The Sales and Marketing Conundrum for Professional Services Firms

“What’s the difference?”

That was the question posed to me by the owner of a fledgling startup in the senior care industry. What’s the difference between “sales” and “marketing?” It was an important distinction for her to recognize, and an a-ha moment that brought clarity as to how she should be spending her limited time and resources.

The case I made was geared to entrepreneurs in the early startup stage, but the lessons are universal and often misunderstood. 

At the time, I was serving in the capacity of volunteer mentor with SCORE of Southeast Michigan, a nonprofit that provides mentorship and resources for early-stage startups. The point I made, and later expanded on here, was that, for entrepreneurs in the early stages of growth, customer acquisition is critical and urgent. Without income, the business dies and/or runs out of runway. There is no luxury of time...the time it often takes for marketing initiatives to provide a measurable return. As a result, these business owners should be focusing their energy and limited resources (time and money) on that which will generate receipts quickly: sales activity.

There is a danger in conflating sales with marketing, or considering them the same function, when really they are distinct activities and requisite skill sets. But there is an equal danger in keeping the functions entirely separate, which is often where both programs (sales and marketing) come up short, with departments at large companies pointing figures and making excuses. There is both an art and science to achieving sales-and-marketing success, if only you can properly identify the obstacles and create manageable workarounds to address them.

Which brings us back to professional services firms.

Time is Money and Producing Money Takes Time

For practitioners at large professional services firms—such as law firms, accounting firms, consulting firms, and others—the constraints on time are equally real. But the problem presents in different ways. For service professionals, the conundrum is circular: We need to develop new business to earn a living, drive revenue into the firm, and create value. We also need to bill our time and serve the clients we have—which also drives revenue, creates value and supports our living. Since we are still limited by the finite resource of hours in the week, we struggle to “find time” to do business development activity effectively and to the extent required to generate results.

Another challenge is support and resources. Most large law firms, for example, have marketing departments and support personnel (often times agency support as well); but how many firms have sales departments? There may be exceptions, where in-house personnel are supporting the “sales” function of the firm, but it usually falls onto the shoulders of the service provider (the attorney) to develop new business. That brings us back to the limitation of time: How can one bill sufficiently for client time and serve in the role of marketer and sales representative?

There is also the matter of confidence and desire. I don’t think there’s any shame in one admitting that he or she doesn’t particularly enjoy peddling one’s wares. For one, professional services providers spent multiple years and large sums of money to master their crafts...not to become sales people. They’ve never been taught, and many would likely privately confess a preference to practicing law or accounting, rather than cold calling or networking. Maybe not even privately.

Lastly, there is a skills gap. It’s not that lawyers and accountants can’t do the work of marketing and business development; it’s that many aren’t even sure where to start. Marketing has never been more complex and confusing, as technologies evolve, attentions fracture, and media platforms become democratized. Knowing where to spend one’s time is half the battle: knowing how to do so successfully is the other.

The result is a perfect storm: Not enough time to market, not enough bandwidth to sell, and not enough resources to do it all in a systematic and successful way. But doing nothing is not an option, so we must find and embrace tradeoffs. We must address the conundrum and attack both functions of business development effectively: sales and marketing. All while conceding the limitations of time, expertise and motivation.

How to Optimize Your Time and Maximize Your Efforts

I plan to make this somewhat of a mission of mine to crack this code for professional services firms. And in doing so, I’m not going to ask anything of anyone that I haven’t already done myself. I strongly believe that, armed with both the conviction and roadmap to achieve measurable results, attorneys, accountants and other like consultants can master the marriage of sales and marketing, without becoming full-time sales people or marketing professionals.

Part I: Marketing

As discussed here, marketing is the long game. The slow play. The patience plan. This is the long dinosaur-tail curve charted out in marketing seminars. While there is some initial investment in time and resources to get the program running, eventually it should feel like “cruise control.” 

In many ways, the marketing needs to run in the background...largely without you. You don’t have the luxury to turn marketing off and on whenever you need to develop business. It doesn’t work that way. The old proverb is true: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is now. If you wait to “find time” to conduct your marketing activity, it will never come. Or when you do find a break in your caseload and need to find new opportunities, it is too late to generate enough interest and desire to drive action at that point, at least in a way that will drive real opportunities in the short term. That tree should’ve been planted 20 years ago.


For most professional services firms, the “buying cycle” is a long one, not an impulse purchase. When one does begin contemplating the need for an attorney or consultant, they turn first to who they know. Who they trust. Who has earned their confidence. People weighing such a decision don’t like to be “sold,” they want to confidently hire. 

