How Research Can Help You Develop Differentiators

Written By: John Tyreman A differentiator, sometimes known as a “competitive advantage,” separates your firm from the rest of your competitors.  When a prospect is evaluating you, your differentiator may be what tips the scale in your favor. Recent research shows that differentiation was the #1 priority for the fastest growing professional services firms. While it can be a challenge to communicate differentiators in marketing copy, it can be effective in attracting and closing new business. So where does a marketer begin? It all starts with a concrete understanding of how your business is perceived by the clients that best represent where you want to grow.  Researching this target audience segment is a good place to start because it reduces ambiguity and uncertainty, particularly when convincing firm leadership that brand changes need to be made.

However, not all differentiators are created equally.  For a differentiator to be effective, it must pass three tests:

1. Is it true? First and foremost, a possible differentiator must be true.  You don’t want to garner a reputation as a bait and switch firm.  Billing surprises and unexpected fees come as a slap in the face when you won business based on your sales pitch of a low cost solution. Not only would this jeopardize the shelf life of that client’s account, but it may also have a negative effect on potential referrals and your overall reputation in the marketplace. On the flipside, you might want to consider eliminating differentiator candidates that are generic and are not unique to your firm. Differentiators like “we have quality staff” or “we provide great customer service” may be true, but these are boxes that most clients expect to be checked when working with any professional services firm.  No firm is going to say, “we have inexperienced staff” or “we’re not the most responsive bunch.” Download The Professional Services Guide to Research 2. Can you prove it?  Differentiators can be uncovered the real value or benefit clients receive from working with you.  Conducting research is a good way to discover these values, especially because of the possibility that you may overlook a value that clients receive. Example: Suppose your firm has a proprietary process that moves projects along faster than your competitors.  Because this process is so engrained within your firm, you may take it for granted and think of it as standard operating procedure.  Your clients, however, see this as something that makes your firm different. Statistics from brand research, client satisfaction research, and other forms of market research can be good proof points.  They can act as a good defense when prospects inquire about why they should engage with your firm. Using the example mentioned above, you may choose to differentiate your firm based on your timeliness and responsiveness. “We deliver projects faster because of our proprietary process.” A good proof point derived from research may look something like this: “In a recent survey of our clients, 95% identified our timeliness and quick project turnaround as the real value they receive from working with us.”  This proof point backs up and proves your claim. 3. Is it relevant?  Understanding your target audience is the first step in establishing relevancy of your differentiator. Where are you currently getting your business?  Where are the biggest opportunities? What does your ideal client look like? These are all questions you will need to answer in order to formulate a relevant differentiator. Industry and service specialization can be good ways to achieve relevancy. Example: Let’s say an owner of a restaurant franchise is looking for an accounting firm to engage with.  They go online, do some research, and find two good accounting firms in the area. One is a generalist that offers a wide range of services; the other specializes in accounting services for restaurant franchises. While the former likely has the bandwidth to provide the services needed, the latter is perceived as having expertise relevant to the owner’s business. This differentiation is what will likely win over the restaurant owner. In a competitive professional services landscape, developing solid differentiators is the bedrock of your marketing strategy.  When rooted in research, well-thought-out differentiators will give you the ammunition you need to not only win more business, but win more of the right kind of business. To find more information about how research can help grow your firm, download our free Professional Services Guide to Research. Related: Is Researching Your Clients and Prospects a Good Idea?