Earning a Buck in the Digital Age – Delivering Professional Services to Digital & Creative Businesses

Pro.Manchester‘s Creative session on Earning a Buck in the Digital Age proved to be a compelling discussion on how professional service firms can work more effectively with the North West’s flourishing digital and creative businesses.

Held at Halliwells in Manchester, the panel consisted of Simon Wharton, Nick Rhind, Shaun Fensom, Coral Grainger, Philip Hemsted and Steve Kuncewicz (hosted by Nick Jaspen ).

The session focused primarily on the interaction between law firms and digital businesses, however, the discussion was equally applicable to ALL professional advisers (PSFs).

Here were my key take-aways:

  • How do you square £100-£200 hourly rates of PSFs with small digital agencies which have a handful of employees and a limited budget? This crucial question framed most of the debate and was never fully resolved. What did become evident is a clear communication gap in perceived and actual value that professionals can bring to fledgling and more established SME businesses. Nick Rhind conceded that he had learnt a lesson by settling for free business advice either online or from friends in the early days until his business needed bailing out by professionals a couple of years later. An “expensive mistake” given that it is usually more expensive to fire-fight problems after the event than to stop cock-ups happening in the first place. I see this time and time again when I pick up new clients and just wish I had been involved from an earlier stage. There is so much we can do.
  • Speed of delivery of professional services. Digital businesses operate in a fast moving world driven by technological advances – can traditional PSFs keep up with the pace and demand? Coral Grainger raised the point that many business owners’ experience in working with lawyers for the first time may have been in buying a house – the typical drawn-out conveyancing timetable doesn’t bode well for digital businesses who will expect responses quickly – in hours not weeks!
  • Transparency of billing was quite rightly viewed as key. Businesses want to know how much they will be billed upfront rather than working on a time spent billing basis. I am pleased to say that from comments made from the floor, it appeared that most professionals in the room operate on a fixed fee basis agreed in advance. At my firm, we offer a heavily discounted tax and accountancy package for fledgling digital businesses for this reason. However, the fact that this point was raised shows that we are not communicating our working practises clearly enough and the old image of the ‘ticking clock’ still lingers….
  • Introducing open-source methodology to professional services. Digital and technology companies are increasingly breaking larger projects down into smaller manageable tasks that can either be crowd-sourced or taken on by specialist teams. This has proved hugely effective. Can this be applied to professional services whereby template documentation or boiler-plate information can be offered online for free and amended by businesses for their own use (with advice sought where necessary)? There are already examples in the legal market where such practises are emerging – there is still a long way to go.
  • Professionals need to better engage with social media to build relationships online – professionals have long been good at networking at events, however, they increasingly need to bring social media into the networking mix “or die”. Judging by the limp show of hands from the floor when asked who is active in social media online, us professionals have much to learn and do!
  • Risk averse mentality. Most professional are risk averse – “this is how you surely want us” was a comment made from the floor – so how can professionals make better use of social media as a tool to interact whilst avoiding potentially costly errors or law-suits from instantaneous or “off the cuff” remarks online? I believe the key is in the “social” of social media – we don’t have to constantly spout out technical advice and, quite frankly if we did, we would be preaching to a v limited (and bored) bunch of followers!
  • PSFs / businesses should bring SEO analytics into the boardroom – Simon Wharton is bang on with this. Marketing data has never been so readily available and website and online marketing provides the tools to achieve this. This could be a session topic in its own right.

Overall, this discussion opened the floodgates to a huge raft of issues that, when fully explored, should allow us professional advisers who wish to engage to increase collaborative opportunities that we are clearly sadly missing at the moment.

A great start folks, where next?