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Creating Differentiation as a (Professional) Services Firm

March 8, 2016

If you are a services firm, especially a professional services firm, where the primary product you sell is your knowledge (and the results of your client applying your knowledge to their situation), creating differentiation can be difficult. 

Sure, you can talk about your people and their degrees, training, and certifications. But so does everyone else. You can talk about how much you care about your clients and the great service you provide, but a prospective client can’t see that until they become your client. You can mention how long you’ve been in business, but to your prospect, why does that matter?

On the surface, it sounds simple, but truly differentiating your firm from most of the other businesses that provide a similar service is literally one of the most difficult things to do. However, in order to sustain your business, not to mention enable or accelerate your growth, you must do this. Without differentiation, getting leads in a predictable manner is close to impossible.

Here’s a quick test: take the main description of your top three competitors and replace their name with yours. If the description still works with your name in it, you are NOT different.

Okay, so if you are still reading this, then you probably realize you have a problem being different (even though you know you are). Let’s get into how you solve that problem. First, recognize that differentiation has two phases. In the first, you have to help your prospects understand that you are different in a way that matters to them. In the second phase, you need to keep reminding your customers about that differentiation so that they don’t go to a competitor.

Phase I – Differentiate Your Business for a Prospect

 Here’s a maxim to remember if you get into this process and wonder why you are going through the effort: without a clear differentiator, all a prospect has to work with to compare you and your competitor is price. If you don’t want to compete on price, then you need to differentiate. 

The first place to look for ideas on how to differentiate yourself is to talk to the clients who love you right now. Ask them why they work with you – what do they like the most? What do you do differently than other firms they have worked with? What would they say is your company’s best feature if they were recommending you? These questions and answers give you some insight into where others think your firm may be different and give you a point to build from.

Is your web presence YOUR competitive advantage

Then, take a look at the stereotypes for your business or industry. For example, with lawyers it may be that they never call you back. Or it could be that you always pay for 15 minutes when you may only need one. For consultants, it could be that they are known for giving advice that can never be implemented. For a marketing firm, maybe it is that they do beautiful work but never create results. You get the idea.

Now think about how you can put a guarantee or a process in place that breaks the stereotype. We know a lawyer that guarantees a call back within four business hours or he’ll send you a gift card. UPS did a great job of parodying the idea-only management consultant in this commercial. Look at other industries or businesses as examples as well. What may work for a contractor, for example, may be easily adapted for your life sciences consulting practice.

The key is to make your differentiator have the following qualities:

  • It is provable. Your prospect can see how it is demonstrated BEFORE they buy from you.
  • It is tangible – literally in a way you can touch, see, or feel. It could simply be a written down process that is clearly yours – that is tangible.
  • It is meaningful to your prospect. If your difference doesn’t matter to them, then it really isn’t a differentiation.

Phase II – Keep Reminding Your Current Customers of Your Difference

Many times, we get so wrapped up in marketing for new customers that we forget about the ones we already have. (Cable companies and wireless providers are the biggest offenders of this). One of the best ways to keep reminding your current clients about your difference is through stories.

You probably have a process or program in place that keeps you in touch with your customers – even if it’s just invoicing them. Leverage that channel to keep telling stories about new customers you had join. And in those stories, call out the differentiators that had the new customer sign on.

Let’s go back to that lawyer mentioned above. While she probably can’t talk about all her new clients, she could do a “remember me” mailing to her past clients. Maybe even include a small promo item like a digital timer to keep her guaranteed call-back in mind.Dog card

Another great example would be the Valentine’s card I got from my pet insurance company. Insurance is clearly an intangible, and something you hopefully don’t use often. By sending this email card to me, they reminded me they are out there, in the nicest possible way.

You can’t differentiate if you copy your competitors. So don’t. Will they copy you? Some will, but if your difference is baked in to your processes – your hiring, your systems, your service delivery, even your invoicing – the copy will only be surface deep.

Spending the time, effort, and treasure to go through the process of finding, establishing, and codifying your difference is worth it.

It will:

  1. Make selling more predictable. If you are head to head with the competition and there is no difference between you, the sale could be swayed any number of uncontrollable factors – who is better looking, talks more eloquently, is more friendly, is having a good or bad day. Or, worse yet, just on price. Do you really want to leave sales to chance or the biggest discount?
  2. Make sales people will sell better because they know how their product/service is positioned as opposed to guessing.
  3. Improve employee moral.
  4. Shorten the sales cycle because prospects will be able to make quicker decisions – they will know why you are the best option for them.
  5. Ensure less post-purchase remorse. Many buyers will go through remorse once they have purchased a complex service, wondering if they made the right decision. By having a firm differentiator, customers will ‘feel’ better knowing they made the right decision.
  6. Make referrals easier to come by. If your differentiation is clear, your customers and your strategic partners will find it easier to talk about you.

If this seems overwhelming, get some help. You may have to do this once or twice – we do it every week with a client. Give us a call and we can help you through the process of establishing a clear and winning differentiated value for your business. 

Dan Kraus
Written by Dan Kraus

With more than two decades of experience in sales, marketing, and go-to-market strategies, Dan Kraus has developed a deep portfolio of experiences that he now uses to help small businesses profitably grow their businesses. As an entrepreneur, Dan understands the challenges of growing a business with limited capital and human resources. As a line of business manager in larger companies such as SAP America and Great Plains Software (now part of Microsoft), his experience launching new business ventures inside reputable organizations established his reputation as a creative and effective executive that could both plan and execute within corporate confines.

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