Studies show that proper internal engagement with what a brand stands for and is aiming to deliver to customers and clients can add 20% to the value of the organisation. The problem is that busy client-facing employees aren’t that easy to engage.

Client-facing people in their day-to-day work deliver the brand positioning of a professional services firm, not just its marketing team.

As consumers, we have powerful impressions about brands like Netflix, Nike, and Tesla but may never have met anyone even remotely related to the companies behind them.

PEOPLE POWER

Whereas, being the ultimate service businesses – with little or no tangible ‘products’ – brands in professional services are all about the people. There’s no chance of us handing over any money for their services without plenty of interactions with people from the firm which can make or break any image we have coming from communications, no matter how good they are.

Communications are essential, and marketing teams play a crucial role in kick-starting the compelling narrative around the brand in the market but if that’s as far as it gets it’s likely to fall flat when it comes to influencing clients.

A huge complicating factor is that people who work in professional services firms are not just pushed for time, they have ‘negative time.

So, how do you go about ensuring that those hundreds and thousands of people – geographically dispersed and individualistic as people in professional service firms tend to be – are equipped and confident to communicate and reinforce the brand concepts and messages that you’ve developed in the relatively confined arena of the management committee?

LIVING ON BORROWED TIME

A huge complicating factor is that people who work in professional services firms are not just pushed for time, they have ‘negative time.’ They will never have time to accomplish all the things they’d like to on their to-do list and so anything that isn’t a high enough priority, with the best will in the world, simply doesn’t get done. When it comes to internal communications around the firm’s brand then, how do you ensure that it’s high enough up their to-do list that it makes the cut?

The trick is to make it valuable, consumable and essential to them. Despite having negative time, these people do get a considerable amount done ­– they ‘consume’ acres of content every day on their phones and tablets, much of it work-related. They’re always on the lookout for ideas, tips, thinking that will help them be better at their job, and generally, they want the firm and their team to win so anything that makes them more competitive they will grab with enthusiasm. However, they won’t consume (read) a long, turgid email from the management team informing them that after six months of careful deliberations their peers have developed the following, 25-page memo on the firm’s new key messages. Would you?

PEOPLE TO PEOPLE

The secret to getting through is twofold. The first step is to invest in good quality face-to-face engagement to kick-start it and overcome the ‘negative time’ challenge. It’s a big investment, but when you get people in a room and can look them in the eyes, it’s much easier to cut through. Having senior leaders advocate and introduce or even facilitate the sessions adds important signals that this is important. The communications in the room have to be good, of course, but that tends to take care of itself once the decision has been made to invest time in taking fee-earners away from earning fees!

Unleashed from the computer the same people, on the move, are suddenly transformed into content-hungry consumers on their mobile devices.

It helps if the language of the messages is clear and compelling (rather than verbose and bland) even if that requires a bit of work upfront. McKinsey famously talks about their ‘obligation to dissent’ in the name of rigour (i.e., be open and honest in your communications with colleagues no matter how senior they are). The idea is something most firms would aspire to; the language, however, makes it much more tangible and compelling.

WALKING AND TALKING

The second part of the secret to success is to create high-quality digital content, accessible on employees’ mobile devices. A fact of modern working in professional services firms is that time spent in front of a computer (even a laptop) in the office is rare, and when it does happen is spent tacking an avalanche of critical client-related tasks. The ‘negative time’ concept is most acute in this scenario.

However, unleashed from the computer the same people, on the move, are suddenly transformed into content-hungry consumers on their mobile devices. Think about it. When do you read blogs, check LinkedIn, read Bloomberg or Politico? We do it in the line for coffee, in the airport waiting to board, in a cab on the way to the next meeting. This is the moment when employees are ready and able to watch animation, check an article or even listen to a podcast about their firm’s brand and why it matters to them.

Mobile, digital communications can build on and reinforce the engagement generated in the room, and together create a virtuous circle of brand engagement.

As the biggest and best brands in professional services get bigger and better, successful firms need to develop sharper brands with real teeth. Engaging the people with the most significant part to play in communicating that brand to the market becomes critical to achieving success.


This article is part of a weekly series ‘How to think about…’; short summaries looking at the components of branding for professional services firms. Read them here as they’re published or look out for them on LinkedIn.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's most experienced branding and innovation consultancy for professional service firms.