In most cases, a purchase decision is made before a prospect ever contacts a service much as 80% of the time, according to some studies I’ve read. If you haven’t been out there doing the convincing, gaining share of voice, demonstrating authority, and earning trust, you don’t have that 20-year-old tree in the marketplace of ideas. Buyers of professional services are making purchasing decisions all the time, even if they are only banking them for some future need. “If I ever hire an attorney, it’s going to be Jim, because…” 

That because is the case you need to be making constantly and convincingly in the form of your marketing program. At HARRINGTON, it’s no secret that we advocate for content marketing programs in the form of thought leadership. When done effectively, it checks all of the boxes I enumerated above that factor into your prospect’s buying motivators: trust, confidence, authority, domain expertise, etc.

And most of it can run without you. Yes, your personal subject matter expertise is critical. But a large haul of the time and resources that it takes to develop and disseminate influential content can be handed off to the in-house marketing resources at your firm or the firm’s agency partner. You don’t have to do it all. You can merely plant the tree and tend lightly to its growth and maturation. That way, whatever time you do “find” can be devoted to nurturing the leads and prospects who are already 80% of the way toward their decision to hire you.

Part II: Sales

Once we’ve solved the problem of driving interested and vetted leads to our doorsteps, we can’t let the program fail because of the sales quotient. As we’ve conceded, our firms don’t have sales departments. It falls on us, the service providers, to carve out the time and devote the requisite activities to converting a lead into a client.

But we’ve also conceded a gap in training, desire and sales expertise. It’s not enough to hope for the best, or to set clear expectations as to what is expected of your associates and partners relative to business development. We need to set them up for success.

I strongly advocate for sales training. Yes—sales training for professional services providers. Sales is not an ignoble pursuit, and it needn’t have a negative connotation (like I, as a passionate marketer, used to ascribe to it). Fine, call it “business development” or “building the book” if you must, but that doesn’t change what is required: training in how to prospect and close so it doesn’t feel like either the service professional or the prospect. I myself went through a specific training program, and there are many out there to discover and vet. (Feel free to message me if you’d like a referral to the program I went through.) And the first thing it accomplished for me was a recognition that sales is not about cold calling; it’s about solving problems for people looking for answers. What attorney, accountant or consultant can’t do that (or doesn’t want to!)?

Lastly, it is important to invest both time and training in developing materials that live and operate at the very bottom of the sales funnel (the closest point to an actual conversion). Once you’re that close to actually developing the business your partners are counting on you to close, leave nothing to chance! You’re on the proverbial one-yard line, and there’s no reason to fumble away the opportunity because your proposals and presentations don’t tell effective, convincing, and persuasive stories.


And once you have these tools in the toolkit, be sure to train your associates and partners on how to use them. Presentation training is critical. Establishing brand standards and usage guidelines for Powerpoints and proposals will not only ensure brand consistency, but facilitate repeatable success for anyone who uses them.

Closing the Circular Conundrum

A parting thought: I put the term “find time” in derisive scare quotes a number of times in this post. That’s because I view the notion of “finding time” a contradiction and a classic case of avoidance behavior. One doesn’t “find time” to make something a priority. We need to “make time” to devote to business development activities and behaviors. There needs to be a program in place that ensures compliance and proves return on investment. Without one, you’ll never “find time” (there I go with the derisive quote marks again!).

If the marketing can be constantly churning and building upon itself to generate compounding interest in the form of thought leadership, and if professional service providers can devote only their limited time and resources to nurturing prospects well down the traditional sales funnel, we may be able to solve this circular conundrum. The marketing program will generate what our industry has dubbed “inbound” leads, and our associates and partners will rely on proven methodology to close business and build books.

It won’t happen overnight. But that tree needs to get planted some time.

Looking for more? Check out these related posts:

10 Steps to Effective Legal Business Development

The Ultimate Guide to Law Firm Content Marketing

How to Create a Law Firm Content Marketing Strategy That Gets Results

We work with professional services firms to develop content marketing strategies, create visual storytelling assets, and build brands and websites that lead to new business.

Tom-Nixon (3).jpg

If you’re interested in increasing the returns on your marketing investments, contact me at or 313.432.0287 ext. 6 to set up a free consultation to discuss how we can work together to define clear goals, create a specific plan of action, and implement marketing tactics that will help your firm grow.

Sign up for Our Blog to Receive Weekly Insights