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Expert Elevation: How Marketing Can Use Personal Brands to Build Sales

By Nathan A. Ulery, Arthur Andersen Business Consulting 1998-2002

Last year, we all experienced a dramatic change in the professional services sales process when our ability to jump on a plane disappeared overnight. We worried about how we’d create and build relationships with prospects without informal means of developing rapport, but we adapted to Zoom connections and continued to sell. We all long for a return to normalcy, where we can have face-to-face meetings and join a client for dinner. Those encounters are starting to come back slowly, and hopefully will become a regular part of business again relatively soon. But I think we all can see that there’s no going back to exactly the way things used to be.

That’s partly because our clients’ buying behaviors were changing even before the pandemic. Digital natives were already starting to become significant buyers of professional services. We all need to adapt our methods of interfacing with the market to meet their expectations and align with their buying behaviors.

In the retail sector, buyers conduct research, narrow choices, and select companies before picking up the phone or buying online. Buyers follow the same path in the B2B world. They use a self-service model to evaluate the market, understand your value propositions and determine how your services fit their needs. This doesn’t just mean you should provide digital content that allows buyers to self-serve. It means you should provide digital content that makes a personal connection. Buyers don’t want marketing materials; they want expertise from people they know.

In effect, buyers qualify sellers before they invest their time in you. If you don’t provide content that helps them with this process, they’ll pass you by.

The Change Is Real, and Permanent

The prediction of a lasting change in the art of sales isn’t just based on anecdotal evidence. Research backs it up. Check out a few recent statistics:

  • 20-to-30% of B2B buyers want to never interact with reps in person even in their ideal / post-COVID-19 model. (McKinsey study)
  • 90% of B2B decision makers expect the remote and digital model to stick around for the long run. (McKinsey study)
  • Three out of four buyers believe the new model is as effective or more effective than before COVID-19 (for both existing customers and prospects). (McKinsey study)
  • 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels by 2025. (Gartner)

What do Self-Service Expectations Mean for Professional Services?

It’s difficult to sell via self-service when your offering is intangible. In the professional services industry, people buy results, people, and trust. And there just isn’t an e-commerce widget for that. With that said, customers do expect digital access to more information than ever before. They want more proof points, more case studies, and a better understanding of your service offerings. This is how they help themselves to the information they need to make business decisions.

That means you need to invest in your subject matter experts (SMEs) to make sure you’re getting your expertise out there in a high-quality way. Your customers can smell marketing-speak sales pitches from a mile away, but SMEs can offer the keen insights your customers crave.

During this virtual / hybrid era we’re living in, many professional services firms are focusing on existing customers to fuel growth. Helping SMEs within your organization build their visibility will kick-start your trust-building efforts so that when some organizations begin to welcome in-person interactions again, you’ll get a priority appointment and make an impact. You’ll be better positioned to get in the door both with existing clients and new prospects — and you’ll keep lines of communication open with those who continue to primarily conduct business through digital channels.

Of course, trust is earned over time, so this isn’t a quick fix. But building your executives’ visibility can be a big win to help deepen existing relationships and replace the gains you used to glean from in-person connections. At The Mx Group, we’re calling this idea “Expert Elevation.”

How Expert Elevation Works

The idea of personal brands isn’t new. Most people know that what they do and how they do it becomes a part of their individual identity, or brand. But what is fairly new — and becoming more and more successful — is the process of using personal brands to help the companies that the people work for.

In a recent Forbes article, Caroline Castrillon states, “Companies should encourage employees to build strong personal brands because it’s good business. When employees are allowed to represent their company at conferences or events, they are not only developing themselves but also providing the organization more exposure.”

All companies could benefit from increased exposure, as well as more meaningful connections with their prospects and clients.

It’s worth noting that trust in general information sources — such as search engines and social media — has drastically dropped in the past two years, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021. Plus, only 40% of people trust CEOs as a source of information about a company, while 53% trust “a person like yourself.” Likewise, a recent Research World article states that “a client will go to an individual in a company to discuss an opportunity, not necessarily the business first.”

These insights point to a great opportunity for marketing teams to amplify trust-building insights from their SMEs and executives, which in turn can help support sales efforts.

10 Tips for Expert Elevation Success

So, how can you start working to elevate your experts and sell in a new way? Here are some ideas:

1. Identify leading in-house experts with unique insights to build business relationships and corporate brand awareness.

2. Meet with those experts, individually and as a group, to get their buy-in on your expert elevation plan. Explain how it can benefit their business and get their commitment to work with you.

3. Always use your experts’ time wisely to build content and messaging. This how-to guide goes into detail on how to hold effective ideation sessions with SMEs.

4. Build trust by putting technical experts and SMEs front and center in your marketing and sales materials.

5. Allow your SMEs to sell alongside sales professionals.

6. Embrace selling via video conference, but remember that Zoom fatigue is real. Find the right balance and defer to client preferences.

7. Whenever possible, elevate your SMEs’ expertise to help them gain visibility and expand their connections on social media.

8. When your marketing team is working on your SMEs’ behalf, ensure they use the experts’ lexicon (i.e., don’t “dumb-down” the content).

9. Provide SMEs (and salespeople who need it) with coaching on presentation skills, video conferencing etiquette and virtual presence.

10. Don’t be afraid to include details in your corporate bios that represent employees as real people with broad interests. Share how your experts are making an impact not just in your organization, but in the wider world.

COVID-19 accelerated a change to digital marketing and sales in the professional services space that was already happening. Now is the time to double down on those investments by highlighting your executives and SMEs and by elevating them to build affinity and preference for your organization. Their voice is the company’s voice. Their personal brand benefits the corporate brand. Making those voices available across your digital channels builds credibility so that the trust is already there when those efforts result in a first meeting — whether it’s virtual or in person.

Nathan A. Ulery After starting his career at Arthur Andersen, Nate joined West Monroe Partners, an Andersen-Alumni founded firm. During his time at West Monroe, Nate helped grow the firm from 12 to 1,200 people while leading three different technology practices and serving on the Executive Leadership Team and Board of Directors. Nate is now the Chief Operating Officer at The Mx Group (www.themxgroup.com), a leading B2B marketing agency with a 30-year history of solving complex marketing challenges. The company accomplishes this by identifying the unique combination of services and solutions that significantly impact a client’s revenue and growth. The Mx Group is ranked among the top 5 integrated B2B agencies in the country. Nate can be reached at nulery@themxgroup.com