Differentiate: Compete on Your Distinction Not on Your Fee

“So tell me about your firm.”

This simple query should be seized on as an opportunity to convey your company’s distinct expertise, or tell a quick story illustrating firm strengths. Yet sadly, the opportunity is missed. Most responses are confusing at best, and mundane at worst.

Why the big miss? Firms spend very little time discovering what makes them stand out, and why this distinction matters. Consequently, they struggle to convey a clear and differentiated message.

Absent any clear differentiation, the client assumes sameness among competitors, and this sameness makes it easy to shift the focus to fee.

In an interview with business strategist and author Scott McKain (“A Conversation with Scott McKain,” SMPS Marketer, Reilly, June 2011), he described the dilemma to me. “In professional services, the clients making the decision are not making it all that often. What do they need to know about your company? If you can’t talk about the distinctive parts of your service, the client has to decide on price.”

McKain insisted that proving your distinctiveness is more essential now than ever, with competition rising and fees declining across the board. But this can be an uphill battle. In professional services, our business deliverables and marketing practices are frustratingly similar. Firm names, graphic identities, websites and marketing messages suffer from apparent sameness.

We need to declare how we are different, and teach everyone in the company to talk about it. Too often, the marketing staff communicates one message, the principals another and the staff yet another. If you ask 10 employees to describe how your firm is different, will you hear 10 different answers?

By probing the perceived client benefits your firm offers, and communicating these benefits throughout your marketing, you can define differentiators and separate from the pack.

Three initial actions to help discover what makes your firm different and why it matters:

1. Review Value Inside

Start by gathering a baseline in-house. By asking the right differentiation questions of key staff, you will be on road to defining it for clients. It comes down to the crucial differences of how, where, and in what ways do you lead the competition in your market sectors. Probe into the tougher questions of value, beyond the typical schedule and budget performance, such as:

  • What benefits are most seen and most valued by our clients?
  • What is it about our firm that makes competitors hate to compete with us?
  • Describe real examples of how we provide value beyond what’s expected?

Use an impartial or outside facilitator to keep the session from bogging down. Write down all the words and phrases used to describe the qualities and benefits discussed. Dig deep.

2. Talk with Clients

Survey 15-20 clients by phone, or in person if possible. A similar set of questions to the ones used in-house should be included in the survey. Be sure to ask the same questions of every client, and try to get clients to cite specific examples of how the firm and key staff are able to go above and beyond the expected. Keep the interviews to 10 minutes or so, and always get permission in advance to they are ready to talk when you call.

Select clients from across all sectors of the firm’s work, and include clients you are no longer working with. Try not to stray too far from the primary mission, which is to determine the firm’s strengths and competitive advantages.

The examples clients cite will be telling, and you will learn a few things you never imagined.

3. Weigh the Results and Identify Key Differentiators

Once you have gathered the internal and external perceptions, compare what you heard from both inside and outside sources. Is it consistent? What core benefits and advantages came up most often?

Weigh the results by focusing first on the most tangible benefits expressed. If several clients cited the firm’s ability to integrate with their internal teams at all levels, that’s much more valuable than general statements about great people and appreciated service.

Arriving at a differentiation message is never easy. By asking questions and keying in on real evidence and examples of your firm’s value to clients, you will see a clear pattern emerge. The pattern is the foundation of a differentiation message, a credible platform to apply as you communicate via website, content marketing, social media, proposals, presentations and in-person conversations.

So now tell me about your firm!

Reader Note: This post originally appeared on the SMPS Boston Blog “Outlook” in October 2012 http://goo.gl/LI3D9