Employer Branding Strategy for Professional Services Firms

— April 21, 2017

Why does your employer brand matter? The answer is clear. Professional services firms that can attract and retain the right talent have a major strategic advantage.


Since your people’s expertise and time is your “product,” your firm’s success depends on your ability to put highly qualified people on any given project. The right talent, at the right time, doing the right things, drives higher value.


In this post, we want to explore how an employer brand can benefit your firm. We’ll look at what an employer brand is, how to build an employer branding strategy, and how it helps you meet critical challenges faced by professional services firms everywhere.


Employer Branding Defined


Your employer brand is simply your reputation as a place to work. It can have general elements (for example, “a great place to work”) and very specific attributes (“they have a very high-pressure culture” or “they have the most family-friendly benefits in the state”).


Employer brands also vary by the level of visibility they have within certain groups of potential employees and referral sources. For example, one firm’s employer brand may be well known at one university and virtually unknown at another.


Employer branding strategy is the way — usually formally documented — your firm wants to be viewed in the competitive talent marketplace and how this reputation will be built and maintained. A typical employer branding strategy describes how your firm is different from competitive employers, why employees would want to work for your firm and how your employer brand will be strengthened over time.


The Employer Branding Process is the step-by-step procedure of clarifying, shaping and amplifying an employer brand for one or more target audiences.


Employer branding is sometimes confused with the more general firm brand. That’s not surprising as the two are closely related.


Firm Brand vs. Employer Brand


Your overall firm brand is the combination of your reputation and visibility among potential clients and referral sources. It is typically optimized for attracting new clients and growing the firm.


Your employer brand is your reputation and visibility among potential employees and talent referral sources. Its purpose is to attract, retain and motivate the desired talent to support growth. Your employer brand is a subset of your overall firm brand, so it should be consistent with the overall brand.


The firm attributes that are of interest to potential clients are likely different than those of potential new hires or current employees. That said, there are also likely to be areas of overlapping interest to potential clients and employees. For example, a firm that has a reputation for specialized expertise in a particular industry is likely to be of interest to both potential clients and new hires.


Importance of Employer Branding


Employer branding is a topic that is very much on the radar of the corporate executives. A recent survey found that 41% of companies have formal employer branding initiatives. The figure is even higher in larger firms. Further, 94% of firms plan to maintain or increase their investment.


This commitment to the importance of employer branding is not surprising given that it has been shown to produce so many positive impacts.


Recruiting and your employer brand


Recruiting is the area where you would expect to see the largest impact of your employer brand. A strong brand should increase both the quality and quantity of applicants. Having a larger pool of more qualified applicants certainly makes the process easier. But there are related implications, as well.


Because you have a bigger and better applicant pool, you should be able to attract better candidates and hire good people faster. These benefits are extremely helpful when you are looking for specialized skills and experience.


In addition, the shorter process and larger pool can also reduce the costs of hiring. While many firms are not simply looking for the lowest cost, saving money on recruiting does free up scarce resources.


Talent retention and your employer brand


Retaining your best employees is an ongoing challenge for professional services firms. This is where a strong employer brand really pays off. Your competitors are only too happy to hire your best employees.


Offering more money is a time-honored strategy for luring away top professionals. But it is not all about money. A strong employer brand can be a powerful incentive to stay with a firm. There is even research that suggests that many employees value a great workplace (and brand) over higher pay.


Employees want to feel good about where they work. Accepting a position at a workplace with a poor reputation is rarely a wise move.


Culture and your employer brand


One of the most important considerations for a potential hire is your firm’s culture. And indeed, how your culture is perceived can be important in recruiting and retention. But there is another reason culture is important.


Your firm’s culture sets expectations about what behavior is valued and what is not. It affects how you interact with your peers and how you treat your clients. Do you have high-quality standards? How important is developing professional expertise?


In professional services firms, where so many employees operate autonomously, the firm culture can be a tremendous asset or a crippling liability. Thinking about the culture you want to develop and using your employer brand to promote it make a lot of sense.


Financial performance and your employer brand


If your employer branding strategy is well conceived, you would expect it to benefit your firm financially. And in fact, that is exactly what many employers report.


There are two ways an employer brand can improve a firm’s finances. The first is cost reduction. As we discussed in the recruiting section, the costs of hiring well-qualified team members are often lower over the long run. Your employer brand will produce a higher quantity of quality applicants. These reduced costs should increase profitability.


The second financial impact can be much larger. Having top talent and retaining them over time should also help improve revenue growth. Add to this the benefit of a well-conceived and clearly communicated firm culture and you clearly have a very large financial upside.


