Managing the Professional Service Firm by David H. Maister is a great book. I can’t recommend it highly enough to contractors of any kind.
Although it’s written by a lawyer, the advice it contains can apply to any business engaged in providing professional services. It’s a book I wish I had in 1993 when I first started doing contract programming and web development work, but as it wasn’t published until 1997 I was out of luck and had to learn the hard way.
The book covers everything from setting up in the early days to how to manage explosive growth and multi-site operations. It goes into detail about leveraging systems, setting standards, managing employees and partners, marketing to both new and existing clients, and a host of other topics.
Professional services are infrequent, technical, or unique functions performed by independent contractors or by consultants whose occupation is the rendering of such services.
Examples of professional services contracts include those of: accountants, actuaries, appraisers, architects, attorneys, brokerage firms, business consultants, business development managers, copywriters, dentists, distributors, engineers, funeral directors, law firms, physicians, public relations professionals, recruiters, researchers, real estate brokers, translators, software engineers, audio engineers, structural engineers, value-added resellers and Web designers. While not limited to licentiates (individuals holding professional licenses), the services are considered “professional” and the contract may run to partnerships, firms, or corporations as well as to individuals.
— Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_services
Mr. Maister has distilled the lessons of his experience into easy-to-understand, actionable items that you can adopt wholesale or pick and choose which to apply. He’s created a handbook of best practices whose broad strokes are relevant to every contract worker’s situation, and whose specifics are simple to adapt.
The book is divided into 7 sections:
(click to see sub-sections)
Each section goes into greater detail about topics appropriate to the section, and most contain plans you can just lift straight out of the book and put into action.
One good example is the section entitled “A Service Quality Program” in section 2. “Client Matters”. Maister lays out an end-to-end approach to Service and managing Service Quality that includes a questionnaire asking key questions about the client contractor relationship. Not all of the questions are obvious, and the philosophy behind them can lead to breakthrough conversations with clients and a significant increase in client satisfaction.
Another is the chart outlining marketing techniques in descending order of effectiveness, in the chapter headed “Attracting New Clients”, with headings like “The First Team”, “The Second String” and “Clutching at straws tactics”.
In a nutshell, Mr. Maister places the highest value on interpersonal interactions and activities that position the contractor as an expert in his or her field. “The First Team” can include giving small scale Seminars and Speeches, writing Articles, and Proprietary Research. “The Second String” consists of Community activities, networking with potential referral sources, and newsletters.
Unsurprisingly, most of what people think of first and consider to be traditional Marketing falls under “Clutching at straws tactics”: Publicity, Brochures, large scale Seminars, direct mail, cold calls, sponsoring events, and advertising. This is a way to spend vast amounts of money casting a wide net that may attract a small percentage of customers, but is more likely to attract a disproportionate amount of time-wasters. Remember, this isn’t a packaged Product we’re talking about, but a Service, and a Service can’t be effectively marketed in the same way you would a product that ships in units.
Overall, I’d say he hits the nail on the head more often than not. The biggest flaw in the book is also its biggest selling feature – the fact that it’s not tightly targeted to a single industry. David Maister talks in principles, and speaks broadly about factors that are inherent in any service-based business. It’s not quite as abstract as Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” – you won’t need an interpreter and commentator – but he can’t go into intimate detail about the ins-and-outs of your specific industry.
This is not to say that there aren’t specific, actionable ideas in every single chapter; there are, but it will be up to the reader to figure out how to apply the principles communicated to their own situation.
The other potential flaw is that the approach is relatively old media and old-school, but the author’s a lawyer and author, not a web designer or veejay, so I’d say it’s understandable and not too big an issue, since the principles can be applied even more effectively utilizing technology.
All-in-all, this one’s a “Buy”. It’s one of the books that I keep coming back to when I feel things are off-course in my own business, although those times become fewer and fewer as I become more versed in its principles.
This one’s my favorite, but if you’d like to check out David Maister’s other books, I highly recommend the following: