How does a business market itself when it has to keep quiet about its greatest successes? That's the dilemma facing Liz Marks, founder and director of Accomplish, a management coaching practice.
"We have a strong track record providing tailored programmes for business leaders," she explains. "But while we have an impressive client list, we can't publicise it. Nor can we publicise the great projects we've worked on for fear of the clients being identified. When word-of- mouth recommendations are a textbook aspect of marketing success for professional services, how can we get the awareness we need to grow?'
Now in its third year, Accomplish has developed into a family business, with her sister Catherine, an organisational psychologist, recently coming on board. Like most organisations in the sector, it also works with a select group of associates - including some leading writers on coaching - on special assignments.
And some assignments, says Liz Marks, really have been special. "I've worked with people at five out of the top 10 global pharmaceutical companies, for example, as well as quite a number of leaders in investment banks, high-street banks and technology firms."
Recently, she acted as a consultant for the makers of the Channel 4 programme Boss Swap.
She first became interested in coaching when she was a small business adviser. "I was working with a lot of owner-managers who were running promising firms, and I realised that what they really got value from was coaching. Whether I was giving them feedback on how they seemed to be managing, advising them to come across in a different way or just acting as a sounding board, they really benefited from it.
"I came to realise, as they did, that their personality, management style and approach to life could dictate whether their business grew or failed. It was one of those lightbulb moments."
New business leaders reap the most rewards from coaching, she has since discovered. "Many are accomplished technically, but once they are expected to manage or lead, they find they need something more."
After spending three years establishing Accomplish and depending on referrals and networking to get more business, Ms Marks admits she hasn't had time to do much marketing. "I'd now like to use it to help us grow to the next stage."
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Elizabeth Ferguson, immediate past president, International Coach Federation (UK)
"Accomplish is right to be concerned about confidentiality: it is at the heart of any coaching agreement. But we have found that big clients are happy to provide testimonials when they feel they have benefited. Often, the challenge is having the courage to ask.
"If testimonials cannot 'name' the specific client, they can refer to market sectors and seniority within the business. Accomplish can also use this anonymity to its advantage, by emphasising its confidentiality standards."
Alan Brooks, director, Hyde Marketing
"Marketing highly sensitive business recovery services for PricewaterhouseCoopers highlighted to me that professionals can build reputations without breaching client confidentiality.
"Accomplish can still exploit its strong track record by recruiting former clients as advocates. Regular one-to-one communication - not mass mailshots - will help maintain relationships even after assignments have finished, keeping it 'top of mind'.
"With a customer base among large organisations, there is real scope for growth. While not 'going public', clients may still make recommendations to close colleagues or human resources professionals. To make this work, Accomplish must have materials that reflect its strong vision and inspire enough confidence among clients for the word to be passed on.
"Having articles published, offering media comment on general trends, and getting speaking appointments will all help build profile and trust and generate leads."
Laurie Young, international board trustee, the Chartered Institute of Marketing
"Ms Marks' confidentiality restrictions are shared by other professionals but need not be a constraint on business growth.
"If the firm's reputation is good, it will receive repeat business and referrals. This will keep her sales costs low and prices high. Marketing must enhance this virtuous circle.
"First, step back and find out what the reputation is, and then find ways to amplify it. Join networking organisations that clients attend, and develop relationships with intermediaries that they respect. Hire a freelance public relations expert to get you on to conference platforms and in magazines. Have a website that clients can access. Finally, ask satisfied clients to become referees.
"Ms Marks must decide her business focus: large corporates, owner managers, industry specialisation or new offerings. Most professional start-ups take up all leads in their early years. However, those that grow tend to focus on a few key clients."
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