If you couldn’t operate a successful business without any real meaningful market differentiation, most management consulting firms, accountants and lawyers would be out of business.
Build a decent referral network and assuming there’s enough work going around, new business will somehow arrive at your door.
Differentiation is a marketing 101 concept. Without points of difference between your firm and competitors there’s really nothing to market. Marketing gains its leverage by exploiting those differences.
But if what you do is fundamentally not that different, trying to gain leverage through differentiation may seem too difficult or unnecessary. Marketing becomes more focussed on raising brand awareness, establishing stronger emotional connections, and creating value by enhancing the customer experience.
It’s ultimately an exercise in blowing your own trumpet and louder than everyone else. If you do it well, pour enough money, time and resources into it you may gain a slight edge but that’s about it, since that differentiation leverage just isn’t there. Establishing any real ROI is difficult.
And that brings me to the point where most of our clients are at when they walk in our door. Most are aware their marketing is underwhelming and nothing seems to make a demonstrable and measurable difference.
Talking rough numbers, around 20% of our clients actually do something substantially different. They don’t really have a differentiation problem as such, but just need help with articulating what that difference is.
Of the other 80%, half of them think they do something different, but in reality they don’t. We know they aren’t because we are told the same “points of difference” over and over again by similar firms.
The other half know they aren’t different and think they need help getting the market to believe that they are.
Yet, when we look at things a bit differently, through our lens and get below the surface, in most cases meaningful points of difference can be found that do create value for buyers.
I’ll show you the keys we use to help unlock some of these stronger differentiators, but first I want to look at what most firms are doing and why it puts them in a weak position.
The common approach is to differentiate by using words that make big claims, designed to impress but can’t be substantiated firsthand prior to engaging you. Easy to say, difficult to prove, they are attractive “points of difference” that are overused and therefore rarely different and ultimately fairly meaningless.
How much does your own value proposition use words like “innovative”, “strategic”, “passionate”, “holistic”, “results focussed”, “client focussed” etc. ? They are so ingrained into the consulting sector’s marketing dictionary that they carry such little to no value. You are probably reading them on your website now!
You might not be using these exact words, but it doesn’t matter how many ways you try to slice the cake, this approach doesn’t cut it. They aren’t differentiators if everyone else is using them.
And they aren’t differentiators just because you believe them. If they can’t be conveyed in a way that allows buyers to validate the claims and value the difference, they have no real lifting power.
Good guys versus the bad
What if you really believe you are “better” on these soft differentiators? You may claim:
- We really do listen to our clients.
- We actually take a holistic approach to their business problem.
- Our people are more approachable, highly experienced and genuinely care.
- We really are more innovative and strategic in our approach.
- We actually deliver results, not just a report and walk away like other consultants do.
Now irrespective of whether they are true, this differentiation strategy is flawed. You’ll see what I mean if you flip each statement around to its natural opposite.
So, for example the opposite of listening to your clients would be something like “We don’t listen to our clients”, “Our people are rude and difficult to deal with” etc.
At best, these points of difference simply differentiate your firm away from the incompetent and shonky ones.
Being a good, competent firm shouldn’t be a differentiator. It’s the minimum standard.
And the bad may only represent 10% of the competitive landscape so hanging your differentiation strategy on not being one of the bad operators is not only a weak position but still leaves you competing with the other 90%.
A strong point of difference makes you different from the good competitors, and ideally even the best ones.
Hopefully, your firm isn’t different because it’s not shonky. It’s different because it is and that difference carries some value to some people. We’ll talk about that more in a moment.
What about your process…?
Processes are commonly presented as a point of difference.
This is getting better. Processes can capture a genuine secret sauce that generates a significantly better outcome for the buyer. Having said this, unfortunately it’s rarely the case.
Most processes tend to be a variation of the standard consulting model of Discovery -> Analysis -> Solution Design -> Implement -> Measure.
This is a good and proven model, but rarely different no matter how you spin it.
The one differentiator that really counts
In retail, you’d usually differentiate on customer service (or experience), emotion and/or price. This key differentiator is relevant if there is limited uniqueness in the products themselves.
If the difference was at the product level, then the product itself would of course be the key point of difference and where the value is created.
But none of this translates well to the marketing of expertise. This business to consumer (b2c) and product centric marketing approach has unfortunately found its way into how professional services firms approach their marketing and is delivering underwhelming results.
Trying to fit into this same model results in expertise becoming productised, packaged up and reduced into a set of services, designed to meet what the market thinks they are looking for.