Next, let’s turn to how you can develop such a winning employer brand strategy.


Employer Branding Strategy Best Practices


At the heart of any employer brand process is an employer branding strategy. To be successful this brand strategy must take into account marketplace realities. Here are five things you’ll want to consider as you develop your own strategy.



  1. Your employer brand must support your overall business strategy.

It’s easy to see talent as a strategic advantage. But all talent is not equal. Different business models require different profiles of their workforce.


To be profitable, some business models have to acquire talent at the lowest possible cost. Other models require hiring talent of the highest caliber. Clearly, these two scenarios demand very different employer branding strategies.


Failure to take the business model into account can have devastating effects. When the strategies are out of alignment, it can be difficult to get the management support you need to build a meaningful employer brand. And even if you are able to launch a new employer brand, your business imperatives will likely lead to its early demise.



  1. Your strategy must be transparent and visible.

If your employer brand strategy is not transparent and easily understood it is unlikely to be effective. All of your important audiences, both internal and external, should be able to articulate its key features.


If it’s too complex or opaque, your team will have trouble carrying it out. In the absence of a clear strategy, each manager and each employee will feel free to implement whatever “brand” they prefer. Unfortunately, this situation is all too common in the professional services firms.


Turning to the outside world, you face another set of challenges. If a prospective employee doesn’t know you exist or cannot understand your employer brand, he or she will end up working somewhere else. The same is true of referral sources. They won’t be equipped to refer people who would be the best fit with your firm.


As if that wasn’t enough, there is another downside of failing to be transparent. The lack of transparency, in and of itself, raises concerns among many candidates: “Why don’t they want to talk about their culture and strategy? Do they have something to hide?” Candidates with options will look elsewhere.



  1. It must be consistent with how you treat clients.

It’s hard to live a lie. Unfortunately, that is how employees can feel if your employer brand strategy is at odds with your overall firm brand. Suppose you have an approach to clients that emphasizes high levels of technical expertise. You expect employees to reflect this value in their client interactions.


Does your employer brand support this? Does it value and support the continuing development of expertise? Or does it value utilization instead? Unless you can align these two experiences, there will be conflict and disappointing results.



  1. Build your brand on reality.

An employer brand can be somewhat aspirational. But as with your overall firm brand, it should not be founded on guesses and wishful thinking. In the absence of sound research, however, that is exactly what is likely to happen.


Our studies into professional services firms show that those that conduct research on their target audiences grow faster and are more profitable. When you understand how your firm is perceived in the marketplace — and your audiences’ priorities — you have a market advantage that can produce higher performance. Ignorance introduces risk. Research reduces risk.


In your research, be sure to sample current employees, referral sources and prospective employees. Understanding what is important to them, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of your current reputation, can be pivotal in developing a winning employer brand strategy.



  1. Monitoring and optimizing performance produce the results.

You will be making a substantial investment in your employer branding initiative. To enjoy the full benefit of this investment, however, you will need to track its performance.


This will allow you to determine what is working so that you can make necessary adjustments to your strategy and implementation plan. In the absence of ongoing measurement, you will be faced with the prospect of making program adjustments based on anecdotes and hunches.


We describe the monitoring and optimization process below. It does not need to be expensive or time-consuming, but it should cover both program implementation (did we follow the plan?) and success (did the plan produce the expected results?).


The Employer Branding Process


The employer branding process closely parallels the process used to brand the firm as a whole. In fact, they can be conducted in parallel. So if you are planning to rebrand your whole firm, take that opportunity to update your employer brand, too.


Of course, the employer branding process can also be undertaken as a freestanding initiative. Here are the key steps in the process.



  1. Consider your firm’s overall growth strategy

Start the process by understanding your firm’s overall strategy for growth. This insight will be essential for aligning your employer brand with the overall business needs of your firm. If you are competing on the basis of having the best talent, for instance, your brand requirements will be very different than those of a firm who competes on the basis of the lowest price.


What if your firm does not have a solid growth strategy? Competing for talent may provide the impetus for developing one. It’s hard to envision how an employer branding process could be sustained if it did not support a firm’s overall business goals.



  1. Research your prospects and competitors

Researching your target audiences is a proven way to reduce risk and improve the likelihood that your brand will resonate with those you want to impress.[ link to research post, services or guide] Most firms target three primary audiences in their recruiting strategy: potential new recruits, recent hires, and talent referral sources. Each of these groups has a unique perspective and important information to add to your understanding.


