Why professional services firms are failing online and what to do about it. Matthew Johnson - Head of Marketing & New Business by Matthew Johnson, Head of Marketing & New Business

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When it comes to the web, expressing your brand’s unique identity is the key to differentiating yourself from competitors and winning new customers. 

The occupations that come under the umbrella term of ‘professional services’ existed long before the digital age. Accountants, solicitors, architects and the like are traditionally treated with great respect; they’ve worked hard to get where they are and guide individuals and businesses alike through challenging processes and decisions. To be effective, professional service providers need to build a highly personal relationship based on trust with their clients. 

In the past, potential customers used to find purveyors of professional services on the basis of recommendations and proximity. Appointments would be made and meetings would take place, giving the firms their chance to make a strong first impression: smart, busy offices, well-dressed staff and a personal touch. From the very beginning, a bond of trust is nurtured, convincing the client that they’re in good hands. 

But the digital age has changed the way these things are done. Now, four out of five people go straight to the website to suss out a professional services provider. The first impression is made when a potential client arrives at the website, be it the homepage or a bespoke landing page. If a professional services firm is going to begin building a bond of trust, this is the moment they need to focus on – but they will require a different approach.

The need to improve

To continue to be relevant in the digital age, professional service organisations need to accept that the traditional way of doing things isn’t going to work any more. Audiences change over time, and the potential pool of new clients is now much more web-savvy. The internet has also increased competition in these industries – customers aren’t so limited in their choice by geographical location any more. On top of this, there are new competitors springing up, taking a web-first approach. Traditional agencies that haven’t fully adapted to the digital world face being left behind.

It’s true to say that many professional service businesses have undergone some kind of digital transformation in recent years, often driven by the need to comply with the ever-changing regulations of the industry in which they operate. In a high proportion of these cases, the digitisation has happened primarily at the back end of the company, with new systems and software designed to drive efficiency in the back office. Less often, though, has this digital transformation made its way through to the customer-facing part of the business – and this can be a costly mistake

In our experience, there are still too many professional services brands that are comfortable with a very basic website. It’s treated as a purely informational tool, listing a physical address, email address and phone number, perhaps even a ‘Contact Us’ form. But it seems that many of these businesses were slow – possibly even reluctant – to get online in the first place and now that they have a website, they think that the job is finished. The fact of the matter, though, is that an off-the-shelf website that provides only basic functionality isn’t going to cut through in this day and age. Whether it is B2C or B2B services that these brands are providing, they need to be doing much more with their online presence in order to drive new business and differentiate themselves from their competitors. 

Design & branding

To almost half of your visitors, the standard of your website is a key indicator of the credibility of your business. And creating a clear identity is necessary not just for giving the impression of dependability – it’s also what sets you apart from your competitors. While the professional services industry isn’t traditionally associated with distinctive, highly differentiated branding, there is a real need to stand out in an increasingly competitive market. 

That’s not to say that the website needs garish logos, bright colours and flashing images everywhere. A strong brand should mirror the ethos of the whole organisation – the customer needs to know exactly who the business is and what they stand for. A bland, anonymous web presence just won’t do – you need to be bold and stamp your personality on every corner of your website, like ING has done.

As well as a distinctive, clear design it’s also important to consider usability when it comes to your website. People – especially the younger generation – expect websites to load quickly and seamlessly, so if the page loading time isn’t up to scratch or the site is full of broken links you’ll be losing potential customers. The website also needs to be usable on whichever device the visitor has to hand at that moment, so using responsive design is crucial. 

Personality & personalisation

The best way of bringing out the personality of your organisation is to show the people who work there. While a group shot of all the staff together gives a good impression of the size of a business, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. There should be individual headshots accompanied by profiles that give more than just a name and a job title, but really delve into the relevant expertise of that staff member. Take a look at this example from Octopus Investments. You can go even further by listing something interesting about that person, perhaps a particular passion they have or a claim to fame. Above all, it should be something that brings out their humanity – not make them seem like a robot. 

That’s not to say that robots – or, more accurately, chatbots – are a bad thing when it comes to your website. They’re a good way of reaching out and making contact with a customer, even though they are automated, and can help you get a clearer idea of why that person is visiting your website and what their individual needs are. This information can be used to point them in the right direction and provide them with relevant resources. It can also alert you to an opportunity to bring in one of your human reps to take over the conversation. A good chatbot, such as the one used by LeadPages, could not only help you answer a whole range of questions with very little effort, but also allow you to jump in and convert those leads when they present themselves.  

Content & tone

A strong content strategy should be a central pillar of your efforts to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Producing resources that are useful to both existing and future customers – and that also have SEO-friendly content – will do wonders for your Google rankings, provided it is sufficiently distinct from any existing materials already available online. These resources could include in-depth research reports such as whitepapers, or more visual content such as infographics and videos. 

Regularly updating this content needs to be a priority and not an afterthought. If you want to produce whitepapers then commit to a schedule and ensure that a new one is posted every month, or every quarter. This applies to blog posts as well. A potential client could be put off if they see that no new articles have been published for several months, even if there are good reasons for the gap. Research shows that the optimum number of blogs is 16 per month, so content cannot be pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. Make sure the appropriate resources are available.  

When it comes to successful communication, language is all-important. While your world might be full of buzzwords and acronyms, ask yourself if these phrases are as meaningful to the customer. If not, consider making changes to get your message across clearly. There’s obviously a fine balance to be struck between clarity and being patronising, but it’s also important not to overuse opaque terminology – it can be a big turn-off for visitors. 

Keep moving forward

A successful online strategy is key for professional services brands that want to remain relevant now and in the future. While there is a lot to be said for the old way of doing things, audiences are changing and in order to connect with younger customers businesses in the professional services sector need to approach their marketing with a web-first outlook. After all, Generations Y and Z were born into a world of digital primacy – building a bond of trust with people of this age needs to be initiated in a digital way.  

Differentiation should be at the heart of this approach. In a world where someone can find a list of dozens of businesses operating in the same sector as yours in just a few clicks, you need to stand out. Look at what your competitors are doing, then do something different. A general rule of thumb: If you’re copying them, you’re getting it wrong. If they’re copying you, you’re getting it right. But the most important thing to remember is that you can never stand still – you must continue to improve your online presence to meet customer needs, and to stop your competitors catching up with you. Don’t be afraid of new technologies and have no fear of being a pioneer – innovation will always help you to stand out from the crowd.


Matthew Johnson - Head of Marketing & New Business by Matthew Johnson, Head of Marketing & New Business
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