These services become generic placeholders to make it easy for buyers to self-diagnose and find the service they are looking for.
And because nobody wants to miss out on providing what the market wants, everyone ends up trying to sell the same services, expertise is no longer the differentiator and marketing becomes more focussed on experience / service based attributes and price.
The fundamental marketing problem faced by every professional services firm nearly always loops back to some variation of this issue.
There is only one key differentiator for experts. It’s marketing gold and totally underutilised… and it’s perspective.
Perspective goes beyond generic surface level thinking and textbook answers.
Form a unique point of view or opinion built from research and experience and you gain a vantage point that enables a different approach to solving a problem. It’s this difference that carries the value proposition to buyers. Not all buyers will value the perspective, but some will and for them your firm becomes far more attractive.
If you want an example, we are giving your our perspective right now!
Finding a perspective
Perspectives are discovered and usually born out of time and experience, in turn causing them to mature and deepen.
Working with certain types of clients (e.g. within a sector, size, fit within the supply chain) with problems or challenges that present in a particular way, may give insights into a more specialised understanding of how best to approach the solution.
These insights enable tangible value to be created for the client such as less risk, a higher impact outcome, delivered quicker, longer lasting, higher efficiency etc.
These can be difficult to find on your own. As they say it’s hard to read the label from inside the jar but here are some prompters to help with the thought process:
- What makes you angry and frustrated about either, the level of advice given by competitors, the low-resolution thinking that is typical, or how clients try to solve their problems themselves?
- If you didn’t care about winning new business in the future, incurring financial or reputational loss by providing career ending honest advice, what would you like to tell prospective buyers?
- Who is your ideal client? What is it about them, that makes them ideal (beyond having deep pockets)?
- Are there already clients that you attract more of? For example, it’s not unusual to have clients weighted towards a specific sector.
- What type of work do you enjoy / find easy / have an advantage through productisation of IP in the delivery process?
- If you find you are always dealing with a technical buyer, how would it change your approach if you had to appeal to economic buyers? For example, what difference would it make to you and how you solve the problem if you could deal directly with the economic buyer i.e. CEO.
- If you didn’t need to keep the lights on in the business, where do you think you could develop more thinking, do some research, and build some IP? What problem that needs solving would keep you up at night thinking?
The marketing leverage created by perspective
It’s the marketability gift that keeps on giving. This point of difference overcomes the problems associated with the weak ones I highlighted earlier.
Building perspective focusses your thinking. It creates a framework to interpret sets of problems which in turn helps draw out patterns and deeper insights.
Even when the “what you do” is sufficiently different, an underpinning and compelling perspective is the most persuasive lever to pull.
Following are some of the ways a perspective will create additional leverage:
- It allows you to unpack and demonstrate deeper expertise that resonates with certain buyers.
- There’s less reliance on vague unsubstantiated claims.
- It’s not generic. Sometimes, just having a perspective is differentiating.
- Shows the market you stand for something. Taking the role of leading, rather than following where the market wants you to go.
- You’ll attract a tribe who align with your perspective. It gets deeper as you win more work.
- Genuine deep perspective is difficult for others to replicate and takes time to build a market position around.
- It moves you further away from pitching to the market and to educating the market.
The strength that comes by harnessing a perspective, can put you into a highly marketable position.
The key here is position.
Use this strength to acquire a position in the market that allows you to turn your perspective into a strategic advantage, an advantage that makes you far more attractive to buyers.
Don’t make your perspective just a blog article on your website. Strength comes when you focus your whole positioning around it, connecting it back to the challenges and problems of your target audience. Articulating your perspective should be filling the home page on your website.
Use this advantage to transform from a reactive to an educative market stance. The market isn’t leading you, it’s following you and the way you think.
You as the expert lead and connect the dots to help buyers see their challenge differently. Educate them on how your approach delivers different, higher value outcomes.
Be clear, concise and direct. There’s no need to hide behind spin and marketing speak anymore.
Write! Unpacking your perspective into content helps it become more concise and clear.
Finally consider narrowing your position.
The broader and less defined the target audience, the more general and less precise you are forced to be. Strong perspectives aren’t generic. They get their power from being specific to particular problems.
None of this is easy and I’ve deliberately skipped over some of the complexities. Larger firms for example usually have broader sets of capabilities to market that can’t be dialled back into a single perspective. Not everything is marketable or lends itself to having a perspective. Some areas within the business are simply compliance focussed, prescriptive and generic.
Don’t be concerned, different positioning strategies can solve these complications.
To learn more, download our No BS Marketing Guide for Consulting firms (below).