It is not uncommon to also interview longer-term employees and recent departures to add important perspective for retention and firm culture.


Here are some of the key points you will likely want to cover in your research:



  • What attracts prospects?
  • Who are your talent competitors?
  • How is your firm viewed in the marketplace?
  • What sets you apart from competitors?
  • How do people learn about your firm?
  • What are important decision-making criteria?
  • What tips the scale?
  • What is the employee experience at your firm?
  • What is the current culture like?
  • What drives turnover?

Now, not all of these questions are relevant to each audience. It’s also a best practice to have an independent entity that can guarantee confidentiality and objectivity conduct the research. People will not be forthcoming if they believe their comments might be misused.



  1. Develop your employer brand strategy

Your brand strategy has three key components: 1) your differentiators, 2) your positioning statement, and 3) your employer brand promotional plan.


Your differentiators are the attributes that set you apart from your competitors in the eyes of the relevant target audience. Now, you need to be careful here because what is important to one target audience may be irrelevant to another.


To be effective a differentiator must pass three tests.



  1. It must be relevant to the target audience. If not, it will not work.
  2. It must be true. If not, employees will not stay.
  3. It must be provable. If there is no way to demonstrate that it is true, most people will simply discount it as empty promotional propaganda.

Once you have identified your differentiators (no small task) it is time to develop your second key component of your employer brand strategy. Your positioning statement is a brief description of how your firm is positioned in the competitive marketplace of employers.


Your employer positioning statement is sometimes referred to as an employee value proposition. It describes the key characteristics of the employees you are seeking and why they would choose your firm over a competitor’s. In contrast to a position description, which describes requirements for a specific job position, the positioning statement applies to all employees and the culture of the firm as a whole.


Your employer brand promotional plan is a section of the employer brand strategy document that explains how you will increase the strength and visibility of your employer brand in the marketplace of potential employees, talent referral sources and current staff.


This promotional plan is often related to your overall marketing plan, but there are key differences. Your marketing plan targets potential clients, while the employer brand promotional plan focuses on how to attract potential new hires and retain current employees.



  1. Build the tools to communicate the brand

How do you turn your overall strategy into results? It starts with developing the right tools that convey the right messages.


Your single most important tool is your website. It communicates both your overall firm brand and your employer brand. It is the place that almost everyone who wants to work for your firm will visit. It is also a place where potential talent can rule out your firm — without even talking to you first.


The careers section of your website is usually the place potential recruits will go first. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s where it ends. Serious prospects will scrutinize your site to learn what kind of work you do, whom you do it for and what it might be like to work at your firm. They may also try to understand who their colleagues will be and what opportunities may be available to them.


But your website is only one of your tools. Your social media company pages (and your activity on them) are also key areas motivated recruits will explore. And of course, employer rating sites such as Glassdoor can make a strong impression on prospective employees.


Other tools may include recruiting collateral, such as videos, brochures and recruiting tour materials.



  1. Launch the new brand

When you have your strategy set and have assembled and updated all the tools you need to communicate your employer brand, you are ready for the brand launch. A successful launch involves not only implementing a promotional plan aimed at your external audiences, but addresses your internal audiences, as well.


In fact, an employer brand launch is a firm-wide effort that involves recruiting, human resources, marketing and senior management. Remember, an effective employer brand must reflect your real firm, not a contrived fantasy. Living the brand is an all day, everyday effort.



  1. Optimize for visibility and impact

As with any complex, firm-wide endeavor, you will not get everything right in the beginning. That is why monitoring the performance of the program and optimizing it over time is so important.


You will want to monitor two kinds of variables. The first is implementation. Is the program being rolled out as planned? Are activities happening on schedule? Are employees participating? If the program is not being fully implemented, don’t expect to see great results.


The second set of variables is impact. Is the program producing the desired results? Are you getting the right kind of referrals in sufficient quantity? Are candidates responding in the right numbers? Are your hiring goals being met? Is retention where it needs to be?


With adequate data you will be able to identify where the branding program is succeeding and where there are trouble spots. Before you optimize, however, check on implementation. Are things actually happening?


If implementation is on track you can then focus on identifying alternative strategies that were not part of the original plan. Make sure that these alternative approaches are consistent with the overall firm brand as well as the employee brand.


The next step is to test the new approaches to see if they produce better results. This testing and ongoing monitoring is important. In the absence of systematic testing, it is easy to lose your way and hop from one shiny object to another — and never see the results you need.


 

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Author: Lee Frederiksen


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