cherkoff said:

I find the biggest challenge is timing. You can meet a buyer who loves you, loves the approach, loves the benefits, loves everything….but it’s not the right time because of budgeting, personnel, reporting, NPD schedules. The answer? Well, blogs plus RSS certainly allow the ‘pipeline’ to keep an eye on what you are doing. More efficient and less annoying than email. Allowing you to spend some time and money taking out those priority contacts for dinner once or twice a year.

posted on August 31, 2006

Phil Gott said:

Interesting question. I think that in selling any professional service both reputation and relationship are important. With an initial sale the emphasis will mainly be on reputation (because there is not yet much of a relationship). With continuing clients the strength of relationship tends to take over in importance.

Clearly with one-off services the emphasis has to be on building reputation. The suggestions that David has made could be brought under this heading of building a reputation. My son recently had to undergo spinal surgery. This is (hopefully) a one-off purchase. We had no trouble in tracking down the leading surgeon with the best reputation even though at that time we had no relationship with him at all.

Even with one-off services, it will help to build a relationship with those who might introduce you to clients (perhaps banks, accountants, lawyers, etc). In larger professional firms, the introducers may be colleagues in other parts of the firm (the auditor introduces his corporate finance specialist when needed, and the commercial lawyer introduces her litigation specialists as the need arises). For one-off specialists their generalist colleagues are a very important internal market.

posted on August 31, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, everybody. Anyone out there have REALLY BIG contract experience? What’s the key to marketing among big outsourcers, competing fro giant one-off contracts. Or investemtn bankers denationalizing ( I know, I know, privatizing) a public enterprise?

There, the problem can be divided into the two classic stages: getting invited to propose, and winning the bid. We haven’t said anything here about winning the bid. Anyone want to comment?

posted on August 31, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Old friends and regular readers know that one of my standard tricks to try and understand a situation is to examine it from the opposite perspective.

So, let’s re-pose Tim’s question from the buyer’s side. How is buying different if you’re buying a one-off (as in Phil’s situation – hope your son is OK, Phil!)

AS Phil reported (or hinted) we can probably hypothhesize the following to be the case when buying a one-off

a) There’s higher risk (you don’t get to choose diffrently a second time)

b) Therefore you’ve REALLY got to trust a stranger with your affairs

c) You REALLY need the referrals and recommendations of others

d) You probably haven’t bought this too many times in your life, so you’re insecure, nervous and defensive about your own decision-making process. You are over your head technically

So, you now tell me – what kind of marketing and selling is going to work on a person feeling like that?

posted on August 31, 2006

James Cherkoff said:

It’s one of your favourites and not very novel but I have found that articles in national newspapers add a massive reassurance factor for the nervous buyer. I suppose it’s something that they can use to justify their decision within their organisation. I have written for the FT, Guardian and the Independent in the UK and when the articles were published I have been surprised – and slightly disappointed – that instead of hundreds of wonderful leads the result is deafening silence. However, over time these articles have proved to be invaluable as an introduction, a calling card, an appendix to proposals or just to mention in conversation. They have definitely helped me win contracts all of which are REALLY BIG to me!

posted on September 1, 2006

David (Maister) said:

So these articles are “credentializing” but but not an immediate sales stimulus, right? Sound like my books!

posted on September 1, 2006

David Koopmans said:

Are there other things you can do beyond word of mouth/building a reputation in order to market your business if you deal with one-off transactions?

I believe that strategic alliances with other providers in non-competitive areas are a good avenue. Alliances with people and firms (either internal or external) who can influence, who refer, sub-contract.

However, building these networks and partnerships are still reliant on the credibility you build with customers and the word of mouth that is generated through customer experience.

posted on September 1, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

I’d just like to say thanks to everyone who has contributed to this topic so far. There have been some great ideas, and they are helping me a lot.

In summary, what I’m hearing is:

  • One off projects may not actually be one-off (particularly the reminder that people move organisations – perhaps market to the person, not the organisation)
  • Pay attention to timing – stay in regular contact
  • Consider a bias towards doing things that credentialise or improve your reputation
  • Treat intermediaries (e.g. banks) as quasi “multiple project clients”

Am I hearing this right? Any other ideas/extensions?

posted on September 3, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Plus, Tim, if you need to meet new people, you must go where they congregate. What is that in your case? Client industry meetings or someplace else?

Have you asked past one-off clients how they found you and why they chose you? That should shed some light.

posted on September 3, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

I’ve never done that. I’ll ask the question and see what kind of response I get.


posted on September 5, 2006

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posted on January 6, 2010