Brand differentiation is critical for professional services. Contrary to popular opinion it is actually possible to differentiate your firm in the marketplace. In fact, it is not only possible but absolutely essential.
Like several other strategists, I never advocate that a client compete on price alone. This is because until you are able to develop and deploy a sustainable cost advantage, your single differentiator cannot be price. For professional services in particular, competing on price exposes you to a whole other level of competition and substitution such as automation, DIY options, and offshore alternatives.
There are several advantages of having a differentiation strategy. These benefits include:
- Not being compelled to compete on price alone.
- Prospects are able to focus on the qualitative value of your offering, because you cannot be directly compared to others.
- The ability to demand higher fees from clients.
- Attracting more of your ideal clients and closing leads quickly.
- Increased customer loyalty.
A differentiation strategy is how you stand out from the competition by following a deliberate plan. It must highlight a difference that your clients find valuable and be meaningful in comparison to your competitors. The stronger the differentiation, the greater your firm’s competitive advantage. In order to develop a sustainable differentiation strategy, you must identify your differentiators. In the same way as your brand promise, your differentiators must be relevant, true and provable. You must also intentionally build your reputation around these differentiators and clearly communicate it to your target audience.
You can have more than one differentiator and having a blend of differentiators actually provides a greater competitive advantage. I recommend that whatever strategy of various differentiators that you come up with, ensure that one of them is undeniable expertise and demonstration of knowledge. As a professional services firm, your clients must feel that you have the ability to solve their problems.
Here is a list of some differentiators for brand differentiation to consider:
You should focus on:
- Serving a particular role within your target organization – speaking directly to a specific target within an organization such as a CIO, CMO or CEO has unique advantages.
- Providing a unique process or technology – this makes you special especially if it’s proprietary and is truly unique in its benefits and results.
- Serving clients of a specific size – this is a common differentiator especially for tech businesses but has distinct advantages, as it shows a deeper specialization and experience over brands that cater to firms of every size.
- Industry – this can be very successful but be careful. Choosing only one industry might make you vulnerable to fluctuations in their market and choosing too many waters down the differentiator effect.
- Clients in a particular target audience – this focuses on a specific customer segment. For example, if all your customers are first time parents you are not limited by geography, industry or market forces.
- Hiring one or more individuals who are experts and thought leaders in their fields – this one is a gem and is a gift that keeps giving as it is not easily duplicated and provides tremendous value to clients.
- Specific geographic location – technology might have affected this one but there is still a case for it especially when prospects value local knowledge.
- Providing a unique network of relevant relationships – are there any valuable relationships that you can offer your clients to sweeten the deal? If your clients require travel assistance for example, having memberships in globally relevant associations and a network of influencers would be impressive.
Having an impressive clients list – this would never go out of use as it reflects capacity, expertise, and trust of the impressive clients which provides social proof.
- Clients with a similar characteristic – this is similar to serving clients in a particular target audience but is a bit broader in scope and the characteristic is not static/finite. For example if you offer moving/ relocation services to only corporate.
- Hiring staff that have similar credentials or attributes – this could be tricky but if you are able to follow through, it could be successful. Imagine if you were able to hire only staff with provable distinction results or all your team members have several years of experience in an industry that is relevant to your prospects.
- Providing proprietary data that is not easily created or duplicated – this is one of my favorites and in a place like Nigeria where any pure and usable data is hard to come by, it is a huge differentiator. It could take the form of research, surveys or reports.
- Highlighting a notable accomplishment – this is a popular differentiator and always makes a difference especially when the accomplishment is one that would impress your clients.
- Developing a unique brand personality – this one takes a bit of work but sometimes could be achieved simply with a great team culture and philosophy.
Now to the part where you create the actual strategy:
Discover or decide how you will be different.
Look within to see if there are existing differentiators that just need to be highlighted and clearly communicated. Sometimes these existing differentiators might have got you to where you are but can’t take you where you want to go. I recommend that you balance the discovery exercise with the conscious decision(s) on how you will be different, so you are more proactive and innovative. Remember though, that the differentiators need to be true, valuable to the client and provable.
Test the chosen differentiators.
I am consistently amazed at how through research; businesses discover they have completely missed what is important to their customers. Your clients may identify or highlight a feature of your firm that you haven’t paid attention to in the past. You can learn a lot from your existing clients, the happy ones and the not so happy ones. Look at the most successful projects you have worked on over the last 1-2 years, what do they have in common? Are there any differentiators that you can find? For instance, if you have had a lot of clients request and download your resources it could point to a data focus. You could also decide to take this differentiator a notch higher by making a management decision to produce more proprietary data that is useful to your clients, testing out with a few clients.
Select the differentiators to focus on
Remember when I said that you could combine differentiators? Now that you have a shortlist of differentiators, it is beneficial to choose which ones to focus on. It is important to mention at this point that there are pros and cons to your differentiation strategy. The deeper you focus and communicate your differentiators; as much as you open yourself up to a plethora of opportunities you also take yourself out of consideration for several other opportunities. The reputation you gain among your target audience and within your industry more than makes up for the lost business elsewhere. The most important thing is to decide what kind of brand you want to be and how you want to do it.
Define, Tell, Own!
Some differentiators are easier to prove than others, so you must have a strategy to back up any claims that you make. You also need to create an organizational culture, the right hiring, the right policies as well as training to make your claims real and lasting. You might also need to work on third party endorsements to validate some of your claims. If one of your differentiators is your impressive client list, you may need to invest in say, video testimonials of these clients for your website and across your marketing collateral.
Your narrative and messaging needs to effectively communicate your differentiators, or else what is the point of going through all the trouble? Asides making your differentiators visible, ensure to train the team especially all external facing team members to speak about your differentiators at every opportunity.
And after all this has been done, your differentiators must affect the way you think and act. You must live it every day or else you lose authenticity and trust. It is a continuous process but one that leads to high performance and great levels of sustainable growth and success.
Adapted from Business Day.
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