Businesses are built on relationships.
That’s why smart and successful companies have traditionally relied heavily on personal networking and word-of-mouth referrals. Business owners and salespeople make connections with prospects at events, meetings, and other activities, and then use their persuasive abilities to close the sale.
But the landscape is changing.
The ability for savvy B2B buyers to use online tools to quickly identify and evaluate firms in the professional services space is shifting the way business relationships are initiated. Today, 70%–80% of the decision-making process happens during the research phase—the majority of which is conducted online.
Today, 70%–80% of the decision-making process happens during the research phase—the majority of which is conducted online.
Firms seeking to grow must be found by prospective clients and differentiate themselves from the competition.
Confusing Table Stakes with Meaningful Differentiation
The lack of meaningful differentiation pervades the professional services industry.
One common way businesses try to stand out from competitors is by characterizing their work as “high-quality,” “thorough,” “detailed,” or simply “better.” Truthfully, there are likely many firms that are capable of delivering comparable services. Being “better” than the competition isn’t a meaningful differentiator, and it’s difficult (if not impossible) to substantiate.
Other common attempts at differentiation include the use of phrases such as:
- “We Listen”
- “We’re Responsive”
- “We’re Results-Focused”
- “We Have a Strategic Approach”
- “We’re Innovative”
- “We’re Client-Focused”
- “We Operate With Integrity”
While these attributes are expressed with sincerity and conviction, they don’t make a firm stand out. When buyers see these claims as top-line messaging across multiple agencies they’re researching (and they will!), they blend together and leave a similar impression.
Table stakes are essential and expected in a professional relationship—but they don’t meaningfully differentiate a firm.
In reality, these messaging points are simply table stakes. If a buyer doesn’t believe a firm is responsive or strategic, they won’t hire that firm. These qualities are essential and expected in a professional relationship—but they don’t meaningfully differentiate a firm.
Focused Expertise as Meaningful Differentiation
Professionals possess a set of skills, education, and experience that provide value to a client. But if that talent lacks distinctiveness or can be easily compared to competitors, your services effectively become commoditized and undifferentiated.
One helpful way of thinking about differentiation is focused expertise.
A firm with focused expertise has in-depth experience and expertise in a particular industry, subject area, or topic. The firm works in the field and continually demonstrates its ability, attracting prospects seeking similar outcomes. The firm’s proven track record of doing one thing exceptionally well is what differentiates its business.
So what does focused expertise look like? Here are six ways to demonstrate focused expertise:
Focus on a Particular Industry
Hone in on a specific industry. For example, a CPA firm may be capable of preparing tax returns for any type of business, but when they process a large volume of returns for industrial farming facilities, they gain specialized knowledge about the tax laws governing that industry. The firm becomes faster and more efficient and gains valuable insights they can share with their clients—insights that may help them save millions of dollars or avoid costly mistakes. Thanks to their expertise in industrial farming tax law, this CPA firm is differentiated from other accountants.
Focus on a Specific Service
Get really, really good at one thing. For example, one consulting firm focuses exclusively on securing lower prices for utility vendors. Their narrow focus gives them deep knowledge of the market, the best vendor relationships, and the ability to negotiate excellent rates on behalf of their clients. By getting really good at analyzing utility bills, they’ve saved their clients billions, a value proposition that sets them apart.
Focus on a Unique Approach
While focused expertise can be defined by who you work for or what you do, it can also be defined by how you approach work. Agile is a good example of this in the consulting world. Agile is agnostic about what solution or service is being delivered and in what space, but it details an approach to managing how that work is accomplished. This type of approach will appeal more strongly to some organizations than others, but a commitment to abiding by Agile principles can meaningfully differentiate a firm.
Adopt a Polarizing Perspective
Consider holding a belief that not everyone agrees with. By definition it has to be “polarizing,” otherwise it’s not really a differentiator. For example, the statement, “We believe in acting with integrity” doesn’t qualify as a differentiating perspective since most people would agree (at least publicly!).
Differentiating perspectives in the professional services space are generally related to applicable services and solutions. For example, CVS Health became the first national pharmacy chain to stop selling cigarette and tobacco products in 2014.
Bold perspectives can shape how services are delivered or relationships are defined. Strong perspectives have the potential to attract a tribe of clients who enthusiastically support the same perspective.
Focus on a Serving a Set Role
Catering to individuals who work in specific roles allows you to tailor your expertise to solving particular challenges that are common among certain professionals (e.g., VPs of Marketing, Directors of IT Services, etc.). Understanding what keeps leaders in these roles up at night allows you to craft and package compelling and attractive solutions that are truly different from what your competitors may be offering.
Combining Focuses to Create Unique Expertise
Diving deeply (and narrowly) into the strategies above can meaningfully differentiate a business. Combining strategies can also be effective. For example, a firm that has expertise dealing with a specific industry, such as the federal government, can be duly differentiated for its expertise in providing a specific service, such as geospatial solutions. The combination of the firm’s technological expertise and agency experience elevates them in the eyes of government purchasers.
Other successful combinations may include bundling adjacent services—for example, having expertise in two related industries or with two complementary services.
Meaningful Differentiation Begins with a Decision to Bring Focus Your Expertise
You can still pledge to listen to your customers. And you can still operate with integrity. You know what? You can even still build relationships with your clients. Today, you just need to take it a step further to have a smart, successful enterprise.
Meaningfully differentiating your offer through focused expertise can reduce the number of direct competitors in your field; attract prospects; generate clients; and create brand advocates.
Meaningfully differentiating your offer through focused expertise can reduce the number of direct competitors in your field; attract prospects; generate clients; and create brand advocates. And most importantly, you’ll develop deep familiarity and knowledge—allowing your business to stand out from your competition.