This post looks at the inherent differences between an expert and vendor firm to help you think about where best to prioritize your marketing thinking and resources.
Are we promoting the firm? Or, the people within it? This is a question that rears its head all the time. It pops up when we’re prototyping a website. It comes out when we’re talking about how to use a CRM. And, of course, it comes up when we talk about the firm’s very strategy.
On the one hand, we position a firm in the marketplace. The firm builds expertise. The firm has a portfolio of work. The firm builds processes and intellectual property for how it operates. Yet, it’s the people who do all those things. It’s the people who actually develop the knowledge that becomes expertise. It’s the people who actually create the processes and turn them into intellectual property. It’s the people the client actually hires.
As it turns out, the answer is neither — because it’s the wrong question. Ultimately, a firm really shouldn’t be promoting anything. Marketing a professional services firm really isn’t about promoting at all. It’s about educating. Vendors promote. Experts educate.
The real question you should be asking yourself is this — Are we an expert or a vendor? Are you purposely building a firm that can truly be the best in the world at a handful of things? Or, are you delivering a loose collection of projects over time that when cobbled together tell a somewhat coherent story? Ultimately, all firms probably have a bit of both things happening at any one time, but the most successful firms in the world tend to operate more like the former and less like the latter.
Now, of course, virtually everyone reading this is going to say — we’re an expert! I’ve rarely met any professional services firm — be it an accounting, consulting, architecture or engineering firm — that said, we’re really just a vendor delivering commodity services. That said, while most firms think of themselves as experts a lot of them operate much more like vendors. Just like a whole lot of things in life, we say one thing and do another. But, if you look more closely at the characteristics of an expert firm relative to a vendor firm, it’s pretty quick to see where you really fall on the continuum.
The Characteristics of an Expert
- Experts are more likely to specialize (they’re only as broad as they are deep).
- They recognize that being very deliberate about who they serve, what they do, and the benefit they create is the most important business decision they will ever make.
- Experts see the objective of their marketing as educating clients on their most pressing business issues.
- As a result, they lean heavily on thought leadership (speaking, publishing, and producing original research) as their tools for attracting clients.
- Experts think in terms of clients and impact.
- Hence, they are most interested in ensuring a clear alignment of their expertise with the needs of a client, and above all else are committed to delivering substantial, sustainable impact.
- Experts speak in the language of the client — why they do what they do, how they do it, and the lasting impact it will create.
- Experts rely on marketing to create demand for the firm’s services (by producing original research and thought leadership, seeking out high quality speaking engagements, and shaping the nature of their products and services).
- Most importantly, experts guide their client relationships.
The Characteristics of a Vendor
- Vendors are more frequently diverse in their practice (though not always).
- They’re more likely to define their business in the context of what they don’t do rather than what they actually do.
- Vendors see the objective of marketing as promoting themselves — promoting the firm, promoting its people, promoting its work, promoting awards.
- As a result, they lean heavily on business development and relational selling as their tools for winning projects.
- Vendors think in terms of projects and deliverables.
- Hence, they are most interested in the scope of the project and their ability to successfully deliver on the requirements.
- Vendors speak in the language of their firm — how big they are, how they’re organized, awards they’ve won, clients they have.
- Vendors rely on marketing as a support function to support their business development efforts.
- Most importantly, clients guide their project relationships.
So, if you’ve made it this far it’s time to be brutally honest. Does your firm sound more like an expert or more like a vendor? And, what does it mean? Maybe being a vendor is perfectly okay. It seems to me, in any giving selling situation there’s only room for one vendor — the one with the lowest price. Then, the question becomes can you consistently be that one vendor over and over again? If not, then you’ll have to mine for expertise.
If you’re acting more like a vendor, it might be wise to take a look at your firm’s positioning:
- Do you have other indicators of a positioning problem?
- Have you built all the 6 characteristics of appropriate depth where you choose to compete?
If you’re acting like an expert, it’s always wise to look at the marketing model that comes out of that:
- Have you translated your expert position into an effective thought leadership strategy?
- Are you taking your thought leadership to market effectively — in a way that prospects can truly perceive and remember your expert positioning?