This post describes the need to shift marketing energy away from competitive differentiation and towards client problems.
Differentiation is considered one of the fundamental principles of brand strategy. It’s a key component of any typical marketing curriculum and a critical aspect of most agencies’ branding methodologies. It’s critical to successful marketing of many consumer products and a huge part of most consumer decision-making models — what makes this product or brand different from that one?
While this makes logical sense for a consumer product, it’s quite elusive for a professional services firm. How is your firm different from that one? If you directly ask firm leaders what they do differently, they rarely have a very concrete answer. They’ll vaguely talk about the way they work with clients or their depth of experience. I’ve written at length about differentiation. We’ve developed frameworks to apply the intent of differentiation to a professional services practice. We’ve used those frameworks in our client engagements. And, many of our clients have used those frameworks to drive considerable interim-term revenue gains.
Yet, despite all that I’ve come to the relatively recent conclusion that it’s rubbish. Pursuing a strategy of differentiation is not just elusive for a professional services firm, it’s actually a flawed way of thinking. It puts the focus of your marketing on a comparison with your competitors when the focus should be only on your clients and their problems.
By definition, differentiation evokes a comparison. How is our firm different from that one? But, at the end of the day your client doesn’t care. All they really care about is their problem. Is your firm best tooled to solve my problem? Is your solution better? Is there proof that it’s so?
“It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting. Why don’t you invest more time being interested?”
» John Gardner’s advice to Jim Collins
Differentiation Strategies Yield Tired Marketing Messages
The funny thing is that attempts to differentiate a firm usually have the opposite effect. When the focus of your marketing energy goes towards defining what makes your firm different from competitors, it spawns all kinds of tired marketing messages — messages that virtually all firms can and do make. Here are some real life examples:
- Client focus is at the core of what we do.
- We really truly listen to our clients.
- We’re known for taking the time to understand your needs, your context, and your ambitions from the beginning – so that our resulting recommendations are on target.
- We draw on our extensive experience to design one-of-a-kind solutions befitting your one-of-a-kind challenges.
- We can make profound immediate and long-term impacts on your business.
- We are an award-winning architectural practice focused on design excellence.
- We’re mid-sized by intention — our size supports a hands-on approach in which senior staff members are deeply involved in client service and project management.
- We’re driven by client satisfaction.
- Our approach enables us to cultivate and maintain enduring relationships; we have worked with many of the institutions and organizations that we serve for a decade or more.
- We partner with our clients to achieve personalized, responsive results.
- More than 90% of our engagements come from repeat clients or referrals.
I’m sure all these statements are true. But, when you strip these messages away from the firms claiming them the problem is quite obvious. Not one thing on this list is remotely unique or differentiating. Clients fully expect you’re going to listen to them. They expect profound impact. They expect to be satisfied with your service. They expect senior client attention. They expect you to partner with them. These are all just statements of what any good client would expect from a relationship with any firm. There’s no doubt that some firms fail in delivering on these fundamental client expectations everyday, but your doing so doesn’t make you different or better — it just makes you capable of delivering what clients expect.
Now, I hear what you’re thinking — what should we say?
Show Your Depth of Insight Into Client Problems
In my experience, what’s truly rare in most professional services firms is the ability to clearly and categorically understand client problems. What is the real essence of the problem your firm or its service(s) was designed to solve? Answer that question clearly and succinctly and you’ll have something truly unique to say.
To be clear, I’m not saying that firms don’t know how to diagnose problems. I’d say most are quite good at that. Rather, what they’re not very good at is categorizing those problems globally and developing solutions for them categorically. Put another way, while they’re good at solving one client’s problems, they’re not very good at articulating the global problems their services are designed to solve. They can tell you what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. But, they skip the critical step of saying why you might need that in the first place.
Fundamental client problems should be at the heart of everything you do in marketing. The problems your firm was designed to solve flow from the fundamental positioning of your firm. They frame your unique perspective on the market. They form the backbone of your firm’s thought leadership. And, they sit at the heart of your services and the case stories you use to demonstrate the impact of your work.
Let your competitors spin themselves sidewise trying to tell potential clients what makes them different. Focus all your energy on clearly articulating who you serve, the fundamental problems they face, and the depth and impact of your solutions for them. Your differences will be readily apparent, clients will be drawn in and your competitors will be left grasping for air.