Written by: Aaron Taylor
At Hinge, we write and talk a lot about differentiation. That’s because setting your firm apart in the minds of your buyers is such an important piece of a successful brand strategy.
Yet most firms get it all wrong.
They don’t understand that being different means being exposed and a little vulnerable. After all, to stand out means you no longer fit in. Instead, most firms look to others in their industry for inspiration and adopt words and ideas and images that feel comfortable. Meet the not-so-differentiated firms.
They are everywhere, so why not learn from their mistakes? In this post, we’re going to focus on the worst offenders: a dozen so-called differentiators that haunt professional services firms like bats—and suck the life out of otherwise promising brands.
You’ll find the “differentiators” below promoted on the websites and marketing collateral of firms of every stripe. And if you spot some of these in your own messaging, take heart—you’re in good company. At least you will be aware of the problems—and can take steps to address them.
Okay, pinch your nose. We’re jumping in.
12 Not-So-Fresh “Differentiators”
1. BEST PEOPLE
Sure, professional services firms are only as good as their people. But unless you can point to a tangible way your people are better than everyone else’s (for instance, “we hire only PhDs”), you will slip into the featureless sea of firms that make the same, difficult-to-substantiate claim.
2. GREAT CLIENT SERVICE
The problem with client service is you can’t evaluate it until you experience it. It’s just too easy for a firm to claim great service (as many do) without putting in the work to deliver it on a consistent basis. And because so many buyers have been burned by poor service in the past, they sure aren’t going to take your word for it. Unless you can prove up front that your service is superior, find a stronger differentiator to promote.
3. FULL SERVICE
Offering a broad range of services may seem like a good way to generate more revenue, but it’s a marketing cul-de-sac. In a crowded marketplace, specialists have the advantage—firms that are willing to sacrifice breadth of services for depth of knowledge. Many clients will pay a premium for a firm they believe can solve their problems more quickly and reliably.
4. BEST VALUE
If you are touting your firm as the “best value,” you are in a low-margin commodity business—a tough way to make a living unless you are great at cutting costs and extracting every efficiency. If you want to improve your margins and grow faster, however, there are better ways to position your firm.
5. PROPRIETARY PROCESS
In my experience, every other firm on the planet claims it has a proprietary process. But when you dig deeper you’ll find that most of these processes are variations on a theme, if not outright identical to processes at other firms. Today’s buyers are not fooled. They no longer swoon at a provider’s “unique methodology.” Describe your process however you like, but don’t call it a differentiator unless it truly breaks new ground.
6. PUTTING CLIENTS FIRST
Clients expect exceptional treatment and see this as a given. Make a big deal about it and your credibility is likely to suffer rather than grow.
7. COMMITTED TO EXCELLENCE
Is any word less alive than “excellence”? By all means, read Tom Peters’ book and build an excellent firm, but don’t bother talking about it. Not even the crickets will listen.
Innovation is one of the most overused words in business today—and buyers aren’t buying it. If, unlike most firms that use the word, you do truly innovative work, then find different, fresher language to describe it.
So you’re passionate about your work, your mission or your clients? So what? Prospective clients aren’t impressed by abstract notions like passion. Instead, they swoon at tangible, proveable things like past performance, relevant experience, numerical results and specialized expertise.
10. TRUSTED ADVISORS
Since David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford popularized the term “trusted advisor” in their 2001 book, thousands of management consultancies, CPA firms and other trust-based organizations have embraced these words. As a result of this overexposure, these words have lost their luster among prospective buyers and are shoe-ins to the Hall of Clichés.
Every buyer assumes you do quality work, so you don’t need to harp on it. Quality is no longer job one; it’s the price of admission. If you are talking to prospects about quality, you must not have much of interest to say. Time to revisit your positioning.
12. YOUR PARTNER
While some buyers are in fact looking for a long-term business partnership, that’s a level of trust that can only be earned over time. Get past the first date and build a relationship before you propose marriage. Saying that you partner with your clients is as presumptuous as it is premature.
Once upon a time, these messages may have been fresh, but now—like a dried-up well—they have nothing to offer us. Yet these words (and their variants) are everywhere. They’ve become clichés. But there are many principals who’d rather their firms fit in than stand apart. The familiarity of these false differentiators is comforting, and their positive attributes feel safe and affirmative.
Here’s the problem: there is nothing more risky in business than playing it safe. There is no such thing as safety in numbers—by following the herd you invite a fatal trampling. Your best play is to step away from the crowd and play up your differences. You see, when you are different, you become easier to find, notice and remember. And many buyers will be willing to pay more for the specialized expertise you bring to the table.