Insights and Resources

How to help a client feel safe about hiring you and not a Big 4

By Jim Thompson

Don’t expect a client to be brave if you’re not… fear is the enemy of differentiation

We’ve all heard the comment “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM” although perhaps some should have.

But let me throw this one out there…

Perhaps it’s not their fault – perhaps it’s yours?

Funnily enough over half our clients are ex Big 4 and all left for pretty much the same reasons and somewhat ironically end up competing against them for work.

I won’t delve into the environmental reasons, but a common thread is that most of them know they can do better work and deliver better client outcomes for significantly lower fees when outside the Big 4 structure.

The problem most of them face however is that the client doesn’t understand this or even if they do, they still go with the Big 4!

I’ve heard many of them share their frustrations at losing a tender or project to a big firm because the client felt safer in doing so.

They and I know that the client would have got a comparable if not better result at a lower cost if they had gone with their firm, but they took the “safe” option even though it cost more.

Forget the buyers who don’t and never will have the courage to do something different but for those that did or do but didn’t, the problem lies with YOU not being able to make them feel safe enough to hire you.

So how do you combat that assuming you have the capability and capacity?

Before I answer that I’ll tell you what not to do – do not position yourself as a smaller version of a big firm and try to beat them at their own game.

If you go down that path you are beaten before you even start, you can’t out-brand them, you don’t have the budget for a start, that’s their strength and why they are the safe bet.

You may not be able to out-brand them, but you can outsmart them and exploit the agility you have that they don’t have and never will have.

Think David and Goliath.

Here’s what you can do that they can’t or won’t, but remember you can’t expect your clients to be brave if you’re not.

Niche down – focus!

Pick and target a particular type of problem that you solve in a unique way for a particular type of client.

Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be at a whole of firm-level, it can be a particular practice area, a specific service or skill set.

I have clients that have done this at a whole of firm-level, individual practice areas and even at a campaign level.

Develop a perspective

What’s your point of view?

For example, mine at its most basic level is “man who chases many rabbits catches none”.

There is a whole body of work and subsets of views that fall out of that, but it underpins everything I say and do, and I unwaveringly stand by it.

Be prepared to alienate certain segments of the market, those that will never work with you anyway and by extension become more attractive to those that will or want to.

Articulate your position

And I don’t mean something vague, fluffy and service orientated with buzzwords like this:

A well-articulated position is not so much a wordsmithing exercise and by that, I mean a more cleverly written version of what the other person says, but a clear differentiator from the outset.

We are all familiar with the elevator pitch and if you can get it down to that then that’s great but save it for the elevator.

People don’t know what they don’t know and if you are solving complex multi-dimensional problems one sentence or a cleverly worded paragraph is probably not going to cut the mustard.

For me, a position is far more than that and therefore takes more than a sentence or two that then leaps into “services” and “who we are” website pages.

Here are some components of a solid position

  • What you do
  • Who you do it for
  • Your perspective
  • The problems you solve
  • How you solve them
  • The outcomes you deliver
  • How a client can engage with you
  • A downloadable thought piece – eBook or similar
  • Marque blog articles / insights

Don’t assume your prospective clients have correctly diagnosed the right cure and match your list of services to what they think they need to solve their problem – we both know that more often than not it’s wrong or not the root cause.

Remember that services are just a means to an end for self-diagnosed clients. What is the end?

And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your process differentiates you, everyone has one and in the consulting world, they all follow the same basic model of discovery, design, implementation and support.

Unless what you do is highly specialised then you can’t differentiate on services or processes, but you can differentiate on perspective.

The golden egg is to achieve both – specialisation and perspective.


Having and articulating a position is one thing but for me, the proof of its worth is in the content you produce.

What you say to support it, things, concepts and ideas that I haven’t heard before.

Prove that you truly understand my world and my challenges and have thought, and I mean really thought about how to solve them in a way that others haven’t.

This gives me confidence in your capability.

For example, this article is one more piece of my position and hopefully builds more confidence in you about me.

That is how you establish trust before you meet someone – by demonstrating, sharing and giving away your expertise – this is how you make the prospect feel safe.

Become visible

All the above is of no use if no one can see it or you.

The more visible you are, the more well-known you will become and by extension the “safer” you will be perceived.

Get yourself out there; write, blog, post, present.

Rattle the cage, shake the status quo, be controversial, have an opinion and voice it – do all the things the Big End of Town is too scared to do or not allowed to do.

If you are truly brave then why not even call them out as the over-priced behemoths they are – I would, in fact, I just did, and it felt good and I don’t care what they think, they’re not my clients you are.

Perhaps I have oversimplified it here, but the problem is real, I see and hear it everywhere and without blowing my own trumpet it’s further supported by the 1,000’s of downloads of my eBooks and clients around the world.

Why is it so hard?

  • Because it is hard
  • The fear of narrowing focus – fear is THE single greatest differentiation killer
  • It takes time and deep thought – time away from client work
  • You have to write
  • The lack of skilled positioning practitioners

I’ll put my salesman’s hat on here for a minute, but it happens to be the truth.

It’s next to impossible to achieve the above without an external perspective and most “marketers” will take you down the BIG 4 branding path in one form or another because they know no different.

That is evident by simply Googling a few professional services websites.

Become marketable before you begin marketing.

If you’re anywhere from a sole operator to a mid-tier firm and this sounds like something you want to work on, then please get in touch.

And to paraphrase a quote from the perspective of one of my clients; “…without courage… there’s no innovation, no change, no improvement”.

Before you start

Before beginning any engagement and to create a more valuable initial conversation we ask you to download and read our guide.


Inside you will find out more about the One Rabbit philosophy, learn some uncomfortable truths and how to market your firm.

Why it’s so hard for consulting firms to market themselves.
Practical steps you can take to overcome the uncomfortable truth and leapfrog your competitors.
The most common mistakes that consulting firms make in marketing themselves.